Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Asymmetric blogger journalism: what's the future now?

I want to reiterate a critical “meta-point”, relative to my blog posting Sunday about Media Bloggers and insurance.

When I post a line of argument about a political or social problem, I try to list all the relevant lines of thought and points of view, and come up with novel observations that most people in the major media or advocacy organizations are often not willing to make. For example, while discussing “don’t ask don’t tell” or gay marriage, I go beyond the usual simple arguments (like immutability) and consider older ideas of citizen duty (or “uncertainty” assumption) as they would apply to people who perceive themselves as “different” (and I hope not just “special”).

The willingness of an individual to argue material this way and self-publish it does provide, I think, a valuable check on the special interests, advocacy organizations and lobbyists who are paid to protect the specific or even “partisan” interests of their own constituencies. It is a way to implement some intellectual honesty into the way we debate issues (even the financial mess on Wall Street, so much a preoccupation today).

I can recall an occasion in August 2001 when a paid speaker and financial “expert” predicted a 35000 Dow by 2005 at a corporate sales conference. He said what we was paid to say. He has “credentials,” I don’t. But look at what really happened.

The most common way that people participate in political speech is collective: advocacy organizations write self-interested positions in baby language, and members of the public are encouraged to mass email politicians the same message written by organizations or lobbyists. To my way of thinking, this is insulting!

There is, in the minds of some people, a cultural or even moral downside to my notion of self-publishing on political matters. An individual speaker who can say just anything (even if “just legal”) may not have the same commitments (particularly relative to the family”) to provide for others as those who are more “partisan” or who are willing to show, at least in public speech, more “solidarity” with the real needs of others in their group. (Think, for a moment, about the tone behind Barack Obama’s references to the “middle class”.) Furthermore, speech, while facially constructive, might still be construed as being set up to tease people with excessive commitments relative to their own abilities – merely by being “there” all the time to be picked up by search engines. True, nobody makes you read it, but “it’s there” and someone else will. There is, perhaps, a need to earn “the privilege of being listened to.”

As I’ve noted, Internet self-publishing, in combination with search engine technology that has been very effective since about 1998, has the potential to reach a larger, and unlimited (apart from censorship in less democratic countries) audience, even more than printed books and magazines. In the past, industry trade publishers were expected to exercise extreme due diligence, and newspapers and television networks had definite standards for professional oversight or journalism. Of course, despite the claims of the journalistic profession that it must adhere to objectivity, this tends to make most trade publication likely to fall under the influence of special interests. In my personal life, before the Internet age, I heard the phrase “abuse of the media” more than once.

Self-publishing is related to social networking, but they are not the same thing. Social networking typically involves setting up “friends lists” and “published” material (however risqué) tends to circulate among the friends, much as in a listserver. Of course, it can leak out and become a problem even here, as with “reputation defense.” But the concept is substantially different. Social networking sites typically encourage members to limit their postings to circumscribe lists. Blogging software also offers this possibility. But what is common if for bloggers to want their posts to be searched and become available worldwide, instantly after publication, and perhaps be self-syndicated, so as to have maximum political and “asymmetric” effect.

This poses certain risks. But first understand that some risks do exist even within a “whitelist” environment for distribution. For example, some legal books say that a false defamatory statement about another party is libel if given to just one other party that understands it (say in a corporate email); it doesn’t have to be distributed worldwide. In some legal contexts, “publication” can consist of distributing material to just one other person. That legal notion has been around for centuries. The practical issue, however, is likely to be the unlimited distribution (and syndication) through the World Wide Web, or sometimes through P2P.

So far, the percentage of bloggers who get into real legal trouble seems to be very low, partly because of the number of bloggers. Nevertheless, there are some scenarios, perhaps theoretical or hypothetical and not yet encountered in the United States, that could get bloggers, other associated people and service providers into catastrophic situations. [Distant hint: see the posting on "libel tourism" on Sept. 1 2008 on my Major Issues Blog, although Congress can harmlessly fix this particular issue if it has the will.] I won’t go into detail here (leave that for a John Grisham-style novel). This sort of gets back to the “uncertainty” problem of the last post. You can’t have innovation (and the opportunity to force the system to become more honest, with all the best intentions) without some unpredictable “risk” to self, companies, and sometimes unaware other people. As we know from the bailout mess, the public doesn’t always understand new technologies or mechanisms until after the fact or until, as they said on ABC’s “The View” this morning, “the party is over.” In view of these observations, it seems to me that the possibility of mandatory insurance or bonding could develop rather suddenly, if there were to occur some unforeseen calamity somewhere. That could lead to new kinds of “private” censorship and bureaucracy, essentially eliminating the societal political benefit of asymmetric speech, which helps expose corruption in the special interests. That would be too bad.

Someone who predicates a “second career” on this kind of “second life” activity may come across as uncommitted to others, or perhaps as some variation on an “Uncle Tom.” Indeed, because of the asymmetric publicity, the person is excluded from some ways of making a living (as I’ve noted with discussions of blogging policies and “reputation”), and might be challenged to prove that his speech can become economically “profitable” and thereby accountable in a numbers-driven world. Other interests may want to challenge the person to be willing to accept social responsibility in more conventional settings and with respect to more conventional norms. Then the person (like me) must resist in order to maintain personal integrity and avoid those existential traps that have their own Schwarzchild radii.

Monday, September 29, 2008

"Uncertainty" and "Risk": the distinction really matters

I recall an occasion back in 1983 when I was jogging at the old Turtle Creek President’s Health Club in Dallas, when a mother allowed her small child to wander onto the track. I complained to her. “She has a much right to be there as you do,” she protested. The Club, fortunately, agreed with my “rational” position. Underage minors are not allowed in privately owned spaces where they could get injured (try bars).

Today (Sunday), at a Presbyterian church that I visited, the pastor carried two baptized baby girls, born prematurely but now healthy, down the aisle and handed them to congregation members other than parents.

As I’ve noted before, I see the pressure all the time. We, especially the childless among us, should feel responsible for other people’s children. That may be an abstract notion, but as the world becomes more connected than it was (during those three decades of my “urban exile”), and allows all its individual asymmetries, the idea becomes real.

I’ve written a few postings about concepts like personal sovereignty, and how this could be at odds with sustainability and the marriage socialization (emotional as well as rational) that it takes not just to raise the next generation but now, probably, to care for the last one.

When a stable married couple does have and raise children well, it is indeed taking on a “risk” and performing a service for all of society.

Well, now, “risk” is perhaps the wrong term. “Risk” refers to the probability of a harmful result in a set of events whose behaviors are well known from past experience. Insurance companies and actuaries deal with this all the time. The more apt term is probably “uncertainty.” We often read that teenagers – for reasons of organic brain development timespans—don’t perceive risk properly, but any teenager serious about school grades dislikes uncertainty.

A free society depends on individuals accepting uncertainty in critical life choices and situations. The most visible example today is the willingness of a couple to make a lifetime marital commitment, in view of the uncertainty that one partner (or both) could develop serious issues during the lifetime, or that unpredictable possibility that children born to the marriage could have special needs. One could apply the concept to young same-sex couples.

Much of the discussion about marriage seems to presume that the partners are already inside the Schwarzchild Radius of the relationship, and talks about how one is “changed” emotionally by the marriage, to the extent that one no longer perceives “personal responsibility” in the meritocratic way that he or she would have as single. Yes, it’s about “love” (and “power”). The film “Fireproof” showed the husband, to save his marriage, engaging in behaviors (sometimes going through the motions at first) that seem like silly, self-effacing pampering to a single person.

Nevertheless, from the “citizen of the world” perspective, the moral issue is the willingness to deal with the uncertainty and enter into the relationship in the first place. A man (or woman) may rationalize this aspect by looking at the idea of whether he or she is “competitive” or “worthy” enough to take such a partner in the first place, particularly during the sensitive late teen or early adulthood years, when one has been exposed to the competition (and sometimes bullying taunts) of “Darwinian” peer pressure.

As noted in previous posts, the emotional scope of family is now having to incorporate the childless, in large part because of demographics and the need for eldercare. The Washington Times ran an editorial (“Focusing on Family”) Sunday noting that extended families are living together again rather than spreading to the ends of the solar system (or perhaps “Second Life”) for separate expressions. “And that’s a good thing.”

Another big area where uncertainty figures in as a moral issue is national and community service, and the willingness or capacity to engage in more risky jobs. The really obvious example is military service. We used to have a male-only draft, and we still have Selective Service registration, for young men. And we depend on people who accept the risks of certain kinds of careers, such as firefighters (as in that movie above) which are often “volunteers”, and law enforcement. Eligibility to perform such service can be construed as a moral issue, which is why, for me at least, the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military raises deep moral questions, around which other problems accumulate in concentric fashion.

