25 July 2015

Not so quick hits

Hacking Ashley Madison

I'm not terribly sympathetic toward the people whose privacy is threatened here, but then legal cases and rights are typically bounded by cases that don't involve very sympathetic people. We shouldn't expect to be that sympathetic of other people's privacy when it is their privacy at stake rather than our own, but should work to be to a modest degree. The thing that seems less clear to me is why, if the beef is with the company/website, the hack intended to release the private information of possibly millions of customers (or former customers). Who would, by the logic of going after the site itself as some form of scam or immoral business (the motives are not entirely clear to me), be more like victims in this. It would seem to me that exposing that the site is not terrific at protecting identity theft or disclosure would be sufficient to discourage its use if that was the goal (to put it out of business). But this has already been done with other technical problems in the website's design. And yet it remains.

Which to me leads to some questions about the function of a website designed for people to have flings and affairs. Clearly there must be some amount of market for this, to at least look, or such a site wouldn't have sprang up. There have usually been gray markets of a sort designed to meet needs or desires of individuals that are not illegal (adultery is not illegal in the US), but which aren't exactly looked kindly upon for social reasons. People have been able to make private arrangements for affairs and sexual infidelities for centuries. This is not a new thing. The difference is the implied discretion of the internet overarching these arrangements or the easier manner with which the internet allows for arrangements (lowers transaction costs of searching for partners willing to indulge in an affair, etc).

But. This is the implied problem of such a site from a moral or social perspective: the idea is to do something in secret, without the consent of a monogamous partner (typically), for whom ordinarily someone has granted a great deal of trust, communication, and affection at some point. The purpose of discretion isn't so much to conceal that someone is a slimier character from others unknown, the usual character of the internet commerce, but from parties closely and intimately known. This is or should be troubling. It did not start with Ashley Madison, so blaming such a setup seems unlikely to produce much change in social conventions and intimate arrangements of human sexuality and expression. But the existence and sudden highlighting of such a convention, and the scope and scale with which it had expanded should indicate that some of these conversations and conventions of human sexuality are already being altered, or maybe have always been altered and simply weren't known to the degree by which they were.

I think in some sense, there was an unspoken degree by which marriage as an institution allowed for some amounts of infidelity, in secret, and without disclosing socially the amounts of people engaging in extramarital sex or relationships. What this variety of hack would disclose is that there are a fairly large number of people who are willing or desire to look for such activities. Since this seems to be the case anyway, I would propose these should be the social goals we should want to strive for.

1) Social disclosure is less important. It is not important to tell all of your friends and family you are having an affair. This kind of disclosure is not as essential to the underlying relationships or the social cache that is placed upon marriages. Our sexual histories or intentions thereof aren't usually objects we wish or need to be socially informed (to have others advise us on them) and socially disclosed (to make others aware of them).

2) Intimate disclosure, with any regular and typically monogamous or monogamous-desiring partner is vital. If people are going to be having or seeking to have affairs, they should communicate these desires to potential or current partners. It may be possible to head off some number of affairs by modifying or repairing (or ending) an existing relationship, by communicating and working through problems of say, sexual excitement and variety, or by simply being up front about this as a possible sexual interest that other people would be able to say they think they are okay with or not. One of the problems of consent discourse is that if a person is having multiple close emotional and sexual relationships this is not typically done openly with the consent of other partners. People probably don't need to communicate every one-night stand they do while dating. But they should communicate if they are having problems, or are jealous, or are otherwise troubled while married or engaged or in what are otherwise exclusive relationships where both partners are intent on remaining with this other person rather than seeking other partners at the same time.

3) All of that includes the other parties who should also be aware of what is going on as these other people will be human beings complete with their own emotional or physical interests and needs and not simply objects used for sexual gratification. There is some advantage in this setup through a website designed around the idea of helping people cheat on their spouse or other intimate partner in that the third party person can reasonably conclude they are with someone who is actually married, or who is actually engaged in extramarital sex or relations with them.

4) If some people are going to be in more open marriages, or other polyamorous arrangements, this is not in and of itself that troubling to me. It might be troubling to the parties involved that they attempt this and find it is not that easy to do (which it wouldn't be), or isn't as fun or satisfying as they expected it to be. There's probably some number of people who are willing to fantasize about a spouse being with another person, or themselves fantasizing about being with another person. Transferring this from the realm of sexual fantasies to a reality involves more messy human emotions and attachments (or detachments) than many people can deal with at one time. This is worth acknowledging. Indeed, it's one of the reasons I would suggest we move toward more open communication as many people in proceeding with an intent to have an affair may find that the consequences and any enjoyment of doing so are less desirable than they may have believed. They may find also it is perfectly enjoyable or fulfills some need or demand. But given that our ordinary monogamous sexual relationships are often hit or miss on our enjoyment, or complete with other varieties of work and management to maintain them, adding more such relationships may be too much for many people to handle adequately without risking damage to other partners that they hold in some esteem.

5) If you are in a relationship, or considering one, and the other party to it expresses interest in a more open or polyamorous arrangement, you can push back against this to reject it but persist in the relationship on a more monogamous framework, you can leave on the understanding that this other person is not someone whom you believe you could form or sustain a stable relationship, or you can go along with it and re-visit or place strict rules of communication and transparency. Simply providing some assent to this in theory is very different than approving of all its possible particulars. Just as consenting to any sexual act is not the same as consenting to have, say, anal sex as well, this is something that needs to be negotiated and examined throughout as a given consent rather than a blanket "sure, go ahead".

