The “Fifth Estate” could have to fight harder in the future, especially if Trump is elected; an overview

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This new commentary blog is intended to look outward to the world, not just focus on pingbacks to my own narrative. But my own experience with self-publication, most of all online (as detailed in Chapter 10 of my second DADT book) provides a gamer’s road map to all the major issues.

When I self-pubbed my first DADT book with my own printing in 1997 centered around my own narrative encircling the military gay ban, I expected word-of-mouth to sell copies, and indeed that happened, especially in the first eighteen months or so.  A couple speaking engagements in the Twin Cities (at Hamline University and then the University of Minnesota, as well as a Unitarian fellowship) helped.  I also networked a lot with the Libertarian Party of Minnesota, another topic that I’ll come back to soon (given the national party’s convention in Orlando, just finished, and how it could affect the 2015 race).

In the summer of 1998, I did put the entire text of the book online for viewing and lookup. In time, I was heavily indexed in Google and many other search engines, without having to do much work with metatags to attract them.  I was clearly attracting a non-paying audience (judging from email response of the times) with free search engine exposure.  I was entering a new paradigm, “Fame” (like the movie) and the asymmetric ability to affect a political debate without money.  Indeed, this was the predictor of Reid Ewing’s sequence of videos in 2012, “It’s Free”.

My practice would become controversial. It’s also uninsurable (see the book) as the risk is unknown, byt I have yet to be served (knock on wood).  Yes, I do get chased to pimp copies of my books (overpriced).I don’t need to make money from the publishing since I am “retired” (and previously had accumulated “rentier” assets in the stock market) but some people think my practice undermines their ability to make a living.  I’ve heard that from LP friends (I am the new “threat”), and even Mark Cuban told me in an email that this was probably a bigger issue for big publishers and Hollywood than actual piracy.

My strategy, with flat sites of simple html, as extremely effective until well after 9/11.  Gradually, social media eventually stole the thunder of a lot of what I had done.  Not so much Myspace, but indeed Facebook and Twitter (and Instagram).  But now I use social media platforms myself.  They actually solved one problem for me somewhat (“conflict of interest”, as I had seen it, as explained here  and here , note also the 2000 white paper on employee COI ), while creating new ones.  Blogging gradually replaced flat sites, and I started using Blogger in early 2006.

I’m getting ahead of myself, but I did want to outline the major strategic “threats” to my ability to continue this activity, which has indeed comprised my Second Life.  One was the possibility of being forced (by threat of prosecution) into self-censorship, as represented by the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and later COPA, the Child Online Protection Act of 1998.  The other major concern would center around the major possible intellectual property torts, like copyright infringement, trademark, and then harm areas like defamation, invasion of privacy, insofar as these are possible perils that I, the speaker, could encounter.  More serious is depending on a permissive climate that facilitates cyberbullying and recruiting of terrorists online. That’s maybe some “bad karma”.  This leads to a discussion of downstream liability of service providers and publishing platforms.

The original CDA could have been  quite draconian, but the censorship portions were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997.  I actually attended the oral arguments in March 1997. In 1998, just as my online stuff was starting to get found a lot, Congress passed COPA.   I give a summary of my involvement with COPA on my “do ask do tell notes” blog here.  This was a major element of my online life from 1998 until 2007. The Supreme Court had weighed in twice before the final district court ruling (and I went to the oral arguments the second time).  I have more details on my legacy site here.

The irony of the CDA is that it was part of a bigger Telecommunications Act of 1996, one provision of which, Section 230, gives service providers immunity from downstream liability for torts committed by users in generating “amateur” content.  Electronic Frontier Foundation as a major primer on the topic here.  Section 230 shields intermediaries from liability from secondary liability for various torts, the most likely of which is defamation (with “online reputation” issues compounded for others), but which would also include invasion of privacy, and probably the results of cyberbullying and terror recruitment, for example.

The defamation issues crop up repeatedly with “review sites” like Yelp!, where some contractors and medical or dental providers try to force customers to sign controversial (and morally objectionable) no-disparagement clauses.  Privacy has come up in the notorious Gawker case, which also raises the question as to whether big business interests should subsidize combative litigation of others.  Defamation suits are less common on ordinary blogs and older sites.  However, a major problem, somewhat connected to review sites, has been SLAPP, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, somewhat problematic in states with weaker consumer protection laws.  There is still no federal anti-SLAPP law.

US law is more protective of providers than most other countries, and Section 230 has its critics.  There have been proposals, for example, that Section 230 become overridable by state laws.  Others, especially on the Left, say that, since big tech companies are so profitable (the biggest companies that survived the Dot-com bubble), they should share in the responsibility for the horrific outcomes of cyberbullying and terror recruitment.  Major tech companies do remove objectionable content (as TOS violations) that is brought to their attention, and have some ability to filter some material (like ISIS propaganda).  Recently, the companies have promised the EU to “step right up” and remove flagged content within 24 hours.

Ethically connected to the issue of privacy invasion is the idea of a “right to be forgotten”, which is being enforced in Europe and causing quite a bit of expense and headache for search engine companies in removing old results of true but damaging information (like petty convictions or old debts or foreclosures), material that in the old world would have taken a lot of trouble to look up manually at physical county courthouses in “public records”.   Site content itself is not removed, just search results.  But in maybe three unusual cases, I have been asked to remove information involving specific parties from my own sites.

The other big pillar of legal risk would, of course, be copyright.  I had to ponder this when writing my first book in the 1990s.  There was a whole cottage industry for securing permission for “quotes”.  I wound up simply keeping my quotes shorter than I had originally wanted.  The analogue of Section 230 is the “Safe harbor clause” of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act if 1998, which shields providers from secondary library for copyright infringement if they take down infringing material immediately. The major objection is that large media companies bully individuals, and that YouTube and others sometimes take down material without due process on frivolous claims, although there is an appeal process.  There is little practical incentive not to file these claims.  And in 2011, especially, we fought the battles to stop PIPA and SOPA which would have effectively given major media companies unprecedented power to have sites removed from the web for the infringement of just one user.  This has happened anyway (as with the MegaUpload case).  Likewise, some bloggers have had to fend of copyright trolls (like Righhaven) for copying news stories and photos from some smaller newspapers which joined in the litigation. I don’t do this myself.  Frivolous trademark claims against domain names have sometimes been a problem, when they involve common words or come from unrelated business areas (in contradiction to actual trademark law in the US). YouTube (Google) does have some pre-screening automation that copyright owners can join and use, called Content-ID, and this seems to be an evolving product creating some controversy on its own.

Coming back to my “It’s free” paradigm, there is also the issue of what I would call amateurism and “gratuitous speech”, which is soap-box activity (like mine) outside the area of more usual narrow-issue speech from political pressure groups, and from established media.  YouTube used to encourage this process with the slogan “Broadcast yourself!”  I argue, that as a member of the “Fifth Estate” moving toward the “Fourth” (rather like Clive Barker’s “Dominions”)   I claim that the value of my gratuitous speech is that it “connects the dots”.  But companies could find it much less profitable in the future to provide the platforms for free stuff, as people put up “do not track” and ad blockers.

