Category Archives: Public Policy and Governance

Weaponizing Speech

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a provocative article by Tim Wu, a media historian who teaches at Columbia University, titled “Did Twitter Kill the First Amendment?” He began with the question:

You need not be a media historian to notice that we live in a golden age of press harassment, domestic propaganda and coercive efforts to control political debate. The Trump White House repeatedly seeks to discredit the press, threatens to strip broadcasters of their licenses and calls for the firing of journalists and football players for speaking their minds. A foreign government tries to hack our elections, and journalists and public speakers are regularly attacked by vicious, online troll armies whose aim is to silence opponents.

In this age of “new” censorship and blunt manipulation of political speech, where is the First Amendment?

Where, indeed? As Wu notes, the First Amendment was written for a different set of problems in a very different world, and much of the jurisprudence it has spawned deals with issues far removed from the ones that bedevil us today.

As my students are all too often surprised to learn, the Bill of Rights protects us against government misbehavior–in the case of our right to free speech, the First Amendment prohibits government censorship. For the most part, in this age of Facebook and Twitter and other social media, the censors come from the private sector–or in some cases, from governments other than our own, through various internet platforms.

The Russian government was among the first to recognize that speech itself could be used as a tool of suppression and control. The agents of its “web brigade,” often called the “troll army,” disseminate pro-government news, generate false stories and coordinate swarm attacks on critics of the government. The Chinese government has perfected “reverse censorship,” whereby disfavored speech is drowned out by “floods” of distraction or pro-government sentiment. As the journalist Peter Pomerantsev writes, these techniques employ information “in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert and paralyze.”

It’s really difficult for most Americans to get our heads around this new form of warfare. We understand many of the negative effects of our fragmented and polarized media environment, the ability to live in an information bubble, to “choose our news”–and we recognize the role social media plays in constructing and reinforcing that bubble. It’s harder to visualize how Russia’s infiltration of Facebook and Twitter might have influenced our election.

Wu wants law enforcement to do more to protect journalists from cyber-bullying and threats of violence. And he wants Congress to step in to regulate social media (lots of luck with that in this anti-regulatory age.) For example, he says much too little is being done to protect American politics from foreign attack.

The Russian efforts to use Facebook, YouTube and other social media to influence American politics should compel Congress to act. Social media has as much impact as broadcasting on elections, yet unlike broadcasting it is unregulated and has proved easy to manipulate. At a minimum, new rules should bar social media companies from accepting money for political advertising by foreign governments or their agents. And more aggressive anti-bot laws are needed to fight impersonation of humans for propaganda purposes.

When Trump’s White House uses Twitter to encourage people to punish Trump’s critics — Wu cites the President’s demand that the N.F.L., on pain of tax penalties, censor players — “it is wielding state power to punish disfavored speech. There is precedent for such abuses to be challenged in court.”

It is hard to argue with Wu’s conclusion that

no defensible free-speech tradition accepts harassment and threats as speech, treats foreign propaganda campaigns as legitimate debate or thinks that social-media bots ought to enjoy constitutional protection. A robust and unfiltered debate is one thing; corruption of debate itself is another.

The challenge will be to craft legislation that addresses these unprecedented issues effectively–without inadvertently limiting the protections of the First Amendment.

We have some time to think about this, because the current occupants of both the White House and the Congress are highly unlikely to act. In the meantime, Twitter is the weapon and tweets are the “incoming.”

 

If It’s Mental Illness…

I always hesitate before blogging about guns, knowing that posting any opinion other than “yes, you have a constitutional right to pack heat whenever or wherever you want, and it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve beaten your wife” will generate howls of opprobrium and hysterical accusations that I want to disarm everyone.

But still.

The Orange Menace in the Oval Office is on record–well, on twitter–saying that America doesn’t have a gun problem, that what we do have is a mental health problem.

There are, of course, multiple available rebuttals to that statement. We might point out that other countries with similar percentages of mentally-ill citizens but fewer guns have dramatically fewer incidents of gun violence. We might point out that allowing civilians to own lethal assault weapons developed for warfare is evidence of a different sort of mental illness. We might point out that the Second Amendment doesn’t require a failure to differentiate between a hunting rifle and an AK-15.

Even if we ignore those arguments, we’re left with a question that our Tweeter-in-Chief conveniently ignored: if mass shootings are attributable to failures of our efforts to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill, why did he eliminate Obama’s restrictions on gun ownership for people with mental illness? (We do know the answer to that: Trump’s obsessive hatred of Obama and his fixation on erasing any and all measures attributable to his predecessor.)

As NBC reported in February,

President Donald Trump quietly signed a bill into law Tuesday rolling back an Obama-era regulation that made it harder for people with mental illnesses to purchase a gun.

The rule, which was finalized in December, added people receiving Social Security checks for mental illnesses and people deemed unfit to handle their own financial affairs to the national background check database.

