Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Re-election of Obama: What Forward Means

Whether you're reading your Facebook stream, or perusing the writing of journalists and pundits alike you're bound to come across a sigh of relief from the liberals in the US that Obama won (or maybe more correctly that Romney did not).  The Obama victory, as well as the senate being retained by Democrats, has been the continuation of a Democratic victory that began in 2006 in response to George W. Bush and the Republican party's toxic political legacy.  Four years ago a wave of excitement amongst liberals in the US was at it's peak with the election of the man many considered to be the leader to pull the US back from many of the most horrific policies of the Bush era.  When Obama claimed his victory in 2008 he did so with so many Americans hoping for change, that he used it as his campaign slogan.  It's no secret that there has been a wave of disappointment in the presidents first term among liberals due to things like; signing the NDAA into law, failing to close Guantanamo, and the failure to bring about a real or palpable sense of change.

However, what lies beyond the general consensus of placid dissaproval are the real meat and potatoes issues that the liberal class has all but ignored in this country.  These are the direct continuation and expansion of some of the worst Bush era policies which have either gained support or have been consciously ignored by the liberal class in America.  These policies include; the continuation of warrantless wiretapping and other domestic spy programs while at the same time immunizing telecom companies as well as the political leadership from any liability whether it be criminal or civil, extrajudicial killings of US citizens expanding on Bush's policy to not only be able to detain citizens without judicial review but to kill them, a war on whistleblowers that has seen more prosecutions under the espionage act than under every other president combined, a continued veil of government secrecy (from a president who promised an open administration), and the continuation of US hegemony in the middle east as well as the rest of the world with continuation of a war on terror and militaristic policies. 

So as the Democrats and their supporters across the nation rejoice in the victory over Romney and the GOP keeping out a new era of politics controlled by what have come to be known as "job creators," but are more rightly the wealthy elite, what do we really have to look Forward to?  It could be hard for many Americans to remember just what issues are important after an election season of each candidate attacking the other only on issues they disagreed to some degree on while ignoring the issues where their policies were in agreement.  It may also be hard for them to decipher just what the president is responsible for as many of the most hotly debated topics in the election were in fact legislative issues rather than executive issues.  For example taxes came up in debates over and over again as the candidates argued their views on tax policy and other fiscal issues.  However, a quick read of the constitution places all the powers of taxation as well as the ability to spend and borrow money in the hands of the legislative branch.  Although anyone familiar with the actual modern process of governance on the federal level will be quick to point out that the government works more along the lines of party organization than individual branches as Democratic and Republican leaders meet secretly to discuss and agree on policy.  It should be noted that this is NOT how our government was intended or designed to function.  It's these deals off the floors of the house or senate that allow negotiations between the parties and push through legislation that often have no or little support by either party's base.  One such issue will be arising very soon.

Obama and the Democratic leadership are soon expected to make a deal with Republican leaders to allow for modest tax increases in exchange for significant cuts to social and entitlement programs in order to reduce the federal deficit and possibly even begin to tackle debt in the future.  These cuts will no doubt come to programs like social security, medicare & medicaid, as well as other foundations of American liberalism.  What's coming to the US in 2013 or sooner is austerity and it's going to be enacted via bi-partisan deals that are going to be hated by what's left of the liberal class, but most likely accepted.  This is part of the political process in the US now.  First ideas that are raucously disturbing to liberals such as warrantless wiretapping or domestic spying get put into place by the "opposition" party while the Democratic leaders act disturbed and begin to criticize such policies.  However, as shown by Obama it's very easy once you assume the mantle of power to not only renege on such stances but to actually turn around and support bills that ensure immunity for those who committed the crimes.  Then when he was the one in control of the same programs he continued their expansion under a new veil of secrecy the policy has become a bipartisan policy that gains acceptance not only with the party that originated the policy but is accepted or ignored by the liberal base.

So as US Democrats support a liberal victory, they overlook that they have put into power a Democratic president and senate that will surely bring about cuts to programs they support.  What is sure to happen is that the blame for such cuts will be placed on the "evil" GOP because in order to avert massive financial and fiscal damage to our economy and government they had to make a deal with the devil.  Keep in mind this comes after a term where Obama has undoubtedly carried out a more egregious attack on our civil liberties than the previous Bush administration and yet has still managed to keep support from his base and the liberal class in general.  All this support came in spite of his political failures and anti-liberal policies mostly in fear of having an even more extreme president elected to office.  The number of pundits whose fundamental guideline in choosing a new president was to go for the seemingly less crazy of the two, because even though they may have been unhappy about Obama's first term they ran back into his arms after looking at Romney.  This type of fear based voting against the other opponent rather than for the true support of the president and his policies seems to have gripped the American public as well.  After all most of us accept that it's a choice between the lesser of two evils anyway. 

As we move forward from the election season and past the vicious campaign ads and general environment of political division that it creates, it's my hope that the American public wakes up to the fact that no matter who won, we the American public are going to lose.  In fact we've already lost.  We've lost control of the political establishment because they use money and often brilliant campaign strategies to convince the public to turn a blind eye to their abuses of power and the law as well as our own convictions and ethics.  We've lost because now corporations can fund both candidates for elections to guarantee government policies that are friendly to them.  We've lost because while the parties make plans to cut spending and tackle the public debt our political leaders ignore the actual causes of the debt problem both publicly and privately.  When quantitative easing becomes a normal state of affairs and banks are given over $16 trillion dollars in zero interest "loans" from the federal reserve in order to keep the bloated financial sector of the economy going while US manufacturing continues to suffer losses and lower worker pay rates, we lose.  When the economy minus government stimulus programs is actually smaller than it was in 2007 and yet the power to circulate money into the economy is controlled by a private central bank that creates money through debt, we lose.  When we continue sanctions on Iran which do little to the leaders but cause food instability, hunger, and general conditions of unrest in order to bring about a more US friendly regime and keep Iran from being able to defend itself against US hegemony, we lose.  When all but the smallest minority of climatologists are telling us that climate change is not only real but a grave threat to life on planet earth and no politician will take a stand against oil company lobbied policies to cut back our use of fossil fuels and invest in sustainable energy, even after a decade of increased hurricanes have pummeled the east and gulf coasts, and after a summer of record droughts, we lose.

