Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Reflections on Deep State America

July 30, 2015

“Thoreau” on Unqualified Offerings called attention to an article by Philip Giraldi in The American Conservative about a favorite topic of mine—the Deep Statethe hidden government that seems to operate no matter who wins the elections.

Consider for a moment how Washington operates.  There is gridlock in Congress and the legislature opposes nearly everything that the White House supports. 

quibvulturecitizenrydeepstateNevertheless, certain things happen seemingly without any discussion: Banks are bailed out and corporate interests are protected by law.  Huge multi-year defense contracts are approved.  Citizens are assassinated by drones, the public is routinely surveilled, people are imprisoned without being charged, military action against “rogue” regimes is authorized, and whistle-blowers are punished with prison.  The war crimes committed by U.S. troops and contractors on far-flung battlefields, as well as torture and rendition, are rarely investigated and punishment of any kind is rare.

America, the warlike predatory capitalist, might be considered a virtual definition of deep state.

via The American Conservative.

In many countries of Latin America and the Middle East, it is obvious that ultimate power rests with the military, working with an oligarchy of wealth.   Turkey is a good example, Giraldi wrote.  Such an alliance also exists in the United States.

America’s deep state is completely corrupt: it exists to sell out the public interest, and includes both major political parties as well as government officials.

1olPoliticians like the Clintons who leave the White House “broke” and accumulate $100 million in a few years exemplify how it rewards.   A bloated Pentagon churns out hundreds of unneeded flag officers who receive munificent pensions and benefits for the rest of their lives.

And no one is punished, ever. 

Disgraced former general and CIA Director David Petraeus is now a partner at the KKR private equity firm, even though he knows nothing about financial services.  More recently, former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell has become a Senior Counselor at Beacon Global Strategies.  Both are being rewarded for their loyalty to the system and for providing current access to their replacements in government.

What makes the deep state so successful? It wins no matter who is in power, by creating bipartisan-supported money pits within the system. 

Monetizing the completely unnecessary and hideously expensive global war on terror benefits the senior government officials, beltway industries, and financial services that feed off it. 

Because it is essential to keep the money flowing, the deep state persists in promoting policies that make no sense, to include the un-winnable wars currently enjoying marquee status in Iraq/Syria and Afghanistan.

via The American Conservative.

It will take more than a few individuals winning a few elections to root out this system.  It would take a strong and committed mass movement, embracing a majority of the American people, and astute leaders working over a long period of time.

I think it’s unlikely that the United States faces a danger of a military coup as in the movie “Seven Days in May” or in Chile in real life in 1973.  But there are other ways to topple an elected government.  The financial and national security elite have the power to create crises which the public will turn to them, and not the elected politicians, to solve.

Kevin Drum on the purpose of democracy

July 3, 2015

student-vote-democracy-word-cloud

When people tell me “this is a Republic, not a democracy,” my first question is who they think is entitled to rule over them.

I like the following observation by Kevin Drum of Mother Jones:

It’s true that humans are hairless primates who naturally gravitate to a hierarchical society, but there’s little evidence that “most humans” prefer non-democratic societies.  There’s loads of evidence that powerful elites prefer elite-driven societies, and have gone to great lengths throughout history to maintain them against the masses. Whether the masses themselves ever thought this was a good arrangement is pretty much impossible to say.

Of course, once the technologies of communication, transportation, and weaponry became cheaper and more democratized, it turned out the masses were surprisingly hostile to elite rule and weren’t afraid to show it.  So perhaps it’s not so impossible to say after all.

In fact, most humans throughout history probably haven’t favored “meritocratic” rule, but mostly had no practical way to show it except in small, usually failed rebellions.  The Industrial Revolution changed all that, and suddenly the toiling masses had the technology to make a decent showing against their overlords.  Given a real option, it turned out they nearly all preferred some form of democracy after all.

Which brings us to the real purpose of democracy: to rein in the rich and powerful.  Without democracy, societies very quickly turn into the Stanford Prison Experiment.  With it, that mostly doesn’t happen. 

That’s a huge benefit, even without counting free speech, fair trials, and all the other gewgaws of democracy. It is, so far, the only known social construct that reliably keeps powerful elites from becoming complete jackasses.  That’s pretty handy.

via Mother Jones.

