Positive Politics: Internet and Technology Policy

Well I’m not ready to jump into one of the big ugly topics yet, so maybe this one will be a little easier. (Maybe.) Let’s talk about the internet and overall technology policies.

Access / Control of Internet

There’s a current debate about a concept called “net neutrality” that, as typical, is highly spun by both sides on the issue. So I’m going to avoid that term in my discussion. I’ll try to make this one fairly simple.

Access to the Internet should be thought of and regulated like a public utility, analogous to water, gas, and electric. Market competition is difficult here because the cost for infrastructure development is relatively high and a physical connection is required to each home and business. (We don’t expect that we’ll have three electric companies run lines to our house so we can choose the one with the best rates!) Pricing should be overseen and controlled just like it is for other utilities. Access to the internet should be unrestricted – no paid “fast lanes”, no filtering, no blocking.

Once that level of utility access is in place for the internet, I’m more open to allowing mobile providers to offer variation and experiment within the market space, because there is more room for genuine competition within the mobile internet (aka cell phone) market.

Encryption

The government should not restrict the use of encryption or push for the inclusion of “back doors” into encryption systems. From a technical standpoint, if a back door exists, the probability is 100% that at some point the bad guys will figure out how to get through it. The FBI may complain that good encryption slows their investigations down, and may dream up scenarios where they suggest having a backdoor would help avert some impending attack; I don’t believe that because we can imagine such a scenario that it justifies crippling our encryption systems. Encryption helps enable the right to digital privacy. We need it.

Consumer Data and Privacy

Big data analytics, whether by the government or by corporate interests, are affecting our lives in ways we struggle to understand (or are hidden from us). While it’s folly to think we can get the genie back in that bottle, I’d be interested to explore the idea of a Consumer Data Protection agency similar to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was created after the 2008 financial crisis. We need awareness of what’s being done with our personal data, and we need real penalties for companies that mismanage or abuse it.

Social Media Transparency

And then there’s Facebook. And #FakeNews. And election meddling by way of Facebook propaganda. I don’t know what it’ll take for the giants like Facebook to get serious about trying to patrol that type of obviously fake material – maybe they shouldn’t. But what we do need is a populous that is more educated about how to identify fake news stories so they can evaluate things on their own.

Evaluation

So let’s evaluate these against our five-principle framework.

1. Is it good for the poor?

When compared with the possibility of pay-for-access, a Net Neutrality position is good for everyone, and benefits the poor who otherwise might be shut out of the benefits that internet access provides.

2. Is it good for the planet?

I’ll rate this one as neutral.

3. Does it promote peace?

The internet can be used for peaceful ends… or for not so peaceful ends. Better consumer education about how and what to consume would help us learn to ignore propaganda, which would be a positive and usually peaceful improvement.

4. Does it challenge the powerful?

Net Neutrality and awareness / limitation of big data collection would serve to at least give us awareness of what the powerful are doing with all that information… and knowledge is the first step toward taking action.

5. Does it let the marginalized have a seat at the table to speak for themselves?

Free and neutral access to the internet would provide each user, regardless of wealth or status, the same ability to distribute their message as anyone else. While access to already-popular channels isn’t automatic, the internet provides more ability than ever before in history for an unknown person with a notable message to spread virally.

Positive Politics: Education

None of the topics I’ve teed up for my Positive Politics discussions are easy ones, but in the interests of easing into things I’ll try to take one that’s maybe not super-controversial to start. (Of course, as with anything political, I may be surprised by what becomes controversial.) So let’s talk about education. For my own organizational purposes, I’m going to break this down into three pieces: early childhood, K-12, and college.

My Background

My background is probably relevant here. After attending two different public schools for kindergarten, I was homeschooled as a child from grades 1 – 12. My maternal grandmother spent her entire career as an elementary school teacher. My parents, after some years as public educators, blazed the homeschooling trail when it was not quite and just barely legal. Thanks in large part to their efforts I did well on the college admissions tests, was named a National Merit Scholar, and graduated with an engineering degree from a private university. My wife and I are now on year 8 of homeschooling our three children, which we anticipate continuing with them through their high school years.

Early Childhood Education

Gone are the days when we could expect that preschool-age children would be cared for by a parent at home. Our modern society is nearly based on the assumption that even if both parents are present in the home – that itself a less frequent condition than it used to be – that both parents are working outside the home to make ends meet. For those with means, children may be left in educational day-care facilities and preschools, but poorer children may more usually get left in a less beneficial environment. Research shows us that these early years are critical to a child’s intellectual and emotional formation.

