The Economics of Bulk Surveillance

Ross Anderson has an important new paper on the economics that drive government-on-population bulk surveillance:

My first big point is that all the three factors which lead to monopoly – network effects, low marginal costs and technical lock-in – are present and growing in the national-intelligence nexus itself. The Snowden papers show that neutrals like Sweden and India are heavily involved in information sharing with the NSA, even though they have tried for years to pretend otherwise. A non-aligned country such as India used to be happy to buy warplanes from Russia; nowadays it still does, but it shares intelligence with the NSA rather then the FSB. If you have a choice of joining a big spy network like America's or a small one like Russia's then it's like choosing whether to write software for the PC or the Mac back in the 1990s. It may be partly an ideological choice, but the economics can often be stronger than the ideology.

Second, modern warfare, like the software industry, has seen the bulk of its costs turn from variable costs into fixed costs. In medieval times, warfare was almost entirely a matter of manpower, and society was organised appropriately; as well as rent or produce, tenants owed their feudal lord forty days’ service in peacetime, and sixty days during a war. Barons held their land from the king in return for an oath of fealty, and a duty to provide a certain size of force on demand; priests and scholars paid a tax in lieu of service, so that a mercenary could be hired in their place. But advancing technology brought steady industrialisation. When the UK and the USA attacked Germany in 1944, we did not send millions of men to Europe, as in the first world war, but a combat force of a couple of hundred thousand troops – though with thousands of tanks and backed by larger numbers of men in support roles in tens of thousands of aircraft and ships. Nowadays the transition from labour to capital has gone still further: to kill a foreign leader, we could get a drone fire a missile that costs $30,000. But that's backed by colossal investment – the firms whose data are tapped by PRISM have a combined market capitalisation of over $1 trillion.

Third is the technical lock-in, which operates at a number of levels. First, there are lock-in effects in the underlying industries, where (for example) Cisco dominates the router market: those countries that have tried to build US-free information infrastructures (China) or even just government information infrastructures (Russia, Germany) find it’s expensive. China went to the trouble of sponsoring an indigenous vendor, Huawei, but it’s unclear how much separation that buys them because of the common code shared by router vendors: a vulnerability discovered in one firm’s products may affect another. Thus the UK government lets BT buy Huawei routers for all but its network’s most sensitive parts (the backbone and the lawful-intercept functions). Second, technical lock-in affects the equipment used by the intelligence agencies themselves, and is in fact promoted by the agencies via ETSI standards for functions such as lawful intercept.

Just as these three factors led to the IBM network dominating the mainframe age, the Intel/Microsoft network dominating the PC age, and Facebook dominating the social networking scene, so they push strongly towards global surveillance becoming a single connected ecosystem.

These are important considerations when trying to design national policies around surveillance.

Ross's blog post.

Posted on May 27, 2014 at 10:13 AM • 29 Comments

Comments

JoeMay 27, 2014 11:10 AM

Everybody needs to stop using euphemisms like "national-intelligence nexus" and to start using the correct word for what we now live in: a police state.

BenMay 27, 2014 11:12 AM

According to Huawei, they weren't sponsored by the government - ZTE is the government one, Huawei are the scrappy underdog. That's their story anyway.

(I can't see their name in print without thinking "Why ask me who you are? Don't you know?)

MarkMay 27, 2014 1:39 PM

> unclear how much separation that buys them because of the common code shared by router vendors: a vulnerability discovered in one firm’s products may affect another.

Most of the router vendors aren't sharing code for the higher level services and networking protocols, each vendors software is highly proprietary, but they are using open source code like Linux or *BSD to bootstrap their proprietary daemons and redistributable components like OpenSSL, OpenSSH, Apache and others just like any other vendor. So it isn't so much that there is any special sharing among router vendors, its that they participate in the same software marketplace as everyone else and can have their supervisory management engines vulnerable to the same kinds of issues as any other enterprise software.

Mr. PragmaMay 27, 2014 3:03 PM

I'm sorry, honestly, because I respect R. Anderson for much of what he has done with great expertise. This, however, is something that I would call plain bullshit if it came from a less respected author.

Starting with a hardly tenable assertion ("the three factors which lead to monopoly – network effects, low marginal costs and technical lock-in"), which shall be generously ignored as outside Anderson's field of expertise, to another rather mistaken analogy outside of Andersons field of expertise, to finally something that is actually related to his field of expertise and that he at least doesn't get completely wrong (or so I would like to politely state).

That 3rd part is what he introduces under "technical lock-in".

