In “Living With the Surveillance State” Mr. Keller has a question. He says we’ve gotten used to being watched, but who watches the watchers? Good question, but Billy’s perfectly willing to let it continue, and agrees with The Moustache of Wisdom’s pants piddling column from a few days ago. Prof. Krugman has sent in “Fight the Future, ” on the dangers of fiscal science fiction. Here’s Mr. Keller:
My colleague Thomas Friedman’s levelheaded take on the National Security Agency eavesdropping uproar needs no boost from me. His column soared to the top of the “most e-mailed” list and gathered a huge and mostly thoughtful galaxy of reader comments. Judging from the latest opinion polling, it also reflected the prevailing mood of the electorate. It reflected mine. But this is a discussion worth prolonging, with vigilant attention to real dangers answering overblown rhetoric about theoretical ones.
Tom’s important point was that the gravest threat to our civil liberties is not the N.S.A. but another 9/11-scale catastrophe that could leave a panicky public willing to ratchet up the security state, even beyond the war-on-terror excesses that followed the last big attack. Reluctantly, he concludes that a well-regulated program to use technology in defense of liberty — even if it gives us the creeps — is a price we pay to avoid a much higher price, the shutdown of the world’s most open society. Hold onto that qualifier: “well regulated.”
The N.S.A. data-mining is part of something much larger. On many fronts, we are adjusting to life in a surveillance state, relinquishing bits of privacy in exchange for the promise of other rewards. We have a vague feeling of uneasiness about these transactions, but it rarely translates into serious thinking about where we set the limits.
Exhibit A: In last Thursday’s Times Joseph Goldstein reported that local law enforcement agencies, “largely under the radar,” are amassing their own DNA databanks, and they often do not play by the rules laid down for the databases compiled by the F.B.I. and state crime labs. As a society, we have accepted DNA evidence as a reliable tool both for bringing the guilty to justice and for exonerating the wrongly accused. But do we want police agencies to have complete license — say, to sample our DNA surreptitiously, or to collect DNA from people not accused of any wrongdoing, or to share our most private biological information? Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project and a member of the New York State Commission on Forensic Science, says regulators have been slow to respond to what he calls rogue databanks. And a recent Supreme Court ruling that defined DNA-gathering as a legitimate police practice comparable to fingerprinting is likely to encourage more freelancing. Scheck says his fear is that misuse will arouse public fears of government overreach and discredit one of the most valuable tools in our justice system. “If you ask the American people, do you support using DNA to catch criminals and exonerate the innocent, everybody says yes,” Scheck told me. “If you ask, do you trust the government to have your DNA, everybody says no.”
Exhibit B: Nothing quite says Big Brother like closed-circuit TV. In Orwell’s Britain, which is probably the democratic world’s leading practitioner of CCTV monitoring, the omnipresent pole-mounted cameras are being supplemented in some jurisdictions by wearable, night-vision cop-cams that police use to record every drunken driver, domestic violence call and restive crowd they encounter. New York last year joined with Microsoft to introduce the eerily named Domain Awareness System, which connects 3,000 CCTV cameras (and license-plate scanners and radiation detectors) around the city and allows police to cross-reference databases of stolen cars, wanted criminals and suspected terrorists. Fans of TV thrillers like “Homeland,” “24” and the British series “MI-5” (guilty, guilty and guilty) have come to think of the omnipresent camera as a crime-fighting godsend. But who watches the watchers? Announcing the New York system, the city assured us that no one would be monitored because of race, religion, citizenship status, political affiliation, etc., to which one skeptic replied, “But we’ve heard that one before.”
Exhibit C: Congress has told the F.A.A. to set rules for the use of spy drones in American air space by 2015. It is easy to imagine the value of this next frontier in surveillance: monitoring forest fires, chasing armed fugitives, search-and-rescue operations. Predator drones already patrol our Southern border for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. Indeed, border surveillance may be critical in persuading Congress to pass immigration reform that would extend our precious liberty to millions living in the shadows. I for one would count that a fair trade. But where does it stop? Scientific American editorialized in March: “Privacy advocates rightly worry that drones, equipped with high-resolution video cameras, infrared detectors and even facial-recognition software, will let snoops into realms that have long been considered private.” Like your backyard. Or, with the sort of thermal imaging used to catch the Boston bombing fugitive hiding under a boat tarp, your bedroom.
And then there is the Internet. We seem pretty much at peace, verging on complacent, about the exploitation of our data for commercial, medical and scientific purposes — as trivial as the advertising algorithm that pitches us camping gear because we searched the Web for wilderness travel, as valuable as the digital record-sharing that makes sure all our doctors know what meds we’re on.
In an online debate about the N.S.A. eavesdropping story the other day, Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, pointed out that we have grown comfortable with the Internal Revenue Service knowing our finances, employees of government hospitals knowing our medical histories, and public-school teachers knowing the abilities and personalities of our children.
“The information vacuumed up by the N.S.A. was already available to faceless bureaucrats in phone and Internet companies — not government employees but strangers just the same,” Posner added. “Many people write as though we make some great sacrifice by disclosing private information to others, but it is in fact simply the way that we obtain services we want — whether the market services of doctors, insurance companies, Internet service providers, employers, therapists and the rest or the nonmarket services of the government like welfare and security.”
Privacy advocates will retort that we surrender this information wittingly, but in reality most of us just let it slip away. We don’t pay much attention to privacy settings or the “terms of service” fine print. Our two most common passwords are “password” and “123456.”
From time to time we get worrisome evidence of data malfeasance, such as the last big revelation of N.S.A. eavesdropping, in 2005, which disclosed that the agency was tapping Americans without the legal nicety of a warrant, or the more recent I.R.S. targeting of right-wing political groups. But in most cases the advantages of intrusive technology are tangible and the abuses are largely potential. Edward Snowden’s leaks about N.S.A. data-mining have, so far, not included evidence of any specific abuse.
The danger, it seems to me, is not surveillance per se. We have already decided, most of us, that life on the grid entails a certain amount of intrusion. Nor is the danger secrecy, which, as Posner notes, “is ubiquitous in a range of uncontroversial settings,” a promise the government makes to protect “taxpayers, inventors, whistle-blowers, informers, hospital patients, foreign diplomats, entrepreneurs, contractors, data suppliers and many others.”
The danger is the absence of rigorous, independent regulation and vigilant oversight to keep potential abuses of power from becoming a real menace to our freedom. The founders created a system of checks and balances, but the safeguards have not kept up with technology. Instead, we have an executive branch in a leak-hunting frenzy, a Congress that treats oversight as a form of partisan combat, a political climate that has made “regulation” an expletive and a public that feels a generalized, impotent uneasiness. I don’t think we’re on a slippery slope to a police state, but I think if we are too complacent about our civil liberties we could wake up one day and find them gone — not in a flash of nuclear terror but in a gradual, incremental surrender.
Bear in mind — this dude used to be a senior editor of the Times… Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
Last week the International Monetary Fund, whose normal role is that of stern disciplinarian to spendthrift governments, gave the United States some unusual advice. “Lighten up,” urged the fund. “Enjoy life! Seize the day!”
O.K., fund officials didn’t use quite those words, but they came close, with an article in IMF Survey magazine titled “Ease Off Spending Cuts to Boost U.S. Recovery.” In its more formal statement, the fund argued that the sequester and other forms of fiscal contraction will cut this year’s U.S. growth rate by almost half, undermining what might otherwise have been a fairly vigorous recovery. And these spending cuts are both unwise and unnecessary.
Unfortunately, the fund apparently couldn’t bring itself to break completely with the austerity talk that is regarded as a badge of seriousness in the policy world. Even while urging us to run bigger deficits for the time being, Christine Lagarde, the fund’s head, called on us to “hurry up with putting in place a medium-term road map to restore long-run fiscal sustainability.”
So here’s my question: Why, exactly, do we need to hurry up? Is it urgent that we agree now on how we’ll deal with fiscal issues of the 2020s, the 2030s and beyond?
No, it isn’t. And in practice, focusing on “long-run fiscal sustainability” — which usually ends up being mainly about “entitlement reform,” a k a cuts to Social Security and other programs — isn’t a way of being responsible. On the contrary, it’s an excuse, a way to avoid dealing with the severe economic problems we face right now.
What’s the problem with focusing on the long run? Part of the answer — although arguably the least important part — is that the distant future is highly uncertain (surprise!) and that long-run fiscal projections should be seen mainly as an especially boring genre of science fiction. In particular, projections of huge future deficits are to a large extent based on the assumption that health care costs will continue to rise substantially faster than national income — yet the growth in health costs has slowed dramatically in the last few years, and the long-run picture is already looking much less dire than it did not long ago.
Now, uncertainty by itself isn’t always a reason for inaction. In the case of climate change, for example, uncertainty about the impact of greenhouse gases on global temperatures actually strengthens the case for action, to head off the risk of catastrophe.
But fiscal policy isn’t like climate policy, even though some people have tried to make the analogy (even as right-wingers who claim to be deeply concerned about long-term debt remain strangely indifferent to long-term environmental concerns). Delaying action on climate means releasing billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while we debate the issue; delaying action on entitlement reform has no comparable cost.
In fact, the whole argument for early action on long-run fiscal issues is surprisingly weak and slippery. As I like to point out, the conventional wisdom on these things seems to be that to avert the danger of future benefit cuts, we must act now to cut future benefits. And no, that isn’t much of a caricature.
Still, while a “grand bargain” that links reduced austerity now to longer-run fiscal changes may not be necessary, does seeking such a bargain do any harm? Yes, it does. For the fact is we aren’t going to get that kind of deal — the country just isn’t ready, politically. As a result, time and energy spent pursuing such a deal are time and energy wasted, which would be better spent trying to help the unemployed.
Put it this way: Republicans in Congress have voted 37 times to repeal health care reform, President Obama’s signature policy achievement. Do you really expect those same Republicans to reach a deal with the president over the nation’s fiscal future, which is closely linked to the future of federal health programs? Even if such a deal were somehow reached, do you really believe that the G.O.P. would honor that deal if and when it regained the White House?
When will we be ready for a long-run fiscal deal? My answer is, once voters have spoken decisively in favor of one or the other of the rival visions driving our current political polarization. Maybe President Hillary Clinton, fresh off her upset victory in the 2018 midterms, will be able to broker a long-run budget compromise with chastened Republicans; or maybe demoralized Democrats will sign on to President Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare. Either way, the time for big decisions about the long run is not yet.
And because that time is not yet, influential people need to stop using the future as an excuse for inaction. The clear and present danger is mass unemployment, and we should deal with it, now.