Archive for August, 2014

The Want of Peace by Wendell Berry

August 29, 2014

All goes back to the earth,


and so I do not desire


pride of excess or power,


but the contentments made


by men who have had little:


the fisherman’s silence


receiving the river’s grace,


the gardner’s musing on rows.



I lack the peace of simple things.


I am never wholly in place.


I find no peace or grace.


We sell the world to buy fire,


our way lighted by burning men,


and that has bent my mind


and made me think of darkness


and wish for the dumb life of roots.

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Funding government by court settlements

August 28, 2014

State governments in the USA get increasing amounts of revenue from court settlements from corporations accused of wrongdoing.  As The Economist reported, these settlements amount to big money.

So far this year, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and other banks have coughed up close to $50 billion for supposedly misleading investors in mortgage-backed bonds.  BNP Paribas is paying $9 billion over breaches of American sanctions against Sudan and Iran.  Credit Suisse, UBS, Barclays and others have settled for billions more, over various accusations.

Structured-SettlementsAnd that is just the financial institutions.  Add BP’s $13 billion settlement over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Toyota’s $1.2 billion settlement over alleged faults in some cars, and many more.  [snip]

Rhode Island’s bureaucrats have been on a spending spree courtesy of a $500 million payout by Google, while New York’s governor and attorney-general have squabbled over a $613 million settlement from JPMorgan.  [snip]

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, who is up for re-election, reportedly intervened to increase the state coffers’ share of BNP’s settlement by $1 billion, threatening to wield his powers to withdraw the French bank’s license to operate on Wall Street.  Why a state government should get any share at all of a French firm’s fine for defying the federal government’s foreign policy is not clear.

There are two ways of looking at this.  One is that federal prosecutors and state governments are shaking down corporations for minor offenses, much as local police and courts in communities such as Ferguson, Missouri, shake down residents for minor traffic offenses.  The other is that corporate officers are buying their way out of individual criminal liability at stockholders’ expense.

I think the second alternative is the more common, while The Economist writer apparently disagrees.  Whichever is the case, as state government becomes more dependent on corporate settlements for revenue, the more demand there will be for windfalls from future settlements.   If shakedowns aren’t common now, they will become so.  There is no good alternative to paying normal expenses of government through taxes.

The Economist’s writer is right to say that the big problem with these settlements is that they are made in secret.  Nobody knows the evidence against the corporations, and nobody knows what, if anything, they admitted to doing.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Tom Coburn have proposed a bill that would require the terms of the settlement to be made public, and for the prosecutors and regulators to write explanations of why the cases did not go to trial.   That would be a good start.

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Funding government by fines and penalties

August 28, 2014

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, I used to talk about rural justices of the peace whose incomes were drawn from the fines they levied.  You can’t have impartial justice when your judge as a financial incentive to find you guilty.  But I thought of this as an anachronism that soon would fade away.

I was wrong.  Fines, fees and confiscations have become an important source of governmental revenue.  Alex Tabarrok, an economist and blogger, came across a report by Arch City Defenders, a non-profit legal defense organization in the St. Louis area, that cites Ferguson as a prime example.  (Arch City’s words are in italics and Tabarrok’s in bold.)

Ferguson is a city located in northern St. Louis County with 21,203 residents living in 8,192 households. The majority 67% of residents are African-American…22% of residents live below the poverty level.

Fergusoncourthouse…Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

If you have money, for example, you can easily get a speeding ticket converted to a non-moving violation. But if you don’t have money it’s often the start of a downward spiral that is hard to pull out of.

For a simple speeding ticket, an attorney is paid $50-$100, the municipality is paid $150-$200 in fines and court costs, and the defendant avoids points on his or her license as well as a possible increase in insurance costs. For simple cases, neither the attorney nor the defendant must appear in court.

However, if you do not have the ability to hire an attorney or pay fines, you do not get the benefit of the amendment, you are assessed points, your license risks suspension and you still owe the municipality money you cannot afford….If you cannot pay the amount in full, you must appear in court on that night to explain why. If you miss court, a warrant will likely be issued for your arrest.

People who are arrested on a warrant for failure to appear in court to pay the fines frequently sit in jail for an extended period.  None of the municipalities has court on a daily basis and some courts meet only once per month.  If you are arrested on a warrant in one of these jurisdictions and are unable to pay the bond, you may spend as much as three weeks in jail waiting to see a judge.

Of course, if you are arrested and jailed you will probably lose your job and perhaps also your apartment–all because of a speeding ticket.

