Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, April 8, 2014 7:09 pm

If you’re having trouble understanding why Citizens United and McCutcheon were such bad decisions, it’s because Nixon would have loved them.

Chief Justice John Roberts, author of the majority opinion in McCutcheon, and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in McCutcheon, live in a fantasy world, Ian Millhiser explains:

In 1974, a Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin (D-NC) revealed activities that nearly anyone other than the five justices who signed on to Roberts’ decision in McCutcheon v. FEC would unreservedly describe as corruption. In the early 1970s, for example, the dairy industry desired increased price supports from the federal government, but Secretary of Agriculture Clifford Hardin has decided not to give these price supports to the milk producers. In response, various dairy industry organizations pledged $2 million to Nixon’s reelection campaign — and then developed a complicated scheme to launder the money through various small donations to “hundreds of committees in various states which could then hold the money for the President’s reelection campaign, so as to permit the producers to meet independent reporting requirements without disclosure.”

President Nixon later agreed to a meeting with industry representatives, and he decided to overrule his Agriculture Secretary. The milk producers got their price supports.

The Ervin report “identified over $1.8 million in Presidential campaign contributions as ascribable, in whole or in part, to 31 persons holding ambassadorial appointments from President Nixon, and stated that six other large contributors, accounting for $3 million, appear to have been actively seeking such appointment at the time of their contributions.” Outside of the White House, the report uncovered “lavish contributions” to members of Congress from both political parties. The chairman of one oil company testified that executives perceived campaign donations as a “calling card” that would “get us in the door and make our point of view heard.” American Airlines’ former chair testified that many companies funneled money to politicians “in response to pressure for fear of a competitive disadvantage that might result” if they did not buy off lawmakers. In essence, businesses feared that if they did not give money to elected officials, but their competitors did, then their competition could use their enhanced access to politicians in order to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

And yet, according to Chief Justice Roberts and his fellow conservative justices, hardly any of this activity amounts to “corruption.”

Even the Court’s 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which famously created the law that money = speech (but also largely upheld post-Watergate campaign-finance reforms), conceded that Congress could regulate campaign contributions to prevent corruption or its appearance. But Kennedy and Roberts have gone much, much farther than that:*

Roberts’ opinion in McCutcheon, however, defines the word “corruption” so narrowly that it is practically meaningless. In order to survive constitutional review, Roberts writes, a campaign finance regulation must “target what we have called “quid pro quo” corruption or its appearance. That Latin phrase captures the notion of a direct exchange of an official act for money.” Thus, unless a donor offers “dollars for political favors,” no corruption exists.

Lest there be any doubt, this narrow understanding of the word “corruption” does not capture cases where a donor pays off a politician in order to buy access. To the contrary, as the conservative justices held in Citizens United v. FEC, “[t]he fact that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupt” (The word “speakers,” in this context, is used to refer to what most people describe as “donors”). Indeed, Citizens United goes much further than simply claiming that dollars-for-access arrangements must be tolerated. At one point, it seems to view them as an objective good:

Favoritism and influence are not . . . avoidable in representative politics. It is in the nature of an elected representative to favor certain policies, and, by necessary corollary, to favor the voters and contributors who support those policies. It is well understood that a substantial and legitimate reason, if not the only reason, to cast a vote for, or to make a contribution to, one candidate over another is that the candidate will respond by producing those political outcomes the supporter favors. Democracy is premised on responsiveness.

Democracy certainly is premised on responsiveness. Though it is a strange definition of democracy that offers enhanced responsiveness to those who can afford to pay for it.

Under Roberts’ definition of “corruption” most of the corrupt activities of the Nixon era would be viewed as completely benign. Though an isolated incident, where a Nixon fundraiser promised that the president would make a donor Ambassador to Trinidad in return for $100,000, would qualify as an explicit “dollars for political favors,” arrangement, politicians who give greater access to their donors are not “corrupt” under McCutcheon and Citizens United unless they offer to exchange votes or similar favors in return for campaign donations. Indeed, even the dairy industry’s $2 million bid for a meeting with President Nixon may not qualify as “corruption,” as Roberts understands the word, because there is some uncertainty as to whether the $2 million donation was “conditioned upon or ‘linked’ to” the President agreeing to make specific changes to the administration’s policies. According to Roberts’ opinion in McCutcheon,

Spending large sums of money in connection with elections, but not in connection with an effort to control the exercise of an officeholder’s official duties, does not give rise to such quid pro quo corruption. Nor does the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner “influence over or access to” elected officials or political parties. And because the Government’s interest in preventing the appearance of corruption is equally confined to the appearance of of quid pro quo corruption, the Government may not seek to limit the appearance of mere influence or access.

So what Nixon likely would have gone to prison for in the 1970s had he attempted to stay in office is now the law of the land, per five Republican justices who no doubt also believe they are Tsars of All the Russias, to borrow a phrase from Charlie Pierce.

And the American people know it, Millhiser concludes:

Very few Americans agree with Roberts’ view of what constitutes corruption. Indeed, a 2012 poll determined that 69 percent of Americans believed that the rule emerging from cases likeCitizens United allowing “corporations, unions and people give unlimited money to Super PACs will lead to corruption.” Just 15 percent disagreed.

To put that number in perspective, another poll found that fully 19 percent of Americans believe in “spells or witchcraft” — a full four percentage points more …

Myself, I’m wondering, given how many presumably sensible Americans have, since 2000, been willing to give away so many of their own rights and to refuse to hold accountable a generation of the most corrupt and wicked pols and business leaders since the Harding administration, whether more Americans ought to believe in witchcraft.

*I’m “conservatives oppose judicial activism” years old.

 

Monday, April 7, 2014 6:59 pm

Do peons dream of loyalty?

I spent my 16th, 17th, and 18th summers working in food service at the Carowinds amusement park on the N.C./S.C. line near Charlotte. It was hard, hot, sticky, messy, occasionally dangerous work — hot frying fat is nothing to mess with, which doesn’t keep teens from messing with it, and I once got knocked back 10 feet into a stream cabinet when I accidentally touched a bare wire on a 440-volt grill I was trying to unplug. (Had I not been wearing rubber-soled shoes, an electrician told me, I might’ve been killed.) When I finished my first full day of work — 9 hours in a steamy kitchen on a humid April Saturday — I was in outstanding physical shape and still as physically tired as I would ever be in my life until I got E. coli food poisoning two decades later.

We had all kinds of rules about customer relations, grooming (sideburns no lower than the earlobe), our itchy-ass polyester uniforms, not sitting while on duty, and so on.

So when I read this post on working in retail by ex-journalist Joseph Williams, I didn’t find a whole lot that was new to me, other than the vastly increased amount of theft-prevention activity. But a lot of it was new to him, or forgotten since his last stint in retail 30  or so years ago. And there’s a small part of me that wants to criticize his ignorance, because retail and restaurant work is one of the fastest-growing segments of the labor force in an economy that is not, generally, creating enough new jobs even to match growth in the working-age population, let alone bring down the un- and under-employment rates. If journalists know nothing else about the economy, they need to know that, and what the ramifications are for the growing numbers of Americans for whom this is real life.

Obtaining work in retail had changed a lot since the 1980s. What used to require a paper application and a schmooze with the manager has turned into an antiseptic online process where human interaction—and the potential for an employment-discrimination complaint—is kept to a minimum.

That put me at a distinct disadvantage.

In person, thanks to good genes, people often assume I’m younger than I am. On paper, however, I’m just another overeducated, middle-aged, middle-class refugee whose last retail experience dates to the Reagan administration.

Not to mention retail employers these days have their pick of applicants: the Great Recession added countless numbers of desperate workers like me to the annual labor-market influx of college students and high schoolers. According to an Economic Policy Institute report, “In 1968, 48 percent of low-wage workers had a high school degree, compared to 79 percent in 2012.” Likewise, the percentage of people in these jobs who have spent some time in college has skyrocketed, jumping from under 17 percent to more than 45 percent in the same time. All of us are in a race to the bottom of the wage pool.

Although older job candidates bring experience and skills to the table, their job applications typically blink like red warning lights to retail managers: overqualified, overpaid, and probably harder to manage than some high school or college kid. In a word: trouble.

“Think about it, Joey—that’s why there are online applications,” my sister, a veteran human-resources professional, told me. “If you apply online, and you never hear back, they don’t have to tell you why they rejected you and face a discrimination lawsuit.”

I soon realized the only way I’d have a shot in retail is if I dumbed down my job application, met directly with the person in charge before applying, and used my journalism story-telling skills to sell myself, stretching the truth past the breaking point.

He also discusses how “wage theft” — essentially, employers ripping free labor from employees, works, and this, too, I remember from Carowinds:

Working in retail takes more skill than just selling stuff. Besides the mindless tasks one expects—folding, stacking, sorting, fetching things for customers—I frequently had to tackle a series of housekeeping chores that Stretch never mentioned in our welcome-aboard chat. Performed during the late shift, those chores usually meant I’d have to stay well past the scheduled 9 p.m. quitting time.

Mop the floors in the bathroom, replace the toilet paper and scrub the toilets if necessary. Vacuum. Empty the garbage. Wipe down the glass front doors, every night, even if they don’t really need it. It was all part of the job, done after your shift has ended but without overtime pay.

In at least one respect, I had it better than this guy: Once in a while, I actually did get overtime pay. Not always. Not often. But once in a while.

This guy was paid $10 an hour in a state where the minimum wage is $7.25. He has an interesting take on whether the minimum wage should be raised, and once again, it involves wage theft (highlighted text below):

Proponents [of a minimum-wage increase] argue that three extra dollars an hour can lift hundreds of thousands of workers out of poverty. Opponents say a raise for hourly-wage workers would keep some businesses from hiring and force others to make layoffs to stay in the black.

As a worker who earned $10 an hour, I say: Neither argument is entirely true.

