Thoughtcrime in Britain

A 19-year old man was arrested yesterday for the supposed crime of burning a Remembrance Poppy and posting a picture of the incident on Facebook.

A teenager arrested on Remembrance Sunday on suspicion of posting a picture of a burning poppy on Facebook is being questioned by police.

The 19-year-old was held after the image of a poppy being set ablaze by a lighter was reportedly posted online with the caption: “How about that you squadey cunts”.

Police said the man, from Canterbury, Kent, was detained on suspicion of an offence under the Malicious Communications Act after officers were contacted at about 4pm on Sunday.

This is simply dangerous, absurd and Orwellian.

It is just the latest in a succession of police actions against individuals deemed to have caused offence: mocking a collapsed footballer on Twitter; hoping that British service personnel would “die and go to hell”wearing a T-shirt that celebrated the death of two police officers; making sick jokes on Facebook about a missing child. Each time the police have arrested people for nothing more than expressing an unpopular, outrageous or offensive opinion.

Britain is setting a precedent for trampling all over free speech in the interest of enforcing public morality. Mussolini would be proud.

The point of free speech is not to protect popular speech. It is to protect us from becoming a society where the expression of unpopular, offensive and distasteful ideas is criminalised. That is the surest guard against totalitarian tendencies.

This new incident is particularly bizarre. Children are taught in school that Britain fought the Second World War to defeat fascism. They are taught that the deaths of British soldiers commemorated on Remembrance Sunday were for the cause of freedom, to defeat fascism, to defeat totalitarianism. And now we arrest people merely for making offensive comments and burning symbols?

Are we turning into the thing that we once fought? 

What has happened to free speech?

What has happened to Britain?

About these ads

The Burden of Government Debt

There has been an awful lot of discussion in recent months about whether government debt is a burden for future generations. The discussion has gone something like this: those who believe government debt is a burden claim that it is a burden because future generations have to repay taxes for present spending, those who believe that it is not claim that every debt is also credit, and so because the next generation will inherit not only the debt but also the credit, that government debt is not in itself a burden to future generations, unless it is largely owed to foreign creditors.

It is relatively easy to calculate what the monetary burden of government debt is. Credit inheritance and debt inheritance are not distributed uniformly. The credit inheritance is assumed strictly by bondholders, and the debt inheritance is assumed strictly by taxpayers. Each individual has a different burden, equalling their tax outlays, minus their income from government spending (the net tax position).

For an entire nation, everyone’s individual position is summed together. In a closed economy where the only lenders are domestic, the intergenerational monetary burden is zero. But that is by no means the entire story.

First, debts to foreign lenders are a real monetary burden, because the interest payments constitute a real transfer of money out of the nation. Second, while there may be little or no debt burden for the nation as a whole, interest constitutes a transfer of wealth between citizens of the nation, specifically as a transfer payment from future taxpayers to creditors. This adds up, at current levels, to nearly half a trillion of transfer payments per year from taxpayers to creditors. So while the intergenerational burden may technically add up to zero for the nation, it will not for individuals. The real burden is huge transfers from those who pay the tax to those who receive the spending, and those who receive the interest. So who loses out?

Here are the figures for 2009 showing net tax position for each income quintile:

Bottom quintile: -301 percent
Second quintile: -42 percent
Middle quintile: -5 percent
Fourth quintile: 10 percent
Highest quintile: 22 percent

Top one percent: 28 percent

The negative 301 percent means that a typical family in the bottom quintile receives about $3 in transfer payments for every dollar earned.

What this data does not show are the reverse transfers via interest payments. There is no data (that I can find) on treasury interest payments received by income quintile, but assuming that the top quintile dominates income from interest (as they dominate ownership of financial assets, owning over 95% of all financial assets) this leaves the lower income quintiles benefiting from transfer payments, the top quintile benefiting from interest (as well as policies like bank bailouts, corporate subsidies, and quantitative easing, whose benefits overwhelmingly benefit the top quintile), and squeezing the taxpaying middle quintiles who receive neither the benefits of interest payments, nor significant welfare transfers.

