In Whom We Trust

In a previous post, I said that Jim Rosenau and I underestimated the disruption to American politics from people going online. I want to expand on that, to consider whether we misunderstood the way people use the Internet, and how that affects social trust. The upshot: probably not.

Jim and I saw the Internet as a profound tool which people can use to improve their lives. Our premise was that most people would use it as such — a premise colored by our own use of the Internet as professionals committed to reason and knowledge. That commitment requires active use, however, to filter useless or bogus information.

What Jim and I did not appreciate is that not everyone uses the Internet the same way. Some — probably most — people use it much more passively, primarily for entertainment. More accurately: we knew that people use the Internet as entertainment, but failed to appreciate how passive use could matter. This may have been a mistake, at least where our research speaks to the 2016 election.

Insofar as it is an entertainment medium, the Internet might be much more like television than we anticipated. This is an important comparison: in a lecture in 1995, putnamRobert Putnam argued that the decline in social capital in the United States was due to television, at least in part. Television sucks up time that would instead be used for social and civic activity, leaving the viewer isolated and alone instead. Television also affects how people see the world around them, making them less trusting and more afraid. Putnam — in this photo from 1995, looking like he just murdered his family — expanded this argument in his famous book, Bowling Alone.
In the book, he includes the Internet with television as causing the decline in social capital.

Putnam used social trust and civic engagement as indicators of social capital. Here is a chart from the 1995 article based on his lecture, showing how social trust, newspaper reading, group membership, and voting vary based on age. The x-axis is year of birth: people born in years up to 1930 have high rates of all four, but these rates drop off sharply for people born from 1945 onward.  putnamtrust

Putnam said that this trend correlates well with the uptick in television viewing, and he found little evidence that other possible culprits explain the data. One of the consequences he pointed to was the ‘mean world effect’ — that television promotes pessimism of human nature, and a view of the world as more violent than it really is (this is also called mean world syndrome). Just offhand, I would guess this is likely a worse problem for the Internet, for those who are passive users.

For a rough look at whether the Internet is in fact making things worse, I went back into the data. I made this graph from the same General Social Survey data that Putnam used for some of his data two decades ago — it’s still being updated regularly. (I did not apply any smoothing to the graph; Putnam used 5-year moving averages). Keep in mind that this is 2014 data (voting for the 2012 election), where Putnam used 1994 data (the 1992 election). So, for example, where 70% of respondents born in 1930 voted in 1992, 100% of them voted in 2012. Granted, 2012 was a historic election, with unusual turnout across the board.  socialtrust

For someone born in 1940, social trust was around 40% in 1994, and about the same in 2014; for a person born in1950 it was 35% in 1994, but twenty years later it was just over 40%. For someone born in 1960, it was just under 30% in 1994, but over 40% in 2014. If anything, social trust has increased for a given age cohort in the last two decades. This is not definitive, but it surely does not support the idea that the Internet is making things worse. Which is a relief for Jim and me — it means we did not totally miss the forest.

Eric Uslaner, who has studied the problem far more than I have, says pretty much the same thing. From this graph, published in a Pew Research Center report, he argues that the disparity in trust between millennials and other generations is due to economic inequality. Overall, it’s hard to say from these graphs that social trust is significantly decreased from its 1987 levels (although, it turns out, there is research that shows it is in decline).


More significant than any year-to-year trend is the generational effect. It is clear that millennials trust less than Gen X, who trust less than Boomers & the Silent Generation. Uslaner specifically discounts the suggestion that Internet usage makes a difference between millennials and any other generation.

It is still possible that the difference between active and passive use of the Internet affects social trust; however, there is not enough difference from generation to generation in who uses the Internet actively and who uses it passively to show in the data. We cannot blame that difference for generational differences in social trust.

I would also point out that the study Uslander cites does not adequate address the consequence of coming of age in a post 9/11 America. Considering that millennials have been fed a steady diet of fear and xenophobia, it would be hard to imagine them coming to adulthood with a great deal of social trust.

How do we improve social trust? Obviously, fix the economy — specifically with respect to inequality. Second, civic engagement of the sort Putnam proposes. It is heartening to see so many people across generations engaged in activism, although those people were likely high social-trust voters in the first place.