Had the rule fully taken effect, the Obama administration predicted it would have added about 75,000 names to that database.

President Barack Obama recommended the now-nullified regulation in a 2013 memo following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which left 20 first graders and six others dead. The measure sought to block some people with severe mental health problems from buying guns.

The GOP-led House and Senate obediently passed the bill nullifying the Obama-era measure, and officials of the NRA “applauded” the action.

Of course they did.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a leading gun control advocate in Congress, called out Republicans over the move.

“Republicans always say we don’t need new gun laws, we just need to enforce the laws already on the books. But the bill signed into law today undermines enforcement of existing laws that Congress passed to make sure the background check system had complete information,” he said in an emailed statement.

So, welcome to the U.S. of A… On this Thanksgiving Day, feel free to express your gratitude for a country where any raving lunatic can legally buy a gun, and the twittering lunatic in the White House can launch nuclear weapons.

American exceptionalism, baby!

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, At The FCC….

Unlike many–most?–of Trump’s appointees, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai appears to know what he’s doing and how to do it. And that’s a big problem.

He’s already rolled back what The Street calls a “pillar of U.S. media ownership restrictions.

“Owners of local television stations will be permitted to buy a local radio station or newspaper in the same market after the Federal Communications Commissions on Thursday, Nov. 16, voted to lift the ban on cross-ownership that had stood since 1975. The agency, which has been fast eliminating restrictions long opposed by TV station companies, also eliminated a ban on two TV stations in the same market from entering into joint sales agreements to sell advertising.

The restrictions being lifted were intended to prevent any one political perspective from dominating a given media market. Here in Indianapolis, where right wing Sinclair is proposing purchase that will allow it to dominate the radio market, this new permissiveness is likely to facilitate a market blanketed with Fox-like, right wing propaganda.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican who orchestrated the changes, said the bans and other restrictions were no longer relevant given the advent of online news sources and the shrinking circulations of most local newspapers. The two Democrats on the five-person commission, echoing other critics, countered that Pai understated the importance and impact that local media sources continue to have despite the rise of Facebook Inc. and other social media platforms.

The damage this change will inflict pales, however, in comparison to Pai’s most cherished goal–the elimination of net neutrality rules.

As Time Magazine and a number of other news outlets have reported,

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday followed through on his pledge to repeal 2015 regulations designed to ensure that internet service providers treat all online content and apps equally, setting up a showdown with consumer groups and internet companies who fear the move will stifle competition and innovation.

The current rules, known as net neutrality, impose utility-style regulation on ISPs such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to prevent them from favoring their own digital services over those of their rivals.

Pai says he wants the FCC to stop “micromanaging” the Internet. What he calls micromanaging is what we used to call “regulating,” and although it is certainly possible to point to examples of excessive regulation, there was–and is–a reason for establishing “rules of the road.” The reasons for net neutrality rules are especially compelling.

As the Internet Association, a group composed of major internet companies such as Google and Amazon, put it,

“Consumers have little choice in their ISP, and service providers should not be allowed to use this gatekeeper position at the point of connection to discriminate against websites and apps.”

The group is fighting the change. So are many other organizations concerned with consumer rights.

Consumers Union predicted a repeal of net neutrality would allow ISPs to raise their prices and give preferential treatment to certain sites and apps.

“Strong net neutrality rules are vital to consumers’ everyday lives and essential to preserving the internet as we know it today — an open marketplace where websites large and small compete on equal terms and where information and ideas move freely,” said Jonathan Schwantes, the advocacy group’s senior policy counsel.

Two of the FCC’s five voting commissioners signaled they will oppose Pai’s plan.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel derided Pai’s plan as “ridiculous and offensive to the millions of Americans who use the internet every day.”

Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn skewered Pai’s proposals as “a giveaway to the nation’s largest communications companies, at the expense of consumers and innovation.”

Before being named to the FCC, Pai was an executive at Verizon. I’m sure that’s an irrelevant factoid.(cough, cough).

The last time net neutrality was attacked, John Oliver delivered such an effective argument against the change that the switchboards at the FCC were overwhelmed; his diatribe was said to have prompted some 150,000 calls. Scheduling the vote for the week after Thanksgiving is a rather transparent effort to avoid that sort of public outrage, an effort to change the rule while people are otherwise occupied.

Let’s not allow that strategy to work. I encourage everyone to click through, watch Oliver’s explanation of what’s at stake–and then call the FCC.

Corporations Will Use Their Windfalls To Create Jobs. NOT.

Part of the mantra obediently recited by advocates of the mis-named “tax reform” bill is their touching (or feigned) belief that corporations will use the funds being repatriated and/or saved from the tax collector to create jobs.

Brings to mind the old adage about the triumph of hope over experience.

Ed Brayton relays the recent, eye-opening response by corporate CEOs to a speech by Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic advisor.

Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, took part in an event hosted by the Wall Street Journal that featured an audience full of CEOs, and when a Journal editor asked for a show of hands by those leaders who would invest in new capacity if their taxes were cut, very few hands went up. Cohn seemed shocked.

Cohn really shouldn’t have been shocked. We’ve been here before, and there is no reason to believe that the fundamentals–or the economic incentives– have changed. As Brayton notes, corporate profits are already at record highs, and credit is very cheap and readily available.

If those businesses believed that investing in new factories or equipment that might create more jobs would result in higher profits for them, they would already be doing it. But they’re not. Indeed, while this poll was an informal one, formal surveys of CEOs find the same result.

This summer, Bank of America Merrill Lynch asked 300 companies what they would do if Congress passed a “tax holiday” that allowed them to bring back massive amounts of money being held overseas at a lower tax rate. 65% said they would pay down their debt. Second most popular option? Stock buyback. Neither of those things creates new jobs. Indeed, when George W. Bush did the same thing in 2004, about $300 billion in cash kept in overseas subsidiaries was brought back at a ridiculous 5.25% tax rate. 80% of it was used to buy back stock. Why? Because it makes the shares of CEOs, which are a huge part of their compensation package, much more valuable. So the rich people benefit but no one else does.

I don’t know whether the lawmakers who continue to push this theory have convinced themselves of its credibility through constant repetition, or whether they are knowingly putting the best possible spin on an economic policy that repeated experience tells us is bogus. It probably doesn’t matter whether they are venal or stupid (not that the two categories are mutually exclusive); the outcome is the same: the rich get richer, and their political donations reward the lawmakers who’ve carried their water. Economic inequality and popular resentments continue to grow, along with political cynicism and social distrust.

It’s a prescription for upheaval, for further splintering of our already strained social fabric–and plenty of wealthy people understand that social unrest shrinks, rather than grows, the economy. As the contours of the tax “reform” bill  have become known, more than 400 American millionaires and billionaires have signed a letter to Congress demanding that Republican lawmakers not cut their taxes.

These wealthy Americans argue that reducing taxes on the richest families at a time when the the nation’s debt is high and inequality is at the worst level since the 1920s would be a colossal mistake.

The letter calls on Congress to not to pass any tax bill that adds to the debt and that “further exacerbates inequality.” Instead of cutting taxes of the wealthy, the letter tells Congress to raises taxes on rich people like them.

If money talks, theirs is the money Congress should listen to.

 

How Stupid Do They Think We Are?

I really wasn’t going to write any more about the GOP tax plan, at least until we’ve seen whether it is likely to pass in anything like its current form. But I was on the treadmill yesterday morning and, as usual, was watching television to take my mind off the fact that I was exercising. I was absolutely astonished to see a political advertisement touting the tax plan’s benefits to “ordinary middle-class Americans,” who would see an “average” tax saving of over 1,100.

The voice-over went on to reassure listeners about the fairness of the measure, asserting that the tax brackets for the rich weren’t being lowered, and implying–without actually saying it– that the tax liability of the top 1% would not decrease.

The blatant dishonesty of this ad appalled me.

Let’s just examine that bit about the “average middle-class taxpayer.” (Ignore, for the moment, the fact that Congressional Republicans at one point defined an annual income of 450,000 as “middle class”–I don’t know whether the criticism that little item generated has caused them to back off that particular bit of nonsense.) Let’s just talk about averages.

What’s the average of a mouse and an elephant?

More to the point, if my income is “averaged” with the income of Bill Gates, the resulting number is going to be pretty misleading about both of us.

Every analysis I have seen–even those produced by right-leaning think tanks–shows wealthy individuals getting the lion’s share of the tax “relief” under both the House and Senate  versions. According to Politifact,

  • The highest-income 0.1 percent of taxpayers — those who had an income of over $3.7 million in 2015 — would get an average tax cut of more than $1.3 million in 2017.
  • That same group would receive 18 percent of the tax reduction, while the bottom 60 percent of taxpayers would receive 16.4 percent of the reduction.

Credible sources analyzing the plan’s consequences quibble on some of the details, but all of them agree on two points: the cuts disproportionately benefit the rich, and they will add somewhere between 1.5 and 1.7 trillion dollars to the current deficit.

A deficit of that magnitude would be unsustainable, and the result would be savage cuts in social welfare programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. (Those cuts, of course, would come later–In the time-honored practice of politicians everywhere, the bill pushes the most noticeable negative consequences to a future election cycle.)

I was flabbergasted at the out-and-out dishonesty of the television spot. I’ve seen plenty of spin, but this went far beyond that–it took flat-out lying to an entirely new level. The extra adrenaline probably improved my workout, but all I could think of was “how stupid do the people who created this ad think Americans are?”

And then all I could think about was, what if they’re right?