Thanks to Edward Snowden, who has leaked tens of thousands of NSA documents, we are. Do you consider him a hero or a traitor? I think he broke the law, so I certainly wouldn't characterize him as a hero. If he wanted to raise the issues and stay in the country and engage in civil disobedience or something of that kind, or if he had been careful in terms of what he had released, then it would fit more of the model of "OK, I'm really trying to improve things." You won't find much admiration from me.
Even so, do you think it's better now that we know what we know about government surveillance?
The government has such ability to do these things. There has to be a debate. But the specific techniques they use become unavailable if they're discussed in detail. So the debate needs to be about the general notion of under what circumstances should they be allowed to do things.
It's difficult, though, because no one knows really what's going on. We want safety, but we also want privacy.
But even in abstract – let's say you knew nothing was going on. How would you feel? I mean, seriously. I would be very worried. Technology arms the bad guys with orders of magnitude more [power]. Not just bad guys. Crazy guys. Fertilizer wasn't too good for the federal building in Oklahoma City, but there's stuff out there now that makes fertilizer look like a joke.
You mean like a dirty bomb?
Or biological [weapons]. In the U.S., at least it's going to take a lot of explaining about who was in the surveillance videos. "You've told us things in the past that didn't turn out to be true, so can we really trust that you're only going to use them in this way?"
Should surveillance be usable for petty crimes like jaywalking or minor drug possession? Or is there a higher threshold for certain information? Those aren't easy questions. Should the rules be different for U.S. citizens versus non-U.S. citizens? There is the question of terrorist interdiction versus law-enforcement situations. If you think the state is overzealous in any of its activities, even if you agree with its sort of anti-large-scale-terrorism efforts, you might say, "Well, I think the abuse will outweigh the benefits. I'll just take the risk." But the people who say that sometimes having this information is valuable – they're not being very articulate right now.
Let's talk about income inequality, which economist Paul Krugman and others have written a lot about. As a person who's at the very top of the one percent, do you see this as one of the great issues of our time?
Well, now you're getting into sort of complicated issues. In general, on taxation-type things, you'd think of me as a Democrat. That is, when tax rates are below, say, 50 percent, I believe there often is room for additional taxation. And I've been very upfront on the need to increase estate taxes. Particularly given the medical obligations that the state is taking on and the costs that those have over time. You can't have a rigid view that all new taxes are evil. Yes, they have negative effects, but I'm like Krugman in that if you expect the state to do these things, they are going to cost money.
Should the state be playing a greater role in helping people at the lowest end of the income scale? Poverty today looks very different than poverty in the past. The real thing you want to look at is consumption and use that as a metric and say, "Have you been worried about having enough to eat? Do you have enough warmth, shelter? Do you think of yourself as having a place to go?" The poor are better off than they were before, even though they're still in the bottom group in terms of income.
The way we help the poor out today [is also a problem]. You have Section 8 housing, food stamps, fuel programs, very complex medical programs. It's all high-overhead, capricious, not well-designed. Its ability to distinguish between somebody who has family that could take care of them versus someone who's really out on their own is not very good, either. It's a totally gameable system – not everybody games it, but lots of people do. Why aren't the technocrats taking the poverty programs, looking at them as a whole, and then redesigning them? Well, they are afraid that if they do, their funding is going to be cut back, so they defend the thing that is absolutely horrific. Just look at low-cost housing and the various forms, the wait lists, things like that.
When we get things right, it benefits the entire world. The world's governments don't copy everything we do. They see some things we do – like the way we run our postal service, or Puerto Rico – are just wrong. But they look to us for so many things. And we can do better.
In the past, you have sounded cynical about the role that government can play in solving complex problems like health care or reforming anti-poverty policies.
Not cynicism. You have to have a certain realism that government is a pretty blunt instrument and without the constant attention of highly qualified people with the right metrics, it will fall into not doing things very well. The U.S. government in general is one of the better governments in the world. It's the best in many, many respects. Lack of corruption, for instance, and a reasonable justice system.
If I could wave a wand and fix one thing, it'd be political deadlock, the education system or health care costs. One of those three, I don't know which. But I see governments in very poor countries that can't even get teachers to show up. So in countries like that, how can you get very basic things to work? That's something I spend a lot of time on. And these things are all solvable.
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