Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why shouldn't the Chinese people fight for Democracy? A question on Quora.

Over a thousand people on quora voted for an answer to this question that concludes: "If you think democracy is good, that is okay. Revolutionizing the entire system requires real urgency, when the society is ready to pay the cost. But now, the Chinese system works just fine."

An engineer has written the answer to this question. Hundreds of people have upvoted the answer. In the answer, the engineer compares the government of China to an internet protocol. This is a very bad analogy.

The consequences of continuing an operable though inferior protocol are negligible in terms of human rights or quality of life. The consequences of continuing a Communist system of government are huge. 

Communism is a form of oligarchy. As with all oligarchies, the ruling class gets many privileges while everyone else looks the other way. When it comes time to vote, as with the answer upvoted here, everyone says, yes, this is a fine system. The oligarchy does not look kindly on anyone who tries to oppose its power in any way, no matter how insignificant. So your vote doesn't count, except that if you vote against the oligarchy, you could suffer serious consequences. This is why, when elections are held in an oligarchy, everyone says the government is just fine.

The Chinese government gives great advantages to the people who run the industrial organizations, the entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs acquire great wealth and privilege. So you have a country where the rural population makes 1/3 as much per capita as the urban population and the top 1 per cent own 1/3 of the wealth. See Income inequality in China for details.

Surprise! The result of the economic system in China is almost exactly the same as the result in the US: A small number of people own most of the wealth. Both these countries are oligarchies, so the outcomes are inevitably the same. 

There are many reasons why the people living in an oligarchy do not rise up to throw off their masters. In China, the government watches the people very closely for any signs of rebellion. The oligarchy there pays special attention to any groups trying to organize for any reason. The oligarchy knows that any group that tries to challenge its power must first organize.

As a result, the Chinese government imposes strict press censorship. The penalties for printing anything against the government are severe. The government imposes the death penalty for 55 crimes, including white-collar crimes like embezzlement. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese government executed more people than the rest of the world combined. See Human rights in China.

Human rights organizations have accused the Chinese oligarchy of denying basic human rights to its people. The Chinese oligarchy responds that, since there are differences between people, there should be differences in human rights that are given to the people. This practice is an example of Chinese claiming the existence of Chinese exceptionalism, just as Americans claim American exceptionalism excuses many of their violations of international human rights treaties, such as when they invaded Iraq without provocation, or when they tortured prisoners of war.

Given the absolute control by the Chinese oligarchy over its people, and its denial of basic rights like the right of free speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom from torture (guaranteed by the fifth amendment in the US constitution), the likelihood of any uprising against the Chinese government is very small. So the answer to the question, Why shouldn't Chinese people fight for democracy, is that the oligarchic system of government in China prevents any organized resistance and punishes any perceived resistance severely.

Whether the Chinese are really happy with their present government is a completely different question. Let me answer it with another question: Assuming that you are not a member of the ruling oligarchy, would you be happy in a country where the oligarchy routinely commits human rights abuses and your chances of escaping poverty are almost nil?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Cannabis Not As Addictive As Heroin--By A Long Shot

The Telegraph, a British newspaper, has published an article about a marijuana study as if it were a major new study. In fact, this study has been around for more than 20 years, in one form or another. Its author, Wayne Hall, is the primary exponent of the idea that marijuana is harmful to health and dangerous to its users. There is nothing new in this study, aside from the addition of a few studies that add very little to our understanding and nothing to the debate on marijuana legalization that is currently going on.

The Telegraph article repeats misinformation that has been disputed by recent studies. For example, the article states that marijuana use doubles the risk of psychological disorders. But a recent study failed to find any connection between marijuana use and psychosis.

The Telegraph article also states that marijuana use doubles the risk of a car crash. The National Institute of Health (NIH) states that the influence of alcohol on fatal crashes is well-established, but
studies have been inconclusive regarding whether cannabis use causes an increased risk of accidents.
Statistics taken in states with Medical Marijuana Laws show that fatal traffic accidents decrease by 8 to 11 percent after marijuana is legalized, possibly because marijuana is used as a substitute for alcohol, which is much more likely to cause traffic accidents.

The headline of the article claims that cannabis is addictive as heroin. But the article quotes Hall as saying that,
If cannabis is not addictive, then neither is heroin or alcohol.
This statement by Hall indicates that there is some ambivalence in his mind about whether cannabis is addictive at all. In a New York Times blog article, Hall again admits the doubt around this statement by saying
[s]ome people remain skeptical about whether marijuana dependence exists but let’s assume that it does.
We can just as easily assume that it doesn't.