I assume that Mr. Anderson mistakenly takes the surface for the content when he talks about "the common code shared by router vendors"; I assume he thinks that some companies offering an interface that is similar to a major vendors, say, for instance cisco's ios, indicates "common code shared". In some cases it might even be so (when e.g. someone licences cisco's ios code or parts thereof; let us assume in Mr. Anderson's favour that this highly unlikely case might exist) but even then that shared code made little sense except for interface (because that company would quite certainly not have the same underlying hardware and customers typically care about features and the interface anyway).

So what's the reality? Most (I say "most" to leave room for exotic exceptions) major players have their own operating system, typically based on some existing OS (like FreeBSD) and with certain functionality typical for network equipment added. The rest (incl. some not so small players) simply works with third parties stuff, be it linux or some closed source (RT)OS; in some cases they might add some driver of theirs (or bought or taken out of a bsp).

Of course, considering that there is a plethora of more or less peripheral players most of which are basically hardware only "network box producers", typically (and unfortunately) based on x84/amd64, who explicitly build boxes for linux running on them, one might see "common code shared" -- but that's an entirely different league than cisco, Juniper or Huawei (which is what Anderson seems to talk about).

Oh, and btw. someone should inform Mr. Anderson that "lawful intercept functions" usually aren't performed by special-miracle-sauce equipment but by using mundane features like port mirroring available in pretty every halfway professional Taiwan network box.

There *are* reasons to be worried about big name network equipment. "common code shared", however, is certainly not among the major worries one should have. There are far more important and frequent ones.

Looking forward to Mr. Anderson returning to his area of expertise because I usually like to read about his thoughts. And I like to keep a positive impression of him. If he doesn't work too hard to make that difficult, that is.

SkepticalMay 27, 2014 8:55 PM


Very preliminary thoughts:

Fascinating paper, with many ideas that are thought-provoking in the best sense.

The central thesis interlocks in interesting ways (and conflicts in others) with views on "monoculture" e.g. Geer Speech - NSA and CyberInsecurity: The Cost of Monopoly.

Obviously, there is also the "secure for some -> secure for all" theme as well, which I continue to find a very hard question on which to persuade myself to fully accept any answer. I'm very clear on the concept, but at bottom it's an empirical proposition affected by an awfully large number of variables.

I do have some criticisms about his engagement with international relations. First, he writes that international relations scholars have paid little or no attention to network effects, but at least as I understand his meaning, that isn't quite true.

Here for example is a well known paper by Nexon and Wright that analyzes "imperial" (in a specialized sense of the term) systems from a network vantage. Some of the models they describe actually cohere quite well with Anderson's vision of international relations.

It also seems that the phenomena he refers to in international relations are frequently analyzed, and perceived by and integrated into planning by practitioners, under different concepts and terms. Various forms of interdependence capture much of what is referenced.

Second, I'm frankly puzzled as to how his remarks on the changing nature of war fit with the rest of the paper. I feel as though I'm missing a few pages from the essay. There's a shift from a sentence about the increasing importance of expensive technology in warfare to a remark about the combined market cap of firms that feed data into PRISM. There are some large pieces missing here.

Third, his description of a networked world (interdependent states unlikely to go to war) is virtually indistinguishable from what liberals (in an international relations theory sense) describe as the desired, stable, end-state. The idea that interdependence on mutual commerce, and large, influential, commercially oriented middle classes in different nations will tend to prevent them form warring with each other, is a long-standing thesis in international relations.

That said, the liberal vision seems to only hold up when we are focused on relationships between democratic states. The PRC is not democratic, and is unlikely to become so any time soon. Russia is becoming less democratic by the year. Huge segments of the world's population live in areas that lack many of the elements needed for stable democratic governance to form.

So the US and its allies must prepare for the world that we have, which remains far from the ultimate goal of a global society composed entirely of liberal democracies. The policies of the United States have been firmly, and at sometimes enormous cost, behind the growth of a global order in which democracies can flourish, in which democratic norms are encouraged and valued, and in which nations become more interdependent through trade.

But that long-term building must be balanced with a realistic appraisal of the challenges we face. The US seeks to shape a world in which democracy can continue to grow while simultaneously engaging the PRC to rise as a peaceful power, respectful of its neighbors (the security of which the US now essentially assures), keeping large regions of the world relatively peaceful (I stress the relatively - the Middle East would have experienced far more war and instability without the US, which is not to deny that it has experienced plenty of both with the US), and fighting terrorist organizations that seek to use, some in a sophisticated manner, the very connectivity Anderson discusses as an avenue of attack.

