The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Leaking Credibility

When Divulging Secrets Devolves into Merely Tattling

People have labeled the recent divulgence of more than a quarter million classified U.S. State Department documents by the website WikiLeaks in terms ranging from criminal, bordering on cyber-terrorism, to another triumph by the free press. We tend to think about leaks as dangerous portents requiring rapid plumbing to protect ourselves from a damaging deluge. In the case of information, however, there is considerable debate whether the cataract is actually safer out in the open rather than behind safe and solid but opaque walls.

Kevin Marsh, an editor at the BBC, makes the classic case for the usefulness of leaks. “They can be irritating and embarrassing for those in positions of power . . . Leaks are a constant reminder to those we allow to govern us that we want to know what they’re really doing in our name [and] not just what they choose to tell us.”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
(insert) and his creation

To this end, I am skeptical when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declares the revelations from WikiLeaks “tear at the fabric of responsible government.” Likewise for statements by the White House that WikiLeaks “has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of individuals,” such as diplomats and intelligence professionals, as well as endangering the lives of people who live under “oppressive regimes.”

WikiLeaks undoubtedly broke the law by obtaining these documents. However, there is something bizarre about disparaging the candid dissemination of information as contradictory to “promoting democracy and open government.” At the same time, I am equally dubious when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims his intent was providing evidence of serious “human rights abuse and other criminal behavior” by the U.S. government. I somewhat agree with a statement by the website that these document expose the “hypocrisy and venality” of U.S. diplomats.

Yet while embarrassment to power is a common aspect of leaks, it should be an incidental by-product and not their primary purpose. The motivation behind leaks is to introduce hitherto unknown facts that might sway public understanding/opinion about a situation as well as the response to it by authorities. In this case, WikiLeaks has confused salaciousness with salience.

The problem is not that the target was diplomatic rather than military secrets. As David Brooks of the New York Times points out, “The fact that we live our lives amid order and not chaos is the great achievement of civilization . . . This order is tenuously maintained by brave soldiers but also by talkative leaders and diplomats . . . We depend on those human conversations for the limited order we enjoy every day.”

Certainly, this cache of secrets contains some legitimately interesting, albeit not particularly surprising, factual revelations. Perhaps the most widely quoted is urgings from the Arab world – Saudi Arabian King Abdullah as well as officials in Jordan and Bahrain – to stop Iran's nuclear program by any means, including military attack by the United States.

However, the bulk of the documents appear to consist of blunt, unflattering subjective characterizations of foreign leaders by U.S. diplomats. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev “plays Robin” to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s “Batman.” Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called “feckless, vain and ineffective as a modern European leader.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy deemed “thin-skinned and authoritarian.” Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai dismissed as “an extremely weak man who did not listen to facts” and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as a “crazy old man.”

And, hey! What about the “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian woman who travels everywhere with Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi and introduced as his (wink, wink) “nurse.” Did we stumble upon the National Enquirer website by mistake? This is not your father’s Pentagon Papers; it’s more like the Playboy from under your teenage son’s mattress.

There are some positives from perusing all this Foggy Bottom gossip. An editorial in the New York Times goes mining for cloud silver and concludes, “What struck us, and reassured us, about the latest trove of classified documents released by WikiLeaks was the absence of any real skullduggery . . . much of the Obama Administration’s diplomatic wheeling and dealing is appropriate and, at times, downright skillful.”

Slate magazine’s Fred Kaplan agrees, “Within the narrowing realm in which the United States (or any country) can influence others in the post-Cold War world, the Obama Administration has been playing the game fairly well.” If nothing else, the sometimes inspired, albeit catty, wording of the dispatches caused Dana Milbank of the Washington Post to wryly observe, “On the bright side, the leaks have shown the world that somewhere within the U.S. diplomatic corps lurks literary genius.”

On the not-so-bright side, Milbank’s colleague Anne Applebaum frets that forcing hyper-transparency on private government communiqués will come at the price of less honest, more taciturn government officials. “Diplomatic cables will presumably now go the way of snail mail. Oral communication will replace writing, as even off-the-record chats now have to take place outdoors, in the presence of heavy traffic, just in case anyone is listening.”

Conservative commentator Marc Thiessen of the American Enterprise Institute believes that even if foreign leaders and diplomats forgive our snide remarks, America may lose prestige, even appearing “powerless,” because of our inability/unwillingness to stop the leaks or punish the perpetrators.

If Assange and WikiLeaks was out to uncover diplomats performing illegal activities or even performing diplomacy badly, this leak might be worth the (temporary) pain and embarrassment. However, Assange’s target appears to be diplomacy itself. Being polite to people with whom our nation disagrees or even despises might be hypocritical but, as Brooks notes, it provides a civil means of settling difference compared to perpetual enmity and warfare.

Now we know that diplomats can be just as snarky as the rest of us when talking behind the backs of the people with whom they often deal face to face. The question is what we gained from it and the answer, from my perspective, appears to be not much.

WikiLeaks is a paradox that has the potential to be genuinely beneficial even as it remains officially illegal and potentially dangerous – sort of the medicinal marijuana of journalism. In this case, however, it is suffering from a contact high. Assange may like to believe he is telling Truth to Power but his latest effort has devolved from divulging secrets to simple tattling, in which the tattler enjoys a completely selfish feeling of faux power by his or her ability to cause discomfort to others.

He may consider his latest batch of secrets worthwhile and significant but the only thing Assange and his website have leaked lately is credibility. That is one of the bad kinds of leaks.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Scientists Are Making Mysterious Dark Matter Less Mysterious But Others Still Fail to See the Light

In the beginning, the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
– Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Current accepted scientific theory states that our Universe sprang into being through a sudden expansion known as the Big Bang. As the energy from this intensely hot beginning cooled, it formed matter. The distribution of matter was not uniform, so it began clumping together, eventually forming stars, planets, and everything else we can see throughout the vastness of space. The largest structures to form were galaxies and galaxy clusters. Here, astrophysicists ran into a problem.

Observable matter did not contain sufficient mass – and, thus, sufficient gravity – for galaxies to hold their colossal shapes. They ought to break down fairly quickly. Since they clearly do not, scientist theorized there must be something out there besides visible matter with sufficient mass to provide the necessary gravitational glue binding galaxies together. They called this invisible stuff “dark matter.” What is more, there had to be a lot it – about six times as much as ordinary visible matter – to square with observation.
The dark matter detected in
galaxy cluster Abell 1689 is
shown in light blue

Scientists did not know anything about dark matter. It was more than merely invisible and did not interact with ordinary matter in any way. However, they stubbornly insisted it must exist because factual observation demanded it and scientists regard empiricism as the highest form of human thinking. Some religious people did not think it was fair that they could not make up God to explain the unexplainable while scientists could make up dark matter to explain gravity.

Quite a few practical people – people who believe that common sense, as opposed to empiricism, is the highest form of human thinking – agreed. It proved to them that advanced degrees from universities did not make scientists smarter than they were. The practical people believe they would be better scientists than those trained to do so but they are too busy with practical concerns, such as making money or waging wars, to waste time over pointless matters like how the Universe holds itself together. They just accept that it does so and regard it as part of their natural rights.

The practical people realized scientists were cooking up dark matter in the pot of imagination. Luckily, the practical people were too smart to fall for it. They knew the source of gravity was either the same Supreme Being who can allow an infinite number of angels to dance on the head of a pin or natural, long-term climate shifts. “It stands to reason,” they said. This is something the practical people always say when they want to end a discussion and just get on with things.

Unfortunately, the scientists, some of whom actually did stand to reason whereas other preferred to do their reasoning while sitting down, refused to let go of the problem. They decided, in typically impractical fashion, that if they looked at what appeared to be nothing hard enough and long enough, they might actually see something. This demonstrates no common sense whatsoever and is probably the main reason why it worked. The trick lay in figuring out what not to look for.

The November 10 issue of Astrophysical Journal contains the observations of a group of astronomers, led by Dan Coe of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and Edward Fuselier of West Point. The group pointed the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys at Abell 1689, a massive galaxy cluster located 2.2 billion light years distant in the constellation Virgo. Abell 1689 contains about a thousand galaxies, representing trillions of stars. However, none of these galaxies interested the astronomers. Instead, they focused on the galaxies behind the cluster.