I’ve detailed my own history with respect to the draft. After my 1961 college expulsion for admitting homosexuality, I took the draft physical three times, going from 4-F to 1-A and finally passed. After graduate school (and finishing college while “living at home”) I finally was “drafted” but was sheltered away stateside and did not go to Vietnam to be exposed to the “uncertainty” of sacrifice. Today, the war in Iraq has led to the unfair “backdoor draft” leaving not only veterans but their families to deal with the emotional cost of the enormous wounds.

All of this leaves me in a bit of “moral debt.” (I once got a blog comment [Aug 2007, on the TV blog], asking: When would I pick up a hammer and head to the Ninth Ward? The same comment was directed at Anderson Cooper.) Several times I’ve been invited to get involved in situations where I would serve socially as a male “role model” despite my history, thereby, in their view, earning a right to be heard from. It’s as if others pick up on this and want to give me a way out of the existential trap (and perhaps feel more comfortable about themselves with their own personal issues if I set the right “example” for them). A couple of the opportunities really were cheesy, but two or three of the situations that occurred in the school system when I was substitute teaching were presented to me in such as way as to ambush me, with no forewarning (the incidents should have been prohibited by school system policy, or I should have been told in advance that addressing these situations would be expected). I simply perceived that I was being humiliated, left to wonder why I had not been “competitive” enough forty years earlier to have a family myself. They thought they were “offering” something. But I know I need to come to terms with this.

Ten or fifteen years ago we accepted a relatively straightforward idea of individual “personal responsibility”, in the workplace and in the family. Marrying and having children was largely perceived as a private choice that should not impact others. . The capability (and perhaps practical luxury) to refuse unwelcome or uninvited intimacy or emotional closeness among adults – perhaps a way to remain aloof and “in control” -- was always perceived as a “fundamental right.” In the public area, military service was seen as a voluntary career-starter option. But things started to change. Clinton introduced the issue of the military gay ban, and gay marriage came up as an issue, and suddenly we were more aware of intrinsic social obligations toward one another again (like we had been through the 1960s, after two World Wars, a depression, and a Cold War). The Internet, with all its free-entry style self-promotion grew, with a result that we became more aware of the “burdens” others have or “uncertainties” that they “risk.” That in itself is a good thing. But then we started learning the truth about sustainability: global warming, pandemics, terrorism, and now financial meltdowns (yes, “The Big Bailout”) can all put an end to the individualistic way we have been living. We have to innovate and assess what is going on very carefully to preserve our way of life as we know it.

This is no longer a good time for introverts. Maybe Rick Warren is right, “it isn’t just about you.” We’re finding that morality involves not only following up on the choices you deliberately make (having children, for example, or avoiding STD’s), it means being willing to share uncertainty with others, sometimes with a degree of emotional connection and flexibility, and awareness of the ways in which all of our lives are invisibly subsidized.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Media Bloggers Association offers media perils coverage, for members who take and pass brief media law course

Recently, the Media Bloggers Association (MBA) announced an “education, legal advisory, and liability insurance program for bloggers.” It appears that this announcement was made around Friday, Sept. 18, 2008.

The basic link for the announcement is here.

The basic concept is one that I have promoted myself: that “amateur” bloggers should have the same kind of training, legal support, and liability insurance long available in the traditional media.

The Association invites bloggers to join with an Associate Membership, apparently for $25. There should be an “Accredited Membership” available in the first quarter of 2009. There is a “join” link on the upper right side of this page. But before joining, bloggers must first complete and pass a test on material offered by the Poynter Institute’s News University ("NewsU"), “Media Law for Bloggers”. The organization is located in St. Petersburg, FL. The link is here.

The website says that the course takes about two hours to complete. I could not find the cost readily (I will keep looking). The three cornerstones of the legal foundation are privacy, defamation, and copyright. Defamation and privacy probably would involve areas that we have coming to know as “reputation defense.”

The association membership page has an important link on the right column, under “MBA in the news”, titled “Not Who’s a Journalist, But What Is Journalism” that explains what cutting-edge bloggers should make themselves aware of. The full story was by Ann Cooper from the Columbia Journalism Review, published on “Reclaim the Media”, here. There is the assertion that journalism without formal standards becomes gossip (like the cell phone blog of “Gossip Girl” on the well known CWTV series).

Another important article is “You blog, you’re out” by Michael Hemmington, from the San Diego Reader, September 3, 2008, with anecdotes about several people fired for what they wrote about in blogs, even in “code,” or about job applicants not hired, or “pre-dooced” (with reference to Heather Armstrong’s firing in 2002 which resulted in coining the new verb). That ties back to the now well-known “reputation defender” problem. There is a new term here, “escribitionist,” “a person who keeps a diary or journal via electronic means, and in particular, publishes their entries on the world wide web.” The link is here.

Media Perils Insurance and blogging:

Media Bloggers has also announced a program called “BlogInsure” It has an FAQ PDF document here for a new "media perils" or "media risks" insurance product. It appears that the blogger must become a member of the Media Bloggers Association. The insurance company is AXIS Insurance, part of AXIS Capital Holdings Limited. It appears that if a blogger has multiple blogs, each blog would have to be insured separately.

A self-publisher with multiple blogs (which is very common on Blogger) or multiple publishing sites may have to consolidate the blogs and sites into one or into fewer sites. That means that the blogger, if serious about being seen and bringing in money, and also being able to get coverage, may have to ponder carefully how to set up or “restructure” his or her material. Search engine presence could be temporarily lost. Wordpress may offer better capabilities than Blogger does right now, but that could change. But the benefit of doing so could be a much more professional presentation and the ability to attract other investors or business partners, possibly for coordinated media projects like independent film.

Back in 2001, National Writers Union (NWU) tried to offer media perils to amateur writers. Many people with “controversial” content were rejected the second go-round. It will be important to monitor this new insurance product to see if it really works and really insures writers with edgy material in good faith. It will be important to notice whether the current turbulence in capital markets (and very recent Congressional action) affects this company in any way.

The insurance issue is important, however, for another reason. As with the financial crisis, the world is waking up to the uncertainty that small entities or individuals who have access to any worldwide resource with little regulation can conceivably create. The day could come when bloggers will have to have insurance to have publishing service (very much like the case with auto insurance now). Some publishing services and ISP's have "indemnification clauses" in their Terms of Use although they are very rarely used against "amateurs" (partly because of Section 230 and other downstream liability protections, which could get weaker, as in Grokster and now the Youtube litigation). The uncertain or unpredictable nature of the “risk” makes this a troubling idea. Perhaps standards of third party review would have to be developed. Before the Internet age, book publishers used to go through thorough due diligence before publication, but in the "amateur" area that kind of caution has been dispensed for obvious "business reasons." That could change some day.

Obviously, there is a lot to digest, since this is a new development, and potentially complicated. It could help provide bloggers new opportunities to enter the world of journalism in a professional way with more credentials. I will keep tabs on this and have more to report later.

Note: On September 24, I wrote on this blog about the need for education on media law in public schools because students use social networking sites at home. This development reinforces that belief.

Update: Nov. 8, 2008

Jill Schachner Chanen has a short piece in the ABA Law Journal (Nov. 2008) "Risky Blogness" about the MBA policy, which it says starts at $540 a year, apparently per site or blog, here. A discounted policy of $450 should be available in 2009. The article calls it "first of a kind" but remember the National Writers Union tried this in 2000 and 2001. Prices were about $250 per six months, so it's comparable. But NWU ran into trouble with "controversial" material. I'll check soon with NWU and see what's happening.

Of course, the program is voluntary since it is just beginning. One aspect of insurance, however (as least as I learned with twelve years in the life insurance industry) is that when it is totally voluntary (which life coverage normally is), there tend to occur a lot of anti-selection problems.

I also checked around and found an article on blogger insurance back in Feb. 2004 (four years ago) in the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review by Michael Rothberg, here. He seems to be talking about conventional media perils policies long available in the conventional broadcast media and publishing industry (maybe not practicable for small bloggers). He mentions a "hammer clause" in some policies. The article notes that republishing an email received is not always automatically covered by the well-known Section 230 provision. DBA-oracle linked to this article and whimsically put in an HTML heading "Blogger insurance now required" when the title of the article says "offered", not "required," link here (note the name of the link). Both articles mention the possibility of suits from overseas ("libel tourism" discussed before) and that in some countries linking to a defamatory page is itself defamation. Law.com re-publishes an AP story (here) by James Keller which does indicate that small bloggers should use some common sense in determining if they have any real risk.

Update: Dec. 22, 2008

Electronic Frontier Foundation, in its "Legal Guide for Bloggers" mentions blogger insurance but suggests a minimum annual premium of $2500. It suggests that there might have to be third party review and pre-emptive takedowns. It mentions the Online Journalism Review article from 2004, in a paragraph located here. EFF also suggests that umbrella policies offered by property companies would generally exclude blogs with advertising, which are obviously very common.

I've never seen any discussion of insuring social networking profiles. Nor have I seen any of Wikipedia or conpendium content, which seems to be published anonymously, although it may be possible to discover the identity of a poster. These sound like theoretical questions now, but the implications down the road could be serious.