Anyway - all very preliminary thoughts and criticisms, and I highly doubt any of this is new information for Anderson. I've mentioned the criticisms, and not the many parts of the paper I firmly agree with. To a certain extent, I wonder whether Anderson's real point might be one of emphasis - that US and other Western policymakers fail to fully appreciate, and prioritize in their thinking, the power and stability of networks, even if those policymakers are aware of the variables that compose those networks.

I write all of this with enormous respect for Anderson, whose writing and interests run both wide and deep. I hope that Anderson will continue to develop, and sharpen, the ideas in the essay.

MikeAMay 28, 2014 9:58 AM

@Mr. Pragma

In Re: Code sharing. Back when I worked for network vendor that was neither Cisco nor Huawei, it was fairly well known that Huawei had gotten their start selling pretty much straight-up (un-licensed) clones of Cisco gear. Whether you consider that "sharing" or not, it could be a common vulnerability. I have also run across my own (older version) code in competing products. Too bad their customers didn't get any of the updates. We all make mistakes. So, mixed bag.

OTOH, once my employer was acquired by Cisco I found that the mothership itself is not exactly a happy sharing commune. NIH between departments and "secret info" closely held by individuals were common, helped out by a "it's all on the (company) web" mantra backed by a "report errors" link that failed, a no-longer-active email account to report that failure, and a disconnected phone number as a last resort. So if monoculture is your worry, look elsewhere.

In Re: "Port Mirroring". Yeah, well, sure the hardware all tends to have it, but despite the fig-leaf of "for diagnostic services", we all know that it's there because somebody had a talk with somebody above the pay-grade of folks who actually worry about diagnostics (or users).

Mr. PragmaMay 28, 2014 10:20 AM

MikeA (May 28, 2014 9:58 AM)

I heard those (possibly true) rumors about Huawei merely cloning cisco stuff, too.

But then, Mr. Anderson wrote these days and not way back and I strongly doubt Huawei still merely clones cisco gear.

Two remarks to your comment.

I remember when my network manager, who was very pro cisco and very anti "chop suey boxen" (as he called Huawai), suddenly considerably opened when the sales guy (for Huawei) mentioned sth. like "Oh, basically it's IOS, so you won't need to learn again".

I doubt that Huawei really cloned cisco gear. And they needn't to because typically the decisive issue was IOS. To copy that by creating a feel alike was enough to convince many customers.
And they wouldn't or couldn't simply clone the hardware. Wouldn't for small boxes (I think then they even didn't build but mid to big iron) and couldn't for mid to big iron because cisco had ASICS on their board and I doubt that Huawei cracked and copied that, too.
For the smaller boxes I always felt cisco to be, uhm, say strongly marketing driven because in many of the smaller boxes they had weaker and lousier processors than quite some Taiwan low end made plastic boxes.
But then those boxes had "cisco" written on it and it seems that was all many customers wanted, no matter what was inside.

Disclaimer: I never was cisco fan. If a name was needed I chose Juniper. If anything could be chosen I always went for Freescale PowerPC boards.

Frank WilhoitMay 28, 2014 10:37 AM

Mr. Pragma (May 28, 2014 10:20 AM) gets it. Procurement decisions are increasingly driven by the cost of [re]training, which cannot be capitalized.

Nick PMay 28, 2014 11:27 AM

@ Mr. Pragma

"I doubt that Huawei really cloned cisco gear. "

Don't doubt it. It should be assumed. Here's the Chinese modus operandi for IT:

1. Steal I.P. from a foreign company using espionage.

2. A Chinese company creates a very similar product that competes with I.P. holder.

3. Chinese company uses cheap labor and lower regulations to steal market share.

4. Company will now combine its own R&D with any extra stolen I.P. it gets to try to exceed its foreign competition.

They've repeated this pattern over and over. American companies, in particular, continue to fall victim to it by being lured in by promises of cheap labor and increased profits. Then, their own I.P. are turned against them and improved. Their greed is their undoing. Details about the attack capability and volumes of data stolen are in this report.

"Disclaimer: I never was cisco fan. If a name was needed I chose Juniper. If anything could be chosen I always went for Freescale PowerPC boards."

A man after my own heart: I pushed Freescale PPC networking boards here a while back. They were especially useful to me because the INTEGRITY RTOS had been ported to them. And OpenBSD has strong PPC support. And they're not x86. That advantage goes without saying, yeah? ;)

IncredulousMay 28, 2014 12:18 PM

@Skeptical

It might be interesting if you headlined your main points. I find it hard reading your text fighting cognitive dissonance all the way.