Abell 1689 is so massive that it acts as a gravitational lens, distorting the light passing by it from the galaxies behind it. The astronomers found that, massive as it is, Abell 1689 did not have enough mass to explain the degree of distortion seen. The difference was the gravitational impact of dark matter. By measuring the distortions in many different places and then translating it as light blue coloration superimposed on the Hubble image, they were able to “see” the dark matter within Abell 1689 and how it was distributed.

They discovered dark matter, much like ordinary matter, distributed irregularly through space, forming massive, dense clumps found at the heart of galaxies as well as close around them. Another group of researchers, led by Meghan Gray of the University of Nottingham and Catherine Heymans of the University of British Columbia got exactly the same results pointing Hubble at the Abell 901/902 galaxy supercluster. They published their findings in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So now that we can see dark matter, what is it exactly? Astrophysicists think the most likely candidates are gauginos, hypothetical particles predicted by gauge theory combined with supersymmetry. Gauginos carry opposite spins from the particles making up ordinary matter (i.e. anti-matter). Like Standard Model particles, some carry a charge while others, called neutralinos, do not.

Neutralinos are likely dark matter candidates because they interact with other particles only through gravity and the weak nuclear force. The lack of electromagnetic and strong nuclear interactions makes them difficult to detect. Calculations demonstrate their possible thermal production in the early hot universe, with approximately the right amount remaining after cooling to account for dark matter.

Neutrinos are the only type of likely dark matter particles detected in the laboratory to date but have almost zero mass. However, the lightest type of neutralino predicted, called the photino, would be both stable and heavy enough to qualify as a WIMP (weakly interactive massive particle) making up dark matter. Interestingly, neutralinos and anti-neutralinos are identical, meaning any two pieces of dark matter colliding would self-destruct like any other interaction of matter and anti-matter.

The result of such explosions would be a stream of particles called positrons, the anti-matter counterpart to electrons. A 2009 article in the journal Nature describes the findings of PAMELA (Payload for Antimatter Matter Exploration and Light nuclei Astrophysics), an Italian satellite designed to measure radiation in space. PAMELA found a much higher number of positrons than expected, suggesting that dark matter collisions, although rare, do sometimes occur.

Such explosions would also produce gamma rays. Yet another team of researchers, led by cosmologist Dan Hooper from the University of Chicago, used the Fermi space telescope, NASA’s gamma ray observatory, and found an abundance of gamma rays emanating from the core of our own Milky Way galaxy. We now know galactic cores are clumping points for dark matter.

One problem is that the gamma radiation measured by Hooper’s team points to WIMPs only eight to nine times heavier than protons. This is lighter than expected for dark matter particles. On the other hand, the astronomical surveys of the Abell clusters found a slightly higher amount of dark matter present than expected, so perhaps it all evens out.

The practical people are not going to like this dark matter/anti-matter connection. Anti-matter is scary stuff. The annihilations it produces are so devastating they may well be the only force in the Universe powerful enough to get Bristol Palin voted off Dancing with the Stars. The practical people have no time for annihilation. After all, what is the point of permanently ending/extending the Bush tax cuts or repealing/saving healthcare reform when two foreign, possibly Muslim, particles could meet at any point and time, wiping out everything within parsecs of the event?

On the other hand, it is estimated that if one could somehow bottle anti-matter and sell it, a price of about $62.5 trillion a gram (i.e. $1.75 quadrillion an ounce) would be fair market value, although I am talking auction estimate here as opposed to retail. This would be enough to pay off the entire U.S. national debt. Luckily, scientists have dedicated themselves to continue looking at nothing. A project called CLASH (Cluster Lensing And Supernova survey with Hubble) plans to survey twenty-five galaxy clusters over the next three years.

This might be enough for the practical people finally to start seeing the light. They are not so good actually coming up with ideas, preferring to outsource this to the scientists they otherwise disdain, but they are highly skilled at exploiting useful ones. Once there is money to make or power to gain from it, dark matter will suddenly start making a whole lot of common sense to them.

It stands to reason.

The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.
– Douglas Adams

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mandate Up

Their Promised Approach to Governance Didn’t Work Out So Well for the Last Guys

During one of their debates, Nevada Tea Party Senatorial candidate Sharon Angle famously told Majority Leader Harry Reid to “Man up!” meaning he needed to toughen up in the face of adversity and take responsibility for his actions and their consequences. As it turned out, Reid apparently manned up sufficiently to become one of the relatively few Democrats avoiding rejection by voters last Tuesday.

Republicans, the big winners in this election, were quick to see their victory as a justification to mandate up. Their victory moved Representative John Boehner of Ohio, the likely next Speaker of the House, to tear of relief because he believed his Party now could save the American Dream. “I think that it's a mandate for Washington to reduce the size of government and continue our fight for smaller, less costly and more accountable government,” he told reporters.
John Boehner and Mitch McConnell believe they have
been given a mandate to undo Obamacare and Obama

Boehner also believes Republicans have a mandate to repeal healthcare reform as passed by Democrats, calling it a “monstrosity” that “will kill jobs in America, ruin the best healthcare system in the world, and bankrupt our country.”

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who will remain Minority Leader because candidates like Angle did not prevail, was even more belligerent. He argued Republican lawmakers should vote to repeal healthcare reform, over and over if necessary. Then McConnell took it a step further, maintaining that merely opposing Obama’s policies was insufficient.

Republicans top goal for the next two years should be doing anything and everything possible to deny the President a second term. McConnell reasons the only way for Republicans to undo everything is “to put someone in the White House who won't veto any of these things.”

For his part, Obama was chastened by the “shellacking” his Party suffered but unapologetic about his agenda, although he conceded he was so eager about what needed to be done he had forgotten how he promised to do it (i.e. outreach to Republicans and greater civility/bipartisanship). “I do believe there is [still] hope for civility,” he avowed.

Boehner and McConnell flatly stated they would accept Obama’s help only as far as it coincided with their mission.

They say the size of their victory demonstrates the American publicly has roundly rejected Democratic progressivism and this rejection cuts across all demographics and ideologies except for the extreme loony Left. Election results and exit polls tell a different story, however.

For starters, one might assume – given the extent to which Republicans used Obama as a proxy against Democratic contenders – that Democrats who voted with the President would suffer the worst loses while those who distanced themselves and voted against him would do better. In fact, of the thirty-three House Democrats running for re-election who voted against healthcare reform, two-thirds were defeated. About the same was true among the forty-two who voted against Cap and Trade. In comparison, only two Senate Demorats who voted for both the stimulus and healthcare reform lost.

CNN exit polls reject the oft-insisted conservative claim that this election was a referendum against Obamacare. Only seventeen percent of voters considered healthcare reform their top issue and more half voted for Democrats. Likewise, only thirty-seven percent said their vote meant “expressing opposition to Obama.” Even given continuing high unemployment and slow recovery, in the sixteen Democratic-represented Congressional districts hardest hit by the economy, only one flipped Republican.

There is no question that Republicans received a loud and clear mandate from a cadre of energized conservative voters. However, far from representing all Americans, this group was both whiter and, especially, more elderly than the population as a whole. Republicans continued to lose eighteen to twenty-nine year olds by seventeen points. As Harold Meyerson of the Washington Post observed, “There was absolutely a Republican wave on Tuesday, but it looks more like the wave of the past than the wave of the future.”

Republicans won with this cadre and Independent voters, who broke for the GOP in 2010 by about the same margin they went for Obama and Democrats in 2008. They were sending a mandate too but one less about ideological preference and more about results.

The Washington Post’s David Broder explains, “There will be a temptation to interpret the Democrats’ loss of their House majority and of at least six Senate seats as a rejection of Obama's first-term agenda . . . American voters are not that flighty or unsettled . . . The biggest problem by far was the economy . . . The worst mistake would be for [Obama] to abandon or reject his own agenda for government.”

Broder’s conservative colleague Charles Krauthammer disagreed, arguing the rejection was so complete that neither Obama nor any future Democratic can or would wish to govern from a progressive philosophy ever again. However, he concurred on this key point – “Republicans [should not] over-interpret their Tuesday mandate. They received none.”

