Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under Bench, Please

Back in April 2019, the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives issued a subpoena to former White House Counsel Don McGahn, who refused to testify. McGahn argued that certain presidential advisers have “absolute” immunity from Congressional subpoenas, and that the Constitution forbids federal courts from resolving this dispute. Today, a panel of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with McGahn in a 2-1 opinion that the court shouldn’t get in the middle of this, and I’m pretty flabbergasted. Let’s take a look at what the heck just happened.

Firstly, as Lawrence Hurley pointed out, the Judiciary Committee sued McGahn over the subpoena on August 7. The appeals court heard oral arguments on January 3, before the House impeachment trial had even started. Remember that a large part of the Republican defense of the president went something like ‘Democrats are in too big a hurry and we should let the courts weigh in.’ I’m not saying the court dragged its feet for almost two months before blowing a giant hole in the Weird Process Argument the President used to defend his indefensible behavior. I would never say that, regardless of how awful it looks.

Secondly, this ruling seems to eviscerate Congress’s ability to effectively oversee the Executive branch. I have to assume the House Judiciary Committee will appeal immediately, so I’ll resist the urge to rend my clothes and wail about constitutional crises. For the most part.

Published on under Happy New Year We Are Doomed

The Senate’s acquitted the President for crimes even Republican senators seem to understand he committed. I keep thinking about this December 2019 interview with Chuck Todd, the host of Meet The Press. And I keep thinking about Jay Rosen’s summary of why The Christmas Eve Confessions of Chuck Todd portend so poorly:

A key premise for Meet the Press is symmetry between the two major political parties. The whole show is built on that. But in the information sphere - the subject of Chuck Todd’s confessions - asymmetry has taken command. The right wing ecosystem for news does not operate like the rest of the country’s news system. And increasingly conservative politics is getting sucked into conservative media. It makes more sense to see Fox News and the Trump White House as two parts of the same organism. As these trends grind on they put stress on Meet the Press practices. But it takes imagination to see how the show might be affected- or changed. In place of that we have Chuck Todd pleading naiveté.

So what will they do now? My answer: they have no earthly idea. This is what I mean by an epistemological crisis. Chuck Todd has essentially said that on the right there is an incentive structure that compels Republican office holders to use their time on Meet the Press for the spread of disinformation. So do you keep inviting them on air to do just that? If so, then you break faith with the audience and create a massive problem in real time fact-checking. If not, then you just broke the show in half.

There is simply nothing in the playbook at Meet the Press that tells the producers what to do in this situation. As I have tried to show, they didn’t arrive here through acts of naiveté, but by willful blindness, malpractice among the experts in charge, an insider’s mentality, a listening breakdown, a failure of imagination, and sheer disbelief that the world could have changed so much upon people paid so well to understand it.

Meet The Press isn’t unique. This playbook—and the problems created when one party has lost its damn mind—is common to a lot of the press.

Published on under Work Smarter, But Not Too Smart, Not Harder

Brian Merchant in The Atlantic, on what happens when you learn How to Program Your Job:

In 2016, an anonymous confession appeared on Reddit: “From around six years ago up until now, I have done nothing at work.” As far as office confessions go, that might seem pretty tepid. But this coder, posting as FiletOFish1066, said he worked for a well-known tech company, and he really meant nothing. He wrote that within eight months of arriving on the quality-assurance job, he had fully automated his entire workload. “I am not joking. For 40 hours each week, I go to work, play League of Legends in my office, browse Reddit, and do whatever I feel like. In the past six years, I have maybe done 50 hours of real work.” When his bosses realized that he’d worked less in half a decade than most Silicon Valley programmers do in a week, they fired him.

The tale quickly went viral in tech corners of the web, ultimately prompting its protagonist to delete not just the post, but his entire account.

About a year later, someone calling himself or herself Etherable posted a query to Workplace on Stack Exchange, one of the web’s most important forums for programmers: “Is it unethical for me to not tell my employer I’ve automated my job?” The conflicted coder described accepting a programming gig that had turned out to be “glorified data entry”—and, six months ago, writing scripts that put the entire job on autopilot. After that, “what used to take the last guy like a month, now takes maybe 10 minutes.” The job was full-time, with benefits, and allowed Etherable to work from home. The program produced near-perfect results; for all management knew, its employee simply did flawless work.

The machines are coming for our jobs, but some jobs sooner than others. And some parts of some jobs sooner, as well: computer programs can do some parts of lawyering quite well right now, and much faster than I can do it. For example, they’re good at reading millions of emails to decide if there’s anything unusual or remarkable in them. Computer programs can also do a pretty good job on your taxes and your will, although you won’t be around to be upset that they screwed up the latter. And when it comes to posing a legal argument in a motion or a brief, I don’t think there are programs that understand and parse legal arguments (yet).

Merchant’s reporting on accounts of people who’ve automated their job seems to uncover a lot of jobs that sound relatively easy to automate: moving data from database A to database B, and so on. You can do a lot with a couple of Excel formulas. I’m surprised at how many companies fire people for automating these jobs, but I suppose you can make an argument that companies aren’t paying an employee for results, they’re paying an employee for their time. To those companies, they don’t care how long it takes you to manually move data from one place to another, they want you to spend 40 hours a week moving it. On the other hand, if you ran out of data to move, they wouldn’t ask you to start drafting legal documents or designing advertising campaigns; you’re hired to do a thing.

It seems remarkably shortsighted to fire the people who understand your core business and information systems well enough to dramatically improve productivity, all for the sake of saving a little money. I mean, even if you wanted to Adam Smith the whole thing, you’d have your best Automator go around automating everyone else at the company out of a job, and only fire the Automator once they ran out of jobs to Automate. Firing the Automator first doesn’t make any sense.

Published on under Seizing The Memes Of Production

Clive Thompson, writing for Wired magazine on what happens when When Workers Control the Code:

You know what I hate? Rating drivers on Lyft. Three stars? Five stars? I know Lyft wants to feed the ravenous maw of its machine intelligence, but I worry that drivers will get punished for low ratings. In the app-dominated gig economy, platforms already hoover up as much as 30 percent of the fees, and workers barely eke out a living. So when Lyft asks me to rank drivers, I lie—I give everyone five stars. It makes me think: Why doesn’t someone try to run an on-demand labor app that doesn’t seem to exploit its workers?

Well, that world is inching into reality with the emergence of worker-owned apps, where they own and run the market­place themselves. It’s a trend that could save the gig economy from itself.

One of these apps is Up & Go, which lets you order house-cleaning services in New York City. The cleaners are trained professionals—many of them Latin American immigrants, who formed worker-run cooperatives long before they ever started thinking about an app. That was a crucial part of what made Up & Go possible: The workers were already organized.

Look, the sharing economy and apps like Uber or Lyft aren’t going to fix late-stage capitalism for a whole bunch of reasons. Things like this probably won’t fix late-stage capitalism either, but it might make things a little less lousy.

Published on under I Got 99 Grand Old Problems

By way of Jason Kottke, I enjoyed A Short Summary of the Contemporary Republican Party’s Strategy, where he quotes Noam Chomsky on the modern Republican Party coalition between the rich and the religious, white working class was built, decade by decade.

They have a primary constituency, a real constituency: extreme wealth and corporate power. That’s who they have to serve. That’s their constituency. You can’t get votes that way, so you have to do something else to get votes. What do you do to get votes? This was begun by Richard Nixon with the Southern strategy: try to pick up racists in the South. The mid-1970s, Paul Weyrich, one of the Republican strategists, hit on a brilliant idea. Northern Catholics voted Democratic, tended to vote Democratic, a lot of them working-class. The Republicans could pick up that vote by pretending – crucially, “pretending” – to be opposed to abortion. By the same pretense, they could pick up the evangelical vote. Those are big votes – evangelicals, northern Catholics. Notice the word “pretense.” It’s crucial. You go back to the 1960s, every leading Republican figure was strongly, what we call now, pro-choice. The Republican Party position was – that’s Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, all the leadership – their position was: Abortion is not the government’s business; it’s private business – government has nothing to say about it. They turned almost on a dime in order to try to pick up a voting base on what are called cultural issues.

Same with gun rights. Gun rights become a matter of holy writ because you can pick up part of the population that way. In fact, what they’ve done is put together a coalition of voters based on issues that are basically, you know, tolerable to the establishment, but they don’t like it. OK? And they’ve got to hold that, those two constituencies, together. The real constituency of wealth and corporate power, they’re taken care of by the actual legislation.

And then, as a bonus, Kottke tosses in Cory Doctorow’s translation of Chomsky:

Chomsky lays out the history of the GOP from Nixon’s Southern Strategy, when the party figured out that the way to large numbers of working people to vote for policies that made a tiny minority of rich people richer was to quietly support racism, which would fuse together a coalition of racists and the super-rich. By Reagan’s time, the coalition was beefed up with throngs of religious fanatics, brought in by adopting brutal anti-abortion policies. Then the GOP recruited paranoid musketfuckers by adopting doctrinal opposition to any form of gun control. Constituency by constituency, the GOP became a big tent for deranged, paranoid, bigoted and misogynist elements, all reliably showing up to vote for policies that would send billions into the pockets of a tiny rump of wealthy people who represented the party’s establishment.

Published on under sí she puede

Last week, I watched the documentary Knock Down The House, about four women who ran for Congress in the 2018 election. If, like me, you went down a bit of a rabbit hole reading about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after watching, this Rolling Stone interview from February is a good read:

RS: You told Anderson Cooper you want people to underestimate you because that’s how you won your primary. When is it safe to let that go and unabashedly take charge?

AOC: People like to make these disparaging statements, like, “Oh, she’s good at Twitter. Is she gonna be an actual legislator?” I think it’s fine at the outset to be underestimated in that capacity. Where I do tell people to come correct is when they try to paint me as unintelligent, as unsubstantive. That’s when you see me fire back. When you call Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris “unlikable,” that’s an unsubstantial, unsubstantive, fluff, bullshit, misogynistic word to use. Unlikable? What is that? It’s not a policy critique. Paul Ryan was a con man for 10 years, and he was called a wunderkind for policies that were designed to just gut working families dry. But I’m the charlatan. So . . .

I appreciate when people can disagree over politics without resorting to dehumanizing one another. But I appreciate even more when we call bullshit artists for what they are. More folks on the left should join this chorus; Paul Krugman spent the better part of a decade screaming from the hilltops (read: his New York Times’s opinion column) that Ryan was a fraud.