Does an “open internet” promote a representative democracy? No, because democracy is not its job

Techopedia defines the open internet as “a fundamental network (net) neutrality concept in which information across the World Wide Web (WWW) is equally free and available without variables that depend on the financial motives of Internet Service Providers (ISP).”

The political debate over net neutrality over the last three years has focused on the ability of ISPs such as Comcast and AT&T to discriminate against third-party content provider traffic in favor of ISP content, to the extent that ISPs are expected to use their gateway status to slow down traffic from certain websites or outright block subscriber access to certain websites.

The internet as a platform plays an important role in American commerce as American consumers are expected to spend an estimated $7.8 billion on Cyber Monday. Net neutrality violations could mean lost advertisement revenues for content providers who are unable to get their products and advertisements in front of consumer eyeballs.  Being cut out of $7.8 billion of revenues during the holiday season could pose an existential threat for small businesses depending on those holiday sales to break even or stay in the black.

Besides the issue of staying in the black is the issue of whether an open internet promotes the components of American political culture; whether an open internet or lack thereof poses an existential threat to the American republic.  I think as currently construed, an open internet does not pose an existential threat to the American republic. On the contrary, when it comes to navigating the political-economic environment of the United States, knowledge on how well American representative democracy is working is best ascertained by reviewing hard political-economic data published by public agencies or academic or other research institutions.

The open internet has inundated the political economy with junk. It has Americans sacrificing value of specialized information for volumes of narcissistic junk.

First, why has the internet not eroded the American republic?  Contrary to the hoopla surrounding assertions that the Russian government sponsored psychological warfare on the American electorate during the November 2016 elections, the populace participated in the selection of the electors that voted for the president of the United States. More votes were cast for president in 2016 (135,719,984) than were cast in 2012 (128,768,094).

In addition, what I refer to as “insurgent” parties, i.e., the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, etc., did better in 2016 than they did in 2012.  The Gary Johnson-led Libertarian Party ticket picked up approximately 4.5 million votes in 2016 compared to 1.3 million votes in 2012.  The Jill Stein-led Green Party almost tripled its 2012 showing during the 2016 campaign, with approximately 1.5 million votes cast for the Green Party in 2016 versus approximately 470,000 votes in 2012.

Rather than eroding representative democracy, an argument could be made that the internet provided less expensive outlets for insurgent parties to get their messages out to the voting public.  I saw more of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein on YouTube than I did mainstream press.

America’s founding aristocracy chose a republic as the best vehicle for promoting the three major components of American political culture: liberty, equality, and democracy.  Does the open internet help promote these characteristics of American political culture? I would argue only if the government expressly decides to use the open internet itself in order to accomplish these goals or requires by charter that every private entity operating on the internet do so.

Liberty is freedom from government control where Americans expect a great degree of economic and personal freedom without the government unreasonably regulating personal and commercial behavior.  The open internet itself does not have this responsibility. In the end it is just a communications platform.  Problems would arise if government were to use the internet for surveillance purposes, i.e., use deep packet reading to ascertain what messages you are sending over the internet or, under the guise of “smart city” technology, surveil minority neighborhoods to regulate citizen movement.

Nor does the internet have the responsibility of creating political equality. Political equality refers to the right to participate in politics equally based on the principle of “one person, one vote.”  Notwithstanding the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 general elections, the “one person, one vote” characteristic of American political culture is, again, the responsibility of national and state governments.  Online voting as a concept is in its infant stage.  And while the Russians allegedly interfered by waging a messaging campaign via social media, there were other outlets, both online and offline, where Americans could get their information and strengthen their “one vote” with knowledge.