Some pundits argue Obama’s fatal mistake was in overreaching while others maintain he was not nearly aggressive enough. Actually, Obama’s mistake was overestimating how long Americans would be patient over a sluggish economy from which the middle class had failed to benefit long before the recession. Republicans benefited as the only available alternative. They are also next in line for the boot if they fail to deliver. Moreover, nothing suggests voters have grown more patient.

To this end, Republicans must focus on economic growth and creating jobs in the private sector. They must press for reforms but be willing to compromise on details. While attempting to repeal healthcare reform is a gesture owed to their most ardent constituents, they must present viable conservative alternatives to its most unpopular components. This is not my policy prescription but that of Karl Rove, writing in the Wall Street Journal.

Boehner and McConnell may choose not to heed these admonitions. They may insist they have a mandate that represents the broad will of the American People. They may insist this election represented a permanent seismic shift to the ideological right by this country. They may insist compromise is a dirty word and only total repeal is sufficient. They may insist voters have seen the error of their ways and will patiently wait two years or more for them to build the majorities and power bases necessary to do things the right way. They may insist they only way they will not be successful is if the defeated Party is obstructionist.

Of course, they insisted in the run-up to this election that these are exactly the same mistakes made by the Democratic leadership after 2008. As chief of the defeated, Obama noted in his press conference, “Ultimately, I’ll be judged as President as to the bottom line, results.” The same is true for Boehner, McConnell, and the rest of the Republicans swept into office last week.

It is time for them to quit mandating up and start manning up. They have the acting tough part down pat. Now it is time to work on the taking responsibility part. Otherwise, it will quickly become clear nobody was listening to the American People this election.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Strong or Weak Tea?

The Tea Party Produces a Strange Initial Brew

The Tea Party prides itself as a spontaneous, grassroots movement with no formal organization, infrastructure, or leadership. Tuesday’s midterm elections presented the first chance to see how this approach fares on a national scale. Its strength was evident but so were its weaknesses.

Tea Party candidates Marco Rubio and Rand Paul won
their Senate elections while Christine O'Donnell and
Sharon Angle were defeated
The movement’s raw numbers are legitimately impressive. One hundred and thirty-five candidates officially backed by the Tea Party won election, including five Senators. They scored wins in twenty-four states, demonstrating genuine nationwide viability. Places where they experienced highest success included Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.

However, Tea Party candidates suffered loses in thirty-two states. Some of their worst performances were predictable, in such liberal places as California, Massachusetts, and New York. However, they also did poorly in purplish states with hard economic times. They won only one race and lost three in Pennsylvania, while Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio proved toss-ups, with multiple wins and losses. Perhaps most surprisingly, they lost four races in Texas, a solid red state, to a single victory.

Even where conservative voter turnout was strong, establishment GOP Senate candidates consistently fared better and won by larger margins than their Tea Party compatriots. For all their “authenticity,” angry, impulsive candidates did not necessarily inspire voter confidence, even in the year of the angry voter. Yet in Senate races, the Tea Party achieved an impressive fifty percent winning percentage, albeit for a much smaller set of races, than the thirty-one percent victory margin they realized in House races.

The Tea Party must realize two important mitigating factors about the ability of its winning candidates to influence Washington as well as its own ability to achieve success in future elections.

First, the relatively large number of Tea Party wins was due to the sheer volume of candidates it backed. Moreover, many Republican politicians were eager for a Tea Party endorsement to demonstrate their anti-big government credentials. However, conservative voters celebrating victories may come to realize they have replaced much-maligned RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) with TINOs.

For example, I live in Ohio’s 1st Congressional District. On Tuesday, Republican challenger Steve Chabot, who was officially backed by the Hamilton County Tea Party, unseated one-term Democratic incumbent Steve Driehaus. However, the Hamilton County Republican Party also backed Chabot. In fact, he was the seven-term Representative beaten by Driehaus in 2008. He is unquestionably conservative but hardly a Beltway outsider, serving throughout the former Bush Administration and faithfully supporting all of its spending initiatives.

Second, one reason for the Tea Party’s success in this particular election may have had much to do with the demographics of those voting this year. Compared to 2008, voters in 2010 consisted of more whites and fewer African Americans and Hispanics. Likewise, it consisted of significantly more voters aged sixty-five and older and significantly fewer under the age of thirty. I could not find percentages related to income. Otherwise, however, these demographics align neatly with how Tea Party membership differs from the U.S. population in general.

I do not wish to detract from the Tea Party’s accomplishments in these midterms, which frankly were impressive for its first foray on a national scale. Unlike unsuccessful Third Parties of the recent past, which tended to place their initial emphasis on a single Presidential candidate, the Tea Party has established a legitimate power base at the Congressional level from which it can build. However, it does suffer from limitations that seem structurally inherent rather than ancillary.

The Tea Party’s disdain for career politicians has already cost it several key elections – experience and competence do not necessarily equate with corruption. What is more, even its most novice winners are going to have to learn how to cooperate and compromise in Washington. The assumption that everyone else in government is going to obey and get out of the way for fear of “suffering the wrath of the People” is simply naïve in its underestimation of Beltway cynicism and hypocrisy.

In much the same way, Tea Party disdain for formal leadership only serves to curb its effectiveness. The spontaneous leaders that have emerged so far have been little more than provocateurs at best, sometimes doing more harm than good.

Finally, the Tea Party’s freewheeling spirit, born of frustration with government, may be genuine and even admirable but is nonetheless unsustainable. If its elected candidates do not become effective change agents in Washington, despondency will set in, much as it did for many Democratic supporters this year. Alternatively, success by its candidates will diffuse anger among Tea Party voters (you cannot be angry and happy at the same time) and the push for change will diminish with it.

This tempest in a teapot proved it could help bring about political tsunami in this country. However, the tea it has produced so far has proven a strange brew, with a strong initial flavor but weak aftertaste as one sips it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Taken In Context

Nobody Is Really a Villain in the Juan Williams Incident; Everybody Is a Hypocrite

People living hundreds or even thousands of miles away may soon feel the causal results of the earthquake that occurred off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia Monday morning in the form of tsunamis. Likewise, a wave that formed as an aftershock from Bill O'Reilly pissing off Whoppi Goldberg swept away Juan Williams’s career at National Public Radio a few days later. The NPR journalist has frequently appeared on FOX News in recent years as a liberal adversary to its bevy of conservative pundits and analysts.
Juan Williams (insert) has
frequently appeared on FOX
News in recent years

Williams turned up last week on O'Reilly’s program in this very role and took him to task for generalizing Islamic extremism to include all Muslims. O'Reilly had previously caused Goldberg to walk off the set of The View by opining, "Muslims attacked us on September 11," to justify his opposition to the so-called Ground Zero Mosque. Then, desiring to concede everyone makes mistakes, he attempted to throw O’Reilly a bone that boomeranged.

“Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Williams’s remark caused uproar in various circles. However, it was nothing to the reaction that followed his dismissal by NPR for the offense. Virtually everyone agreed the organization had overreacted. This included Williams. “Obviously, I feel that I should have had the opportunity to supply NPR with the entirety of the context of the statement to make sure they understood,” he told the Associated Press.

I have to agree with those holding that Williams’s opinion – while perhaps poorly expressed, perhaps even downright stupid in some aspects – was not a fireable offense. I also agree with Williams that context is key in this matter, although perhaps not in the same way he meant it.

First, everyone is focusing on the part about “If I see people who are in Muslim garb [on a plane] . . . I get nervous,” as the objectionable aspect of Williams’s statement. I agree with those who maintain many Americans in a similar situation would react the same. It is understandable but not necessarily rational.

As numerous conservative commentators – Reuel Gerecht, author and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and columnist Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic to name two – have pointed out, the September 11 hijackers dressed in Western garb to blend inconspicuously with other passengers. It is likely that future Islamic terrorists will do the same, regardless of venue. If Williams had acknowledged his nervousness to those in Muslim clothing as natural but irrational, I would join his most ardent defenders in declaring him blameless.

However, he did not do this. In fact, he took it to the next level with the phrase I find most offensive in his characterization of anyone wearing traditional Muslim garb “identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims.” It well may be a (big) part of the wearer’s identity but Williams conflates it to primary religious/ideological/political expression. And lest “first and foremost” be dismissed as a casual choice of words, Williams uses this exact phrase again in an op-ed piece he posted the next day at FOX News, in which he defends himself and blasts his former employer for politically correct intolerance.

