Friday, May 13, 2016

Information and National Security

Chapter 24.1 from Living in the Future Tense: Information, Knowledge and National Security. This material may be reproduced and the Exercise used with appropriated citation.

National Security vs. Privacy of Information
Edward Renner

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Amendment IV, U. S. Constitution, Dec. 15, 1791

Julliette Kayyem, a former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security wrote: “A nation free from threat wouldn’t be free.” Therein lies the dilemma.

Under what circumstances does the government’s need for access to private information trump a person's right to privacy? The issue is a dilemma because the problem is not simply a “never” or “always” issue, and because 21st century digital communication technology has created totally new situations that did not exist when the constitutional constraints were created in1791.

Two recent events have brought the extrapolation of the Fourth Amendment to 21st Century into contemporary focus. The first is the FBI’s legal challenge of Apple to gain access to the contents of a specific iPhone in order to obtain the contacts of a known terrorist. The second is the release of the Panama papers disclosing the extensive use of offshore shell corporations to hide large amounts of wealth by the rich and famous from taxation.

Both the fear of terrorism and the anger over America’s richest individuals having an estimated $1.2 trillion stashed in offshore tax havens are highly charged issues. Accessing private registers of stocks and bonds and transferring the information to a public record would allow tax collectors to find and tax this hidden wealth. However, the cases should not be the occasion for emotional either/or arguments between security and taxation versus privacy, all of which are statutory responsibilities of government. Rather, the debate should be about the general concepts that define the constraints between government’s need to know and an individual’s privacy, which can then be applied to any specific case.

Fortunately, social science research on human decision-making has provided knowledge about why making such decisions are often difficult, and how to resolve the resulting dilemmas. Under highly emotional conditions, such as fear or anger, people’s attention becomes narrowly focused and they often make choices that are objectively poor; likewise, strongly held ideological beliefs and values can bias judgements. One solution to this human weakness is to first establish a rational frame of reference before attempting to make the decision. This decision-making process requires participants who are not competing to win their point of view, but rather one’s who share the mutual goal of finding the best possible solution. The decision then becomes a matter for cooperative democratic civic participation.

An essential part of restoring respect to our democratic political process is to rise above our current practice of making such decisions based on fear, anger or ideological beliefs and values, rather than using social science knowledge and factual information to make rational decisions. In such cases, the rational context is a matrix which establishes the general principles as a legislative matter. The matrix itself does not provide the answer, but rather is a process for solving the problem.

The methodology

Step 1: There are a limited number of considerations for determining the issue of when government’s access to information should trump personal privacy. In this illustrative exercise I will limit the number to three obvious ones.
·         How essential is the access?
·         How intrusive is the access?
·         How adequate are the safeguards to prevent abuse?
In an actual application there can be as many considerations as can be rationally justified.

Step 2: Rate each of the issues on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 100 (always).  There are established psychometric procedures for creating such scales that can be used reliably.

Step 3: Weight the relative importance of each of the considerations by allocating a total of 100% between each of the three.

The Application

Of course, different people will assign different scores. But, that is exactly the point; it is to provide an objective basis for civic discussion about the reasons for any given score and its relative weight. For example: How reasonable is my assumption that access to the iPhone’s contact list is unlikely to identify anyone who has not already been identified or who could not be identified in other ways? Or, is there any good reason to treat accessing information from off-shore sources as more intrusive than requiring a W-2 form to be submitted by a recognized employer?

The matrix focuses attention on the assumptions on which the ratings are made, and on identifying the relevant facts and information. The methodology can be applied to any situation that requires establishing the appropriate balance between government intrusion and personal privacy. With the matrix, it is possible to compare qualitatively different situations, such as terrorism and tax evasion (i.e., apples and oranges).

The Results
The matrix yields a score between 1 (reflecting a situation where government access would be an unreasonable invasion of privacy) and 100, (where there would be absolutely no doubt that access was an absolutely reasonable intrusion into individual privacy).
 As a civics exercise, the process allows for widespread participation in four ways:

·         Individuals can engage in a face-to-face discussion about their own ratings in a structured way that promotes thoughtful reflection.
·         The exercise is actually a class from my university course. Newspapers, schools, social media and any other institution can use the method as a tool for promoting participatory civics.
·         The matrix is a research tool for scholarship on issues of public policy. Professional surveys can provide descriptive statistical distributions showing averages and the range and extent of deviations. This allows social comparisons for individuals to see where they stand with respect other groups of people (e.g., male vs. female, younger vs. older) and where there is consensus.
·         Substantial civic discussion can directly support a legislative process based on public participation and consensus rather than on legislation authored by lobbyists representing special interests.

The Conclusion

Such a process is a modern replication of the Commons Green where popular civic participation can take place. Once the general principles are identified, they can be given legislative status to enable the FBI or IRS to know the legal constrains for doing their job. Of course, such legislation is likely to find its way to the Supreme Court. But, such a process of functional democracy would rescue a court of elderly Justices from being the ones extrapolating “unreasonable” from 1791 to modern times in the narrow context of a terrorist’s iPhone or a cloud based data file. Rather, their task would be to decide if the process and resulting legislation had established what is or is not an unreasonable intrusion into privacy today.

Decision making as a rational process is an example of democracy at work in which popular participation can replace the fact-free ideological chatter that has been the defining characteristic of the current political process. We have the capacity to do this. The time is overdue for modern knowledge and technology to become the currency of politics as the means to meet the new challenges -- such as environmental collapse or an unstainable national debt -- of living in the 21st Century.

(Use the Exercise Box below to create your own matrix for defining the basis for the balance between security and privacy, and for discussing your perspective with that of others in the service of finding common consensus.)

 Edward Renner is a retired university professor who writes on the modern human challenge of how to live sustainably and peacefully on a crowded planet in the 21st Century. A prepublication draft copy of his most recent book is available at He may be reached at


The issues
(1)  Should the government be able to force Apple to help the FBI gain access to the content of a specific iPhone in order to learn the contact network of a known terrorist?
(2)  Should the government be able to access registers of stocks and bonds and transfer the information to a public record that would allow tax collectors to find and tax hidden wealth?

Assign a score of 1 to 100 for each of the three considerations for both the iPhone and Panama Papers. Give a relative percentage weight to each of the three considerations such that their sum is 100%. Multiple each score by the weight and record the calculated value of each consideration. Add the values to obtain the score for each issue. This final sum will be a score between 1 (government access is an unreasonable intrusion into protected privacy) and 100 (government access to private information is absolutely reasonable).

Score (1 to 100)
Weight (.01 to 1.0)
Value (Score x Weight)
Not Essential = 1,
Very Essential = 100

Very Intrusive = 1,
Not Intrusive = 100

Inadequate Safeguards = 1,
Adequate Safeguards = 100

Panama Papers
Score (1 to 100)
Weight (.01 to 1.0)
Value (Score x Weight)
Not Essential = 1,
Very Essential = 100

Very Intrusive = 1,
Not Intrusive = 100

Inadequate Safeguards = 1,
Adequate Safeguards = 100


After completing the exercise consider comparing your responses, and the reasons for them, with others by posting your scores and comments, and by reading and responding to the comments posted by others.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Three Myths of the 2016 GOP Presidential Debates

Published in the Tampa Bay Times, Saturday, April 2, 2016.
Debunking U. S. Debt Myths
Edward Renner

The federal debt is too big compared with the size of the U.S. economy, and it’s getting worse. But there is a mythology surrounding the “why,” and it’s important to debunk it point by point to understand the real reason — that we’re going deeper and deeper into debt because we won’t tax ourselves to pay for the government we want, instead running up the debt year after year until it is actually larger than the entire economy. (This chart shows the debt as a percentage of the Gross Domestic Product — that is, as a percentage of the U.S. economy as well as federal revenue and spending.) Let’s dismiss three myths, one by one.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, U. S. Office of Management and Budget

Notes: The annual budget deficit is the amount each year that federal spending exceeds federal revenue. This annual difference has been added to the cumulative federal debt each year from 1981 to 2016, plus the interest due on the borrowed money. These annual deficits account for the rapid growth of the federal debt over the last 35 years. A high level of debt is very dangerous in the absence of economic growth. The debt, combined with its carrying charges, goes up really fast when not covered by growth in the GDP — such as was the case during the Great Recession — even if revenue and spending remain constant, requiring more of the spending to be directed to debt carrying charges, leaving less for government programs. And when the debt exceeds 100 percent of the GDP, an accelerating downward spiral can spin out of control, hurting the economy, killing jobs and cutting the GDP, thus intensifying the problem by increasing the amount by which the debt exceeds the capacity to pay. This is what happened to Greece.

