From Vox’s “Politics is about to destroy the Internet.” This essentially sums up the problem with our government and the industries they regulate.
House of Cards has everyone enthralled, and they can’t stop recommending it to me. Anytime I mention that I’m interested in policy, within the next minute the words, “Oh, you have to watch House of Cards,” will come out of their mouth. Everyone likes to convert people to their shows, so I can’t hold that against them. After all, how many times have I said the same thing about Game of Thrones, which has the same sort of political intrigue and infighting, but is set in a much more fantastical and violent realm? Yet after watching the first episode of House of Cards, I do feel a bit irked at everyone who told me how much I would love the show. From what I can tell, the show features top-notch acting, complex characters, and engrossing storytelling. It’s a great show. Yet now that I’ve gone three seasons deep into the political drama masterpiece that is West Wing, I can’t help but feel disappointed that everyone in my generation insists that I watch House of Cards. When I respond that, “I would, but I’m already preoccupied with West Wing,” they dismiss it.
Yet West Wing portrays what politics could be – what politics was meant to be. It may not be as realistic as House of Cards, but that’s precisely why it’s so captivating: it depicts a world that feels very real, one that could certainly be a reality, in which dedicated and brilliant public servants strive to do the best job they can for this country. In West Wing, theirs certainly backroom deal-making and political scandals, but ultimately it’s viewed as a setback to doing the real work of governing the country. House of Cards flips this on it’s head: people spend their time plotting political takeovers, and take care to step around any notions of civic responsibility or governance.
We know that Washington has plenty of selfish and power-hungry people, focused entirely on forwarding their own career. There’s ample evidence of that in our dysfunctional Congress (although gridlock and partisanship in Congress certainly isn’t due to having overly nasty people in office). However, we also know that there’s plenty of hard-working people trying to use their abilities to improve policy and the way we govern. I realize that West Wing may not be as popular with people my age because it started airing before we could comprehend or were involved in politics. Yet I also feel discouraged at how quickly it’s dismissed when I bring it up. “We don’t want a show about people in government dealing with complicated issues while striving to uphold our highest ideals about democracy and governance – we want a show full of political thuggery and utter self-absorption.” I understand it’s only television, and this isn’t an argument that people shouldn’t watch House of Cards. Hell, I might get around to it myself sometime. Yet if our most popular shows reflect prominent beliefs and cultural values of our time (and I would argue that they do), it seems that our public life is being cheapened by an over-emphasis on what’s wrong with our system and not enough conversation about how to better it.
After listening to some of Obama’s press conference and reaffirmation that the NSA has legal checks that prevent it from spying on Americans and violating the Constitution, I decided to look more deeply into the details of NSA programs myself to get unbiased information on how they function. I wanted to decide for myself, based on the facts alone, if these programs really are a threat to privacy and liberty.
Silly me, I forgot how complex reality is when you try to fully comprehend it, and how much easier it is to make decisions based on a weighing of your emotional attachment and trust in certain organizations’ or individuals’ opinions. I was tempted to share Obama’s confidence that the program struck the right balance between security and privacy, because I trust that he has good character and judgment, despite his decisions’ that I disagree with. I also felt a certain attachment to the journalists and commentators I follow on Twitter, and felt compelled to believe their accounting of the program’s as unchecked and invasive. This cognitive dissonance inspired me to undertake my objective analysis – I didn’t know which attachment to trust.
Reading through the Guardian’s description of the NSA’s XKeyscore surveillance program, I quickly became frustrated with the claims in the story which seemed to be contradictions, and only through several read-throughs became clear.
The two claims are juxtaposed in the article’s statement that:
“Under US law, the NSA is required to obtain an individualized Fisa warrant only if the target of their surveillance is a ‘US person’, though no such warrant is required for intercepting the communications of Americans with foreign targets. But XKeyscore provides the technological capability, if not the legal authority, to target even US persons for extensive electronic surveillance without a warrant provided that some identifying information, such as their email or IP address, is known to the analyst.”
The first statement, that searches of American individuals requires a warrant, seems to indicate that the program is indeed under appropriate legal restraints. Yet the second statement, and later assertions in the article, claims that “analysts can use it [XKeyscore] and other systems to mine enormous agency databases by filling in a simple on-screen form giving only a broad justification for the search. The request is not reviewed by a court or any NSA personnel before it is processed.”
