Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Wikileaks Brouhaha: A Misinformed Debate

by Gaurav Singh
Lately, it seems, there has been a woeful lack of reasoned debate concerning Wikileaks across the American media spectrum.  For the most part, Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange, have been demonized.  This is a very curious and a somewhat puzzling phenomenon, since on key issues concerning this scandal there is and should be broad agreement in defense of Wikileaks across the American political landscape.
Broadly, the issues being discussed concern Mr. Assange, allegations (as yet unsubstantiated) against his character and motives; the leaks have been termed treason, and espionage has been mentioned; at least one highly visible individual has called for the hanging of Mr. Assange; and, generally, the concern has been over the harm caused by Wikileaks and Mr. Assange by leaking US diplomatic communiqués.
The key points that have been notably absent (and would be present if there were a reasoned debate):
1.     Free speech and mistrust of government,
2.     Role of media and critical need for free press,
3.     Visa, Mastercard and Paypal’s attack on Americans’ free speech,
4.     Misunderstood culpability related to disclosures, and
5.     Assault on free speech and overuse of governmental secrecy.
When I mentioned to my friends that I found the reaction and attacks on Wikileaks disturbing, a friend and purported supporter of free speech opined, “By releasing classified information about weaknesses in my country's infrastructure and economy, WeakiLeaks is putting my country at risk. Therefore, my freedom of speech is at risk.”
This capitulation, and reflexive disavowal of a sacred liberty (freedom of speech) by an otherwise intelligent and reasonable individual compelled me to write.  Also, I have distaste for hegemonic narratives and for a tyrannical majority willing to shove their unconsidered views down our collective throats.
So, what does it mean to support free speech and to have a healthy mistrust of government?  These two are considered sacrosanct American values.  Yet, there is clearly a blind spot when it comes to making the connection between these values and the hypocritical stand taken by most vis-à-vis Wikileaks.
Everyone seems to be for free speech, unless it comes to speech they find offensive.  But free speech has become a major challenge for the U.S., especially since we have bandied about the virtues and necessity of a free internet and free availability of information.  The rest of the world is weighing in and calling us on our purported values.  Do we stand for our values or are these standards by which we merely seek to judge others?
Then, there is the famous healthy American mistrust of our government.  Or so I had heard. 
At a time when confidence in our government is at historic lows and there is widespread disaffection with Congressional dysfunction, people have come together in a hurry to defend government secrecy!  Yes, that is right.  People have joined the chorus against Wikileaks, in defense of government secrecy and essentially against free speech and free press, the antidotes to governmental abuse.
Let us call a spade a spade – Wikileaks has released the truth.  No one, not even our governmental agencies are questioning the authenticity of what has been released by Wikileaks.  So, at question is whether people have the right to know the truth. How much should we (the people) be allowed to know!
It is likely that our focus should be on the extent and appropriateness of governmental secrecy.  What should be made “secret”?  The erring on the side of caution should always tip the scales towards the freedom of (the public to know) information, so that the American voters can make informed decisions.  That is how our republic is meant to function.  Uninformed or poorly informed voters do not make good decisions.  The erratic voting patterns of late validate my assertion, as do the eight painful years under George W. Bush.  I contend that freedom should generally trump secrecy, which purports to ensure security.
The other disturbing development central to this controversy is: Corporations are now dictating what our economic choices can or cannot be (not should or should not be).  This infringes upon Americans’ free speech!
Visa, Mastercard and Paypal restricting my choices and yours – they did not seek to inform us of the harm in supporting Wikileaks, rather they simply prevented us from being able to give money to Wikileaks.  Therefore, these corporations have dared to regulate our economic choices.
Last time I checked, any of us could still use Visa and Mastercard to give to the Ku Klux Klan and any number of racists, fascist or other hate groups.  But Visa and Mastercard deign to prevent our giving to Wikileaks!