Lastly, there is democracy itself, the right to cast that one vote for the candidate of your choice.  How does the unimpeded flow of information across 100,000 interconnected global computer networks impact your ability to choose a leader? The above discussion summarizes the answer: it doesn’t.  Yes, one could go to the internet and look up information on a candidate, but there are millions of Americans with no access to broadband that function normally in society; that buy groceries, go to work, and yes, vote, without having to access the information floating around the internet that is deposited by various sources.  Besides traditional media, they probably access information from the original sources i.e. city council meetings; public access television, government agency public information offices, and make just as accurate a political decision as the woman surfing the internet in her bunny sandals and pajamas.

Yes, the internet has afforded millions of people to express themselves in cyberspace via blogs, websites, podcasts, and online videos, but the open internet neither promotes or hinders democracy.  Only humans can and there are other sources of information through which humans can accumulate knowledge on liberty, equality, and democracy.  Democracy is the responsibility of government and its citizens.  The open internet is neither savior, devil, or panacea….

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The “economy” is doing better but I am seeing more homeless in Atlanta

I am seeing more homeless people in my West End Atlanta neighborhood. I have seen at least one sleeping in his vehicle. Others make use of the parks to sleep at night.  What I see on the ground does not coincide with the claims made in Washington of a booming economy.

WABE, citing data collected from the city of Atlanta, reported that the homeless population numbers around 3,000 people and is allegedly on a decline.  And last year, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that Atlanta ranks among America’s neediest cities based on 21 metrics including child poverty and the number of uninsured. Homelessness is the result of a number of factors including the lack of affordable housing, poverty, discrimination, and shifts in the economy. Can city policies adequately impact these factors?

Take the factor of affordable housing. Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has made affordable housing one of her top public policies, but it appears to me that such an approach falls out of line with one important goal of a city: to generate tax revenue necessary for providing the amenities that keep citizens interested in living in Atlanta.  Land owners want to see property values rise and see an increase in the revenues that their properties generate.

Also, as city leaders continue their efforts to make Atlanta a job center, they have to keep in mind that as part of the efficiencies offered by a city is the location of housing close to job centers.  Housing located close to job centers may also end up being some of the most costliest housing.

I ride into Buckhead every day from southwest Atlanta. I have blogged before about how the MARTA train feels more like those conveyor belts loaded with coal that go into a furnace to fuel a production facility.  In this case the human coal are the lower and middle income individuals heading into Buckhead to work a job that, ironically, may be on the chopping block in a few years due to artificial intelligence.  If these people can’t afford to live close to an employment center where they can walk to work, the pressures of living will really increase when they have to find alternative employment.

But even with current employment, there may not be enough affordable housing available because landlords will be under pressure to meet rising property taxes resulting from the increased values of their properties, at least in the short run. This rise in value and ensuing property taxes will result from increased demand for housing that Atlanta expects to face over the next ten years.

Let’s not forget the upward pressure expected on interest rates over the next two years.  Property owners will have to increase rents in order to cover higher mortgage rates.  For the city of Atlanta it means higher bond servicing costs as the city continues to raise money through bond issues for its development and operational needs.

Affordable housing, because of the above pressures, won’t increase in supply.  Only an economic downturn may bring about cheaper rentals but even that will be short lived because a downturn in the economy means a slowdown in hiring and the specter of non-affordability due to increased lost income.

Politics wise, it is time for elected officials, particularly Democrats, to eliminate the affordable housing mantra from their campaign slogans.  They won’t be able to achieve it at any meaningful scale.

 

Trump and the Federal Reserve: Governing with transparent purpose

Listening to the rhetoric of President Donald Trump over the past 19 months, if I were to summarize the role of government, it is to defend national borders, sustain an environment that creates jobs, and be impactful in driving up stock market values.  Mr. Trump has effectively drowned out the Republican congressional leadership to the point where I don’t care what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s views on what the government’s role is supposed to be.

Under my interpretation of public administration, the buck, when it comes to governing, begins and ends with who is in the White House.  It is the Executive who enforces the law and interprets the law every day given a particular problem.  An argument can be made that during the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, the views of Mr. Trump’s challengers will take on some importance as voters compare the record of Mr. Trump with the promises of his Democratic challenger, but Americans have a way to go before the Democrats settle down on a few contenders and beginning pushing their messages before the electorate.  All we have right now are the whispered names of Andrew Cuomo, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and, yes, Hillary Clinton.

