Tag Archives: Politics

Trustworthy Telepresence

In a recent Ipsos/Reuters poll, which questioned 11,383 people in 24 countries, about half believed that they would be at a disadvantage in earning promotions because of the lack of face-to-face contact. Previous research suggests part-time telecommuters do not communicate less frequently with managers. … After four years of experience, the average male telecommuter will earn about 6.9% less than a non-telecommuter. (more)

Telecommuting requires the use of various types of media to communicate, such as the telephone and email. Emails have a time lag that does not allow for immediate feedback; telephone conversations make it harder to decipher the emotions of the person or team on the phone; and both of these forms of communication do not allow one to see the other person. Typical organization communication patterns are thus altered in telecommuting. For instance, teams using computer-mediated communication with computer conferencing take longer to make group decisions than face-to-face groups. (more)

Decades ago many futurists predicted that many workers would soon telecommute, and empty out cities. Their argument seemed persuasive: workers who work mainly on computers, or who don’t have to move much physical product, seem able to achieve enough coordination to do their jobs via phone, email, and infrequent in-person meetings. And huge cost savings could come from avoiding central city offices, homes near them, and commuting between the two. (For example, five firms might share the same offices, with each firm using them one day per week.)

But it hasn’t remotely happened that way. And the big question is: why?

Some say telecommuters would shirk and not work as much, but it is hard to see that would remain much of a problem with a constant video feed watching them. Bryan Caplan favors a signaling explain, that we show up in person to show our commitment to the firm. But a firm should prefer employees who show devotion via more total work, instead of wasting hours on the road. Yes inefficient signaling equilibria can exist, but firms have many ways to push for this alternate equilibrium.

The standard proximate cause, described in the quote above, is that workers and their bosses get a lot of detailed emotional info via frequent in-person meetings. Such detailed emotional info can help to build stronger feelings of mutual trust and affiliation. But the key question is, why are firms willing to pay so much for that? How does it help firm productivity enough to pay for its huge costs?

My guess: frequent detailed emotional info helps political coalitions, even if not firms. Being able to read detailed loyalty signals is central to maintaining political coalitions. The strongest coalitions take over firms and push policies that help them resist their rivals. If a firm part adopted local policies that weakened the abilities of locals to play politics, that part would be taken over by coalitions from other parts of the firm, who would then push for policies that help them. A lack of telecommuting is only one of a long list of examples of inefficient firm policies than can be reasonably be attributed to coalition politics.

Some people hope that very high resolution telepresence could finally give enough detailed emotional info to make telecommuting workable. And that might indeed give enough info to build strong mutual trust and loyalty. But it is hard to make very high resolution telepresence feel natural, and we still far from having enough bandwidth to cheaply send that much info.

Furthermore, by the time we do we may also have powerful robust ways to fake that info. That is, we might have software that takes outgoing video and audio feeds and edits them to remove signs of disloyalty, to make people seem more trusting and trustworthy than they actually are. And if we all know this is possible, we won’t trust what we see in telepresence.

So, for telepresence to actually foster enough loyalty and trust to make telecommuting viable, not only does it need to feel comfortable and natural and give very high bandwidth info, but the process would need to be controlled by some trusted party, who ensures that people aren’t faking their appearances in ways that make it hard to read real feelings. Setting up a system like that would be much more challenging that just distributing something like Skype software.

Of course eventually humans might have chips under their skin to manipulate their sight and sound in real physical meetings. And then they might want ways to assure others aren’t using those. But that is probably much further off. (And of course ems might always “fake” their physical appearance.)

Again, I have hopes, but only weak hopes, for telepresence allowing for mass human telecommuting.

Added 3July: Perhaps I could have been clearer. The individual telecommuter could clearly be at a political disadvantage by not being part of informal gossip and political conversation. He would have fewer useful allies, and they would thus prefer that he or she not telecommute.

