Category: Politics


Closing Public Access to Social Networks: Should Web Sites or Parts of Them Have Ratings?

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CNET reports that the House just passed (by a 415 to 15 vote) the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) (text of the bill here)

The bill seeks to reduce, if not eliminate, the ability of sexual predators to use social networking sites to prey on teens at least when the teen user is at a school or library that receives federal funding which according to the article is at least two-thirds of libraries in the United States. The goal is laudable but the bill, which leaves the definition of social networking to the FCC (nice dodge there), mandates the FCC shall consider whether the site: “(i) is offered by a commercial entity; (ii) permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information; (iii) permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users; (iv) elicits highly-personalized information from users; and (v) enables communication among users.”

As the article note the language is so broad that not only MySpace but Amazon, Slashdot, and even the conservative would be subject to the law. Indeed, blogs, parts of Yahoo!, and more would no longer be available to students or those who do not have computers at home. Of note to this readership, a Pew report found that 38% of 12-17 year olds read blogs and 19% create them. To me encouraging young people to write and read more is a goal we should keep in mind as well as protecting them from online nuts.

Another Pew report on teen Internet usage found 87% of teens are online. 81% play games but 76% read news. The report points out that of the 13% who are not online, they are “clearly defined by lower levels of income and limited access to technology. They are also disproportionately likely to be African-American.” Yet despite the possibility that the bill will take away access to lower income groups, note that in general 78% access the Internet at school and 54% at a library.

What does this move say about access to information by teens? It seems crazy to try and have schools or libraries police teens’ activities and the definitions are so broad that healthy activities are curtailed. Maybe some sort of rating system would make sense. I am not sure that it would, but as a quick thought it seems better than shutting off access to a growing, key part of American social and in some cases mental growth (in a sense I think Zittrain’s Generative Internet has some some insights here in that it addresses the tensions between openness and security on the Internet). I could be missing something here and I would love feedback on ways to protect youth users without cutting them off from the Web in public places. My instincts are that parents should be sitting down with kids and continually teaching them about the online equivalent of “Don’t Talk to Strangers.”


Populism, Markets, and Walmart

walmart.jpgI have a friend who is something of a populist. A political philosopher and sometime resident of the rural south, he is in favor of things like a living wage, dry laws, prayer at town meetings, and a high protective tariff. In particular, provided that there is substantial support by “the people,” he is willing to support all sorts of measures that are fairly authoritarian by the standards of traditional liberal political theory. Needless to say, his thinking is much, much more nuanced than I have presented it here, and he can talk about Rousseau, Marx, and Herder is all sorts of sophisticated and interesting ways. He doesn’t, however, much like markets, and in this he is typical of many self-described populists. I can’t help but thinking that there is something odd about this.

In a real sense populism is all about taking expressed preferences seriously. The populist response to liberal concerns about the distinction between the right and the good, public reasons, and all of the other conceptual hedges against overweening democracy is to point out that much of this stuff is simply elitist clap trap, a set of spurious distinctions designed to insulate what affluent and well-educated coastal populations happen to like from the rawer, more authentic sensibilities of the heart land. “Down with it!” the populists argue. People ought to be able to live in a society that actually reflects the values and commitments that they have, rather than one where the expression of those values has been manipulated by elite categories into a more antiseptic form that conforms to elite sensibilities rather than popular sensibilities.

Markets are also about taking expressed preferences seriously. They are frequently not pretty. Both Britney Spears and Walmart are products of the market, and both seem to satisfy expressed preferences. Nor are these preferences the atomized, individualistic things that the heirs of Rousseau like to impute to liberals. Price is about the aggregation of preferences, and it is price that allocates goods within the market. Hence, the desire for cheap stuff — and with it a bit more real disposable income — is, like school prayer and dry laws, an authentic expression of the will of the people. Indeed, given that participation in politics is sporadic at best, while participation in the market is ubiquitous, if anything prices have a greater claim to expressing the General Will than plebiscites.


The ACLU wants to be your estate planner

I got an unusual letter from the ACLU a little while ago. This one didn’t really focus on freedom of speech, or religion, or defendants’ rights. Instead, it was a pitch. Apparently, the ACLU would like to help me plan my estate. In fact, there is a section of the ACLU website dedicated to helping you avoid the estate tax. How? By giving your assets to the ACLU, of course!