I suspect that none of the above named Democrats will be serious contenders in the spring of 2020 anyway.  Listening to the roll call of potential presidential candidates is like believing that the baseball team leading their division eight weeks into the season will be in the World Series much less holding the trophy.

In my lifetime, Mr. Trump has been the most transparent of presidents when it comes to the factions that he promotes.  Mr. Trump has been consistent and clear with his America’s economy first message. He took Mr. Trudeau out to the woodshed during the renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement.  He kept his word on pulling the United States out of the Paris accords on climate change and the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.  He will not enforce the mandate that taxpayers are required to purchase health insurance, facing penalties if they don’t.  These initiatives are driven by a philosophy of American economic nationalism with the hopes of creating incentives for American businesses to repatriate jobs and cash to America’s shores.

He’s recently been transparent about the most important engine in the American economy: the Federal Reserve.  Mr. Trump disapproves of the Federal Reserve’s increase in the target for its federal funds rate, even though the Federal Reserve’s independence gives the central bank the okay to thumb their noses at the President.  The federal funds rate is the interest rate at which the Federal Reserve’s member banks may lend each other money overnight.  Changes in the fed funds rate seep into the overall economy in the form of mortgage rates, credit card rates, and interest rates on bonds.  Higher rates raise the costs of borrowing making it tougher for businesses to invest in growth including hiring more labor.

Higher rates mean that the economy’s “labor to tax conversion mechanism” becomes less efficient.  The labor to tax conversion mechanism is that layer of the economy where companies convert human resources into tax dollars by adding labor to payroll and collect and transmit income, payroll, and social security taxes to the Treasury.  Tax dollars are collected by the U.S. Treasury and either deposited for future spending on public programs or to service the debt.

But as I alluded to before, companies will feel constrained by interest hikes as they see revenues and profits reduced by higher costs for doing business. This may mean, depending on the business, a move toward automation in order to reduce labor costs.  Taking labor off of payroll means removing a head that could be taxed.  Will government have to apply some type of alternative tax applicable to an artificial intelligence that replaces a human intelligence on a factory line?

Going back to transparency, neither Mr. Trump or any leading Democrats have clearly demonstrated an ability to describe to the American public how their current economic environment works.  Neither begin any of their discussions on the economy with a discussion on capital or describe how the central bank is still the only game in town and the relationship to and importance of the central bank to all Americans. Mr. Trump has come the closest which means at this time he is the only elected official that gets it.

 

Does Facebook’s business model disrupt the political information markets?

Facebook is engaging in a war against misinformation and divisiveness in the United States as perpetrated via social media, according to published reports by Bloomberg and The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Having done a 180 degree turn from its position last year that its platform was not used to cause a disruption of public opinion leading up to the 2016 presidential election, Facebook is using artificial intelligence tools to identify inauthentic posts and user behavior.  With teams comprised of data scientists, policy experts, and engineers, Facebook is blocking fake accounts and vetting news stories posted on its site.

Critics doubt that Facebook’s attempts to thwart future social media influence will outweigh its incentives to distribute fictional political stories that keep people glued to Facebook while providing advertisers with millions of pairs of eyeballs.  Facebook, according its 10-K annual report, garners almost of its revenues from advertising.  In 2017, advertising made up 98% of Facebook’s revenues.  According to Facebook’s 10-K, at the top of the list of factors that could adversely impact advertising revenues: decreases in user engagement, including a decline in the time spent using the company’s products.

Having used Facebook for eleven years, I witnessed the increase in the use of the platform as a tool for political engagement.  Facebook has expanded opportunities for voters to vet politicians and their policies.  I have seen a significant number of posts, including memes and video, that got the facts wrong; that showed no knowledge of process, politics, or economics.  Cynicism, fear, passion, inaccuracies, sincerity, patriotism, anarchy, and indifference all run rampant on Facebook.  But do I buy the argument that messages placed on Facebook by Russian agents spread so much misinformation that America became suddenly divided overnight? That “Russian interference led to a Trump victory?

