Trust me, I’m Scott Morrison …

We can be confident that Tony isn't demonstrating the size of Scott's heart, or his brain for that matter ...

We can be confident that Tony isn’t demonstrating the size of Scott’s heart, or his brain for that matter …

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago which inter alia condemned the drastic breach of Australia’s fundamental human rights obligations perpetrated by the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014 (currently being considered by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee; Report due 27/11/2014).

The Bill has also been roundly condemned by numerous commentators far more eminent than me, including University of Sydney’s migration and refugee law guru Mary Crock, who referred to it as an “affront to the rule of law”.   However, perhaps the most devastating if unintended condemnation comes from Minister Scott Morrison himself, as quoted in the relevant bills digest prepared by the Parliamentary Library to inform MPs:

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The Peris Affair: perhaps ethically dubious but not legally

I don’t have a particularly high opinion of Senator Nova Peris. I certainly don’t think Prime Minister Julia Gillard should have effectively sacked long-standing and well regarded Senator Trish Crossin to get her into Parliament. Moreover, even if it was reasonable to aim at getting new blood into the Senate and do so by introducing a capable Aboriginal woman, retired Territory Minister Marion Scrymgeour would have been a much better bet.

However, none of those factors justifies publication of the story about Senator Peris’s romantic liaison with international superstar Ato Boldon, at least with the slant it was given. Let me be clear. I certainly don’t take the Pollyanna attitude that the salacious emails should not have been published at all. Whatever some may assert, I suspect there wouldn’t be a single newspaper editor anywhere in Australia who would have refrained from publishing those emails if he/she had them and had obtained them lawfully (or at least without any specific knowledge about how they were obtained).

If they had merely been published as an avowedly prurient exercise in boosting tabloid circulation (as gossip magazines do on a weekly basis), I would have no problem at all. However, the Northern Territory News attempted to dress up its publication with an element of “public interest” which is almost certainly spurious.

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The West’s Ukrainian amnesia

russia_bear-vs-usa_eagle-war1Monica Attard reports in The Hoopla on a very recent speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin in which he forcefully puts his country’s side of the current conflict with Ukraine.  I was especially struck by this observation:

The US, [Putin] said, had instigated a “coup d’etat” in February to oust Ukraine’s pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich when he reversed his decision to sign up to a trade deal with Europe rather than Russia.

The stance echoes a fundamental point of a long post I wrote a few months ago on the Ukraine situation.  More generally, Attard puts the broad situation in its Great Power context:

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To be or not to be?

It looks as if prominent and obsessively determined euthanasia campaigner Dr Philip Nitschke may be in trouble again.  He has already had his right to practise medicine suspended and is facing Medical Board disciplinary proceedings arising from a situation a few months ago where he apparently provided telephone and email advice to a non-terminally ill man, seemingly about suicide options.  The man subsequently successfully committed suicide using the so-called “peaceful pill” Nembutal. His relatives later found the correspondence. I will return to this situation later.

The current situation, by contrast, seems morally if not legally straightforward. In August this year Dr Nitschke assisted a 71-year-old man named Martin Burgess to upload the above video onto Nitschke’s YouTube channel. Burgess appealed for someone (anyone) to help him by donating supplies of Nembutal to allow him to kill himself. Burgess was in the latter stages of terminal rectal cancer, was in frequent pain and not being effectively supported by palliative care services, and was pretty clearly not suffering from any mental disability which might have impaired his decision-making process. He made an entirely rational decision to kill himself.  He died last week. To be blunt, I would have made exactly the same decision had I been in his situation. See the slightly longer video below where Burgess describes his situation (try to ignore the irritating background noise).

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It’s Time?

In the midst of all the Whitlam nostalgia over the last week or so I couldn’t help thinking of the contagious hope and excitement that was generated by the “It’s Time” campaign theme in 1972. It still sends tingles down my spine listening to it today.

The year of Whitlam’s election was my first year at the University of Sydney on a Commonwealth Scholarship. My parents certainly could not have afforded to send me there. By the next year it didn’t matter because tertiary education was free, at least for a while. That year I was also looking down the barrel of conscription when I turned 20 in 1973, with the strong possibility of ending up in Vietnam. That prospect also ended with Whitlam’s election.

Can you imagine running an election campaign for Bill Shorten and today’s ALP using the “It’s Time” theme?  Time for focus groups, expedient cynical policies; time for me-tooism on data retention and anti-terror laws, and sending the troops off to make a risky token gesture supporting the Americans fighting ISIL in Iraq. Time for tiptoeing towards supporting Abbott and Morrison on turning back asylum seeker boats. Time for doing a deal on a reduced Renewable Energy Target, while opposing essential tax reform because the focus groups dictate it.

Exciting, inspiring, no? I can hardly wait to rush down to Labor headquarters and renew my long lapsed membership.

Neoliberalism and big data: public and private goods

In the words of Ronald Reagan, here we go again.*

Sandy Pentland rehearses something that’s made it’s way from heresy to platitudinal commonplace with breakneck speed. Asked “what, specifically, is the New Deal on Data?” Sandy tells us this:

It’s a rebalancing of the ownership of data in favor of the individual whose data is collected. People would have the same rights they now have over their physical bodies and their money.

