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Wikileaks: Where the Hole is Big Enough to Drive a Truck Through

30 Nov

When I first heard about Wikileaks, I felt that possibly they were providing a much needed ‘heads up’ to the public on important International concerns such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.   When I heard about the recent cable releases, I thought they caught the United States in some particularly heinous territory with their International Policy — something that represented a serious shift from the norms of behavior that the country’s citizens would expect from the people who represent them abroad.

Instead, it’s just a leak of cables.   Stories of Omar Khadaffi oogling voluptuous Ukranian blonds.   CSIS members complaining about lawyers.   Frank opinions about Russian dignitaries.    All great stuff to sell newspapers and boost the ego of the ‘leakers’ but nothing representing an international emergency.    Given this lack of urgency, it is my opinion that Wikileaks did the wrong thing when they leaked this information.     There is no ethical standard that I can apply that justifies their actions here.    Let’s go over some of the tests.

Let’s start with Emmanuel Kant’s ‘categorial imperative,’ act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.   I do not accept left-wing minds ought to be allowed to leak private documents to undermine aggressive international policy because I know that right-wing minds would more than enjoy the opportunity to leak medical documents and doctor reports to undermine expensive public health care.

Now, I do not accept Kant wholeheartedly.   I do believe we should make room for exceptions in cases where the action provides a benefit, or prevents a negative that greatly outweighs the negatives that come from the action.     A deontological (Kantian) mind must have a utilitarian conscience.   So, taking the Trolley problem example, I do think there is some justification for pulling the switch that kills one person when it means saving the lives of thousands.    With some clear (and very important) caveats:

  • there is clear evidence of public benefit
  • there is no apparent self-interest in pulling the switch
  • the one person is not known to be vulnerable within the society (see Rawls)

Clearly, I do not see a clear public benefit to the leaks.    I do, however, see plenty of self-interest as media outlet after media outlet uses the juiciest elements of the cables to sell their papers.    The damage that this leak causes, however, will never be quantified.    Government Services will be regulated and secured to the point that they are no longer services in any sense of the word.   Foreign Affairs agents will always be thinking about their (needed) frank opinions in the context of these leaks.   In the best case scenario, this means embarrassment for public officials.   In the worst case scenario, this means a disconnect between diplomacy and policy – which is a euphemistic way of saying “stupid Wars caused by miscommunication.”

The final test is one of my favorites, put out by John Rawls — the ‘original position’ test.   This test would offer that people should act as if they came into society with no understanding of its norms or structure.    The person in this position would want the society that protected its most vulnerable members (because, given no prior understanding of status, someone would want to ensure that they had a decent lifestyle no matter their status).      The so-called transparent society that so many internet lovers desire is not to the advantage of the most disadvantaged.    For one, the most disadvantaged likely have no clue whatsoever that this whole Wikileaks thing ever happened.    All they’ll know is that some authority figure in their country will put two and two together (correctly or incorrectly) and accuse them (correctly or incorrectly) of treason based on pieces of evidence found in these documents.

In short, there is no real ethical justification in my mind for leaking these documents to the public, only a half-baked and obnoxious internet ideology.    It was a wrong-minded action and it should be punished in my view.   Fortunately for the people involved — people who are by no means the vulnerable people John Rawls wanted us to consider — they will be punished in a country that believes in ethical treatment of their citizens and fair trials.

For shame.

Bureaucrat 101 – or how to be a good libertarian

31 Aug

Dan Leger’s article  Liquor Store Lunacy: Time to privatize NSLC and the subsequent arm-chair economists complaining about government monopolies has me screaming for someone — anyone — to provide the public with a basic tutorial on public finance and policy.   I suppose it is a great thing that people who find themselves going through a business degree, learning the very basics of theoretical microeconomics (you know,  supply and demand, ‘invisible hand,’ OMG don’t mess with the markets.  EVAR! theory) can take their learnings and become blowhard political pundits because of it.    Such is democracy.    But, it’d be nice to hear from some of the people who actually learned the very basics of public policy, the role of government in the economy, and that, despite what business gurus will tell you, everything is not about efficiency.