In this context, Williams appears guilty, albeit unintentionally/subconsciously, of the same thing he harangued O’Reilly about earlier and urged listeners not to do in the next breath. He is no Islamaphobe but it is also understandable how his comments could be negative perceived by many Muslims.

Second, there is widespread acknowledgement that NPR fired Williams less for his specific comment and more for a mounting dissatisfaction with him by its management over his evolving role at FOX. Williams said exactly this on ABC’s Good Morning America. For its part, NPR management insisted it had warned Williams repeatedly for violating its ethical code against journalists expressing controversial opinions on the air.

“Juan has a First Amendment right to say whatever he wants. He does not have a First Amendment right to be paid by NPR for saying whatever he wants,” explained one NPR executive. He characterized Williams’s latest pronouncement, “the last straw.” While this may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, NPR picked a poor straw over which to exhibit a fragile vertebra.

Williams insisted during a phone call with NPR CEO Vivian Schiller that he would have said the same thing on an NPR program that he said on FOX. However, there are considerable examples of a tendency by Williams to concede or even endorse right-wing talking points while on FOX. NPR asked FOX to stop using its name in connection with Williams after he commiserated with conservative FOX colleagues over First Lady Michelle Obama’s “blame America instinct.”

In this context, NPR had every right to fire an employee whose other professional associations had made him an embarrassment/irritant to their organization. However, this should have been the reason provided for the firing. It was despicable of NPR to conflate a poorly worded/stupid statement into hate speech in order to vilify Williams and thus dismiss any culpability on their part for his release.

Third, many liberals have criticized NPR for the draconian nature of its response, even if they do not necessarily agree with/approve of what Williams had to say. Conservatives have also flocked to Williams and trashed NPR. Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina announced he is introducing legislation to end federal funding for public radio and television. Republican Representative Doug Lamborn of Colorado is introducing similar legislation in the House.

“These programs should be able to find a way to stand on their own,” contends DeMint. “There's simply no reason to force taxpayers to subsidize a liberal programming they disagree with.”  However, conservative disgust with NPR has little to do with their love of free speech or support for Williams. Lamborn already submitted legislation to cut funding for public broadcasting after fiscal year 2012 that has been languishing in committee for some time. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich wanted to “zero out” public broadcasting in the federal budget back in the 1990s but never could muster the necessary votes to do so.

Conservatives have long targeted NPR, arguing it is a mouthpiece for liberal propaganda or, at the very least, gives insufficient times/support for conservative viewpoints. Frankly, they might not have a bad idea. NPR only receives somewhere between two percent to fifteen percent of its annual budget from direct taxpayer money, depending on how exactly this term is defined. The time may have come for it to cut its apron strings to government altogether.

In this context, conservative politicians have every right to oppose public funding for broadcasting with which they disagree. However, much like NPR, they are using this incident to make their stance appear more principled and less dogmatic than it really is.

FOX announced it just signed a contract with Williams that is worth over $2 million. This is undoubtedly more than NPR paid him or ever could afford to pay him. While publicizing the deal, FOX chief Roger Ailes sanctimoniously intoned that Williams’s right to free speech “is protected by FOX News on a daily basis.” It will be interesting to see how long this continues.

So, to sum up, in an effort to prove his reasonableness to one of his employers, Williams said something more stupid than bigoted. His other employer pounced on that statement as a politically correct guilt-free excuse to fire him. Conservatives rushed to his rescue as justification for their long-standing desire to end public funding for something with which they disagree politically. Nobody is really a villain here but everybody is a bit of a hypocrite.

In this context, Williams paid a price but also received a reward. He can cast himself as a truth-telling victim, yet is going home with a bigger paycheck for doing so. Ultimately, he will get what he earned and deserves. The only difference between how liberals and conservatives view Williams and this incident is that many liberals now consider him merely an idiot whereas conservatives regard him as a useful one.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Dragon Market

The Chinese Learned Free Market Capitalism From the West; Now What Can We Learn From Them?

Whether you believe globalization has been ultimately good or bad for the United States, everyone can surely agree that China benefited greatly from it. China reaped these benefits because the Chinese government began promoting economic liberty for its people, following the dismal failure of Mao Tse Tung’s communistic Cultural Revolution. The explosive growth that resulted and continues today leaves China poised to become the world’s largest economy by 2020.
China is poised to
become the world's largest
economy by 2020

China’s economic success story demonstrates the obvious and comprehensive superiority of free market capitalism for many Americans. It leaves conservative thinkers speculating why President Obama and the Democratic Party seem determined to take this country in the seeming opposite direction. If, as conservatives imply, Chinese leaders are so much smarter than are the people currently running this country, it might be instructive to see how they are handling their triumph.

China’s basic strategy up to this point relied on an abundance of cheap, unskilled labor, permitting them to undercut Western goods with higher production costs while simultaneously improving the income/quality of life of its own workers. It resulted in a mass migration of people from rural areas to urban centers, paralleling the Twentieth Century American experience. This approach has not been without costs, however.

Explosive double-digit growth has created a burgeoning wealth gap, environmental concerns, widespread government corruption, rising inflation/sluggish domestic consumption, and foreign pressure to properly value the yuan. Many here at home say such is the price of success. One might think China is resolved to re-double its efforts.

The Chinese see things a little differently. They are thrilled with growth but fear they are growing too fast and out of control. Back in March, Premier Wen Jiabao described his country’s expansion as “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable.” The Chinese are opting for long-term stability over short-term profitability.

What is more, they are putting their money where their mouth is. This Wednesday, the People's Bank of China, the government central bank, raised its key lending rate by 0.25 points. It was the first hike since the recent global economic crisis and explicitly aimed at slowing growth, inflation, and domestic credit. China has prospered by selling its goods cheaply oversea and it wants that to continue. However, it also wants to promote domestic consumption.

While the Chinese model has brought wealth and upward mobility into the middle class for people moving from rural areas to cities, those remaining in the countryside continue living on subsistence wages. Rural workers also face more obstacles to healthcare and other benefits as well as endure the worst of environmental damage by industry. Meanwhile, urban laborers are pushing for higher wages, more benefits, and cleaner/safer working environments.

Many in this country commonly decry such social concerns are job killers. Chinese leaders realize they need to create tens of millions of new higher-value, higher-skilled jobs. This means stressing innovation and improved higher education, even at the risk of introducing more freedom of thought and pro-democracy ideas among the educated. The risk appears to be paying off. China's global patent applications are growing five times more quickly than those of the U.S. In addition, the number of papers appearing in international journals authored by Chinese researchers has increased.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman reports a recent conversation with Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Mahbubani was incredulous the U.S. Congress balked at an initiative proposed by President Obama to create separate research centers to solve the eight biggest energy problems in the world because the $200 million price tag was deemed too high during a time of high deficits.

Singapore recently invested more than a billion dollars to promote itself as a biomedical research center. Likewise, the Chinese government responded to the global recession with a four trillion yuan (i.e. $586 billion) stimulus package to promote research and development.

Sometimes more notable than what the Chinese government does is what it chooses not to do. Traditionally, the Communist Party has come down hard and fast on any type of labor unrest. However, the Economist noted in July that the government treated a recent strike with far greater leniency. The Chinese surmise a (slightly) stronger labor movement would give workers more money to spend and boost domestic consumption.

When the Chinese government talks about growth that is “unbalanced,” it refers to growth not experienced by all segments of its society. It wishes to spread the wealth to all its citizens, preferring moderate gains by everyone to meteoric gains by a relative few. Unsurprisingly, a Communist regime sees government as one of the best tools to do this. To be sure, so much money funneling through government has led to corruption among officials, including bribes, graft, and embezzlement. The government has introduced a series of economic reforms to deal with such problems.

Some Western observers insist economic reform will drive political reform in China, forcing it to become more democratic. Gordon Redding and Michael Witt, two senior fellows at the Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires, disagree. In their book The Future of Chinese Capitalism (Oxford University Press, 2008), the two explain that different parts of China are trying different things to find the best formula.

They believe the South Korean chaebol model is the type of capitalism most likely to emerge in China. Chaebols are powerful conglomerates owning numerous international enterprises. Ownership is not limited to the founding group or “family” but it retains tight control over the enterprise. Samsung, Hyundai, and LG are all examples of chaebols that have become well-known international brand names with aggressive governmental support and finance.

