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Entries for August 2010

August 31, 2010

Competing journalistic models

The 1970s had two major events that had implications for journalism. One was the publication in June 1971 by the New York Times of a top secret history of the US military involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967, now called the Pentagon Papers, that had been leaked to it by a then-unknown mid-level intelligence analyst named Daniel Ellsberg.

As Wikipedia says:

The papers revealed that the U.S. had deliberately expanded its war with bombing of Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, none of which had been reported by media in the US. The most damaging revelations in the papers revealed that four administrations, from Truman to Johnson, had misled the public regarding their intentions.

What was devastating about the Pentagon Papers was not that they revealed great secrets. After all, these 'secret' wars and bombings were not really secret at all. The people in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam knew they were being bombed and this news was well known around the world and even known among the elite circles in US government and the media. The only group for whom it was a secret was the American public.

Doonesbury had a series of cartoon strips ridiculing this state of affairs. Perhaps the one that most people who remember those times will recall immediately is the one in which Phred, a Vietnamese guerilla with the National Liberation Front, is searching for a famous museum in Cambodia and comes across an old couple standing amidst the ruins of a bombed out building. The old couple strongly resembles the pair in Grant Wood's American Gothic painting, except that they are wearing traditional Cambodian clothing. The strip has this sequence:

First panel
PHRED: The museum! What happened to it? It's… It's totally demolished!

Second panel
OLD MAN WITH PITCHFORK: I know, boy, I know! I was the curator.
PHRED: You wretched soul! Did this happen during the secret bombings?

Third panel
OLD MAN WITH PITCHFORK: Secret bombings? Boy, there wasn't any secret about them! Everyone here knew! I did, and my wife, she knew, too! She was with me, and I remarked on them!

Last panel
OLD MAN WITH PITCHFORK: I said "Look, Martha, here come the bombs!"
OLD WOMAN: It's true, he did.

Ellsberg said he released the documents to expose unconstitutional behavior by a succession of governments of both parties in prosecuting a wrongful war. What shocked and angered the government about Ellsberg's action was not that this leak created any danger for anyone. After all, it was just a history whose timeline ended four years earlier. What caused the consternation was that this information was now in the public domain and people realized how much the government had been lying to it during the critical period when it was escalating the war.

The other major journalistic event of the 1970s was the expose by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the shenanigans of Richard Nixon's administration that eventually led to his resignation in 1973. They had access to a high level and anonymous source within the government nicknamed Deep Throat (revealed in 2004 to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt) whose information was helpful in guiding them in their investigations.

The Pentagon Papers and Watergate represent two very different models of journalism. The former model involves making public the actual documentary record of events, the internal reports and memos that the government produces so that the public could see for themselves (at least partially) what high level government officials saw and make their own judgments. Official government documents almost always have useful and reliable information, as legendary journalist I. F. Stone knew full well. He uncovered the truth about what was going on in the Korean War (revealed in his excellent 1952 book The Hidden History of the Korean War) by reading official documents and communiqués and not paying much attention to press briefings and the like where officials can say one thing one day and another the next, depending on what they want the public to believe.

Victor Navasky says that Stone,

although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.

His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.

Internal memoranda and other documents are prepared by professionals and people on the ground who know what is actually going on and are obliged to tell it like it is to their superiors. They often have less of an ideological ax to grind or turf battles to fight and in fact are often idealistic people who actually care about truth and honesty in public life. But their reports are often distorted or suppressed by high-level political appointees pursuing a political agenda and the professionals are aghast and outraged by the discrepancy between what they know to be true and what is told to the public. Some of them, like Daniel Ellsberg, are pushed over the edge and become willing to become whistleblowers at great risk to their careers and provide information to journalists without expecting anything in return, except to get the truth out to the public.

Next: The rise of the Watergate model of journalism and the challenge of WikiLeaks

POST SCRIPT: Elizabeth Warren for Sheriff!

It looks like Elizabeth Warren is getting quite a posse in support of her being named as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

August 30, 2010

No blog posts until further notice

Due to technical problems with my computer, I will not be able to post anything until it is fixed, which I hope will be later today.

August 27, 2010

To CAPTCHA or not to CAPTCHA?

One of the interesting things about a blog is the comments section that enables readers and author to interact. The problem, as I have written before, is spam comments that just clog up the boards and waste people's time. I have an open and unmoderated comment system which means that anyone can comment without registering or getting my prior approval but the catch is that it can be exploited by spam. The people who run the servers have filters for detecting and eliminating or quarantining spam but it is not foolproof and sometimes genuine comments may be excluded while spam comments may be allowed.

Spam is not generated by people who are merely being pests but because there is an underlying economic reason. Some email spammers seek to gain access to mail accounts from which to send their advertisements, while blog comment spammers are seeking to place links to businesses and hence drive up their search engine rankings. As a result, businesses have a financial motivation for creating spam and have generated software for doing so. The more popular your website is, the more you get targeted since the payoff is greater.

I get hit with quite a lot of spam that seems to come in waves. So a couple of times a day, I go into the comments file and clean house. I do this because it would be irritating for readers to encounter spam there or to have their genuine comments rejected. This housekeeping is quite tedious because I have to read all the suspect spam. Often it is easy to spot them because they contain gibberish. On other occasions they are generic comments or comments that are repeated over and over with slight variations and signatures. If it seems clear to me that a comment has no relevance to the post, I delete it.

But I have noticed recently that detecting spam is getting harder. Some spam comments try to deceive by using a sentence from the actual post as the comment. This makes the comment seem relevant though lacking a point. I can usually detect this dodge, even if my post in question is several years old, because I have a good sense of my own writing style. More difficult is when the spam consists of a sentence taken from the posting of a genuine commenter. If the comment does not quite fit, I look at all the comments to that post to see if this is the case.

Even more hard to judge are those short comments that are not copies of other people's words but seem vaguely relevant to the topic. They often use some of the key words in the post, but are not really adding any value to the discussion and are written ungrammatically. These do not look like machine generated spam and are also not the mistakes of a careless or poorly educated native English speaker but more characteristic of someone for whom English is a second language.

Up until quite recently, my only criterion for accepting and rejecting comments was whether the comment was being generated a human or a machine. In making these judgments I am, in effect, running my own personal Turing test. To help me, I suggested to our webmaster that perhaps we should install one of those little tests that some sites have to detect whether a human or machine is trying to access it. These screening devices have to be simple enough that any human can easily solve them but difficult enough to fool a machine. The most familiar are the so-called CAPTCHAs, those curved letters and numerals on a cluttered background that you have to identify and type in before you are allowed in. Some sites like Machine Like Us require you to do a simple arithmetic sum.

I had thought I was fighting only machines because it would not be worthwhile to have real humans wandering the web and inserting spam. But it turns out that I was wrong. My increasing difficulty in telling whether some comments were being created by humans or machines was because, as a recent study of spam by a team of researchers at the University of San Diego showed, a lot of spam nowadays is being generated by actual humans and not machines, which would make adoption of a CAPTCHA system not as useful as I had thought. (Thanks to Kevin Drum for the link.)

The article discusses the economic basis for this development. The authors argue that in the arms race between software that generates spam and software designed to defend against these spam attacks, the defenders have pretty much won because the attackers are always playing catch up and really sophisticated automated CAPTCHA solvers are quite expensive and have to be updated so often that it discourages most spam operators from using them as not being economically viable. So CAPTCHA solving software is only used for sites that have low-level and static defenses, which are also usually not desired high-value sites.

But one consequence of this defeat is that the spam operators have turned to actual human beings to overcome the defenses. The study finds that businesses now hire people to prowl the web and insert spam. Like many things on the internet, while the market for CAPTCHA solving services has expanded, the wages of workers solving CAPTCHAs have been declining. The paper's authors report that companies now commonly charge their customers as low as $2, or even $1, to have 1,000 successful hits. As a result, those companies now pay their workers even lower amounts, $0.75 or even $0.50 per 1,000, down from highs of $10 in 2007 As you can imagine, these jobs are being outsourced to those countries that have cheap labor (such as in Eastern Europe, Bangladesh, China, India and Vietnam) which probably explains the unusual grammatical errors of the spam I now detect. I am guessing that these workers are told to take some words from the blog post and insert into a generic comment to make it seem relevant.

All this leaves me with a minor moral dilemma. My obligation to the blog's readers to maintain a clutter-free comment section means that I should ruthlessly weed out every comment that looks like it could be spam (human or otherwise) even if some genuine comments get thrown out in the process. On the other hand, I feel sorry for those poor bastards who are so desperate for work that they have to take dead-end jobs like this and spend their days posting pointless comments on site after site.

I decided to give my bleeding heart a vacation on this one issue and be ruthless. I figure that there are enough websites that do not care so much about preventing spam so as to provide income for these workers. Also, once the spammers get a 'hit' by successfully posting a bogus comment, they presumably get paid even if I come along a few hours later and delete them.

So if you find that I have deleted your genuine comment, please let me know and accept my apologies for thinking you were a spammer. And if you are puzzled by why some comments appear and then later disappear, you now know the reason.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on objectionable words

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Hurt Talker
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August 26, 2010

The controversy over the Islamic center in New York

I don't usually write much about many of the political events that dominate the news. Most of the time, our national discourse is dominated by the trivial and to even comment on it is to give undue importance to it and feed the flames. But another reason I don't comment is because there is usually enough commentary and analysis elsewhere and by the time I think that I have a perspective on it that may add something new to the discussion, the issue has usually faded away because it was never one of major significance to begin with.

So I had not planned to write anything about the controversy over the proposed building of an Islamic center a couple of blocks away from the site of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York City. To me it seemed a non-issue or at most a zoning issue that would fade away as quickly as it came into prominence. I really do not care where religious people build structures in which they can waste time praying to their non-existent gods. What really bothers me is that they get tax benefits for this nonsense, but that is a topic for another day.

But the opposition to this center has been lasting longer than it deserves, fanned by ugly xenophobic elements who seem determined to create a climate hostile to Islam in the US. Gary Leupp, a professor of history at Tufts University, has produced a useful timeline of how this thing got blown up out of all proportion. One distortion used to fuel anger is for opponents to refer to it as the 'Ground Zero Mosque' and the site as 'hallowed ground' when in fact it is more like a YMCA equivalent for Muslims and is at least two blocks away from the World Trade Center site. New York City blocks are huge so that proximity is not an issue, even if it was a valid argument to begin with. Furthermore, it is laughable to talk of that area as 'hallowed ground' when it seems like a typical busy New York area with its usual assortment of street vendors, eateries, stores, adult entertainment businesses, tourists, and the like. As I have written before, all this talk of venerating the World Trade Center site strikes me as phony grandstanding, a symptom of the epidemic of overdoing public grief.

But the event that triggered this post was the recent protest demonstration in which a black man named Kenny, who is said to be a carpenter working on the site, wandered past the crowd on his way to work. Because the crowd thought he was a Muslim (he was wearing a skull cap), they started hurling abuse at him.

Watching this ugly scene reminded me of something and after a while it clicked: it was the hateful abuse by white people directed at Elizabeth Eckford, the 15-year old black girl who attempted to integrate a Little Rock, Arkansas high school in 1957. She was captured in this memorable photograph, trying to maintain her dignity while enduring the abuse.

elizabetheckford.jpg

My recollection of the Eckford story also brought to mind John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, his 1960 account of his travels across America in the company of his dog. There is one chapter late in the book where he describes what he saw in New Orleans during the effort to integrate schools there. He describes the actions of a group of middle-aged women who dutifully turned up every day and took their stations directly across the street from an elementary school to jeer and hurl abuse, to the roars of approval of the crowds behind them, at the little black girl who arrived under the protection of US marshalls.

No one captures the moment like Steinbeck and what he wrote on that occasion made such an impression on me decades ago that I'll give an extended quote:

While I was still in Texas, late in 1960, the incident most reported and pictured in the newspapers was the matriculation of a couple of tiny Negro children in a New Orleans school. Behind these small dark mites were the law's majesty and the law's power to enforce-both the scales and the sword were allied with the infants-while against them were three hundred years of fear and anger and terror of change in a changing world. I had seen photographs in the papers every day and motion pictures on the television screen. What made the newsmen love the story was a group of stout middle-aged women who, by some curious definition of the word "mother," gathered every day to scream invectives at children. Further, a small group of them had become so expert that they were known as the Cheerleaders, and a crowd gathered every day to enjoy and to applaud their performance.

As I walked toward the school I was in a stream of people all white and all going in my direction. They walked intently like people going to a fire after it has been burning for some time. They beat their hands against their hips or hugged them under coats, and many men had scarves under their hats and covering their ears.

Across the street from the school the police had set up wooden barriers to keep the crowd back, and they paraded back and forth, ignoring the jokes called to them. The front of the school was deserted but along the curb United States marshals were spaced, not in uniform but wearing armbands to identify them. Their guns bulged decently under their coats but their eyes darted about nervously, inspecting faces. It seemed to me that they inspected me to see if I was a regular, and then abandoned me as unimportant.