So instead of celebrating whatever victories the liberal class in America has achieved (of which there are a few victories to celebrate) I recommend a stiff shot of honesty in regards to US politics and doing whatever you can to hold the Democrats whom you voted for accountable. Hold them accountable not just on the issues that the parties disagree on, but specifically on the policies that have now become the norm even though they go against the true ideals of the US liberal class.  If we continually allow the Democratic leadership to manufacture consent for policies not in line with our own views then we will have allowed the quasi-aristocratic elite to rise up and take hold of our nation beyond the degree that a peaceful election will be able to restore normative processes of government.  We risk allowing such a grab of power that as our world economic system continues to slide into the abyss of a cessation of growth the bankers and elite fat cats will control a system too powerful for the public to defeat.

It may sound alarmist, but when you consider the Walton family of Walmart fame has a net worth greater than the bottom 40% of US families combined and dump millions upon millions of dollars into the political system to support (or more correctly buy) a candidate which will continue to enact policies that benefit the elite, it's not so far fetched.  It's time the all too placid liberal class actually organized and took a stand for liberal ideals whether it be defeating charter schools which provide public funds to corporations to educate our children or stopping the vacuous economic policies which are turning the US more and more into the "haves" and the "have nots".  Failure to admit to the fact that the corporate state owns our government, and most of us, is not only to be dishonest but it is to be a coward in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, all because we accept their rule.  After all congress has been seeing historic lows in approval and yet we voted the vast majority of them back into office.  What could be more Orwellian than not only having an unpopular government voted back into office, but accepting that this is the way our democracy works?  Doesn't that inherently imply that our democratic institutions and our republic are broken?  As Jill Stein (Green Party candidate for the 2012 presidential election) has said "Neither Obama nor Romney has a single exit strategy from the deadly crises we face."  This responsibility lies now with the US public and those who have the moral courage to fight back against the corporate state and the government they control by holding even leaders that we supported responsible for our welfare and the welfare of the planet.  It's not a victory when the US public loses, and this election won't be a victory unless the US public stands up to hold our leaders accountable rather than continue looking the other way.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any,”
Alice Walker

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Economic Growth in the 21st Century

"As the decline in production begins first in oil and then later this century in coal, the decline and collapse of modern civilization will also occur without a society already adapted to less net energy usage.  This phenomenon is known as resource depletion...  It's not just energy or erosion we're dealing with, but a crippling combination of things which will make it impossible for economic growth to continue."

The study of economics has become known as the dismal science, a phrase coined by the 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle.  Carlyle coined the phrase, most likely in response to a prediction by economist Thomas Malthus.  Malthus' Essay on the Principles of Population predicted that, "The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race."  A dismal prediction indeed, and likely one that would cause some sort of cognitive dissonance among those who fully understand just what his essay implies.  However, in the modern era of economics, any such notion of a catastrophic or dismal failure of the earth to be able to provide for the needs of man has been removed from thought and theory.  This is not true of every economist, but it is far too often true that "legitimate" economists do not believe in such nonsense.  These "legitimate" economists are often simply the result of corrupted academe so adeptly described by Charles Ferguson, both in the Academy Award winning film Inside Job, as well as this article.  It's not just the corrupt few on the side of wall street, but nearly every mainstream economist has a commonly held belief that economic growth - the increase in the capacity of an economy to produce goods and services - is the proper response to alleviating poverty.  In fact, the 21st century will not continue to see this ever expanding increase in goods and services.  Here's why...

The basic assumptions of modern economics, going back to Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, are flawed. They're based on a scientific paradigm that ignores ecological realities, as well as a flawed view of exactly what is responsible for this production.  John Michael Greer in The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered points out this very thing.  Greer points to the beginning of The Wealth of Nations which states, "The annual labor of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessities and conveniences of life."  Greer's response to this was that, "left unrecognized is the crucial fact that the annual labor of a nations would be utterly useless without the goods and services provided free of charge by Nature, which enable labor to be done at all by making human life possible in the first place and by providing all that labor with something to labor on."  What Greer is referring to are the natural processes which allow us to grow food.  These would include the hydrologic cycle, pedogenisis (soil growth), and the large amount of solar energy provided by our center and steward of the solar system, the sun.  However, they also include the anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms which have become our fossil fuels (such as oil and coal).  This would also include ore genesis processes, which create the various mineral deposits in the crust of the earth.

The thesis of The Wealth of Nations asserted that the division of labor increases productivity - and therefore the increase in the capacity to produce goods and services - as well as asserting that a condition of opulence or great wealth would arise.  This thesis overlooks the simple fact that increased productivity doesn't necessarily mean better productivity, or a better life for everyone indefinitely, by increasing production.  Without the understanding that the economy was both dependent upon the environment that supported it, and limited by Nature, it is easy to ignore that economic production can damage the earth that supports it.  This could be seen in early agricultural economies and the great empires of ancient times.  For example, ancient Mesopotamia suffered greatly as the increased agricultural production from irrigation caused soil erosion that made farming impossible and caused collapse.  Another example would be the economy of ancient Rome which collapsed due to over expansion, which was largely due to resource shortages and environmental degradation.  By the CE the Mediterranean basin had been largely deforested, which in turn caused erosion and the need to seek timber for their growing economy elsewhere.  The erosion this caused made Rome more and more reliant on the fields of Northern Africa to feed the population of Rome.  This was also a case of military expansionism that deforested Northern Africa and turned it into "the bread basket" of Rome.  Much of the area once plowed under to raise grain for the Romans has now turned to desert.  So in past times there have been collapses due to this increasing capacity to produce goods beyond what the primary economy (the primary goods provided to us by natural processes) can provide.  For further evidence of this, or a detailed study of societal collapse for similar reasons, see Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies.

