US Capitol

Government. It affects us all. It has an enormous impact on how society works. And yet it seems to a lot of Americans that our government has become an out-of-control monster. With Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party in the headlines, perhaps it's time to have a serious conversation about the role of government in our society and what we expect. On this episode we look at some thoughts and recommendations written by John Batelle of Federated Media. Recorded on 11/07/2011.


You can download the episode here.


Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:

What Role Government?, by John Batelle (SearchBlog, 11/2011)

Wikipedia entry for John Batelle

John Batelle's SearchBlog: Thoughts on the intersection of search, media, technology, and more (mentioned in show)

Lawrence Lessig on How We Lost Our Democracy, by Larry Lessig (Rolling Stone, 10/05/2011)



Mike Johnston: So welcome to episode two of our new podcast Robot Overlordz. I'm Mike Johnston and joining me is Matt Bolton.

Matt Bolton: Hello.

MJ: Tonight we're going to talk about an article that I selected. So the article I picked for tonight is on John Batelle's search blog and it is titled What Role Government? So John Batelle is a journalist as well as the founder and chairman of Federated Media Publishing and he was also one of the original founders of Wired and I believe I first ran across him through something in BoingBoing because they are part of Federated Media and they get their ads through them or something like that I think. That's kind of how I ran across him. He's always got some interesting books or articles that he's reading so he kind of fell into my Google Reader feeds. I think he probably leans slightly left, very slightly left but a lot of the articles that he shares are pretty similar to ones that I share so I'm pretty sure that's why he appeals to me as a thinker. So this article was just some general thoughts he had on politics and government and around the Occupy Wall Street movement, just about how society is changing and how we're looking more to private corporations for a lot of services and he also references a previous article he had done in that article that had some interesting graphs about numbers and stuff like that that kind of showed a little bit actually the Federal Government shrinking in some terms and state and local governments growing. And a lot of those figures were kind of interesting so I thought they were kind of worth taking a look at.  But specifically kind of what interest me is just about the different aspects he kind of pulled out about identity, control and really communication, education and health care, health care and security. So really just those kind of roles that he saw for government are ones that I've kind of thought about as kind of core services that in the past governments have done and it does seem like they're not doing those so well anymore. Sometimes the free market doesn't exactly do so well at some of those I think. So I guess Matt, do you have any overall thoughts on the article?

MB: Yeah, actually I went through the article and I basically made notes on each one of his points and you had touched on them the identity, control, delivery, communication, you know his, on identity he touches on the fact that you know, we're kind of moving our lives online and we're giving up our identity to do that, you know, we're having to give out our social security number and our bank numbers and all this other information which is true.

MJ: That kind of has become a one way transaction in a lot of cases and that's what,  I mean the government and this is where I think government's versus private corporations have a difference where they provide services when you look at something like identity, I mean you provide the government with information about you generally they keep it to themselves but you can kind of get it from them and aggregate they kind of offer it back out to society. In general corporations don't do that and you look at a company like Facebook that we're really entrusting with a lot of information about us and they really sometimes make it difficult for you to leave with that information or to get access to it or to, you know, make any changes if their information is inaccurate and you know that, tying that kind of relationship into a profit motive driven feedback loop is to me anyway, slightly troubling and that I guess was the issue that I pulled out of that one specifically.

MB: Facebook is basically hey, you can use our product for free but we're going to use some of your information whether it be to you know market your information to companies or do whatever with the information.

MJ: Well I think most people don't think about that though because they get it for free and they start feeling entitled to it but they don't realize the behind the scenes cost of things, you know, I mean we've really been trained with advertising supported TV to not think about the real costs of what we're watching and you know that does give someone leverage to insert things in there.

MB: Well the one thing that  I will say with business is they can only kind of push you so far and say we're going to give out this information before you just say you know what? I'm done and then Facebook's out of business because they pissed off too many people giving away too much information. You can't quit the government, I mean they have your information.

MJ: You can't quit modern society either really thought.

MB: No you can't but if Facebook starts saying we're going to give out your phone number and your address and all this other stuff people are going to start closing their accounts and they'll move on to whatever the next, you know, maybe they go back to MySpace or maybe they go onto whatever the next big thing is. I mean look at three, four years ago MySpace was huge and Facebook was just a small blip on the radar and now MySpace is basically gone and Facebook is here so you know, they have short attention spans and.