The word "addiction", according to the World Health Organization, refers to behavior, not physical dependency. Indications of addiction to prescription drugs are

denial of drug use; lying; forgery of prescriptions; theft of drugs from other patients or family members; selling and buying drugs on the street; using prescribed drugs to get "high."
Notice that these behaviors do not all apply to illicit drugs like marijuana, which must be bought on the street and which are generally used to get "high."

The number one risk of taking marijuana is the possibility of arrest and imprisonment. This is not an inherent aspect of the drug, but the result of laws and attitudes that unfairly target marijuana users. In comparison with other drugs, such as alcohol and nicotine, cannabis, especially in small doses, is relatively harmless.

Norm Stamper, former police chief of Seattle, states unequivocally that

[a]ny law disobeyed by more than 100 million Americans, the number who’ve tried marijuana at least once, is bad public policy. As a 34-year police veteran, I’ve seen how marijuana prohibition breeds disrespect for the law, and contempt for those who enforce it.

Alcohol creates physical dependency and results in diseases such as heart disease, cancers of the liver and esophagus, and many other harmful conditions. Nicotine addiction creates physical dependency leads to heart disease and lung cancer. Marijuana use may or may not lead to physical dependency, has never been proven fatal, and is not proven to cause any form of cancer through prolonged use.

The Center for Disease Control puts the number of deaths annually attributable to alcohol use at 88,000, and states that
economic costs of excessive alcohol consumption in 2006 were estimated at $223.5 billion, or $1.90 a drink.
The CDC puts the annual number of deaths caused by tobacco smoking at 480,000. This includes at least 41,000 deaths from second-hand smoke, meaning that the victims did not actually smoke tobacco themselves, yet still died from it.

Marijuana use in conjunction with alcohol may cause some traffic fatalities. Men who smoke marijuana are more likely to have unprotected sex and expose themselves to risk of AIDS. But there is no solid evidence that marijuana use alone causes any fatalities at all.

So why does the Telegraph consider it important to publish an article filled with lies about a relatively harmless drug? Even more to the point, why do American courts still sentence thousands of non-violent drug offenders--mostly minorities--to prison sentences for marijuana use?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Breaking News From Bleeding Missouri

Here is a legal update for the events that happened over this past weekend for the FergusonOctober mobilization and an accumulative assessment since Mike Brown was murdered on August 9th.

There is now an incredible, burgeoning legal collective in St. Louis that is working with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) and the National Lawyers Guild, as well as other groups like the ArchCity Defenders. The legal collective showed grace under pressure this past weekend and will continue to support the pending criminal cases, help to monitor police presence/misconduct at ongoing demonstrations, track arrestees through the system, and play other support roles.

This past weekend was especially active with numerous protests in Ferguson and across St. Louis County. You can see more about the weekend <>here, but this is some legal info:

More than 80 NLG Legal Observers were trained in the days leading up to the weekend, establishing a new robust group of LOs for future protests. The NLG worked with the local ACLU chapter to dispatch LOs such that every action over the weekend had ample green hats in the crowd.

There were nearly 100 arrests during the weekend of resistance, all of which were municipal offenses.

Friday included a march on the prosecuting attorney Bob McCullough's office in downtown Clayton. The main march of several thousand was on Saturday through downtown St. Louis, and included a breakaway march to Police Headquarters. None of these actions resulted in arrests.

Saturday night, 20 people were arrested at a sit-in at the Quick Trip gas station in the Shaw area of St. Louis, near where VonDerrit Myers was killed by an off-duty police officer last Wednesday. In fact, since then, near-daily protests have occurred in the Shaw neighborhood. The night of the murder, protesters successfully ran police out of the neighborhood, but since then the police have been fairly aggressive, using riot gear, forming police lines and pepper spraying crowds indiscriminately. Five Shaw protesters were arrested last Thursday, three of whom were charged with felonies (destruction of property), including one protester who was assaulted by police during his arrest (additional resisting arrest charge).

More than an hour after the arrests at the QT on Saturday night, an NLG Legal Observer, Steven Hoffmann, was arrested on site and charged with unlawful assembly. This brings the total number of LOs arrested since August to 5.

Sunday night, two large marches in the Shaw area joined to form a bloc of more than 1,000 protesters, which converged at St. Louis University for a sit-in at the clock tower, which is still going on right now. There have been no arrests at SLU, and the University has indicated that it would not make arrests as long as protesters remain peaceful.