It was apparent where the Cheerleaders were, because people shoved forward to try to get near them. They had a favored place at the barricade directly across from the school entrance, and in that area a concentration of police stamped their feet and slapped their hands together in unaccustomed gloves.

Suddenly I was pushed violently and a cry went up: "Here she comes. Let her through… Come on, move back. Let her through. Where you been? You're late for school. Where you been, Nellie?"

Nellie was received with shouts of greeting. I don't know how many Cheerleaders there were. There was no fixed line between the Cheerleaders and the crowd behind them. What I could see was that a group was passing newspaper clippings back and forth and reading them aloud with little squeals of delight.

Now the crowd grew restless, as an audience does when the clock goes past curtain time. Men all around me looked at their watches. I looked at mine. It was three minutes to nine.

The show opened on time. Sound of sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white.

The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first skip the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.

The papers had printed that the jibes and jeers were cruel and sometimes obscene, and so they were, but this was not the big show. The crowd was waiting for the white man who dared to bring his white child to school. And here he came along the guarded walk, a tall man dressed in light gray, leading his frightened child by the hand. His body was tensed as a strong leaf spring drawn to the breaking strain; his face was grave and gray, and his eyes were on the ground immediately ahead of him. The muscles of his cheeks stood out from clenched jaws, a man afraid who by his will held his fears in check as a great rider directs a panicked horse.

A shrill, grating voice rang out. The yelling was not in chorus. Each took a turn and at the end of each the crowd broke into howls and roars and whistles of applause. This is what they had come to see and hear.

No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene. On television the sound track was made to blur or had crowd noises cut in to cover. But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate. In a long and unprotected life I have seen and heard the vomitings of demoniac humans before. Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow?

The words written down are dirty, carefully and selectedly filthy. But there was something far worse here than dirt, a kind of frightening witches' Sabbath. Here was no spontaneous cry of anger, of insane rage.

Perhaps that is what made me sick with weary nausea. Here was no principle good or bad, no direction. These blowzy women with their little hats and their clippings hungered for attention. They wanted to be admired. They simpered in happy, almost innocent triumph when they were applauded. Their was the demented cruelty of egocentric children, and somehow this made their insensate beastliness much more heartbreaking. These were not mothers, not even women. They were crazy actors playing to a crazy audience.

Steinbeck could well have been writing about the New York City mob. Of course Kenny the carpenter was not a small schoolchild. He was a big, tough looking guy who looked quite capable of taking care of himself. But the comparison I want to make is not about the victims of the abuse but of the nature of a mob.

What makes people get into such a rage that they can take part in acts of senseless and petty cruelty based on the most base of tribal instincts? Did the people at the anti-Muslim rally have even the vaguest inclination that one day people will look on them with the same contempt with which we now view those who spewed hate at those black schoolchildren? Will they regret their actions later and wonder what got into them and wish they could make amends? Or have they permanently lost all sense of decency?

These questions occurred to me long ago when I read Steinbeck's words and again when I saw the New York protesters. I have no answers.

POST SCRIPT: Satirizing the mob behavior

The Daily Show on the Islamic center controversy and points out the shameful and hypocritical behavior of Fox news in fanning the xenophobia.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Stephen Colbert also weighs in on this issue and the equally absurd one of whether Obama is a Muslim.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - Losing His Religion
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Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionFox News

August 25, 2010

Film Review: The Lives of Others and Quantum of Solace

It's been a couple of decades since I watched a James Bond film. I saw almost all of the Sean Connery originals, then a couple of the Roger Moore versions, and then gave up on the franchise, thus missing out on what George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan added to this iconic figure of cold war fiction.

But the book Bottlemania, this years' common reading choice at my university that deals with the crisis of water, mentioned that Quantum of Solace (2008) starring Daniel Craig had as its villain someone who was trying to corner the supply of fresh water and so I decided to check it out to see if it had any possibilities as a program to tie in with the book.

If Quantum of Solace is any indication of where the Bond franchise has gone since the Moore days, then I have clearly not missed anything by giving these films a wide berth. Ian Fleming's stories were always highly improbable but Quantum of Solace raised the improbabilities by several orders of magnitude, substituting non-stop action for storytelling and making the film laughable. The film has a grand slam of chases, involving separate ones for cars, on foot, motorcycles, boats, and airplanes, the first four occurring within the opening half hour. All this left almost no time for any dialogue, let alone plot advancement, but did leave room for plenty of corpses, mayhem, and destruction. The amount of broken glass alone was astounding. When the pace slackened a bit later, the film improved but by then it was too late. I had started laughing at the film's absurdity, like with No Country For Old Men, and once that happens it is hard to take the film seriously. Like the characters in No Country, Bond seems to have discovered the amazing healing power of new clothes.

The old Bond films with Connery had a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality with humorous banter leavening the action. The Moore Bond went even further and became somewhat campy, with a sly wink to the audience that the film was not to be taken seriously. Craig's Bond, on the other hand, is dead serious, never cracking a smile let alone making a joke. The filmmakers seem to have decided to strip out everything that stands in the way of action and the film is a lot poorer for it.

The plot, such as it is, consists of the usual evil arch villain seeking to corner the market on some commodity, in this case fresh water in Bolivia. On top of this is slapped a thin veneer of geopolitical clichés and world weary cynicism about the corruption of governments, no doubt to give the film a patina of gravitas. There is also double-crossing galore so that you are never sure on whose side anyone is, not that anyone seems to care. To make it worse, the villain looked like a weenie and resembled New Orleans governor Bobby Jindal, so that at any minute you expected to hear him talk about what the gulf oil spill was doing to the shrimp industry

The apex of absurdity, the jump-the-shark moment in the film, occurred when the villain and his fellow plotters hold an important meeting. Where would be a good place to discuss their top secret plans? What could be better than during a live performance of the opera Tosca? There they all are, dressed in tuxedos, scattered all over the concert hall, and talking to each other through wireless transmitters while the opera is going on. Really, I kid you not. The whole point of this seemed to have been to show Craig in a tuxedo. Of course, Bond immediately figures this out, gets hold of one of the devices and listens in, spoiling this plan.

Here's the trailer for the film:

I watched this waste of time the day after seeing The Lives of Others (2006), a German film that takes place in 1984 (before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989) and tells the story of a playwright and his actress girlfriend and the member of the East German secret police Stasi who is monitoring their lives through the bugging devices scattered all over their apartment.

It is an excellent film that won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film.

What is interesting is that unlike Quantum of Solace, how suspenseful this film was. For all its fast-paced action, the Bond film had no drama. You knew how it was going to end and who was going to win. There was no mystery. Each character's motivations were obvious and their actions predictable. One did not feel any connection with any of them.

In The Lives of Others on the other hand, there was no fast-moving action or physical violence or even the threat of violence. There was no ominous music signifying impending danger. But there was a lot of suspense as you wonder what the characters will do as they are placed in increasingly complex morally challenging situations. Will they stay true to their principles and their friends and lovers or give priority to their careers and the government and the state? The viewer is drawn in and made to empathize with all three main characters as they grapple with decisions about what to do, and you constantly wonder what you might do if you were placed in such situations.

Of course, it is somewhat unfair to compare films made for purely mindless entertainment like Quantum of Solace with serious films like The Lives of Others. They are made for different audiences and the only reason I compare them is because I happened to see them on consecutive days. But they do illustrate how important it is to have the audience care about the characters and the issues involved. The kind of plentiful action that Quantum of Solace had was, quite frankly, boring, whereas watching the main characters in The Lives of Others struggle with moral dilemmas was deeply engrossing.

POST SCRIPT: If real life had a soundtrack…


Ominous Music Heard Throughout U.S. Sends Nation Into Panic

August 24, 2010

The shrinking credibility of the US government: The case of Shahram Amiri

As a result of all the shameful things the US government is doing in the name of fighting terrorism, it now has little credibility when it comes to claiming any moral superiority over other nations. It can no longer credibly condemn arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, denial of habeas corpus, torture, and summary executions by the governments of other countries. Of course, the government still does so within the US, knowing that the compliant US media will never point out the hypocrisy. This self-delusion is so complete that Americans are often shocked, just shocked, when people in other countries point out well-established facts that show the US in a bad light.

The recent bizarre case of the Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri shows this lack of credibility. Amiri claimed that the US kidnapped him and brought him to the US and tortured him, hoping to get him to implicate the Iranian government in a nuclear weapons program. He sought refuge in the Pakistani embassy before returning to Iran. The US government denied Amiri's charges of kidnapping, saying that he had come to the US voluntarily and then changed his mind: "Last month, the U.S. State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley denied that Amiri had been abducted, saying that "we are not in the habit if (sic) going round the world kidnapping people.""

Really, P. J. Crowley? We are not in the habit of going round the world kidnapping people? Where have you been the last decade? There was once a time when the official statement of a high US government official would be believed over that of an unknown foreigner. But there is only one location where that is true anymore and that is in the presence of the establishment media. It says a lot about the complicity of the US press corps that it did not immediately get convulsed with derisive laughter when Crwoley said this. Justin Raimondo over at the libertarian Antiwar.com provides the proper response:

Given the numerous instances of "extraordinary rendition" in which our government has been engaged, and no doubt continues to be engaged, one wonders how Senor Crowley can say that with a straight face. But then again, being an official spokesman for the US Department of State no doubt requires some sort of facial surgery – or, perhaps, an industrial-strength shot of Botox – to achieve the desired results.

Let no one berate us libertarians for describing the US government as a criminal enterprise: it isn't disloyalty to the country, or even a penchant for overstatement, that drives us to such rhetorical excesses. It's the story of what happened to Shahram Amiri: it's the lies, the thuggery and hubris of a ruling elite that believes it can get away with anything. Such is their contempt for the American people – and the peoples of the world – that they think we'll swallow any tall tale, no matter how crudely fabricated, because we're just not as smart as their cunning selves.

However, it looks like they're not cunning enough by half, having blown the Shahram operation and exposed their embarrassingly inept tradecraft.

For further evidence of how low the government has sunk from the noble ideals expressed in the constitution and declaration of independence, read this email from an FBI agent (released by the ACLU) that details what he saw on a visit to Guantanamo.

day11.jpg

(For more torture documents, see here.)

I came across these torture memos (thanks to the Progressive Review) just after reading The Translator, a memoir by Daoud Hari who lived through the horrible carnage in Darfur and then worked as an interpreter for western media, in the process getting captured and tortured by the various rebel groups and the government of Sudan. The similarities of what he experienced with the torture practices of the US government were chilling. When are Americans going to realize that they have allowed their government to adopt the practices of some of the worst dictatorships in the world?

Those who voted for Obama thought that he would undo the excesses of Bush-Cheney and restore some moral backbone. The fact that he has expanded and extended those abuses shows clearly that when it comes to civil liberties, Obama and his Democratic Party supporters are hypocrites.

Recent newspaper reports have said that Obama is worried about losing liberal support. Really? What a surprise! But he needn't worry. As long as people are locked into the mindset that they must support their party at all costs, he is somewhat safe. As David Sirota documents, there are many who call themselves "the left" but really are just Democratic Party apparatchiks, willing to overlook and even support actions by Obama and the Democrats that they would have vociferously condemned if done by a Republican. The ACLU says that Obama has made Bush/Cheney the 'new normal'. This website accurately sums up the situation:

Considered historically, it will become clear that the job of Republican governments is to invent novel, ad hoc expansions of state power, while the job of Democratic governments is to consolidate and systematize them. Far from repudiating supposed Bush-era "excesses," the Obama regime has sought--usually successfully--to entrench and to codify them.

These appalling practices are justified on the basis that they are necessary to protect us from terrorism. But there is a great danger in sacrificing the law and principles in pursuit of evil. This scene from the play A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt (which was made into a great film in 1966) nicely captures what is at stake:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of the law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast. Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of the law, for my own safety’s sake!

As Benjamin Franklin said, "Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

POST SCRIPT: al Jazeera on the Sharam Amiri story

August 23, 2010

From consumer to citizen

(Text of a talk given at Case Western Reserve University's Share the Vision program in Severance Hall on Friday, August 20, 2010 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the common reading book selection Bottlemania by Elizabeth Royte.)

As those of you near the front rows can see from my grey hair, I am roughly the same age as your parents, which means that I am a member of the infamous group that, like locusts, exploded upon the world and consumed everything in sight. I am speaking of course of the baby boomer generation.

As you would thus know and are probably sick of already, baby boomers love to talk about themselves and the wonderful things that their generation achieved. And a lot of good things really did happen during the time that we grew up and started running things. We had great advances in science and medicine, sent people to the moon, advanced civil rights, obtained greater equality for women, and fought for equal rights for gays and lesbians. We also invented the personal computer, the internet, and the ubiquitous cell phone, things we cannot imagine being without today.