No.  The divisiveness was already there.  Giving a couple hundred million Americans the ability to quickly share their thoughts, accurate or not, on the political news of day simply tore away the scab.

Further evidence of divisiveness in American politics: print, broadcast, and cable media.  American media is meeting the demand of a divided public, with Fox News occupying the Right and MSNBC and CNN serving the frenzied Left.

What Washington may truly be afraid of is that politicians have less control over the channels through which they are vetted.  On the one hand, Jeffrey Rosen, president of the Constitution Center, shared the following with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg:

“Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have accelerated public discourse to warp speed, creating virtual versions of the mob.  Inflammatory posts based on passion travel farther and than arguments based on reason.  We are living, in short, in a Madisonian nightmare.”

On the other hand, Americans may be taking to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in search of alternative opportunities to criticize the political packages and action plans that politicians offer in exchange for votes and increases in taxes.  The divisiveness may be stemming from an increased lack of enchantment with democracy itself.  After all, according to Professor Yuval Harari, democracies are “blips in history” depending on “unique technological conditions” and losing credibility as democracy faces more questions about its inability to provide for and maintain a middle class.

Democracy is hard up to explain why almost all the nine million jobs created post recovery from the 2007-2009 recession have been “gig work” paying little to no benefits.  Democracy has yet to come up with a solution to a wealth gap that the Left invests time in describing, laying blame at the feet of the rich yet coming up with no solutions for a society that prides itself on equal access to the ballot but still comes up short on adequate access to capital.

To the question whether Facebook’s business model has disrupted the political information markets, I would, for now, answer yes.  Facebook has contributed to bringing unreasonable, uninformed voices into the arena. I for one do not want to be lead or have policy fed by impassioned, unreasonable voices, no matter what part of the spectrum they fall on.  What the political class may have to look at for in the near term is that democracy may be less of a facilitator of a peaceful transfer of power between its factions as the mob continues to peel away the scab.

 

 

It will be up to people, not tech, to make government not relevant

Peter H. Diamandis penned an article recently that discusses whether technology, particularly artificial intelligence, will make government irrelevant. Failure to keep up with private sector digitization combined with declining trust on the part of its citizens, argues Dr. Diamandis, contributes to emerging technology knocking government off of its dominant perch.

While I see government remaining behind the private sector in the adoption of artificial intelligence, I don’t see the concept of government going away anytime soon.  If anything, at least in the short and intermediate run, emerging technologies are going to be used to augment what government does.

In addition, at the risk of sounding metaphysical, until humans can abandon corporeal form, they will always need access to physical infrastructure in order to get to work or entertainment venues or have goods transported between physical points.

Part of government’s role, the role that allows it to maintain its dominant perch, is its responsibility for maintaining and administering physical space.  Government in the United States, through its public works initiatives, leverages less than five percent of total national capital to carry out this role.

The American Public Works Association defines public works as the following:
“Public works is the combination of physical assets, management practices, policies, and personnel necessary for government to provide and sustain structures and services essential to the welfare and acceptable quality of life for its citizens.”

Public works is an increasingly information intensive endeavor and rather than allowing an emerging information economy disrupt government’s public management of physical jurisdiction, I see government using the information markets to strengthen its influence and control.

Some local and state governments are at the crossroads when it comes to extracting, organizing, and leveraging information and information technology in order to maintain their viability.  As Michael Ward wrote in 2015 during an assessment of the use of information technology by local and state government in Massachusetts, many of the Bay State’s agencies were not taking full advantage of data especially when it comes to determining how effective their local and state government programs are.

