On May 14, 1973, NASA launched the Skylab Orbital Workshop atop its last Saturn V. During liftoff the workshop’s meteoroid shield broke loose and ripped off one of its two main solar panels. The problems were immediately apparent to NASA technicians monitoring the launch. Telemetry went bad soon after the ignition of the mighty Saturn’s second stage, and ground-based radars detected multiple pieces of debris coming off of the station. Skylab entered orbit and jettisoned its large payload fairing as planned, but it was severely damaged….
[W]ith limited data it was difficult to determine a path forward. More data is always useful when dealing with unknown situations, and soon an offer of help came from an unusual corner, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which managed and operated the nation’s top secret intelligence collection satellites.
Major General David Bradburn, who was then the head of the Office of Special Projects, one of the NRO’s component offices and based in Los Angeles, quickly proposed that a GAMBIT-3 spacecraft, also known as the KH-8, readying for launch on May 16, be used to take a photograph of Skylab to assist NASA in planning a repair mission. The manned Skylab 2 mission, which had now become a repair mission, was scheduled to launch on May 25. That short turnaround time meant that the first phase of the GAMBIT’s photographic mission would have to be cut short in order to return the photos earlier so they could be used for planning the repair mission….
Bradburn was able to propose this mission because, for approximately six months, a group of junior Air Force officers in the Special Projects Office had been developing computer algorithms for using a GAMBIT-3 to photograph Soviet spacecraft. Their effort had been instigated by Soviet tests of an anti-satellite capability that the Soviets had declared operational in February 1973. They wanted the capability to take a photograph of a Soviet ASAT vehicle if one ever approached an American spacecraft. Because the computer programs were ready, the NRO was able to respond quickly to the Skylab problem—something that Bradburn was able to tell his superiors, and undoubtedly contributed to them approving the mission.
From all the discussion of requiring universal firearms background checks, you might assume that this is an entirely untried idea in the United States. Not at all: there are at least thirteen states that have had, for some years, some sort of mandatory background check for firearms transfers.
Six states require them for all private party transfers of firearms: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Six more states have, for many years, required them for allhandgun transfers: Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. At least one state, Missouri, usedto have such a requirement for private party handgun transfers, but repealed it in 1997.
One of the wonderful aspects of America’s experiment with federalism is that it gives us fifty laboratories, where each state can experiment with different ways of solving social problems and see what works. What troubles me about the current headlong rush towards a national universal background check requirement is how little attention we have paid to the thirteen states that have already performed the experiment….
What startles from my paper’s findings is how ineffective those laws have been at what should be the most important measure: murder rate.
Of the twelve states that still have these private party background check laws, four adopted them before 1960, so the relatively consistent murder rate data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports program can’t be used to test the hypothesis. Of the remaining eight, changes in murder rates are only statistically significant (at the 95% confidence interval) for five: three had an increase in murder rates after adopting mandatory background checks, two had a decrease in murder rates.
Of the three that were statistically insignificant, two states had increases in murder rates, and one had a decrease.
[W]hen nine different states, in many different years, in different regions, show a neutral to perhaps slightly negative impact on murder rates, it suggests that background check laws are either completely or at least largely irrelevant to the problem of murder.
Here’s a harsh truth: people that commit murder are not ordinary Americans, and do not obey laws. As the director of the National Institute of Justice recently observed in a leaked memo to the White House, a 2000 study found that 26% of criminal guns were stolen (often from retail stores or in transit), and 8% were the result of retail diversion by corrupt dealers. None of these criminal transactions will be affected by a background check law.
In addition, 47% of criminal guns were obtained through straw purchasers. This is already a crime, for which you can get a five-year prison sentence. But as police chiefs and U.S. attorneys admitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee a few weeks ago, they don’t have time to prosecute these straw purchasers right now. Will they have more time to prosecute people who neglect or intentionally skip the background check requirement?
Of course, the roughly one-third of murders that do not involve guns will not be affected at all.
The unfolding IRS scandal is a symptom, not the disease. For decades, campaign-finance reform zealots have sought to limit core political speech through spending limits and disclosure requirements. More recently, they have claimed that it is wrong and dangerous for tax-exempt entities to engage in political speech.
The Obama administration shares these views, especially when conservative, small-government organizations are involved, and the IRS clearly got the message. While the agency must be investigated and reformed, the ultimate cure for these abuses is to unshackle political speech by all groups, including tax-exempt ones, from arbitrary and unconstitutional government regulation.
Beginning in March 2010, the IRS engaged in an unprecedented campaign of harassment against conservative groups, either through denials or delays in approving their tax-exempt-status applications, or through endless and burdensome audits.
