Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘government

Similarities between the world of software and the world of government

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An early impetus for my texts on choice was a number of software annoyances and how I noted quite a few disturbing parallels between the world of software and the world of government (likely with a number of analogies in other areas too).

The first that I wrote on the topic was list of key phrases to be elaborated upon, but then I ended up writing those other texts instead and the key phrases and a preliminary introduction spent some two months in an open editor with no further work.

The original idea remains interesting, however, and has an overlap with an idiotic annoyance from earlier today.* As a comprise, I will give a minimally expanded version of the original set of key phrases, with key phrase pre-colon, new explanation post-colon. (The originally intended treatment would have been more in-depth and would likely have included a number of additional items that never made it even to the key-phrase stage.)

*The government is being abusive and the software makers have implemented functionality to let it be abusive. (As I conclude from some Internet searches in the interim, there is deliberately no way to block “presidential alerts” using standard software, which is an inexcusable act of user hostility from the software makers. I should have full control over my own devices—not the government, Google, or some other user-/citizen-hostile entity.)

  1. Bigger is better: In the eyes of the software industry, bigger software is better than slim and efficient software; big government, in the eyes of governments, is better than small government. (In both cases, the opposite, by any reasonable standard, holds true.)
  2. Less control: Similarly, the opinions are that the less control the user/citizen has, the better.
  3. Decision detached from the users/citizens—a central pseudo-elite knows better: Self-explanatory and strongly over-lapping with the previous item.
  4. Control of data/money: Both the software industry (and especially various Internet services) and the government are very keen on controlling the users’/citizens’ data and, if they can, money. In many ways, users/citizens are nothing more than a source of data and money, with no rights and interests of their own.
  5. Too much focus on surface: Software (and websites, etc.) is developed too much to look good, be presentable, be marketing friendly, etc.; too little to actually work well. Government is the same.
  6. Low usability: Here I am a little uncertain what I intended. Software is, of course, plagued by poor usability, but the analogy with governments, apart from government software, is not entirely obvious. Chances are that I referred, metaphorically, to excessive bureaucracy, the often undue amount of work put onto the citizen, and similar. This point is very valid, but is not an ideal match for the original key phrase.
  7. Gets worse over time: both software and governments tends to grow worse over time. (Also see e.g. [1] and [2].)
  8. Forced use of certain shitty tools: both with software and with government (and, especially, government software) users are forced to use inferior tools. (Also see [1] and [2], again.)
  9. Laws on duties of users/citizens instead of business/government: Laws in a Rechtsstaat should be there to protect the citizens from (a) the government, (b) other citizens. In reality, they more often aim to disable the citizen in favor of the government. Terms and conditions, and similar documents, have the same flaw—they should regulate what duties a business has in return for the customer’s payment; instead, they remove such duties and detail duties that the paying customer has towards the business. (Also see e.g. parts of [3].)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 8, 2022 at 1:02 pm

The New Left as a distraction from the Old Left

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Lately, I have been contemplating the possibility that the New Left and all of its noise-making is just a distraction while the Old Left pushes its economic policies, increases of government, and whatnot.

Looking at my own history, I began my political awareness in the late 1980s, in the (still) Old Left Sweden, and the main problems of the day were government overreach into the economy, high taxes, extreme bureaucracy, obstacles for entrepreneurs, all-powerful unions, etc. I spent the 1990s with a great interest in topics like Economics, but drifted away from politics beginning in 1994 (college and very intense studies, that left little time for other activities) and temporarily lost contact in 1997 (when I moved to Germany).

My interest in politics began to reawaken in the mid or late 2000-decade—but now there were Feminists everywhere in Sweden and Germany, there was a massive general PC crowd, and e.g. the U.S.* had similar problems in areas like race. The Old Left had so often proved it self to be stupid and ignorant—the New Left was utterly insane, utterly disconnected from reality.

*Although this only affected my own writings and whatnot in the years to come. I was naturally focused more on Sweden and Germany.

All the while, governments were growing, regulation was growing, taxes and redistributions were growing, the destructive and fundamentally unfair* “welfare” states were unavoidable and growing, etc.—but the PC, SJW, woke, whatnot excesses were so massive that I focused almost only on them.

*They claim to want to take care of the weak. What they actually do, more often than not, is to reward laziness and stupidity, while punishing hard work and intelligence. (And they do so in a wasteful manner.)

Then came the COVID-countermeasure-era, and my attention was to some degree redirected to topics more related to the Old Left, to some degree distracted away from them again.

2022, however, has been a time of intense reading* for me, including a re-acquaintance with topics around the Old Left and matters of Economics. Looking at the world today, even the New Left aside, the developments since the late 1980s have been disastrous—a Swedish Leftist of that era might look at even the (current) U.S. with approval, and be positively giddy when looking at many European countries.

*The recurring reader will notice a shift in my writings too.

Whether the Old Left or the New Left, respectively their ideas and misguided policies, are the greater threat, I leave unstated, but it is clear that the Old Left is very much alive and has been treated too cavalierly by too many (including yours truly), and likely to a large part due to the hysteria and noise-making of the New Left.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 7, 2022 at 11:52 pm

Politicians and deliberate failures?

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I have quite a few private speculations that I am reluctant to put into words (or only do so after I see sufficient evidence), because they seem too far-fetched or in violation of Hanlon’s Razor or Eriksson’s Razor(s). I often take claims by others with several grains of salt for similar reasons.

Sometimes, this works in my favor; sometimes, it does not. A notable example is claims of deliberate lies and distortions in and by mainstream media, up to and including the German “Lügenpresse”. Here I have long taken the position that what we see is mostly explainable by e.g. incompetence, unconscious biases, or, at worst, misguided attempts to avoid xenophobia or whatnot,* with deliberate or malicious lies and distortions being a comparatively small phenomenon. In light of accumulated evidence (including e.g. the disparate reporting on crimes that I have discussed recently ([1], [2]) and the handling of COVID reporting), I have to cave—it is simply not plausible that such enormous distortions, even outright lies, are explainable without assuming a deliberate intention. (In my defense, I have the impression that the situation has grown worse over the years, and I need not have been wrong originally.)

*As with e.g. the common stubborn refusal to report that the perpetrator of a certain crime was an immigrant. This is unethical by the press, but on a different level from e.g. the deliberate vilification of Rittenhouse.

One of the major unwritten speculations, and the impetus for this text, is that what seems like incompetence in (mostly) politicians might sometimes be deliberate attempts to fail—that they might not just sabotage what they dislike, but actually sabotage their own “solutions”, in order to allow the enemy to survive, in order to not lose a scapegoat or a cause. Now, my opinions of politicians are not flattering, and I am willing to accept incompetence as the explanation for very much. However, politicians seem to get virtually everything wrong. Their work is comparable to a game of pin the tail: they get it wrong so often, that their few successes seem like sheer luck.

Look at all those noble or distracting causes that never end: Consider the COVID situation, the “war on poverty”, the “war on drugs”, the “war on terror”, the ever-changing reasons why pollution will destroy the Earth within ten years from an ever-changing now, how cries for more “equality” for us poor women (in e.g. Sweden) or us poor blacks (in e.g. the U.S.) are today as loud as or louder than they were in the past—no matter how much has already been achieved and even when, as with Swedish women, the scales have been tipped to give a decided advantage, instead of the claimed disadvantage.

A text from last year dealt with political failures through attacking the wrong target. What if this is largely deliberate? Or what if poor means are deliberately chosen? Take school: Decades of experience show that just throwing more money and more resource at school has very little positive effect. If a politician demands that more money be thrown at schools to solve this or that problem, is he truly ignorant of past failures, or does he bank on being able to (a) take credit for the next batch of money and (b) use the same argument of “We need more money for schools!!!” again, a few years down the line, because the last batch brought no improvement?*

*This is also a good example of why I try to hold back some ideas and not jump to conclusions. Here, e.g., a different, if still nefarious, explanation is often given: The politicians might be afraid to, or ideologically banned from, admitting a true cause, e.g. that “underprivileged” students often have more of an I.Q. problem than a money problem; and have to be shown as doing something in order to be re-elected. Throwing money on the problem might be the easiest way out (for the politician—not the students or the tax payers).