Robert Cox has a New York Daily News post dated Oct. 8, 2008, "Bloggers must learn a new world order to win fans, respect," link here. Maybe "new world order" is a bit strident, but he's right in that blogs intended to be provocative and instantly searchable could become targets. I think his article argues for the need for tort reform (to stop the "chilling effects" and "turf protection") as well as more formal education for bloggers. Look at the comments here, too.

Possibly the media perils insurance business could come up with sampling and statistical methods, related to a blogger's volume of output, to determine how much material it needs to look at to determine what the blogger actually does and the level of risk. This could work in a way somewhat resembling credit scoring some day.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Family values -- even for singletons

Lately, we’ve seen and read a lot about strengthening marriages and families, especially on popular, “high ratings” shows like Dr. Phil.

At lot of the advice maintains that marriage creates a bonded couple that is more than the sum of its two parts. And there is plenty of material, as in the recently rewritten book “Love & Economics: Why It Takes a Family to Raise a Village” by Jennifer Roback Morse (reviewed yesterday on my books blog) that convincingly demonstrates that marriage is essential to raising children who can become productive and morally accountable adults, with a proper perspective on “self-interest.” Morse talks about the basic process of child socialization in the family as a natural given, but, still, marriage is a socially institution, manmade, to attach men to the children they father, but, moreover, to being able to support other people in the family and community in a much broader context.

On the other hand, there is now (and has been for a few decades) a substantial population of singles who, individually at least, live productive and expressive lives without the socialization and emotional commitment (and support, which often amounts to pampering) of marriage. As I’ve often written, there is a lot of cultural tension among people with different mindsets as to individual expression and family commitment. There is a general impression that successful singles compete with people with family obligations, and exert an influence that tends to de-incentivize and destabilize other families.

Yet, probably fifteen years ago, about the time that Clinton took office, we generally imagined marriage and children as a private choice, even if we insisted that people take responsibility for the children they actually have individually.

During the past several years, especially in a time where external problems make family cohesion a more critical survival issue for everyone, it has come to become apparent that stable families are “everyone’s business.”

Morse, in her book, took aim at people who resist allowing others to become close to them except on their own terms. She talks about some family relationships as not chosen and expected of everyone. She characterized loners or people who insist on their own agendas in life as “difficult to deal with.” It’s possible she was referring mainly to people already married who do not remain loyal to their marital obligations when their partners become less than “perfect”, but it seems as thought she could be referring to everyone who resists social receptiveness to others.

It seems as though she is suggesting that everyone, even if not specifically in a marital relationship with children (I suppose that could apply to same-sex couples) accept the idea of belonging to a Family, and the Family, as an entity, is more than the sum of the individuals who make it up. That arrangement protects some individual members (such as the elderly and disabled) from the competitiveness of hyper-individualism. It also, in theory, gives marital sexual intercourse a lot of power over other family members, even adult children until they marry themselves and set up their own families. If that were enforced, the legal and social ramifications could be considerable.

But it often happens in practice that unmarried adults are expected to take responsibility for others in a family. Even in terms of individual karma, everyone owes something back for having been cared for when helpless himself (as a baby). Eldercare is the most common "not chosen" responsibility, and it is growing as people live longer, often in a frail and dependent condition. But other circumstances occur, such as raising a sibling’s children, or, as in a Dr. Phil episode, a young man who may give up a kidney and possibly a baseball career so a brother can have a transplant. Blood relationships, even those not chosen, carry a lot of weight, and the practice of modern medicine can create new situations for people that in the past would not have come up.

No wonder, then, it can seem that people may be a lot more secure and comfortable when they are willing to see their own value and life courses through the “family” rather than their own personal decisions. They are relieved from “second class citizen” evaluations of others and even themselves. This whole line of values seems to be becoming more credible as our society is stressed with unknown dangers, some of them related to asymmetry and some to sustainability. It’s all quite disturbing.

I do understand that “family consciousness” and love has meaning that I have not personally experienced much as an adult. I’ve had to deal with it at certain times, including recently. Nevertheless, I don’t accept the idea that it makes failure to be able to accomplish anything on you own all right, even if it was because of the needs of others, or because of something that “couldn’t be helped.” I believe in preventing these huge problems in the first place.

There is certainly some logic in believing that if families, extending in this sense to incorporate even those adults who remain childless, took care of each other, and if those individuals who excelled always took care of the family members who didn’t, there would be less need for government programs. The “freedom” aspect of society is what allows the most able to “advance” into higher standards of living, but they must bring others along with them. This view describes a gradual process that does seem a bit utopian. And many people, me included, would find it quite coercive, diluting the sense of self that I have come to treasure.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

School systems need to provide Internet safety and legal education, to protect "free entry" long term

One of the most urgent needs in public schools is to provide students, especially by ninth or tenth grades when they are likely to be using the Internet, some basic knowledge of the underlying safety and liability issues of Internet use.

This body of knowledge would incorporate several areas. One obviously involves intellectual property: understanding what copyright means, and why the law sometimes punishes infringement quite severely.

Another would involve “reputation” problems, which are more nebulous and unsettling, and which I’ve taken up before on this blog. A major component of this problem is that one can injure another’s reputation with postings in various ways, some of which are just now getting reported in the media.

Of course, still another big area is security, with many issues, for the entire family and school.

Sometime back, on my Internet Safety blog (see my Profile), on Aug. 21, I covered the movement for an “Internet driver’s license”. The concept may be well intended.

Think again about how it was in the past, before the days of the Web and P2P. Book and periodical publishers carefully vetted materials (they call it “due diligence”) before releasing them to the wild. Often material was reviewed by lawyers. It sounds like bureaucracy and red tape, and perhaps it was. It was costly and inefficient. But it tended to provide some “regulation.”

Now, we allow anyone with almost no financial commitment or accountability to reach the entire planet, with some minimum age restrictions, to be sure. We require people to pass tests to drive a car. And we used to require legal review and approval for anything that “got published” (at least outside of the world of supermarket tabloids). Of course, doing so presented a prohibitive “barrier to entry” for the individual to be heard outside of participation in organizations (hello – that means special interests and lobbyists). Nevertheless, people are creating unquantifiable risks for themselves and downstream for others (which is why a lot of insurance companies don’t want to touch media perils or amateur bloggers). It seems reasonable to require people to pass a quiz on copyright, defamation, and security (and that might include how to use anti-virus products) before allowing such global reach.

But the important thing here is for school systems to develop curricula to present to kids. Teachers have tended to live in a set-off world, somewhat isolated from the “real world” or work, commerce and media. School systems need to get beyond their bureaucracies (often imposed by state education departments which themselves are set up by legislatures) and communicate with business (especially the software and Internet media industries) to develop curricula for responsible Internet usage by teens. It’s in the best interest of companies like Google, Microsoft, IBM and the like to help them do this. People “retired” from information technology and who may not want to deal with classroom management problems all the time could certainly be employed as contractors or consultants in helping school systems do this.

In these days where suddenly we hear a lot of talk about the need for “regulation” to prevent the next unpleasant surprise coming out of asymmetric opportunities for individuals, such attention from school systems may be an important strategy in protecting the “free entry” setup for Internet use for individuals, as we have come to take for granted. The set-up that we have now is not necessarily sustainable without more thought to education in the responsibility that goes with the access.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Regulation: The "R" Word; will it stay just in the financial world?

So, they say, the cure is the big bad “R” word, and that’s not a movie MPAA rating. It’s “regulation.” Morgan and Goldman both offered themselves at the altar of Regulation, wanting to become commercial banks so that they can be regulated. No, so they can have access to FDIC insurance and all that. I thought the short selling had stopped. Maybe they will be able to get some credit as regulated commercial banks. A major part of Wall Street has simply evaporated forever. No more investment banks on their own, able to do just what they want. No more financial asymmetry.

It seems that it is up to Barney Frank to save us, in his discussions with Mr. Paulson on the big kahuna, the Bailout. On television, Rep. Frank speaks in pedantic, abstract tomes pretty much the way I do. I suspect he goes through the same existential possibilities. There is no certainty that any plan will really work, without a lot more capitulation first.

Remember Barney in 1993 tried to broker a compromise on the military gay ban issue with an early form of "don't ask don't tell": if you're off duty and off base, you can do and say what you want. He didn't know that soldiers are on duty at all times and all places (even discos).

So we need to limit CEO pay. I can recall that the Peoples Party of New Jersey back in 1972 wanted to limit all incomes to $50000 a year! So the People have to rein in on CEO’s so no one will want the job. Seriously, their golden parachutes are obscene. They pretty much behave like soap opera characters.

And the rescued companies should pay the Treasury back. That’s reasonable. But it’s scary to give Paulson so many powers to play God. Decide who to save, who to triage, who to send to Purgatory.

