The purpose of government

Legislation proposed and even passed on the federal and state level in the past several years has made it unclear whether or not the people we’ve chosen to represent us in government actually know what it means to govern in a democratic republic.

Since 9/11, individual US citizens have seen their rights slowly stripped away in the name of “fighting terrorism”, “freedom”, “democracy”, “safety”, and “the greater good”. The assault on liberty has only intensified in the past few years, with the added supposed justifications of “stopping piracy”, “taking care of the economy”, and “protecting children”.

The first wave:

  • USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 (Wikipedia, EFF, Center for National Security Studies, full text from the Library of Congress)
    This was a huge increase in governmental powers of intelligence-gathering, financial regulation, and the detaining and deportation of immigrants. It also redefined terrorism to include domestic terrorism, laying the groundwork for the indefinite detention rider to the NDAA (see below). The PATRIOT Act was set to expire a few times, but has always been extended–or provisions that did expire were reborn under other laws.
  • Homeland Security Act of 2002 (Wikipedia, PBS, full text at DHS)
    This law radically restructured the US government, further threatening individual privacy and paradoxically making gathered information less safe while increasing government secrecy. Here is some analysis from the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. (Note that the TIA portion of HSA was, fortunately, removed.)
  • Military Commissions Act of 2006 (Wikipedia, Center for Constitutional Rights)
    Allows the US to detain “alien unlawful enemy combatants” indefinitely without trial, to try them in military courts, and to employ torture. This was basically our government’s way of saying they were unhappy with having to adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Apparently they liked this power so much they wanted to extend it to US citizens as well; see the NDAA below.
  • Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 (Wikipedia; did not become law)
    This law would have criminalized such behaviors as sharing one’s opinion on the internet. Think such a thing would never pass? Check out the NDAA and CISPA, below.

The more recent wave:

We have essentially empowered our government to spy on us, harass us, arrest us and detain us indefinitely without trial…and to thank us, they keep chipping away more and more freedoms. How many of us even know this is happening? How many of us who do know are afraid to say anything, for fear of being targeted by the government?

Do these laws make you feel more secure?

Any law that allows the government to do something to a citizen based on the suspicion that that citizen is engaging in certain activity is a law that can be abused. Have a political enemy? “Suspect” her of terrorism, and get her locked up by the military. Don’t like a certain blogger’s message? “Suspect” him of cybercrime, and enjoy knowing the intelligence community is laying his private life bare.

Why do we have a government, again? Wasn’t it something about taking care of citizens? Let’s see. Here’s part of the preamble to the Bill of Rights, which basically says governmental powers should be limited to make sure people can trust the government:

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

And from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

It’s hard to look at what our government has done since 9/11 and argue that it has not been destructive to liberty.

What should we do? We need people in our government who truly represent people, not drug companies or entertainment empires or banks or monopolies or other huge businesses. We need legislators who are knowledgeable, who don’t spend all their time fundraising. I outlined some campaign reform ideas in a previous post; I truly think if we could do something like that, we’d be in a much better place than we are now.

Until then, we have to fight every battle as best we can. And that definitely means fighting CISPA right now. Contact your senators and contact the White House; let them know that this further incursion into civil rights and privacy cannot pass.

It also means electing people who understand larger issues, who aren’t simply motivated by the desire for a career in Washington. It’s probably going to be hard to find these people, but we have to try.

Salvaging our elections process

It has long disturbed me that the people we “elect” to national office often aren’t the best qualified or most representative of the will of the people they represent, but instead seemingly the ones who manage to get their names and faces out in front of people the longest. This implies that our politicians spend the majority of their time chasing and then spending money…not exactly the scions of fiscal responsibility we want in control of our budget.

A friend suggested to me that in the UK, they cap campaign spending and have a limited time set for campaigning, and that these would be excellent rules to implement here. I don’t know what the UK system is exactly, but I have my own thoughts on how this would work out. I also came up with a third condition that I think would maximize effectiveness.

  1. Make all campaigns, and candidates, transparent

    The first step is to ensure that the public has free and easy access to the same information about all candidates. This should include things like a campaign’s budget, and which companies or lobby groups have donated to the campaign. (Private citizens’ donations would remain private, unless they passed a certain percentage of the campaign funding cap.)

    This should also include things like a candidate’s resume–past offices and jobs held, voting history in context. This should not include things like a candidate’s “stance on the issues”, as these are not reliable measures and are often nothing more than editorializing or, at worst, pandering. Nor should this include any analysis. The raw data should be presented in ways that makes it easy for people of various learning types to understand, but the greatest efforts should be made to keep that data pure and complete. People should be able to use that data to make their own decisions.

    Designing this data presentation interface would be the greatest user experience project in the history of America. Determining what data to include and maintaining that data would be some of the most important work in this country, as it would literally allow democracy to function.

    Once the interface was designed, various vendors could work with the API to allow users to interact with the data in public libraries and in their own homes. The Xbox Kinect, for example, could help kinetic learners. Obviously, this interface would also need to take accessibility questions into account.

    This data would need to be protected just as the internet itself is protected.

    The media would have access to the data just as average citizens would, and they would be perfectly within their First Amendment rights to provide their own analysis of it, and add their own original reporting. However, they should be required to make it clear where the data ends and their own analysis and reporting begins.

  2. Put a cap on campaign funding

    Rather than simply limiting what candidates can spend, I would limit how much money a candidate can raise for an election at all. Currently, some donations aren’t used for a specific election, but are saved for a later time. I would require that all funds raised during the election period be limited to a certain amount and then spent on that election. Any money left over would then be split equally among those who had donated, at the expense of the campaign fund. An outside accountant would oversee this process. There would be no donating to a politician’s campaign in the middle of the year, only during election time.

    The purpose here is not to further distance candidates from the concept of long-term financial planning, but to make it easier for candidates who were not born into wealth or prestige to have a shot at getting elected. Ideally, campaign planning would become so dissimilar to the national budget (and so compartmentalized and short-term by comparison) that it would not interfere with an elected public servant’s understanding or take his or her attention away from the true purpose of office.

    While this would not completely level the candidate playing field, it would eliminate the gross advantage certain candidates enjoy solely due to their personal wealth. Rich candidates could still run, of course, but they would be limited to using the same amount of money as other candidates. Instead of having the enormous advantage of being a major candidate through no personal merit, they’d simply have the lesser advantage of not having to spend time seeking donations.

    As all campaigns would be transparent, people would know when a candidate was reaching his or her funding cap, and therefore they could stop donating in time for the candidate not to have to deal with refunding a lot of money.

  3. Limit campaign activities to a defined campaign period

    Currently, our elected officials are campaigning year-round. They’re thinking about re-election at all times, seeking out more and more campaign money, concentrating more on keeping their jobs than on taking care of their work. Capping campaign funding solves half of that problem. The other half would be solved by prohibiting any election activity outside of a defined election time.

    Our presidential election process is the best example of how long and exhausting an election process can get. By the time voters head to the polls (or not), they’re already tired of the election. They may have tuned it all out. They may simply vote along party lines. They may be frustrated over the political grandstanding and wondering where, exactly, the candidates really stand.

    Setting a short, defined period for campaigning, and prohibiting candidates from participating in any campaign-related activities outside of that period–fundraising, answering interview questions about elections, sending out campaign fliers and such–would eliminate campaign fatigue and also force candidates to get down to the meat of matters rather than switching up their “stances” based on opinion polls. Put some teeth in this one: any candidate found to be engaged in any campaign activity outside of the campaign period should be ineligible to run in the next election.

    This doesn’t mean that candidates wouldn’t be able to discuss issues. It’s imperative that they be able to do that. But they should do so in a way that makes it obvious their goal is to help the country, not their own agendas. This would probably be the hardest thing to enforce, so I would recommend against trying. (These are politicians, after all.) Only overt campaign activities would result in an election ban.

    There should also be some sort of punishment for any media organization that tries to trap a candidate into answering a question that would make him or her ineligible. Maybe a severe fine.

    I don’t support the idea of a state-run media at all. While I believe there is some severe corruption in the news media right now, I don’t think the solution would be for the government to strictly regulate the media. There has to be room for the media to operate for its true and just purpose: journalism. At the same time, though, there are certain media behaviors, such as favoring one candidate over another candidate, or ignoring certain candidates completely, that are too troublesome to ignore. I am hoping that the steps I’m outlining here to change the election process would have the effect of changing how the media approaches elections. I’m not prepared at this time to forbid the media from discussing an election outside the defined election period. That seems way too Big Brother-y. I would hope, rather, that once citizens knew they could get all the information they needed during the election period, they wouldn’t really want the media to be constantly projecting who was going to run and who might be the winner from those who might be running…and they’d say so. And then, finally, a presidential election might not last for three years.

  4. Require all candidates to take a governance test

    Give all candidates a test at the same time, at the beginning of the election period, once all candidates had announced for a position. The first part of the test would be multiple choice, a mix of questions about American history, American government, economics, world history and politics, and basic math. The second part would require candidates to answer an essay question about a current national issue. This would not be a “what is your stance” question, but a “what specific steps would you take in this specific scenario” question.

    Arrangements would be made for candidates to take the test in a way that matches their learning styles. An aural learner could have a proctor read the test to them, for example. The test would be made as accessible as possible to all candidates.

    Candidates would not be required to pass this test to run for office. However, the tests would all be publicly available pieces of a candidate’s data, easy for citizens to retrieve and evaluate. The media would of course also have access and be able to pick each candidate’s answers apart.

    This should give the candidates plenty of impetus to spend the time outside the campaign period making sure they have actual knowledge that will assist them in governance.

  5. Eliminate PACs and Super PACs

    I figured this went without saying, but then I figured I’d better say it anyway. There would be no point in limiting a candidate’s campaigning without doing this.

I foresee many things changing, should all these conditions be met. With elected officials no longer spending the bulk of their time on campaigning, actual governing should improve. The thought of this would appeal to those members of Congress who actually do want to govern properly, and just don’t have the time. I think there would be enough support for this kind of reform even within government that it could go through. The hardest part would be creating the data interface, since nothing like this has ever been done before.

Once this system was in place, we would start to see a lot of new faces in politics, and I think the constant refresh would do a world of good. We would also see more of a focus on actually running the country, and less on the power and prestige of being a long-term member of Congress. Maybe the newer, more civic-minded members would think about how members of Congress are treated differently by the law than regular citizens are, and maybe they would start to change that.

ACTA and TPP: The new(?) threat

Shortly after the SOPA blackout, I became aware of ACTA–the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. This is a treaty, negotiated in secret among various nations, whose ostensible purpose is to protect copyright. I then started hearing about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, purported to be even worse.

Despite the fact that many people are only now hearing about ACTA and TPP, these treaties have been around for awhile.

In a move that completely flouts the open style of government he claims to support, President Obama signed ACTA back in October, without getting public or legislative approval. Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Morocco, New Zealand, and Singapore also signed at that time. Many countries in the EU signed the agreement in Tokyo two days ago, but EU countries can still fight the ratification procedure. Here in the US, it’s currently unclear if what Obama did is constitutional, or whether the treaty must be approved by Congress.

Meanwhile, there’s the TPP, whose purpose, among myriad other things, seems to be to cover all the digital copyright stuff that was negotiated out of ACTA. Here is more information on the TPP from TechDirt, which has been following its evolution as best as you can follow the evolution of something being developed in near-absolute secrecy. Here’s a slightly dated rundown by the EFF. Most terrifying, given that like ACTA this treaty is being negotiated by people who are not our elected representatives, is this:

All signatory countries will be required to conform their domestic laws and policies to the provisions of the Agreement.

So basically these people, with no transparency, no input from citizens or democratically-elected officials, are rewriting global laws?

Just whose purposes are being served here?

E.D. Kain at Forbes has a discussion of how ACTA has evolved and how TPP continues to be developed in secret. Here’s a line that struck home with me–it’s an obvious allusion to the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act.

If lawmakers start baking restrictive IP laws into larger bills – maybe stitching them into defense funding bills, for instance – it may become increasingly difficult to see what’s happening.

The NDAA included a rider authorizing the indefinite detainment of US citizens by the military without trial. Attaching this egregious infringement of Constitutional rights as a rider on the military budget essentially held all military personnel and employees hostage; unsigned, it would have left them without any money as the new year started. The choice ended up being “unpaid soldiers” or “loss of liberty, with a note saying we promise never to actually do this”. The latter was chosen. (The author of this piece would say I’m being too generous to the president. Maybe I am. Time will tell.)

Obviously, riders are one effective way to get something passed that wouldn’t normally pass, and as Kain points out, this will surely be a tactic used in future intellectual property fights. But ACTA and the TPP bypass legislation completely, and they are shrouded in secrecy. We barely even know what’s going on before it’s happening to us.

If you’re interested in taking action on these issues, here are a few links that might help.

One thing that seems evident is that these treaties, developed in secret and intended to alter intellectual property law across the globe, are being backed by major copyright holders. Big corporations. The entertainment industry, to be blunt. I’ve already written on what I think they should be doing rather than trying to change the law to protect their dying business practices, but perhaps I was being too charitable. That they have wormed their way this far into not only our government, but governments around the world, is unconscionable.

I’ve heard that some are planning a complete media boycott for the month of March, to hit the proponents of this sort of legislation where it really hurts. Honestly, I’m not sure a month-long mass boycott is as plausible as a day-long internet blackout, but it certainly seems like the right strategy against executives who seem to only understand money.

Could you go a whole month without buying entertainment from big companies? No cable, no Netflix, no movie dates, no iTunes…heck, maybe a month off might prove which services you actually need and which ones you don’t even miss. And you could take the opportunity to discover some independent creators, people who just make good stuff and make it easy for people to buy it.

It could work. You could save some money. You could directly benefit actual content creators instead of middlemen. And you might help get big entertainment companies out of our government.

What do you think?