To misquote George Orwell, when it comes to the national debt and who takes its burden, some pigs are definitely more equal than others.

Precrime in America

The U.S. Department of Homeland security is working on a project called FAST, the Future Attribute Screening Technology. FAST will remotely monitor physiological and behavioural signals like elevated heart rate, eye movement, body temperature, facial patterns, and body language, and analyse these signals algorithmically for statistical aberrance in an attempt to identify people with criminal or terroristic intentions.

It’s useful to briefly talk about a few of the practical problems that such a system would face.

Firstly, the level of accuracy in remote monitoring. Is it possible to engineer a system that can remotely tell you the heart-rate of a hundred passengers  passing through a TSA checkpoint? Yes. Is it possible to do so accurately? That is much, much harder. The obvious conclusion is that such a system, were it to be deployed in the wilds of airports (and presumably, other locations where our ever-benevolent technocratic overlords determine “terrorists” or “criminals” may be operating) would — given a large enough number of scans — produce a lot of false positives stemming from erroneous data.

But let’s assume that such a system can be calibrated to produce a relatively accurate data set. Now we are faced with the problem of defining “suspicious” behaviour. Surely a passenger with the flu or a cold — who might have an elevated body temperature and a faster heart rate — would set alarm bells ringing. So too would someone suffering from pre-flight anxiety, people taking certain medications, the elderly and so on. Given that TSA screening protocols have prevented precisely zero terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11 (even in spite of the fact that 630 million passengers fly each year ) this merely suggests that vulnerable people will end up getting hassled by the TSA to an even greater extent than they already would be today. This is no laughing matter — a nervous but otherwise perfectly innocent passenger might end up getting tasered and die — something which of course has  happened multiple times already. Or —  under the NDAA (2011) — false-positives might end up being indefinitely detained on totally erroneous grounds.

Of course, the next problem is distinguishing the guilty from the innocent. Simply, this system would seem to produce nothing other than circumstantial evidence. Given that no crime would have yet been committed, how would it be possible to prove nefarious intent? Perhaps one day a terrorist or drug smuggler (got to keep fighting the war on drugs…) will be foolish enough to try to carry a gun or a knife through a TSA checkpoint and onto an aeroplane, but given that a metal detector could have detected that anyway, what is the point of this new technology? Surely it is to pinpoint potential terrorists who would otherwise not be picked out by the body scanners? In that case, would the end result just be that people — with no real evidence against them other than a fast heart rate and some perspiration — end up being thrown off their flight? Would people who are subject to a false positive and as a result miss a flight try to sue the TSA for wasting their time and money?

Next, just as a committed and composed liar can fool a polygraph, surely terrorists and drug smugglers out in the wild would adapt their behaviour to avoid detection. There are of course prescription drugs that can be taken to reduce the physiological symptoms of anxiety, and thus fool the detector.

Then there are the problems in testing. Subjects in the laboratory trials (taxpayer-funded, of course) have been told to go through the system with the intent to cause a disruptive act. The system has been fine-tuned to detect subjects in a controlled laboratory environment. Simply, there is no data on the effectiveness of this system against terrorists in the wild. The wild is a totally different environment, and the mindset and physiological cues of a real terrorist may well be entirely different to those of a laboratory subject who is pretending (we just don’t know until we try it on a large enough sample of real terrorists). The notion that it can catch terrorists seems wholly pseudo-scientific, and based on the false premise that terrorism has an identifiable set of physiological cues.  The entire operation is based on the (possibly flawed) premise that a terrorist will be nervous, and that therefore we should cast an extremely wide dragnet to further interrogate and intimidate nervous people. That is guesswork, not science.