It just turns out that I took a degree in Public Administration, so am in a position to comment in general about public bureaucracy and the economy and when (and not when) it might be a good time for the government to get involved in the market.

For the record, I am in favor of the deregulation of beer and wine (not the privatisation that Leger calls for, which would just transfer the assets belonging to the NSLC to some private organization).   I think the ability to sell beer and wine would give a little bit of stability to smaller retailers who could then complement their beer and wine with local goods and compete more effectively against the big box stores, providing more consumer choice and lower prices.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that I’m a hard-line ‘NSLC should stay a crown corporation’ pundit.    What lines of argument might someone use to support government control of a market?    There are four major ones:

Natural Monopolies

Some products, usually because they require a large amount of capital to produce, result in monopolies when left to free markets.    A good example for this is electrical power.   Usually the first company to open up a power grid in an area wins, and has a great deal of power to keep others out of the business.   Generally, governments respond to Natural Monopolies in one of two ways – 1) taking ownership through a crown corporation (as was once the case a long time ago) or 2) regulation (which is the current case).   Natural Monopoly does not apply to liquor, though.    Liquor is a basic retail product.   Check one for the liberatarians.

Market Failures

Products that can turn a profit usually have at least two traits.

First, they are rival goods meaning that one person consuming the good prevents another from also consuming it.   A hotdog is rivalrous because if I eat my hotdog, it means you cannot.     This (non-DRM’d) blog post, because it sits on a server, is non-rivalrous.  You can read it, and so can everyone else.

Second, they are excludable, meaning that it is possible to prevent people who haven’t paid for a good from getting it.    The hot dog is excludable, because it will sit on the Dawgfather’s barbeque until you give him the money (although rumor has it that he’ll let you pay him back later, no questions asked).   Marine cod (in the water, not at the store) is non-excludable because you basically need an army to keep people from fishing the ocean.

Goods that are either non-excludable or non-rivalrous result in something economists call market failures.   Because the market will not provide these on its own, some level of government involvement is necessary.   For instance, copyright law is a way to get around the non-rivalrous aspect of an MP3 file.     Selling fishing licenses is a way around the non-exclusivity of marine fish.   In cases of both non-rivalrous and non-excludability (eg. National Defense), you usually have the government offering the service itself.    Liquor is not a market failure.    Score another for the libertarians.

Externalities

Related to market failures is the idea of externalities.    Externalities occur when an individual’s market behavior has an impact on others, distorting the market and creating inefficiency.   The best example is pollution.   Governments will tend to get involved in high-polluting industries because they can make everyone else miserable when making a profit for themselves.    Sometimes the action is regulation, other times it’s taxation.  Ronald Coase has a neat response to externalities as well – the argument is that if you assign property rights (through law), the market will adjust to the most efficient outcome.    So, if the government decides that I own the lake I’m polluting, people effected by my pollution will pay me to reduce the level of pollution in the lake (and because I’ll make a profit, I’ll oblige).    This is called Coase Theorem (not to be confused with another Coasean theory about the nature of the firm, oft cited by Clay Shirky).

It should be noted that externalities can happen in a positive way too.    For instance, me writing blog posts provides the internet with much entertainment that I am not getting paid for, creating an externality and economic inefficiency.    Coase theorem, therefore, would be one argument favoring the use of DRM to protect copyright.

The consumption of liquor does create an externality because public drunkeness, drunk driving, alcoholism, and poor judgement by intoxicated people can have a negative impact on the happiness of others.     So, because liquor has this negative impact, it is fair for the government to assign property rights on drinking to a Crown Corporation, forcing business that want in on the business to pay for expensive licenses, high taxes and jump through complicated hoops to profit from liquor.     This one is debatable, however, because government could also assign property rights to a private agency just as well.   Let’s say score a 3/4 point for the Crown Corp side.

