Thomas Levin of Princeton came to Bard Tuesday to give a lecture to the Drones Seminar, a weekly class I am participating in, led by my colleague Thomas Keenan and conceived by two of our students Arthur Holland and Dan Gettinger. Levin has studied surveillance techniques for years and he came to think with us about how the present obsession with drones will transform our landscape and our imaginations. At a time when the obsession with drones in the media is focused on their offensive capacities, it is important to recall that drones were originally developed as a surveillance technology. If drones are to become omnipresent in our lives, what will that mean?
Levin began by reminding us of the embrace of other surveillance devices in mass culture, like recording devices at the turn of the 20th century. He offered old postcards and cartoons in which unsuspecting servants or children were caught goofing off or insulting their superiors with newfangled recording devices like the cylinder phonograph and, later, hidden cameras and spy satellites. The realization emerges that we are being watched, and this sense pervades the popular consciousness. In looking to these representations from mass culture of the fear, awareness, and even expectation that we will be watched and listened to, Levin finds the emergence of what he calls “rhetoric of surveillance.”
In short, we talk and think constantly about the fact that we are or may be being watched. This cannot but change the way we behave and act. Levin poses this question. What, he asks, is the emerging drone imaginary?
To answer that question it is helpful to revisit an uncannily prescient imagination of the rise of drones in a text written over half a century ago, Ernst Jünger’s The Glass Bees. Originally published in 1957 and recently reissued in translation with an introduction by science fiction novelist Bruce Sterling, Jünger’s text centers around a job interview between an unnamed former light cavalry officer and Giacomo Zapparoni, secretive, filthy rich, and powerful proprietor of The Zapparoni Works that “manufactured robots for every imaginable purpose.” Zapparoni’s secret, however, is that he instead of big and hulking robots, he specialized in Lilliputian robots that gave “the impression of intelligent ants.”
The robots were not powerful in themselves, but they worked together. Like drone bees and drone ants—that exist only for procreation and then die—the small robots, or drones, serve specific purposes in industry or business. Zapparoni’s tiny robots “could count, weigh, sort gems or paper money….” Their power came from their coordination.
The robots “worked in dangerous locations, handling explosives, dangerous viruses, and even radioactive materials. Swarms of selectors could not only detect the faintest smell of smoke but could also extinguish a fire at an early stage; others repaired defective wiring, and still others fed upon filth and became indispensable in all jobs where cleanliness was essential.” Dispensable and efficient, Zapparoni’s little robots could do the most dangerous and least desirable tasks.
In The Glass Bees, we are introduced to Zapparoni’s latest invention: flying glass bees that can pollinate flowers much more efficiently and quickly than natural bees. The bees “were about the size of a walnut still encased in its green shell.” They were completely transparent and they were an improvement upon nature, at least insofar as the pollination of flowers was concerned. If a true or natural bee “sucked first on the calyx, at least a dessert remained.” But Zapparoni’s glass bees “proceeded more economically; that is, they drained the flower more thoroughly.” What is more, the bees were a marvel of agility and skill: “Given the flying speed, the fact that no collisions occurred during these flights back and forth was a masterly feat.” According to the cavalry officer, “It was evident that the natural procedure had been simplified, cut short, and standardized.”
Before our hero is introduced to Zapparoni’s bees, he is given a warning: “Beware of the bees!” And yet he forgets this warning. Watching the glass bees, the cavalry officer is fascinated. He felt himself “come under the spell of the deeper domain of techniques,” which like a spectacle “both enthralled and mesmerized.” His mind, he writes, went to sleep and he “forgot time” and “also entirely forgot the possibility of danger.”
Jünger’s book tells, in part, the story of our fascination and subjection to technologies of surveillance. On Facebook or Words with Friends, or even using our smart phones or GPS systems, we allow our fascination with technology to dull our sense of its danger. As Jünger writes: “Technical perfection strives toward the calculable, human perfection toward the incalculable. Perfect mechanisms—around which, therefore, stands an uncanny but fascinating halo of brilliance—evoke both fear and a titanic pride which will be humbled not by insight but only by catastrophe.”