On Monday, there were several decentralized direct actions across St. Louis, including:
- a clergy civil disobedience action at the Ferguson Police Department (37 arrests)
- "Show Me $15" actions at 3 different Walmarts (27 arrests)
- a civil disobedient action at a fundraiser for St. Louis County Executive candidate Steve Stenger (9 arrests), and
- a banner drop at the Monday Night Football St. Louis Rams game (no arrests).

Everyone who was arrested during the weekend of resistance is now out of jail. However, two people arrested last Thursday in Shaw and charged with felonies are still in jail. The legal collective and MORE, with the help of the Guild, are working to get them out.

Total Arrests:
There have been a total of approximately 350 political arrests since Mike Brown's murder. The vast majority of protesters were arrested on municipal charges, but 40 people have been charged with felonies (mainly burglary, destruction of property, assault on a police officer, use of a deadly or dangerous weapon, and resisting arrest). Most of those charged with felony burglary were also charged with misdemeanor theft.

The NLG has worked to find attorneys for all of the felony arrestees who contacted the legal hotline, which is approximately half of those charged. Other felony defendants currently have public defenders.

As I mentioned in a previous update, MORE is sponsoring ArchCity Defenders, a local legal aid organization, to defend all of the municipal cases, but so far prosecutors have filed formal charges against less than 30 protesters.

The protests and the energy generated by them have helped to establish a new, vibrant, more collaborative legal community in St. Louis, drawing from SLU Law School, Washington University Law School, Mound City Bar Association, ArchCity Defenders, ACLU, and NLG. But, the legal collective in particular, deserves tremendous credit for its amazing work under pressure and its ability to react gracefully and with cooperation despite often chaotic, difficult, and tense circumstances. Local legal workers have sharpened their teeth on these latest actions, and will hopefully continue their awesome work as long as protests are occurring.

It has been an honor to support both spontaneous and planned protests by mainly youth of color and to have the back of an unrelenting revolutionary movement.

In solidarity,

Kris Hermes
NLG Legal Worker VP

P.S. People are now preparing for the possibility that the grand jury won't indict Darren Wilson.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Leon Panetta Told Obama to Attack; Obama Said No

Leon Panetta, who headed both the CIA and the Department of Defense under President Obama, has written a book about his experiences in government with the Clintons and Obama. Naturally, he is taking this opportunity to kick Obama and fawn on Hilary Clinton.

Clinton and Panetta both called for Obama to attack Syria when Syria used chemical weapons against fellow Syrians.
President Obama had called the use of chemical weapons there a “red line.” So when the Syrian military used chemical weapons in August 2013 to kill an estimated 1,400 people, Obama decided to strike. But then the president abruptly reversed himself—without consulting his national security Cabinet members.
But Obama resisted their calls for war. Instead, he participated in a deal brokered by the UN and Russia in which Assad promised to give up his chemical weapons voluntarily. No Americans dead. No Syrian civilians killed by gas.

But this outcome did not satisfy Panetta, who writes,
The result, I felt, was a blow to American credibility. When the president as commander in chief draws a red line, it is critical that he act if the line is crossed. The power of the United States rests on its word,” he wrote. “Assad’s action clearly defied President Obama’s warning; by failing to respond, it sent the wrong message to the world.
The neocons and now Panetta and Clinton, who are being called neoliberals, are always concerned that other nations will disrespect the US if we don't reach for our guns whenever someone steps out of line. This makes no sense at all. The rest of the world will respect the US if we live up to our ideals. They will fear us if we constantly attack countries on the slightest provocation, such as when we attacked Iraq for having weapons of mass destruction which they didn't have.

The US public may still believe that Bush and the neocons did not make the whole story up, but the rest of the world is convinced that they did. The lies told in the UN Security Council hurt our credibility a great deal more than any failure to enforce a "red line" could ever do.

According to Panetta, Obama made a big mistake by refusing to listen to Hilary and himself on backing Syrian rebels. The Daily Beast quotes Panetta as saying,
Hesitation and half steps have consequences as well—and those remain to be determined.
Actually, the consequences of backing muslim jihadists are well known. Against the Russians in Afghanistan, the US backed Osama bin Laden and helped him build up Al Qaeda. As has been shown in recent weeks, the Syrian rebels included ISIL, another group of fundamentalist jihadis. They are using captured US weapons to create havoc along the borders of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq.

Obama should be commended for trying a different approach in the Middle East. Sending American aid and American soldiers proves nothing but does recruit new Islamists eager to fight the Americans. Obama's strategy could be summarized as, "Don't poke the bear." So far, Obama has been successful keeping us from entering another bloody conflict.

Not deterred from his questionable agenda, Panetta believes Obama should ally himself with opponents of Assad. He says we would at least know whether there are any moderate Muslims fighting Assad. He doesn't prove that would be important, however.