So, which is it? Do analysts have to get a warrant to monitor communications’ of US individuals, or not? This all seems to hinge on exactly what kind of legal justifications the analysts are allowed to enter for surveillance, how broadly the statutes they cite are being interpreted, and the independence and transparency of the FISA court.
From a policy standpoint, I would like to see reform to the statutes that I suspect are being broadly interpreted to allow for massive leeway on surveillance. I would also like to see the FISA court become more adversarial and transparent, because it currently only hears the government position and is shrouded in secrecy. I was glad to hear Obama suggest both of these reforms in his press conference. However, at a deeper level, I’m unsettled in knowing how much information our government is collecting, and how much of these programs were being hidden. Obama says that he had already ordered a review of these programs, and that he trusted that he and Congress would’ve arrived at similar reform proposals even if Snowden’s had never illegally leaked information. That’s one major conterfactual, and flies in the face of the fact that the government hid the details of these programs and FISA decisions for years; why would we trust them to willingly reveal them, when they had the opportunity to do so for years and hadn’t done it?
In summary, I’m more confident that our surveillance programs have legal safeguards built in. However, I doubt that these legal safeguards are sufficient to protect pernicious and widespread surveillance, because we have laws that can be interpreted too broadly and a FISA court seems only to serve as a rubber stamp for the executive. Lastly, this whole ordeal has increased my conviction that our society needs whistleblowers like Snowden to prevent government abuses; he is indeed a patriot.
As I’m reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, I came across an idea that seems to pose an interesting question for students of US Congressional policy making. When deciding whether to vote aye or nay on a measure, do they frame the decision narrowly or broadly? As Kahneman describes it, narrow framing is when sequences of simple decisions are considered separately, whereas in broad framing the sequence of decisions is grouped into a single decision with several options. Our minds naturally frame decisions narrowly, and, combined with our natural aversion to losses, this often leads us to turn down slightly risky decisions as they appear to us. When our friend asks if we’ll accept a coin toss where heads gives us $200 and tails makes us lose $100, most of us would not take it because we would feel the loss more steeply. However, if he were to offer us 100 coin flips under the same conditions, we would surely agree to the terms – we intuitively understand that aggregating the risks together reduces our potential losses. Indeed, if we did accept the 100 coin flip gamble, with $200 gained for heads and $100 lost for tails, we would have an expected return of $5,000, with only a 1/2,300 chance of losing any money and merely a 1/62,000 chance of losing more than $1,000. Anyone who refused this bet would be considered insane.
So what does this have to do with our daily lives? Well, it suggests that we shouldn’t frame risks narrowly as isolated one-off risks, but rather as one risk in a series of risks that we are likely to encounter in the future. This works when the risks are relatively small risks with simple options, and they don’t threaten our health or wealth in a way that would make life unbearable. For instance, when you have the opportunity to buy tickets to a concert that you want to see, but you are afraid the cost of the tickets is high and the performance might be disappointing, you should frame the decision in the context of all the other live events you are likely to buy tickets to throughout your life. If you aggregate all these decisions, you can more easily accept a single loss (spending too much money on a mediocre concert) in the knowledge that you will likely experience gains in the future (going to an amazing concert for a lower price than you valued the experience). Thinking this way helps us combat two irrational biases that we are all hard-wired with: our tendency to overweight losses in decisions, and our tendency to display inconsistent preferences because we view each decision in the immediate context in which it is posed to us. Simply by stepping back and framing a decision in terms of long-term considerations, we can make our preferences and decisions more consistent and logical.
Now, apply this type of decision-making framework to voting in Congress. Each vote is a risk where several potential gains and losses are weighed, but which ultimately comes down to a simple choice: vote yay or nay. Consider a Democratic Representative from a swing district in a Southern state with large coal mining companies wants to vote for a law designed to increase water quality by imposing regulations on mountaintop removal coal mining practices (which essentially blast the tops of mountains to get at coal underneath, and can contamiante water supplies with the debris from the blast). They must weigh the potential gains (more votes from left-leaning constituents, more campaign funding from the environmental lobby) against the costs (loss of votes from right-leaning constituents, angering constituent businesses).