The stupidity theory of organizations

June 13, 2015

This was originally posted on April 30, 2013.

dilbert1

Stupidity in big organizations is not a bug. It’s a feature. So say two scholars, Mats Alvesson of Lund University in Sweden and Andre Spicer of City University in England, in their recent paper, The Stupidity Factor in Organizations.

They say organizations need “functional stupidity,” which is a willful lack of recognition of the incompleteness of knowledge and a willful refusal to question the organization’s goals and policies. This builds confidence and loyalty which helps the organization to function smoothly.

Alvesson and Spicer discuss how managers use vision statements, motivational meetings and corporate culture as “stupidity management” to develop loyalty and suppress critical thinking. They discuss how employees use “stupidity self-management” to suppress doubt and get with the program.

In Herman Wouk’s novel, The Caine Mutiny, a recruit decides that the U.S. Navy is an organization designed by geniuses to be operated by idiots. When in doubt, he asks himself, “What would I do if I were a idiot?” That is a gross exaggeration, but an exaggeration of truth.

Managers want employees who are intelligent enough to carry out orders competently, but not so intelligent that they question the orders. Critical thinking creates friction that prevents the organization from running smoothly. Over time the organization’s tendency is eliminate that friction, and become more disconnected from reality.

You can see this in how Washington officials and journalists understand. They treat the processes of government, such as the 60-vote rule in the Senate or the revolving door between corporate and government employment, as if they were objective and unchangeable facts, like the laws of thermodynamics. They treat actual problems, such as unemployment or global climate change, as if they were matters of personal preference.

The trouble with ignoring reality is that sooner or later it catches up with you. Then crisis generates what Alvesson and Spicer call the “How could I have been so stupid?” syndrome.

Click on A Stupidity Based Theory of Organizations for a PDF of Alvesson’s and Spicer’s paper. If you read it with close attention, I think you will see the dry humor beneath their social science jargon.

Click on Understanding Organizational Stupidity for Dmitry Orlov’s summary of their paper and his comments.

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Public servants and hidden agendas

April 23, 2015

Public choice theory is the application of economic theory to political science.  It is about how government bureaucracies, which are created to serve a public purpose, change over time so that they serve the interests of the bureaucrats rather than the public.

This is something that in fact does happen, and it is a big problem.  But it is not unique to government.  It applies to armies, college faculties, priesthoods, labor unions, corporate management and any other kind of big organization, public or private.

It is possible to pass laws and regulations against corruption, but these laws and regulations will be ineffective unless most people have a moral compass that is backed up by public opinion.

A market economy is a good mechanism but it does not provide a moral foundation for society.  Future executives are taught in Economics 101 that they have no responsibility to society at large but only to their stockholders and that the impersonal workings of the free market will make everything come out all right.

But if the free market makes everything come out all right, why should they even bother about the stockholders?  Why should they not do what’s in their own self-interest regardless of the stockholders?

U.S. weapons go AWOL

March 27, 2015

Since 2007, the U.S. government has been sending sending military supplies to Yemen to help the government fight a rebellion there.   The Yemen government is collapsing, and the U.S. government has lost track of some of those supplies, including these.

U.S.-military-hardware-AWOL-in-Yemen-The-Washington-PostAs Peter Van Buren asked, how do you misplace a patrol boat?

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Our dying American democracy

March 23, 2015

Is the United States still a democracy?  Tom Engelhardt pointed out how the USA is evolving into something different.

1.  1% ElectionsPresidential election campaigns no longer begin with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries.   They begin with presidential candidates being screened by wealthy donors who determine which of them will have the wherewithal to run.

2.  The Privatization of the State (or the U.S. as a Prospective Third World Country).   “Crony capitalism” was a word that we Americans coined to describe the system in poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.  But now our own country public services are being handed over to well-connected individuals to be operated for private profit.

3.  The De-Legitimization of Congress and the PresidencyThe democratic branches of government are held in low esteem, and with reason.   Recent Presidents and congressional leaders have abdicated their Constitutional responsibilities.

4.  The Rise of the National Security State as the Fourth Branch of Government.  Secret branches of government decide national policy and expand their own powers without authorization of law.  People who reveal what they’re doing are subject to prosecution.