But while we did many good things, we also are responsible for one major bad thing and that is that we well and truly trashed the planet. We baby boomers have been like children who have inherited a fortune in the Earth's resources and have busted it on one long big party. And that is something so bad that not even our greatest contribution to humanity (the invention of rock and roll) will excuse.

The people of my generation have not been good custodians of the resources of the planet. We have been so wasteful that we risk leaving future generations resource poor. And we are leaving it to you, the next generation, to clean up our mess. If you are not angry about that, you should be. But at the same time I am hopeful that you will channel that anger into finding real solutions to the major problems of energy use, water, and food sufficiency for everyone, and to the careful use of resources in the future.

How did the present state of self-absorption come about? I think the crucial change occurred when at some point along the way, we were persuaded to think of ourselves not as citizens but as consumers. Everywhere in the media today people are referred to as consumers. The word citizen is now used only in a narrow sense, when people are talking about immigration and the like. But the word citizen is much more meaningful than that. When we think of ourselves as citizens, it carries with it a sense of community, a sense of social responsibility, a concern for people other than ourselves.

Consumers, on the other hand, are people who merely consume, who think only of themselves. As a result of this change in self-perception, we started to think that we were entitled to have all our wants gratified, and we started consuming the Earth's riches at a rapid pace, at the same time creating enormous amounts of waste products. It bred what the book calls 'hyperindividualism', that "lets those can afford to opt out - whether from public schools, mass transit, or tap water - to further isolate themselves, in style." (p. 45)

While this perception of ourselves as consumers has resulted in high standards of living for the elites in the world, it has also resulted in wasteful excess. I am referring now to the kind of lifestyle that drives people to buy things that are not based on any actual need but instead from the impulse to flaunt wealth and consumption, to let others know how 'successful' we are. We have a culture that sees consumption for its own sake as something desirable, where people feel the need to buy new stuff they don't need even before the old stuff they also didn't need is completely used up, and where waste is endemic.

This is a disease that afflicts not only the affluent. Since the media celebrates those living lavish lifestyles, the middle classes also seek to emulate the very rich by living like them. The global reach of the media creates similar desires in the affluent classes of the second and third worlds, who also live high consumption lifestyles, which creates similar pressures on their middle classes, and so on. The resulting mindless consumption is like a virus that has spread all over the world. The bottled water craze is a symptom of this collective madness, giving everyone the chance to emulate the wastefulness of the rich. Bottled water first became a status symbol and now is seen as a necessity, when it should be neither.

The absolute low point in this consumer mentality occurred right after 9/11 when the president said that the best thing that people could do was to go out and shop. Imagine that. Nearly three thousand people killed in an act of mass murder, and the president's concern was that it might deter us from shopping and consumption.

Right now, as a result of the recession that has thrown many people out of work or fearful of becoming unemployed, people are being more frugal, living simpler, less consuming lives out of necessity. Amazingly, I hear commentators in the media actually worrying about this, fearing that during this period, people might discover that a simple life is actually enjoyable and that they might not start consuming wildly again when things get better. Oh, the horror!

How did it happen that being an addicted consumer, wasting money and resources on things we don't need, is the new standard of good behavior? How have we let ourselves be duped into thinking that being a consumer is better than being a citizen?

Not all consumption is bad, of course. Some increase in global consumption is inevitable and even desirable because it means that more people are able to live better lives. No one would doubt the benefits of increased availability of drinking water and food, more widespread availability of indoor plumbing and electricity, and the construction of homes that are better able to withstand the elements. All these things enable those people who are currently living in poverty and squalor and susceptible to disease to live better and healthier lives. Increases in consumption to achieve these ends are clearly desirable.

But we have to come to terms with the consequences of the fact that the Earth's resources are finite. Once we use them, they are degraded and we have no means of getting them back to the original state however conscientiously we recycle. Hence higher levels of basic consumption by the poor of the world have to be balanced by less wasteful and unnecessary consumption by the affluent. But that kind of thinking will occur only to people who think of themselves as citizens, not as consumers, who see themselves as responsible for others, not just for themselves.

The one hopeful sign that I see is that the next generation, people like you, is far more conscious of the need to conserve resources than ours was, and more likely to be good stewards of the planet. But to be really effective at changing course, you will need the most sophisticated tools at your disposal and that is where your next four years are crucial. During this period of your education you will have access to the finest teachers and scholars, incredible knowledge resources in the library, and most importantly, like-minded, smart, and concerned fellow students. You should take maximum advantage of this opportunity to equip yourself to overcome the challenges you will undoubtedly face in your lifetime.

Whatever subjects you choose to study, remember that your ultimate goal is to learn how to be a good citizen and not a mere consumer. In fact, the future of the planet depends upon it.

POST SCRIPT: The Hollies

Talking about rock and roll, I love this song Stop, Stop, Stop, especially the banjo playing.

And one great Hollies song deserves another, this time it's Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.

August 20, 2010

Testing the commitment to fundamental rights

The real test of your commitment to fundamental rights comes when the exercise of those rights arouses strong antagonistic feelings in you. Are you willing to defend the free speech rights of people who say things you find hateful? Are you willing to defend due process rights for those whom you despise? Why I support organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is precisely because of their commitment to defend those rights for all people without exception.

Take the case of the US-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, now supposedly hiding in Yemen. He has been accused of inciting violence against US targets and recruiting people to carry out those actions, such as Major Nidal Hassan and the Christmas Day bomber. Obama has, without any formal charges or trial but simply by unilaterally asserting the existence of extraordinary powers, passed a death sentence on him. In other words, any agency of the US government can kill Awlaki anywhere at any time using any means, no questions asked. His family in the US is naturally alarmed at this development. Glenn Greenwald describes what happened when they sought legal help.

Early last month, the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights were retained by Nasser al-Awlaki, the father of Obama assassination target (and U.S. citizen) Anwar al-Awlaki, to seek a federal court order restraining the Obama administration from killing his son without due process of law. But then, a significant and extraordinary problem arose: regulations promulgated several years ago by the Treasury Department prohibit U.S. persons from engaging in any transactions with individuals labeled by the Government as a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist," and those regulations specifically bar lawyers from providing legal services to such individuals without a special "license" from the Treasury Department specifically allowing such representation.

On July 16 -- roughly two weeks after Awlaki's father retained the ACLU and CCR to file suit -- the Treasury Department slapped that label on Awlaki. That action would have made it a criminal offense for those organizations to file suit on behalf of Awlaki or otherwise provide legal representation to him without express permission from the U.S. Government.

It's rather amazing that the Federal Government asserts the right to require U.S. citizens and American lawyers to obtain government permission before entering into an attorney-client relationship -- all because these officials decided on their own, with no process, to call the citizen a "Global Terrorist." It's difficult to imagine a more blatantly unconstitutional power than that. What kind of an American would think the Government has the power to decide whether citizens may or may not be represented by lawyers?

Given the lack of outrage, apparently most Americans think that the right to a lawyer is a negotiable one. The ACLU and CCR filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of requiring a license from the Treasury department to represent a client and, perhaps fearing a defeat, the government issued a license making that lawsuit concerning licensing moot. So the case against the right of Obama to claim for himself the right to pass death sentences can proceed. But the bizarre nature of this case does not end there.

The Awlaki lawsuit… will likely face serious obstacles, beginning with the same warped tactic which both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly invoked to shield illegal surveillance and torture from judicial scrutiny: first, refuse to confirm whether such a program exists (notwithstanding public admissions that it does) on the ground such matters are "state secrets," and then, with Kafkaesque perfection, insist that the lawsuit must be dismissed because (thanks to the Government's refusal to acknowledge it) there is no evidence that Awlaki is subject to such an assassination program and thus lacks "standing" to sue.

Shades of Catch-22!

Bill Quigley, a professor of law at Loyola University and legal director of CCR explains why they sued to represent Awlaki.

What this case is really about is not Aulaqi but about our government disregarding the rule of law.

There are many reasons we can argue that premeditated killing by the government off the battlefield is illegal. The rule of law guaranteed by the US constitution binds even the President of the US and the military. Our constitutional system of checks and balances does not allow the executive branch of government to just decide in secret that they are going to kill people. The government certainly could not just execute him if he was in the US. The US would not allow other governments to come here and assassinate someone they opposed. And the US would never just fire drone strikes into the UK, China, Russia or Australia to kill someone. Yemen is over a thousand miles away from the battlefield of Afghanistan or Iraq. So why would anyone think it is legal to assassinate a US citizen in Yemen?

Despite these questions, Aulaqi has been the target of several unsuccessful drone strikes as the US military and CIA are actively trying to kill him.

These are all issues that should be decided in a court of law. That is why we are filing this suit.

His father, Nasser, said it best. If the government has proof his son violated the law, then they should charge him in public and let the law take its course.

If the government can find him to assassinate him, they can find him to bring him to justice.

The right to go to court to challenge the government is a core US value. It is important that we win the right to represent him no matter how controversial he is. Otherwise the government can deprive citizens of their right to a lawyer at the exact same time as they are trying to kill them. The courts should make these decisions and people deserve the right to have lawyers try to challenge the government. (my emphasis)

This case and the one concerning Yahya Wehelie reveal an emerging pattern. The government first claims for itself extraordinary powers. When those at the receiving end of its abusive treatment are able to muster the resources and expertise to strongly mount a legal challenge to the constitutionality of those claims and it looks like the government will lose in the courts, it quietly drops its opposition in that particular case without abandoning the policy itself. This makes the legal case moot and not subject to judicial review, thus avoiding the risk of a judge ruling that the action is unconstitutional.

The problem is that there are many people who are suffering at the hands of the government who do not have the means to mount this kind of challenge and so they languish. This is why although legal challenges are a partial solution, the only effective counterweight to government abuse is widespread public anger. As Judge Learned Hand once said, "I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it."

POST SCRIPT: Those awful activist judges

August 19, 2010

More on Obama's disdain for due process and civil liberties

As an example of the disdain that the Obama administration has for the rights of even US citizens, take the case of Yahya Wehelie, a 26-year old US-born citizen. His case, though not involving torture, illustrates how government power can be abused when we allow it to operate in secrecy. While Wehelie was traveling abroad, he was placed on a no-fly list for no stated reason (though it may be because he went to Yemen to study) and as a result he was now stuck in Cairo for months and unable to return to the US, even though he offered to travel handcuffed and accompanied by US marshals. The ban was lifted without any reason given after the ACLU filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the no-fly list, and he is now home in Virginia.

But there are worse cases. Obama is also breaking new ground such as trying child soldiers for war crimes. This is the case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian national captured outside Kabul in 2002 when he was just 15. As Chase Madar writes, "no nation has tried a child soldier for war crimes since World War II, and the decision to prosecute Khadr has drawn protests from UNICEF, headed by a former U.S. national security adviser, as well as every major human-rights group." And yet, the government is prosecuting him in a military tribunal, a system that has few of the legal protections of a normal court of law. The judge has already ruled that Khadr's confessions can be used against him although they may have been obtained under duress and torture.

As Glenn Greenwald says in discussing this case, the abuses by the government in this case involve far more than torturing a child into confessing and then using those confessions.

As I've written before about the Khadr case (as well as the very similar case of child soldier Mohamed Jawad), what is most striking to me about this case is this: how can it possibly be that the U.S. invades a foreign country, and then when people in that country -- such as Khadr -- fight back against the invading army, by attacking purely military targets via a purely military act (throwing a grenade at a solider (sic), who was part of a unit ironically using an abandoned Soviet runway as its outpost), they become "war criminals," or even Terrorists, who must be shipped halfway around the world, systematically abused, repeatedly declared to be one of "the worst of the worst," and then held in a cage for almost a full decade (one third of his life and counting)? It's hard to imagine anything which more compellingly underscores the completely elastic and manipulated "meaning" of "Terrorist" than this case: in essence, the U.S. is free to do whatever it wants, and anyone who fights back, even against our invading armies and soldiers (rather than civilians), is a war criminal and a Terrorist.

Once again, role-reversal reveals that hypocrisy. If a foreign army were to occupy the US, would we view a 15-year old boy who takes up arms to attack those troops as a terrorist or a hero?

In fact, the Obama regime seems to take a positive delight in demanding for the right to indefinitely incarcerate people even if they know they are innocent. This is consistent with Obama pretending to want to close down Guantanamo while backing off from doing anything about it.

Tomorrow: Yet more violations of due process

POST SCRIPT: Our corrupt government

Readers will recall my many posts about how the fix was in from the start so that the health care 'reform' bill would serve the interests of the very organizations that make health care in this country so bad, primarily the health insurance companies. Glenn Greenwald has a must-read item about the revolving door between government and the health insurance companies that guaranteed this outcome. In fact, Obama has put a person from one of the worst of these companies (WellPoint) in charge of running the new program.

This five-minute clip of Bill Moyers, made just before the health care 'reform' bill passed, shows how the public option was sabotaged despite wide support for it, how Congress bought off, and highlights the ever-revolving door that guarantees that the companies win and the people's voice will never be heard.

