Legitimate War:

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The West faces a crisis of legitimacy in international relations. Syria is the current location around which the surrounding dialectic is unfolding.

British retreat from intervention, triggered by David Cameron’s defeat in the House of Commons, casts new doubt on American military action. Yet the spectre of war still looms.

Indisputably, Syria should garner international attention and concern. It cannot be said with certainty that chemical weapons were deployed in the region, although their use seems more likely than not. But the source of such an attack certainly cannot currently be conclusively presumed. Yet, regardless of chemical weapons use, Syria is a humanitarian disaster. According to the UN, at least 93,000 people have died since the conflict’s inception in March 2011. Approximately 30,000 of those deaths occurred in the seven months between November 2012 and June 2013. That is a current death rate close to one half of what the United States experienced during World War II, in a significantly smaller area, by a population one-sixth of the size. Making it the world’s most deadly ongoing conflict.

But violent and unnecessary death is a systemic global problem, and is one not often met by international use of force. Syria is special because the Syrian government may have ‘crossed a line’. Their alleged use of chemical weapons directly violates international treaty, but also stated US demands. Syria did not do as told.

This may sound trite, but it is not. The US government faces a crisis of legitimacy over all future foreign policy directives if it is shown to be a ‘paper tiger’. But the catch-twenty-two of contemporary Syria is that the crisis of legitimacy cuts both ways.

Without UN sanction, made near impossible by Russian obstinacy, military action on the part of the US is tenuously grounded in international law. Without significant multi-lateral European and Middle Eastern support, action would fail to garner positive international sentiment. US Executive action without a Congressional vote would also lack US legal legitimacy, although would be supported by several decades of illegal precedent. Lastly, action lacks popular legitimacy. Although public support seems to be rising, according to an August 19-23 Reuters/Ipsos poll, only 9% of the American public supports military intervention.

Obama’s decision to hold a vote of Congressional approval may be the best possible political course of action. It will certainly garner critique from those on the Right demanding decisive and quick action. However, many of those same faces would chastise the Constitutional violation an Executive ordered assault would entail. Congressional involvement allows the administration to deflect any allegation of blame to the system as a whole.

But how should we hope Congress rules on this issue?

Morally, Syria is an outrage. Yet death by chemical attack is only death. Whether a chemical reaction propels a projectile through your body, or itself is the direct agent of doom, the end result is very similar.

However, upholding rules of war, although somewhat oxymoronic, is a noble and useful undertaking in our contemporary world replete with chronic low-level hostilities. So the question is how useful would any retaliation be in the case of Syria.

A major issue is that of consistency. The West has periodically engaged in, condoned and ignored chemical weapons use. During the Iran-Iraq War the United States provided Iraq with satellite intelligence for the expressed purpose of aiding the deployment of chemical weapons against Iran.[1] Although the government denies its classification as a chemical weapon, the US used the chemical agent white phosphorous during the Second Iraq War in an offensive manner.[2] The toxic chemical legacy of using depleted Uranium shells in Iraq has left an indelible mark on the genetics of Iraqis.[3] Agent Orange was splattered across Vietnam by the American military during the 1960s and ’70s. Many Western states use Tear Gas against their own citizens even though it is banned as a chemical weapon in a military environment by the Geneva Protocol.[4]

This issue of consistency plays out again in the specifics of this case. The current proposal to engage in a limited three day air campaign with no commitment to future punitive strikes against all chemical weapons users is a tactical action with no strategic goal. A punitive missile salvo would not prove a point nor would it cripple the Assad regime. We do not have an existing policy of bombing those who use chemical weapons. This is a bumbling gamble in a game with potentially disastrous consequences. These risks are made all the more volatile if UN approval is not acquired.

Obama should follow the same route internationally as he has taken domestically. Given this crisis poses no direct national threat, Obama should place the decision in the hands of the bureaucratic behemoth that technically possess the sole authority to take such action: the UN. Then rail against Russian and Chinese moral abhorrence for obstructing action. This may involve abdicating morality through leaving civilians to die at the hands of a tyrannical government, but we unfortunately lost the moral high ground years ago. The world does not want Team America World Police, so if action does not meet a specific national goal or continue a strategic foreign policy, why engage in unilateral hostilities? The crisis of legitimacy this unilateral action seeks to avoid already exists. The ad hoc manner in which we issue such punitive measures is apparent to anyone paying attention. They can only potentially further sully our reputation. The administration may wish to prevent America from being perceived as a paper tiger, but it is delusional to think the world views us as either consistent or motivated by principle, and we honestly do not need to re-prove our ability to blow things up.

New beginnings are possible and the creation of a new strategic initiative would be a moral and good idea. But the proposed actions do not fall into this category and simply invoke danger while creating little hope of achievable good.

[1] http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/08/25/secret_cia_files_prove_america_helped_saddam_as_he_gassed_iran?page=1

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/4440664.stm

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/craig-considine/us-depleted-uranium-as-ma_b_3812888.html

[4] http://www.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/Article.xsp?action=openDocument&documentId=58A096110540867AC12563CD005187B9

The Semantics of Gibraltar:

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Gibraltar should not exist. But this is mostly a semantic game.

Gibraltar is technically a ‘British Overseas Territory’.  Between 1981 and 2002 it was a ‘British Dependent Territory’ and previously it had been known as a Crown Colony. The 1981 transition certainly had pragmatic effects, but much of Gibraltar’s current political situation was enshrined by constitutional law in 1969. This designated the British monarch as Head of State with an appointed gubernatorial representative to the territory. But, as in the UK proper, this figure is mostly ceremonial. Governmental operations are carried out by a locally elected Parliament and indirectly elected minister. Nonetheless, Gibraltar is listed by the UN as a ‘Non-Self-Governing Territory.’ This is because foreign policy, defense and internal security fall into the jurisdiction of the UK government through the magisterially appointed Governor.

