Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

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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The Postal Service came through on Christmas

January 5, 2014

The following from Business Week shows why Americans need their Postal Service.

There was a lot of post-Christmas discussion about how UPS fumbled its last-minute holiday deliveries, and FedEx apologized for some late-arriving packages, too.  What went largely unmentioned, however, was that the stellar performance of the U.S. Postal Service.

The-holiday-season-is-the-busiest-period-for-shipping-companies-and-postal-servicesThe government-run competitor was swamped with parcels just like UPS and FedEx were, with holiday package volume 19 percent higher than the same period late year.  But there were no widespread complaints about tardy deliveries by USPS.

The postal service attributes its success to meticulous planning.  The agency says it noticed “higher than expected volume” in packages in early December and made adjustments to avoid delays, delivering packages on the three Sundays before Christmas in its busiest markets.  Sue Brennan, a USPS spokeswoman, says this was in addition to regularly scheduled Sunday deliveries for AmazonThe USPS also delivered 75,000 packages on Christmas Day.

The USPS and its private-sector rivals have different business models.  Unlike the government-operated service, the two private companies have fleets of airplanes and are better known for urgent deliveries than the USPS is.  That’s what apparently got them into trouble.   According to CNN, UPS ended up needing to make more holiday season air shipments than it had anticipated.  FedEx says 99 percent of its ground shipments arrived on schedule but hasn’t provided information about its airborne parcels, Bloomberg News reports.

Two things could happen as a result of UPS and FedEx’s difficulties: People might order earlier next year so presents don’t have to be travel by plane, and big retailers such as Amazon, a major UPS customer, might look for more ways to move packages on the ground.  Either outcome will probably benefit USPS.   The postal service may not be celebrated for speed, but when it comes to getting stuff to people on time in the holidays, the 238-year-old agency is tough to beat.

via Businessweek.

U.S. contract workers cost 2X civil servants

December 18, 2013

DoDcontractors.v.personnel

When Eastman Kodak Co. was downsizing in the 1980s, it sometimes happened that a laid-off worker went back to work at Kodak as an employee of a temporary help agency.  There were cases where they were hired to do the same jobs that they had done before—except at lower pay and with little or no benefits.

Investigative reporter David Cay Johnson wrote that it doesn’t work that way with the federal government’s contract workers.

The budget deal just worked out between the White House and Capitol Hill … does nothing to curtail wasteful spending on companies that are among the nation’s richest and most powerful – from Booz Allen Hamilton, the $6 billion-a-year management-consulting firm, to Boeing, the defense contractor boasting $82 billion in worldwide sales.

In theory, these contractors are supposed to save taxpayer money, as efficient, bottom-line-oriented corporate behemoths.  In reality, they end up costing twice as much as civil servants … . Defense contractors like Boeing and Northrop Grumman cost almost three times as much.

via Newsweek.

The federal government does not count the number of its contract employees.  Prof. Paul C. Light of New York University is widely quoted as saying that, based on government procurement data, the number of employees working on government contracts exceeds the combined total of federal civil servants, postal workers and members of the armed forces, and employment of contract workers is increasing faster.

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Where was President Obama’s due diligence?

November 27, 2013

Not long after I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, I came to realize that his priorities were different from what I thought they were.  And I soon saw that his health reform plan was deeply flawed and hard to implement.  But I nevert, until now, thought that he was incompetent.

butwewon'tThe Affordable Care Act is President Obama’s signature domestic achievement.  Compared to Medicare for all (single payer) or his own proposal for a public option, it is hugely complicated.  Moreover there are political enemies in state governments that want to make it fail, and special interests in the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries that want to milk it for their own benefit.

Under these circumstances, wouldn’t you think that he look for the smartest and most capable information technology manager he could find and give that person complete authority?  With his connections in Silicon Valley industry, he wouldn’t have had trouble finding such a person.  But evidently not.

President Obama’s right-wing opponents accuse him of creating “czars” to oversee government programs, but this was a case where a “czar” was necessary and sadly lacking.

And wouldn’t you think that he would check on the progress of the program early and often? The President, after issuing a non-apology apology, said, “I was not informed directly that the web site would not be working the way it was supposed to.”  This is a statement worthy of George W. Bush.  Why was he not informed.

During the George W. Bush administration, I blamed President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Karl Rove for mistaking campaigning for governing, and public opinion polls for reality.  But when individuals so different in background and personality as George W. Bush and Barack Obama exhibit the same flaws, I have to think there is something deeply wrong with the U.S. political culture that goes beyond the character traits of individuals.