Drug testing welfare

I've written about this some before, but it's something I'd rather not have to, so this is one of these "I'll write something so I don't have to for a long time". This comes up periodically as different states or governments propose doing it. There are, unfortunately in my mind, broad bipartisan supports for this as an idea. Conservatives love the idea as it feeds into a notion of persistent poverty as caused by cultural artifacts of lazy stoned people. Meanwhile every state it has actually been tried it hasn't ensnared a lot of drugged up poor people to be kicked off of welfare, has been declared illegal (for reasons that will be examined in a moment), or just otherwise hasn't justified the intrusiveness and fiscal costs by materializing in substantial savings.

Here are the problems with it in theory and in practice

1) It includes an assumption of guilt before innocence, which offends our standard model of justice. People may object that this applies to random job drug testing as well. I would agree. I don't think that is a substantial moral objective in most professions that drug test presently either. For performance or safety reasons, I could conceive of a basis for drug testing. For most jobs that presently drug test randomly, I could not see this as a common problem however. Roughly a third of working people have to take such tests. These are themselves largely clustered in occupations that are lower working class (with a few exceptions), just as people who are on welfare might find as options instead of being on welfare.

2) It relies principally on a gross underestimate of how many people are on welfare programs (almost 40-50M, many of whom are children or otherwise not adults), who is on such programs, and how many poorer people use drugs regularly or addicts (and who are able to apply for social assistance programs), what restrictions already exist that are designed to delink drug use from welfare. Estimates made by people of the proportion of drug use among welfare recipients largely focus on observational evidence rather than rigorous study. It's very easy to see visible people who are not working strolling through a neighbourhood (not all of such people qualify for or are on welfare of course). It is not easy to see the many millions of people who are working (sometimes two jobs) and still qualify for many welfare programs. Because those people are at work.

In addition, there are constraints for housing assistance that are intended to prevent people who have drug convictions from getting it. This is at least punishing people who have been convicted of a criminal act (whether or not it should have been a criminal act is a different question), but it tends toward the notional penalties people are wishing to see applied here already in a more efficient and less intrusive manner. If the intention is to break drug use from welfare, the goal of a successful policy should be to do so as efficiently and unintrusively as possible.

3) It discards as appropriate other forms of tax assistance and subsidy that middle class and richer people receive. "My" money is fine but I don't want to give money to "those people" is what this sounds like as an argument. Medicare is effectively subsidized by poorer, younger, working people to pay for older, richer non-working people's health care. This looks very similar to welfare in some respects (taking money from other people to give to others who are "not contributing"), except the beneficiaries are seen as sympathetic. So few people complain. This also applies to housing subsidies in the form of mortgage interest deductions which largely favor banks, realtors, and wealthy people and inflate housing prices such that poorer people are priced out of some areas to try to live in.

From a moral and ethical standpoint, using taxes to be taking money from poorer people to give it to richer people should be seen as far more problematic than taking money from richer people and giving it to poorer people via taxation.

4) This also relies on a perception that poorer people are spending their money unwisely, on drugs and big screen TVs say, rather than on sensible things like education, food, clothing, and housing. On average, the average poorer person spends way more on food and housing as a percentage of their consumption habits than a middle class person. Something like 75% of spending is on basic needs, where this is much, much lower for someone of modest means, closer to 40-50%. And even lower for an upper middle class professional. They are not generally wastefully spending money in this way. There are other wasteful signaling problems in poorer communities, but this is not one of them. This basic sense of paternalism may have been useful if people were actually wasting money and not obtaining food and shelter as part of their basic needs. They are however getting precisely that.

5) Many of the complaints seem aimed more at the existence of the welfare state in the first place rather than the need to administer some form of tie-in to drug policy. There are many possible flaws in the existing programs that could be pointed out, or a preference for cash instead of transfer payments, or a general philosophical belief that safety nets could be provided in some other way besides taxation (this seems very unlikely, charities don't do that much that can be scaleable on a societal level). But this demand for a tie-in to drug consumption and addiction seems rather low on the rank of problems in any event. It is unlikely to substantially shrink the size of the welfare state, and would do so by adding new layers of bureaucracy and interference, growing the size of government. If the goal is to decrease the footprint of government, or reduce or abolish the welfare state, this is not the road to do so.

6) Other complaints, perhaps from more liberal perspectives, might be focusing on the efficiency of the program being in some way improved if people are more surely spending public money on food or housing instead of drugs. Or this in some way being an efficient way to curtail drug addiction and abuse/use of illegal narcotic substances. Neither seems likely to be true however. The cost of administering such programs to monitor and test drug use will in some way achieve some combination of the following: the state will be adding more bureaucracy and cost to existing welfare programs because not many people will be caught (this in part relies on some very flawed concepts of what constitutes "drug addiction" as well), some number of people will not be able to afford the additional upfront costs (even if they would be reimbursed) to apply for these programs and will not apply in the first place thus reducing the number of people who are aided by social welfare programs rather than increasing efficiency, some (additional) number of drug addicts or regular drug users would not apply for these programs and be further socially isolated and removed from possible sources of intervention or assistance beyond the legal system. Which the legal system is probably the least efficient means of dealing with the social problem of drug addiction of the available alternatives. None of this looks optimal as a way of improving either drug policy or the welfare state.
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