The stupidest framing of the controversy over ubiquitous surveillance is that it reflects a trade-off between “security” and “privacy”. We are putting in jeopardy values much, much more important than “privacy”.

The value we are trading away, under the surveillance programs as presently constituted, are quality of governance. This is not a debate about privacy. It is a debate about corruption.

Just after the PRISM scandal broke, Tyler Cowen offered a wonderful, wonderful tweet:

I’d heard about this for years, from “nuts,” and always assumed it was true.

There is a model of social knowledge embedded in this tweet. It implies a set of things that one believes to be true, a set of things one can admit to believing without being a “nut”, and an inconsistency between the two. Why the divergence? Oughtn’t it be true that people of integrity should simply own up to what they believe? Can a “marketplace of ideas” function without that?

It’s obvious, of course, why this divergence occurs. Will Wilkinson points to an economy of esteem, but there is also an economy of influence. There are ideas and modes of thought that are taboo in the economy of influence, assertions that discredit the asserter. Those of us who seek to matter as “thinkers” are implicitly aware of these taboos, and we navigate them mostly by avoiding or acceding to them. You can transgress a little, self-consciously and playfully, as Cowen did in his tweet. If you transgress too much, too earnestly, you are written off as a nut or worse. Conversely, there are ideas that are blessed in the economy of influence. These are markers of “seriousness”, as in Paul Krugman’s perceptive, derisive epithet “Very Serious People”. This describes “thinkers” whose positions inevitably align like iron filings to the pull of social influence, indifferent to evidence that might impinge upon their views. Most of us, with varying degrees of consciousness, are pulled this way and that, forging compromises between what we might assert in some impossible reality where we observed social facts “objectively” and the positions that our allegiances, ambitions, and taboos push us towards. Individually, there is plenty of eccentricity, plenty of noise. People go “off the reservation” all the time. But pubic intellectualizing is a collective enterprise. What matters is not what some asshole says, but the conventional wisdom we coalesce to. When the noise gets averaged out, the bias imposed by the economy of influence is hard to overcome. And the economy of influence pulls, always, in directions chosen by incumbent holders of wealth and power, by people with capacity to offer rewards and to mete out punishment.

I want to introduce a word into the discourse surrounding NSA surveillance that has been insufficiently discussed. That word is blackmail. I will out and say this. I think our President’s “evolutions” on questions of civil liberties and surveillance are largely the result of blackmail. I think it is not coincidental that support for the security state is highly correlated with seniority and influence, in both of our increasingly irrelevant political parties. The apparatus we are constructing, have constructed, creates incredible scope for digging up dirt on people and their spouses, their children, their parents. It doesn’t take much to manage the shape of the economy of influence. There are, how shall we say, network effects. You don’t have to blackmail the whole Congress. Powerful people are, almost by definition, people very attuned to economies of influence. They quickly detect the trends and emerging conventions among other powerful people and conform to them. A consensus that emerges at the top is quickly magnified and disseminated. Other voices don’t disappear, there is plenty of shouting in the blogs. But a correlation emerges between a certain set of views and “seriousness”, “respectability”. The mainstream position is defined. Eventually it’s reflected by the polls, so it’s what the American people wanted all along, we are just responding to the demands of the public, whine the politicians.

Blackmail is and has always been a consequential component of our political system. This ought not to be controversial. Blackmail — like its sister B-word, “bribery” — has largely gone mainstream and been institutionalized. “Opposition research” is a profession that is openly practiced and is considered respectable. Opposition researchers, like lobbyists, will tell perfectly accurate stories about the useful role served by their profession. The public deserves to know the truth about the people in whom it will invest the public trust. Legislators require information and expertise that only industry participants can provide. True, true! But these are, obviously, incomplete accounts of the roles that these professionals play. Lobbyists don’t simply inject neutral, objective information into the legislative process. And opposition research is used in ways other than to immediately inform the public. For both bribery and blackmail, there is a spectrum of vulgarity. A guy gives you a suitcase of hundred-dollar bills that you hide in your freezer in exchange for a legislative favor. That’s vulgar, and illegal. But the same gentleman hints in conversation that, should you ever choose to “leave public service”, his firm would be excited to hire someone with your connections and expertise — expertise which, it needn’t be said, ought naturally be reflected in legislative choices! — and that is tasteful, normal, legal. Those jobs are worth a lot more than a suitcase full of C-notes. Similarly, it is vulgar and unnecessarily risky to show up in a Congressional office with a dossier of compromising pictures, or the dossier documenting ones participation in a fraud. You just have to make it known that you know.

