Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Thoughts on Trump's Campaign, at the Present Time

So these ruminations are somewhat prompted by this current event, in which Trump is railing against the RNC establishment for having a rigged system which favors political insiders at the expense of anyone trying to mount a campaign as an outsider. As is typical, Trump is more or less accurate in his assessment, which was delivered with all the political nuance and subtlety of an elephant on PCP covered in feces.

But a actually want to examine another aspect of the Trump campaign story, which is the idea that if he does not receive the nomination, he may decide to continue to run as a third party candidate. In the aforementioned linked article, the Washington Post reiterates the perception that this would be devastating for the Republican party, as voters are split between an establishment candidate, and the offensive and dangerous egomaniac who is connecting with the population's distrust and dissatisfaction with the establishment.

Yes, such a run would likely split the vote, and also quite likely disastrously for the Republicans in the current presidential election. But I would submit that this outcome would not be terrible for the Republican party on the whole; in fact, it could be the best possible outcome, given the current circumstances.

Consider the current state of the race, with my subjective observations included:

  • Trump cannot win a general election, as the RNC candidate, against either potential Democrat candidate. He's reviled by too large a percentage of the voting population, even if he does not manage to alienate any more voters during the main campaign period (which would be very likely). At the end of the day, the independent voters will vote for someone who is a known evil over someone unfit for the office.
  • Cruz also cannot with the general election against either Democrat candidate. While his conservative "values" play well to his base, they play poorly to independent voters, who are (by a large) socially liberal, and don't want religion dictating government policy. The same regressive thinking that makes him popular in the RNC would kill his hopes of winning the general election.
  • A contested convention "dark horse" candidate would reek havok on the RNC establishment, causing everyone who rallied around Trump as the anti-establishment candidate to look elsewhere, possibly away from the RNC entirely. This is probably the worst long-term outcome for the RNC, and they know it, which makes it likely they pick Cruz in a contested convention anyway.
  • As a side-note, Paul Ryan obviously knows which way the wind is blowing... he's already written off the 2016 election, campaigning for the 2020 nomination.
So basically, there's no scenario in which the Republicans win the 2016 presidential contest, but several in which they emerge not only defeated, but fundamentally fractured. There's no way to "take" the nomination from Trump without generating a backlash, and Trump would do substantial damage to the party if he's the nominal leader in the general campaign. For the RNC leadership, it's a lose-lose scenario.

However, consider this: a possible saving grace might be if Trump mounts an independent campaign after losing a contested convention. This would have several benefits to all parties, even if it would be irrelevant to the outcome of the race itself.
  • Trump could continue to rally people against the establishment, and say offensive and insulting things in the furtherance of self-promotion, without sullying the RNC any further.
  • The RNC, through Cruz, could "get back to its roots" in campaign message to inspire the base, possibly enticing more votes for RNC candidates in other races.
  • It would give Cruz a nominal chance at the candidacy, such that in 2020 the RNC can disqualify him (which is essential to try to win then, because of his backwards societal views which will be even more absurd and offensive in four years), since he would have had a chance and lost.
  • Possibly most importantly, Trump can "save face", so to speak, by blaming his inevitable loss on the corrupt establishment, rather than his own personal failings. This is important not just to Trump, whose massive ego would allow nothing less, but also in trying to retain as many of Trump's supporters for the 2020 candidate, and whatever anti-establishment campaign message he/she can promote.
All in all, I'd speculate that a third-party run by Trump would actually be ideal for the RNC, given the present circumstances. Yes, it means a Democrat wins the presidency in 2016, but that was inevitable anyway, given the abysmal quality of the front-runner candidates (on both sides, but especially on the RNC side). It would cause the least long-term damage to the RNC, and allow them the opportunity to try to field someone less comically offensive to the rest of the voting populace next time around. They may not see it now, but that's actually probably their best chance to preserve the RNC, such as it is.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Props, but Caution on Wording

So John Brennan, the acting CIA director, made it clear in a recent interview that the CIA would not carry out torture again, even if order to do so by a future president. Presumably, this was somewhat in response to Trump's campaign assertion that he would bring back torture, and even more sever forms of such [violations of international treaties], if elected president. So even if Trump gets elected, the US will not torture people any more.