Arch City Defenders said motorists who drive through Ferguson are subject to the usual “driving while black” stops.  White people are 29 percent of Ferguson’s population (the percentage driving through would presumably be higher), but account for only 12.7 percent of stops by police.   Black drivers are twice as likely as white to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested, but fraction of white drivers with contraband, such as illegal drugs, is 50 percent higher than the fraction of blacks.

There are little quirks in the court system that mutiply the fines and penalties.  Courthouse doors are locked five minutes after the courts are scheduled to begin their sessions, so if a defendant is a little bit late, he or she will be locked out and fined for failing to appear for trial.   The public is excluded from trial proceedings, so somebody without child care available can be fined for child neglect if they leave their children outside.

In fairness to the good people of St. Louis County, Arch City Defenders found fault with only about 30 or so of the 60 court systems it observed, and only two others were as bad as Ferguson’s.  Even so, I don’t think Ferguson is unique.   Use of fines, penalties and confiscations to finance government, especially police, is increasing across the USA.   Increasingly state governments increasingly get big chunks of revenue from corporate settlements.

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A predatory business model based on lawbreaking

August 28, 2014

Predatory local governments are emerging in the USA, which get a large part of their revenues from fines and confiscations.   The law allows confiscation of property used in drug crime even if the property is not owned by the criminal and nobody has been convicted of a crime.  Other local governments make a practice extracting money from poor and vulnerable people for trivial offenses.  Evidently Ferguson, Missouri, is one of them.

They have a parallel in predatory corporations.   Credit card issuers, for example, get more profit from fees and penalties than they do from straight interest, event though interest rates are high.  The problem with this, as with predatory law enforcement, is that it is impossible to do this on a mass basis, and still follow due process of law.  If this was done, the courts would be overwhelmed.

The law says that if somebody owes you money, you have to get a judgement from a judge before you have the right to collect.  Before you get a judgment, you have to let your debtor know you’re going to court so they can present their side of the case.

If credit card companies and debt collection agencies actually did that, courts would be overwhelmed.   So they usually don’t.

The.Divide.Matt.TaibbiMatt Taibbi described the process in a chapter in his book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.  It is a counterpoint to his chapter on mass arrests of young black men on New York City, another high-volume business that would overwhelm the courts if police and prosecutors followed the law.

Most credit card companies, after a certain point, sell their bad debts to collection agencies for a few cents on the dollar.  The debt includes not only accumulated interest, but fees and penalties for late payment, and an extra penalty payment to the collection agency for its trouble.  But this only works if the collection agency can keep its expenses down.

Commonly collection agncies use “gutter service”.  Or they mail a postcard to an old address than may or may not be valid.  The going rate for process servers is $4 a notice, so they can’t be expected to put in much effort to track down the person.

It doesn’t matter to them if the notice is properly served or not.  If the debtor doesn’t appear in court, the creditor gets a default judgment.  Once the judgment is served, the collection agency has free rein to attach the person’s wages, seize their property and so on.

Taibbi’s chapter on credit card debt told a remarkable story about JP Morgan Chase’s sale of 23,000 court judgments to collection agencies.  A debt in which a court judgment already has been made is more valuable than just an IOU.  All the owner of the judgment has to do is to find you, and then collect.

The problem was that a lot of alleged judgments that weren’t valid—the judgment had been made, but later reversed, or the decision was pending, or, in a couple of cases, the court had ruled in favor of the debtor.  It’s Chase’s duty to have responsible bank officers check the documents and sign notarized statements that all is in order, but this wasn’t done.  Chase assigned hourly employees as “robo-signers” and they were later notarized by people who hadn’t witnessed the signing.

A compliance officer named Linda Almonte fired when she called this to management’s attention.  She was ignored when she called the problem to the attention of the SEC.   The judgments were sold to a company called DebtOne and went to courts all over the USA to be executed.

Only one judge, Philip Straniere of the Richmond County (NY) Civil Court on Staten Island (a Republican, by the way) bothered to look at the papers to make sure they were in order.   He vacated the 133 judgments, not because he was aware of any of the basic problems, but simply because the paperwork was so sloppy that it was impossible to tell whether they were valid or not.

Taibbi wrote that there are three ways a credit card collection case can turn out.   (1)  The debtor doesn’t respond, and the judgment is executed.  (2)  The debt admits the debt and pays it.  (3)  The debtor challenges the debt, in which case the collection agency usually backs off.  It is rate that the collection agency has the documentation to prove its case, or that the case is worth going to court to win.