The protagonist of The Glass Bees, a former member of the Light Cavalry and later a tank inspector, had once been fascinated by the “succession of ever new models becoming obsolete at an ever increasing speed, this cunning question-and-answer game between overbred brains.” What he came to see is that “the struggle for power had reached a new stage; it was fought with scientific formulas. The weapons vanished in the abyss like fleeting images, like pictures one throws into the fire. New ones were produced in protean succession.” Victory ceased to be about physical battle; it became, instead, a contest of technical mastery and knowledge.
The danger drones pose is not necessarily military. As General Stanley McChrystal rightly said when I asked him about this last week at the New York Historical Society, drones are simply another military tool that can be used for good or ill. Many fret today about collateral damage by drones and forget that if we had to send in armies to do these tasks the collateral damage would be much greater. Others worry about assassination, but drones are simply the tool, not the person pulling the trigger. It may be true that having drones when others don’t offers an enormous military advantage and makes the decision to go to kill easier, but when both sides have drones, we will all think heavily between beginning a cycle of illegal assassinations.
Rather, the danger of drones is how they change us as humans. As we humans interact more regularly with drones and machines and computers, we will inevitably come to expect ourselves and our friends and our colleagues and our lovers to act with the efficiency and selflessness of drones. Sherry Turkle worries that mechanical companions offer such fascination and unquestionable love that humans are beginning to prefer spending time with their machines than with other humans—who make demands, get tired, act cranky, and disappoint us. Ron Arkin has argued that robot soldiers will be more humane at war than human soldiers, who often act rashly out of exhaustion, anger, or revenge. Doctors are learning to rely on Watson and artificially intelligent medical machines, who can bring databases of knowledge to bear on diagnoses with the speed and objectivity that humans can only dream of. In every area of human life where humans once were thought to be necessary, drones and machines are proving more reliable, more capable, and more desirable.
The danger drones represent is not what they do better than humans, but that they do it better than humans. They are a further step in the human dream of self-improvement—the desire to overcome our shame at our all-too-human limitations.
The incredible popularity of drones today is partly a result of their freeing us to fight wars with ever-reduced human and economic costs. But drones are popular also because they appeal to the human desire for perfection. The question is, however, how perfect we humans can be before we begin to lose our humanity. That is, of course, the force of Jünger’s warning: Beware of the bees!
As drones appear everywhere around us, you would do well to put down the newspaper and turn off You Tube and, instead, revisit Ernst Jünger’s classic tale of drones. The Glass Bees is your weekend read. You can read Bruce Sterling’s introduction to The Glass Bees here.
Governor Mitt Romney released his taxes for the last two years today. He refused to release earlier records. These two years of records are from the years when he knew he was running for President for the second time.
We can assume they are to some degree cleansed of the most egregious of offenses. That said: Wow!
As my friend John Drabinski just wrote:
Romney has Cayman Island, Luxembourg, and Swiss bank accounts (I'm sure that's patriotic), made over $20 million and paid a 13.9% rate (wtf?!), and I'm telling you, if folks don't flip out over this, then we deserve what we get in this country.
Romney's tax rate is below 15%! That is even below the capital gains rate and the unjustifiable carried interest rate for hedge fund investors. Why? Because he has tax havens and secret Swiss bank accounts that he uses to reduce his taxes. He just closed a Swiss bank account (not fast enough I guess).
This is disgrace. Someone who uses the gray zone of tax haven law to hide his income is not simply playing by the rules. Money in tax havens is protected from taxes, but also from regulations and disclosure rules. I am not saying Romney broke laws. But he wants to be President, the personification of the public spiritedness of the nation. To hide money around the world in tax dodges and secret accounts sends a clear message: protecting my money is more important than paying my fair share to the country. While this may be legal, it is hardly a recommendation for public service.
Unfortunately, Romney's approach to financial secrecy is all too common amongst the people in his elite circle. It is one thing to have a low capital gains rate tax for investment in equipment and factories. That does spur investment. I would favor a low 5% or so capital gains tax—but only if it were limited to actual capital investment. However, to tax investment in stocks at that low rate makes no economic sense. And the idea that carried interest (the profit a hedge fund manager or private equity manager makes on their investments) should be taxed at 15% is ludicrous, as every hedge fund manager I know admits in private.