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I could also reinforce the concerns about insurance in the future.  If health insurance is mandatory, I can imagine pseudo-progressive arguments that media perils ought to be required too (because user-generated content comes with some collective risk, given all the benefits on keeping the powers that be –and the Fourth Estate — honest).  Auto and home casualty insurance companies should be very careful about packaging coverage for Internet use (including identity theft as well as liability) with protection from losses due to conventional accidents, crimes, and tornadoes or hurricanes.  The actuarial risk (especially of frivolous, SLAPP or troll-sourced litigation) is not possible to calculate, and yet auto companies already bundle all of this in high-end umbrella coverage, which could cause unintended consequences (and anti-selection, and then cancellations) down the road.

Indeed, gratuitous “self-broadcast” could come under fire, if looked at differently for “secondary risks”, as I fear could happen if Donald Trump is elected.  Remember, Trump last fall suggested shutting down parts of the Internet (related to user generated content) if companies couldn’t get a handle on the terror recruiting, which he can argue is an existential threat that doesn’t need gratuitous invitation.  (Trump has wanted to lower the bar to allow public figures to sue media companies and presumably bloggers with lower standards of malice.) Possibly, I could attract enemies and indirectly put others in danger of targeting, which I could imagine could even be an issue for future landlords, for example.   It’s part of a style of tribal thinking that I have had to pay more heed to in recent years.   But any activity that interacts with the public has its own risks (like, say, selling life insurance or tax planning, something I have fielded unsolicited appeals to do instead).  There are philosophical questions, about helping others directly and getting meaning in doing so.  But I can’t let others use my own life as a bargaining chip.

(Published Monday, May 30, 2016 at 1 PM EDT)

Why “gays in the military” was and still can remain an “iceberg” of an issue

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“Gays in the military”, as an issue through most of the 1990s and 00’s, has receded largely from public attention, replaced by marriage equality and transgender issues.  There are practical reasons why specifics in human rights debates changes over time, and why pressure groups like “catch words”. But this was the issue that pivoted me into a second career as an author and then “just” a blogger.

Of course, everyone equates the issue with the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, whose repeal finally was made official in September 2011 (I was in the line at SLDN’s party on K Street) but that public equivalence is a bit misleading.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice had outlawed sodomy, Article 125, for decades (back to WWI, at least) and it’s technically still on the books (NBC article from 2013).  The individual services all had rules requiring discharges of servicemembers found to commit homosexual acts, even consensually off base with adult civilians, either by their own statements or credible evidence.  The services had asked about homosexuality upon entry as a “character and social adjustment” question. But during the Vietnam war, the Army started backing away from enforcement, not wanting homosexuality to become a way to get out of the draft. By 1966, the Army had stopped “asking” draftees about sexual orientation during physicals, so an unofficial DADT was practiced.  Just before Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, the Pentagon promulgated its notorious “Old Ban”, the 123 words starting with “homosexuality is incompatible with military service” (GAO link  ).  There was a sugar coating that discharges could normally be honorable, but could contain secret “SPN” codes.  Sometime in 1992, Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense, admitted that the policy had become an “old chestnut” based on myths and collective comfort.

Because the draft ended under Nixon in 1973, the gay community tended to remain largely indifferent to the ban.  For one thing, AIDS as a major preoccupation in the 1980s.  In the days before “equality”, the gay community tended to live a “separate but almost equal” existence in urban exile, tending to become focused on the internals of its own world as homosexuality gradually became more acceptable to the public.  A few cases, like that of UASF Tech Sergaent Leonard Matlovich, sometimes got public attention.  (Note: mandatory Selective Service registration for young men did not end, and that plays into the debate today on “slavery” for women, too.)

The scene changed abruptly in the early 1990s, after the spectacular Persian Gulf War pushed back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and threat to the oil business in Saudi Arabia (which would become a controversial country regarding 9/11, but that’s another discussion).  In 1992, a few high profile servicemembers “came out”, including Petty Officer Keith Meinhold on ABC in 1992, and soon Navy flier Tracy Thorne.  Joseph Steffan’s book “Honor Bound”, detailing his ouster from the Naval Academy for “telling” just before he would have graduated third in his class from the Naval Academy in 1987, attracted attention (especially mine, after a major book-signing party at Lambda Rising).  In the 1990s, major anti-gay measures, such as a mean one in Oregon in 1992 and later Colorado’s Amendment 2, would fail; the tide was truly changing.  In this climate, candidate Bill Clinton promised to life the ban if elected.

On his second full day in office, the Clinton brought the topic up, and soon there was a vitriolic debate in Congress.  Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, a conservative Democrat (and very valuable for his contributions in controlling nuclear waste of the former Soviet Union) and Northwestern University Professor Charles Moskos, repeatedly brought up the fight over “privacy” in the barracks.  “They don’t go home at night like you and I do,” Nunn had said in a television interview just before the inauguration.

Never before had a topic quite this sensitive (in terms of forced intimacy) been debated in public before.  (Maybe that’s not quite 100% true.  In the 1970s, the New York Daily News objected to a gay anti-discrimination ordinance on the idea that in fire departments, men live together in firehouses, even the old one on 99 Wooster that was the HQ of GAANY!) The concept of “privacy” became comingled with a more subtle idea, “unit cohesion”, which I began to see was a proxy for a lot dynamics in civilian society, that is, socialization, which could explain why homosexuality had previously been a public taboo in civilian life as much as in uniform.  A significant part of the picture was the belief that the mere “presence” in an intimate environment of people (normally men) known to be gay could provide an indirect distraction for others. The issue would be debated repeatedly on major media, especially Ted Koppel’s “Nightline”, where Thorne (now a judge in Virginia) was invited to speak several times.  Keith Meinhold would lead a rally in Washington, and I would later sit near him at an HRC event at RFK Stadium (pre-Nationals) in April 2000.

My attention to the topic was drawn by a curious and ironic parallel with my own life.  I had been thrown out of William and Mary as a freshman in November 1961, partly out of concerns over “privacy: in dorm life that seemed to anticipate the debate that Nunn and Moskos had staged.  That concept overlapped into “cohesion”:  my “presence”, even with no overt behavior other than a little “scoping” (to borrow a term from “Smallville”)  could make heterosexual young men less secure about themselves later when it came to dating and marriage and even procreation, so it seemed (that seems to be Vladimir Putin’s idea in Russia today).  My reputation sundered, I would take the draft physical three times, moving from 4-F through 1-Y to 1-A, and finally get “drafted” after finishing graduate school in 1968. Many specific moments from my Basic Combat Training color my memory today and influence my writing, and they are in my books.  I may be the only person (besides J. D. Salinger) who went through this specific sequence of repeated physicals to finally get drafted.

My history with security clearance investigations for civilian jobs also figured into my concern.  I abandoned “defense” in 1972 when I left the Navy Department and went to Univac, to make this a non-issue.

