Month: April 2016

A Crippling Lack of Empathy

I’ve written a lot about how frustrating American political discourse can be.  Much of it has emphasized and highlighted the lack of research or intellectual curiosity among most of the citizenry, and that’s certainly one of the major faults we have as a society.  I’d like to opine on another problem though.

Being passionate about something obviously implies having passion, which means emotion.  That emotion can be love, anger, sadness, etc.  Much of the passion I see in American political discourse is guided by some of this, and few are exempt.  Even I get bent out of shape sometimes when trying to explain the importance of the issues I hold dear, specifically healthcare costs, education, and corporate regulation.

To me, that’s a key to get people interested in politics; action will come if emotion stirs.  There’s no better way to motivate someone than to stoke a fire in someone, for whatever reason.

However, there are a number of issues that many of people don’t need any encouragement on, and most of the time it involves issues where someone is getting money that they aren’t.  It would be nice if people got more angry about corporate welfare and subsidy, but instead they get pissed about “welfare mothers” and “freeloaders”, wanting everyone to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” or whatever idiom they choose in the moment.

A common thread in all this, is the fact that many, many people simply don’t give a shit about people they can’t see.  That sounds insanely reductive, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate.

I couldn’t find the exact quote, but Henry Rollins said something meaningful years ago after he returned from a long philanthropic trip to Africa.  It was along the lines of this: We (as in Americans) are all insanely lucky to not just avoid the conditions in Africa, but also to not even have to see it.  A very poignant point, but it’s part of the problem.  We as a culture have chosen to ignore the plight of those we can’t see, and it’s been endorsed and raised high.

Almost all of us use smartphones made overseas in warehouses that need to have suicide nets because the working conditions are so poor.

Most of us wear cheap clothes that are only cheap because someone we can’t see made them for a matter of cents per hour.

Our government has participated in a number of imperialist endeavors across the globe, motivated by the continued goal of achieving business-friendly (re: American business) situations in countries ripe for exploit.  Millions have died because of these endeavors.

We don’t care.

This crippling lack of empathy permeates to within our own borders, as well.  When people don’t give a shit about welfare recipients, they’re less likely to understand (and care to understand) how people get on welfare, and they likely don’t know anyone on it either.  It’s easy to say “build a wall” when you aren’t even in the states where the wall is going up.  It’s simple to be ignorant of minority struggle when you don’t know anyone that’s a minority and don’t understand the history or culture.

We as a country continue to be blind to our own atrocities.  The plunder of African-Americans is largely misunderstood or unknown to most.  The causes and effects of our “immigration problem” are not even considered when we think about wall-building.  Our continued subjugation of resource-rich countries through trade or force is wrapped in a “spreading freedom” ribbon, while we ask our young adults to pledge their life for it.

And I feel much of it is rooted in the fact that on the whole, we simply don’t give a shit.  Out of sight, out of mind, out of conscience.

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The Feinstein-Burr Encyption Bill: Let’s Just Unlock All The Doors

This week on “Why Politicians Shouldn’t Pretend They Know Things They Clearly Don’t,” we feature Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Richard Burr (R-NC), two United States Senators who are asking the government to consider their bill regarding encryption.

Much controversy has been had over encryption since the FBI asked Apple to decrypt the iPhone of one of the now-deceased San Bernadino attackers, a request Apple responded to with “yeah, that’s a terrible idea, so, no.”  Most people would think Apple is filled with a lot of smart people, and at least in this case, they’re correct.

The Feinstein-Burr bill, however, is far beyond asking for a single iPhone to be unlocked.  It would require every company that engages in any encryption method at any level to be able to quickly provide a method to decrypt the data, at law enforcement’s behest.

Quick primer on how encryption works: when two endpoints communicate, without encryption the data transmitted between the two endpoints is in plain-text form.  This is enormously insecure, as sniffing and intercepting traffic isn’t difficult.

With encryption in play, the messages sent between two endpoints are then scrambled exponentially; imagine a message sent using one of those decoder rings from a cereal box, except that instead of a single coded translation it’s coded dozens of times, and instead of needing a decoder ring to decipher it, you need an encryption key that’s normally at least one hundred characters long.  This way, if a message is intercepted, decoding the mention is near impossible unless the attackers have access to bona-fide supercomputers (and a lot of time on their hands).

Normally, encryption keys are only held as long as they’re needed (i.e. the time it takes to encrypt the message, send it, the other side to receive it, then decrypt it), or they’re kept extremely secure behind many layers of security.  This bill would force software and hardware companies to keep those keys, and decrypt any message asked of them by law enforcement.

Throw away any big brother thoughts you have, the danger is plainer than that: rule #1 of network security is that no solution is invulnerable.  No matter how secure a company makes its encryption key vaults, attackers will go after them, and one of them will succeed.

Essentially, this bill would murder any reality of security or privacy on any computer in the United States.

This isn’t sensational; it’s pure insanity.  It would likely ruin the tech industry in America.

The fact that a bill like this is even going to get a vote is preposterous.  It’s another classic example that Washington does not understand technology, at all.

A Quick Word On The Farm Bill

$8.7 billion over the next ten years have been cut from food stamps nationwide as part of the newly-signed Farm Bill.

The oil industry continues to receive around $35 billion/year in subsidies. They probably need it; they’ve been recently recording record-low profits. They’ve only been averaging around $60 billion/year profits the last few years. They need to eat too.

The pharmaceutical industry gets north of $250 billion/year, when calculating for subsidies and the fact that Medicare cannot negotiate prices with drug manufacturers, thanks to the 2003 Medicare Part D bill that continues to heavy contribute to our extremely high prescription prices. But they need to eat too.

Top-200 companies combine to receive well north of $1 trillion/year (with a T) in federal support, and that doesn’t count the fact that their lobbying (which they spend a far less than that on) gets them trillions of dollars of business combined. But we need to prioritize the well-being of the good people from Goldman-Sachs, AT&T, Microsoft, Comcast, Lockheed-Martin, big banks that already received a bailout years ago, and other enormously rich companies you’ve heard of. They need to eat, so badly.

So let’s ignore those in need and keep shoveling money to the people who already have all of it. That makes sense.

Some Brief Observations About Welfare

The conversation of welfare annoys me to no end. By my observation, it is one of the most emotionally charged political subjects among many people I know. People get legitimately angry about practically anything involving work or the perceived lack of it. I understand that emotion; I, like many of you, work hard. Most people work hard.

It can be very easy to point at the people who receive any sort of social benefit, and assume they are lazy or otherwise incapable, and that they are an enormous drain on our economy, and getting them to work would turn things around. It’s an easy, logical argument until you do 10 minutes of research.

First, a few baseline rebuttals to most typical statements/arguments/incorrect opinions:

– Across the board, half or more of recipients of any kind of welfare are only on it for two years or less. Around 75% (depending on the type of welfare) are off within three. It’s a small amount of people who are on welfare perpetually.

– Over 50% of welfare recipients have a job. It’s just that wages are lower and the cost of living is higher than 40 years ago. It’s often not laziness, it’s economic reality.

– People on welfare use drugs at a rate equal to or even below that of people receiving no benefits. Testing for drugs is dumb and wasteful, and that’s been proven by the dumb and wasteful states that have tried it.

– The only benefit undocumented immigrants can receive is Medicaid. They are not getting payments, unemployment, food stamps, or any other benefit. They can’t.

– The “Welfare Queen” was a thing Reagan made up. They certainly exist, but not to the pernicious extent ol’ Gipper present it as.

– If you made $50,000 last year, you paid $36 towards food stamps. That’s $0.10/day so some people can eat. Calm down.

Finally: our economy pays far more in corporate subsidy (re: welfare for people who already have more money than you will ever, ever have) versus social welfare (re: people who actually need money). Most recent figures put it over double.

So if you’re pissed about hard-earned tax dollars going to other people, point up, not down. Spit on the guy in a suit, rather than the one in rags.