I’m going to excerpt a bit from a great, underdiscussed piece by Beverly Gage:

[J. Edgar] Hoover exercised powerful forms of control over potential critics. If the FBI learned a particularly juicy tidbit about a congressman, for instance, agents might show up at his office to let him know that his secrets—scandalous as they might be—were safe with the bureau. This had the predictable effect: Throughout the postwar years, Washington swirled with rumors that the FBI had a detailed file on every federal politician. There was some truth to the accusation. The FBI compiled background information on members of Congress, with an eye to both past scandals and to political ideology. But the files were probably not as extensive or all-encompassing as people believed them to be. The point was that it didn’t matter: The belief alone was enough to keep most politicians in line, and to keep them voting yes on FBI appropriations.

Today, James Bamford quotes a former senior CIA official, describing current spymaster Keith Alexander:

We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander — with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets… We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.

Bribery and blackmail go together, of course. The carrot and the stick. It’s not just that bad things will happen if you don’t toe the line. If you do the right thing, who knows? You might be the next Dianne Feinstein. Or John Boehner. Or Barack Obama. Note that, despite my excesses in this regard as a writer, I did not place do-the-right-thing in italics or scare quotes. There is a third element in this recipe for influence: persuasion. People don’t like to view themselves as venal, corrupt, weak. Even the sort of person who ends up “senior in politics” has limits to how crass a view of themselves they will tolerate. Bribery and blackmail are omnipresent in the background, but in the foreground are spirited conversations, arguments over policy, arguments in which I suspect decisionmakers frequently start with the hardest possible line against the position they will eventually accept so that they can reassure themselves: they have been persuaded, it was not just the pressure. I accuse Barack Obama of having been effectively bribed and blackmailed on these issues, but if he ever were to respond, I suspect he would deny that fervently and with perfect, absolute sincerity. He was persuaded. He knows more now than he did then.

We humans are such malleable things. This is not, ultimately, a story about evil individuals. The last thing I want to do with my time is get into an argument over the character of our President. I could care less. The problem we face here is social, institutional. Bribery, blackmail, influence peddling, flattery — these have always been and always will be part of any political landscape. Our challenge is to minimize the degree to which they corrupt the political process. “Make better humans” is not a strategy that is likely succeed. “Find better leaders” is just slightly less naive. Institutional problems require institutional solutions. We did manage to reduce the malign influence of the J. Edgar Hoover security state, by placing institutional checks on what law enforcement and intelligence agencies could do, and by placing those agencies under more public and intrusive supervision. I think that much of our task today is devising a sufficient surveillance architecture for our surveillance architecture.

But as we are talking about all this, let’s remember what we are talking about. We are not talking about a tradeoff between “security” and “privacy”. That framing is a distraction. Our current path is to pay for (alleged) security by acquiescence to increasingly corrupt and corruptible governance. We ought to ask ourselves whether a very secure, very corrupt state is better than the alternatives, whether security for corruption is a tradeoff we are willing to make.

P.S. It’s worth pausing in this context to note with sadness the death of Michael Hastings yesterday in a car crash. Hastings was a person clearly trying to address corrupt power by placing it under aggressive public surveillance. It’s worth considering the lessons of Cowen’s quip about “nuts” before we profess to be certain of very much.

Update History:

  • 20-Jun-2013, 6:15 a.m. PDT: “professionals plays
  • 21-Jun-2013, 4:55 a.m. PDT: converted parens to em dashes in bit beginning “experties which…”; added hyphen into “self-consciously”; “to which they will eventually be persuadedaccept“; “reassure themselves. T: they have…”

40 Responses to “Tradeoffs”

  1. David writes:

    You’re on a roll.