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Bill Clinton would “compromise” with his famous July 19, 1993 speech at Fort McNair, where he would announce the “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” policy (and unfortunately, “don’t pursue” would get overlooked in the following years)  and speech text ).  Congress would codify the policy into law with the Defense Authorization Act in November 1993, which would begrudgingly admit that the services should not “ask” sexual orientation at entry.  The law reinforced a disturbing concept of “propensity” to commit homosexual acts when there was no evidence to prove they had taken place. The Pentagon would implement the policy in its own words with a policy document in February 1994, with a document softer in tone  as to what is “credible evidence” (“going to a gay bar is not a crime”).

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I’ve detailed my own entry into the debate, with my three books, and job transfer to avoid “conflict of interest”, a narrative filled with ironies and twists like any movie plot (hence my screenplay drafts). It would turn out that the day I attended a rally for the introduction of the bill that would repeal DADT, Dec. 10, 2010, would be the day my own mother went into hospice to pass away four days later.  She had lived long enough (97) to see me accomplish my mission.

I think of “don’t ask don’t tell”, or, more properly, the entire subject of the military ban, as an “iceberg” issue.  It directly affected relatively few people (but look at the discharges chart on the Wikipedia article)  but the issue considered matters normally very sensitive and personal (forced intimacy) in a way that seemed unprecedented, and connects to many other problems that affects to civilian life.  A few of these issues include conscription (where bills requiring women to register for the non-existent draft float in Congress ) , security clearances for civilians, and the past withdrawal of Pentagon funding for universities who denied access to military recruiters on campus over their own non-discrimination policies (Solomon Amendment).  Also was the idea that gays discharged from ROTC programs could be sued for recoupment.  The military had, in practice, become a major employment opportunity for lower income people (as well as a source for college and even medical school scholarships), a major force toward equality of opportunity otherwise.

The conscription issue had intersected with my own narrative.  I believed that if you told someone he or she was unfit to take part in defending the country or his community in time of dire need, you had an excuse to consider the person less than equal.  Sharing common risks had been a major idea in my own moral upbringing, and physical cowardice from men had been considered heinous (in a way that is largely forgotten today).

So had the security clearance problem become important.  Jimmy Carter had supposedly promised to work in the issue in a second term that he never won.  In practice, the security clearance problem gradually got better on its own, and particularly so during the first Bush presidency (during the Persian Gulf War), until Clinton signed an executive order in 1995 which official allowed open gays to serve anywhere in intelligence and defense as civilians (as we now have an openly gay Secretary of the Army). In my first screenplay, “Make the A-List”, I had envisioned a subplot where an closeted gay man in the Army has a relationship with an openly gay CIA analyst, leading to security compromise. At least I got to air this possibility before a screenwriting group in Minneapolis back in 2002.

I even wonder if the positions of Elena Kagan (CNN story), now a Supreme Court Justice, but a dean at Harvard in the fall of 2003, regarding military recruiters, could have entered the mind of Mark Zuckerberg, then a sophomore there, in the months before he came up with and launched Facebook (in early 2004).

It’s natural to ask if there is an analogy to the transgender issue today.  The Pentagon is very slowly making progress in figuring out how to accommodate transgender troops, who in a few individual cases seem capable of extraordinary achievement, especially in intelligence services.  (Chelsea Manning is the sad exception.) Consider “Lady Valor”.  The political climate associated with the “bathroom bills” does not help.  My own feeling is that it isn’t unreasonable to expect a transgender person to register her/his change on an official document as to how she/he lives.  But again, there is an iceberg effect, that a lot of discrimination exists underneath. And there is still a nagging question, is to just what society should expect of those who are “different” as they assimilate, when the problems are “real”.  In the case of the military ban, the problems of “privacy” and “unit cohesion” have not turned out, in practice, to be as pressing, with a younger generation, as Colin Powell or John McCain had expected.  Avianne Tan discusses the “iceberg” effect of transgender issues for ABC here.

I do have a concern that Donald Trump could reverse the gains in the military, on the theory that when dealing with enemies (like ISIS) we can’t afford the “distraction”, which would then imply that non-gender-role conformity does burden society if circumstances are serious enough.  Hopefully the influence of tech financier Peter Thiel, as a major Trump delegate but otherwise libertarian himself, would reverse this possibility.

Back in early 1993, Scott Peck, gay son of a Marine Corps general who had testified for keeping the ban, had a radio show on Sunday nights.  I sometimes called in.  Frank Kameny discussed the state of security clearances for civilians, which had been rapidly improving even under Bush (but it was not a “do it yourself” challenge).  And Peck interviewed a transgender former Naval NCO who had resigned the service before a sex change to female, but still had almost the same job as a civilian in Naval Intelligence, and was living as a “lesbian” rather than a heterosexual man.

A reading list would include Randy Shilts “Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S, Military” (1993, 1994, St. Martins).

A viewing list would include HBO’s “The Strange History of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by Bailey and Barbato and Marc Wolf’s “Another American: Asking and Telling” based on his monologue stage play

(Published: Saturday, May 28, 2016 at 1 PM EDT)

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Update: July 25

Donald Trump’s idea that you could just “ask” if an immigrant passing the border practices Islam, says something about the whole idea of “don’t ask don’t tell” for anything.

 

“Open access”: scientific journal articles need to be easily accessible, but they have to be paid for

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Jack Andraka recently re-tweeted the URL of his 2013 article (written at 16) “Why Science Journal Paywalls Have to Go”.  Andraka, now 19 and ending his freshman year at Stanford, won a major Intel science fair award in 2013 for his project that used carbon nanotubes to provide an inexpensive early detection test for pancreatic cancer.  It is likely (even according to my own personal physician at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington) that some form of his test will eventually get FDA approval and be in regular use, and he will at least share a lot of the credit and financial reward for it. It is even likely that variations of the test could detect other tumors early.  He describes his work in a best seller book named “Breakthrough” from Harper (2015).

Jack’s basic premise is that the expensive paywalls on science journals might have prevented his science fair project from even happening.

But when you read the post it may come across as self-serving. Of course, once someone is a student at a university or medical institution, one can generally use the school’s subscription.  But Jack needed the subscription before being a student.  Jack admits that he could have trudged into Baltimore (from home near Annapolis) at the University of Maryland and gotten an account and read the articles there.  That he indeed did eventually to do the project.  (I wondered, does he have a car now at Stanford, or does Google provide all the transportation, LOL).

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In fact, some journal subscriptions are so expensive that many university libraries are saying even they can’t afford them all.

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Let me back up a bit into my own life.  Back around 1983, when it suddenly and rapidly became apparent that AIDS would become a major health crisis for the gay male community (and create a political crisis, to boot), I drove my little Chevette (or Colt) to the Texas Health Sciences Center on Harry Hines in Dallas and read every print research article I could get my hands on.  Absolutely everything was there, free to the public.  By chance, a manager at work at Chilton in Dallas had a print Lancet subscription and gave me his copies.

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Then, I think back to high school.  For major term papers (I remember one in eleventh grade on James Fenimore Cooper and his treatment of women in his novels) I rode the #2 bus (pre-Metro) into Washington and used the DC public library (near what is now the Convention Center at Mount Vernon Place) to find enough material – the Arlington library in Clarendon at the time just didn’t have enough (now it would).  My parents thought it was absurd that we had to take so much time to find the materials for a simple term paper.