But your vision of a homogeneous world of liberal democracies is salient. My headlines:

.. I question the desirability of that outcome, since "liberal democracy" is not in fact democracy.
.. I also question your constant assessment of how much better the US is than the rest of the world.
.. I suggest that a world in the image of the US will become a sterile dystopia of unsatisfying work and empty consumption for most of its citizens.

The argument:

By liberal, I assume you mean "with unrestrained corporations", not liberal in the sense of "left leaning and therefore concerned with protecting people in general from unrestrained corporations".

Democracy basically means "government controlled by the will of the majority of citizens".

A recent study, https://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf, shows that "democracy" does not describe the so-called "liberal democracy" we are experiencing.

Here is a summary from that paper:

"Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts
on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide
substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism. "

So I say, "No thanks" to your vision of universal liberal democracy. Besides the unlikelihood that it will actually be democratic, who wants to live in a homogeneous world anyhow, a world empty of mystery and enchantment, and simply paved over with less and less desirable working conditions and more a more consumer emptiness?

Or am I alone in finding most fascinating and meaningful that which I don't control or fully understand? As well as rejecting the domination of a society by economics since money and purchases rarely offer the satisfaction of experiences and human community? And recognizing that differences and competition between systems are the engine of change and progress?

I have travelled the world without understanding all the choices that its citizens make, but with little interest in turning that world into a duplicate of the US.

I hear scary stories about horrible people around the world from US media, but I have never seen those people.

Sure, some poorer people want to travel to the US for an economic lift. But most I've met have no interest in staying there because they prefer their own cultures, as poor and "backward" as they might seem to us.

Even East Berlin before the fall of the Wall showed no sign of being more oppressive than the average inner city street corner in the US today, crowded with police in SWAT uniforms looking for reasons to hassle and imprison the unfortunate and powerless, and even the relatively powerful who might question or document their actions.

I sense a Human Rights Watch study coming on, but note this: https://www.commondreams.org/view/2014/05/28 including this:

"These trigger-happy human rights activists rotate in and out of government jobs. This month more than 100 scholars, activists, and Nobel Peace Prize winners protested against this revolving door in an open letter to Human Rights Watch, which, thanks to an astonishing $100 million gift from the financier George Soros, has become king of the human rights hill.

Their letter says that, although Human Rights Watch claims to defend and protect human rights, its ties to the American military and security establishments “call into question its independence.” It names prominent Human Rights Watch figures who have served in the State Department and CIA; condemns the group for supporting “the illegal practice of kidnapping and transferring terrorism suspects around the planet”; and asserts that it produces biased reports exaggerating human rights abuses in countries the United States dislikes, like Venezuela, while being gentler to American allies like Honduras."

What is significant and interesting about your discourse, to me at least, are not the main points made, but the unquestioned assumption of a benevolent USA and its right to dominate the world and remake it in its image.

WaelMay 28, 2014 12:20 PM

@Nick P,@Clive Robinson,

Steal I.P. from a foreign company using espionage...
To be fair, and I say this from first hand experience, espionage is not necessarily the only method they use. They do have a tremondous talent for immitiation and optimization from a price point perspective. I have seen one of the solutions I worked on copied and demonstrated by one such company. I was impressed with the level of detail they copied our solution. I was impressed because the solution consisted of Hardware, BIOS components, Device Drivers, and GUI. In addition to that, we had taken some short cuts that were known to be on the weaker, but acceptable, side. These short cuts were also copied verbatim. I dont know how they were able to do that, but espionage was not likely. Reverse Engineering and connections with manufacturers abroad are likely -- you can also classify those sort of connections under espionage, but espionage was not the only component used.

AndyMay 28, 2014 12:25 PM

Interesting. One comment about the US and UK attack on Germany:
"When the UK and the USA attacked Germany in 1944, we did not send millions of men to Europe, as in the first world war, but a combat force of a couple of hundred thousand troops"

Actually we did. The number of allied troops taking part in Operation Overload (the battle of Normandy), was 2052299, just over 2 millions.

Another point about coding for the Mac in the 90s when it smaller than it is today. Since the Mac was also smaller, there were also less competition, and easier for a smaller player to first get a foothold there.

WaelMay 28, 2014 12:26 PM

I meant @Nick P, @Mr. Pragma
Although @Clive Robinson is also welcome...

Nick PMay 28, 2014 12:42 PM

@ Wael

I do classify reverse engineering for that purpose to be espionage. If it was verbatim, they likely used various copying and I.P theft methods. The stuff they straight up build themselves offer the same features or interface, but differ significantly in implementation.