Well, that's the way it's supposed to be interpreted anyway... but as with many things in politics, a careful examination may reveal a different version of the truth than what the headlines are designed to lead you to believe.

First, let's note that Brennan, for whatever nobility may be in the stance, isn't taking this stance because he thinks torture is fundamentally wrong, and/or he wouldn't authorize it again in the abstract. His quote, specifically:
"I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I've heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure," Brennan said.
See what he really said there? To paraphrase, he said, "I know that if we keep torturing people, eventually the US will be dragged in front of some international court for gross violations of treaties and such, and the CIA will be made the scapegoat, as they were before. I think the survival of the CIA is more important than any specific intelligence goal or presidential mandate." This is somewhat comforting, in an "ends justifying the means" sort of way, but less so in a "institutional survival should not trump the interests of the country" sort of way. But not to worry, because...

The director of the CIA is appointed by the president anyway, so if Brennan is uncomfortable authorizing torturing people, the president could simply find someone else who is less so. The political sphere has no shortage of psychopaths, as with the business executive world, and Trump is now in the Venn Diagram overlap. Brennan is free to take his stand, knowing full well that it wouldn't impact presidential policy, and he can still come out looking like the good guy if Trump prevails.

Moreover, Trump wouldn't even necessarily have to advise Brennan on what he was ordering. Remember, the statement was that Brennan wouldn't "agree" to using torture, not that he wouldn't agree to look the other way. In a world of compartmentalized information by-design, it would be easy for the president to co-opt part of the CIA to do black ops work, and/or part of any number of other semi-acknowledged paramilitary government organizations. The fact that Brennan professes to refuse to publicly rubber-stamp such is much more about cover for the CIA than affecting government actions.

So, credit where due: Brennan refusing to actively participate in torture, even if that means defiance of presidential order, is unequivocally a good thing. Nominally, it's what our military is already supposed to do (ie: duty to disobey order which is illegal), but having failed to do so in the past, an affirmation of intent to do so in the future isn't bad. However, I wouldn't take a victory lap for regaining the moral high-ground or anything: we still have a presidential front-runner who wants to conduct even worse torture than the CIA did previously, and the objections of one person in the CIA isn't going to impede that much. Props to Brennan, although at best, it's still a somewhat hollow victory for humanity.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Not Wrong, but Not on the Right Page

So Obama was hanging out at SXSW, and has this to say, re the current smartphone encryption debate: http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2016-03-11/obama-confronts-a-skeptical-silicon-valley-at-south-by-southwest

To summarize the article, the salient point are in these quotes, imho:
"The question we now have to ask is, if technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system, where the encryption is so strong there’s no key, there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?" Obama said. "If in fact you can’t crack that at all, government can’t get in, then everybody’s walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket." 
Compromise is possible, he said, and the technology industry must help design it. 
"I suspect the answer is going to come down to, how do we create a system that, encryption is as strong as possible, the key is secure as possible, and it is accessible by the smallest number of people possible for the subset of issues that we agree is important," he said.
 Now, notwithstanding the canned government appeal to "think of the children" and "terrorism" (which, generally speaking, should probably invalidate any argument a priori, given the Constitutional abuse which usually accompanies these phrases, especially of late), he's not wrong in the abstract. The government should, with the right safeguards, potentially have methods to get at data which would be crucial to protecting the people. The problem, in this case, is where the abstract meets the reality, and the government craps on everything.

Fundamentally, it's really an issue of trust. In order to be comfortable with a system where the government can get people's private information, you need trust: trust in the system which protects your rights, trust in the government to not abuse its access, trust in the oversight to catch and dissuade abuses, etc. Without trust, you can't have compromise or solutions, because you know that giving an inch implicitly means giving a mile, and while you might be comfortable giving several feet, you don't want the government taking everything.