5.  The Demobilization of the American People.   Most Americans recognize that their government doesn’t really represent them.  But unlike in earlier eras, this discontent has not produced any mass movement to do something about it—at least not yet.

LINK

The New American Order: the 1% Elections, the Privatization of the State, a Fourth Branch of Government and the Demobilization of “We the People” by Tom Engelhardt for TomDispatch (via the Unz Review).   A powerful and accurate indictment.   My summary doesn’t do it justice.  I recommend you read the whole thing.

 

In 2015, expect civil unrest, disaffected police

January 1, 2015

The astute John Michael Greer, whose Archdruid Report is one of my favorite blogs, predicted that the most important trends in 2015 will be the disaffection of America’s police combined with continuing civil unrest.

He said the morale of American police is at the same state as that of the American forces in Vietnam in the 1970s.  Police feel they’ve been sent into a war they can’t win, and abandoned by the civilian authority that’s nominally their superior.

I think there’s truth to that, although it’s exaggerated.  Rank-and-file police officers did not invent the “broken windows” theory of policing, which is that the way to ensure civil order is to punish every violation, no matter how minor.  Nor are they the ones who decided that the way to finance municipal government in places such as Ferguson, Missouri, is to collect traffic fines from poor people.

civil-unrest-2016Revolutions generally occur when the police and the military cease to be willing to defend existing authority against rebels.

I think there is zero chance that the military or police would go over to the side of rioting black people or even peacefully protesting black people.  Armed resistance is not a feasible option for African-Americans in the present-day USA.

Effective resistance to civil authority, as I see it, would come from armed and organized militias, such as the group that formed around rancher Cliven Bundy in his fight with the federal government over grazing fees.   They defied federal and local police with loaded weapons, and were not met with deadly force.

I believe there is a real possibility that, as the U.S. economic plight worsens, resistance to government could grow and, as military and police morale decline, resistance to government would be tolerated until it became a real threat.

If things continue as they are in the United States, I believe there is bound to be an explosion.  And, given the history of violent revolution, I do not expect anything good to come from such an explosion.

∞∞∞

Here is John Michael Greer in his own words:

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Civil authority, the CIA and two scary thoughts

December 26, 2014

The basic principle of constitutional government is that any government agency or official authorized to use lethal force is subject to legitimate civilian authority.

Governments, according to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, are instituted so that people may enjoy their alienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and they derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

gallup.confidenceininstitutions

Click to enlarge.

If the police, the military or secret intelligence agencies become laws unto themselves, then they become the government, and so-called American freedom and democracy becomes a sham.

The greatness of George Washington was that he always followed the directives of the Continental Congress, however misguided he may have thought them to be, and that, after the success of the Revolution, he refused the temptation to make himself dictator and retired to Mount Vernon until called to public service by the people.

Washington’s decision, and the precedent he set, saved the infant USA from the fate of the new Latin American republics, whose military forces regard themselves as the ultimate authority and who think they have a right and duty to step in when the civilian authority falters.

Then there was Germany in 1919-1933, prior to the rise of Hitler, when the German General Staff set its own foreign and military policy in disregard of the elected government, which did not dare to challenge it.

Our Pentagon and CIA have come to be political forces in their own right, not defying the elected government but letting it be known that their views are not necessarily the views of the elected government.

John Brennan, the head of the CIA, openly disagrees with President Obama’s condemnation of torture, and the President has not reprimanded him.  Neither has he tried to dismiss torturers from government service.  He appears to argue with his appointment, but not to exercise his authority as commander-in-chief.

Why not?  One likely possibility is that the President is not sincere in his condemnation.  Another is that he does not believe the public would support him.

A Gallup poll indicates that the American public has more confidence in the military than in any other American institution, and less confidence in Congress than any other instituion.  Twice as many have confidence in the military than in the presidency.   It’s a bad sign for a democracy when the public has more confidence in the military than in the civilians it elected.

Here’s a scary thought.

Maybe the President fears that if he ordered the CIA to operate within the Constitution and the law, it would not obey.

Here’s a scarier thought.

Maybe the President already has ordered the CIA to operate within the Constitution and the law, and it did not obey.