As Alexander Furnas writing in the Atlantic states:

We should ask, in a world where we are already pass through full-body scanners, take off our shoes, belts, coats and only carry 3.5 oz containers of liquid, is more stringent screening really what we need and will it make us any safer? Or will it merely brand hundreds of innocent people as potential terrorists and provide the justification of pseudo-scientific algorithmic behavioral screening to greater invasions of their privacy?

It is ridiculous — and totally contrary to the Fourth Amendment — that the courts have franked the notion that air travellers can be subject to invasive pat-downs and body scans without probably cause. But they did. In U.S. vs Davis, 482 F.2d 893, 908 the judge ruled that “airport screenings are considered to be administrative searches because they are conducted as part of a general regulatory scheme, where the essential administrative purpose is to prevent the carrying of weapons or explosives aboard aircraft” and thatan administrative search is allowed if no more intrusive or intensive than necessary, in light of current technology, to detect weapons or explosives, confined in good faith to that purpose, and passengers may avoid the search by electing not to fly.”

But to effectively conduct a medical scan on passengers? Surely this goes well beyond being “no more intrusive or intensive than necessary“? How many successful terrorist attacks occurred after 9/11, even before the more invasive pat-downs and body scans were brought in? None. So why would deepening the security regime be necessary?

And now that the TSA has expanded its regime beyond airports and out onto the roads of America we must ask ourselves what the endgame of all of this is? Could it be to deploy these technologies on a widespread basis throughout American cities, malls, sports stadiums and using it to scout out potential troublemakers? Would that be deemed an “administrative search” too (and thus not subject to the Fourth Amendment)?

This logic — of giving incontrovertible and unchallengeable power to our benevolent administrative overlords and then hoping for the best — takes us to a dark and nasty place. It requires us to assume they have our best interests at heart, and it requires us to assume that they will not abuse their power. The power to monitor these kinds of cues is a power that could easily be abused. A corrupt TSA agent might call a person they find attractive — even a child — out of the queue for a secondary search so that he or she can molest them with an enhanced pat-down. These new tools just enhance that power, providing a cloak of pseudo-scientific justification to the reality of citizens bowing down at the feet of their government and kissing the ring of power. Unquestioning obedience to power is a recipe for social catastrophe.

As Jefferson put it:

When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.

Would I be picked out of the queue at the airport? Sure. I already am for my Arabic name. But I am nervous. And the things that make me nervous? Encroaching Orwellianism. The potential for the abuse of power. The potential for tyranny. The demand of unquestioning obedience. The money spent and debt accrued to develop these technologies. The fact that our governments are obsessed with terrorism to the extent that they will put tighter and tighter controls in place at airports, even though more people are crushed to death by furniture or televisions every year than are killed in terrorist attacks, while ignoring real threats to our society like excessive systemic risk in the global financial system.

That all scares the shit out of me.

Britain’s Orwellian Nightmare?

As a British citizen, I find Britain’s recent authoritarian creep to be deeply unsettling. First we greatly diluted our ancient rights of habaeas corpus. Then we created the world’s largest video surveillance network (which of course was completely powerless to prevent last summer’s riots).

Now we have started locking people up for comments on Twitter.

From Brendan O’Neill:

If you thought it was only authoritarian states like China or Iran that imprisoned pesky bloggers and tweeters, think again.

This week, Britain became a fully paid-up member of that clique of illiberal intolerant, tweeter-harassing states.

On Tuesday, at Swansea Magistrates Court in Wales, Liam Stacey, a student, was imprisoned for 56 days for writing offensive tweets.

Fifty-six days. Two months. In an actual jail. For tweeting. It needs to be spelt out like that in order to show how shocking it is that in the 21st century, in a nation that gave us such great warriors for freedom as The Levellers and John Stuart Mill, a young man has now been banged up for expressing his thoughts.

Stacey’s thoughts were far from pleasant ones. In fact they were offensive and repugnant.

