The End of Privacy

A few days ago Google announced a new privacy policy: If you're signed into any Google service, the information that Google collects from you can be combined with information from every other Google service to build a gigantic profile of your activities and preferences. On Tuesday I wrote that I was pretty unhappy about this, and a lot of people wanted to know why. After all, Google says this new policy will mean a better computing experience for everyone:

Our recently launched personal search feature is a good example of the cool things Google can do when we combine information across products. Our search box now gives you great answers not just from the web, but your personal stuff too…But there's so much more that Google can do to help you by sharing more of your information with…well, you. We can make search better—figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too. For example, it's January, but maybe you're not a gym person, so fitness ads aren't that useful to you. We can provide reminders that you're going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day.

So what's my problem? Easy. In that mass of good news, the real reason for Google's announcement was stuffed quietly into the middle: "We can provide more relevant ads too."

This is so obvious that no one even paid attention to it. Of course Google wants to target its ads better. That's where most of its revenue comes from. Yawn.

So again: What's my problem? Why do I care if Google serves up ads that are a little more suited to my tastes? The truth is that I don't. What I do care about, though, is the obvious corollary: Google's main purpose in life, as you'd expect from any big, public company, is making money. And the way they make money is by helping third parties sell you stuff. Here, then, is the nut of the thing, from the same blog post announcing the new privacy policy:

Finally, what we're not changing. We remain committed to data liberation, so if you want to take your information elsewhere you can. We don't sell your personal information, nor do we share it externally without your permission…

Do you find that reassuring? I decidedly don't. If Google can change its privacy policy today, it can change it tomorrow. And it will. No company is an unstoppable juggernaut forever, and Google is already showing signs of becoming an ordinary corporation that has to scrap for profits just like everyone else. This is what's motivating their policy change this week, and someday it's likely to motivate them to sell my personal information after all.

It won't be mandatory, of course. If I want to close my Google accounts, they'll let me. But if I use an Android smartphone—and this is plainly one of the primary targets of Google's new policy—that will be pretty hard. And after years of using Google products like Gmail and YouTube, it's not as easy as it sounds to simply export all your data and move to a new platform. In reality, very few people will do this. Google is counting on the fact that they'll grumble a bit, like I'm doing, and then get on with their lives.

And maybe I should too. That's certainly the primary advice I got after writing Tuesday's post. Perhaps, as David Brin has been telling us for years, traditional notions of privacy are going away whether we like it or not, so we might as well like it. Complaining about it won't do us any more good than complaining about the end of transatlantic ocean liners or old-time radio shows.

And yet…I'm just not there yet. It's bad enough that Google can build up a massive and—if we're honest, slightly scary—profile of my activities, but it will be a lot worse when Google and Facebook and Procter & Gamble all get together to merge these profiles into a single uber-database and then sell it off for a fee to anyone with a product to hawk. Or any government agency that thinks this kind of information might be pretty handy.

So that's why I'm unhappy. I don't believe for a second that Google's policy against selling personal information will last forever. Maybe I should just relax and accept that this is the direction the world is going, but for now I think I'll continue to fight it.

You know those basketball rematches where a team that got pummeled last time suddenly comes out totally on fire and wins by a mile? It's never clear quite why that happens, but it happened in the Republican debate tonight. I don't know what Romney ate for breakfast this morning, but he came alive and wiped the floor with Newt Gingrich in this debate. He went after Gingrich for his Freddie Mac connections and made it stick. He was outraged when Newt said he was anti-immigrant, and for once he actually sounded outraged. And when Newt tried to buy some anti-media cred by attacking Wolf Blitzer, he got pwned by both Blitzer and Romney:

BLITZER: Earlier this week, you said Governor Romney, after he released his taxes, you said that you were satisfied with the level of transparency of his personal finances when it comes to this. And I just want to reiterate and ask you, are you satisfied right now with the level of transparency as far as his personal finances?

GINGRICH: Wolf, you and I have a great relationship, it goes back a long way. I'm with him. This is a nonsense question. Look, how about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we'll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?