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Citi’s open door in Washington

December 18, 2014

imrs

Senator Elizabeth Warren recently complained about Citigroup’s influence on the congressional budget and legislative process.   This chart from the Washington Post shows Citi has a strong voice in the executive branch as well.  So do Goldman Sachs and other big Wall Street firms.

Presidential powers and Constitutional limits

December 1, 2014

mehta-datalab-executiveorders1Hat tip for the chart to David Damico.

President Obama is accused by Republicans of exceeding his Constitutional authority by issuing an executive order to allow up to 5 million unauthorized immigrants who meet certain conditions to stay in this country.

An executive order is simply a directive by a President to federal departments or the armed forces to follow a policy.

With the increase in the size and scope of the federal government, executive orders become more and more necessary to make the government work.  But so does the need for checks and balances to prevent abuse of executive power.

The Constitutional authority to issue executive orders comes from provisions vesting the “executive power” of the U.S. government in the President, making the President commander-in-chief of the armed forces and ordering the President to make sure that the laws be faithfully executed.

The most far-reaching executive order in American history was the Emancipation Proclamation.   President Lincoln claimed power as commander-in-chief to order the confiscation of property of the enemy.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued more executive orders than any other President.  On the day he was inaugurated, he ordered the temporary closing of American banks.  Another executive order was to forbid American citizens to hoard gold coins or bullion.  FDR’s most infamous executive order was the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War Two.

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Obama-GOP compromise? I hope not

November 14, 2014

All ways in which President Obama and Republicans in Congress could reach agreement are bad for the American people.

All of President Obama’s initiatives that are good for the American people are unacceptable to the Republicans.

Bad for Americans, acceptable to Republicans

Pro-Business Trade Treaties

free-tradePresident Obama has pushed for new trade treaties that give foreign corporations the right to appeal for damages if countries pass laws that unjustly deprive them of profits.  Similar provisions in existing trade treaties have been used against environmental regulation, subsidies for renewable energy and financial regulation.  Proposed new treaties are believed to go further.

The proposed Trans Pacific Partnership agreement appears doomed, but the Trans Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (aka the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) and the Trade in Services Agreement might sneak in under the public’s radar.   Corporate American favors these treaties, so the GOP might go for them.

Weakening Social Security and Medicare

obama_cutsPresident Obama repeatedly proposed changing the formula for Social Security benefits and raising the age for Medicare, in exchange for modest tax increases on upper income brackets.  Even though the tax increases are off the table, Republicans might go for such a “grand bargain” on other issues.

Starting New Wars

Obama-and-DronesIf President Obama discovers some new threat that he says requires military intervention in a foreign country, the Republicans in Congress are sure to support him—short of actually voting authorization, which he says he doesn’t need anyway.  Likewise for new authority for surveillance, preventive detention, drone strikes, prosecution of whistle-blowers, etc.

Tar Sands Pipeline  [Added 11/15/14].

The Canadian government and Trans Canada corporation want to bring corrosive tar sands bitumen from northern Alberta to oil refineries in the United States.  Republicans in Congress are strongly in favor of this.  President Obama’s stand on the Keystone XL pipeline is uncertain, but federal regulators have already quietly approved the alternative Alberta Clipper pipeline.  Overall the President is a strong promoter of energy development, including hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

Good for Americans, unacceptable to Republicans

Climate Change

waronglobalwarming63-300x0President Obama says that he wants laws and regulations that limit the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.  A larger segment of the Republicans deny that human-caused climate change is even taking place, let alone that something should be done about it.

Immigration Reform

The only feasible immigration reform, as I see it, is some provision providing a path to citizenship for the millions of unauthorized immigrants already in this country.  I admit this is not good, but the alternatives are worse.

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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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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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The things that President Obama could do

August 18, 2014

butwewon'tThe excuse given by supporters of President Obama is that he is stymied by the Republican control of the House of Representatives and by Republican obstructionism in the Senate.   It is true that the congressional Republicans are determined to block the President’s programs by any legal means necessary.