I do agree they have excellent copying ability. And good engineers in general. The Loongson project shows that. So does that one economic zone that focuses on rapid development of electronics.

They're very capable. They just know "good artists creat and great artists copy." ;)

Mr. PragmaMay 28, 2014 1:47 PM

Ad "Chinese espionage/copying/..."

For one there is obviously a political component. The Chinese have been intelligent and creative inventors for 1000s of years (so the americans have still 2000+ years to make up before they consider themselves important creators ...). But thanks to the brits, americans, and japanese they were taught a lesson again and again: If you can, you just take whatever and however you please.

So even if they steal/copy/whatever, in particular anglo-saxon speakers and japanese better just shut up on this issue.

Moreover, as someone already mentioned, they hadn't to spy or steal a lot. Most was actually handed to them and usually out of greed and assuming that it was them, the americans, who fu**ed the Chinese (e.g. by ultracheap labour); so it's not a clear case of stealing but rather one of one thief pointing at another thief.
On the other hand (in particular) the usa itself is not having ethical problems at all to de facto force their stuff upon others (e.g. Europe); the actual example being ttip.

So, pardon me, but I don't see the usa in a good position to complain about China.

On a more technical note it mostly wasn't high-tech that was stolen/copied. Sure the usa sounds as if it was (oh well, don't they always?) but frankly, neither routing nor well established networking standards were that bleeding edge. cisco did recognize market needs (in particular the impact of the internet) and they created the right product at the right time, yes. But otherwise cisco mainly was swiftly commercialising, branding, etc. It wasn't their technical brilliance in the first place that made them more successful than 3com or bay networks but their marketing, their management, and better luck.

Probably that whole issue is rather moot rather soon anyway because China (and generally Asia) is rapidly moving ahead. I agree that Loongson illustrates China's creative and technological capabilities.
If I think about how it might look in 10 years, I'm almost certain that Asia will be the driving technological force; they have the brains, the culture, the often excellent academia, and meanwhile a lot of experience.

I personally always prefer a Chinese product over a us-american one provided they both offer what I need (Well, I prefer Mongolian, or Samoan, or for that matter *anything* over us products). Funny sidenote: As it so happens I was just today looking (once more) for a Loongson mainboard.

Mr. PragmaMay 28, 2014 1:59 PM

P.S. After hearing about obama's "yes we can (spy and lie)" newest idio^H^H, uhm, speech, I'm more confident than ever that the usa will soon lose what little power it still seems to have. They are so extremely self-delusional that I'm not even angry but very amused.

DBMay 28, 2014 5:38 PM

Regarding whether "Huawei really cloned Cisco gear" or not... take it from someone who has lived in China for a few years... the culture of taking whatever you can possibly get away with runs very deep. It is considered fair there, not stealing.

For example, if I went to the market to buy apples, I had to hang around and listen to what price was quoted to the natives (while pretending not to listen), before I stepped up and tried to buy any... otherwise he'd quote me a much higher price just because I looked more foreign and therefore possibly more gullible. I also had to watch that he didn't switch scales, or put a finger on it somewhere to make it seem heavier. NONE of this was considered stealing by ANYONE there, it was considered I "got what I deserved" if I was too stupid to catch him and call him on it and make him stop before I paid. Applying this back in the digital realm, if Cisco is too stupid to prevent theft, then they got exactly what they deserved by having their full codebase ripped off and cloned, according to common Chinese culture.

So, please don't underestimate the differences in culture and how they can play in how much is "cloned"... Also, don't think that American companies are much different, the higher level you go up chains of command, the more I see the same exact mindset of trying to get away with anything possible to get away with, regardless of any morals or ethics or even laws (after all, laws are meant to be changed, right). This is the main reason why I so fully distrust governments and large companies, and I don't see the human race as generally "good." Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and everything inbetween is inbetween.

SkepticalMay 28, 2014 8:21 PM

@Incredulous: Very thoughtful comments. I suppose if I broke down my initial impressions into bullet points it might be along the lines of:

-- international relations as an academic field has not ignored network theory, and the field has made good use of it. Nexon and Wright's paper, to which I linked, should be read by everyone interested in questions of international structure, networks, and power. I'd like to see him engage more with the literature in international relations if there's to be a longer paper in the future.

-- Anderson does not explain how his views on war fit with the rest of the paper. I'm sure it does, but I'm having trouble seeing the connection. Perhaps someone else has better vision on this? I'd be very interested in reading his expanded thoughts on the subject.

-- the network effects in international relations that he describes seem to be substantively described by concepts of interdependence, though sometimes thinking about the same things in a different frame can be very useful and illuminating. It may be that thinking of certain things from a network vantage can render explicit what concepts like interdependence leave somewhat in the background.

-- the networked world he describes sounds an awfully lot like the world promoted by liberals and proponents of democratic peace theory. That is, if nations are connected by commerce and exchange, if they contain large commercial classes, if the national governments are influenced by those classes, and if the national governments are themselves active in international organizations, then there is a greatly reduced chance of war.

-- but much of the world will not conform to that vision any time soon. Russia is becoming less democratic; the PRC will not become democratic any time soon; and huge portions of the world's population live in areas that lack the conditions necessary for stable democracy to take root. So the US does not, and cannot, ignore the lessons of the realists, even while it also works towards the goals of the liberals. This inherent tension is one part of what makes American foreign policy difficult for many to understand.

So Incredulous, let me respond to a few of the points you made. I also experienced some cognitive dissonance reading your comments, but different views often make for the best discussions.

.. I question the desirability of that outcome, since "liberal democracy" is not in fact democracy.

"Liberal democracy" as the term is often used today in international relations, foreign policy, and political science circles tends to refer to a state that has (1) rule of law, (2) elected officials and universal suffrage, and (3) respect for and protection of certain basic individual rights. That's how I'm using the term here.

I think this definition eliminates what you think to be a major point of disagreement between us. Specifically you write later:

By liberal, I assume you mean "with unrestrained corporations", not liberal in the sense of "left leaning and therefore concerned with protecting people in general from unrestrained corporations".

Democracy basically means "government controlled by the will of the majority of citizens".

Hopefully the explicit description of what I mean by "liberal democracies" answers the arguments. I don't view unrestrained corporations as a good thing. For example, I am in favor of much tougher regulation of how corporations handle private data. I don't think we disagree on this point.

.. I also question your constant assessment of how much better the US is than the rest of the world.

I never made such an assessment. I wish the US had the primary school system of Finland and some of the structural elements of Germany's educational and social welfare systems, for example. I can call to mind many areas where the US approach would be better if it took that used by another country.

.. I suggest that a world in the image of the US will become a sterile dystopia of unsatisfying work and empty consumption for most of its citizens.

A world of liberal democracies isn't a world of nations "in the image of the US." It's simply a world in which all nations respect individual rights, have elected governments, and are nations of laws.

That's a world in the image of humanity, and it will be as diverse as human beings are.

Or am I alone in finding most fascinating and meaningful that which I don't control or fully understand? As well as rejecting the domination of a society by economics since money and purchases rarely offer the satisfaction of experiences and human community? And recognizing that differences and competition between systems are the engine of change and progress?

I think these remarks are aimed at arguments that I do not hold and have not made.

I have travelled the world without understanding all the choices that its citizens make, but with little interest in turning that world into a duplicate of the US.

Likewise.

I hear scary stories about horrible people around the world from US media, but I have never seen those people.

There are truly horrible people (in every society), but circumstances and conditions can account for much of the evil that human beings perpetrate on each other. Fortunately, I think there are many points of local equilibria where the natural sociability of human beings weighs in favor of some degree of not-horrible, sometimes respectful and charitable, treatment towards others. Most societies rest somewhere around those points (but there can be enormous differences between those points, e.g. welfare and rights of women in Sweden vs. welfare and rights of women in Waziristan).

Even East Berlin before the fall of the Wall showed no sign of being more oppressive than the average inner city street corner in the US today, crowded with police in SWAT uniforms looking for reasons to hassle and imprison the unfortunate and powerless, and even the relatively powerful who might question or document their actions.

No, the DDR was significantly more oppressive. A recommendation if you happen to be in Berlin later this year.

Their letter says that, although Human Rights Watch claims to defend and protect human rights, its ties to the American military and security establishments “call into question its independence.”

Here's the HRW page on the United States. Judge for yourself. The comments you linked to are absurd.

What is significant and interesting about your discourse, to me at least, are not the main points made, but the unquestioned assumption of a benevolent USA and its right to dominate the world and remake it in its image.

As I wrote above, you're arguing against a position I don't hold and wouldn't take.

Spiny NormanMay 29, 2014 12:22 AM

"Everybody needs to stop using euphemisms like "national-intelligence nexus" and to start using the correct word for what we now live in: a police state."

If you were not a white dude, you would not imagine that this is something new.

DBMay 29, 2014 1:23 AM

"If you were not a white dude, you would not imagine that this is something new."

It's not new. It's just newly brought into (a great many more) people's view.

IncredulousMay 29, 2014 7:42 AM

@Skeptical

You obviously write and argue very impressively. I appreciate your response, but it does evade my main points:

.. In your previous post you promoted a world of liberal democracies.

.. The study I quoted suggests that the US is not in fact a democracy. I don't believe that it falls under your current definition of liberal democracy:

1) Rule of law - tortuous interpretations of laws by the government, spying on the legislature, military involvement in domestic affairs, blanket secrecy and resistance to FOI attempts, torture, black sites, war crimes, etc fail to follow the rule of law.

2) Elections - The study I cited show our elections to be shame democracy. Also denial of voting rights in various jurisdictions. And largely unrestrained corporate spending to influence elections, a newly discovered right that I argue is simply a thumbs-up to corruption and corporate oligarchy.

3) Human rights - We are denied constitutional rights like the right to be free of search without warrant. Mass data collection puts everyone in danger of blackmail and economic coercion. Although we do not use as much physical coercion as some rights abusers, we substitute economic coercion.

.. The human rights watch comment I quoted refers mainly to how other countries are evaluated, but taking the page you linked at face value it also calls into questions civil rights in the US.

If the US does not well fulfill the definition of liberal democracy it is hardly the agent of its promotion. And frankly, I still think a world a varied systems is more interesting and the competition between them is salubrious for all involved. Of course, if countries all developed your current definition of liberal democracy without outside coercion that would be one thing. But I think our current attempts to remake countries in our far from liberal democratic image are simply fronts for opening markets in favor of large corporations whose political power dwarfs that of our citizenry.

SkepticalMay 30, 2014 12:23 AM

@Incredulous: I appreciate your response, but it does evade my main points:

One of your major points was that I was promoting a libertarian vision of the world; another was that I desired a world devoid of diversity; another was that I wanted a world in the image of the US. I think I answered all of these things (by noting that I don't want, and didn't argue for, any of them).

So, what about the claim that the US is not in fact a liberal democracy?

.. The study I quoted suggests that the US is not in fact a democracy.

Look, to be frank, I don't think it's really an open question as to whether the US is a liberal democracy. There are discussions to be had about the issues on which it ought improve, but I don't think it's resonable, and I don't think it's widely viewed as resasonable, to claim that the US isn't a liberal democracy.

But, to address the points you raise:

I read the paper, and I appreciate the citation. It's impossible to assess it without looking at the 1700+ policy polls between 1981 and 2002 that they incorporated, and without looking at the precise manner in which they compiled the "net interest group alignment" (i.e. how interest-groups engaged on a policy question tended to lean). They use respondents in the 50th percentile of income as a proxy for the median voter (not clear to me that this is the case), and find that the preferences of respondents in the 50th percentile carried little statistical power in explaining policy outcomes. Specifically they found that the opinions of the affluent and the alignment of engaged interest-groups carried much more explanatory weight.

Incidentally, they also find that the preferences of the median voter and the affluent voter are very strongly correlated, meaning that the median voter gets what he wants about as often as the affluent voter. It's also worth noting is that no one usually gets changes in policy that they desire, since (the authors theorize, probably correctly) the US political system is deliberately structured to make change difficult.

There are a lot of things to hash out in that study (not every policy question is of equal interest to the median voter, regardless of whether a poll is conducted, for example). But, in any event, it lines up with the idea that affluent citizens and engaged interest-groups have more influence than the median voter (shockingly).

However this doesn't disqualify the US from being a liberal democracy (fortunately, as I suspect that the affluent, and organized, engaged interest-groups, are more influential in every society). Whether a nation qualifies is largely a matter of how close they are to the three ideal characteristics I gave. None meet them perfectly.

1) Rule of law - tortuous interpretations of laws by the government, spying on the legislature, military involvement in domestic affairs, blanket secrecy and resistance to FOI attempts, torture, black sites, war crimes, etc fail to follow the rule of law.

It may well be that aspects of US interrogations of suspected al Qaeda leaders were both illegal and sanctioned by the leadership. That would then be a case of the executive branch failing to follow the law. And if this were normal behavior, then you'd be justified in saying that there is no rule of law in the US.

But it's highly abnormal behavior. Hence the multiple Congressional investigations, the Justice Department investigation, and the debate within the executive branch as to whether the interrogation policy was in fact legal.