The main difference between the modern economy and the ancient agricultural empires, is that we have used enormous amounts of fossil fuels to power industry and production.  Coal literally sprang up as a replacement for fuel for heating homes after timber shortages made this fuel - that was once banned by Edward I (blacksmiths using coal could be hanged) - an in demand item.  However, as I've talked about in my early post on Energy and Society these fuels are not a limitless resource, but a finite source of energy that has brought about unforeseen environmental effects like climate change.  As the decline in production begins first in oil and then later this century in coal, the decline and collapse of modern civilization will also occur without a society already adapted to less net energy usage.  This phenomenon is known as resource depletion, and has played its role as previously stated in the collapse of empires.  It's not just energy or erosion we're dealing with, but a crippling combination of things which will make it impossible for economic growth to continue.  These include desertification, loss of fresh water sources from overuse and pollution, loss of biodiversity/extinction rates which signal a new era of extinction, depletion of fossil fuels, topsoil erosion, climate change, as well as the limits to a debt based monetary system (more on this later). 

With all this in mind and the mountains of evidence that humans are doing seemingly irreversible harm to our ecosystems, why is it that economists continue to propose more growth as the means to help our society?  Usually clear headed economists, like Paul Krugman, still throw their weight behind policies to continue or try to continue growth even after writing in a NY Times article: "What the commodity markets are telling us is that we’re living in a finite world, in which the rapid growth of emerging economies is placing pressure on limited supplies of raw materials, pushing up their prices. And America is, for the most part, just a bystander in this story."  It's truly a case of the old saying that when the only tool you have is a hammer then everything you see starts to look like a nail.  Rather than refocusing our energy towards real solutions to material problems, economists keep positing that more growth can and should be achieved even by the taking on of more and more debt privately and publicly because, well, it will keep the economy growing and unemployment will lessen.  Why doesn't he mention that there is simply a class of dependent laborers without access to resources or the freedom to live life without the managers of capital (which direct economic activity in the modern world)?  Instead he suggests more economic growth will help alleviate the poverty caused by this second "great depression."  Perhaps he is failing to ask whether or not growth in the modern era has begun failing to make us richer (as is it did when the world was not yet entirely conquered by European empires and industrial society), and if it now makes everyone poorer, as we deplete what is left of our resource base. 

Of course I'm not alone in saying that the previous trends of growth are not going to continue indefinitely.  In fact a recent study at MIT, which set out to re-examine the famous 1972 book The Limits to Growth, has stated that the world could suffer from a "global economic collapse" which could cause "precipitous population decline" if resource consumption was left unchecked.  Richard Heinberg has also warned in 9 of his award winning books, about the perils of energy depletion.  In his latest book The End of Growth, he explains with detail how policies that once led to prosperity are now leading us to disaster.   He also argues that growth in consumption should be dropped for a new goal of improving the quality of life.  The problem with this is that the obvious answers to improvement in the quality of life involve sharing, which has become labeled as class warfare.  Self interest can only take a society towards the interests of those that come to dominate society and communities when it is not checked by some sort of ethical or cultural standard of caring for the community around you (including not just humans, but rivers, streams, fish, wildlife and Nature as a whole).  Without delving too deeply into the subject, it's easy to summarize that there are alternative economic theories and ideologies that involve cooperation, and more local and communal living that probably provide our best chance to stabilize our society.

If resource depletion wasn't bad enough, there is also a very big problem with monetary systems and especially debt.  The amount of debt in the world has been growing steadily, especially debt held by sovereign nations.  The world debt held just by these nations alone is more than $45 trillion dollars.  At the same time, especially within the US and some European countries, the percentage of domestic corporate profits in the financial sector boomed.  As Simon Johnson cites "From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. In 1986, that figure reached 19 percent. In the 1990s, it oscillated between 21 percent and 30 percent, higher than it had ever been in the postwar period. This decade, it reached 41 percent. Pay rose just as dramatically. From 1948 to 1982, average compensation in the financial sector ranged between 99 percent and 108 percent of the average for all domestic private industries. From 1983, it shot upward, reaching 181 percent in 2007."  What this information is telling us, is there has been a serious amount of financialization within the world.  Even though resources necessary to the continuation of our industrialized society are beginning to go into decline, the financial sector is claiming greater and greater wealth. 

In order to understand this process it's useful to be able to classify the economy into its smaller parts.  E.F. Shumacher has classified the difference between the goods and services provided by human labor, and the goods and services provided by nature.  He labeled the former secondary goods while the latter he called primary goods.  Primary goods in fact, make it possible for the secondary goods to even exist.  The world's primary goods like oil or mineral deposits are being depleted.  However, there should be a third tier added to the economy above the primary and secondary goods.  This is a class of goods that are neither produced by nature or labor, but they are produced by the financial sector.  This comes right to the heart of modern monetary policy as it involves all bonds in creation.  A bond is simply nothing more than a promise to pay an amount in the future.  This is viewed as an economic good as there are those who produce them and those who want to sell them.  This good can be passed along from seller to buyer any amount of times and even if it's highly unlikely for this promise to be honored, the chance of collecting is seen as an object of value.  As the primary economy begins to shrink in the amount of goods provided, the tertiary or financial economy continues to claim more and more wealth from promises to pay, by selling these debts not just to private citizens, but national governments.  Since the world has increasingly come under a debt based monetary system it has become possible and very profitable to exchange money for money.  The entirety of the financial sector uses this concept to make its money, and it has created a sort of economic monoculture wherein all economic exchanges are valued by their exchange value for money. 