Now I understand that these kinds of letters are a practical reality. Testamentary gifts are an important part of fund raising, and the ACLU (like many other charitable organizations) wants to encourage its members to make these kinds of gifts. Still, discussions about protecting assets and making smart investments and creating tax-advantaged gifts — well, it all sounds a little strange coming from the ACLU. After all, aren’t the Republicans the ones who are supposed to worry about me paying too much in estate taxes?


Roy Moore, Gay Marriage, And The HoloHoax: Alabama Goes To The Polls

Alabamians came out and voted yesterday. The national take was pretty straightforward: incumbent governor Bob Riley beats Roy Moore, while citizens overwhelmingly approve gay marriage ban. But when you look more closely at a few numbers, things look more complicated. Consider:

Roy Moore (in the Republican primary) had, at last count, 153,373 votes. Opponents of the constitutional ban on gay marriage (an issue on both Democratic and Republican ballots) grabbed 170,399 votes.

This tells us that there were more people opposing a gay marriage ban than supporting Roy Moore. This suggests that support for Moore’s version of religious government might actually be weaker than support for the possibility of gay marriage. (It is possible that some Moore supporters didn’t vote in the Republican primary. However, it was an open primary, and one would think Moore supporters would have been pretty motivated to vote Republican irrespective of their party affiliation.) For the rest of the nation, the 4-1 support for a gay marriage ban will be further proof that Alabama is completely retrograde. But I wonder what the vote on this would have been five years ago. And while 170,000 people is nowhere near a political majority, it is a significant number both as a starting point for social change, and as a potential community for progressives.

Another interesting vote tally: Holocaust denying Libertarian turned Democrat, Larry Darby, snared 162,420 votes in the race for attorney general. (He lost 54-46 percent.) More people supported the man who called the Holocaust the HoloHoax than supported Roy Moore.

Alabama is a complicated place. This vote confirms my sense that the state is home to greater political disparity than almost any other state. The most curious part is that almost everyone – left and right, tolerant and not – still shops at Wal-Mart, still enjoys the same barbeque joints (and sweet tea), and still thinks that those darn condescending Northerners should get their own house in order before they come complaining about how Alabamians live their lives.


Republicans Offer To Stop Spamming – For A Price

At some point in the past, I provided my email address to a either the Republican Party or a Republican candidate. As a result, I receive regular email correspondence from the RNC. I don’t want to say that the party is maxing out my storage capacity, but they never let me forget that they NEED MY HELP. It seems that the Party has become aware that many people – even fans of the RNC – are getting tired of all this spam. So in an email from RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, entitled Do We Mail You Too Much, the party offers up this juicy deal:

If you’d like to receive less mail, join Grow Our Party Funds.

Recently, I sent you a message about Grow Our Party Funds, the RNC’s newest membership program, which gives you the chance to support our party with a small, automatic monthly contribution of $50, $25, $15, or whatever you can afford. If you join Grow Our Party Funds for $50, $25, or $15 today, I will make you this pledge: you will stop receiving mail from us, except for members-only thank you gifts, for however long you remain a Fund-holder.

Even if you don’t normally contribute online, please consider supporting Grow Our Party Funds with a monthly commitment of $50, $25, or $15. It’s the one contribution you’ll make that will build our party, direct more money to critical grassroots programs, and reduce mailbox clutter at the same time.

I can’t imagine that any legit business in America would have the gall to send this “offer”. Is it really good politics for the RNC?


Pro-Life Tax Policy – What Would Jesus Tax?

My colleague Susan Hamill, whom I’ve blogged about before, had a recent op-ed in the Birmingham News entitled Pro-Life Alabama Doesn’t Pony Up Cash. The meat of it:

Despite the recent and encouraging income tax reform, Alabama’s inadequate and regressive state and local tax structure does not remotely reflect a real pro-life community. As we debate the merits of the proposed legislation banning almost all abortions, we must confront the ugly facts proving that Alabama is not genuinely pro-life even though many Alabamians are against abortion. Until we are also willing to accept the high sacrifice of Judeo-Christian-guided tax policy, a pro-life justification for supporting this legislation is a hollow, low-sacrifice position with no moral credibility.

