Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Obama wins a big victory for world peace and stability; his detractors go nuts

Iran is the most powerful country in the Middle East. It has oil wealth and a large population. It holds a strategic location on the Persian Gulf. Iran's position between the Soviet Union and the Arabian Sea made it a critical geopolitical asset.

In 1953, the US engineered a coup in Iran to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining influence there. The American government believed Iran was important enough in their Cold War against the Soviet Union that they risked war and international enmity to assure that the Soviets could not take over the country.

Sixty years have passed. The Cold War is over. They US did not "win" the Cold War as is often proclaimed. The stalemate between the Soviets and the US simply ended. The US was left with a strong military but their army never went to war against the Soviets. When the US army did go to war, against the Vietnamese, it lost.

Today, the US military force is a relic of the Cold War. Advocates of using military force have been searching for a target at which to aim their bombers and warships. They seized Iraq, hoping next to attack Iran. US militarists, led by John McCain and Dick Cheney, tried vainly to build public opinion against Iran. Americans no longer trusted promises of easy victory and vast treasure.

Barack Obama came to office promising to end the era of military adventurism that began after World War II. He proposed using diplomacy instead of war to deal with foreign difficulties. The country he wanted most as a partner was Iran, primarily because of its history of supporting terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Obama's diplomatic corps worked tirelessly in secret to get Iran to agree to abandon their nuclear ambitions.

Finally, over the weekend, Obama's peace initiative bore fruit. The Iranians made some concessions and agreed to take part in serious talks about giving up their nuclear ambitions in exchange for relief from crushing international sanctions. In addition, Iran agreed to help broker a settlement in the fierce civil war raging in Syria.

War mongers in Israel and the US have been using the threat of Iran's nuclear weapons to stop progress in Syria, Palestine, and other Middle Eastern hot spots. With Iran removed as the great bogeyman, these militarists no longer have an excuse for the vast expenditures they have demanded. The diplomatic stalemate in the Middle East, so intractable for so long, has become suddenly less so.

Politicians whose power depends on keeping Iran as an international pariah are scrambling to denounce the peace talks in every newspaper and on every television channel. They have seen the writing on the wall. Their sweet deal is over, or soon will be. Military spending will fall. New weapons systems will be cancelled. Weapons suppliers will lose their contracts. This new peace initiative may have the same effect on the American military industrial complex as the end of the Cold War did on the Soviet Union.

The world is still a dangerous place. We are beset by serious problems. But military force cannot be used to resolve most of them. We need to turn our efforts toward real problems, not fake problems invented by militarists who make money from causing human suffering.

Monday, November 25, 2013

UN Climate Change Conference Ends in disarray

Americans have a do-nothing congress. But the American congress actually does more than the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). The same kind of intractable problems exist in both bodies.

The FCCC exists to deal with the problems of Climate Change. It has established several facts in the past, and most countries in the world agree with these facts: Climate change is real, climate change is man-made, and the effects are being felt right now. The countries of the world cannot agree what to do about these facts, however.

The most intransigent parties are the developed nations of the world. We will call these nations the Rich nations. The most exasperated are all the others, the Poor nations. The recent typhoon in the Philippines revealed the current state of the world in brief. An enormous typhoon struck the Philippines, causing billions of dollars in damage. The Philippines cannot afford to keep cleaning up after storms like this one. Without considerable help from the Rich nations, the Philippines will slip into a permanent recession. Cities will vanish. People may even revert to pre-civilized ways of life.

But Rich nations don't see this as their problem. It's a Poor nation problem and they will have to deal with it. Poor nations want to assess damages against Rich nations, who have profited from the industrial revolution for four hundred years. Rich nations won't admit liability.

Australia's new Prime Minister has proposed abolishing its tax on carbon. He argues for this abolition on grounds that it will save Australians money on their energy bills.

Christine Milne, leader of the Australian Greens puts it succinctly: 
Not only are we abandoning any real ambition to reduce emissions, but at the same time we’re saying we won’t even put up money to help developing countries around the world mitigate and adapt to global warming.
It has often been suggested that nothing short of an international catastrophe, like an invasion from outer space, will convince the people of Earth to stop fighting among themselves and work together to save the planet. Climate change is just such a catastrophe. People are not reacting well to this test, however.