BLITZER: But, Mr. Speaker, you made an issue of this, this week, when you said that, "He lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts." I didn't say that. You did.

GINGRICH: I did. And I'm perfectly happy to say that on an interview on some TV show. But this is a national debate, where you have a chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues.

....ROMNEY: Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here?

Ouch. Gingrich has tried that bit before about nasty attacks being OK when you're on some radio show or something but not when you're on national TV, and for some reason he's gotten away with it even though it's transparently self-serving and ridiculous. Tonight he didn't.

This was all in the first half hour, but by then the debate was over. Romney lost a bit of his mojo later on and reverted to the stuttering, stumbling Mitt that we've seen in the last two debates, but not enough to hurt him, especially after Newt was forced to endure ten minutes of attacks over his support for a lunar colony during the second hour. This attack from Romney was both brutal and effective:

ROMNEY: I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, "You're fired."

The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea, but it's not a good idea. And we have seen in politics -- we've seen politicians -- and Newt, you've been part of this -- go from state to state and promise exactly what that state wants to hear. The Speaker comes here to Florida, wants to spend untold amount of money having a colony on the moon. I know it's very exciting on the Space Coast.

In South Carolina, it was a new interstate highway, and dredging the port in Charleston. In New Hampshire, it was burying a power line coming in from Canada and building a new VHA hospital in New Hampshire so that people don't have to go to Boston.

Look, this idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into the trouble we're in now. We've got to say no to this kind of spending.

Coming from a guy like Romney who's famous for his willingness to say pretty much anything to anybody, this was a great job of jiu jitsu. It was also true. Gingrich really has been pandering to state interests relentlessly, and nowhere more so than in Florida.

I don't know how much debates really matter compared to the tidal wave of advertising that's inundating Florida right now, but if they do matter then Romney won the Florida primary tonight, and almost certainly the nomination along with it. The punters on Intrade obviously agree: Romney's chances of winning shot up to 89% tonight and Gingrich's plummeted to 5%. Adios, Newt.

It's sort of fascinating watching the Republican establishment finally go nuclear on Newt Gingrich. As near as I can tell, pretty much everyone who actually served with or alongside Newt in the 90s hates his guts. But as long as he was just writing books and doing think tanky stuff, they were willing to let bygones be bygones. Ditto for the period when he was supposedly running for president but, in reality, was just conducting an innovative new kind of book tour.

But now that he has millions of dollars of Sheldon Adelson's casino money and has even an outside chance of actually winning, the long knives are out. Bob Dole has a scorching attack here. The Drudge Report is now the We-Hate-Newt Report. Philip Klein launches a brutal broadside here. Suddenly everyone remembers the 90s again, and in particular how volcanically unstable Newt was.

All good fun. What's most ironically amusing about all this, though, is that underlying a lot of the attacks on Newt is the complaint that he's not conservative enough. Weirdly enough, there's some truth to this by modern GOP standards. Newt's tone and temperament are perfectly suited to the no-compromise-no-surrender spirit of the tea party-ized GOP, which is why he's so appealing to the base during debates. But the truth is that for all his bluster, Newt was perfectly willing to do deals during his time as Speaker. He likes to think of himself as a world-historical figure, and that means getting world-historical things done. Simple obstruction is not really his MO. That makes him doubly unreliable, since obstruction is the sine qua non of movement conservatism these days.

Conservatives think that listening to Newt is a hoot, and they love it when he gets the crowds wound up. The problem is that they never quite realized the crowd wasn't in on the con. The rank-and-file actually took Newt seriously, and now party leaders have to figure out how to suck the fetid air back out of the Gingrich-inspired fever swamps without losing their core audience of old people and the white working class, who are voting for their side because they're scared to death that Barack Obama is destroying western civilization. In the end, I don't think they'll have much trouble pulling this off, but in the meantime it makes the whole spectacle even better fun for us jeering liberals.

One week ago today, CNN's John King asked Newt Gingrich if it was true that in 1999 he asked his then-wife Marianne Gingrich for an open marriage so that he could continue having an affair with his girlfriend Callista. On national TV, in front of a huge audience, here was his answer:

Now, let me be quite clear. Let me be quite clear. The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period says the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They [i.e., ABC] weren't interested, because they would like to attack any Republican.

