Hacktivists versus Tech Pioneers?

New Orleans  There was a fascinating and disturbing opinion piece in the New York Times by Peter Ludlow, a Northwestern University professor philosophy that burned some of the fog from my eyes about the disparate treatment between computer hacktivists (hacking activists) and hack-preneurs or hacker entrepreneurs.   It was not just the fact that Ludlow recited the old story about the now fabled Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Apple Computer founders, who started out their seminal partnership by making and selling boxes that allowed users to beat the phone company on long distance charges, but the excessive legal penalties being assessed to hackers or other internet activists who are sharing information about security or telling us about domestic spying involving our own government.

He cites the case of Andrew Aurenheimer who stumbled on the fact that AT&T had exposed private information on some of its customers out there on the web, basically for all who knew how, to be able to see it; he and a buddy wrote some simple code to collect it.  Unlike Jobs and Wozniak, he didn’t try to score money on this deal, but instead exposed the security breach to the Gawker blog website.  For his trouble he was sentenced to almost 4-years in prison and fined $70000.

In another example Ludlow offered, he put forward the case of Barrett Brown, a journalist who became obsessed with documents indicating that two private security companies, HB Gary Federal and Stratfor, were hired by the U.S. Government to come up with various schemes to undermine protestors and journalists.   Brown is now held in a federal pokey in Texas.  His alleged crime?  He reposted a web address that was publically available on the internet so he could get help “crowdsourcing” the reading of all the documents.  He did no hacking, just reposted what was put out by these two companies, but because some of what was available in the documents included credit card info, he was charged with 11 counts of credit card fraud.  Glenn Greenwald, who writes for Salon and was one of the journalists the companies were trying to bring down, was quoted saying that it was “virtually impossible to conclude that the obscenely excessive prosecution he now faces is unrelated to that journalism or his related activism.”    Amen!

Ludlow, the philosopher, makes the point better than I could hope to do, writing,

In a world in which nearly everyone is technically a felon, we rely on the good judgment of prosecutors to decide who should be targets and how hard the law should come down on them. We have thus entered a legal reality not so different from that faced by Socrates when the Thirty Tyrants ruled Athens, and it is a dangerous one. When everyone is guilty of something, those most harshly prosecuted tend to be the ones that are challenging the established order, poking fun at the authorities, speaking truth to power — in other words, the gadflies of our society.

It’s stories like these that make you ask yourself, what country am I living in?  South Africa, Russia, somewhere in Eastern Europe?  It is painful to grasp that this is an American story, and it doesn’t take a philosopher to understand the troubling moral issues involved in all of this.

Audio of Hackers Blog


Wealth Tax

New Orleans   There was an interesting piece in the Times, buried in the business section that pointed out pretty clearly that real money to achieve more equity in countries like the USA has to do with taxing wealth not just income.  I can remember clearly our effort in Arkansas in the middle 1970’s to maintain a tax on “intangibles,” meaning stocks and bonds.  A wealth tax lives in that neighborhood and attempts to tax stocks and bonds, as well as rich toys like yachts and art, and big time deals like trusts and unincorporated business outfits.

Why not?  Campaign contributions will stop a lot of it because few politicians want to take the grease off their own wheels and create real friction, no matter how many benefits.

Anna Bernasek, the Times reporter on the wealth story, cites Canada as a good example of a country that raises revenue with a tax on “asset appreciation” creating the formula based on the increased value of assets at the death of the holder.  In the USA this is a huge loophole, allowing the real rich to borrow against assets, then pass them off as part of the estate, without ever paying income tax on the increased value of the assets acquired in this manner.  One proposal she cites was made by a conservative economist, Ronald McKinnon, where everyone tallies up all of their assets, exempt $3 million, and then put a 3% flat tax on what remains.

Everyone agrees, right and left, it seems that some kind of wealth tax would diminish inequality.  Not everyone agrees that that would be a good thing, the golfer Phil Michelson being one good example, but for those of us who understand that more equality in our society is both a good thing and part of the secret to our future, it seems clear that one way or another, we need to talk as much about wealth these days, as we are about marginal increases in the income tax rate.


Lessons of Disaster: Sandy, New York City, Housing Projects, and Lost Wages

New Orleans   After Katrina and the continual start-and-stop-and-slow rebuilding process in New Orleans with side trips and explorations to Kobe and more recently cities in Eastern Japan after those earthquakes and the tsunami attacks, and other cities near and far, I have come to believe that the way governments, established institutions, and community and popular organizations deal with disasters is extremely important.  These are the ultimate “stress tests” not simply of the built environment, but of the organic resilience of human and social organizations.  So in the same way I couldn’t stop reading Katrina stories and participated in the watch “force” on the nuclear meltdowns in Japan, I’m all over Sandy, as well, especially in the way it looks at the impacts across the entire community.

There were two very interesting pieces in the Times this morning that were both significant in this regard and disturbing.

One was about life in public housing without electricity or heat.  First you had to get past the headline on the front page which was meant to project all possible fears of the worst kind on the projects:  “In New York’s Public Housing:   Fear Creeps in With the Dark.”  Interestingly, the headline in the on-line version was much more balance, as you can see by including “heroism.”  Ok, well a little more balanced anyway.

The actual story was less lurid and more helpful.   Less than 10% of the more than 2000 NYCHA buildings were powerless, which deserves an attaboy of some kind right there.  There were stories of people looking after people.  Building by building impromptu barbeques to share the food that would have spoiled was reported.   Hallways became public spaces.  People talked of visiting with neighbors not usually part of their circle. The rhythms of life move with the sun, which speaks as much to what I always refer to as “inside camping” on the Gulf Coast hurricane hunkerdowns, as it does to any particular or latent fear of crime and mayhem.

Rebecca Solnit in A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster has handled this phenomena best in this book about the way that in the worst of times sometimes the best arises in people to build real communities from the San Francisco Fire to Katrina.  My Battle for the Ninth Ward about the post-Katrina experience found many of these same elements in the fierce fights for people to come home.    If you can survive the latent racism lurking behind the headlines, there’s a lot to feel good about in these stories of adaptation.  One quote from a 73-year old tenant that identifies with what he inaccurately thinks is “half of the world” living without electricity is a classic!

Another story  looked at the problem of lost wages for workers displaced in the storm who don’t get paid if they can’t get to work or if work is shutdown from flooding, power failures, and other catastrophes.  Too often we read about “stay-cations” and “hurrica-tions,” as if these are party times for people, as long as the storm “attacks,” as they correctly call these natural events in Japan, who escape the devastation.   People are hurting everywhere including the pocketbook, and no matter what the Republican Congress thinks, we don’t do enough to help individual families bounce back.  One man talks about how to pay for $7000 in roof damage.  Looking at my roof that still lacks gutters 7 years after Katrina, I could tell him the answer, but he might not like it.  I can already see the articles the Times will be writing about homes without any flood insurance up and down the East Coast, because who expected the 100-year “super storm.”

I haven’t read any story yet where they recommend not rebuilding New York City and the East Coast, like we read daily about New Orleans, so that’s refreshing.  Maybe this “shared suffering” in the media center of America, will lead to some compassion and public policy reforms on a number of fronts for post-disaster families and communities?  Dare we hope?

Hurricane Sandy devastation in the Rockaway and Breezy Point Queens area


Presidential Candidates Running from Poverty and the Cities

New Orleans   I didn’t watch the debates for more than the 30-seconds it takes to change channels.   By the time I was home from work and the gym, put out the garbage, fed the dog and washed out her kennel, eaten my Healthy Choice, and read some back papers and drug myself upstairs, I was more interested in 45 minutes of  one of the Boardwalk Empire episodes I had missed while in South America last week.  My mind is pretty much made up about how I intend to vote, and I didn’t really believe I would learn much new.

I was curious though about the lead editorial in the New York Times though which busted up both of the boys on their seemingly non-existent interest in poverty or the condition of our cities.  Predictably, and accurately, they bust on Romney for his discredited trickle-down monkey business economics, but they also chewed on the President’s leg about his “neglect.”  Score a bulls-eye!

They dug up his dusty proposals for “a youth service corps, a program to help low-income people commute to jobs, a prison-to-work incentive program” and noted Obama’s proposals here had “never been tried or have been listlessly implemented.”  Score another close to the heart!

Add to this other critiques that correctly score on his Bush-like education program’s obsession with test scores and running from family-based problems.  They speak of his “administration’s efforts to build a comprehensive antipoverty strategy” as having been one ‘in relatively small and uncoordinated ways, and often only temporarily.”

Is it wrong for us to want a former community organizer to actually care about the poor and the cities and to really step up in a second term and do something about them?

Debate that dudes, and I’ll tune in.



More Hours, More Availability, More Production, and More Labor Standards

New Orleans   Susan Lambert, a University of Chicago professor, offers a series of intriguing arguments in an op-ed piece in the Times about work, women, hours, and flexibility some of which are compelling and all of which are interesting, even if less certain than she argues.  To state her case plainly, she believes that people, women in particular, in lower waged jobs want more hours and fixed hours and at higher paid jobs want less hours.  She believes that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) needs to be amended to offer guarantees for hours not just pay for the hours and overtime needs to be added for salaried, professional job classifications.   Of course the FLSA is not going to be modified in this way at least anytime soon.  In this economy we are still hoping the government will take a look at the minimum wage, and that’s not likely soon either.

What about the rest of her arguments?  In some cases I’m not sure, but let’s get the conversation going.

I had my annual physical this week.  My doctor is a woman, and this year she was unusually talkative about her business.  It started when she focused on the computer to “write the orders,” and commented sarcastically about how “lucky” she was that she got to do all of her own orders now.  She told the common story of so many of our mother’s advice in her generation who had her take typing so she “would have something to fall back on.”  My mother told my brother and I the same thing and we took it in summer school somewhere, and in fairness it’s a skill that has been invaluable over the years.  It goes without saying that this new requirement had eliminated the job of a medical clerk but in a “work to rule” story from the professional side of the divide, she told me how she was handling 25 patients a day, but unilaterally cutback to 18 because she didn’t have enough staff to keep up, so the waiting was increasing and no one was happy.  Her one nurse simply couldn’t keep up with the orders as she was typing them out.  She works out of the clinic of a large hospital, and the bean counters at the big house finally noticed that her production was down and asked her about it, so she suspected things were about to change with more increased staffing.  It goes without saying that she was not going to work more hours which is part of why this problem hit the wall.

Studies about well trained and highly demanded registered nurses several years ago found some interesting things as well.  As pay increased to a certain level, the nurses, largely women, elected to simply work less hours having essentially met their income goals and having gained more flexibility on the job.  Obviously, nurses are among the “aristocracy” of waged labor with different job-based bargaining strength than aides, sitters, and others, but it points to the fact that Lambert’s generalization about the worker demand for more hours may be a little sweeping.

On the lower waged, retail service sector, it is also not quite so simple.  Lambert makes an excellent point about “availability” now being a “major form of human capital,” but I think it is perhaps more nuanced and less understood.  At Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, as an employer over our first year, I have continually tried to create something like fulltime hours and regular, stable shifts with our crew of baristas, and have been largely unsuccessful.  Thirty hours becomes a lot of hours, and part of the demand from the workforce continues to be more flexibility even as we want the availability and stability for our community of customers.

From a labor union perspective I think part of the issue is that service work has all become contingent.  Many workers are balancing multiple jobs, school, and family responsibilities.  In Professor Lambert’s ideal work world everyone wants one fulltime job with decent pay, and assuming that the work has some value and is fulfilling, who would disagree, but in the real world today, millions both up and down the wage scale have become what my friend Joel Solomon calls “portfolio workers,” balancing two, three, or more jobs, projects, or whatever that they are cobbling together to make a living wage and a life.

All of which leads me to believe that even if we had the power and will to modify the FLSA, we need to know a lot more about how to integrate the real world of the service economy and its employment patterns before we can be as certain as Professor Lambert about what the legislative solutions might be.  The old paradigm for 40-hours, 2080 a year for life may have been hit so hard in the new economy that there is no dialing back for many employers and, perhaps surprisingly, for many workers.

It’s hard for me to believe that when it comes to the bottom line it’s not more likely to be less about the hours and more about the money.


Shifting Political Values: Public Schooled and American Made

Teachers on strike in Chicago

Toronto   In American public and political life there used to be some clear tests that determined whether you were “one of us” or “one of them,” whether you were progressive or conservative, stood with the people or stood with special interests.  These markers were so stark and clear that a generation ago it would have been heresy to cross the line.  It would have been a breach of public trust and signal of the fact that you were unfit to stand for public office.

One of the clearest examples was in the car you drove.  Whether favor seeker or politician you knew not to drive into a union parking lot in a foreign made car.  It didn’t have to be a poser’s pickup.  It could be a big Lincoln or a stretched Cadillac, but it had to be from the Big-3 and built by union labor if you wanted something from a union.

If you were looking for an endorsement as a politician or an alliance with a union, you didn’t offer them a newspaper for your organization, a bumper sticker for your campaign, or a business card that lacked a union “bug” at the bottom.  You could guarantee that there was some old member in the back who might not care what you said about any issue but was sure to raise the fact that you lacked a bug even if the Typographical Union was one of the smallest in the labor movement.  It was a signifier of where you stood, and really who you were.  It was a simple sign of respect like not spitting on the floor or wiping your nose with your sleeve.  It was something so simple and obvious that it spoke volumes if these small signs were not clear.

The same was always true about whether or not you and your children attended public school.  In a city like New Orleans you could get away with going to Jesuit High School, if you were Marc Morial and son of the Mayor, because it was a Catholic city and you were showing you could make it anywhere.  That did not disqualify you from running for Mayor, but it surely disqualified you from running for the school board if you or your children didn’t go to public school.  Everyone knew this.  You had no “skin in the game.”  You were simply an dilettante, an window gazer, and an on looker in the process, and best to keep your pie hole shut and opinions to yourself.  I can remember in Little Rock when candidates withdrew from elections because their children were not in public school.  This was a city where the integration of the public schools in 1957 was a national crisis, so to say you wanted to govern schools when your own children were not in them was anathema and a obvious disqualification.

For decades, the decisions of Presidents about where their children would go to school in Washington, public or private, was widely reported in the news.  Unfortunately, the Democratic trend towards Sidwell Quakers’ school has diluted the clarity of the politics behind a smokescreen of security, but it still means something and disappoints when Presidents speaking about education, line their children up on the playground with the 1% rather than the rest of us.

The loss of embarrassment and the sense of irony in modern political life when public figures fail to grasp this is shocking.  They seem to speed through the red lights now without stopping, but they would be very, very foolish to think that it is not noticed and resented by citizens and regular people.

A paragraph in the New York Times discussing a Chicago mother scrambling to take care of her children in the sudden forced teachers’ strike was telling:

“This was very bad timing,” said Karen Miles, who said she had to cancel work meetings on Monday to juggle her daughters. “I plan my day around their school,” she said, inside her daughters’ school — one of the contingency sites — on the city’s North Side, where one sign read, Your kids deserve what Rahm’s kids get, an allusion to the mayor’s children’s attendance at a private school.

There was a day when it would have been so obvious to someone as savvy and shrewd as Rahm Emmanuel that it would have been as natural to him as taking a breath of air or reading the morning paper to either have his children in public school or stay out of the debate.  When the sense of entitlement becomes a “given” to public officials and the protection of inequities without even irony or embarrassment becomes natural rather than taboo, then the changes in our public life are out of hand.  When teachers in Chicago say the strike speaks to a lack of “respect,” just as driving a foreign car once did or using a scab printer or similar affronts to standardized symbols about where you stand and who you stand with, this is what they are speaking in a voice louder than any bullhorn and clearer than any picket sign.