The world is facing a crisis. Both Rich and Poor countries need to recognize the crisis and work to allay it. Rich countries can escape their responsibilities right now, but they don't have long before they must face the realities of climate change, because there is only one world and we all share it.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Let us remember

John F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago today. Two whole generations have grown to maturity without knowing what that felt like.

I was thirteen in 1963. I was in gym class at Berkeley High School when I first heard that the president had been shot. I could not believe it. Young men were always lying to each other anyway. So I got dressed and left the locker room in a state of disbelief, almost numb.

Outside, the first adult I met was an African-American, a janitor at the high school.

"I heard the president was shot," I said. "But I thought it must be a joke."
"The president is dead," he replied. "You don't joke about a thing like that."

I was a Democrat who was justly proud of our youthful president. He was a great public speaker. I had read his book, Profiles in Courage, which he had written while recuperating from serious surgery. The book is a collection of thumbnail sketches about Senators in American history who had been presented with difficult choices. All these people had chosen the principled path, although some of them had been removed from office because of it.

Reading over the list of Senators today, I can't see much heroism there. For example, Kennedy and Sorensen (who aided in writing Profiles) praised Daniel Webster for engineering the Compromise of 1850 and holding the union together. In reality, the Compromise guaranteed the outbreak of Civil War, since the Fugitive Slave Law (part of the Compromise) was extremely unpopular in the North. Webster abandoned his moral principles--against the injustice of slavery--and handed a short-lived victory to Southern slaveholders.

As I left the gymnasium and headed for my next class, I noticed the flags flying at half mast, which confirmed for me the president was dead and not just wounded. I needed the confirmation because I could not believe the event. My entire world was shaken. I could not accept that people were assassinated in the modern industrial age. 

I ran over to the office of the Berkeley Gazette, my hometown newspaper. There I purchased a copy of the paper fresh from the presses and emblazoned with a headline declaring in huge letters that the president was indeed dead.

I still remember where I was and what I was doing when Kennedy was assassinated because there is no way I can forget it. It seemed to me that history had come to a fork in the road and had taken the darker, more menacing road.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

More Bad News For George Zimmerman

George Zimmerman, the killer of Trayvon Martin, has fallen on hard times. Zimmerman was the darling of the right wing echo chamber while he was on trial for killing Martin, a young African-American. Mark O'Meara, a high-powered, high-cost lawyer, defended him against the charge of murder without asking for any money up front. Thousands of fans of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk, sent money to Zimmerman's defense fund. The man himself was regularly seen on tv, declaring his innocence to all the world. And Zimmerman was acquitted.

Now, Zimmerman is on trial again. This time he is accused of aggravated battery, domestic violence battery, and criminal mischief. Zimmerman says he is indigent and has debts of $2 million. He is also involved in a divorce case in which his wife initially claimed he assaulted her and pulled a gun on her, but his wife decided not to press charges in that case.

Mark O'Meara, the high-priced lawyer who successfully defended Zimmerman in the Martin case, has stated that he is no longer Zimmerman's lawyer. Very probably it is he to whom Zimmerman owes $2 million. The donations from right-wingers have dried up. Zimmerman is on his own.

Aggravated assault is a class 3 felony under Florida state law. The crucial piece of this felony is the charge that Zimmerman brandished a gun before pushing his girlfriend out of the apartment. Under mandatory sentencing laws, the minimum sentence for conviction of this crime is 5 years in prison.

Zimmerman's behavior after his acquittal on murder charges shows just how broken the criminal justice system is right now in Florida. Criminal penalties are supposed to deter people from committing crimes. When the justice system allows people to escape punishment for crimes they obviously commit--no one disputes that Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin to death--the laws have just the opposite effect. People are encouraged to commit crimes since they can see that criminals go unpunished.

Since his acquittal, Zimmerman has been involved in two violent incidents involving allegations of using firearms.

Florida's system of criminal justice is broken. Its "stand your ground law should be repealed. Its mandatory minimum penalties should be repealed. Its "three strikes" law should be repealed. The penalties Florida exacts on people who have served time in prison need to be seriously diminished, including its refusal to let ex-felons vote.