I think credit card companies should cease promiscuously distributing credit cards to everyone and his dog (credit cards have been issued to dogs) and restrict them to borrowers who are solvent and good credit risks.  But if they’re not willing to do this, they should write off minor credit card losses as a cost of doing business.

Why don’t they do that?  Because the biggest profits to credit card companies come not from interest, but from fees and penalties.  A poor credit risk may generate more profit than a good credit risk.  Even if the debt is sold in the end for a few cents on the dollar, it will have generated a lot of profit in the meantime.

It is common to speak of abuse of government power and abuse of corporate power as if they were two different kinds of things.  Not so.  Abuse of government power for monetary gain, and abuse of corporate power backed by government, are two examples of the same thing.

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Does the Constitution protect corruption?

August 27, 2014

The Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that campaign contributions are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment.   On April 2, the Supreme Court ruled, in McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, that Congress does have the right to legislate against corruption in campaign financing, but, as Jill Lepore pointed out in an article in The New Yorker, only against certain forms of corruption.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion for the five-to-four majority. “The right to participate in democracy through political contributions is protected by the First Amendment, but that right is not absolute,” he began. 

040614newcoletoonCongress may not “regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics, or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others.”  But there is “one legitimate governmental interest for restricting campaign finances,” he explained: “preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

That said, the Court’s understanding of corruption is very narrow, Roberts explained, echoing a view expressed by Justice Anthony Kennedy in McConnell v. F.E.C., in 2003: “Congress may target only a specific type of corruption—‘quid pro quo’ corruption.”

Quid pro quo is when an elected official does something like accepting fifteen thousand dollars in cash in exchange for supporting another politician’s bid to run for mayor of New York.  The only kind of corruption that federal law is allowed to prohibit is out-and-out bribery.  The kind of political prostitution that the Moreland Commission was in the middle of attempting to document—elected officials representing the interests not of their constituents but of their largest contributors—does not constitute, in the view of the Supreme Court, either corruption or the appearance of corruption.

via Zephyr Teachout’s Anti-Corruption Campaign.

The Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption was appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in April, 2013, to investigate corruption in New York state.

The commission was given 18 months to do its work, but in March of this year, Gov. Cuomo shut it down.  He said it was supposed to investigate the legislative branch, not the executive branch.

In the meantime, the commission made a series of preliminary recommendations, including closing loopholes regarding limited liability laws, mandating disclosure of outside spending, instituting public finance and creating an independent election-law enforcement agency.

As Lepore noted, these recommendations, except maybe for public campaign financing, would have had little effect in the light of Citizens United and McCutcheon.

 Zephyr Teachout, who opposes Gov. Cuomo in the coming Democratic primary, is a law professor who says the Supreme Court’s decision is contrary to the intention of the authors of the Constitution.  Even if she’s right, this doesn’t change anything.

Maybe it is necessary to amend the Constitution, as was done after the Supreme Court ruled that slavery was protected by the Constitution and later when the Supreme Court ruled that a federal income tax was unconstitutional.

Theodore Roosevelt on politeness

August 27, 2014

TRpoliteness

Clothes really do make the (police)man

August 26, 2014

MAD

What you wear affects the way people perceive you.  I remember once somebody in one of these Robocop get-ups got on an elevator with me.  I smiled pleasantly and asked, “How’s it going?”  I found that there was a human being underneath the visored helmet and the other gear, and we had a brief but civil conversation.

What you wear also affects, in a mysterious way, the way you feel.  The time when I went through Army basic training was the first time I wore boots rather than shoes on a regular day-to-day basis.  I’m not an especially aggressive person, and I wasn’t back then, but there was something about wearing boots that made me feel that, if I wanted to, I could kick the world down.

Hat tip for the MAD magazine drawing to Bill Elwell.

Badges and guns: Links & comments 8/26/14

August 26, 2014

What I’ve Learned from Two Years of Collecting Data on Police Killings by D. Brian Burghart, editor of the Reno News and Review, for Gawker.

Killing of civilians by police is a serious national issue which is being covered up.  Nobody knows how many Americans are killed by polilce in a given year, still less what justification is given for them.  No doubt some of them, and maybe most of them. were necessary to protect human life.  But this information ought be available.  Police are the servants of the people, not their masters.

What Black Parents Tell Their Sons About the Police by Jasmine Hughes for Gawker.

Whatever the number of Americans killed by police in any given year, it is no doubt less than the number who die from other specific causes, such as auto accidents.  That is not the issue.  The issue is that so many law-abiding Americans, especially black Americans, live in justified fear of the police.

