The Data Priests

On June 15, Matthew Crawford of The New Atlantis testified at a hearing on smart home technology held by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy & Consumer Rights. This is from his opening statement:

I have no expertise in antitrust. I come to you as a student of the history of political thought.

The convenience of the smart home may be worth the price; that’s for each of us to decide. But to do so with open eyes, one has to understand what the price is. After all, you don’t pay a monthly fee for Alexa, or Google Assistant.

The Sleep Number bed is typical of smart home devices, as Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff describes in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It comes with an app, of course, which you’ll need to install to get the full benefits. Benefits for whom? Well, to know that you would need to spend some time with the sixteen-page privacy policy that comes with the bed. There you’ll read about third-party sharing, analytics partners, targeted advertising, and much else.

Meanwhile, the user agreement specifies that the company can share or exploit your personal information even “after you deactivate or cancel” your Sleep Number account. You are unilaterally informed that the firm does not honor “Do Not Track” notifications. By the way, its privacy policy once stated that the bed would also transmit “audio in your room.” (I am not making this up.)

The business rationale for the smart home is to bring the intimate patterns of life into the fold of the surveillance economy, which has a one-way mirror quality. Increasingly, every aspect of our lives — our voices, our facial expressions, our political affiliations and intellectual predilections — are laid bare as data to be collected by companies who, for their own part, guard with military-grade secrecy the algorithms by which they use this information to determine the world that is presented to us, for example when we enter a search term, or in our news feeds. They are also in a position to determine our standing in the reputational economy. The credit rating agencies and insurance companies would like to know us more intimately; I suppose Alexa can help with that.

Allow me to offer a point of reference that comes from outside the tech debates, but can be brought to bear on them. Conservative legal scholars have long criticized a shift of power from Congress to the administrative state, which seeks to bypass legislation and rule by executive fiat, through administrative rulings. The appeal of this move is that it saves one the effort of persuading others, that is, the inconvenience of democratic politics.

All of the arguments that conservatives make about the administrative state apply as well to this new thing, call it algorithmic governance, that operates through artificial intelligence developed in the private sector. It too is a form of power that is not required to give an account of itself, and is therefore insulated from democratic pressures.

In machine learning, an array of variables are fed into deeply layered “neural nets” that simulate the binary, fire/don’t-fire synaptic connections of an animal brain. Vast amounts of data are used in a massively iterated (and, in some versions, unsupervised) training regimen. Because the strength of connections between logical nodes is highly plastic, just like neural pathways, the machine gets trained by trial and error and is able to arrive at something resembling knowledge of the world. The logic by which an AI reaches its conclusions is impossible to reconstruct even for those who built the underlying algorithms. We need to consider the significance of this in the light of our political traditions.

When a court issues a decision, the judge writes an opinion in which he explains his reasoning. He grounds the decision in law, precedent, common sense, and principles that he feels obliged to articulate and defend. This is what transforms the decision from mere fiat into something that is politically legitimate, capable of securing the assent of a free people. It makes the difference between simple power and authority. One distinguishing feature of a modern, liberal society is that authority is supposed to have this rational quality to it — rather than appealing to, say, a special talent for priestly divination. This is our Enlightenment inheritance. It appears to be in a fragile state. With the inscrutable arcana of data science, a new priesthood peers into a hidden layer of reality that is revealed only by a self-taught AI program — the logic of which is beyond human knowing.

The feeling that one is ruled by a class of experts who cannot be addressed, who cannot be held to account, has surely contributed to populist anger. From the perspective of ordinary citizens, the usual distinction between government and “the private sector” starts to sound like a joke, given how the tech firms order our lives in far-reaching ways.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon have established portals that people feel they have to pass through to conduct the business of life, and to participate in the common life of the nation. Such bottlenecks are a natural consequence of “the network effect.” It was early innovations that allowed these firms to take up their positions. But it is not innovation that accounts for the unprecedented rents they are able to collect, it is these established positions, and the ongoing control of the data it allows them to gather, as in a classic infrastructure monopoly. If those profits measure anything at all, it is the reach of a grid of surveillance that continues to spread and deepen. It is this grid’s basic lack of intelligibility that renders it politically unaccountable. Yet accountability is the very essence of representative government.

Mr. Zuckerberg has said frankly that “In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company.” If we take the man at his word, it would seem to raise the question: Can the United States government tolerate the existence of a rival government within its territory?

In 1776, we answered that question with a resounding “No!” and then fought a revolutionary war to make it so. The slogan of that war was “Don’t tread on me.” This spirited insistence on self-rule expresses the psychic core of republicanism. As Senator Klobuchar points out in her book Antitrust, the slogan was directed in particular at the British Crown’s grant of monopoly charters to corporations that controlled trade with the colonies. Today, the platform firms appear to many as an imperial power. The fundamental question “Who rules?” is pressed upon this body once again.

It’s Right/Left But Also Fantasy/Reality

This is a somewhat edited Twitter thread from Steve Schmidt, a political strategist who used to work for Republicans. His comments were precipitated by a CNN podcast (referenced at the bottom of this post):

The debate is around how to think and talk about Fox News. What is it? [CNN journalist] Brian Stelter thinks about this directionally and ideologically: describing Fox as moving further right. He is correct, as is [journalism professor] Jay Rosen, who evaluates Fox News along a different axis. For him, it is the drift into fantasy and the unreal.

The authoritarian movement in America is real, powerful and present. All authoritarian movements are nourished by an ecosystem that includes three powerful components:

A. The Financiers. “No Bucks, no Buck Rogers” said the PR man to the disdainful test pilots who were to become America’s Mercury astronauts in one of the all time great movies “The Right Stuff”. There is no autocratic movement without money and they have a lot.

B. CYNICAL ELITES.  Rep. Elise Stefanik, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Josh Hawley and Sen. Mitch McConnell are but a few examples of people who have tried to manage the toxic reverberations from [the former president’s] cult by manipulating it for power, self interest and vanity. They have aligned with the fringe and venomous ideas.

C. PROPAGANDISTS. All authoritarian movements rely on propaganda sustained by a particular type of lie. THE LIE OF AUTHORITY requires the abandonment of belief, truth, ethics, values and intellectual agency. It demands submission to the lies of the Leader/Party.

. . . Right-Left, in the tradition of American politics, has long been explicable with a two dimensional rendering, specifically, a horizontal line. It doesn’t work any more. When [Brian Stelter] talks about Fox and moving “Right”, it is important to pause and look at the [system of measurement].

Trying to explain the metastasized conservative media by marking a point on a line [that could be] used to measure ideological distance between [Republican moderate] Christie Whitman and [Republican conservative] Orrin Hatch [fails to capture reality].

The “Right” we are talking about here is a very specific variant, that no matter how easily identifiable, seems to induce a blindness in people who should see it clearly and an allergy towards confronting it by the people who have the most at stake in the fight.

We are talking, of course, about an authoritarian Right that is steeped in fantasy, delusion, hate, scapegoating, scientific racial theory, menace, violence and coercion.

This American Right is cousin to the noxious movements that have long been built on a fetid marsh of lies, grievance, scapegoating, hate, menace, fear and fantasy nostalgia for a world once pure. That fallen world, is the nucleus of a powerful and evil fantasy at the core of a terrible and dangerous mythology. The mythology is fear-based and architected around the imagined birthright of one group to feel superior to others.

It always leads to subjugation under the power and boot of the state for the purpose of preserving the power of the few and the fabulously corrupt over the common good of the great many.

Fox News is moving in a new direction and has been for some time. . . It is getting worse and more extreme every day. . . . The [metastasizing] ideological drift and the demand for submission to fantasies is at the core of understanding what all of this is. I hope enough people can see the totality of it all before we lose it all.

Unquote.

The CNN podcast is called Reliable Sources. From the description of this episode:

Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at NYU and authors the PressThink blog, discusses the devolution of Fox News; the difficulty of describing a “shifted political universe” in the United States; and the need for news outlets to be “much more explicitly and aggressively pro-democracy.”

He says “Fox is becoming in some way more demand-driven” because “its audience is in the driver’s seat in a way that’s more extreme than when Roger Ailes ran the network.” For example, Rosen comments, “Do you want January 6 to be the fault of Antifa? You can have that. Do you want [somebody else] to have won the 2020 election? You can have that.”

Rosen explains that “these kinds of maneuvers are attempting to sever people from reality so that you can do what you want with them… to just sort of de-anchor people from anything that they have in common with their fellow citizens so that they can be manipulated further. And that’s why it’s so insidious.” 

A Significant Minority of Our Fellow Americans

It looks like we’ve reached the Crazy Times that science fiction writers of the 1950s and other distant decades set in the 21st century. From The New York Times:

It’s not just the notion that the election was stolen that has caught on with the former president’s supporters. QAnon, an outlandish and ever-evolving conspiracy theory spread by some of X’s most ardent followers, has significant traction with a segment of the public — particularly Republicans and Americans who consume news from far-right sources.

Those are the findings of a poll released today by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core, which found that 15 percent of Americans say they think that the levers of power are controlled by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles, a core belief of QAnon supporters. The same share said it was true that “American patriots may have to resort to violence” to depose the pedophiles and restore the country’s rightful order.

And fully 20 percent of respondents said that they thought a biblical-scale storm would soon sweep away these evil elites and “restore the rightful leaders.”

“These are words I never thought I would write into a poll question, or have the need to, but here we are,” Robby Jones, the founder of P.R.R.I., said in an interview.

The teams behind the poll determined that 14 percent of Americans fall into the category of “QAnon believers,” composed of those who agreed with the statements in all three questions. Among Republicans only, that rises to roughly one in four. (Twelve percent of independents and 7 percent of Democrats were categorized as QAnon believers.)

But the analysts went a level further: They created a category labeled “QAnon doubters” to include respondents who had said they “mostly disagreed” with the outlandish statements, but didn’t reject them outright. Another 55 percent of Republicans fell into this more ambivalent category.

Which means that just one in five Republicans fully rejected the premises of the QAnon conspiracy theory. For Democrats, 58 percent were flat-out QAnon rejecters.

Mr. Jones said he was struck by the prevalence of QAnon’s adherents. Overlaying the share of poll respondents who expressed belief in its core principles over the country’s total population, “that’s more than 30 million people,” he said.

“Thinking about QAnon, if it were a religion, it would be as big as all white evangelical Protestants, or all white mainline Protestants,” he added. “So it lines up there with a major religious group.”

He also noted the correlation between belief in QAnon’s fictions and the conviction that armed conflict would be necessary. “It’s one thing to say that most Americans laugh off these outlandish beliefs, but when you take into consideration that these beliefs are linked to a kind of apocalyptic thinking and violence, then it becomes something quite different,” he said.

The Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core found a strong correlation between where people get their news and how much they believe in QAnon’s ideas. Among those who said they most trusted far-right news outlets, such as One America News Network and Newsmax, two in five qualified as full-on QAnon believers. Fully 48 percent of these news consumers said they expected a storm to wipe away the elites soon.

That puts these news consumers far out of alignment with the rest of the country — even fans of the conservative-leaning Fox News. Among respondents who preferred Fox News above other sources, 18 percent were QAnon believers. . . .

Those who expressed belief in QAnon’s premises were also far more likely than others to say they believe in other conspiracy theories, the poll found. Four in 10 said they thought that “the Covid-19 vaccine contains a surveillance microchip that is the sign of the beast in biblical prophecy.”

Unquote.

Meanwhile, it was reported that the former president wanted the Department of Justice to ask the Supreme Court to nullify the presidential election and order a new one. The government lawyers ignored that directive. However, a new poll says 50% of Republicans believe reviews of certain state election results will show that their candidate won, while an earlier poll indicated that 30% of them think he’ll be “reinstated”, perhaps via the little-known and rarely-used procedure set forth in the “Oops Clause” of the Constitution.

Where’s the Justice?