    What pains me most about our public debate is the extent to which it centers around moral character. Unfortunately this is naive and easily corruptible by those with inside information or the loudest voices. We would do better to look at the nuts and bolts of our institutions to figure out how to limit power so that it may serve the public.

  2. BC writes:

    I have to discuss cost drivers for logistics costs and their tradeoffs. There is also a portion that I need to think of alternative supply chain operation strategy to reduce cost. Lastly I need to think about distribution center expansion. I’m not looking for the answers to the questions but rather recommendations on how I should present the material. Should I base it a lot on numbers only because that’s all my professor can quantify or should I try to look at it from a qualitative perspective? Also where can I do more research on real world solutions? Anything extra is also greatly appreciated.

  3. Brian M writes:

    Well said. I am afraid that Citizens United cemented the change of our political system into a free market economy. In this economy, the consumers are politicians and the suppliers are billionaires and corporations. The products are, of course, campaign funds and, even better, 6 and 7 figure jobs after leaving “public service”. The price of these products? Obedience.

  4. Nemo writes:

    Other than your imagination, do you have any evidence for blackmail at the level you describe?

    An alternative explanation is that Obama — having zero experience relevant to his job — does not know what he is doing; that he knows this because he is not entirely dim; and therefore that he relies on the “experts” around him to make every significant decision.

    Of course, all of this is moot. All we need are a couple more school shootings, and the vast majority of Americans will welcome (demand) government surveillance in every nook and cranny of their homes.

    So while these are great discussions, they are utterly futile. You cannot win. It’s for the children.

  5. Dan Kervick writes:

    Steve, what actions are you calling for?

  6. reason writes:

    Yes, Yes, Yes
    Watch the watchers. The “Transparent Society”. You and David Brin should get together.

  7. reason writes:

    Nemo @4
    The key sentence is:
    “I think that much of our task today is devising a sufficient surveillance architecture for our surveillance architecture.”


  8. Oliver writes:

    winning quote:

    pubic intellectualizing is a collective enterprise

    losing quote:

    I could care less.


  9. Nutcracker suite writes:

    And your reward is…..

  10. […] Tradeoffs – Interfluidity […]

  11. Foppe writes:

    Brian M.: Certainly it is a market economy, but free? It’s oligopolistic as can be already, and only getting worse.

    Dan Kervick: The piece ends in the following manner: “We ought to ask ourselves whether a very secure, very corrupt state is better than the alternatives, whether security for corruption is a tradeoff we are willing to make.” What actions do you require to be called?

  12. Dan Kervick writes:

    Foppe, people have been asking themselves these questions in various ways and on various occasions since 2001. This week the intellectual prod for more questioning is PRISM. A year from now more discussions will be prompted by some similar news story. The same themes are rehearsed and re-rehearsed each time: someone quotes Franklin; various worries and anxieties are vented; earnest reservations are registered; exquisite philosophical torments about the tradeoffs between security and liberty are indulged; people declare their patriotism; a few members of Congress emit some sound bites and maybe hold a hearing. Nothing concrete ever comes of it, in the same way nothing ever comes of the economic theory discussions in the blogosphere.

  13. Steve Roth writes:

    Not going to the meat of this post, just to add a note on the boundaries of what’s “nuts”:

    One of the key ways people signal their membership in groups, that they achieve and maintain that membership, is by openly proclaiming utterly crazy, obvious non-truths. Think: (any) religion, birtherism, endless list of others.

    Those “nutty” proclamations are entry credentials, shibboleths, that groups use to enforce ideological purity.

  14. Foppe writes:

    The reason nothing comes out of ec theory discussions in the blogosphere is because those economics bloggers lack institutional power, as well as access to influential politicians interested in their ideas; that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful to keep going. Keynes(ianism) got his/its day in the sun as well, even if it took rather a long time, and I’m fairly certain the choice for Keynesianism was made easier by its being a mature theory that could be applied broadly.
    Now, I’m sure you’re right that all this has happened before, and will happen again, but a response requires a milieu to emerge out of…

  15. Peter K. writes:

    Kervick “the same way nothing ever comes of the economic theory discussions in the blogosphere.”