On March 17, Fabrice Muamba, a 23-year-old black football player for Bolton Wanderers, collapsed with cardiac arrest during a match against Tottenham Hotspurs. Many people were shocked, and before long a #PrayforMuamba hashtag took off on Twitter.

But Stacey, who claimed he was drunk at the time, didn’t fancy praying for Muamba, and so instead he tweeted:

“LOL. Fuck Muamba. He’s dead.”

(Muamba did not die, though he remains critically ill in a London hospital.)

56 days in prison? For expressing a distasteful opinion? Frankly, I find the notion of convicting someone of such an offense more offensive than Stacey’s words.

Most recently, Parliament is enacting a law to allow for the monitoring and recording — in real time — of all online activity (presumably including my work) by GCHQ.

From the BBC:

The Home Office has said laws allowing the monitoring all emails, texts and web use in the UK will be brought in “as soon as parliamentary time allows”.

Home Secretary Theresa May says “ordinary people” will have nothing to fear- but there is opposition to the idea from all sides of the House of Commons.

All of this is troubling. Throwing people in jail for expressing unpopular opinions? That seems un-British, and seems to not tally with the idea that we should live and let live. I don’t have a problem with criminalising speech that is an incitement to imminent violence (e.g. “kill that man”). But criminalising opinion? Not only is that paternalistic, that’s a sticky slope to thought crime. And why is that a problem? In a society where we are not free to express any opinion we like — even deeply unpopular ones — innovation is surely stifled. Innovators and freethinkers are forced to think tricky questions (“will I be jailed for expressing this opinion?”) before they publicise their ideas.

And why would GCHQ need to monitor the entire internet? If they need to gather evidence to prevent imminent criminality, why not get a warrant, and monitor a suspect? The fact that they are writing a law that acts as a warrant on all of us suggests that contrary to the Home Office’s statements, we are now all suspects.

Britain has a rather unique legal and political system. Nothing is really set in stone other than the supremacy of the sovereign — in other words, the Queen. Right now, sovereignty has been delegated to Parliament, and the Queen retains only a ceremonial role. But because the Parliament is sovereign, it is free to pass any law it wishes. No rights are absolute, no system is set in stone. There is no first amendment guarantee to free speech. And even though Britain is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, that piece of legislation is phrased so that governments can curtail rights for the “greater good”.

Some legal flexibility can be good. British society has been remarkably free and remarkably stable, certainly in contrast to many other nations. But let’s be honest: authoritarianism can blight any nation. We shouldn’t be complacent to that threat.

And the overarching and striking problem with this authoritarian creep is mostly that it is a waste of money. As I wrote last week terrorism and civil disorder and the expression of unpopular opinions (and all of the things that this authoritarianism is supposed to quell) is of minimal threat to the West (and of course the expression of unpopular opinions is largely beneficial). More people are killed by being crushed by furniture than by terrorism. While trillions are spent on homeland security and the “liberation” of foreign lands, domestic infrastructure is neglected, and businesses and workers lose out as they pay in taxes for the expenses of large authoritarian interventionist government. CCTV has little effect on crime.

And certainly, the social effects of authoritarian creep may be huge. How many legitimate criticisms of the government will go unpublished due to fear of censorship or monitoring? How many people will spend time in jail — and face life with a criminal record — just for expressing an opinion? How many innocent people will spend time in jail as a result of monitoring mistakes or misinterpretations? How many good businesses and ideas will not receive funding due to productive capital being redirected to the government coffers to pay for authoritarian interventionism? How many people will waste their productivity working as government snoops when instead they could be deploying their minds and skills in creating valuable products and services that would improve our economy?

But above all, what would George Orwell think? Big brother is watching and recording us all. Every time we go online, we display our thoughts, our interests, our desires, our curiosities, our sexual preferences, our politics. All of these things are recorded by the state — a state which seems to have no problem with locking people up for expressing unpopular opinions.