These official and direct concessions certainly make clear Gibraltar is not sovereign. But Gibraltar is not a pawn to be exploited at the whims of a metropole. Unlike a ‘colony’, the domestic policy of Gibraltar is not directed by foreign fiat. In many ways Gibraltar’s relationship to the UK can be viewed as an official declaration of the way many diminutive powers deal with global plays, particularly those that exist in geo-politically sensitive regions. Think of Panama’s or Kuwait’s relationship to the United States. They are not free to act in any manner they please, particularly when it comes to matters of foreign relations or internal stability. Nor can other countries interact with them without expecting to draw in the United States. Compromise of interests exists in any international relationship and the dictation of those compromises often mirror inequalities of power. The overt declaration of this in the case of Gibraltar may be uncomfortable, but so often does one cringe at the realities of realpolitik when its intricacies are laid bare.

But Gibraltar does not necessarily suffer from this arraignment, and importantly they want it. There are better, or at least more ‘modern’, ways of structuring this situation. But the same could be said of the Spanish and British monarchies.

This is important because these semantic technicalities are all that save Spain from total and undeniable hypocrisy. Spain possesses several non-contiguous territories in and around the coasts of North-Africa. Two in particular, Ceuta and Melilla, have been the source of ongoing tension between Spain and Morocco. Morocco demands these territories on many of the same principles that Spain currently demands Gibraltar. Spain’s only ground for declaring these situations incomparable is that Ceuta and Melilla are fully incorporated Spanish regions. Fair enough, but according to current polling and the 2002 referendum, Gibraltarians desire the status-quo. Whatever Gibraltar’s official title in international relations, the opinions of its population matter and this opinion is not a disruptive novelty.

Few ridicule those who vote to be subjects rather than citizens, so why should anyone denigrate those who vote to be a protectorate rather than a nation? Particularly those who themselves are ceremonially prostrated at the feet of a ceremonial God Head.

Institutional Deterioration and Fear of the Possible:

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Concentrated power is only to be feared when in the hands of the deluded, selfish or insane. In the hands of the empathetic and competent it is the most effective means of organization. But herein is the problem. Even if our current leaders could be trusted, their undetermined successors cannot. The institutionalization of further indefinite power concentration provides precedent and recourse for future abuse.

This world has unfortunately arrived. There are no black helicopters descending upon houses at random, but incremental abuses provide evidence that these ambiguously restricted avenues of power are exploitable beyond their originally intended directives. As seen in Patriot Act architect Representative James Sensenbrenner Jr’s criticism of contemporary surveillance policy, the use of Section 215 to justify N.S.A. surveillance expansion qualifies, at least, as an overreach of the actions intended to be legalized by the original expansion of judicial authority.

But these infractions have occurred in less controversial ways. David Miranda’s detention in Heathrow airport under the auspices of Schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act is both a relatively minor yet worrying example of this. It is a minor infraction because it resulted in one individual being delayed nine hours. However, the British government was under no delusion that Miranda was a terrorist. The expressed justification for utilizing these anti-terror laws to facilitate this detention is that Miranda was ‘suspected of possessing highly sensitive stolen information that would help terrorism.’ The only means by which any information possessed by Miranda could end up in the hands of terrorists would be through the publications that would disseminate it to us all. If the public is informed, terrorists may also become informed.

The vindictive nature of this detention is further exposed by the fact that 97% of those detained under Schedule 7 have been released in under an hour. Yet an individual who is the partner of a man instrumental in disseminating highly embarrassing information about the UK and US governments, was put through the treatment only one of every two-thousand supposedly ‘actual’ terrorists are: he was held for the maximum time legally allowed. This detention appears to be, at least partially, motivated by vindictive spite, and completely out of line with the privileges intended to be legalized.

A similarly trivial example of power abuse comes from LOVEINT: the colloquial title given to the incredibly creepy misconduct of N.S.A. employees who use their access to the agencies enormous surveillance capabilities to spy on love interests. This is not an incredibly common violation, or itself reason enough to disband the N.S.A. programs. But is rather a perfect example of the human propensity to misuse power for selfish and unintended purposes.

No matter your view on Obama, Bush, Clinton or any other President, we must set up institutions that can weather any individual because none of us know who will be elected next. It could be a selfless moralist or a narcissistic psychopath. Our current system is a safer filtering mechanism than the random result of a multi-generational experiment in opulence and inbreeding. But it seems a poor gamble to assume the results of a process that often selects the individual who can best pander simultaneously to a radical base, rich cooperate donors and confused moderates, will always also produce leaders who are honest, principled and un-inclined to abuse power.

More and more we are striping our institutions of the restrictions that once bound them, putting ourselves at the mercy of individuals. Much of the infrastructure and precedent for the US government to act in a tyrannical and dictatorial fashion exists, the government just is not using it in a completely abusive manner. Since 2001 the Bush and Obama administrations have added to Executive Authority in the following ways, all of which are available to any successor.

  • Provided a precedent to kill citizens in secret without judicial or legislative review
  • Provided the power of indefinite detention without charge or trial
  • Created an ongoing warrantless surveillance program of millions accused of nothing
  • Normalized a situation in which the law itself is secret
  • Legalized a torture program that could be reinstated with an Executive Order [1]

These precedents all solely apply to people suspected of terrorism. Yet, as seen in the UK examples, anyone with access to the internet is a potential terrorist.