August 18, 2010

Obama's disdain for civil liberties

As readers of this blog know, after supporting Barack Obama against John McCain in the presidential election, I have been a harsh critic of his actions once in power. This should not come as a surprise as I said before the election that I would hold him to the same standards I applied to Bush-Cheney and that given the nature of US politics that he would be a loyal servant of the oligarchy that rules the US. But I have (I hope) been careful to distinguish between criticizing him for policies I disagree with and being much harsher with him for lying to us about his intentions.

As examples of policy differences, it should have been clear to any careful observer long before his election that Obama was very friendly with the big Wall Street financial interests and would eagerly do their bidding. (I wrote about this in February 2008.) If people had any doubts about this, his eagerness to support the bailouts of the big investment banks in the two months prior to his election should have settled them. Similarly, he clearly announced that he was going to expand the war in Afghanistan and he has done so. I think it is a terrible policy but he is simply doing what he said he would do.

Where I think Obama has been terrible is when it comes to civil liberties and the rule of law. After promising to restore the rule of law and due process, Obama has not only embraced the worst aspects of the Bush-Cheney encroachments but has expanded them even more, making the Obama administration one of the most lawless in recent history.

Starting with the government dragging its feet on the closure of Guantanamo and other black prisons and continuing the practices of torture, denial of habeas corpus and the right to lawyers, etc., it has steadily expanded its reach so that Obama now claims that he has the right to order the murder of anyone, anywhere, at any time. And what is incredible is that people are not outraged. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, to his credit, has actually introduced a bill to ban the extrajudicial killing of at least US citizens by the US government, undoubtedly to draw attention to the bizarre world that we now take as normal. Of course his party's leadership will make sure that his legislation never sees the light of day. Party loyalty always trumps principle.

As one example of Obama's disgraceful actions take the case of Hassan Odaini, who was picked up in Pakistan when he was 18 and has been detained for eight years even though the government knows he is innocent. As Glenn Greenwald says, "the Obama administration is knowingly imprisoning a completely innocent human being who has been kept in a cage in an island prison, thousands of miles from his home, for the last 8 years, since he's 18 years old, despite having done absolutely nothing wrong."

As Andy Worthington writes in Obama’s Moral Bankruptcy Regarding Torture:

As I explained in an article following the judge's May 26 ruling, it had been publicly known since November 2007 that the government had conceded in June 2005 that Odaini, a student, had been seized by mistake after staying the night with friends in a university guest house in Faisalabad, Pakistan, on the night that the house was raided by Pakistani and U.S. operatives, and that he had been officially approved for release on June 26, 2006 (ironically, on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture).

Nevertheless, the Justice Department refused to abandon the case against him, and took its feeble allegations all the way to the District Court, where they were savagely dismissed by Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. When the judge's unclassified opinion was subsequently released, an even grimmer truth emerged: that shortly after Odaini's arrival at Guantánamo in June 2002, an interrogator recommended his repatriation (after he had been exploited for information about his fellow prisoners), and that, in April 2004, "an employee of the Criminal Investigative Task Force ('CITF') of the Department of Defense reviewed five interrogations of Odaini and wrote that '[t]here is no information that indicates [he] has clear ties to mid or high level Taliban or that he is a member of al-Qaeda.'"

Odaini was not subjected to specific torture techniques, but there are many people — myself included — who are happy to point out to the Obama administration that subjecting an innocent man to eight years of essentially arbitrary detention in an experimental prison camp devoted to the coercive interrogations of prisoners who were deliberately excluded from the protections of the Geneva Conventions is itself a form of torture, especially as, unlike the worst convicted criminals on the U.S. mainland, no Guantánamo prisoner has ever been allowed a family visit, and many have never even spoken to their families by phone.

Moreover, the fact that the administration proceeded with his habeas case, despite knowing that he was innocent, and then refused to release him as soon as the judge delivered his ruling, confirms that, when it comes to lawlessness and cruelty, the Obama administration is closer in spirit to the Bush administration than it cares to admit.

Judge Kennedy has also ordered the release of another Guantanamo prisoner held for nearly nine years because "the administration failed to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the Yemeni man was part of al-Qaida or an associated force."

But there are even worse examples of Obama's post-election disdain for civil liberties, as I will discuss tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Australian elections

A short debate on Australian TV between the Sex Party and the Family First party, two 'minor' parties competing in upcoming Australian elections. (Thanks to Pharyngula.) Just from the names I can tell which party I like because you just know that a party that calls itself the Family Party is going to consist of intolerant twits, and the debate reveals it.

August 17, 2010

Is the US a police state?

Some of this blog's readers may be old enough to recall what used to happen in brutal Latin American dictatorships in the second half of the 20th century, when opponents of the government were picked up by the secret police and never heard from again, except when their mutilated dead bodies occasionally turned up. A whole network of state-sponsored secret prisons, systematic torture, and murder was put into place and paramilitary groups and so-called 'death squads', operating under the auspices and protection of the governments and usually consisting of security forces in plain clothes, used to carry out all manner of atrocities, leaving the public in a state of permanent fear.

It is time to ask the question: Is the US now such a police state? The immediate answer is, of course, no. The fact that I can pose this question publicly and periodically excoriate Obama, and before him Bush and Cheney, for their appalling violations of human rights and their flouting of the law and the constitution without fearing that I will be summarily arrested or murdered by the security forces tells us that for the most part and for most people, we still have what appears to be a nation of laws.

But it is the use of the qualifier 'most' in the previous sentence that should give us pause because 'most' is simply not good enough. The fact remains that we have now reached a stage in the so-called 'war on terror' that the US, while not a police state, has adopted some of the features of a 'national security state'. If the US government thinks you are a real danger to it, then it can and will unleash (and has unleashed) its powers to deny you your rights of life and liberty, the law and constitution be damned. The government claims it has the right to kidnap you, imprison you indefinitely, torture you, and even kill you, without any judicial process or even access to a lawyer, simply because it considers you to be a 'terrorist'. The denial of some of these constitutional rights can be triggered not by any actual wrongdoing or serious harm to public safety but merely the threat of embarrassing the government by revealing its wrongdoing, such as done by whistleblowers.

What saves me (and most people) from any of the above deprivations of life and liberty is that I am simply not important enough. But that should not be the basis for complacency. We are not yet in a full-blown police state but the fact is that both Democratic and Republican administrations claim the power and right to ignore the law and constitutional protections for whatever reason and whenever they feel like it. This is a very worrisome sign for the future.

It is the bipartisan nature of this consensus that is particularly troubling. Compare this with what happened after the change of government in England. The new Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition government's first policy statements strongly reaffirmed their strong commitment to dismantling the national security state set up by the outgoing Labour government. The UK is also going to investigate acts of torture and give compensation to victims:

The Liberal Democrat MEP Sarah Ludford said: "Only a very thorough cleaning of the stables can re-establish Britain's reputation as a nation of principles rather than a sidekick to appalling human rights abuses. It should also be judge-led, held as far as possible in public, and not rule out the possibility of prosecutions.

One has to see, if course, if the British government follows through on these promises but it is at least a step in the right direction.

Compare that with what is happening in the US. After strongly condemning the Bush-Cheney regime's violations of all manner of civil liberties when he was a senator and when he was running for president, Obama not only turned 180 degrees and embraced those policies as soon as he won, he has even extended those abuses. Glenn Greenwald points to what is taking place in the US under Democratic Party rule that we thought was going to undo the abuses of the Bush-Cheney regime:

We get -- from the current Government -- presidential assassination programs, detention with no charges, senseless demands for further reductions of core rights when arrested, ongoing secret prisons filled with abuse, military commissions, warrantless surveillance of emails, and presidential secrecy claims to block courts from reviewing claims of government crimes. The Democratic-led Congress takes still new steps to block the closing of Guantanamo. Democratic leaders push for biometric, national ID cards. The most minimal surveillance safeguards are ignored. Even the miniscule limits on eavesdropping powers are transgressed. And from just this week: "Millions of Americans arrested for but not convicted of crimes will likely have their DNA forcibly extracted and added to a national database, according to a bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday".

Another total reversal of an Obama position is that he now goes after whistleblowers who reveal government wrongdoing, after earlier supporting whistleblower rights. In fact, Obama harasses whistleblowers more than Bush ever did.

As a candidate, Obama promised transparency, accountability, and reform of extremist Bush policies. As president, he usurped unchecked surveillance powers, including warrantless wiretapping, accessing personal records, monitoring financial transactions, and tracking e-mails, Internet and cell phone use to gather secret evidence for prosecutions. He also claims Justice Department immunity from illegal spying suits, an interpretation no member of Congress or administration ever made, not even Bush or his Republican allies.

As a result, his national security state targets activists, political dissidents, anti-war protestors, Muslims, Latino immigrants, lawyers who defend them, whistleblowers, journalists who expose federal crimes, corruption, and excesses who won’t disclose their sources, and WikiLeaks.

This is not the change that we believed in.

POST SCRIPT: Obama's long list of hypocrisies

The Daily Show documents Obama's hypocrisy on civil liberties, habeas corpus, rendition, wiretaps, and whistleblowers. During the Bush-Cheney regime, I used to hate to listen to them speak, so great was the discrepancy between their smug words about upholding the law and democracy, and their deeds. I have already reached that stage with Obama, where I cannot stand listening to his preening, self-righteousness blather either.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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August 16, 2010

Book review: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

This is an extraordinary book about one family's experience with Hurricane Katrina.

As long time readers of this blog may recall, I was furious at the way that the poor people of New Orleans were treated like scum during and after Katrina (see my earlier posts here, here, here, here, here, and here), so much so that I couldn't bear the thought of reading another story about it.

But Zeitoun is on the short list of ten books that are competing to be selected as the choice for my university's common reading program for next year. Since I am on the selection committee, I feel obliged to read all of them. Once I started it, however, I could barely put it down, it is so well-written. It is written in a documentary style, using language that is spare and understated, yet extraordinarily compelling.

Dave Eggers tells the true story through the eyes of a devout Muslim couple in New Orleans caught up in the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina. The husband Abdulrahman Zeitoun (known to everyone by just his last name which is pronounced 'zay-toon') was born in Syria but is now a long-time resident of the US. He is the co-owner with his American-born wife Kathy (who had converted to Islam before she met him) of a prosperous construction and renovation business,

After evacuating his wife and their four children to Baton Rouge at the last minute before the hurricane struck, Zeitoun stays behind to look after his own house and the rental properties he owns and those of his friends and neighbors. Using a canoe that he had bought earlier on a whim and which now turns out to be invaluable, he rows around the silent and submerged parts of the city and in the process discovers stranded people and animals and starts helping them out. By indiscriminately helping anyone in need he comes across, this generous and tireless man enters a calm and exalted state and begins to think that god has a plan for him and had placed him in that awful situation to be a good Samaritan to the people and animals in his adopted city and nation.

But then suddenly everything turns upside down. He and others are arrested by security forces who ignore their claims that they were on their own property and, in what can truly be described by the term Kafkaesque, he finds himself held for weeks in makeshift prisons under appalling conditions with cruel guards and indifferent officials, not allowed even a single phone call to his lawyer or to his frantic wife and family.

Zeitoun is a profoundly disturbing book. In a graphic demonstration of what the government's real priorities are, it contrasts the ruthless efficiency with which the government and its security forces rounded up ordinary people and treated them like dirt, with the appalling inefficiency and incompetence it displayed when dealing with the real humanitarian needs of people facing implacable forces of nature. It is a gripping account of what it is like when all the protections we take for granted are thrown out of the window in the name of security aided by xenophobia, and the dangers that arise when security forces are trained to ignore normal human feelings and treat people as enemies. If the US security forces can treat ordinary American citizens in America this way, one can only imagine how they treat their perceived enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book shows the creeping power of the national security state and the danger of allowing governments the right to think that they can disregard constitutional protections and the basic human rights of people. We tend to think of the armed services of a country as being there to defend the country from external enemies, or even on occasion to attack other countries. This is how these extremely expensive institutions are sold to the public. But we must never forget that another purpose of a nation's military is to enable the government to control its own people when it wants to, and in order to do that the soldiers must be trained so that if anyone, even members of their own local community and nation, is identified as a potential enemy, all human feeling is ignored and that person is treated like garbage. The fact that soldiers can be trained to be like that is a testament to how far we have gone along the road to becoming a national security state.

What happened in New Orleans during Katrina was compounded by the fact that the police in that city has long had a reputation of being highly corrupt and racist, preying on poor and black people, so that the police was seen by them as the enemy. Finally in July 2010, six police officers were charged with shooting people without cause during Katrina. The June 2010 issue of Z Magazine (not available online) has an article by Darwin Bond-Graham that gives the results of a long investigation into their practices. Titled The New Orleans Police Department's Culture of Corruption and Repression, it gives the sordid details of how they and the local power elite operated with impunity. Fresh Air had an interview with one of the reporters who investigated the murders and which led to indictments against sixteen police officers for shooting, murder, and cover-ups.