Many Westerners dismiss such possibilities. They point to the historical superiority of free market capitalism over the dismal failures of past and current communist states. Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post characterizes European experiments with socialism as “unraveling,” a common conservative charge of late, in his column today. However, the data does not bear out all this indulgent smugness.

The website Econompic Data analyzed data on average wealth per citizen for various countries, as gathered by financial giant Credit Suisse. The study defined “wealth” as all assets, including real estate, minus debt. A decade ago, the U.S. ranked number two in the world for this category, second only to Switzerland. Despite a twenty-three percent increase over the past ten years, numerous other countries, including Norway, Australia, Singapore, France and Sweden, have since outpaced us.

There is little question the Communist Party in China is a totalitarian and frequently repressive regime. We express self-satisfied assurance there is a big difference between the Chinese and us. Nowhere does this seem truer than recent economic performance and our respective ideas for dealing with the future.

The Chinese favor long-term, stable wealth creation; we worship short-term profits. The Chinese understand wealth creation among its citizens is the best way to stimulate domestic consumption; we prefer maximizing wealth for our largest corporations and richest citizens, with the hope it will trickle down, as ordinary Americans purchase more and more through debt. The Chinese are investing in innovation; we obsess over deficit reduction.

The Chinese are turning to appreciate the value of stronger labor; we talk about busting more unions. The Chinese understand the value of a superior education; we stigmatize intellectuals and universities as elitist. The Chinese use regulation to police the worst aspects of business and are starting to use it to self-police government; we deny the problems exist or insist lower taxes and smaller government are the panacea for all our problems. The Chinese middle class is growing despite a wealth gap; our middle class is in decay as our wealth gap mushrooms ever larger.

There really is a big difference between the Chinese and us. The Chinese seem to know how to manage a vibrant, growing capitalist economy, while us . . . not so much. We live or die on market fortunes. Soon, we will no longer have to worry about bull or bear markets. The future is on course toward a dragon market unless we smarten up. With the yuan in its talons, this beast has the world wrapped around its tail and it is starting to squeeze.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Stain on Intelligence

The American Middle Class Is Devolving, Thanks to Anti-Intellectual Populism

In a society where adults gather nightly about a glowing box in their living rooms to watch other adults squirm at the rigors of pitting themselves against the vast storehouses of knowledge represented by fifth graders, laments about Americans growing continually stupider are legion to the point where they have become cliché. In recent years, however, we have seen a rise – or, more accurately, a reoccurrence of unprecedented proportions – of disdain for education and intellect itself. Calling someone intelligent is still a compliment; yet calling that same person an intellectual would fall more in the category of stigmatization.

The Devolution of Intelligence
“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself,” Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in 1837. “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” H.L. Mencken wryly concurred in the 1920s.

However, it was Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 seminal work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which first formally identified a tendency among Americans to distrust, resent, and even feel moral revulsion toward intellectuals. Hofstadter argued this phenomenon reasserts itself in cycles, prodded on by factors such as religious fundamentalism, populism, the veneration of common sense over academic knowledge, the pragmatic values of business and science, and admiration for entrepreneurship and self-made successful persons. The American sociologist Daniel Bell affirmed this thesis, predicting the rise of an anti-elite-education populism in 1972.

In 2008, journalist and author Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason maintained that American anti-intellectualism is at an all-time high, resulting from the influence of junk science, fundamentalism, celebrity-obsessed media, identity politics, urban-gang culture, political correctness, declining academic standards, moral relativism, political pandering, and the weakening of investigative journalism. She also believes information/communication sources have barraged our sensory input to the detriment of focus and critical thinking skills.

In the 1950s, the Ivy League purposefully began to shake loose from its old traditions as bastions of wealth and privilege. Its schools sought for diversity based on merit rather than family connections and largely succeeded. However, as New York Times columnist David Brooks points out, “The sorts of people who become stars in an information economy and a hypercompetitive, purified meritocracy” ultimately become “as elitist as the old [Ivy Leaguers], just on different grounds.”

Journalist Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post and Slate magazine, maintains the rise of meritocracy described by Brooks is driving the current wave of anti-intellectual populism. “The old Establishment was resented . . . because its wealth and power were perceived as undeserved,” she writes. “Those outside could at least feel they were cleverer and savvier . . . they could blame their failures on ‘the system’.” Under a meritocracy, she counters, ordinary Americans face the unpleasant attribution of their own failures/shortcomings for their lack of success.

Politicians have exploited this discomfiture over the decades by recasting the highly intelligent and well educated as snobbish elites and, recently, ineffectual Ivory Tower academics, whose brilliance lacks common sense allowing them to implement solutions in the real world. This has led to a rise of candidates who play up their lack of accomplishment and genius, insisting that the intricate difficulties and challenges facing our country all have simple solutions – usually smaller government and lower taxes.

The GOP’s far right, increasingly the GOP’s mainstream, as well as the Tea Party embrace this philosophy. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman snickers that their motto should be, “Think small and carry a big ego.” Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post contrasts them with the conservative Tories that just came to power in Great Britain and concludes, “[It] is the difference between rational conservatism and magic-wand conservatism.”

Marcus’s colleague, Eugene Robinson, is incredulous. “Two years ago, with the nation facing a host of complex and difficult problems, voters put a bunch of thoughtful, well-educated people in charge of the government. Now many of those same voters, unhappy and impatient, have decided that things will get better if some crazy, ignorant people are running the show? Seriously?”

I was part of the first generation in both my mother’s and father’s families to attend college. My parents and grandparents were pleased and proud of this and taught me to be the same. The same was true for my wife. Today, calls to pull kids out of universities to avoid brainwashing by liberal educators or burning books to stop the spread of dangerous socialist ideas are becoming more common and viewed as less extreme fringe.

The American Dream is predicated on the notion that our offspring can achieve more than we did. Wealth is a common standard for measuring this. Today, Americans are decrying economic conditions that threaten this promise for our children and grandchildren, even as they stand poised to sweep candidates into office whose policies will continue to chip away at middle class viability.

However, there are types of worth that have nothing to do with money. My generation once heard our education and intellectual pursuits/accomplishments were what set us above the crowd. Now the message is to view it as a potential source of embarrassment, something we should deny or at least suppress to ensure we fit in with the least common denominator – a standard getting lesser and more common every day.

As Applebaum muses, “If working hard, climbing the education ladder and graduating from a good university only wins you opprobrium, then you might not bother.” The American middle class is under attack from multiple directions. We are devolving, even as conservative candidates assure us that moving backwards to simpler times with traditional values will cure all that ails us.

The New York Times posits this morning that Tea Party candidates conceivably could win as many as thirty-three seats in Congress, making them a caucus with real potential influence. The GOP is almost certain to reclaim control of the House and possibly the Senate. They will do so as the result of Democratic mistakes in governance as well as a continuing anemic economy. However, they will also do so because a wave of anti-intellectual populism successfully placed a stain on the very names of education, intelligence, and merit.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hicks and Hardhats

So Much for the Hope of “Grass Roots” Conservative Governance

A few embarrassing bumps were felt last week in the GOP’s anticipated return to power after the November midterm elections. The Tea Party and other conservative grassroots initiatives have many Republicans boasting the American Heartland is returning to them after flirting with Democratic progressivism. Republicans tout themselves as the Party most aligned with the values and concerns of these “everyday, ordinary Americans,” the ones who best understand their current pain.

West Virginia "Hicks" in Raese's
Senatorial ad

Yet when it comes to finding spokespeople to endorse them, it appears as though the GOP is more comfortable with Hollywood than Heartland. Two Republican candidates got into hot water when Democrats learned paid actors represented constituents in Republican ads. There is nothing new about using actors to play voters in political ads. The chagrin came when details emerged about the qualities Republicans and their advertisers accepted and even looked for when portraying the everyday Americans with which they boasted such empathy and understanding.

The first incident surfaced in West Virginia, where Democratic Governor Joe Manchin is running an unexpectedly close race against Republican industrialist John Raese for the late Robert Byrd’s Senate seat. A seeming disconnect between Raese and the state he hopes to represent is Manchin’s most effective argument. Although Raese maintains a residence in West Virginia, the New York Times reports he has at least three homes across the U.S. and his wife lives primarily at the couple’s Palm Beach home.

