January 16, 2013

Prosecutorial abuse and the Swartz case

Filed under: Government, Law, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 13:05

Writing in the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald calls for reform in the way prosecutors are immune from any consequences of their misdeeds:

To begin with, there has been a serious injustice in the Swartz case, and that alone compels accountability. Prosecutors are vested with the extraordinary power to investigate, prosecute, bankrupt, and use the power of the state to imprison people for decades. They have the corresponding obligation to exercise judgment and restraint in how that power is used. When they fail to do so, lives are ruined — or ended.

The US has become a society in which political and financial elites systematically evade accountability for their bad acts, no matter how destructive. Those who torture, illegally eavesdrop, commit systemic financial fraud, even launder money for designated terrorists and drug dealers are all protected from criminal liability, while those who are powerless — or especially, as in Swartz’s case, those who challenge power — are mercilessly punished for trivial transgressions. All one has to do to see that this is true is to contrast the incredible leniency given by Ortiz’s office to large companies and executives accused of serious crimes with the indescribably excessive pursuit of Swartz.

This immunity for people with power needs to stop. The power of prosecutors is particularly potent, and abuse of that power is consequently devastating. Prosecutorial abuse is widespread in the US, and it’s vital that a strong message be sent that it is not acceptable. Swartz’s family strongly believes — with convincing rationale — that the abuse of this power by Ortiz and Heymann played a key role in the death of their 26-year-old son. It would be unconscionable to decide that this should be simply forgotten.

[. . .]

In most of what I’ve written and spoken about over the past several years, this is probably the overarching point: the abuse of state power, the systematic violation of civil liberties, is about creating a Climate of Fear, one that is geared toward entrenching the power and position of elites by intimidating the rest of society from meaningful challenges and dissent. There is a particular overzealousness when it comes to internet activism because the internet is one of the few weapons — perhaps the only one — that can be effectively harnessed to galvanize movements and challenge the prevailing order. That’s why so much effort is devoted to destroying the ability to use it anonymously — the Surveillance State — and why there is so much effort to punishing as virtual Terrorists anyone like Swartz who uses it for political activism or dissent.

The law and prosecutorial power should not be abused to crush and destroy those who commit the “crime” of engaging in activism and dissent against the acts of elites. Nobody contests the propriety of charging Swartz with some crime for what he did. Civil disobedience is supposed to have consequences. The issue is that he was punished completely out of proportion to what he did, for ends that have nothing to do with the proper administration of justice. That has consequences far beyond his case, and simply cannot be tolerated.

Update: Radley Balko‘s latest column is also on the topic of the public prosecutor.

The death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz has generated a lot of discussion about the power of prosecutors — particularly federal prosecutors. This is a good thing. The conversation is long overdue. But the discussion needs to go well beyond on Swartz and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Prosecutors have enormous power. Even investigations that don’t result in any charges can ruin lives, ruin reputations, and drive their targets into bankruptcy. It has become an overtly political position — in general, but particularly at the federal level. If a prosecutor wants to ruin your life, he or she can. Even if you’ve done nothing wrong, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it.

There are a number of factors that got us here, and it’s worth looking at them in turn.

When Kafka met Sandy

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:53

In the Wall Street Journal, Roger Kimball talks about the experience of trying to put your life back together after a major storm damages your home:

Like many people whose houses were badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy, my family and I have been living in a rented house since the storm. Unlike some whose houses were totalled, we could have repaired things and been home toasting our tootsies by our own fireplace by now. What happened?

Two things: zoning (as in “Twilight Zone”) and FEMA.

Our first exposure to the town zoning authorities came a couple of weeks after Sandy. We’d met with insurance adjusters, contractors and “remediation experts.” We’d had about a foot of Long Island Sound sloshing around the ground floor of our house in Connecticut, and everyone had the same advice: Rip up the floors and subfloors, and tear out anything — wiring, plumbing, insulation, drywall, kitchen cabinets, bookcases — touched by salt water. All of it had to go, and pronto, too, lest mold set in.

Yet it wasn’t until the workmen we hired had ripped apart most of the first floor that the phrase “building permit” first wafted past us. Turns out we needed one. “What, to repair our own house we need a building permit?”

Of course.

Before you could get a building permit, however, you had to be approved by the Zoning Authority. And Zoning — citing FEMA regulations — would force you to bring the house “up to code,” which in many cases meant elevating the house by several feet. Now, elevating your house is very expensive and time consuming — not because of the actual raising, which takes just a day or two, but because of the required permits.

Kafka would have liked the zoning folks. There also is a limit on how high in the sky your house can be. That calculation seems to be a state secret, but it can easily happen that raising your house violates the height requirement. Which means that you can’t raise the house that you must raise if you want to repair it. Got that?

“A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, this paradox.”

H/T to Monty for the link. Monty also has this meditation on bureaucracy:

This is where Leviathan does the most damage, I think. Tyranny is always a danger in centralized governments, but a greater danger is the proliferation and growth of bureaucracies. The rules become ever more Byzantine, ever more contradictory, ever more pointless, and ever more expensive (both to implement and comply with). The bureaucracies themselves achieve a life outside the body politic: they persist, age after age, irrespective of their political origin. Their sole imperative (regardless of their ostensible purpose) is to perpetuate themselves. They are an amoeba, growing to engulf everything they touch — not because they are evil, necessarily, but simply because it’s in their nature to do so. They cannot help themselves. Bureaucracies — lethargic, slow, risk-averse, rules-bound, pedantic, expensive, often causing more harm than good — are perhaps the very worst creation of human society.