Sporting Goods Inc., I came to realize, was fine with paying me a few dollars more than the minimum wage—officially $7.25 an hour in Maryland—because it had other ways to compensate itself, including disqualifying me from overtime or paid sick days. Requiring me to play Cinderella on the closing shift also saved management the money it would have had to pay a cleaning company to maintain the store. Yet even $10 an hour—about $400 a week before taxes—can barely keep a single adult afloat in a city like Washington.

A modest studio apartment in a safe neighborhood would easily consume an entire month’s pay. Meanwhile, depending on circumstance, an annual salary of roughly $20,000 might not automatically qualify a retail worker for government assistance. One of my co-workers, a young single mother I called Flygirl, lived with her mom and commuted 40 minutes, one-way, from a far-flung suburb to make ends meet. Most of my co-workers, in their early 20s or 30s, had roommates, spouses, or second jobs. None of them seemed to be making it on their retail salaries alone.

Even though I was living rent-free in a guest bedroom, my every-other-Thursday paycheck couldn’t help me climb out of my hole, particularly after the state took half my pre-tax, $300 weekly salary for child support payments. Grateful just to have a job, I didn’t think twice when I noticed Stretch sometimes cut me from the daily crew and kept my hours under 30 per week—until Mike, a longtime friend and a former union shop steward, explained.

“You’re part-time,” he told me. “If you work 40 hours or more, they’ll have to give you benefits.”

Because I live across town, meanwhile, I had an hour-long commute that cost as much as $10 a day round-trip on public transportation.

“Dude,” my best friend Jamie said. “After taxes, you’re making just enough to get to and from work each day.”

And when the writer finally finds a new job, one that pays a living wage, he tells his boss, who promptly criticizes his work ethic and  loyalty.

We seldom get to pick either the messages we receive or the messengers from whom we receive them. And it would have been nice if this guy hadn’t landed in poverty through his own doing, at least in part. But his story matters no matter his personal failings, because his story is pretty much the story of everybody who works in retail.

As was discussed in the Ideas section of Sunday’s News & Record, North Carolina still has about three unemployed people for every available job opening, and that doesn’t even count the so-called “discouraged” workers who have stopped looking for work and therefore are not counted as unemployed. Nor does it count the people who, though qualified for better jobs, are working part-time or minimum-wage jobs because that’s all they can find.

Their experiences are not hugely different from this guy’s. If you’re not one of them, you probably know many people who are. The American economy is screwing them to the wall, and it’s happening because of conscious and intentional decisions made by lawmakers in thrall to large corporations. It’s 21st-century peonage. And it needs to stop.

There is dignity and morality in honest work, even in retail, as long as workers are paid and treated fairly. But there is no dignity for the worker, and no morality for the employer, in taking from the worker what is rightfully his and debasing and degrading him while doing so.

 

Thursday, April 3, 2014 7:21 pm

The Supreme Court’s McCutcheon ruling: Of the money, by the money, for the money.

In a sane country, the Supreme Court would recognize that the right of the people to a government free of undue influence by a tiny minority of the wealthy elite dramatically outweighs the right of one person to spend as much as he damn well pleases supporting political candidates, particularly when the spending creates at least the appearance, and almost definitely the certainty, of corruption: corruption in which the donor’s interest outweighs the public’s and the candidate, once elected, votes accordingly.

But we do not live in a sane country.

Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the Citizens United ruling, 2010: “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” 

Chief Justice John Roberts, in the McCutcheon ruling, just this week: “The aggregate limits do not further the permissible governmental interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.

To both gentlemen: Are you farking blind?

Of course independent expenditures give rise to the appearance of corruption — and to the real thing. Of course aggregate limits would make it harder for apparent or actual corruption to occur. If it ain’t the money that’s causing it, gentlemen, then, pray tell, what is?

You morons have just declared as a matter of both fact and law that water is dry, that the sky is chartreuse with emerald-polka dots, and that the country and the public interest are but offal to be fed to the nation’s honeybadgers. Because honeybadgers don’t … well, you know:

UPDATE: Actually, this metaphor might do a disservice to honeybadgers, which at least do useful things like killing and eating cobras. I thought about substituting jackals, but then, generally, they only eat the dead, while our nation’s sociopath elite are at least metaphorically feasting upon the living as we speak. I don’t know what the appropriate animal would be for this metaphor, but I know what it does: It feeds on the living, particularly the poor, brown, female, and otherwise vulnerable, and it pees fracking chemicals and defecates coal ash.

Life and death, post-9/11, and why it matters if you live in North Carolina

In March, for the first time in 11 years, no U.S. service members died in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

That’s good. Hell, that’s GREAT.

But it doesn’t mean our problems are over:

On average, 22 veterans commit suicide each day, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).

To commemorate them and raise awareness, 32 veterans from the group flew to Washington, D.C., to plant 1,892 flags on the National Mall today, one for each of the veterans that the group says took his or her own life in 2014. IAVA extrapolated that number from a 2012 Veterans Administration report finding that 22 veterans took their lives each day in 2009 and 2010, only a slight increase from years past, and a number that includes all veterans, not just those who served in America’s more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The event was part of IAVA’s 2014 Storm the Hill campaign, an annual week of action in which organization vets meet with lawmakers to push a veterans’ agenda picked for that year. In 2013, it was the Veterans Affairs benefits-claim backlog; this year, it’s veteran suicides.

“I know several individuals that have died by suicide,” Sara Poquette of Dallas, a video journalist who served in Iraq, said, adding that she herself considered suicide while experiencing the hardships of reintegrating into civilian life. “For me personally, it was more just getting through until I was really ready to get help, just realizing that my life was going down a path that I never really wanted it to go down.”

In Joining IAVA, Poquette said, she found a “new unit.”

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is pushing a bill, the Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act, which Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., plans to introduce. Walsh commanded a Montana National Guard battalion in Iraq.

“When we returned home, one of my young sergeants died by suicide, so this is very personal to me,” Walsh told reporters on the Mall today, calling veteran suicides “an epidemic we cannot allow to continue.”

The bill would extend eligibility for Veterans Administration health care, create a pilot program for student-loan repayment if health care professionals work for the VA, instigate a review of certain behavioral discharges, and mandate a review of mental health care programs at the VA, IAVA said.

The group is calling on Congress to pass the bill by Memorial Day.

OK, so the numbers are extrapolations, not exact counts. But even if they’re off a good bit, they’re still intolerably high. God bless Sen. John Walsh for planning to introduce this bill.

But you know who else could do something about veterans’ suicides and other problems, particularly with disability payments, that veterans are experiencing and have been for years?

That would be the ranking minority member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

That would be the guy from Winston-Salem, home of the VA regional office with one of the nation’s worst backlog of disability claims cases and a record of illegally destroying claim files.

That would be my senior senator, Richard Burr.

How ’bout it, Senator? Time to saddle up, ya think?

Thursday, March 6, 2014 7:52 pm

How many bullets would it take to plunge America into the dark?

Not all that many, unfortunately:

It turns out the United States—which has the largest and most complex electric power network in the world, and which is completely and utterly dependent upon electricity for its daily survival—does not have the capability of manufacturing the single most crucial component of its electrical grid: the TRANSFORMER. To be exact, we can make little transformers, but the really big ones that are necessary to push electric current across long distances (which our electric grid is totally dependent on) are somehow beyond our ken. Or, to be more accurate, the 1% have no interest in building the plants and hiring and training the workers to manufacture the very large-size transformers.

They (the 1%) apparently reason that they don’t need to go to that trouble because in our globalized economy there’s somebody else who can build the really big transformers. It turns out that somebody is South Korea. So when, recently, Pennsylvania badly needed a new very-large transformer they placed an order with the Koreans, who promptly began building it. Two years later, the 400,000 pound item was put on a ship and transported for 26 days at sea to the port of Newark, New Jersey, where it was loaded by crane onto a railcar bound for Pennsylvania. (“Heart of U.S. Grid Difficult to Replace”, W.S.J. March 4, 2014.)

This little tale is made even more interesting by the fact that these very-large transformers—usually situated inside a compound protected by chain-link fencing—are easily destroyed with a few rounds of fire from a semi-automatic assault rifle. Thankfully, semi-automatic assault rifles are difficult to come by in the U.S., otherwise there might be cause for concern. The seventeen transformers recently shot to death in California (we can’t explain how this actually happened, since the NRA is only marginally active on the West Coast) are a cautionary tale: If this were repeated on just a little bit larger scale, the Department of Homeland Security has determined, our entire electric grid could be down for months—or even longer. (Come on South Korea, hurry it up…. We’re waiting!)

This point is just an example from a larger article whose main point has less to do with electricity, per se, than with things that the government could do for the common good with or without the approval of the 1%.

But it caught my attention. Maybe because so much of Greensboro’s electrical infrastructure is above ground and vulnerable to the elements, as I’ve been reminded over and over again, in sticky heat, balmy autumn, and single-digit winter, during my 27 years here. Maybe because while Virginia tends to get snow in the winter and South Carolina gets rain, North Carolina frequently gets ice, which is most likely to bring down power lines. Maybe because I spent 22 of those years in a job in which staying home, or even working from home, during an ice storm simply wasn’t an option.

Or because, like almost every other American, I need reliable electrical service to live safely and work productively.

Risk Assessment 101 requires that you multiply two things: the likelihood that a particular bad thing could happen and the amount of damage/destruction that particular thing would cause if it did happen. For example, it’s almost certain that my cat will want to go outside tonight, even for just a little while, but unless maybe you’re a vole, the damage will be nil. High likelihood, extremely low risk.

On the flip side, based on a couple of centuries of weather observation and zilliabytes* of data, we know that the likelihood that a very-slow-moving Category 5 hurricane will rake North Carolina’s coast from South Carolina to Virginia is vanishingly small. But if it did happen, even with the early warnings we get today, dozens or hundreds of people would die and many more would be injured, thousands upon thousands of homes and businesses would be destroyed, countless numbers of livestock and family pets, as well as wildlife, would perish, and the coast, with its fisheries and tourist spots, often with manufacturing just inland, would be devastated for years. The impact on the federal budget would be non-negligible, and the impact on property insurers might well be unsurvivable for many.

