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A Swede in Germany

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A higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

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I have recently read James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”—and unlike my last excursion into “Trump literature”, I find this book worth the reader’s time.

Above all, it provides a very important message on leadership, in particular in the “Author’s note”*, including the value of ethics, humility, the willingness to be open to input from others, …—and how such characteristics are all too often missing. Indeed, their weaknesses in such areas strongly contributed to my own feeling that the choice between Hillary and Trump was between two of the worst (realistically electable) candidates on record. (Cf. e.g. [1].)

*For those who do not want to read the book as a whole, do go by a bookstore and just read this part.

As a whole, the book is engaging with many interesting discussions of stations of his life. Unfortunately, parts are poorly written* and/or formulaic, as seen e.g. by how again and again a short paragraph is spent on describing someone and then spending just a few paragraphs on interactions with that someone, leading to situations where the description is too short to bring any value to the text and making it self redundant—these should either have been left out or expanded to such a point that they would have brought something to the context. This type of description does not appear aimed at actually bringing information to the text, but rather at “human interest” or similar cheap entertainment. To boot, they are potentially dangerous by giving his abbreviated view of someone else.

*Possibly ghost written: Apart from the high proportion of ghost-written works, the text often seems too polished (but not in a good way) and (again) formulaic for this to be the work of someone who is not simultaneously a professional writer, lacking in artistic drive, and not having a true connection to the material.

For the below items on and around the book, I will largely assume that the text is true or close to true. However, I stress that, as with any such text, warnings have to be raised with regard to its accuracy and fairness, e.g. due to memory lapses, subjective estimates, misunderstandings, and other human weaknesses. Worse, a text of this type and by an author coming from such hot weather could easily be an apologia or an attempt to position the author for a political career (see excursion at the end). To the degree that the text is not true, the items can need corresponding adjustment.

  1. A particular disturbing aspect is the great influence of politics (be it public or interpersonal/office politics) on his work and the maneuvering and compromises that were needed. This theme recurs through-out the book, including e.g. how to handle matters like the investigations of Martha Stewart and Hillary Clinton, or how to handle pressure from people in the White House (this not restricted to Trump, specifically, or to members of his team).

    I have already contemplated that some parts of law enforcement might need its own branch or to become a part of the judicial branch, rather than the executive. His problems point further in that direction.

  2. I found his discussions of the mafia and various interactions with its members highly interesting, through depicting a very different world and a very different sense of ethics than I have myself encountered. Even so there are at least some areas of overlap in attitude with e.g. politicians. (With a high degree of likelihood, Comey has deliberately written these parts as pieces of a greater puzzle and in a deliberate attempt to show such similarities.)
  3. Loyalty (as might be suspected from the title…) is another important theme, with the implicit question of what someone should be loyal towards. Comey seems to focus on higher ideals in the general area of truth, justice, and whatnot (which I consider highly appropriate for someone in his shoes); Trump wanted personal loyalty towards himself; others wanted loyalty towards some cause (e.g. national security in the wake of 9-11); others might have* wanted loyalty towards a particular institution or his subordinates; …

    *I do not recall whether this appears in the book; however, it is a quite common phenomenon.

    Loyalty is something that we do well to think hard on: What should we be loyal towards and why? A good example is national loyalty, where people who have sided against their countries have historically been among the worst condemned and/or punished—but why? Should we not rather side with those who share our ideals, plans, visions, … than with our country when they conflict? (This especially since the “country” often amounts to nothing more than the opinion of the country’s current leaders.) Similarly, should we not, in an argument, side with those in the right over those in our family? Etc.

    An oddity is his discussion with Trump, where he consents to give “honest loyalty”: In the context, Comey might have meant “loyal honesty” or “loyalty to truth”, but that is not what he actually, by his own depiction, agreed to. He seems to believe that he dodged a bullet and managed to avoid promising loyalty without upsetting Trump. However, the only reasonable reading of the text is that he did explicitly promise loyalty, the most reasonable involves loyalty towards Trump (as per Trump’s request), and it would be highly surprising if that is not the message Trump took home. Many less egocentric people than Trump would have been upset when this loyalty failed to materialize. The right thing to do would have been to turn Trump down without any possibility of a misunderstanding, or, on the outside, find a way to dodge giving an answer entirely, e.g. by a change of topic. (However, I stress that I have great understanding for someone who does not think sufficiently fast on his feet in a stressful situation.)