This post partly based on reports from NBC News.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Marissa Alexander gets a retrial

Marissa Alexander has been granted a retrial in a case that has gotten national attention. Alexander shot a gun at her husband, whom she claimed was threatening her life. Alexander also claimed that he had abused her physically. It was her first offense. A jury found Alexander guilty of discharging a gun in the commission of a felony. Under Florida law, this conviction carries a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison.

Florida's mandatory sentencing laws have filled its prisons to overflowing. The first such laws passed in 1979. At that time, Florida had about 10,000 inmates. In 2010, it had over 100,000. The incidence of crime has been falling in the state and the U.S. for many years, yet still the prison population increases.

African-Americans outnumber whites in Florida prisons 4.4 to 1. In the general population, blacks represent only 16 percent of the population.

There is a remarkable disparity in Florida's gun laws. Under its "stand your ground" law, a woman has a right to kill someone if she believes her life is in danger. But under Florida's mandatory sentencing law, if a woman does not believe her life is in danger, even if she misses entirely, as in this case, she can be sent to jail for 20 years. The question arises, how can you tell whether she thought her life was in danger or not, especially if she claims she did think it was?

An appeals court granted a retrial in this case because the judge mistakenly told the jury that Alexander had to prove she was acting in self-defense, but the law actually requires the prosecution to prove that she was not defending herself.

A comparison of this case with the Trayvon Martin shooting is instructive. In the Martin case, the shooter was declared not to be the aggressor, even though he was following Martin for several minutes before catching up to him. In the Alexander case, the defendant was declared the aggressor after she walked from the garage, where the gun was stored, to the living room, where the shooting occurred. Both defendants claimed they feared for their lives.

Martin's killer was acquitted. Alexander will likely have a chance at a plea bargain during her second trial, and may end up serving very little prison time beyond the 3 years she has already spent in prison.

Laws should be reasonable. A reasonable person should be able to tell whether a law has been broken or not. Laws should not be able to be twisted so that a white man with a good lawyer goes free while a poor African-American woman goes to prison after committing similar, if not identical, offenses.

The Alexander case is hardly the only abuse of a mandatory sentencing law, but it is a blatant one.

Friday, November 15, 2013

DC Councilman David Grosso sponsors forum on Criminal Justice System

On November 14, DC Councilman David Grosso, in cooperation with the ACLU, University of DC School of Law, NAACP, and Howard University School of Law, presented a forum on Race and Gender Disparities in the DC Criminal System. Members of the forum spoke on a wide range of topics, however.

The occasion for the forum is the publication of a report by the ACLU and the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. Several other forums have been held and more will undoubtedly be held in future.

Grosso has introduced several bills concerning criminal justice before the DC Council. One bill would legalize marijuana and set up a drug supply system to regulate the price of drugs. Most of the high price of illegal drugs stems from the difficulty in smuggling them into the country and evading police detection. Legalizing drugs would make drugs cheaper, although studies have shown that it would not cause drug use to increase. Another bill proposed by Grosso would make it illegal for a pregnant woman in prison to be placed in shackles. This bill is just common sense. Grosso deserves our applause for recognizing some of the ills of our society and trying to help rectify them.

Seema Sadanandan, a program director for the ACLU and a member of the National Lawyers Guild, was the most voluble member of the panel. She spoke persuasively about the need to change the tightly integrated system of laws that oppress the minority community. Sadanandan repeatedly invited members of the community to address the meeting, which a few of them did after the panelists completed their presentation.

The listeners heard some disturbing facts during the course of a two-hour forum, many of them from panelist Deborah Golden, Director of DC Prisoners' Rights Project. DC holds 50% of its prisoners in private prisons, information that is not publicized by the DC government. The private prison industry has aggressively pursued growth policies which have included determinate sentencing laws and opposition to liberalization of drug laws, continuing the so-called War on Drugs, and passing harsh immigration detention laws, such as the one in Arizona.