But as Thomas Frank pointed out in his latest Salon article, there are many things the President could do on his own authority that would be both popular and beneficial to the nation.  They are:

Frank noted that Obama also could tell the Federal Communications Commission that Net Neutrality is the policy of his administrationHe could reclassify marijuana so that it is no longer a Class I narcoticHe could reform the federal contracting system so as to discourage outsourcing and promote good labor practicesHe could encourage whistle-blowers instead of punishing them.

So why doesn’t the President do any of these things?  It can’t be because he is worried about corporate donations for his next campaign.  He is not eligible to run again, so that is not a factor.

I see three possible explanations.  The most likely is that he genuinely believes in what he is doing.  My guess is that he thinks that the status quo, with some minor modifications to file off sharp edges, is the best that is possible in today’s world.

Another possibility is that he doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the kind of lucrative post-Presidential career that Bill Clinton enjoys.  And the third, which I think highly improbable, is that he is afraid, that the powers-that-be know some guilty secret or have some sort of leverage on him.

 

The American empire and its colonies

July 8, 2014

The United States of America consists of more than just 50 states.   This video describes the complex web of US colonies, territories and dependencies, all subject to taxation without representation.

If I were a citizen of Puerto Rico or Guam, I don’t think I would want to declare independence from the USA, and I don’t expect the inhabitants of these dependencies to do so.  But in the unlikely event that this happened, I would not advocate putting down the rebellion by means of armed force.

Hat tip for the video to Jack Clontz and his friend Marty.

Muzzled watchdogs: the IRS and the SEC

July 3, 2014

chart-federal-tax-gap-4.top

Bernstein_IRS_combo

About $385 billion in U.S. taxes goes unpaid every years, according to the Internal Revenue Service.   That’s equal to about 11 percent of the federal budget.

The IRS ought to have enough enforcement staff to collect that money, but the opposite is happening.   The IRS budget is down 14 percent since fiscal 2010, and it has 11 percent fewer employees.  Staff specifically assigned to enforcement is down 15 percent.

President Obama proposes a modest increase in budget and staff, but not enough to get the IRS back up to 2010 levels.  Republicans in the House of Representatives want to cut the budget even more.   Meanwhile the IRS has important new responsibilities—administering the tax credit provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and implementing the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which is intended to stop tax evasion in foreign tax havens.

I don’t like paying taxes, and probably you don’t either.  But I pay what I owe.  If others don’t pay what they owe, then either people like me have to make up the difference or the amount is put on the national credit card for future generations to pay.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is another muzzled government watchdog.  It never has exercised its authority to require corporations to reveal political contributions, as part of their required disclosure to investors.  Mary Jo White, a Democrat who chairs the SEC, never put this on the agenda.

Last week the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee reported out the annual SEC budget.  One provision of the bill bars the SEC from making a political disclosure requirement.   So a way to monitor corporate power is being shut off before most Americans realize it exists.

LINKS

Why the GOP really wants to de-fund IRS by Jared Bernstein for The Washington Post.

Why is Washington still protecting the secret political power of corporations? by Alexis Goldstein for The Guardian.

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The passing scene: Links & comments 6/26/14

June 26, 2014

The World’s Most Important Spectator by David Bromwich for the London Review of Books.  Hat tip to Naked Capitalism.

Obama roots for the good cause but often ends up endorsing the acceptable evil on which the political class or the satisfied classes in society have agreed.  He watches the world as its most important spectator.

This is an excellent account not only of President Obama’s second term, but the current American political scene.  Strongly recommended.

Obama’s ‘drone memo’ is finally public.  Now show us the library of secret law by Jameel Jaffer for The Guardian.  Hat tip to Naked Capitalism.

 The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that one of the defining characteristics of a totalitarian government is that it has secret laws.   The Obama administration claims authority to wage war and issue death warrants based on secret legal rulings.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times forced the administration to release the 41-page legal memo that justified the killing of Anwar al-Alwiki, an anti-American U.S. citizen, in Yemen.   The first 11 pages, listing what al-Alwiki was accused of doing, are blacked out, all the footnotes are blacked out, and many other references throughout the memo also are blacked out.

What this indicates is that there are other secret legal memos claiming who-knows-what powers for the President.   The administration’s lawyers decide what powers President Obama has, and the rest of us are not allowed to know, let alone dispute, what these powers are.

Cross-national intelligence and national democracy by Henry Farrell for Crooked Timber.  Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.

