Friday, August 12, 2011

Health Care Mandate Ruling

A US Court of Appeals ruled that the health care mandate specified in the Obamacare legislation was unconstitutional. This makes one appellate court which has ruled the legislation valid, one which has ruled it [partially] invalid, and two which are still pending; all of which are a waste of time, of course, since eventually the Supreme Court will obviously need to consider and rule on it, making all the other deliberations and rulings a colossal waste of time, money, effort, and attention.

I could take issue with the procedure, I suppose, and complain about how absurd the process is which takes years to resolve anything, and serves no valid societal purpose aside from enriching lawyers (which has questionable social value). I could also of course address just how ridiculously overreaching the government's position is: that everyone indirectly affect inner-state commerce by their existence, and thus the government is entitled to dictate every part of their life. There's certainly plenty of low-hanging feces in both of those areas, but I'm not going to get into either of them in this post, per-se. Instead, I'm going to take issue with the courts themselves, and how the recent ruling, while more or less obvious, was not even unanimous, and how bad that is for America in general.

Sure, the government's position is an absurd abuse of power. You know what, though? I don't blame them too much. I mean, it's not like any of the corrupt power-hungry scum drafting or approving this legislation have any obligation, explicit or implicit, to honor or respect the Constitution (at least, as far as I can tell). Rather, like any power-hungry business-person, they are taking every advantage the system allows, and doing whatever they can do advance their own agenda/position. We don't expect them to be magnanimous or ethical; rather, we rely on the system and the laws thereof to keep their actions in check. For the politicians, this falls to the court system, which is supposed to be on the side of the people.

Here, I think, is where it's fair to be upset. In what scenario is it even plausible to have a judge, representing the interests of the people, decide that the government should be allowed to rule over and dictate every part of peoples' lives, by arbitrary extension of a clause in the Constitution designed to make sure states play nice in business transactions with each other? Moreover, having ruled such, how is that judge allowed to continue to be judging anything, much less reside outside the walls of a mental institution? Have we really progressed so far down the road to idiocy, as a society, that something like the Constitutionality of the purchase mandate of Obamacare can now be considered a reasonable question, rather than the utterly obvious extra-Constitutional abuse of power it clearly is?

I'd like to demand more from our judiciary. I'd like them to take a dim view toward small overreaches of legislative power, much less enormous egregious ones such as this. I'd like them to take a more proactive role in striking down such actions, rather than waiting years for test cases, and the entire appeals process to play out. I'd like them to uphold the limits established in the Constitution, rather than decide if the government is pushing out their boundaries of control "just enough", or "slightly too far". I want a court which is actually on the side of the people and the country, not a "yes man" for government abuses which only occasionally, and seemingly accidentally, acts in the peoples' interests. Is that too much to want?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Cyber-Defense Quandary

I work in the computer security industry (more or less). I recently had the occasion to attend the Black Hat and DEFCON conferences, both of which focus on computer security (more or less, with different perspectives). When I got back, I came across this article, which references one of the conferences and points out an ongoing problem in the US: there are not enough skilled computer security experts going to work for (and/or continuing to work for) the US government, specifically in the area of cyber-defense. This is a rather large problem, but presents a rather interesting quandary for the US government.

One of the side-themes of a few of the talks at DEFCON was that if you really wanted to hack things, you needed to be based outside the US, for a number of reasons. First, and probably the most obvious, is that the US has some of the harshest penalties for computer crimes in the world, and just the accusation of such can ruin your life. You don't have to look hard to find numerous "aggressive" actions against hackers by "law enforcement" (really, just government thugs), and/or civil lawsuits. Heck, you can barely write any code at all in the US without conceptually violating someone's patent on something, with how absolutely asinine our patent system is. It's a virtual minefield of legal problems, which can have very real and disastrous consequences for you if you get noticed (everyone's always guilty with the way the laws are, it's only a matter of if you do something significant enough to get one someone's radar).

Second, the US is the most technologically advanced country, so they have the most electronic surveillance. The CIA/NSA/others monitor all internet and phone traffic, the FBI can (and does) track people with GPS, warrants and court supervision are antiquated concepts, video surveillance is becoming ubiquitous, etc. If you find yourself on someone's radar, you will be hunted, tracked, monitored, and when someone feels the time is appropriate, scooped up and detained somewhere, where you may or may not be granted any rights, at the discretion of your particular captors. This is not science fiction, this happens right now: this is the country in which we live. The advice to would-be hackers (or anyone else not playing inside the guidelines the government has established) is to do everything you can to stay anonymous and off the radar; if you fail at either of these, your life is essentially over.