Even if you argue these powers have not yet been abused, the potential for future abuse is indisputable. What happened to Rome after they elected an Emperor? The third man to take the job was Caligula.

This is not an exercise in fear mongering about an imaginary Hitler. American Fascism, would it arise, would not be Nazism. But authoritarianism and abuse of power are things to be concerned about. We should not expect our leaders to always have the purest of intentions or motivations, and therefore should construct our systems accordingly. The importance of oversight, transparency and a balance of powers are disregarded at our peril. Just because the misuse of power has not reached the calamitous crescendo that was the twentieth-century, does not mean we should forgo concern.

We must learn from history, particularly because we are now faced with an enemy like no other. We are currently at war with terrorism, a conceptual-common-noun. Unlike generations past, we are not fighting a proper-noun, or even an actual thing. We might as well be fighting ‘fear’ or ‘happiness’. The ambiguous temporal and geographical confines created by the parameters of this conflict makes the wartime suspension of liberty all the more dangerous. We cannot win this war, but we can lose it. And the way we lose is by forgetting that fear of an external threat can create an internal monster. The allure of more effective and efficient organizational capability provided by concentrated power may seem irresistible in times of distress. But it is difficult if not impossible to channel that power solely at the foreign enemy, and its embrace simply eases the path to our own exploitation at the hands of the system we created to protect ourselves.

[1] http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/06/all-the-infrastructure-a-tyrant-would-need-courtesy-of-bush-and-obama/276635/

Institutional Deterioration and Fear of the Improbable:

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National dialogue regarding the N.S.A. scandals has raised two important issues concerning the human condition. Why do people fear terrorists? Why are people not afraid of the government?

The justification put forward by political proponents of P.R.I.S.M. and the N.S.A. surveillance projects rests on the idea that these programs are an indispensable tool in the fight to save your life from heinous acts of terrorism. In addition to the cliché ‘to fear the terrorist is to let the terrorist win’, it is worth pointing out that to fear the terrorist is to let irrationality win. Jim Manzi, writing for the National Review states: ‘We have suffered several thousand casualties from 9/11 through today. Suppose we had a 9/11-level attack with 3,000 casualties per year every year. Each person reading this would face a probability of death from this source of about 0.001% each year.” This minuscule number is, itself, highly exaggerated: we have not had a 9/11 scale attack since. The actual statistics make that pathetically small number look large. Individuals residing in the United States are more than twice as likely to be killed by domestic appliances than to be killed by acts of terrorism: 0.00000066% and 0.00000029% chance respectively per annum on average since 2001.

These statistics raise an interesting thought experiment for any proponent of mass surveillance on the grounds of insuring safety at the expense of privacy. If it was leaked that the government had bugged every room in every house in the country and then, post-revelation, justified this action through stating it was done to benevolently monitor citizens in order to possess the capability of dispatching rapid response emergence care in the event of domestic appliance assault, would that seem reasonable?

Democracy may be flawed, but I believe it is the best system known. Thus, if large segments of the population believe either of the previously mentioned threats are of such significant concern that they require a suspension of previously-held privileges, their grievances must be considered. But there are processes in place through which this consideration is to be undertaken. Even if you feel the N.S.A. programs should exist, the means by which they were implemented should still illicit outrage and concern.

The administration, many liberal and conservative commentators and much of Congress, including the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia), have called the surveillance programs legal. This view is wrong.

The Tenth Amendment deems America to be a country of enumerated powers and restrictions, rather than solely restrictions. Meaning, those powers that are not restricted are not held de facto: it is only through enumeration in legal codes that the government obtains authority, and only those specific authorities. There is no explicit statute authorizing mass government surveillance.

The legal justification cited for the N.S.A. surveillance program is Section 215 of the Patriot Act. This provision allows the F.B.I. to order any person or entity to turn over “any tangible things,” so long as the F.B.I. “specif[ies]” that the order is “for an authorized investigation . . . to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” This provision is itself a disturbing violation of the Fourth Amendment’s demand for probable cause, but still does not justify the extent or scope to which the N.S.A. is gathering information.

Quoting from Jennifer Granick’s and Christopher Sprigman’s New York Times piece: ‘Even in the fearful time when the Patriot Act was enacted, in October 2001, lawmakers never contemplated that Section 215 would be used for phone metadata, or for mass surveillance of any sort. Representative James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican and one of the architects of the Patriot Act, and a man not known as a civil libertarian, has said that “Congress intended to allow the intelligence communities to access targeted information for specific investigations.” The N.S.A.’s demand for information about every American’s phone calls isn’t “targeted” at all — it’s a dragnet. “How can every call that every American makes or receives be relevant to a specific investigation?”

This objection has been technically averted through claiming that Section 215 justifies the universal collection of data under the guise that it might be relevant to an investigation at a later date. But this is both a shockingly poor argument with seemingly no justification in the language of the Patriot Act, as well as a tacit admission that the data is not being collected for a targeted, tangible or relevant reason.

The P.R.I.S.M. program similarly outstrips the already broad surveillance authority provided to the government by the legal codes used to justify its existence. This justification sources from the F.I.S.A. Amendments Act of 2008, specifically section 1881a. But this statute solely allows the government remit to collect data on the communications of those residing outside the United States. This is a provision the Administration nominally respects, stating the programs are required to determine a 51% probability of ‘foreignness’, simply ignoring that, by their own statistical assessment, 49% of the data collected is illegally possessed. This technicality is sidestepped through the torturous semantic limbo of labeling surveillance information ‘acquired’ only when it is retrieved from the gargantuan database, not when it is initially intercepted and stored for potential future use.

At best the government is thoroughly disregarding the spirit of the law, but their grounding in the letter of the law seems tenuous. Regardless, it is disheartening for anyone attached to civil liberties. The government has not even been apologetic for the secrecy of their actions, but instead has the hubris to both declare these revelations irrelevant, obvious and meaningless while simultaneously calling for the arrest and detention of Edward Snowden because of the drastic blow his ‘illegal’ actions have caused to nation security.

The oddity and seemingly schizophrenic nature of the government reaction to the surveillance revelations is further borne out in comparing the apparent apathy to the more recent leaks concerning the interception of Al-Qaeda communications: information that lead to the temporary closure of twenty-two U.S. embassies. Snowden faces criminal charges mainly under the rationale that his leaks caused undue damage to national security, with specific reference given to informing Al-Qaeda of U.S. surveillance practices. Despite this more recent communiqué falling more directly into this category, it has elicited no administration outrage. The fact that it, despite having more direct national security ramifications, has a polar opposite implication regarding government embarrassment, calls into question government priorities and the motivations for the Snowden manhunt.

Regardless of government hypocrisy, it is institutional deterioration that should garner the most concern. If our laws and institutions can be subverted beyond their initial intentions without national dialogue, but rather through linguistic contortions, what is their point? They cease to fulfil their functions, and rather transform into hoops that must be jumped to implement the whims of those in power. The government has broken the social contract. We are supposed to live in a society of laws and institutions, not individuals. This is the cornerstone of our society: we know (as laid out in laws) the powers and options of recourse available to the government. These limitations are what justify handing to the government the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, including an arsenal, it should be remembered, that can destroy the entire planet several times over. This is more power than any of our enemies could dream of possessing. If these powers are held not by legal codes and institutions, but rather by the arbitrary whims of individuals, history and commonsense show this should be cause for great concern.

The Leveson Inquiry, Press Reform/Censorship and the Obnoxious Tories:

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The Commons will vote on Monday regarding the approval of a government press censure. I find myself in the unfortunate position of having to agree with the Tories.

Talk of an ‘independent’ oversight committee is Newspeak.  There is no such thing. Even if the appointment process is diluted through several channels (OFCOM being the apparent vector of choice) it is still tax payer funded, it is still the government, it is still open to corrupting processes. It is an anathema to the concept of a free press, and a free press is the backbone of democracy.

I find the actions of the press that have led us to this point abominable, and I have a particular seething hatred for Newscorp. However, I disagree that a new legislative body is required to hold anyone accountable for criminal actions, be it bribery, slander, or unwarranted invasion of privacy. It is analogous to America’s fallacious need for Guantanamo Bay, both countries have Justice Systems. Such extra-judicial authority is only required if you are acting outside the normative bounds of law. The only function of such an organization (beyond devious government meddling)  would be to stop gratuitously vile reporting, rather than illegal reporting.

The preservation of this vile revelry (despite its despicable character) is actually the further reason I cannot support a press censure. It is not wholly for the sake of gratuity that I support this abhorrent behavior, but for a point that no political party is promoting. A society gets the press it deserves, and the state of the press is itself a vital barometer of social priorities and values. If a paper lies to you, prints sensationalist nonsense, is exposed as doing so at the expense of the well being of innocent individuals involved, all to bring you a tragedy-porn story with no value to the public discourse, and you continue to buy that paper in the hopes of getting more of the same; that says a lot about you. If millions of people do that, that says a lot about society. We live in a democracy and this is vital information both because of its statistical value, but also because of the blatant way it is rubbed in society’s face.

This is not a press problem, this is a social problem. And this is the conversation that needs to be had; is being made blatantly clear by the press scandals; and is somehow being obnoxiously obfuscated. WE are the press censure and WE have failed. I will admit to being a fan of ‘Big Government’, but this goes too far and in the wrong area. The press is the government watchdog. We have to be the press censure because we ultimately have to be the government censure, and the press is what allows us to be informed citizens. The government cannot be allowed regulatory authority over its own regulator. Our ultimate failure at keeping the press in line displays the probable failure in our ability to keep the government in line. This exposes a dire threat to the democratic system and is not a warning function to be swept under the rug through government press censorship.

Sequestration, Right America and Economic Narratives:

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PART I:

The American political spectrum has shifted right. Example of this abound, but the phenomena can be relativity irrefutably conveyed with two. Despite his contemporary lionization, Ronald Reagan could not run as a contemporary Republican. During his term he raised taxes eleven times, including the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, the largest peacetime tax increase in American history, he supported amnesty for immigrants and was the head of a labour union: the Screen Actors Guild.[1] The second example is gleaned through a comparison of ex-Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s budget proposals and a quote from a less adulated, but still staunch conservative for his time, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower, in expressing his political views and assessment of the national sentiment in 1954, stated: ‘Should any political party attempt to abolish social security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history… There is a tiny splinter group that believes you can do these things… Their number is negligible and they are stupid.’[2]

The irony of particularly Reagan’s incompatibility with the contemporary Republican party is the lasting legacy of his ‘Takers and Makers’ rhetoric on Republican economic narratives. The mainstream acceptance of this concept that used to huddle in the corners of Ayn Rand Members Only Clubs, is the sea-change that has taken America Right. But the question might be: was this sea-change caused on purpose, or by accident?

The debate surrounding Sequester 2013 (the most recent manufactured across-the-board spending-cut catastrophe designed to force our apparently inept government to do something, anything, to address the dying behemoth that is the US economy) is a perfect example to examine this point. Although Republican Senator Ron Johnson’s comment two days ago that John Boehner would lose his position as Speaker of The House if he were to compromise tax increases into a budget proposal to avoid the Sequester is not necessarily true, it highlights the tenuous relationship the status quo members of the GOP have with the hard-line Tea Party insurrection. It is also worth pointing out that the stalled and inept nature of our current government is arguably the contrived policy of the ideologically anti-government new Right. Through making the government inept they fulfill their own prophesy of inherent government ineptitude. The flaw in the ‘inherent’ part of that sentiment is a perspective to which I will return in Parts II and III. But the fundamental problem for moderate politicians is that political fundamentalists are more likely to vote, and in this world of declining voter participation, and Fox News rabble rousing (and general media bubble worlds), fundamentalists are both growing in number, but more so are coming to represent a greater proportion of the electorate. Although this assertion is not backed by any study I know of, this apathy would seem to be logically fueled by the growing ridiculousness of political culture, itself fueled by the growing influence of political fundamentalists.

PART II:

So… accident? I don’t know. But what seems clear is… problem. And this is where things become frustrating. Because for all the Right does wrong, what they plainly do well is present a clear, concise and consistent narrative. This being what I propose accidentally created enough fundamentalist ground support to exaggerate a slide towards polarization and apathy. But what is less speculative is the observation that the American Left is comparably inept at presenting a similarly coherent and persuasive economic narrative, and oddly so, because they have one.

This is what brings us back to the Sequester. The Right is clear, they want to replace Sequestration with budget cuts that do not touch the military, but further slashed social service to the point that a deficit neutral budget could be reached without any increase in revenue (i.e. taxes). It should be noted that the Right’s obsessive fixation on the deficit and debt (currently around 100% of GDP) seems unwarranted. For example, the UK’s national debt broke 250% of GDP during the beginning of the 19th century, US debt breached 120% of GDP in the 1940s, both were able to recover, Japanese debt is currently above 200% of GDP, and no one has ceased to lend to them. This is not the point of this article, but in sum, the debt is a problem, however worrying about the debt at the cost of everything else is foolish, especially in times of economic recession. If the economy shrinks, even if spending decreases, the debt will still grow in proportion to GDP. The Right, in some ways, acknowledges this fact in fretting over job losses caused by military spending cuts, because, in all reality, the military is one big Keynesian project. Fundamentally, the debt should be dealt with from a stable economic platform.

But this brings us back to the Sequester and economic narratives, because the Right touts austerity not only as the only path to economic stability, but also as morality. From a cynical, slightly conspiratorial perspective, this flawed ideological position would be considered the true motivation for the ginned-up deficit obsession. However, regardless of the validity of this speculation, this ideological position  is particularly relevant to understanding the Right’s desire to cut social spending. It prevents any ‘unjustified’ taxation upon the perceived sole ‘job creators’: the rich. While invoking economic justice upon the leaches of society who suckle at the teat of big government, who caused the deficit, and who, at the same time, sap social impetus for innovation by being allowed to live without making their own way in the capitalist market; i.e. the ‘Takers and Makers.’ In short: we cannot tax the rich, for otherwise they will not create jobs, and we cannot subsidize the lives of the poor, because, in the long run, it will only make them, and society, poorer.

A good narrative, and although the Democrats criticize this narratives resulting political policies as destructive , they very rarely attack its intellectual basis in the way that it deserves. It is flawed, and in my opinion, it is only as popular as it is because the alternative is not pronounced with nearly the same volume. First, where the debt comes from is more complicated than just domestic spending, a decade of war and the Bush tax cuts come to mind, although this is something I will return to in Part III, and it is a complicated topic. Although i find it somewhat compelling that US debt is higher as a percentage of GDP than the conglomerate of ‘evil’ ‘Socialist’ countries known as the European Union (102% compared to 83% c.2012).[3] More generally, the critique of this narrative comes in the form of two questions: how do rich people become rich, and why would a rich person hire anyone? The second question is particularly pertinent because companies actually have an impetus to hire as few people as possible in order to keep down overheads.

The answer, in short, is market demand. Rich people become rich, generally, because they, or the companies they invested in, are supplying goods or services that are desired by the market, and they hire people when market demand for their product increases to the point that more staff is required to adequately service the demand.

Where does market demand come from? Most of it comes from the middle class. They have enough money to purchase things, superfluous things and necessary things, and they make up large enough gross numbers that they can purchase a sufficient number of those things. By this I mean the 1% will never buy enough cars to fuel the auto-industry, because all of them are not car fetishists. And even if they were, what purchasing base would then fuel all the other industries? They both play roles. The capitalist class invests in companies, and the middle class buys the things that allow those companies to turn a profit, which then allows for more investment.

This is the narrative that supplies the intellectual basis for the Left, and it is the narrative that the Democrats bizarrely do not vehemently use to challenge the simplistic and flawed narrative repetitively screamed by the Right. We must protect the middle class, and prevent social stratification that destroys the purchasing base on which our market economy rests. This is the rationale behind providing base line educational and living standards, paid for by society, through taxes. It gives everyone the resources needed to compete in the job market, so they can then participate in perpetuating the consumption market, which then reciprocally fuels the job market. This does not mean there is not a valid debate about how welfare should be distributed, or conditions for its distribution (two position I might air on the more conservative and ‘incentivist’ side of) but it should be noted that this is a separate conversation to whether welfare should exist at all. Furthermore, this same economic narrative is also the rationale behind a Keynesian approach to recession, and against deficit obsession in times of recession. It is more important to fight unemployment to perpetuate the consumer base than cut spending that could be dealt with more responsibly following economic recovery.

Moreover, we all benefit from living in a society. My profits are your spending and vice-versa, and the whole process is made a lot easier, and more profitable, if we collectively decide to do things like build roads (etc.) as we incidentally did last century, the century that saw America reach unprecedented historical heights in human achievement. It is also nice if those roads are built to places, such as small towns, where the population size does not exactly make it profitable. Furthermore, because costs of subsistence is the same regardless of income, it is right to tax more those who make more, in order to obtain enough revenue to supply the services required to perpetuate the society. It is also important to prevent degrees of income inequality that go beyond manufacturing social incentives for innovation and hard-work, and breed resentment while increase poverty levels. Although it is true that wealth and capitalism are not zero sum games, they are not all win-win either.

This, unfortunately, is where things become more complicated, less certain, and excessively nuanced. Perhaps the reality of this complexity is why the Left has such a harder time expressing their narrative than the simplistic alternative expressed by the Right. Nevertheless, my frustration abounds at the lack of a coherent and consistent rebuttal to the Republican claim that the rich are the sole driving force behind the economy, because this delusion is very damaging to the national discourse, and is something preventing the more speculative conversation that follows. Because, in addition, the Right has dug the Left into a hole, and to complete their narrative to the point of unquestionably necessitating a different policy approach, two highly ingrained concepts must be challenged. The Left must state that Capitalism is broken and America is, and has always been, Socialist.

PART III

Socialism is a partially meaningless term, at least when compared to Capitalism and Communism. Both Capitalism and Communism have logical extremes to which they have never been taken, but theoretically could exist. Even though our use of these terms often ignores these logical extremes, they are important because the branding nature of terminology allows for the cessation of discourse without proper argument. Things are either labeled ‘Socialist’, ‘Communist’, or ‘Capitalist’ and are rejected or accepted outright. Yet the existence of never implemented logical extremes makes clear that nuance must be accepted.

Pure Communism would entail no government, no money, and no class: i.e. really naïve Anarchism. Pure Capitalism would entail no government, or at least no democratic government, because those are Socialist (they are publically owned). Pure Capitalism could seemingly function with some Corporatist/Plutocratic governmental form (although it is hard to understand how a free market could truly exist in such a nepotistic world) but the functionally of pure Capitalism would have to be either Tyrannical or Anarchical, and the en-vogue Libertarian form airs on the Anarchical side. Socialism is a meaningless term because it is only distinguished from Communism by the implicit acknowledgment that Socialism utilizes aspects of Capitalism, i.e. some private property and limited markets. Rather than describing a pure economic system it simply describes all levels of Capitalist/Communist hybrids, thus describing every society that has had markets and governments. The differences between such societies must be considered in terms of degrees rather than diametric opposition. Making Socialism a term so vague it is hardly a term worth using, much less chastising. But I can say with even more certainty that it is not a term to be declared un-American given the United States has had, since its inception, a democratic and publicly owned (i.e. Socialist)  government that facilitated the existence of its market economy. America has always been part Socialist.

This is the problem with the Libertarian (anarcho-capitalist) vision of the world that has come to dominate the world view and policy making of the new Right. It denies reality, and therefore makes an unstable platform for reality. It does this by not acknowledging the important role government (socialism) has in regulating capitalism, while pretending that its mantra (unregulated markets will self regulate and perpetuate perfection) is not Anarchism, and is the American way.

It is worth stating that Anarchism, when dealing with humans in their current evolutionary state, is flawed because it is crazy to think we will let power vacuums go unfilled, and that when approaching reality in an ad hoc manner, we will not fall into the tragedy of the commons. I suggest these two points because I am aware of countless incidences in history where this has occurred, yet none at any point in history where a local monopoly on force has not been seized when left available, and we fall into the tragedy of the commons even when approaching reality from a central planning position.

Nevertheless, even the disingenuous position of most ‘Libertarians’, which is actually just excessively diluted socialism in denial, because of its acknowledgment of a need for a socially owned government to supply military security and contract enforcement to ensure the proper functionality of the market, is flawed and damaging to society because it fails to recognize the other flaw of capitalism: its corrosive effect on the middle class. I don’t want to use his name, because I have no desire to defend Communism, but Marx told us this over one-hundred and fifty years ago. Marx was wrong about many things, but on this point he was right, un-fettered capitalism destroys the middle class, overproduction is a threat to capitalism, and thus, capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction.

Hopefully I previously convinced you of the importance of the middle class to a functioning market system and the threat of overproduction, but on the other point, you should not simply take Marx on his word. However, this is a concept that is, at least speculatively, backed by statistics. It is most simply highlighted in the fact that US income inequality has grown significantly since the 1970s,[4] and while it is speculative to assert the adoption of Reagan-esque Trickle Down economic policy (tax rates for the top 1% have diminished by 25% and by 52% for the top 0.001%, over the same time period)[5] is the causation of this occurrence, given there are other correlating factors such as changes in technology and globalization, this notion is supported by the fact that income inequality has not grown to the same degree in other, more socialist, European countries with more progressive tax codes.[6]  Further, wealth redistribution and evening of social resources is the aspect of the three variables over which our national government has the most control. This relationship between taxation, public investment and economic growth has also been recently backed by a report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, which sights a correlation between higher economic growth and higher levels of personal income tax (37% disparity in growth rate) between different States in America.[7] The correlation between poverty, wealth disparity, tax levels, and market regulation is even more pronounced when looking at the mid-nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.[8] Again, increases in laissez-faire government policy were accompanied by technological and globalizing changes, but the move towards purer capitalism should be noted.

citation for graph [9]

Furthermore, there is an unmistakable logic to ‘trickle up’ in an economic model predicated on capital. Capital allows you to own the means of production, thus making capital the most valuable asset, allowing capital to breed more capital, leading to the conglomeration of capital. Statistically, this notion that capital breeds more capital can be seen in the the disproportional earnings (and growth rates of those earnings) between the median and the first percentile, but also in the disparity between the top 0.001% and 1%.[10] The process is then logically exaggerated on the other end through a poverty trap catching people only making subsistence earnings, who then have no excess capital to invest either in themselves (to increase their worth, and therefore probable salary) or in investments geared towards producing more capital, as done by the capitalist class. Therefore, if no intervention is made to disrupt the cycle, income inequality will logically grow disproportionately to the general increase in living standards experienced by society at large. One proposal for addressing this problem would be to provide personal investment (in the form of housing and education subsidies etc.) in the poor to increase their market value, paid for with taxation of the rich, and prevention of dynastic wealth through some degree of estate taxation. Thus preventing the capital conglomeration urge while growing the middle class through expanding the skill set of the under-classes, and preventing the destruction of the consumption base on which the entire system is predicated. Not to mention the whole other host of societal problems correlated with poverty and the general social dysfunction this unnecessarily causes. All being trends supported by correlatory evidence from historical experience.

I am not an economist and I do not assert to have the answers to the proper level and relationship between regulation, government ownership, and free-market enterprise. I am simply trying to make the case that government has a role in allowing a ‘free-as-possible market’ to exist. I am also making the case that the Libertarian notion of some primordial and perfectly free-marketplace is wrong and never existed. Markets need the stability created by a state to exist at all (because humans need the stability of a state to not predicate their lives on concepts of ‘might is right’) and regulation can help prevent monopolies and nepotism that naturally occur and actually cause less-free markets. Further, the Right’s vilification of the word Socialist, and the concept of taxation and social services, is either disingenuous or ill-thought-out. Social security, for example, despite being decried as a ‘Ponzi Scheme’ and an archetypal example of why government can do no good, should be heralded as an example of governmental triumph. In the 1950s, 35% of American seniors lived below the poverty line, today that number is 9%, and it is estimated that if Social Security were to be abandoned, that number would rise to 45% instantaneously.[11] Clearly the Libertarian-touted voluntary organizations did not fulfill the job sixty years ago, so there is no reason to expect they would succeed now. The Right never calls to privatize the Army, and it is obvious why not. It is too important. This, in my opinion, is the exact same reason the medical industry fails under privatized circumstances: when people need it, there is no consumer choice in participation, or even a choice in delaying participation, and therefore the accountability provided by market demand fails to function and the result is arbitrary price setting. The specifics of this argument are getting far beyond the scope of my point, but suffice it to say, if you think a national Army should exist, then it is disingenuous to blanket claim that the government should not directly oversee any area of the economy because it is incapable of effectively doing so. You have already admitted that it can do so, making a nuanced discussion of specifics required for intellectual honesty

It is imperative that we remember the middle class is the driving force behind the economy, and their protection should be the primary goal of any believer in market economics. How this should be done is open to further discussion, but if the Right cannot be made to even admit this, there is little hope is addressing our other economic dysfunctions.

[1] http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Columns/2012/06/15/Why-Ronald-Reagan-Would-Not-Lead-Todays-GOP.aspx#page1

[2] http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/bl_eisenhower_quote.htm

[3] http://www.bis.org/publ/work300.pdf

[4] http://web.archive.org/web/20070208142023/http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/histinc/ie6.html

[5] http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/how-we-pay-taxes-11-charts/255954/

[6] http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?QueryId=26067&Lang=en

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/how-we-pay-taxes-11-charts/255954/

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/28/state-income-tax_n_2784028.html

[8] http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/09/can-the-middle-class-be-saved/308600/

[9] http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=957

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/05/national/class/HYPER-FINAL.html?ei=5088&en=f1a744d1ce38c79e&ex=1275624000&pagewanted=print&_r=0

[11] http://www.facethefactsusa.org/facts/all-that-stands-between-many-seniors-and-poverty/

Newtown Truthers and their mainstream brethren: the NRA

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Newtown Truthers exist. This takes it to a new level. I don’t trust the government, and I think they are corrupt, and I think they lie to us. But it is not about this. This just distracts everyone from the real problems.

But to all those various Truthers, all I have to say is: I wish I lived in a world where I thought the government was that competent. Rather than the world where the head of the CIA is so un-savvy that he used his normal email to correspond with his mistress, where the General Services Administration (an independent oversight committee responsible for, in addition to other things, encouraging government efficiency and cost cutting) spent $800,000 of taxpayer money on a party for themselves in Las Vegas which included complementary yearbooks, or the world where the administration can’t distribute the correct information about the cause of the Benghazi attacks to its press secretary…. And those examples are an attempt to pick incompetent behavior of the kind one would think the government would not want to exhibit even if they were in the midst of a massive, all encompassing conspiracy to enslave the world, and completely ignoring the obvious stuff like the apparent desire of a third of the House to dismantle the government into nothing but an agency to make sure no one can get an abortion; or the fact we can’t go even a year anymore without almost shutting down the government because no one can compromise over cutting $30 billion or $60 billion until the last minute, resulting in our countries credit rating being downgraded unnecessarily; or that people, including those in high office, apparently think Obama’s a socialist when he’s actually to the right of Regan… which could all theoretically be brushed aside as a smoke screen to distract everyone from their nefarious plans to enslave us all.

So yeah, ok, the government is totally capable of perpetrating massive conspiracies to enslave the American public without a single lowly bureaucrat deciding a book deal, talk show time, and millions of dollars might be a better option than being complicit in the tyrannical takeover of the whole country. Clinton couldn’t even keep it under wraps that he was banging an intern. But sure, Alex Jones and David Ike know what they’re talking about, Lizard People rule the world… and neither of them are trolls motivated by all the money they are making. Moreover, if you overanalyse any point in time inconsistencies and oddities crop up, but that doesn’t necessary make the answer malevolent conspiracy. It’s like the guy with the umbrella in the JFK footage who was probably just symbolically mocking JFK for his father’s support of Neville Chamberlin.

But the thing I really don’t get about this latest Truther movement is why would anyone think the government had anything to do with this specifically at all? What are they trying to do? It doesn’t make any sense for a variety of reasons. One, this is not unprecedented. Mass shootings have been happening for years. They happened when Bush was president, when access to guns was being expanded. Moreover, this is not even close to 9/11, which I do not think was an inside job, but I get that point of view more, or at least the knee-jerk reaction to try and make sense of it in that way. I actually used to hold that opinion, I watched Zeitgeist and shit my pants for like a year until I decided to do the thing those kind of videos tell you to do as a rhetorical way of justifying their own existence, and ‘looked into everything, and questioned everything.’ And when I stuck my head outside the conspiracy echo-chamber, I decided that some of it was true, but most of it was contrarian bullshit. That’s actually what got me started on caring about current affairs…. but I digress.

The point is, this is not some crazy off the wall thing, nor is it going to result in the confiscation of all guns… that is not pragmatically possible, much less something the government is going to try and do. Even that uber-unprecedented (although it actually is not) New York law allows people to keep assault rifles they already own. And it’s not like the government couldn’t kill us all if they wanted to anyway. This is actually what makes the more mainstream FOX fear mongering about the Second Amendment almost as crazy as Newtown Truthers. The population doesn’t have tanks, or APCs, or large explosive projectiles, or surface to air anything, much less ballistic missiles. And even if they took away our assault rifles, we still have all the other kinds of guns, and we can go to HomeDepot and buy all the materials to make an IED, so it’s not like if they tried to put us all in slave labour camps the population wouldn’t possess the capability to make this country a hellscape no one would even want to hegemonically rule over. And if the goal is to kill us, they don’t need to take away our guns to do that. And if they actually confiscated all our guns, we could all just pull a Ghandi, sit down in the street and say ‘fuck it, kill us all and then you won’t have anyone to rule over.’ It’s not like that’s a lot more suicidal that running up against a tank with an m-16, and as the Palestinian situation shows, smalls arms can really only get you deadlock anyway. But that is all assuming they could get soldiers to attack civilians without some kind of ‘other’ mentality working in their favour. And actually, Ghandi style would probably be a much more effective way of stopping our government and American soldiers from doing some tyrannical purge of society for the same reason it worked so well against the British and would not have worked in Nazi Germany. Shooting at the Army when they come marching down your street to ‘remove’ you, is probably the most effective way to motivate those soldiers to ‘remove’ you.

But sure, it’s possible, anything’s possible. Jesus might come back tomorrow. Maybe everyone in the world is a figment of my own imagination… maybe if you go back far enough in time the whole Tolkien series plays out verbatim and the Assyrians just didn’t want to put any of it in their records because hobbits and elves freaked them the fuck out. I’m being a hyperbolic ass, and I guess in all honesty I’m down with post-modern question everything mentality. Dogma is bad, and people need to keep open minds, but if you don’t filter information, there is no way to decide anything, and you end up talking about a bunch of fake stuff while our incompetent leaders drive us off a cliff. This kind of conspiracy nonsense is the hipster version of ‘gay people are the biggest threat to civilization ever.’

So my question is why? Why would the government want to do this? Because I can think of a lot of reasons someone would make a conspiracy video, and a lot of reasons people would want to push nonsensical fear mongering about the current administration…. I can even think of a lot of indisputable examples of that kind of thing happening in the recent past. But I can’t think of any reason the government would have anything to do with killing a bunch of elementary school kids. The government doesn’t want your guns, no one in their right mind could think the Democrats wanted to waste a big chunk of Obama’s second term dicking around with the all-divisive issue of gun control only to pass the ineffectual and partial gun laws that will probably come out of this and will leave everyone upset. But the gun laws in this country are pathetic, and we should all be embarrassed that it is harder to buy Sudafed than an assault rifle. The normal Second Amendment enthusiasts aren’t much better than the Newtown Truthers because they are afraid of the same implausible doomsday scenario and are similarly romanticizing the defensive capability an AR-15 gives you against an ICBM. The only difference is they are not currently admitting they believe the government is actively trying to contrive that doomsday scenario, and because there are more of them, they are currently doing signification more damage to our nation’s political discourse. Although, none of that is to say problems with poverty and the mental health service are perhaps not equally, if not more important aspects of dealing with mass shootings and gun crime in general. Additionally, it is important to note that gun crime in general is down, although mass shootings have increased in prevalence.

Moreover, There are so many real things to be afraid of and upset about. To give a really specific example in addition to all the aforementioned incompetence, why isn’t there a video with 8million views about congressional gerrymandering? If the government hadn’t years ago delegated the power to re-draw congressional lines to ‘fit’ census data in the most idiotic way possible… we would not currently be dealing with a Republican House and political deadlock for the next two years. More people overall voted for Democratic congressmen than Republican, but nevertheless it’s still 200-233. So much for one person one vote. Not as sexy, but real and infuriating.