  4. Some parts of the book appear a little too self-congratulatory or conceited, especially with regard to his relationships with his subordinates, their feelings towards him, his effect on them.

    Judging such things correctly is extremely hard, and that a boss thinks that he is a beloved source of inspiration does not automatically make him so. Even should he be correct in his assessment (by no means impossible), it would be better to play it down.

  5. An interesting topic is lying under oath, during an investigation, whatnot, which is a recurring theme of the book, albeit always with a simplistic “it’s wrong” as the message:

    Many jurisdictions, including the U.S.*, contain some provisions to limit the requirement to testify, e.g. when self-incrimination is involved or when incrimination of family members could occur. Outside these narrow exceptions there is usually a blanket obligation to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Over the years, I have grown increasingly skeptical whether this is sensible from a “Rechtsstaat” point of view, and I consider it better that anyone acting in a private** capacity would have the right to refuse a statement at will, irrespective of e.g. self-incrimination. Further, there must even be some*** room for legally allowed lying when the witness is also the accused/suspect, especially in those circumstance where refusing the answer could be seen as admitting guilt. Consider, as an extreme example, the question “Did you kill the victim?”, the reply “I refuse to answer!”, and the impression left on the jury.

    *In the following, I discuss the topic in general. I have not studied the exact rules in the U.S., specifically, and I do not rule out that parts of what I say has been implemented.

    **As opposed to e.g. in the capacity of an elected official, a CEO, whatnot, possibly even as a regular employee.

    ***Exactly how much, I leave unstated. A blanket allowance is likely overkill. Lying on behalf of someone else is not included; however, there might be situations when even this might be sufficiently reasonable to warrant a legal exception. (Consider e.g. the question “Is your best friend since Kindergarten a Jew?” posed in Nazi-Germany: “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” would hardly have been believed.)

    The difference between lying or refusing a statement on behalf of one self and on behalf of another party should not be understated. Failing to make this differentiation taints some of Comey’s comparisons.

  6. His assessment of Trump as e.g. an incompetent leader is true from one perspective, but not necessarily from all. If we look at the situation from the view point of the led, he does not appear to do well; by implication, he is a poor leader. If we look at the situation from Trump’s perspective, things might be very different*: What are his goals and how well does he reach them? Considering his success at gaining power, he is certainly not incompetent** (but still poor) as a leader. I strongly suspect that Trump is merely continuing practices that have worked well for him in the past—even bringing him the presidency…

    *Looking e.g. at his interactions with Comey, as described by Comey, it is clear that he is attempting something that would weaken the separation of powers within the executive branch as well as the integrity of the FBI. However, he is also doing something that might have been good for himself. Notably, very many would have been swayed to do the wrong thing in Comey’s shoes, being (or appearing to be) implicitly offered the keys to the kingdom.

    **With some reservations for what baseline is used in the comparison. For instance, the average Bundesliga player is extremely competent at soccer by any mortal measure—but that does not mean that he is World Cup material. Similarly, of those who do go to the World Cup, only a fraction make the honorary all-star team.

    In addition, we have to consider that aspects of leadership like e.g. humility and integrity are means to an end, not the end it self. They are needed because it is almost impossible to be and remain a good leader without them. However, they do not automatically make someone a good leader, because this also requires making the right decisions and being able to enforce these decisions. It is also not a perfect certainty that someone without them will be a poor leader—just an overwhelming probability. Now, I very seriously doubt that Trump will get an A+ through such aspects when his presidency is eventually summarized; however, as for now I still remain with my thumb angled slightly upwards when looking at actual policy until now*. More importantly, when judging whether someone is a good or poor leader, in general, it is dangerous to look just at humility et co.—the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

    *With reservations for the results of his tax reform: A tax reform was needed, but I have serious doubts as to the one that took place, and it could turn out to be Trump’s biggest screw-up, just like ObamaCare turned out to be Obama’s.