MJ: Oh they're certainly fickle but at the same time there are significant ways that the online environment is changing and some of the things that used to be true aren't necessarily always going to be true. I mean just because there's always been something else that rises up doesn't mean that's always for sure going to be the case. I mean it's certainly likely, at least if they make a misstep in the short term but what if you know your wallet was Facebook and that was what you used to buy groceries you know? It becomes a lot sticker and they're trying to get into those areas and that's I think why he says he expects it to be a source of conflict is because you know, Facebook what they do is they walk right up to the line, they step over it and then if enough people complain then they step back. They always step over it again later and that's how they get people you know, as much as people hate their layout changes, and yeah they lose some people but really compared to MySpace when MySpace started pissing off their users they sank quick. Facebook really hasn't yet.

MB: Right. No they haven't. I think people, every time they make a change or they do something else with their security settings or privacy settings and all this stuff they piss off more and more people and eventually something like Google + or some other viable alternative to Facebook is going to come along and either Facebook is going to change or they're going to go out of business much like MySpace did.

MJ: Yeah, but all those companies they end up with almost the same exact privacy policies and they just pick up where the last one left off but just back a little bit so really there you have Facebook's system just on a larger scale because the companies just change names but over time your behavior is being shifted.

MB: Correct. No, it is true. I guess it comes down to who do you trust more? The government or Facebook. It goes back to the control or whatever. I mean government used to kind of stay out of our, and then the Patriot Act came along and.

MJ: Yeah, well and there's a ton of private corporations and consultants and security advisory places and the amount of hardware they sell them? That's a huge, I mean it's a growth industry and you tie it to the growth of the prison industry too, around the war on drugs and things like that, those are America's growth industries unfortunately and they're almost a recipe for a police state unfortunately some of those things.

MB: Yeah, they are. I guess that's why government scares me just as much or more than Facebook does. I know Facebook's going to use my information to market me crap I don't want but then you've got the government eavesdropping or doing all these things.

MJ: Yeah, but they just turn it over to private corporations to do.

MB: His next, this was the one I had, I guess kind of more, the biggest issue with the article, I like the article over all, I like the points that he makes but the delivery and communication he makes it almost sound like FedEx and UPS use the infrastructure, he eludes to the fact that the infrastructure FedEX and UPS use the infrastructure but he makes it sound like they use it for free and USPS has to pay for the infrastructure. The whole article goes up about how USPS is failing and FedEX and UPS are taking over, you know, but FedEX and UPS they have to pay taxes and tolls and pay their employees who also pay taxes and tolls and all this stuff.

MJ: Well FedEX I'm sure like most of those companies those sizes is doing all kinds of overseas accounts and stuff like that to not pay taxes as well.

MB: Right, but if they're local, I mean they're filling their trucks up with gas which is, they're paying gas tax on all of that which pays for the roads. 

MJ: Right. I don't think he's necessarily bashing them as if they don't do that, but at the same time they are using infrastructure and it is putting a load on that infrastructure.

MB: Right, but they're paying for it.

MJ: You know that we all, well, it's a shared infrastructure though and if they're doing things like hiding their income so they don't have to pay taxes, which most of.

MB: Yeah, but I mean I don't know that they're doing that.

MJ: Well I don't necessarily know that they are personally either, but almost everybody at that level pretty much is.

MB: Yeah, I think you know, the other thing too is the USPS is, I mean at this point it's basically just a drain on the economy, I don't know why we haven't cut it down to three days a week. I don't ever get anything in the mail that is so urgent.

MJ: Yeah, I'm not really a fan of the postal service either necessarily but I think it does go to show a little bit how communication policy in this country is out of whack. On the one hand we have stuff that kind of made sense when the Postal Service was first around and now it maybe doesn't so much isn't doing the job as well as FedEX and UPS and yet the private companies are leveraging a lot in society though and they're not really stepping up to always fulfill their half of the bargain of participating in that society.