Tax havens and tax policies are not simply economic questions. A just system of taxation is essential to preserve our democracy. You simply cannot have a country that puts the common interest above the private interests of its members when the wealthiest of its citizens are employing armies of lawyers and consultants to hide their money and assets.
The best account of these tax havens is found in Nicholas Shaxson's book Treasure Island: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens. Here are a few key quotes:
It is essential to understand from the outset that the offshore system is ultimately not about celebrity tax exiles and mobsters.... The offshore system is also about a more generalized subversion of democracy by our increasingly unaccountable elites. "Taxes are for the little people," The New York millionaire Leona Helmsley once famously said.
Much of what happens offshore is technically legal. A lot of it is plainly illegal and often criminal. And there is a vast gray area in between. All of it is profoundly dangerous, corrosive to democracy, and morally indefensible.
The Offshore World is All Around Us. Over half of world trade passes, at least on paper, through tax havens. Over half of all bank assets, and a third of foreign direct investment by multinational corporations, are routed offshore. Some 85 percent of international banking and bond issuance takes place in the so-called Euromarkets, a stateless offshore zone that we shall soon explore. Nearly every multinational corporation uses tax havens, and their largest users—by far—are on Wall Street.
Tax havens don't just offer an escape from tax. They also provide wealthy and powerful elites with secrecy and all manner of ways to shrug off the laws and duties that come along with living in and obtaining benefits from society—taxes, prudent financial regulation, criminal laws, inheritance rules, and many others. offering these escape routes is the tax havens' core line of business. It is what they do.
Just last week, the watchdog Global Financial Integrity revealed that the developing world suffered nearly $1 trillion in illicit financial outflows in 2009, "a number that is almost 10 times larger than the official development assistance they receive each year from Western economies like the United States, United Kingdom and Norway." As Raymond Baker writes:
A shadow financial system consisting of tax havens, secrecy jurisdictions and anonymous corporate vehicles makes it easy for corrupt dictators, terrorists, drug traffickers and tax evaders to quietly shepherd their funds out of the developing world and around the planet without notice.
Again, I don't know if Governor Romney broke laws. I imagine he stayed just this side of illegality.
But we have a moral and ethical problem in this country. A republic, as Montesquieu saw, runs on the fuel of the virtue of its citizens, which Montesquieu defined as their willingness to put the public interest above their private interests. We are a nation in need of renewal, and that demands leadership that inspires us to re-commit ourselves to the American dream and the American story. It is a great story, one worthy of being re-imagined. But how can someone lead us to that promised land when he has, by his actions, shown himself to care more about protecting his money in offshore tax havens than doing his duty as a citizen? He can't.
Andrew Sullivan calls for President Obama to go big and make tax reform a central priority in the State of the Union tonight. I agree. He also says:
It seems to me that this is not about Romney and shouldn't be about Romney. He broke no laws; he seems admirably charitable; his massive wealth is not a marker against him. The issue is the system. My basic view has long been for a flat, simple tax code, in which everyone pays either the same rate, or two or three clear rates, and all deductions are removed. You tax income and dividends at the same rate. You get government out of the way of an economy's market decisions, by not tilting the playing field.
I agree that Romney's tax write is not a marker against him. It is one thing to play by the rules and pay the required capital gains tax rate. And yes, he did give $7.1 Million to charity which comes to something like 17% of his income. But the issue is that he also seems to have taken aggressive measures to hide and protect that money offshore. While this is not technically illegal, it is not simply playing by the rules of the tax system. It is employing accountants and lawyers to seek loopholes and avoid the intent of those rules. And that is wrong, even it is not illegal.
Sullivan gets the main point right on:
To put it more bluntly: The president and the Democrats should not be piling on Romney because he's rich. They should be piling on the tax code because it is so insane. This issue is populist and good economics. With a full-scale Bowles-Simpson attack on deductions, reform could keep taxation simple and low and easier to understand. And that restrains lobbyists, who suddenly have far less to lobby for; and it restrains taxation. If you have three simple rates - say, 10, 20, 30 - then any increase in them is very, very visible. You want a government that can be monitored and controlled by the people? Simplify the tax code!
Read Andrew Sullivan here