This, it turns out, was a lie. Today, after a full week of badgering, Gingrich's campaign has finally admitted what ABC knew perfectly well all along: Gingrich hadn't suggested any personal friends to them at all. Nor, obviously, had they refused to interview any of these personal friends. They didn't exist.

There's an odd de facto standard for political lying: you can mislead people to almost any degree and it doesn't really count against you. It's he-said-she-said. But if there's a clear, smoking gun fact that you plainly misrepresent, no matter how trivial, then it's a scandal. By that standard, Newt ought to be in trouble. His dealings with ABC News may not be all that important in the cosmic scheme of things, but by DC standards this is a flat-out, premeditated fabrication and therefore a scandal. Gingrich told a bald-faced lied and he knew he was lying when he did it.

This all fits Newt's personality. He's always been more brazen than even your usual hardened politico because he knows that nobody really cares about fact checking. But he went over the line this time. I wonder if he'll pay a price?

Via Paul Krugman, this is kind of fascinating. Jonathan Portes provides us with this chart, which shows the trajectory in Britain of both the Great Depression and the current Great Recession. The red and black lines at the bottom are the ones to look at:

Now, there's a bit of cherry picking going on here, I think, since Britain had a nasty recession following World War I and sluggish growth throughout the 1920s, which meant they simply didn't have as far to fall during the 30s as we did. Unemployment was also worse during the 30s than it is today. So take this with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, it's sobering: in Britain at least, the Great Recession of 2008 is, in some ways, arguably worse than the Great Depression was.

James Pethokoukis is pretty upset that President Obama is coming around to the idea of mass refinancing of mortgages, and I'm upset too. The difference is that he's upset Obama is thinking about this at all while I'm upset that Obama didn't think harder about it three years ago. But now there's something new to be upset about: it's possible that Mitt Romney is in favor of mass refinancing too as long as it "doesn't add additional government obligation." Pethokoukis:

Now, Romney could have said something like, “The way to boost housing is to boost the economy and speed up the foreclosure process so the market can clear.” But he didn’t say that. He said this: “Clearly, if there is a way of providing a break to homeowners to get lower interest rates, that is something which has always been part of the refinance story. If it can be done in a way that doesn’t add additional government obligation, that’s one thing.”

My guess is that mass refinancing isn't going to happen in any significant way no matter who's president, so on a substantive level I can't get too excited about all this. But it does demonstrate just how unrealistic our rhetorical expectations have gotten. Just as many on the left would like Obama to announce some kind of mass repudiation of debt that would be political poison, Pethokoukis is upset that Romney didn't basically tell homeowners to all fuck off. Romney 2012!

In practice, allowing foreclosures to work their will on the market has been bipartisan policy ever since the housing bubble burst, but everyone sort of pretends otherwise. That's politics. If you want people to vote for you for president, you avoid rubbing people's noses in bad news and then putting your boot on their neck. Even for a guy like Romney, there's a limit to just how much he's willing to shoot himself in the foot to please the purists and the fanatics.

So, how about that Newt Gingrich fellow? He's down, he's up, he's down, he's up, and now he's down again. Quite frankly, you'd almost think he had some kind of fundamental stability problem.

Of course, I guess what he really has is a Super-PAC problem. Spend a gazillion dollars telling voters that Newt is a lunatic, and the voters listen. Either that or the Marianne Gingrich interview on Nightline was a bigger deal than we jaded sophisticates thought. In any case, it now looks like the course of history is reasserting itself and Mitt Romney is likely to win Florida after all.

George Soros thinks we're in for some bad times:

He doesn’t just mean it’s time to protect your assets. He means it’s time to stave off disaster. As he sees it, the world faces one of the most dangerous periods of modern history—a period of “evil.” Europe is confronting a descent into chaos and conflict. In America he predicts riots on the streets that will lead to a brutal clampdown that will dramatically curtail civil liberties. The global economic system could even collapse altogether.

“I am not here to cheer you up. The situation is about as serious and difficult as I’ve experienced in my career,” Soros tells Newsweek. “We are facing an extremely difficult time, comparable in many ways to the 1930s, the Great Depression. We are facing now a general retrenchment in the developed world, which threatens to put us in a decade of more stagnation, or worse. The best-case scenario is a deflationary environment. The worst-case scenario is a collapse of the financial system.”

Is Soros just a naturally gloomy guy? Or are things really that bad? Felix Salmon is roaming the corridors of the Davos conference and says that gloomy or not, Soros is no outlier:

No one but Soros will actually say these things, at Davos — but everybody here fears them, which is one reason why we have the slightly ludicrous sight of billionaires bellyaching about the global burdens of inequality.

Security this year is tighter than ever — the first rule of security at these events is that it can only get ratcheted up, rather than loosened at all — and there’s a besieged feeling to this Alpine town I haven’t felt before. The financial crisis concentrated minds and was seen as a big problem to be addressed and even maybe solved. But the current breakdown of trust in global institutions cuts at the heart of the World Economic Forum’s founding principle — that if you get a bunch of important people together in the same place, they can actually make a difference.

I doubt that it's time to stock up on canned food or anything, but it's an interesting observation. Are the world's governing elites losing confidence in their own abilities? I wouldn't blame them if they were, considering how they've responded to the events of the past few years. When the big test finally came, they didn't do very well.

I know nobody cares, but you really have to admire the chutzpah of a Karl Rove Super-PAC running an ad that attacks President Obama because median incomes are down since 2009. The problem isn't that the statement is literally untrue. According to the Census Bureau, the median income adjusted for inflation did indeed drop $368 between 2009 and 2010.

But guess what? Between 2001 and 2009, when Rove's boss was in the White House, median income fell $448. And that's over two entire terms that included six full years of economic expansion. But I guess when you bequeath your successor the biggest economic calamity since the Depression, you need to work pretty hard to rejuvenate your reputation.

Matt Yglesias directs me this morning to a column by Peter Orszag promoting the cause of greater price transparency in the healthcare arena. As you may or may not be aware, it's almost impossible for consumers to find out the price of various procedures, which in turn makes it almost impossible to shop around. This reduces competitive pressure and keeps prices higher:

Several efforts are therefore under way to provide more transparency about health-care prices, with the goal of helping people become smarter shoppers. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services now collect and publish information on prices for prescription drugs (through the Medicare Plan Finder) and for common health services in various areas (through the Health Care Consumer Initiatives). And more than half of states now have publicly accessible websites offering health-care price information.

These efforts have not been overwhelmingly successful. California’s initiative over the past nine years to require hospitals to make certain price data available, for example, has done little to drive patients toward lower-price competitors or to narrow the price distribution, according to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service. A similar effort to increase price transparency in New Hampshire also had little effect. Simply posting prices online doesn’t seem to do all that much.

Well, of course these efforts haven't been overwhelmingly successful. As Atrios points out, this is partly because most big-ticket procedures aren't really all that discretionary. If you're having a heart attack, you get your bypass surgery from whichever hospital the ambulance takes you to.

But there's another point that's really a lot more important: most people don't buy their own healthcare. They have insurance that pays 90% of their costs. Or they have Medicare. Or they have Medicaid. Or they're too poor to afford healthcare at all. The number of people who literally pay for their healthcare needs on a cash basis and therefore have an incentive to shop around is small. Certainly far too small to have much impact on prices even if they are publicly posted.

I'm in favor of transparency anyway, partly on general principles and partly as an incentive to lower the insane prices that hospitals charge patients who don't have insurance (often 3x-4x the prices they charge insurance companies). And of course, conservatives want price transparency because it's a necessary precursor to their nirvana of HSAs and high-deductible insurance policies, in which consumers really would pay for a lot of healthcare services out of pocket. That's a wet dream that will never happen, but I'm willing to join with them in demanding price transparency anyway. After all, even if there aren't all that many consumers who shop around for healthcare services, why shouldn't they be able to compare prices?

But will it have much impact on the overall cost of healthcare in America? Not a chance.