In notable contrast, liberal and “progressive” organizations got approvals with remarkable speed. The most conspicuous example involves the Barack H. Obama Foundation, which was approved as tax exempt within a month by the then-head of the IRS tax-exempt branch, Lois Lerner. From media reports and firsthand accounts, we also know that the IRS disproportionately audited donors to conservative causes and leaked confidential tax information concerning conservative groups in violation of federal law.
This IRS politicization is not an isolated problem. It is an inevitable result of the broader efforts to regulate and, in fact, suppress political speech….
The proper lessons of the unfolding IRS scandal are twofold. First, any effort to have the IRS police advocacy activities of social-welfare organizations is bound to be clumsy and prone to degenerate into either selective or broad witch hunts. Second, the remedy is not to further limit political speech by nonprofit entities—which would certainly raise significant constitutional issues—but to encourage such speech by imposing fewer restrictions.
The Obama administration has some problems. The question is, how big are they?
It’s too soon to tell, of course. But there are some aspects of these stories that suggest they’re going to make more-than-medium-sized trouble for Obama.
To start with, while the particulars might be complicated, both stories are easily understandable to people who aren’t politics and news junkies. Here are the nubs: (1) The State Department intentionally obscured the truth about the death of an American ambassador weeks before a presidential election. (2) The IRS intentionally audited people and groups who opposed the president. Those are the take-home, headline versions of the stories and they’re pretty clear-cut.
Second, there’s still reporting to be done on both stories. We don’t know how much is left to be unearthed, but we do know that we haven’t touched bottom yet. How high up in the government did knowledge about the IRS’s activity go? And then why wasn’t it stopped? At the State Department, emails claimed that the “building’s leadership” wanted changes made to the CIA’s talking points memo. What and who, exactly, does that mean?
Not only do we not know the answers to those questions, but also the answers will probably prompt further queries.
Third, both of these failures speak to the same underlying problem: incompetence married to hyper-politicization. President Obama likes to complain about how it’s always everyone else’s fault that he can’t get anything done. He’s always the bipartisan moderate pushing compromise. But eventually people might notice that he is, just as a matter of statistics, the most polarizing president ever—tied with George W. Bush’s 2004-2005 nadir in terms of how he has split the country in two. And after they realize this, they may look at the hyper-politicized manner in which he has conducted his administration and decide that it is not something for which they particularly care.
After all, polarization married to success is one thing. But when it’s paired with incompetence, it’s something else.
This hostility to critique serves as a backdrop to the twin scandals of the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups and the Justice Department’s secret tracking of journalists’ phone calls. An administration in permanent campaign mode and ready to unleash the politics of personal destruction at a moment’s notice now faces a firestorm of questions about the use and abuse of federal power.
There are obviously political implications for these scandals. But we should also take a step back and think of their broader implications for the president’s political and philosophical agendas.
Contemporary progressivism depends upon faith in bureaucracy: to collect data, to manage daily affairs on the local and national levels, and to serve as an impartial arbiter of fairness. Many of the major initiatives of the Obama presidency — from Obamacare to his expansion of executive authority to comprehensive immigration reform — demand this bureaucratic faith.
So every scandal that reveals a bureaucracy’s capacity for corruption deals a methodological wound to this centralizing enterprise. While the president might deride those who fear the subversion of a free republic into a less-than-free state, these sorts of scandals — whatever their outcomes — reveal that such fears are hardly misplaced. After all, we now know that federal tax-collection authorities systematically targeted opponents of the reigning ideology. We now know that federal agents could blithely monitor the phone calls of journalists. Those are not the figments of tea-party paranoia; as far as we can tell, they are facts.
The way it looks at the moment, there are two possible impulses behind these scandals: malice or incompetence. Neither one bears good tidings for bureaucratic progressivism.
Researchers from the University of Chicago and several international institutions found that several groups of genes in humans and dogs—including those related to diet and digestion, neurological processes, and disease—have been evolving in parallel for thousands of years.
This parallel evolution was likely driven by the shared environments of humans and dogs, wrote the authors in a study published May 14 in the journalNature Communications.
“As domestication is often associated with large increases in population density and crowded living conditions, these ‘unfavorable’ environments might be the selective pressure that drove the rewiring of both species,” the authors surmise…. The study authors suggest that dogs were domesticated 32,000 years ago; that’s much earlier than current estimates, which place domestication at around 15,000 to 16,000 years ago.