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Filibusters and our undemocratic Senate

November 26, 2013

      The one provision of the U.S. Constitution that cannot be amended is equal representation for the states in the Senate (see Article V).

This guarantee was the price of having all 13 original states agree to a Constitution in the first place.  So we’re stuck with the theoretical possibility that Senators representing 51 states with 18 percent of the population could cast a majority vote.

This doesn’t matter much with enactment of laws.  For a bill to become a law, it must also be approved by the House of Representatives, which is chosen on a population basis, then signed into law by the President or passed over his veto by a super-majority.   But to appoint judges, ambassadors and other federal officers, the President only needs the advice and consent of the Senate.

Most democratic nations have parliamentary forms of government, in which the parliamentary majority chooses the Prime Minister and routinely approves the PM’s proposed laws and appointments.  If the executive and the legislature disagree on any important measure, the people get to vote on who is right.

These systems work well most of the time.  When they don’t work, it isn’t because of the tyranny of a majority, but because there are multiple parties than can’t work together.  I don’t think the people of any democratic country would want to create the equivalent of the U.S. Senate.

We Americans don’t have a choice because the principle of state sovereignty is baked into our Constitution.   I think there is a case to be made for our exceptional system of checks and balances, but I don’t think we need to carry it beyond what our Constitution requires.

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The Washington merry-go-round

November 20, 2013

Also known as the Wall Street-Washington revolving door.

revolving-door

Double click to enlarge.

Hat tip to occasional links and commentary.

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Ian Welsh on the way of thinking we need

October 25, 2013
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Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh, whose blog link is on my Blogs I Like page, wrote four excellent posts this week on the current economic and political situation and how we should think about it.

They are all worth reading in their entirety, along with the comment threads, but here are some highlights, with links.

The preferred business model today is to make it so that no one owns anything: everything is unbundled, instead of owning it, you lease or rent it and the moment you can’t pay it all goes away.  This is what “cloud” computing is about: a revenue stream. Lose your revenue, lose everything.  Ownership of DNA sequences, ownership of seeds, effective ownership of your intellectual property because it appears in someone else’s pipe (like Google using people’s endorsements without compensating them), you will own nothing, and all surplus value you produce in excess of what you need to (barely) survive will be taken from you.

To put it another way, the current business model is value stripping.

via Baseline Predictions for the next Sixty Odd Years.

We’re going to hit the wall.  We’re going to have fight a dystopic panopticon police state in which ordinary people are not allowed to own anything of real value, let alone keep any of the real value they create.  We’re going to do this while the environment comes apart, while we get battered by “extreme weather events”, droughts, water shortages and hunger.

That’s the baseline scenario.  That’s what we have to be ready to deal with, to change as much as we can, to radically mitigate to save hundreds of millions or billions of lives, and to make billions of lives good, instead of meaningless existential hells.

via Baseline Predictions for the next Sixty Odd Years.

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Who will get that Postal Service pension fund?

October 21, 2013

PO_picketPO_picketThe U.S. Postal Service operated at a net loss of $4.95 billion last quarter.  But it would have made a profit if not for the payment of $5.13 billion to the Retiree Health Benefit Fund.

In other words, the Postal Service would be making a modest profit if not for the absurd requirement that it fund employees pension benefits for 75 years in advance.  I don’t see any reason for such a requirement except to make the Postal Service fail.

When and if the Postal Service does go bankrupt, what becomes of that pension fund?  I’m pretty sure the money will not be used for the benefit of jobless former postal employees.

Mail delivery is a function of government specifically mentioned in the Constitution.  It is a public service that should be continued.

I do have a good guess as to what will become of the Post Service’s prime real estate.  It already is being sold off at bargain prices to private developers.

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Now the USA is the dysfunctional democracy

October 18, 2013

When I studied political science in college nearly 60 years ago, we were taught to contrast the sensible, pragmatic American and British political cultures with the ideological, gridlocked French and Italians.

How a Bill Becomes Law - UpdatedIn France and Italy in the 1950s, governments fell and new governmental coalitions had to be formed every few months, or so it seemed, and the diverse political parties could never agree on policies to address their nations problems.

But I never heard of any French or Italian political party that tried to stop their governments from carrying out their lawful functions or paying their lawful bills, as happened during the past couple of weeks here in the United States.  Today it is we Americans who set an example of ideological, gridlocked government.

Our Constitution sets up a legislative process that says enactment of a law requires agreement among a President elected by the nation, a House of Representatives elected by districts on a population basis and a Senate elected by states on a state sovereignty basis.  That is a more complicated and difficult process than in most democratic governments.  But now agreement among these three bodies is required merely to allow the government to carry out responsibilities mandated by law.


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