The end result from this is that a collapse in the primary economy (one that many ecologists are warning is coming) would certainly cause a collapse of the secondary economy of goods and services provided by human labor, as the materials to labor on and with become scarce.  Such a scenario would surely collapse the bloated financial economy with it's continual growing debts and it's metamorphosis into treating money as a good to be produced and sold.  The limit to debt is the ability the debtor has to pay back that debt.  Therefore, the economy is going to need to produce a serious amount of goods to pay back the debts already on the books at a time when the amount of goods and services available is on the brink of a serious decline.  Our financial sector has been issuing debts that the earth simply cannot pay, especially when these debts are necessary for financial growth on a continual basis.  With these simple and logical conclusions about our new economic reality, how can we continue this radical view that limitless growth is not only possible, but desirable and the only way to fix poverty?  Any economist that still holds the ability to value human and all life beyond merely its monetary exchange value would tell you that while growth does provide more goods and services in the world, it does not cure poverty because the same economic conditions that produce growth also produce poverty by the distribution of goods and services.  It's like building a wall with one hand while the other knocks it down. 

The most important thing to take away from this is not some depressing doomsday scenario (although it is important to acknowledge the disaster just around the corner), but to realize that other, better options exist to meet our economic needs than endless growth.  Without adoption of the environmental sciences and some simple logic into economics, we are doomed to fail.  If we instead adopt more ecological understanding into our economic system, we are destined to change the nature of economic exchange to a nature based system, erase the class of money rentiers which monopolize current economic exchanges, and possibly design a society with the stability needed for a healthy ecosystem with a more healthy and just human society.  It's simply a matter of re-framing our view that more is better into one in which we seek improvements in the quality of life.  This could also mean reestablishing our connection to the community of people, as well as nature that surround us.  None of this will be accomplished though without the diffusion of economic and environmental knowledge to the increasingly radical majority that believe growth can and will continue infinitely. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Obama: LGBT Rights Warrior or Campaign Strategist?

On May 10th 2012 President Barack Obama on "Good Morning America" stated, “I’ve concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”  Before anything else is said on this issue it should be noted that this is important, and I'm personally glad that he supports the rights for same sex couples to marry.  However, we have to understand this comes with a caveat; he thinks that states should decide the issue.  In other words, he supports states rights to discriminate against same sex marriages as long as that's what the state wants.  It seems to me that most people in support of gay marriage would agree, this is historically important.  Even if it doesn't mean Obama actively supporting changes to federal laws allowing gay marriage, it is still a step forward for gay rights.  The problem is Obama is using this PERSONAL stance on gay marriage to campaign for re-election.  Take a look at this "documentary" produced by the Obama campaign.
Documentaries are usually thought to be for instruction or maintaining the historical record, and this is clearly a campaign video.  That aside, President Obama assures us he is that strong asset in the white house for the LGBT community, and he can keep us "leaning forward."  What does that really entail though?  If he supports letting states decide the issue of gay marriage, and would lend support to repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, but is no longer part of the legislative branch then what policies are going to change?  Even with the repeal of DADT, (Don't Ask Don't Tell) same sex marriages within the military don't allow a military member's partner the same rights as non same sex marriages when it comes to travel or housing.  If a vote for Obama is a vote for gay rights as the Obama campaign is lobbying hard for his base to accept, then what political outcomes is he seeking?

This is not a critique of Obama on his personal stance on gay marriage (which I applaud him for). This is simply a critique on campaign politics and the mindless followers intensive propaganda campaigns (AKA election campaigns) generate, which ruin electoral politics.  What I'm saying is,  Obama is clearly using and touting himself as being a warrior for LGBT rights, while at the same time refusing to say that he thinks it should be legal federally, or even decided on that level.  That to me equates to saying, "well sure even though 12 states prohibit same sex marriage by statute and 30 via the constitution, I think states should decide what right same sex couples should have even though that means nearly nationwide discrimination."

As an exercise in thought if we were to travel back to say the late 1850's when the issue of slavery was a hotly debated topic; imagine a president running their campaign as a warrior against slavery or being a strong advocate for slaves in the white house, by simply stating they personally viewed slavery as an evil, and their view had evolved to say they personally support ending slavery.  However, they note that states should decide whether slavery should exist.  This at the time was known as popular sovereignty and that was exactly what the Democratic nominee for president in 1860 supported.  Although he didn't support ending slavery and his views were considered more moderate on the issue, he supported the right of states to decide.  This man was Stephen Douglas of Illinois.  The debates in 1858 between Lincoln and Douglas have become somewhat famous, but in these debates Douglas clearly stated attitudes now seen as racist or bigoted.  Namely he insisted slavery was not a moral issue, that Lincoln advocated equality of races and even that they should be able to intermarry (Lincoln denounced such radical equality), and the government was drawn up "by white men for white men".  What's important is, he used this tactic because he had to walk a fine line to keep the support of the northern states where abolitionism was popular, while not upsetting the southern base of democrats at the time. 

It's a very similar situation back here in good ol' 2012.  Rather than being hotly debated on the grounds of how this issue should be approached politically or what should be done politically about it, it's being used merely as a social issue, and to show personal virtue to garner support for the president from his lackluster base.  The aforementioned announcement of Obama's support for same sex marriage came just before he held a fundraiser at George Clooney's house in which he touted his support for same sex couples and raised a total of $15 million.  Remember this isn't a political position, but a personal position as he doesn't support anything more than popular sovereignty outside of his comments of support for repealing the Defense of Marriage Act.  This seems to amount to a kind of "progressive" hypocrisy where the left constantly criticizes the right for it's election of government on the grounds that they have similar views on religion, or other social issues.  This while ignoring the fact that many of the leaders of the religious right advocate policies that are harmful to their constituents economically, environmentally, and in some cases like abortion and defense, go against the core conservative value of a small government.  However, as I've written about earlier, the Hypocrisy of Obama supporters is not a new thing.  Electing a president or throwing full support behind a candidate because of a non-political stance on same sex marriage, while at the same time continuing policies which any truly progressive person should find deplorable (and often are illegal or borderline illegal), shows either personal moral decay, or the total corruption of the electoral system.