How would a Congressperson frame this decision? Would they frame it in isolation with all only its immediately surrounding consequences? Or would they frame it more broadly as one vote they will cast among many that will aggregate together? I suppose the most obvious answer is that they frame their votes broadly – how else do you describe the phenomenon of political horse trading, where a lawmaker casts a crucial vote on one issue that they otherwise would not have cast in exchange for support on a later vote they prioritize more highly? However, I can very well see a case for narrow framing as well: policy aides and political advisers constantly remind the Representative how each vote will look to constituents back home – in effect, focusing their attention narrowly on the one decision.
I honestly don’t know the answer to this, and frankly some votes may be too complex of decisions to correctly apply broad framing. I claim no expertise in behavioral science; this post is merely a fleshing out of my thoughts as I read through this challenging and delightful book. Still, I think this is an interesting topic and I’m excited to see what insights come as we apply insights from the decision/behavioral sciences to political science.
It’s tragic that Obama’s seemingly genuine belief in transparent government and the ideals of democratic governance now seem like completely cynical gestures. What are we to make of democracy when even our own representatives can’t tell us the laws that are being applied to us, for fear of reprisals? How can American democracy really be a beacon of hope to the world when we are going around the world shaking our fist at any nation that dares give asylum to a dissident who exposed secrets the American public were not supposed to know? As this scenario unfolds, it has gone from a scandal to tragedy. The tragedy is that the American people trusted that no matter how dysfunctional their government was, it would always heed their voices. However, it now seems that nothing short of massive demonstrations in the streets across America will bring any sort of change to the status quo – the exact kind of demonstrations you see in the squares of Turkey or Egypt.
I’m sorry that I’ve been blogging so heavily on this surveillance issue, but I keep finding more interesting things about it. This post highlights how this debate gives us a peak into role private corporations will play in the future, and asks the question, “what role do we want them and the government to play?” It’s inspired by this “Democracy in America” blog post from The Economist, “Surveillance: Should the Government Know Less than Google?” This post is the best framing of the issue I’ve found so far, and is largely how I look at the issue. Yes, a government hiding surveillance from its citizens weakens democracy and is wrong. But should we be surprised that America’s security agencies try to gather data that we already freely give to private companies? No. Not to say that the government’s surveillance policies are justified, but that we should look more closely at just how private our data really is, and begin considering what limits we want to set on its use.
Our lives’ details are not private. They are stored online and in the servers of multiple large corporations. Do you ever wonder how you sometimes get calls from organizations with which you’ve never been involved, asking to support their campaign? Or how about those ads on our Facebook sidebar? Those exist because our personal information is diffuse.
What’s truly fascinating and scary about this debate is that it brings us face-to-face with a fact we have been slow to recognize, which will define our era: private corporations bear an enormous influence on our thoughts and behavior.
Make no mistake, government still controls the most important aspects of our lives: who we are allowed to marry, which drugs we can take, who goes to jail, the benefits you can expect if you become unemployed, how much money comes out of your paycheck, and how much of that money goes toward building bombs versus building schools. These are immensely important issues. Indeed, the government has the ultimate say in all decisions because it has the sole right to the legitimate use of violence.
Yet in practice – and in an era when government’s are increasingly restrained in their ability to legislate by polarization and austerity – private organizations often have the power to enormously change our lives. When Google, Tumblr, and Reddit appealed to their users to resist SOPA because of the potential dangers to online freedom of expression, the users listened. As the traditional news media organizations began to report on the outcry, the pressure grew and the politicians backed off. It’s true that their efforts were directed at a government policy, and it was ultimately the threat of electoral backlash that caused the policy to be withdrawn. Yet would those citizens have been mobilized in such a way without these large and pervasive internet companies throwing their weight against SOPA? It seems unlikely. Thus, we see one example of how these new internet companies – the same ones we trust with mounds of our private data – can influence our thoughts and actions to their purposes.
We trust private companies with our information because we trust that a competitive market will keep them honest. Yet as they grow more powerful, more prevalent in our lives, and more closely consulted by the government, perhaps it is time we have a debate over exactly what we want these companies to do with our information.
This Bloomberg article reports the prevailing attitudes among Americans about security vs civil liberties. While I’m glad that it’s at least evenly split, the bad news is that this ambiguity in public opinion, coupled with the government’s natural imperative to increase it’s own power, means that these surveillance policies will continue.