Now, how likely is it that, say, 19 terrorists could arrange to use legally acquired semiautomatic weapons to shoot and disable a like number of very-large transformers in the U.S. simultaneously? Substantially more likely, I’d say, than the possibility that 19 terrorists could hijack four passenger jets and try to crash them into public buildings.

And what would the damage be like? Well, you don’t have to have read Stephen King to take a guess. Not only would most of our electrical infrastructure be offline, so would most of our communications infrastructure, which relies on electricity. Whole regions would go dark, right down to the switching systems that control the pipelines that deliver the natural gas that fires the generators that keep heart-lung machines and incubators working at individual hospitals. We’d have no immediate way of coordinating any sort of systematic response. And right now, fixing that would take months or years, during which time a lot of Americans would die, a lot of businesses would go bankrupt, the financial markets would be disrupted worldwide, and the transportation of essential goods by road or rail would dry up quickly as refined product couldn’t be pumped out of a gas pump, or from a refinery to a pipeline, or loaded from a terminal to a tanker truck, and so on. Shipments of perishable and nonperishable food, essential drugs and medicines, and many other needs would cease. Depending on the time of year, a large proportion of the U.S. population might face the very real threat of death from exposure/hypothermia.

As I write, it’s raining here, with the odd ice pellet thrown in. And the rain is beginning to freeze.

*made-up word

(h/t: Fec

Thursday, February 27, 2014 10:28 pm

Real courage

From author and former war correspondent Chris Hedges:

I have been to war. I have seen physical courage. But this kind of courage is not moral courage. Very few of even the bravest warriors have moral courage. For moral courage means to defy the crowd, to stand up as a solitary individual, to shun the intoxicating embrace of comradeship, to be disobedient to authority, even at the risk of your life, for a higher principle. And with moral courage comes persecution.

The American Army pilot Hugh Thompson had moral courage. He landed his helicopter between a platoon of U.S. soldiers and 10 terrified Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai massacre. He ordered his gunner to fire his M60 machine gun on the advancing U.S. soldiers if they began to shoot the villagers. And for this act of moral courage, Thompson, like Snowden, was hounded and reviled. Moral courage always looks like this. It is always defined by the state as treason—the Army attempted to cover up the massacre and court-martial Thompson. It is the courage to act and to speak the truth. Thompson had it. Daniel Ellsberg had it. Martin Luther King had it. What those in authority once said about them they say today about Snowden.

I’ll entertain the argument that if Snowden were truly morally courageous, he would return to the U.S. to stand trial. But I’ll also reject it, because since 9/11 the government has shown itself lacking in judgment and common sense, let alone adherence to the Constitution and the rule of law, on issues of national security. It has no business judging Snowden, and I give Snowden credit for having the smarts to recognize that fact.

That said, for all I know, Snowden is an absolute creep, if not a criminal, in other areas of his life. You know what? It doesn’t matter. What matters are the documented facts about our government’s malfeasance, committed in our name and with our tax dollars, that he has brought to light. Bruce Springsteen once said, “Trust the song, not the singer.” And while lots of critics have lambasted Snowden for demonstrably violating the conditions of his security clearance and arguably breaking the law (and have criticized journalist Glenn Greenwald for publishing the information Snowden obtained and also for his sometimes-obnoxious online behavior), no one has proved any of the factual assertions false that Snowden and Greenwald have brought to light.

I’ll say it again: They might be jackasses, but they are jackasses who are right.

Hedges probably also is right about what historians will say about Snowden. Hugh Thompson, his example, was, in his later years, brought to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to instruct future Army officers on ethics. It’s possible, if not likely, that some of the same officers criticizing Snowden today sat in Thompson’s classes. Pity, for them and the nation, that they didn’t listen.

(h/t: Fec)

 

Monday, February 24, 2014 10:10 pm

Quote of the Day, America-we’re-all-in-this-together edition

Filed under: America. It was a really good idea,Quote Of The Day — Lex @ 10:10 pm
Tags:

Athenae at First Draft:

There is no way out of paying for somebody else. There is no way to live in our society completely independent of everybody else. You drive on the roads, you drink the water, you nod hello at your neighbor in the morning, and every time you put gas in your tank you’re a part of something. You can either suck it up and admit that, and sit down and figure out the best way for us all to get what we need, or we can keep having these stupid fights and talking about MAH TAX DOLLAHS buying T-bone steaks and [expletive].

You’re paying for it either way, so the only real question is how much of an [expletive] you want to be in the process.

 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014 8:11 pm

“State secrets” and the erosion of the Bill of Rights

Time after time, in case after case in the So-Called War on Terror, we have seen the government invoke “state secrets,” as a means of denying defendants access to potentially exculpatory information in the government’s possession or as a means of denying civil plaintiffs access to information that would strengthen their own case at the government’s expense. As a result, some potentially innocent people have remained in custody for years, in many cases without trial or even charge. As a result, some meritorious lawsuits against government overreach have been tossed.

As a result, the country has both weakened and betrayed its own values. That’s bad enough.

But now? We come to find that for seven years, the government has been invoking “state secrets” to cover up a simple, understandable, and easy-to-fix paperwork error, albeit one with significant consequences. That error, compounded by the massive cover-up on the part of high-ranking officials in both the Bush 43 and Obama administrations, particularly Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Attorney General Eric Holder, kept an innocent woman named Rahinah Ibrahim on the U.S. government’s no-fly list for that period. For much of that period, the defense was invoked merely to prevent her from learning whether she was even on the list, let alone being able to do something about it.

Holder went so far as to tell the judge presiding over the case that this assertion of the state secrets privilege was fully in keeping with Obama’s much-ballyhooed 2009 executive branch reforms of the privilege, which stated the administration would invoke state secrets sparingly.

“Under this policy, the Department of Justice will defend an assertion of the state secrets privilege in litigation, and seek dismissal of a claim on that basis, only when necessary to protect against the risk of significant harm to national security,” reads an April signed declaration from the attorney general to U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who presided over the Ibrahim litigation in San Francisco.

The state secrets privilege was first upheld by the Supreme Court in a McCarthy-era case and generally requires judges to dismiss lawsuits against the United States when the government asserts a trial threatens national security.

In his declaration, Holder assured Judge Alsup that the government would not be claiming national security to conceal “administrative error” or to “prevent embarrassment” — an assertion that is now nearly impossible to square with the facts.

Way I read that, “now nearly impossible to square with the facts” means “a stone lie.”

Finally, her case was allowed to come to trial, a month before which the presiding judge, during a pretrial conference, told lawyers, “I feel like I have been had by the government.”

Time was, lawyers who intentionally misled judges suffered serious consequences to their cases, if not to themselves personally. As it was, after a five-day nonjury trial, the judge ruled for Ibrahim.

Here’s my question: If the government would illegally invoke “state secrets” for seven years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, to cover up a bloody paperwork error, what else is it covering up under the “state secrets” defense? Prosecution and/or punishment of innocent people? Ongoing torture? Extrajudicial assassinations? Massive waste, fraud and abuse in the national intelligence apparatus? At this point you’d have to be an idiot to bet on anything except all these and more.

Classification of material to cover up evidence of a crime is, itself, a federal crime. And it’s one with which not nearly enough people have been charged. But beyond that, judges who get played by the government this way should, when they figure out what’s going on, bring the gavel down on the government officials and lawyers involved so viciously that a century from now such officials and lawyers will speak of it only behind closed doors, with hushed voices, in the dark of night, the elderly cautioning the young.

Monday, January 27, 2014 10:19 pm

The price of experience

Today is observed internationally as Holocaust Remembrance Day (it’s the anniversary of the day Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz death camp in 1945). Earlier this evening, I attended a screening of the movie “Jakob the Liar,” about the lives of Jews in Poland’s Lodz ghetto in 1944, followed by recitations of the Male HaRachamim and the Kaddish.

The event also included a reading of a meditation, “The Price of Experience,” written by Adrian Mitchell and Kate Westbrook. Two lines in particular struck me:

It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted/To speak the laws of prudence to the homeless wanderer

It must be, because we do so much of it in America today. We have one major party (and, frankly, some members of the other) actively working against universal access to  health care. We accuse the poor of deserving to be poor because of moral flaws or failure to exert sufficient effort to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, never mind the fact that increasing numbers of Americans have no boots and no immediate prospects of being able to find a job that pays well enough to buy them.

What is going on in America today is by no means, of course, morally equivalent to the Holocaust, and I do not mean to imply otherwise. But it is bad nonetheless: For more than 30 years the wealthy have waged war on the middle class, and that war has only accelerated with and since the Crash of ’08. Meanwhile, the hyperwealthy who attend Davos moan about the bad things the less fortunate say about them. One moron, venture capitalist Tom Perkins, writing in The Wall Street Journal — and you can’t make this crap up — even compared complaints about the wealthy to attitudes of Nazi Germany toward Jews. On a slightly less offensive level, neither Congress nor the Beltway media talk much about this problem, let alone consult with some of the people who know how to fix it. One can only assume that things are this way because the wealthy and powerful want them this way. That’s bad enough. But the victim blaming is a sign of advanced moral rot. And when moral rot in a society’s leadership expands to this point, perhaps a Holocaust is not inevitable. But a French Revolution certainly isn’t out of the question — nor should it be.   

Friday, January 17, 2014 8:45 pm

The rough men who stand ready on our behalf

I understand that a lot of people are angry with Edward Snowden for exposing the National Security Agency’s enormous, and arguably illegal, domestic surveillance program. I get it. He violated an oath and took his nation’s secrets not only to the nation, which definitely needed to hear at least some of them, but also, in some form, to places they shouldn’t have gone, such as China and Russia.