The problem, then, is that when the US needs the computer security expertise to defend itself from foreign attack, it finds that it has, to some extent, become a victim of its own success. Very few hackers want to operate in the US, at least openly. The ones that do, even when explicitly helping the government, can also find themselves ruined. The aggressive prosecution of hackers in the US has bifurcated the talent pool: some go into "white hat" security research, where they can make a good living applying their talents to solving problems in the corporate world, and some go "dark", inside or outside the country, working on their own projects and usually at least away from, if not against, the US government. This leaves very few skilled people to fill the gaps in national cyber-defense, leading to the current state.

I don't envy the challenge of the US government, and it is a serious one. However, I also don't harbor much, if any, sympathy for them. Like many other recent crises, they have manufactured this one themselves, and now find themselves somewhat uncomfortable with the inevitable results of their own plans and actions. As someone who nominally could do that job, I have a somewhat unique perspective; this doesn't help the situation much, though, other than to be more acutely aware of the many failures which have brought us to the current state. I would wish the US luck in their recruitment efforts, but it would be a false gesture: as I would not help the government trample on the rights of its people more than it already does, nor would I want anyone else to, especially people with actual skills. It's interesting to see the US at least acknowledging the problem, though, even if they are miles away from acknowledging the root issues, or finding any sort of solution.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

It would be funny, if...

File this story under the category of "it would be funny, if it wasn't the people making the laws where I live". Apparently, two Democrats in the California legislature are at odds about releasing financial information about office budgets and spending projections. The complaining assemblyman asserts that his budget was cut as a retaliatory measure for voting against the caucus on the budget bill. The speaker of the assembly counters that he has budgetary problems because he consistently over-spends, rather than the arbitrary adjustments which he doesn't deny making.

Wait, though; it's gets more ridiculous. The assemblyman who got his budget allocation slashed in retaliation for having the audacity to try to represent the people (instead of the political establishment), along with various media organizations, requested the budget information, under a free-information request. This was denied, by the rules branch controlled by the speaker, under the grounds that it was equivalent to notes or legislative memorabilia, which are exempted from the public record. Everything about budgeting is supposed to be public to prevent coercion, but I guess when the prime suspect is running the rules committee, there isn't much you can do within the legislature itself.

You gotta kinda laugh at the humor of the situation, though. According to people in the legislature, coercion and punishment through budget manipulation and other measures is a fairly common practice, and is just expected. In this instance, a Democrat voted against the pressure anyway, and was retaliated against for it. In response to his complaint, the Democrat speaker accuses him of out-of-control spending, which seems like it would be a given (they are Democrats, right?). Then we add a coverup with clearly bogus rule interpretations, a mockery of transparency and accountability, threat of lawsuits, and another Democrat proposing a bill to, if I could paraphrase, "force the speaker to follow the law" (because apparently that's not a given in California). And nobody really cares much, because this is politics as usual in California.

Normally I might add a quip here, but I'm really a kinda a loss. It seems sad that such a prosperous state, with such nice weather and resources, could become such a miserable place to live because of the festering shit-hole that is our state government. Aside from changing who gets to vote, though, I really don't know what anyone could do about it: the same contemptible scum keep getting sent back, and as long as that continues to happen, "politics as usual" will continue to run the state into the ground.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Debt Ceiling Capituation: Politics as Usual

So apparently, over the weekend, the leaders of both major political parties finally reached a "compromise" to raise the debt ceiling. To call it a compromise is disingenuous, though; essentially, both parties caved to the administration demand for a blank check through 2012, then added enough smoke and mirrors and other bullshit to try to deflect criticism that it's just another blank check. Honestly, I'm more upset about the clearly bogus rhetoric about having a serious discussion or fixing any of the real problems than the fact that our government ended up doing neither: if you were going to capitulate and write the check in the end, why create all the drama and uncertainly leading up to it?

Let's look at some of the facts for the "compromise", just to be clear:
- $2.4 trillion increase in the debt ceiling limit
- No spending cuts of any significance during this term of Congress; all spending cuts are non-binding to next term of Congress and easily reversible then, so no effective spending cuts
- No reforms to entitlement programs
- Vote on BBA required, but nothing tied to outcome, so a complete waste of time
- No new/higher taxes immediately, but door is open later (especially with debt commission recommendations)
- We spend more money on another debt commission, to tell the government what they obviously need to do (ie: cut spending, reform entitlements), so they can ignore it again

So, basically, this "compromise" is exactly what Obama wanted (sans class-warfare tax hikes, which can always happen later), and nothing that anyone in the Tea Party wanted (eg: actual spending reductions or entitlement reform). The politicians all get to claim victory, nobody's happy about it, and everybody loses, especially the American people. So, politics as usual.