What it means to support someone because of a personal stance on a social issue, is that we've made a bigger deal out of something that is in fact politically trivial and thus trivialized more important issues.  That's not to say that LGBT issues are unimportant by any measure.  They are profoundly important issues, but if a president was going to campaign on being a gay rights president than one would expect him to have the courage to say that he believes that the nation should stop discrimination against same sex couples federally.  Merely calling on democrats in congress to address the issue and stop discrimination would even suffice.  After all, there are federal laws against race discrimination.  So what could these more important issues be than the president's personal opinion on same sex marriage?  How about you name one; education, energy, agriculture policies, economic solutions to get out of this "Great Recession", foreign policy (which includes global conflicts, drone war campaigns, and making threats against Iran for purportedly manufacturing or seeking to manufacture nuclear weapons), monetary reform, Wall Street regulation, the student loan bubble, domestic spying, and crushing levels of government debt, and that's just to get you started. 

Take for example education.  Obama and his now official Republican opponent Mitt Romney are nearly identical on education policies except for Romney's support of the voucher system and some small differences on higher education.  (There was an interesting Washington Post article about this recently that pointed out their similar stances.)  It's also true that Obama's educational policies don't differ from President G.W. Bush in any substantial way.  His policy is that of "high stakes" testing which punishes schools and teachers that don't meet standards or show improvement.  A mandate that schools be 100% proficient in reading and math by 2014 now has the administration allowing a waiver form for states as no school will be able to reach this seemingly impossible goal.  What isn't often stated is, the education reform Democrats aren't really much different than their education reform Republican counterparts that were responsible for No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in the first place.  The biggest problem of NCLB is that it made test scores the ultimate measure of educational quality, ignoring aspects of critical thinking, and providing a liberal sciences education that citizens need to keep a functioning republic.  Instead it focuses on education for competition in the global market, re-affirming our deep subconsciously held belief that man's purpose is to participate in global markets.  In other words to not work against the global markets that determine your place in the economic hierarchy, but instead support it.  Obama's plan goes a step further than NCLB and its obtuse measures of educational quality.  His plan asserts that teachers alone are the only thing responsible for whether test scores go up or down.  They attribute nothing to poverty, students, parents, or economic status.  If there's one thing that can be pointed to as being a factor of lower test scores it's poverty.  If you're still not convinced that Obama has an expanded version of Bush's education plan, just think after Obama appointed Arne Duncan to head his education department.  Duncan went on tour with Newt Gingrich to promote this "Race to the Top" education plan.  Obama however flew to Florida to promote it at a Miami high school with Jeb Bush.  If you're still not convinced, just wait a decade and watch how schools privatize as public education continues to become stigmatized as underachieving wastes of money despite this manufactured crisis.

How about another issue like energy.  In reality, Obama's energy policy is really no policy at all according to Bill Mckibben.  He makes the point, if you think about it, if a president had a foreign policy of everyone is an equal ally, he would be laughed at, but that's precisely Obama's policy for energy.  Mckibben said, "Burning all the oil you can and then putting up a solar panel is like drinking six martinis at lunch and then downing a VitaminWater. You’re still a drunk — just one with your daily requirement of C and D."  Obama's strategy is to promote that under his administration the US has drilled a record number of oil and gas wells.  He also touts the great reserves of natural gas the US has, but fails to state that hydro-fracking practices necessary to get this gas are extremely environmentally dangerous, especially to water sheds and the safety of our water supply.  No one is mentioning that at some point all the carbon based fossil fuels are going to be either too expensive, too hard to get to, and simply put, too depleted to power industrial civilization as it currently stands (which is as a society under the yoke of the carbon barons).  The most Obama can do is promote fuel efficiency as a solution to the depletion of fossil fuels, which is not a solution, but a continuation of dependency on fossil fuels.

I could go on about every issue including agriculture policies which give large subsidies to Agra-business and helps Monsanto keep it's business up by: not allowing for GMO labeling or banning, keeping a former Monsanto lobbyist as a senior adviser at the FDA, and pushing African countries to accept "investment" by Monsanto in order to start the next "green revolution".  Meanwhile his FDA goes around shutting down those who wish to sell raw milk using armed FDA agents to seize goods.  Then, we could look at his economic solutions, which amount to take on more debt without providing a meaningful jobs program while continuing with the mindset that an economy is akin to a family budget.  This clear in statements like, "We have to cut the spending we can’t afford so we can put the economy on sounder footing, and give our businesses the confidence they need to grow and create jobs."  He won't get in to the very complicated subject of resource depletion and an economy that demands constant growth as the norm (which only came about because of fossil fuels).  Nor has he clamped down on Wall Street and the financial sector as he continues to give key positions to people within the financial market.  Most assuredly we could discuss Obama's foreign policy, which includes his position that as President of the US he has the right to launch drone missile strikes in countries without their co-operation, away from any war zone, even to strike targets they haven't identified by secret executive authority with no review by the legislative branch.  Obama has declared himself the judge, jury, and executioner to decide who can be targeted and killed anywhere in the world.  Imagine if any other country in the world declared the right to strike with a drone by internal secretive process inside the borders of another country, (or even the US).  The US would denounce it strongly.  This amounts to a failure to hold ourselves as a country, to a standard we expect of others.  We could also talk of his support for the Bahrain-an dictatorship that has been protested against, much like Egypt protesting against the Mubarak regime, or Libya's protests against Gaddafi.  The point is Obama doesn't really have a progressive leg to stand on.  Many of his own policies go against the heart of progressive thought yet he needs to continually bolster his image as the champion of the people or the champion of gay rights.  What's really true is that Obama has a nicely paid team of campaign strategists that promote the president and his persona to pacify the left, while continually caving in to demands of the right, or more accurately big business.  So it's worth it to take a look at exactly what his strategies are, even if that means having to think critically about the only person standing in the way of a US with Mitt Romney as president. 

