Situational Unawareness


An article crossed my desk yesterday that highlights a systemic problem with how government does business. We’ve discussed the “2+2=Grapefruit” situation before, but this is even more basic – it’s how government views problems in the first place.

The article details a kafuffle raised in Congress over a cybersecurity bill. It seems the administration wants to impose minimum security “fixes,” through DHS, on critical infrastructure that is vulnerable to cyber attack – water supply, air traffic control, electricity grid, etc – and the US Chamber of Commerce opposed such a mandated requirement. Senator Joseph I Lieberman (I-CT), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, backs the measure, and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) opposes.

The subject matter, and the medium through which the threat emerges, focuses my attention on, not the argument, but the method under consideration. We have heard for some time now that we are vulnerable to a devastating cyber attack, and it’s true. There is no systematic approach to “safing” our networked infrastructure, leading to an inevitable attack at some point by a bad actor – be it a non-state terrorist organization, a pimply-faced kid sitting in his basement, or a hostile power. The Pentagon tells us that these systems are probed around a hundred times a day (that we know of), and that NSA is very good at catching and thwarting them. This also is true. But here we have the terrorists’ asymmetrical advantage – all they have to do is succeed once.

The basic problem is that the medium moves much faster than the remedy – government moves at a geological pace while the world travels at warp speed. By the time Congress gets around to passing a bill safeguarding our infrastructure, the methods contained in that bill are already obsolete, the hacking community having countered anything Congress comes up with.

I tend to agree with Senator Lieberman’s insistence that this a Pearl Harbor waiting to happen, and with Senator McCain’s objection to the administration’s approach. Congress will never get the upper hand over independent hackers, who react to what Congress is doing. This situation is systemic. The whole approach is wrong. What’s a bit disconcerting is that Congress institutionally knows better, in that it watched as the X-Prize produced astonishingly good results in a remarkably short time-frame by stipulating the goal, leaving the method and process up to private entrepreneurs. NASA is currently testing at least three different man-rated orbiters – Scale Composite’s, Space-X’s and a LockheedMartin design – all of which came out of the X-Prize competition. The same approach could (and in my view, should) be used here. Don’t set minimum standards for all of networked industry to mimic, set minimum security levels to which all of networked industry must comply, in whatever manner best suits their individual industry.

Now you’ve got computer experts working on computer problems, not politicians trying to steer business to their district (regardless of the lack of talent in that district). Instead of a prize for meeting the standards, Congress could levy fines for not doing so.

The goal here is that our critical infrastructure be safed – not that politicians be seen as fixing it.

Michael S Schmidt, Senators Force Weaker Safeguards Against Cyberattacks, in New York Times, July 28 2012, p. A13.

the Face of Syria


Syria is coming apart. There are things to watch for in an insurrection, tipping points where the inconvenience of a semi-organized resistance becomes an existential threat to the sitting government, and Syria has reached one of those milestones. And the fate of Syria is, in many respects, the fate of the Middle East.

First the milestone. During the uprising in Libya, we were watching who was defecting and in what numbers. This is important because it serves as an indicator of what is happening inside the ruling inner circle. If, for example, mere functionaries are escaping, these are probably people of conscience that use their government job to gain access to the means to leave. If, on the other hand, department heads, ambassadors, traveling dignitaries and military leaders are defecting, the inner circle is crumbling and the ruling core is losing the confidence of those who operate it.

Many of Syria’s still-assigned ambassadors have asked for political asylum in the countries to which they were dispatched; upwards of a dozen general officers are in Turkey, organizing and coordinating the Free Syrian Army; elite fighter pilots have flown their aircraft into other countries and ask for asylum; in the international realm, only Russia, PRC and Iran stand with the al Assad regime. The days grow darker for those in charge of Syria.

Then on July 18, a bomb exploded during a high-level meeting inside the National Security headquarters in Damascus, killing the Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, former Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani, Interior Minister Mohammad al-Shaar, and wounding many others. The Free Syrian Army immediately claimed credit for the attack (which was not a suicide attack, rather remotely detonated). Two days later, chatter picked up about the idea that al Assad set it off, trying to kill what may have been the start of a palace coup. Either way, it nearly decapitated the regime, and leaves many holes in the upper echelons of the inner circle. It’s another of those telltale signs of a failing regime.

So far, this fits the mould of the Arab Spring – a brutal and repressive government being openly resisted by the general population. Three have fallen – Tunisia, Libya and Yemen – the rest are in some state of dispute. All of them have reacted with the full force and power of their militaries.

As to Syria’s regional importance, it makes or breaks Iran’s Shi’ite Crescent, which speaks volumes to the future volatility or passivity of the largely Sunni Middle East. There are six major stakeholders in the outcome in Syria, each for their own reasons: Iran, Turkey, Russia, the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Iran, because it needs the Alawite (a segment of Shi’ite Islam) regime of al Assad to acquire the Mediterranean anchor of the Shi’ite Crescent (through Lebanon). This would also put Tehran next door to Israel; a very dangerous juxtapositioning. Syria is a mirror-image of Iraq in that Damascus represents a Shi’ite minority ruling over a Sunni majority, so that even if al Assad is forced from power, Iran needs the core of the government to survive in order to preserve Tehran’s alliance with Damascus.

Turkey is growing into a regional power, and although Ankara shares many views with Tehran, it is in competition with Iran for influence in northern Iraq and Syria. The obvious concern in Turkey is a potential refugee crisis should the insurrection become perpetual, but must be said to be pro-resistance in that Turkey is hosting refugee camps and facilities from which the Free Syrian Army bases its Syrian activities.

Russia also isn’t anxious to see a Shi’ite power-base in the northern Middle East, but wants Syria to remain anti-American. Moscow also has the most intelligence assets inside Syria, and likely can shape the outcome somewhat, no matter which way it goes.

We and the Saudis share a fervent aversion to Iran forming an hegemony stretching from Western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. Additionally, we see direct Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon as an almost intolerable threat to Israel; the Saudis see the Iranian dominance of upper Middle East as an existential threat to Riyadh’s position as the region’s power center. Additionally, it would embolden the Shi’ite population in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich eastern provinces, possibly destabilizing Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and beyond.

Israel has a very large stake in Syria’s destiny because it determines the extent to which Hizbollah can be directly armed and controlled by Iran. The Middle East is going to be a globally important chess board for years to come, and Syria is a big play.

Repeal Obama


Republicans don’t have to stoop to liberal tactics of name-calling and fabrication. Our president isn’t “evil,” or “communist,” he’s just profoundly wrong. He doesn’t hate America, he just doesn’t understand it.

President Obama’s agenda is trying to make America more European, even as Europe is failing because of those very policies. The liberal mantra is always “we can do it better,” but they never do. American redistributionists are no less human than European redistributionists, and it is a combination of a faulty theory and human nature that condemns redistributionism to history’s dust bin.

Whenever you divorce reward from effort, you get mediocrity. That’s just human nature. Whenever you punish success and reward failure, you get less success and more failure. That’s just human nature. In a globalized world, when you make it more expensive to do business in America than elsewhere, you get companies that do business elsewhere. That’s just human nature. And that’s the fundamental problem with liberalism – it assumes an altruism that just doesn’t exist, hence the Code of Hammurabi, the Ten Commandments, and all that has followed. Liberalism wants to direct the sum of human activity toward what they perceive as desirable ends, ignoring the fact that the sum of human interaction cannot be directed while leaving the people free. The intentions are benign – the objective is impossible.

The fundamental difference between political neoliberalism[1] and political conservatism is one of trust. Neoliberals don’t trust people to “do the right thing,” so they must legislate it. Conservatives don’t plot-out a future state-of-affairs; they trust a free people to build one that suits their needs. Nobody, least of all self-interested politicians, can be trusted to correctly deduce the long-range future. Politicians are absolutely narcissistic in their short-term approach to answering all problems with immediate political solutions. Big Government just means more of that. And it’s political solutions to economic problems that got us here in the first place – making sure that people who can’t afford a house get one anyway – and more of this thinking won’t help, it’ll push us over the cliff (something that Senate Democrats are threatening to do on purpose, over eight days worth of government spending).

Most insulting of all may be President Obama’s July 13 speech in Roanoke, where he opined that “if you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” He claims that he was talking about all the infrastructure used to commit business; the teachers that educate us; the internet through which so much business is being done, and so forth. But all that is shared by everyone, only the individual efforts of entrepreneurs rise above the hum-drum to provide free-standing businesses that meet consumer needs, supplying jobs and newly created wealth from which comes salaries and wages, produces orders to other businesses sustaining their employees, and so forth.

That we are all embedded in, and a product of, the greater society is banal. To state that as a profound insight is sophomoric. To assume that individuals have little to do with (or worse, don’t deserve) their own success is to misunderstand human nature entirely.

NOTE: Thanks to TVNews for the title graphic atop this essay.

[1] In this context, I use “neoliberalism” to distinguish between classical political liberalism, which was a break from a ruling elite toward the dignity of the individual, and today’s political liberalism, which is a return to ruling elitism.

Campaign 2012: I. the Landscape


The race to 270. Team Romney had better study the 2012 election. The president’s team is lightyears better at campaigning than they are at governing, and their focus is all about the electoral vote.

Mr Obama won in 2008 with 52.9% of 63.0% of registered voters (a margin of 9.5 million votes), winning 22 states (44%) for an electoral margin of 365 to 173 (67.8%). Mr Obama outspent Mr McCain, in absolute terms, by $443,704,540, which works out to $10.94 spent per vote to Mr McCain’s $5.79. Those are the vital statistics of the last presidential election. All else is detail, some of it interesting, but detail nonetheless.

The beginning backdrop looks like this: 13 states and the District of Columbia are solidly Democratic (182 electoral votes); two states are likely Democratic (14); four states are leaning Democratic (51), for a total of 247 solid, likely or leaning Democratic electoral votes; 18 solidly Republican states (105); three states are likely Republican (65); Missouri leans Republican (10), for a total of 180 solid, likely or leaning Republican electoral votes. That leaves nine swing states for 111 electoral votes.

With both incumbency and the electoral starting advantage working for Mr Obama, Team Romney has an uphill climb ahead of them, but there are some mitigating factors in play for them, too. Let’s look at some of the demographics from 2008 and how they line up this year.

· President Obama won the male vote (47% of the total vote) 49%-48%, or by 616,110 votes. Governor Romney will win this demographic.

· The president won females (53%) by a 56%-43% margin, or 4.871million votes. Mr Obama will win this demographic again, even as he slips a bit among married women. No net difference here.

· The Black vote (13%) went Democratic by a 95%-4% margin, a margin of 15.533 million votes, and Democrats will win this group again, somewhere in the 9th percentile, though they may be closer to their historical average of 11% of the total vote.

· Hispanics (9%) went Democratic in 2008 by a 67%-31% margin, 4.254 million votes. Again, Mr Obama will win this group, and has targeted this group with negative advertising against Governor Romney.

· Team Obama targeted the youth vote in 2008 and turned them out in record numbers (18% of voters), winning this demographic by a margin of 66%-32%, or 8.035 million votes. There is nowhere near the “Hope and Change” enthusiasm among young voters this year (turnout expected to be down 20%), but Democrats always win this group.

· Middle-aged voters went for Mr Obama by 2.77 million votes, and this is a demographic that can be targeted by Mr Romney – these are the out of work families, the small business owners that can’t get credit and keep getting hammered by taxes (ObamaCare) and regulations. This is a demo that Mr Romney could win this time around.

· Seniors (16%) went to Mr McCain in 2008 53%-45%, or by 1.68 million votes. Team Obama is heavily targeting this group.

· The poor always vote Democratic, and Mr Obama won this group by 7.405 million votes in 2008. He will keep this margin this year.

· Mr Obama won the middle class by 3.308 million votes last time around, and that margin should shrink this year for the same reasons that his hold over middle-aged voters will slip – these are the people getting hurt most by his policies.

· Obama and McCain tied for the rich vote, which this administration’s strong anti-business and anti-investment policies will give it to Mr Romney.

Each of these demographics can be targeted with tailored, issues-based messages, but will probably be given negative advertising pillorying the opposition instead. Too bad. This is the clearest choice in generations between philosophies of governance and the role of America in the world, and we will get cheap shots, lies and innuendo.

Voting percentages from: James Taranto, Obama’s Risky Campaign Strategy, in Wall Street Journal, July 13 2012, p. A9. Spending figures from: Federal Election Commission.

California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Maine and Minnesota.

Michigan, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Arizona, Georgia and Texas.

Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.

This is, however, a golden opportunity for Team Romney. They could tell seniors, for example, “Half of the allocated funding for ObamaCare – half a trillion dollars – comes out of Medicare. Make sure you’ve got a Republican Senator … we won’t let that happen.”

Roberts Refused to Legislate From the Bench


In his now famous “It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices,” Chief Justice John Roberts summed up his dilemma – the Supreme Court’s job is to protect the Constitution, it’s the peoples’ job to protect the integrity of our institutions.

As overly-complex, government-bloating and budget-busting as this bill was; and as repugnant and single-party arrogant as the process was, the Supreme Court is obligated to defer to the elected legislature if at all possible. To do otherwise is to legislate from the bench – to be an activist Court.

It would have been remarkably easy for Chief Justice Roberts to stop thinking when he got through ruling on the Commerce and Necessary and Proper Clauses, and rule against a law that he clearly doesn’t like. But the Solicitor General asked the Court to consider the penalty to be a tax should their stated rationale fail. Mr Chief Justice Roberts found that something to be collected by the IRS, was to be income-determined, and was to be deducted from the filer’s refund (or added to his tax liability), was, in fact, a tax. No matter that the administration lied about it (or failed to connect those dots) – if it quacks like a duck … Neither dishonesty nor ignorance is unconstitutional. There is a bright line between the political and legal issues before the High Court, and Chief Justice Roberts refused to cross that line.

For all the wailing and moaning by Republicans, this opinion is the most apolitical ruling in my memory, which is what Republicans are forever claiming is all they want out of the Supreme Court. Energy must be re-directed to the “now what” phase of events – there are two years before the most distasteful provisions kick-in, and that leaves them time to undo what they can (provided they get the election results hoped for).

There are between 52 and 53 percent of voters who favor repeal, and that’s enough to win the election, so “now what” should consist of getting those voters to the polls and voting up and down the ticket for people who feel the same way.

That’s how the Constitution says this country is supposed to work.

Despite then-Speaker Pelosi’s claim that “the more we find out about it, the more we’ll like it,” that number hasn’t changed since the day the Affordable Care Act passed into law.