Wednesday, August 28, 2013

MLK Jr. Knew There Is No Real Freedom (or Justice) Without Jobs

That's MLK Jr. front and center - and a plurality of the marchers are carrying signs about jobs,
not about voting / segregation in schools / etc.

This blog thinks a lot about economics, especially the plight of the poor. In that vein, I think it's useful to remind ourselves, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this week, that the official name of the 1963 March was the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom":

I think it is often (perhaps intentionally) forgotten that the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was organized by a bunch of socialists who were looking to radically reshape not only America's political structure, but also it's economic one.

While it's certainly appropriate to celebrate the success of the March in achieving its immediate political goals of federal civil rights and voting rights legislation (although those achievements are now under attack by the Republican Party and Supreme Court today), we should not forget that many of the economic goals of the March remain painfully unfulfilled. As today's WaPo notes:

Even as racial barriers have tumbled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated, the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall in 1963.
When it comes to household income and wealth, the gaps between blacks and whites have widened. On other measures, the gaps are roughly the same as they were four decades ago. The poverty rate for blacks, for instance, continues to be about three times that of whites.

“The relative position of blacks has not changed economically since the march,” said William Darity Jr., a professor of public policy, economics and African American studies at Duke University. “Certainly, poverty has declined for everybody, but it has declined in a way that the proportion of blacks to whites who are poor is about the same as it was 50 years ago.”
Much of this lack of progress came about because of the way that the US economy broke in the 1970s - while increasing national wealth was widely shared among all classes until the mid-1970's, from the mid-1970s onwards, most of the increase in national wealth went to the richest (almost exclusively white) Americans, even though all Americans were working more productively and producing more wealth.

This disparity has hit the poorest Americans (who are disproportionately black and Latino) the hardest - today, the unemployment rate for African-Americans is 12.6 percent, double the white unemployment rate of 6.6 percent.

So, yes, as a country, we have made a lot of progress in the last 50 years - but much of MLK Jr.'s dream remains unfulfilled. Although the soaring rhetoric of many of today's speeches serves to lift one's spirits, I wonder how much effect the 50th anniversary of the March will have on the USA. Unfortunately, I'd guess not much, since one of America's two major political parties seems to have dedicated itself to the cause of denying MLK Jr.'s dream, and to even rolling back the parts of the dream that the USA has been able to fulfill.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How to Use Google Street View to Measure Inequality

This is a neat project / recently published paper from a former professor of mine at the Harvard Kennedy School, transformed into an infographic. The project used online images and crowdsourcing to map urban perception and measure the contrasts of a number of cities, with very interesting results. The infographic below gives the highlights - enjoy!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Congressional IT Dept. Endorses Software That It's Dumb Laws Make Illegal

The wonderful VLC - made illegal by Congress, but
recommended by Congress's IT department.

On a few different occasions, this blog has pointed out how stupid US copyright laws are, on several fronts:
Well, we can add one more story to show just how far the letter of the law and the spirit of the law have diverged in this country when it comes to copyright in this country - this time, courtesy of Congress itself.

A little background, for those of you new to thinking about copyright laws in the USA, courtesy of Project Disco:
The DMCA bans distributing tools that circumvent copyright holders’ “digital rights management” usage restrictions. And not even 13 years ago, two federal courts held it illegal not just to post an evolutionary ancestor of VLC’s DVD-playback code, but even to link to sites offering that software for download.
The software in question was a Linux package called DeCSS that brought DVD playback to that operating system when commercial DVD licensees had ignored it. Movie studios focused on the fact that DeCSS had to break DVD encryption to do this job and sought to scrub it from the Web.
(Often-ignored fact: Manufacturers and movie studios brought DVD players and movies to the US. market in March 1997, months before the DMCA was even introduced in Congress.)
When a group of them took the publishers of the hacker quarterly 2600 to court for this offense, they won. In August of 2000, District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan prohibited 2600′s editors from “knowingly linking […] to any other web site containing DeCSS, or knowingly maintaining any such link, for the purpose of disseminating DeCSS.” A year later, a panel of circuit-court judges upheld the ruling.
That was a breathtakingly foolish decision–as I wrote at the time, the ruling didn’t stop 2600 from posting non-linked Web addresses, nor did it prevent posting the source code of DeCSS in a variety of forms.
Nobody should have been surprised to see the Internet route around this censorship–DeCSS never went offline, nor did the successor code libdvdcss that helps VLC do its job.
And it didn’t take too many years for the media to ignore the ruling and start linking to VLC and other unlicensed DVD-playback programs in stories, even though the same arguments that went against DeCSS could be aimed at VLC.
VLC, as I'm sure many of you know, is perhaps the best media player in the world - it is free, open-source, and will play pretty much any file or disc you throw at it - and, as described above, the way that it plays DVDs is by decrypting the DVDs in such a way as to likely violate the DMCA.

So, according to the letter of the laws passed by Congress, VLC is an illegal piece of software.

However, the Congressional IT department explicitly recommends that Congressional websites link to VLC to ensure that everyone can watch any videos posted on the website with ease (see this .pdf, p. 153) - VLC, a piece of software that is almost certainly made illegal by the DMCA.

Even Congress, who passes the USA's copyright laws, can't abide by the letter of the laws, since the laws are so dumb. If Congress can't follow them, how can they expect us to?