    Then why are you here? Is it just to gripe? Many things have come from the discussions.

    Kervick is like the proverbial broken clock, usually wrong, sometimes very rarely correct but not because of facts or reasoning. It’s just coincidence and happenstance. Foppe, Kervick isn’t worth engaging with.

    Obama is mistakenly going along with the “experts” and National Security Apparatus who assert that the creation of the surveillence-state is the best way to prevent another attack. This is what Tom “The Stache, Friedman-unit” Friedman recently argued. He’d rather have this than the over-reaction after an attack. Obama would rather not have an attack for various reasons. But why believe the “experts”?

    Obama is disappointing but it’s not surprising to us cynics (it is surprising when the consensus admits to being cynical as Waldmann points out). After the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton basically wrote the Patriot Act, a little of which was passed into law. After 9/11 it was pulled off the shelf and enacted in its entirety.

    Obama says he want to close Guantanamo but hasn’t. He recently said the “Global War on Terror” is over and is pulling out of Afghanistan but there are still drone strike, etc. Germans are upset over the invasion of their privacy and the extent of spying.

    There are reasons to be pessimistic, and yet out of the blue both Pakistan and Iran elected more moderate, concilliatory, “better” leaders who can move things in the right direction.

  16. Peter K. writes:

    I’ve been an Obama partisan since he won the Iowa primary way back when. He’s much better than the Republicans like Mitt “half of America are moochers” Romney or John “the economy is fundamentally sound “McCain.” Or Hillary. Health care reform is good.

    But ultimately he’ll prove to be disappointing and disillusioning given expectations and his lofty rhetoric. How will his young supporters react in the coming years? Apathy? More focus on reform of the Democrats? Third party?

  17. Dan Kervick writes:

    Actually, Peter, I will probably be substantially decreasing my blogosphere participation over the upcoming months – which you will no doubt be happy to hear. I’m going to be working on a book project and then also looking for ways to develop networks and strategies for political organization aimed at concrete, structural social change.

    I’ve learned a lot from the discussions in the economics blogosphere, but also grown sour and frustrated over how sterile it all is. Most of the discussions these days just seems like endless circling back over old territory. I used to be an academic, and still do academic research when I’m not writing blog posts and comments. But I’m burned out on ivory tower disengagement from political processes. It seems the academic response to being run over by a steam roller is to hold a two year panel discussion on which wrenches to use when fixing a steamroller lubrication system. I sometimes think the blogosphere has become the most effective mechanism of political control ever invented. It gives people endless opportunities to blow off steam into the aether in non-threatening, individualistic ways that have no connection with organized and effective social action.

    Honestly, I don’t think the people who run this country, or who run the global financial and political system, care one bit about what even the most prominent economics bloggers – like Paul Krugman or Brad DeLong – think about anything. The rulers have their agenda, and its not an academic one. It’s an agenda toward power, domination, and control. They might be happy to glom up some economics arguments here and there from the professors, to the extent they are useful. But their plans aren’t really based on those arguments, and so if those arguments change, they just move onto new ones. For its part, the economics academy seems all about conducting politically safe, career-enhancing and ideologically neutral discussions within the boundaries and reward systems established by power. There are some decent people within it, but in the aggregate it has no heart, and serves an evil system of class stratification, hierarchy and oppression by functioning as an ideology shop and rationalization factory for oppressors. It’s an overgrown jungle of euphemisms that destroys the capacity humane moral response.

    Maybe that’s just crazy me talking. But I don’t think that our current social and economic system is basically OK, and just needs to be tweaked or “stabilized”. And so I don’t think the most important economic questions have to do only with different techniques for macroeconomic stabilization; different options for “restoring trend growth”, etc.

    This has all been rambling and off the topic, but bringing it back to Steve’s post, I have read numerous posts along these very same lines, wringing hands over the very same issues, for over a decade now. Another one doesn’t matter much.