Myth No. 1. The Federal Government has grown too big and too expensive.

The size of the Federal Government, measured relative to the US economy, has remained constant at about 20% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) since the Reagan administration in 1981. The factors associated with an increase in the GDP over these years – a population growth of 90 million people, economic globalization, new technologies and digital communication – are also associated with an increase in Federal Spending – a modern army, roads, airports, higher levels of education, international agreements, and structures for world travel, trade, finance and mass communication. Failure to have kept pace with changing times would have been a failure in the roles and responsibilities of government itself.

Myth No. 2. Taxes cuts will be good for the economy and create jobs.

Prior to 1981, taxes were always increased to pay for government expenses. To cover the cost of World War II and to reduce the nation’s war debt, the marginal tax rate was over 90% on income above $400,000 from 1951 through 1963, a period of working class prosperity. At the start of the Reagan period, the national debt had been reduced to its previous highs of around 30% of GDP after the Civil War and WWI. The tax cuts of the Reagan period did not stimulate economic growth to replace the loss of tax revenue as promised. Instead, the tax cuts resulted in spending exceeding revenue each year, thus creating annual budget deficits that increased the cumulative national debt – year by year -- to over 60% of the GDP. The end of the cold war (1991) eventually provided a peace dividend in which revenue exceeded expenses, creating an annual surplus that allowed the total national debt to be reduced to less than 60% of GDP by the year 2000. However, rather than continue to use this annual budget surplus to reduce the national debt, additional tax cuts under President George W. Bush, combined with the added expense of the war on terror, increased the national debt to over 80% of the GDP. Then, the financial crises of 2008 further reduced government revenue and required an economic stimulus package that increased the national debit to over 100% of GDP under President Barack Obama.

Myth No. 3. Government regulations are hurting business, killing jobs and are bad for the economy.

It was lack of regulation that produced the financial crisis of 2008, created massive unemployment and undermined the economy. The US is already one of the least regulated economies in the world. Over the last decade, the World Bank has ranked the US no lower than seventh and as high as third on ease of doing business. The rankings are based on the amount of required government procedures, and on the types of regulations on employment standards and production practices. Singapore, Hong Kong and recently South Korea are the principle competitors for greater ease of doing business. In contrast, 31st (out of 34 market democracies) is the average rank of the countries with whom the US is most comparable in worker safety, economic security and environmental standards. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Ownership of Knowledge

Is the Ownership and Control of Knowledge an Issue?

“The digital age has produced significant changes in our everyday life. But, the disruptions we are most familiar with – Facebook, Google and – are but the tip of the iceberg. Largely hidden from awareness is the transition into a new era where business, education, employment and the role of government will significantly change, all within single lifetime.”
Edward Renner, Forums for a Future

There is no precedent for how to make the transition from the present into the new digital age. In the future, the current source of wealth and power -- land and resources -- and the means to achieve them -- legions and mercantilism -- will no longer be effective. This will make everything negotiable, including the purposes wealth and power will come to serve. These two issues – means and purpose -- must be brought into conscious awareness to safely navigate passage into the new digital era.

The Means to Power and Wealth

The means to power and wealth for the first 5000 years of human history was the control of land and sea. This required soldiers and ships and was geographically defined. For the next 500 years, natural resources and industrialization was the means to wealth and power through mercantilism defined by material physical objects. Now, for the next 50 years, ownership and control of information and knowledge through transactional exchanges in virtual time and places will become the new reigns to wealth and power.

Wealth and Power
Before 1500 AD
The Past Tense
1500 to 2000
The Present Tense
2000 to 2050
The Future Tense
Number of Years
Natural Resources

This is the reason the current assumption is that knowledge and information are intellectual property: A period of protection is provided by patents (20 years) and copyrights (70 years after the death of the author) to give the creator an exclusive monopoly to make money as a reward for their creation. The belief has been that this incentive will stimulate innovation that would otherwise be absent, to the advantage of everyone.

While intellectual property rights might seem like a natural extension of land and resources as the means to power and wealth, there are collateral consequences which call into question whether these extensions are any longer appropriate.

As a simple example, drug companies have used their patient protection to make large profits which have supported lobbyists to influence government policies that promote profits at the expense of health. In free-trade agreements, economic development for poor nations has been made contingent upon the enforcement of US patent protections when those countries are in no positon to reject foreign investments. Without these special arrangements big pharmaceuticals would be required by market forces to sell their pills at a lower price; as a result, health becomes an expensive commodity. Trade has never been truly free, it is regulated by governments, which is why identical drugs are less expensive in Canada and cannot easily be imported in to the US.

In education, the role of public schools and colleges has been the primary means for achieving equality of opportunity and upward mobility in the US. However, this essential role for supporting democratic values is threatened by the commodification of education. Reductions in government support for higher education have opened the path for venture capital to flow into every aspect of public education: Tuition increases resulting in high levels of student loan debt as a personal responsibility, for profit on-line learning, digital textbooks, adaptive learning technologies, and the privatization of public schools. All of these, and many more trends, serve private interests, not the public goal of elevating general knowledge to be an effective civic mediator of wealth and power.

But even more disruptive is the impact on employment and the human condition. Geoff Colvin in his article in Fortune (Oct., 22, 2015) described how controlling knowledge and information allows for off-loading the cost of land, resources and labor and degrading their value: The world’s most valuable retailer (Alibaba) holds no inventory, the largest provider of accommodations (Airbnb) owns no real estate and the largest car service (Uber) owns no cars. Owners of physical assets are forced to compete with each other by cutting wages and accepting slimmer profit margins, creating a race to the bottom for the majority of people.

Wealth and power will continue to accrue to those who own and control transactions, rather than the material products. Although Apple is considered a manufacturer, it produces no products; it has capital assets worth $172 billion, but a market value of $639 billion.  In contrast, Exxon Mobil has most its value ($330 billon) in physical assets ($304 billion).

The Purpose

At issue is whether we create a universal market economy where everything only has value as an economic transaction; or, whether we must retain essential processes of living which are not reducible to commercial ownership.

The alternative assumption is that knowledge and information are common wealth, and that the unquestioned transition from natural resources and industrialization to knowledge and information must be broken, or else global wealth and power will increasing be centralized into fewer and fewer hands at the expense of the human condition.

The simple case is the belief that neither health nor education is an economic commodity, and that the process of business is more important than the products of pills, textbooks and the occupational skills of individual workers. If these trends continue, health, mind and body will become a commodity in which the human condition itself is a derivative of financial products.

At the more fundamental level is the belief that profits should come from the mass distribution and use of new innovations. Simply, the purpose of knowledge and information is not to serve as an instrument for financial gain, but for an improvement in the human condition. As a practical example, rather than profit from a pill for $1,000 for one person, make it available for $1 for 1,000 people. One basis for the belief that modern knowledge and information are common wealth is that the pace of change is so fast now that the time line from innovation to full application must be immediate. The foundation for this potential has resulted from most creative work being paid for by public research grants conducted by non-profit institutions, and supported by a context of public investments in universal education, and the arts and humanities. Public domain is the new context.

The larger choice we have to make is whether the role of government in the 21st Century is to continue to facilitate the transition to information and knowledge as property, or to reconceive whether all means for wealth and power, including the air, land, sea and natural resources, should also be administered as common wealth. Are not we all – peoples and our institutions – temporary tenants on a planet we neither invented nor created.

This new digital era of human history will provide an opportunity for an alternative human social history. The danger, if it does not, is that this will be the final chapter for the physical existence of the planet and for the continued evolution of the human condition. Can human intelligence take human kind to a higher level, or will we crash because we cannot let go of economic value as the ultimate measure of human progress? Is this as good as it gets -- the grand finale of the great human experiment?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Knowledge as Public Domain

Living in the Future Tense, Chapter 17.2: Knowledge and Information and the Human Condition

Wisdom and the Human Condition
Edward Renner

For 5,000 years, humans lived in the past tense: “Yesterday was the same as tomorrow.”  Elders had a lifetime of personal experiences and they maintain the oral history of the society. They were the keepers of the existing knowledge and wisdom that provided meaning to their lives. This meaning was mediated by leaders who were seen to have the capacity to communicate with the Gods who were responsible for their external fate at the hands of nature. This imperial wisdom dictated the human condition for most of human history.

For the next 500 years people lived in the present tense: “Today can be whatever we want it to be.”  Roughly from 1500 to 2000 A.D., humans made a gradual but incomplete transition to living mostly in the present tense. The transition started with Columbus and Copernicus who showed that the earth was round and that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of the universe, which we now understand to be the solar system.

Increasingly, scientific information created alternative belief systems about the purpose and meaning of human life. Human fate was seen to be less at the mercy of the gods, and increasingly as a function of human ingenuity and instrumentality. The nation state came to replace the church as the principal keeper of the knowledge and information which dictated the human condition.

But now, for the next 50 years, we must start living in the future tense: “Tomorrow’s social, economic and political constraints must become today’s reality.” We must live today as if it where tomorrow or else there will be no tomorrow for our children. There are still vestiges of living in the past tense with their roots in religion, as well as global economic, political and social institutions rooted in the nationalism of the present tense. This time, however the transition must occur over the time span of an individual lifetime: that of the millennials. The Millennial Challenge is to reconceive our collective body of knowledge and wisdom for living peacefully and sustainably on a crowded planet in the 21st Century as the new defining moment for the human condition.

The Millennial Challenge
When we lived in the present tense under the umbrella of the nation state, the human conditions were largely dictated by the time and place where any given individual had the fortune or misfortune to happen to live. What makes this transition – The Anthropocene -- unique is that nature itself is at the mercy of human activity rather than the reverse as it has been in the past.

As a result, the major populations of the world must within the period of a single life time come to share a mutual understanding that civilization as we know it is at risk. The challenge is essential although seemly impossible. Yet, there is a precedent: In 1982, one million people demonstrated in New York Central Park against nuclear weapons and for an end of the arms race. The powerful nations of the world backed down from the arms race of the cold war with a series of disarmament and nonproliferation agreements that dramatically reduced the stockpile of nuclear weapon, all within one lifetime. There is reason for hope.

The Role of the United States

The first order of business is to put to rest the dominate economic and political ideologies upon which living in the present tense has been based: consumerism, deferred environmental costs and continuous economic growth, as well as tax reductions, reduced government regulation and limited roles for government. Among all of the nations in the world, the United States has exemplified and set the standard for living in the present tense. As such, the United States has a special obligation to lead the transition toward a new alternative.

Living in the present tense was a grand experiment, but we now know that it is not sustainable. The question is whether the Unites States in the midst of its affluence can reconceive itself as essential for its own survival. This will be a crucial test of whether the democratic process which provided the freedom for capitalism to thrive has the capacity to be self-correcting when it has sown the seeds for its own limit.

Relinquishing the Past Tense

The second order of business is relinquishing the residual elements of living in the past tense. There are still those who believe in a past in which intermediators with God dictate the human condition.

Spanish conquistadors were bound by the king of Spain to read “The Requirement” to all foreign people, in order to give them a chance to submit, before attacking them. It informed foreign powers their lands had been donated to Spain in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI. Thus, as an agent of the one true God, the conquistadors gave indigenous people the opportunity to submit to the obedience of the Pope and the King of Spain (Ronald Wright, Stolen Contents).

Today, there are Christian candidates for the presidency of the United States and Muslim Jihadist who, based on such articles of faith, are engaged in a modern reenactment of 1493. This residue of religious wisdom has survived relative unscathed five centuries of human intellectual progress. The political, economic and social ideologies of the past and present are dead ideas as alternatives to the knowledge-based rational civic discourse required for living in the future tense.

Claiming the Future

The third order of business is dealing with our beliefs about knowledge and wisdom itself. If knowledge becomes a commodity, as land was when people lived in the past tense and as natural resources are for those of us living in the present tense, humans will lose the capacity to claim a sustainable future for their children. There is no longer a time or place for ideological posturing. The Modern Era has provided us with the scientific information we need to shepherd the very plant on which our lives depend. If we fail, it will not be because we did not know better.

Dr. Strangelove

In Dr. Strangelove, the 1964 black comedy on the nuclear age, a fanatical US general launched an air strike against the Soviets which, if successful, would have unleashed a “doomsday device.” The air strike was averted, except for one B52 bomber which avoided interception. When the bomb door jammed, Major Kong manually released the mechanism and, cowboy hat in hand, rode the bomb to the ground, setting off Armageddon and ending civilization on earth as we know it.
Thanks largely to the UN, humanity has found a way so far to live under the mushroom tree, albeit imperfectly. The new challenge for the United Nations is to once again find a way to avoid the end of civilization as we know it, but this time due to environmental and societal collapse. The task will be no less easy or less expensive than ending the Cold War which made Armageddon a real possibility. Unfortunately, the spirit of Major Kong is still alive and well, cowboy hat in hand, recklessly calling for military solutions to the early warning signs of the global deterioration of the human condition. Avoiding creating a modern Mad Max military response to global collapse will require new principles for reconceiving how to address the effects of human activity on the planet.

Three Principles

The three principles from the Forms for a Future podcast provide a framework for reconceiving how to live in the future tense. One is political, one is economic and one is social; none alone are sufficient. All three must be considered simultaneously because each is dependent on the other two. If there is any doubt about how to act, think of these three principles:

(1)  World citizenship needs to become increasingly more important than the national citizenships of the world.

The fate of our children and grandchildren is every bit as much, if not more so, at the mercy of stoking a coal-burning economy in the developing nations of China and India, as it is in the domestic decisions made in Washington. Consider a ring of concentric circles with the individual at the center, with “we” the next circle extending through local, state, national and global as successively larger circles. In the very distance past, the individual mattered most, with significant help from the others who were physically very close by; global was irrelevant. We are approaching reversing that order. I would like to see the United Nations offer a certificate of dual world citizenship to every person in the world as an opportunity to act as part of a world community. Personally, each of us can think and speak in our duel role as citizens of a nation and also citizens of the world, even without a formal world citizenship document.

(2) We need to increasingly put our trust in the power of balance rather than winning or owning the balance of power.

Using the accepted world statistical standard for low wage jobs (less than two-thirds of the national median wage), the United States has the largest percentage of its workforce in low wages jobs and pays its low wage workers the lowest percentage of the median wage of all the OECD countries. A person can accept someone having two homes as long as everyone has a least one, but it is not acceptable for a bank to be too big to fail and a person too small to matter. Nations can accept differences in absolute wealth as long as there is not famine, migration and civil disorder. The power of balance is a necessary self-imposed limit on economic inequalities and political policies that consciously discards some lives as less important. It is the role of governments to be the keeper of this balance within their domestic authority, and to restrain their aspiration to be the final authority on world affairs through superior military power. 

(3) We need to increasing treat all knowledge and information as belonging in the public domain, not a commodity for financial gain.

The availability and application of existing knowledge and information for improving the human condition are more important than creating ever more new pills, gadgets and consumer goods that only the wealthy can afford. In the past, owning land and natural resources, such as oil and water, has been the means to wealth and power. While intellectual property rights might seem like a natural extension of land and resources as the means for gaining wealth and power, shorting knowledge for financial gain will condemn the human condition to lacking the capacity for living peacefully and sustainably on a crowded planet.

In practical terms this means reducing copyright and patent protections, not increasing them as we are currently doing in our “free trade” agreements. In terms of the general disruptions produced by the digital information age, this means the financial savings generated by the displacement of human labor and judgement by robots and intelligent machines must not go to the owners of the technology, but rather to provide useful alterative social roles with real economic value to those who are discarded by it. The cumulative benefits of knowledge and information must now be democratized to include everyone. The human condition is not for profit if we are to live in the future tense.

It is time to turn away from our elders, the past, and from ourselves, the present, and to see the future in the faces of our children. This is the Millennial Challenge, and we have one lifetime to accomplish the transition, globally. What an exciting time to be alive.

 Edward Renner is a retired university professor who writes on the modern human challenge of how to live sustainably and peacefully on a crowded planet in the 21st Century. A prepublication draft copy of his most recent book is available at He may be reached at