And that's where Obama is still on the wrong page entirely. The problem, such as it is, is not that the tech companies are unwilling to work with the government, and (to a reasonable, although depressingly not universal, level) the people are not willing to give up their rights as Obama would like. Those are the symptoms of the problem, which is that the government has profoundly (and repeatedly) worked to destroy any trust which might have existed in its ability to enforce (or even respect) any of the controls and limitations enumerated above. Without that trust, it's not only natural, but entirely proper that the people should be fighting back against the ever-growing encroachment of government surveillance, with every tool that they have. The abstract ideal, in this case, has been shit all over by the reality of the government's actions.

So how would you cut this Gordian knot? Well, first you would need to get on the right page; in this case, start by working to address the trust problem. Make no mistake: that will take years, in an optimal scenario. The government could start, for example, by pardoning Snowden unilaterally, bringing him home, and giving him an f-ing medal for sacrificing more to defend the Constitution than all of the government scumbags collectively put together. Then, start work on fixing the problems that Snowden brought to light, and working to rebuild the trust the government shouldn't have ever lost in the first place.

Step two: get some credibility into your protection process. Nobody believes that the government is able to regulate themselves, with secret kangaroo courts and secret "national security" letters. Involve trusted third parties to review warrant applications (eg: the ACLU), and while you're at it, re-familiarize yourself with actually getting warrants from real courts. And for f-sake, stop using "child pornography" and "national security" to justify every single unconstitutional BS rights violation you want to engage in. Here's a free clue: if you want the American people to mistrust you less, stop ignoring the laws and lying about it. Looking at you, Clapper et all.

Step three: get some accountability and penalties in place. Caught lying to Congress, Clapper? How about jail time. Lying to Congress, James Comey? Jail time... and we'll deal with the irony. Caught voting for or authorizing something which was clearly unconstitutional? Immediately removed from public office, loss of all benefits, and banned from serving on office ever again. You can't just expect everyone in government to follow the rules, if breaking them carries no consequences.

Anyway, that's my 2c on the matter, for whatever it's worth. I don't have much hope there will be any "clean" solution to the current fight, because while the government might have some valid points, until they get on the right page, they won't make much progress addressing the real problem... they will just continue to piss people off.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Smart Guns, Misrepresentations, Expectations, and Consequences

Several articles recently cite a recent web study from Johns Hopkins concluding that roughly 60% of Americans wanting to buy a gun would buy a smart gun if one was available.

No, wait, that's not actually a correct representation of the study. The actual study found that nearly 59% of people buying guns would consider purchasing a childproof gun if one was available. Note the subtle, but profound, intentional misrepresentation of the results of the study, by the article about the study itself (compare paragraph one, the summary, to paragraph eight, the actual findings). Also note the heavy dose of unrelated statistics and propaganda, intended to emphasize how vital it presumably is to propagate the use of "smart" guns in society.

But that's only the start of the problems around this topic. See, there's no particular definition of "childproof" either, which allows people to extrapolate their own impressions. One could suppose that the 60% who would consider purchasing a childproof firearm would extrapolate that to mean a weapon which was impossible for a child to use, but for which that additional feature did not impede an adult from using such in any way. Of course, the reality is much different, as gun proponents have correctly observed: adding complexity to anything adds more possibility of failure. One could suppose that of those 60%, less would be inclined to consider such if the childproof capability came with an implicit 10% failure to function for the rightful owner when needed stipulation.

Also, let's not forget that, even setting aside the problems with ignoring the consequences of adding additional electronic safeguards, consider is fundamentally different than buy. I, personally, would consider a lot of things which I would not ultimately purchase. I have, for example, considered GM automobile offerings, even though I have no intention whatsoever of purchasing a car with an always-on, non-removable, government surveillance and tracking system always built in. On the other hand, if someone asked if I would consider buying a car which could give me directions, I'd say sure... and in the same intentionally deceptive way, I might thus be included in a survey group of people who would want OnStar (*shutter*).