So what should we do? I suggest that the government should fund early childhood education opportunities. These need not be mandatory – parents should be welcome to choose their own option such as a stay-at-home parent, family member, or private setting – but it should be available for those who would need and use it. Yes, these programs would cost money, but as an investment in the good of those individual children and in society as a whole, they would be a wise choice.

K-12 Education

When compared with the benefit they provide society, I believe teachers are one of the most underpaid groups of workers in America. We require advanced college degrees, often expect that to a great extent the teachers will self-supply their classrooms, and then pay them a barely middle-class salary. I guess then I shouldn’t be surprised – just appreciative – when I see so many teachers with such strong altruistic desire to teach. Why else would they do it?

I suggest that we should significantly increase our commitment to public education, while allowing alternative options with appropriate safeguards in place. We should pay teachers at a rate more commensurate with other professional career paths and should fund associated school programs similarly. While I think local control and direction of the school system is important, schools should be funded from a broader pool – say, at the state level rather than the municipal level – so that we don’t forever build bigger and bigger rich suburban schools while having no funding available for poor districts.

Alternative options such as home schools and private schools should be allowed, but I’m skeptical of the case for routing funds to those schools via things like voucher programs. While on the face of the argument, vouchers seem like a reasonable idea – pay for results, regardless of where the results come from – the metrics make it very tricky. The example of the No Child Left Behind Act over the past 15 years should be enough for us to seriously consider whether we really want to couple educational funding to test-based outcomes. Should assessment tests be a part of an overall institutional evaluation? You bet. But funding contingent on those specific outcomes is problematic. Metrics are tricky things – design the wrong one and you get the wrong behavior.

College education

There’s probably a whole separate post to be written on this topic, but I’ll try to restrain myself. I see two primary problems with our higher education system at present: first, that the costs are increasing exponentially, resulting in college graduates with huge piles of debt; second, that a college diploma is considered nearly a de facto requirement for most jobs.

My grades and test scores helped when I went to college in the mid-90’s. I passed up several full-ride scholarship offers at public universities to attend a private school that offered more minimal scholarships. After graduating in four years, I still had enough college debt that I was writing significant checks every month for 10 years to pay it off. Now 20 years later, the College Board reports that, even adjusted for inflation, public school tuition and fees have more than doubled since I was in college. I’ll guarantee you that inflation-adjusted salaries for parents and students haven’t doubled accordingly! The result: even more debt for students and parents.

Unemployment rates make the story clear: for college graduates, the unemployment rate is nearly zero. (2.5% in January 2017, which is in practice full employment.) For high school graduates, unemployment is more than twice that – 5.3% – and for high-school dropouts, the unemployment rate nears 8%. So the most job opportunities would seem to be available for those who have a four-year diploma. But need this really be the case? Sure, in some disciplines a significant professional education is a must. (I’d like the guy designing my bridge or the woman operating on my heart to have the best education they can get!) But many blue collar and even white collar job fields shouldn’t require four or five years and a mound of debt just to buy entry to the field. Vocational training programs should be developed and encouraged for job areas that can reasonably be done without a four-year degree.

Evaluation

So let’s evaluate these against our five-principle framework.

1. Is it good for the poor?

Increased funding for the education system, with funding spread more broadly, should work to help improve education for the poor.

2. Is it good for the planet?

I’m not sure that the education system has a direct ecological impact – other than that ecological education could be part of a well-balanced system.

3. Does it promote peace?

Similar answer as to #2, though I would add here that education practices that lead to more diversity in our school populations should in the long term encourage more tolerance among diverse groups, which should promote peace.

4. Does it challenge the powerful?
5. Does it let the marginalized have a seat at the table to speak for themselves?

I’m not sure what all powerful groups need to be challenged in this area, but I would hope that the combination of more broad-pool funding combined with local control would help restrain more impersonal national forces in favor of more accessible local ones, and would empower even those in poor districts to make decisions that are beneficial for their children and communities.

[As a reminder: while this blog post is cross-posted to Facebook, I’m on a social media fast through the end of 2017, which means if you comment there I won’t see it. If you want to interact, comment here on the blog!]

[Image credit: The Blue Diamond Gallery]

Andrew Sullivan on the Gay Wedding Cake Case

I miss Andrew Sullivan. I’m glad the guy detached a bit – the pace of his daily blogging was incredible, no surprise it wasn’t sustainable – but he has a unique and important voice on issues of our time. So it was no surprise to me that his weekly column addressing the Gay Wedding Cake case is a must read.

I find myself pretty much in alignment with Andrew’s conflicted take. I’d highly recommend reading the whole thing – it’s not too long – but I’ll quote just one pithy paragraph.

In other words, if the liberals were more liberal, and the Christians more Christian, this case would never have existed. It tells you a great deal about the decadence of our culture that it does.


New York Magazine: The Case for the Baker in the Gay-Wedding Culture War

Positive politics: a little bit of foundation

Before I start in on specific political topics, I want to lay out some foundation that will lie under the specifics.

First, I’m a Christian, so my approach is necessarily rooted in Christian values and a belief that the Bible gives us God’s direction for what is best for human flourishing.

Second, the Bible provides very little direct instruction on what a government should look like other than some basics like punishing evil, encouraging good, being righteous and just. There has been a lot of teaching and assumption in the American evangelical church over the past 40 years that “Christian values” are closely aligned with Republican party positions. I’m going to challenge that assumption while hopefully not irrationally rebelling against it.

Third, politics is the art of the possible, and inherent in good politics is compromise. If all stakeholders are a little bit happy and a little bit unhappy with an outcome, it’s probably a good result from a political viewpoint.

Fourth, I believe that tolerance and freedom are values that should be promoted in our society. While I am a Christian, I do not believe that the best government would promote the Christian faith over other faiths. This includes not compelling uniquely Christian rules or practices simply because they are Christian. The government should foster a society that encourages the flourishing of all its members, regardless of their faith.

Finally, while I would hope the evaluation framework I’m borrowing from Brian Zahnd (as amended by my friend Misty Granade) is rather self-evidently good, I’d like to briefly outline my justification for each principle.

1. Is it good for the poor?

God cares deeply for the plight of the poor, as is demonstrated across the full sweep of Scripture. Old Testament laws command farmers to leave food on the edges of their field for the poor to glean and define jubilees that revert bought/sold property wealth. The New Testament gives instruction to provide for the poor and examples of offerings being taken up for them. This one seems pretty clear.

2. Is it good for the planet?

God is the creator. The earth displays His handiwork. Man’s first task is to care for the garden in which he was placed. God’s ultimate plan is for restoration of all things, including creation. In the same way the government should promote human flourishing, it should also promote the flourishing of all creation.

3. Does it promote peace?

I’m going to hope this one is self-evident. While peace is not always possible, it is always the goal.

4. Does it challenge the powerful?
5. Does it let the marginalized have a seat at the table to speak for themselves?

These two are closely related. It’s a given that there will always be power imbalances, and this isn’t inherently wrong or unreasonable. But power corrupts. Look at any government and you’ll see too many in power who are using that power not as good stewards promoting general flourishing but instead as selfish stewards out for their own gain.

James Madison summed it up brilliantly in Federalist #51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.

As such, having systems designed to challenge the powerful and let the marginalized have a voice are good because they put an elements of self-regulation into the system.

Onward!

With that set of background and caveats in place, I think it’s time to start writing on specific topics.

Thinking in more positive terms about political issues

From time to time over the past year when I’ve been tempted to write political rage posts, it has seemed to me that even though they’d be cathartic, that wouldn’t be all that constructive. And while I haven’t studied political theory or public policy much, writing helps me work through my thinking on issues. So, my thought goes, maybe I should spend some time thinking through and writing constructive opinions on various political topics.

Then I came across this tweet from Brian Zahnd (this was before my social media fast, honest!) that seems like a good framework to work from:

Off the top of my head, some topics I’d like to consider:

  • Taxation
  • Religious Liberty
  • Health Care
  • Gun control
  • Foreign trade policy
  • Foreign military presence
  • Middle East policy / terrorism
  • Racial justice issues
  • Social programs / social safety net
  • Education
  • Internet / technology policy
  • Campaign finance
  • Term limits
  • Science & space
  • Environmental issues

I’m not working through this all to get Brian Zahnd’s vote – I’d need to run for office first! But it might be constructive to think positively about what policy should be instead of just saying “well, that’s a bad idea”.


Image credit: The Blue Diamond Gallery