Still, someone needs to explain to me how a nation under the rule of law squares its Constitution with comments from these people who also have taken oaths, in this case to uphold that Constitution:

Edward Snowden has made some dangerous enemies. As the American intelligence community struggles to contain the public damage done by the former National Security Agency contractor’s revelations of mass domestic spying, intelligence operators have continued to seethe in very personal terms against the 30-year-old whistle-blower.

“In a world where I would not be restricted from killing an American, I personally would go and kill him myself,” a current NSA analyst told BuzzFeed. “A lot of people share this sentiment.”

“I would love to put a bullet in his head,” one Pentagon official, a former special forces officer, said bluntly. “I do not take pleasure in taking another human beings life, having to do it in uniform, but he is single-handedly the greatest traitor in American history.”

An aside: you can love the idea of killing someone you believe is a traitor, or you can refrain from taking pleasure in the taking of another human being’s life. But you can’t do both. We continue:

That violent hostility lies just beneath the surface of the domestic debate over NSA spying is still ongoing. Some members of Congress have hailed Snowden as a whistle-blower, the New York Times has called for clemency, and pundits regularly defend his actions on Sunday talk shows. In intelligence community circles, Snowden is considered a nothing short of a traitor in wartime.

“His name is cursed every day over here,” a defense contractor told BuzzFeed, speaking from an overseas intelligence collections base. “Most everyone I talk to says he needs to be tried and hung, forget the trial and just hang him.”

One Army intelligence officer even offered BuzzFeed a chillingly detailed fantasy.

“I think if we had the chance, we would end it very quickly,” he said. “Just casually walking on the streets of Moscow, coming back from buying his groceries. Going back to his flat and he is casually poked by a passerby. He thinks nothing of it at the time starts to feel a little woozy and thinks it’s a parasite from the local water. He goes home very innocently and next thing you know he dies in the shower.”

Yeah, just innocently dying in a scenario conjured up by James Bond’s SMERSH. Nothing to see here.

If you take an oath to uphold the Constitution, which includes among its guarantees protections against punishment with without due process (a formal charge and, unless defendant pleads guilty, a formal trial), then you don’t get to say crap like this. Indeed, saying it is, arguably, the speaker’s own violation of his own oath and as deserving of punishment as is Snowden’s behavior.

Being a nation under the rule of law isn’t always convenient. Having what is supposed to be the world’s greatest criminal-justice system isn’t easy, has never been easy, and was never intended to be easy. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And if you can’t handle that, then don’t take the oath, put on the uniform, and draw the pay.

This won’t end well for Snowden no matter how it ends; I suspect the best he can expect is to live out his life in a hostile nation, a life that is likely to lose its value to that nation sooner rather than later. And if he does return to the U.S., he almost certainly faces most of the rest of his life in prison, if not a (formal) death sentence.

Even so, a nation that is supposed to operate under the Constitution that we say we operate under does not do summary executions, full stop.

(This probably won’t be my last word on Snowden’s case; it certainly is not intended to be an exhaustive analysis of that case. One point at a time for now.)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014 7:31 pm

Quote of the Day, shooting-a-guy-in-a-movie-theater-for-texting-during-the-previews edition

David Eggert in a comments section at Esquire.com:

We are ruled by a gun-society minority. We are not free as long as our security depends on the goodwill and peace of mind of the self-selected persons among us who feel a need, due to their own insecurities, to walk among us carrying lethal weapons.

Amen.

I believe in gun rights. I grew up with guns. I once carried one on the job. I am perfectly OK with concealed carry even today.

But.

It is still far, far too easy for guns to get into the hands of criminals and the mentally disturbed. It is still far too easy for people who have no business possessing firearms to have them. And it is still far too easy for people who make money off guns, and their shills in the NRA, to shout down such reasonable proposals as background checks and mandatory training for gun owners, or limits on sales of large-magazine semiautomatic weapons, whose only purpose is to kill other human beings.

Any cops reporter in America can vouch for the fact that the American public is not in any way, shape, or form a well-regulated militia, especially on Saturday nights and long holiday weekends. And there are more guns in this country than ever even as fewer people own guns. A shrill and irrational minority is actively making the rest of us less safe. And we need to stop that. We have enough real dangers to face without also being forced to confront the imaginary fears of the elderly, the paranoid, and the people who have questions about their own masculinity.

 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014 9:13 pm

The problem with Republicans is that they want to make the whole country like Texas.

And how’s that working out?

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that a group of Texas homes near a gas-drilling operation didn’t have dangerous levels of methane in their water, it relied on tests conducted by the driller itself.

Now, independent tests from Duke University researchers have found combustible levels of methane in some of the wells, and homeowners want the EPA to re-open the case.

The previously undisclosed Duke testing illustrate the complaints of critics who say the agency is reluctant to sanction a booming industry that has pushed down energy prices for consumers, created thousands of jobs and buoyed the economy.

“I don’t understand why they would let the company that was accused of doing the wrongdoing conduct the tests,” said Shelly Perdue, who lives near the two wells in Weatherford, 60 miles (97 kilometers) west of Dallas. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Obviously Shelly Perdue is not fit material to run for office as a Republican.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014 6:49 pm

“NSA itself had enough information to prevent 9/11, but chose to sit on it …”

This open memo to President Obama, written in part by former high-ranking employees of the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies, claims that the NSA could have prevented 9/11, claims that the NSA could have taken economic and effective action after 9/11 to prevent future attacks but chose expensive, ineffective, and constitutionally damaging approaches instead, and even accuses former director Michael Hayden of corruption. It’s fairly long, but it’s simple to understand and it comports with the facts as we know them today. Some key excerpts:

From the executive summary:

The sadder reality, Mr. President, is that NSA itself had enough information to prevent 9/11, but chose to sit on it rather than share it with the FBI or CIA. We know; we were there. We were witness to the many bureaucratic indignities that made NSA at least as culpable for pre-9/11 failures as are other U.S. intelligence agencies.

From the section “Clapper and Alexander”:

Surely you have asked National Intelligence Director James Clapper flat-out why, in formal testimony to the Senate on March 12, 2013 he answered “No, Sir” to Senator Ron Wyden’s question, “Does the NSA collect any type of data on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

Surely you know that Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein persists in covering for Clapper, telling ABC three months after Clapper’s falsehood that “there is no more direct or honest person than Jim Clapper.” And now Director Clapper’s lawyer, Mr. Litt, is trying to convince readers of the New York Times that Clapper did not lie.

Surely you intuit that something is askew when NSA Director Keith Alexander testifies to Congress that NSA’s bulk collection has “thwarted” 54 terrorist plots and later, under questioning, is forced to reduce that number to one, which cannot itself withstand close scrutiny. And surely you understand why former NSA Director and CIA Director Michael Hayden protests too much and too often on Fox News and CNN, and why he and House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers publicly suggest that whistleblower Edward Snowden be put on your Kill List.

Does a blind loyalty prevail in your White House to the point where, 40 years after Watergate, there is not a single John Dean to warn you of a “cancer on the presidency?” Have none of your lawyers reminded you that “electronic surveillance of private citizens … subversive of constitutional government” was one of the three Articles of Impeachment against President Richard Nixon approved by a bipartisan 28 to 10 vote of the House Judiciary Committee on July 27, 1974? …

We are ready – if you are – for an honest conversation. That NSA’s bulk collection is more hindrance than help in preventing terrorist attacks should be clear by now despite the false claims and dissembling.

From the section “Fourth Amendment-Compliant Technology That Worked”:

No one currently working for NSA Director Alexander is likely to tell you this, so please hear it from us. In the years before 9/11, a group of NSA mathematicians and computer technology experts led by Binney, Loomis, and Wiebe devised a process called THINTHREAD for collection and rapid analysis of billions of electronic records relating to targets of intelligence interest, with automatic encryption of information about U.S. persons, per the standard of FISA and the Fourth Amendment.

Data on U.S. citizens could be decrypted only if a judge approved it after a finding that there was probable cause to believe that the target was connected with terrorism or other crimes. It was also considerably cheaper, easier, and more secure to store such data in encrypted format rather than allow that raw information to remain vulnerable to unauthorized parties in unencrypted form, as NSA chose to do. A fuller understanding of THINTHREAD’s capabilities is necessary to appreciate the implications of what came next.

THINTHREAD, you see, was a fundamental beginning to breaking the endemic problem of stovepipes – that is, standalone collection systems with standalone databases. There was such a maze of databases, with special security compartmentation, that it was impossible for an analyst to “see” more than a few pages, so to speak, about a target, much less a whole chapter, let alone the whole available book. Information was fragmented by design, in order to placate functionaries blindly placing tight security above virtually all other considerations – even, in this case, the analyst’s need to know.

Thus, THINTHREAD was developed precisely to unite data associated with terrorists/criminals from all databases. An analyst was able to do one simple query on participants on a targeted activity and get access to all related content – be it from computer, phone, or pager.

From the section “Some Programs Don’t Cost Enough”:

In 2000, as THINTHREAD was beginning to show promise, the head of the NSA Transformation Office (NTO) asked the creators of THINTHREAD (Loomis, Binney, and Wiebe) what they could do with $1.2 billion. We told him that, with that amount of funding, we could upgrade every one of our field installations that had access to foreign Internet sources, as well as upgrade collection equipment to access greater bandwidths available on fiber. But for the equipment, maintenance, and other costs for THINTHREAD, we only needed about $300 million.

Director Hayden reacted swiftly on learning of this. He removed the NTO chief, replacing him with a senior vice president of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), which became one of the leading contractors for a replacement project called TRAILBLAZER. TRAILBLAZER was originally budgeted for $3.8 billion, but after burning away most of that money, it had to be jettisoned in 2006.