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Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

The world has many problems and some of them are global. That is, some problems like war, global warming, and promoting innovation can benefit substantially from large scale coordination to address them. To judge from my Facebook feed, many think the main thing we need to solve such problems is more preaching – if only more folks would rail against the immorality of those who opposed their favored solutions. Another widely held view, expressed in a great many inspirational TED talks, is that we need more smart emphatic activists and inventors. But the following take is a more expert and believable:

Addressing Global Environmental Externalities: Transaction Costs Considerations. Is there a way to understand why some global environmental externalities are addressed effectively whereas others are not? … Property rights are supplied by international agreements that specify resource access and use, assign costs and benefits including outlining the size and duration of compensating transfer payments and determining who will pay and who will receive them. Four factors raise the transaction costs [and hence the difficulty] of assigning property rights: (i) scientific uncertainty regarding mitigation benefits and costs; (ii) varying preferences and perceptions across heterogeneous populations; (iii) asymmetric information; and (iv) the extent of compliance and new entry. (more)

While this paper doesn’t discuss it, another big issue is the strength and capacity of our institutions of global governance. For example, a lot of these problems would get solved a lot better with a high capacity world government. Such a government could better reduce uncertainty and secrets, enforce compliance, and promote compromises between conflicting interests.

If just you want to show off your moral outrage that problems aren’t being solved, by all means continue to preach that we must do better. But if you actually want to solve these problems, you should focus on identifying and dealing with their fundamental causes. Especially including the development of better mechanisms of global governance, and working to better understand what limits their deployment.

Btw, I tend to think that we hear the most preaching not about the problems that cause the most damage, but about those that best fit our schemas for moral outrage. For example, I tend to agree with Matt Ridley that global warming is a relatively minor problem, compared with for example overfishing and innovation promotion.

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Reparations As Law

There has been a lot of talk lately about race-based reparations, initiated by this Atlantic article. (See also here, here, here.) I’m not a lawyer, but I do teach Graduate Law & Econ, and the discussion I’ve seen on reparations has ignored key legal issues. So let me raise some of those issues here.

The argument for reparations is based on the very solid well-accepted principle that when A harms B, A should compensate B, both to help B and to discourage future A’s from acting similarly. But over the centuries we’ve collected many other legal principles which limit the scope of application of this basic legal principle.

For example, we usually require that a specific person B identify a specific person A, and offer clear evidence of a particular clear harm that B suffered, relative to some other state that B had a right to reasonably expect. We also require a clear causal path between A’s acts and B’s harm, a path that A could have reasonably foreseen. We usually require public notice about legal prohibitions, we forbid double jeopardy and retroactive rules, and we impose statutes of limitations to limit the delay between act and claim.

Each of these limitations no doubt prevents some Bs from getting compensation from some As, and thus fails to discourage related As from causing related harms. But these limitations are usually seen as net gains because they prevent fake-Bs from using the legal system to extract gains from not-actually-As, which would reduce the perceived legitimacy of the whole legal system due to a perception that such fake cases were common.

Now it is actually not obvious to me that all these limitations on law are net gains. I can see the arguments for allowing hearsay evidence, emotional harms, double jeopardy, retroactive rules, no statutes of limitation, and taking compensation from non-A folks that As care about. That is, I can imagine situations where each of these limitation violations might usefully help to discourage As from hurting Bs.

Our limitations on law have so far mostly prevented people from using the legal process to obtain race-based reparations. After all, cash reparations for US slavery would react to a broad varied pattern of centuries-old harm by transferring from folks distantly and varyingly related to As to others distantly and varyingly related to Bs. Such transfers could only very crudely track the actual pattern of cause and harm. So new policies of race-based reparations would in effect embody many new exceptions to our usual limitations on legal suits. And they would create precedents for future exceptions, making it easier to obtain further reparations based on race, gender, and many other factors.

So regarding race-based reparations, what I most want to hear is a general principled discussion about the pluses and minuses of our usual limitations on law. Yes, we may have imposed overly strict limits. And yes, the legitimacy of the legal system can also be reduced when everyone knows of big harms the law didn’t address. But still, we need to identify principles by which we could make exceptions to the usual limitations.

Yes, one simple principle might be to give big compensation whenever the chattering classes nod sagely enough and say loudly enough that yes it is the right thing to do. But it would be nice to hear concrete arguments on why this approach tends to avoid the usual problems that the limitations on law are said to be there to avoid. Might it be better to create a whole new system of reparation courts that operate according to new legal principles?