  7. A few areas where Comey loses credibility include diversity*/PC nonsense, including abuse of “they”** as a generic singular, and his disregard for citizens’ rights with regard to surveillance and the like.

    *While some degree of diversity can be good in the FBI, in order to facilitate its work with e.g. immigrants, Comey seems to belong to the more naive brigade that sees diversity (in the racial, cultural, whatnot sense) as a good in its own or even as a fairness issue. Down that road lies affirmative action and other destructive measures: Pick the best person for the job, irrespective of sex, color, and creed, and no-one has a legitimate cause to complain.

    **I have a post in planning on this type of abuse, where I discuss why this is a bad thing and some alternatives. In this specific context, I note that a person of his level of education and accomplishment should know the rules of grammar better, implying that, almost certainly, this has been done deliberately in the highly offensive PC manner.

    To expand on the latter: While he claims to try to see various sides of the issue, he is clearly very set on the advantages that surveillance, lack of encryption, whatnot can bring to law enforcement. He does not appear to understand the technical risks involved and how opening doors for the government also opens doors for criminals; he fails to consider that we must always have regulations based on the assumption of an evil government, because a good government today does not imply a good government tomorrow; that e.g. anti-encryption regulation will hit “small timers” much worse than “big timers”, who have the resources to work around such regulations. Cf. e.g. my previous post.

    Other related issues already discussed on this blog include the uselessness of digital evidence, the danger of tools like the “Bundestrojaner” eventually being used to plant evidence, the risk of legally gathered data (accidentally or through intrusions, cf. my previous post) moving outside the control of the government, …

    An interesting point is his claim that the surveillance of many big timers only became hard in the wake of the Snowden revelations (quite contrary to my expectations). This, however, is not a sign e.g. that Apple should not give end users means of encryption—just a sign that these big timers used to be highly naive about their vulnerability to surveillance when not taking counter-measures: They are not doing things post-Snowden that they could not have done pre-Snowden. It is not even that strong an argument for e.g. encryption backdoors in standard software, because these would simply lead to competing, possible illegal or black-market, products without backdoors that big timers would use—while the small timers, again, are the ones left vulnerable…

Excursion on Comey as President:
On several occasions through the book, I considered the outside possibility that it was intended as a maneuver towards a presidential (or other high position) candidacy of Comey’s own. I note in particular the combination of stress on ethical leadership and other characteristics with how he portrays himself to have them and Trump to not have them.* From another perspective, consider how satisfying it might be for him, should he win an election over the same President that fired him…

*He is probably mostly correct about Trump; whether he is correct about himself, that I cannot judge.

Would Comey be a good choice? This depends to a large part on how serious he is about what he says on leadership and how well his self-portrayal matches reality. If he scores highly in these regards, then he could be a very interesting candidate. Unfortunately, I some fears on matters of policy (cf. the last item above), and I also have some doubts about his suitability in terms of experience: Being head of the FBI or the Deputy Attorney General are not bad qualifications; however, a few terms as e.g. governor would have been much better. (But they could be very valuable for some other position.) Either which way, he would be bound to be better than either of Hillary and Trump.

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Written by michaeleriksson

May 6, 2018 at 1:09 pm

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Fire and Fury

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I am currently almost half-way through the controversial book Fire and Fury, discussing the early phases of Trumps presidency. After some internal back-and-forth, I have decided not to bother with the second half:

On the one hand, getting some insight into the Trump administration from someone who has seen it from the inside seems like a good idea, in light of both the extremes of Trump himself and the possible turning point in U.S. politics his presidency could (but need not) be.

On the other:

  1. The book is abysmally poorly written, be it with regard to grammar, style, structure, … My impression is that the author was told to have a certain word count ready by a certain date—and kept far more attention to that word count than anything else. If this is the work of an award-winning journalist, then I see my low opinion of journalists and journalism confirmed.
  2. The information density is quite low, and many of the claims are obvious speculation (including regarding the intents of others) or subjective opinions—often by someone else than the author.