Even though Zeitoun himself was a hard-working and prosperous businessman, whenever he and his wife had any encounter with the police such as a routine traffic stop, she would insist on doing the talking, hoping that her white skin and local accent would enable them to avoid trouble.

Zeitoun is not just the story of what happened to one family because of a hurricane. It is also a grim reminder of the dangers of creating a national security state, driven by fear and paranoia, in which people sacrifice the rule of law for a spurious sense of security. What happened in New Orleans occurred under the Bush-Cheney regime which sought the elimination of all the major constitutional provisions that safeguard our rights to due process.

I would liked to have said that Barack Obama has reversed these policies. But although expressing vehement opposition to the Bush-Cheney policies when campaigning for president, he immediately reversed course upon his election and has taken those draconian measures even further. While he has admirably spoken out against the xenophobia that is at the base of the ridiculous opposition to the proposed new Islamic Center called Cordoba House in New York City, he has not taken any steps to dismantle the national security state he inherited, and has in fact expanded its reach.

POST SCRIPT: FBI investigates peace activist

A mother of five children, a registered nurse, who happened to attend a demonstration in support of Palestinian rights, gets a visit from the FBI. She shows remarkable calmness and presence of mind by videotaping the encounter, which you can see by clicking on the link

Just in case you should ever be visited by the FBI for whatever reason, here are some guidelines that outlines your rights.

Do you think that you are safe from FBI harassment because you are a law-abiding citizen? The fact is that the modern state has all manner of vague and obscure statutes that all of us unwittingly break. Susie Madrak at the website Crooks and Liars describes one such case where a US Senator invoked such a law to harass someone who merely wrote him an angry email. Madrak also mentions the book Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent by civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate who says that the average person now commits roughly three felonies a day without even knowing it. So if the government does not like you for any reason, they can always try and nail you for violating some law that you did not even know existed. Silverglate argues that this is now possible because the long-standing practice of prosecutors needing to show intent to commit the crime is vanishing.

August 13, 2010

Be nice to hospitality workers

By now everyone in the US must have heard about the JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater who got so fed up by the way he was treated by a passenger that he used the intercom to curse her out and left the plane. Grabbing a beer and using the emergency chute to make his dramatic exit was an inspired touch. Slater has become something of a folk hero for his take-this-job-and-shove-it action and I would not be surprised to see a made-for-TV movie about disgruntled flights attendants soon. Slater even became Stephen Colbert's Alpha Dog of the Week.

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Slater was arrested and is now out on bail, facing charges of reckless endangerment and criminal mischief that could put him in prison for up to seven years, which seems excessive to me. His lawyer has provided more details of what happened.

Flight attendants in general have expressed great sympathy for him, saying that he did what many of them have only fantasized about. My niece worked as a flight attendant for a few years and has her own share of stories about rude and obnoxious people on planes. The following apocryphal story describes the kind of pettiness and self-indulgence that airline workers have to routinely deal with:

In my youth, I was friends with a TWA flight attendant who used to tell this tale: A fellow attendant had just finished serving dinner (so you know how long ago this was), and a woman rang her call button. “This potato,” she said to the attendant, pointing to a small baker on the tray, “is bad.”

He calmly picked up the potato, placed it in the palm of his left hand and shook his right index finger at it, saying in a scolding tone, “Bad potato. Bad, bad potato.” His attempt at humor won him a suspension, my friend said.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether Slater should have done what he did and deserves the adulation he has received from some quarters, the whole episode illustrates the inequality and tension that exists between workers in the hospitality industry and the customers.

A couple of years ago my flight was cancelled due to bad weather and there was chaos at the check-in counter as a large number of people tried to find alternative flights. There was only one person to serve all the coach passengers and naturally there were long lines and delays and tempers became frayed, and some people started berating this poor woman although she was not responsible for the mess. Things got so bad that a policeman had to come in to keep some order. I was there for over six hours because I was trying to make an international connection and so was able to observe the fact that this woman did not leave her position even to get food or go to the bathroom but kept a pleasant and smiling face throughout the ordeal, never raising her voice, and standing all the time. It was only late in the evening, after everyone had left and I was the only person remaining that she confided in me that a co-worker had called in sick that day, which was why she was alone, and that she was totally exhausted. I asked her if tough days happened to her often and she ruefully said yes.

One reporter worked as a flight attendant for two days to see what it was like and wrote about her experiences. Her co-workers told her that working first class was harder than coach and that did not surprise me. Airlines themselves are partly responsible for this. In order to get people to fork out extra money for these more profitable upgrades, they have pandered to them that they are so special, giving them all manner of little perks, including laughably ridiculous ones like the little carpet near the boarding gate that ordinary coach passengers are not supposed to step on. It always cracks me up when the person at the gate announces that the proletariat is forbidden to step on that rug. Should we be surprised that some of the pampered people treat flight attendants as their personal servants?

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat those who they perceive as subordinate to them. As Dave Barry once wrote, "A person who is nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person." The notorious John Bolton, hysterical warmonger and George W. Bush's choice to be US ambassador to the United Nations, was known to berate his staff while being ingratiating to those he felt were his superiors. He was described by an observer as the "quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy", adding, "I've never seen anyone quite like Secretary Bolton in terms of the way he abuses his power and authority with little people… The fact is that he stands out, that he's got a bigger kick and it gets bigger and stronger the further down the bureaucracy he's kicking."

It is true that modern airline travel is frustrating for passengers. But that does not excuse being nasty to the people who are the public face of that industry because they are not responsible for this state of affairs. In fact, they are as much victims as we are because airlines have cut back on personnel to the minimum, requiring those remaining to work much harder and longer. I have a great deal of sympathy for people who work in the hospitality industry like waiters, flight attendants, hotel employees, and the like. These people are on their feet almost all the time, for pay that is not that great, and are required by their employers to be smiling and friendly and obsequious to everyone. And while most people are polite and considerate, because these workers deal with so many people every day, the odds are that they encounter a fair number of jerks in the course of their work day, people seeking an outlet for their own personal frustrations and demons, who take advantage of them by being abusive and rude, knowing that they have to take it and still keep smiling.

Ideally, we should treat everyone equally and well but that is hard to do in practice. But a good rule-of-thumb is that the less power that people have, the greater effort we should put in to swallow our own irritation and annoyance and be nice to them and show consideration and respect, because they have likely had a much harder day than we did.

POST SCRIPT: Anthem for Steven Slater

I remember when this song was released in 1978 that it struck the same chord with fed up workers that Slater's actions did.

August 12, 2010

More on red light and speed cameras

The previous post on this topic resulted in such interesting discussions that I want to expand on this topic in a new post.

I actually agree with some of the criticisms that were made about a camera-based system to enforce traffic laws on speeding and running red lights. But my point is that while the police-based system is fundamentally flawed and cannot be made fair and consistent and widespread because of the enormous costs that would need be incurred, the camera-based system as currently implemented is only technically flawed. It should be easy to improve it by purely technical fixes that can also be easily monitored to ensure that the devices work accurately and provide reasonable opportunities for compliance.

For example, it should be easy to calculate how long a yellow light should last on a road that has a specific speed limit in order to provide a stopping distance that does not require slamming on the brakes and risking rear-end collisions. As commenter James pointed out, there is really no excuse for rear-ending someone but having consistent and reasonable yellow light times would reduce the risk of such collisions. These times should be public information so that if people suspect local governments are fiddling with them to raise revenues, they can be easily checked by any person with a stopwatch. In fact, the commenters who expressed reservations about the camera system also suggested ways in which their objections could be met.

The police-based system is fundamentally flawed because it cannot help but be arbitrary and inconsistent. Your odds of getting caught are small (unless you are a blatant and reckless offender) and presumably because of that the fines are set high to act as a deterrent, although that does not seem to be effective. What the high fines do is make the people who do get caught very angry since they feel that exceeding the speed limit is not serious enough to warrant a huge fine, and they think that others are getting away with it.

People are very sensitive to the issue of fairness. If you drive on a highway, you see almost everyone exceeding the posted speed limits and yet police will pick out one hapless person to stop and fine for reasons that are not always clear. That person will almost always feel aggrieved because he or she knows that it was just bad luck that they were the ones who got caught, while others who zipped by even faster seemed to escape.

The camera-based system, while it may have flaws, has the great advantage that it is impartial, consistent, and will catch each and every violator and not just the 'unlucky' ones. As a result, I feel that people, in the long run, will like it because of its fairness and impartiality. Also fines can be made much smaller than they are now because the certainty that one will get caught and fined should be sufficient deterrent to encourage people to follow the law, and thus make the roads safer.

Commenter John pointed out that the speed at which traffic can flow safely may be greater than the posted speed limits. Police have the flexibility to allow for this while cameras do not. So in places where speed cameras are known to exist, he says that one has the odd situation that traffic flows at the higher speed, slows down at the places where people know there are speed cameras, and then speeds up again.

This highlights another odd feature of the existing system which is that speed limits in the US are a secret. Oh sure, signs are posted all over the place but nobody takes them seriously. The only thing we know for sure is that the posted limits are not the real ones. When it comes to speed limits, it seems like people feel that violating the law by just a little should be excused, although people do not allow such laxity with respect to other crimes such as stealing and will think that the arrest of someone for stealing a toothbrush is appropriate. Imagine the outcry if police started fining people for going 28 in a 25 mph zone. Anyone who has driven at exactly the posted speed in city streets knows that pretty soon a caravan of irate drivers will form behind them. The only time when the real speed limit comes close to the posted limit seems to be in school zones with the flashing warning lights, and it is interesting that it is only in those zones that people tend to stick closely to the limit.

It seems like the 'real' speed limit is roughly 5-10 miles per hour more than the posted limits but no authority wants to publicly acknowledge this and so drivers play a guessing game with the police as to what the real limits are. When I drive on the highway, I consistently go at about 5 mph greater than the posted limits and even though I have seen police clocking me, they have never pulled me over even once.

Because of this guessing game that everyone has internalized I suspect that even if the traffic experts who set speed limits think that 40 mph is a safe speed for a stretch of road, they post it as 35 mph, so that then drivers will travel at about 40 mph. And the police go along with this charade. It is quite bizarre, when you think about it.

If cameras replace police, perhaps we can start posting the actual speed limits and this silly guessing game can stop. If the camera measuring devices have (say) a 10% uncertainty, then this should also be public information and taken into account, so that drivers know that they can go up to 44 mph in a 40 mph zone or up to 71 mph on a 65 mph highway, but anything higher than the upper limit will result in an automatic and certain ticket.

POST SCRIPT: Who watches TV news?

Readers of this blog know that I have nothing but contempt for what passes for TV 'news', because most of it is not really news at all but endless blathering by uninformed people. They still seem to draw viewers but it seems that what audience they do have consists mostly of old people. The average age for Fox News is 65, CNN is 63, and MSNBC's is a sprightly 59. If I am not mistaken, this is also the decreasing order of audience size.

Along with declining readership of newspapers, this adds support to my suspicions that young people do not actively seek the news anymore. Instead they are so plugged in to all manner of networks of information and interaction that they are confident that important news will find them.

August 11, 2010

The same sex marriage verdict

Needless to say, I was very pleased with the ruling last week by US District Court judge Vaughn Walker in California overturning the ban on same sex marriage. The case arose because of a challenge to Proposition 8 that was passed by referendum in November 2008 and required the state constitution to add a clause that stated, "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

The judge said that Proposition 8 violated the 'due process' and 'equal protection' clauses of the 14th amendment to the federal constitution. The due process clause states that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law" while the equal protection clause states that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." (The 14th amendment is getting quite a workout these days, with some talking about amending it to prevent children born in the US of illegal immigrants from getting automatic citizenship under the opening sentence that states, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.")

Ted Olson, appointed by George W. Bush to be his first Solicitor General, offers the clearest articulation I have yet heard of the case against bans on same sex marriage. He was one of the lawyers that successfully argued the case.

Of course, opponents of same sex marriage are furious and are angrily denouncing the judge as going against the 'will of the people'. The idea propounded by same sex marriage opponents that courts should always acquiesce to the result of any plebiscite or the actions of legislatures is a curious argument to make, especially in the US, which is firmly based on the principle that the legislature, judiciary, and executive are co-equal branches of government, that none of them is required to give deference or preference to any other. Of course, it is ideal when there is a national consensus on issues and all three branches agree. But one of them has to take the lead on any issue and when it comes to protecting fundamental rights it is the courts that have traditionally done so, because the rights of minorities can be threatened by majorities acting on the passions of the moment.

(A curious side argument by opponents of the verdict is that Judge Walker is openly gay and that this somehow brings his impartiality into question. I fail to see the relevance of his personal sexuality. After all, everyone has some sexual preference. Why would we assume that an openly heterosexual judge would be more impartial on this issue than an openly homosexual one? Are they arguing that the case should have been tried by a hermaphrodite or bisexual or neutered judge? Adding to the irony, Walker was first nominated to the federal bench in 1987 by Ronald Reagan but his nomination was stalled because he was perceived as being insensitive to gays and poor people. He was re-nominated in 1989 by George H. W. Bush and confirmed.)

