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Saturday, November 23, 2013

The American Media Goes “Nuclear” on the U.S. Senate's Filibuster

Is ending the filibuster on appointments to executive-branch offices as well as judicial appointments below the U.S. Supreme Court really “the nuclear option”? Is this expression simply rhetoric gone horribly over the top? Journalists would undoubtedly demur, at least publically, yet without feeling an ounce of shame.
On November 22, 2013, a leading story on the front page of USA Today immediately snagged my fleeting attention with the headline, “’Nuclear’ volleys across aisle signal a Cold War in Congress.”[1] The 52-48 vote in the U.S. Senate on the previous day was neither a “nuclear volley” nor the beginning of a “cold war.” Rather, the reform was yet another legislative device having to do with reducing the gridlock within the chamber and perhaps for a party to gain more control therein. The political tussles between the two major parties had already been going on, so the latest reform could not have been the start of a war, cold or hot.
To be sure, editors look for headlines to be attention-grabbers, and thus sensationalistic—yet even if the claim is false or even misleading? Signaling a cold war flies in the face of the prior existence of such a “war,” as during the U.S. Government’s partial shutdown when raising the government’s debt-ceiling was in jeopardy. Moreover, the reporter continues the sensationalism within the article.
For example, the reporter invokes “the superpower theory of Mutually Assured Destruction—that is, if you use the most powerful weapon against your enemy, your enemy will use it against you—neither side had ever deployed it.”[2] Does not this “theory” apply more to shutting down the government or refusing to raise the debt-limit? The fact that Americans waked up on November 22nd with a functional federal government belies the journalist’s application of the theory to whether the U.S. Senate would confirm more appellate and district judges. Nevertheless, the reporter “reports” that “Democrats voted for detonation.”[3]  I didn’t hear any sort of blast, or for that matter, see any damage the next day.
As for any realistic (i.e., still incremental rather than radical) consequences, the reporter provides merely a quote at the end of the article. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) said, “The silver lining is that there will come a day when the roles are reversed. When that happens, our side will likely nominate and confirm lower court and Supreme Court nominees with 51 votes.”[4] As if as an afterthought, the reporter tacked on this quote, which says basically that the Senate would continue to delimit the filibuster’s domain. Crucially, incrementalism is not radicalism. Hence, the war rhetoric is misleading at best, and it displaces reportage on the real significance of the vote.

1. Susan Page, ““’Nuclear’ volleys across aisle signal a Cold War in Congress,” USA Today, November 22, 2013.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., emphasis added.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mammoth American Airlines Trades Passenger Privacy for Profit

“Personalizing the flying experience” Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Let’s add to it, “and better target promotions.” This addendum has doubtlessly been lauded in the corporate hallways at American Airlines, yet that airline’s completed phrase likely smacks of a marketing ploy to the general public. Specifically, the first part hinges on the second, which in turn is a function of profit-seeking and ultimately greed. As per the general relationship between increasing risk and reward, the airline’s strategy is not without risk.
According to Maya Leibman, the head of technology and information at American, the airline traditionally prohibited flight attendants from saving most data, such as meal orders, about particular flyers. Leibman explains that policy as resulting from a “gut reaction” that collecting more data would violate fliers’ privacy.[1]  She adds that in changing course ostensibly to “personalize a flying experience,” the airline’s management risks crossing “a line between providing excellent customer service and suddenly becoming creepy.”[2] That is to say, squeezing out additional revenue (i.e., marginal revenue), one of the (marginal) costs is the risk of offending customers and developing a rather squalid reputation.
As just one example, suppose a regular passenger who is HIV positive typically asks for a cup of water in-flight in order to take the medication. A flight attendant reports the request as data attached to that passenger’s account. During the passenger’s next flight, a flight attendant “pro-actively” asks the passenger whether he would like water.
“For what?” might be the reply immediately after a nap.
“I just thought for all the pills you have to take that you might want some water.”
Now the people sitting nearby know that something is wrong with that passenger, and this realization  could not but impact any conversations with the passenger. A grandmother sitting in the next seat over might be inclined to ask the passenger why he or she is taking so much medication. As an aside, invasiveness is so ingrained in the dominant mentality in my hometown that efforts to enforce any sort of personal boundaries are typically regarded as an attack warranting at least passive aggression. Moreover, for 1.8 million years when our species lived in small clans or bands, gossip was a principal means enabling social interaction. The tendency may be in our genes through eons of layers of natural selection.
A spokesperson for American Airlines would certainly have a policy statement at hand designed to assuage our fears by insisting that employees are regulated by the airline in what they can say, but human nature, is, well, human, all too human. Additionally, consider the natural reaction of the passenger to his or her medication being virtually announced, especially given the social stigma of being HIV positive. Even without the illness itself being made public, the passenger would surely feel anxious in fearing that the employee “knows.” A strange look from another passenger might incur a similar reaction. I do not believe that a corporate policy can take account of such subtle dynamics of social interaction. In other words, the human brain can easily transcend the superficiality of policy.
Therefore, a myriad of ethical problems could be unleashed as airlines such as American edge closer to invasiveness in order to “personalize” and ultimately profit. From this perspective, even a “right to privacy” seems rather superficial. In line with Locke’s theory of government, privacy is likely a domain in which a natural rather than merely government-sanctioned right exists, owing to the “gut reaction” that a person knows too much, and is thus “creepy.” In business terms, airline managements may want to remember that marginal increases in revenue decrease to a point below the corresponding increases in marginal cost. Attentiveness to a naturalistic ethic is part of management in that that sort of “gut reaction” can keep a manager from crossing the line, financially and otherwise.