Similarly, Swedish politicians seem to have an odd obsession with time in school, be it hours per day, years of mandatory schooling, or proportion of the population who has a higher education.* The results are unsatisfactory? Throw on more time! (Quality? Who cares about quality? Time!!!) The problem is not solved; the renewed solution is more time; lather-rinse-repeat. That e.g. the politicians might ask too much of someone who simply does not have a head for or an interest in studies, that never seems to occur to them. Neither does that e.g. more students in college might force a lowering of graduation criteria in order for sufficiently many to pass, which will lower the value of the degree for the top performers and future employers.** Etc.

*In all fairness, they also often fiddle around with the minimum qualifications for teachers. However, these often have a time component: If only the teachers spent more TIME in college! These minimum qualifications are also usually of a type that prioritizes formal qualifications over ability, in that an incompetent idiot who has a certain degree is qualified, while even the most competent outsiders without one are not. (And incompetent idiots are fairly common, as teacher programs are often chosen by those unable to enroll in other programs of study.)

**An interesting potential example is the increase of the duration of some Swedish degrees, like my own civilingenjör, e.g. from 9 semesters to 10. I have heard two explanations for this: The official, used by e.g. politicians, that “there is so much more to learn today that we had to increase the length” and the unofficial, whispered in rumors by professors and students, that “the quality of students has dropped so much that we had to stretch the same contents over an extra semester to keep graduation rates up”. (Which explanation is true, I leave unstated.)

Nuclear power might provide a particularly perfidious example. (Here I still tend to favor the Razor’s; however, the idea is a good illustration of the mechanisms that could be involved more generally.) By focusing strongly and highly irrationally on reducing or abolishing nuclear power, various countries have been forced to increase emissions of “greenhouse gases” to keep the energy supply up. More of such emissions allow for greater panic-making around global warming than less emissions, which makes it easier to keep that cause going. This is a double whammy: first a few decades of panic-making against nuclear power (“Vote for us, or you will all DIE in a nuclear accident!” or “Vote for us, or YOUR CHILDREN will live in a RADIOACTIVE WASTELAND!”), then a few decades of panic-making against global warming (“Vote for us, or the WORLD WILL END in ten years!”), which would have been less effective without first forcing nuclear power out.* Of course, the panic about global warming has reached such proportions that, unthinkable just a few years ago, some environmentalists call for more nuclear power. If this road is taken, and succeeds, expect more panic making about nuclear power just a few years later (after all, you do not want to die in a nuclear accident or leave a radioactive wasteland to your children, do you?).

*I note e.g. that Germany is in the process of shutting down its remaining reactors, roughly half now, in what little remains of 2021, and roughly half next year, if I recall correctly.

I can only re-iterate my claims that we need both a constitutionally guaranteed small government and “evidence based” politics. (And note that by evidence, I mean actual scientific evidence, not speculation and misinformation by the likes of Fauci and Ferguson, let alone the astrology-level nonsense found in e.g. gender studies or, increasingly, social sciences in general, which often is in direct contradiction to the actual evidence.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 30, 2021 at 9:20 pm

Relativizing problems or doing something about them

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A few words on relativizing problems:

It might seem that too many* complain** about too much that is of relatively low importance. So, you did not receive your DHL delivery? Big deal—my car was stolen!***

*Yours truly included—I do more than my fair share of complaining. This text notwithstanding, I have also often pointed to it in others.

**Note that I am not just concerned with someone shaking his fists at the sky or complaining to a third party at the water cooler, but also, and more importantly, with making complaints to the offending party or, when the situation warrants it, e.g. the police, the press, a “better businesses bureau”, a relevant oversight committee, …

***Fictional example: I have never owned a car. (Or, cf. below, been married. I have, however, had problems with the DHL on virtually every occasion that I have expected a DHL delivery.)

In some cases, complaints can truly be too small to reasonably bother with and/or just be a sign that humans are never satisfied—and some complaints are not justifiable for other reasons.* However, in many, even a problem that might seem small compared to someone else’s might well be worth pursuing.

*Strong candidates for all three variations can often be found in the “social justice” area, a phrase which (today; not necessarily so a hundred years ago) is usually nothing but a code for “equality of outcome”, “I want to have A, B, and C, and I want someone else to pay for them”, “I don’t care how much I got as long as no-one else has more”, or similar.

If nothing else, there is always a bigger fish, which would imply that hardly any problem would ever be worthy of a complaint, if relative size was an all-or-nothing criterion: So, your car was stolen? Big deal—my wife died! Wife? Big deal—that plane crash killed two hundred passengers! Two hundred? Big deal—the Spanish Flu killed millions!

More importantly: if we do not complain about and take actions against the small problems, the small problems will not go away. On the contrary, they are likely to increase and they will feed an attitude that allows bigger problems to flourish. This is especially important with problems involving criminal, dishonest, negligent, or even merely incompetent behavior. For instance, if everyone who has been burned by DHL would refuse to buy from online shops that use DHL for, say, a year after the event, then DHL would be faced with the choice of changing its business practices and losing business. On the other hand, if hardly anyone does, then things will continue in the same manner—if anything, they will grow worse, because DHL executives will be tempted to increase DHL’s profit margin just a little further on the cost of its contractors (implying that they have to cut the already inexcusable service level in response), and then a little further, and then a little further, … Yes: an undelivered package is a triviality compared to a dead wife, let alone the Spanish Flu, but there is still reason to complain and to act.

Or consider the general attitude: For instance, if no-one complains about governmental privacy violations to catch child-pornographers, then chances are that few complain about the same violations against drug dealers or due process violations against child-pornographers. Lather rinse repeat, as privacy violations are extended to greater and greater groups and more and more civic rights are restricted—until such a point that sufficiently many do complain. If the process is slow enough, these violations might grow sufficiently established that the protests do not come in time. The earlier and the louder we complain, the greater the chance that the problem will be kept small.

(Make no mistake: civic rights, Rechtsstaatlichkeit, etc. lose value incredibly fast when exceptions are introduced. For instance, if due process is abolished in the case of rape accusations, then someone attempting to e.g. get rid of a political opponent by framing him will forego the murder/extortion/whatnot charge and go with rape instead. Mission accomplished.)

Similarly, if customers tolerate absurdly poor service from DHL, other businesses in other fields will work under the expectation that customers will tolerate absurdly poor service from them too.

And, yes, with regard to all of DHL, governmental privacy violations, and businesses with poor service, the time to first complain is long come and gone in many or most countries—certainly, in Germany. This makes it the more important to complain loudly today, because the development will be that much harder to stem.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 23, 2020 at 11:49 pm

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Some points on the German IRS

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Detailing everything wrong with the German tax system would take an immense effort. However, a few points relating to jurisdiction and responsibility:

  1. Despite taxes being handled almost uniformly through-out Germany, no reasonable centralization has taken place. Instead each individual town has its own “Finanzamt”*, with large cities even having several, independently working, each poorly managed and filled with incompetent pea-counters.

    *I will use the German “Finanzamt” (pl. “Finanzämter”) when referring to the individual “office”—each being a somewhat independent government agency or sub-agency. When I speak of the overall collective of various tax-related agencies and/or the system as a whole, I will in (a slight misnomer) adopt the U.S. term “IRS”.

    This does not only cause inefficiencies compared to having a single entity handling taxes*, it also leads to problems like unnecessary changes of contact persons and addresses, additional efforts for tax payers to inform and coordinate after moves, the Steuernummer complications below, and delays when different Finanzämter need to coordinate the dealings concerning one tax payer (as with my recent move to Wuppertal).

    *For reasons like economies of scale, the easier supervision, a greater ability to stream-line, a greater ability to pick good staff, whatnot; especially, when this single entity has a considerably smaller number of offices. This, obviously, with the reservation that if no honest attempt is made by the IRS to do better, the advantages might not matter…

    The main advantage that this brings is the ability to personally deliver a message, thus removing postal delays and stamp costs—but after the abolishment of paper forms, there are few or no messages where postal delays are relevant and the stamp costs are usually smaller than the cost of the extra distance compared to the next post box. A secondary advantage is the opportunity to talk to someone physical in case of problems or need for clarifications—but considering the low competence levels, the usual lack of “customer” friendliness, and the benefits of having a paper trail* for any dealing with the IRS, this is only extremely rarely worth the trouble. In any case, both of these categories could easily be handled by providing a local skeleton crew and having all the real work done centrally.

    *There have even been the odd claim that someone went to the Finanzamt in person and was given information concerning his case orally—and that the Finanzamt later refused to give the same information in writing and/or to re-iterate this information at a later date, with the attitude that “we have already explained this, so piss off”. While I have no personal experience with this, even the risk should be a great deterent.