It is important to realize that the judge's verdict did not create a new right. The judge pointed out that the right to marriage has always existed and is considered a bedrock principle of society. What Proposition 8 did was deny that existing right to a particular group. The judge said is that you cannot deny a right to selected individuals or groups without showing that actual harm would ensue if that right were not denied.

And this is where supporters of Proposition 8 and opponents of same sex marriage in general have failed miserably. They have been unable to provide any evidence of any actual harm that might ensue except for vague and even ridiculous fear mongering that allowing same sex marriage was some kind of slippery slope that would eventually result in people marrying their farm animals. (Tom Tomorrow's cartoon from 2004 addressing this issue is still relevant.) As the judge concluded, "Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license."

The idea that one group of people can, under the guise of protecting marriage in what they claim is its most wholesome form, introduce conditions to deny the right of marriage to another group is neatly skewered in this Onion parody.


New Law Would Ban Marriages Between People Who Don't Love Each Other

It seems pretty obvious that opposition to same sex springs entirely from religious beliefs (because some 'holy books' condemn homosexuality) or from some vague moral principles that can usually be traced back to those religious beliefs or because opponents think that gay sex is somehow icky. But it is not the role of the courts to adjudicate moral or religious issues or to pander to the prejudices of people, even if they are in the majority. As the judge said in his ruling, "A state’s interest in an enactment must of course be secular in nature. The state does not have an interest in enforcing private moral or religious beliefs without an accompanying secular purpose."

What puzzles me are those people who are willing to devote so much time and energy to opposing same sex marriage. What kind of person tries to deny other people rights that they themselves enjoy? People on either side of the gun control debate (for example) are campaigning for results that apply to everyone equally, including themselves. Same sex marriage opponents have no such redeeming quality. They want all the secular and material benefits that marriage provides them while denying them to others.

While I have generally been gloomy about the direction that the US is heading in political and economic matters and in civil liberties, providing equal rights to gay people is one area where I am very optimistic. The country is definitely moving in the right direction, not least because of demographic changes. Young people simply do not see the point in discriminating against gay people.

The opponents of equal rights for gays are well and truly losing this war, even if they win some minor skirmishes here and there. My advice to them is to concede defeat gracefully. For the times, they are a'changing.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the verdict

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August 10, 2010

The puzzling opposition to red light and speed cameras

I am often taken by surprise at the kinds of things that people get really upset about. For example, many cities and states have recently taken to placing cameras strategically at various points to catch speeders and people who run red lights. The camera takes a photo of an offender and you get the citation in the mail. I didn't think too much about this innovation and when I did it seemed to me to make a lot of sense. At the very least, it releases police to do more important work like catching criminals. It seems like such a waste to have police spend huge amounts of time lurking just to catch the occasional speeder.

Furthermore, the camera system seems to have the advantage of complete impartiality. It does not care what kind of car committed the offense, whether it is a dull old minivan or a flashy red sports car. More importantly, it does not discriminate among drivers either. The camera does not know or care if you are old or young, rich or poor, black or white, attractive or homely, well-spoken or inarticulate. It does not care if you are a person of influence or a nobody. Cameras do not profile people.

In other words, these cameras allow us to actually practice the ideals of justice, completely blind to everything except whether one has committed the offense or not. And yet, these cameras are generating huge amounts of controversy with citizen petitions and referenda demanding their removal and state legislature passing laws banning them. And since the people leading this charge tend to be those who belong to the middle and upper classes, their voices are, of course, heeded. What explains this fervor against something so reasonable?

Some people object to the red light cameras by claiming that they are designed to trap people, because the duration of the yellow lights is made too short to allow one to stop safely without being rear-ended. But this seems to me to be a technical issue that can be resolved easily with proper guidelines and standards. Also, drivers are supposed to keep a safe distance behind the car in front to allow for such sudden stops.

Others argue against the cameras on the grounds that they were installed as revenue generators rather than to encourage safer driving. So what if they are? I do not understand this objection. After all, the laws and fines were already there. No one seemed to have any problem with them being enacted. It is strange that what people are objecting to is them being enforced more vigorously and efficiently. The fact is that these camera are catching people who are violating the law. If people want to defy their municipality's cunning plan to increase revenues, all they have to do is obey existing traffic laws.

And the laws that are being violated are hardly unreasonable laws. No one will deny that people who speed and run red lights are placing other people at risk. Nor are the laws so secret and subtle that one does not know one is violating them. All drivers know what they should do when approaching a traffic light. In the US especially, speed limit signs are ubiquitous and one has little excuse for not knowing what it is on any given stretch of road.

I was really puzzled by this opposition to traffic cameras until I read an article by George Monbiot in the London Guardian discussing similar puzzling opposition in England.

In every other sector, Conservatives insist that it is daft for human beings to do the work machines could do. In every other instance they demand that police officers be freed from mindless tasks to spend more time preventing serious crime. In all other cases they urge more rigorous enforcement of the law. On every other occasion they insist that local authorities should raise revenue and make their schemes pay for themselves. But it all goes into reverse when they are exposed to the beams of a fiendish instrument of mind control.

The moment they pass through its rays, Conservatives turn from penny-pinching authoritarians into spendthrift hoodie-huggers. They demand that a job now performed consistently and cheaply by machines should be handed back to human beings, who will do it patchily and at great expense. They urge that police officers be diverted from preventing serious crime to stand in for lumps of metal. They insist that those who break the law should not be punished or even caught. They clamour for councils to abandon a scheme that almost pays for itself, and replace it with one that requires constant subsidies.

Monbiot has a convincing theory as to why traffic cameras cause people to reverse almost every principle they claim to uphold, despite the fact that such cameras lead to reductions in traffic accidents and mortality rates. Monbiot argues that it is the very impartiality of the cameras that, rather than being seen as the good thing it undoubtedly is, is causing the opposition. Most people think that they somehow have an edge that they can use to escape paying the fine if they are caught by real live traffic police. They think they are important enough or look respectable or influential or attractive enough, or that they can manufacture some plausible excuse, that will get them off the hook. It is just the young and poor and people of color who tend to be out of luck when it comes to finding ways to escape.

In other words, traffic cameras commit the worst offense: they do not respect class privilege. I have to agree with Monbiot's conclusion, though in the US I would expand his group from 'conservatives' to all members of the better-off classes: "The real reason why Conservatives hate the enforcement of speed limits is that this is one of the few laws which is as likely to catch the rich as the poor: newspaper editors and council leaders are as vulnerable as anyone else. The Conservative reaction to speed cameras suggests that they love laws, except those which apply to them."

POST SCRIPT: Threatening the 14th amendment

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August 09, 2010

Film review: No Country for Old Men and the Coen brothers' oeuvre

You have to grant writers-directors-producers Joel and Ethan Coen one thing: they make interesting films. Not for them the formulaic, genre-tailored approach to filmmaking. Not for them endless sequels to hits or even to follow up a hit film with one similar in style. Each film seems to go off in a different direction from the previous one and stands alone. They take risks and for that quality alone one has to respect them.

Having said all that, the results are a mixed bag and I cannot say that I have enjoyed all the films that I have seen of their oeuvre: Raising Arizona (1987), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007), Burn After Reading (2008), and A Serious Man (2009).

I tend to prefer the more lighthearted films in that list. Raising Arizona (made before Nicholas Cage became insufferably annoying) was good, as was The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Burn After Reading. The Hudsucker Proxy was passable but A Serious Man was a serious disappointment.

One thing about their films that I dislike, especially the later ones, is their tendency to end abruptly, leaving multiple story threads unresolved. I know that real life does not have everything tied up neatly at the end like an Agatha Christie novel, and I can live with some level of lack of resolution but No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man all left me feeling annoyed at the end at their seeming pointlessness because even the main storyline is unresolved. (I should have really liked the last one because the main character is a physics professor and I could actually understand the quantum mechanics equations that he wrote on the board. But even that feeling of smug superiority was insufficient to make me like the film.)

Some of their films, especially Fargo and No Country for Old Men, had some seriously violent scenes that don't appeal to me but the former film was much better in that it had a much better story and more plausible characters. I had avoided seeing No Country for Old Men for a long time because of its reputed violence and also because it was based on a book by Cormac McCarthy. The latter fact was greatly emphasized in advertising for the film because McCarthy is an acclaimed writer for his depictions of the modern American southwest. But I had read his highly praised novel All the Pretty Horses and did not like it at all and had to really struggle to complete it. But I finally decided to watch the film since people were speaking so highly of it.

My misgivings were justified. No Country for Old Men is a pretty bad film. After seeing it, I had the same feeling as after seeing the highly touted Pulp Fiction (1994), a film that turned me off Quentin Tarantino for good. Both films were praised by critics as masterpieces but I thought both were awful. What was the point of all that blood and gore? Just to sicken viewers? While violence does not appeal to me, it is not an automatic disqualifier. David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005) was actually pretty good because the violence was necessary to drive the story forward.

I have mentioned before that one thing that really annoys me is implausibility, and violent films are particularly prone to this failing because the characters have amazing self-healing capacities. Lead characters may be beaten to a pulp but the wounds and bruises disappear remarkably quickly. I can overlook this if the films are really well made but if not, they quickly degenerate into farce.

It seems like filmmakers have found the secret to rapid recovery from life-threatening trauma: put on a new set of clothes. In No Country for Old Men, the Josh Brolin character is shot and is bleeding profusely, is nearly dead, but manages to make it to a hospital. After being treated, he immediately discharges himself, staggers out, goes to a store, buys new clothes, and within hours is walking around without any hint that he had almost died. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem, playing a psychopathic killer and drug dealer chasing the Brolin character, is shot in the leg and is bleeding badly. He limps into a pharmacy, and while everyone is distracted by an explosion he created, swiftly collects all manner of medicines and bandages, goes back to his motel, and treats his own injury by giving himself anesthetics and antibiotics and even extracting the bullet. (It was incredible that he knew exactly what medical items he needed, where to find them on the pharmacy shelves, and what he should do to treat himself. Is he supposed to have gone to medical school before becoming a killer?) Then a few hours later he also gets a new set of clothes and resumes his murderous spree without any sign of discomfort. It was at this point that the film jumped the shark and I could not take it seriously anymore.

In another implausibility, the Bardem character leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake, many of them killed using a device used to slaughter cows that requires him to carry with him a bulky metal cylinder that presumably contains compressed gas. And yet he moves openly, even going back soon to the scenes of his previous murders, without even being pursued by police, let alone confronted by them. He was supposed to be an evil and sinister man who has no compunction about killing but the whole thing was so over the top that towards the end of the film I started laughing at its absurdities, never a good sign for a film that is supposed to be serious. Or was it the intention of the filmmakers to make a tongue-in-cheek spoof of violent films?

(Oddly enough, just the day before I had watched Bardem play the milquetoast highly romantic lead in Love in the Time of Cholera, based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The contrast in roles was striking.)

Will I watch the next Coen brothers' film that comes out? It depends. I think the Coens have a great eye for the absurd and for unusual and quirky characters. In No Country for Old Men, they let excess lead to unintended absurdities and self-parody. But since they do not repeat themselves, I am hoping that this misstep does not occur again.

POST SCRIPT: Annoying actors

In the above review, I mentioned in passing that Nicholas Cage is insufferably annoying. His appearance in a film makes it very likely that I'll give it a miss. There are other actors who fall into the same category: Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Robin Williams, and Renee Zellweger immediately come to mind.

I am curious if readers of this blog have similar strong dislikes. If so, please post them in the comments.

I must emphasize that what makes these people annoying is their on screen persona and not anything to do with their lives off-screen. For all I know, the people I listed may be exemplary human beings, perfectly charming in person and kind to children and animals. Conversely, Mel Gibson seems like an absolutely appalling person and yet he is not annoying on screen. Tom Cruise seems a little weird but has an agreeable on-screen persona.

August 06, 2010

Greedy old people

I recently turned 60. I don't pay much attention to my birthdays but this one is a little special because it signifies that by almost any measure I am now officially an old person, a member of a group a subset of whom has been annoying the hell out of me for a long time: greedy old people.

Let me make it quite clear whom this rant is targeting. It is not aimed at old people who after many decades of hard work are even now struggling to make ends meet on their meager savings and social security checks, some of whom have to continue working well past normal retirement age at dead-end and physically demanding jobs which take a toll on their bodies, in order to obtain the basic necessities of life, such as food and shelter. Those people can leave the room because my words are not aimed at them.

This rant is targeted at those well-off people, who have done well financially and can live comfortably in their old age and yet are constantly on their guard to protect their own standard of living and fight off any changes that might affect them negatively in the slightest, even if those changes might benefit others in great need.