    Much of the rest is off-topic. Indeed, to this point, a disturbingly large portion of the book has simply been very amateurish mini-biographies of various individuals related to Trump’s campaign or presidency. Now, these can have some justification, e.g. in order to understand who is who and what their places in the bigger scheme is, or what might motivate them—but is not justified to fill out most of the book in that manner and with this type of writing. Most of these biographies could be reduced to a single page.

    In the last chapter that I read, “CPAC”, pages are spent retelling events happening on stage…

  3. Much of the relevant information has long been common knowledge or easily predictable based on Trump’s history, making parts of the book less revelation and more reiteration.
  4. Books that fail to be informative can often compensate through being entertaining (and vice versa). This one does not…

The likely most worth-while point, in the parts read by me, is the take that Trump might not actually have wanted to be president, having instead seen the campaign as a publicity opportunity—and that this was something shared by some key figures in his campaign, who thought that they would lose but make themselves a name and improve their future opportunities. While I have heard somewhat similar speculation on a few occasions, it has never been on this scale. In a twist, this puts an earlier post of mine in a new light: What if a poor candidate, deliberately looking lose, is faced with so poor an opponent that he wins anyway?

A lot of the controversy around the book has arisen due to the reactions by Trump (and some other persons concerned) to it. Lacking own insider knowledge, I cannot judge to what degree the book’s portrayals of persons and events are accurate; however, even if we assume that the factual contents, per se, are correct, this book is bound to be seen as an insult: The way the book is written, the way virtually everyone is painted as stupid, naive, amoral, out of his depth, and/or otherwise unsuited for this-and-that, goes well beyond what is warranted in even a highly critical treatment.* Moreover, this must have been obvious to any even semi-qualified author, editor, and publisher. This leaves us with the question why this approach was chosen. In my current estimate, it is likely a deliberate attempt to provoke reactions and debate in order to drive up sales—which has, obviously, been quite successful. Other potential explanations include using existing** anti-Trump sentiments to … drive up sales; and an attempt to increase such sentiments for political purposes.

*A serious book would discuss the actual facts at hand and let them point the way for conclusions—and if the facts are bad this will be enough to achieve the right effect. Here we have a tendentious mixture of slights, speculation, negative angling, …, that falls only an inch short of literally calling people idiots. (In all fairness, my own writings have occasionally included even the remaining inch; however, this is a blog and not a best-selling book on politics—and I would rate the average level of diplomacy in my writings higher.)

**People tend to prefer to read things that confirm what they already believe—and there are millions of disappointed Hillary supporters (and other Democrats, and quite a few Republicans) who have extremely negative opinions of Trump.

Actually, there is one other very important question: Given how the author has proceeded, what degree of credibility can we give his book? It could be truth from cover to cover; it could be a pack of lies; it could be somewhere in between. (If the latter, what parts are true and what false?) Having no way of knowing which, my reasons for reading the book are largely voided: I wanted to gain some insights from within—and I am left with Trump might or might not be (or believe/have said/done/…) X, Bannon might or might not be Y, Kushner might or might not be Z, …

As an aside, Trump and I might share opinions about e.g. privacy and how house-keeping should behave (I have a few posts in the pipe-line that touch related topics), with the book saying things like:

In the first days he ordered […] a lock on the door, precipitating a brief standoff with the Secret Service, who insisted they have access to the room. He reprimanded the housekeeping staff for picking up his shirt from the floor: “If my shirt is on the floor, it’s because I want it on the floor.”

Written by michaeleriksson

January 7, 2018 at 11:44 pm

Trump’s presidency so far

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We are now well past the 300th day of Trump’s presidency, and have correspondingly seen more than three times the customary 100-day grace period*. At the same time, Trump just made one of his more controversial decisions in acknowledging Jerusalem as the Israeli capital (discussed in an excursion below), which moves me to a short evaluation of the presidency so far. Currently, I have my thumb cautiously angled slightly upwards, where e.g. Obama saw it angled slightly downwards; and I note that there has yet to be any major disaster caused by him, any catastrophic misjudgment made, any war started, …—contrary to what some protesters seemed to predict, the world has not ended.