I’m introducing the area we call “open access”, of course.  It crisscrosses a number of areas, including copyright law, the way science gets paid for (the “peer review” process adds to expense, of course), and the peculiar economic problems with business models for products with low transaction volumes with customers.  Not to be overlooked is the “publish or perish” mentality still in much of the academic world.

The best summary of the problem may be an essay by Justin Peters on Slate, April 5, 2016, “Why is it so expensive to read academic research?” with the subtitle “Content piracy may be illegal but price gouging is at least as despicable”.  There is a lot of discussion of how publisher Elsevier (the “Books In Print” and ISBN people) works.  In some cases, pharma companies may have an incentive to keep their research hard to get.  But pressure on the journal industry grows. Many contracts with NIH or other government agencies require that papers be offered free or on open access platforms after a maximum of one year from publication (link).

So, then, we rehearse the history of “illegality”.  Most of us have become familiar with the tragic story of Aaron Swartz, “The Internet’s Own Boy” (and “Killswitch”).  Indeed, I have tried to use JSTOR online and found the process clumsy as well as expensive.  (And part of Swartz’s “crimes” originally had involved propagating PACER court documents that should have been free and in the public domain.)

More recently we’ve paid attention to the graduate student Alexandra Elbakyan from Kazakhstan, hiding out in Russia (like Edward Snowden) after creating Sci-Hub as a repository for “illegal” copies of research papers.  Her life narrative leads Kate Murphy in a New York Times piece in March 2016 to ask “Should all research papers be free?” Murphy discusses other models for solutions, like PLOS, the Public Library of Science, but then researchers apparently have to pay heavily to self-publish peer-reviewed material (in an industry set up to get around the idea of third-party oversight).

It’s useful to compare the science paper problem with another issue for some people – paywalls for regular newspaper sites.  I do subscribe to the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal (and Scientific American and Time).  These paywalls (typically about $100 a year or so) are a lot more reasonable in price than for science journals, because the business model still needs a large customer base.  I do find the stories on these major newspaper sites more comprehensive than even on free media sites like NBC, ABC, CNN. Vox, and find the comments more lively.  I do give links to them from my blogs, which means individual visitors could run into paywalls. Some smaller newspapers have put them up, which pretty much makes them useless out of town. In fact, some smaller papers also joined in the copyright troll “Righthaven” a few years ago suing bloggers who posted articles or pictures from their sites, in a forlorn attempt to protect their business models.

I do detect an attitude among some people that knowledge is a perk that should come with power, or with competing successfully in a social or political pecking order.  Today, that sounds like the attitude of authoritarian statist capitalist countries like Russia or (“Communist”) China (let alone North Korea and most of the Islamic world). But when I was growing up, mostly in the 1950s, I encountered this with my own father.  He resented the idea that I could even then “read” things with progressive ideas (like playing “Tin Drum” and consciously avoiding “fats” or smoking or playing football) that countered the cultural pressures of my own family and social environment, which feared gradual loss of status and privilege as a group. These modern notions that I “read” would turn out to be right as the calendar marched on. But I had to learn to live with the idea of being “right-sized” by others who had proved they could compete.   So the open access issue for me sounds not so much about “privatization of knowledge” (as the Aaron Swartz tragedy is presented) as making knowledge an adjunct to social and political hierarchy, even lineage.

I do see appeals for donations for sites (like “Truthout”) that mention the issue and claim they need volunteer help to speak for “us”.  But I don’t need anyone to speak for me!

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As for Jack Andraka, let’s not forget the science accomplishments (in environmental  safety of coal  mines) of his older and now less flamboyant brother Luke (finishing engineering at Virginia Tech).  Or look at the accomplishments of Taylor Wilson, who built a nuclear fusion reactor at 14.  Was access to journals critical for them, too?   The capabilities of the most brilliant kids to work at the graduate level before finishing high school has indeed captivated many and taught us a lesson about “control”. Although we can argue that kids can go slow and go through proper channels to get access “legally”, we could lose out on our next big invention, whether that be new treatments for cancers without chemotherapy, or new technology to protect the power grids from terrorists. Jack comes from Maryland indeed, and I think of governor Larry Hogan, in remission from his own lymphoma, a moderate, pragmatic Republican who would have made a desirable presidential candidate (more so than who we have), someone who could be Andraka’s patient ten years from now.  By the way, also, Jack’s blog post got an interesting perspective from a Canadian perspective, “Open Learning Limitations”, here.

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In 2012, Reid Ewing and Igigistudios made an eight-minute satirica, mockumentary short film “It’s Free”, set in a public library in Los Angeles.  I wish the film were available now.  We need it to anchor the next debate.

(Published: Wednesday, May 25, 2016 at 2:30 PM EDT)

The obsession with ending Obamacare and replacing it with nothing

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Donald Trump aside, I’ve been perplexed by the past tendency of some conservative politicians, most of all Ted Cruz, to focus narrowly on repealing Obamacare (the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act)     This included at least one government shutdown in 2013 essentially over a single issue, and it even threatened to complicate the debt ceiling extension (previous post).  It was the fall of 2013 that the exchanges opened, with many technical debacles very inconvenient for consumers.

The single biggest objection to Obamacare seems to come from the fact that some people lost reasonably priced individual coverage that they already had, when insurance companies had to cancel non-compliant policies.

Forbes has an article by Bruce Japsen, March 15, 2015, indicating that under Obamacare that relatively few policies have been cancelled, as a proportional matter. About 2.2% of people had policies canceled and had to buy possibly much more expensive policies.

Policies were required to have coverages including at least ten elements.  These included covering pre-existing conditions (the most difficult), some mental health and drug treatment services, and maternity and pediatric care.  It seems that some people were expected to pay for coverages they were individually very unlikely to use (single men won’t need maternity care, people without alcohol and drug issues that they see as moral or behavioral are expected to support services for others anyway).

Right away, there is a question about “community solidarity”.  People felt they should take care of their own (themselves and their immediate and extended families) and not other people.   Childless people would pay for other people’s children. Most of all, it seemed as though many people did not feel they should share in the care of people with pre-existing conditions.  The moral tone of the debate sounds familiar (like paid family leave).

Back when I lived in Minneapolis, one of my co-workers cared for a wife with juvenile diabetes.  She would go into a coma right before 9/11 and pass away, never knowing that the attacks had happened.  My general feeling is that the government has to back up the cost of this coverage – and it is supposed to under ACA.  But the government could have done more to encourage insurance companies to set up a comprehensive re-insurance system for pre-existing conditions.

The individual mandate came under fire (finally accepted as constitutional by the Supreme Court, though just barely), more or less for the same moral reasons.  Healthy people didn’t want to pay for the sick.  But anyone can have an accident, caused by someone else.  Anyone can become the “victim” of a random violent crime (or terror attack).  And young adults are vulnerable to sudden emergencies, ranging from appendicitis, to meningitis, to unusual cancers  — ironically because younger people haven’t been on the planet long enough to become immune to some of these perils. Conservatives forget that Mitt Romney, a conservative Republican presidential candidate in 2012, had, as governor of Massachusetts, overseen implementing an individual mandate.