One of the audience members noticed police observers at the rear of the auditorium and challenged the police to explain their tactics. A large portion of the audience loudly voiced its disapproval of DC police tactics in the minority community. The observers wisely stayed quiet and the moderator of the forum was able to restore order after a few tense moments.

Other audience members identified themselves as objects of police misconduct and told stories about youthful experiences and how they became fearful of the police. Returning citizens--people returning to the community after being incarcerated--told stories of how they got involved in crime and how they escaped from the throes of the justice system.

Some mention was made of how much money private prisons made--about $5 billion a year--and how their profits led to passage of bad laws. No one noted the fact that welfare payments were abolished at the same time that prison sentences got longer. The War on Drugs led drug offenders to be banished from public housing. Increased imprisonment made it harder to find a job. All of these pressures combine to make it difficult for minorities to lead normal lives even when they try.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Racial profiling: the deniers

"[There is no] shred of credible evidence that 'racial profiling' is a widespread police practice." --Heather MacDonald

Just as there are global warming deniers("global warming is a liberal conspiracy", there are racism deniers ("There is no longer any white racism"), and now there are racial profiling deniers. These people are ideologues who look first at their ideology and then at the facts. For some reason, the facts are never sufficient to affect their ideology.

Such a denier is Heather MacDonald, who writes conservative hit pieces, primarily for the Manhattan Institute, but she is also published in the New York Post and elsewhere. She writes that blacks and hispanics are targeted by police officers, not because of their skin color, but because blacks and hispanics are more often involved in crime.

Since 2005, however, better studies on the relationship between police actions and racial profiling have been conducted by police themselves. In New York City, Judge Shira Scheindlin's order in Daniels vs. City of New York (2003) directed police officers to keep better records of their contacts with the public. For the past several years, police officers have been taking time to fill out forms that indicate the exact reasons for their stop and question tactics. The results have been eye-opening.

Over 1.5 million persons were stopped and questioned by NYC police during 2010 through the first half of 2012. Of those, 80 percent were African-Americans or Hispanics. That alone was not enough to establish a pattern of racial profiling, though, as Jeffrey Fagan explained in his 150-page report entered by plaintiffs in Floyd v. City of New York. Fagan is a law professor at Columbia University who also teaches epidemiology there. He is a rare combination of lawyer and statistician.

After processing more than 4 million forms filled out by policemen during the course of their duties, Fagan concluded that almost 7 percent of the stops of African-Americans and Latinos made by police were unjustified and another 23 percent may have been unjustified but cannot be absolutely defined. Sheindlin accepted these findings when she ruled in Floyd v. City of New York (2013). These 150 pages described in great detail what the police were doing and whether force was used or contraband discovered.

Thirty percent of stops from 2010 to 2012--roughly 500,000 stops--were either certainly unjustified or almost certainly unjustified. That's enough to establish that the NYC police do indeed stop people because of their skin color. But Fagan also analyzed several other factors to determine why stops were being made, including the number of stops per felony report. Here, he found that areas with high minority populations had up to 7 times as many weapons stops per felony report. Fagan concluded either that these areas were overpoliced or that less heavily minority areas were underpoliced.

Put another way, police were using a felony crime report as a pretext to stop minorities and search for weapons, despite the fact that more whites were found to be carrying weapons overall. The police made up to 7 stops of minority individuals for each crime report.

Fagan studies not just racial characteristics of police stops, but numerous other factors. This is the most thorough statistical analysis of police tactics ever made. Judge Scheindlin came to a judicial decision based on her thorough understanding of the data reported. She concluded that the NYC police did employ racial profiling in its customary procedures.

Racial profiling deniers were not convinced, however. As noted above, these people are ideologues who are not persuaded by facts but by their preconceived notions of what should be true. Three of these deniers are judges on the panel that removed Scheindlin from the case and reversed her decision. They did not consider whether Scheindlin's decision was correct according to the law, but instead took her decision as evidence that she was prejudiced against the police. Such a point of view is not possible if one examines the totality of the voluminous evidence gathered from police records.

Heather MacDonald published an article in the Manhattan Institute's City Journal shortly after Scheindlin's landmark decision in Floyd. In it, MacDonald displays the attitudes of an ideologue and the invective of a demagogue. She also reveals that she did not read or comprehend the analysis of Fagan as published with the decision.