*Which, sadly, was not even remotely respected by many of his opponents, with significant protests taking place even before he began his presidency…

To look at some* more specific points on the upside (downside follows further down):

*To cover all possible issues would explode the size of this post and force me to do far more research than I have time for. In addition, some issues, e.g. economic and fiscal development, could only be judgable years from now. Of course, the point of this post is not to give a scholarly analysis—just to give a rough indication of why my thumb points the way it does.

  1. He provides a much needed shaking-up of the political establishment—and possibly in a way that few or no others could: His financial means, his weak support within his own party from day one, and his lack of “debt” to other politicians, allows him to follow his own mind without fear of repercussions; and his background gives him an “outsider view”. This was something that could be hoped for during his candidacy, but he is actually coming through in this regard.
  2. He actually tries to do the right* thing—not the popular thing. (As with Jerusalem.) This is something other politicians should use an example. Similarly, he has the audacity to speak the truth on matters where politicians are expected to lie (unless they are poorly informed). Notable cases include condemnation of the current press** and his statements around Charlottesville.

    *According to his own understanding and opinion. These are not necessarily shared by me.

    **However, Trump goes farther than I do and tends to be a little too driven by reactions to criticism, rather than the severe flaws displayed by much of the press (e.g. poor research, absent critical thinking, ideologically colored reporting).

  3. He has made significant attempts to cut-down on regulation, turning the long negative trend.
  4. He is committed to, if as yet not entirely successful in, removing or limiting the ObamaCare* regulations.

    *While ObamaCare might look good on paper, actual experiences, in my impression, has shown it to do more harm than good. To boot, massive government intervention and mandatory programs are rarely a good idea—and often very hard to get rid of once there. Certainly, ObamaCare, from the outset, failed to address the real problem in the U.S. health care system: Costs that are ridiculously high compared to what they should be and are in other countries. If anything, programs of the ObamaCare type serve to increase the cost further…

  5. He has a no nonsense attitude towards the PC crowd, its rhetoric, absurd ideas and demands, …—a welcome and much needed change.

On the down-side:

  1. His current lack of popularity could set the Republicans back in other elections, possibly severely. This could lead to a Democrat dominance in other areas, including the House; and it does not promise well for the next presidential election. Not only is it a bad thing in general when one party gains dominance, but with the current set of policies to be expected from the Democrat direction, and the strong tendencies of political correctness, feminism, equality of outcome, etc., a specifically Democrat dominance could turn out to be a very bad thing. (However, I note that I am not a Republican or Trump supporter—I just see them as the decidedly lesser evil compared to, respectively, the Democrats and Hillary Clinton.)
  2. He has, not entirely unexpectedly, proved to be too ego centric, even border-line dictatorial, in his leadership style. If he continues in this manner, especially in the unlikely event of his re-election, this can at some point have negative consequences—if nothing else, in the form of dissenting advisers being removed or ignored, with a resulting one-sidedness in the decision-making process.
  3. Restrictions on free-trade could do non-trivial harm to both the U.S. and rest of the world, even if the U.S. is likely a country with good potential* for doing well without free-trade. Then again, not very much has actually happened in this direction, leaving us mostly with the attitude against free trade that was already known from his campaign.

    *The U.S. combines vast natural resources, a great variation in climate and geography, a large population, a low population density, high R & D, a decent infrastructure, and a reasonably strong level of skill and education (a dropping standard notwithstanding). I doubt that even the U.S. would have a net-gain from restricting free trade (although individual industries might), but the damage to be expected is smaller than for e.g. Sweden, Germany, Japan, Canada, …, should they impose similar restrictions.

  4. There are several other areas, including “net neutrality” and privacy, where his influence might have strong negative effects.