Orwell understood that that was a peril to everything — our homes, our lives, our rights, our society, our economy and the very fabric of our existence.

The Ministry of Truth

In a truly staggering article, Evgeny Morozov makes the case that the internet needs a Ministry of Truth:

In its early days, the Web was often imagined as a global clearinghouse—a new type of library, with the sum total of human knowledge always at our fingertips. That much has happened—but with a twist: In addition to borrowing existing items from its vast collections, we, the patrons, could also deposit our own books, pamphlets and other scribbles—with no or little quality control.

Such democratization of information-gathering—when accompanied by smart institutional and technological arrangements—has been tremendously useful, giving us Wikipedia and Twitter. But it has also spawned thousands of sites that undermine scientific consensus, overturn well-established facts, and promote conspiracy theories. Meanwhile, the move toward social search may further insulate regular visitors to such sites; discovering even more links found by their equally paranoid friends will hardly enlighten them. Is it time for some kind of a quality control system?

Morozov’s solution?

The options aren’t many. One is to train our browsers to flag information that may be suspicious or disputed. Thus, every time a claim like “vaccination leads to autism” appears in our browser, that sentence would be marked in red—perhaps, also accompanied by a pop-up window advising us to check a more authoritative source. The trick here is to come up with a database of disputed claims that itself would correspond to the latest consensus in modern science—a challenging goal that projects like “Dispute Finder” are tackling head on.

The second—and not necessarily mutually exclusive—option is to nudge search engines to take more responsibility for their index and exercise a heavier curatorial control in presenting search results for issues like “global warming” or “vaccination.” Google already has a list of search queries that send most traffic to sites that trade in pseudoscience and conspiracy theories; why not treat them differently than normal queries? Thus, whenever users are presented with search results that are likely to send them to sites run by pseudoscientists or conspiracy theorists, Google may simply display a huge red banner asking users to exercise caution and check a previously generated list of authoritative resources before making up their minds.

Readers will be aware that I oppose the central planning of markets, for three reasons: the dangers of regulatory capture, the problem of unintended consequences, and most significantly the distortion of the market mechanism:

Capitalism means both successes and failures. It is a fundamentally experimental system, with a continuous feedback mechanism — the market, and ultimately profit and loss. Ideas that work are rewarded with financial success, and ideas that don’t are punished with failure. With capitalism, systems, ideas and firms that fail to produce what the market wants fail. They go bankrupt. Their assets, and their debt is liquidated.

When that mechanism is suspended by a government or central bank that thinks it knows best — and that a system that is too interconnected to fail is worth saving at any cost — the result is almost always stagnation. This is for a number of reasons — most obviously that bailouts sustain crippling debt levels, and are paid for through contractionary austerity. But it is larger than just that.

In nature, ideas and schemes that work are rewarded — and ideas and schemes that don’t work are punished. Our ancestors who correctly judged the climate, soil and rainfall and planted crops that flourished were rewarded with a bumper harvest. Those who planted the wrong crops did not get a bailout — they got a lean harvest, and were forced to either learn from their mistakes, or perish.

Precisely the same problems exist when the government steps in to centrally plan the market for ideas. The market mechanism — of good ideas that yield favourable consequences, and bad ideas that yield unfavourable ones — becomes distorted.

Regular reader FO SHO suggested that this problem does not merely affect monetary or financial markets:

Gresham’s Law — Bad money drives out good if their exchange rate is set by law.

Following the logic of Gresham’s Law, I would like to propose a couple new additional economic laws along the line of Gresham’s Law. (Forgive me if these laws already exist!)

Bliss’s Law (My last name!) — When bad economists drive out good economists due to the favour of a corrupt government and/or central bankers.

Aziz’s Law (Why not?) — When bad bankers drive out good bankers due to excessive greed and stupidity  due to bad bankers being bailed out by government.

Alas, the second point is not merely applicable to the field of economics: it is applicable to every field of ideas.