What I Did After Police Killed My Son by Michael Bell for Politico.

This is not just a problem of black people.  Michael Bell’s blonde, blue-eyed son was shot in the head by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, with his hands handcuffed behind his back.  He campaigned successfully for a law calling for independent investigations of all killings by police.   That’s a good law.  So would be a law requiring videotaping of police interactions with the public.

Militarized cops’ scary new toys: The ugly next frontier in “crowd control” by Heather Digby Parton for Salon.

The U.S. military is developing new technologies for crowd control, which no doubt will soon be available to police departments.   As Parton pointed out, they are designed for use against unarmed or poorly-armed crowds.  What does this say about how the military, and the police, see their mission.

 

Ferguson and the loss of social trust

August 26, 2014

Brian Kaller is an American who grew up near Ferguson, MO, and now lives in rural Ireland.  This is from a good article he wrote for The American Conservative.

When my acquaintances here in Ireland see images of Ferguson, they marvel at the ordnance—here most police don’t even carry guns—but they also tell me Ferguson doesn’t look poor.  They grew up here when this country had a fraction of America’s wealth—again, GDP-per-capita—but also a fraction of its crime rate.  Like people in many countries or historical eras, they were poorer than Americans today, but also less fearful.

Why they weren’t afraid has many possible answers, but I can suggest a few.  Most people knew their neighbors, including local police, and that web of trust cushioned the weight of the world.  They enforced most community standards through social pressure, without police.  Young males were usually occupied with physical labor rather than mischief.  Guns were unknown except for hunting in season.

Most people had the skills and infrastructure to provide the rudiments of life or themselves, rather than being financially dependent on strangers.  People’s perception of each other was shaped by their interactions, rather than a sensationalist mass media.

I use traditional Ireland as an easy example, but you could say all the same things about most traditional societies, or most American communities as recently as several decades ago.  Such communities—poor but scraping by, close-knit, self-reliant—are the rule in human affairs; they are what normal looks like.

Most Americans I talk to live far from family and do not know or trust their neighbors.  Most went deeply into debt to afford an education, car or house, and must travel long distances to buy food or get to jobs.  Their economic relationships—the means of getting food, water, clothing, warmth, and shelter—are vertical, to strangers in distant and possibly unaccountable institutions, rather than horizontal, to others nearby.

via Ferguson Falls Apart.

What he wrote is true of me.  I grew up in the 1940s in a small town on the Potomac River in which nobody locked their doors, and, if you left something valuable on your front porch overnight, it would still be there in the morning.  Very few people were actually poor, but most of us had few material possessions by the standards of today.  My parents raised my brother and me in a house that is smaller than the one I now live in by myself.

While my memories of that era are happy memories, I don’t think African-Americans my age would feel the same.   Schools and many other public institutions in Maryland were segregated, and lynchings in the South went unpunished.   White police treated black people no better than they do now, if that.  Maybe family and community ties were stronger; I wouldn’t know.

Anyhow, that’s not what Kaller is writing about.  He is writing about why we white people feel the way we do.

This weak social infrastructure makes most Americans highly vulnerable to crime, and they know it. In working-class neighborhoods like Ferguson, neighbors look with dread at the violence and social breakdown of places like East St. Louis, and fear it coming to where they live.  [snip]

Fearful and mistrusting people respond in all kinds of counter-productive ways.  They move further and further away from urban centers, to places where they are even more isolated.  They absorb themselves in specialized media that appeals to their fears, and their preparations for emergencies tend to involve guns. They demand more and more from governments they trust less and less, and surrender legal rights to police that are (a) heavily armed, (b) frequently attacked, and (c) human. All of which could work out just fine, as long as nothing ever goes wrong.

via Ferugson Falls Apart.

I think that’s true.  Hat tip for the link to Rod Dreher.

Life in the wired society

August 25, 2014

Oral-B, a Procter & Gamble company, this year launched its SmartSeries Bluetooth toothbrush — an essential appliance for what the firm calls “the well-connected bathroom”.

It connects to your smartphone, where its app tracks brushing tasks: Have you flossed? cleaned the tongue? rinsed? And highlights areas of the mouth visualized on the phone screen that deserve more attention.

More importantly, as the toothbrush’s website proudly announces, it also “records brushing activity as data that you can chart on your own and share with dental professionals.”

What happens to that data — whether it goes to these dental professionals, or your insurance company, stays with you or is appended to your data already owned by Facebook and Google — is a controversial question.

via Evgeny Morozov: How much for your data?.