Supreme Court has recently allowed corporations to give freely, as citizens, to political candidates and causes in the name of free speech.  And the corporations are now preventing the exercise the citizens’ rights of free speech.
So what about this issue of espionage and treason?
Non-disclosure agreements – the government making a case of harm being done as a result of the leaks is one that pertains to the individual employee specificially, and others who sign non-disclosure agreements and then violate them.  This is generally true for governmental and non-governmental organizations, as well as for corporations working for profit motives.
The issue here is of a federal employee, who is accused of violating his oath to secrecy and that is an issue that has to be taken up in a judicial court.  There certainly may be a case of a criminal violation here.
However, it is interesting to consider what type of a violation and oath the individual took.  Was his oath to uphold the rules of the military?  Or was his oath fundamentally to uphold the sanctity of, and to serve the Constitution of the United States (which, presumably, is what the military and other governmental employees serve)?  If so, then the real question is not one of a violation of secrecy, but broadly about one’s accord with the Constitutional duties. 
Secondly, Julian Assange is not a U.S. citizen, and does not owe allegiance to the United States.  He has not levied war against the U.S. or adhered to its enemies, and so on.  Therefore, he is not and cannot be guilty of treason (18 USC CHAPTER 115).
Whether Julian Assange engaged in espionage is a question that remains to be answered.  However, it would raise a broader question – how does the United States deal with journalists (who are protected under Free Speech) and sensitive information?  For instance, Robert Novak outed an undercover CIA operative and he did not have to cool his heels in prison.
The most distasteful part of this and related episodes is that all this is occurring under the Obama administration.  The President had committed to having the most transparent government.  Here is the exact language of President Obama’s pledge, made the day after he took office:
The directives I am giving my administration today on how to interpret the Freedom of Information Act will do just that. For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known.
To be sure, issues like personal privacy and national security must be treated with the care they demand. But the mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it. The Freedom of Information Act is perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for making our government honest and transparent, and of holding it accountable. And I expect members of my administration not simply to live up to the letter but also the spirit of this law.
I will also hold myself as President to a new standard of openness. Going forward, anytime the American people want to know something that I or a former President wants to withhold, we will have to consult with the Attorney General and the White House Counsel, whose business it is to ensure compliance with the rule of law. Information will not be withheld just because I say so. It will be withheld because a separate authority believes my request is well grounded in the Constitution.
Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency. (bold and italics added)
What wonderful words, and a clear promise.  The cynic in me told me otherwise even then, but I held out hope for the Obama administration.
The fog has cleared and to those uninfected by the two-party divide it is apparent that the actions of the Obama administration are not consonant with his rhetoric.  His administration has continued the trend of labeling whole swaths of documents Secret.  They have done so liberally (no pun intended) and in the name of national security.  In this, and not merely this alone, the Obama administration has continued the flawed policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush (certainly, no liberal).  As happy as I was to hear President Obama's promise, I am equally disappointed to see him abandon it.  Especially, since, he had boldly stated that he was not afraid to be a one-term president.
The Council on Foreign Relations had an interview on How Wikileaks Affects Journalism, which is a good read. The value Wikileaks brings to journalism, and how that can serve to inform and aid democracy is not hard to understand.  The bigger issues concern the assault on free speech and the continued frivolous use of secrecy by our government.  And that is a debate in which we should be engaged.  Wikileaks and Julian Assange have transformed from an information dump to a judicious outlet of clearly vetted info, in concert with well-respected newspapers.  Wikileaks and Julian Assange are leading a new form of journalism and should be accorded the same protections.