In order to get the benefits of a strong and dynamic debate, people need to be free to believe whatever they want. If their ideas are successful, they reap the rewards. If their ideas are unsuccessful, they must accept the problems.

Government  does not need to centrally plan the market of ideas by designating (in all of its wisdom) what is truth and what is not. If a lie is found to be injurious by a court of law, there is the common law precedent of  defamation. If words are used to incite hatred or promote violence or terrorism there are legal precedents and criminal laws to deal with such behaviour.

These limitations on speech are limited to preventing harm and injury.  But Morozov’s suggestions go far beyond the scope of this — while he dresses his claims up in the clothes of preventing harm, the real concern here is that he seems to believe that government ought to have a monopoly on the truth.

Giving government a monopoly on determining which ideas are valid and which are not is a dangerous precedent. It can be used to suppress dissent and dissidents. It can be used to entrench bad systems. It would entail the creation of a massive, far-reaching and costly bureaucracy, not only to monitor discussion, but to determine “truth”, and to intervene against speech that they determine to be “untruthful”.

This wouldn’t just be a disaster for the market of ideas — it would be a fiscal disaster, too.

Breaking the Camel’s Back

Bill Bonner sounds scarily like me:

We are watching the destruction of an empire. All empires must go away sometime. They are natural things. And nature puts a time bomb in everything she creates.

The U.S. empire is doomed. Just like all the others that went before it. It is doomed by nature herself — condemned by the gods to blow up and die.

None of this should be surprising. We’ve seen this movie before. Hundreds of empires have come and gone. We know how this movie ends. More or less.

What we know for sure is that the U.S. is going broke. There is hardly any other plausible outcome. We’ve gone over the numbers so often we don’t need to repeat them.

Yes, it is true that the feds could still save themselves if they had the will. They could cut taxes to a flat 10% and spend only what they raised in tax revenue. That would do the trick from an economic point of view.

But it’s too late for that politically. Empires have lives of their own. They go forward…expanding…spending…stretching…until, boom, they go too far. Empires do not back up. Some merely go bankrupt. Others are defeated in war. All end disastrously.

Only one presidential candidate favors rescuing the nation’s finances and pulling the empire back from disaster. Ron Paul. He is considered such an unelectable kook that the newspapers barely mention him. And the papers are right. He is unelectable. Because he is opposed by the zombies.

Perhaps my last post got a little fatalistic, just as Bonner does here.

Certainly, the last thing I want is for America to fail, for any reason. As I explained, I believe America’s constitution to be perhaps the most liberty-defending in history.

But if imperial overstretch is the general problem,  things could get a lot hairier.

From the New York Times:

Atomic inspectors in Vienna confirmed Monday that Iran has begun enriching uranium at a new plant carved out of a mountain, an act of defiance that comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran over oil revenues and global sanctions.

More than five years ago, the United Nations Security Council began calling on Iran to stop purifying uranium, which can fuel nuclear reactors or atom bombs. Instead, Tehran accelerated its efforts, saying its nuclear program is entirely peaceful in nature.

Can America afford another war?

Yes — say the military-Keynesians. Just what we need — stimulus! That will do wonders for aggregate demand!

But I say no. Rates are artificially low due to quantitative easing, which has constricted the supply of Treasuries, and due to the Fed’s zero-interest rate policy that punishes saving and investment, and encourages leverage and credit creation. Rates could very easily rise for a number of reasons, which would mean the debt would become much more expensive to service. Even arch-Keynesian Paul Krugman foresaw the potential for such a scenario.

More importantly, the last thing America needs is to lose even more productivity, even more resources and even more manpower to another pointless debt-accruing war, particularly one which will drive the Eurasian powers into deeper anti-Americanism.

America needs her money, her people and her resources to develop her domestic economy and create energy independence. To create wealth, to innovate, to compete.

We will see who is right.