The principle of financialization is that if anything can be done, it not only can, but should be done for money, and that the only standard of value is monetary.  Technology in the service of financialization applies this to your personal life.  Any information about you that is worth knowing is worth selling for money.

Now if personal data is a financial asset and nothing else, the individual person should have the exclusive right to sell it, just as the individual person should have the exclusive right to sell his or her own blood.   But is this how we want to live?

The digitization of everyday life, and the rapaciousness of financialization, risk turning everything — genome to bedroom — into a productive asset. 

As Esther Dyson, a board member of 23andme, the leader in personalized genomics, said the company is “like the ATM that gives you access to the wealth locked within your genes”.

This is the future that Silicon Valley expects us to embrace: given enough sensors and net connections, our entire life becomes a giant ATM.  Those refusing this would have only themselves to blame. 

Opting out from the “sharing economy” would come to be seen as economic sabotage and wasteful squandering of precious resources that could accelerate growth.

Eventually, the refusal to “share” becomes tinged with as much guilt as the refusal to save or work or pay debts, with a veneer of morality covering up — once again — exploitation.

It’s only natural that the less fortunate, under the burden of austerity, are turning their kitchens into restaurants, their cars into taxis, and their personal data into financial assets. What else can they do?

For Silicon Valley, this is a triumph of entrepreneurship — a spontaneous technological development, unrelated to the financial crisis.  But it is only as entrepreneurial as those who are driven — by the need to pay rent — into prostitution or selling their body parts.

via Evgeny Morozov: How much for your data?.

 Hat tip for the link to Daniel Brandt.

Black Panthers and the Second Amendment

August 25, 2014

Back in 1967, members of the Black Panther Party in California decided to exercise their right to carry loaded weapons in public.  California at the time had an open-carry law.  You can probably guess what happened.

Politeness as a life strategy

August 24, 2014

One of the secrets of what success I had in 40 years as a newspaper reporter was this:  Trying to be as pleasant and helpful as I conveniently could to everyone I met.

ALittlePolitenessGoesALongWay-23618This was not altruism or even compassion, but enlightened self-interest.   I never knew when I might encounter that person again, and might need them for information or even for a handy quote.

If I did favors for people, however minor, they might remember if I ever asked them for something.  And if I built up a backlog of goodwill, this would give me a buffer when I wrote something that offended someone.

This was in keeping with the Gospel injunction to cast your bread upon the waters, in hope they will be returned to you.

Even if there wasn’t a payoff, being pleasant to people did not involve any sacrifice of anything of vital importance, and led to a more pleasant life for me than being quarrelsome or contentious would have.

I was reminded of this when I read an on-line essay, How to Be Polite, by a writer named Paul Ford who follows the same life strategy.

Sometimes I’ll get a call or email from someone five years after the last contact and I’ll think, oh right, I hated that person.  But they would never have known, of course.  Let’s see if I still hate them.  Very often I find that I don’t.  Or that I hated them for a dumb reason.  Or that they were having a bad day.  Or much more likely, that I had been having a bad day.

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things.  They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension.  They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing.  They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing.

The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same.  And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment.  I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy.  But it is.  Not having an opinion means not having an obligation.  And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.

via Medium.

I have a good friend who says that good luck comes to those who strike up conversations while standing in line.  What he meant was that the more you make connections with people, the more opportunities you are likely to hear about.   I think that’s true.

Unlike my friend, I still find it difficult to make small talk.  I wish I had known the following rule of thumb.

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Fyodor Dostoevksy on originality

August 24, 2014

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Correlation is not causation

August 23, 2014

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I found this when I came across the Spurious Correlations web site.

Henry Kissinger on the Ukraine crisis

August 22, 2014

My e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey called my attention an article by Henry Kissinger in the Washington Post last March about the Ukraine crisis.   It is still relevant.  Here are highlights.

Public discussion on Ukraine is all about confrontation. But do we know where we are going?  In my life, I have seen four wars begun with great enthusiasm and public support, all of which we did not know how to end and from three of which we withdrew unilaterally.  The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.  [snip]

Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger

Russia must accept that to try to force Ukraine into a satellite status, and thereby move Russia’s borders again, would doom Moscow to repeat its history of self-fulfilling cycles of reciprocal pressures with Europe and the United States.

The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. [snip]

A wise U.S. policy toward Ukraine would seek a way for the two parts of the country to cooperate with each other.  We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction.

Russia and the West, and least of all the various factions in Ukraine, have not acted on this principle.  Each has made the situation worse.  Russia would not be able to impose a military solution without isolating itself at a time when many of its borders are already precarious.  For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.

Click on To settle the Ukraine crisis, start at the end to read the whole article.

NATO and Ukraine: Links & comments 8/22/14

August 22, 2014

ENGLISH GRAPHIC - DER SPIEGEL 48/2009 Seite 47The Ukraine, Corrupted Journalism and the Atlanticist Faith by Karel van Wolferen, a respected Dutch journalist, for the Unz Review.

Van Wolferen thinks NATO has outlived its usefulness.  Once an alliance to protect western Europe from the Red Army, it is now, he wrote, a means by which the United States drags Europeans into wars that are none of their concern.

When NATO was created, Europe had not fully recovered from the devastation of the Second World War, and would not have been able to stop a Soviet invasion.   We had a great debate here in the United States about whether we wanted to make this commitment, or go back to our traditional isolationist ways.  We decided that safety lay in collective security against aggression.

These conditions no longer apply.  European nations are rich and prosperous, and well able to protect themselves.  We should gradually shift the burden of defending Europe to the Europeans themselves.  If Europeans differ from Americans about what their defense needs are, that is their decision to make.

NATO’s Eastward Expansion: Did the West Break Its Promise to Moscow? by Uwe Klubmann, Matthias Schlepp and Klaus Wiegrafe for Der Spiegel.

I always took it to be a fact that Secretary of State James Baker promised Mikhail Gorbachev that if the Soviet Union withdraw troops from eastern Europe, NATO would not expand eastward to fill the vacuum.  But the people concerned disagree on who said what.  Too bad for Russia that Gorbachev didn’t get Baker’s alleged promise in writing.

What Do the World Bank and IMF Have to Do With the Ukraine Conflict? by Frederic Mousseau, policy director of the Oakland Institute, for Inter Press Service.

Mousseau described a new report by the Oakland Institute, an independent think tank, that says World Bank and International Monetary Fund are demanding, in return for loans, that Ukraine impose austerity measures that will increase prices, lower wages, increase taxes and open up Ukraine’s rich farmland for acquisition by foreign corporations.

Ukrainians are trapped in a no-win situation.  Neither NATO, the World Bank, the IMF, the Russian Federation and their own crooked politicians and business oligarchs have their interests at heart.

The war in Ukraine: This is no time for proving your point by Olga Allyonova for Russia Behind the Headlines.

 A heartfelt plea for peace by a Russian journalist.

The white right of self-defense

August 21, 2014

When is the last time you heard of an armed black man killing an unarmed white man, and claiming he was justified because he was in fear of his life?

Afterthoughts about Ferguson

August 21, 2014
  • All the military gear given to the police in Ferguson, MO, has not enabled them to protect shopkeepers from looting, arson and rampaging mobs.  I hope it goes without saying that I do not think that being a victim of injustice entitles you to a free robbery.
  • The facts about the events leading to the killing of Michael Brown are more ambiguous than I originally assumed.   The shooting of unarmed young black men in the USA by police for no good reason is common.   I don’t claim to know exactly what happened in this particular case.
  • If Attorney-General Holder wanted to do something for racial justice, he could initiate proceedings to reclassify marijuana so that possession is not a federal drug crime.  Minor drug offenses are a major cause of the mass incarceration of young black men.

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Why so much military equipment to give away?

August 20, 2014

Why is it that the U.S. Department of Defense has so much surplus military equipment?  So much that they have no better use for it than to give it away to local police departments?

It is hard to believe that there have been so many radical improvements in armored personnel carriers, sniperscopes and the like that the old armored personnel carriers and sniperscopes have become obsolete.

Could it be that the DOD has a problem with its procurement process?  Could it be that DOD bureaucrats regularly order more equipment than they need in order to maintain their shares of the DOD budget?

I think the armed forces should be well-armed and well-equipped, but if they have more equipment than they know what to do with, then that is a problem.

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Death and protest in Ferguson

August 20, 2014

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The news coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, is like a generic racial conflict news story.

Police officer shoots unarmed black kid.  Police leak information indicating that the dead black kid was a bad person and the cop had reason to be scared.  The dead kid is unable to tell his side of the story.  Black people protest and maybe riot.  Public opinion is divided, based less on the facts than on whether your sympathies lie with a cop facing a scary black person, or a black person facing a scary cop.

This happens so often as to almost be routine.

It is true that every case is unique, that we the public are getting conflicting information, and that we may never know for certain what happened in the few minutes prior to Michael Brown being shot dead on the street.

As for myself, it would take a lot—A LOT—to convince me that a group of police had no better way to deal with an unarmed black person than to shoot him dead.

I do not claim to know whether Michael Brown was a nice young men headed for college, or a robber who stole cigars from a convenience store, but the worst case is not justification for a summary execution.

All this is a separate question from whether poor black people in general have bad attitudes (I’m sure a lot of them do) and also from the proper way for police to deal with protest and riot.  I think police have a responsibility to maintain order and prevent looting and destruction of property.  I also think that if you treat lawful protest as equivalent to riot, you increase the likelihood of riot.

Finally a question.  Ferguson reportedly is a city whose population is two-thirds black but yet has a white police force that is hostile to blacks.  How did this come to be?  Why hasn’t the black population of Ferguson been able to do something about this at the ballot box?

Even with all the difficulties being placed in the way of black people voting, this ought to be possible, and it would be a lot more effective way of achieving change.  If there is a reason why it isn’t possible, what is it?

§§§

Here are links to articles that, in my opinion, throw light on the situation.

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Our emerging, evolving new wildlife

August 19, 2014
Coy Wolf

Coy Wolf

For years I’ve been hearing reports of “coy wolves” in upstate New York—crossbreeds with the cunning of a coyote and the ferocity of a timber wolf.

The other day my friend Anne Tanner e-mailed me a link to a New York Times article that reports not only on coy wolves, but other kinds of new hybrid wildlife—for example, hybrids of polar bears and grizzly bears, known as grolar or pizzly bears.

And the coy wolves come in many different varieties, based on combinations not only of coyote and wolf genes, but also dog genes.

The writer gives many other examples of animal hybrids (the Canadian lynx with the American bobcat) but none so remarkable as the pizzly bear or coy wolf.

They are the result of changes in the natural environment caused by human action, driving or pulling animals out of their long-established territories and bringing previously separated species together.

Biologists once regarded hybridization as an evolutionary dead end.  Now they see it as one more way that living things adapt to a changing environment.

Maybe a thousand years from now, when World Wars One and Two are only remembered by specialists, historians will regard the emergence of new hybrid species as the signature event of the 20th century.

Rise of the machines: Links & comments 8/19/14

August 19, 2014

The Internet’s Original Sin by Ethan Zuckerman for The Atlantic.

The basic problem with the commercial Internet, according to this writer, is the use of advertising to finance Internet services.

Because an individual advertisement on the Internet has little impact, the value of advertising is based on the ability of the firm to target individuals who are interested in this particular product.  And the only way to do this is to gather data and use it to profile individuals.

Invasion of privacy is not a bug.  It is a necessary feature.  The reason it is necessary is that most people would rather give up their privacy than pay for Internet services.

Zuckerman thinks this is the reason that NSA surveillance is no big deal for most Americans.  We’re already accustomed to giving up our privacy.

He doesn’t have a good answer as to what to do about all this, and neither do I.

How We Imprison the Poor for Crimes That Haven’t Happened Yet by Hamilton Nolan for Gawker.

The science-fiction movie Minority Report imagined a world in which it was possible to predict when people would commit crimes and to arrest them before the crime occurred.  A predictive science of human behavior does not exist, but that does not stop people in authority from acting as if it did.

American courts are increasingly using what’s called “evidence-based sentencing” on which the severity of the sentence is based on a computer algorithm’s determination of the likelihood that the person will commit another crime.

In practice, what this means that that poor youth who grew up in a family without a father will get a worse sentence than a middle-class youth with access to psychiatrists and good job opportunities.

This is contrary to the basic principle of equal justice under law.   If you commit a crime, you should be punished for what you did, not for what somebody thinks you may do.

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Should the USA still be a nation of immigrants?

August 19, 2014

From the landing of the first British settlers in 1607 to the official closing of the American frontier in 1890, Americans have welcomed immigrants to help fill up our big, empty country.  One of the complaints against King George III in the Declaration of Independence was “… obstructing the laws for the naturalization of foreigners, refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither …”

The United States is still a nation of immigrants.  With about 5 percent of the world’s population, we receive about 20 percent of the world’s immigrants.  On average, at little over 1 million legal immigrants enter the USA each year.

My friend Bill Hickok sent me a link to the video above, in which Roy Beck of NumbersUSA questions whether we need 1 million new immigrants every year.   While much of the debate about immigration concerns what to do about unauthorized migrants, he questions the need for so many legal immigrants.