MacDonald stoops to name-calling and ad hominem attacks. She calls Scheindlin clueless and writes that the judge understands nothing about policing. Such an attack would not be possible for someone who had read Fagan's in depth analysis of police data, because that data describes, in minute statistical detail, just exactly what the practices of the NYC police are.

In the same article, MacDonald attacks New York State Senator Eric Adams for quoting Chief of Police Kelly as saying that the NYPD stop minorities to instill fear in them. MacDonald says Kelly could not have meant to say this because he was speaking to a group of African-American politicians at the time. This argument displays the same lack of logic as someone who claims he is not a racist because one of his best friends is black.

Racial profiling deniers act at a disadvantage by comparison with global warming deniers. Racial profiling is defined by law. Police are required to obey the law in their activities, whether or not they agree with the law.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Football causes degenerative brain disease: NFL pays $800 million to make the problem go away

The National Football League (NFL) just settled a court case brought by former NFL players for nearly $800 million. At issue is the degenerative brain disease, Chronic Trauma Encephalopathy (CTE). As is usually the case with an out-of-court settlement, the league admitted no wrongdoing. This will make it more difficult for those players who will sue in the future.

Although $800 million seems like a large sum, it may only be the tip of an iceberg. The settlement covered only retired NFL players and did not include possible penalties for Riddell, which provided helmets for the NFL That case is still pending. Another, separate lawsuit charges that the NFL and its helmet supplier, Riddell, knew of the dangers of life-threatening brain disease that are caused by using the helmet in the NFL.

CTE causes dementia similar to Alzheimer's. It also causes depression, violent mood swings and suicidal urges. Unlike Alzheimer's, athletes with CTE are sill young. Junior Seau was 43 when he killed himself in 2012. An autopsy performed by the National Institute of Health (NIH) on Seau confirmed that he was suffering from CTE.

New diagnostic methods can reveal CTE while the subjects are still living. Using these methods, researchers at UCLA have examined 9 former NFL players and announced that at least nine have CTE. Two of the nine were all-star Mark Duper and hall-of-famer Tony Dorsett. Duper is 53. Dorsett is 59. CTE, like Alzheimer's, is debilitating but not life-threatening. The NFL may pay $50,000 a year to care for each ex-player who contracts CTE.

The NFL is extremely profitable. It should have no trouble paying the settlement in future cases. It can also require players to sign an injury waiver, which relieves a team of responsibility for any pre-existing injuries. The league has also made some rule changes that make head-to-head collisions less likely, although it may yet turn out that softer, repeated blows to the head are just as dangerous as actual concussions.

The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) faces a more serious problem. Four athletes have filed a suit alleging negligence on the part of the NCAA when it comes to handling concussions.  Concussions are a serious problem at the college level. Collegiate athletes suffered 29,000 concussions between 2004 and 2009. Brain trauma can cause lifelong problems and the NCAA may be liable for all of it.

Parents are likely to prevent their children from playing football if they believe their children may suffer irreparable brain damage. Universities have faced criticism for years about placing so much emphasis on football instead of academic performance. Lawsuits and fears over CTE may lead many colleges to abandon football.

There is a serious ethical problem as well. The NFL makes money from hard hits and life-threatening plays. In the past, the league--along with coaches, commentators, and fans--has been able to excuse such violence by saying the effects are only temporary, like a broken collarbone or a twisted ankle. With the new discoveries about how every hit to the head, no matter how slight, may contribute to CTE and an early death, the league and its fans can no longer dismiss such plays lightly.

The popularity of sports is evanescent. The accumulation of problems with football should change the game radically in the next decade. The game itself may not survive the changes.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Racial profiling deniers remove federal judge from key court case

Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled in Floyd v. City of New York that the City's policy of performing random stops and interrogations was a violation of the Eighth Amendment guarantee of Due Process.This police policy produced nearly 600,000 stops in New York City in 2008. The vast majority of the people stopped were people of color.

Community leaders in NYC and elsewhere hailed the ruling as a necessary antidote to the all-out war on minorities that police had been carrying out for years. Statistics kept by the police themselves showed that 80% of the stops were of Hispanics and African-Americans, even though whites represent 45% of the population of the city.