But even that is not the end of the issues with smart gun development and adoption. Even if all the issues could be worked out, and something made which was childproof and 100% functional for the intended owner(s), and imposed no additional overhead on use... there would still be a problem. You see, in their "infinite wisdom", several states have passed ordinances which require that as soon as any smart gun is available for purchase, all non smart guns cannot be sold. So as soon as the most onerous, non-functional, atrociously invasive smart gun is made available, all other guns are effectively banned from those states. Naturally, that has caused a huge push by gun rights advocates to prevent any smart guns from coming to market, and for very valid reasons. In essence, those states are creating a massive barrier to anything coming to market, through their idiotic policies.

Moreover, in today's era of ubiquitous government surveillance, is there anyone actually naive enough to think that smart guns will not spy on their owners for the government? I can think of many worse ways to construct so called "watch lists" of people who might be resistant to government control. Presumably smart guns can be turned off... which is great for the government, especially if it can be done remotely. After all, the Constitution gives people the right to bear arms, but not actually fire them without government approval, right? I guarantee it will only be a matter a time before that argument becomes a reality, in an era where the government has unfettered and secret access to all digital data and control systems. As much as that's a joyous thought to those intent on banning all firearms (ie: President Obama), it should give pause to anyone concerned about or aware of their Constitutional rights.

I can see a situation where smart guns would be better in/for the country. Heck, I've thought about how I'd make them if I were doing so, and I'd love for weapons to be childproof. But I can't really see a path between where we are today and there, primarily because of all the politicized misinformation, subversive agendas, and barriers put into place by people who want to ban guns altogether. As with many areas, this is one where you would need to fix the societal situation first, before the technical solution would become feasible.

... or we could just keep derping along with lots of people getting shot because the idiotic "ban the guns" people can't pull their collective heads out of their asses long enough to see how they are the largest part of the problem. I'd bet we'll actually do that, sadly.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Thoughts on the State of the Union [speech]

I was going to not write anything about the SOTU, political drivel as it primarily is, but as usual in reading the text a few things jumped out, and motivated a sort of response. I'm not going to cover every point, of course (most of which are vapid and well-trod by this point), but a few bear mentioning.

Obama on "progress" over his term:
It’s how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations.
... yeah, if by recovered you mean stringing the economy along in a strange sort of limbo, where the Fed keeps housing affordable and stocks mostly positive after printing roughly $3,000,000,000,000 of additional money to buy up all the junk bonds the government created during the housing bubble. The recovery which has brought us to the precipice of another crash, which you're desperately hoping to postpone until you're out of office. Oh, and you has to create another roughly 7 trillion in national debt so that people in the middle class still cannot afford housing. Great job there.
It’s how we reformed our health care system...
First, you didn't reform the healthcare system, you reformed the health care insurance system. Second, it wasn't so much reform, as create a gigantic new entitlement and tax the working middle class to pay for it. Third, it wasn't a beneficial reform, measured against all the promises of cost reductions and overall savings which have not materialized (and never will, of course). Forth, although Obamacare does do some good things (in my opinion), it has made the healthcare system worse on balance. But, to be fair, it is reform.
... and reinvented our energy sector
Huh? We're still dependent on foreign oil, last I checked. You didn't build any more nuclear plants, or substantially move the needle on clean energy. About the only thing energy-related which got reformed was using the EPA as a power-grabbing unconstitutional bludgeoning policy tool, but that's really only temporary, until SCOTUS gets around to slapping it down again. Elon Musk has done more for energy sector reform than you, and he doesn't run the entire country. No points for that item.
... we delivered more care and benefits to our troops and veterans...
I'm pretty sure Jon Stewart might have something non-flattering to say about that point; feel free to ask him the next time you do his show (whatever the next one may be) while in office. I don't think you want to be using that as a talking point, though, what with the abysmal VA situation and all.
... we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love.
 If by "we" you mean the SCOTUS, then you would be accurate... but you would still be a self-serving sycophant for taking credit for someone else's victory. But, in fairness, that is the one positive progress item you could point to in the whole list, and actually the one most likely to be associated positively with your term in office.