Immigrants do make a positive contribution to the United States.   Many of our greatest scientists (Albert Einstein) and entrepreneurs (Andy Grove of Intel) are immigrants or the children of immigrants.  With retirees living longer and the birth rate falling, the USA benefits from an increase in the working-age, taxpaying population.

Immigrants also help us Americans, who in general are not widely traveled, to understand and relate to other parts of the world.  This gives us an advantage over more insular nations, such as Japan.   Many immigrants have a stronger work ethic and closer family ties than some of us native-born Americans.

But there are costs to immigration as well as benefits.  New immigrants compete with citizens for jobs at a time when the long-term unemployment rate is high.  Competition for jobs can’t help but drive down wages, and this is true of computer programmers as well as fast-food servers.

Immigrants place demands on the U.S. health care and educational systems.  And of course not all immigrants are hard-working or law-abiding, and not all of them have the ability to function in American society.

In the video above. Beck focused on another aspect—whether immigration into the United States helps reduce world poverty.  His conclusion was that while 1 million immigrants a year have a big impact on the USA, they are too few to have much impact on the world’s 4 billion poorest people (remember, a billion is 1000 million).

He is right that the solution to world poverty is in the economic development of poor countries, not in immigration.  But immigration can help.  Remittances from the United States are important to the economies of Mexico and Central America.  Remittances to and from other countries—to Algeria from France, to Turkey from Germany, to the Philippines from the Gulf emirates, to Central Asia from Russia and so on—also are important.

Beck said poor countries would be better off if their most enterprising people stayed at home.  Maybe so and maybe not.  It seems to be that if these enterprising people had opportunities at home, they wouldn’t take the risk of moving to a foreign land.  And maybe they learn new skills that are useful at home.

I agree with his overall point that there is a limit to how many immigrants a nation can absorb and still preserve its economic system and its culture.   I don’t have an informed opinion on what the US limit should be.  What do you think?

We broke Iraq. Do we own it?

August 18, 2014
Kurdish Peshmerga in Kirkuk

Kurdish Peshmerga in Kirkuk

You break it.  You own it.

==The Pottery Barn Rule (per General Colin Powell)

Of all the arguments for sending troops back into Iraq, the most plausible (to me) is that we owe it to the Iraqi people—and in particular the Kurdish Iraqi people—to clean up the mess the original U.S. intervention created.

The people of Kurdistan and Baghdad would not be menaced by the would-be Islamic Caliphate (aka ISIS) if the U.S. invasion had not broken down orderly government in Iraq, and opened up an opportunity for these murderous fanatics.  So do we Americans not have a responsibility to fix the situation before we leave the Iraqis on my own.

But it was that very argument that led me, 10 years ago, to support the original invasion of Iraq.  I thought to myself that we Americans had supported Saddam Hussein in the first place.  Our government provided him with weapons, encouraged him to attack Iran and protected him from international sanctions when he used poison gas against the people of Kurdistan.   Then we turned against him, and waged a low-level war of blockade and bombing through the Clinton years.

So it seemed to me (wrongly) that by invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam, we could partly make up for the harm we had done to the Iraqi people.

And even now I sometimes think (wrongly) that the U.S.-led invasion would have worked out—

  • If the U.S. forces had recognized the local governments the Iraqi people spontaneously chose and worked with them, instead of installing puppets of U.S. choosing.
  • If the American authorities had not discharged the Iraqi army, had kept control of weapons and armories and had not allowed the country to disintegrate into anarchy.
  • If the United States had employed the Iraqi people in rebuilding their own country instead of turning Iraq into a vast cash cow for American contractors.
  • If Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had not excluded everybody in the government who knew anything about Iraq from the planning.

But when I think that, I am just fooling myself.  I am fooling myself when I think that the U.S. government had any goal in Iraq other than getting control of Iraq’s oil supply and establishing military bases on Iraq’s soil.

And even if American intentions were wholly good, democracy and freedom are not something that any country can give another country.  Every free country has to win and maintain freedom for itself.

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Hurtful words and deadly force

August 18, 2014

Every few months, it seems as if some celebrity athlete or entertainer gets caught saying something racist, and it seems as if some police officer or armed white person kills an unarmed young black man.

However you judge these things, making an offensive remark or having racial prejudice in your heart may be bad things, but they are not in the same category as taking a human life.

Yet so far as I can tell, the consequences of using deadly force are less than the consequences of saying hateful words.

How do you see it?