The most telling statistic pointing toward racial profiling is that only 5% of stops led to arrests. This fact indicates that police methods of identifying likely criminals were poor. A study conducted by Jeffrey Fagan tended to support the use of racial profiling by police. 

Another study, conducted by the conservative RAND Corporation, found that blacks were stopped less frequently than they were represented in crime-suspect descriptions. RAND used reports of violent crimes for this comparison, however, even though only 50% of those reports mention the race of the suspect. This tortured logic demonstrates that you can prove anything with statistics if your ethical standards are low enough. Scheindlin rejected the conclusions drawn by RAND.

Many liberals and minority advocates praised Scheindlin's ruling. The Republican Mayor of NYC and Chief of Police Kelly did not. They promised to appeal the ruling rather than work within the guidelines established by Judge Scheindlin to improve community relations with police. 

On October 31, three appeals court judges decided to remove Scheindlin from the case granted a new trial to the City. The ruling was based on the content of several news articles, not written by Scheindlin, but written about Scheindlin by her opponents in the case. These articles were edited to make it appear that Scheindlin had behaved unethically. The appeals court judges also pretended that Scheindlin somehow unethically maneuvered to take Floyd but this was blatantly untrue. The Federal Court routinely assigns similar cases to the same judge to take advantage of prior experience.

This case has become yet another issue that divides the country along political lines. The Conservative echo chamber has attacked a federal court for bias. Heather MacDonald, who works for the conservative Manhattan Institute accuses Scheindlin of "sheer willful ignorance", "patent ignorance of policing", and of being "clueless"--this published by a think tank that receives financing from the Koch brothers to deny global warming.  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Virginia needs to restore the voting rights of ex-felons

The good news for Virginia Republicans is that they lost the governor's race by only a little more than 50,000 votes. The bad news is that 450,000 adults were ineligible to vote because they are ex-felons, and that an overwhelming majority of those adults would vote Democratic if they could. Virginia is one of two states that prohibits ex-felons from voting (Kentucky is the other). These people have served their sentences but are not allowed to vote.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the states may restrict voting rights of ex-felons based on the ambiguous language of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Amendment says that states may revoke voting rights for "rebellion or other crime[s]". The conservative Burger Court ruled in 1974 that this meant that the states had broad discretion in denying the vote to ex-felons. This is yet another example of how the Fourteenth Amendment, which was intended to guarantee voting rights to African-Americans, has been used to disenfranchise the very people it was intended to help. About half of the disenfranchised voters are African-Americans. Ninety percent of African-Americans who voted in 2013 voted for McAuliffe.

In Virginia, ex-felons may petition the governor to have their voting rights restored. Governor McDonnell promised to restore voting rights to more Virginians than any previous governor, but he fell well short of that goal or any real progress in reinstating ex-felons. McDonnell reinstated fewer than 4,000 ex-felons, less than 1 percent of those unable to vote. McDonnell placed restrictions on ex-convicts, such as a waiting period of 2 to 4 years, that made it more difficult and time-consuming to process applications. Thousands of ex-felons, many of them guilty of non-violent offenses, continue to be punished long after their terms of imprisonment are over.

Terry McAuliffe should be to return the right to vote to all ex-felons. This could be done by the governor acting alone. It would be better, of course, to pass a law that makes this change permanent, but the legislature in Virginia is still very reactionary.

Another way to accomplish this result is for the U.S. Congress to pass a law that applies to every state. There is no need for a constitutional amendment since the current state of affairs stems from a Supreme Court interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, not the Amendment itself. Once the federal government passes a law, the states will be precluded from legislation in this area of law.

At least 250,000 African-Americans would be reinstated for future elections. Republicans will have a hard time winning statewide office in Virginia until they discover a way to counteract white racism in the state and in the party.

Monday, November 4, 2013

No new tax cuts

Grover Norquist and the Republican Party in DC have banded together in an attempt to stop any new taxes ever. Government requires flexibility, just as our personal finances require flexibility. Individuals need new revenue to counteract unexpected expenses, like a child who needs help in school, or an unemployed person who needs to relocated to find work.