On the state of the economy:
... an unemployment rate cut in half.
... by conveniently forgetting to count all the people who have been out of work so long that their prospects of ever becoming employed again have decayed beyond the threshold of being considered "looking for employment." Which is a distinction that most politicians ignore, and I'd be willing to overlook, except for the last sentence follow-up:
And we’ve done all this while cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters.
Wait, WTF? Oh, right... there was a massive "stimulus" handout program in 2009, which raised the "normal" deficit of ~$450B to something much higher, as a one-time abnormal deficit. Obama has reduced the structural deficit to only ~$485B... oh, wait, that's not even a decrease, that's an increase!

But wait, it gets even more ludicrously disingenuously stupid. That's the structural deficit, or the deficit which is built into the budget, not including extra spending. Obama has increased the national debt by roughly ~$8000B while in office, or just over $1000B per year. And even that amount doesn't include the ~$3000B the fed printed to buy junk bonds to prop up the housing and stock markets. Obama has presided over the largest increase of national debt in history, and created massive new entitlements for which the full cost has not even yet been accounted for. The deficit statement is quite possibly the most asinine, insulting sentence ever uttered by Obama during his terms, and that's saying quite a lot.

On the economy, and education, and energy plans, and climate change, and foreign policy, and the "middle part":

Honestly, I don't have much to say about these topics. There are some reasonable ideas, some expected exaggerations, some agenda items, and a lot of boilerplate rhetoric. There really just isn't much "interesting" there.

On partisan divide and distrust on politics:

Finally, a point which is absolutely correct, even as Obama totally ignores his central role in fostering the very problem he's articulating. Everybody wants government to be better, politics to be less fractious, and the system to be less rigged (except the people gaming the system for their own benefit). Unfortunately, nobody knows how to get there from where we are, and Obama offers no clear path either.

Overall, I guess, it was a fine SOTU: long on flowery rhetoric and embellishments of accomplishments, short on actual plans to accomplish vague goals, and a few huge whoppers to cover up monumental failures while in office. It will be interesting to see what Obama will be remembered for, and how much that perception is altered by how negatively the next president is viewed.

Sometimes, Obama is Befuddling

So this morning, this happened: http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2016-01-12/obama-regrets-divided-u-s-before-final-state-of-the-union

Let me see if I have this right: Obama, the great Divider in Chief, said he regrets how divided and partisan politics has become. As Jon Stewart might have articulated [cue dramatic head turn to close-up camera], "Whaaah?"

This is the Obama who blamed Bush for overstepping presidential power to push agenda items, then used the same mechanism to do the same thing more than any previous president. Before that, this was the Obama who used the "Rahm it down their throats" strategy to pass his signature massive reform and entitlement program over the substantial and well-founded objections of every single legislative member of the other party, without anyone even reading the whole bill. This is the president who constantly blames his Republican predecessor for every problem he can, even when it's absurd to do so. The president who was all about working with Congress, until he had to actually work with them, then ignored (and continues to ignore) the Constitution to push his agenda. Yes, that president just said he regrets the strengthened partisan divide in the country.

Tone deaf? Monumentally ignorant? Just ignoring the facts, and saying whatever he thinks will resonate with potential voters the best? A sociopath who is totally incapable of conceptualizing his own culpability in the very problem he's lamenting? I honestly don't know any more... it's befuddling.

Upside: in a year, he'll be gone, and the country will have a chance to start repairing the damage he's done. Downside: the country is going to elect Hillary, who is all the bad things that Obama is, and an overt criminal. So there's still quite a bit of dark road ahead.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Problem with [a lack of] Trust (and Due Process)

One of the recent hot-topic issues in the news has been how to address gun violence in the United States. From cops shooting unarmed people, to the uncounted number of civilians murdered every year by "law enforcement", and with the extremely rare instances of mass shootings perpetrated by civilians getting hugely disproportionate media coverage, everybody seems overtly concerned with trying to do something to fix the problems. President Obama had an overtly emotional televised announcement that he was going to once again ignore the Constitutional limits of power imposed on his office to try to make it more difficult for people to acquire guns in the United States. Everybody is interested in reducing gun violence in the US... or are they?

