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

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