Archive for the ‘Long Cut’ category

The Core of Apple v. FBI

If you haven’t read Apple’s open letter to customers yet, you really should. As Apple points out,

Some would argue that building a backdoor for just one iPhone is a simple, clean-cut solution. But it ignores both the basics of digital security and the significance of what the government is demanding in this case.

In today’s digital world, the “key” to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it. Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.

Rich Mogull expands upon this concept in a very convincing way that gets to the core of the issue here.

Everything, all of it, boils down to a single question.

Do we have a right to security?

Vendors like Apple have hit the point where some of the products they make, for us, are so secure that it is nearly impossible, if not impossible, to crack them. As a lifetime security professional, this is what my entire industry has been dreaming of since the dawn of computers. Secure commerce, secure communications, secure data storage. A foundation to finally start reducing all those data breaches, to stop China, Russia and others from wheedling their way into our critical infrastructure. To make phones so secure they almost aren’t worth stealing, since even the parts aren’t worth much.

To build the secure foundation for the digital age that we so lack, and so desperately need. So an entire hospital isn’t held hostage because one person clicked on the wrong link.

The FBI, DOJ, and others are debating if secure products and services should be legal. They hide this in language around warrants and lawful access, and scream about terrorists and child pornographers. What they don’t say, what they never admit, is that it is physically impossible to build in back doors for law enforcement without creating security vulnerabilities.

One of the significant reasons I have been so enthused by Apple throughout the years is that their hardware is focused upon providing technical solutions that not only make the world a better place, but do so in manners that aim to eliminate real world challenges.

Take TouchID for instance. No other company has created a solution that is as secure and because of this purity, it is all but impossible for bad guys to hack the software to gain access to your banking information that has formed the security basis for Apple Pay. As a result, fraud is impossible with Apple Pay unless someone actually has possession of your credit card information, which really has nothing to do with Apple Pay fraud at all (and which is no different than stealing a person’s wallet. It’s more stealing than it is fraud).

TouchID is so brilliant precisely because the security design places every aspect of the implementation upon the hardware itself. The fingerprint information gets stored within a walled off area of the processor, a secure element that received device-specific provisioning when manufactured, unavailable to any system or network besides the TouchID sensor. The data is not saved in software, accessible for clever hackers to search out vulnerabilities. No, it resides on the hardware itself, and when the phone is locked, all keys to files and keychain items are wiped and inaccessible until the read-only secure element processes a fingerprint match received from TouchID input.

Let’s apply what the FBI is requesting in the San Bernardino case to Apple Pay, because it demonstrates the exact point that Mogull is making. Fleshing out the technical-nature of this example helps us understand the hypotheticals posed. If Apple were to design a backdoor into Apple Pay, they would be destroying the integrity of the security design behind Apple Pay altogether, exposing the software to everyone and giving anyone with the know-how access to reverse engineer the design in order to expose potential weaknesses. Software is merely instructions and there’s always a way to work around those instructions. This simple fact is precisely the problem with digital security since computers were invented.

Said another way, if Apple were to design an exception for the FBI by requiring software workarounds, we will forever be dealing with systems that are inherently insecure. The horrible atrocity in San Bernardino already occurred. But in the government’s desire to gain access to information surrounding the event (assuming that it proves useful at all) will only create more danger for citizens, since all data will be subject to abuses to bad guys with ill-intent (and speaking nothing to the potential for government overreach).

I’ll end with another paragraph from Mogull.

The FBI wants this case to be about a single phone used by a single dead terrorist in San Bernadino to distract us from asking the real question. It will not stop at this one case, that isn’t how the law works. They are also teaming with legislators to make encrypted, secure devices and services illegal. That isn’t conspiracy theory, it is the stated position of the director of the FBI. Eventually they want systems to access any device or form of communications, at scale. As they already have with our phone system. Keep in mind that there is no way to limit this to consumer technologies, and it will have to apply to business systems as well, undermining corporate security.

A couple political, but not partisan, thoughts

  1. Paul Krugman highlighted Speaker Paul Ryan’s absurd comments denying Obama credit for the current state of the economy after Obama highlighted his actions in getting us to this stage in major portions of Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday.Speaker Ryan stated:

    “I think the Federal Reserve has done more,” he said. “What’s happening is people at the high end are doing pretty darn well because of loose money from the Fed. And all these regulations, all this uncertainty, all these taxes are giving us weak economic growth.”

    So, according to Ryan, Obama deserves no credit for the Bernanke led Fed monetary decisions back in 2011, since it was all Bernanke. Yet, back in 2011, then-House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan criticized those Bernanke Fed policies.

    Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the new chairman of the House Budget Committee and a vocal skeptic of the Fed’s bond-buying effort, told Mr. Bernanke: “My concern is that the costs of the Fed’s current monetary policy — the money creation and massive balance sheet expansion — will come to outweigh the perceived short-term benefits.”

    Mr. Ryan described “a sharp rise in a variety of key global commodity and basic material prices,” and an increase in interest rates of longer-term Treasury securities. And while conceding that American consumers were not yet experiencing substantially higher prices, Mr. Ryan warned that “the inflation dynamic can be quick to materialize and painful to eradicate once it takes hold.”

    Mr. Ryan all but accused Mr. Bernanke of devaluing the dollar, saying, “There is nothing more insidious that a country can do to its citizens than debase its currency.”

    So Ryan’s argument is that Obama deserves no credit for Fed policy that led to our current state of the economy, but Ryan hated the Fed policy that led to our current state, and would have likely been dismantled and replaced them with an austerity plan that has worked oh so well for the rest of the world around us.

  2. This brings me to another point that seems like a somewhat common retort of the Obama presidency by right-of-center folks (that has leaked into the public consciousness generally). I was speaking to a relative over the holidays and his general view regarding current economic optimism went something like this: People are so quick to applaud Obama for restoring the economy, but let’s be honest, we were in such bad shape anyone could have made things better.Such a viewpoint underscores the tremendously horrible job our media does in explaining even the most basic policies we take as a nation to manage our economy. In 2008 (and even ’til this day) there’s a consensus from the right that the proper course of action in dire economic situations is to adopt more austere measures (aka spending cuts, decreasing welfare and job insurance benefits, etc.) to fight against troubles plaguing a lagging economy. It doesn’t matter the challenges facing that economy, whether they be major employment slack, an abnormal banking sector that isn’t loaning money as typically done, or a real estate market that was in tailspin due to the plethora of oversold, bad mortgages that were bundled with other good mortgages causing pretty much all of them to be tainted and therefore deeply hindering real-estate secured consumer spending that kept our economy afloat since right after the turn of the millennium. 

    The underlying economic policies of both parties is a hugely important difference between them and we have examples all around the globe of nations who embraced the same strategies backed by the GOP when recession hit. So there’s a major difference between the American economy over the past seven years, that welcomed investment by the Government to overcome decreased private spending, as opposed to nations who took a very different, much more austere plan, in Europe, South America, and Asia, who are still struggling—and creating downward pressures upon the world economy today.
    The bailout of General Motors. Ensuring that TARP was properly pushed and passed. Quantitative Easing. All examples of efforts Obama backed that, had they not been passed, would have left our country in an entirely different economic reality. In Europe, we watch Germany demand that debt ridden countries like Greece make good on their debts before assisting further. And we wonder why the U.S. Economy is very different than the EUs today. These things matter.

  3. Finally, a completely unrelated thought that I found intriguing from Christie’s State of the State. He announced an effort to increase access to care for mental health and substance abuse in his address.

    Today, I’m very proud to announce a historic financial commitment of more than $100 million to increase access to care for mental health and substance use.

    We’re going to provide more competitive reimbursement rates for services and providers.

    As demand for services continues to grow, we also need to widen access. Increased reimbursement rates will help improve critical services and provide more treatment capacity. The investment we’re making will change lives and get more people into treatment earlier, instead of the emergency room or prison later. It’s the fiscally responsible thing to do – and it’s the morally right thing to do.

    Let’s highlight that last sentence: It’s the fiscally responsible thing to do – and it’s the morally right thing to do. Fiscally responsible.

    I can’t see Christie winning the presidential primary with the current political winds. I’ve said it many times that 2016 feels eerily similar to 1968 in terms of historic relevance to the world of political science. Many people smarter than me believe we’re overdue for a political realignment of the parties, and the rise of Trump and Sanders feels like there might be something interesting going on.

    But I think at some point, Christie will play a role in rebranding the GOP, because, despite his actual policies’ dissonance, he understands how to pull at the heartstrings of normal, everyday people. That’s why that whole fiscally responsible thing intrigues me. Since Reagan, the GOP definition of fiscally responsible, at least when addressing populist ideas, is that cuts = fiscally responsible. Over this same period, democrats, in my opinion, less successfully, have argued that fiscal responsibility = finding savings.

    Christie’s solution is to invest $100 million into a program—not cut funding. That’s not a traditional GOP view, these days. Of course investments like this are estimated to produce $400 to $700 million, but that’s the type of argument liberals make when explaining why the Affordable Care Act, or food stamps, or the EITC, or unemployment insurance is a good deal. The GOP typically lambasts that sort of idea, since they feel government spending interferes with market forces and crowds out investments.

    I don’t really have an ultimate point for bringing this up. I merely find it intriguing that a Republican with such a big spotlight is making arguments like that. Feels modestly Keynesian. 