You see, there's actually some contention on that last point. President Obama is certainly intent on reducing gun possession in the US... but only for civilians; he's actively funneling military ordnance and equipment to the domestic military organizations (aka "the police"), and is responsible for the ATF gun running operation which caused large numbers of assault rifles to be distributed to criminals in the US. With the Democrat party's frequent attacks on private gun ownership in the US from all potential angles, you could be excused for thinking Obama's action was more about restricting gun ownership rights than actually reducing gun violence. This is reinforced by the reality that none of the unilateral and unconstitutional actions would have actually helped with most of the situations being touted as the nominal excuses and justifications for said action.

What about his previous suggestion, though: to prevent people on the no-fly list from buying guns? Surely that's a relatively controversial-free suggestion... right? Well, it might be, but for one niggling issue: the no-fly list is kinda an unconstitutional power-grab in the first place, which totally ignores rights and due process. It's been accepted by the mainstream as a necessary "compromise" to fight terrorism, but some people (read: anyone who understands what rights are) are understandably somewhat reluctant to allow the government to expand its arbitrary, "we take your rights away when we want" program to more things beyond travel, warrantless search and seizure, and indefinite detention without habeas corpus. So while it sounds like a reasonable idea at first blush, the real problem is that the fundamentally unconstitutional nature of the underlying program makes it untenable for expansion into other areas without controversy, even though people otherwise might be in favor of it (ie: in concept, not allowing terrorists to buy guns seems like a perfectly reasonable idea).

Getting back to the gun violence issue, though, it's reasonably apparent that parties on all sides would like to find ways to reduce gun violence. The problem is not the desire... and I'll assert that the problem is also not the plans. There are plenty of reasonable plans which have been suggested, which would be fine in theory (eg: "don't let terrorists buy guns", and "don't let people ignore background checks by going to gun shows"). The real problem, it turns out, is the lack of trust: trust in the parties, trust in the motivations, and trust in the fundamental basis of the system.

Republicans don't trust that Obama is sincere in his desire to reduce gun violence, and not just ban guns, and for good reason: his party is constantly trying to ban guns, and their laws and regulations are constantly running afoul of the Constitution (Obama's executive actions being no exception). Obama can't use the no-fly list to preclude people from buying guns, because people don't trust that the TSA programs respect rights and due process (again, for good reason, since they absolutely and definitively do not). People shouldn't trust Obama's expansion of background check requirements and mental health qualification, because they are quite arbitrary, and could be used to backdoor blanket prohibitions on gun ownership (as denying carry permits were used by Democrats for such in California, to some success). It's not that there are not good plans there; it's that the people do not (and should not) trust the Democrats to not have ulterior motives in implementing them, and fear for their other rights being confiscated as a result.

The problem with lack of trust goes beyond gun control, of course. The government is currently struggling with damage control from the Snowden revelations, as they attempt to preserve the ability to conduct blanket unconstitutional surveillance on everyone, and the nominal appearance of some oversight and legality of their programs (the former being easy and automatic, but the latter becoming more challenging with every new revelation of gross misconduct and abuse). There's a justified lack of trust in police organizations across the country (primarily because they kill lots of people and cover it up, collectively). There's a lack of trust in government itself (because of the rampant corruption at all levels, but especially at the highest levels), and the system itself (because the people have effectively no say in government). Each of these deficits of trust, at all levels and seemingly with respect to most facets of the government, make it increasingly more difficult for the government to implement what would, in some cases, be reasonable ideas to make society better.

The crux of the issue, if you will, is that someone who is trusted to not be corrupt, not have ulterior motives, and be actually interested in solving the actual problems, be the one proposing the solutions. Unfortunately, that sort of person doesn't really exist in Washington DC in today's day and age, and the current situation is the result.