Raese decided to hit back by tying Manchin to President Obama, who is extremely unpopular in the state. The result was an ad appearing to feature three rural West Virginian voters sitting in a diner. The men agree Manchin did okay as Governor but needed to be kept home and away from Washington, so he will not succumb to Obama’s bad influence.

Raese’s problems began when Democrats learned the three natives depicted in the ad were not natives at all but professional actors. The ad’s true location was not in West Virginia but Philadelphia. The truly damning part, however, came from the wording used in the casting call. “We are going for a ‘Hicky’ blue collar look,” it read. “Think coal miner/trucker looks.”

Manchin was quick to jump on the blunder, calling on Raese to apologize. “John Raese and his special interest friends have insulted the people of West Virginia and need to immediately apologize,” he said in a statement. “Not only have they been spending millions to try and buy this election with lies and distortions, we can now see once and for all what he and his friends really think of West Virginia and our people.”

Both Raese and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) reacted angrily, accusing Manchin of being far phonier in his stated political views than actors in a commercial. However, action often proves more telling than words and the NRSC has already pulled the ad.

The second embarrassment came in my home state of Ohio, where John Kasich, a former U.S. Representative and FOX News Channel commentator, had been enjoying a sizable lead as the Republican candidate for Governor over Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland. Kasich’s chief advantage has been Ohio’s dismal economy during Strickland’s four-year term, with unemployment above the national average.

Ohio "Steelworker" in Kasich's
Gubernatorial ad
Strickland cut into this lead of late by playing up Kasich’s connection to Lehman Brothers. Kasich served as a Managing Director within the failed financial giant’s Investment Banking division from 2001 until the firm’s collapse in 2008. He even went so far as to pitch Lehman personally to the Ohio State Pension Fund Board, although his solicitation went thankfully unheeded.

Kasich retaliated by hitting Strickland once more over the economy and unemployment. His team created an ad featuring what appears to be an Ohio steelworker or blue collar factory worker of some type. The worker wears a plaid flannel work shirt and holds a hardhat in his hands. He appears to be standing in a dark, closed, and deserted factory. After noting the exodus of jobs during the past four years, the worker then charges, “Strickland destroyed Ohio jobs when he busted the budget and raised our taxes to help pay for his mistakes.”

The ad appeared effective at first glance but then it surfaced that, as in the West Virginia case, the spokesperson was not an actual Ohio blue collar worker but a Florida actor, named Chip Redden. Even worse, a normally right-leaning Ohio blog, operated by Matt Naugle, tore into Kasich because the actor in question had a “colorful” past, consisting of appearances in a Girls Gone Wild-style sex videotape and a string of felony and misdemeanor charges, including battery.

The Kasich campaign defended itself, saying the ad never identifies the actor as a steelworker but rather representative of all unemployed Ohioans. It points to the common use of actors in political ads. “This is being attacked because they don’t like the message. So [they] kill the messenger,” said Kasich Press Secretary Rob Nichols.

However, Democrats have successfully pounced on the revelation and exploited it. “The majority of our workforce, they’re well acquainted with Governor Strickland because he's been here for us. He wouldn't have to pay us to speak on his behalf like apparently Kasich needs to pay people to speak on his behalf,” said Scott Rich, president of steelworkers IAM Local 1943 in Middletown Ohio.

“When we saw Congressman Kasich’s ad, we wondered why any Ohio steelworker, whose job has been threatened by the unfair trade deals Kasich supported in Congress, would be willing to appear in his commercials,” agreed USW Local 1238's John Saunders. “As it turns out, when Congressman Kasich couldn’t get a real steelworker to do his dirty work, he did what any Congressman from Wall Street
would do – he paid someone.”

Strickland’s campaign notes he has never hired an actor for an ad. State Democrats smirk that despite all his talk about creating Ohio jobs, the only job Kasich has created so far is for one Florida ex-con.

Even before the disclosure, the Columbus Dispatch took the ad to task for playing loose with the facts. The claim that Strickland “raised taxes” comes from a proposed delay of the final four percent cut in a five year, twenty-one percent state income tax cut passed in 2005. Strickland proposed the delay to close an $851 million hole in the current two-year budget, created when a plan to add video slot machines at Ohio horseracing tracks fell through. The Republican-controlled Ohio Senate approved the delay.

Likewise, the Dispatch is skeptical about claims of Strickland “busting the budget.” It feels the deficit’s main source was lack of revenues, resulting from the 2005 GOP tax cut mentioned earlier. It goes on to explain, “The suggestion here seems to be that Strickland raised taxes instead of cutting spending or choosing a better option. But Strickland whacked the state payroll by more than five thousand jobs and did cut state spending for the first time in several decades.”

Finally, the claim that Strickland “destroyed Ohio jobs” also fails to hold water. Even if the tax cut delay is a tax increase, as Kasich insists, Ohio actually added over thirty-two thousand jobs since its passage.

Kasich characterized Democratic complaints about this ad as “whining” but he has lost the battle over it. His campaign announced the commercial is set to stop running “very soon.”

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, then-candidate Obama angered many rural and blue collar voters in places like Ohio and West Virginia when he told supporters at a dinner in San Francisco that working-class voters, frustrated over economic conditions, “. . . cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

In the end, Obama was attempting to explain America’s Heartland to liberal urban voters – it was an insightful gesture of empathy, albeit a cavalier one. Yet if this is frustrating from Democrats, what should these same voters make of a Party that treats them as manipulable hicks and hardhats, best portrayed by actors manifesting clichéd and insulting stereotypes?

There is real anger throughout the country over a bad economy and slow recovery. As the Party in power, Democrats will suffer losses, perhaps overwhelming losses, in Congress these midterm elections. Likewise, the conservative groundswell this election is genuine and grass roots in nature. Apparently, the same cannot be said for the vast majority of Republican candidates it is about to sweep into power – indeed, quite the reverse.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can of Worms

Stuxnet Is the First Bullet in a Completely New Type of Cyber-Warfare

You have the biggest-ever worm loose in the net and it automatically sabotages any attempt to monitor it . . . There's never been a worm with that tough a head or that long a tail!
– John Brunner, The Shockwave Rider, 1975

When somebody establishes a new paradigm in warfare, we tend to notice. The atomic bombs exploded over Japan at the end of World War II were highly conspicuous. And we all watched terrorists drive two jet planes into the World Trade Center. Yet most of us are largely unaware that someone fired the first bullet in cyber-warfare, true cyber-warfare, over the past year. The slug in question is an ingenious and nasty piece of computer code, called Stuxnet.

The Stuxnet worm enters networks
through an infected USB flash drive
Stuxnet is a type of malware known as a worm. Unlike, its more celebrated cousin, the computer virus, a computer worm need not attach itself to another existing program. Instead, it can run independently, including replication and distribution of itself to multiple locations within a network. Traditionally, hackers use worms to gather information or steal data from systems. Alternatively, they may simply make a nuisance of themselves by eating up bandwidth and slowing down network traffic.

A computer security firm based in Belarus discovered Stuxnet in June 2010. Extensive investigations of the code by the U.S. firm Symantec suggest initial deployment was as much as a year earlier. It is unusual for a worm to stay hidden for so long. Yet this was only the first of many unusual things about Stuxnet.

The worm runs on the Microsoft Windows operating system. It enters a network from an infected USB flash drive connected to one of the system’s computers. It then uses four previously unknown flaws in the Microsoft code to propagate. Unlike other worms, it is highly selective, seeking out Siemens’s Simatic WinCC/PCS 7 Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition software – specialized code for running programmable logic controllers (PLCs) within factories. PLCs monitor, adjust, and run complicated machinery.

Stuxnet is even more discriminating, possessing the ability to identify which networks it infects with great precision. It appears to be looking for particular systems to destroy at specific times in specific ways. Once it infects a network, it performs a check every five seconds to determine if the system meets its parameters for launching an attack.

It embeds itself within the PLC software, reprograms it, and hides its changes, making it the first PLC rootkit ever developed. Stuxnet sets certain address in memory to specific values but the effect of such changes depends on the nature of the machinery controlled by the infected PLC. It might render the equipment in question non-functional but it also might force a kind of overload that would cause machine components to break down or even explode.