Of course in signaling terms, one’s willingness to throw out all the usual legal precautions to endorse race-based reparations can signal exceptional devotion to the race cause. But is this really a path we want to go down, competing to outdo each other in our eagerness to toss out our usual legal protections in order to signal our devotion to various causes?

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Who/What Should Get Votes?

Alex T. asks Should the Future Get a Vote? He dislikes suggestions to give more votes to “civic organizations” who claim to represent future folks, since prediction markets could be more trustworthy:

Through a suitable choice of what is to be traded, prediction markets can be designed to be credibly motivated by a variety of goals including the interests of future generations. … If all we cared about was future GDP, a good rule would be to pass a policy if prediction markets estimate that future GDP will be higher with the policy than without the policy. Of course, we care about more than future GDP; perhaps we also care about environmental quality, risk, inequality, liberty and so forth. What Hanson’s futarchy proposes is to incorporate all these ideas into a weighted measure of welfare. … Note, however, that even this assumes that we know what people in the future will care about. Here then is the final meta-twist. We can also incorporate into our measure of welfare predictions of how future generations will define welfare. (more)

For example, we could implement a 2% discount rate by having official welfare be 2% times welfare this next year plus 98% times welfare however it will be defined a year from now. Applied recursively, this can let future folks keep changing their minds about what they care about, even future discount rates.

We could also give votes to people in the past. While one can’t change the experiences of past folks, one can still satisfy their preferences. If past folks expressed particular preferences regarding future outcomes, those preferences could also be given weight in an overall welfare definition.

We could even give votes to animals. One way is to make some assumptions about what outcomes animals seem to care about, pick ways to measure such outcomes, and then include weights on those measures in the welfare definition. Another way is to assume that eventually we’ll “uplift” such animals so that they can talk to us, and put weights on what those uplifted animals will eventually say about the outcomes their ancestors cared about.

We might even put weights on aliens, or on angels. We might just put a weight on what they say about what they want, if they ever show up to tell us. If they never show up, those weights stay set at zero.

Of course just because we could give votes to future folks, past folks, animals, aliens, and angels doesn’t mean we will ever want to do so.

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More Broken Evals

Back in January I quoted:

In 1980, economists … observed that salaries in companies were more strongly related to age and organizational tenure than they were to job performance. Ensuing research has confirmed and extended their findings, both in the United States and elsewhere. … One meta-analysis of chief executive compensation found that firm size accounted for more than 40 percent of the variation in pay while performance accounted for less than 5 percent. (more)

Part of the reason may be that employee performance evaluations are often political. From an ’87 paper:

Our research approach involved in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 60 executives. … from seven large organizations and represented 11 functional areas. As a group, they averaged more than 20 years of work experience and more than 13 years of managerial experience. ..

Executives admitted that political considerations nearly always were part of the [employee] evaluation process. One vice-president summarized the view these executives shared regarding the politics of appraisal:

As a manager, I will use the review process to do what is best for my people and the division. … I’ve got a lot of leeway – call it discretion – to use the process in that manner. … I’ve used it to get my people better raises in lean years, to kick a guy in the pants if he really needed it, to pick up a guy when he was down or even to tell him that he was no longer welcome here. It is a tool that the manager should use to help him do why it takes to get the job done. I believe most of us here at —- Operate this way regarding appraisals. … Accurately describing an employee’s performance is really not as important as generating ratings that keep things cooking.

Executives suggested several reasons why politics were so pervasive and why accuracy was not their primary concern. First, executives realized that they must live with subordinates in a day-to-day relationship. Second, they were also very cognizant of the permanence of the written document. .. Perhaps the most widespread reason … was that the formal appraisal was linked to compensation, career, and advancement in the organization. …

Executives generally believed the appraisal process became more political and subjective as one moved up the organizational ladder:

The higher you rise in this organization the more weird things get with regard to how they evaluate you. … The process becomes more political and less objective and it seems like the rating process focuses on who you are as opposed to what you’ve actually accomplished … As the stakes get higher, things get more and more political. ..