The difference between Obama and Panetta--and, by extension Hilary Clinton--boils down to this: Obama wants to end existing wars and takes risks to do so; Panetta wants to start existing wars to prove that America is the biggest and toughest country in the world.

Panetta wasted no time after resigning from the CIA before joining a small lobbying firm in Washington. His book is doubtless his first step in recruiting new clients from the military industrial complex. No principled American should become a lobbyist seeking to spend more money on weapons of war.

During the fight over the sequester, Panetta was the only cabinet member who testified before congress that cutting the defense budget would harm the US military. The others probably obeyed Obama's instruction. If Panetta had succeeded in raising the military budget during the sequester, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party would have opposed the budget deal.

Panetta is a risk-taker, sure of his own prowess. Obama is risk averse. We should all become more like Obama in this.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Competition or monopoly control: the rise of Uber

A headline from an article in the Daily Signal, a right-wing blog: 

Ride Sharing: Cab Drivers Hate It, Entrepreneurs Love It. 

This headline is self-contradictory.  If cab drivers aren't entrepreneurs, who is? Cab drivers dislike the competition from well-financed, unethical companies because they are just scraping by as it is.

A quote from the same article: 

Ever wonder why taxis are run-down and unclean and drivers can be terrifyingly bad? Lack of competition is at least part of the answer. 

Nope. Never wondered. Because these guys (taxi drivers) are my neighbors here in Alexandria, VA. They are struggling to ear a living in their adopted country, speak little English, and learned to drive without learning basic rules of the road.

Ever notice how, to a conservative, more competition is the answer to every problem? Taxis are an example of too much competition, at least in Washington, DC. The number one competitor of the taxi is the private automobile, but there are also car rentals, zip cars, hotel limousines, and mass transportation.

The need for competition, according to the writers at the Daily Signal, is limited to working-class businesses, however. 

States have licensing requirements for all manner of occupations, from barbers to florists to interior decorators. Sometimes those regimes actually make entering a field without a license a crime, which can lead to outlandish SWAT-style raids during which people get arrested for “barbering without a license.”
The article and its right-wing authors do not mention that the primary and most expensive regulation of professions is not of working class but of upper class workers.  The monopoly privileges enjoyed by doctors and lawyers (among others) result in huge incomes for those on the inside and jail sentences for those on the outside who would like to get a piece of the pie. But I digress.

What taxis need in Washington DC is more regulation. The drivers need to achieve basic competency in English. They need to know where things are and the best ways to get there. And they need to understand the rules of the road in America. A little common courtesy would be helpful, too.

Oh, yeah, they would need to be guaranteed a wage, and not the current starvation wage, but a livable wage, the kind they could get with a strong union.

Maybe then I will use taxis again.

The Rise of Uber

Uber is a corporation that is taking over the market now served by taxis. It uses the same strong-arm tactics used by ENRON--lying, cheating, and stealing. These are apparently the acceptable modes for competition in Capitalist America these days.

My problem with Uber is this. They are taking over a market where there is already little profit to be made. Taxi drivers work for a minimum wage, or even less. Uber will probably drive all other competition from the market, using its capitalization of over $1.5 billion. This amount of capital is like taking an uzi to kill a fly.

The inevitable result will be an ENRON-style failure. Uber will operate at a loss until it buries its competition. At that point, it will raise rates until it looks profitable on paper. Its marketing department and flacks in the financial press will hype the company as the next Amazon. After its original backers make a fortune by selling shares in an IPO, it will be discovered that all the profits were illusory and the company will collapse, leaving the taxi business worse than it is today. 

Check that. At least in DC, it can't be any worse than it is today. Fortunately, there is an excellent subway system that will take you to the airport. That is hardly the case in other cities where Uber is trying to take over the market.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ferguson Police Riots: An Occupation Army in Missouri

People seem confused by what the police are doing in Ferguson. Some people believe that the police are within their rights to arrest people for swearing or failing to move on when ordered to do so. Others believe the police resemble a paramilitary force. Police vary in different areas and react differently depending on whether they perceive someone as a threat. 

Look at the news reports. Try to get them from several different viewpoints, not just conservative sources like Fox News. You will see from the videos that the police in Ferguson are indeed equipped like a paramilitary force. They are also routinely violating the rights of Ferguson's citizens by assaulting them, arresting them for using obscene language or just for standing in one place. The police have been recorded threatening to kill journalists and they have arrested both journalists and humanitarian workers, like the National Lawyers Guild monitors who simply observe police behavior.