One area that can be very hard to judge is appointments/nomination of officials, particularly for a non-specialist. Lacking the expertise and overview to make any reasonable judgment, I have left this area out above. However, I note that his possibly most criticized choice, Neil Gorsuch (on whom I did a bit of reading), appears to be very well qualified*, having not just a J.D., a pseudo-doctorate that all too often is the terminal degree of jurists, but additionally a real doctorate.* His opinions appear to be sensible and moderated, and he moved by reason. Indeed, I strongly suspect that the criticism was more due to him not being the “social justice warrior” so often craved by the dumb masses, or possibly through “guilt by association” (with Trump). In contrast, some of the darlings of the masses are much more problematic: Sonia Sotomayor, e.g., ended her academic career with a J.D. and appears to be a party-line Democrat; there is great reason to believe that Obama was motivated by her sex and ethnicity more than her competence.**

*While there is nothing wrong for e.g. a practicing lawyer or a lower-level judge to end with a J.D., I would set my standards higher for the Supreme Court. That a lack of a real doctorate is not a rare exception borders on a disgrace (as does the, likely connected, strong political/ideological aspect of the nominations).

**Apart from the relative rarity of strong candidates that are both women and non-White, I can e.g. quote Obama’s campaign promise of a candidate with “the heart, the empathy, to recognize what it’s like to be a teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor, or African-American, or gay, or disabled, or old.” (Quoted second hand from Sotomayor’s Wikipedia page.) In a twist, Gorsuch had his children as an adult male, and is very well-off, White, straight, without (as far as I know) disabilities—and quite young for a Supreme Court judge…

Another tricky area is environment: On the one hand, he appears to prioritize profit and competitiveness over the environment; on the other, other politicians can be too driven by panic or a wish to gain from panicking masses. His often criticized withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement need not be a big deal: I have seen several sources, including [1], arguing that this was even a positive move. (I have not dwelled deeply enough into the issue to have a strong own opinion, but I note that such agreements sometimes lead to positive changes, sometimes are nothing but empty words.)

Excursion on Jerusalem as capital of Israel: This has long been Israels own position, and considering that Jerusalem is a part of Israel (some de jure; all de facto), it borders on the idiotic for other states to not recognize the fact. (On the outside, it can be disputed whether Jerusalem as a whole should be considered the capital, as Israel claims, or just the internationally recognized Israeli parts. Using this to refuse recognition borders on sophistry, however.) By analogy, if West-Germany had chosen to keep its capital (West-)Berlin, who could have any reasonable legal or ideological objections?* One might argue that the choice by Israel is a provocation to the Arabs, but considering that Jerusalem is the largest city in Israel, that it is the historical capital, and that it has immense symbolic value to the Jews, deliberate provocation is certainly not needed to give Israel a strong motivation for the choice; an accidental provocation, on the other hand, would mostly reflect the unduly hostile and anti-Israel attitude of the provoked groups. Trump’s action, in turn, can only** legitimately be criticized for reducing the U.S. chances to contribute to diplomatic resolutions.

*Pragmatical and strategical objections abound, however: Having ones capital as an enclave in a hostile country is not a brilliant idea…

**Some criticism raised dealt with the claimed need for a two-state solution. I do not agree with this claimed need (and do not necessarily see it as threatened by the status of Jerusalem): Israel is a democracy where Jews and Muslims/Arabs/Palestinians/whatnots have equal rights—and the standards of living for non-Jews is higher than in neighboring countries. It is not Nazi-Germany, nor even the old South-Africa. Want to remove Israel as a Jewish state, Arabs? Recognize it, embrace it, and migrate there, until you have the majority of the citizens. Israel is, barring the violence, a good country to live in—and compared to Syria, Iraq, and a few other Arab/Muslim countries, there is less violence… A two-state solution is only needed to satisfy anti-Israel bigotry.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 8, 2017 at 8:17 am

How to lose an election in a lost democracy

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In recent times, I have made several posts dealing with the themes like democracy and the U.S. presidential election—including How to win an election in a lost democracy, on how a truly disastrous candidate (like Hillary Clinton) could conceivably and hypothetically manage to win through placing a sufficiently bad candidate (like Trump) in the opposing camp.

While this was not a serious suggestion (at least not for the current election), I actually and honestly thought that the flaws of Trump would bring Hillary a victory—for the last week or two before the election, a sure-fire one, with not enough time left for a turn-around. This to the point that I actually failed to write the please-consider-what-you-are-doing post I had planned for last week, seeing it as a waste of time.

Election day came the miracle and one of the greatest reliefs I have ever experience—a major bullet was dodged.

Despite the title of this post, I will not try to analyze how this happened in-depth (I have not done the necessary leg-work). But: Trump likely managed to leverage his advantages among the uneducated/working-class/whatnot*, while likely sufficiently many in the rest of the population realized that Hillary was the greater evil, possibly aided by the email scandals that brought her long history of bad behavior to mind—as well as the many investigations that have all been prematurely interrupted. Trump was lucky (or campaigned well…) in that his distribution of votes gave him a majority of electors through winning most of the swing states, while having slightly fewer votes than Hillary overall. Voter turnout, how many of whose supporters actually voted, might have had a significant effect (often the case with upsets).

*Looking at statistics at e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_2016 it is clear that the candidates have very different impacts on different demographics, including using criteria like education. That I side with the candidate of the “uneducated” while most of the “educated” go against my recommendations is annoying, but I can understand how someone like Trumps rubs the educated the wrong way—I too see him merely as the lesser of two evils and would like have preferred e.g. Obama. At the same time, I re-iterate my observation that education is not automatically a sign of intelligence or good judgment: Many of the educated who voted for Hillary will have done so because she too is educated, because she has a more sophisticated image, because the educated in the U.S. are “supposed” to vote Democrat, or similar. With the Republicans and the Democrats in general, there is often the problem that those with some intelligence are bright enough to see the right-most wing of the Republicans, the Fundamentalist Christians, and so on, as problematic; however, not bright enough to see that the left-most Democrats, the politically correct, the gender-feminists, …, are just as uninformed, irrational, dangerous, and otherwise problematic.

Looking back at the posts I did write, I want to repeat that this is not an ideal situation: Disaster was averted, but chances are that Trump, as the lesser of two evils, will prove to be a genuinely bad President—it is just that the alternative would with a high degree of probability have been even worse.

On the down-side, looking at the problems with democracy and its current failure, the victory of Trump could actually be the stronger side of that failure, with his extremely populist take. On the other hand, it is a positive sign that someone in no way established as a politician, and certainly not a professional politician, could win.

As for those who wanted Hillary Clinton because she was a woman, because it would be high-time to have a female President, or similar (all idiotic reasons to elect someone), they should take comfort in it being far better to wait a while longer and then get a woman who is actually worthy of the job. Someone like Hillary could, in a worst-case-scenario, have set back the chances for other women by decades. As a Swede I can point to a number of absolutely disastrous women, far worse than Hillary, who have been brought to the fore despite their lack of competence and other suitability to provide the female candidates the feminists cry for—and who have done exactly such damage. The single best example is likely Mona Sahlin, who came very close to becoming the Swedish Premier, but who also was deeply, deeply stupid and has repeatedly been caught in various, if minor, corruption scandals. In contrast, those women who have made it to the top without a significant leg up or with being a woman as a major selling point, like Thatcher and Merkel*, have done women a favour through actually proving that there are women who can do the job as well as the typical male Prime Minister resp. Chancellor.

*Notwithstanding that my opinion of Merkel has dropped considerably over the last few years.

As a side-bar, it can be interesting to briefly compare Bill and Hillary, especially because part of my aversion to Hillary is Bill’s Presidency and a wish to keep the Clintons in general (but Hillary in particular) out of the White House: Bill was a lesser evil than Hillary for at least two reasons (if we otherwise consider them fungible, which is likely unfair to Bill) in that firstly he had considerable relevant practical experience from his time as Governor, while Hillary had a gifted Senatorship and otherwise was the Governor’s/President’s wife; secondly his Presidency interrupted a long period of Republican dominance*, while Hillary’s would have extended a Democrat reign.