For those who have read thus far, enjoy this video of Amy Goodman's interview of Daniel Ellsburg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers and helped end the Vietnam War).  This is followed by a creative (and funny) look at the recent happenings.  The allusion to Gadaffi was in the diplomatic communiques recently leaked by Wikileaks.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Opposing Healthcare: Rational or Irrational?

by Gaurav Singh

Predictably, the Healthcare law passed recently has come under legal challenge.  In this video, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) made a cogent case for, as well as exposed the irrational argument against, spreading the risk (widening the pool) of the insured.

So, is the opposition to universally mandated (affordable) health insurance rational or irrational?  Well, it depends on who you are.

There is a dissonance between the value of health insurance for voters and politicians.  Furthermore, there is a dissonance within voters, as well as within politicians.  Why should that be so when universal health insurance is, as I shall show, a cost effective way of addressing this national crisis? 

In short, it depends upon incentives and self-interest and with what and whom these are aligned.

In that regard, opposition to the law recently passed (as well as, the fear of Universal Healthcare) may appear rational for some politicians.  It is simply not principled (I explain this below).

Mandated Universal Health Insurance is a mechanism that achieves the goal of minimizing risk by diversifying it across the populace.  Investors in the stock market routinely seek to minimize their risk while maximizing the upside, and they do it by diversifying their portfolio.  Diversifying a stock portfolio makes sense to most rational people.

While diversifying makes sense to rational investors, when related with the stock market, the same principle seems no longer sensible to many presently opposed to diversifying the pool of those insured for health.

Why such dissonance?  Did the math, and statistical probability underlying the risk analyses suddenly become inapplicable?  Of course not!  However, something did change.

To simply state that people are not always rational would miss the point.  At play here is an economic phenomenon.  The gains or benefit from investing in stocks are personal, while gains from healthcare are shared (they are spread over the population). Specifically, those who are a lower risk (healthy, young people) get a lower payoff than those who are a higher risk (generally older and disease-prone people).  Therefore, the payoff is higher for being rational in terms of personal investments (stock market). The payoff is not nearly as high for supporting universal healthcare.  The younger and healthier one is, the payoff from bearing the cost of health insurance actually decreases - that is, the personal value for health insurance decreases.

So, does that mean that mandated health insurance is not in our interest?  Far from it, the fact is that mandated health insurance is in our public interest, but it may appear that it is not in our own, pure self-interest.  More specifically, it is not in the pure self-interest of those individuals who are healthy and young, or wealthy and older.  Public interest and pure self-interest are not always the same.  However, a strong case can be made that, philosophically, they are intrinsically related and inseparable.  It depends upon the idea and magnitude of the self – how large is my idea of my self, but let's save that for another day.

We routinely restrain pure self-interest in service of the public good.  For instance, society has deemed it necessary to mandate minimum liability auto insurance.  Why?  Because if you feel the need not to have auto insurance and crash into me (or my property), then I should not have to endure a large financial cost because of your irresponsible decision.

Similarly, health outcomes have a cost that is shared by society. Only we do not see it everyday.  And it doesn’t hit us with jarring force, like an auto accident.  But every time we complain about our taxes, we are in some part complaining for having to pay for folks who go to the emergency room.

Why do they go to the emergency room, rather than to their primary care doctor?  They do so because they do not have health insurance!

Going without insurance to the doctor entails a high cost, as does visiting the emergency room at any local hospital.  Except, the doctor in private practice can refuse to see you if you are not insured, since they know you will not pay them.  But the emergency room cannot turn you away.  And guess who pays for it?  All of us, the taxpayers, bear that cost.  Many individuals and families who are made to bear responsibility for such costs find themselves financially ruined.

Think of how much cheaper it would be to visit the primary care physician for treatment or medical advice.  You make a copayment for all preventive care, in addition to your regular insurance payments.  Larger treatments may entail a coinsurance.  But that cost is considerably less than going to the emergency room for the same treatment.  Actually, the difference is in orders of magnitude.

Is it really that hard to understand that the more people there are in a group the overall risk, as well as the per person cost of a program, is reduced?  That is the basis upon which insurance operates.  Insurance is about managing risk.  In short, there is a larger shared benefit when risk is spread amongst a larger group of people.  The validity of my case is evident by comparing the cost of any private vs. group insurance.

Then, there is the issue of adverse selection.  If young, and potentially healthier, people stay out of the pool of the insured because they are healthy, then by default the pool of the insured will include those who are not as healthy, and result in a higher cost for all who are insured.

In such a marketplace of choice, who will seek insurance?  Overwhelmingly, it would be folks who think (or know) that they need to be insured, i.e. those who are likely to be unhealthy!

This is a simple, yet pertinent, reasoning that is lost on those who rail against the virtues of universal healthcare.  By having a choice the healthy stay out of the insurance pool yet, when needed, they go to the emergency care.  They do so because the benefits are personal and the costs are shared.   Conversely, by mandating health insurance society ensures that the benefit and cost both are shared.  What we need is to be made painfully aware of the actual cost of having a broken healthcare system – what we actually pay (through our taxes) to sustain the system at this time and the actual savings via a mandated health insurance.

So, why are many politicians forwarding an irrational argument?  Simply put, it is a matter of incentives and interest – both public and self.

Actually, one needs to parse the meaning of public interest. Public interest comprises collective good.  The collective is made up of individuals, but transcends pure self-interest.  When we act in the public interest or for the public good, our choices help more than just ourselves, although we do accrue a smaller benefit.