The prevailing view in the so-called mainstream media is that “Team Red” is made up of bad people. The Tea Party wasn’t just angry and boisterous, it was “racist.” The National Organization for Marriage isn’t just uncomfortable with a radical change to the institution of marriage; it’s “hateful” and “bigoted.” The Catholic Church doesn’t simply adhere to countercultural views on human sexuality, it’s waging a “war on women.”
That makes it easy to understand how, in Douthat’s words, the abusive IRS employees might have “thought they were just doing their patriotic duty, and giving dangerous extremists the treatment they deserved.”
An unshakable sense of one’s own moral authority makes it easier to rationalize wrongful actions in the interest of preserving tenuous political and cultural authority. What, after all, is a purloined IRS document or a (nonactionable) slander in an editorial by comparison to the horrors of racism or antigay hatred? Of all forms of power, moral power may be the most seductive and corrupting.
“He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavored to . . . cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.”
— Article II, Section 1, Articles of Impeachment against Richard M. Nixon, adopted by the House Judiciary Committee, July 29, 1974
The burglary occurred in 1972, the climax came in 1974, but 40 years ago this week — May 17, 1973 — the Senate Watergate hearings began exploring the nature of Richard Nixon’s administration. Now the nature of Barack Obama’s administration is being clarified as revelations about IRS targeting of conservative groups merge with myriad Benghazi mendacities.
This administration aggressively hawked the fiction that the Benghazi attack was just an excessively boisterous movie review. Now we are told that a few wayward souls in Cincinnati, with nary a trace of political purpose, targeted for harassment political groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their titles. The Post has reported that the IRS also targeted groups that “criticized the government and sought to educate Americans about the U.S. Constitution.” Credit the IRS operatives with understanding who and what threatens the current regime. The Post also reports that harassing inquiries have come from other IRS offices, including Washington.
Jay Carney, whose unenviable job is not to explain but to explain away what his employers say, calls the IRS’s behavior “inappropriate.” No, using the salad fork for the entree is inappropriate. Using the Internal Revenue Service for political purposes is a criminal offense.
In 2002, the U.S. military had just two kinds of camouflage uniforms. One was green, for the woods. The other was brown, for the desert.
Then things got strange….In just 11 years, two kinds of camouflage have turned into 10. And a simple aspect of the U.S. government has emerged as a complicated and expensive case study in federal duplication.
Duplication is one of Washington’s most expensive traditions: Multiple agencies do the same job at the same time, and taxpayers pay billions for the government to repeat itself.
The habit remains stubbornly hard to break, even in an era of austerity. There are, for instance, at least 209 federal programs to improve science and math skills. There are 16 programs that teach personal finance.
At the Pentagon, the story of the multiplying uniforms has provided a step-by-step illustration of how duplication blooms in government — and why it’s usually not good….
[My favorite part:] The Navy spent more than $435,000 on three new designs. One was a blue-and-gray pattern, to be worn aboard ships. Pattern No. 8.
Sailors worried that it would hide them at the one time they would want to be found.
“You fall in the damn water and you’re wearing water-colored camouflage. What the hell is that?” said one active-duty petty officer. He asked that his name be withheld because he was criticizing a decision by the brass. “It’s not logical. It’s not logical at all to have water-colored uniforms.”
To bring scientific rigor to the challenges of our time, we need to develop a deeper understanding of complexity itself.
What does this mean? Complexity comes into play when there are many parts that can interact in many different ways so that the whole takes on a life of its own: it adapts and evolves in response to changing conditions. It can be prone to sudden and seemingly unpredictable changes—a market crash is the classic example. One or more trends can reinforce other trends in a “positive feedback loop” until things swiftly spiral out of control and cross a tipping point, beyond which behavior changes radically.
What makes a “complex system” so vexing is that its collective characteristics cannot easily be predicted from underlying components: the whole is greater than, and often significantly different from, the sum of its parts. A city is much more than its buildings and people. Our bodies are more than the totality of our cells. This quality, called emergent behavior, is characteristic of economies, financial markets, urban communities, companies, organisms, the Internet, galaxies and the health care system….
The trouble is, we don’t have a unified, conceptual framework for addressing questions of complexity. We don’t know what kind of data we need, nor how much, or what critical questions we should be asking. “Big data” without a “big theory” to go with it loses much of its potency and usefulness, potentially generating new unintended consequences.
When the industrial age focused society’s attention on energy in its many manifestations—steam, chemical, mechanical, and so on—the universal laws of thermodynamics came as a response. We now need to ask if our age can produce universal laws of complexity that integrate energy with information. What are the underlying principles that transcend the extraordinary diversity and historical contingency and interconnectivity of financial markets, populations, ecosystems, war and conflict, pandemics and cancer? An overarching predictive, mathematical framework for complex systems would, in principle, incorporate the dynamics and organization of any complex system in a quantitative, computable framework.