Although not frequently reported, a few executives admitted to giving a higher rating to a problem employee to the get employee promoted “up and out” of the department. …

A deliberately deflated rating was sometimes used to teach a rebellious subordinate a lesson. … Deflated ratings were also used as part of a termination procedure. First, a strongly negative rating could be used to send and indirect message to a subordinate that he or she should consider quitting. …. Second, once the decision has bee made that the situation was unsalvageable, negative ratings could then be used to build a strongly documented case against the marginal or poor performer.

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Rah Local Politics

Long ago our primate ancestors learned to be “political.” That is, instead of just acting independently, we learned to join into coalitions for mutual advantage, and to switch coalitions for private advantage. Our human ancestors added social norms, i.e., rules enforced by feelings of outrage in broad coalitions. Foragers used norms and coalitions to manage bands of roughly thirty members, and farmers applied similar behaviors to village communities of roughly a thousand.

In ancient politics, people learned to attract allies, to judge who else was reliable as an ally, to gossip about who was allied with who, and to help allies and hurt rivals. In particular we learned to say good things about allies and bad things about rivals, such as accusing rivals of violating key social norms, and praising allies for upholding them.

Today many people consider themselves to be very “political”, and they treat this aspect of themselves as central to their identity. They spend lots of time talking about related views, associating with those who share them, and criticizing those who disagree. They often feel especially proud of how boldly and freely they do these things, relative to their ancestors and those in “backward” cultures.

Trouble is, such folks are mostly “political” about national or international politics. Their interest fades as the norms and coalitions at stake focus on smaller scales, such as regions, cities, or neighborhoods. The politics of firms, clubs, and families hardly engage them at all. Of course such people are members of local coalitions, and do sometimes voice support for enforcing related norms. So they are political there to some extent. But they are much less bold, self-righteous, and uncompromising about local politics, and don’t consider related views to be central to their identity. Such folks are eager to associate with those who sacrifice to improve world politics, but are only mildly interested in associating with those who sacrifice to improve local politics.

This focus on politics at the largest scale is both relatively safe, and relatively useless. On the one hand, your efforts to take sides and support norm enforcement at very local levels are far more likely to benefit you personally via better local outcomes. On the other hand, such efforts are far more likely to bother opposing coalitions, leaving you vulnerable to retaliation. Given these risks, and the greater praise given to for those who push politics at the largest scales, it is understandable if people tend to focus on safe-scale politics, unlikely to cause them personal troubles.

Near-far theory predicts that we’d tend to focus our ideals and moral outrage and praise more on the largest social scales. But a net result of this tendency is that we seem far less effective today than were our ancestors at enforcing very-local-level social norms, and at discouraging related harms from local coalitions. We chafe at the idea of letting our nation be dominated by a king, but we easily and quietly submit to local kings in firms, clubs, and families.

Our political instincts and efforts are largely wasted, because we just are much less able to coordinate to identify and right wrongs on the largest scales. Now to some extent this is healthy. There was a lot of destructive waste when most political efforts were directed at very local politics. But many wrongs were also detected and righted. The human political instinct does serve some positive functions. After all, human bands were much larger than other primate bands, suggesting that human politics was less destructive than other primate politics.

I’ve suggested that organizations use decision markets to help advise key decisions. And to illustrate the idea, I’ve discussed the example of how it could apply to national politics. I’ve done this because people seem far more interested in reforming national politics, relative to reforming local small organizations. But honestly, I see a much bigger gains overall from smaller scale applications. And small scale application is where the idea needs to start, to work out the kinks. And such trials are feasible now. If only I could get some small orgs to try. Sigh.

I posted back in ’07 on a hero of local politics:

A colleague of my wife was a nurse at a local hospital, and was assigned to see if doctors were washing their hands enough. She identified and reported the worst offender, whose patients were suffering as a result. That doctor had her fired; he still works there not washing his hands. (more)

I’d admire you much more if you acted like this, relative to your marching on Washington, soliciting door-to-door for a presidential candidate, or posting ever so many political rants on Facebook. Shouldn’t you admire such folks far more as well?

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Trends Rarely Inform Policy

I’d like to try to make a point here that I’ve made before, but hopefully make it more clearly this time. My point is: trend tracking and policy analysis have little relevance for each other.