    Historically, this might have been justifiable; for decades it definitely has not been; with the removal of paper forms it has become a travesty. At this juncture, the real reason is almost certainly that the interests of the IRS, including its local wannabe big-shots and whatnots, trump the interests of the tax payers.

  2. There are two main identifiers used for a tax payer, the “Steuernummer” and the “[steuerliche] Identifikationsnummer”. The latter is an unchanging nationwide identifier that would be perfect for keeping track of the tax payers. It is basically never used… It does not appear on correspondence from the IRS, most forms do not contain a field for it, Elster does not store it, … To my recollection, I have only ever used it for the tax declaration, where there suddenly is a request for this identifier—and I had to go through years of correspondence to find the single letter in which I had been notified about this number.*

    *The first time around: I made sure to store it in a file of my computer for subsequent need.

    No, the number that is used is the idiotic Steuernummer, which changes according to the whims of the IRS. For instance, every single time that I have moved from one city to another, I have been given a new Steuernummer, because these appear to be specific to the individual Finanzamt. When I became self-employed, there was another change, despite my not moving, for reasons that are unclear to me*.

    *Likely there are further criteria (directly or indirectly) coded into the Steuernummer, e.g. relating to a general tax classification.

    The effects of such changes include that I have to pay attention that Elster does not include the old number in a given form, that I cannot just copy-and-edit an old letter to the IRS while leaving identifiers unchanged, and that I might need to use both the new and old identifiers concurrently, when I have dealings with both the new and the old Finanzamt—not to mention the risk of error that is created by having an ever-increasing list of Steuernummer to keep track of. (In a guesstimate, I have had more than ten so far, with various moves and status changes.)

    Of course, if the tax payer accidentally uses the wrong Steuernummer the Finanzamt does not have the common sense to just look the correct one up, nor to internally translate everything to the Identifikationsnummer based on the current or historical Steuernummer. No, they send a letter that rudely demands that he uses only the new one—despite the involved problems being caused solely by IRS incompetence.

    (See also excursion at the end.)

  3. Despite this high degree of geographical dispersement, I still have (at least) two different government institutions handling my taxes (both requiring separate notifications about addresses and whatnot, both needing separate payment):

    My income (and other regular) taxes and VAT are handled by the Finanzamt of Wuppertal.

    My property taxes are handled by a department of the city of Wuppertal.

    This is the more annoying, seeing that the property taxes have a very disputable justification and that the world would be better off without them entirely. (Even compared to the general observation that fewer and lower taxes would be better.) The nonsensical nature of these taxes is demonstrated by the yearly amount of ~120 Euro for my apartment—payable in quarterly rates. For me, the additional effort is disproportionate*; for the city a significant portion of this money is lost again just to keep the the tax system it self going.

    *Not just due to the obvious extra effort, but also due to secondary complications. Last year, I had agreed with the previous owner, who had received the last annual assessment notice, that he would keep paying to the city for 2017, and I would reimburse him accordingly. (He felt that this would be easier, after having consulted the city.) Lo and behold, for the second quarterly payment, I received my own assessment and the instruction to pay directly to the city. Clearing this up and redirecting money accordingly took out a chunk of both his and my time. This year, the city kept using my Cologne address, despite my clear notification of a move, resulting in long communication delays and additional efforts to clarify why I suddenly received a very nasty letter threatening to, I kid you not, break down my apartment door in order to collect the roughly 30 Euro of the first quarterly payment. (A separate post on this and some other recent IRS problems is in planning.)

    More generally, this is both an example of problems that arise through there being too many individual entities with taxation rights, and of how the German system for money distribution between various organization levels (federation, states, cities, …) is poor. See excursion below.

Excursion on moving and an out-dated world view:
Many problems in Germany, especially where the government is concerned, could be explained by outdated ideas about how people will live their lives. For instance, if we assume that the IRS works under the premise that people only very, very rarely move from one city to another, this could help explain the reluctance to change this broken system. Ditto other unnecessary bureaucracy around moves. Similarly, if people are not “supposed” to change banks, this explains why there are so many screw-ups when someone does. Similarly, the historically very poor opening hours and the problems around meter readings/chimney sweeps/whatnot are explainable under the assumption that everyone is married and a non-working wife can handle this-and-that at any working hour. Etc. Of course, in the modern Germany, people do move and change banks, there are very many singles, and even married women often spend nine or more hours a day away from home due to work.

Excursion on Steuernummer:
The problems are likely rooted in history, because the Steuernummer existed long before the Identifikationsnummer. However, it is doubtful whether it ever truly made sense to have Steuernummer be Finanzamt-specific—and even if it did, the technical means to overcome those reasons have been present for decades. If the IRS has failed to take corresponding actions to e.g. make each Steuernummer awarded after, say, 1990 permanent and personal, this in it self is a sign of great incompetence or negligence. To boot, that forms and whatnot still use the Steuernummer is absurd—-whatever the historical situation might have been, we now do have a proper identifier! Use it!

Some remaining justification for Steuernummer could possibly be seen, were it needed to differ between the same tax payer in different roles, e.g. when working for several companies in the span of one year or when, like me, moving from (regular) employment to self-employment. However, the former is already solved, if at all needed, by a third (!) identifier, the eTIN, and the second is obviously not the case, because (in the year that I switched) I was supposed to use the new Steuernummer for both my business and my time in employment… (Note that I am still acting in a capacity as the same natural person, not as e.g. a corporation.)

As an aside, I have a fourth and a fifth identifier, both related to VAT handling. These might, however, have a greater degree of justification because this part of the system is shared with various juridical persons*, and the use of the Identifikationsnummer, Steuernummer, or similar, could be problematic.

*I am not aware of how the other numbers or their equivalents are handled for juridical persons; however, the tax system it self is sufficiently different that constraints that might apply legitimately to e.g. a corporation should not be imposed on regular in-employment tax payers.

Most likely, the true reason is that the IRS calculates the Steuernummer using semantic information and then uses that information, precluding changes. This is a beginner’s mistake: Identifiers of this type should always be kept abstract and use of any information present should be reserved for very rare exceptions. For instance, if a Steuernummer was constructed through a Finanzamt (without coordination with other parties) generating a sub-identifier unique within its own “name space” and then appending a globally unique identifier for it self, this would be legitimate. If someone later takes the Steuernummer, extracts the part that identifies the Finanzamt, and then concludes that the tax payer belongs to that Finanzamt, this is not legitimate, e.g. because such use necessitates that a tax payer who moves to the “jurisdiction” of another Finanzamt be given a new Steuernummer, e.g. because it makes it hard to move to another scheme later. Identifiers should be considered abstract numbers, once generated, and systems that use them should be built accordingly! (As I have seen again and again through my more than twenty years in IT.)

Excursion on subsidiarity and Germany as a federation:
Possible objections against centralization include an adherence to the principle of subsidiarity (in general); and that Germany is a federation (in particular), and that any reform must consider the rights of the individual states (“Länder”) relative Germany as a whole (“Bund”).

Looking at states vs. federation, the influence of the individual states on taxation is highly limited* in the first place, and I see no obvious reason why a system in which the federation collects and administrates all taxes and distributes various amounts back to the states would be impossible within the framework of the German system. (Apart from administration, this is already more-or-less what happens. Note that this might be very different in other federations.) If worst comes to worst, objections of this type could do no more than speak against a centralization beyond the state level—it would not preclude centralizing the great number of individual Finanzämter on a per state basis.

*Most and the most important taxes are all ultimately handled by the federation. The most important on the state level is likely the inheritance tax, and this is the type of tax that really should be on the federal level, in order to avoid arbitrary differences. In contrast, e.g. a traffic tax could have some legitimacy on the state (or lower level) to accommodate e.g. local geography. (Even here, however, I would see it as more advantageous to unify the tax system entirely. This especially as the justification of various taxes appears to grow smaller the more “local” they are. Consider e.g. the absurdity of tourists and other visitors having to pay an additional hotel tax in and to certain German cities: The tourists stimulate the local economy through the hotel stay, restaurant visits, shopping, museum excursions …—and are punished for coming by an arbitrary and unethical tax, in a manner that, practically speaking, amounts to racketeering.)

