Democracy and Faith

Not the pulpit and pew kind of faith. The ideas-have-utility kind. That the basic promise of science and reason and democracy are strong enough that you don’t have to pack the court to make it work. That you don’t have to rig elections, gerrymander, or shoe-horn racist questions into the census to get your way. That kind of faith. Faith that your positions are meaningful, and generally right, and if they turn out to be wrong, you’ll change them rather than changing the subject.

Faith that we don’t have to be 100% on the first draft of a law. That we can use statistical process control to make our systems work better than trying to thread the needle. We are not Luke Skywalker, and we don’t need to be.

Faith that the people want change. And that change is easier when it’s a step at a time. That we don’t start walking. We crawl first. We can be guided by the wisdom of evolution, of experimentation.

This is a starting-point problem, in many ways. That there is a false premise that’s been introduced to our collective system. The false premise is that we should ever be acting like someone like Trump acts—not his biting insults, not his bravado, but his mere conviction is his greatest flaw. His idea, and the idea of anyone, who says they hold some special key, some Rosetta Stone. Be it the wall, or tariffs, or whatever it may be.

And that is exactly what makes Trump so sad to a majority of the nation. He rejects our system. He acts as though he has joined a dictator’s club, believes in winning at all costs, believes in none of the things most of us spent at least twelve grades learning about. The American system, imperfect, seeks out perfection. The Trump system, fatally flawed, seeks nothing beyond the next win, the extra scoop of ice cream, the adoring headline. And then lashes out when it doesn’t get it.

We should all reject that, whether it’s in the guise of a golf resort and luxury brand heckler extraordinaire or whether it’s those who say that the GND is the only and holiest of grails rather than a sketch of some things that might work. Or those who say Medicare for All, rather than let’s figure out this healthcare thing, and if it is Medicare for All, great, but if not, great. The important thing is the result and not who had the idea or that it conformed to some chant or slogan or fever dream.

Faith in democracy means pain. It meant pain when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, signing their names and risking their lives. It meant pain for generations who endured slavery waiting for the country to wake up and have a war to put an end to it. More pain struggling to gain the vote. The pain of forever knowing we hesitated in answering the call, turning away refugees and interning citizens, while Hitler took power and took land and took lives. Our nation is founded upon pain, but of faith that that pain will not be for naught. We may be stupid and slow, but we will arrive.

That’s not to say no action is necessary. Just the opposite. But it does underline the type of action. Reform does not mean retaliation. It means girding the system against wrongdoing no matter who would enact it. If the courts do become rotted by neglect of the Senate, rather than packing them, enact reforms on the nomination and confirmation process, enact changes to court procedure, and impeach any judges (and only those) who are not well-behaved.

Similar reforms in other areas, always following the lodestar of a better system and not naive interests of the moment. The destination in our common sight is not “Democrats win” or “Republicans win,” but remains “America wins, and in doing so, earth and humanity win besides.”

Block Grant It All

Instead of sending money for particular things to the states, the federal government should send a single check, along with letters to every citizen of what they have calculated the statewide improvements should be if the money is responsibly allocated and what the results were over the previous period. If the people do not see the predicted results, they can know their state government is to blame and fire them.


1 October 2016

Dear Citizen of the State of Freedonia,  

We have sent your state $30 billion for 2017-18
as part of the Great America First Transfer Act
(GAFTA).

By our projections, Freedonia should provide
the following improvements:

1. 10% increase in total healthcare enrollment.  
    1. 10% decrease in obesity rates.  
    2. 3% decrease in heart attack fatalities.  
2. Infrastructure improvements:  
    1. State roads improved from D- to C-.  
    2. State bridges improved from C to C+.  
3. Poverty down from 15% to 13%.  
    1. Reduced unwanted pregnancy 10%.  
    2. Improved access to education 50%.  

If these improvements are not realized, the
agency recommends you vote for different people.
Note that failure to see improvements will
result in reduced funding, and if failure
continues, Freedonia will be placed in
receivership.

1 October 2018

Dear Citizen of the State of Freedonia,

We sent your state $30 billion over the past two
years 2017-18 as part of the Great America First
Transfer Act (GAFTA).

They have performed as follows:

1. 2% increase in healthcare (expected: 10%).  
    1. 12% decrease in obesity (10%).  
    2. 4% decrease in heart attacks fatalities (3%).  
2. Infrastructure improvements:  
    1. No change in state roads (D-; expected C-).  
    2. State bridges worsened (C-; expected C+).  
3. Poverty remained unchanged at 15%.  
    1. Unwanted pregnancies up 5%.  
    2. Diminished access to education.  

Due to the overall failure to meet the benchmarks,
the 2019-20 GAFTA grant will be for $24 billion. A
subsequent failure to improve will result in the
state losing control over GAFTA funds and a
takeover by the federal government.

By our projections, Freedonia should provide the
following improvements:

...

We urge you to vote next month. Freedonia may
benefit from new leadership that can deliver the
needed improvements to Freedonia.

Conservatives want smaller government, but they seem reluctant to put their mouth where their money is. Make the government tell people when they’re being screwed by lousy governance. Given that a majority of state governments are Republican-controlled, they should be eager to make such a change.

Under a block-grant-plus-reporting system, the people would know if their government was not effective. They would be able to compare such a report to the other 49 states and see where things stand. It would increase transparency while returning much control to the states, where conservatives say it belongs.

We have good measures of what healthy governance looks like. We just have a complicated system that often thwarts its delivery. And we have endless fighting over whether we should have good governance or more tax cuts. A block-grant system cuts through all of that. It says to conservatives, either you can deliver on your promises, or the public can vote you out.

A copy of the information would be affixed to the top of all ballots, and incumbents would be clearly marked.

Restricting Power’s Reach

Why did the Governor of New Jersey’s office have the power to retaliate for political purposes by creating a massive traffic jam? Is that the sort of government we can accept: one in which such power exists, only to be checked after-the-fact through whistleblowing and journalism?

These are the same basic question: can you give power, or to use the security term, can you give access to a capability while still restraining the capability? Or will we forever rely on having good people who cannot be corrupted, cannot have a momentary lapse of reason, in power? And given that we cannot rely on that, mainly because psychology shows that’s a fantasy, are we always one cross man away from ruin?

The founders of the U.S.A. did not believe so. They took pains in constructing the Constitution of the United States to have so-called separation of powers. Meant to give the capability to act to the three branches, but with specific limitations meant to forestall any runaway branch from sinking the ship.

Now we are faced with not the challenge of electing good men, but restraining any who sit in the seats of power from abusing their position. One of the ways to accomplish that is to fragment the power, but we can also make it mandatory that the power be used in the light of day.

If the New Jersey Port Authority had been required to publish, in real time, their reason for the closure of the lanes, would that have been sufficient? More importantly, maybe, would have been a notice requirement. “Ten days from today we will be closing these lanes…” People would have planned around it, and reporters would have preemptively asked questions.

We can all imagine emergency scenarios for breaching this sort of protocol, and we can also imagine requiring, in the aftermath, a full debriefing for emergency executions.

But we face another problem: there does not seem to be the least clamoring for actual reforms such as these. Nobody seems to think anything was wrong other than the hearts of men in this scenario. Just a few bad apples, bad actors, bad bad bad. They were bad, no dessert for them, coal in their stockings, no T.V., you’re in big trouble mister.

The nation was founded by those who saw through this sort of foolish adherence to consequentialism. Maximal liberty was promised to the citizens, not the leaders. The leaders invariably give up some liberty in assuming their positions. That is not to say that abuse of the public trust is to go unchecked when it does occur, but it is to say that we have no reason to leave the keys in the lock.

We ought to, in every area we find vulnerability, examine and apply the same basic principles that our Constitution holds up, to restrain the powerful from abusing their positions. Not just for our sakes, either. For theirs too, for the positions of power are obviously prone to abuse, and giving them the restrictions gives an excuse to a power-mad executive: “Sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Debian’s init Options

The Debian Project will choose a new default init system for its next major release (codename Jessie). The debate details (Debian Wiki: Debates: initsystem) include the following proposals:

  1. sysvinit (status quo)
  2. systemd
  3. upstart
  4. openrc
  5. One of the above for Linux, other(s) on non-Linux
  6. Multiple on Linux, at least one for every other kernel

The chief goal in switching? Bring modern boot functionality (speed and lower resource use). Others include lowering the bar for packaging and maintenance, and taking advantage of newer kernel features.

The matter of choosing an init system mainly deals with the amount of work and amount of benefit available. Unfortunately, some aspects of this debate must focus on other things.

The main contenders, systemd and upstart, both have at least one strike against them:

  • systemd looks technologically superior, but that superiority makes it a non-option for at least some non-Linux kernels (owing to using Linux-specific features), and support for other kernels would require much effort. It also takes a different approach to being pid 1, namely rolling in some functionality that has long been outside of init‘s domain.
  • upstart can be supported more readily, but similar if slightly less effort would be required for non-Linux. Worse, Ubuntu’s stewardship of upstart hampers it with the Canonical Contributor License Agreement problem.

A Contributor License Agreement basically states that by signing it, you grant rights of your contributions to the project maintainer. But the Canonical CLA goes a step beyond, in claiming for Canonical the right to relicense the contributions in a non-free manner.

In the Free/Open Source world that makes it as attractive as poison ivy. Also important, some who contribute as part of their work may actively be barred from participation. A company that sees benefit in open source will probably see hostility in their employee’s work being tied into a CLA of this sort (or any sort).

It all adds up to one difficult decision. The fact that both major contenders do not reduce Debian’s workload means the decision will boil down to technical merits. That makes systemd more likely.

What of non-Linux, then? openrc or sticking with sysvinit both seem plausible. Debian likely will not abandon their work with other kernels, so they will likely bite their tongues. Debian will put up with the extra work of dual systems for now. That will also mean that their Linux decision will remain a technical hybrid for the time being.

But not forever. Post-Jessie, I expect Debian will re-evaluate and hopefully find a more useful option to shed some of the extra weight they will take on in the short-term, whether that means configuration conversion tools, or something else.

The main reason that upstart seems unlikely, Ubuntu and Canonical never took the time to lead the way on non-Linux and while some Debian packages might have easier times adopting upstart configurations, the feature set of systemd seems to be a bit more powerful.