You can discuss education policy, or you can discuss education trends. You can discuss medical policy or you can discuss medical trends. You can discuss immigration policy, or you can discuss immigration trends. And you can discuss redistribution and inequality trends, or you can discuss redistribution and inequality policy. But in all of these cases, and many more, the trend and policy topics have little relevance for each other.

On trends, we collect a lot of data, usually on parameters that are relatively close to what we can easily measure, and also close to summary outcomes that we care about, like income, mortality, or employment. Many are interested in explaining past trends, and in forecasting future trends. Such trend tracking supports the familiar human need for news to discuss and fret about. And when a trend looks worrisome, that naturally leads people to want to discuss what oh what we might do about it.

On policy, we have lots of thoughtful theoretical analysis of policies, which try to judge which policies are better. And we have lots of relevant data analysis, that tries to distinguish relevant theories. Such analysis usually ends up identifying a few key parameters on which policy decisions should depend. But those tend to be abstract parameters, close to theoretical fundamentals. They usually have only a distant relation to the parameters which are tracked so eagerly as trends.

To repeat for emphasis: the easy to measure parameters where trends are most eagerly tracked are rarely close to the key theoretical parameters that determine which policies are best. They are in fact usually so far away that it is hard to judge the sign of the relation between them. This makes it unlikely that a change in one of these policies is a reasonable response to noticing some tracked-parameter trend.

For example which policies are best in medicine depends on key theoretical parameters like risk-aversion, asymmetric info on risks, meddling preferences, market power of hospitals, customer irrationality, and where learning happens, etc. But the trends we usually track are things like mortality, rates of new drug introduction, and amounts, fractions, and variance of spending. These later parameters are just not very relevant for inferring the former. People may find it fascinating to track trends in doctor salaries, cancer deaths, or how many are signed up for Obamacare. But those are pretty irrelevant to which policies are best.

As another example, debates on immigration refer to many relevant theoretical parameters, including meddling preferences, demand elasticity for low wage workers, and the intelligence, cultural norms, and cultural plasticity of immigrants. In contrast, trend trackers talk about trends in immigration, low-skill wages, wage inequality, labor share of income, voter participation, etc. Which might be fascinating topics, but they are just not very relevant for whether immigration is a good or bad idea. So it just doesn’t make sense to suggest changing immigration policy in response to noticing particular trends in these tracked parameters.

Alas, most people are a lot more interested in tracking trends than in analyzing policies. So well meaning people with smart things to say about policy often try to make their points seem more newsworthy by suggesting those policies as answers to the problems posed by troublesome trends. But, in doing so they usually mislead their audiences, and often themselves. Trends just aren’t very relevant for policy. If you want to talk policy, talk policy, and skip the trends.

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Who Wants Standards?

Most of us live in worlds of conversation, like books or blogs or chats, where we tend to give many others the benefit of the doubt that they are mostly talking “in good faith.” We don’t just talk to show off or to support allies and knock rivals – we hold our selves to higher standards. But let me explain why that may often be wishful thinking.

I’ve previously suggested that coalition politics infuses a lot of human behavior. That is, we tend to use all available means to try to help “us “and hurt “them”, even if on average these games hurt us all. Coalition politics is a dirt that regularly accumulates in most any corner that is not vigorously and regularly cleaned.

This view predicts that coalition politics also infuses a lot of how writings (and speeches, etc.) are evaluated. That is, when we evaluate the writings of others, we attend to how such evaluations may help our coalitions and hurt rival coalitions. Especially for writings on subjects that have little direct relevance for how we live our lives. Like most topics in most blogs, magazines, journals, books, speeches, etc.

However, while we may find such cynicism plausible as a theory of rivals, we are reluctant to consciously embrace it as theory of ourselves. We instead want to say that we mostly evaluate the writings of others using different criteria. And when we are part of a group that evaluates writings similarly, we want to say this is because our group shares key evaluation criteria beyond “us good, them bad.”

Now some groups can offer concrete evidence for their claims to be relatively clean of coalition politics. These are groups who declare specific “objective” standards to judge writing. That is, they use standards that are relatively easy for outsiders to check. For example, outsiders can relatively easily check groups who evaluate writings based on word count, or on correctness of spelling and grammar. Yes, a commitment to such standards may favor some groups over others, such as good spellers over bad spellers. But it can’t be adjusted very easily to shifting coalitions. Which makes it a poor tool for supporting coalition politics.

Some groups say they judge writings based on their popularity in some audience. And yes, it can be pretty easy to evaluate the popularity of writings. However, it could easily be the audience that is using coalition politics to decide what is popular. Thus using popularity to evaluate writings doesn’t at all ensure that coalition politics doesn’t dominate evaluations.

Some groups claim to evaluate written “maps” based on how well they match intended “territories”. And when it is easy for many clearly-neutral outsiders to visit a territory, it can be easy for outsiders to check that territory-matching is actually how this group evaluates maps. But the harder it is for outsiders to see territories, or to read their supposedly matching maps, and the more easily that outside critics can be credibly accused of political bias, the more easily a group could pretend to evaluate maps based on territory matches, but actually evaluate them via coalition politics. For example, anthropologists watching the private lives of the very rich might write descriptions of those lives that pander to academic presumptions about the very rich, since few academics ever see those lives directly, and the few who do can be accused of biased by association.

Some groups use objective criteria for evaluations, but don’t give those criteria enough weight to stop coalition politics from dominating evaluations. For example, economic theory journals can claim that they only publish articles containing proofs without obvious errors. And the ability of readers to seek errors may ensure that this criteria is usually satisfied. But such journals may still reject most submissions that meet this criteria, allowing coalition politics to dominate which articles are accepted. Winning coalitions may be constrained to include only members capable of constructing proofs without obvious errors, but this need not be very constraining to them.

Another approach is to only use objective evaluation criteria, but to use many such criteria and to be unclear about their relative weights. The more such criteria, the greater the chance of finding criteria to reach whatever evaluation one wants. For example, in many legal areas there is wide agreement on the relevant factors, and on which directions each factor points to in a final decision. Nevertheless, given enough relevant factors, courts may usually have enough discretion to favor either side.

For any one group and their declared criteria of evaluation, it can be hard for outsiders to judge just how much leeway that group has left for coalition politics to influence evaluations. We tend to give the benefit of the doubt to our own groups, but not to rivalrous groups. For example, pro-science anti-religion folks may presume that peer review in scientific journals is mainly used to enforce good evidence norms, but that religious leaders mainly use their discretion in interpreting scriptures to favor their allies.

If they were honest, each group would either declare objective evaluation criteria that leave little room for coalition politics, or accept that outsiders can reasonably presume that coalition politics probably dominates their evaluations. And everyone should expect that even if their group now seems an exception where other criteria dominate, it will probably not remain so for long. Because these are in fact reasonable assumptions in a world where collation politics is a dirt that regularly and rapidly accumulates in any corner not vigorously and regularly cleaned.

Hey there reader, I’m really am talking about you and the worlds of writing where you live. Do you presume that your worlds are mostly dominated by politics, where different coalitions vie to support allies and knock rivals? Or do you see the groups you hang with as holding themselves to higher standards? If higher standards, are they standards that outsiders can easily check on? Or do you in practice mostly have to trust a small group of insiders to judge if standards are met? And if you have to trust insiders, how sure can you be their choices aren’t mostly driven by coalition politics?

Years ago I struggled with this issue, and wondered what evaluation criteria a group could adopt to robustly induce their writings to roughly tract truth on a wide range of topics, and resist the corrupting pressures of coalition politics to say what key audiences want or expect to hear. I was delighted to find that for a wide range of topics open prediction markets offer such robust criteria. Each trade can be an “edit” of the highly-evaluated “writing” that is the current market odds on each topic. Such edits are rewarded or punished via cash for moving the consensus toward or away from the truth.

I had hoped that many groups would be anxious to avoid the appearance that coalition politics may dirty their evaluations, and thus be eager to adopt new standards that can avoid such an appearance. So I hoped that many groups would want to adopt prediction markets, once they were clearly shown to be feasible and practical. Alas, that seems to not be so.

Today’s winning coalitions seem to prefer to let coalition politics continue to determine who wins in each group. This seems like how police departments would like to appear free from corruption, but not enough to actually make their internal affairs departments report to someone other than the chief of police. We are fond of tarring rival groups with the accusation that coalition politics dominates their evaluations, and we are fond of pretending that we are different. But not enough to visibly block that politics.

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One Cam Net To Rule Them All?

The costs of surveillance hardware is falling rapidly. Soon it will be very cheap to install dense networks of cameras and microphones, to record what everyone does and says. (And the potential of vector microphones is neglected and huge.) So which networks are installed and used where will mainly come down to property rights – who is allowed to install and operate such networks where? And property rights will depend a lot on enforcement costs – how easy is it to detect and punish violations?

Governments who want to install and operate such networks would seem to face few obstacles. Decentralized attempts to sabotage those nets face the problem that the nets makes it easy to identify and track saboteurs.

What about private networks? Clearly they could work, if the government fully supported them. But what if the government opposes them? Some have argued that it would be too hard to enforce rules against unapproved surveillance networks. They argue that if everyone has a cam and mic in their phone, eyeglasses, etc., the government can’t control them all. But it is one thing to have a camera and mic available, and quite another thing to make those function effectively as part of a shared surveillance network.

Imagine that some community tried to pool their cameras, mics, etc. to make a service that continually broadcasted the sight and sounds from a large set of locations. You could go to their website, pick a location, and then see and hear what was happening there now. And imagine that the authorities wanted to stop this, at least for particular times and locations. What happens then?

If the authorities can go to this same website, they can not only see what others can see, they can also use that view to figure out where the cams and mics are. Even if those cams and mics are moving around, a continual broadcast should make it easy to find and disable them.

So how can private surveillance networks function in the face of official disapproval? One approach is to only broadcast with a long delay. The delay must be long enough so one can afford to move or replace the cam/mics without revealing who helped. Another approach is to only rarely offer widespread access – the net turns on only for rare special events. A third approach is to process the raw cam/mic info into new versions that hide their exact location origins, but still convince outsiders of their accuracy. That seems hard to me, but maybe it could work eventually.

All of these approaches seem to result in substantial reductions in the value of the surveillance info offered, and substantial increases in the cost to maintain the net. I conclude that governments can give themselves big cost and value advantages in the use of surveillance networks. If they choose, governments can see and hear much more than can the rest of us.

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Freedom As Identity

At a big wonk dinner last night there was a long discussion of NSA policy. People seemed to agree that such policies are unlikely to change due to concrete publicized examples of specific resulting harms. Instead, people argued that changing technologies require us to change laws and policies in order to uphold basic principles such as that policies should be accountable to the public, avoid possibilities for corruption, and offer some substantial limits on government powers. But I wondered: how strongly does the public really support such principles?

You may recall I posted on survey results saying a US majority thought Snowden was wrong to expose NSA intelligence-gathering efforts. Also, Robert Rubin’s favorite graph of 2013 is one showing that the US public trusts the military and police far more than the courts, media, congress, or even the president. At the dinner many talked about wanting to avoid the abuses uncovered by the Church committee, but I’ll bet few in the public even remember what that was, and even fewer remember the Church committee as the good guys.

It occurs to me that what support the US public does have for principles of a limited and accountable government may be largely a side effect of war and patriotism propaganda. During the cold war we were often told that what made them bad and us good is that we had freedoms, while their governments had and used arbitrary powers. We were also told similar things about why the Nazis were bad. And in support of all this, schools tell kids that the US started because we objected to England’s arbitrary powers over us.

But as the cold war and WWII fade into history, we define ourselves less in opposition to enemies whose governments have arbitrary powers. We instead fall back more onto presuming that our status quo laws and policies are sufficient to support whatever principles we might have. Because in fact we don’t really support abstract principles of governance. We instead support the general presumptions that they are bad and we are good, and that our existing laws and policies are good unless someone can show otherwise via specific demonstrated harms. If today “they” are terrorists, then we assume that whatever we do to hurt them under existing policies is probably good too.

If there is a hope here, it would be that political elites feel a much stronger attachment to political principles, and that the public will over time come to adopt elite beliefs. But for now that seems a slim or distant hope. World of mass government surveillance, here we come.

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