Susan and I probably disagree on many things but her passion and commitment are incredible, and her emphasis on religious claims to shape tax policy debates is brilliant. The Economist captured her campaign in support of Alabama tax reform with the headline “What Would Jesus Tax?” Democrats may be able to retake the White House without fully engaging policy debates within a genuinely religious framework. But they won’t win states like Alabama. And that will leave Democrats perpetually vulnerable.

I don’t know where Susan stands, party-wise, but she is providing an important roadmap for a national progressive strategy. Not bad for a tax jock. Not bad at all.


What Is Pro Bono Work? The George Ryan Question

This is is no longer news – indeed, it’s old – but I’ve just learned that former Illinois governor George Ryan – he of death penalty moratorium and, more recently, racketeering and corruption conviction fame – was represented at trial pro bono by Winston and Strawn. The firm may have committed as much as $20 million (in billable, not real, dollars) to the case. The firm’s generosity can be explained, in no small part, by the fact that the firm’s chairman is former governor James Thompson, under whom Ryan served as lieutenant governor.

This is surely an unusual form of pro-bono work. While we often think pro-bono projects are targeted at poor people or underrepresented groups, that is far from universally true. Some firms represent cities, for example – saving the general counsel’s time on particular cases. Some commit associates to work for DA’s offices. And some firms serve clients like the ACLU and other impact litigation groups, arguing matters – from gay rights to reproductive freedom to private property protection – which benefit people across the economic spectrum.

My sense is that smaller firms, and individual lawyers, target their pro-bono efforts at individual clients who could not otherwise afford legal services. But bigger firms use their pro-bono work to serve a more diverse agenda. The biggie, it’s always seemed to me, is associate happiness. Many associates want to get hands-on experience and if they can do social good – broadly defined – so much the better. Law firms want junior lawyers to learn practice skills and these cases (particularly ones that will go to a hearing, or include depositions) provide that training at no risk to serious (i.e., paying) clients. Finally, law firms get a PR bump from being seen as community oriented.

I’m not sure how the the Ryan case fits into this lattice. Ryan, a pharmacist from Kankakee (who apparently received cash Christmas gifts from his employees, in an unusual turnaround of holiday tradition) could never have afforded the services of former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb, and his team, but he hardly qualifies as poor, or even poorish. And Ryan seems to have been represented as seriously as any other paying client, which means that associates got as much – but no more – responsibility than they would on any other matter. And as for the public relations angle, the firm has been pilloried for providing the former Governor this free, red-carpet treatment.

Was this was just one politician helping out another? Winston and Strawn is entitled to do that (although there may be some tax consequences for Mr. Ryan.) I’m just not sure we should call this service pro bono publico. Pro bono privatus, perhaps?


Retaliation Against Workers at Immigration Rallies

Immigration and employment are closely linked subjects. After all, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act criminalized an activity that we don’t normally think of as illegal – that is, the activity of work itself (when that work is performed without proper documentation). It’s been fascinating to follow the debate and to see the strange political bedfellows involved; congress is going to continue considering potential compromises. On May 1 these issues took center stage on the “Day Without an Immigrant” protests and boycotts (some of which continued past that day). For reports, see this CNN story and recent posts at ImmigrationProf here.

According to the print Wall Street Journal, however, the May 1 immigration rallies were somewhat constrained. If all of the 11 million workers who are working without authorization walked out on their jobs, that would cause serious harm to the national economy. The article raised the idea that the “strike” was muted in part because workers were afraid that they would be fired or otherwise retaliated against if they chose to take part in protests. The New York Times had earlier reported on retaliation against workers who had attended pro-immigration rallies.

Professor Paul Secunda over at WorkplaceProf offers the following intriguing analysis of retaliation for these protests building on a labor law theory:

From a legal standpoint, one of the most overlooked aspects of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is that it not only protects unionized workers, and those seeking unionization, in their ability to engage in concerted activity for mutual aid and protection in the workplace, but also protects non-unionized workers, like many of these rallying immigrant workers, in their ability to engage in the same activity.

Consequently, non-unionized workers are also protected against adverse employment action by their employers to the extent that the rallies are considered a type of concerted activity for mutual aid and protection, which is directly related to concerns in the workplace. To the extent that employers nevertheless take adverse actions based on participating in these rallies, the impacted employees may be able to seek reinstatement and backpay through filing unfair labor practice claims with the NLRB.