No functioning components had been produced, much less delivered; Gen. Hayden had been forced to confess to the Senate Intelligence Committee that TRAILBLAZER was vastly over budget as well as well behind schedule. And our (Binney/Loomis/Wiebe) complaint to the Department of Defense Inspector General had generated a highly critical report on TRAILBLAZER, which was also a factor in its termination. SAIC, though, continued to serve as one of NSA’s major prime development contractors and remains so to this day.

Hayden had announced TRAILBLAZER to great fanfare in the spring of 2000, as he began to show more preference for opening the door wider to the private sector. A year before, NSA’s New Enterprise Team, which included some of the undersigned, had begun to learn of contractor complaints over getting only maintenance contracts, while the most interesting work was being conducted in-house.

That fall, an NSA Red Team predicted that TRAILBLAZER would fail unless major changes were made to the program. Hayden, however, ignored the Red Team report, and none of the Red Team recommendations saw the light of day.

This particularly unconscionable (Hayden-SAIC-Congress) corruption is a case study in how the drive for big money and the power can squander big taxpayer bucks, chip away at our constitutional protections – and, more important, as we shall explain below – play a crucial role in the worst intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor – 9/11.

And there’s more:

“[Among data collected by THINTHREAD was] where I found the pre- and post-9/11 intelligence from NSA monitoring of some of the hijackers as they planned the attacks of 9/11 had not been shared outside NSA [writes former senior NSA executive Thomas Drake]. This includes critical pre-9/11 intelligence on al-Qaeda, even though it had been worked on by NSA analysts. I learned, for example, that in early 2001 NSA had produced a critical long-term analytic report unraveling the entire heart of al-Qaeda and associated movements. That report also was not disseminated outside of NSA.

“Make no mistake. That data and the analytic report could have, should have prevented 9/11.

“Top NSA management knew that. They knew that I knew that. I was immediately shut down. In spring 2002, the remnants of THINTHREAD were unceremoniously put on the shelf in NSA’s ‘Indiana Jones’ data warehouse, never to be seen again. …

“In December 2001, Senator Saxby Chambliss, chair of a House Subcommittee on Homeland Security announced a preliminary investigation into 9/11.  At a SIGINT Leadership Team meeting in February 2002, SIGINT chief Maureen Baginski directed me to lead a NSA Statement-for-the-Record effort for a closed-door hearing scheduled by Sen. Chambliss for early March to discuss what NSA knew about the 9/11 hijackers and their plotting before 9/11.

“As indicated above, the highly embarrassing answer was that NSA knew a great deal, but had not shared what it knew outside of NSA.

“After a couple of weeks Baginski rejected my draft team Statement for the Record report and removed me from the task. When I asked her why, she said there was a ‘data integrity problem’ (not further explained) with my draft Statement for the Record. I had come upon additional damaging revelations. For example, NSA had the content of telephone calls between AA-77 hijacker Khalid al-Mihdhar in San Diego, CA, and the known al-Qaeda safe house switchboard in Yemen well before 9/11, and had not disseminated that information beyond NSA.

“In short, when confronted with the prospect of fessing up, NSA chose instead to obstruct the 9/11 congressional investigation, play dumb, and keep the truth buried, including the fact that it knew about all inbound and outbound calls to the safe house switchboard in Yemen. NSA’s senior leaders took me off the task because they realized – belatedly, for some reason – that I would not take part in covering up the truth about how much NSA knew but did not share.

“When the 9/11 Commission hearings began, Director Hayden chortled at executive staff meetings over the fact that the FBI and CIA were feeling the heat for not having prevented 9/11. This was particularly difficult for me to sit through, for I was aware that NSA had been able to cover up its own culpability by keeping investigators, committees, and commissions away from the truth,” [Blake writes].

Seriously, go read the whole thing, which prompted this response from blogger Alex Marthews (yes, that’s how he spells it), who is involved in a Massachusetts campaign to “protect digital data from warrantless government surveillance.” After summarizing the facts asserted in the letter, he eloquently concludes:

You know that on this blog I tend not to use the swears. This time, I do use the swears:
I am [expletive] pissed off. What a [expletive]. What a gargantuan, despicable, offensive [expletive].These clowns gleefully threw the Constitution on the fire, and gave us NOTHING in return. We’re not safer. We’re certainly not richer. We have lost so much, so that a few people could become extremely rich and powerful, and our corrupt system is now incapable of holding them personally to account. Yet still they yammer on, clamoring for more funding for an NSA that doesn’t work, a TSA that doesn’t work, an FBI that chases imaginary plots instead of focusing on locking up actual criminals. They have played on our fears to make us exchange realistic risk assessment for a meaningless, nightmarish pantomime where we, the American people and indeed the people of the whole world, have to accept the loss of every freedom we hold dear in order to “do whatever it takes” to “catch the bad guys.”

I’m sick of it. Aren’t you sick of it? I am goddamn heart-sick of it.

It’s been more than thirteen years since my fiancee and I went out and bought our first TV and brought it home and watched stunned as the towers burned.

Thirteen years of watching the victims of 9/11 being used to justify horror after horror. Mass roundups of Muslims. Torture. Detention, even of US citizens, without trial, and now assassinations too. War in Afghanistan, war in Iraq, now apparently drone warfare [expletive] everywhere, and a constant stream of broken people being dropped back here like flotsam and told to get on with their chewed-up lives.

“If this was the day after 9/11,” says that bloviating [expletive] John McCain, “we wouldn’t even be talking about these [surveillance] programs.” I bet not. We were too busy putting up flags, grieving, and praying that we and those we loved wouldn’t be next. But grief, as we all know, has stages, and that state of mind doesn’t last thirteen years.

“The victims of 9/11 would have wanted us to do whatever it takes.” No, they [expletive] wouldn’t. Do you think we’re all scared six-year-olds hiding underneath our stairwells, waiting for Big Daddy NSA to tell us that everything’s OK and we can come out now?

[Expletive] that. You like us just where we are, cowering every time you say Boo, and you have no incentive to stop us until we tell you the game is over.

You’re the six-year-olds here, standing there with the Constitution on a skewer over an open flame and hollering, “9/11 MADE ME DO IT.”

Just quit it. We’re sick of it. We’re not going to freak out any more over a few seventh-century-loving lunatics. We have seen the real danger to our way of life, and it’s you, and people like you.

I’ve been raising hell about warrantless government surveillance of U.S. citizens for about a decade — ever since news of it belatedly came out. For most of that time it has been like pissing into a hurricane. Now, finally, whatever you think of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, they have put this stuff out where it can’t be ignored anymore, and some of the most senior former members of the intelligence committee — no doubt acting from both selfish and unselfish motives; whistleblowers tend to do that — are challenging/begging the people in charge to start returning us to the appropriate status for a constitutionally established democratic republic.

I have no confidence that will happen under the incumbent president — or under the obvious candidates to succeed him. But it needs to happen, and we need to raise hell about it until it does.

Friday, December 13, 2013 9:51 pm

An idle question

On what other issues besides this has the Iranian government been telling the truth while the U.S. government has been lying?

Friday, November 22, 2013 6:34 pm

Wingnut legal wankery, cont.

Earlier this week, in a case called Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court in effect upheld Texas’s draconian new restrictions on abortion — a law that effectively outlaws abortions in a huge swath of west Texas. In so doing, it upheld a 5th Circuit court ruling “staying” — preventing from taking effect — a District Court ruling that parts of the law were unconstitutional.

Now, to stay the District Court ruling, the appeals court had to find that allowing that ruling to stand pending appeal would constitute “irreparable harm” to the state of Texas. It also had to find that the stay “”substantially injure the other parties interested in the proceeding” — i.e., pregnant women in Texas.

The appeals-court judge who wrote that court’s ruling, Priscilla Owen, really did find, against both facts and common sense, that the state of Texas would be irreparably harmed if the District Court ruling were allowed to stand while it was being appealed AND that no other parties interested in the proceeding would be substantially injured. Yes, she did. Lawyer/blogger Scott Lemieux comments:

What makes Owen’s opinion remarkable, however, is her justification for the conclusion that temporarily preventing the law from going into effect would constitute “irreparable harm” to the state of Texas. Circuit Court judges are bound by Supreme Court precedent; they cannot create new legal standards on their own. But as one lawblogger notes, the basis for Owen’s conclusion would be embarrassingly feeble if there was any evidence that she was capable of embarrassment. The following is a comprehensive list of the precedents cited by Owen to justify her conclusion:

  • A bare assertion from a 1977 solo opinion—not speaking for the court—by then-Associate Justice Rehnquist that “[i]t also seems to me that any time a State is enjoined by a court from effectuating statutes enacted by representatives of its people, it suffers a form of irreparable injury.” (“It seems”—well, I’m convinced!)
  • A solo opinion—again, not speaking for the Court—by Chief Justice Roberts citing the Rehnquist opinion without any further defense.
  • That’s it.

This precedential basis would need a lot more heft to merit being called “threadbare.” And it’s even worse than it appears at first glance. First of all, Rehnquist’s opinion applied to a case where at least the statute had already gone into effect, making the argument of “irreparable harm” to the state even weaker as applied to the Texas abortion case, where it had not. And second, there’s a reason that this dictum has never appeared in an actual Supreme Court majority opinion—it doesn’t make any sense. If this “principle” were taken seriously, states would have an unlimited right to enforce unconstitutional laws for as long as the legal challenges take to wend their way through the courts, irrespective of the harm caused to those who rights were violated. This simply cannot be right.

How does Scalia’s counter to Breyer—typically long on belligerence and short on logic—reply to these obvious objections? Why, by merely citing the Rehnquist and Roberts opinions again. So now, the next time a hack Republican judge wants to make a politically expedient decision to deny or vacate an injunction preventing the enforcement of potentially unconstitutional legislation, he or she can now cite four precedents endorsing the same erroneous tautology without any attempt to defend it. It’s a nice con if you can pull it off.

“Because Rehnquist said so.” “Because Roberts said Rehnquist said so.” “Because Scalia said Roberts said Rehnquist said so.” Seriously, that’s an actual sitting appeals-court judge’s idea of how precedent works. IANAL, but I’ve examined enough SCOTUS cases to know that that isn’t law, that’s wanking: The string may get longer, but because no case majority opinion is ever cited, the amount of actual legal value therein starts at zero and stays there.

So much for the rule of law. And I disagree with Lemieux that this is merely a con. I think it’s straight-up dictatorship: These people have decided that they’re going to overturn Roe v. Wade  by hook or by crook and meddle deeply into the medical affairs of women without legal or constitutional justification for doing so, and that’s that. If you were kidding yourself about that before, please stop.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 7:06 pm

When you create a monster, you can’t act surprised when it behaves monstrously

Filed under: America. It was a really good idea — Lex @ 7:06 pm
Tags: ,

Esquire’s Charlie Pierce was, as it happens, in Terminal 7 at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday when a guy came in and shot a TSA agent, although that incident happened four terminals down from his.

His reflection on the event, written while he was still stuck in Terminal 7 awaiting a flight, bears repeating:

There already is some talk about this event being a “random” one. But it is not. These things are becoming as regular as rain, as predictable as the summer heat. The only thing “random” about it is the shooter. He could be anyone, and that’s the point. There are people who spend money making sure that he could be anyone, and there’s nothing “random” about how they do that. There is nothing “random” about this country’s ludicrous disinclination to regulate its firearms. There is nothing “random” about the millions of dollars that the NRA spends to convince people that they should have the right to carry their assault weapon anywhere they want to carry it, including into an airport terminal, if they so desire. There is nothing “random” about the politicians who truckle and bow to this lucrative monetization of bloody mayhem. These are all deliberate acts with predictable consequences. There is nothing “random” about how we have armed ourselves, and there is nothing “random” about the filigree of high-flown rhetoric with which we justify arming ourselves, and there is nothing “random” about how we learn nothing every time someone who could be anyone decides to exercise his Second Amendment rights by opening fire. There is nothing random about how we got where we are today, here in Terminal 7, where people have sought refuge from the bloodshed, four terminals over. There is nothing “random” at all. We have chosen insanity over reason. We have done it with our eyes open.

To this I would add that there is nothing random about making government, all government, out to be the enemy. As history has shown time and time again, when you scapegoat someone or something long and loudly enough, either a group or a free agent gets exercised sufficiently to act, usually illegally, against that someone or something. And so it has come to pass:

The 23-year-old man who allegedly killed a TSA official at Los Angeles International Airport yesterday was carrying a one-page “manifesto” that included references to the “New World Order,” the Federal Reserve and “fiat currency,” according to a knowledgeable source with ranking law enforcement contacts.

Paul Anthony Ciancia, who allegedly wounded three other TSA workers before being shot and critically wounded himself, also expressed antagonism toward the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its chief until she resigned in August, Janet Napolitano, the source said. Ciancia’s note called former Secretary Napolitano a “bull dyke” and contained the phrase “FU Janet Napolitano,” the source said.

Ciancia’s language and references seemed to put him squarely in the conspiracy-minded world of the antigovernment “Patriot” movement. The New World Order refers to a longstanding conspiracy theory that today, in its most popular iteration, claims that global elites are plotting to form a socialistic “one-world government” that would crush American freedoms. Often, the root of the alleged conspiracy is traced to the 1913 creation of the Federal Reserve and the adoption of fiat currency — paper money that is not backed by gold, as it was once was in the U.S.

So-called Patriots also increasingly see the DHS, which produces intelligence assessments of extremists that are distributed to other law enforcement agencies, as an enemy and even a collaborator in the New World Order conspiracy. Many believe DHS has targeted their movement and is somehow connected to the alleged construction of concentration camps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The purported camps are thought to be meant for those Americans who resist a coming national seizure of all weapons from U.S. citizens.

Yes, the TSA was a horribly expensive overreaction to 9/11 in the first place, it has been too often staffed by morons, and its habit of confiscating our penknives and making us take off our shoes is annoying as all hell. But there are people in the world who actually need killin’, and to my knowledge, no one at the TSA is one of them.

Thursday, October 31, 2013 10:25 pm

“12 Years a Slave” and the bankruptcy of original intent

Filed under: America. It was a really good idea — Lex @ 10:25 pm
Tags: ,

David Simon, creator of the outstanding TV series “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and the excellent cable series “The Wire” and “Treme,” went to see the movie “12 Years a Slave” — twice.

He liked the movie on its own merits:

On first viewing, I was simply startled by how genuinely fair the storytelling had been with the subject matter.  Sadism and soullessness was balanced by moments of regret and conscience on the part of white characters.  Accomodation and supplication on the part of Southern slaves was punctuated by moments of desperate courage and dignity.

On second viewing — with me in a darkened theater with a big screen, looking for the rough seams and filmic dishonesties — I emerged thinking precisely the same about this remarkable work.  This film didn’t cheat our national history.  It didn’t allude to horror, nor did it revel in it.  It marks the first time in history that our entertainment industry, albeit with international creative input, has managed to stare directly at slavery and maintain that gaze.

Everyone who had anything to do with this film getting made —  from the producers, to director Steve McQueen, and the committed, talented cast — should sleep tonight and every night knowing that for once, the escapism, bluster and simple provocation that marks a good 95 percent of our film output has been somehow flanked, and subversively so.

But he also discerned a larger truth that is relevant not just for film buffs but for all Americans:

Anyone who acquires the narrative of 12 Years A Slave and finds it within his shrunken heart to continue any argument for the sanctity and perfection of our Founding Fathers, for the moral wisdom of their compromised document of national ideal that begins the American experience, or for their anachronistic or historically understandable tolerance of slavery — they are arguing from a desolate, amoral corner.

If original intent included the sadism and degradation of human slavery, then original intent is a legal and moral standard that can be consigned to the ash heap of human history.   Hardcore conservatives and libertarians who continue to parse the origins of the Constitutions under the guise of returning to a more perfect American union are on a fool’s journey to decay and dishonor. …

In the echo of this film, the continuing call for a strict construction of our national codes and a devotion to the precise, original ideas of the long-dead men who crafted those codes in another human age, rings hollow and sick and shameful.

“Desolate, amoral, hollow, sick and shameful” fit Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia like a bespoke suit, his occasional good work on behalf of the First Amendment notwithstanding.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 7:41 pm

When we are ruled by barbarians, civility is vastly overrated …

… and that’s why this is a job for the Rude Pundit, who weighs in on both spying and drones:

Are we that crazed about our own precious safety that we simply don’t give a shit anymore about what other nations think when it comes to us “protecting” ourselves from “terrorists”? At this point, the United States views the world as one giant conspiracy out to destroy truth, justice, and high school football. We’re so … insane that Osama bin Laden must be laughing his crab-bitten ass off at the bottom of the ocean. …

The biggest allegation so far is that the NSA monitored the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A question about it to Press Secretary Jay Carney led to one of the all-time great weasel answers: “The President assured the Chancellor that the United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of Chancellor Merkel.” Now, the Rude Pundit may not be a big city diplomat, but he is a professor, and he knows when the past tense is missing in a sentence. [That's] so weaselly that actual weasels stood on their hind legs and applauded. …

And before anyone tries to say this is no big deal, much ado about nothing, metadata, or whatever self-deluding nonsense you wanna toss onto the shitpile, what’s more important, huh? Hearing Angela Merkel order take-out bratwurst or whatever … they do in Germany? Or assuring ongoing cooperation from our, you know, allies? ‘Cause those alleged allies are already thinking of telling the United States to [forget about] sharing spy information.

Of course, a little phone and email eavesdropping would be preferable for the people of Pakistan and Yemen, where Obama’s drone war is killing [many] civilians. Like, you know, the “18 laborers, including a 14-year-old boy, [who] were killed in multiple strikes on an impoverished village close to the border with Afghanistan as they were about to enjoy an evening meal at the end of a long day of work” in July 2012. The U.S. reported that as a successful terrorist murder operation, but Amnesty International discovered that it was, in fact, 18 laborers, including a 14-year old boy, who had [nothing] to do with terrorism. There’s lots more like that in both countries where we rain fiery death on the people.

What’s the game here? Is it that once Obama was shown the real threats to the United States, the [stuff] we’re all too stupid to be allowed to see, he lost his … mind and decided to go survivalist? Or is it that Obama is so concerned, like Democrats before him, to be seen as … tough … at home that he doesn’t really care what people overseas think about the spying and the drones missiles?

The Rude Pundit has a problem with all of this. He can’t just sweep it under the rug, say he trusts Obama, go about his daily life, and be glad that he’s not getting attacked. [Forget] that. He didn’t sign up for this. He’s not gonna pretend it’s okay because it’s not. And if it takes our European allies and the human rights organizations we have trusted for decades to smack us back into reality, then, please, slap away at our contorted faces.

I’m nobody’s idea of a national-security expert, but I would think that when our allies are threatening not to share intelligence with us anymore because of what we do and how we do it, we might want to rethink what we do and how we do it. And these two issues are far from the only problems I have with our president over national security.

Just-World Theory; or, Bad Things Don’t Happen to Good People! Really!

Ed at Gin & Tacos:

Post-1980 America is a land in which it is impossible to engage in a discussion about a System with college-aged people without inevitably and almost immediately devolving into mini-soliloquies on Good and Bad choices. Why have so many kids? Why did he start drinking? And they signed a contract without reading the whole thing! Everyone knows not to do that.

This is what I mean when I describe college students, when I’m forced to generalize, as extremely conservative. They aren’t necessarily hardcore political conservatives in the context of Washington politics, but they have thoroughly internalized the message that their parents and the media have been hammering them with since birth: everything that happens to you is your fault. There are no innocent victims of anything. This is a coping mechanism / cognitive bias called the Just World Phenomenon, wherein people victim-blame as a means of coping with the random cruelty of the world. Rather than accept that horrible things happen to good people – and, thus, that a horrible fate could befall them at any moment – people choose to retreat into the comforts of believing that everyone Had It Coming.