And rather sickening was to see thirty-plus states refuse Medicaid subsidies and set up their own exchanges, on the theory that they didn’t want to see their own poor people become even more “dependent” on government safety nets.

The single payer idea, promoted by Bernie Sanders, will lead to many questions, which I’ll come back to again.  But I’ll note that in January 1998, when I fell in a convenience store on wet floors in Minneapolis and sustained an acetabular fracture, I got a state-of-the-art surgery in two days at the University of Minnesota with a new type of clip to ensure faster healing, the device free because it was experimental.  I was back to work in three weeks and recovered fully (dispensing with crutches for the evening at an Academy Awards party on Hennepin as a celebration).  Under single payer, would I have lay in traction for weeks first to wait for the operation?  True, I had a great employer health plan under ING-Reliastar.

I’ll mention my retiree health insurance, through United Health Care, which was more expensive for me than it had been as an employee.  On a pension of about $800 a month, and premium was about $165.  Hospitalization would have been covered only to 70%. It’s also the case that when I was an employee, out-of-pocket single employee premiums were much cheaper than family premiums.  Only one company, Univac, back in the 1970s, scaled premiums to income.

Donald Trump has said he would end Obamacare and replace it “with something better”, but, as with so many other issues, given no specifics.  In the past, however, Trump has said that society has an obligation to take care of its sick.  How much of it is socialized and how much falls back onto families?

A lot of pundits want to end Obamacare and replace it with nothing. That’s what libertarians want to do with the federal income tax.

(Published: Tuesday, May 24, 2016 at 11 AM EDT)

Social Security is not as hard to fix as the right wing claims, but the ideological and legal questions remain

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Sometime in June 2011, as the first great debt ceiling crisis approached, the House Speaker at the time, John Boehner (R-Ohio, and very much “the cigarette smoking man” from “The X-Files”) suggested that we stop paying wealthier social security beneficiaries, that is, start means-testing, because “we don’t have the money”.

Tea Party conservatives like Michelle Bachman tried to play down the meaning of the debt-ceiling, when in fact failing to extend it means that the federal government really might default on payments for money it already owes for money already authorized by Congress. Discussions of prioritizing payments ensued.  There were historic, abortive meetings between Obama and Boehner, talk of grand bargains, and the like.

Throughout most of 2013, which start with what CNN’s Wolf Blitzer is always called “The Fiscal Cliff”, played out the debt ceiling problem in at least two sequences.  On Blogger, on my “Major Issues Blog”, (debt ceiling category link), I wrote many postings on the nitty gritty of the debate, but wondered if more privileged retirees like me would have to “man up”.

The Social Security debate, like so many other issues, has many compartments, and some of them inspire some emotion.

The most striking problem seems to come from a 1960 Supreme Court Opinion, Flemming v. Nestor, which, in a bizarre sequence related to an immigrant with Communist activities, the Court wound up ruling that the U.S. government is not contractually obliged to pay Social Security benefits to (less needy) recipients even though it has collected FICA taxes (often matched by employers) from them over the years.  Social Security gives its own link here.  The Wall Street Journal published a stinging article by David Rivkin and Lee Casey that mentions the Flemming v. Nestor case (opinion ) and also ratifies some Tea Party ideas on the debt ceiling.

So, theoretically, Congress could cut start means testing recipients today to balance the budget.  Donald Trump, for all his bombast, has actually said we should support Social Security and hasn’t gotten into this area yet (he might strengthen his position in the campaign if he did reassure the public again). The disincentive for Congress to do this is political, not constitutional.

But there is a totally separate issue that got conflated.  In a debt ceiling scenario, the Treasury would have to prioritize payments, and the Social Security Trust Fund is one of the largest claimants.  Maybe bond holders would come first.  But in any legal battle over prioritization, the Trust Fund would probably prevail.  I won’t get into the arcane accounting of the Trust Fund and the OMB.  There are a lot of conflicting accounts online of how it actually works by well-meaning professionals.  But the “upshot” (a favorite “New York Times” word) is that even in a debt ceiling crisis, Social Security recipients would probably continue getting their benefits. Means testing is a totally separate thing.

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The best evidence of this assertion comes from answers to my own comment on a New York Times piece Jan. 13, 2013 (one of a series of five interrelated papers by law professors), especially the second answer.  The article was about “prioritizing debt obligations”, by Lawrence Tribe.

The actual comment is not addressable by URL, but it is the 17th for the article.

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The actual condition of Social Security and the “meaning” of the program are somewhat separate issues.  Social Security can pay benefits as promised until 2034 as of now (own statement), but that deadline year might slip down continually with demographics (fewer children, longer lives).  Reputable conservative writing suggests that the Trust Fund can be kept solvent much longer by changing wage indexing to price indexing (a variation of the COLA increase debate), meaning slightly lower benefits over time.  For example, look at the paper by Stephen Entin at Tax Foundation. This would even obviate the need for major FICA tax increases on workers and wage base escalation.  All of this would accompany gradual raising of full retirement age and even allowable early retirement.

But none of this answers the cultural debate over Social Security. When it started in 1937, the first beneficiaries had not paid into the system.  But over time, most working beneficiaries have benefits (including spousal, which can now include gay partners) correlated to their lifetime FICA contributions, more or less like an annuity.  Benefits have been “promised”.  There are various requirements, like ten covered quarters, and an earnings limit during early retirement, which makes little real sense.

Let’s pause on the early retirement issue. When I was “working” in my long track I.T. career, the “culture” was that you retired early (even at 55).  My pension had a “social security bridge” until I reached 62.  Many private pensions have social security offsets that kick in at 62.  This does not make demographic sense today.  In 2000, my own pension was frozen, and replaced with a more generous 401(k) match.

My own benefit is less than if I had waited to “full retirement” (66-1/2) or even 70-1/2.  But in my circumstances back in 2005, I needed to start it.  My actuarial break-even age is about 77-1/2 (in 2012) and I am nearing 73 now.

I definitely counted on Social Security “keeping its promise” as part of my strategy.  I have viewed it as a quasi-annuity.  Of course that brings up privatization, the biggest advantage of which is that politicians like Boehner couldn’t take it away.  Obviously a private program would need to be tightly regulated.  As a whole, open-ended non-liquid investments are not a very wise way to save for retirement.  Another issue is that lower-income people, or those who have kids early, could not afford to set aside “savings” unless more or less compelled to (which FICA does).

Many critics still say that Social Security is really still “welfare” ( Noam Chomsky says that, in a recent film .  Legally, this seems to be the case.  Liberal critics note that social security disadvantages poor people for not living as long, and for not accumulating as many benefits.  Libertarian Harry Browne has even said that better-off current beneficiaries might have to accept a short-term stiff to go to a privatized system. My own reaction is that, to the extent that it is expected to provide only a bare social safety net, then it should be covered by progressive taxation, but  that sounds like something Bernie Sanders would say.  (What’s wrong with that?)

Nevertheless, the “welfare” mentality often motivates rather careless commentary from some quarters.  For example, in 2013, a few people wrote that social security recipients should brace to ask for handouts from “family and friends”, a rather gratuitous and offensive interpretation.

There is no question that my own formal retirement (at 58, from my last major IT job, during the post 9/11 shock at the end of 2001) was too early.  Indeed, people have tried to “bargain” with me, saying that I ought to be able to sell and pimp things like everyone else, to help support OPC (other people’s children).  That’s a moral topic I’ll come back to again.

This may a good place to mention that some conservative groups consider the interest in Congress in offering a “Chapter 9” pseudo-bankruptcy to Puerto Rico could set a dangerous precedents tempting other states to default, on the backs of bondholders who after often seniors with employer-set-up 401(k)’s.  The Center for Individual Freedom (CFIF) has such a warning here. It uses the adjective, “crushed”.

(Published: Monday, May 23, 2016, at 1 :15 PM EDT)

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Update: June 30, 2016

Here’s a useful perspective by Allan Sloan of the Washington Post: “2030: Social Security’s troubles here and now“.

Implementing paid family leave is harder in a hyperindividualistic society

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Yes, it is certainly true that the United States seems to look bad compared to almost the entire rest of the developed world when it comes to paid maternity leave, slightly less so for paternity and for other family leave needs like eldercare. “Thinkprogress” has a revealing chart here.

So, as I usually do, I must pour cold water on all these pleas for common sense help for mothers of young children, and say that the United States, more than almost any other country, is an hyperindividualistic culture where people bear the responsibilities for their own chosen behaviors.  If so, history is inconsistent, but that’s the direction we’ve been heading.  But it’s fair to ask, then, why didn’t we have (and expect) paid maternity leave, at least, back in the 1950s when society was supposedly much more family-centered? A lot of the issue then just had to do with the position of labor.

Paid family leave is certainly a feel-good thing, but it needs to be “paid for”.  The political Left assumes capitalists can pay for it out of their “profits”.  Businesses say they will have to charge higher prices.

Of course, larger, more progressive companies have started offering paid parental leave on their own, most notably in the tech sector.  That is out of self-interest:  they need to keep their best talent.  Generally, they offer the same leave to new fathers as well as mothers, and often offer it for adoption.  (Mark Zuckerberg made a big show of this for Facebook when his pediatrician wife had her first child.) Some may offer it for eldercare.

The question, then, is should states or municipalities (like San Francisco and Washington DC) require employers to offer it?

My own feeling is nuanced.  Paid parental leave that covers both fathers and mothers (and covers adoption) is “fairer” by gender than paid maternity leave alone. Leave that covers eldercare is still fairer to the childless, who may wind up with disproportionate share of responsibility (see my post on filial responsibility, May 12).  But leave that covers more people (in the name of equality) costs more.

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I think that Washington DC is on the right track with this, in proposing the idea of an “insurance premium” payroll deduction to help pay for the benefit.  Everyone would pay the same premium, except that it could be made progressive with respect to wage (or waived for the lowest wage workers). Charging a premium makes the worker conscious that there is an issue that doesn’t have an easy solution that is always “fair”.  (Indeed, Donald Trump used to say, “Life isn’t fair” on “The Apprentice”). A worker knows that he or she is more likely to use the benefit if he or she does something to deserve it.  The idea could encourage more couples, or in some cases single people (and this includes gays, lesbians and transgender) to adopt children, probably a social development that is needed (although that’s another discussion).  However, Hillary Clinton was reported by Time as against the use of a “consciousness-raising” payroll tax to help pay for the benefit.

One other problem connected with paid leave is how salaried or exempt employees are treated.  In many cases now, if an key employee is out for parental leave, other workers simply do their work, often without being paid extra, even working on their own time.  That may change now for lower paid salaried workers, who according to a recent Labor Department rule now must be paid overtime. Fox News called this development a “career killer” .  In October 1993, I spent an entire weekend in the office on production problems after end-of-month when the scheduled person was on maternity leave.  I did not get paid for the time, nor did I ask to be.  I simply “lowballed” workers with heavier family responsibilities.  Then I would learn my lesson with my own mother’s situation a few years later.

Some companies try to offer alternatives to parental leave for associates without children. But then, logically, there is no inherent benefit for becoming a parent. You can’t have it both ways, but you can only pretend to.

Many people, aghast at the idea of evaluating mom’s leave benefits through the lens of “moral hazard“, will see this issue of one of social solidarity, about living in a community and sharing some longterm goals rather than in the narrower sense of fairness related to one’s own actions.  European countries are used to seeing things this way. It’s interesting to note the response of the public to mothers’ crowdfunding their own maternity leave (NBC Today story).

I’ll share this second video by a young woman who discusses “unintended consequences” of making paying for maternity leave alone mandatory.

Note that she correctly describes the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act as providing for unpaid family leave (which can include eldercare and is gender neutral). She also notes that many employers prefer married men but unmarried women, which can bear on sexual orientation discrimination at least indirectly.

There is another related concept, which social conservatives sometimes discussed in the 1990s (like in Henry Hyde’s “Mom and Pop Manifesto” in Policy), called the family wage, which in theory is enough pay to allow a family with two children or so to live on one income.  The far left tried to push this idea in Spokane, WA recently, as in this “Triblive” article by Colin McNickle, Aug. 25, 2015, calling it a “progressive cancer”. The concept is discussed in Chapter 5 of my first DADT book.

(Published: Friday, May 20, 2016 at 12:45 PM EDT)

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Update: July 5: Ezra Klein on Vox goes back to the subject of paid maternity leave alone when he relates the story of a thought experiment on Mothers Day by Cardstore.

Update July 9:  David Brooks pens an essay “The Power of Altruism” which would seem to defang the idea that the childless should be so concerned about paying for other people’s children (OPC), or other people’s relationships or sexual intercourse (stripped of community context).  Elinor Burlett had gone there were her 2000 book “The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless“, although she fielded the idea that the willfully childless “cheat the system”.

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Update: August 4, 2016

The Foundation for Economic Education has an article by David R. Henderson, “How paid family leave will backfire on young people.”

Schools are re-segregating, a trend difficult to reverse

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US schools are gradually resegregating themselves, despite two terms with its first African-American president. That’s the story in the Washington Post on Wednesday, May 18, 2016, “On the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, New data shows S.E. schools are resegregating” by Emma Brown.

Indeed, the famous case with the Topeka, KS public school system was settled May 17, 1954.   I would enter “junior high school” (seventh grade then) in Arlington VA that fall.  Our General Education teacher (English and social studies were combined then through ninth grade) taught us the facts relatively early in the school year starting in September of 1955, when I had turned 12.  We wrote little papers on it. We learned about the paradox of “separate but equal”.  But the courts allowed desgregation to proceed “With All Deliberate Speed“, as with a 2004 film by Peter Gilbert. We all remember the bitter battles over school integration in the South in the early to mid 60s.

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But in the Arlington school system (in the 50s), there were very few non-white students (and those could include a few Asians, Hispanics and native Americans  — in fact, a distant relative on my father’s side was half native, and I don’t know whether I have any of that heritage or not).  The high school, Washington-Lee, where I would graduate in June 1961, was one of the top ten public high schools in the United States at the time, shortly after Sputnik when President Kennedy was pushing aerospace education.  There was a vague, rarely spoken, fear, that forced integration could force the lowering of academic standards.

In the mid 1960s, when I went to George Washington University while “living at home” and worked a summer job in the Navy Department, there was a lot of talk about “forced bussing”.  My feeling was, as a student, I wouldn’t have time to be bussed around just to force an arbitrary balance in students according to membership in a class defined by a superficial biological characteristic of no functional importance or significance.  We all knew that then. (Actually, we are all “black” because the first modern humans came from Africa. When I got to the Army in 1968, I quickly saw racial progress;  many of the drill sergeants were black. (Truman had done something about that in 1948, as in the well-acted HBO film with Gary Sinese.)

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But just recently (a half-century later), there was a court order forcing two middle schools in Cleveland, MS to consolidate.

When I worked as a substitute teacher in Fairfax County and Arlington school systems (2004-2005; 2007), schools seem to have a population that followed the areas in which they were located.  There were more blacks and Hispanics in the southern parts of these counties.  Generally, it seemed as if Hispanic students had the most difficulty with school.  But on a couple of occasions, I ran into discipline issues, one of which conceivably could have been gang-related.  I give details here.

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It’s obvious that in many communities, normal funding of schools is not sufficient.  In Detroit, teachers were threatened with simply having pay cut off, and staged a sickout, until resolution, CNN story.

In “The Upshot” in the New York Times today, Kevin Carey explains “The uproar over trying to help poor schoolchildren“, with the narrative of John King, Jr., secretary of education.

(Published on Thursday, May 19, 2016, at 8:45 PM EDT)

Immigration is a very nuanced issue, but the US can learn from Canada’s example

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Donald Trump may have accelerated the idea of immigration as a political flash point.  But any understanding of the area requires what systems analysts call “functional decomposition”.  The issue plays out differently with immigrants from various parts of the world, with varying needs and skills.

The world locations creating the biggest controversies are mainly Syria and Iraq, and Central America and Mexico.  Some immigrants have technical skills in short supply, causing tech companies like Facebook to argue for more liberal visa policies.  Others take jobs that Americans don’t want, like picking fruit, and are abused, much as an Bolshevik would say. Some have children in the US, who become US citizens as “anchor babies”, entitled to all normal services like public school education (requiring teachers with ESOL skills, in short supply). So many diverse and criss-crossing policy problems arise.

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But there is also a question of moral responsibilities of more fortunate Americans.  And it’s well to work this question inside-out.

So let’s start with the Syrian refugee issue. Most are Caucasian, and most are Muslim, but a few are Christian or other faiths.   Yes, European countries took many times more than the US, and are now resisting it.  The biggest roadblock seems to be security, the fear that a “Trojan horse” terrorist could immigrate (this has happened in Europe, and the Tsarnaev brothers, from Russia   had immigrated legitimately.  Statistically, the risk is very low, but the potential consequences to those affected are very great.  The US says it cannot easily vet most refugees from the chaos of a civil war zone. There may be a better chance of clearing a family or person with refugees already in the US.

So, then, look at the Canadian program.  Robin Shulman has a big story in the Washington Post May 5, “While other countries are turning Syrian refugees away, Canadians are taking them home”.   Yes, individual Canadians are getting involved, very personally. Nonprofits and “faith-based” groups (a term that would please George W. Bush) are doing all the leg work of finding housing and jobs, and other services.  Sometimes individuals are families are indeed housed in “spare bedrooms” of those willing to extend such “radical hospitality”, but most often the groups find landlords or smaller apartment building owners willing to help (often church members). Newsy has a detailed story about how one specific Syrian family is being helped in Ontario.

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The Post says that the United States “does not permit private sponsorship” the way Canada does.  It actually has in the past a few times, as with Soviet Jews and with the Mirabel Boat Lift from Cuba in 1980.  Usually when it does there is a political undertone  (anti-Communism, for example), and “Documented” (2014) by former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas.

The Niskanen Center in Washington DC recently published a white paper “Private Refugee Resettlement in the U.S., History”, link, by Dave Bier and Matthew La Corte.  (See endnote below.)

Yet, it’s fair to ask, how would this idea work with Central American refugees (mostly speaking Spanish or Mayan and often Roman Catholic). And if a private sponsorship model is to work, why not imagine a program for domestic homeless that is much more personally engaging than what we do now?  Thought experiments abound:  one could imagine nudging seniors living alone but with means (like me) to take them in.  Somewhat ironically, a GOP-controlled Congress is not likely to be interested in these ideas (let alone Donald Trump).

Another major group sometimes needing assistance would be gays and lesbians (and transgender sometimes) seeking political asylum, which is somewhat a different concept legally. The anti-gay laws in some countries (notably Russia, Uganda, Nigeria, and some others, subsuming, of course, the Middle East and the Islamic world) has create a need for asylum.  Gay newspapers like the Washington Blade have reported on a few cases.  There has been some effort to organize more support from private people in a few cities, especially Chicago.  For the most part, gay asylum is a very difficult process.  There has not been a lot of public pressure to look for more sponsors so far in most of the country. Serious other problems in all of these countries (like Boko Haram in Nigeria or the Ukraine issue in Russia) have tended to divert mainstream, journalists from covering the gay issue in enough detail. Authoritarian leaders (like Vladimir Putin) have been all too willing to use the LGBT populations as convenient diversions or even scapegoats from their other economic, sectarian and security problems.

The situation was different in 1980, when the gay communities in southern states, beleaguered by social hostility, were often asked to help house Cuban refugees, many of whom were gay.  I give a lot of details about my personal connection to this here  as I was living in Dallas at the time.

It’s important to note that LGBT people experienced a long history of other discrimination, as I have already summarized here.

The Cato Institute held a forum on “The Economics of Immigration” on Jan. 6, 2016, with my writeup here  covering some of this same ground.  In that posting, there is an embed where Dave Bier discusses immigration and private sponsorship of refugees with libertarian journalist John Stossel.

An important recent book is “The Economics of Immigration” edited by Benjamin Powell, Oxford University Press.

Some relevant films include “The Good Lie” (2014, directed by Phillippe Falradeau, based on “The Lost Boys of Sudan”), “The Golden Dream” (2015, by Diego Qiuemada-Diez), about Central American escapees, and “Documented” (2014) by Jose Antonio Vargas.

I think that you also have to contemplate immigration in connection with other foreign and military policy issues.  For example, the U.S. and western powers could decide to help provide “safe zones” in the Middle East (as there are already a huge number of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and, of course, Turkey).  That would involve the sensitive issue of committing many more US troops again, but quantitatively, this could help many more refugees.  It’s fair to ask, why haven’t wealthy Muslim countries like UAE done more?  Similar issues could arise providing help to Mexico and Central American countries controlling drug cartels in some areas.

A retrograde issue concerns the inclination and ability of US non-profits and especially faith groups to send volunteers to unstable or challenged countries.  This comes to mind since churches with which I am familiar have sent young adult (college and older teen) groups, engineering graduates, and other assistance to countries like Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and even countries in Africa including Kenya and Sudan.  But it would be very difficult for some people (like LGBT people) to serve in many of these countries on humanitarian missions.

Another more distantly related issue is whether charities should encourage Americans or others in western countries to “sponsor” individual children in poor countries (especially in Africa). Save the Children did that in the 1970s, when I started contributing, and I agreed to that, getting a different “child” about once a year, and getting letters.  I had no idea how to respond to this personally, and I wonder if this is a good idea ethically and psychologically, unless the sponsor intends to visit the country and adopt the child. Some faith-based charities promote this concept aggressively today in social media, such as BaNgaAfayo.

Visitors will want to look at the history of the proposed (unpassed) Dream Act.  A recent discussion (by Robert Barnes) of President Obama’s plan to shield many undocumented workers from deportation in the Washington Post (the effect in Los Angeles) is here.

On Facebook, a friend has linked a disturbing and belligerent story from a French site, translating into something like, “Open your borders or die,” here. And the New York Times has a column May 17, p. A21, “Refugees aren’t bargaining chips” by Ben Rawlence (“Kenya is using 400,000 Somali refugees to blackmail Europe”).

(Published: Tuesday, May 17, 2016 at 9 PM EDT)

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Update: End-notes:

On Thursday, May 19, the Niskanen Center published a letter it had sent to the US State Department encouraging making private foundation support for refugees legal and even aggressively pursuing philanthropy and the setting up of services somewhat following the Canadian system. Note the “four models”, including personal service, in Section VIII of the letter.

Update: Thursday, 23, 2016

The Supreme Court let stand in a 4-4 tie a lower-court ruling denying President Obama the ability to allow undocumented immigrants to apply to stay in the US legally;  CNN report by Ariane de Vogue and Takl Kolpan; Washington Post story by Robert Barnes and William Branigin. It’s important to note that undocumented spouses of legal residents might be subject to deportation without Obama’s action, although not natural born children; so the GOP is being depicted here as a “family buster” in opposing Obama in court on this matter.

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Update: Thursday, June 30, 2016

Michael Weiss (CNN journalist) tweeted this PRI story about a Jewish family in Berlin, Germany housing a (Muslim) Syrian refugee in a “spare bedroom” in the family home, could not happen in the US now.

WJLA-7 in Washington has a disturbing story involving teen kids of gang members from Central America, which would seem to support some of Donald Trump’s “be tough” attitudes, here.

Students need to accept free speech from others on campus, and not expect to feel “safe” all the time

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Michael Bloomberg (former New York City mayor) offers an important op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Friday May 13, 2016, “Why Free Speech Matters on Campus” with a subtext “’Safe spaces’ will create graduates unwilling to tolerate different opinions – a crisis in a free society”.

Bloomberg spoke at an annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign a few years ago (I think in 2013).  His article makes the point that free speech an open debate makes ideas offensive to many in earlier generations mainstream today.  Now this includes marriage equality;  a few years ago it was the service of gays in the military, and a dozen years ago it was taking down sodomy laws.

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The debate is amplified by user-generated content on the Web (most of all in social media, but also in person-owned websites and self-published books).  Even if most people get the bulk of their news from establishment sources, the bulk of views that is “out there” to be found has a big impact on changing attitudes.  Likewise, the possibility of accepting different points of view on a campus is a major way of opening the next generation of adults to ideas that may be necessary for a society to sustain its freedoms.  (How about the science of climate change and green energy?)

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But, it is true, most of the concerns about speech codes have come about from left-leaning campuses concerned about protecting select groups because of the specific histories these groups have with past antagonism from society.  There is a tendency to portray some people as victims, and to coerce others to join in with propagating or even sham-experiencing the victimhood.   The controversy has included insistence of having “media free zones” for campus protests, even on publicly-owned property (the Melissa Click firing from the journalism school at the University of Missouri) and also the notion of defining certain insular personal behaviors as “microaggressions” that can lead to some sort of campus sanction or discipline. I’ve covered this on Blogger in numerous postings, by label, here.

On the other hand, there is plenty of intolerance on some conservative and sectarian campuses, too.  My own expulsion from William and Mary in the fall of 1961 can be viewed as the result of a speech code cast upside-down.

The video below notes that many students have been reared to expect to be “safe” from being made “uncomfortable” and that its odd to see the speech codes from the students themselves.  (Somehow I think of the line “Is it safe?” from “Marathon Man“.)   There is mention of the “Seahawk Respect Compact”  at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and of the “Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression”.  I think another possible interpretation is the converse;  some more radical students may want to see others walk in the shoes of the dispossessed before they are heard from.

The group FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) offers its own Guide to Free Speech on Campus.

(Published: Saturday, May 14, 2016 at 3:15 PM EDT)

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Update: Nov. 17

Watch this short film “The Yak in the Room” by Nathan Gelfand-Tourant.  Now, saying you’re not attracted to the opposite race is itself hurtful racism. Maybe this little movie is the antithesis of “Loving“.

What rights do consumers really have when “buying” digital products online?

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When you “buy” a copy of a movie or music mpeg online, do you have the right to lend or give that copy away, just as with physical phonograph records, CDs, VHS or Beta tapes, or of course DVD’s?  All of this is related to the “first sale” doctrine.

Don’t confuse this with another idea:  under the Digital Millennium Copy Right Act of 1998, you don’t have a right to make copies of the CD’s and DVD’s, and there are copy protection firmware devices to make this difficult.

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I can remember, back in the 1960s, myself and another friend sometimes made open-reel tapes of records.  I remember taking a tape of Verdi’s Requiem and other favorite records on my first extended business trip to Indiana from the East Coast back in 1970 (throwing a tape deck in the trunk for the temporary move).  This was probably illegal, but we justified it morally because we both bought a lot of vinyl records.

But even to share or lend digital copies, it seems not.

Electronic Frontier Foundation has an article by Kit Walsh, “What do costumers think when they buy digital media online?”   The article goes into the differences between “Buy Now” and “License Now”.  It would seem intuitive that “License now” would confer fewer rights.  It would be more like renting a movie or video for a short period.  The paper refers to a U-Cal Berkeley study of “What We Buy When We ‘Buy Now'” by Aaron Perzanowski and Chris Jay Hoofnagle.  (I am reminded of “Buy More” in the NBC “Chuck” series with Zachary Levi.

My experience is that when I buy a copy of music or a movie, I own the “copy” in the Amazon or Apple cloud.  I do depend on the companies’ staying in business and for the cloud infrastructure to work (not be destroyed by enemies and hackers, but that can happen with physical property).  I did have a problem recently working with an Amazon rental (it needed a new Silverlight version) and an opera  (Chris Cerrone’s interesting “Invisible Cities”) MPG (had trouble saving it, but I had watched the opera “free” on YouTube and effectively paid the artist through Bandcamp about $10 for what amounted to a rental or a  Soho-style theater ticket).

Keep in mind another possible threat: items stored in clouds (“nuages”) could someday be scanned for illegal content.  Maybe a recent strengthening of electronic privacy (countering the 180 rule) will help counter that risk (Congressional link on HR 699).  This concept could come up either with direct cloud storage or with saving an object on one’s own hard drive and allowing a cloud backup service to archive it. Stay tuned on this.

(Published: Friday, May 13, 2016 at 2 PM EDT)