One of his big campaign points is he's strong on terrorism, as well as ending the war in Iraq, and putting the steps into place so that down the road the US can leave Afghanistan.  What he promotes is that he killed Bin Laden, while he continually leaks more and more information to the press about this otherwise classified operation (as long as it makes him look like a strong leader that's tough on terror).  It just seems that no matter what issue you examine, Obama talks a certain talk, but when it comes down to real policy, the talk is replaced with policies that show talk is all it is.  The failure of the US public (and specifically the progressive portion of the population) to hold Obama accountable for keeping Bush's policies on warrant-less wiretapping not just intact, but expanded, as well as expanding his ability to wage war without congressional approval and authorize drone killings via a secretive kill list, amounts to a betrayal of not just progressive, but humanist principles that eschew a consistent moral or ethical standard in favor of blind political worship or demagoguery.

This is why The Association of National Advertisers awarded him for marketer of the year in 2008.  This is because he got into office convincing the US public that this was not going to be politics as usual, but change was going to sweep the white house and all of government.  In the hangover from this progressive orgy of hope without political substance that has become the Obama administration's first term, it has become more and more clear this is not just more politics as usual.  The acceptance and now normalization of activities once decried by progressives and even moderate democrats put in place by the previous administration, undermines any moral authority they might have once had as they foolishly support a wolf in sheep's clothing.  Citizens that can't demand a president work within the confines of the constitution and uphold the rule of law, but instead insist the president be supported merely because he personally believes in anything, have shirked their duty as citizens of the nation.  Isn't this the exact same thing Liberals have decried when it comes to electing official because of religious belief?  After all if it really comes down to the lesser of two evils, and Obama's personal stance on same sex marriage is the deciding factor for you, doesn't that analysis also entail that the electoral political system of the US is broken?  Maybe the whole point is, while Obama pushes to raise a billion dollars to convince the US he should remain president, we keep accepting a broken system every four years to elect another person to look after the interests of those who paid to get them in office.  What remains to be seen is how long the US citizenry is going to keep buying into such ridiculous and trivial campaign tactics while the environment, rule of law, education, and economy collapse around us.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The NSA, Warrant-less Wiretapping, The Big Spy Center, and The Erosion of the Rule of Law

According to James Bamford of, "Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks."  He goes on to say, "In the process—and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the US and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of email messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes. Finally, the agency has begun building a place to store all the trillions of words and thoughts and whispers captured in its electronic net. And, of course, it’s all being done in secret."

An ominous sounding project to be sure, but it's very interesting that he brings up Nixon.  Although he is wrong that this is the first time since the Nixon administration the NSA has surveilled US citizens, the Nixon administration was important in laying the ground work for the current policies surrounding domestic spying and wiretapping.  It's important to start here because this has indeed become one of the slow cons of the business and political elite which is leading the US to a sort of "soft" fascism.  The Watergate break-in and the criminality of Nixon and his administration that followed to cover up the break in is standard US history.  Part of that illegal break-in or series of break-ins involved wiretapping the DNC headquarters in the Watergate complex.  After the "smoking gun" tape revealed Nixon had known and participated in the covering up of crimes being investigated his legal team suggested he resign or he would surely be impeached for obstruction of justice, and conviction seemed imminent.  After Nixon's resignation Gerald Ford assumed the presidency and quickly pardoned Nixon for all crimes involved with the Watergate scandal.  In other words Ford decided to use his presidential authority to pardon a criminal simply because he was the former president.

The problem is this goes against the very foundation of the USA as stated by John Adams, "The very definition of a republic is 'an empire of laws, and not of men."  James Madison argued in Federalist 57 that "I will add, as a fifth circumstance in the situation of the House of Representatives, restraining them from oppressive measures, that they can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together...  without which every government degenerates into tyranny."  Whether it's Adams, Paine, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, or even Hamilton they all favor the rule of law over all citizens equally and warn that privilege or exception from the law will bring tyranny.  Without adherence to this rule of law over all they all understood that the constitution and other such laws would become suggestions with compliance by government optional.

So Nixon got pardoned and while many were glad to move on or that the "end of the national nightmare" had come to an end, it has also set a precedence of excusing crime and criminality at the highest levels of US government.  For a more in depth look at this process I recommend Glenn Greenwald's With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful.  The precedence set by this has allowed things once thought to be unconstitutional (i.e. warrant-less wiretapping, assassination of a US citizen by executive decree, extraordinary rendition [torture by proxy], and use of aggressive military force without congressional consent) to become quasi-legal through claimed executive authority.  This is true even if they are strictly forbidden within the US constitution.  The warrant-less wiretapping of domestic citizens is strictly forbidden.  After the abuses by Nixon, and other domestic spy programs used mostly for political purposes, congress decided through the Church committee resolutions to create the FISA court of 3 judges that would issue warrants for domestic wiretaps.  However the G.W. Bush administration was committing the crime of domestic wiretaps and collection of data from electronic communications through the NSA.

A NY Times article in December of 2005 by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed that the Bush administration had allowed the NSA to participate in this domestic spying ignoring the law that warrants must be obtained.  In other words the rule of law was ceded in the name of national security and allowed immunity for such crimes granted by the political class.  If the failure to prosecute or impeach Bush for clearly illegal activities seems bad, what about retro-active grants of immunity by congress for those involved in the crimes?  It was later revealed by whistle blower Mark Klein that AT&T had, "installed a fiber optic splitter at its facility at 611 Folsom Street in San Francisco that makes copies of all emails, web browsing, and other Internet traffic to and from AT&T customers, and provides those copies to the NSA."  AT&T wasn't alone in allowing the NSA to illegally spy on US citizens, but the list included other telecom giants like Verizon and Bell South.  It's important to note that FISA grants the Telecom industry full immunity in the case that they were acting in good faith and not knowingly breaking the law.  Qwest at that time decided not to co-operate with the Bush administration because they questioned the legality of such actions even asking the NSA to take their proposal to a FISA court.  The above mentioned companies however were all on board with the program.

So once AT&T customers began suing AT&T in court and winning for the illegal release of their private communication data the Telecom companies decided to use their influence on congress to grant the retroactive immunity from all crimes related to the NSA wiretapping scandal.  The telecom companies began to use lobbyists to persuade a Democratic congress would concede to voting for immunity for the telecom industry.  Glenn Greenwald wrote that in the first three months of 2008 AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast "spent a combined total of almost $13 million on lobbyists." The details of how these connected lobbyists used their influence to gain amnesty are in Glenn's aforementioned book.  However the lobbying wasn't the only tool the telecom industry used to receive this retroactive immunity.  The campaign donations to key Democratic senators and congressmen helped in gaining congressional support of the amnesty legislation.  Jay Rockefeller for instance was one of these as he sat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.  He was also up for re-election in 2008.  As revealed by a article Rockefeller saw great gains in contributions from the telecom industry.

"Top Verizon executives, including CEO Ivan Seidenberg and President Dennis Strigl, wrote personal checks to Rockefeller totaling $23,500 in March, 2007. Prior to that apparently coordinated flurry of 29 donations, only one of those executives had ever donated to Rockefeller (at least while working for Verizon).

In fact, prior to 2007, contributions to Rockefeller from company executives at AT&T and Verizon were mostly non-existent.

But that changed around the same time that the companies began lobbying Congress to grant them retroactive immunity from lawsuits seeking billions for their alleged participation in secret, warrantless surveillance programs that targeted Americans.

 AT&T executives discovered a fondness for Rockefeller just a month after Verizon execs did and over a three-month span, collectively made donations totaling $19,350.

AT&T Vice President Fred McCallum began the giving spree in May with a $500 donation. 22 other AT&T high fliers soon followed with their own checks."

Also according to the watchdog group Maplight:
Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint gave PAC contributions averaging:
$8,359 to each Democrat who changed their position to support immunity for Telcos (94 Dems)
$4,987 to each Democrat who remained opposed to immunity for Telcos (116 Dems)

88 percent of the Dems who changed to supporting immunity (83 Dems of the 94) received PAC contributions from Verizon, AT&T, or Sprint during the last three years (Jan. 2005-Mar. 2008). See below for list of these 94 Dems.
All House Members (June 20th vote):
 Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint gave PAC contributions averaging:
$9,659 to each member of the House voting "YES" (105-Dem, 188-Rep)
$4,810 to each member of the House voting "NO" (128-Dem, 1-Rep)

This type of collusion by the corporate and government sectors  has become business as normal within  the government, but it is especially egregious when it is to retroactively immunize criminal behavior.  The elected officials are winning their positions mostly due to fund raising efforts.  The Center for Responsive Politics stated that in 2008, "the biggest spenders won 93 percent of House races and 86 percent of Senate races. In 2006, the top spenders won 94 percent of House races and 73 percent of Senate races. And in 2004, 98 percent of House seats went to candidates who spent the most, as did 88 percent of Senate seats."  These facts show the role money is playing in our elections, but what goes unseen often is that the push to fund raise can lead politicians to spend most of their time with those who can finance their campaigns.  However egregious this type of election process is towards our representative form of government on a regular basis, when they can be seen in collusion on granting large scale immunity retroactively for crimes the rule of law has ceased.

When the FISA amendments act of 2008 passed in the Democratically controlled senate it stamped out the investigations into the warrant-less wiretapping, granted immunity to the Telecom companies who knowingly broke the law, and vastly expanded the wireless eavesdropping powers of the government.  The bill passed with support from top democrats like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rahm Emanuel, and of course Barack Obama who violated his own promise to filibuster any bill with telecom immunity.  Instead Obama voted against Chris Dodd's filibuster and for the bill itself.  As soon as the legislation was signed into law by G.W. Bush all the suits filed against the telecom companies were dismissed.  The NSA and the illegal activities they participated in were codified into law rather than punished.

However a recent whistle blower named William Binney has gone on record for which states:
The NSA would have been able to limit its eavesdropping to just international communications, which at the time was all that was allowed under US law. Instead it chose to put the wiretapping rooms at key junction points throughout the country—large, windowless buildings known as switches—thus gaining access to not just international communications but also to most of the domestic traffic flowing through the US. The network of intercept stations goes far beyond the single room in an AT&T building in San Francisco exposed by a whistle-blower in 2006. “I think there’s 10 to 20 of them,” Binney says. “That’s not just San Francisco; they have them in the middle of the country and also on the East Coast.” ...

Binney left the NSA in late 2001, shortly after the agency launched its warrantless-wiretapping program. “They violated the Constitution setting it up,” he says bluntly. “But they didn’t care. They were going to do it anyway, and they were going to crucify anyone who stood in the way. When they started violating the Constitution, I couldn’t stay.” Binney says Stellar Wind was far larger than has been publicly disclosed and included not just eavesdropping on domestic phone calls but the inspection of domestic email. At the outset the program recorded 320 million calls a day, he says, which represented about 73 to 80 percent of the total volume of the agency’s worldwide intercepts. The haul only grew from there. According to Binney—who has maintained close contact with agency employees until a few years ago—the taps in the secret rooms dotting the country are actually powered by highly sophisticated software programs that conduct “deep packet inspection,” examining Internet traffic as it passes through the 10-gigabit-per-second cables at the speed of light. ... 