Social Policy

The strongest argument in favor of giving the rights to sell liquor to a private agency is social policy.    In short, the goal of non-privatised liquor has nothing to do with economic efficiency, but instead addresses community concerns instead.     The list for this is long, possibly exhaustive:

  • to prevent the intoxication of minors, including the enforcement of age limits
  • to reduce alcoholism
  • to control the use of alcohol in the workplace (and prevent Health and Safety incidents)
  • to reduce the possibility of promoting alcohol to minors
  • to provide some level of public accountability for how the intoxicating effects of alcohol could be used to create profits (eg. the combination of alcohol and gambling comes to mind)

The argument here is not that governments prevent alcoholism, but instead that if alcoholism becomes a serious social issue, governments would have an incentive (and responsibility) to do something about it.   In private hands, the public has less control over the degree of product that gets out to market and except for a little bit of brand damage (which would mean literally nothing to someone who is addicted to alcohol) no real clout to force said private agency or agencies to change their behavior.

The NSLC puts considerable money into campaigns against drunk driving.     They are frank and to the point.    In private hands, I would argue, such campaigns would be non-existant – and if they were somehow mandated, they would be purposely done to satisfice, rather than address the real public concern.    We cannot forget that liquor is a drug – possibly the drug that is most responsible for death in Canada, not to mention being responsible for a wide range of other problems we have in our communities.

In short, the community has a strong vested interested in who gets to sell alcohol and who does not and despite silly marketing ploys,  there are very good reasons not to privatise the NSLC.   That’s about 10 points in favor of NSLC as a Crown Corporation, I would say.

Back to Reality

Despite, my rant pro-NSLC, I still favor some de-regulation of alcohol in Nova Scotia.    I think the benefits that having beer and wine in small stores outweigh some of the social negatives I outlined.

My bigger beef is that libertarian ideology overrides common sense, when it should be the other way around.   I can favor reduced government involvement in a lot of places for sure, but to suggest that there is never a good reason for a government to get involved, or to have a monopoly on a service (in reality, any government service *should* be a monopoly because ideally goverments should offer things that cannot already be provided by the market) is just plain false.    There are a few cases where governments ought to be involved in markets, and the smart libertarian ought to discount these cases before calling for privatisation.     Bureaucrats are not as stupid and lazy as your average Joe wants to make them out to be.     It’s just that they do not have a whole lot of opportunity to bring the logic behind their decisions into the public forum.   Maybe they should have more power to debate policy issues to the community.    I am not sure how to make that possible, but it seems to be a fair comment in a society that expects increased accountability from the public sector.

Neither Libraries Nor Information is Free

12 Jan

Oh The Future of the Library is still in question.   This time it’s Seth Godin weighing in.   I actually agree with most of what he has to say.   I think alot of what he thinks is shaped by an aged or narrow sample of libraries.   I find it kind of like saying ‘It’s over for Restaurants’ after getting poor service from an old-style greasy spoon that’s been around for 50 years.   It’s the future of ‘restaurant’.   Not ‘restaurants’.

Librarians have weighed in as well.   One of them is Sarah Glassmeyer.    I have to say I am disappointed in her response.    When it is fairly obvious that Seth is talking about Public Libraries, her response is to refute by reminding that we also have academic, legal and special libraries.   That’s pretty weak.   The latter libraries serve a specific purpose and are available for a specific audience.   I would not expect Seth to have a beef with Academic libraries, unless he had a beef with academics in general (which might be the case, but it’s kind of a different story).    Public Libraries have to stand on their own two feet, thank you.     We need to comfortably explain what we do in very specific terms.   We have to envision a future of service that meshes with reality.

For instance, Seth speak in particular about offering DVDs for rental and how this is a fairly uninspiring use for public libraries.    It’s a bit of a sham argument, actually because it offers flawed anecdotal evidence.   DVDs may circulate more often than other items, true, but they also have shorter borrowing times (they used to have 1/7 the allowed borrowing time at MPOW;  we just changed that to 1/3.) and tend to have larger fines when they are late.    In short, by nature every DVD we circulate will have the opportunity to be borrowed 7 times before a book gets returned.   Not to mention that DVDs tend to be on hold, so they are un-renewable, and so-on.

DVDs also act as a catalyst for other library uses.   It’s plain good old fashion solid business practice, like offering a coupon for Prime Rib Roast knowing that people will also pay full price for the horseradish, potatoes and string beans to go with it.   And, well, some of those DVDs are the popular renditions of Pride and Prejudice, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and encourage reading (re-reading, even) just as well.