I talked to a public policy grad student in the auditorium of the Landmark E Street yesterday before seeing “Battle in Seattle” (about the 1999 WTO riots) and he said, yes, if we didn’t do anything, a McAfee-proof financial virus would soon take over the Internet and grind all movement of money to a halt. As more institutions chased cash, even the Bank of America would run out. Your ATM would freeze up. Even the FDIC couldn’t cover us. We could be a society without fiat money, only souls with personal karma to tease investors who now would have to play God. How’s that for sci-fi. (That’s really somebody’s unsold Hollywood script (not mine), but it almost really happened.)

What scares me is that if we go back to regulating banks the way we did before, we could do that with other consumer items or facilities. Say, regulate the airlines again. And then, how about regulating people. That’s the nightmare libertarians fear.

Take free speech. The Supreme Court has said (as in COPA) that you can’t restrict speech on content alone. But you might be able to restrict or “regulate” again how speech reaches the public. Remember, any individual right now can take advantage of “asymmetry” and reach the entire planet (or solar system eventually – it’s a bit over an hour to Titan, you know, at the speed of light). In a few cases, previously unknown individuals have made spectacular pajama profits (which some think excessive) or instigated major shakeups of whole industries (sometimes illegally). And all of this from a public of novices, with no legal training on the possible downstream risks that publishing houses used to perform due diligence for. Of course, a lot of good has come from this – individualized political speech, an alternative to lobbyists and special interests, and challenge to archaic and customer-unfriendly legacy business models from the past. But any novelist with a “Tom Clancy” or “John Grisham” imagination can envision some very bad things that can happen. May happen. Haven’t happened (except in some isolated tragedies). But could happen very suddenly. It could lead, for example, to proposals that all amateur speakers be bonded or insured for potential intellectual property liability, an idea that the insurance industry could accept now. That’s why the “R word” is potentially a very bad word indeed, and, even in finance, it sets a troubling precedent.

Jay Leno tonight: "You know how a bailout works? A failed president and failed government invests $700 billion of your money in failed businesses." The bailout will raise the entire national debt by close to 10%. The bailout would be about $3000 for every wage earner in the US.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

"Financial 9/11": Greed is not always good; but what about asymmetry?

Well, Jim Cramer could not have been more blunt yesterday, when he said that our whole economy could have stopped function. For example, I could have gone to an ATM even at a solid bank (the Bank of America) Monday morning and found it would no longer dispense cash.

The media continues with speculative details about the federal bailout package, and the Wall Street Journal weekend edition is indicating that much of it is still unsettled and “controversial.” It hardly sounds like a completely done deal yet.

I started this discussion yesterday, but we have come to translate our view of personal morals (or “moral hazard”) in terms of free markets. We say we have a meritocracy in which we can “measure” people in terms of fiat money. As I indicated yesterday, science fiction writers can have some fun exploiting this idea.

A free market is supposed to give the young adult, once free of his parents and able to function on his own, the freedom to map out his own course in life based on his own talents. But the market needs to be stable and sustainable, and not subject to infrastructural collapses, whether from the environment, from war or terrorists, disease, or financial instability.

One problem in the financial crisis is “asymmetry.” That is, a small number of people can disturb the system with arcane instruments (in this case, “credit default swaps” in toxic combination with some abusive short selling practices), for their own gain, engulfing others without their knowledge or consent. A basic principle of a market system (particularly in insurance, as we noted yesterday) is accountability. If one can cause a result in the system, one should be accountable to someone. Some of the more controversial investment practices shelter the “investor” from personal accountability, to the system and to others. Some set up inherent conflicts of interest. These were supposed to be covered by Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002, but we find that the potential conflicts that can come up run much deeper than we had supposed. It is all to easy for parties to engage in supposedly lawful activities where they stand to benefit from the demise of others who are not aware of the situation.

But asymmetry applies in a lot of other areas. One is Internet speech and reputation. We’ve explored that a lot recently. What’s happening is that individuals are growing into a culture where they don’t see the hidden ways that their lives depend on the unwilling sacrifices of others. Whatever we think of the “family values” debate, at least it forced the issue that one only gets the needed start in life because of the dedication of others (parents and other family members) and, even if one does not have children, one might be expected to return the same to others.

In many families (particularly in non-western cultures), parents make a lot of “socializing” their children to put loyalty to other family members above developing their own talents. We are rightfully critical of this cultural practice when it leads to tribalism, group conflict, or obsessive patriarchal behavior especially among men who see themselves as following and privileged by religious principles. Yet, often family solidarity and blood loyalty comes about as a result of necessity. In a world that can not be counted on to remain stable (or for a family locked into poverty by culture) functioning within the family still remains a source of personal identity for most, but not all people. Unfortunately, the instability we see around us (including, now, the recent “Financial 9/11” or “Black Wednesday”) can come down hard on those who need to follow their own course in life.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Wall Street business ethics and personal karma: Is there a correspondence or "Gospel Parallel"?

Floyd Norris has a blog entry in the Business Day Section of Today’s New York Times, called “High and Low Finance: Reckless? You’re In Luck”, link here. He outlines how credit default swaps work. He then explains how this sort of financial instrument violates a basic principle of the insurance business: insurable interest. You can’t buy insurance against something in a manner to give you an incentive to destroy it. But in business, that is how the swaps can work. You can buy a “policy” against a GM bond default with no exposure to risk, and profit from its demise. It’s not hard to imagine, in our short-term, “bottom line” behavior and “cheating culture” that this will inevitably lead to abuse in financial markets.

As Suze Orman explained on a popular show recently, ordinary American are seeing their jobs and financial accounts jeopardized so a few people can get rich on Ponzi schemes that are not “sustainable”. And we have to deal with it in our personal lives.

William M. Isaac, a former FDIC chairman, has an interesting article on p A23 of the Wall Street Journal today, “How to Save the Financial System,” link here. Isaac believes that the problems this time are much more about mechanics and unsavory incentives than economic fundamentals.

Where does this leave us all? We hear doomsayers claim that the entire system of deposit insurance could collapse, that could loose our economy altogether. This doesn’t have to happen, but the idea that a financial, like a physical, cataclysm

On an individual level, this sounds like the religious “treasures on earth, treasures in heaven” speech. Our modern notion of individualism encourages that the individual adult stake out his own place in the world, even before making emotional commitments to others and having and starting a family. But of course, that assumes Man’s infrastructure – the rule of Law, and some kind of financial and physical security and stability – is dependable and even “sustainable.”

In fact, libertarian notions of personal responsibility, which justify a more “live and let live” approach to the personal aspects of “public morality” issues, depend on some kind of stability to keep a stable and meaningful social context. That’s one thing that makes the debate on “family values” layered and perplexing.

Consider the social values of a few generations ago. Everyone, now matter how different, was expected to take his or place in and remain loyal to the family, and develop the ability to take care of others personally, regardless of having his or her own children. The responsibility for doing this was a way of keeping anyone from “cheating the system” or not having an “insurable interest”, psychologically speaking, in others, particularly family members. It gave some people a sense of security within the family, at the expense of some personal individual freedom and particularly prolonging inequality among different families and groups. The comparison of non-fiat “karma” to the financial world is intriguing to me, at least. I’ve even heard of a rogue amateur script floating around the movie agents about a “stock market” in people’s “souls.” Sounds like an intriguing idea for an adventurous indie-oriented studio like LionsGate or Overture films. Remember the horror flick “Donovan’s Brain” back in the 1950s, when a disembodied brain controlled the stock market?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Moral Hazard": outside of ordinary life, the insurance industry doesn't have a good grip on it

Well, think about what is happening as Wall Street evaporates. Focus down on insurance companies a bit, and then we’ll branch out. I worked for an insurance company for 12 years in information technology. It wasn’t AIG. But one of the most important concepts in insurance is “risk” (which in an individual case is unknowable, and involves the possibility of anti-selection) and modeling the probable outcome of shared risk.

With normal life insurance policies (including all those uses as investment vehicles, as well as term itself), companies can calculate the expected return within reason. The LOMA course in actuarial (part of the certification) befuddles a lot of people who take the multiple choice exam, but it does make the point that, from a mathematical viewpoint, the insurance business is supposed to know what it is doing. As life spans increase, ordinary life policies make more money for companies, who can often collect more premiums first.

Annuities get to be a different bag. As people live longer, some annuities run the actuarial risk of more payouts. We’ve seen this discussion with pensions and social security. Now with long term care insurance, which many life companies are moving into, we see a similar sense of risk. People may be living much longer than expected and collecting much more in benefit than expected. These possibilities can be managed with lifetime caps. But, still, in principle, with these sorts of products insurance companies move into an area where it is more difficult to predict their expected return (or profitability) reliably with the usual mathematical models. The useful application of advanced calculus, like you study in college or grad school (maybe even high school) is limited by the unpredictability of the inputs.