These are young adults who believe sincerely that since they have made Good Choices, nothing bad can happen to them for reasons beyond their control. The idea of being unemployed is literally incomprehensible to many of them – I’m in college and I even get decent grades, of course someone is going to hire me. This is where, as critics both liberal and conservative have often moaned, the constant self-esteem building of kids born in the 1990s shows its ugly side. Each student tends to believe that he or she is special and smart and the world, being a meritocracy, cannot fail to recognize this. Some of this simply is the normal naivety of youth that only life experience can erase. I honestly believe, strictly as a matter of opinion, that the hyper-individualism that dominates post-Carter politics is influential as well.

Yeah, how could bad things happen to people who make good choices when:

  • … right now 1.2 million students that attend public schools in America are homeless.  That number has risen by 72 percent since the start of the last recession. …
  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately one out of every six Americans is now living in poverty.  The number of Americans living in poverty is now at a level not seen since the 1960s. …
  • The “working poor” is one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population.  At this point, approximately one out of every four part-time workers in America is living below the poverty line.
  • The stock market may be doing great (for the moment), but incomes for average Americans continue to decline.  In fact, median household income in the United States has fallen for five years in a row. …
  • The quality of the jobs in America has been steadily dropping for years.  At this point, one out of every four American workers has a job that pays $10 an hour or less. …

Yeah, what could possibly go wrong and cause you any harm, kid?

Monday, October 28, 2013 7:19 pm

I have no use for the Washington Times, but this is clearly unconstitutional

Apparently the Maryland State Police and the Department of Homeland Security need to be swatted on their noses with a rolled-up Constitution:

Maryland State Police and federal agents used a search warrant in an unrelated criminal investigation to seize the private reporting files of an award-winning former investigative journalist for The Washington Times who had exposed problems in the Homeland Security Department’s Federal Air Marshals Service.

Reporter Audrey Hudson said the investigators, who included an agent for Homeland Security’s Coast Guard service, made a pre-dawn raid of her family home Aug. 6 and took her private notes and government documents that she had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

 

The documents, some of which chronicled her sources and her work at The Times about problems inside the Homeland Security Department, were seized under a warrant to search for unregistered firearms and a “potato gun” suspected of belonging to her husband, Paul Flanagan, a Coast Guard employee. Mr. Flanagan has not been charged with any wrongdoing since the raid.

The warrant, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, offered no specific permission to seize reporting notes or files.

The Times said it is preparing legal action to fight what it called an unwarranted intrusion on the First Amendment.

“While we appreciate law enforcement’s right to investigate legitimate concerns, there is no reason for agents to use an unrelated gun case to seize the First Amendment protected materials of a reporter,” Times Editor John Solomon said. “This violates the very premise of a free press, and it raises additional concerns when one of the seizing agencies was a frequent target of the reporter’s work.

“Homeland’s conduct in seizing privileged reporters’ notes and Freedom of Information Act documents raises serious Fourth Amendment issues, and our lawyers are preparing an appropriate legal response,” he said.

Oh, they didn’t say they were looking for reporters’ notes and records, but they took some anyway? Guess what, folks. That’s about as clear-cut a case of unconstitutional behavior as you can get. The Fourth Amendment reads, in its entirety: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” In other words, you can’t go in saying you’re looking for a gun and just seize a reporter’s notes and (legally obtained) records.

I’m not even going to start on how unlikely it is to be a coincidence that the same federal agency that has come off looking bad in this reporter’s work was the one undertaking the raid. I’m just going to stick with the facts. And the facts are that EVEN IF reporter Audrey Hudson’s husband, Paul Flanagan, had the gun in question (and he has not been charged wtih a crime, remember), officials had no basis in the world for confiscating anything relevant to her work.

I rag on the Washington Times for being a crappy news outlet because, well, it generally is. But crappy or not, no U.S. news outlet — indeed, no American — is supposed to be treated this way. It’s right there in the Fourth Amendment. Some Maryland state police and DHS officials need to be fired and prosecuted over this. Denial of civil rights under color of law is a crime, and this crap is going to keep happening until cops start going to prison. I’m delighted that the Times is suing, but it needs to pressure the hell out of both the county DA and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prosecute the officials involved. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013 7:14 pm

Quote of the Day, shutdown/salmonella edition

Filed under: America. It was a really good idea — Lex @ 7:14 pm

Tom Levenson at Balloon Juice:

… the dominant view within the modern Republican party is one that in essence denies the existence of society.  In the Tea Party view — the one shaping the entire party’s vision — the US is and must be a nation of individuals, atoms; there is no concept that we might act in concert to ends other than those we can address one by one.

From that perspective deciding we don’t need food safety inspectors makes sense.  It’s my job or yours to make sure we cook that chicken breast all the way through, that we sterilize our cutting boards, that we never forget to soap off our knives between cuts, that we never eat with friends less cautious than ourselves. (I’m following Maryn’s argument here, btw.)

One could choose to live that way.  Kids would die, from time to time, and maybe grandpa too, before he needed to go.  Such deaths would be the price of my freedom, a definition of liberty renders every other person around me a kind of ghost: there, but not so much so that I need act as if they are just as real as me.

That’s what’s at stake in the current impasse in Washington.  I don’t want to live with ghosts. I want friends, I want colleagues, I want a society — civilization.  Hell!  I want chicken inspectors, and it’s a privilege, not a burden, to live within a system that’s figured out how to  have them.

Yup. Much as the Teatards and Norquists of the world want to deny it, we’re in this together, and we are because, if we want certain nice things, we have to be.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013 6:50 pm

Unquestionably

So in an attempt to figure out why we’re in this government-shutdown mess, I went to the Magic 8-Ball and posed a question. The following dialogue ensued:

Q: Is John Boehner’s head in his descending colon, his transverse colon or his ascending colon?

A: Very doubtful.

Q: So is it up in his small bowel?

A: Very doubtful.

Q: So is it, um, up in his stomach?

A: No.

Q: Oh, wow. So it’s all the way up in his esophagus, you mean?

A: Yes.

Well, that would explain a lot.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013 7:06 pm

James Fallows’s thought experiment on government shutdown

Fallows shows your liberal media at work:

2) Thought experiment. Let’s suppose it’s the fall of 2005. Suppose George W. Bush has been reelected, as he was in real life. Let’s suppose, also as in reality, the Senate remained in Republican hands. But then suppose that Nancy Pelosi and her Democrats had already won control of the House, rather than doing so two years later. So suppose that the lineup as of 2005 had been:

  • Reelected Republican president;
  • The president’s Republican party retaining control of the Senate; and
  • Democrats controlling only one chamber, the House.

Then suppose further that Pelosi’s newly empowered House Democrats announced that unless George W. Bush agreed to reverse the sweeping tax cuts that had been the signature legislative achievement of his first term, they would refuse to pass a budget so that the federal government could operate, and would threaten a default on U.S. sovereign debt. Alternatively, that unless Bush immediately withdrew from Iraq, federal government funding would cease and the debt ceiling would be frozen.

In this imagined world, I contend:

  • “respectable” opinion would be all over Pelosi and the Democrats for their “shrill,” “extreme” demands, especially given their lack of broad electoral mandate;
  • hand-wringing editorials would point out that if you want to change policy, there’s an established route to do so, which involves passing new bills and getting them signed into law, rather than issuing “otherwise we blow up the government” ultimatums;
  • no one would be saying that the “grownups in the room” had to resolve the crisis by giving away, say, half of the president’s tax cuts. (Even though, to my taste, that would have been a positive step.)

The circumstances are the mirror image now. A party that within the past year has:

  • lost the presidency by 5 million votes;
  • lost the Senate by a total of 10 million votes;
  • held onto control of the House through favorable districting, while losing the overall House vote by 1.7 million nationwide

… is nonetheless dictating terms to the rest of the government. This would have been called extreme and unreasonable under an imagined Nancy Pelosi House in 2005. It is extreme and unreasonable now.

Yup. But apparently IOKIYAR, because the Washington Post and other outlets of its out-of-touch ilk are suggesting that the “grownups in the room” have to compromise now. Uh, not just no, but hell, no. The Crazy Caucus must be forced back into its cage, and until it is (which likely won’t be until the 2022 elections) it should be held up to public shame and opprobrium at every possible opportunity by the “grownups in the room,” which ought to include, but does not and has not for years, the Washington Post.

What do you do when the government is in the hands of people who don’t believe in government?

Commenter David Nangle at Charlie Pierce’s place has it about right:

This Congress should only be flown by pilots that don’t believe in flight. They should only be treated by doctors that don’t believe in medicine, or the efficacy of surgery. They should live in houses built by people that don’t believe in carpentry. And they should eat only food prepared by people that don’t believe in cooking, or the germ theory of disease.

Woulda, coulda, shoulda. All those Democrats who pitched hissy fits and stayed home in 2010 have allowed the creation of a disaster that has no serious chance of being stopped before the demographic trends that will turn up in the 2020 Census offer the possibility of redistricting sufficient to give voters at least the chance to cleanse the government in 2022.

The Crazy Caucus can do a lot of damage in a decade-plus. They already have. And don’t think they won’t do more.

