Sunday, August 11, 2013

Political update for July, 2013

A Good for Government

You read so much about government that just burns you up.  I certainly don't mean the sexual peccadillos of the governors and congress, etc.  which are often nothing more than those of anyone else who we would just snicker at or leave alone or even commiserate with. Admittedly, some are worse to me, like Schwarzenegger, because it involved his keeping his children separate and not knowing they had siblings (though they knew each other) and Spitzer,  a prosecutorial bully whose zeal seems to know few bounds, but whose lack of ethics permitted him to consort with prostitutes despite laws he himself signed. But, nope, I am not talking even about them. I don't even mean the type of scandals that Obama has famously derided as phony, only one of which seems phony to me (criticism over Fast and Furious, obviously a dumb idea, seemed as much or more political than credible to me - but the rest? Please.) Nor the times  government intentionally lies, bullies, coerces, hinders and destroys no different than organized crime.   

I am  just talking about the general inability of  governments - our necessary evil -  to realize that its "help" not only does not help, but hurts, wastes our money, coerces, treats citizens unfairly and unevenly.  Government, in fact, seems best suited to proving over and over again that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I suppose I'm also talking about the general incompetence common to our species when we coalesce our resources and control to educate, insure and protect with the same prudence and blind incompetence of  Laurel and Hardy trying to get a piano upstairs in an apartment building.*  Among  governments blundering some of the worst are when innocents or victims are buried under varying applications of the police power, morality or gentrification.

*If anyone reading this does not know who Laurel and Hardy were . . . sigh.

Given all that,  it is nice to read a story like this one -

This is one thing that government should do and does do well - rescue people. Sometimes it does and even intentionally. Those who decry government in all its aspects are foolish to ignore the wonderful good it can do.  And this is one of them.

To summarize, the FBI has arrested 159 men accused of forcing teenage girls into prostitution. Even given the likelihood that there are a few innocents who will be "swept up" in the charges too, and that government will overcharge them and possibly even screw up prosecution, I got a good feeling when I read that they aren't charging the girls with anything, but seeing them as victims. It's about friggin' time they stop treating prostitutes as the bad guys. Why young women, many barely or completely uneducated, who were forced into this as children or taken to it in desperation should be abandoned by the law and seen as criminals has always been beyond  me, when the worst things about the occupation are self inflicted. But, at least it's a start. More on this another time, but I always like to give a "good for you" to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times' who personal rescue of young prostitutes here and abroad (including purchasing them) and illumination of this horrible problem around the globe qualifies as heroic to me. I know it can be hard to believe some good could come out of a Harvard lawyer, but I guess they all don't go onto the Supreme Court.

Private Manning

Private Manning has been found guilty of espionage but acquitted of aiding the enemy. He is about to be sentenced. He could go away for most or all of his life. But, I doubt it.  I've read a lot of opinions about this case and some professional analysis (for whatever that's worth).  I also am taking my facts about his case from Wikipedia, mostly for convenience, but the article seems unencumbered by ideology and I feel comfortable using it. If you think I have a fact wrong please tell me what and why.  Here's my opinion:

There are two sets of important values  present. There often are in constitutional or public policy disputes. I find man people concentrate on one or the other in almost a zero sum game. That rarely works for me although certainly one value or issue could heavily or completely outweigh the others.  One set of values is national security/diplomatic relations, the need for government to be able to keep some secretiveness and trust its employees to do so.  The other is freedom of the press and our need to know when the government is acting despotically or just badly, which is all too frequently and must be taken as the default probability.  In the post WW-II nuclear apocalyptic world, where the presidents have all but become a Magister Populi in certain areas like warfare and intelligence - and anything he can take over using those two categories as a subterfuge, - the loyal opposition must assume his power will be abused.

There are many books challenging the constitutionality of modern presidential power and the bounds of the intelligence community.  Michael J. Hogan's, A Cross of Iron: Harry S. Truman and the Beginnings of the National Security State, 1945-1954, David C. Unger's The Emergency State: America's Pursuit of Absolute Security at any Cost, Gary Wills' The Bomb Power and many other books have covered these issues at length. They generally focus on Truman (a little unfairly, but he is where it really took off), the bomb, the cold war, the CIA's covert activities, propaganda and secrecy aimed against the American people by our own leaders and a constant state of emergency.  I do not discount their points at all, but feel that there is another side of the coin that they tend to ignore in some cases or at least dismiss out of hand, that is, the awesome responsibility of keeping America safe from real adversaries, whether communists or Islamicists. I feel most Americans, though, intuitively understand the need for a natural set of opposing values in government - openness with secrecy, liberty with order, etc.

On one hand, the Manning/Snowden leaks did not appear to be extremely harmful to the US - more embarrassing than anything else - though I'm sure it gave many a diplomat an undeserved scare, great concern and  there  may have been some actual costs. I find unsupported the idea that the leaks caused the Arab Spring and we still don't even know whether in 5, 10 or 20 years that will be seen as a good or bad thing either. Probably the small degree of damage cannot greatly mitigate his sentence, as it was not in Manning's control once he leaked it and it is justifiable for government to protect against potential danger from leaking. There is also ample evidence of Manning's mental illness and unimaginable recklessness by his superiors in giving him such access and not taking it away from him when he acted out (shades of Major Nidal Hassan). Manning's prison treatment was also abysmal and should mitigate his sentence to some degree too. There is no other way to deter this behavior. It will probably always be that most of the people punished for leaking will be guilty of leaking things that don't at all or barely deserve secrecy.

On the other hand, government secrecy was, in so far as we have submitted to this system, legitimate in this case, even if embarrassment and not national security is at stake and I do not see evidence of tyrannical behavior or secret crimes justifying his acts. We all know that war is hell, that innocents are harmed and die in it, that government often exaggerates and uses hyperbole to cover their flaws, that diplomats report critically about others, etc. I am still waiting to hear a great revelation from the leaks. There are apparently none. Shades of the Pentagon Papers.

Don't expect the government to be fair. They are blinded by rage. I read the following in an article in the New York Times on August 8th: "The witness, Cmdr. Youssef Aboul-Enein, an adviser to the Pentagon’s Joint Intelligence Task Force for Combating Terrorism, said that WikiLeaks materials showing that the United States had killed civilians, for instance, could help Al Qaeda."

Seriously - that's their lead off evidence? Did they think al Qaeda was 1) unaware that civilians have been killed 2) unwilling to fabricate it if it would help?  Did they think that the average al Qaeda potential recruit in Yemen or Iraq or Lebanon was unaware?  

Admitting I have just done a cursory review of the facts and not sought to verify them, if I had to decide on this information alone, I believe 10 years imprisonment and psychological help is appropriate. A life sentence would be too much.

No Healthy Person Left Behind

I've written in detail before about the health care debate. A summary of my present thoughts is sufficient (some would say, much more than sufficient).  Bad law. Good intentions (mostly) but too big and comprehensive, destined to cost too much money, no evidence yet it will save lives or cost them - just theories.  Some evidence it will reduce premiums where they are highest (e.g., where I live in NY), but also evidence it will greatly increase them and make it harder for insurance companies to compete. Unconstitutional in my opinion, but Justice Roberts relied on an old standby - he called it a tax (he also said it wasn't a tax in the same opinion) and that it could be done under the taxing provision of the constitution.  Still unpopular with a small majority. Very unpopular with business causing major waivers by the government (always unfair to everyone else) and the administration itself to delay a year before putting it all into effect so that there aren't major layoffs.

Conservative writer Byron York poked a little fun at those who say (like me - I didn't know anyone else used the same phrase until he mocked it) that Obamacare will fall on its own weight. He mocks it because he points out that they will delay anything that is costly as long as they can and give away as many freebie's and great deals as they can to hook people in. Even congressmen opposed to it will start to feel the pressure when so many people who are benefitting from it - either being given something at someone else's expense (no denying insureds for pre-existing injuries) or everyone's expense. He may be right.  That doesn't make it a good law, but it makes it a tough one to repeal.


This may make you snicker. I don't think you should. I remember a lot of people snickering at cell phones too.

When I was little the idea and actuality of phones upon which you could see who you were talking to in real time was already around. Nobody much wanted one. It has taken roughly 50 years for the idea to take off. But now Skype and Google something or other are staples of our modern life. My family members have attended their aunt's funeral and a wedding via the internet. I still don't want it.

Ideas take time to germinate. They are laughed at by many, scoffed at by others and engaged in fruitlessly by still others. Then, boom.

That may be true. We can't ever know by logic or history what is going to happen. But, there is no reason that an international currency cannot replace our national currencies. If you do look at history, it looks inevitable as technology continues on its march.

When money was first coined (the Lydians, neighbors of the Greeks, were first in the Western world that I know about) it was a novelty, but quickly took off.  Any city that could, coined money. Throughout the world commodity money - whether shells, beaver pelts, heads of cattle (the origins  of the words "capital" and "cattle" are closely related) or other valuable objects served.  Even in colonial days here, commodity money was used.

Slowly, when technology permitted, the colonies began issuing their own money (really bills of credit - but it is really the same as money because all money except commodity money is really a form of credit and exchange). Massachusetts Britain intervened and regulated it by law. When came the revolution, all of the now independent colonies/states began issuing in earnest and congress also issued Continental Currency.  The Brits actually counterfeited the "Continentals" to depreciate them. After the Constitution, when states were no longer allowed to coin or issue their own money, they were worth 1% of their face value.

Of course, it was replaced by the dollar (from thaler, a German word for money, derived from Joachimstaler, money from the town of Joachimstal, where there was a 16th century mint. The "-tal" in the name is the Germanic version of "dale" in English, which we still use in place names like Riverdale - Anybody else care about this?  I love this stuff).

Currencies, I'm sure you know, are traded all over the world now on exchanges. I once considered becoming a currency trader and studied up on it for a few months. I was so bored by it from the inception that I fought sleep every second I studied until I realized I would rather kill myself than do it. I love ideas, not the nitty gritty.

Friedrich Hayek, who I have written about a bunch of times here, argued towards the end of his life for international currencies competing with one another. It sounded crazy to me when I first read about it - What about sovereignty?  Other economists argue for a return to the gold standard.

I don't mean this to be a Wikipedia article on bitcoins. Read up on them yourself. I can't possibly know whether they will succeed or fail in the future, be a bubble, something you can make zillions on for a short while, or go bust, any more than currency traders can know whether the market will turn on any given day or month.

And, I know it is ridiculous to think that you can predict what is going to happen by what has happened in the past, but, of course, this is what we actually do every second of our lives, from the first time our eyes pop open in the morning (or, more realistically, groggily blink open) until we fall asleep.  Of course, knowing whether bitcoins will become huge and a bubble, or huge and the mainstay for a hundred years, etc., is a lot more complicated than just believing the floor will be there when you stand up.

But, however fruitless it may be, the trends in communication and other technology suggests that just as the world airports now work on the same systems for the sake of safety and we have international conventions for weights and measures , national boundaries, the internet and so on, so too will the world's currency come into being and take over - just as our states, fearful of giving up sovereignty, gave way to the federal government when it came to money, right at the beginning of our country's existence.

I don't know if you should buy bitcoins. If you don't, you  might see your crazy neighbor make a million in a few years and wonder why you didn't when it was so obvious. Or you might see him lose his shirt because he went for the newest fad.  But, when Goldman Sachs and Citibank buy a few trillion dollars worth it will probably be too late for the rest of us. Of course, if they fail, we all will bail them out (while claiming - "Never again!")

Whatever the name for it, whatever the route it takes, I do think new forms of currency are coming and I think they will be more digital than they have become already (arguably, most money is digital already).  Banks can trade money at the wink of an eye (as I do with others who use my bank). People love their cell phones and I expect that they will replace credit cards. In a few years the chips our children will have implanted in their nervous system that connect effortlessly with the internet - will be the conduit for their money, rather than their pants pocket (if they have pants in the future).

We will know that this has happened when government seriously intervenes.

Tea Party

I enjoy making political predictions, which can sometimes be hard, life being rather unpredictable.  Sometimes when the prediction is based on human nature I feel pretty sure of myself, but it is still gratifying to be right and not so much to be wrong. When the tea party movement was surging I always felt that eventually the voters who made put them in office would become disenchanted with them as they "went along" trying to keep their new found prestige and even desire to do what they think they must to survive in office.  With apologies to Bear who sees red when I "self reference" (I still don't understand why) I looked back and found the following comments I made about the movement-

(Jan, 2010, before their successful 2010 election) "One might ask if the whole tea party movement will mean anything. I doubt it. Despite the popularity of it, it is a conservative movement and they vote Republican. Eventually, it will either co-exist with the Republican candidates, or ensure that they both lose to Democrats. I'm sure that isn't what they have in mind."

(April, 2011, following their victories at the polls) "When the tea parties swept the Republicans into power last year, I predicted they would crumble against the institutions of congress and the desire to get campaign help for re-election and spend like their predecessors. At least, it was my concern they would. Yet, so far, I am not unhappy. I would rather be wrong about that. The next six months will tell, of course, just how much will they stick to their guns."

(A few months later) ". . .  The tea party, which claims it is not a real party but a collection of people motivated by pure principle, may be little different at the end of the day, when it comes to their members who just happen also to be congresspersons or senators. Those who voted them in would happily vote them out if they are disappointed by them. Their dedication to principle is still an open question for me and the birther wars hurt them significantly in my book."

Apparently, that's pretty much what happened. Not so many days ago, on August 4th, the NY Times published this opinion piece -, the point being, having voted in their candidates, the tea partiers now want to vote them out. That's the price of expecting people, voted to positions of power and trust on an  ideology, to be immune to the seductive powers of praise, comfort and success.

Russian Olympics

The 2014 Winter Olympics will take place in Sochi, Russia. Given the news of Russian legal treatment of homosexuals, the writer Frank Bruni suggests in the NY Times opinion piece Striking Olympic Gold that Americans marching in the opening ceremony should pull out tiny rainbow flags. My own comment parroted his opening paragraph with a twist -

"At first I liked it, but . . . you have to remember that America also will host Olympic games:

Instead of Mr Bruni's first paragraph -- Imagine this: it’s the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Games in Vail, Colorado. A huge television event, watched the world over. The Russian Olympians join the proud march of nations. They’re Russia's emissaries, their exemplars. And as the television cameras zoom in on Team Russia, one of its members quietly pulls out a little flag that says "GuantanaNO!" or a picture of a drone with a line through it, no bigger than a handkerchief, and holds it up. Not ostentatiously high, but just high enough that it can’t be mistaken.

It doesn't even have to be American games. In Brazil in 2016 some on the Egyptian team could pull out flags with a picture of Morsi on them or some black Americans could reduplicate the John Carlos/Tommy Smith black power salute or someone on the Iraqi team unfolds a Kurdish flag or on the Iranian team a map of the Middle East without Israel on it or  . . . you get the picture.

It's fun when it is something you are for, but one will lead to the other. And why not?

I think a boycott is a bad idea, but there might be times and places it would be the right thing to do, even though it punishes the athletes. It is hard to say. As bad as that would be and as unfortunate for our team, I'd rather that than the politicization of the games."

Someone replied that they be delighted with a protest against Guantanamo, but that wasn't really my point. I went looking for a quote in a book but couldn't find it until the comments were closed on Bruni's article, so I'll make it here.

In 1903 a pogrom took place in Kishinev, Russia in which a few dozen Jews were murdered, hundreds of them injured and houses destroyed. My own paternal grandmother, with her own memory of pogroms, came here from Russia not too many years thereafter.  Roosevelt's secretary of state, John Hay, of Lincoln fame* was negotiating with Russia at the time over Manchuria and did not want to ruffle feathers where he thought he could do no good. When a Jewish friend chastised him for seeming indifference when Russia denied the atrocity and foreign aid, Hay replied, "There could be only two motives which would induce this Government to take any positive action in such a case; one is some advantage to itself, and the other is some advantage to the oppressed and persecuted and outraged Jews of Russia. What possible advantage would it be to the United States, and what possible advantage to the Jews of Russia, if we should make a protest against these fiendish cruelties and be told that it was none of our business." Further, he wrote, What would we do if the Government of Russia should protest against mob violence in this country, of which you can hardly open a newspaper in this country without seeing examples? I readily admit that nothing so bad as these Kisheneff horrors has ever taken place in America; but the cases would not be unlike in principle."

It's only fair to mention that Hay personally contributed to the relief fund, and though he was quite a wealthy man, the $500, the equivalent of at least $13,500 today, is still generous. He is guilty of a little historical amnesia  - not that many years earlier, for example, in 1887, a Louisianan mob killed somewhere between 35 and 300 blacks during a labor dispute. And it had happened before to blacks and Chinese.  But, leaving that aside, his point is in some senses "well taken" and in another sense, politically meek. While it was true that there was probably nothing America could do militarily against Russia that would help the Jews and not increase tension between the two countries, Hay had himself shown that even back then the United States could heavily influence other countries. In fact, Russia, desiring to complete its grip on Manchuria, for the most part cooperated in the American led Open Door policy in China without any American muscle being used to get there at all, at least for a while. And, increasingly, the opinions of other countries influenced the actions of many others, as is the case today.  The cry of the 60s - "The whole world is watching," becomes more and more true.

There's never enough time or space to write about everything I want. Next month, I guess.

 *I am still smarting over Bear having pointed out that the last time I wrote about Hay in a post I repeatedly wrote his name "Hays." Damn him and his insufferable editorial eye! On the other hand, I will probably never make that mistake again.



  1. A government cannot function without some secrets. As unhappy a fact as that is, it is still a fact. Tea Party - who cares anymore? Interesting how many people who were shouting "right on" are now saying "I always thought they were overdoing it".... As Doc Holiday says to Wyatt Earp in Tombstone,"your hypocrisy knows no bounds." Lastly, the Olympics and political protest: no real person can desist if the cause is just, regardless of the possibility of embarrassment, or others counter protesting. As soon as we start thinking about what will other people say about what I'm doing, we begin to slide down the slippery slope toward learned helplessness. One of my favorite quotes ever applies here, said by Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

    1. Edmund Burke also wrote "No one who quotes from Tombstone can be wholly bad." But didn't Doc say "Apparently MY hypocrisy knows no bounds?" Your movie memory is usually better than mine, but I think this time . . . .

      As to protesting, I did not suggest what you insinuate, but time and place. If it is serious enough to protest, I would prefer they stay home. That would be sad, perhaps counter-productive, but understandable. I do think the Olympics has a value beyond sports. It has to take place somewhere and what country is beyond criticism? Making it a venue for political protest, even peaceful protest, would destroy it.

  2. Ah Frodo, you cannot apply "the sky is falling" to the Olympics. It has already been a venue for political protest, indeed a venue for the worst kind of political terrorism (Munich, eh?), and if it can survive that, it can survive anything.

  3. Terrorist attacks are not seen by other countries as provocation to protest too. And the reason the sky hasn't fallen is b/c of how Smith and Carlos were handled. It is still recognized that protests will be treated harshly. That's why athletes don't do it.


Your comments are welcome.

About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .