Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Panel urges TSA to implement ‘trusted travelers’ program - The Washington Post

There's recently been a lot of talk about a "trusted travelers" program, where a person could win the privilege of going through an expediated (less intrusive and less bothersome) security check once they have passed a background check and provide biometric identification.

According to The Washington Post:
Even a voluntary trusted-traveler approach would require passengers to provide credit information, tax returns and other personal data to verify that members pose little or no risk.
I'm not sure what I think of this as a stand-alone policy. I'm suspicious of the long term political implications, as frequent fliers (who tend to be richer and have more political influence) are treated differently from the politically faceless masses. I also wonder if this will be used to punish and neutralize people with unpopular political views. For instance, would they "trust" an anarchist who has never advocated violence? Finally, will this be used as an excuse to open an investigation on anyone who applies for Trusted Traveller status? The backfround check could reveal suspicious financial patterns, perhaps related to drug purchases. Alternatively, it could end up being another enforcement tool for the Copyright lords.

In the end, the reality is that many people would need to submit to a background check just so that they can efficiently engage in an activity that is practically essential for the business and social lives of many Americans. Just another brick in the new class barrier.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Politics has failed

The ongoing budget stalemates, at both the state and federal level, are just the most recent demonstration that American political institutions are in decline. As far as such institutions go, they are still pretty good; however, we can only expect them to become an increasing burden on our society. These institutions are committed to maintaining the status-quo, yet they have made so many implicit promises over the past decades that they cannot realistically fulfill all of them, let alone face new challenges. They will continue to devise band-aid solutions to mounting problems, and continue to prop up other failing institutions (e.g. banks), thereby draining an ever increasing amount of our economic produce.

In contrast, many developing countries (e.g. Brazil, India, China) are ambitiously reforming their core political and economic institutions, which may soon be just as good as America's. While nationalists present this as some sort of threat, we should be thankful for the rise of these other economies that will provide alternatives to our own ailing institutions and pick up the slack for our own decreasing ability to innovate. With our institutions becoming increasingly parasitic, the only opportunity for economic growth will come from technological advances and disruption of our lethargic economic institutions (despite political backing) by way of new competitors. America will continue to contribute to some advances, but not enough on our own to maintain our standard of living in a world with fewer natural resources per person.

This is really our only path forward -- to replace our current bloated institutions with new ones. The hope of reform from within the political system is dead. President Obama was elected on the hope that he could bring this reform, and revive the legitimacy of the state. Two years into his term, there's no sign of success. Obama and his allies dedicated their political capital to major initiatives that changed everything but solved nothing. All they did was reallocate the spoils of power among various special interest groups.

Obama hasn't even done much to increase the transparency, efficiency, or lawfulness of the state. Treaties are still negotiated in secret (e.g. ACTA and such), without public comment, but with plenty of input from corporate bosses. Government departments (e.g. Treasury) still cover up mistakes and corruption. We've actually seen a startling increase in harassment of political opponents under Obama, as Wikileaks was systematically crippled the state-corporation cartel, and Private Bradley Manning has been threatened with exaggerated charges and mistreated prior to his trial.

The end fact is that the state is the enemy of the people. It's officials constitute a class with separate interests and ideology than the public at large. They act to increase the power of their offices and their own wealth. They are co-opted by various wealthy interests (e.g. big corporations) who help them acquire power through elections, exercise power once in office, and reward them with plush jobs after retirement -- as long as these officials manipulate the markets to increase the profits of their benefactors.

There is no real hope of reforming the state. It is evil by nature. We can try to restrain it by political means, but our best hope is to directly break its economic grip on our lives, while we build institutions that actually do serve our needs.

Update: Another good essay on this topic at C4SS: The Last “Political” Essay

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Innocence Project -- puts your money to good use

The Innocence Project is fund-raising via The Liberty Papers: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is — The Innocence Project

Getting innocent people out of prison? I don’t see how you can argue with that. Note also that The Innocence Project is spending their time and money on the ground, helping actual convicts. This is not an activism organization lobbying your legislators, it exists to actual help individual convicts trying to prove their innocence.

This is surely one of the best uses of my charity/activism budgets.
  1. It helps people directly, unlike donations to political campaigns or regular advocacy groups
  2. It benefits the "least-advantaged members of society", unlike donations to cultural institutions
  3. It increases the total productivity of society be enabling the released prisoner to fulfill his social and economic roles, unlike institutions that only relieve suffering of the targeted individuals
  4. It increases awareness of widespread injustices, unlike charities that help people in the shadows
  5. It improves my own society, unlike charities that intervene in foreign societies
All in all, the Innocence Project may be the best charity around in terms of its potential to produce immediate and lasting benefits to myself and the people I care about, without potentially offending any reasonable people or displacing more sustainable solutions.

My only concern would be that we would come to rely on pro-bono lawyers to defend the accused, rather than modifying our court system to provide sufficient resources for the accused. However, the current indifference of the politicians to the plight of the falsely convicted is not a response to pro-bono defense lawyers. In fact, these advocates for the wrongly convicted may be the only ones who can bring public attention to this problem, thereby changing public attitudes towards punitive laws and placing pressure on politicians to actually think about justice when they write their laws and construct their budgets.