Recently I seem to see an explosion of these people and it is an ugly sight. These people seem to feel that they are entitled to a life of luxury in their old age. They seem to have this sense that such a life is due to them because they have 'worked hard' and 'played by the rules', though their hard work does not come close to the difficulty of the work done by most poor people.

This increasingly vociferous and obnoxious group of elderly people seem to feel that they deserve to retire to a life of endless golf and travel and restaurant meals and cruises and card games and all the other symbols of the good life. Very few things annoy me more than the spectacle of such well-to-do retirees in their resort complexes complaining about their taxes going towards improving the conditions of those much less fortunate than themselves. They recoil with horror at the words 'socialism' and the 'welfare state' without realizing how much they themselves benefited from such policies in the past, and do so even now in the form of Medicare and Social Security.

The health care debate brought out some of the worst in this crowd of greedy old people. Some of these people were adamantly against the idea of expanding Medicare for all and other forms of expanding health care access to everyone because they feared that this increased pool of people able to seek treatment might mean longer waits for them to see a doctor. So in order to hoard the benefits of Medicare just for themselves, they were willing to sacrifice the chance for others to get any treatment at all. I am fed up with hearing them complain about the 'doughnut hole' in covering prescription drug costs, especially since a single-payer health care system (that they opposed because it was 'socialized medicine') would have eliminated that problem. Such people make me sick.

Sam Smith highlights this hypocrisy:

People who complain about the welfare state remind me of the man from Virginia who went to college on the GI Bill and bought his first house with a VA loan. When a hurricane struck he got federal disaster aid. When he got sick he was treated at a veteran's hospital. When he was laid off he received unemployment insurance and then got a SBA loan to start his own business. His bank funds were protected under federal deposit insurance laws. Now he's retired and on social security and Medicare. The other day he got into his car, drove the federal interstate to the railroad station, took Amtrak to Washington and went to Capitol Hill to ask his congressman to get the government off his back.

One of the reasons I detest the so-called 'tea party' movement is that its ranks, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll, seem to be full of just such people, those who are older, richer, and mean-spirited, who want to hold on to their own benefits while cutting those that they no longer need but serve others. They do not seem to care if public education and public services deteriorate, as long as the grass in their retirement communities is well manicured.

[D]espite their anti-spending rhetoric, Tea Party supporters told pollsters that two of the federal government's most money-consuming programs, Social Security and Medicare, are worth the cost to taxpayers (maybe not a surprise, given the Tea Partiers' average age).

While the Tea Partiers take pains to avoid appearing racist, they're still operating at the nexus of class and race. This seems to have reached a head with healthcare reform. The UW survey's director, Christopher Parker, summed it up this way: "While it's clear that the Tea Party in one sense is about limited government, it's also clear from the data that people who want limited government don't want certain services for certain kinds of people. Those services include health care." (my italics)

These people are hypocrites of the worst sort. They take for granted all the benefits that society has provided them, and that they enjoyed when they were starting out in life and needed them, and now think that they made it on their own and are quite comfortable demanding that they be no longer available to future generations. They preach the virtues of the simple life and hardship, but it is only for others. And because this group is wealthy, noisy, and votes disproportionately, they get endlessly pandered to by politicians and covered by the media, breeding in them an even greater sense of entitlement. These people are a menace to the well being of society, disproportionately sucking up resources that should be distributed more equitably to the elderly poor, the sick, children, and young people starting out in life.

Such old people should count themselves lucky that they were able to work all their lives in jobs that enabled them to have a comfortable retirement, unlike many poor people who worked as hard or even harder than them but lived a life of constant worry and stress from paycheck to paycheck, trying to make enough money to feed and shelter their families and give their children a decent education. It is the latter people who really deserve a worry-free retirement to at least partially compensate for the hardships they endured all their lives.

So listen up, you greedy well-off old people! You do not seem to realize that you are the ones who should complain the least. We are all lucky just to be alive at all. To have lived long lives in fairly good health and without serious deprivation is to have been extremely lucky. To want to hold on to your privileges without sharing those benefits with people who have never enjoyed them is to be piggishly greedy. You should be ashamed of yourselves. So stop whining and shut up.

Thank you.

End of rant.

POST SCRIPT: Those were the days?

And spare me the justifications for the self-centered attitude of greedy old people based on the hardships they allegedly experienced when they were young. Even if people did have a hard life earlier and had to struggle to get to where they are now (though that too is often exaggerated), that still does not justify greed and selfishness.

This classic sketch comedy called The Four Yorkshiremen captures this mentality perfectly.

August 05, 2010

What is gained by cooking the books?

In the previous two posts (here and here) I discussed how the government cooks the books, particularly with regard to unemployment, inflation, economic growth, and budget deficits, to give people a much rosier picture of the state of the economy than is the case. What is to be gained by this and who benefits?

In his article titled NUMBERS RACKET: Why the economy is worse than we know in the May 2008 issue of Harper's magazine, Kevin Phillips says:

[S]ince the 1960s, Washington has been forced to gull its citizens and creditors by debasing official statistics: the vital instruments with which the vigor and muscle of the American economy are measured. The effect, over the past twenty five years, has been to create a false sense of economic achievement and rectitude, allowing us to maintain artificially low interest rates, massive government borrowing, and a dangerous reliance on mortgage and financial debt even as real economic growth has been slower than claimed… the use of deceptive statistics has played its own vital role in convincing many Americans that the U.S. economy is stronger, fairer, more productive, more dominant, and richer with opportunity than it actually is.

What is the reality? Phillips says that "Based on the criteria in place a quarter century ago, today's U.S. unemployment rate is somewhere between 9 percent and 12 percent; the inflation rate is as high as 7 or even 10 percent; economic growth since the recession of 2001 has been mediocre, despite a huge surge in the wealth and incomes of the superrich, and we are falling back into recession." (Note that Phillips was writing this in early 2008 just at the onset of the current recession when the 'official' unemployment rate was around 5% or half the current value. The real unemployment rate now is probably around 20%.)

Cooking the books to make things appear rosier is not done just for psychological reasons, to make people feel good about the state of the economy. While it does help the government politically if the public thinks that the economy is growing, inflation is low, and the government is living within its means, the main reason for cooking the books is that these numbers carry with them serious financial and budgetary implications.

Of them, the most important is the inflation rate. For one thing, social security benefits increases are tied to inflation rates. By making CPI rates seem low, the government can pay seniors less. Philips quotes economic analyst John Williams who says that "if you were to peel back changes that were made in the CPI going back to the Carter years, you'd see that the CPI would now be 3.5 percent to 4 percent higher"- meaning that, because of lost CPI increases, Social Security checks would be 70 percent greater than they currently are." So by keeping CPI numbers artificially low, the government saves money (which it then spends on wars and tax cuts for the rich) at the expense of poor seniors who are being gradually squeezed into greater poverty but may not understand why that is happening since their benefit payouts are supposed to be rising along with with the cost of living.

But in addition to that, inflation rates are closely tied to interest rates. By keeping interest rates low, the government and business can borrow money cheaply. Borrowing is the only way that American government can finance its operating deficits, continue to fund its endless expensive wars, and maintain the oligarchic looting that has enriched a few while impoverishing the many. Low interest rates were also the basis of the housing bubble. If official inflation rates rise to their real value, the edifice comes crashing down. The collapse of the subprime market was an indicator of the underlying fear that the inflation rate, and along with it interest rates, was going to rise. As Phillips says:

Undermeasurement of inflation, in particular, hangs over our heads like a guillotine. To acknowledge it would send interest rates climbing, and thereby would endanger the viability of the massive buildup of public and private debt (from less than $11 trillion in 1987 to $49 trillion last year) that props up the American economy. Moreover, the rising cost of pensions, benefits, barrowing, and interest payments-all indexed or related to inflation-could join with the cost of financial bailouts to overwhelm the federal budget. As inflation and interest rates have been kept artificially suppressed, the United States has been indentured to its volatile financial sector, with its predilection for leverage and risky buccaneering. Arguably, the unraveling has already begun.

As Robert Hardaway, a professor at the University of Denver, pointed out last September, the subprime lending crisis "can be directly traced back to the [1983] BLS decision to exclude the price of housing from the CPI… With the illusion of low inflation inducing lenders to offer 6 percent loans, not only has speculation run rampant on the expectations of ever-rising home prices, but home buyers by the millions have been tricked into buying homes even though they only qualified for the teaser rates."

The only way that the US government can continue on its reckless path is if other entities are willing to loan it money by buying its securities. While it can use the social security trust fund to do so (because it controls it), it needs other nations and their sovereign funds to also buy them. In this, the US currently benefits from the dollar still being the world's reserve currency. If other countries start to hold back from buying US treasury bonds, the government might have to lure them with higher interest rates. That would make budget deficits even worse and rapidly create problems with the ability to repay.

So where are we headed? Paul Craig Roberts, a former editor of the Wall Street Journal and an assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury during the Reagan administration, says that the outlook is gloomy.

With the US bankrupting itself in wars, America's largest creditor, China, has taken issue with America's credit rating. The head of China's largest credit rating agency declared: "The US is insolvent and faces bankruptcy as a pure debtor nation."

On July 12, Niall Ferguson, an historian of empire, warned that the American empire could collapse suddenly from weakness brought on by its massive debts and that such a collapse could be closer than we think.

The sense of foreboding is widespread, spanning the ideological spectrum. David Stockman, budget director during the time that Ronald Reagan was indulging his supply-side fantasies, thinks the day of reckoning is nigh and that the present Republican leadership is captive to "the delusion that the economy will outgrow the deficit if plied with enough tax cuts… It is not surprising, then, that during the last bubble (from 2002 to 2006) the top 1 percent of Americans — paid mainly from the Wall Street casino — received two-thirds of the gain in national income, while the bottom 90 percent — mainly dependent on Main Street’s shrinking economy — got only 12 percent."

Paul Krugman also sees disaster looming, saying, "I’m starting to have a sick feeling about prospects for American workers — but not, or not entirely, for the reasons you might think. Yes, growth is slowing, and the odds are that unemployment will rise, not fall, in the months ahead. That’s bad. But what’s worse is the growing evidence that our governing elite just doesn’t care — that a once-unthinkable level of economic distress is in the process of becoming the new normal." (my italics)

With the oligarchy having its hands in the national till and looting it for their own benefit, I think collapse is inevitable. You can postpone the say of reckoning by cooking the books, but reality will eventually catch up with you. It is for all these reasons that I think the US is in serious trouble unless it changes course.

POST SCRIPT: The oligarchy's solution to every problem

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August 04, 2010

Yet more fiddling of economic numbers

While the unemployment and CPI figures have been fiddled with to make them appear smaller (as I discussed in yesterday's post), the number that measures the size of the economy called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has also been fiddled with to make it appear larger than it is and thus appearing to show robust growth.

Kevin Philips, in an article titled NUMBERS RACKET: Why the economy is worse than we know in the May 2008 issue of Harper's magazine describes the fiddles done with the GDP, which itself was adopted in 1991 when the previous measure of the economy the Gross National Product (GNP) became unpalatable due to rising international debt costs. One of the changes that made the GDP larger consisted of adding to it what is known as 'imputed' income to people's actual income. Imputed income is what one is perceived to get because one is not directly paying for something. This includes "the imputed income from living in one's own home, or the benefit one receives from a free checking account, or the value of employer-paid health- and life-insurance premiums." In 2007, this phantom income added as much as 15% to the GDP.

One other major finagle occurred with Lyndon Johnson who was the first to create the 'unified budget' that added the surpluses in the social security account to the deficits in the government's operating budget to make the latter seem smaller than they really were. That practice continues today. It was this disguise that enabled Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and the Congresses of their time, aided and abetted by then Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, to enact huge tax cuts for the rich.

The scam went like this. By creating a phony scare in the early 1980s (similar to the one we are seeing again now) that social security was going broke, they raised payroll taxes. Since there is a cap on the income that is subject to these taxes (in 2009 the cap was $106,800) most of the money in this trust fund comes from the poor and middle class, making it a regressive tax. This increase in payroll taxes resulted in huge surpluses in the social security current account that, because of the 'unified' budget, gave people the impression that there was plenty of money in the public treasury and hid the fact that the country was actually operating in the red. The government then rammed through tax cuts for the rich that used up this bogus 'surplus'. So basically, the money that middle class and poor people were putting into their social security retirement trust fund was being used to provide huge tax cuts for the rich. This has to be one of the biggest swindles in American history. (See David Cay Johnson, Perfectly Legal: The covert system to rig our tax system to benefit the super rich – and cheat everybody else (2003), p. 123 for an excellent analysis on how this racket was perpetrated.)

This was a clear swindle knowingly perpetrated by the oligarchy. When it comes to fiddling the numbers on unemployment, CPI, and GDP, Phillips says, "Let me stipulate: the deception arose gradually, at no stage stemming from any concerted or cynical scheme. There was no grand conspiracy, just accumulating opportunisms. As we will see, the political blame for the slow, piecemeal distortion is bipartisan-both Democratic and Republican administrations had a hand in the abetting of political dishonesty, reckless debt, and a casino-like financial sector." I am not as charitable as he in dismissing knowing cynical motives.