International cooperation between secret intelligence agencies puts them beyond the reach of their national governments.   It may be illegal for the National Security Agency to spy on Americans and General Communications Headquarters to spy on Britons, but there is nothing to prevent the NSA from spying on Britons and the GCHQ from spying on Americans, and passing the information along.

A Secret Plan to Shut Down Social Security Offices and Outsource Its Work by Richard Eskow of Campaign for America’s Future.

Social Security offices, like post offices, are located on prime real estate.   There are big profits to be made by someone if this real estate is sold off at bargain prices.  And also profits to be made in replacing civil servants with contractual on-line services.

I have no way of knowing whether this is what the Social Security administration has in mind, but I do know that shutting down offices will in no way benefit senior citizens.

To the Woman Behind Me in Line at the Grocery Store by Andrea Gardner for The Blog.  Hat tip to Rod Dreher.

Never pass up an opportunity to perform an act of kindness.

Iraq, spies, defense: Links & comment 6/21/14

June 21, 2014

Is Iraq Actually Falling Apart? What Social Science Surveys Show by Mansoor Moaddel for Informed Comment.

Public opinion polls indicate that a majority of Iraqis oppose a breakup of their country, and that they think of themselves as Iraqis first and Sunni and Shia second.   They desire a government that will work for the good of the nation and follow the wishes of the people more than they want a government that follows religious law.  A majority of Iraqi Sunni Arabs, but not of Iraqi Shiite Arabs, believe that religion should be separate from politics.

In other words, most Iraqis want for their country the same things that I want for the USA.  The Iraqis might have a stab at getting it if not for foreign interference.  A majority of Iraqis think of both Americans and Iranians as bad neighbors.

Who has the power to give the Iraqis what they want?  If anyone, it is not Barack Obama.  It is the wise Iraqi leader, the Ayatollah Sistani.   Remember that it was peaceful demonstrations led by Sistani that pressured the American occupation authorities to allow elections in Iraq.

Cross-national intelligence and national democracy on Crooked Timber.

I have written before that multi-national corporations, and the international agencies such as the WTO and IMF, are the closest thing there is to a world government.  But there is another candidate, which is the world’s interlocking intelligence agencies.

My idea of the mission of an intelligence agency is to discover the military secrets of foreign governments.  But in the present day, intelligence agencies co-operate across national borders to spy on their own citizens.  The German BND can’t legally spy on German citizens, but the U.S. NSA can legally do so and share information with the Germans, while the British GCHQ can legally share information about American citizens with the NSA.

The danger of this is that the intelligence agencies have their own political goals, which are not necessarily what the people of their respective countries want, and, so long as they operate behind a veil of absolute secrecy, there is no way of reining them in.

Why Is the Defense Department Buying Weapons With Chinese Parts Instead of US Parts? by Victoria Bruce for TruthOut.

The reason is that many high-tech components depend on “rare earths,” a raw material that China produces and that the United States could produce but doesn’t.  The deeper reason is that the big U.S. military contractors also do business with China, and don’t want to disturb that relationship.

Fukushima’s Ongoing Fallout: an unprecedented radiation disaster by John LaForge for CounterPunch.

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Will Social Security be Internet-only service?

June 18, 2014

I like the Internet.  The power to go on-line has enriched my life in so many ways that I feel at a loss when Internet service temporarily shuts down.   What I dislike is the attempt to shut down alternatives to the Internet, which is becoming more and more common in American life.

Wait times on customer-service phone lines have been made so long that you are virtually forced to go on-line.   Book distributors are pushing to replace physical books with Kindle and Nook.  There are even people who seriously propose to get rid of currency and coins, and require all financial transactions be conducted through credit cards, debit cards or otherwise on-line.

socialsecurity.govThe latest example is the Social Security Administration.  Its Vision 2025 plan is to close most of its 1,200 field offices, allow its work force to shrink by 30,000 through attribution and serve clients through “on-line service delivery” rather than face-to-face contacts with human beings.

This follows a widespread business and government model of achieving cost savings and administrative convenience by degrading the quality of service.