*One of my main observations concerning democracy, and power in general, is that it is a bad thing for a specific individual, party, organization, … to have great power for too long. Reasons include a growing risk of corruption, people confusing who they are as persons with their official roles, lack of new ideas, and too much resistance to change. Correspondingly, it is good when another party wins an election every know and then, even when otherwise the worse choice. For Bill, the last Democrat was twelve years back and the Democrats had had four of the last twenty-four years. For Hillary, she would have extended a Democrat streak to at least twelve years and twenty out of the last twenty-eight.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 10, 2016 at 11:27 pm

How to win an election in a lost democracy

with 2 comments

Looking at the U.S. Presidential election system, there is an interesting flaw in the two phases* involved: A candidate can win the first phase by having an ever so small majority, possibly even plurality, of his own party support him—and be without chance in the second phase through this support being too small.

*Preliminaries and main election. A case for more phases including preparations, declarations, nominations, and (of course) the election by the electoral college could be made, but I stick to the popular vote here.

In this setup, what is the best way to win an election? Make sure that a. you have a strong internal support, b. your opponent antagonizes almost half of his own party (or otherwise has a weak internal support and a strong risk of defectors). By planting, covertly supporting, whatnot, a poor candidate within the opposing party, the election result can be manipulated in a massive manner. The poor candidate does not even have to be “in on it”. In fact, I would be unsurprised if most variations of such (at least approximately) “divide and conquer” tactics work better when only the outside manipulators know the truth.

Notably, in the U.S. political landscape, with the two main parties both covering a very wide range of opinions and interests (the Republicans likely more so), this is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Take a candidate like Donald Trump*, who by playing the populist element and fringes of one party can gather a majority of his own party, while being highly unpopular in other parts of the party. Chances are that he will be able to mobilize a smaller share of the party members in the main election than a more main-stream/moderate/whatnot candidate—and he will see far more “defectors” from his own party than the opponent’s come election day**. In fact, a number of Republicans have actually publicly declared Hillary the lesser evil (something I very strongly disagree with, however problematic Trump may be). Similarly, with some reservations for how well the populism works, he is likely to miss out on most of the party-less vote.

*This post is very definitely inspired by the current situation. However, and I stress this strongly, I am not saying that this has actually already happened—just that it is a very real risk that it eventually will happen, the more likely after the parties have reviewed the events of the current election. However, similar stratagems have definitely been tried in other contexts in the past, notably during military conquests.

**Normally, almost every Republican voter will see virtually any Republican candidate as better than his Democrat counter-part (and vice versa), because even if flawed in character and sub-optimal in opinion, he will still be the lesser evil through belonging to the right party and having at least roughly the right opinions. The idea is to find a candidate who will disturb this principle with as many voters as possibly (while still managing to gain the party majority).

Say that election day comes, that the Republicans and Democrats are equally strong in general support, but that 80 % of the Democrats vote loyally while 20 % remain at home—and that only 70 % of the Republicans are loyal, 20 % remain at home, and 10 % actually defect. Well, that splits the vote 90–70, giving the Democrats an easy victory*, where we “should” have had a hard fight to the last hour of the election.

*Of course, with the all-or-nothing voting on the state level, such overall numbers are not necessarily important. However, in the given constellation, this would have kept every blue state in its traditional color, likely turned every swing-state blue, and quite possibly given some red states a do-over. The result is the same—an easy victory.

Now, consider the special case that you are put in charge of getting someone herself* almost unelectable elected. Suddenly, this strategy is not merely advantageous—it might be an outright necessity! For a disaster** to be elected, the opponent must at least appear to be similarly poor.

Bottom line: If you are Scylla and want ships heading your way, make sure the alternative is Charybdis.

*And, yes, I am most definitely talking about Hillary Clinton. However, I am still not saying that this is what actually has happened.

**In the case of Hillary Clinton, the disaster falls into two parts. Firstly, she is objectively a poor candidate, with a history of corruption, dubious qualifications, weird opinions, … She has even already more-or-less promised a cabinet with a male–female division of 50–50 based on the overall population distribution and ignoring actual suitability and availability of candidates—an idea fully on par with a wall to Mexico. Secondly, she is a candidate with handicaps when it comes to being elected, including being less than universally liked and more controversial among the Democrats than is safe for a candidate to be, being unusually disliked among the Republicans, being less telegenic and charismatic than many others have been (including Bill and Obama), and just (at least to me) appearing less natural.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 9, 2016 at 12:11 am

Democracy Lost

with 9 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