Stuxnet is both unusually large and complex for typical malware. Its ability to stay hidden for so long was due to its use of authentic cryptographic certification keys, stolen from the Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturers RealTek and JMicron, to validate itself within networks.

The Symantec researchers and other experts are convinced these factors point not to a lone hacker but a top-notch, well-funded team of programmers, sponsored by a national government. They are also convinced Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program was Stuxnet’s primary target, particularly the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant or, most likely, the Natanz uranium enrichment facility.

Reports abound that Iran began having tremendous difficulty running their centrifuges at Natanz, causing a sudden fifteen percent reduction in production, about the time of Stuxnet’s activation. Other anonymous sources leaked word of a more serious nuclear accident at Natanz. Stuxnet could reprogram the PLCs running centrifuge arrays to exceed RPM safety limits or shut down lubrication or cooling systems. Centrifuges can easily explode if they become unstable.

Iran has over sixty percent of the worldwide documented Stuxnet infections. Even Iranian officials admit to thirty thousand infected computers. However, not everyone agrees with Iran as a primary target. Stuxnet showed up in India, Indonesia and Russia before reaching Iran. Eric Chien, technical director of Symantec Security Response, concedes the incidence of infection within Iran could merely indicate that country is less diligent about using security software to protect its systems.

The researchers are also convinced Israel’s Unit 8200 cyber-warfare operation is the source of Stuxnet. In addition to Iran as the target, they base this conclusion on a discovery recently reported in the New York Times. Myrtus, Latin for “myrtle” is the name of one of the files comprising the Stuxnet code. In the Old Testament Book of Esther, Queen Esther’s original Hebrew name was reportedly Hadassah, the Hebrew word for “myrtle.” The Book of Esther is the story how captive Jews in the Persian (i.e. Iranian) court used subterfuge to preempt a plot against the nation of Israel.

The theory of Israel as culprit gained endorsement from Yossi Melman, who covers intelligence for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, as well as Richard Falkenrath, former Senior Director for Policy and Plans within the Office of Homeland Security.

Other experts disagree, citing the U.S. and NATO as more likely culprits. They dismiss the “myrtle” connection or label it a red herring, designed to lead researchers astray. John Pescatore, Vice-President for Internet Security at Gartner Group posits a large corporation or even citizens’ interest group could have funded Stuxnet to discredit Siemens’s software rather than attack specific governments. The Christian Science Monitor notes “myrtus” could simply be an acronym for something like “my remote terminal units.”

What everyone agrees upon is the seriousness of this software. An entire session, entitled Stuxnet – An In-Depth Look, headlined at the Virus Bulletin Conference in Vancouver Canada last week. European digital security company Kaspersky Labs released a statement describing Stuxnet as “a working and fearsome prototype of a cyber-weapon that will lead to the creation of a new arms race in the world.” Rodney Joffe, senior technologist at Neustar, calls Stuxnet a “precision guided cybermunition.”

“In the worst case, we would have seen power plants explode or dams burst,” said Derek Reveron, a technology specialist at the Naval War College. If a piece of software capable of turning any nuclear power station into Three Mile Island or Chernobyl is not worrisome enough, there is also the danger of blowback. Now that it is in the public domain, variants on Stuxnet could reappear in even more dangerous forms. Cyber-criminals typically do not worry about collateral damage from their attacks because only virtual harm results.

The ability of Stuxnet to affect physical equipment in the real world changes all that. Imagine the PLCs that drive ATMs re-programmed to distribute money to waiting criminals at certain places/times. Imagine a version of Stuxnet that controlled alarm systems, access controls, and doors, giving criminals egress to bank vaults or foreign spies seemingly valid admission to top-secret U.S. facilities.  The F-Secure Corporation’s blog reports the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico included some Siemens PLC systems. It is conceivable that a Stuxnet-infected controller rendered the supposedly infallible blowout preventer non-responsive, resulting in the fatal explosion and massive oil spill that followed.

Stuxnet is truly the first bullet in a completely new type of cyber-warfare. However, describing it as a mere “bullet” is like calling a nuclear warhead, “just another bomb” or the jetliners that brought down the Twin Towers, “just another couple of 747s.” Science fiction once again has become science fact. Stuxnet is big. It really does change everything about the potential of Internet terrorism.

Once you open a can of worms, the only way to re-can them is to use a larger can.
– Zymurgy's First Law of Evolving System Dynamics

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pledge of Aggrievement

The Real Polarization in Politics Today Isn’t Policy or Ideology but Demonizing the Opposition

House Minority Leader John Boehner and the Republican Party released a Pledge to America on Wednesday. Anticipating gains in House and Senate seats rivaling or even exceeding the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, the GOP hoped to seal the deal by parroting Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America from that election. They intended to reassure voters fed up with Washington how Republicans will lead them.

Despite plenty of patriotic jingo, the document feels less like a Pledge of Allegiance about restoring America to greatness and more like a Pledge of Aggrievement, carping about everything changed and changing in America.

As the Associated Press reports, “The plan steers clear of specifics on important issues, such as how it will ‘put government on a path to a balanced budget.’ It omits altogether the question of how to address looming shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare, which account for a huge portion of the nation's soaring deficit, instead including a vague promise – ‘We will make the decisions that are necessary to protect our entitlement programs’.”

In contrast, the document is quite specific about what it will undo. Republicans promised to repeal healthcare reform and end all economic stimulus programs. They pledged to forbid allowing the Bush tax to expire, making them permanent instead. They swore to cut spending back to 2008 levels, with the exception of defense, and freeze the tax code for two years. They assured they would prevent any form of carbon tax. They vowed to keep terrorist trials off U.S. soil and in military tribunals.

They also promised to continue their opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research. They implied a promise to prevent gays and lesbians from serving in the military or marrying openly, at least until such time as the institutions currently discriminating against them voluntarily decided to reverse their positions.

The Pledge to America is, in short, a justification of and paean to everything Republicans have said “no” to over the past two years. It seeks, in no uncertain terms, to paint their opposition as heroism in the face of a dangerous regime. “Our government has failed us,” declared Republican House Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy of California. By “government,” McCarthy meant “Democrats,” characterized by the Pledge as “arrogant,” “out-of-touch,” and “self-appointed elites.”

The conventional wisdom runs that our nation’s two major political Parties are each growing more extreme and polarized. While this is unquestionably true, I assert it is also exaggerated. The Democratic Party’s core is more than its loony far left. The sum total of the GOP is more than its fanatic far right. The extremism and polarity lie less in specific policy or general ideology and more in both Parties’ practice of demonizing of the opposition.

While Republicans have been the most egregious offenders, in my opinion, especially in recent years, Democrats bear plenty of culpability too. If the GOP’s Pledge is short on fixes and long on complaints about what is wrong, so the Democratic response to it avoids defending their record of the past two years in favor of dire warnings about the eight years that preceded it. “Republicans want to return to the same failed economic policies that hurt millions of Americans and threatened our economy,” announced a spokesperson for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The temptation to demonize opponents has long existed in American politics. Just as it is usually easier to tear down than build up, so it is easier to scoff at the solutions proposed by others than offer viable solutions of one’s own. Traditionally, partisans mitigated this urge by realizing they and their opponents shared a common love of country or, at minimum, realizing too much demonizing left themselves open to charges of placing politics before country.

The clever but unfortunate solution to removing this restraint was to portray the opposition as beyond merely misguided but also dangerous and perhaps even malicious and unpatriotic. In light of such villainy, playing politics was synonymous with placing country first and justifiable.

Republican political operative Karl Rove understands this very well. He wrote to his fellow conservatives in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday about the importance of the Pledge in this regard. “What's brought Republicans so close to victory are their deep differences with Democrats. Now's the time to emphasize those policy disagreements in every way possible.” Except the document is not about policy differences but proclaiming, “Oooo, Democrats . . . scary!” thus leaving Republicans as sane and safe by contrast.

For their part, Democrats have been too quick to handle those disagreeing with them by hanging offensive and provocative labels on them, such as “facists,” “racists,” and “Islamophobes.” Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson notes that for many conservatives, “Obama has become the object of their fear and rage that their America is being lost.” Yet much the same is true for George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan among liberals.