MB: I don't know. I disagree with that just because I think we have gas taxes in this country to pay for the roads and FedEX and UPS are driving around in less than fuel efficient vehicles which means they're filling them up quite a bit and they're paying more in gas taxes to pay for the infrastructure they'er using which is the roads, you know, if USPS was run, if it was a private company it would have gone out of business years ago but instead we're footing the bill. They're actually costing us more than FedEx and UPS ever would because every year we as tax payers have to pay a huge amount of money because they lose the USPS loses money every year because they're a government entity they don't change and evolve like FedEX and UPS, you know, like I said, if FedEX and UPS were run like the USPS they would have been gone years ago,.

MJ:  I don't disagree with you on that Matt, but at the same time I don't think that the private companies are necessarily paying for all the infrastructure, they are getting benefits out of just society in general that they're really, you know, there's plenty of evidence that those companies do hide income in tax shelters and go through all those hoops, they get subsidies from the government or even local governments to build processing centers in this town versus that town. You know they are benefitting in a lot of ways.

MB: Well they are benefiting but you have to realize a UPS facility might hire 1200 people, that's 1200 people that have jobs that are paying local property taxes, they're paying local sales tax.

MJ: Right but a lot of that profit it goes out into FedEx and goes into an international banking system that I mean from the stuff I've read on international banking there's all kinds of shenanigans going on in that space.

MB: Oh I'm sure.

MJ: That we're just not even aware of. I mean I don't claim to be an expert in that at all, just you know I have read stuff by people that are experts in that stuff you know? That's more about what I'm talking about FedEX and UPS were a local company I'd be 100 percent in agreement with you about how they operate but I think they work at a different scale, and you know I just have flashbacks to my AT&T experience just the kinds of things that those companies get from the government, what they pay for them are really, they're just not in the same league. I mean they do make some payments to the government or to the counties, you know that they're doing business in but they're taking a lot more out in profit than they're paying in. You know? That really is how they operate.

MB: Well yeah, but that goes more to the fault of the government. It's kind of a.

MJ: I'd like to see, you know, corporations are chartered. I'd like to see some of them get their charters revoked for acting badly rather than I think sometimes we handle them too much, but we're kind of getting off topic there, so.

MB: We are a little bit. Oh I'll make one last quick point, you know, most of these companies aren't doing anything illegal they're doing what the government allows them to do. You know, it's kind of, it's not illegal, if I own a bank and I say, oh you can go rob the bank and you go rob the bank. Well, I said you could. Congress is kind of allowing it. Government is allowing it overall.

MJ:  Yeah but a lot of those laws that are written are written by lobbyists that are paid by industry. So in that sense I think we'e splitting hairs on it.

MB: That's the fault of the government for allowing lobbyists to write laws.

MJ: I don't know that it's entirely the government's fault necessarily just because again, it's not illegal and there's no direct connection there. That's how this whole system operates and I think the problem we fall into and I think you and I just did it, where we argue governments versus corporations. You're splitting a system in half and then arguing which half is the problem. Really the whole problem is the fact that you have the corporation meshed with government and the lobbyists in there in the middle as the interface where bad laws are written or laws that made claim to have this or that social engineering goal, or deregulation goal and what happens is that the biggest corporations profit off it and the government gets bigger or more in-meshed in things so that they can make more laws and those two things just seem to keep happening and keep spinning and instead of arguing over which one is up and which one is down at any one time I guess I would like to find a way to focus on let's stop this cycle.

MB: Yeah, no, I agree. It's, you know, we elect these people to go in and make sure they enforce the laws and write new good laws that are going to improve things but they just you know, it's kind of well we'll give the law to the highest bidder. The highest bidder can make the law, so I don't even know why we even have these people if that's going to be the way. Why we have Congress if that's going to be the case.

MJ:  Well and there I think, and I'm not sure which of these points it would really fall under, Occupy Wall Street is kind of an interesting movement to me because if nothing else it is a conversation about how you would start routing around those things, how you would structure things in more of a bottom up fashion than a top down. I think a lot of the problem and this is in the article I had the last time we talked about one of mine is that anything top down, whether it's corporations or banks or Wall Street or the government, any of those are not as good at making decisions as kind of the edges. The bottom up.