1. Jack Nicas, “How Airlines Are Mining Personal Data In-Flight,” The Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2013.
2. Ibid.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Continual Campaign Eclipses Governance in Congress: Fixing Obamacare

The sordid, all-consuming encroachments of electoral politics into governance in the U.S. Congress could all-too-easily ride the entrails of Obamacare’s hemorrhaging web-site. Amid this undercurrent of political calculus under the subterfuge of governance and the public good, the public’s faith that the aggregation of the “producers’” self-interests will maximize or satisfice the general welfare remained invisible to the naked eye.
Let’s take the “fix it” vote that occurred in the U.S. House on November 15, 2013. Thirty-nine Democrats voted for the Republican-sponsored bill giving health insurers the option to continue selling plans not meeting the minimum standards in the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare). President Obama had said he would veto the bill because it “threatens the health security of hard working, middle class families.”[1] The sensationalistic conclusion reached by some journalists chastises the 39 Democrats for “breaking ranks” as if horses charging out of a barn billowing noxious smoke (fortunately those horses already had a solid health-insurance plan). Let’s not be so hasty in swallowing the media’s hay.
According to Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), only nine or so of the thirty-nine Democrats voting for the Republican bill had “real serious concerns” with the Affordable Care Act itself; the rest of the thirty-nine were “insulating themselves against sound bites.”[2] Many of the insulators considered themselves vulnerable to a Republican challenger in the next election and thus sought to deprive “the enemy” of an easy talking-point. Political self-preservation is a creed that no politician would recognize as a betrayal. “I don’t blame anyone for insulating themselves from these sound bites because that’s the world we live in, unfortunately,” Clyburn lamented.[3] I want to unpack this statement because I think “there’s gold under them there hills!”
Ridding a potential electoral opponent of as many baleful talking points as possible falls under the rubric of a political campaign rather than governance. So the thirty “defectors” motivated by reelection rather than policy were in the campaign mode while governing as legislators. Ultimately, refusing to stop skating on the ice in keep waving at spectators defeats the person’s own supposed goal to ice-fish—skating being a necessary means of reaching the hole and hut. In other words, the means becomes the end, while the original goal is tacitly dismissed like an unwanted step-child.
Burrowing still farther down, as though with a powerful 9-inch analytical drill-bit, I find traces of an stygian flow of hot, silent molten lava hitherto undetected (the smaller drills don’t cut it at this depth). What Clyburn takes as “the world we live in” may actually be better characterized as a faith, and an economic one at that! Rather than implying that economics undergirds all politics, I submit that a default assumption in politics borrows from an economic faith. Specifically, the faith preached by Adam Smith in 1776.

Adam Smith and his classic text.  Wikimedia Commons.

Smith conjectured that each producer oriented to his or her own enrichment contributes nonetheless to the common good via a competitive market. In other words, the greed of individuals aggregates into what is best for the whole. The faith lies in not merely this assumption, but also that no one is needed to steer the whole. Rather than having someone steer the economic car, its route is a result of each car-part functioning as designed. Think of Google’s driverless car. No intention or consciousness drives. Rather, where the car goes is a product of an aggregate of parts—each doing its job (with design here being a part’s self-interest). To take another analogy, imagine a ship like the Titanic with only a massive group of formidable rowers in the belly of metal. The ship’s path is a result of external forces and the aggregation of the rowers’ individual striving to be stronger than the other rowers. No one is on deck looking for icebergs. No one is supervising the rowers, and the rowers themselves cannot see outside. In the back of each rower’s mind is an assumption, a faith really, that the sum total of bronze effort will result in the best course for the ship.
In American political theory, the notion of ambition as a check on ambition is a well-known staple. The ambition here is in terms of power. I suspect that the American electorate tends to assume that the tussle of self-interests is over policy and thus has the effect of shedding it of bad ideas. However, to the extent that members of Congress working on a bill are really thinking about how to get reelected, then the bill that emerges (i.e., where the ship goes) is a function of the aggregate of campaign strategies rather than governance. Faith is indeed needed here, for reason I fear cannot provide us with a viable link; what might be in a representative’s electoral self-interest is not necessarily conducive to public policy that optimizes the public good or welfare. Even aggregating all such self-interests does not, I strongly suspect, is not in the interest of the whole—the polity or society. Admittedly, I have not thought this last point out enough to safely rule out a rationale that links campaigning while governing to optimal legislation for the good of the whole. What do you think? Is it dangerous for the American people to be left in the dark regarding what really motivates Congressional lawmakers, or does legislation by sound-bites (or campaign strategy) not detract materially from “the sausage” that is produced?

1. Seung M. Kim and Jennifer Haberkorn, “With 39 Dems Behind It, House Passes Obamacare Fix,” Politico, November 15, 2013.
2. Ashley Alman, “Jim Clyburn Accuses House Dems of ‘Insulating Themselves Against Sound Bites,’” The Huffington Post, November 18, 2013.
3. Ibid.