But enough about DVDs – we need to talk about the future of libraries.

Part of the problem is that a public library is not specifically about individuals, but a learning community.   Take, for example, the idea that we could just buy everyone a Kindle and be done with libraries.   At this time, the Kindle offers a selection of about 336,000 books.   As an individual, that is a huge collection of books to choose from, and almost certainly bound to improve my learning.   On a community level, 336,000 books is dismal.   We do not want or need a community that reads the same 336,000 books, and probably the same 336,000 books that will be yammered on about in the usual channels.    Maybe Amazon will fulfill this important community knowledge diversification need in the future, but I would suggest that they have no incentive to do so.   On some scale, for a good 25 years at least IMHO, communities will need to share their resources in an organized way for the interest of the community.   Some libraries will fulfill this need very well.   Others will not.   The former will succeed and flourish; the latter will die a slow and painful death (until another model emerges from the ashes).

(Notice that I haven’t brought up the many other issues with things Kindle-ish, like Jessamyn West has previously.)

In other words, this one idea about libraries (which covers about 50% of library work, I would say), while admittedly declining, still has a fairly good shelf-life on it.   I would also remind that no librarian in the 21st century is advocating for a faster horse here.   Public libraries are dropping those reference books like they were no tomorrow.   They’re also getting rid of those old books that no one is borrowing too.   Public Libraries are no archives.    We don’t keep artifacts on any large scale (although it’s a bit of a political thing to admit that we do actually throw books away when they’ve had their time.)

I haven’t brought up the plethora of other things that libraries can, have and continue to do.   For one (shameless self promotion) MPOW is hosting Podcamp Halifax, which (i think) strives to do precisely what Seth suggests is the right thing:  Train People to Take Intellectual Initiative.    Except it’s not really training.   It’s better.  It’s providing space, moments-in-time and opportunities for people to gather and train themselves.   Actually, training is not even the right word.    When a space is designed right, the learning is self-organized.   Learning is a natural human behavior, provided that barriers don’t get in the way.   Oh hell – Angela Mombourquette explains it all much better than I do.   In short, we need more unconferences in communities and public libraries are one avenue to help make sure these happen.

And you know what?   I’ve been talking about this for years.    My very first post (July 2006) is an interesting look at how to help people take intellectual initiative.    Not too long after that, I was talking about Open Space and The Law of Two Feet.   The way I see the future of public libraries then and now is still the same and Seth pretty much hits the nail on the [side of the] head.   It’s not about training.   The public, as a rule, doesn’t want training per se.   They would go to school for that stuff.   What they want are places to learn.    Places that have, among other things, DVDs to borrow.   (It’s always nice to bring a little bit of library home with you. )  Places with a little bit of friendly nudging to keep you motivated about learning.   Sometimes with a bit of facilitation.   Sometimes with a bit of structure.   Other times but just leaving them the heck alone to read in a nice quiet spot.   No one is filling this niche right now on any grand scale.    It’s a market failure.    That’s why we need public funds to fill it.   For now and into the future.

Finally, this article needs a shout out because Erin Downey speaks my mind about information and learning as well.

How You Look Is Part of the Story

30 Jun

Inspired by Joel Kelly’s first experiment with Videoblogging, I grabbed a flip and made my first attempt at video blogging.     In the aftermath, Joel noticed that people wanted to talk about his vacation beard more than what he was actually saying.

On the whole, the advantage to video is that you have appearance and sound to add to your blogging palette.   We shouldn’t be surprised that people comment on such things, even if it seems inane at times.

Michael Jackson and 5 Other Things I Do Not Care About

26 Jun

I love the man’s music. I have deepest sympathies for the family, especially his kids. But that’s where it ends for me. Michael Jackson’s death is a personal matter for those close to him. I really wish the media and all his so-called ‘fans’ would butt out — like one of the characters in Gates of Heaven (one of my favorite movies) says, “Death is for the Living.”

People appear to want to draw attention to so many things that I believe should be low on the totem pole of attention.   We have such short lives, why is it that we want to spend large quantities of it worrying about what Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears are wearing (or not wearing)?   It all makes me want to be more concious about what matters and in turn, to be concious about what does not matter.   Here is my list of things I am conciously deciding not to worry about.

Domestic Poverty

Domestic poverty is off my list for two reasons:   1)  I’d rather focus my attention on World Poverty and 2) Domestic Poverty is really a symptom of other equity issues such as support for mental health, access to child care, and equity, especially for those with disabilities.   In my view, Canada is a country with tonnes of opportunity, and sufficient infrastructure to ensure that a population will not starve.   This does not mean I will not donate to organizations like Feed Nova Scotia, but it does mean that my ears will shut off if you are trying to lobby on a platform of poverty.

Preserving Heritage

The key to this statement is preserving heritage.   I think heritage is important, but because it represents a living, breathing entity – not because it is old and needs to be protected.    What I value about my elders is not that they old, but that they have a story to tell.   Some things are historically valuable and need to be preserved, sure – but certainly not everything, and absolutely not everything at the expense of a living, breathing city environment.   Librarians know all too well that an old rusty copy of War and Peace will do nothing to protect the value of Leo Tolstoy’s work.    A new, fresh, exciting-looking copy will have people reading and re-reading the book —  that’s the way you protect heritage, by helping people re-live the past.    That means you weed the old and replace it with new.

Privacy

Don’t get me wrong.  I would never spy or harrass others or want to be spied or harrassed.   Nor would I ever breach a confidentiality policy of any employer I may work for past, present or future.   But, I feel that the wholesale protection of privacy is costing us immensely in terms of service, and therefore I am just not going to pay much attention to this issue.   The lack of progress in a wide range of services in the name of privacy is astounding, and I’m sure that an audit of government would show a huge amount of time and money wasted to prevent that one case where someone discovers prematurely that their wife or husband wants a divorce, or that their young daughter or son is using birth control.   So much of this information is already available on the web if someone wants to look for it anyway – I do not think we can pretend we have private lives for much longer.

Funding for Elite Sports

OMG!   Another country might have more medals than us at the olympics!  How will the next Sydney Crosby thrive if we do not put ourselves into massive debt to provide special facilities for sports?   “Who cares?” is what I say.

What I see in a good amount of even semi-elite sports is not pretty.   The level of single-minded “win at all costs and blame the ref when you don’t” attitude in many sports is astounding.   The things that mattered to the originators of the Olympic Games concept have been pushed aside.   Remember words and phrases like “sportsmanship?” “sound mind, sound body?” and how sports was tied to education?   That seems all out the window in favor of money-making.   I don’t believe in sports anymore.  It used to be an opportunity to think about myself as a better person, now it is a crass illusion that parallels rather than promotes “success.”    There are exceptions, where sports figures are respected for both mind and body (Steve Nash comes to mind), but that’s the exception and not the rule in my view.

“We Need More Funding For. . .”

Just the general premise that we will only solve problem x if our governments make problem x a priority and provide it with funds is just not going to resonate strongly for me.   I believe in some of the work that John McKnight has done around asset-based community development, and agree with the general position that professionals invent problems and issues inside communities that they can solve and then use the community’s funds to solve those problems when the community had the ability to cope with those issues all along.

Here is a librarian example.  A librarian does a study on university students searching only to discover what is the most obvious thing:  university students are not the same as librarians!   That is, students do not automatically use boolean operators or advanced searches to find materials for their research.   Said librarian then uses this information to justify training sessions (ie. hire more librarians) so university students can become more like librarians.   The thing the librarian does not ponder is whether university students need to behave like librarians to be successful at their research; nor does he/she consider the impact of increase education costs (caused in part through funds spent on librarians) on that student’s capacity to learn how to research more effectively.

In short, I really dislike any movement  that blindly asks governments to give organizations more money.   I do not think professionals do it on purpose, but it is a really bad habit that I see over and over again.      Communities need resourcefulness from their not-for-profits, not funding.    And most importantly, communities need not-for-profits that shine the light on what communities already do well, so they can encourage these behaviors.

Well, that’s my list of things I am going to conciously not spend anymore attention on.     What is your list of non-issues in your view?    Am I unfairly representing any of these issues?

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