Monday, September 30, 2013 7:33 pm

Shutdown primer

James Fallows at The Atlantic explains the only parts that really matter:

  • As a matter of substance, constant-shutdown, permanent-emergency governance is so destructive that no other serious country engages in or could tolerate it. The United States can afford it only because we are — still — so rich, with so much margin for waste and error. Details on this and other items below.*
  • As a matter of politics, this is different from anything we learned about in classrooms or expected until the past few years. We’re used to thinking that the most important disagreements are between the major parties, not within one party; and that disagreements over policies, goals, tactics can be addressed by negotiation or compromise.This time, the fight that matters is within the Republican party, and that fight is over whether compromise itself is legitimate.** Outsiders to this struggle — the president and his administration, Democratic legislators as a group, voters or “opinion leaders” outside the generally safe districts that elected the new House majority — have essentially no leverage over the outcome. I can’t recall any situation like this in my own experience, and the only even-approximate historic parallel (with obvious differences) is the inability of Northern/free-state opinion to affect the debate within the slave-state South from the 1840s onward. Nor is there a conceivable “compromise” the Democrats could offer that would placate the other side.
  • As a matter of journalism, any story that presents the disagreements as a “standoff,” a “showdown,” a “failure of leadership,” a sign of “partisan gridlock,” or any of the other usual terms for political disagreement,represents a failure of journalism*** and an inability to see or describe what is going on. …This isn’t “gridlock.” It is a ferocious struggle within one party, between its traditionalists and its radical factions, with results that unfortunately can harm all the rest of us — and, should there be a debt default, could harm the rest of the world too. …

* The FAA, the FDA, our research organizations, all other public programs from monitoring air quality to modernizing computer systems to staffing the military — they’re all wasting time and money now because of indiscriminate “sequester” cuts and preparations for possible shut-down. For the foreseeable future, the air traffic will keep moving and other functions will go on — just more stupidly and wastefully. We have that much social capital still to burn. …

** The debt-ceiling vote, of course, is not about future spending decisions. It is about whether to cover expenditures the Congress has already authorized. There is no sane reason for subjecting this to a repeated vote. … [And] in case the point is not clear yet: there is no post-Civil War precedent for what the House GOP is doing now. …

*** For examples of coverage that plainly states what is going on, here is a small sampling: Greg SargentDerek ThompsonJohn Gilmour (on why Ronald Reagan believed in compromise), Jonathan RauchBrian BeutlerJonathan ChaitAndrew Sullivan (also here), Ezra Klein and Evan SoltasDan Froomkin.

The failure of mainstream media to report accurately on this subject is perhaps its biggest fail since its coverage of the runup to the Iraq invasion in 2003. And although the number of lives immediately at risk is far lower, the worldwide economic damage that could result is far higher.

As for what actually will happen, I don’t have any insider knowledge. But I do know that the Tea Party wing of the House GOP (egged on by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas) is full-throttle, turn-it-up-to-11 crazy. The reason the GOP is split is because they think House Speaker John Boehner and his allies aren’t being conservative enough. They have learned nothing from their recent failures, and they think the biggest problem with the government shutdown that resulted from disputes between Democratic President Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s Republicans in Congress was that the Republicans, who finally caved after about three weeks, gave in too soon. So I’m projecting a 95% chance of a government shutdown, an 80% chance that the shutdown will last more than two weeks, and at least a 40% chance that they will force the U.S., for the first time in history, to default on its debt.

They just want to blow government up. They don’t care about collateral damage — the millions, here and abroad, who would be harmed if the full faith and credit of the United States were to be called into question. But the only way for that NOT to happen is for the Crazy Caucus to suddenly start acting less crazy. And there’s nothing in the caucus’s history to suggest the slightest likelihood that that will happen.

Thursday, August 29, 2013 6:18 pm

Because you looked too damn secure for my taste, chemical explosions edition

Apparently the Dallas Morning News, bless it, is not dead yet:

Even the best national data on chemical accidents is wrong nine times out of 10.

Dallas Morning News analysis of more than 750,000 federal records found pervasive inaccuracies and holes in data on chemical accidents, such as the one in West that killed 15 people and injured more than 300.

In fact, no one at any level of government knows how often serious chemical accidents occur each year in the United States. And there is no plan in place for federal agencies to gather more accurate information.

As a result, the kind of data sharing ordered by President Barack Obama in response to West is unlikely to improve the government’s ability to answer even the most basic questions about chemical safety.

“We can track Gross National Product to the second and third decimal, but there is no reliable way of tracking even simple things like how many [chemical] accidents happen,” said Sam Mannan, a nationally recognized expert on chemical safety who recently testified before a congressional hearing on West.

“This is just scandalous.”

h/t Erik Loomis at Lawyers, Guns & Money, who adds, quite accurately:

Let’s be clear, this is intentional. Corporations don’t want you to know where things are produced or under what conditions. Business has ensured that the relevant government agencies that could effectively track this information remain chronically underfunded. We can blame government and there’s no question that it isn’t enough of a priority for either political party. But one party is opposed to the sheer existence of these agencies and that makes it awfully hard to craft an effective regulatory system.

To put it even more bluntly, the operators of these chemical plants don’t give two hoots in hell whether you live or die, because they don’t have to: If you die, your death is just a tax-deductible cost of doing business for them — if it costs them anything at all. And this degree of lethality will continue as long as corporations are allowed any say, direct or financial, in how we are governed. There’s a word for it, and all the Tea Partiers in the world to the contrary, that word is not “socialism.”

 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013 6:26 pm

Quote of the Day, Thomas Paine edition

Mr. Paine was talking about hereditary monarchy, but he could as well be speaking of hereditary oligarchy, the condition toward which the U.S. is headed like a rocket on rails thanks to corrupt legislative and judicial branches and a cowardly executive (not to mention a bought-and-paid-for N.C. General Assembly, which just abolished the estate tax):

But it is not so much the absurdity as the evil of hereditary succession which concerns mankind. Did it ensure a race of good and wise men it would have the seal of divine authority, but as it opens a door to the FOOLISH, the WICKED, and the IMPROPER, it hath in it the nature of oppression. Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent. Selected from the rest of mankind, their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed in the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.

(h/t: Erik Loomis, Lawyers, Guns & Money)

Friday, June 7, 2013 5:01 am

Matt Yglesias gets shrill. And real.

We’ve heard a lot of bullshit these past several years about Social Security, so as an antitoxin, here’s Matt Yglesias:

The Powers That Be hate Social Security and always will because it’s a program whose entire purpose is to pay people money not to work. That’s not a perverse consequence of Social Security. It’s not a contentious partisan claim about Social Security. It’s not a dubious interpretation of what Social Security is all about. That’s the point. It’s to give people money so they can retire with dignity. “Retire” being a fancy word for “not working.” You’re never ever going to persuade business leaders to stop agitating for cuts in a program that has this feature. Business leaders want people to work! At a minimum, if people are hoping to not work, business leaders are going to want people to save (i.e., loan funds to business leaders) in order to achieve that purpose. Taxing people who are working in order to pay money so that people can enjoy retired life in peace is the antithesis of everything business elites want out of public policy.

And guess what we haven’t done during this era of changing projections? We haven’t cut Social Security benefits. We haven’t raised the age at which people become eligible for Medicare. We’ve done things to reduce budget deficits, in other words, but we haven’t really acted to make it tougher for people to retire. But people don’t like to say they want to make it hard for people to retire so instead they talk about “the deficit,” and they’re not going to stop.

The Powers that Be have had their way for way too long. I think it’s time that the rest of America slapped them and told them to shut their whore mouths.

 

Thursday, June 6, 2013 6:07 pm

Oh, now he’s troubled. Jackass.

Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner: “As the author of the Patriot Act, I am extremely troubled by the FBI’s interpretation of this legislation.”

Why now, Jim? Didn’t bother you 12 years ago. Didn’t bother you all through the Bush administration. If you had the sense God gave a billy goat and/or were awake in eighth-grade civics, not only wouldn’t you have written the Patriot Act, you’d have opposed it with all your resources and at the top of your lungs, you sorry sack of slime. Lots of very smart people, plus me, told you at the time that this was a wrong call and that it would, inevitably, be misused to justify flat-out crimes. You ignored us. Well, screw you. I hope the government scooped up all your calls and I desperately hope that evidence of a serious crime lies therein. You bent the Bill of Rights over your desk and raped it. The rest of your life in prison is too good for you.

 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013 12:05 am

The Boston bomb and who we are

I was so buried in my own little world of work and homework today that I didn’t hear about the bombs in Boston until almost five hours after the first explosion. About 4:30 this afternoon, the whole Internet seemed to freeze, so I tweeted from my phone, wondering who had broken the Web. I got answers almost immediately but didn’t see them until much later.

We appear to know little now, and that’s OK. We’ll find out what we need to. I refuse to speculate, except to say this: Whoever set those bombs, whoever killed and wounded those innocent people, is a coward. Of that I’m confident to a moral certainty.

In addition to the Boston Marathon, and tax day, today is the day on which are commemorated the battles of Lexington and Concord, the beginning of the American fight for independence. And so it is that I am reminded of two quotes, both by Edward R. Murrow, the broadcast journalist who grew up a stone’s throw from where I type this evening:

“No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices.” – 7 March 1954

“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.” — 9 March 1954

The cowards who planted the bombs want us to be afraid. But so do many of our leaders. “Be afraid,” they told us after 9/11. “Be afraid,” they told us after 7/7. “Be afraid,” they told us after 3/11. And why not? For the more afraid we are, the more of our freedoms they can take, and the more they have taken already. If you doubt me, look at what has happened to the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments after 9/11. And yet we worship the Second as if it were some Aztec idol into whose bloody maw the still-beating hearts of our countrymen must be thrown for appeasement, even as we know that no number of firearms could have prevented what happened today.

But no. Let us not be afraid. Not this time, and never again. This time, let us bury our dead, minister to our wounded, and comfort our bereaved as best we can even though we know for some there is no comfort and never will be. And then let us go live as the best Americans and the best human beings we can be, knowing that the time may come when any or all of us might have to run into the fire, like the cops and firefighters and EMTs did today, whether that fire be caused by a bomb or by the sociopathy of those, domestic and foreign, who would destroy what is best about America and who have run wild for far, far too long.

(Edited to correct late-night grammar.)

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