People who depend on Social Security for their income probably can’t afford Internet connections, and many people of the Social Security generation aren’t at home with computers.   When I signed up for Social Security nearly 16 years ago, I was pleased at the helpfulness of the woman I talked to.   I would not have wanted to try to communicate with a software algorithm.

The Obama administration apparently is willing to adopt, or at least tolerate, a policy that is bad for two core Democratic constituencies, senior citizens and union workers, and benefits nobody except the high tech companies that will get the contracts to provide this service.

I predict that if this policy is adopted, it will be used by opponents to Social Security as evidence that government can’t work, and that Social Security should be privatized.

LINK

The Biggest Change to Social Security You’ve Never Heard About by J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, for Huffington Post.  Hat tip to Jack Clontz.

How to discredit government

May 27, 2014

There is a tried and true way to prove that government can’t do anything right.

You campaign successfully for office.  Then you deny the government agencies you’ve targeted sufficient funds to do the job (as with the Veterans Administration) or add requirements they can’t meet (as with the US Postal Service) or appoint incompetent managers (as with FEMA under the Bush administration).  Sit back and watch your victims struggle.   Give the predictable failure as a reason for abolishing the program or turning it over to for-profit business.

This is as old a technique as the Biblical story of Pharaoh ordering the Hebrew slaves to make bricks without straw.

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Disabled veterans deserve better from USA

May 26, 2014

3.ZjgNh3FelFUThe Veterans’ Administration scandal is more than individual mismanagement and bureaucratic coverup.   It is also that the VA doesn’t have enough money to keep up with the increasing number of severely disabled veterans.

CNN reported that veterans are being forced to wait more than the 14-day maximum set by President Obama, and that many VA hospitals have covered this up by keeping veterans’ names off the official waiting list until they could meet the deadline.  At one hospital, CNN reported, 40 veterans died while waiting to be treated.

Note: This figures are not adjusted for inflation

Note that these figures are not adjusted for inflation

There is no excuse for this, any more than there is an excuse for high school teachers and administrators falsifying student test results.  But when you have a bureaucracy that says your career depends on meeting impossible numerical goals, and you lack an independent means of checking results, there will be cheating.  It is not justifiable, but it is predictable.

Memorial Day was originally a holiday to honor the Union soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the Civil War.   Because of medical advances, a smaller percentage of troops die now than died then on the battlefield and in military hospitals afterward.   The ironic result is that a higher percentage survive to live with the mutilations and amputations of war.

2.t0lGEo8cPEIThe Washington Post reported that the percentage of veterans applying for disability benefits is the highest on record.  I don’t believe this is because this is because (or at least not mainly because) of malingerers.  I think the higher disability rate reflects a higher survival rate.

Mismanagement and coverups in the Veterans Administration are wholly the fault of the Obama administration.  Lack of sufficient funds to do the job is the responsibility of both the administration and of Congress, and the congressional Republican budget hawks in particular.

It is right and fitting that we honor our war dead with parades and flag ceremonies on Memorial Day, but it should not stop there.  We honor our dead when we pay our debt to the living.

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The unbreakable rule about insiders

May 13, 2014

In the spring of 2009, Elizabeth Warren, then chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), was taken to lunch by Larry Summers, then director of the National Economic Council and a top adviser to President Obama.

Summers, … … she recalls, told her that she had a choice to make. She could be an insider or an outsider, but if she was going to be an insider she needed to understand one unbreakable rule about insiders: “They don’t criticize other insiders.”

The quote is from a review of Senator Warren’s autobiography, A Fighting Chance, by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker.  The whole review is well worth reading. Click on Reading Elizabeth Warren to read it.

Why does Obama hire so many from Citibank?

May 5, 2014

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Writers for Politico have noticed that President Obama has filled many key positions in his administration with employees or ex-employees of Citibank and its parent, Citigroup.

Now I don’t think that merely having worked for Citibank is a disqualification for a job in the federal government.   And if you have to fill positions with employees of Wall Street financial firms, Citibank has a clean record compared to Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and some of the others.

Nevertheless Citibank was one of the failed banks that had to be bailed out by the government.  If the Obama administration were serious about reforming Wall Street, it would not be filling its ranks with a network of people who are part of the problem.

Even assuming good faith, a person who created a mess is not the best person to clean up the mess, because that person usually will be more concerned about justifying past actions than solving the problem.