What Mr. Ward found were local and state agencies in general and public works agencies in particular using inadequate work order systems, relying instead on antiquated technology such as Post-it notes and e-mail.  He also found that in the era of big data, machine learning, and deep learning that not only were data entry skills lacking, but also lacking were the skills necessary for analyzing data.

But government, at least on the local and state level, doesn’t appear quite ready to abdicate its role in developing or deploying public infrastructure due to a failure to use data adequately.  One example is local government exploration of the use of geographic information system technology for public works projects.

National Geographic defines a geographic information system as a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface.  There is an efficiency resulting from this type of mapping tool as it allows various amounts of data, i.e., vegetation, buildings, roads, etc., to be shown on one map. Combining various types of data allows easier analysis of patterns and relationships.

ESRI, in a 2006 white paper, provided examples of best practices for local governments that choose to use this tool for data gathering and management.  Extracting and sharing data within public works agencies and with other local government agencies is one benefit.  According to ESRI, public works employees can tap into data collected by GIS in order to create maps,, design new projects, build infrastructure, and manage existing assets.

But if information technology such as GIS exist, why the concern that government may become irrelevant as a result of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, deep learning, and machine learning?  Is it just wishful thinking on the part of libertarian-leaning technologists?  Is it a belief that technology is deterministic of how political power is going to be balanced or exercised? Is it the perception that government is notoriously slow to respond to change?

The answers to the above questions may be “yes”, but I believe that the existence or relevance of institutions such as government lays in the hands of the humans that created them.  Government and politics are social relationships that may be enhanced by technology.  Technology does shape how social and political actors engage each other, whether from attending a town hall meeting in person in 1960 to listening in via telephone in 1984 to streaming it live and watching on a smart phone in 2018. It won’t change, however, the need for humans to form factions that compete against one another for the control and management of public resources.

Government will remain relevant. In what form is always the question.

 

 

 

Government’s role in regulating access to personal data

Yuval Noah Harari recent wrote an article for The Atlantic where he posed the question, “How do you regulate the ownership of data?” Professor Harari argues in the article that data is the most important asset today, moving ahead of land and machinery.  “Politics will be a struggle to control the data’s flow”, says Professor Harari.

Last spring saw the United States Congress’ struggle to at least map out a course through the turbulent waters of data privacy as members of the House of Representatives and Senate took the opportunity to grill Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his company’s handling of personal data obtained from the social media giant by a consultancy.

Part of this struggle may be due in part to the popularity of social media network platforms. Facebook has climbed from a digital bulletin board developed in the early 2000s in an Ivy League college dorm room to a global subscribership of over two billion people.  Former president Barack Obama’s Twitter following is in the millions while the current president, Donald Trump, is not shy or slow to taking to Twitter to either connect with and inform his base of supporters or attack the traditional media for what he perceives as unfair coverage of his administration.

Professor Harari notes that users of social media network platforms have not reached the point where they are ready to stop feeding the “attention merchants.”  Speaking on the difficulty subscribers may have in exchanging personal data for “free” services, Professor Harari points out that:

“But it, later on, ordinary people decide to block the flow of data, they are likely to have trouble doing so, especially as they may have come to rely on the network to help them make decisions, and even for their health and physical survival.”

Professor Harari offered up one solution, nationalization of data, to stem the abuses that corporations may impart on addicted social media and internet consumers, but admits that just because an asset is in the hands of government doesn’t mean things will necessarily go well.  Hence the question, how should the ownership of data be regulated?

The question will require public policymakers and politicians go through the exercise of defining “personal data.”  Would personal data be any characteristic about you? Would it be about any marker, no matter how temporary or permanent, that can be attached to you?  Must the “data” be something that the consumer actually produced?

Politically, attention merchants would want a narrow reading of the definition of personal data.  A narrower reading of personal data means being able to obtain more information pursuant to fewer restrictions. While this outcome would be ideal for corporate entities in the business of brokering data, I don’t see Republicans, even with their mantra of promoting business, enthusiastically endorsing less restrictive collection of personal data given the public’s concern for privacy.