Now, look at what happened this weekend in New Amsterdam (and maybe the old city). One of the nation’s largest insurers is in deep trouble largely because it sold contracts to protect others against losses from subprime mortgages. Think about this with common sense, and forget about Taylor series or integration by parts. (Yes, I’ve taught math before; maybe I will again some day.) An unpredictable number of individuals or families buy homes for way over what they qualify for, on the unsustainable idea that homes will always appreciate. Get that concept: sustainability. Anyone with common sense knows that in five years, when the balloons explode and rise (perhaps filled with hydrogen instead of helium) the system will fall apart. Homes do not get more valuable infinitely, even if “real estate” is based on finite space, because new units keep getting built, often vertically or in higher density areas. Why would an insurance company, in what we think of as a conservative industry, engage in such reckless behavior and make it look OK? It befuddles me. And why would recruiters from them approach me (after my “retirement”) to “sell” vehicles like this? All they seem to see is the “always be closing” mentality. No one thinks ahead. Lou Dobbs is right. We have become the most reckless culture imaginable. You wonder if some of the “younger generation” on Wall Street has a “teen brain” problem or simply didn’t learn right from wrong (at least with OPM – other people’s money).

But concerns about the unpredictability of “moral hazard” in the insurance world get even murkier in other areas. The issues in auto insurance (that young single men are usually riskier to insure) are well known. Think about intellectual property, or “media perils.” Generally, it’s very difficult for “amateur” bloggers and writers to get media perils insurance, even as part of groups. Why? The risk of litigation or loss is not very great in any individual case, but because of the “asymmetry” and novelty of web self-exposure (and or “reputation” issues), it is impossible for insurers to estimate the risk with any reasonable mathematical or actuarial model. Yet, some property and auto companies have, curiously, been willing to include such coverages under “umbrella” policies. This is not a good idea, to comingle intellectual property and “real world” auto or real property casualty and liability risks. It’s likely to spiral out of control if the media attention to sensational abuses on the Net leads to more “downstream liability” (through legislation or novel court decisions) risk that the law currently allows. This is a pretty complicated topic, but there is some disturbing litigation now (as with the YouTube and Viacom case) that could complicate the risk for ISP’s and ordinary bloggers in the future, and lead them to expect insurance. (How could an insurance company mathematically model the “downstream liability” risk for an ISP in some future legal climate? The track record for the insurance industry in dealing with “conceptual” actuarial uncertainty is not good, given its awful performance with the mortgage problems.) Right now, in fact, is seems amazing that we have allowed individuals this freedom of “self-exposure” without insurance. Perhaps we haven’t thought about it because the actual incidence of loss in individual cases has been very low, but the problem is getting worse, given all the copyright and “reputation” problems.

Melissa Gannon has an instructive article "When an Insurance Company Fails" on "The Street", link here.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

"We Won" but "They Lost"

Ever heard the quip “We Won” followed by “They Lost.” That’s how we deal with rooting interests. The Nationals (“they”) blew a five run lead today (on the road). The Redskins (“we”) came from behind to win today (at home).

I’ve always thought that a matter for moral self-sufficiency would be a proverb like “there is no they.” It’s up to you to get the problem solved. There is no one else to depend on. The buck stops with you (or me). That’s what is means to be a professional.

We want to take credit for triumphs that are really ours. We want to blame our losses on other people’s mistakes, on bureaucracy, on sales culture that is based on manipulation of demand and not real value or any sense of truth. We claim that we are self-sufficient when it is in our self-interest to say so.

In a real world, however, we find our idea of self-sufficiency challenged by events beyond our control. Look at what’s going on in Wall Street tonight (a Sunday night – visit my issues blog for more details). In sweeping measures affecting three major financial institutions, the whole concept of investment v commercial banking was revamped, and the confidence that ordinary consumers have in routine financial activity and insurance is tested. We let “finance professionals” in investment banks get rich by taking our money and leveraging it against speculative assets (real estate). Then in one Sunday night everything changes. Maybe most of us won’t be affected, but ordinary workers and retirees, who base their idea of “freedom” on trusting a system that they think is stable find that their lives are no longer in their own hands, maybe. We shall see (even Monday). Here's a sobering example of what goes on by Colin Barr of Fortune Magazine, as carried on CNN Money, here ("Wall Street's Troubles are Yours, Too").

We consumer more resources, and the rest of the world tries to catch up. As a consequence, we loose a whole major city to a flood (albeit below sea level) and then find most of the nation’s fourth largest city to be without power. The storms get bigger and the potential disruptions get impossible to control or contain.

We’ve encouraged a world of individual independence, and find that if too many of us are too independent, familial and community ties can weaken, and the infrastructure that our “independence” depends on can unravel. Maybe the Luddites had a point. I don’t experience their idea of freedom. But I can see how it makes sense to them, and how some of the rest of us can disrupt it. "Lay up not your treasures on earth..."

If you have cable (that infrastructure again) stayed tuned to CNBC!

Also: a trivia: if you want to see how MLB handles the "road v home" problem when a game is relocated because of a hurricane or weather at the end of the season, look at "Chicago Cubs at Houston" today on mlb.com.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Fantasy baseball in the 1950s to blogs today: coming full circle, and walking through all the social issues

I remember well a private incident one early evening in September of 1955, when I had turned 12. I had been sitting in the living room, and walked over to the bedroom where I had piled a stack of handwritten “news stories” which might be the logical equivalent of today’s blog entries. I heaved them. I don’t know why I felt the urge to do that. Maybe the “demands” of seventh grade. In those days, junior high school started then (not in sixth as with middle school today). I felt that it was time to “give up childish things” perhaps.

What I printed up on those sheets was a “season” of fantasy baseball. I, and a couple of friends, had invented a fantasy league by playing fungo in back yards (arranging the position of home plate in the yard to more or less simulate major league parks in the 50s) We also simulated baseball with a pencil (as a bat) and a ping pong ball on the open floor of the recreation room. We had other fantasy sports, like tennis, by throwing the ping pong ball against a wall and batting it in a way a bit like racquetball.

That was a change in interest from third grade, when I was confronted (by a particularly hostile teacher, I thought) as to how “different” I was. (Curiously, that's when I started piano lessons.) I was always the last picked on the team. Yet, I caught on to what baseball “means” and got interested in “meta-baseball.” I don’t think mlb.com minds. I think at the time that the Orioles and Cardinals were winning respective pennants, and about 100 games had been played by each time (many of them by drawing numbers out of a hat). In fantasy, the Washington Senators did about as well as they did in real life (in 1955 they finished 53-101). I wish I still had the hardcopy sheets today, as they would at least make for a good blog photo. I came to understand the psychological meaning of “home field advantage” in life in general.

Seventh grade started out reasonably well. We had science (which of course I liked) the first “semester” and industrial arts (the nice word for “shop”) the second, which I hated. Another split course was business, music and art. English and social studies were combined as “general education” (to get us to adjust to different classes) and that was the first I heard about “Brown v. Board of Education”.

But seventh grade was my first exposure to gym as it is usually taught, and I found the whole experience humiliating, inducing shame. The taunts (“chicken!”) started. I would be challenged to hit back, and a couple of times fought back with my fingernails, literally, inflicting wounds. Surprisingly, teachers looked the other way. I became modest about my own body, afraid to wear a slort-sleeved shirt until June. (In shop class you roll up your sleeves.) I was in a school operetta (“The Sunbonnet Girl”) but was sensitive about makeup being put on my body. I may chuckle now as I contemplate what actors go through for every movie or soap opera that I enjoy (or for any movie that could be contemplated from my books.)

It got better in eighth grade, but in ninth grade (we didn’t start algebra or foreign languages until ninth grade, still part of junior high school, then) I had some similar problems. In June 1958, I participated in spreading speculative rumors about and made an inappropriate remark in gym class to another student with a particular disability, more apparent than mine, perhaps. I heard about it, but got called in by the school nurse, not the principal! (I remember how the confrontation started: “I want this stopped!.... I was called the “bully.”) I could attribute this to the “teen brain” (I was 14 then) but the incident still rings in my mind.

High school was much better, particularly my senior year, which I have already written about a lot on the blogs. I came to perceive how I could live my life as a “different” person. The grown occurred in steps, and led to incidents (like William and Mary and later NIH and military service) that would shape my life later.

Still, certain principles come into play, and lead to some existential confrontations (even Giuliani mentions them in debates), at least within “the spirit”, whatever one’s religious background (my is Baptist). I learned, particularly in junior high school, that for boys life is to be viewed as a competitive struggle for station in life. It’s your duty as a man to prove you can not only provide for a wife and children but also protect them. If that’s true, some people will be better at this than others. What happens to the people in “the second division” (by analogy to baseball then)? The implication seemed to be that they have a lower “moral station in life.” This is all just following through to logical consequences, "going to the root" as I used to argue with my father as a teen, in a world suddenly trying to attribute more rights and responsibilities to every individual. That was the world of the 50s: a meritocracy based on perceived position in life, that was vulnerable and could be taken away by the outside world, especially Communism. These were the days of waning McCarthyism and segregation, and a defensive attitude toward social privilege. We had just fought the Korean War, and had just won WWII a decade before (supposedly to defeat an ideology based on “master race” notions). I wondered even then if we weren’t contradicting ourselves. And teachers were just starting to talk about the possibility of integration, but it seemed far off then.