Some people claim the police are just protecting citizens from the demonstrators. We don't know what the police are trying to do, but we know what they are doing. They are quite clearly violating the law and the Constitution. They are using terror tactics against US Citizens who are within their rights of freedom of speech and assembly. They are also using weapons against innocent bystanders. Sound cannons affect everyone in the area. Tear gas can force people over a mile away to leave their homes to breathe fresh air. This is a major reason why tear gas (and other poison gases used by police) have been banned in warfare by the Geneva conventions, because they harm everyone nearby, not just armed combatants.

As far as the police protecting themselves from heavily-armed individuals, there has been a but single incident of a policeman wounded by gunshot in Ferguson. On the other hand, we have numerous pictures of police in riot gear aiming rifles or shotguns at demonstrators. It seems the armaments are much more prevalent on the police side. The police fire tear gas and other poison gases, as well as rubber bullets. They also arrest people by slamming them to the ground hard enough to injure them.

The demonstrations are a textbook example of what came to be called a "police riot" after the police attacked demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. In a police riot, it is the police who are the instigators of violence, not the demonstrators. In many cases, the demonstrators are not armed, and certainly never to the extent that police are armed.

There are many other ways for the police to interact with demonstrators. The best way is to negotiate with them. All along, the demonstrators have been demanding that the police officer who killed Michael Brown be arrested and put on trial. This is a simple demand. There is nothing illegal about such a procedure, though it may violate police regulations. Even if it does, there should be a high priority placed on civilian safety. Complaints against police, who are hired to protect the people they are now assaulting, should be handled promptly and in an orderly manner.

The Ferguson Police Department has behaved throughout as if they are an occupying army. This must not be tolerated.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Jonathan Turley Criticizes Eric Holder for being Politically Motivated

Eric Holder has resigned as attorney general. Like Barack Obama, he has spent his entire term engaged in partisan battles. Jonathan Turley writes that Holder was too political, that he should have paid more attention to the Constitution. This is good advice if you make a living speaking about the Constitution and arguing cases based on Constitutional law. It's not such good advice for someone in the political maelstrom of Washington.

Turley chastises Holder for not bringing charges against Bush and Cheney for violations of international treaties, in particular the Geneva Convention against Torture. Obama already stated that he considered waterboarding to be torture and ordered that it not be used. The Bush administration had withdrawn the documents (written by John Yoo) that justified torture. The goal, therefore, of outlawing torture had already been achieved.

Turley, and many others, wanted more: an indictment and trial of top Bush administration officials for their violation of international law. Turley does not state the major impediment to this plan, namely the high cost in time and treasure to pursue it. Obama understood at the beginning of his first term that he would have only two years to pass his agenda. He had to make some hard choices and chose to work on health care reform.

Obama and Holder could have worked on trying members of the Bush administration for war crimes. The Geneva Convention specifies that the country whose leadership had committed the crimes should try them. But Obama would have required a strong mandate of the people to get a conviction, and he did not have one. The majority of the population still believed that waterboarding was not torture and that Bush had not involved the country in a war of aggression. All the defendants in such a suit would be wealthy men who could afford high-priced lawyers. The trial would take years and the appeals might take decades.

In addition to all the other problems with a war crimes trial, all the lower level employees of the CIA could claim that the government's lawyers had advised them that waterboarding was legal. Only upper-level government attorneys could be indicted for falsely declaring that torture was legal. Obama decided not to indict John Yoo and William Buzbee, the two Justice Department Lawyers who acted as shills for Vice-President Cheney. Their conviction would have led to indictment of many CIA agents, and Obama made it his mission to heal the agency after it had been demoralized by the war.

Turley called for Holder to be "fired" when he claimed that Holder's primary offense was not being ethical enough to follow the Constitution instead of following his boss's orders. Holder did not break any laws, since the actions he took to find whistle-blowers were sanctioned under the Espionage Act of 1917. Turley has arguments about the constitutionality of the Espionage Act, but Holder broke no laws when he subpoenaed journalists' records to find leaks in the Justice Department.

Turley believes that Holder should have ignored the political consequences of such an agenda, as well as the orders of his boss, the President. This would not have been possible for anyone to do, even though Turley believes the Constitution required it. The Constitution has no power to enforce itself; it is a scrap of paper. The executive can ignore it with impunity. His subordinates must obey or resign, but if they resign they lose any opportunity they may have to do good for the community.

Holder may have made mistakes, but they were the kind that only office-holders can make. As a professor and lecturer, Turley can afford to be ethical and condemn others for their lack of ethics. As an office-holder, Holder cannot.