Monday, February 25, 2013

Divide and Conquer

It's all just sturm und drang, but who's telling the stories?
This is a hard post to write.  The goal is to postulate a systematic kind of oppression, without descending into ridiculous conspiracy theories and fearful involuntary urination.  I come to you without evidence in the traditional measure, but merely observation, anecdote and a sense that we're trying to understand something larger and more powerful than we generally accept.

The premise is simple - real wages have been stagnant since the 70s, the labor movement is dead and people work more hours for less remuneration than ever before, even as corporate profits are skyrocketing, the stock market is at all time highs and even the worst offenders, the financial behemoths, saved as private capitalist entities by massive infusions of public funds, are now, along with energy, pharmaceutical and other noted criminal actors on the corporate stage, are earning unprecedented profits and paying executive salaries way out of line with global standards.

So, in this environment where the middle and lower "classes" (a term that should NEVER have a viable application in a democratic nation under the rule of law) have suffered huge setbacks over the last fifty years, where even a basic college education leaves people drowning in debt they cannot hope to pay and the basic model of the "American Dream" is all but out of reach, you would rationally expect Americans to use the democratic tools available to them to change the system, wouldn't you?  And yet, the system rolls on, unchallenged, unhampered, even as meager efforts to question the status quo like "Occupy Wall Street" whither and die for lack of sustained effort.

And then you look over at the so-called "Tea Party".  They have all the same exposures to the virulent capitalism that we on the left have.  They are often living paycheck-to-paycheck, only one bad event from homelessness.  Unemployment is every bit as high in the Old South, if not higher, and every economic problem faced by a liberal in San Francisco is faced by a conservative in Tulsa.  And yet, there is no concerted political effort to demand that government support and assist working people at least as much as wealthy people and corporations.  And you cannot help but ask why.

So here's where we maybe go off the rails.  When we ask WHY the American people aren't challenging their loss of political access, their loss of economic growth, their utter loss of economic security, we cannot help but acknowledge that there is an equal and opposite force arrayed against that goal.  That force is movement conservatism, and if you observe that it is isn't rational for them to be willing to sacrifice their own aspirations in the name of political ideology, then, of course, you'd be right.

So that leads to the BIG question.  Movement conservatives, more than anything else, more than socialists or redistribution or labor, hate liberals.  They hate anything they can construe as being part of a "liberal" ideology.  They actually seek, and actively WANT, violent conflict with American liberals.  They are fully prepared to accept that a basic social democratic viewpoint is completely equivalent to some kind of subversive, destructive, seditious movement, something that needs to be snuffed out no matter what the cost.  So if you take a step back and look at the larger picture, you again have to ask why?  The idea of American democracy is I can do what I choose, and you can do what you choose, and as long as we stay out of each other's way, it's all to the good.  So all this wondering leads to the real question - is this ideological conflict a completely false construct, created and built and stoked to divide Americans effectively into two blocs, essentially preventing them from coming together politically to force the government "of the people, by the people and for the people" to serve the actual people?

Now, to be honest, I don't think anybody was smart enough to think about this in the beginning.  I think it started with Medicare, and led to abortion, and is all tied up in race.  But at some point, probably during the Clinton administration, it's not unreasonable to think that some of the wealthiest and most powerful Americans, what we have come to call the 1%, came together and concluded that they could preserve their political hegemony for all time by making certain that Americans could not ever find common cause, that there could never be a critical mass of people standing together and demanding what they were promised.  Then it was a simple matter of marketing, of defining ideologies and steering agendas, of testing words and labels for their power and appealing to the basic human tribal nature.

Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter.  The only way we can ever take back the kind of democratic freedoms pundits and politicians laughably claim we still enjoy is to build a large enough coalition to actually drive democratic change.  Force them to come out of the shadows and take undemocratic action in response - martial law, detention, deadly force - or acquiesce to the demands of a unified America.  Whether it was done intentionally or developed organically, this pernicious divide between "Right" and "Left" that has grown so bitter serves the wealthy and powerful who have corrupted our system of governance for their own gain like no other political tool in their toolbox.  And until we can find a way to recognize our common ground and our common enemy, we will continue to fight over their scraps.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Droning On - Redux

Hey - What could possibly go wrong?
The nomination of John Brennan to the position of the Director of the CIA, along with the recent disclosure of an administration white paper on the legal justifications for the targeted killing program by Michael Isikoff at NBC News, has brought at least a superficial discussion of the program into the public consciousness for the first time.  The problem is the discussion, focused as it is on the power of the President to order the assassination of American citizens using armed drone aircraft, conveniently avoids the most important questions.  To have a coherent conversation about this issue, one must realize that it is neither about drones nor Americans.

Essentially, a government can engage in three different kinds of sanctioned killing.  They can, of course, go to war.  This is long accepted practice, and while even starting an aggressive war is considered a war crime, the killings that occur as a result of that war are considered generally legal.  There is capital punishment - a government, through whatever judicial procedures it decides to require, chooses to punish a person for some classes of criminal acts by killing them.  Just about every other case of a government deciding to kill someone, either for "defense", revenge or other political, diplomatic or espionage reasons is assassination.

When the US Government determines that it is going to kill another person somewhere where it is not involved in a war - Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, for example - those so-called "targeted killings" are assassinations, completely equivalent whether the targets are American or any other nationality.  Either there is some process, both in US and International law, where under these specific circumstances the extra-judicial killing is permitted, or each and every one is a crime.  There is also the matter of the US Constitution - the 4th and 5th Amendments are not reserved for Americans, but are presumed to cover everyone.  The right to a speedy trial, the protection from self-incrimination, the rules around search and seizure apply to everyone, not just Americans.  The Fifth Amendment makes no distinction whatsoever when it states "[N]or shall any person . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . ."

Beyond the clear problems that come to the fore when one tries to make a distinction between the US Government choosing to kill Americans and it choosing to kill people of other nationalities - it's hard to imagine a construct not entirely premised on a brutal form of nationalist bigotry - there is this bizarre and irrational focus on drones.  Is there some assumption that if the US sent a hit squad into Waziristan and killed people there it would be somehow different, even better?  If a B-1 manned bomber flies from Missouri and flattens that same Pakistani tribal village, is that covered by a different set of rules?  Of course not.  The problem with using drones is twofold - one current, one to be reckoned with in the future.  The current problem is purely one of assumption.  The assumption that all the rules of national sovereignty and the sanctity of legitimately recognized borders simply don't apply if the invading attacker is robotic, rather than piloted from onboard.  The future problem of international terrorism by airborne robot is that the technology is not out of reach of any nation or organization.  It is not like F-22s, or submarines, or even nuclear weapons.  It is inexpensive, simple and highly effective.  It WILL come back on the US, first in shocking attacks that "no one could have expected", then in larger and larger numbers that will change much about our lives.  And a little farther in the future, we'll have the technology to allow completely autonomous vehicles to make their own decisions about who and when to kill - whether we decide to enable that capability or not, it is a certainty that there are people who will.

So while we argue about the issue of using drones to assassinate American citizens, we are peering through a tiny crack, unable to see the larger legal, technological, human rights and basic values problems that we are nonetheless exposing.  The world is watching, and learning - we should at least be cognizant of what we are teaching.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Looking For Scandal In All The Wrong Places

The dystopian hell that is America in the
Obama era
One of the often - discussed characteristics of the American Political Right is the assumptions and received wisdom that drives their worldview.  This results from a number of self-reinforcing constructs. First, you cannot accept facts that are incompatible with your ideology.  Normally, when confronted with such a condition, people accept the facts and modify their ideology.  But the latest incarnation of movement conservatism in America operates in precisely the opposite direction.  They embrace their ideology, and reject or modify facts so that they always support those ideological constructs.  Then, the lockstep messaging of the right-wing "echo chamber", from AM talk radio to Fox News to Right Blogistan serves to repeat and reinforce both the ideological beliefs themselves and the sense of impending catastrophe, the immediate and existential "threat" posed by everything from universal health care to even the most minimal, common sense firearms regulations.

One outcome this has produced it a kind of shock and disbelief that, after four years, the illegitimate and deeply corrupt Obama administration has not fallen under the weight of political and criminal scandals. Oddly (to them), the first four years of the Obama Presidency has been remarkably scandal-free, despite repeated, shrill efforts to create some kind of impropriety that would stick, hopefully allowing them to begin impeachment proceedings.  Fast and Furious turned out to be small potatoes in which the President wasn't even involved.  Solyndra turned out to be a failed government investment and nothing more.  The stimulus managed to distribute the better part of a trillion dollars without so much as a whiff of corruption.  And nobody can tell precisely what these few whackjobs are screaming about in regards to the Benghazi attack.

I find this frantic, spluttering search for criminal or political corruption in the Obama administration to be quite laughable, because of the Republicans' willingness to overlook genuine sources of questionable behavior due to their ideological positions.  In essence, they are limited to looking for particular kinds of bad behavior, actions that are both illegal or unethical and that they oppose on philosophical or ideological grounds.  So, they grasp desperately at terrorist acts, the death of an American Border Patrol Agent or government funding for alternative energy because these would not only be corruption, but they are also, in the fever swamp of Movement Conservatism, examples of liberal, big government, creeping Shari'a Socialism.

And yet they hate a sitting president who has authorized the assassination of Americans, committed war crimes, waged undeclared war on multiple nations, prosecuted whistle-blowers and invoked national security secrets to avoid any oversight or accountability.  These things very much represent Executive Branch overreach and are arguably criminal and impeachable acts, but the Republicans, despite their delusionally irrational hatred for Democratic Presidents in general and Barack Obama specifically are unwilling to mention them because they SUPPORT them, and would encourage a President from their own party to go even farther in the exercise of unfettered Executive power.

Once again, we see a awesome demonstration of the power of ideology to stand in the way of political goals.  Whether it is resisting immigration reform, refusing to accept entitlement cuts if they come bundled with tax increases or bombing villages in Pakistan, Republicans are happy to support the President's agenda and let him stretch the legal and constitutional boundaries of his office unchallenged as long as he does so in furtherance of their goals.  When Mitch McConnell said that the Republicans number one political goal was to make Obama a one-term President, he apparently wasn't speaking for most of the Republican caucus.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Why Aren't These Things Working?

Or something...
An interesting feature in the post Newtown debate over firearms regulation has been the almost laser-like focus on a few issues at the very fringes of the problem.  To put it in the most simple and stark terms, in the last fifty years one million Americans have been killed with firearms - and that doesn't include millions more non-fatal shootings.  Far less than 1% of those murders occurred in mass shootings, and even fewer were done with military-type rifles and high capacity magazines, with even fewer, an infinitesimal number, done by people with a documented history of mental illness.  And yet, 100% of the conversation and ALL of the proposed legislative remedies are focused on assault rifles, high capacity magazines and enhanced background checks.

If we stop for a moment and wonder why it is that we are focusing all our energy and all our rage on what represents a rounding error in our gun violence problem, the reasoning becomes fairly clear, particularly in the context of other ideological debates in American public policy.  It seems that, in order to try to overcome partisan and ideological intransigence, the political and policy solutions that can even be discussed must be carefully crafted to avoid inconveniencing any portion of the electorate.  In this case, we're trying to establish effective firearms policy that doesn't inconvenience the vaunted American "law abiding" gun owner.

But that's ridiculous.  Effective regulation, by its very definition, inconveniences those it seeks to regulate. It is designed to create bureaucratic and economic impediments in order to affect behavior and reduce the availability of undesirable items from cigarettes to alcohol to pseudoephedrine.  This is a feature, not a bug.  Regulations that do not add friction or cost to the acquisition, ownership, sale or use of a given product will not be effective, whatever the policy goals of that regulation might be.  And in the case of firearms, the reason America has so much more gun violence than, say, the UK is that firearms are so much easier to acquire - the problem is all about availability.

This same limitation is easily seen in climate policy.  The reason we have a greenhouse gas pollution problem is that the cost of fossil fuels is artificially low because the price does not include the costs to society caused by burning them.  Thus, we say that fossil fuels do not price in the negative externalities of burning fossil fuels.  The problem would be readily addressed by raising the cost of fossil fuels.  There are many options, from Cap and Trade to a carbon tax to indirect regulatory limitations on carbon pollution.  But people are resistant because they don't WANT to pay more for energy, no matter how carefully it is explained that they are currently paying too little.  So we square off in yet another debate over the shape of the earth, seeking a solution that does not increase consumer costs or reduce producer profits.  And that, of course, is impossible, because any "solution" that meets those requirements would be completely ineffective.

Regardless of the need for systemic reform, we can never even have a serious discussion about our biggest social problems, let alone implement effective solutions, until we grow up and both recognize the actual root cause of the problem and accept the costs any real solution will impose.  We can no more solve the gun violence problem by letting the gun absolutists define the terms of the solution than we can solve the greenhouse gas pollution problem by surrendering that privilege to the oil companies.