The excuse given for hiring so many Wall Street financiers is that no outsider has the necessary expertise.  So the obstacles to reform are not only “too big to fail” and “too big to jail”, but “too complicated to understand”.

LINKS

The Citigroup Clique: Why is Obama appointing so many former employees of one Wall St. bank? by Senator Elizabeth Warren for Politico.

Citi on the Potomac by Kate Davidson and M.J. Lee for Politico

USA: weak democracy, powerful ‘deep state’

March 3, 2014

Mike Lofgren, a former congressional staff member with top secret clearance, says there are two levels of government in the United States — a democratic government which is increasingly unable to pay for its normal operations, and a “deep state” with virtually unlimited funds to wage undeclared wars.

Republican opposition in Congress prevents President Obama from filling numerous vacancies in the federal courts and the federal bureaucracy.  Yet there is no check on the President’s drawing up death warrants to be executed by killer drones or special ops teams or authorizing covert interventions in foreign civil wars.

The U.S. government is unable to afford to keep bridges on interstate highways in good repair, and there is continual talk of cuts in Social Security and Medicare.  Yet the same government can somehow afford to build a $1.7 billion facility in Utah covering an area of 17 footballl fields with the capacity to store the electronic communications of all Americans – the equivalent of a million sets of a billion volumes each containing a billion pages of text.

Lofgren said the reason for the disparity is that there are functions of government that the normal democratic process does not get at.   These are found in the National Security Council, the Departments of Defense, State, Homeland Security and Justice and the Central Intelligence Agency, in private contractors who serve them and in a couple of federal courts where national security cases are tried, plus a handful of Senators and Representatives who are allowed a limited look at these operations.

It also includes the Treasury Department and the biggest Wall Street banks and brokerage firms, which finance the national security state and in return receive support for their political agenda and immunity from federal prosecution.  And it includes key Silicon Valley firms who provide the technology that enables contemporary surveillance and war and in return receive support for their political agenda.

Lofgren talked about this in an interview with Bill Moyers, shown above, and in an article written for Moyers.  Click on Anatomy of the Deep State to read Lofgren’s article.  It is well worth reading.

‘Seeing Like a State,’ the NSA and Big Data

February 10, 2014

 MGI-Big-Data-Volume-and-Value-Infographips

I’ve long admired James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which describes the history of the modern world as a history of governments collecting more and more information about the people and communities they ruled, and of how they mistake information for understanding, often with disastrous results.

Ancient and medieval kings and emperors collected tribute from the people they ruled, but they often knew little about them.  In order to more efficiently collect taxes, draft people into armies, mobilize economic resources and also carry out reforms, it was necessary for rulers to identify their subjects and collect basic information.

It is for that reason that there is a record of my name and address, my age and birthplace, the size and value of my house, the boundaries of my property, what kind of automobile I own, the amount and sources of my income and much else.  This has advantages in that this knowledge enables governments and corporations to provide me services that could not have been available in an earlier age, and provide them more efficiently.

As Scott pointed out, the problem is that the picture that governments have about their subjects (or, for that matter, corporations have about their employees and customers) represents a simplification of reality, and, when they act on that simplified information, trouble results.

The culminations of this process are the Surveillance State and corporate Big Data.  Government intelligence agencies will have information not only on what I own, where I go, what I earn and how I earn it, but details of my personal life from which inferences can be drawn about my tastes, thoughts and feelings.  Some of these inferences will be drawn by computer algorithms, like the one used select targets for flying killer drones in remote areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

The power of intelligence agencies to gather information about individuals is greater than ever, and yet this information has not prevented the defeat of the U.S. military nor the growing appeal of Al Qaeda.  The date gathered by U.S. corporations about customers and employees is more extensive than ever, and yet this does not (so far as I can see) result in excellent customer service or excellent employee relations.  Misunderstandings about.  People are put on “no fly” lists for no apparent reason.  Banks foreclose on people with paid-up mortgages.

Knowledge is power and power corrupts.  But the worst corruption is the exercise of absolute power based on the illusion of knowledge.  What is needed is to reverse the polarity of surveillance—to make the inner workings of government and corporations at least as legible to the citizens as the other way around.

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