As for subsidiarity, the more important part is the right to local/decentralized/whatnot decision-making, which (in the specific case of taxes) is not given as things are now, and where no or little additional restrictions would apply. The lesser part is local/decentralized/whatnot execution. Here there would be a change, but not a harmful change, seeing that this is the type of task better handled centrally. If subsidiarity is used as an excuse to keep things de-centralized that should be centralized, subsidiarity becomes something negative.

Excursion on single and multiple taxing entities:
Having more than one entity that has the right of taxation over a given tax payer is unfortunate*, in general, with problems including confusion, more bureaucracy, and, at least potentially, more arbitrariness. A better system would focus on one such entity, and then have this entity distribute money as appropriate. We could, for instance, have the federation as a sole tax collector (both in terms of administration and determination), which then distributes money to the states according to some agreement, who then distribute money to counties, etc., in a trickle-down chain; or we could have a county (or an even smaller entity) collect taxes and let them “trickle up”. (I would prefer the former, however, to make the tax system as uniform as possible.)

*Some room for exceptions is present when the tax payer is legitimately touched by different jurisdictions, e.g. when someone lives on one side of a border and earns money on the other. Even here it is more a matter of a necessary evil than a good, however.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 15, 2018 at 3:50 pm

Follow-up: The danger of neglecting civil rights / absurd events in Canada

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In a positive development of the events discussed in a previous post, it appears that the charges have been dropped. (Cf. e.g. [1], [2].)

On the negative side, it seems that 11 other downloaders might have been similarly harassed (and similarly without justification).

Ditto that the confiscated computers absurdly have not been returned—and might not be so for quite some time. Confiscating computers is an extremely dubious practice in almost all cases; not immediately returning them after charges have been dropped is simply inexcusable. (That I use “inexcusable” again and again with regard to this case is not a sign of lacking vocabulary—but of how gross the mishandling of this case has been.) This mainly because of the added, now entirely unjustifiable, disadvantage for the victims of the confiscation, but also because it opens opportunities for abuse. Consider e.g. a scenario where someone is suspected of some real and serious crime where there is too little evidence to get a warrant: Create or distort a scenario* which pseudo-justifies a temporary confiscation, quickly back-pedal with something along the lines of “honest mistake”, “we were given false information”, “seemed like a crime; turned out not to be”, whatnot, but keep the computers for another two weeks to unofficially search for evidence concerning the original crime**, to plant spyware or back doors, or even to plant evidence outright.***

*Such scenarios are obviously possible, seeing the immense reaction to the absolute non-crime discussed in my original post. Generally, there seems to be a strong law-enforcement opinion that a bad enough crime warrants a drop of due process and citizen’s rights—I have myself been the victim of a late night, warrantless, police search of an old apartment, based on lies by a third-party, and my several written complaints were basically ignored. See also an excursion on due process at the end.

**Many jurisdictions have rules that forbid the use of illegally obtained evidence. However, not only is it not a given that these would apply here (especially, should the investigators later claim to have discovered the evidence when the charge was still present), but even illegally obtained knowledge can be used to further investigations in other regards. To boot, such laws, when at all present, will do precious little to protect against the other problems mentioned.

***In fact, if this ever happened to me, I would likely do a full system re-install after I got the computers back, trying to manually inspect and secure relevant changes since my last backup. I might even go as far as sending the computers to recycling, depending on the risk of hardware manipulation and other circumstances. Obviously, none of the involved effort and cost would be remunerated; obviously, this relies on backups being available. (And, no, I would not see this as paranoid: Firstly, someone in this position knows that the police has been gunning for him, only leaving the question of whether it still is—this is a very different situation from the stereotypical homeless wearer of a tin-foil hat. Secondly, in Germany, law enforcement is very keen on the grossly unethical “Bundestrojaner”-malware, and an attempt to smuggle it on board a suspect’s computer is not the least far fetched. (In both cases, bear in mind that someones officially becoming a non-suspect does not necessarily mean that he is of no interest to the investigation or that he will never become an official suspect of the investigation again.)

Excursion on due process and size of the crime:
Due process, etc., must not be made contingent on the crime being sufficiently small*. Consider e.g. that

*Measured by e.g. the maximal punishment or the degree of typical societal condemnation. Words like “worse” are used in the same manner, and do not necessarily reflect my personal opinion of any specific crime.

  1. The worse the crime is, the more negative the consequences of being convicted, often even accused—implying that due process is more important when the crime is worse.

    Note that the negative effects of an accusation are not limited to the scope of the investigation, having to pay a higher bail, whatnot—it also includes a greater mental anguish, a greater risk of social stigmatization, etc. Men wrongfully accused of rape and child molestation have seen their entire lives ruined, being fired from their jobs, their wives/girl-friends leaving, having to move to avoid aggression, … Being declared innocent months after the damage does precious little to undo that damage.

  2. One of the largest reasons for due process is to protect the citizens from (deliberately) false accusations by others (potentially including a hostile government), and when these others merely have to replace the lesser accusation with a greater one, this protection is severely reduced in value.
  3. Police incompetence, juror prejudice, whatnot does not magically grow immensely smaller because the crime is greater. A truly absurd example is Sture Bergwall, who was convicted of eight (!) individual murders in individual trials, only to later be declared innocent. (It is true that this was only possibly through his own false confessions; however, the case has been reviewed extensively in Sweden and it appears that any reasonable investigation would have found too many flaws in his stories and/or the overall evidence for a single conviction to take place. Notably, neither his extensive history of mental problems, nor his thin and partially far-fetched* stories appear to have diminished his credibility.

    *He confessed to more than thirty murders in total, starting at age fourteen, several that he could not geographically have committed, and at least one in which the “victims” were still alive. In a partial defense of the justice system, some problems only grew obvious over time.

  4. In some cases, notably with the U.S. system of elected DAs, the risk of wrong-doing against someone accused of a greater crime can be greater than for a smaller. Sending someone, even be it someone innocent, to jail for a murder that made the front pages can make a career; sending someone to community service for stealing a candy bar will not. Again, the need for due process is larger with the worse crime.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 10, 2018 at 11:42 am

The danger of neglecting civil rights / absurd events in Canada

with 5 comments

I have seen a recent slew of news articles in Germany dealing with various restrictions of citizens’ rights and/or removal of protective restrictions on police (and whatnot) work, notably in Bavaria; and recently heard of a very similar negative development in Austria. I had planned to write a post on these (see also a few older discussions, e.g. [1], [2]), but yesterday I encountered a Canadian case so grotesque and Kafkaesque that I will refocus on it.

It appears* that a government server made a few thousand documents accessible to the public. In most cases, these documents were actually intended for public consumption; in a few hundred, due to gross negligence, they contained data that should have been kept secret**. A teenage boy went to this public server, having no idea (and no even semi-reasonable reason to assume) that there was sensitive information present, and automatically downloaded the complete set of documents, using the observation that their names were based on a trivial numbering scheme.*** The subsequent events included e.g. a 15-officer raid on his home, the seizure of several computers (only one of which belonged to him), and unacceptable actions towards his younger siblings by the police.

*I draw on a CBC article and several links in that article.

**Specifically, personal information relating to individual citizens.

***This type of automatic download is something that I have done repeatedly myself, be it either to allow my self off-line access or to circumvent a poor user interface. There is nothing remarkable about someone with the right knowledge doing something like that, it is a perfectly legitimate technique, and (unlike the apparent characterizations by the police in this case) it does not constitute any type of security breach/circumvention.

There are several troubling aspects involved, including:

  1. A massive overreaction, even had something illegal taken place, with a complete disregard of the interests of the “criminal” and his family. I note in particular that the act of seizing computers is almost never acceptable (although often legal and commonly used), cf. [1]. The size of the operation and the treatment of the individuals, including several teenagers, the lack of access to lawyers, etc., speak for themselves.

    A particular issue is the (lack of) illegality of the downloads per se: There is nothing here that could have been deemed illegal by any reasonable third-party (barring the possibility of utterly absurd Canadian laws)—and this must have been obvious even at the beginning of the investigation.

    Another issue is the “mens rea”: There are no even semi-reasonable grounds to assume its presence and no reasonable possibility to prove it*—and this, too, must have been obvious even at the beginning of the investigation, meaning that even if the act had been criminal, this was the wrong way to retaliate.

    *There are cases when a “mens rea” is an almost given; there are cases where it might or might not have been present; and there are cases where it more-or-less can be ruled out in advance. This is one of the latter. A reasonable analogy would be if someone went to a public information stand, picked up one of each of the present brochures, and one of the brochures turned out to contain classified information that should never have been put there in the first place.

    At best, the events are proof of truly massive incompetence and lack of judgment on behalf of the police and other involved government agencies; at worst, it is a deliberate abuse of power. Someone or some group needs to be fired, possibly even prosecuted, over these events.

  2. Even the fact that it was possible to track the events back to the individual are potentially troubling (depending on circumstances that are not described in the accounts I have seen). Most likely they involve a storage of IP addresses that would have been illegal in Germany, as well as a back-tracking of IP addresses in a manner that should be reserved for bigger crimes.

    Of course, if this “crime” had been perpetrated by a competent malicious entity, such back-tracking would not have been possible, or only possible with considerably more effort, seeing that such an entity would have used some type of anonymization, e.g. through multiple VPNs or Tor. Often, this entity would not even have been in a jurisdiction where it could have been touched. Regular local teenagers can be caught this manner; professional crackers working for the Russian government or a criminal organization can not. This is one of many examples of rules, regulation, technical counter-measures, …, that affect the innocent, the naive, the small-time criminal, whatnot, heavily—while leaving the big-timers merely inconvenienced. (Cf. e.g. a post on DRM.)

  3. The original download of secret data was only possible due to gross negligence and/or incompetence on behalf of the government—again, the type where a firing, possibly even a criminal prosecution, is the correct measure: Personal, secret information was put on a public server without any type of protection, no password, no encryption, …

    Either the decision makers and/or developers* realized that this type of download was possible, were grossly negligent in not improving the setup, and need to be fired; or they failed to reach this absolutely obvious realization, implying such a lack of competence and judgment that they need to be fired. Take your pick: Either way, they need to be fired.

    *I am too far away from the issue to be more specific. For instance, if the decision maker(s) were told of the problem by a junior developer, and instructed the junior to ignore it, the junior might be forgiven. For instance, if a senior developer saw the problem and failed both to correct the matter and to discuss it with the decision maker(s), the decision maker(s) might be free from blame.

    In fact, the situation is so embarrassingly bad, that I am surprised that whoever is in charge did not prefer to hush it up… Then again, the understanding of how embarrassingly bad it was might have also been missing, considering the demonstrated incompetence…

    (The articles that I have read have been weak on technical details, but from context I would speculate that there was a scheme in place, where inquiries by the public were answered by uploading a file, giving the inquirer the URL to the file, and then relying on no-one else knowing the relevant URL for secrecy. This would be an inexcusably incompetent application of “security through obscurity”: Security through obscurity is not acceptable as more than an additional measure on top of the real security to begin with. Here, however, it was doomed to complete failure from the start because of the naming scheme used—there was no real “obscurity” present either, meaning that even the pseudo-security it could have given was absent.)

A highly disturbing part of these developments in general is that countries normally considered “highly civilized” (“progressive”, “democratic”, “modern”, whatnot; often ranking highly on e.g. the Human Development Index and the Where-to-be-born-Index) are surprisingly great offenders: The problems are not limited to dictatorships or countries lacking a “democratic tradition”. In at least some areas, the likes of Canada, Australia, and my native Sweden, are actually among the worst offenders, especially when it comes to issues of morality, orthodox thought, sexual behaviors, … (Possibly, due to a larger influence of PC groups. Canada, e.g., has repeatedly caused controversy in areas like human rights and free speech.)

I suspect that this is due to a mixture of two factors: Firstly, many of these countries have grown used to strong governments and massive government interference in daily life. Secondly, these countries are often far away from a period of massive “evil”* government and have forgotten that laws and regulation concerning the government and its agencies, especially law enforcement, must be written under the assumption of an “evil” government, in order to protect the rights of the citizens and to protect the core democratic values**. (I considered adding a factor of “politicians are convinced that they know best” or similar, cf. several older posts; however, I very much doubt that this is specific to this type of country.) My adopted Germany, sadly, provides a partial counter-example to this: Yes, I can see how people would be short-sighted and historically ignorant enough to overlook the relevance of the events in Nazi-Germany, with only a small fraction of the current population having a part of their adult lives in that period; however, the collapse of the GDR is only three decades back.

*There are many cases, including most dictatorships, where the government has been more-or-less an evil throughout. However, even in the absence of such “great evil”, there are countless “small evils” in basically any state, be it through self-serving and vote-fishing politicians, incompetent or lazy civil servants, corrupt judges, laws that are not sufficiently well thought-through or violate the constitution, … The core of civil rights is and must be protection against the government, not only to make it harder for a “great evil” to arise, but also to protect us against the daily “small evils”. Unfortunately, depressingly large parts of the population (let alone government…) seem to believe that the government is good through-out and will remains so ad eternam.

**I note that I consider such values to be more important that democracy it self, with democracy being merely a “least evil”. Cf. e.g. Democracy Lost.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 1, 2018 at 5:29 pm

Democracy Lost

with 17 comments

Churchill is claimed to have said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” I have long held the same belief: Democracy is not a good form of government, due to weaknesses such as giving clever manipulators power they are unsuited for and allowing the majority to impose its will on the minority in an often unfair or destructive manner. Unfortunately, all other methods (that I am aware of and that have actually been tried) have been worse. The “enlightened despot”, e.g., suffers from the massive problem of how to ensure that the despot is actually enlightened…

Today, however, we are at an absolute crisis of democracy, where the leaders elected are problematic or even disastrous; where the “democratic ideals” are increasingly neglected in the name of democracy; where democracy it self just becomes a charade to keep politicians in office and lobbies in charge; and where the voters’ concerns are only relevant to the degree that they can be used for (re-)electing politicians, implying that only the concerns of the broad masses are on the table and that party “information” becomes misinformation geared at the dumb and easily manipulated. In many ways, the modern politicians are as separated from and have the same attitude towards the people as the likes of FIFA and IAAF* have towards their respective athletes. Where politicians should see themselves as the voters elected representatives and servants, they too often see themselves as the elected conservators and masters; while the voters do not so much exercise a given right as they pose a bureaucratic obstacle to keeping the politicians in office.

*I had repeatedly warned against these and similar organizations (IOC, PETA, various UN organizations, …) years before the recent scandals broke. In part, because I had observed much negative behavior, especially a disregard for the best of the athletes and the sport (more generally, the ostensible raison d’être); in part, because it appears to be general principles that organizations slowly become mechanisms for their own self-preservation and that power-hungry opportunists drift to the top. Many of these organizations have a monopoly in their area of activity and the people in charge can be so for decades, with little or no accountability to the outside world or the athletes, and are therefore extremely vulnerable to these principles.

Democracy is degenerating into a caricature of it self. More: While democracy has never worked more than adequately and has often failed locally at different times (especially in countries lacking a democratic tradition), we are now standing the risk of global failure. More yet: One of the greatest selling points of democracy used to be that it was “for the people”, not “for the ruler(s)” or “for the state”—and this does not apply more than nominally in today’s world.

Often, the best we can hope for is politicians who do less harm than others. Obama did very little good, but (with some reservations for yet unknown long-term effects of ObamaCare) he also did very little harm, and by that standard he deserves a passing mark.

If the negative trends do not turn around, we will end up in a scenario halfway between “Nineteen Eighty-Four”* and “Idiocracy”, with a regular dose of “panem et circenses”.

*I almost renamed this article “Twenty Sixteen”, seeing that Orwell’s work is far more relevant to the text than Milton’s.

The U.S.* presidential elections are a good case in point: For all practical purposes, they are just another popularity contest along the lines of “American Idol”. Take Obama: What does it matter whether his wife is considered wonderful? What does it matter whether he is a Muslim, African, Hawaiian, whatnot? What should matter is what he brought (or was expected to bring) to the table, say how intelligent or unintelligent he (and not his wife!) was, how knowledgeable or ignorant, how diplomatically skilled or unskilled, what experience he had, … Was his election and re-election based on this? No: His proponents played up his image, his wife, his (as turned out) empty “hope” agenda, and the “no more Bush” angle. His opponents tried to defame him based on issues of heritage, religion, and the like, even trying to remove his eligibility based on birth place. (Making a challenge of eligibility is of course legitimate. However, rules along the lines of “the President must have been born in the U.S” have little practical relevance on whether someone is suitable for the job. In contrast, hypothetical rules like “the President must have a post-graduate degree” or “the President must have served as a state governor or mayor of a major city for at least five years” would be much easier to defend.)

*Among the Western democracies, the U.S. is possibly the one where democracy works the worst—despite arguably having the most thought-through system. I would speculate that this is due to the age of the U.S. democratic system, with “FIFA-ization” simply having had more time to do its damage, possibly aided by the earlier and wider spread of television. (Cf. how Kennedy allegedly beat Nixon due to a better television performance.) The common use of public elections to appoint e.g. district attorneys is likely harmful. The emphasis on individual politicians and not parties (as in Sweden and Germany) almost certainly increases the populism and the vulnerability to lobbyists, but could have positive counter-effects e.g. through diminishing the role of organizations (and thereby the “FIFA-ization”).

Of the three current main candidates, all appear unsuitable for the job and each could do considerable damage if elected. Sanders is disturbingly far to the left. Trump seems to be off his meds. Hillary* is a corrupt opportunist (as was revealed repeatedly during her husband’s presidency), appears to have a distorted world view (e.g. regarding feminism), and has a political career that consists of gifts from others. In fact, her main strength is campaigning and public relations… (Between her and Bill, this is probably her fourth preliminary campaign, to which we can add two presidential campaigns, her senatorial campaigning, Bill’s gubernatorial campaigning, possibly campaigns for smaller offices at some point in time, and likely some involvement in at least the campaigns of Al Gore.)

*When I hear “Clinton”, I still think “Bill” and I suspect this is the same with most people outside the U.S. “Hillary” reduces the confusion.

As absurd it may seem to someone who knows my political stance (libertarian and classical liberal) and what I tend to think of the Left, I consider Sanders the least of these three evils. Indeed, since he might be the best hope we have of preventing a Hillary presidency, which is an absolute nightmare scenario, I would urge those who still have a vote to cast in the preliminaries to cast it on him. (By analogy, in a Hillary–Trump match-up for the main election, go with Trump. A Sanders–Trump match-up is harder, because there is at least some possibility that Trump is merely playing the opinion or trolling the election process, with the intention of being far more reasonable should he be elected. If so, he is the better choice; if not, Sanders is slightly ahead.)

The general problem, however, will not go away by voting for the “lesser evil”. To remove ourselves from popularity contests, radical measures are needed. In the specific case of the U.S. President, one way could be to explicitly forbid candidates for the electoral college to in anyway indicate a preference for a presidential candidate and to re-focus the election process on the individual electors, ideally even with the electoral college being chosen before the presidential candidates are determined: The college candidates have to convince the public that they are, individually, more suitable for the ad hoc task of electing the president than their competitors, ideally through pointing to intellectual accomplishments, experience, education, whatnot. (The actual implementation would have to be carefully thought through, especially in order to prevent a candidate’s unofficial preferences for President from being well-known, despite an ostensible lack of preference.)

A more general solution (that I have repeatedly suggested) is to set competency based limits on eligibility for both voters and candidates for office. For instance, presumptive voters could take a test to determine their ability to think critically and rationally and to see through political propaganda. (However, tests based on opinion or even knowledge must not be allowed, because these would very soon be abused to limit the right to vote to those having the “right” opinions, thereby defeating the democratic process. A test of thinking, in contrast, is only marginally different in principle and purpose from the age restrictions that are in universal use.)

An important point of democracy, too often forgotten: There are certain rights that are usually grouped with democracy in a blanket manner, but which are actually unrelated—and more important than democracy it self. Consider e.g. freedom of speech and thought or the right to due process. (To some degree these overlap with the connotations of “civil liberties”, “human rights”, and “Rechtsstaat”. More often than not, in my experience and at least outside academia, they are simply grouped together with “democratic rights” or “democratic principles”.) Keeping a true democracy running without (at least some of) them is hard; preserving them in a non-democracy might be even harder. Still they are not inherently linked to democracy. Indeed, there are many officially democratic countries that try to limit these rights and in doing so they become lesser than (hypothetical) non-democratic countries in which the rights are preserved. To take a few examples:

  1. Crimes related to sex are often given a drastically different treatment than other crimes, which undermines principles like “due process” and “Rechtssicherheit”. The underlying reason for such principles is, somewhat simplified, that no-one should be arbitrarily punished without having committed a crime or punished in disproportion to a crime actual committed. (With regard to criminal law. Civil law is the same m.m.) This is not just to reduce the risks of incompetence—but even more to reduce the risk of deliberate abuse of the legal system. This applies particularly to abuse by the government*.

    *Generally, a constitution, bill of rights, system of government, whatnot, must not be based on the assumption that the leader(s) of the country, governmental agencies, and individual civil servants are never evil (or incompetent). On the contrary, one of their most important tasks is to protect the people against this very risk. Unfortunately, this is something that most politicians fail to grasp—thereby proving the importance of the task…

    However, we now can have situations where no-one (ideally) can be arbitrarily punished for e.g. theft and murder—but easily could be so for rape (sexual abuse of children, whatnot). What then is the benefit of preventing arbitrary punishment for murder? A hostile entity (e.g. a government or a powerful personal enemy) simply forgoes the murder accusation and trumps up a rape accusation.

    For this reason, it is imperative that sex crimes are not treated differently than other crimes, no matter how easy it is to play on emotions. (The irrationality often present is proved e.g. by rape carrying similar penalties to murder in the U.S. and how some debaters actually seem to consider it the worse crime—a stupidity so abysmal that its sickening.) If someone accused of murder has the right to the presumption of innocence, then so must someone accused of rape. If someone accused of murder has the right to face his accuser, then so must someone accused of rape. If an alleged victim of attempted murder is cross-examined by the defense, then so must the alleged victim of a rape. Etc.

    Notably, “strict liability” has no justification whatsoever in criminal law, be it with regard to sex or other areas. All cases where a punishment is reasonably due (in the absence of unlawful intentions) can be fully covered by variations of negligence. For instance, someone who fires a gun in an apartment and accidentally kills a neighbor is negligent, because any reasonable person should have realized that this action endangered the lives of others. A large corporation is almost always negligent when inadvertently breaking laws, because a duty* to have sufficient legal knowledge or to make sufficient legal consultations can be assumed. In contrast, someone having sex with an underage person who professes to be of age and looks it to boot, cannot be considered negligent without additional proof that a reasonable person should have suspected something foul.

    *Typically, the legal system of a given country will assume such an obligation for entities, including natural persons, in near blanket manner. However, I am very skeptical as to whether this is ethically justifiable and compatible with a sound legal system, especially considering the horrifyingly large number of laws and their complexity. In my opinion, natural persons should be given considerable leeway, outside a certain core set of laws where knowledge can reasonably be assumed and demanded. (Better yet, if the average person cannot be presumed to understand or know that something is a crime, there is a fair chance that it should not be criminal to begin with.) Corporations, especially major ones, are a different matter.

    This the more so, as many sex crimes are in fact Orwellian “sexcrimes”: In the modern West, homosexuality is perfectly legal; a few decades ago that was not always the case and in other parts of the world it still is not. In Germany, someone 60 years old can legally have sex with a 16 y.o. partner*; in some U.S. states, someone 18 years and 1 month old can see his life ruined over having had sex with a 17 years, 11 months old partner. (In both cases, assuming mutual consent.) In Germany, prostitution is perfectly legal; in the U.S. it is not; in Sweden and (until this month) France it used to be legal, before campaigns of misinformation and misrepresentation forced the illegality of the purchase**. Indeed, I strongly suspect that some who call for changes in legislation have a hidden agenda. For instance, making sex with a 17 y.o. a strict liability statutory rape, will not merely cause people to stop having sex with 17 y.o. looking people—it will also make them a whole lot more careful about having sex with strangers who appear to be in their early to mid-twenties, about having sex while drunk, and similar. Similarly, extending bans on child porn to include not merely (proper) children, nor even just “children” below the age of 18, but depictions where someone above 18 pretends to be below 18 or could be taken to be below 18, is absurd and idiotic—unless we assume that this is just an indirect way of attacking porn in general, merely using the pretext of attacking child porn (and thereby avoiding the strong protests and resistance that would follow an attempt to ban porn in general).

    *I am not necessarily saying that this is a good or a socially accepted combination (certainly not a likely one). The point is that it is very weird (and usually a sign of too restrictive laws) when one highly developed and “modern” country declares something illegal that other highly developed and “modern” countries allow. Even within the U.S. there are odd variations from state to state.

    **But not the act of prostitution it self. The asymmetry is absurd, illogical, and incompatible with how e.g. narcotics are handled (the buyer or possessor is often not culpable, but the seller is). If nothing else: If the purchase is illegal, then the prostitute is enticing others to a criminal act, which would normally (and justifiably) be criminal.

  2. Germany has considerable restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, notably in that a number of symbols and greetings associated with the Nazi movement are forbidden. While to some degree, for historical reasons, emotionally understandable, there is little or no rational justification and it remains an undue intrusion on the rights of the individual. In stark contrast, the (largely common) symbols of GDR, the USSR, and other Communist dictatorships are not forbidden, even though the crimes of the USSR match those of Nazi-Germany and the GDR showed the same disregard for the life and rights of the individual. (More generally, unfortunately, and contrary to Leftist propaganda and Hollywood movies, there is nothing uniquely evil about Nazi-Germany. History is full of qualitatively similar examples, the difference being a matter of scale and success, which, at the time, where unprecedented.) To make matters worse, there are ongoing attempts to ban the strongly nationalist and allegedly Neo-Nazi NPD while a direct continuation of SED (the governing Communist party of GDR) is sitting in parliament. Notably, these attempts are directed not against actions but against opinions* and Leftist extremist often call for blanket bans on all claimed** Nazi and Fascist organizations. Claims for bans have even been raised against upstart AfD, currently the third largest party in Germany. Populist, yes; unconventional, yes; disliking the “old” political parties, yes. More ban-worthy or extreme than the other parties in parliament? NO! Fascist is as Fascist does: The organizations that want to ban other organizations for their own benefit are the ones that deserve to be banned.

    *In my understanding of German law, a ban would require more than opinions and to boot something specifically “anti-constitutional” (“verfassungswidrig”); however, I have seen little or no evidence of more than opinions and those Leftist extremists that call the loudest for a ban appear to ignore the question of constitutionality. Further, in as far as the opinions of the NPD, themselves, are anti-constitutional, they are so partly or wholly because the German constitution makes too far-going attempts to regulate what is the right opinion to have and the right way to do things, in manner that is not worthy of a modern Western country. (I have toyed with the idea of a deeper analysis, but have so far not executed the idea.)

    **The degree to which this classification is correct is often disputable. As I have noted again and again, words like “Nazi”, “racist”, “sexist”, are often used in a highly inappropriate manner by the Left (the politically correct, feminists) in order to unfairly discredit their opponents (or through pure incompetence); similarly, it is quite common than an anti-immigraTION sentiment is considered anti-immigraNT or even anti-foreigner, or an anti-IslamISM statement considered anti-Islam or even anti-Muslim. In the specific case of NPD, they have many opinions that I find absurd, but if the Nazi claims apply (of which I am not yet convinced), they still make no demands for an invasion of Poland or extermination of Jews. In addition, as absurd as I consider some of their opinions, they are no worse than many Leftist extremists, and in areas unrelated to nationalism and the like their opinions often coincide with other parties. Indeed, having read up a bit during the writing of this article, I find them to have quite a lot in common with the Left in areas like economic policy and the traditional Leftist anti-EU, anti-globalization, anti-nuclear-power, …, stances—an observation I have made repeatedly with organizations considered to be on the extreme Right, including the Swedish SD. People on the “extreme Right” are often actually people that would have been considered on the Left, except for the addition of nationalist (etc.) opinions. To a non-trivial degree this applies to NSDAP (the original Nazi party) it self, even in its self-perception and deliberate presentation: The “S” stands for “Socialist”, the “A” for “Worker” (“Arbeiter”).

    Analogous to the above “sexcrimes”, this just amounts to Orwellian “thoughtcrime”.

  3. The surveillance mania of allegedly democratic governments is reaching a point which is, yet again, Orwellian. In light of the common knowledge of the Snowden revelations, I will not go into detail of what is already known to be implemented. However, I will give special mention to the recent attempts to force Apple to manipulate user devices according to governmental wishes (albeit by the judicial branch) and the suggestions for legal restrictions on encryption: Encryption should only allowed if its breakable (thereby rendering it almost useless). Similar calls have been made for a requirement that encryption providers also provide explicit back-doors or keep keys that they can hand out to the government at its will (making encryption useless against the government and opening a major security hole that non-governmental attackers will love). Some jurisdictions already require users to “voluntarily” hand out their encryption keys and passwords to allow governmental access. Other suggestions with a somewhat similar motivation is to remove large bank notes or put upper limits on the size of cash transaction, for the purpose of making anonymous payments impossible.

    Big Brother sees you…

    As an aside, I am very strongly in favor of legislation in the other direction (and use encryption extensively, myself): In order to protect the citizens from the government, such attempts to break encryption, engage in digital surveillance, accessing private computers, …, must be made illegal even for the government. (As should access to some non-digital forms, notably private paper diaries.) In particular: A computer can tell us so much about someone that such access is unconscionable. Firstly, many (including yours truly) use their computers as an extension of their own memories, making the intrusion tantamount to an intrusion into their actual heads. Secondly, many use their computers to record highly private thoughts, including for diary and (as I once did) therapeutic purposes. Thirdly, a computer can indirectly give us enormously detailed information about someone—too detailed. (Including highly intimate information, such as porn habits.) Fourthly, a computer will almost certainly contain communications with other parties that can be damaging to them or be of a type that they justly wish to remain secret to third parties, including e.g. exchanges of romantic emails and confidential business communications. Fifthly, digital evidence is so easy to forge* that it must only be admissible in court when the absence of manipulation can be proved, which is basically impossible to do when third parties have extensive access to a device, making most uses of such surveillance and access pointless to begin with.

    *In the vast majority of cases, no forgery will take place—true. However, it does happen even today, even in countries like Germany or the U.S. Cases where a DA seeks a conviction irrespective of guilt and innocence occur; where an investigator “knows” that someone is guilty and resorts to fabricating the evidence he lacks; where the accused has personal enemies who influence the investigation; … Worse: There is always a risk that times change and that, for instance, politically motivated persecutions through the justice system become common. “Due process” that is based on the assumption a benevolent justice system can never be true due process.

  4. The influence of lobbies does not only result in sub-optimal economic decisions, but also poses a severe threat to the rights and interests of the population. Among the many examples, consider changes in copyright legislation to postpone the time that works enter the public domain*, absurd restrictions on how a purchased good might be used (e.g. bans on backup copies of DVDs; as opposed to reasonable restrictions like a ban on arbitrary distribution of copies to third parties), attempts to reduce customers’ privacy from corporations, …

    *At what time and under what circumstances this should take place is ultimately arbitrary and the right to read books free of charge is something very different from the right to free speech. However, there have been repeated adjustments upwards over time (often retroactively), without the underlying ethical issue having changed, and through lobbying or other “para-democratic” means. To boot, I suspect that these changes are not only intended to favor the copyright holders—but also to artificially reduce competition for newly released works. While the nature of the change is my point above, I do find the often used criterion of 70 years after the author’s death to be excessive. Notably, these 70 years will almost always be longer than the time the actual author enjoyed copyright protection… If I had drawn up the rules, I might have gone with something like the author’s death or 30 years past first publication, which ever comes last: This protects the rights of the author (which is the most important), gives the heirs a fair slice even if the author drops dead the day after publication, and provides a sufficient time of use and security for third parties to not rule out buying the rights—while ensuring that the public domain is enriched in a reasonably timely manner. Alternatively, copyright could be entirely open ended, but associated with a rapidly increasing fee after the death of the author. (As an aside, I have grown increasingly skeptical to awarding non-natural persons rights outside of what is a business necessity, including copyright and free speech, seeing that these often lead to abuse like outrageous misrepresentations in advertising being called free speech or record companies snatching up the majority of the profit from the musicians’ work. Such rights are possibly better tied to natural persons only, with appropriate changes in business models where needed.)

Even the democratic process it self can be circumvented. Consider e.g. how the current German government consists of a coalition of two parties whose ideologies, economic policies, and whatnots are so drastically different that forming the coalition betrayed the confidence of their respective voters—and potentially made further elections unnecessary: They could, strictly theoretically, just make a behind the scenes deal to always form a coalition and potentially govern uninterrupted for decades, irrespective of the votes given. Or take the tricks of the Swedish parties against SD: Exclusion of SD from committees, parties voting against their own program rather than allowing SD influence on the vote, … This goes beyond the unethical-but-established practice of making election promises while crossing ones fingers—here the parties ignore the reasons why people voted for them in order to follow their own agenda.

The reader may be surprised that I have not included the rise of strongly populist parties, so common in Europe at the moment, that have a limited number of core issues, an incomplete overall party program, and a main theme of “we don’t like the way things are”. (In Sweden, they are termed “missnöjespartier”—“malcontentment parties”.) The “conventional truth” among the established parties and the press is that these malcontents are an evil and a proof of the stupidity of the masses—which would fit in well with my above discussion. However, I very strongly disagree with this premise: These parties show that there is hope for democracy, that the people is not satisfied with being the puppets of the politicians, and that the political landscape can change. In as far as they are problematic, they are just a symptom and not the disease. The common criticism that these parties often lack experience, competence, and a developed party program can be true, but before they actually become part of a government, if ever, they will typically have plenty of time to improve–and it would be a grossly unfair Catch-22 to exclude parties based on deficits they need inclusion to remedy. If nothing else, their presence can shake the old parties out of old habits.

Similarly, I have not included the sinking participation of eligible voters in elections: Yes, this is potentially bad, but it is also just a symptom of the underlying problems. I have, myself, not voted in the past fifteen years or so, despite once being politically active, because there are no parties and preciously few politicians that I find myself comfortable supporting. At best, I could vote for yet another “lesser evil” and I, as do many others, prefer to let my non-vote be a message of disapproval to the politicians. What I consider far worse, truly worthy of lament, is the reactions of some politicians: Instead of realizing that voter participation is a problem that they have caused themselves, they blame the non-voters… I have even heard statements along the lines of non-voters not doing their civic duty! The right to vote and to participate in the democratic process is a right—not a duty. (And, as above, not voting can it self be a deliberate message.) Quite often, I have heard claims that it is important to vote, irrespective of what one votes for or whether one feels informed enough, which is turning the world on its head: If someone does not have a clear opinion, it is most definitely better to stay at home and reduce the problem of the uninformed selecting our leaders. The attitude towards both the citizens and the democratic processes that shines through in these reactions is horrifying. Whether they are stupid, despise their voters, try to increase their legitimacy*, …, politicians like these have no business seeking office.

*A higher voter participation implies a higher degree of (perceived?) legitimacy, because if someone claims to be elected by the people and does not have even close to a majority of the people’s vote, well, it is simply not very credible. In Germany and Sweden we can have situations where 80 % is eligible to vote, of which 70 % does vote, of which 90 % of votes actually have an effect (votes on parties below 5 resp. 4 % are wasted, because of a cut-off, some votes are sorted out for formal reasons, etc.), and the eventual premier belongs to a party that received 40 % of the votes that did count, relying on the support of smaller allied parties to gain a parliamentary majority. In this scenario the support of 100 % * 0.8 * 0.7 * 0.9 * 0.4 = 20.16 % of the overall population or 25.2 % of the eligible population is needed—elected by the people, my ass! Now, if everyone voted, and no-one voted on new or fringe parties (or the fictitious but popular-in-Sweden “Donald Duck Party”), these numbers would turn into an at least semi-legitimate 32 and 40 %, respectively. (Assuming the same distribution. However, even with a lower overall share, the original proportions would typically be exceeded by a considerable margin.) Drop the proportion of voters to, say, 25 % and the numbers become 7.2 and 9 %! No wonder that politicians react negatively to non-voters… Also no wonder that they are much against lowering the proportion of eligible voters, while at least some politicians want to increase it, e.g. through lowering the age of eligibility to 16.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 16, 2016 at 9:13 am

Children vs. parents vs. the government (circumcision)

with 3 comments

Yesterday, I came across a blog post on calls for a ban on circumcisione beginning with “The loony Left is at it again.”—surprising, because while the Left is often loony, circumcision is a very real evil (I will expand on this side-topic below) and something which I would expect at least the Libertarian right to strongly oppose.

Upon my protest, the author replied that:

The issue is not circumcision; it’s whether some Left-wing (or Right-wing for that matter) Moon-bats know better than parents and should be allowed to intervene in child rearing. Just look around and see the results. We are in the 5th decade of the Progressive experiment to have Social workers and other government agencies take over the responsibilities of raising our children. Object failure with kids coming out of school who cannot read, teenage pregnancies and abortions at all time highs.

Government does very little right. Suggestion that we continue to cede parental rights to it makes no sense.

While there is more than a grain of truth in this comment, it also contains several missteps. Seeing that these missteps reflect an attitude I have seen on a number of occasions, I will try to straighten them out:

  1. The core issue is the rights and best interests of the individual (in this case, the child—not the parents!) and how to protect these.

    In many cases of government intervention, rights and interests of the individual are infringed upon. This is the case e.g. when highly inefficient and unduly time consuming schooling is opposed on children, when boys are put on Ritalin just for being boys, or when schools are abused for indoctrination; this is the case e.g. when hard-earned income is stolen (typically through taxes), when “affirmative action” destroys equality of opportunity and prevents companies from hiring the most suitable candidates, or when marriage and family is turned from something a man can be proud of into a divorce-trap of alimony payments and unfounded accusations of domestic violence or sexual abuse.

    Here, however, we have something else entirely, namely the government protecting the rights of the child against the misdeeds of the parents. (Notably, unlike some other cases, e.g. where social workers take children from a sub-optimal environment to put them in a down-right poor one, this is not an issue where the risk of incompetence in the handling of individual cases is a concern.)

  2. Parents have obligations towards their children, but their actual rights (from an ethical POV) are highly limited: A child is not a possession. Arguments based on parental rights are therefore almost always fundamentally flawed: It is, for instance, wrong to argue that a parent (or government!) should have the right to perform religious or political indoctrination. (However, an argument based on undue legislation preventing parents from fulfilling their obligations can still be valid.)

    Indeed, in many cases, we have a conflict between two parties (parents and government) who do not have rights and who have different opinions as to what is in the child’s best interest. The question now becomes one of the lesser evil (or, occasionally, greater good)—parents or government. As the poster correctly remarks, the government is very often the greater evil; further, supporting the parents has the advantage that damage can be limited: The typical individual parent, if incompetent, will only do damage to 1–3 children; the government can screw up an entire generation. Cases like circumcision (cf. above and below), however, are of a different character.

Why is circumcision something that children should be protected from? It has no known benefits, but can have medical side-effects—including infections after the operation or reduced sexual pleasure as an adult; in rare cases, penis-loss or even death follows; and there are speculations about psychological trauma (however, I would generally urge to caution when allegations of trauma are raised, until considerable proof is presented). Further, it is a permanent alteration of the body and thus a decision that should be made by the individual for himself at a time when he is sufficiently mature to do so. Further yet, unless there is compelling evidence of benefits, the “natural” state should be given preference, as it is less likely to bring unforeseen problems. (Note that there are some alleged, but unproved, benefits, including claims about a reduced transmission of STDs; however, apart from the lack of proof, these would be relevant in cases of poor hygiene and insufficient use of condoms. A far better solution, then, is to address hygiene and use of condoms.)

To make a brief compare-and-contrast:

  1. Tattoos are similar: Permanent alteration with no benefits and some risk of medical complications—a decision to be made by the individual.

  2. Vaccination: Does bring some risks, but also considerable benefits (if restricted to those vaccinations that are medically sensible). Further, the non-positive permanent effects are negligible or non-existent. The case for vaccination is, therefore, far better.

  3. Amputating a limb to avoid possible death (e.g. due to gangrene): This decision is sufficiently large (including severe permanent damage) that it should be left to the adult individual; however, unlike circumcision, it cannot be. By the nature of the situation, the decision has to be made within a highly limited time frame and unless the child is already old enough to make at least a semi-informed decision (in which case his opinion should be given due weight) some constellation of parents and physicians must take the responsibility. The case for the parents making the decision is far better than for circumcision (however, it does not automatically follow that “amputate” would be the right decision in any given case).

  4. Corporeal punishment (on a moderate level): No permanent bodily damage is done, the risk of medical complications is very low, and there could be (this area is insufficiently researched, but there is considerable anekdotal evidence and general plausibility) benefits in terms of effective child-raising. Psychological damage, in turn, seems to arise not from (moderate) corporeal punishment, but e.g. from unfair or gratuitous punishment and emotional punishment. Corporeal punishment is then more justifiable than circumcision. (Under the mentioned constraints and with some reservations for future research.)

A few interesting reads on the topic:

Written by michaeleriksson

May 29, 2011 at 12:10 pm