It is pure self-interest to which opportunistic politicians speak, when they bring to light that Universal Healthcare is not in people's self-interest.  But, they conflate it with the public good which is clearly not the case.  These politicians are highlighting selective parts that actually distort the bigger picture.

Now, we generally give up pure self-interest everyday in order to serve the public good.  For example, parks and infrastructure such as roads and bridges are public goods and serve the public interest, paid for by all of us.  We just do not take money out of our pocket to keep these running.  It is included in our taxes.  Health insurance is paid weekly or monthly, so it hurts.

But why do politicians make a case to undermine the public interest?  The primary functional goal of a politician is to get re-elected.  That may sound cynical, but it is true.  Assuming all politicians are honest and enter politics to serve the public good, they would need to stay in office for them to continue to serve the public.  Therefore, politicians are functionally interested in re-election and after all is said and done they hope to do more good than harm.  Again, it sounds like a cynical qualification, but is it?

All honest politicians want to do what is “good” in their view, the problem is that other politicians disagree, and are committed to their own view of the “good”.  And in our system of government bifurcates the power into three branches  - legislative (Congress), judicial (Courts) and the executive (President) - and two branches (House and Senate) within the legislative branch – the lawmaking body.  It is a painful process to get a bill to become law.  I highly encourage all to watch this short video below to appreciate that process.

Repealing a law takes a whole new dimension when the law actually serves the public good.  It is a problem, in my view, that President Obama did not make the case for Universal Healthcare - a campaign promise, in favor of an easier product - a compromised and flawed bill, which is nevertheless an improvement over the status quo. 

House members have to seek re-election every two years.  Therefore, these elected representatives want to fashion legislation to serve the public good, while constantly concerned with raising money for re-election and having to compromise with other politicians serving the interests ("good") of their constituents.

But who are their constituents?  That is more complicated.  For politicians, constituents include voters, but also include interest groups that lobby to have their preferences considered.  These interest groups include experts who advise (wink, wink!) elected representatives on the merits and demerits of certain provisions of any particular legislation.  In fact, these “experts” pretty much write the law that is to essentially govern them.  So, politicians are more vested to interest groups that support them, like health insurance companies, than individual voters who may express their preferences thru emails, letters or phone calls.  Only coordinated action by a sizable number of voters can sway legislators.

The above is not to justify in any way the actions of politicians.  I do not.  It is only to shed light upon the process.

So, from the politicians’ vantage point they are taking rational positions that support their chances of re-election.  The problem is that their interest is not always aligned with the interest of their constituents (I mean you and me).  Citizens, you and me, can have wildly different interests than elected representatives, as should be clear by now.

To many politicians who oppose universal healthcare, then, it would appear they are acting rationally.  That is because they are serving their main objective, which is to stay elected and to do, on average, more good than harm through the complex system of checks and balances of our system of government that constrains their choices.

However, these politicians are not being honest when they say that they are being principled.  They are not.

Since, mandating universal health insurance is a public good, in that it serves the public interest, it would be a principled position for every politician to support this measure.  Unless it is their intention to work solely for self-interest.  But if they were to make that revelation, then they simply would not be re-elected.  So, the real question is whether Health insurance for all Americans is in the public interest, since politicians are universally and rhetorically committed to serving it. I hope the reasoning above makes clear that mandated health insurance for all Americans is obviously and provably in the public interest.

Finally, the reasoning that government cannot manage healthcare and that private sector can do it better is ridiculous.  We already know that the private system of health insurance is broken and based upon choice, which clearly does not work.  We also know that the government manages Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Defense, Law & Order, Mail, and Education, etc.

Effectively, the healthcare problem could have been addressed by including everyone within Medicare.  However, leave it to the Democrats to botch this rational sell to the American people.  Just kidding.  It is not easy to make the case for mandated health insurance in one line.  It is certainly easier to use fear-mongering tactics and confuse the voters.

Still, persistent and cogent reasoning can win this debate.  And that is a fight President Obama should gear up for.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rajneeti (Politics)

A voice from Panjab addressing the political landscape and dearth of accountability.  On second thought, this applies not just to Panjab.  Rak Kakra's observations ring true well beyond South Asia.