  18. asdf writes:

    Dan Kervick,

    I agree. I’ve worked in IB, I’ve worked in government, and I’ve worked for government contractors on high profile projects. I made a real concerted effort to be a part of healthcare reform. What I’ve encountered along the way is so monumentally evil I have zero hope for any political change.

    Either put up (with consequent personal risk and bold action) or shut up (stop bitching on blogs).

  19. Jonas writes:

    Bravo for daring to broach this topic!

    Although I think blackmail is a little extreme, I think the link between privacy and freedom of thought is very strong. It’s no surprise that every totalitarian society tries to deny any concept of legitimate privacy. Needless to say, if you don’t have freedom of thought, you don’t have any of your other freedoms/rights nor can you have a productive economy.

    Unfortunately, without an example of a Soviet Union staring us in the face, we forget what we’re giving up for our illusion of a little more safety. It’s one of the downsides of not having to out-compete a rival system to keep us mentally disciplined.

  20. Bryan writes:

    “Brave truth teller of what other’s don’t dare” is a niche in the larger economy of influence. Or, to use another metaphor, a move in the game of influence. It doesn’t necessarily correspond any more to what-we-would-think-if-we-were-purely-rational-outside-observers than the mainstream opinion.

  21. Foppe writes:

    on the topic of NSA spying on politicians to further its own goals, there is this source.. (Make of it what you wish.)

    In this bombshell episode of the Boiling Frogs Post Podcast Show NSA whistleblower Russ Tice joins us to go on record for the first time with new revelations and the names of official culprits involved in the NSA’s illegal practices. Mr. Tice explains in detail how the National Security Agency targets, sucks-in, stores and analyzes illegally obtained content from the masses in the United States. He contradicts officials and the mainstream media on the status of the NSA’s Utah facility, which is already operating and “On-Line.”

  22. Peter K. writes:

    “This has all been rambling and off the topic, but bringing it back to Steve’s post, I have read numerous posts along these very same lines, wringing hands over the very same issues, for over a decade now. Another one doesn’t matter much.”

    Another comment bemoaning another post matters even less. So I’m glad Mr. Debbie Downer is taking a break. Go have a beer, you need one.

    And depressing as things can get, a blogpost by smart, knowledgeable people like Waldmann can at least help articulate the issues and questions. They can look back in history for analogues. For me such a post can be bracing and compelling. It can make me hopeful if not optimistic – I’m a realist – in that other people share my views (and other people smarter than I are on the case.) And as much as I know I can always learn new ways of looking at things. (Waldmann on surveillance and corruption is one new instance right here.) You write as if you know everything already and nothing changes. It’s very off-putting.

    I’ve been following politics and economics since the Internet first blossomed and people always debate theory vs. praxis and theory vs. action. You’ll always need theory. Calling from more action is empty chest-beating.

  23. […] See full story on […]

  24. Tom Shillock writes:

    “This is not, ultimately, a story about evil individuals.” Of course it is, and about evil institutions as well. The evil comes as banal, sanitized, respectable bureaucratic practices framed as necessary. Just because Obama of others in the U.S. government is not behaving with the vulgarity of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot or Mao does not entail that they are not evil.

    Cf. Eichmann in Jerusalem
    Hannah Arendt

  25. […] the NSA spying machine has reduced the cost of evidence so that today our freedom–or our independence–is to a large extent at the discretion of those in control of the […]

  26. Mercury writes:

    It’s not that it’s stupid it’s just not entirely accurate. The real tradeoff, in essence is:


    By liberty I mean personal liberty and by security I mean security (physical, economic, social) provided by the government. Pick where you prefer to be on the scale but you get more of one at the expense of the other.

    Privacy is simply a subset of personal liberty. Quality of governance is related to government run security in the sense that more security means a larger, more complex government which means more inevitable instances of bribery, blackmail, rent-seeking and self-aggrandizement.

    If you want a lot of welfare it’s going to be a lot harder to live a lifestyle outside of few standardized options. If you want the security of socialized medicine you are going to have to give up a lot of personal information, freedom of choice and accept the particular rationing such a system involves. If you want to live in Mama’s house with that home cooking and laundry service you’re going to have to live by her rules.