Phillips makes the correct point that the people who prepare government statistics are professionals who are careful, in their actual reports, to accurately explain what they are doing, at least in the footnotes, so that the reality is there for anyone willing to read carefully. But governments have realized that most reporters in the mainstream media are too lazy or stupid or ignorant or stressed for time to do this kind of careful reading and analysis and instead simply swallow the summaries, abstracts, and press releases put out by high-level government officials, thus allowing themselves to be manipulated. Reporters would do a much better job if they stopped trying to curry favor with high-level people and instead focused their efforts on reading official documents carefully and cultivating low and mid-level officials and whistle-blowers who can tell them exactly what is going on. The latter have less of an ideological or political ax to grind and thus are more likely to tell the unvarnished truth.

Public ignorance of the true state of the economy benefits the government. Phillips adds:

Readers should ask themselves how much angrier the electorate might be if the media, over the past five years, had been citing 8 percent unemployment (instead of 5 percent), 5 percent inflation (instead of 2 percent) and average annual growth in the I percent range (instead of the 3-4 percent range). We might ponder as well who profits from a low-growth U.S. economy hidden under statistical camouflage. Might it be Washington politicos and affluent elites, anxious to mislead voters, coddle the financial markers, and tamp down expensive cost-of-living increases for wages and pensions?

Phillips has to be given credit for warning us in early 2008, before the total collapse of the housing market, of the danger of mortgage debt. He was, however, wrong in predicting that official unemployment figures of 8 percent might make the electorate angry. We are now close to 10 percent with little signs of widespread outrage. This might change with time because the current recession has resulted in unemployment staying high for much longer than previous recessions. I am sure that all of us personally know people who have been laid off and are finding it hard to get work comparable to what they did before.

Next: What is gained by cooking the books?

POST SCRIPT: The Big Brother state

A truly disturbing post from Glenn Greenwald on the assault on our privacy by a government-private sector collaboration, done in order to circumvent laws. I will not excerpt it because you should really read the whole thing.

[UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald has posted an update that the claims of Project Vigilant are highly exaggerated and they may just be publicity seekers.]

August 03, 2010

Cooking the economic books

In yesterday's post I discussed the different measures labeled U-1 through U-6 that are used to measure the rate of unemployment. Kevin Philips, in an interesting article titled NUMBERS RACKET: Why the economy is worse than we know in the May 2008 issue of Harper's magazine, points out how the 'official' unemployment rate U-3 masks the true state of affairs.

In January 2008, the U-4 to U-6 series produced unemployment numbers ranging from 5.2 percent to 9.0 percent, all above the "official" number [U-3]. The series nearest to real world conditions is, not surprisingly, the highest: U-6, which includes part-timers looking for full-time employment as well as other members of the "marginally attached," a new catchall meaning those not looking for a job but who say they want one. Yet this does not even include the Americans who (as Austan Goolsbee puts it) have been "bought off the unemployment rolls" by government programs such as Social Security disability, whose recipients are classified as outside the labor force.

If you want a rule of thumb, the 'real' rate of unemployment (i.e., U-6), which would (and should) include so-called 'discouraged' workers, 'marginally attached' workers, and workers who are forced to work part-time for economic reasons, would be roughly twice the officially reported unemployment rate (U-3). So currently the figure would be close to 20%.

Phillips says that these multiple measures of unemployment were introduced over time, giving the public the impression that the number of unemployed is smaller than it really is, a phenomenon that has been labeled as 'Pollyanna Creep' in unemployment. The process began in the early 60s in the Kennedy administration, which decided to take the out-of-work people who had stopped looking for jobs for whatever reason (even if it was for relevant reasons like no jobs were there to be found) out of the unemployed category and put them in the category of 'discouraged workers', thus lowering the unemployment figures. Reagan inflated the size of the labor force by including the military in it, again effectively reducing the unemployment rate without any substantive gains. Bill Clinton added to the manipulation by making the unemployment sampling size smaller by dropping a disproportionate number of inner city households and changing the formulas to produce lower black unemployment.

But it was not only unemployment figures that have been manipulated to provide a rosier picture of the nation's economic health. Successive governments have also manipulated other key economic indicators such as the Consumer Price Index (CPI) (that measures the rate of inflation) and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (which should reflect the size of the economy).

You would think that measuring the CPI would be simple and straightforward. You take some year as the baseline for calculating the cost of a basic basket of goods and services that people need to live (rent/mortgage, food, energy, clothing, etc.) and then calculate how the total cost of that basket changes over time. Basically the same idea as goes into stock market indices like the Dow Jones or S&P. But what governments do when the CPI number comes out too high is change the formula to make it smaller.

One method of lowering the CPI is by product substitution. If the price of an item in the original basket of goods (say a particular cut of meat) gets more expensive, it is assumed that people shift to a lower cost item (say ground beef). So by changing an item in the basket to a cheaper one, the CPI is lowered. Another finagle is changing the product weighting. If one item gets too high it is assumed that people buy less of that and more of the cheaper items in the basket, again reducing the CPI. There is also something called the hedonistic adjustment which assumes that improvements in the quality of products and services reduces the effective cost of goods.

In other words, the basket of goods and the way of measuring its cost is not kept constant but keeps changing. One might be able to make the case that such changes are meaningful since they reflect reality (after all people do change their buying habits based on cost) except that Phillips says that the changes are always in the direction of lowering costs, thus reducing the CPI, and never the other way around, which is what makes it a boondoggle. When conditions get better and people feel flush, ground beef is not replaced with steak in the CPI basket, though that too reflects reality.

There are other methods of disguising the CPI. Richard Nixon created a new category called the 'core' inflation rate that was arrived at by excluding things like food and energy that were creating high inflation rates in his time. In other words, he removed from the inflation index those things that were the main causes of inflation, a neat trick. This figure is still reported. Ronald Reagan finagled the housing rent component in the CPI to reduce its impact on inflation. The administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton continued this practice.

Next: Other fiddles

POST SCRIPT: Boom times for the oligarchy

Because of loss of employment and income, increasing numbers of people are using up the money they had set aside for retirement to stay afloat now, which makes the idea of raising the retirement age even more pernicious. Meanwhile, employers have been taking advantage of the recession to squeeze workers even more to increase their profits. As Bob Herbert says, "The recession officially started in December 2007. From the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2009, real aggregate output in the U.S., as measured by the gross domestic product, fell by about 2.5 percent. But employers cut their payrolls by 6 percent. In many cases, bosses told panicked workers who were still on the job that they had to take pay cuts or cuts in hours, or both. And raises were out of the question… the carnage that occurred in the workplace was out of proportion to the economic hit that corporations were taking." He quotes professor Andrew Sum who studies labor issues saying that what is unprecedented now is that "At the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go down by $122 billion."

So times are booming for the oligarchy who not only are doing well while most of the country isn't, they also delight in flaunting their wealth, as epitomized by the Clintons reportedly spending anywhere in the range of one to five million dollars on their daughter's wedding. Paul Craig Roberts points out that the Clintons did not start out in life rich and spent most of their lives in government jobs. He asks us to ponder whose interests they were serving while in government that has enabled them to reap such rich rewards now. He raises a similar question about England's Tony Blair's newly acquired wealth.

August 02, 2010

Calculating unemployment levels

In a previous post, I said that "One of the things that seems obvious to me but most people seem unaware of is that the US is a country in deep decline and if no corrective action is taken soon it will end up just like many other failed empire in history, collapsing from within due to a combination of hubris, arrogance, and greed." Readers might have been excused for being somewhat skeptical since things don't seem so dire and we hear upbeat reports about how things are getting better. In the next series of posts I will show how the real state of the economy is being kept hidden to make things look good, or at least not terrible.

In any democratic society, the most sensitive number politically is the level of unemployment. If it is high, then one has public unrest and strong dissatisfaction with the government. If it is low, then workers can bargain for better wages and benefits and so the business sector's profits get reduced, which makes corporate CEOs and their shareholders unhappy. In oligarchic societies like the US, the needs of the corporate sector always win out so governments tend to pursue policies that prevent full employment while simultaneously taking steps to curb public unhappiness by either giving them some benefits temporarily to help them get used to the idea of not working or hiding from them how bad the situation is.

In the US it is the Bureau of Labor Statistics that keeps track of unemployment numbers. In the current recession, the 'official' unemployment level has reached close to 10% and is staying there despite stimulus packages and the like. This is high by historic US standards and it is surprising that it has not created as much unrest as one might expect. But what people may not know is that the 'real' rate of unemployment is much higher, maybe twice as much, and that the lower official figure is the result of a steady process of cooking the books over the past few decades.

The unemployment rate is calculated as the number of unemployed workers divided by the total labor force, and the resulting number is multiplied by 100 to get a percentage. (The definitions of employed, unemployed, and total labor force is given here.) By finding ways to make the numerator smaller and/or the denominator larger, one can make the rate smaller. To be counted among the unemployed, one has to meet fairly strict criteria:

Persons are classified as unemployed if they do not have a job, have actively looked for work in the prior 4 weeks, and are currently available for work. Actively looking for work may consist of any of the following activities:

  • Contacting: an employer directly or having a job interview; public or private employment agency; friends or relatives; a school or university employment center
  • Sending out resumes or filling out applications
  • Placing or answering advertisements
  • Checking union or professional registers
  • Some other means of active job search

Passive methods of job search do not have the potential to result in a job offer and therefore do not qualify as active job search methods. Examples of passive methods include attending a job training program or course, or merely reading about job openings that are posted in newspapers or on the Internet.

There are categories other than employed and unemployed. 'Marginally attached' workers are "persons without jobs who are not currently looking for work (and therefore are not counted as unemployed), but who nevertheless have demonstrated some degree of labor force attachment. Specifically, to be counted as "marginally attached to the labor force," individuals must indicate that they currently want a job, have looked for work in the last 12 months (or since they last worked if they worked within the last 12 months), and are available for work."

'Discouraged workers' are "a subset of the marginally attached. Discouraged workers report they are not currently looking for work for one of four reasons:

  1. They believe no job is available to them in their line of work or area.
  2. They had previously been unable to find work.
  3. They lack the necessary schooling, training, skills, or experience.
  4. Employers think they are too young or too old, or they face some other type of discrimination.

Depending on which categories of workers you count as unemployed, there are six measures of unemployment:

  • U-1: Persons unemployed 15 weeks or longer, as a percent of the civilian labor force
  • U-2: Job losers and persons who completed temporary jobs, as a percent of the civilian labor force
  • U-3: Total unemployed persons, as a percent of the civilian labor force (this is the 'official' unemployment rate that the government and media publicize)
  • U-4: Total unemployed persons (i.e., U-3) plus discouraged workers, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus discouraged workers
  • U-5: Total unemployed persons, plus discouraged workers (i.e., U-4) plus all other "marginally attached" workers, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all "marginally attached" workers
  • U-6: Total unemployed persons, plus all "marginally attached" workers (i.e., U-5) plus all persons employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all "marginally attached" workers

So if a member of the 'officially' unemployed gets so discouraged that he/she stops even looking for work (which is a bad thing), U-4 remains unchanged but the official unemployment rate U-3 actually goes down, which looks like a good thing. Similarly, if you are forced to work part-time as a greeter at Wal-Mart because you cannot get a full time job, you drop out of the U-3 category (again reducing the official unemployment rate) but the U-6 figure remains unchanged.

Looking only at the U-3 number makes things seem rosier than they really are.

Next: Cooking the books on the unemployed.

POST SCRIPT: Film review: Up in the Air

This film is really good. It stars George Clooney as someone whom companies hire to perform the distasteful task of firing their employees and getting them to accept the severance package. The film shows the varied reactions of people upon learning that despite having put in many years of faithful service, they are now being unceremoniously dumped by a total stranger. Their emotions range over sad and angry and humiliated and despair, the last one especially common among older workers who know that their chances of ever getting another job are slim to none.

Clooney is this generation's Cary Grant, a good-looking charmer with a roguish twinkle in his eye who can make even an unsavory character appealing. In this film he plays someone who is really good at doing what should be a truly nasty soul-killing job and even takes pride in doing it well. Like a lot of us guys, he has set his heart on achieving some quite pointless goal in life, in his case to rack up 10 million frequent flyer miles, which he pursues with great dedication. And yet he manages to make this shallow person come off as sympathetic and even likable. Writer-director Jason Reitman seems to have a knack for pulling off this trick, having done it before with Thank You For Smoking, in which the main character is a shill for the tobacco industry.

The film's examination of the essential rootlessness of Clooney's character and the contrast with the strong ties in which the people he fires are enmeshed, is excellent. Although it is a serious film, it is also a funny one with great writing. It is well-worth seeing. Here's the trailer: