Wednesday, January 29, 2014

James Clapper is a Liar. Why is He Still the Director of National Intelligence?

Meet James Clapper.  He’s the Director of National Intelligence for the United States.  He is also a liar.  He lied to Congress about the nature of NSA surveillance.  When given the opportunity to correct that lie, he lied again.  He lied to the public about the efficacy of NSA surveillance in protecting the country.

He lied so successfully that California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who thought that she was his friend, declared, “there is no more direct or honest person than Jim Clapper”.  At the time that she said that, Clapper’s agencies were misleading Feinstein about the extent of NSA surveillance of foreign governments.

Clapper oversees an agency which has repeatedly—and in some cases very deliberately—broken the law.  He oversees an intelligence network which works hard to evade accountability and frustrate the efforts of those who seek to introduce accountability into its operations.  He oversees a national security apparatus which wields Fear as its primary weapon...not against our “enemies”, but against the very public it is meant to protect.

Now he is telling us that Edward Snowden, the individual who disclosed the lying, prying, and lawbreaking of the NSA caused “profound damage” to the United States.  Can he tell us what damage Snowden’s revelations did?  Of course not.  His unsubstantiated smears were backed up by the contemptible head of the Defence Intelligence Agency, Lt. General Michael Flynn, who speculated basely that revelations about NSA activities would result in deaths on “tomorrow’s battlefield”.  Could he explain why that would be the case?  Of course not.

Why we should trust people who we know to be liars and lawbreakers remains unclear.  As does the purpose of hearings in which these people, instead of being put on the rack for their lying and lawbreaking, are permitted to sling unsubstantiated accusations. 

In theory, the security state exists to serve the public.  But this is not how Clapper and his colleagues look at it.  To them, the public is an adversary, to be misled, frustrated, and subjected to scrutiny and suspicion.  To them, democracy is not something to be treasured and cultivated, but rather a quaint impediment to the fearful, paranoid world in which they insist we live.

Without the revelations about the activities of Clapper’s agencies, we would not be having this debate about what is fundamental to the survival of any democratic society: the appropriate balance between liberty and security.  Many people are not so much troubled by what the NSA was doing as they were by the fact that Clapper and others created the architecture for this massive spying system in secrecy and without sufficient mechanisms of accountability.  And then lied about its existence.

Clapper did not want us to have this debate.  In fact, he worked very hard to try to prevent it. 

President Obama left this very important question unanswered when he announced his half-hearted reforms of the U.S. intelligence network: Why does he continue to employ a liar like Clapper who enabled lawbreaking and manifests such open contempt for the rules governing a democratic society?  Clapper’s presence at hearings like the one today are a gross insult to the public and a reminder that a great deal of work needs to be done before the national security state is brought to heel after a decade of extraordinary and unforgivable excesses, excesses which were made possible by the likes of James Clapper.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Elizabeth Warren Offers Legislation to Monitor Rigged Financial Settlements

At the beginning of 2014, progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren joined with Republican Tom Coburn to introduce the Truth in Settlements Act. 

According to a statement Warren put out, “when federal agencies close investigations and settle cases, they often tout the dollar amount obtained from the offender, but in many cases that amount is misleading because of tax deductions and other ‘credits’ built into the settlement that reduce the settlement’s true value.  Worse, sometimes agreements are deemed confidential, with key details or even the fact of a settlement hidden from the public”.

The problems with the existing system surrounding settlements obtained by the federal government is that in an era when politics is increasingly shaped by corporate money and influence (“Free Speech”, in the words of the right-wing Supreme Court justices who conferred citizenship on corporations), we often don’t possess the information we need to assess whether a given settlement has been shaped by the long arm of the corporate class.  Settlements can provide the illusion of punishment, when in fact depending on the facts of a settlement, there might be no incentive for corporate lawbreakers to change their behaviours.  Or the amounts of a settlement can be so small that they amount to no more than a harmless slap on a wrist, leaving the public exposed to subsequent abuse.

The Truth in Settlements Act is designed to introduce transparency into this process.  Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, argued that the Act “gives taxpayers the transparency tools they need to access real information and numbers regarding enforcement settlements”.  If both taxpayers and journalists have access to this information, it is less likely that the settlement system will be so openly abused.

On Friday, we got a good example of why we need such a law.

This tells us something interesting.  If JP Morgan Chase believed that Dimon performed good service by ensuring that they only paid out $16 billion to compensate for their wrong-doing, there was clearly more at stake.  If there was a chance that JP Morgan was going to get hit with a serious fine—i.e. one which might have led them to fire their CEO instead of give him a raise—it suggests that regulators might not have done their job properly.  It suggests that Dimon is being rewarded for his ability to manipulate a system which is open to manipulation because of a lack of transparency.

When $16 billion in fines is a marker of a good year, and when your CEO who already takes home over $10 million needs a raise at a time when working people’s incomes have stagnated and the gap between the wealthy and the poor is enormous, something is terribly wrong.  The Truth in Settlements Act addresses but one part of our country’s mangled financial and economic structure.  But it is one of a set of laws introduced by Warren in the Senate which could do much to even the playing field, punish wrong-doing, and prioritise those who live on the economic brink without access to golden parachutes.

The fact that it is a brand-new Senator taking the lead on these issues is a demonstration of just how stagnant our political class has become.  It also illustrates just how much we could use someone like Elizabeth Warren, not just as one of one hundred Senators, but as a presidential candidate taking her message across the country where it would contrast sharply with the economic fundamentalism of the Republican Party and the assurances Hillary Clinton is already offering corporate powerbrokers.

At a time when idiotic venture capitalists are claiming that asking them to pay more taxes is akin to the Holocaust, and being egged on in their selfishness by Republican Party leaders and the likes of Hillary Clinton, we could use a sharp, clear, moral voice like Elizabeth Warren’s advocating for equality and fairness in our country.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Governor Jerry Brown's 2014 State of the State Left Much Unsaid

I tuned in to California Governor Jerry Brown’s State of the State speech a few minutes ago, and was disconcerted to see Gavin Newsom slouching in front of the camera in the state Capitol, babbling about interconnectedness and the need for technocratic, apolitical solutions to human, political problems.  It seemed that he was doing the warm-up act for Jerry Brown.  

Jerry Brown | Photo: ohad/Flickr/Creative Commons License
Hackneyed phrases tumbled out of his mouth with a vigour that suggested that if we could but harness the Lieutenant Governor’s massive ego we could power the state—nay, the nation—without having to burn so much as another particle of fossil fuel.  The “tech genie” was now “out of the bottle”; we were rafting on the “white waters of change”; we were contemplating “organic job creation”; and we were quoting Winston Churchill…something about cows and tent poles.
His glistening mop aside, Newsom seemed tepid.  He is undoubtedly bored with his job as number-two to a number-one who won’t return his phone calls in a system of government that makes the lieutenant governorship nothing more than a way-station. 

Governor Jerry Brown, by contrast, was bouncing on his feet when he took the podium, and lost no time in getting a series of laughs at Newsom’s expense, slapping down the Lieutenant Governor when he declared that “there is no substitute for experience”.

Brown launched into an ode to “California’s comeback”, delighting in wonderment at “what a comeback it is”.  He cited job growth, the budgetary surplus, and minimum wage increases, without acknowledging that these gains are temporary and based on comparatively anomalous moments of political contingency that are unlikely to be replicated with anything resembling regularity.

Brown likes to see California’s ills as chronic but manageable diseases rather than treatable problems.  He cited a series of “long-term liabilities” including pensions, retiree healthcare, roads and infrastructure, and future risks related to the behaviour of the federal government and natural disasters.  But he refuses to contemplate the kind of structural adjustments to our political system that would empower legislators and, indeed, the Governor himself, to actively manage these problems.

Brown gave significant credit for our supposed “comeback” to California’s voters, praising their passage of Prop 25 (which ended the supermajority requirements for the budget, but not the supermajority requirements for revenue increases) and Prop 30 as evidence of our great wisdom.

Prop 25, Brown claimed, “ended the gridlock”.  It is in peddling this sort of fiction that Brown is at his most dishonest.  As documented most thoroughly by Joe Mathews and Mark Paul in their reform treatise California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We can Fix It, California’s system of government comprises a set of contradictory guidelines and strictures that even Houdini couldn’t escape.  So long as the likes of Prop 13 goes unaddressed, and so long as we fail to recognize the danger of a system of direct democracy which operates so dreadfully out of synch with our formal political sphere, that gridlock goes totally unaddressed, no less “ended”.

I’ve never been one to criticise Jerry Brown for being old.  But in the latter part of the speech he began to go a bit loopy.  Perhaps he was just over-caffeinated.  One of Gavin Newsom’s words was “hyper-connectivity” or something along those lines.  Newsom is “hyper-annoying”.  The California Republican Party is “hyper-destructive”.  But Brown was just plain hyper.  “Boom and bust is our lot!” he thundered from the podium, quickly lunging to cite Genesis, which was written down when Brown was but a wee lad.

It was when he beamed cheerfully that he had playing cards for us that I knew he was having his Clint Eastwood moment.  Playing cards?!  With his dog on them!  I didn’t follow his logic (I think there might have been a joke involved, but humour is not the Governor’s forte), but began to wonder whether our state is being run by a corgi.  Brown is a fan of the classics, so perhaps instead of consulting pigeon entrails, he places bills before the corgi: “One bark for yes, two or no, okay Sutter?” 

The remainder of the speech was a blur of disconnected thoughts which had none of the eloquence I associate with most of Brown’s set-piece speeches.  If there was a thread tying them together it was Brown’s pet theory of Subsidiarity which amounts to a declaration that problems are someone else’s responsibility. 

Brown claims to be promoting a drive for the localisation of political power and responsibility, but each such measure is off-set by a degree of centralisation.  The local control funding formula for schools is countermanded by the embrace of Common Core.  The transfer of some prison responsibilities to local authorities is offset by the sub-contracting by the state to corrupt prison companies which demand that the state pay them even for empty prison cells. 

“Life is local”, Brown declared, “and so many of the things we try to do here in the state capitol” can only be handled locally.   And yet we face a drought which requires centralised decision-making to safeguard and apportion our water resources and ensure that this water is safe to drink and healthy for the habitats through which it flows.  How could we achieve Brown’s ambition to drop gasoline consumption without central regulation? 

Perhaps unsurprising given the manner in which his austerity drive has contributed to the problem, Brown had virtually nothing to say about economic equality.  Nor did he touch on the way in which well-funded schools and affordable universities could contribute not just to a strengthening of the workforce and the creation of jobs, but also the levelling of the playing field which is today dominated by a comparatively small number of people to whom the wealth generated by our state’s community has accrued.  The omission is curious given efforts to provide universal pre-kindergarten education and the fact that the University of California Regents are meeting in San Francisco to discuss the state of their beleaguered institution today.

Brown ended his speech calling for vision, discipline, and the ability to persevere.  But the speech was a chaotic grab-bag of thoughts, mirroring our mangled polity.  It was surprisingly devoid of vision, showed little evidence of much care or discipline, and gave little indication that this Governor has the desire to tackle the social and economic problems which currently inhibit our ability to endure and persevere as a healthy society.  

Clinton’s Campaign for the 1% in California Contrasts with Warren’s Labours for the Working Class

Hillary Clinton is California bound.  

The former Secretary of state and presidential aspirant will, according to CNN, be swinging through San Francisco, San Jose, and San Diego to raise her profile in the Golden State.  California is a crucial reservoir of resources for Democratic politicians contesting the presidency.  Its ardent progressives provide the grassroots muscle for campaigns.  And, more importantly in the post-Citizens United (“corporations are people and money is free speech”) days, it serves as a major funder for candidates.

Clinton’s visit is a demonstration that she will, if anything, be worse.  According to CNN, “the trip, which has Clinton appearing in front of an array of business and corporate groups, will likely happen behind closed doors, however, as all three appearances are closed to the press”.

Clinton’s behavior on her California visit is insulting in two ways.  In the first it demonstrates her disrespect for California’s citizenry.  Her decision to bypass them and speak only to the state’s corporate powerbrokers demonstrates where her priorities are.  And keeping the press out of her events ensures that the public she spurns will not be aware of what she is saying to special interests behind closed doors.  The secrecy that characterizes Clinton’s campaign is an affront to our already-beleaguered democracy.

CNN noted that “Clinton’s last sustained swing through California came in November, when the former secretary of state made a two-day trip to Los Angeles and San Francisco for a mix of corporate speaking engagements and award ceremonies”.

The fact that Clinton can get away with offering such contempt to the people who should be her focus as she plans her presidential bid indicates just how warped our politics have become by the corrosive influence of money.

Fortunately, there are other people out there who would have the capacity to make more principled, honest, and progressive bids for the presidency.  Senator Elizabeth Warren is foremost amongst these.  Unlike Hillary Clinton, who spent her Senate years keeping her head down, sponsoring anodyne legislation, and cultivating colleagues, Warren has been a blur ofactivity in her short time in the SenateThe progressive legislation Warren is pushing builds on her record of activism on behalf of the working and middle class prior to her arrival in the Senate: activism which has generated results.  

Warren was also in California late last year.  But instead of addressing potential donors in private she addressed organized labour in public, explaining why the health of the labour movement in the United States is a good indicator of the prosperity of working people, and identifying the difficult struggle faced by the vast majority of our country’s citizens as they struggle to make the case for their relevance in an economy dominated by the super-wealthy. 

Many progressives are reflexively closing ranks about Clinton, embracing her as one of their own in spite of her neoconservative and neoliberal records.  But we actually have a choice.  There are candidates like Clinton, who think that talk of inequality is “foolish”—an attitude reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s remarks that we can only talk about inequality “in quiet rooms”.  And there are progressives like Elizabeth Warren, who crusades against the inequality which is tearing our country to pieces.  To me, the choice seems easy.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Citizens United, our Democracy, and Elizabeth Warren

Today is the fourth anniversary of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court decision which upended the traditional notion of democracy—namely, that rights accrue to living, breathing human beings, with needs, aspirations, and desires.

Former Labor Secretary and current UC Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich described the decision like this: “Four years ago today, on January 21, 2010, the five Republican appointees on the Supreme Court—either oblivious to the concentration of income and wealth at the top of America or conspiring with it—declared that the First Amendment protects corporations because corporations are ‘people’, and that the government therefore may not keep corporations from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.  And as ‘Citizens United’ has been interpreted by lower courts, it has opened the floodgates of money from billionaires and multimillionaires as well”.

How else could we interpret the suggestion that Corporations are people and that Money is free speech except as an assault on the relationship between people and their institutions?  If political power and political influence is to be accorded based on the ability to purchase that power and influence, those of us in the great majority who do not have the resources to mount million- and billion-dollar campaigns to make ourselves heard are being written out of politics.

The Republican Party and those on the right of the Democratic Party like to talk about the inherent goodness of capitalism and the beauty of the “free” market.  But of course no market is really “free”, because if a “free market” means one without constraints imposed by the state for the public good, it is simply one in which the richer and more influential you are, the more wealth and power will accrue to you. 

All markets are manipulated, but they can be manipulated differently, to different political ends, and by different interests.  Some are manipulated in away to ensure that benefits flow relatively evenly across society, and that no one accumulates unseemly wealth so long as there are other people struggling for a livelihood. 

And others are manipulated to ensure that money flows upwards and is readily translated into political power, buying influence for those with money so that they can ensure that the representatives they have purchased create laws which bring them more wealth.  And because such a manipulation of the economy is so clearly unfair and unjust, these interests will also seek to weaken the rights of those against whom the economy is rigged.

They will do so by curtailing the ability of working people to set the terms of their labour and demand compensation that allows them to live decently.  They will do so by launching attacks on any political candidate or group which talks about the need for equality and justice.  And they will do so by sponsoring “think tanks” to generate faux “studies”, propaganda which makes a virtue of inequality and seeks to divide working people against each other.

Citizens United—the granting of rights to corporations and the dilution of the rights of human beings—is one of the more egregious examples of efforts to rig our political system, and through that system, rig our economy. 

There is a clear economic argument to be made about funneling wealth to people who—because they are so spectacularly wealthy—do not use that wealth in a manner which stimulates the economy and creates jobs.

But there is also an urgent moral argument to be made against the mangling of citizenship and the growth of corporate power at the expense of our democracy.  Amongst elected representatives in the United States, this moral argument has been made most powerfully and most consistently by Massachusetts Senator and ardent progressive Elizabeth Warren.  In 2012 it was left to Warren to provide the most impassioned answer to Mitt Romney’s unabashed claim that “Corporations are people, my friend!”

Warren delivered a thundering response at the Democratic National Convention which was as much a rebuke to the quiescent in her party as it was to the fundamentalists in the GOP:

“Republicans”, Warren declared, “say they don’t believe in government.  Sure they do.  They believe in government to help themselves and their powerful friends.  After all, Mitt Romney’s the guy who said, ‘Corporations are people’.  No, Governor Romney, corporations are not people.  People have hearts, they have kids, they have jobs.  They get sick, they cry, they dance, they live, they love, and they die.  And that matters”.

In the Senate Warren has been a strong advocate for the introduction of accountability to the governments interactions with the corporate world, for the restoration of democratic rights to people, and for the enactment of legislation designed to restore economic well-being to people who have been badly hurt by the manipulation of our economy and society.

I hope that the legislation Warren has so far proposed, and which ought to receive the support of all those representatives invested in the defence of our democracy—the Truth in Settlements Act, the Equal Employment for All Act, the 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act, and the Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act— represent just the beginning of her efforts to reform the financial system, even the playing field for the working class, and create an economy which is just and moral and benefits real people rather than the corporate titans who are currently the recipients of so much largesse from our broken system of government.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Congressman Mike Rogers Eats Babies

The U.S. security state is feeling pressure.  It knows that at the very least it will be subjected to reforms outlined by President Obama last week.  The President’s review panel revealed that the NSA’s claims about the necessity of its data collecting and hoarding to thwarting terrorist attacks are misleading.  New revelations have provided further details about the extent of its intrusive spying.  Congress is contemplating a USA Freedom Act which would go farther than Obama’s proposals.

And so the security state is unleashing its attack dogs on a soft target—Edward Snowden—in the hopes of weakening the ever-stronger case for curbing its activities.  Remember, when Snowden first revealed the NSA’s activities, he was branded a traitor and a threat to national security.  The only threat he has turned out to pose is to the ability of that security state to abuse the liberties of the citizens it is supposed to work for.  And because of his actions, we have been able to have an important debate about the balance between security and liberty, and we know that agencies of our government break the law and operate without oversight or check.

In smearing Snowden, these well-trained apologists for the rogue security agencies are not troubling themselves to provide evidence.  Rogers simply maintains that it could not be coincidence that Snowden has taken refuge in Russia.  McCaul concludes that Snowden must have had help, and that it is safe to therefore assume that he was helped by the Russians.  And Morell provided this gem: “I don’t have any particular evidence, but one of the things that I point to when I talk about this is that the disclosures that have been coming recently are very sophisticated in their content and sophisticated in their timing, almost too sophisticated for Mr Snowden to be deciding on his own”.

So six months ago, Snowden was an evil genius, capable of inflicting massive, treasonous harm on the United States.  And today he’s a bumbler who couldn’t possibly be capable of deciding that it might be advantageous to release documents around the time when the President will be delivering a speech on the subject of his revelations.  If this is the level of thinking we can expect from our top spies, Snowden is the least of our worries!

Now like Morell, “I don’t have any particular evidence”, but one of the things that I think about when I study his utterances is that there is clearly a double-game being played.  I think it’s fairly safe to assume that Morell is a Russian spy.

I’ll allow that “I don’t have any particular evidence”, but I also feel pretty comfortable asserting that McCaul couldn’t have woken up and become a Congressman all on his own.  I think he must be in cahoots with the Koch Brothers.  Or maybe Al Qaeda.

And this might be going out on a limb given that “I don’t have any particular evidence”, but I have it on good authority—not that I’m inclined to reveal my sources—that Mike Rogers eats babies. 

See…smearing people without evidence is cheap and easy.  And the Republican Party has lots of practice given what they’ve been doing to the President for the past five years.  The claims I made above are clearly risible.  But they are no different whatsoever from those being thrown about by these attack dogs for the security state, or those by the people who demanded the President’s birth certificate and then decided that even that wouldn’t satisfy them: they are made using logic which is dubious where not totally absent, and they are leveled without being backed up by anything even resembling evidence.  

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Democracy on the Run

In an address last year to UC Berkeley political science graduates of the university, California Governor Jerry Brown remarked on the term “fugitive democracy” to refer to the episodic nature of “the power of a people—democracy”.  That power, he said, ebbs and flows, “but at key moments, bureaucratic and corporate power gives way to an aroused citizenry”.
That certainly seems to be the case.  And it is helpful to think about Democracy as a construct in this way, as something that has to be built and maintained, and which is represented not just by elections (which, we are learning, can be bought, manipulated, and influenced by money), but by the engagement and commitment of a citizenry.

It might also be helpful to think about Democracy—and I’m not going to try to define the term carefully—in historical terms.  It’s a pretty recent phenomenon in the world.  The Greeks, of course, had a version of it, but like the early American variety, it was subverted by the existence of massive slave classes.  If we look at the attributes of a modern democracy—a nation state with power ostensibly in the hands of its citizens, wielded for the common good, its institutions accessible to all of its inhabitants—we will see that it is a form which is a blip on an historical timeline.
The U.S. declared its independence in 1776, but did not abolish slavery until the Civil War.  It was not until 1920 that all women were permitted to vote, and while the franchise is certainly not the only metric of democracy, it is a very basic and foundational one, a precondition of sorts.  In 1964, nearly two centuries after the U.S. won its independence from colonial rule, the country finally abolished discrimination in voting rules, and one year later it ended segregation in schools and workplaces.
In other countries, the experience has been roughly similar.  In many European nations, women won the right to vote after the First or Second World War, when their work became more recognisable to the highly-patriarchal societies in which they had long laboured.  In most former colonies, women won the vote as those countries became independent.  There are some dramatic outliers—in the Pacific, the Middle East, and Switzerland—where women’s rights came later, and in Saudi Arabia, Brunei, and the UAE where they are still largely absent.
By this count, the U.S. and much of the world has had around fifty years of basic democracy if we take that to mean nothing more than the right to participate in the most elementary expression of preference for political candidates, irrespective of whether people can actually have a hand in governing their countries.  Perhaps less, if we consider that a few years ago, our Supreme Court decided to accord rights normally restricted to living, breathing human beings, to corporate interests. 
Today, voting rights, public scrutiny of state institutions, rights to demonstrate and make demands of our leaders, and democratic control over the business sphere are all being eroded.  Not just in the United States where many states are passing laws designed to restrict certain groups from voting, where our national security apparatus takes an adversarial approach to the citizenry, and where corporate power is taking increasing control over our political process and our political leaders.
A quick glance at the front page of the BBC news site reveals that this might very well be a global phenomenon. 
Ukrainians just lost their right to protest.
Syria’s murderous president is refusing to step down even though he has violated the rights of his citizens and plunged his country into a bloodbath.
Following a coup, the Central African Republic is preparing to find an interim leader. 
Russian President Vladimir Putin equated sexual preference with paedophilia, as his government rolls back their rights.
President Obama is dealing with a rogue intelligence agency which claims that the demands of security are more important than people’s democratic rights to know what their government is doing in their name.
Skim a little deeper and you’ll see more.
U.S. courts are trying to rein in efforts to enact voting laws which violate the Constitution.
Mexico’s government, long in hoc to or downright intimidated by drug cartels, is being supplanted as the guarantor of basic law and order in many parts of the country by vigilante groups. 
Brazil is ramping up spending on a sporting event at a time when many of its citizens are feeling an economic crunch.
Egypt’s former president, deposed by the military, is facing a trial in uncertain circumstances.
Uganda’s president is weighing whether to continue blocking a bill which would make same sex relationships subject to imprisonment.
A Nigerian was subjected to brutal corporal punishment for his relationship with another man.
Chinese workers, labouring in unsafe and unregulated conditions, died in a factory fire.
Israel defended its right to practise colonialism against its critics in the European Union.
Employees of HSBC, a bank known for its money laundering and deals with drug cartels, are accused of manipulating currency markets.
This, of course, is all simply the news of a single day.  There are common threads in these diverse events across the world.  The power of those with a great deal of money—whether banks, cartels, or generals with substantial corporate links—are increasingly circumscribing what our economies, workforces, and social relationships should look like.  As a result, states are shifting their priorities in a way that favours profiteering on behalf of those who are already wealthy, and the loss of economic security and political rights by those who are struggling.  People are losing their civil rights, simultaneously to the demands of “security” and to the demands of corporate power.  In unsettled times, governments are increasingly authoritarian and intolerant of dissent—effective democratic dissent in particular.
Most of these stories concern events in discrete nation states—although also the extent to which corporate power transcends national boundaries.  Nation states are the form of political organisation most associated with modern democracies, and it is equally worth considering how fleeting has been the dominance of nation states in the world.
Prior to the eighteenth century, most states were organised as kingdoms or religious principalities, or else smaller, regional formations.  The first nation-states made participation in public life a highly-exclusive affair, and often operated in concert with what we would today refer to as multinationals—the British and Dutch East India Companies, to name but two examples, operated like sophisticated nations, possessed their own armies, and often exercised more of the functions we associate with “governments” than did their counterparts in the actual state!   Until Europe withdrew from control over Asia and Africa, most of the world’s peoples lived as colonial subjects rather than as democratic citizens.  And today increasing numbers of nations are being absorbed by supra-national economic groupings which are largely undemocratic and easily manipulated by financial and corporate interests to the detriment of the citizens whose voices are drowned out by the demands of neoliberal economic orthodoxy.
We tend to think of “history” as something on a track towards some better place.  But the “unfolding” of history is of course actually dependent on what we do now.  There is no “moral arc of the universe”...there is only what we have the ability and courage to demand of our society and our institutions.  It is frightening to contemplate, but it is not difficult to see how, perhaps many years from now, the period in which people elected their leaders and even participated in government in self-determined nation states will look like an anomaly.  The idea of workers setting the terms of their labour and being served by the state might look like a quaint notion from a bygone era.  In temporal terms, “democracy” barely registers on an historical scale, and if we are not careful, in the future it might seem like a very tragically fleeting phenomenon.  

Chris Christie's Troubles are Only Just Beginning

Mitt Romney knew it before the rest of America had an inkling.  Chris Christie, the adulated right-wing Governor of New Jersey, has a crowded closet.  It is widely known that Christie was one of the people Romney was considering for his Vice-Presidential candidate.  Christie’s supporters like to put it about that he would never have taken the job.  But in reality, he was never going to make the cautious Romney’s list.  Christie had left a foul-smelling trail in his wake which promised positively Palinesque headaches for any presidential candidate who invited Christie onto the ticket.
In their detailed account of the 2012 presidential election (Double Down: Game Change 2012), Mark Halperin and John Heilemann give an extensive account of the Romney’s campaign vetting process.  They describe how Christie’s political rise was less on his merits than as a reward for supporting George W Bush in 2000 as a lobbyist.  As Governor, Christie has embraced right-wing orthodoxy, pummelling his citizenry for the sake of his corporate backers, who thought he could do a better job of representing their interests than Mitt Romney in 2012.  Christie “capped local property taxes, slashed spending, and laid off state workers” (189).  To Californians, this will be reminiscent of Prop 13 and the austerity that has gripped the state for a decade now thanks to Republican misrule from the minority.
Christie attempted to control the state like some mob boss, attempting to make all fundraising for Republican presidential candidates contingent on his personal endorsement.  Halperin and Heilemann recount how  “the list of questions about Christie to which vetters wanted answers was extensive and troubling”, and Christie was less than forthcoming (351). 
“The vetters”, they write, “were stunned by the garish controversies lurking in the shadows of his record.  There was a 2010 Department of Justice Inspector General’s investigation of Christie’s spending patterns in his job prior to the governorship, which criticized him for being ‘the U.S. attorney who most often exceeded the government [travel expense] rate without adequate justification’ and for offering ‘insufficient, inaccurate, nor no justification’ for stays at swank hotels such as the Four Seasons ... There was the fact that Christie worked as a lobbyist on behalf of the Securities Industry Association at a time when Bernie Madoff was a senior SIA official—and sought an exemption from New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act.  There was Christie’s decision to steer hefty government contracts to donors and political allies such as former attorney general John Ashcroft, which sparked a congressional hearing ... And all of that was on top of a litany of glaring matters that sparked concern...: Christie’s other lobbying clients; his investments overseas”, etc (252). 
Given this background, the closure by Christie’s aides of the George Washington Bridge to punish a mayor who refused to endorse Christie is less surprising.  And there is more.
Christie’s administration allegedly “warned a New Jersey mayor earlier this year that her town would be starved of hurricane relief money unless she approved a lucrative development plan favoured by the governor”.  Hoboken had suffered grievously from Hurricane Sandy, but it did not get the relief effort its mayor requested because she wanted the Rockefeller Group’s redevelopment plans subjected to rigorous study before they were approved.
If these accusations prove to be true—and they appear borne out by e-mail records which will only be augmented by further investigation—it seems that Christie and the people he keeps in his inner circle are guilty of a serial and thuggish abuse of power.   He seems to be driven primarily by personal ambition rather than any desire to help the needy, and he is perfectly happy to hurt his citizens if that allows him to punish their representatives, should those representatives not prove sufficiently fulsome in their embrace of Christie’s ambitions.
There were few things that Mitt Romney got right during his presidential campaign.  Rejecting Chris Christie as a running-mate was one of them.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Christie and Clinton: Leading by Example

Two stories have captured my eye in the last couple of weeks concerning the two large parties’ likely presidential frontrunners for 2016.  One is a scandal and the other an illustration of a more chronic flaw.
The first, of course, is the news that apparently New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s aides and cronies conspired to punish the recalcitrant mayor of Fort Lee, NJ and commuters in the region—recalcitrant in that he declined to endorse Christie’s re-election campaign—by engineering a traffic logjam on the George Washington Bridge.  E-mails describe Christie’s cronies gleefully setting out to take punitive measures against the very citizens who the New Jersey Governor is supposed to represent.
It has long been known that Christie is a blowhard and a bully.  He is known for “telling it like it is”, which really means “telling it like his plutocratic backers want it to be”.  He is famous for savaging teachers and other public servants in civic forums, glorying in his efforts to wreck their livelihoods.  Christie is also renowned for his overweening ego, and when he campaigned for Mitt Romney, he demanded “private jets, lavish spreads of food, [and] space for a massive entourage”, at the same time withholding documents which concerned “garish controversites lurking in the shadows of his record”.  
The other story was that in the aftermath of her failed 2008 presidential bid, members of Hillary Clinton’s inner circle compiled a ranking system—which you could either describe as juvenile, obsessed, or twisted—to evaluate the loyalty and treachery of top Democrats to the Clintons.  Those who received “sevens”—the rank indicating the greatest level of betrayal—included the likes of John Kerry, Patrick Leahy, Claire McCaskill, Ted Kennedy, and John Lewis. 
The Hill reported how “almost six years later most Clinton aides can still rattle off the names of traitors and the favors that had been done for them, then provide details of just how each of the guilty had gone on to betray the Clintons”.  It went on to describe how “Clinton aides exulted in schadenfreude when their enemies faltered.  Years later they would joke about the fates of folks who they felt had betrayed them.  ‘Bill Richardson: investigated; John Edwards: disgraced by scandal; Chris Dodd: stepped down’, one said to another.  ‘Ted Kennedy’, the aide continued, lowering his voice to a whisper for the punch line, ‘dead’”. 
Supporters of both politicians will be quick to point out that so far it does not appear that Christie had a direct hand in the bridge scandal, nor did Clinton compile the hate list. 
But I think that the respective stories nonetheless serve as an indictment of both Christie and Clinton.  Every politician or executive is in effect a team leader.  They create a culture, foster a mindset and hire like-minded people who they believe will act in their interests. 
Christie might not have ordered the closure of the George Washington Bridge in a bid to punish New Jersey citizens.  But he created a culture in his office that suggested to his aides that engineering such a closure would be what the Governor wanted.  He created a culture such that taking punitive measures towards voters—simply because their mayor didn't endorse Christie—was seen as something which would be in keeping with the Governor’s mien. 
The same is true of Clinton, who along with her husband is notorious for fostering a culture of paranoia, backstabbing, vengefulness, and cronyism, in which people are either abjectly loyal, or find themselves cut off from “Clintonworld”.  I cannot imagine the Obama campaign, or that of California’s governor, Jerry Brown, for example, wasting their time creating a petty metric for evaluating the obsequiousness of fellow Democrats. 
But that is precisely the type of bizarre, insecure behaviour I could imagine coming from Chris Christie, who seems to share the Clintons’ penchant for drama, celebrity, intrigue, and witch-hunts, and who like them makes sure to punish those who cross him politically. 
Clinton and Christie are qualified for high office.  But even leaving aside their right-wing policies, their egotistical and vindictive characters make them extraordinarily unsuited to leading our country.  More unsuited than ever at a moment when we need political leaders who can challenge the economic inequality which is defining our country, or when we need to re-orient our foreign policy away from terroristic wars and towards ethical international behaviour.  A four-year term of drama, infighting, and intrigue, punctuated by brief moments of incremental change—likely to be in the wrong direction altogether!—is not what we need.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Reform of the NSA Should be the Beginning of an Overhaul of our Security State and Foreign Policy

Beginning this summer, former NSA employee Edward Snowden dropped a series of bombshells across our collective sense of security.  Thanks to his whistle blowing, we have learned that the NSA routinely spies on phone and internet traffic, gathering and storing massive amounts of data on U.S. citizens and foreign nationals. 
In theory the NSA’s activities are monitored by members of Congress and FISA courts.  But not only are these courts secret (something which should be anathema to a democracy).  Their officials have often complained that they don’t have the information they need to evaluate the NSA’s activities.  We know the NSA has broken the law on thousands of occasions, in some cases inadvertently, in others likely not.  We also know that national security officials have lied to Congress about the extent and character of their programs, meaning that between secret, uninformed courts, and elected officials who are kept in the dark, there is no real check on the activities of the intelligence agencies.
It is not the data collection that is the most offensive element of the NSA’s work.  It is the surreptitious and dishonest manner in which the intelligence agencies have established their right to snoop.  Their behaviour bespeaks a guilty conscience, and their lack of transparency is out of keeping with our values. 
We have been told that the NSA’s activities are necessary, that our liberties must give way before the demands of national security imperatives (imperatives generated by U.S. terror abroad), and that this intrusive intelligence gathering has prevented terrorist attacks on the U.S.
In reality, there is strong evidence to suggest that NSA activities have not been critical to preventing attacks on the U.S. and that intelligence officials have misrepresented the significance of their work.  In reality, transparency in our foreign policy might actually reduce the behaviours that create global terrorism and reduce the need for a powerful national security state.  The citizens of a democratic state should not have their rights removed in the name of a “security” that has nothing to do with the public welfare.  The NSA’s theft of our rights has occurred without debate and without scrutiny.
Today, some conscientious members of Congress are seeking to rein in the power of the national security apparatus.  The Obama administration has today announced checks on the operations of the NSA.  And Republican Jim Sensenbrenner—formerly a proponent of U.S. terrorism—has come out swinging against power of the security state, sponsoring the USA Freedom Act. 
The Freedom Act is being backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the foremost organisational defenders of civil rights in the United States.  The ACLU has also provided information about how the President’s proposals, the recommendations of his review group, and the USA Freedom Act measure up to the ACLU’s calls for reform of the security state.  
I hope that all those who believe that Snowden is a traitor and that his actions hurt the United States take note of these developments.  Without his actions we would never have known—no less debated—the behaviour of the intelligence agencies which take such an adversarial view of the public.  We would never have been able to reform the rogue agencies which lost their way as they waged a war of terror. 
We have much work to do in reforming our national security apparatus.  Rolling back the abusive security state is a first step.  We also need to focus—urgently—on the manner in which so many threats to the U.S. are of our own making, stemming from our hubris, militarism, support of colonial-style governments, dictatorships, and non-state terrorists.  Let us hope that these first steps are but the beginning of a journey towards the refashioning of a country with a healthier and more democratically-consistent view of its relationship with its neighbours in our world.  

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Meet California's "New" Republican Party. It's the Same as California's Old Republican Party...

The Chronicle article cited two potential gubernatorial candidates—Neel Kashkari and Andrew Blount—who embody what is supposedly a fresh, less hostile version of the Republican Party.  “Both Kashkari and Blount are 40 and favour abortion rights and same-sex marriage rights”, the Chronicle notes.  Political witch-doctors in the party point to Schwarzenegger, describing him as “fiscally conservative and socially libertarian”.  Even Tim Donnelly, the GOP’s more traditionally crackpot candidate for governor, told the Chronicle that “he is stressing ‘less government, less taxes and more freedom’—not social issues”. 
Socially liberal, fiscally conservative.  This is the safe zone in modern U.S. politics.  In an era straitjacketed by the economic fundamentalism that emerged during the Reagan presidency, it is a formulation which allows politicians to demonstrate compassion while promising to be fiscally “responsible”. 
But think about what this all means.  On the one hand, I’m happy that the California Republican Party recognises that it is wrong—or more likely, that it is inexpedient—to focus so many of its efforts on violating the civil rights of same-sex couples.  It’s nice to see that a handful of its leading politicians recognise that demonising immigrants is cruel.  It’s good to know that the political conflict that has been traditionally referred to as the “Culture War” might be drawing to a close in our state.
But I wonder whether California’s citizens will be able to forgive the GOP.  Because the civil rights the party’s leadership is grudgingly willing to concede based on its libertarian leanings count for increasingly little given that the Republican Party has not budged an inch on the overriding economic issues.
The civil liberties associated with the breakthrough around same-sex marriage are diminished by the fact that corporations now have the same rights as citizens, rights which confer on our plutocratic elite a political power all out of proportion to their numbers.  The economic benefits associated with the recognition of same-sex marriage are degraded because of cuts to benefits and the roll-back of the public sphere.  And the children of those couples will grow up in a society which under-funds its schools, makes its universities inaccessible, and deliberately degrades its workforce so that elites can expand their profits.
The importance of dignity and respect should never be understated, and all civil rights victories should be celebrated.  But the legalisation of same-sex marriage should not obscure the fact that too many people in our society are now fighting for more than dignity.  They are waging a struggle for survival in a hostile economic climate engineered by these new socially liberal and fiscally responsible politicians.
“Fiscal responsibility” is short-hand for deregulating industries, lowering taxes on the rich, rolling back democracy, and building a system of corporate welfare.  “Fiscal responsibility” is code for busting unions, casualising labour, cutting money for schools, raising tuition at universities, relaxing pollution laws, and rolling back public welfare.  “Fiscal responsibility” is just a nice way of describing a commitment to undermining the security of working people.
The GOP’s “reinvigoration” is simply a matter of conceding to us things which are already constitutionally-guaranteed: civil rights surrounding things like the freedom to marry whomever one chooses and the freedom of women to control their own bodies.  The party is giving no ground when it comes to their economic fundamentalism and their commitment to policies which have a proven record of engineering inequality.
The “freedom” that Tim Donnelly trumpets is the freedom of working people to struggle for survival; to work hard and still fail; to play by one set of rules while the rich play by another.  It is the “freedom” to attend over-crowded classes in under-funded schools and universities, taught by under-supported teachers, and maintained by under-paid workers; and to leave that school or university and enter a workforce in which your rights as a worker have been stripped away and you labour at the pleasure of someone with more money and therefore more power than you.  It is the “freedom” to live a life governed by uncertainty and fear, in which you do not know what will happen if you fall ill, lose your job, or grow old.  It is the “freedom” to know that your children will likely struggle even more than you.
No party which preaches this kind of “freedom” has a place in a modern democracy.  So long as people like Kashkari, Blount, and Donnelly retain their commitment to “conservatarian” economics, they are just as dangerous as their fanatical predecessors, and deserve the same contempt from voters.  

Thursday, January 9, 2014

We Should Not Entertain the Idea of Electing a President who Supported the Iraq War

It takes a certain kind of nerve for Robert Gates—former CIA official and Secretary of Defence under both Bush and Obama—to attack officials in the Obama administration over their track records in his new memoir: his realist credentials aside (not necessarily something to be proud of), his own record has contributed to any number of significant moral and political failures in U.S. foreign policy.  

And some of his “shocking” revelations aren’t all that shocking.  For example, Gates wrote that early in Obama’s presidency, the President “doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his.  For him, it’s all about getting out”.
In terms of his priorities, Obama was certainly on the same page as the public, although a massive surge which cost thousands of lives was a curious way of “getting out”.  Nor is it surprising that the President who inherited two wars from George W Bush was conflicted about his strategy, which changed constantly and appeared driven by a desire to paint himself as “tough on terror” in the face of vicious attacks from neoconservative sadists on the political right. 
And we know that the President was fully justified in mistrusting his commanders.  Stanley McChrystal was a treacherous subordinate, openly contemptuous of his political commanders.  And David Patraeus was a scheming, back-stabbing, media hound, with no respect for the inviolable principle of civilian command over military and foreign policy, keen to test and promote his counterinsurgency fantasies irrespective of their relationship to the welfare of the public.
More germane as the Democratic Party considers its future was an admission supposedly made by Hillary Clinton “that she opposed the 2007 troop surge in Iraq for political reasons, as she was running against Obama in the Iowa presidential caucuses at the time”, and taking heat as she campaigned against someone who had opposed the war from the outset.
This does not surprise me.  Clinton has since tried to pretend that her support for the illegal, immoral, and ill-judged war was a kind of aberration, based on the failure of the Bush administration to provide her with sufficient evidence to make a good judgement. 
But her actions since suggest otherwise.  Clinton was an active supporter of sending more soldiers to Afghanistan, and of expanding the U.S. War of Terror across South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.  Clinton was a strong supporter of the Patriot Act, supporting two administrations—one from the Senate and another from the State Department—which trashed civil liberties, lied to the public, and pursued policies of torture, kidnapping, and murder.
During the democratic revolutions of the Arab Spring, far from throwing her weight behind those demanding an injection of accountability and democracy into their nations, Clinton proved herself a strong supporter of the old, dictatorial, brutal regimes. 
Set against this track record, her repudiation of the war of aggression in Iraq—which claimed the lives of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis—is the aberration, and one best explained by the political expediency which Gates recounts her blithely admitting. 
The neoconservatives, with the aid of people like Clinton, committed what were defined at Nuremberg during the prosecution of Nazi war criminals as “Crimes against Peace: namely, planning, preparation, initiation or waging a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing”.  “Aggression in international law”, according to one legal scholar, “is defined as the use of force by one State against another, not justified by self-defense or other legally recognized exceptions.  The illegality of aggression is perhaps the most fundamental norm of modern international law and its prevention is the chief purpose of the United Nations”.
No one who has contributed to the destruction of human life and the casual waging of aggressive war in this manner should get a second glance when U.S. citizens look for their next President.  We have spent 12 years in a series of dreadful wars to which there is no end in sight.  We have surrendered whatever modest moral high ground we might ever have held, and look every day more and more like a paranoid, insecure, violent imperial-style power, our foreign policy run by a national “security” apparatus which views the public as its enemy.
Hillary Clinton is representative of the outlook and ideology which drew us into this dangerous situation, and she, along with that twisted worldview, should be consigned to our dark past so that we can think properly—unencumbered by her overweening ambition and bloodthirsty opportunism—about how to remake our country and reconfigure our relationship with other citizens of our world.