Jaron Lanier has written a book on devolving power to individuals in their own data.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have the Wrong Metaphor. Just as it was a pity that we ever called intellectual property intellectual property (we want strong property rights don’t we? Pretty much the stronger the better) so now by making data something that is owned, our metaphor gives short shrift to the free rider opportunity.

Once more with feeling, here are the words of Thomas Jefferson, well known freedom fighter and slave-owner.

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

Now it’s one thing to say that, in so far as we arrogate a right of control to anyone, it should be to the individual that the data is about. This is arbitrary in some ways.  It took two to tango and the data is about some attribute or assumed attribute of the industrial, but it was also the product of someone else capturing and organising that data. But since we want a society in which individuals are empowered, that all seems good.

But there’s a problem. We’ve errected this idea of someone owning their own data out of anxiety about the way it was being misused, for instance in ways that compromised individuals privacy. So we’ve done something about that – as well we might.

But along the way that metaphor got in the way. Here we have data – which in the age of the internet is always and everywhere a potential global public good. And here we have identifiable mischiefs that can befall an industrial. But instead of focusing the remedy around constraining the mischief in the most efficient way – with regimes that make it difficult and punishable to misuse data and create those mischiefs, we’ve gone with The Metaphor. Your data is yours. And we’ve gone with something that we built modern commercial law from and which lawyers love. Consent. We’re devolving the decisions to those at the coalface – a good instinct – and, hey, it’s your data so you had better consent to all the uses it will be put to.

But this is already going too far. Why? Because you can’t possibly consent to all the possible worthwhile uses to which your data could be put. Furthermore this all smacks of the fiction of infinite computing power which has been so useful, for instance in macro-economics in building views of the world which are unparadoxically, counterintuitive and at the same time wrong. If data is owned, then the cascade of permissions follows from the logic of property.**

One of the most important things I know about political discourse I got from a few lines in Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. The ‘engine’ behind democracy – what makes us engage – is not reason (which tells us that there’s no point in engaging because of the infinitesimal chance we have of affecting the outcome) but affect – our emotional and expressive selves. And this governs what gets covered by the media – what takes off as a meme and what doesn’t. And it turns out the metaphors of property are pretty memeworthy, while the metaphors of a public good commons are strangely not.

Anyway, for the record, reason tells us that when it comes to data we’re staring at a massive and exponentially*** growing free rider opportunity. That that opportunity ramifies into the future into a multiverse of possibilities. We want to put people in control of their data to the extent that we want them to make decisions about whether they wish to compromise their rights – for instance to privacy – for whatever reason they may wish to. Moreover this is the only way we can build a healthy eco-system in personal data in a democratic world. (And doing so would be a major economic and social boon!)

But we don’t want them to individually or even in principle consent to every possible use of their data. Rather – and people might differ on how far to go – we want to identify a universe of possible objections that people might have to allowing others to use their data and empower them to prevent such objectionable uses. Beyond that, in the words of that well known Socialist Muslim Barack Hussein Obama “they didn’t build that”. We all built it. Or to put it more clearly, we are all the beneficiaries of the information world we have built which makes it possible for there to be data on us. And if our data can help benefit future generations by being free subject to being vouchsafed against reasonable mischiefs, then it’s the least we can do to set it free.       

* Yes, I know he said 'There you go again, but I'm after cheap mellifluence here - cut me some slack.
** As an aside I note that it may follow from the logic of property, but not from the fact of property which has always practically made room for the idea of multiple use without consent. Thus easements, adverse possession, residual rights, riparian rights, mining rights, airspace rights and on it goes.
*** Yes folks, I mean exponentially - not "really so amaaaazzzingly faaast you won't belieeeeve it".

Habituation – to mediocrity

A Tale of Repetition: Lessons from Florida Restaurant Inspections
by Ginger Zhe Jin, Jungmin Lee – #20596 (IO)

Abstract:

We examine the role of repetition in government regulation. Using
Florida restaurant inspection data from 2003 to 2010, we find that
inspectors new to the inspected restaurant report 12.7-17.5% more
violations than the second visit of a repeat inspector. This effect
is even more pronounced if the previous inspector had inspected the
restaurant more times. The difference between new and repeat
inspectors is driven partly by inspector heterogeneity in inherent
taste and stringency, and partly by new inspectors having fresher
eyes in the first visit of a restaurant.

A charter city for refugees?

hkHere is quite a good article seeking to “reframe” the asylum seeker debate. It takes a reasonably moderate, non-hysterical approach.

I haven’t written on the subject recently myself, because I have been feeling a little conflicted. On the one hand, long-time Troppo readers will be aware I have always been of the view that reasonably firm border protection and asylum seeker processing policies are justified in Australia in order to maintain public confidence in our very successful migration program and avoid or minimise social tensions and divisions that would inevitably emerge if the pace of arrivals was greater than the nation could comfortably absorb (assimilate is a forbidden expression). From this perspective the Abbott government has been very successful: it really has stopped the boats (at least for the present).

On the other hand, any policy prescriptions for asylum seekers must meet at least two basic human rights requirements:

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