The software, created by a company called Narus that’s now part of Boeing, is controlled remotely from NSA headquarters at Fort Meade in Maryland and searches US sources for target addresses, locations, countries, and phone numbers, as well as watch-listed names, keywords, and phrases in email. Any communication that arouses suspicion, especially those to or from the million or so people on agency watch lists, are automatically copied or recorded and then transmitted to the NSA.
The scope of surveillance expands from there, Binney says. Once a name is entered into the Narus database, all phone calls and other communications to and from that person are automatically routed to the NSA’s recorders. “Anybody you want, route to a recorder,” Binney says. “If your number’s in there? Routed and gets recorded.” He adds, “The Narus device allows you to take it all.” And when Bluffdale is completed, whatever is collected will be routed there for storage and analysis.
According to Binney, one of the deepest secrets of the Stellar Wind program—again, never confirmed until now—was that the NSA gained warrantless access to AT&T’s vast trove of domestic and international billing records, detailed information about who called whom in the US and around the world. As of 2007, AT&T had more than 2.8 trillion records housed in a database at its Florham Park, New Jersey, complex.

The new spy center is a perfect example of rolling back of personal liberties and the rights of US citizens.  It should also serve as a chilling example of the collusion of centralized public and centralized private power working together to ensure their interests are forwarded.  It shouldn't come as any shock that in the midst of the scandal that AT&T and Verizon both received government contracts as part of a deal worth $48 billion dollars to provide telecom services to the government and it's agencies for 10 years.  For those who have spent anytime studying the rise of fascism in Germany before WWII, one thing that stands out is corporate and government collusion leading to a build up of military and intelligence forces.  Now I'm not trying to say that the US is on the verge of a Hilter-ian type of fascist revolution, but there should be no doubt by anyone who has been watching the past 3 or 4 administrations of the presidents that the two greatest centralized powers in history (the US military empire [with it's 737 worldwide bases], and the corporate/financial elite who control much of the world's economic development and market shares) are colluding to each others interests.  This great combination of power has allowed them to halt the rule of law for the benefit of an elite that could be called a title-less aristocratic class.  Until US citizen demand it's government stay within the powers granted to it by the constitution and not use the constitution as merely a set of guidelines which can be disregarded at will by executive authority, you better watch what you say, because the government is too.

"It is essential to the idea of a law, that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience. If there be no penalty annexed to disobedience, the resolutions or commands which pretend to be laws will, in fact, amount to nothing more than advice or recommendation."
Alexander Hamilton- Federalist No. 15

Friday, February 17, 2012

Obama Supporters and their Hypocrisy

The beginning of the 21st century in the United States of America with George W.  Bush as president quickly became enraptured by issues of terrorism and war after the attacks on September 11th 2001.  Bush left office with low voter approval ratings averaging just over 60% disapproval average his last two years in office.  This was in part due to a response to terrorism which included an unconstitutional war in Iraq (of course the US hasn't entered a declared war since WWII despite continual conflict) based on false claims of weapons of mass destruction, prisoner abuse scandals, a failing economy, and the loss of liberties by legislation such as the Patriot Act.  A very dark spot on the US policy on terrorism was the prison at Guantanamo Bay where prisoners were being subjected to "harsh interrogation techniques" which are more rightly called torture unless you asked the Attorney General at the time who redefined torture.  The prisoners were also guilty without the chance to prove themselves innocent which takes away the presumption of innocence that rule of law requires in order to apply to everyone equally.

Obama took on this issue in his 2008 bid for the presidency.  Here he can be seen speaking even as president elect in 2008 before taking office. 

Obviously Guantanamo Bay hasn't been closed, and for me this comes as no shock, but what's interesting is that even though the prison was so heavily criticized under Bush it now gains acceptance under Obama according to a poll by the Washington Post.  53% of self identified Democrats and 67% of moderate democrats support keeping the facility open.  Not only that but 83% of US respondents approve of the drone policy (although I'm sure far fewer understand what that policy entails).  On top of that 77% of liberal Democrats are in favor of his drone policy.  During the Bush administration one of the most frequent complaints was that he all to often did what he wanted, without approval, and often shrouded in secrecy.  The facts are that this is no different from what's happening in the current drone program.  Obama has authorized multiple drone strikes inside the borders of countries like Pakistan, where recently there were protests against the US's drone war campaign within Pakistan where epitaphs of President Obama were burned.  Also according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, "research by the Bureau has found that since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children."

Pakistani Minister Hina Rabbani Khar:"In our view, drones are not only completely illegal and unlawful and have no  authorization to be used within the domains of international law, but even more importantly, they are counterproductive to your objective of getting this region rid of militancy and terrorism and extremism, because if one strike leads to getting you target number one or target number three today, you are creating five more targets or 10 more targets, in the militancy that it breeds, in the fodder that it gives to the militants to attract more people to join their ranks." 

The problem lies not only in upsetting the autonomy of a country that has nuclear arms and a strong militant right wing influence, but this program has resulted in the assassination of US citizens.  Anwar al-Awlaki was a US citizen that President Obama ordered assassinated using the drones.  Whether or not Anwar was a terrorist or not if he is committing crimes against the US he should be tried by the due process of the law rather than refused his rights as a US citizen to habeus corpus and assassinated.  Had Bush ever claimed the right to assassinate US citizens it would have been used as fodder by the left in the US.  However they are perfectly willing to look the other way when it comes to Obama ordering such strikes in countries where no war is declared, even when shrouded in secrecy.  The CIA has claimed that disclosure of information on the details of the process of either how the orders are given or how they choose the targets would aid the enemy. 

This is the perfect demonstration of the blind following or worship of political leaders in which they give their loyalty not to any ideal, but merely the whims of the leaders themselves.  This is clearly the case with Republican leaders who supported every expansion to military spending for the war on terror, but now call for fiscal accountability and reigning in spending (just so long as it's not military spending).  It's a big problem within the US political system because it has the effect of allowing something that although criticized at first by the opposition party, if continued when that party takes power it receives bipartisan support from the public.  Now days both parties both speak for increases in military spending and yet wish to be seen as trying to reduce the deficit.  The same is true with starting a war or military operation without congressional consent and now seems to be true with drone assassinations and secret military prisons.  It's all part of a broken political system that's going to require more than simply voting for the lesser of two evils or worse yet supporting them even when their policies conflict with a persons own ethics.