Third, I do think there is a role for the Internet in increasing social trust, especially when it comes to combating harassment and bullying online, and helping cement social norms against that sort of behavior. I also think we are just beginning to renegotiate the sources of authority online: in lay terms, we’re just starting to deal with the fake news problem.

Low social trust is a crucial problem for our democracy. While it is low, it is not the lowest it has ever been. The Internet is — sigh of relief — not making things worse, as far as we can tell.

Politics For People

Today I renamed this blog — from The Violence Of Nations. The original title reflected my dissertation topic when I started this blog, intending it as a catch-all for random bits generated in that process. (If you go to the earliest posts, you’ll see what I mean.)

But I have not been in the process of writing a dissertation for… almost 4 years, at least officially. I say officially because they officially told me I was in the process of writing a dissertation for a few years prior to that, but in retrospect I was merely on a snipe hunt.*

Anyway, the new title reflects my current interests and my efforts to plug the manuscript, plus I hope to hop on the populism bandwagon. The Violence of Nations was too dark for most people, I think, and anyway it didn’t describe most of my posts. This new title is blander, but more apt.

*In the sense that a snipe hunt is a hazing ritual and that if you refuse to do it for the sound empirical reason that snipe are real birds that do not live anywhere near your Scout camp and the proposed method for hunting them is absurd, the older Scouts will accuse you of being uptight and insist that snipe are make-believe anyway. That I was unwilling to hunt snipe as a 13 y.o. probably says a lot about the kind of graduate student I became. Yet somehow I still earned my Eagle Scout.

Things Falling Apart

More than nine years ago, Jim Rosenau and I wrote a chapter* on the potential disruption in world politics, due to the tech revolution. This was an ongoing theme in Jim’s work, but we were challenged to come up with a more rigorous defense of his claims.

The gist of our argument was that the spread of the Internet and related technology would drive challenges to entrenched authority. We saw this as especially important as more of the developing world’s people came online. We said those challenges — in culture, society, and especially politics — might well remake the world in ways we cannot now recognize.

We pointed out that many people compare the Internet to the telegraph — an information technology that did not much affect world politics. We said that was fine as a bottom parameter, but the top parameter — the most change we can expect — is likely to be something akin to the printing press. This part was my main contribution to the chapter.

The printing press drove changes that ultimately reshaped the world. Within a hundred years of its introduction in Europe, the Reformation kicked off in Europe, destroying the Catholic Church’s political hold on that continent. A hundred years after that, the Peace of Westphalia ushered in the modern international system — which then was spread from Europe to the rest of the world.

In our guess of its impact, Jim and I saw the Internet as probably closer to the printing press than the telegraph. But we believed the first real disruptions were still a generation away, and that the United States would remain relatively stable until those changes began to affect the world around us. We were long on the timing and wrong on the source, but otherwise we are right: this is much closer to the higher order changes we predict.

We underestimated the consequences of our own country coming online. The changes we forecast are exactly the changes that drove this last election — except that instead of happening among young people in Brazil and India, they happened here among mostly older people. Part of the problem is that Jim and I were both optimistic: we felt that people are generally decent, and the technology is generally helpful. Jim died in 2011, and I will admit to second thoughts.

While the concerns that drove President-elect Trump’s supporters are seen as retrograde — closing borders, ending free trade, etc. — the challenge his campaign posed to established authority is forward-looking, in the sense Jim predicted. The distinction between the cargo — old — and the vessel — very new — is crucial here, and matters in our response to his Presidency.

There is now, I think, a sense among those who did not vote for Trump that if only we can get him out of there, we can get back to normal. With respect to our institutions of authority — the vessel — this is possibly dangerous: normal was the old way. Normal was not working. It will not work again.

Jim and I did not offer concrete advice for U.S. governance then, but I will now. The authority structures we have built over the last hundred years or so are out of date. They must be made more transparent and more accountable. While this is true of our government, it is also true of our political parties. In fact, that change has to begin with the parties: we need our parties which not only promise change, but embody it in their internal form and function.

If the backlash against Trump only serves to reinstate the Democratic party as is, we will be back to square one. If Trump’s presidency is simply co-opted by the Republican party as is, we will be back to square one. The problem will still exist — and the pressure will continue to build. Not to defend Trump in any way, but it might — just might — be better that we go through this paroxysm sooner, rather than later. The later it comes, the more severe it is likely to be.

The challenge to authority has begun sooner and with more disruption than Jim and I predicted — at least in this country. Were he alive, I think he would view this election with a mixture of marvel and dismay. But he, more than anyone, would see it for what it is.

It is the first tremor of something new in the world. And none of us can yet say what, exactly.

*The chapter was later – much later – published in Governance, Regulations, and Powers on the Internet.

What Do Kids Know About Politics?

Imagine most kids in this country start kindergarten able to do basic math — like multiplication and division.

Imagine that instead of teaching them more math skills, our schools instead teach about mathematicians: famous mathematicians, how mathematicians get jobs, what mathematicians do at mathematics conferences. That would be weird, right?

Yet that’s exactly how we teach our kids about politics.

Last week, I was at a local park and nearby two boys were playing. They were maybe 5 and 7 years old, and they mostly argued. Said the younger kid (I wrote it down): “It’s American football and whoever gets the trophy it’s only one, okay? It’s only one.”

I have no idea what that was about, but they went on like this for ten minutes or so. It was hilarious and adorable, but also totally typical. Kids that age tend to be preoccupied with making rules for their games.

And making rules is what politics is all about. The kids in my park were learning how to make rules — how to be political.

In Dr. Spock’s famous baby book, he writes that by age six kids are “no longer interested in make-believe without rules. They want games that have rules and require skill[…].” This interest in the rules gets more intense as they age: “A group of eight-year-olds is likely to spend more time arguing about how to play a game than they do actually playing it”.

In a book titled Play, psychologist Catherine Garvey writes for children of this age, rules are both how they structure their play, and also a toy for them to play with:

Play with rules, in both senses, appears at an early age [….] We can speculate that by playfully violating conventions or testing limits — especially those imposed by the consensus of the peer group — a child not only extends the knowledge of his own capabilities but also learns about the nature of social rule systems.

That is, the child learns how to make rules, how to break them, and how those rules make up their social world. And just as children are beginning this stage, we put them in school — where they are taught to follow rules, not make them.

Adults spend a lot of time trying to teach children rules — whether the games and activities at school, or organized sports on weekends. Kids then have few chances to make and choose their own rules.

One alternative school in Colorado did exactly that; in this report from the school, ‘people’ refers to small children.

A number of people today proposed that it would be cool if we had no rules. So we agreed that we could try having no rules in the mush room. Most people did try it out for a least a bit. People did try out some cursing, really rough play, putting “hard” items like shoes and water bottles in there and even sand and rocks. After a while people were getting bumped into or hit with pillows and balls, and it got very messy. We ended up having a meeting afterwards to see if people wanted to propose keeping the idea of NO rules and we had an overwhelming majority of thumbs down, disapproving of the no rules suggestion.

Kids learn pretty quickly that rules help them structure their lives to avoid conflict and violence. Kids learn on their own how to make basic rules, but when it comes to formal politics, schools tend to teach kids that their skills are irrelevant.

Now imagine how much better they would be at making and choosing rules — as students, as adults, as citizens — if our schools could instead teach them to use and improve their skills.

Why don’t we? Because our understanding of politics is bogged down in the myth that it’s something only politicians do. Coming back to the math analogy, it’s as if we pretend there’s no link between the math kids already know and the top-level calculus that mathematicians do.

The people who study politics rarely connect what politicians do to the everyday politics that each of us learn and practice. So there are few books or classes to teach it, much less curriculum for schools to put in front of students.

There’s a reason our national political scene looks so childish and inept: most people in this country never get a chance to learn political skills, outside of the playground. But if the point of public education is to prepare students to be engaged citizens, we should be more deliberate about teaching them how to make and keep rules.

We should teach politics as a skill necessary for democratic participation. We should teach kids that their capacity to make rules really does matter.

Our kids start school primed and ready to learn about making rules. We should stop teaching them politicians, and start teaching them politics.

Seven-carbon sons of bitches

If you are reading Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon and wonder what “seven-carbon sons of bitches” are, it probably means Mark Bragg is implying those people are diesel-powered.

This is in contrast to more modern-thinking men, like Admiral Rickover “pounding desks for his atomic sub.” Diesel fuel has more heptane — with 7 carbon atoms — and is thus lighter compared to other fuels like automotive gasoline and jet fuel. The full quote, on what it will take to transform the American defense establishment to deal with the Soviet threat:

“Bold men, audacious men, tenacious men. Impatient, odd-ball men like Rickover pounding desks for his atomic sub. Ruthless men who will fire the deadheads and ass-kissers. Rude men who will tell the unimaginative, business-as-usual, seven-carbon sons of bitches to go take a jump at a galloping goose.”*

Did we get those men? Are they still valuable in a post-Cold-War security environment? Discuss.

*Bantam Pathfinder edition, 1970 – p. 17

Open Ballots Are Secure Ballots.

Many people worry about the security of votes in this country. Whether electronic voting machines, voting rolls, or Internet voting, there is much hand-wringing — and now the Secretary of Homeland Security is asking whether voting systems are ‘critical infrastructure’ (and they are.)

But a simple change makes most of these problems easy to solve: the open ballot.

We take the secret ballot for granted, but it wasn’t always so. Before the 20th century, nearly all U.S. voters cast their ballots openly. Most states switched to the secret ballot amid concerns that votes were being sold or coerced. Other states, however, moved to the secret ballot (= paper, written ballot) as a way to marginalize illiterate black voters.

The secret ballot mostly prevents one kind of corruption but it permits other kinds of corruption, in that voters have no idea whether votes are counted correctly, or even if they are counted at all. With a secret ballot, all sorts of things can happen between a voter submitting their vote, and the elections official reporting the results.

Meanwhile, the secret ballot gives us a false sense of security. At a time when big data is used to predict whether teens are pregnant, it’s trivial to guess how most everyone votes. Unless you have no credit cards, never shop online, never use store loyalty cards, and avoid all the other data traps in modern society — someone somewhere can guess how you will vote.

And most people are okay with that. Most people in our electorate don’t need the secret ballot. In fact, overseas military members regularly waive their right to the secret ballot, in order to vote by fax or email. Most people who vote are glad to tell other people how they voted. Most voters would gladly choose open ballots if they knew it helped secure our electoral systems.

Look at the central problem of verifying electronic voting systems: some experts suggest we only need a random sample of 3% or so of ballots to make sure votes are counted correctly. But with a large enough number of open ballots, we can do the same math even with pretty strong non-random patterns — say if most Republicans choose secret ballots and most Democrats choose open ballots. My guess is if 10% of ballots are open — 1 in 10 voters — that is enough to validate all votes, including those by secret ballot voters.

Moreover, the kind of corruption the secret ballot protects against is easily prosecuted today — think wiretaps and hidden cameras. Most people are not coerced into their vote, and most candidates would never dream of buying a vote (though both still happen, even with the secret ballot). There may yet be legitimate reasons a person wants a secret ballot — and they should have that choice, but it does not have to be the only option for all voters.

While the most obvious form of open ballot is to never make votes secret, there are other ways that answer concerns about corruption. One is to keep ballots secret until some time after the election, then make open votes known to identify discrepancies before results are certified. Another way is to keep ballots secret until there is a recount or reason to suspect fraud, and then make open votes public. Either of these better balances the corruption concerns of the 21st century against those of the 19th centuries than an always-secret ballot.

Last week NPR’s Science Friday ran a segment called ‘How Secure Are U.S. Voting Systems?’, weighing the problems with voting systems. The guests had lots of helpful, technically complex, potentially expensive solutions for solving the problem — but the whole conversation assumed the secret ballot. This assumption is implicit in nearly every discussion of securing the vote, but it never gets examined. Yet as soon as we stop assuming a secret ballot, most — if not all — of the problems disappear.

The security of our electoral systems is important, and an ongoing problem. We should be discussing ways to secure our vote, but those discussions shouldn’t rely solely on technical solutions.

We should be asking whether the secret ballot still makes sense — and whether an open ballot is the best, easiest solution to those problems.


A Concrete Proposal To Save Black Lives

The shooting deaths this past week of two black men, as well as five police officers, feel like a new low in the tensions between police and people of color.

In Alton Sterling’s death, the Justice Department has already opened a civil rights investigation.

In Philando Castile’s death, Governor Mark Dayton has asked the White House to order a Justice Department investigation.

While this is reassuring, it raises the question: why are such investigations not automatic? They should be, and making them so will save black lives.

Many people are pointing to endemic racism in this country as the cause of Castile’s and Sterling’s deaths, and the shootings in Dallas as a response to the same racism. They are of course right that racism is a problem, but the solution ends up being somewhat fuzzy: dialogue, understanding, tolerance, awareness (all of which I am in favor).

But here’s a thought experiment: assume every black person killed by police was killed by a racist police officer. Some 990 people were killed in 2015, of whom 258 were black; meanwhile there are 900,000 police officers in the United States. In our thought experiment, the police responsible for the 258 black persons’ deaths — even if we assume an average of two or so officers per shooting — account for less than 5 percent of 1 percent of all police officers in the country.

Let’s extend the 2015 fatalities back twenty years — for 5,160 black persons’ deaths by police. That’s still — by my back-of-the-envelope math — only half a percent of the 900,000 police in the Untied States. Do we really think there have been only 10,000 or so racist police in the last twenty years? That only half a percent of current police are racist?

Obviously, not every racist police officer is a killer. But every police officer — racist or not — has the potential to be a killer. And here is the adjacent problem to racism: violence. Police in the United States have extraordinary latitude in the use of lethal force, a symptom of our society’s much bigger problem with violence.

Estimates on police violence are hard to find — police departments tend to keep those numbers a secret. One of the best sources is the Christopher Commission report, issued after the beating of Rodney King in 1991. According to the report, the LAPD had a violence problem alongside its racism problem:

The commission highlighted the problem of “repeat offenders” on the force, finding that of approximately 1,800 officers against whom an allegation of excessive force or improper tactics was made from 1986 to 1990, more than 1,400 had only one or two allegations. But 183 officers had four or more allegations, forty-four had six or more, sixteen had eight or more, and one had sixteen such allegations.

At the time of the report, LAPD had 8,450 officers: 16% had one or two complaints of excessive force, but just over 2% had four or more complaints. What’s more, complaints were investigated by LAPD, which ‘sustained’ only 42 of 2,152 complaints. The report further says that punishments for excessive force were minor, and complaints rarely kept officers from promotion — even in the 83 cases where complaints led to civil settlement or judgment of more than $15,000 against the LAPD.

Many people remember that when the officers involved in the King beating were tried in state court, they were acquitted — which lead to riots in LA. However, when four of the officers were tried by Federal court, two were convicted. Federal courts and juries have typically been less tolerant of violent police than local courts.

The decision to bring officers to trial in Federal court comes from the Justice Department, which gets its authority from Title 18 U.S. Code, § 242, which allows the Department to prosecute anyone who “willfully subjects any person […] to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States”. This article points out that the statute is written in a way that makes prosecution difficult — indeed, the vast majority of cases are not prosecuted — but it also wrongly implies that the law is the only way violent police can be brought to heel.

There is another law — 42 USC § 14141 — that allows the Justice Department to investigate

whether the police department has engaged in a pattern or practice of stops, searches, or arrests that violate the Fourth Amendment; use of excessive force; discriminatory policing; violation of the constitutional rights of criminal suspects; or violation of First Amendment rights.

Under 42 USC § 14141, the Justice Department is only allowed to pursue civil cases against police departments suspected of violation. That means nobody goes to jail, but it also means that the Justice Department can impose wide-ranging reforms on violent police departments.

But since the law was passed in 1994, the Justice Department has only conducted 68 investigations. Not brought 68 court cases — 68 investigations, many of which never make it to court. In the last three years there have been only 6 — in Cleveland, Ferguson, two in Lousiana, Baltimore, and Chicago.

In cases where police have killed a person, the Justice Department should automatically invoke 18 USC § 242 and 42 USC § 14141 to investigate both the police officers and the police department. Granted that many of these investigations will not result in trial or settlement, but the Justice Department should not wait for public outrage or protests to make the decision. Police officers and their departments should take it as given that they will be investigated — fairly but scrupulously — when they take a life.

Clearly, the Justice Department could be more ambitious in taking § 242 and § 14141 investigations to trial, but even if they don’t, the threat of investigation should force departments to rethink how they train their officers in the use of force, and whether they will tolerate the most violent officers in their ranks.

The investigations will also bring to light abuses and violations that police departments wish to keep secret, making those departments more transparent and thus more tractable to public pressure to reduce violence. It is much easier to identify which police are violent, versus those who are racist, and thus much easier to debadge those officers prone to violence.

Automatic § 242 and § 14141 investigations will also signal a normative shift, that the Federal government will no longer turn a blind eye to lethal force. Police will be held to a higher standard in their use of force, and police fatal shootings will be intrinsically suspect — as they already are in the eyes of many Americans.

I have written before that America has a violence problem, one of the causes of which is the decentralized control of violence. Where in many developed countries a strong central government closely regulates the use of force, in the United States our system allows — among other things — thousands of police departments to make up their own rules about the use of force. Making § 242 and § 14141 investigations automatic is an immediate and concrete way that the Federal government can assert its monopoly on violence, absent a new law from Congress or a Constitutional Amendment.

By constraining police departments in their use of lethal force, § 242 and § 14141 can save lives — especially black lives. Although this policy also will save lives among other racial groups, I want to be clear that I affirm the goals of and need for the Black Lives Matter movement. This proposal also affirms the fact that most police officers are fair and judicious in their official duties. It is a policy targeted squarely at the bad police and the bad departments in this country.

I also want to be clear that the rules which allow police to regulate their own use of force are the product of the racism built into the United States’ form of government — rules which had as an original goal the preservation of slavery in various states. This racism is in large part — but not solely — responsible for the high levels of violence experienced in American society. It enables violence that even whites experience at the hands of public authorities.

I believe it is necessary to address racism, in order for our country to move forward peacefully. But I also know that — where the goal is saving black lives — violence is the more immediate problem. Taking a step back from the racism problem, and focusing on the violence problem, will have concrete and immediate benefit for Americans of all races, even while helping people of color most of all.

I wish, but dare not hope, that we might get rid of all the racist police officers in this country. But I believe, and rather insist, that we can get rid of the violent officers — those responsible for unjustified, unnecessary killings. Doing so requires a much firmer hand from the Federal government, and § 242 and § 14141 investigations are an easy first step.

Pfc. Eugene Savio’s POW Diary

A friend of the family inherited a tattered old book: it turned out to be a diary kept by his uncle as a POW in World War II. He knew my interest in these things, and let me borrow it. I scanned a few pages…

This is the front plate with his name, address, and other information. Stalag IIB was populated in part by American prisoners captured in North Africa. It was on the far eastern edge of Germany.


This is actually before the front plate. Stalag IIB was a brutal camp, but apparently they still had colored pencils.


There are a few cartoons in the diary, depicting life in the camp. There were also many poems and illustrations. I thought I scanned one of the poems, but it didn’t make it to my thumb drive.


One section is a diary describing what seems to be the evacuation of the camp and march west, to escape the advancing Soviet troops.


These are letters he received while a POW. Note the stamp of the US censors.


Photos from back home.


The diary is stuffed with ephemera — clippings, scraps of paper, currency. The packet on the bottom is sulfanilamide – an antibiotic medicine, still sealed. I am going to keep one of the Nazi bills for the next time I travel to Germany, so I can try to buy things with it. I can think of no better way to endear myself to the German people.


This is my favorite scrap: a cartoon that he cut out from a German newspaper. The cartoon headline is “Roosevelt’s Dive-bombers Against Women and Children”. The caption roughly translates to “North Americans? Murderous Americans?” It is a pun in German. Note the cartoon of the pilot: the Nazis were indeed a bit racist.



#AppTheVote, Open Voting, and Graduated Citizenship

I spent the last two days at the Voting and Elections Summit in Washington, D.C., hosted by the U.S. Vote Foundation, the Overseas Vote Foundation, the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, and Fairvote. I’ve long had an interest in civic and political education, and came to the event to get a better sense of that ecosystem.

I was glad to find a very diverse range of groups present at the conference. I mean ‘diverse’ in the sense that the various groups had different niches and approaches, even though they mostly shared a left-of-center sensibility. Some of the talks were excellent, most were informative, and all brought good energy to the problems of electoral reform and civic engagement.

Open Voting

That said, it was frustrating to see how much of that energy was directed towards technology — mainly apps. As an example, one speaker advertised an app that acts as a plug-in to provide instant polling at the bottom of news articles, so that by getting users to vote on policies associated with the story… I really don’t know. It seemed very underpants gnomes to me.

The fact is kids these days have every opportunity they need to comment on (or like or +1 or upvote) stories and ideas that matter to them. There is no shortage of ways for people to express their opinions – and no shortage of apps to help them do it. And it’s great that so many people are doing it. #AppTheVote

The problem is the technology that connects those people and their opinions to government. In a political culture where policymakers routinely ignore carefully-crafted, rigorously-validated polling – not to mention actual hard science – in favor of whatever evidence is more convenient to their ideology, it’s not clear how yet another app will make any difference at all. This is less true for the many voter-ed apps that help people find polling places and learn about candidates, but those apps still don’t answer voters’ doubts that their votes matter or even count.

Where the machinery of elections was specifically addressed, there was yet more enthusiasm for flashy tech over efficient policy. One of the speakers gave a talk on end-to-end verifiability in voting — the basic problem being that voters in the U.S. have no idea whether their votes are actually counted correctly. Because vote counts happen in a black box, unscrupulous election officials and voting computer vendors can change the results without being detected.

Verifiability would fix this, but it depends on cryptography so complicated for the average user that it is not viable. It doesn’t work — at least for right now. When I had a chance to chat with the speaker, I asked him: how much of the problem goes away if you don’t assume a secret ballot? Answer: all of it.

If we don’t have secret ballots, the verifiability problem disappears. Election officials can post the results online, and voters can check to make sure that their results — and everyone else’s — are correct. And the fact is that most people’s voting choices are easily predicted, thanks in part to all the data generated by apps that track their shopping, browsing, and viewing habits.

There are lots of good reasons for open voting (this link again) but verifiability is foremost. And it can be done in a way that allows people to opt-in if they want a secret ballot. People should be allowed to choose between secrecy and verifiability — and maybe someday the tech will catch up so that we can choose both. Right now we feel secure in our vote, but we don’t actually know that it is doing anything.

Graduated Voting

The enthusiasm for technology overshadowed some of the less sexy — but more substantive — ideas shared at the conference. Fairvote in particular talked about efforts in Maryland cities to give 16- and 17-year-olds the vote in local elections. I think this is a fantastic idea (full disclosure: I have applied to work at Fairvote, which is how I learned about the conference).

In discussing the idea in the day two workshops, someone pointed out that it is quite common in other countries for residents of cities to be vote in local elections, even if they are not national citizens. This is a ‘best practice’ in developed democracies, according to some participants.

It seems to me that there is a way to integrate these ideas, which I think can be called ‘graduated voting’. The phrase is more often used to describe schemes by which corporate shareholder voting rights are apportioned, but here I’m using it to describe a process by which people with no real voting rights can increase their participation in the electorate.

The basis for graduated voting is that the (implicit) Federal right to vote for citizens older than 18 does not prevent local jurisdictions from establishing different rules — and restrictions — on voting in local elections. So it is perfectly legal for a local jurisdiction to say that 16-year-olds continuously enrolled in high school for the last two years are allowed to vote in school board elections.

So a local jurisdiction or state could — perfectly legally — create a process which applied both to high school students and non-citizens, granting them local voting rights if certain criteria are met. For example, let’s imagine a county called Voterdale: the County Board creates a civics class focused on local citizenship that is taught to all 9th graders in Voterdale County schools. Students who complete the class are then allowed to vote in all Voterdale elections.

Meanwhile, non-US-citizens living in Voterdale — after meeting a four-year residency requirement — can take an adapted version of the same civics class in adult ed. Once they complete the class, they too enjoy voting rights in Voterdale, along with the full range of county services allowed to US citizens living in Voterdale. This helps immigrants assimilate and be more engaged, while side-stepping some of the problems created by Federal immigration policy.

The best part is that what counts as a ‘citizen’ of Voterdale is left up to the citizens of Voterdale. Granted, they can’t restrict U.S. citizens from voting in local elections, but they at least have the option to include anyone else. Keep in mind that any U.S. citizen who moves to Voterdale might be able to vote a matter of weeks after. It seems fair to extend similar rights to a non-citizen resident who has lived in the community for years — and especially to a teenager who has spent their entire life in Voterdale.

Graduated voting could help answer two significant problems: getting young people involved, and getting immigrants engaged. It’s a simple, easy-to-understand policy change, that will require actual work because of entrenched interests. That makes it a lot less sexy than a flashy new app — and which one gets the money and the buzz?

The worst part of the conference — by far — was the fact that people hardly said the word ‘politics’ except as an epithet. The apps presented were mostly based on technological fantasies about human behavior, not political realities. One speaker called politics “warfare” — the tired Prussian lie — without any challenge from his fellow panelists.

A significant set — maybe a majority — of the speakers seemed indifferent or ill-informed about politics as politics (as opposed to party politics). And because they could not apprehend the problems in our voting and elections as political problems, they could not undertake the strategic thought necessary to address those problems. I reckon we’ll be having these Summits every year until the Emperor bans them, but at least we’ll still have apps.

The problems around voting and elections in the U.S. are mostly — and firstly — political problems, and solving them takes political work. But it also takes knowledge of politics, in the broadest and most liberal sense. The fact that such knowledge is so scarce is a serious liability for our reformist and dissident classes, and gives me some measure of despair.

On the other hand, one more highlight from the conference: I met Krist Novoselic, bassist for Nirvana and chair of Fairvote’s board. He seems cool.



Is The User Obsolete In Internet Policy?

Yesterday I attended a panel discussion titled “Governments and Internet Governance“, sponsored by the Institute for International Economic Policy and the Internet Society. I was surprised how much of the conversation tilted towards intergovernmental processes.

International cooperation is important: there are problems that need international cooperation to be solved. But international cooperation can also be a way to elevate policy decisions beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. When that involves nuclear arms treaties, it is good. When it involves the Internet, maybe not.

In my Millenium article, I explain how the people using TCP/IP built the Internet – and how the Internet became the Internet because the technology favored the users who were spreading it across the globe. This often happened despite government regulation and international cooperation – especially cooperation in the CCITT (now the ITU-T) and ISO. Both bodies proposed alternatives to TCP/IP that were ultimately rejected – by the users.

The last ten years have seen an explosion of interest in Internet policy by governments — instances of which include the Net Neutrality debate, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, and the EU’s “Right to be Forgotten”. As an Internet policy wonk from way back, this is gratifying and alarming.

By alarming, I mean that I worry that Internet users’ interests are not being adequately represented in debates over Internet policy, against the much more prominent interests of governments, industry lobbies, telecoms, and corporations. To some extent the panel discussion affirmed that concern: there were several representatives from from governments and IGOs, and their framing of the policy challenges of the Internet very much reflected traditional offline governance thinking – which I suppose it must.

To be clear, I think government has a role on the Internet: nearly every user will want government help when a crime is committed against them online, or will want the courts to resolve problems affecting them. But as governments become more involved, the more they will bring pressure to bear to revise the Internet into something tractable to their means of governance. While the impulse is understandable, it also poses a serious threat to the Internet as it is, and to the users who value that experience.

In order to resist that pressure – to preserve the Internet – users need advocates engaged in these policy debates on their behalf. Two of the panelists – Sally Wentworth from ISOC, and Veni Markovski from ICANN – filled that role admirably in the panel discussion. Alas, most users don’t appreciate how absolutely vital to the Internet these organizations are, and they have relatively few close allies: EFF, CDT, etc.

These organizations work very hard on behalf of Internet users, and have been relatively successful. But as the bureaucratic momentum for Internet regulation builds, and corporate influence becomes more pervasive, there is a real risk that the user perspective may dwindle in importance to policymakers.

There are companies – Google, for example – whose policy agendas tilt towards user interests. There are even governments – Brazil, for example, represented on the panel by Carolina de Cresce El Debs – which  position as user allies. While users may welcome their engagement, I do think it is a mistake to rely on these entities to fully represent users’ interests. Google and Brazil may be helpful, but ultimately they are driven by a different set of interests and motives than most people. There is no good substitute or stand-in for the user perspective in these debates.

Even within the U.S. government, the tension between user and owner interests drives many policy debates. The FCC may (fingers-crossed) implement net neutrality, even as the TPP negtiations seek to undermine some aspects of that decision. The Defense Department created TOR to let users go anonymously, while the NSA tries to gather as much information as possible. Not surprisingly, the U.S.’s leadership on problems of Internet policy has been weak and inconsistent – which is unfortunate, because the U.S. is the government best able to defend user interests, if policy-makers wanted to do so.

The Internet is an amazing technology. Much of its power and potential is due to the privilege it gives its users – over the owners and governments who might wish otherwise. As the Internet is more and more subject to government intervention – especially at the international level – the more potential there is for  those interests to erode the privileges users enjoy, even to reverse them.

The result would be very different Internet: less interesting, less valuable, less transformative. The only way to ensure that does not happen is for users’ interests to be adequately represented at all levels of Internet policy.