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Proper punishments

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Interesting comment:

"The Senate late yesterday delayed until next month its consideration of a vote on a new government eavesdropping bill.

"Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) delayed the bill because more than a dozen amendments were planned, with not enough time on the legislative calendar to manage them.

"Senate leaders are trying to decide whether to shield the companies from the roughly 40 pending lawsuits alleging violations of communications and wiretapping laws. The White House says that if the cases go forward, they could reveal information that would compromise national security. If they succeed, the companies could be bankrupted."
(emphasis added)

I don't think compromising national security is a reasonable objection to holding telecom companies accountable for having knowingly violated the law and having assisted the government in spying on their customers.  But the idea that going ahead with lawsuits could bankrupt the companies is worth some serious thought.

I was in Boston in the late 1970s when the Bottle Bill was discussed.  There were far too many bottles littering the landscape and the $100 fine for littering wasn't doing the job of getting people to toss their empty bottles into the trash. The thought behind the bill was that a small punishment, consistently applied, would be more effective.  When a litterer threw away a used soda or beer bottle, the litterer only lost $0.05, but it was a punishment that was consistent.  A litterer lost the $0.05 every time a bottle was carelessly discarded. If the original litterer didn't care about the money, there were plenty of people who did and who would pick up the bottle and turn it in for that $0.05. 

In June 1969, an aircraft carrier collided with a destroyer, the destroyer was sliced in two and 74 crewmembers were killed.  Now obviously, had a lone bomber or gunman killed 74 persons, the punishment would be swift and terrible.  In this case, "A court-martial and the inquiry that followed found Captain Stevenson not at fault, yet his career was doomed from the moment his crew readied [US Destroyer] Evans to take up plane guard/rescue position, as [Australian aircraft carrier] Melbourne prepared for night-flying operations."  I saw a Navy training film in 1991 that made it clear that a junior officer was in charge of the destroyer at the time and that both Stevenson, the destroyer's captain, and the junior officer were court-martialed.  Their careers were effectively dead.  Now, the collision had the same real-world effect as a mass murder, but to treat the collision as equivalent to a mass murder would have had a significant "chilling" effect on the officers of the Navy.  Officers would have been terrified of making an error and would have checked and double-checked every decision and would have tried to "pass the buck" as much as possible.  I remember reading that General (Who later became a Field-Marshal) Erwin Rommel was complaining in 1943 that his superiors were happy to order anything done as long as it was done under someone else's signature, i.e. as long as it wasn't their responsibility.  Rommel felt that this attitude was the result of excessive punishments. 

A Petty Officer First Class (PO1) on my ship had been promoted to Chief Petty Officer (CPO) and had to go through a few months of training and indoctrination before he could put his new uniform on.  He was in my office, speaking with my CPO.  My CPO hollered at a Seaman "Shipmate!  Get over here!"  Hearing in his voice that our CPO was neither angry nor impatient, the Seaman got up and walked reasonably quickly over to where the CPO and PO1 were talking and stood awaiting further instructions.  "Now, you see, [a female CPO who worked down in Engineering] would have asked very gently and politely and, oh, you can go now Seaman, would have gotten the same result.  Her authority as a Chief would have been enough to get the Seaman to report over here.  I yell just because I like yelling." 

What has been the result of the Bush Administration's use of torture to force captured personnel to tell their interrogators what the interrogators want to hear?  According to Dan Froomkin of the WaPo

"But it all boils down to the fact that, so far, no one from Bush on down has come up with a single documented example of American lives saved thanks to torture."

While simply putting someone like Charles Manson away for life can be justified on the basis of "He's permanently dangerous and we know of no way to really cure him," there is simply zero evidence that going really, really tough on a bad person is going to produce meaningfully positive results.  There's a good deal of evidence, some of which I've cited above, that small punishments, consistently applied, can be effective.  Accordingly, I'm very sour on the idea of tossing executives of telecom companies who have collaborated with the Bush Administration's spying on American citizens into jail for lengthy periods (I'm extremely skeptical as to the usefulness of purely financial punishments as I suspect the guilty executives would just find a way to pass on the pain without suffering any themselves), but I think that the "hate and discontent" (A phrase we used a lot to describe near-mutinous conditions) that they and their companions feel can be maximized by tossing them into jail for relatively short periods of time.  Six months should do it.  If we allow them a limited amount of time per day to communicate with the outside world, then the executive will not be cut off in such a way that the company will simply learn to get along without.  As the executive will, given the opportunity, try as hard as possible to stay "in the game" and relevant, the lines of authority are likely to end up bollixed up and confused. 

Obviously, if customers are aware that guilty executives are still exercising limited control over their departments, this can only hurt the company.  For junior executives to take their positions for limited periods of time and to then have to give them back will cause further friction and annoyance.  For the executive to feel obliged to quit the company after just six months in prison will cause still further "hate and discontent."
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All in all, it would be a very jolly punishment, causing maximum friction, annoyance and aggravation while minimizing any real damage to the telecommunications company.  Guilty executives would still be available to head off crises and solve any serious problems, but they wouldn't be available to start up any new projects or initiatives. 

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PN3(Ret), USN, 1991-2001. Done a number of clerical-type jobs. Computer "power user," my desktop is a Windows machine, but my laptop is an Ubuntu Linux. Articles usually cross-posted at http://www.prawnblog.blogspot.com Personal details at (more...)

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