Boys like me were in a precarious position. In my case, same-sex attraction (even if biologically immutable) grew out of "upward affiliation" that logically admits that society's "competitive values" imposed on young men really should be viewed as having moral significance. That point came out in my NIH stay in 1962 after my college expulsion in 1961. A good understanding of the pressures that I perceived can be gleaned from the infamous book (probably still available in larger public libraries) by Peter Wyden, “Growing Up Straight”, published by Stein and Day as late as 1968, with its pre-occupation of making everyone conform to being “sexually normal” and with its ruminations over the “pre-homosexual child” (or “sissy boy” or potential “parasite” on others – that is how I was sometimes made to feel, in a world that still drafted young men to fight others’ battles) and its pandering to physical stereotypes. It (or at least, the social norms that led to the book) left someone like me with the impression that the world might have no place for me. Fortunately, I seemed to pull out of that in high school, with some intellectual ability as to how to construct a “different life.” But I would need the freedom to do so, and that itself would become controversial to others, dependent on socialization and reinforcement of (and elimination of cultural distractions from) their marital commitments to even keep them.. Today, things are much better generally, but it still depends very much on the community one lives in.

Society had taught me the importance of personal competition, but it had presented a certain paradox. Someone like me could, if I expressed myself too visibly, make others who were more “marginal” less comfortable with themselves and potentially less able to function in marriages as parents themselves. As my William and Mary incident showed, a “different” person, however artistically creative and expressive, could become a real distraction to others. Once someone like me reached young adulthood, it seemed, society had a reason to back away from this hyper-competitiveness, and try to make everyone comfortable as a potential marital partner and parent, while still having to fit in “as a family” in a social hierarchy defined by others. Of course, much of the activism of the 60s and 70s fought this “unfair” hierarchy, and in general gay rights, civil rights for African Americans, and redistributing wealth resulting from economic unfairness (partly as a heritage from past slavery and segregation) came together, not because of ideology but more just because of social confluence. Later, hyper-individualism would level the playing field across families by making the world more like a "meritocracy" where everyone answered for his or her own accomplishments and "moral hazard" (and associated hidden consumption) while weakening bonds of interdependence that used to make families stable and protect individuals within the extended family unit. Still, some relatively closed cultures (such as the “world” subsumed by the LDS church) have been able to work relatively well by trying to accommodate and socialize everyone into the “family” by de-emphasizing personal competitiveness with religious teaching and cooperative activities. Such subcultures create some genuine social stability and sustainability, at a cost to personal individual freedom and self-expression.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Virginia's anti-spam law, applying also to non-commerical emails, is struck down by state supreme court

The Virginia Supreme Court has overturned Virginia’s anti-spam law and overturned a conviction (of Jeremy Jaynes) because the law prohibited non-commercial political or religious emails (albeit mass-mailed and unsolicited) as well as commercial emails. The opinion was written by Justice Steven Agee. The justice made an analogy of a hypothetical transmission of the Federalist Papers by Publius (a pseudonym of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay) in an argument that appeals to the right to anonymous speech as well. Viginia’s law is the only anti-spam law to apply to non-commercial speech; other states, as well as the federal CAN-SPAM act of 2004, apply only to commercial emails. At the time, the use of the “opt-out” mechanism was seen as inadequate by many people.

The Opinion is available on the Commonwealth’s website here. It is case number 062388.

The AP story is by Larry O’Dell and appears at this link. AOL reproduced the story on its Money link and offered a poll that so far indicates that most visitors believe that even non-commercial spam should have criminal penalties.

Update: Oct. 20, 2008

Check out the blog "The Spam Diaries" (link), especially the material on the writer's defense of a SLAPP lawsuit from an alleged spammer.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remember how we debated "family values" in the 1992 presidential campaign?

I recall when Barbara Bush spoke to the Republican Convention in 1992, for their “family values” night. She started out by saying, “You don’t have to be married, and you don’t have to have children. But if you do have children, they have to become the first priority in your life, and yes, you should be married.”

That sounds simple and nice, but in real life, people often have to make other family members their first priority even when they didn’t have their own children. So perhaps Mrs. Bush didn’t say enough. The converse isn’t exactly true. We seem to have a moral debate about the flip side, about that "something else."

Of course, it sounds like I am referring to “demographic winter” and the longer life spans of people while we have fewer children. The population picture is complicated. On the one hand, a sustainable earth may depend on a finite population some day (hence China’s one child per family policy). On the other hand, in many subpopulations there are not enough workers to support the aged who live longer. We’ve all heard that. Some populations do not replace themselves, leaving them vulnerable to being outflanked “politically”, especially in Europe.

We often hear cases of older children being forced to raise younger siblings. Sometimes siblings are expected to raise each other’s children (as after a death), even when they haven’t had any of their own. There have been several television series and movies about this (like “Summerland” and “Raising Helen”). In past generations, the unmarried (usually women) were expected to stay "home" for caregiving of elderly or disabled family members, who usually could not live as long without modern medical intervention. Married couples are given a lot of power to impact the lives of others, even without “consent” through marital sexual intercourse. There are other troubling situations. In the workplace, the childless are often expected to let those with "families" have preferred shift, and the childless often work longer for less pay.

But the biggest issue of mandatory support that may be facing the childless is eldercare, with longer lives and fewer children, many of them childless.

Now longer lives and lower birthrates can be a good thing for “sustainable” individual freedom if people remain healthy, are able to work longer, and if employers can keep them on longer without forcing them to retire. (OK, that’s the social security debate.) But the way we are practicing medicine today, we are able to prolong lives of our parents but not able to prolong their vitality and independence, in many cases. That needs to change. On the retirement blog I recently referred to some statistics on the geometric increase in cases in Alzheimer’s Disease, to the point it is becoming a new public health crisis.

A number of states have “filial responsibility laws” on their books, whereby adult children can be forced to support indigent parents. This requirement exists outside of the better known Medicaid “look back” rules that have recently been tightened. And given fiscal and economic pressures, you can bet your bottom dollar that states are going to start looking for “creative” ways to enforce them.

Furthermore, the media is repeatedly reporting on the need of adoptive parents for disadvantaged children, with much more emphasis than ten years ago.

We had, particularly in the 90s (and before), developed an “adolescent” culture, where adult were encouraged to “define themselves” before they expected to make committed relationships and raise children. Perhaps for some adults this became a lifelong process of growth. Absolute control of the choice of one's own goals in life has come to be perceived as a "fundamental right," and seems essential to the psychological integrity of many adults (especially those with "unbalanced personalities"). In a more open, global world with instant communication and “self-promotion” this whole proposition begins to sound vulnerable and tenuous, dependent on a technological infrastructure that may be more fragile and less “sustainable” than we had previously thought. Suddenly, previously independent adults (especially those like me safely tucked away in the safety of exile in the "urban free zone" for a few decades before the Internet brought us back together for "reconciliation") face pressures to provide support, perhaps physical and emotional rather than financial in some cases, act as gender role models, and become receptive to others under terms not of their own making and not of their own choosing. They suddenly wonder if their expressive activities will soon be seen as unwelcome, meaningless, or even enticing and dangerous when not accompanied by accountabilities for others, regardless of choice. (That gets us into the area of “implicit content” and all uncertainties, potentially legal ones, involving “reputation” in Internet media as we have discussed before.) Pastors like Rick Warren invoke concepts like "purpose-driven life" to say, really, pressures from others are Okay and you should accept them because your life "isn't about you" anyway! Remember, Mrs. Bush used a big “if” in her 1992 sentence on family values, as if all family responsibility depends on acts of personal volition. If only it were that simple.

So, do we need a debate on the scope of individual sovereignty? A few generations back people accepted interdependence and family responsibility as set up by parents without much question. Children, then, were an economic asset as much as a “responsibility” today. But, suddenly, those faced with responsibilities imposed by others (or perhaps expected openness to experiencing their lives as part of an extended "family" even when they didn't marry or have their own children) find themselves realizing they could be better off if they had had their own children themselves and could command the corresponding social supports (with marriage). Perhaps, in a global context, they suddenly feel like "second class citizens." Philip Longman has talked about that (in his book “The Empty Cradle”) even maintaining that we have become a culture of adults often too self-absorbed to find any joy in having children, and will be in for rude shocks! Or David Callahan criticizes extreme individualism and extreme capitalism as responsible for "The Cheating Culture." Of course, the old religious ideas about abstinence outside of marriage really were set up to channel people into setting up and carrying out family responsibilities before they promoted or broadcasted themselves (physically or symbolically). We don’t want those rules anymore, and wonder if we can set up some sort of new, potentially complicated value systems whereby people wired very differently (ranging from LGBT people to extreme introverts) can do what now they find they have to do. Maybe Perot had it right in 1992 when he talked about “shared sacrifice.” We don’t like to hear than anymore.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Scientology issues 4000 takedown notices under DMCA to YouTube; posters fight back!

Nate Anderson has a major story in Ars Technica about 4000 or more DMCA takedown notices sent to YouTube “critical” of Scientology. The videos ranged from protests in Florida (near Scientology headquarters) to city council hearings in Clearwater, FL (and the city council would control the rights, not Scientology). The group requiring the takedown was apparently the “American Rights Council” and the postings had been made by groups like “Anonymous”.

The story link is here.

Wendy Selzer has a story on EFF’s “Chilling Effects” called “DMCA ‘Repeat Infringers’: Scientology Critics: Account Reinstated After Counter-Notification.” Apparently the poster was known as “Wise Beard Man” and is said to have used the “512 repeat infringers” provision of the DMCA to get reinstated. The Chilling Effects story is here. The Cornell Law School reference to “Limitations on liability relating to material online” is here.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

John McCain: "I wasn't my own man any more. I was my country's".

Toward the end of his acceptance speech Thursday night, Republican presidential nominee John McCain recapitulated in emotional fashion his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He say he had been very cocky and sure of himself, that he was the master of his own fate. He refers to his previous “selfish independence.” Then he had the humbling experience of having to be fed by fellow captives in his POW camp, with his limbs broken and improperly set. “They saved my life,” he said. Then he went on:
“"No man can stand alone" he said. "I wasn't my own man any more. I was my country's".

But as far back as 2001, he had said that to him it was morally vital for a person to find a cause greater than himself. And shortly after his inauguration, but before 9/11, President Bush had told an Ohio State commencement, ““A person without responsibility for others is a person who is truly alone.” I remember that it had sounded strangely out of context when it was said, and an odd comment from him.

All of this gets back to our ideas about “personal autonomy” or “individual sovereignty,” the notion that an individual should be able to choose and follow his or her own course in life, without aggressive interference from others. Sarah Palin seemed supportive of such a philosophy in her own speeches with reference to individualism. Yet, look at what brought about McCain’s new “sense of self”: military service, in a war that we thought to be necessary (the “domino theory”) but that turned out, in history, to have been entered with flawed understanding and intention. The Vietnam war had been backed up by conscription, which is aggression by government against young men (perhaps as “involuntary servitude”), at least in libertarian thought. McCain, however, was an officer; he had chosen to become a leader in Vietnam. He had embraced the military’s core values of unit cohesion (which we know well from another context, to be discussed again below). So, of course his fellow captives fed him. That was their duty as military soldiers and officers. And McCain even turned down an offer by the North Vietnamese to “release” him (for propaganda purposes) to protect his other men. But he had taken an oath to do that.

We come back to that philosophical question: had McCain given up his right to be his own man? It seems do. Did he have to, because of circumstances larger than what he could personally control? Perhaps so. The irony is that he served his country’s purpose, right or wrong, when history would determine that maybe the purpose was “wrong.” What does that mean? Is loyalty to one’s family and country more important as a moral virtue and deciding what is right or wrong for oneself? Are we saying that one does not own the right to “the knowledge of good and evil”?

I’ve talked before on this blog about “sustainability” and the indignation that occurs when various persons or parties gain at the hidden “sacrifices” of others (often overseas). It isn’t hard to imagine circumstances where meeting one person’s or group’s needs come about in such a manner that others must “sacrifice” and even make major life course changes because of problems that they could not have prevented. Eldercare, and the increased media attention to the disabled or disadvantaged (particularly children) are now perceived as issues that call for attention from other individuals in ways we perhaps could not have anticipated ten or fifteen years ago in our policy debates. But, in the past, we’ve seen this sort of problem particularly with regard to military service, particularly with episodes with the draft in wars several decades ago. Earlier generations (including “The Greatest”) accepted that a major component of “public morality” has to deal with this.

The Republican Party Platform seems to be trying to veer away from imposing this moral view of the world. In fact, it wants to portray the Democrats as the party of mandatory shared sacrifice (in fact, Ross Perot had talked about that as a mantra in his bumpy 1992 run for the presidency). If seems to have committed a rude gaffe when mentioning the “incapability” of homosexuality with military service (that “old chestnut” as even Dick Cheney has called it), but a few sentences earlier it supports the all volunteer military and emphatically denies any intention to restore the draft (despite the continued existence of the Selective Service System) or even any kind of mandatory national service. Barack Obama would like to see a strong carrot for national service and says he wants to end “don’t ask don’t tell.” The Republicans may believe that they are pretending to be the “party of liberty” by saying, “What’s the big deal; no one can make you serve.” Of course, military service (or other forms of service) are an important jump start for adult careers, especially for the disadvantaged. But deeper than this, McCain’s own speech (“a cause higher than one’s self”) indicates that a certain orientation toward service (even if becomes life altering and forces one to accept dependence on others later) is an essential moral value. (What if someone substitutes McCain’s phrase “my country’s” with “my family’s” – perhaps leading to soap opera?) Ultimately, to me, McCain seems to have contradicted himself.

In the psychology of Paul Rosenfels (look here on my books blog) talked about “unbalanced personalities” and creativity. Unbalanced persons are much more insistent on choosing and following their own objectives, regardless of external or familial circumstances. They are more likely to view “jihad” (in a personal secular sense) as a deepest possible exploration on their own of what is right and what is true. For an unbalanced person, the greatest horror is to allow himself to become "dependent" on group loyalties so that others can comfortably depend on him--that seems like a fundamental challenge to the moral basis of individualism. Balanced personalities are more likely to review the practical outcomes in social situations as the most important “moral” concerns. Perhaps this sounds like situational ethics to some. But it (the “balanced personality interpretation”) also maintains that the “meaning” of speech in a practical sense may depend as much on the known (social or familial) circumstances of the speaker as on the objective correctness or even legality of content, especially when self-promoted.

The world ten to fifteen years ago seemed to be encouraging to those who want to be very independent. Sadly, it seems less so today. An "independent" soul like me would not be of much use if an external catastrophe yanked our technological world away from us. We had a close call with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 (one of the most critical times in my life) and something like that can happen again.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Facebook, other "free services" suspending users because of "false positive" spam and abuse detection; a growing problem?

One problem with “free” Internet social networking and self-publishing services is that, particularly in our hyper-competitive culture today with its “extreme capitalism”, they tend to attract a lot of abuse, especially spam. Today, Kim Hart has an important story about Facebook on p A1 of the Sept. 4 Washington Post, “A Social Network Where You Can Be Too Social,” link here. In recent times, Facebook member have suddenly had their accounts disabled sending too many identical simultaneous communications. This could take several forms: too many messages, “poking” too often, or joining too many groups. Facebook says it is sometimes erring on the side of caution because spam and illegal activity can cause serious security problems for the entire community.

In some cases, it appears that Facebook tells subscribers that they may have violated terms of service with respect to spam or harassment of copying content. Possibly Facebook is becoming more concerned because employers sometimes see not only what a person herself posts but what others post in their space or "wallpapers."

We’ve seen a similar issue with blogs on the service that this posting is on, since our host has had to deal with detecting abuse and finding that automated bots for such detection are, well, a bit like polygraph tests. They have problems with false positives and false negatives. For security reasons, companies hosting these services have to keep their exact threshold parameters for detection proprietary, so users do not know precisely what is “acceptable.” Social networking and blogging-service companies try to describe acceptable behavior (and unacceptable activity) in their “terms of service” or “acceptable use policies”. Subscribers are told what is “good faith” use (that is, composing your posts yourself the way you would write letters, giving proper attribution for links, imparting information that, however informal or humorous or ironic, is in some valid way original, almost the way a theme in an English class would be). Yet this concept is very hard for interpret across so many areas of subject matter, and in so many entertainment, business, religious or national cultures (consider China, for example). It does strike me as interesting that the subject of “ethics” in social networking or blogging content comes up just as the school year starts, and as high school and college English teachers ponder what they will assign for papers.

The general advice now with these services is to “go slow.” Consider breaking large broadcasts up into groups. Companies generally offer the ability to make formal appeals of service suspensions, but these require human intervention and have been known to take days to even weeks. Obviously, dealing with appeals presents staffing (that is, expenditure) and big-time employee training issues within these companies.

A related experience could be the termination of a few broadband customers from highspeed Internet services for excessive use, and the recent controversy (with the FCC) over ISP’s monitoring the packets of P2P networks that take advantage of BitTorrent. Perhaps all of this could come under the eventual umbrella of “network neutrality” legislation (see my separate blog on that). Most observers say that “free services” are much more vulnerable to abuse than shared ISP hosting that you pay for, but even those services must enforce their AUP’s and have to deal with abuse.

Related to all of this is the way employers have been using social networking sites, including to check up on applicants (the “reputation defense” issue). But companies have also tried to use these sites for perfectly legitimate purposes, as to announce new movies; likewise so have political campaigns. In some cases, companies in specific industries should consider using smaller, profession-specific networking and profiles management sites to avoid these problems.

I have Facebook and Myspace accounts, but have used them little. But I plan to use Facebook soon to start networking with my screenplays. I’ve joined three groups, I think. I’ve have to tread carefully.