Is the Answer to Lobbying More Lobbying?

Great thinkpiece by Lee Drutman over at the Washington Post blog, Monkey Cage.

The conventional wisdom about political influence is often summed up in the familiar three-word mantra: “follow the money.” It’s a mantra that assumes politics is a high-dollar vending machine with politicians and policies for sale. It suggests an obvious solution: get all the money out of politics. And while we’re at it, let’s also get rid of all the lobbyists, and all the “special interests.” Let’s make it so that Congress is “dependent upon the People alone,” as Larry Lessig put it, channeling James Madison.

I suspect this how many people want democracy to work. But it’s simply the wrong way to think about it, and it points to the wrong solution too. If we are concerned about the influence of special interests and lobbyists, we need to embrace a seemingly counterintuitive solution: more lobbying. But also different lobbying – lobbying that offsets the power of concentrated interests, not simply reinforces it.

The concept espoused is simple: people don’t really think special interests are per se bad, since, your and my viewpoints are…the views of special interests. What I think people mean when they say they want to get rid of lobbyists and special interests is that they want to get rid of the imbalance of power implied in the notion of lobbyists and special interests today. Democracy is about hearing all sides of a particular debate and ensuring that democratic principles play out.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of money in politics since first hearing of the “Tullock Paradox” in scholarly work from Tyler Cowen. The Tullock Paradox describes a concept seen in lobbying.

The term Tullock paradox refers to the apparent paradox first observed by the public choice economist Gordon Tullock on the low costs of rent-seeking relative to the gains from rent-seeking. The paradox is basically that rent-seekers seeking political favors can usually bribe politicians to give them the favors at a cost much lower than the value of the favor to the rent-seeker. For instance, a rent seeker who hopes to gain a billion dollars from a particular political policy may need to bribe politicians only to the tune of ten million dollars, which is about 1% of the gain to the rent-seeker.

Put simply, the Tullock Paradox demonstrates the incentive for corporate entities (mostly) to engage in lobbying, because the cost to them is typically orders of magnitude lower than possible benefits received if successful.

Tyler Cowen links to a perfect example of this on his blog.

According to statistics United Republic assembled, the prescription drug industry spent $116 million lobbying for legislation to prevent Medicare from bargaining down drug prices — legislation that enabled drug companies to make an additional $90 billion annually. That amounts to an extraordinary 77,500 percent return on investment. Oil companies, in turn, had a return on investment of 5,900 percent, and multinational companies, 22,000 percent….

For example, the Carmen Group, a Washington lobbying firm, boasted on its Web site that for every dollar it collected in fees, clients got $100 in benefits.

There’s a Constitutional law concept espoused in equal protection and due process jurisprudence popularized by John Stuart Mill, referred to as the “Tyranny of the Majority”. The basic concept is that one of democracy’s central flaws is the ability of a perceived majority to place its own interests above a minority group. Particularly in the post-Citizens United world, I think the metaphor of this concept can be extended to the problem many see as a significant challenge currently facing our political democracy.

Lee Drutman continues,

The types of organized interests we might expect to provide a countervailing force to business — labor unions, groups representing diffuse publics like consumers or taxpayers – now spend $1 for every $34 business spends on lobbying, by my count. That’s up from a 1-to-22 ratio in 1998. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying annually, consistently 95 represent business.

Those are some astounding statistics and underscore the Tyranny of the Majority concept, the majority here, being related to the central tenet of Citizens United, that money is speech. Controlling a majority of the money, it would seem, means controlling a majority of the speech.

The solution posed by Drutman is a fascinating one, which I need to give significantly more thought to. Much in the same way the U.S. Justice system is premised upon the right to a trial by peers, which, in turn, creates the need for a public defender’s office to defend qualifying defendants, Drutman proposes the idea of public lobbyists, either done through public matching of funds or direct subsidy. His rationale is that certain voices aren’t fully represented, and this would ensure certain aspects of democracy can be protected.

The idea to create any new government agency should always be served with a large dose of skepticism, particularly when purposeful underfunding of that entity would create intentional ineffectiveness. But the idea is novel and appears to address one of the most complicated challenges facing our democracy today.

Dynamic Scoring of CBO gets rid of Congressional Referees

This is ripe.
Why the Republican Congress’s First Act Was to Declare War on Math

The first substantive act of the new, all-Republican Congress was a telling one: House and Senate leaders, now in partisan accord and able to impose an undiluted partisan imprint upon the institution, struck a blow in their decades-long struggle on behalf of low taxes for the rich and against the bookkeeping standards that have stood in their way. In a rapid vote yesterday, the House directed the Congressional Budget Office to use “dynamic scoring” — a Washington term of art to describe imposing conservative ideology upon the once-neutral task of measuring the budgetary impact of legislation.

The Congressional Budget Office [“CBO”] is a 40-year-old institution that has acquired enormous clout within Washington by virtue of its reputation for ideological neutrality. It furnishes Congress and the public with budgetary estimates that, if necessarily imperfect (as all predictions must be), are arrived at fairly. It is also a perfect modern expression of an old Progressive Era–ideal: that policymakers should be informed by the work of impartial experts. That the conservative majority has set out to corrupt this institution as one of its first major acts is, therefore, perfectly fitting.

What is Dynamic Scoring? In simple terms, we can think of it like this: Under the old method of Static Scoring, if the government spent $1 on an apple seed, the CBO would calculate the cost of that seed to be whatever estimate it concluded to be the direct economic benefit of that spending (for random example, let’s say that in today’s terms, a $1 apple seed is worth $1.25 to the GDP). Under Dynamic Scoring, if the government spent that same $1 on an apple seed, the CBO would now be tasked with estimating the future macroeconomic effects of this spending. So instead of $1 creating $0.25, CBO would need to make significant assumptions about that seed, and perhaps conclude that the production of apples from this seed would lead more people than today to consume apples, that this increased demand would create more apple farmer jobs, and that the resulting job growth would lead to increased tax revenues. Such dynamic effects could make that $1 spent seem worth significantly more.

Two thoughts on this:

  1. The CBO is supposed to Congress’ scorekeepers. While there are notable problems with static scoring, since it takes microeconomic assumptions into account (under static scoring, even that $1 apple seed would assume, for instance, that there’s $0.25 benefit, based upon market realities), it cannot predict future policy or events, and is agnostic about underlying policy decisions that do have real world effects. Adopting a dynamic system is inherently built upon biases. It forces assumptions that are incredibly difficult to predict and bases such assumptions upon variables that have not yet happened and may not actually occur.

    Continuing with our apple seed hypothetical, under static scoring, the $1.25 return on the $1 may be incorrect. It may only be $1.20. Or it may be $1.50 or cost us $0.50. But this is an issue of accuracy, not precision. Your variable was incorrect, but the methodology underlying it is sound and we can focus on improving that variable in future scoring.

    But using Dynamic Scoring makes precision incredibly difficult as well because the variables you are forced to predict compound. Multiplying three or six or 15 variables that can lead to outcomes that are not just inaccurate, but also imprecise. Thus, you can have in incredibly wide range of outcomes in Dynamic Scoring, that does not exist to the same extent with Static Scoring.

    We have to ask ourselves what the purpose of the CBO is in the first place. Economic predictions are incredibly difficult to make and thus, it is fairly likely that regardless of which scoring system you choose, you are going to have an accuracy issue. There’s no way around this. So even though accuracy should always be a goal, reality makes such a goal impossible to obtain. So then what? From most accounts, CBO exists to create a standardized and nonpartisan best and consistent prediction of the impact any change in policy will have on revenues and expenditures. Dynamic Scoring destroys hope that predictions for legislative impacts will lack precision, which is the entire point. Static Scoring evaluated a moment in time (i.e. currently, an apple seed creates $1.25 of value on GDP, even though it’s possible that an apple seed purchased today but used 10 years from now may only create a $1.20 return). Dynamic Scoring attempts to predict the future (i.e. an apple seed creates $1.25 of values on GDP today and since this is a net benefit, more apple farmers will plant apple seeds, which will lead to higher availability of apples, which will reduce the average sale price of apples reducing the effect on GDP to $1.05 in ten years).

  2. While I think Dynamic Scoring is unhealthy because of the precision problems it creates, I’m not per se opposed to it. Dynamic Scoring does get at the heart of a significant shortcoming of the existing way of scoring legislation: policy has real world effects (even if those effects are near impossible to consistently predict, considering the almost infinitesimal number of variables that may effect a given outcome).

    The real problem is how Congress has chosen to impliment Dynamic Scoring. The implications ensure that the only referees in the Congressional game will no longer be nonpartisan. As passed, Dynamic Scoring will only apply to Republican policies (cutting taxes), while Democratic policies (infrastructure, appropriations, social programs) will largely be exempt. That seems fair…

    Under the rules passed, Dynamic Scoring applies to legislation:

    • that impacts greater than 0.25% of GDP (or $43 billion)
    • excludes appropriations bills that are largely need-based projects that subsidize local projects that usually have multiplier effects on GDP

    As Representative Delaney (MD-6) writes,

    If dynamic scoring is truly about reflecting the on-the-ground impact of government action, it must be applied to both sides of the ledger: spending and revenue. Unfortunately, the Republicans’ new rule effectively amounts to dynamically scoring only tax cuts. It does this by excluding appropriations bills and stating that only “major” pieces of legislation — defined as affecting the economy annually by 0.25 percent of gross domestic product, or $43 billion per year — will be dynamically scored. While that sounds reasonable, only comprehensive tax reform bills would meet that threshold. Other bills that increase investments in infrastructure, education and research generally do not rise to that level.

    So tax cuts will be seen in a shiny new light, while smart investments will remain unattractive[, when scored]. One-half of the policy agenda will use one set of facts, while the other half will use a different set. This is intellectually dishonest, and it’s wrong.

Dynamic Scoring, as applied, is disingenuous and undermines open and efficient government. It’s no wonder it was the GOPs first order of business once taking control of both houses of Congress.

✁ Eric Schmidt thinks we’re stupid

Last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook penned an open letter regarding customer’s data privacy and security.

A few years ago, users of Internet services began to realize that when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product. But at Apple, we believe a great customer experience shouldn’t come at the expense of your privacy.

Our business model is very straightforward: We sell great products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers. We don’t “monetize” the information you store on your iPhone or in iCloud. And we don’t read your email or your messages to get information to market to you. Our software and services are designed to make our devices better. Plain and simple.

Yesterday, Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, actually said this said this to CNN Money in response to this letter.

All the things [Cook] implied we’re doing, we don’t do.

Except that’s 100%, absolutely, without a question what Google does. And Schmidt admitted it in the next sentence.

Besides from the fact that we show ads in Gmail…and we use that information for nothing, all the other things that he implied we were doing, we don’t do.

From Gmail’s support page (emphasis added),

Google does not rent, sell or share information that personally identifies you for marketing purposes without your express permission. No email content or other personally identifiable information is provided to advertisers.

Schmidt is purposely obfuscating here. So Gmail collects information from your profile that “it does nothing with”. Yet it is in the business of selling advertisements that seem bizarrely tailored to you. While Google may not be selling the profile or email content, or web browsing habits, it certainly is collecting it in order to sell you more targeted ads. Imagine if the government said we’re tapping your phone calls, but we’re not listening to them.

And all of this assumes we should believe what Schmidt has to say. You know, the guy who says things like:

Eric Schmidt has such little respect for our intelligence, he can’t even tell us the truth about Google’s business model.

Governor Christie on ammo limit veto

I rarely comment on New Jersey politics here, because I try not to write about the industry I work in, but Christie’s argument here is just so unbelievably ridiculous that I can’t help myself.

Check out his video explaining why he vetoed a NJ bill that would legally reduce the size of a gun magazine from 15 to 10 rounds.


Governor Christie: Michael, I’ve heard the argument and so are we saying then that the 10 children, on the clip that they advocate for, that their lives are less valuable? If you take the logical conclusion of their argument, you go to zero because every life is valuable. And so why 10? Why not six? Why not two? Why not one? Why not zero? Why not just ban guns completely? I mean, you know so the logical conclusion of their argument is that you get to zero eventually. So I understand their argument. I feel extraordinary sympathy for them and the other families and all of the families across America who are the victims of gun violence including the young man who was killed in West Orange a couple of weeks ago, not with an automatic weapon, not with a clip. You know wanton gun violence is bad no matter how it’s conducted and I understand their argument. I’ve heard their argument. I don’t agree with their argument. We have a fundamental disagreement about the effectiveness of what they’re advocating for. And I’ve listened to them. I’ve met with them. I heard their arguments directly and personally. I’ve read a lot on this issue and I made the decision that I made.

1. If every life is valuable, you can’t rationally argue that we should let murderers murder their intended number of victims because getting involved would mean that certain “lives are less valuable”.

2. The slippery slope argument he puts forth ignores the very groups that he is defending here: those gun rights advocates who continually argue that guns have other purposes besides mass murder (e.g. self defense, hunting, deterrence, etc.). If Christie is really saying that guns have no other purpose, there is truly no reason to stop at ten, or six, or two, or one, or zero. If he’s not, and there are other reasons, then there is logic to limiting to 10, since…uh… last time I checked, you can still hunt with a ten round magazine.

3. What exactly does Christie have a fundamental disagreement over? The effectiveness of smaller magazines on reducing gun casualties? Or that there’s anything the government can do to protect human life in instances of gun violence? This question is mostly rhetorical, because Christie seems to have sloppily conceded that larger magazine sizes have no purpose other than mass murder and doesn’t seem to disagree that reducing to ten, or six, or two, or one, or zero might help. It seems he only fundamentally disagrees with even trying because, well, we can’t save them all. I suppose the government really has no business in making laws that try to protect our citizens if this is what you believe.

Look, the reason gun control advocates seek to lower magazine sizes is that (even though our government refuses to collect data on or study the effects and statistics surrounding firearms in the US) one doesn’t need data to conclude that maybe forcing more frequent reloads would force some mass shooters into more frequent pauses that could possibly give potential victims a chance at survival. Surely speed limit laws, or seatbelt laws, or drug laws, or labeling laws, or medication warning laws, can’t prevent all casualties or abusers, but they do prevent some.

Why do we allow this willfully stupid logic fester in the public sphere?

✁ Empathizing expectations

Creator of Romantimatic, the app that reminds you to text thoughtful notes to your significant other, responding to the criticism his app has received.

An experiment: What if the app had been to help people diet? Let’s say, just pure flight-of-fancy here, that I’m a fat guy, instead of the male underwear model with incredible abs that I clearly am. Would an app to remind people not to eat be vivisected in the same way that Romantimatic has? Would the people who use it be vilified as weak-willed? Thoughtless? Hollow? My guess is not. My guess is they’d get inspirational TV shows.

The Internet is full of a lot of meanness, but I don’t know if the criticism of this app is specifically the result of others lacking empathy (or specific to the Internet for that matter, considering the various magazines who criticized it).

I’m not quite sure if it’s strictly an American thing, but our society seems to view love in an almost fantastical way, making it unique to most other concepts. This cuts both ways. Think of this scenario: If your girlfriend voices sadness that you never buy her flowers and the next day, you come home with the most beautiful bouquet, is that sentiment going to mean the same thing to her? Of course not, because you missed the point. (Presumably it wasn’t the bouquet that mattered but the random thoughtfulness of making her feel special and worth the out-of-the ordinary effort).

But, at the same time, many concepts and expectations of love seem to stem from societal norm, rather than that of a personal and unique relationship between partners. Fairy tale weddings, ridiculously over-the-top proposals, the male as pursuer, the female as object of desire. Rom-coms. Buying a dozen roses out of the blue.

It’s a fine line, and Romantimatic seems to straddle this boundary. Are random texts of kindness really so if you’re being prompted? But aren’t subtle reminders better than few or no acts of kindness at all? It’s the expectations in the first place that make the question difficult to answer. Maybe its our expectations that require empathy.

✁ There’s no room for U.S. partisanship in our foreign policy

The discussion of Obama’s perceived leadership over the past week is completely inane. But the stupidity of this rhetoric for political gain wouldn’t be so notable if it didn’t risk the U.S.’s long-term security in the process. Dividing Americans on foreign entanglement issues have the very real possibility of neutering our effectiveness in carrying out actions to address the issues.((I should note the irony of criticizing Obama for being weak when the result could be weakening American’s power in the world)) Such criticism is particularly subversive when the criticism isn’t constructive or results oriented. What am I talking about? Let’s take a closer look at what many on the right said this weekend regarding the United States’ response to the developing Ukrainian situation in the Crimean peninsula.

Rep. Mike Rogers, (R-MI), chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on “Fox News Sunday”:

“Putin is playing chess, and I think we’re playing marbles.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), on CNN’s “State of the Nation”:

“Stop going on television and trying to threaten thugs and dictators; it is not your strong suit,” Graham advised the president. “Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody’s eyes roll, including mine. We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, (R-FL), on NBC’s “Meet the Press”:

“I think our policy toward Russia under this administration deserves a heavy amount of criticism.” But, he added, “I usually shy away from that in moments of crisis, when it’s important for the nation to speak with one voice.”

Sarah Palin, (who knows), continuing her typical idiocy on “Sean Hannity”:

“Look, the perception of Obama, of him and his potency across the world is one of such weakness,” Palin told Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”

And most ridiculous of all of these comments came from former NYC Mayor, Rudy Giuliani (R-NY), on “Your World w/ Cavato”:

“Putin decides what he wants to do, and he does it in half a day, right? He decided he had to go to their parliament — he went to their parliament, he got permission in 15 minutes. He makes a decision and he executes it, quickly. And then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader. President Obama [has] gotta think about it, he’s got to go over it again, he’s got to talk to more people about it.”

Surely, I’m not suggesting that the president should be above criticism in the realm of foreign policy. But what’s missing from all of the above (besides specific examples of this supposed gross negligence) is substantive debate about what Obama should be doing different to obtain different results. Are they suggesting that unilateral invasion of a country is a more responsible and stronger showing of leadership than that of a democratic response that includes coalition and consensus building? Is the former the type of strength that wouldn’t invite aggression? Boy, this “tougher” position sounds pretty American and not at all reckless…

The most disgusting aspect of this display of partisanship is that every informed individual on this topic (that includes Americans, Europeans, Russians, and every other significant power in the world) realizes that no military option exists in response to the Russian occupation of Crimea (because, that’s a invitation to start World War III). So when the right calls for Obama to be “tougher”, what exactly are they asking for? Senator Graham, for instance suggested on Sunday that instead of Obama “threatening thugs or dictators” or drawing “red lines” that he backs away from, he should “suspend Russian membership in the G8 and the G20 at least for a year starting right now. And for every day they stay in Crimea, add to the suspension. Do something.”

Mind you, Graham’s comments came on Sunday Morning, not even 48 hours after the initial invasion. Things he proposes can’t happen unilaterally (it isn’t the G1), and take at least a small bit of time to get other leaders on board. And what do you know… a few hours later, Obama announced that the G8 meeting in Sochi this summer would be cancelled, that he is working to remove Russia’s seat from the G8, either temporarily (as Graham defined as a so called strong response) or permanently (which goes well beyond what Graham proposed), is working to create support for Ukraine, and is working to develop economic and political sanctions that the rest of the world will support in an effort to actually substantively punish Russia for it’s actions.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called President Putin to discuss the matter this weekend and after getting off the phone, called President Obama to inform him that while he was in touch with reality, he is “[i]n another world.” When you consider that the Obama critics above admit that they consider Putin to be incredibly unpredictable and that Putin must have calculated that his actions would lead to economic punishment (since as noted above, everyone is aware that military action is not an option), how would a tougher response months ago created any different result today?((At this point, it’s worth pointing out that similar criticism of Obama’s actions were made after the Syrian crisis, yet Obama’s actions led to meaningful results challenging Putin to join the rest of the G8 in disarming Assad of his chemical weapons.))

And the blind partisan hypocrisy becomes self-evident when you consider that when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, these same individuals (recall McCain’s response when he was the Republican Candidate for President in 2008) did nothing to punish Putin. Nor did Congress push for such actions. It’s all so depressingly disappointing.

Not only does the Obama as weak foreign leader not make sense, the Blame Obama strategy is not a credible solution to this or any geopolitical situation. Such feckless criticism undermines our nation’s ability to successfully implement such solutions with broad support. Let’s hope these dissenters decide to put their country before politics in the future.

✁ Recess

On Monday, the Supreme Court held oral argument on a 2013 D.C. Circuit case, NLRB v. Canning (pdf) discussing a procedural aspect of Article II of the Constitution. The case concerns the president’s power of recess appointment. The Constitution enumerates this power in Art. II, sec 2, cl. 3.

The President shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.

Presidents have been making recess appointments since the beginning of the Union. Washington was the first to make such an appointment. Reagan made 240 recess appointments. Bill Clinton, 139. The issue in Canning surrounds President Obama’s use of this power to appoint members to the NLRB, which then had only 2 of its 5 seats filled, preventing the Board from convening a quorum (required to conduct business). The reason for these vacancies had to do with the Senate filibustering Obama’s nominations, presumably to prevent union elections from occurring. (Democrats in the Senate filibustered some of President Bush’s appointments to different agencies in his tenure.) After the filled seats permitted the NLRB to function again, the company the actions affected sued. The question presented in that case were whether President Obama’s NLRB appointments under Art. II, sec. 2, cl. 3 were appropriate when the Senate only recessed in spirit by not officially recessing, choosing instead to hold pro forma sessions specifically to prevent such appointments from occurring.

I’d like to comment on a few choice excerpts of the transcript from Monday.

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, of course, Justice Ginsburg’s question points out that your argument is, it seems to me, in search of a limiting principle. A lunch break, a one-day break — you’ve — you’ve thought about this — a 3-day break, a 1-week break, a 1-month break; how do you resolve that problem for us?

GENERAL VERRILLI: I think the — the way we resolve that problem is by looking to the Adjournment Clause. We think if it’s a break that is sufficiently short, that it wouldn’t require the — wouldn’t require the one House to get the consent of the other, but that’s a de minimis recess and that’s not a recess in which the President would have authority -­

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Is that 3 days?

JUSTICE KENNEDY: And what about the pro forma sessions, then? They don’t — or correct me if I’m wrong. They don’t require the consent of the other house.

GENERAL VERRILLI: Well, but the problem with the pro forma sessions, I think, Justice Kennedy, is in thinking about the length of the recess. The recess, we would submit, and this
dictionary definition of “recess”
founding and now, which is “a suspension of business,” the recess was from January 3 when the session started until January 23. And the reason I think that -­
JUSTICE KENNEDY: So — so you think there’s
no recess during pro forma sessions?
GENERAL VERRILLI: There is a recess. And the reason is because the Senate has issued a formal order that no business shall be conducted and that’s a formal -­

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Well, let’s just talk — let’s focus on that. What if, instead of saying “No business shall be conducted,” the order said, “It is not anticipated that any business will be conducted.” Does that suffice to eliminate that period as a recess?

GENERAL VERRILLI: I think that it’s a -­ that’s a different case and I think, concededly, a significantly harder case for the Executive because here -­

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Yeah. Well, it’s difficult and harder, but it also suggests that you’re just talking about a couple of magic words that the Senate can just change at the drop of a hat. So maybe the point is not that significant.

This is your Chief Justice suggesting that exact wording doesn’t matter. To think that interpretation of the law is anything but analyzing the exact language of the law is mind boggling. If a sentence reads differently, the purpose behind the sentence will be different.

But the Attorney General (and thus the Court) makes the wrong argument here. To suggest that deciding whether any break is actually recess surrounds the length of time of the break ignores the very obvious point that the Senate is attempting to subvert the purpose of the Constitutional clause by preventing this specific aspect government from functioning altogether. Why else would such a clause exist? That’s the irony of the Chief Justice’s prior words. If he doesn’t care much for the specific wording, then he must care about the intent. But if he’s concerned with the nuance of whether a pro forma session is or isn’t a recess, then he clearly does not care much for the intent of this clause.

Let’s look at presumed intent. In times when Congress recessed for months at a time (due to the time of travel, among other things), the founders wrote this clause, almost certainly, to ensure the continuation of our Union’s functioning in such instances when Congress’s absence would put such continuation in jeopardy. The thinking is, if it takes weeks to travel back to the Capitol to reconvene, important decisions requiring immediate attention might prevent the Country’s ability to function. But similar to how the filibuster today (or a supermajority requirement for cloture) could not have been anticipated by the founders when drafting the Constitution, it is unlikely they could have anticipated the Senate preventing appointments by design due to the minority’s goal of de facto agency abolishment.

Obviously, none of this is of issue if the filibuster was properly dealt with. But with the perverse idea (particularly how it is used today without the requirement of chamber presence, at a minimum) in place, other perversions develop. To rid one without getting rid of the other (because of course, the filibuster is not a Constitutional concept) is to interfere with founder’s intent. The Supreme Court’s job is to interpret the Constitution. Any interpretation that does not ensure our Union functions as outlined by the Constitution is wrong. Due to this axiom, it is irrelevant why or how a Senate recess came to exist. All that should matter in evaluating this case is whether our government can continue functioning as intended even when some attempt to pervert the adjournment clause with pro forma sessions.

Not surprisingly, it seems obvious from the questions asked in the transcript that few, if any of the Justices will agree with me and that the recess appointments will be declared unconstitutional.

✁ Authentic New Year

Another year in the books. And boy, is time is a powerful motivator. Each time the last digit on the calendar changes, we are forced to confront our struggle with mortality, likely pressured into thinking that we must make more of ourselves in the coming year to feel as though we’ve progressed. We’re compelled to reinvent ourselves, focusing on losing 10 more pounds, making 5 grand more, “wasting” less time, learning more, stressing less, giving more, consuming less.

But why? Sure, the new year is a time of reflection. But this preoccupation with arbitrary goals sacrifices real progress for the sake of vanity. I am who I am, and life is appreciating this fact—not running away from it. Living is not about a washboard stomach or a shiny new trophy to measure success by, but about the pursuit of the authentic you.

I’ve been revisiting a Plato quote in the last week, trying to make sense of it within the prism of the new year and the fetishism of resolutions.

A man’s duty is to find out where the truth is, or if he cannot, at least to take the best possible human doctrine and the hardest to disprove, and to ride on this like a raft over the waters of life.

The idea of authenticity seems more difficult to articulate as society advances, with marketing, alternative history, and the self-help-obsessed perverting most of what might fit the definition in the world around us. Plato’s quote, I think, best articulates the concept, using the metaphor of a raft as a stand-in for truth. The idea that truth is a constant, unwaivering force, is probably an unpopular one since our perception of truth is constantly changing in the wake of new information. But that is exactly the point; any view that would consider a world with two truths, renders any truth irrelvant. Does the same holds true for authenticity? As we come to understand more, we see those trying to hide behind façades and disguise as somehow inauthentic, even if we didn’t see it before.

But what’s in a name? That is to say, if the pursuit of authenticity is what is important in life, how do we come to define authenticity? Some seem to suggest that it is anti-modern, as they’ll suggest that a photoshop culture cannot possibly be the real thing. Others suggest that authenticity is aspirational—proof that a specific mark is the real thing and not a pathetic knockoff. Others still would argue that authenticity is purity and that fetishizing the pursuit of a goal completely will deem one worthy of such a label.

This is all such bullshit.

Authenticity is about nothing more than living life truthfully as the person you’ve come to perceive yourself as. It is feeling good about both your accomplishments and failures and not being afraid to try. This year, I’m trying more of this and less of that.

Happy new year. May it be a good one.