It’s better to be frustrated and impatient than angry and horrified, so getting a new president and administration that isn’t made up of idiots, creeps and criminals is a blessing.

Nevertheless, I never expected to be thinking so much about a few Democratic senators, especially that two-headed, pro-filibuster creature we might as well call “Manchinema”. There is so much that could be accomplished with Joe Biden as president, a small majority in the House and 50 votes in the Senate.

Unfortunately, another source of frustration and impatience at the moment is Attorney General Merrick Garland and the talented lawyers who work for him.

As Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post points out:

[Garland] has . . .  never indicated as to whether, now that former president X is out of office, the department would follow up on alleged illegal conduct examined by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III (e.g., obstruction of justice, perjury, witness tampering). 

Here’s more on that story from Washington Monthly’s Jennifer Taub:

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Report on Russian Interference in the 2016 Election was released to the public on April 18, 2019 (in redacted form). Volume II provided a clear, detailed roadmap for a post-term prosecution of X for a variety of obstruction-of-justice offenses. The Report noted that while the Justice Department policy forbids prosecuting a president while in office, “Recognizing an immunity from prosecution for a sitting President would not preclude such prosecution once the President’s term is over or he is otherwise removed from office by resignation or impeachment.”

This should have been a bombshell. But, thanks to [former Attorney General] Barr’s words and actions almost a month earlier, selling the report as an exoneration of X, [it] fizzled. (In a particularly egregious headline, the New York Times said that Mueller exonerated X, not even attributing it to Barr.) By the time we got to read the report, Barr’s characterizations had been disproved, but by then the press and public yawned.

Let’s recall what Barr did. On March 22, 2019, the Justice Department received a confidential copy of the 448-page Mueller Report. A former AG and political player for decades, Barr surely saw how damaging it was, so he did not share it. Instead, two days later, on March 24, Barr delivered a four-page letter to Congressional leaders (which was then released to the public). The letter purported to “summarize” the Mueller Report’s “principal conclusions.” But Barr did not provide a truthful summary; he concocted a cynical spin.

Regarding obstruction of justice, Barr said Mueller had concluded that “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

This was a shocking revelation. . . .  In a Politico roundup published that day, I contended that “Barr’s conclusions are not credible.”  It took reading between the lines to appreciate his hustle. But, instead of respecting Mueller’s refusal to clear X, Barr told Congress that this meant it was now his job to come to a legal conclusion. But, it was not. Doing so undermined the entire purpose of the Special Counsel statute, which was NOT to leave such a decision in the Attorney General’s hands. Barr claimed that “the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”

Thanks to Barr, many wrongly believe Mueller exonerated X. Around 60 percent of Americans either thought the president had been cleared or were unsure. Only 40 percent correctly understood that Mueller did not exonerate X.

Disappointingly, Merrick Garland’s Justice Department [has chosen] to continue the cover-up. Here’s a little background to explain how this happened and the alternative path Garland could have taken.

Back in April of 2019, Barr said that he relied on advice from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel before drafting his March 24 communication to Congress about the Mueller Report. In response, the non-partisan, public interest organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sued the Department under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), requesting all related documents.

[The Justice Department] told the judge that one of the documents that CREW wanted was protected from public disclosure under the FOIA law under the “deliberative process privilege.” They argued this particular March 24, 2019 memo from the Office of Legal Counsel to Barr was “pre-decisional” as they claimed it was given to Barr before he made his final decision on whether Trump obstructed justice. And they claimed that it was “deliberative” because it was provided to aid him in his decision-making process.”

On May 4 of this year, Judge Amy Berman Jackson called bullshit on those claims, to put it mildly. In a stinging opinion, she ruled in favor of CREW and ordered Garland’s Justice Department to hand over the memo. . . . Berman Jackson wrote that “there was no decision actually being made as to whether the then-President should be prosecuted.” She saw the DOJ as “girding for a preemptive strike on the Mueller report.” The memo was not shielded as pre-decisional legal advice.