The odd concept that is “money”

Filed under: Economics, Government, History — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

In his nominally NFL-related column, Gregg Easterbrook talks about the phenomenon that is money:

Currency is surprisingly abstract as a concept. Money is whatever you agree to accept in trade, with the understanding that others will accept it in turn. If there’s a $20 bill in your wallet or purse, you view it as valuable because you know that others will as well. If you have $1 million in a bank account, you view it as valuable because you know that others will as well. But you can’t eat a $20 bill or sleep under a bank account. Money is valuable only if others agree that it is.

Even if money is backed by some precious substance such as gold, the abstraction doesn’t change much. You can’t eat or wear gold. You view gold as valuable only because you know that others will as well. Whether a thin sheet of linen-like paper or a gold ingot or a string of digits on an electronic financial statement, money is, itself, worthless.

That money has value only when others think it does is why currencies collapse. The ruble and the Zimbabwean dollar lost value when no one wanted them, because a person holding this currency couldn’t be sure that others would also view it as valuable. But if Barack Obama ordered the minting of a trillion-dollar platinum coin, and it was viewed as having a trillion dollars’ worth of value, then it would.

[. . .]

Bear in mind, that’s how the past six years of irresponsible debt-based federal giveaways — two years under George W. Bush, now four years under Obama — have been funded. The Federal Reserve keeps buying Treasuries, or mortgage-backed securities issued by Fannie Mae and similar federal agencies. That gives the executive branch money to spend. One division of government tells another, “Here is a new string of numbers,” and money comes into existence.

What’s underlying these transactions? Nada, beyond the belief that strings of numbers issued by the United States are more likely to be useful in trade than strings of numbers issued by, say, Greece. Because the credibility of the United States is so high, its strings of numbers bear heft. But if government keeps printing money and talking about obvious gimmicks such as trillion-dollar coins, how long will that credibility last?

Economists including Friedrich Hayek have contemplated the idea that privately issued money would be more solid than government-issued money, since privately issued money would be cross-checked by market forces, while government is run to please campaign donors. Governments from the Roman emperors of the far past to the liberal Scandinavian democracies of today insist that they alone control the supply of money. One reason is to ensure taxation. At a deeper level, governments know how easily it could all unravel, and money be viewed as worthless.

When is a retirement fund not a retirement fund?

Filed under: Economics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

When you draw it down long before retirement to pay ordinary living expenses:

This trend has been in place since the financial crisis, but the fact that it is accelerating is extremely disconcerting. First off, this is not the kind of behavior that should be witnessed in an “economic recovery.” Second, we need to remember the huge percentage of Americans on food stamps and/or disability. As we have discussed previously, many of them also have jobs. So essentially, a wage and a check from the government is still not enough to survive. They still need to tap into a loan from their 401k plans.

From the Washington Post:

    More than one in four American workers with 401(k) and other retirement savings accounts use them to pay current expenses, new data show. The withdrawals, cash-outs and loans drain nearly a quarter of the $293 billion that workers and employers deposit into the accounts each year, undermining already shaky retirement security for millions of Americans.

    [. . .]

    “We’re going from bad to worse,” said Diane Oakley, executive director of the National Institute on Retirement Security. “Already, fewer private-sector workers have access to stable pension plans. And the savings in individual retirement savings accounts like 401(k) plans — which already are severely underfunded — continue to leak out at a high rate.”

    A report due out this week from the financial advisory firm HelloWallet found that more than one in four workers dip into retirement funds to pay their mortgages, credit card debt or other bills. Those in their 40s have been the most likely culprits — one-third are turning to such accounts for relief.

The 9 iron-clad rules of business

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Rosabeth Moss Kanter has the nine rules many businesses follow:

  1. Be suspicious of any new idea from below — because it’s new, and because it’s from below. After all, if the idea were any good, we at the top would have thought of it already.
  2. Invoke history. If a new idea comes up for discussion, find a precedent in a an earlier idea that didn’t work, remind everyone of that bad past experience. Those who have been around a long time know that we tried it before, so it won’t work this time either.
  3. Keep people really busy. If people seem to have free time, load them with more work.
  4. In the name of excellence, encourage cut-throat competition. Get groups to critique and challenge each other’s proposals, preferably in public forums, and then declare winters and losers.
  5. Stress predictability above all. Count everything that can be counted, and do it as often as possible. Sweep any surplus into master accounts, and eliminate any slack. Favor exact plans and guarantees of success. Don’t credit people with exceeding their targets because that would just undermine planning. Insist that all procedures be followed.
  6. Confine discussion of strategies and plans to a small circle of trusted advisors. Then announce big decisions in full-blown form. This ensures that no one will start anything new because they never know what new orders will be coming down from the top.
  7. Act as though punishing failure motivates success. Practice public humiliation, making object lessons out of those who fail to meet expectations. Everyone will know that risk-taking is bad.
  8. Blame problems on the incompetent people below — their weak skills and poor work ethic. Complain frequently about the low quality of the talent pool today. If that doesn’t undermine self-confidence, it will undermine faith in anyone else’s ideas.
  9. Above all, never forget that we got to the top because we already know everything there is to know about this business.

Yep, several of the companies I’ve worked for followed most or all of these rules … to suppress creativity and innovation. Worked a treat, too.

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