In a nation without rule of law, the things you find outrageous in US policy are routine. The events don't occur as scandals, noteworthy because they contrast against the background of ordinary, law-abiding, government conduct; instead the events occur as a routine, daily part of life. Bribery of public officials is perfectly normal in such countries; for government officials to have enormous, secret fortunes and enormous, secret stakes in government-owned businesses is perfectly normal; for the police the be dispatched to beat political opponents is a matter of course; and court trials are formalities at best.

In short, I don't think you're putting it all in perspective. Imagine Obama taking a large personal investment in US Government owned oil companies; imagine having to pay cops and city officials a bribe each time you wanted a permit or to avoid being harassed; imagine Obama sending in the FBI to close Fox News; and then you have an idea of a society without rule of law. The US is nowhere close.

2) Elections - The study I cited show our elections to be shame democracy. Also denial of voting rights in various jurisdictions. And largely unrestrained corporate spending to influence elections, a newly discovered right that I argue is simply a thumbs-up to corruption and corporate oligarchy.

The study certainly doesn't describe elections as shams. "Denial of voting rights" may occur in some small minority of the 185,000+ voting precincts in the United States, but it's rare, and incidents are investigated and prosecuted. As to the influence of money on elections, I agree with you that it's a problem, but it's a difficult conundrum, which is why even within the civil liberties community there is disagreement about the appropriate remedy.

But none of that makes elections shams. There are secret ballots, votes are counted to a requisite degree of accuracy, and the few examples of misconduct don't affect national elections.

3) Human rights - We are denied constitutional rights like the right to be free of search without warrant. Mass data collection puts everyone in danger of blackmail and economic coercion. Although we do not use as much physical coercion as some rights abusers, we substitute economic coercion.

You're focusing on one area you think is weak (4th Amendment protections) and extrapolating from there that the US doesn't sufficiently protect human rights to qualify as a liberal democracy. There are certain aspects of 4th Amendment jurisprudence that may see change in the future (specifically third-party doctrine), but by and large 4th Amendment protections are pretty good. In any event, while imperfect, the US has a robust system of legal protections of human rights that is well supported by the executive agencies.

.. The human rights watch comment I quoted refers mainly to how other countries are evaluated, but taking the page you linked at face value it also calls into questions civil rights in the US.

Yes, HRW has a lot of criticisms of the US, which highlights the absurdity of the claim that they're secretly working for the US Government.

If the US does not well fulfill the definition of liberal democracy it is hardly the agent of its promotion.

Look, to be perfectly frank, I don't think it's really an open question as to whether the US is a liberal democracy. I have no problem with the idea that, as a liberal democracy, the US has deficiencies, but that's true of every political system in the world. Democracy as actually implemented can be as ugly and difficult as human nature can at times be. But it's the least worst of the options, and the implementation by Western states, warts and all, isn't that bad.

But I think our current attempts to remake countries in our far from liberal democratic image are simply fronts for opening markets in favor of large corporations whose political power dwarfs that of our citizenry.

It's not that simple. First, US advice to new democracies is usually to create a democratic structure that differs significantly from the US structure. Second, you actually don't need a state to be democratic for its markets to be open to foreign companies. The US, and EU, preference for democracy goes well beyond economic considerations.

We've wandered a bit far afield of Anderson's paper here, I'm afraid. If you truly think that the US isn't a liberal democracy, I think we're just going to have to agree to disagree.

IncredulousMay 30, 2014 6:22 PM

@Skeptical

I am not surprised that I don't convince you. Your approach of special pleading for every US deficiency while holding all of its opponents to implacable high standards is pretty consistent.

Perhaps I am also guilty of the opposite, partially because I am not as exposed to the infuriating pious hypocrisies of US opponent regimes.

I see no reason to think real democracy is thriving anywhere.

But elections are more than voting. If the system does not allow alternatives on the ballot, if wealth is allowed to control who can effectively run, if the media that informs the public is largely controlled by the same wealth, and if people like Obama are allowed to pretend to be one candidate and then ignore their promises upon election to the point of making the choice between candidates pointless, yes, I don't think that democracy is any longer operative in our country.

AlanSJune 1, 2014 8:51 PM

For a discussion of liberalism and neo-liberalism see The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978--1979. There is an extensive discussion of American neo-liberalism, especially the Chicago School, starting at Chapter 9. The argument is something like: In American neo-liberalism, every sphere of human existence, not just the traditional sphere of the economic, is colonized by neoclassical economic rationality. Surveillance, market research if you will, data and numbers to crunch for cost-benefit calculations, is the core feature. It's social relations reduced to math and statistics.

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