As I wrote in the Washington Monthly at the time, this was Garland’s inflection point. It would have been so very easy to decide not to appeal and to allow the memo to be released. Instead, Garland’s DOJ lawyers doubled down on the deception. On May 25, Garland had his team ask Judge Jackson to stay her order (put it on hold) so they could keep the memo hidden while they appealed her decision. . . . 

Garland’s decision shocked and disappointed many experts. Former Solicitor General Neal Katyal penned an opinion piece arguing that “the American people have a right to see the memo. Then they can decide whether Mr. Barr used his power as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer as a shield to protect the president” . . . 

Garland, who served on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals from 1997 to 2021, might have additionally justified releasing the memo to the public on principle. Anyone with eyes could see that both Barr and Justice Department lawyers (still employed by Garland) misled a federal judge. A strong manager would make it clear that dishonesty would no longer be tolerated under his leadership. As a former DOJ prosecutor—after the Oklahoma City bombing Garland left private practice to prosecute domestic terrorism—Garland should have been incensed. As Bob Dole used to say, “Where’s the outrage?” . . . 

Unquote.

Whether that memo is ever made public is much less important than whether our former president (aka the unindicted co-conspirator) is ever prosecuted. Now that he’s no longer shielded by the presidency, he needs to face the music for his obstruction of justice, perjury and witness tampering. Prosecuting him would outrage his crazy supporters. That’s too damn bad. Attorney General Garland needs to demonstrate that powerful people, even presidents, can’t trample on the law and avoid the consequences.

How Poverty Helps the Rest of Us

Ezra Klein of The New York Times writes about poverty and the American economy:

I’m not going to pretend that I know how to interpret the jobs and inflation data of the past few months. My view is that this is still an economy warped by the pandemic, and that the dynamics are so strange and so unstable that it will be some time before we know its true state. But the reaction to the early numbers and anecdotes has revealed something deeper and more constant in our politics.

The American economy runs on poverty, or at least the constant threat of it. Americans like their goods cheap and their services plentiful and the two of them, together, require a sprawling labor force willing to work tough jobs at crummy wages. On the right, the barest glimmer of worker power is treated as a policy emergency, and the whip of poverty, not the lure of higher wages, is the appropriate response.

Reports that low-wage employers were having trouble filling open jobs sent Republican policymakers into a tizzy and led at least 25 Republican governors — and one Democratic governor [the one in Louisiana] — to announce plans to cut off expanded unemployment benefits early. Chipotle said that it would increase prices by about 4 percent to cover the cost of higher wages, prompting the National Republican Congressional Committee to issue a blistering response: “Democrats’ socialist stimulus bill caused a labor shortage, and now burrito lovers everywhere are footing the bill.” The [right-wing] outlet The Federalist  complained, “Restaurants have had to bribe current and prospective workers with fatter paychecks to lure them off their backsides and back to work.”

But it’s not just the right. The financial press, the cable news squawkers and even many on the center-left greet news of labor shortages and price increases with an alarm they rarely bring to the ongoing agonies of poverty or low-wage toil.

As it happened, just as I was watching Republican governors try to immiserate low-wage workers who weren’t yet jumping at the chance to return to poorly ventilated kitchens for $9 an hour, I was sent “A Guaranteed Income for the 21st Century,” a plan that seeks to make poverty a thing of the past. The proposal, developed . . .  for the New School’s Institute on Race and Political Economy, would guarantee a $12,500 annual income for every adult and a $4,500 allowance for every child. It’s what wonks call a “negative income tax” plan — unlike a universal basic income, it phases out as households rise into the middle class.

“With poverty, to address it, you just eliminate it,” [one of the authors, Darrick Hamilton] told me. “You give people enough resources so they’re not poor.” Simple, but not cheap. The team estimates that its proposal would cost $876 billion annually. To give a sense of scale, total federal spending in 2019 was about $4.4 trillion, with $1 trillion of that financing Social Security payments and another $1.1 trillion support Medicaid, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Beyond writing that the plan “would require new sources of revenue, additional borrowing or trade-offs with other government funding priorities,” [the authors] don’t say how they’d pay for it, [but] it’s clearly possible. Even if the entire thing was funded by taxes, it would only bring America’s tax burden to roughly the average of our peer nations.