There is an interesting post on "Get Satisfaction" by Thor Muller, "13 Reasons your Facebook account will be disabled", link here. It does provide an interesting perspective about too much "self-indulgence" which simulates spam. Muller, on point 4, says "On Facebook it is better--or at least safer--to be seen than heard." Interesting! (Sounds like the title of the movie "13 Conversations About One Thing.") The "Get Satisfaction" site has several other topics about Facebook terminations with similar personal accounts.

We say that the Internet is the “wild west” and, with all its freedom, it has to deal with its “Jesse James” type characters. We’re finding all kinds of nuanced issues with advertising, copyright, child protection, implicit content, in a background of some return in the physical world of the mandatory socialization that needs to be expected of people. Just what paradigms and businesses models will work and remain profitable in the long run, to give general users the expressive freedom they want in a sustainable fashion, seems a little bit up in the air.

Update: Sept. 8

The New York Times Magazine, on Sept. 7, has an article by Clive Thomson on p 42, "I'm So Digitally Close to You", called "Brave New World of Digital Intimacy", maintaining that it is useful to know a lot of people vaguely. The article (link here) starts with a discussion of Facebook's 2006 enhancement (which became controversial), which seems odd considering the trend for Facebook to yank suspicious accounts.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sustainability 402 and Philosophy 101

I talked about some of the ethical “paradigm” problems with the online presence of those whose jobs require public visibility on an employer’s dime, particularly on Aug. 28 on this blog.

It’s logical, isn’t it, for someone to ask. Okay, I’m a sales VP somewhere in charge of hundreds of reps. Or I’m a public school teacher. Or a life insurance underwriter. Come ‘on, let’s use common sense. Even given “my” logic, what’s wrong with my having my blog if it’s only about gardening.

Well, set aside the hypothesis that your employer sells plants, the short answer is (1) nothing if the blog is private (not accessible to search engines) and (2) nothing if you have your employer’s permission, even if it is public.

Let’s sidetrack, too, and mention the idea that many individually-owned websites are set up not to publish thoughts but to conduct home-based businesses and process transactions. That is all right if it doesn’t present a “conflict of interest” according to your employer’s personnel policy. But there are jobs with “no moonlighting” rules, that are absolute. In some exotic cases, those requirements can be legally driven (as by Sarbannes-Oxley).

But, even from the “speech” side, there are plenty of “one topic” blogs. I recently corresponding with a blogger who wrote only about competitive cycling, regarding sensitive questions about blogging service policies. What can be wrong with these? Well, maybe nothing, but maybe your employer has paid you to restrict your appearance to the public for the employer’s instance only.

Is that censorship? Yes, and it is troubling. Public employees (including teachers in most cases) have significant First Amendment protections from intrusions from their employers on otherwise lawful off-duty speech (sometimes even on-duty). The First Amendment itself does not prohibit private employers from restricting the speech of their associates, or even ISP’s or publishing services from doing so. Admittedly there are public policy questions, and future network neutrality legislation could well speak to this issue.

I think what I’m getting at is something more like the CNN employee policy I discussed here on Aug. 2, where associates cannot speak to public issues covered by the network on their own. I’m not sure that prohibition is absolute or applies to all associates, but I see the point of it. But yes, it is private “censorship” but it may be necessary to guarantee the public reputation of the company for objective journalism.

In a way, I’m also getting at the possibility that in the future, some ISP’s or publishing services might not want some kinds of lawful materials on their servers, because of a nuisance factor or problems with advertisers or whatever. Legally, this sounds like their right, although, as I noted, there are genuine neutrality questions.

Of course, I have a personal concern with all this, because my blogs and websites, accumulating material that I started publishing online as early as 1996 (where I entered the policy area over the “gays in the military” issue which exploded into everything else), cover practically everything. I say that the nexus is, anything having to do with all the political, social and moral controversies regarding “individual sovereignty” v. “public morality”, where the military gay ban and other LGBT issues sit well centered, concentrically enclosed by bigger policy problems.

As I’ve indicated, it’s important to establish the nexus between all these different issues and understand how different people experience and perceive them. It’s important to consider them together and with some moral subtlety, and not just stop with looking at things relative to “categories” of people.

I wish the major media outlets did this better than they do. Maybe Anderson Cooper’s 360 is as close as the major companies get (yes, CNN again) to what I would want to do myself if I had a news show.

Some problems are better tackled by individuals or by very small companies or organizations, than they are by bureaucracies. Individuals have much more psychological incentive to discover and publish “the truth” even at considerable personal risk. History is full of examples. And there are counterexamples. I recall, a month before 9/11, a paid speech at a sales convention for my employer. The speaker predicted a 35000 Dow by the middle of this decade. Obviously, that didn’t happen and he didn’t tell the “truth.” (Enron hadn’t yet collapsed.) But he was well paid. He had formal credentials. He had “paid his dues”.

Still, should one person “be allowed” to do this forever? True, I was “only” an individual contributor and I carefully maneuvered things to avoid “conflict of interest.” After “retirement” I have found it harder to stay out of situations where I need “political authority” that would create a conflict with this activity. Still, I’ve stayed out so far, more or less. Still, there is an inherent risk “in the system”. This way of doing things is inherently prone to attract nuisance and takes advantage of mechanisms that attract bad actors. Perhaps no one should be “allowed” to tackle everything. Maybe adversarial politics by group (even “partisanship” and “special interest”) is necessary to some extent in a democracy, because, at least, “special interest” implies some kind of personal commitment by the affected parties, outside of intellectual cerebrations. This sort of question can come up in both business and personal or familial contexts, with a degree of parallelism.

One of the reasons people become “partisan” is that they take on family responsibilities. Yes, they make “choices” when they have children, and must answer for their “choices.” (Yes, marriage is relevant.) But they also share risk and common responsibility, at least by becoming socialized and empathetic (even perhaps courageous, or maybe just reckless) enough to make these “choices.” (Sometimes, especially in lower income or working class families, these “blood loyalty” responsibilities are not that voluntary!) In our pre-Internet, late-Reagan society a couple decades ago, “personal responsibility” was becoming a straightforward concept, that appealed to simple libertarian precepts of harmlessness and individual freedom. In a post 9/11 and post-everything-else “reconciled” and wired world, responsibility has become a more complicated concept, more communal, more concerned with sustainability, having more to do with the risk sharing and socialization that earlier “greatest generations” took on without question, often with a faith-mediated influence.

Okay, I am much more “introverted” (maybe even “schizoid”) and could avoid making some of these choices. The cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s (ours, not Mao’s) resulted in my living a productive, adult life as I wanted, with, I add, a lot of financial prudence avoiding the huge debts that others take and preserving discretionary income and opportunities. I do sense a change, especially since the 2000 election and then 9/11. There have been changes in my own circumstances, not voluntary, that make me appreciate this other perspective. I have been sometimes invited and pressured to compete by other people’s rules, and even to take on authority to validate someone else’s fantasy of “non discrimination.” (Doing so would require public silence on my own take on the issues, as I have explained already.) I should prove that I have the moral and competitive standing to be listened to. That seems to be the message. And, I can see in a way, they have a point. It’s important that people play on teams so that everyone can matter and be taken care of.

Sometimes it seems that, recently, some people have not respected my “freedom” in a way normally expected at the end of a first career; yet I understand that, in the course of becoming involved with the issues, I may have made some speculative statements that could have compromised my rights later. (Yeah, that’s “Dr. Phil” talk.) I still must object to the notion that one must define one’s purpose in life in terms of the needs of others who present themselves to him or her, regardless of one’s own particular talents or disposition. Remember “the Parable of the Talents”? Freedom for individuals and freedom for families are related, but they’re not equivalent.

Nevertheless, I decided to launch on this path in life as early as 1994. Some circumstances in my life made my story very relevant to the “don’t ask don’t tell” debate – with a great deal of irony (which some say none of us can afford anymore). The issues blossomed, and so did the ironies of my own life. I see no other reasonable plan but to see this through to the end. Maybe a movie (you can guess what it should be called), maybe a new kind of software database and application to document political and social thought. I would like to see a public forum on “individual sovereignty and sustainability” organized by some of the universities and colleges that form part of my life story. The best chance for me to take care of other people in a way that our emerging “reconciliation” requires is for me to tell the truth very publicly. That cannot change.

It’s a crazy paradox. If I mention a certain peril, it’s seen as asymmetrically attracting or ‘enticing” trouble; on the other hand an elected official or candidate can say the same thing in a political convention and be cheered. Perhaps I didn’t “pay my dues” and so, down the road, I must. I’ve actually heard that question, by the way: why can’t you run yourself? All you have to do is ask other people for money. Ask, and don’t tell.

At some point, this just gets to be a discussion or lecture in “philosophy” doesn’t it. In the early part of the time that I was in Minneapolis, one of my best friends (who arranged one of my speeches) was a college student who had majored in philosophy. I learned it was a valuable “field.” Politicians speak in concrete metaphors, without much self-reflection. Some questions just come down to philosophy. You have to decide what you believe, and go with it.