Governments need flexibility to face new challenges as well. In the past few years, the federal government spent large sums of money fighting overseas wars and the so-called War on Drugs at home. The Republican response to these needs has been to borrow more money instead of raising taxes. This resulted in over $4 trillion in new federal debt during the Bush administration. New spending was exacerbated by tax cuts and a severe recession that cut revenues and increased expenditures for programs like unemployment insurance.

During the Obama administration, Republicans have steadfastly refused to raise taxes or increase federal spending to spur economic growth. But taxes have been raised; they're not called taxes, but fees for service or raised penalties for traffic violations. Only taxes on the rich have been forbidden, not cuts in programs that help the poor. So the latest Republican budget has cut $4 billion from SNAP, a program that provides food to the poor. Republicans justify this action, which disproportionately hurts children and the elderly, because they claim--without evidence--that there are abuses in the program.

Progressives have taken a long time to wise up to Republican tactics. The administration has offered to offset tax cuts with spending cuts, but this policy is unwise. Any cuts in revenues, which are sorely needed, will never be replaced under the "no new taxes" program. Therefore, any programs that result in savings to the federal government should not be returned to taxpayers. Instead they should be applied to programs that are hurting the most under current Congressional leadership, programs for the poor and disadvantaged.

It is very difficult to compromise with people who are willing to jeopardize the world economy to get their way. Just as progressives must take a hard line against shenanigans like closing the government and refusing to raise the debt limit, we must also take a hard line against passing any programs favored by the Republicans without a commensurate raise in revenues to pay for them.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

NSA gets a leash

President Obama has been slow to move in countering the excesses of his predecessors. Part of his reluctance derives from the institutional nature of government. Presidents come and go, but the bureaucracy stays forever.

Whistleblower William Binney revealed in 2007 that the National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on every single data transmission in the US as well as all foreign transmissions that reached the US. No one cared. Binney was neither arrested nor charged with leaking classified information.

Obama took office in 2009. He didn't care to oppose NSA, either. The new president had plenty of reasons for his reluctance. NSA is a huge organization. The Sunday Times reports that NSA's HQ in Maryland
contains almost 70 miles of roads, 1,300 buildings, each identified by a number, and 18,000 parking spaces as well as a shopping centre, golf courses, chain restaurants and every other accoutrement of Anywhere, USA.
NSA has other facilities around the world, including the Utah Data Center where it stores all data collected from US electronic signal monitoring. NSA spent $1.5-$2 billion to construct this facility.

Reforming an agency that large would meet strong resistance both from within the organization and from its supporters, like Orrin Hatch, Senator from Utah at that time. Conservative politicians and media would have accused Obama of being soft on terrorism, although none of them know much about what NSA does or whether it is effective. William Binney claimed that the multi-billion-dollar Utah Data Center was useless because NSA lacked the ability to interpret its data in a timely manner.

But last week NSA lost its mojo. Politicians from countries around the world began complaining about being bugged by NSA. Among those complaining loudest was Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany and one of our most important allies. Spokesmen for the Obama administration, including the president himself, fell all over each other claiming that they never eavesdropped on anyone and that they would never do it again. They thus began making the reforms that NSA has needed all along.

The incident and its aftermath reveal a great deal about Obama and his administration. Republicans have been right to fear the president and oppose his every move. Obama plans to do nothing that Republicans can legitimately oppose--until the moment that they can't oppose it any longer.

This is known in the martial arts as the No-Fight style. You refuse to fight your opponent and let him exhaust himself by attacking you. When an opening appears, you attack. By this time, your opponent has not got the strength to resist you.

Obama's strategy goes beyond temporary measures, however. He is clearly planning to leave an administration that will not embarrass a Democratic candidate for President. George W. Bush left so much broken crockery around the world--in Afghanistan, Iraq, and on Wall Street--that his party had little chance of retaining the presidency. Obama, by contrast, is quietly cleaning up messes and refusing to become embroiled in bureaucratic struggles which he cannot win.

The next president will be a Democrat and will be able to continue the progressive agenda modestly begun by Obama.