MB: Right. The last couple of things on the article. He talks about investment, he eludes to the fact of social security. Social security was never ever meant to be a retirement program. It was just kind of supposed to be a helping hand for your retirement and then the other one I wanted to touch on was the education which is under the, our government controls education in this country and we kind of have seen how that works more or less. I'm a huge proponent of the voucher system. I know a lot of people don't like it but right now the only people who send their kids to private school are A, people who can afford to or B, they do it for religious reasons. I think if you had everybody who could take their vouchers and go wherever they wanted you would start to see private schools open up that were non-religious but were strictly for education and nothing else and I think the advantage to having that would be you're not going to send your kid to a school that's not going to teach them what you want them to learn. You're not going to send them to a failing private school. You're going to send them to the best school you can and right now parents don't have that choice. You have to send them to the crappy public school or fork out your own money to send them to a private school if there's even one available in your area and I think part of the problem with our education system not to go off on a huge tangent about it is the fact that there is no competition for education and when you have no competition you have lazy, crappy education or whatever it is when you don't have some kind of competition you get a lazy attitude.

MJ: Yeah. I don't know. I think we have to totally reconceptualize education. I mean the whole K-12 system, college, all that. I think that grew out of a very specific set of circumstances where you had some advantage to standardization but I think there is still some value to standardization, I just don't think there's K-12 value in standardization. I would cut it down actually and then open it up on the older ages and I don't think it should ever have summer vacation. I mean not that there shouldn't be a vacation in the summer, but three months off, or two and a half or whatever the hell it is now.

MB: Yeah, I would rather have it be, I mean now if I was in school now I would argue with myself about this.

MJ: Of course, but it doesn't make sense preparing kids for the real world, you know? Because whenever you get out of college you come home and it's like you have no breaks anymore. You go from having tons of breaks, especially in college. I got an extra month worth of summer always.

MB: I think it would be better if it was maybe every two months you get two weeks off, something like that.

MJ: Yeah, just to get them ready for what they're going to face in the world. Education has come totally unhooked from what is out in the world.

MB: It has, but with children, especially under, like I would say less than maybe 6th grade or so you really do need to give them plenty of free time to kind of develop their imaginations and their minds.

MJ: Oh certainly but that's not necessarily what education is. I mean it's part of it maybe but I would agree that 6th is probably as low as you want to go at least at first, but even there you are chopping off a number of grades and I would think streamlining the process a little bit. But at the same time I do think there's something to be said for a standardized set of things that everybody has in common. The problem is I think no one is ever going to agree on what those things are and we seem to have as a country lost a common thread a little bit, you know? As far as what kind of country we want to be, what kind of society, you know, and I think a lot of that goes back to really the 60s and those conflicts and they never seemed to have been resolved.

MB: Yeah, no, I would agree. If you ask any person they're going to say I want children to learn this or this, you know? The only thing you might be able to get them to agree on is reading and math. But then what do you read? Well, then you get.

MJ: Oh and there you'd have tons of fights, you know what I mean. Half the great books have been banned at one time or another, you know?

MB: Yeah, it's. I actually I know for a fact that a couple of the books that I read in first grade are considered politically incorrect and are banned from the library, so. The one with the Chinese brothers if you ever remember that?

MJ: I don't remember that one.

MB: That was a good book. See those were my points on the article. I did think it was a good article, it bought up some good points, hopefully some decent discussion.

MJ: Yeah, I like John Batelle. He's relatively open minded. You know in general I tend to like articles that are a little bit more, not to disparage your article from last time, but that was a little bit more of a political blog, a political commentator where John Batelle is more of a, well, he's an IT guy more or less, so in that sense I think his thinking is a little bit less strident maybe or just less intense. It just sounds less harsh to me,

MB: Yes. Well.

MJ: Not a criticism really, I just.

MB: Yeah. I think we should point out to our listeners, this isn't going to be a political discussion every week, at least I don't think it's going to be.

MJ: I would agree.

MB: Yeah, in fact my goal for our next one is to have a non-political article, at least for me because I think we'e done two political articles now and I'd like to do something different.

MJ: Well thanks everyone and anyone for joining us.

MB: Thank you. We will see you next time.

MJ: Groovy.

MB: Thanks.


Image Credit: "Uscapitolindaylight" by Kmccoy - en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.