I suspect the real political problem for a guaranteed income isn’t the costs, but the benefits. A policy like this would give workers the power to make real choices. They could say no to a job they didn’t want, or quit one that exploited them. They could, and would, demand better wages, or take time off to attend school or simply to rest. When we spoke, Hamilton tried to sell it to me as a truer form of capitalism. “People can’t reap the returns of their effort without some baseline level of resources,” he said. “If you lack basic necessities with regards to economic well-being, you have no agency. You’re dictated to by others or live in a miserable state.”

But those in the economy with the power to do the dictating profit from the desperation of low-wage workers. One man’s misery is another man’s quick and affordable at-home lunch delivery. “It is a fact that when we pay workers less and don’t have social insurance programs that, say, cover Uber and Lyft drivers, we are able to consume goods and services at lower prices,” Hilary Hoynes, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley . . . 

This is the conversation about poverty that we don’t like to have: We discuss the poor as a pity or a blight, but we rarely admit that America’s high rate of poverty is a policy choice, and there are reasons we choose it over and over again. We typically frame those reasons as questions of fairness (“Why should I have to pay for someone else’s laziness?”) or tough-minded paternalism (“Work is good for people, and if they can live on the dole, they would”). But there’s more to it than that.

It is true, of course, that some might use a guaranteed income to play video games or melt into Netflix. But why are they the center of this conversation? We know full well that America is full of hardworking people who are kept poor by very low wages and harsh circumstance. We know many who want a job can’t find one, and many of the jobs people can find are cruel in ways that would appall anyone sitting comfortably behind a desk. We know the absence of child care and affordable housing and decent public transit makes work, to say nothing of advancement, impossible for many. We know people lose jobs they value because of mental illness or physical disability or other factors beyond their control. We are not so naïve as to believe near-poverty and joblessness to be a comfortable condition or an attractive choice.

Most Americans don’t think of themselves as benefiting from the poverty of others, and I don’t think objections to a guaranteed income would manifest as arguments in favor of impoverishment. Instead, we would see much of what we’re seeing now, only magnified: Fears of inflation, lectures about how the government is subsidizing indolence, paeans to the character-building qualities of low-wage labor, worries that the economy will be strangled by taxes or deficits, anger that Uber and Lyft rides have gotten more expensive, sympathy for the struggling employers who can’t fill open roles rather than for the workers who had good reason not to take those jobs. These would reflect not America’s love of poverty but opposition to the inconveniences that would accompany its elimination.

Nor would these costs be merely imagined. Inflation would be a real risk, as prices often rise when wages rise, and some small businesses would shutter if they had to pay their workers more. There are services many of us enjoy now that would become rarer or costlier if workers had more bargaining power. We’d see more investments in automation and possibly in outsourcing. The truth of our politics lies in the risks we refuse to accept, and it is rising worker power, not continued poverty, that we treat as intolerable. You can see it happening right now, driven by policies far smaller and with effects far more modest than a guaranteed income.

Hamilton, to his credit, was honest about these trade-offs. “Progressives don’t like to talk about this,” he told me. “They want this kumbaya moment. They want to say equity is great for everyone when it’s not. We need to shift our values. The capitalist class stands to lose from this policy, that’s unambiguous. They will have better resourced workers they can’t exploit through wages. Their consumer products and services would be more expensive.”

For the most part, America finds the money to pay for the things it values. In recent decades, and despite deep gridlock in Washington, we have spent trillions of dollars on wars in the Middle East and tax cuts for the wealthy. We have also spent trillions of dollars on health insurance subsidies and coronavirus relief. It is in our power to wipe out poverty. It simply isn’t among our priorities.

“Ultimately, it’s about us as a society saying these privileges and luxuries and comforts that folks in the middle class — or however we describe these economic classes — have, how much are they worth to us?” Jamila Michener, co-director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity, told me. “And are they worth certain levels of deprivation or suffering or even just inequality among people who are living often very different lives from us? That’s a question we often don’t even ask ourselves” . . .