Paul’s analysis certainly would lead to a progressive pro-speech / pro-expression outcome. But at the same time, walking out on work for this type of protest isn’t prompted by anything that the particular employer did. Attendance is a basic job requirement, and the employees could express themselves during non-work hours. Finally, if it is undocumented workers who are involved in the protest, the decision in Hoffman Plastics means that even if the workers were able to show that their rights had been violated, they wouldn’t be able to receive the backpay.

If all we’re left with is an employment analysis, then the remedy is even more constrained, since most workers are at will. I suppose there may be some kind of Title VII protection (for national origin discrimination) if all of the retaliated-against protestors are being treated more harshly than a worker of a different ethnic group who is absent for a day.

Interestingly, in another part of his post, Paul claims that most employers probably will not retaliate for self-interested reasons:

Finally, and perhaps the best reason for employers not to take any action against employees participating in immigration rallies is because, from a practical standpoint, it does not serve their interests. After all, many of the same companies and industries that are suffering the most from absent workers because of these rallies are the same companies which have the most to gain through the continuation of the current immigration state of affairs. It would thus seem in these employers’ best interests to encourage these workers to demonstrate for more flexible immigration laws and not to punish them for doing so


I suppose that depends on which employers, or how employer “economic interests” is defined. If the laws are changed to allow illegal aliens to regularize their status, that means that the “threat of calling the INS” no longer will have any power over undocumented workers. And these undocumented workers may then choose to organize or push for other rights – rights that they haven’t felt comfortable asserting because of the fear of deportation. And the employers who are currently hiring undocumented workers don’t want that.

Now, if the government shifted the focus from deporting immigrants themselves, and instead cracked down on employers (who perhaps have brought additional attention to themselves by firing employees who are attending immigration rallies), I suspect that the burden of the law would fall much differently. We would see a whole different set of incentives come into play, and that might lead to meaningful immigration reform.


What your Representative really thinks of you

Last time that I wrote to my Representative, I received a pretty generic form letter in response. And I had sort of assumed — till now that most everyone gets a similar form letter. It turns out, however, that some folks get a somewhat more personalized reply. From the Associated Press (hat tip to reader Marc B):

Nobody expects to get a letter from a member of Congress that ends with an expletive. But that’s what happened when Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., recently corresponded with a resident of her southeast Missouri district. The letter ended with a profane, seven-letter insult beginning with the letter a – “i think you’re an. …”

No word on whether the constituent in question really is an asshole. Meanwhile, reactions have been mixed, with at least some folks loving it. (Not surprisingly, Wonkette loves it.) Which kind of makes you wonder — if this story helps her poll numbers, will copycat politicians everywhere start mailing asshole letters to their constituents?



Wanna hobnob with George Clooney this weekend?

Then come join the crowds at the Save Darfur Coalition’s “Rally to Stop Genocide” on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., this Sunday, April 30. Other luminaries appearing at the event include Senator Barack Obama, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, rap impresario Russell Simmons, and Paul Rusesabagina (whose story was depicted in the superb film Hotel Rwanda, which you should rush out and rent tonight if you haven’t seen it yet). The Save Darfur Coalition brings together more than 160 faith-based, human rights, and humanitarian organizations, and the list of speakers at Sunday’s event reflects the incredibly diverse, grass roots nature of this effort. Here’s the blurb from the Coalition’s website:

“The rally is part of the “Million Voices for Darfur” campaign to generate one million postcards for delivery to President Bush, who recently pledged to push for additional UN and NATO help to protect the people of Darfur. We applaud the President’s leadership, but the work is far from done. We are urging President Bush to take steps necessary to end the genocide and build a lasting peace.”

Organizers estimate that around 20,000 people will attend the rally in DC, with smaller rallies to be held in cities around the country. Even if the crowds defy expectations and number in the hundreds of thousands, they will be dwarfed by the figures coming out of Sudan itself: According to the Coalition website, in just three years, 400,000 people have died and nearly 2.5 million have been displaced.

How many political issues out there can unite Barack Obama and Sam Brownback in common cause? Kudos to both Senators, and to the many other politicians, celebrities, and ordinary folk who have put compassion and principle above partisan bickering, in an attempt to shake us all out of our apathy.