  27. Peter K. writes:


    I believe David Foster Wallace put it better than you:

    Waldmann is right. You don’t destroy the village in order to save it.

  28. William Dueck writes:

    Well said. I am afraid that Citizens United cemented the change of our political system into a free market economy.

    It’s always good to read Brian M misunderstanding the law with a high degree of arrogance.

    Citizens United did no such thing. It is an irrelevant case in the picture of political speech under the 1st A, it did not make new law and is nothing more than a restatement of Buckley v Valeo, which is a 1976 case.

    1976. You got that, Brian? The case is 37 years old today, and 34 years old at the time of Citizens United.

    Of course I’m being ridiculous in expecting people to know anything past 2 tweets ago. For example, the Snowden story that allegedly “broke” in June 2013 is nothing more than a restatement of the Mark Klein story that Klein was sharing with all who were interested in 2006. But because some phony “constitutional expert” named Glenn Greenwald talked about Snowden in June 2013, Mark Klein’s story was irrelevant in 2006. Even Greenwald ignored it then.

    Ignorance is the fuel that runs the stay-at-home-and-complain Good German’s view.

  29. William Dueck writes:

    Peter K’s emphasis on “theory” reads like very very poor satire. Not funny. 3d string Jon Stewart understudy. 5th string Steve Colbert replacement. Yawning boredom fueled by unfunniness.

    Peter would have us work for change from within, measured over the 1,000 year scale with a micrometer, so that social reformation can be “proved” by Jim Wendle receiving Obamacare (at $1500/year surcharge) where previously he had no insurance coverage for health care. “See, we’re changing our society, progressing it forward! No need to act, we are proving that our theorizing is getting us somewhere, because Obama gave us National Health Care.”

    Yes. Because “us” = windfall for insurance entities and other affiliated financial middlemen, and a landslide of continued profit for doctors, Rx mfrs, med device makers, etc. Why should Peter want anything else? He’s got a new Prius, a “green” McMansion, cool iPhone5++, and eats Organic.

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  31. m112 writes:

    People who are more upset about the NSA spying revelations than they were about the Iraq war need to ask themselves: how can that be? Can it really just be coincidence that the spying potentially affects them, while the $3Tn debt-financed war that killed thousands of mostly poor Americans based on lies left them more or less unaffected?

  32. P Davey writes:

    Bouncy Castles with slide are clearly jerks, or employ Search Engine Optimisers who are jerks.

    Who ever heard of a bouncy castle company in Australia putting spam adverts on a US political blog site. What a bunch of losers.

    If I’m ever fortunate to be in their part of Australia and find the need for a bouncy castle, they will be on my list of companies not to touch with a barge pole.

    P Davey

  33. stone writes:

    Mercury @26, I’m failing to follow your logic. What makes you suppose that spying on email traffic helps provision of health care? I don’t see the connection other than both involve government. In fact spending money on creating a police state means that there is less money left over for provision of things such as health care, education, transport etc. It is our government and does what we set it up to do. We don’t have to follow “mamma’s rules”; they are rules WE are responsible for.

  34. StreetEYE writes:

    If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him. – Richelieu

    would have had a field day with Prism…not to mention J. Edgar Hoover, who kept files on everyone (see e.g. )

  35. […] interfluidity » Tradeoffs […]

  36. […] of organizations in the intelligence community. For reasons good and obvious but also for some ugly reasons, access to information is crucial to defending and expanding the intelligence […]

  37. […] toilet roll art (yes, it does exist) Government Privatization Paves the Way for Crony Corruption Tradeoffs (I think Waldmann is wrong here; Obama likes neo-liberalism–it’s a feature, not a bug. […]

  38. […] infrastructure. If the mission is really about protecting America from foreign threats (rather than enjoying the power of domestic surveillance), it is not at all obvious that we wouldn’t be better off nearly […]

  39. […] If the mission is really about protecting America from foreign threats (rather than enjoying the power of domestic […]

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