In a 1941 novella called Logic of Empire, the science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein has one character say to another, “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.” [The story is] really about how a bunch of flawed, self-interested individuals with no particular malice unwittingly conspire (if you’ll indulge the contradiction in terms) in a great evil.
The quote is thus a pithy encapsulation of the theme, and paraphrases of it — most notably “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” — have entered the lexicon as “Heinlein’s razor.”
Heinlein’s razor is surely on the minds of some who watched the Benghazi hearing in the House on Wednesday, at which America’s former top diplomat in Libya, Gregory Hicks, gave a disturbing insider’s account of the September 11, 2012, attacks, as well as of the parade of mistakes that constituted their prologue and aftermath. So what does Hicks’s testimony, as well as that of Mark Thompson and Eric Nordstrom, respectively senior counterterror and security officials in the State Department, tell us about the mix of incompetence and malfeasance that led to the Benghazi attacks and their aftermath?
We knew already that a number of decisions taken before September 11 made the eventual attack both likelier to occur and likelier to succeed….
Clinton had decided (or allowed, against statute, the decision to be made for her) to leave a substandard security apparatus in place, and indeed had let security be reduced in the months before the attacks, even as security experts protested and reports of violence increased. This happened, according to the results of the Oversight Committee’s investigation, because the administration was in a great rush to “normalize” its presence in Libya, the better to portray it as a foreign-policy success story.
This would appear to be negligence of a particularly gross sort. Since the only other excuse offered by the administration’s defenders in Congress for the baldly inadequate security is budget constraints, and since no one actually involved in the decision-making process seems to take that excuse seriously, it’s hard to read these decisions as “difficult choices” that reasonable people could disagree on. These weren’t “close calls”; they were blown calls. One point here for incompetence. And yet there remains room for conspiracy, or at least the suggestion of it, in the revelation that the preemptive warnings from Nordstrom and others were minimized in the official after-action report on the attack, and that experts such as Thompson were not even consulted.
This brings to mind the cliché about Washington scandals: It’s not the crime that brings you down, but the cover-up. And it’s in the political aftermath of the attacks that we find things we can’t dismiss as mere stupidity….
More insidious, and more nebulous, than this is the administration’s increasingly strained and pathetic effort to blame the deaths of four Americans on a YouTube video. Here Hicks’s testimony is unequivocal and damning. The video “was a non-event in Libya,” he said, and there was no report from Tripoli, either during the attack or after it, that indicated it might have been a “spontaneous” demonstration gone awry, rather than a jihadist attack. This is why Susan Rice’s tour of shame on the Sunday shows “shocked” and “embarrassed” Hicks, who asked Clinton’s Near East deputy why Rice would say such things and was promptly told to discontinue that line of questioning.
Since we still don’t know the administration’s decision-making process on post-Benghazi talking points — in part because the trail of e-mails has not been made public — we can’t say definitively how much forethought there was in the way they misrepresented reality. It is possible that there was no overarching “plan” to lie, no marching orders, no formal cover-up. It could well be that members of the administration just panicked and did whatever they could to avoid “al-Qaeda-backed attack kills Americans” headlines in the middle of a presidential campaign.
Some of the people involved may not have even known they were lying, per se. They might have merely reasoned themselves into believing the video was the cause. Such a belief would certainly soothe the kind of mind that thinks all anti-American Islamic terrorism is “blowback” or “chickens come home to roost.” Or they could have been somewhere between, engaging in classic political bull, exploiting the possibility that the video explanation might be true to distract from the far greater likelihood that it wasn’t.
An administration isn’t a hive mind, it’s a crowd — and in a crisis, frequently a mob. So it’s likely that there was some of all this in the administration’s reaction to Benghazi, or that, à la The Logic of Empire, what started as a number of individuals trying to cover their own rear ends, or Madam Secretary’s, or Candidate Obama’s, morphed into official policy — and a great evil.
A probably apocryphal story is told of the philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell’s wit. When he emerged from the delivery room where his wife had just given birth, a well-wisher asked Russell, “Is it a boy or a girl?” To which Russell replied, “Yes.”
Conservative commentator Ken Gardner borrows a page from Russell in what is perhaps the best 140-character summary of what we’ve learned about Benghazi so far: “Was the Benghazi attack and its aftermath the result of incompetence or a dishonest coverup with media complicity? Yes. It was.”