Heartening evidence exists that ordinary Americans remain more honest and decent than the political spin machines give them credit. Ruth Marcus, another Washington Post columnist, viewed focus groups conducted by Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. The groups consisted of about thirty women each. All were from American’s heartland, all had some college and family incomes under $100 thousand, and all experienced negative impacts from the recession. They split equally between 2008 Obama and McCain voters and all were likely to vote in the fall midterms.

Even 2008 Obama voters were unwilling to give the President an unqualified endorsement for re-election in 2012. Words used to describe him varied from “disappointment” to “scares me.” In spite of this, both Marcus and the pollster were amazed at the amount of tolerance and sympathy for all the women toward what Obama was trying to do. Everyone shied away from blaming him for the current state of affairs.

“Poor Obama comes in and people expected him just to fix it all. People expected too much,” said one woman from Saint Louis. She was a McCain voter, by the way.

These women reserved their real anger, the anger that so many politicians have been trying to tap into lately, for members of Congress – the opposition Party as well as their own. In Marcus’s words, they were “exasperated by Washington lawmakers seemingly incapable of learning to get along.” Words used to describe them included “juvenile,” “boneheads,” “poison,” and “far removed from the working middle class.”

Some of the Republican ideas about healthcare reform, government spending, and taxes are good. I hope for their incorporation into legislation over the next two years and that Democrats will not obstruct them, as Republicans were so often guilty. At the same time, even if Republican sweep into a Congressional majority, I hope they do not shut out good Democratic ideas altogether, as Democrats too often did to them.

We need allegiance, not aggrievement, between the two Parties over the next two years. Sadly, each side will likely remain too dedicated to playing politics and winning partisan battles to let this occur. In doing so, they act not only against the country’s best interests but also their own. In order to win the “permanent majority” that Rove once envisioned for itself, either side must win over the souls of the opposition. The first step to doing that is conceding their opponents have souls in the first place.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Still Some Gas Left in This Old Clunker

Obama’s Stimulus and Auto Bailouts Were Expensive, They Also Successfully Saved Us From a Far Worse Economy

The pendulum of political momentum is swinging hard toward the right in my home state of Ohio. Polls show incumbent one-term Democratic Governor Ted Strickland likely to go down to his Republican challenger. In the race to fill the Senate seat vacated by George Voinovich, former Democratic Attorney General and current Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher once enjoyed a commanding lead in the polls. Today, Republican candidate Rob Portman, a former Bush Administration official, commands a similar advantage.

Democratic voters in Ohio’s big cities are unenthusiastic. Republican voters in suburbs, small towns, and farms are angry and animated. Independents are flocking back into the GOP’s tent. Portman explains why, using a popular talking point employed by Democrats since the early days of President Obama’s tenure.

“Independent voters in Ohio always make a difference,” said Portman. “They gave the [Obama] Administration a chance and saw all their hopes disappointed . . . A stimulus package that not only didn’t work, it didn’t work and spent too much.”

The idea of the stimulus as a failure resonates well with voters in a state with unemployment running above the national average. Plenty of economists at conservative think tanks pronounce it a fiasco. Other economists call such charges patently false.

The latter got some validation this Monday, when the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) announced the recession, which officially began in December 2007, officially ended in June 2009 with the beginning of an expansion. "The recession lasted eighteen months, which makes it the longest of any recession since World War II,” according to the bureau.

Alan S. Blinder, a Princeton professor and former Vice-Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, published a paper in July entitled, How the Great Recession Was Brought to an End. Using quantitative models, they empirically prove the turnaround was a direct result of the Wall Street bailout, the bank stress tests, the emergency lending and asset purchases by the Federal Reserve, and the Obama Administration’s fiscal stimulus program.

Blinder and Zandi demonstrated the nation’s gross domestic product would be about 6.5 percent lower this year lacking these programs. What is more, job losses would run over sixteen million as compared to the eight and a half million actually experienced. Finally, the economy would experience ruinous deflation instead of low inflation.

Republicans were also quick to criticize bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler, calling them unjustifiable and rewards to labor unions for supporting Obama in the 2008 election. Others bewailed the program as propping up out-of-touch management’s greed and incompetence. Detractors were equally derisive regarding the Administration’s “Cash for Clunkers” program, incenting Americans to trade in old cars for newer, more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly models.

Obama defended bailouts at the time, arguing U.S. auto designers were still capable of creative innovation and autoworkers still hard working and quality conscious. Of course, that seemed hard to reconcile with the concurrent program encouraging us to cast off their old products and characterizing them as “clunkers.”

Two years later, it appears Obama’s faith in the domestic auto industry is paying dividends – literally. This week, GM CEO Daniel Akerson announced plans to issue shares of preferred stock that will pay dividends and convert to common shares in 2013. Likewise, Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne said last week he expects an IPO by his company in the second half of next year.

After receiving bailout money, GM underwent an aggressive reorganization. The new General Motors is selling cars, making money, and repaid $6.7 billion of the $50 billion loaned to it. Its less valuable assets, including dilapidated Detroit factories, became a separate subsidiary, named the Motors Liquidation Company. This company has filed a bankruptcy reorganization plan detailing how it will sell off these assets.

As a result, GM will announce on Friday it is recalling four hundred laid-off workers to make four-cylinder engines at a plant in Spring Hill Tennessee. This is in addition to nearly seven thousand jobs restored by the company since the bailouts, including twelve hundred at a plant making small cars in Lordstown Ohio, near Cleveland. Even two of the closed assembly plants have found buyers and a third in Shreveport Louisiana will continue making cars until its shutdown in 2012.

AutoPacific, an automotive research firm based in Tustin California, just issued its 2010 New Vehicle Satisfaction Survey, which rates how satisfied owners are with forty-five aspects of their cars as well as what they would like to see improved. The best car overall was the Suzuki Kizashi. However, some interesting and highly encouraging results emerged when AutoPacific founder and president, George Peterson, crunched the numbers to determine which vehicles have most improved and most declined over the past five years.

The five most improved vehicles were all American models. The Ford Taurus moved to 4th position in 2010 from 192nd position in 2006, the Ford Escape moved to 31st from 191st, the Ford F-150 moved to 11th from 163rd, the Chevrolet Suburban moved to 39th from 147th, and the Chevrolet Equinox moved to 36th from 133rd. In all cases, the improvements resulted from Detroit listening to customers and retooling to create more desirable interiors/exterior as well as improved fuel economy/engine performance.

At the other end of spectrum, the five vehicles with the greatest decline were all Japanese. The Toyota Tacoma dropped to 221st position in 2010 from 63rd position in 2006, the Suzuki Grand Vitara dropped to 179th from 58th, the Subaru Tribeca dropped to 183rd from 70th, the Honda Element dropped to 199th from 94th, and the Nissan Quest dropped to 164th from 59th. All suffered from quirky designs that eschewed customer input for gimmickry and reliance upon brand reputation.

Love him or hate him, while Obama’s economic policies might have been more effective, less costly, shown quicker results, or just simply different, there is no question they had a significant positive impact on an economy teetering at the brink of disaster when he entered office. Dissatisfaction over the slowness of the recovery is understandable and perhaps justified but without the stimulus, we might have had no recovery at all.

Even impatience with the recovery’s pace may be unrealistic. “Economic activity is typically below normal in the early stages of an expansion and it sometimes remains so well into the expansion,” the NBER noted in its announcement. Furthermore, unemployment usually continues rising after a recession ends. For example, it took no less than nineteen months for unemployment to peak after the 2001 recession, which was far less severe than the most recent one.

Portman and other Republicans are currently riding the voting public’s frustration with Democrats’ inability to handle the economy, much as Obama rode to victory two years earlier from voters’ displeasure with the GOP on the same topic. Their seeming fickleness is only human – unemployment lends itself to impatience with big plans and long cycles. However, some of the tales Portman and his cohorts are telling voters to convince them their anger is not only reasonable but also fact-based are just not true.

Voters may well give up on Obama just as many Republicans insisted it was finally time to give up on Detroit two years ago. Obama’s faith proved justified in the latter case. Maybe voters will come to see the same about him over the next two years if a Republican Congressional majority proves equally unable to jumpstart the economy.

Perhaps Americans will find there is still some gas left in this old clunker after all.