Archive for April 11th, 2009
Good article by Clint Hendler, which begins:
Obama, like Bush, decides to limit what the courts and the people can know about warrantless wiretapping. Isn’t that a big story?
Not just yet.
On April 3, the Holder Justice Department filed arguments in Jewel v. National Security Agency, a lawsuit being waged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of five people who claim that their constitutional rights were abridged when they were subjected to the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.
While the suit was originally filed under Bush, the EFF and Justice agreed to stay the date of the Department’s filing until after the election. That would mean that a new administration would be responsible for litigating the case, one the EFF surely hoped would be more receptive, given that it looked likely that the White House would be won by a candidate whose platform decried “abuse” of the state secrets privilege, which Bush used to swat away suits related to the wiretapping program.
But on Friday, that new department sought to have the case dismissed by relying, in part, on a broad reading of a legal principle oft invoked by the Bush department, that the federal government could essentially stop legal proceedings by claiming that any litigation of the case would reveal state secrets.
This is a big deal, but so far the story has received little light outside of generally liberal leaning portions of the media.
Salon’s Glenn Greenwald almost certainly deserves sole credit for advancing the story thus far, and, it should be said, for pointing out that in addition to the states secrets claim, the Obama administration advanced what he and the EFF’s lawyer in the case see as a totally novel claim. In Greenwald’s words:
…the Obama DOJ has now invented a brand new claim of government immunity, one which literally asserts that the U.S. Government is free to intercept all of your communications (calls, emails and the like) and — even if what they’re doing is blatantly illegal and they know it’s illegal — you are barred from suing them unless they “willfully disclose” to the public what they have learned.
That claim—combined with the fact that this was the first time the Obama administration advanced a broad assertion of the state secrets privilege on their own, rather than agreeing to defend such an assertion held over from Bush—would suggest that the filing was worthy of more attention than it received from traditional sources.
On Tuesday, Keith Olbermann’s Countdown did a segment on the filing that seemed to draw heavily on Greenwald’s analysis, and on Wednesday he hosted Kevin Bankston, the EFF’s counsel on the case.
Until today, the only national straight-reporting outlet to breathe a word of the story was CBS. Katie Couric, in an exclusive interview with Attorney General Holder, asked Holder several questions about his department’s plans for applying state secrets claims going forward, and for reviewing past applications made by Bush administration lawyers. But while that full exchange is available online as part of the interview’s transcript, the broadcast version doesn’t quote a word of Holder’s answers on the topic, and Couric’s narration only glancingly refers to the general complication of trying “sensitive” cases in “open court.” Wednesday’s seven-minute Evening News segment made no mention of the administration’s filing or even of the phrase “state secrets.”
In the full interview, where Couric did press on the matter, she did not ask …
Interesting editorial in the Christian Science Monitor, which begins:
In his presidential farewell address in 1961, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower warned about "unwarranted influence" of the "military-industrial complex" that grew out of World War II and the Korean War.
Eisenhower’s caution rings with special relevance today as Defense Secretary Robert Gates pushes a controversial budget for next year that caps or scraps expensive weapons programs and shifts spending away from large-scale conventional wars toward anti-insurgency "irregular" ones, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Mr. Gates’s plan may not make it over the ramparts of defense-industry lobbyists. And members of Congress with military-related businesses in their districts are already launching missiles at the proposal, calling it a jobs killer.
The secretary is actually up against a vast industrial-congressional complex, with intertwined and entrenched interests. Over the decades, the defense industry has spread into so many congressional districts that it’s virtually impossible to shut anything down without a Hooah! battle cry from key lawmakers. The targeted F-22 fighter jet, for instance, is assembled with components built in 44 states.
No matter what one thinks of the Gates budget, the military-industrial-congressional network actually undermines national security. It encourages waste, as federal funds feed military lobbies that in turn feed politicians who keep the funds flowing – regardless. Federal campaign contributions from defense-related donors have nearly doubled since 2000.
The nexus also encourages lawmakers to look at national security from an ant’s vantage instead of a bird’s eye view, as members of Congress watch out for their own patch of ground.
As for the budget proposal itself, it’s being criticized as either too harsh in program cuts or not harsh enough. That signals Gates may be traveling a middle ground that deserves consideration…
I don’t think this (reported by Ali Frick in ThinkProgress) is even legal:
On Tuesday, WAMU reporter Eric Schultz attempted to interview Tommie Canady, a veteran from Maryland, about the poor treatment he said he was receiving from the VA. In the middle of the interview at a VA hospital in Washington, DC, a VA communications specialist named Gloria Hairston, “along with two other employees and four armed security guards, stopped Schultz and wouldn’t let him leave until he handed over his [recording] equipment.” A group of veterans stood nearby during the exchange:
One of those veterans, an amputee in a wheelchair, approached Schultz and asked him for his phone number.
“I started to give it to him and then the woman [Hairston] became irate, she said you can’t give him your phone number. You have to give me all of your equipment or I’m going to get ugly. She used the phrase ‘get ugly,’” Schultz says,
Like any good reporter, Schultz stood his ground and called his boss for direction. Longtime newsman Jim Asendio is the news director for WAMU.
“I told him to give them the flash card and get out of there,” Asendio says. “I didn’t want this to get out of hand.”
“What I mostly feel bad about is Mr. Canady,” Schultz told WTOP reporter Mark Segraves. “He was trying to tell his story, he has an amazing story and he was denied a chance to tell his story to the media because of these tactics.” ThinkProgress contacted the VA but has yet to get a response.
Two more episodes of a hard-hitting Salon.com series.
"I believe that I did have PTSD" begins:
Matthew Marino served five years in the Army and was deployed to fight in Afghanistan twice. He began to suffer from symptoms typical of post-traumatic stress disorder following his first tour. After returning to Fort Drum, N.Y. in late 2004, he couldn’t lose the hyper-alertness he’d developed in Afghanistan. He had thoughts of suicide, was nervous, had nightmares, couldn’t sleep, and stayed away from family and friends.
Despite his symptoms, however, the Army diagnosed the first lieutenant with anxiety disorder instead of PTSD. He was also diagnosed with depression and given antidepressants. The Army then "stop-lossed" Marino, to prevent him from leaving the Army although his time was up. He was shipped back to Afghanistan for a second tour in 2006. A diagnosis of PTSD might have kept him from being redeployed and sent back into combat; a diagnosis of anxiety disorder did not…
Read it all. And then read the second one:
"What motive does the Army have to misdiagnose PTSD?", which begins:
In two stories published this week, Salon has described how a soldier secretly taped a psychologist saying that the Army was exerting pressure not to diagnose soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychologist Douglas McNinch of Fort Carson, Colo., twice states on the recording that the Army discourages PTSD diagnoses.
If what McNinch says on the tape is true, why is it happening? Why would the Army purposely diagnose soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with something other than PTSD? Combat stress is as real as your big toe. Why would the Army want to deny, or at least minimize, a known consequence of combat? The truth might rest in math.
Soldiers with PTSD present the Army with two problems, both involving scary numbers. First, soldiers suffering serious combat stress should not be returned to combat, and if they cannot fight they represent a significant manpower loss for an already stretched military. A recent Rand Corp. study estimates that nearly 20 percent of those Army troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan might suffer from PTSD or major depression. If they were all barred from the battlefield, the Army could lose as many as one out of every five combat troops while trying to fight two wars.
Feeling sorry for yourself? Struggling to get by? Wondering how you can get a bailout? Well, stop moping, because it’s not too late!
I may not have Suze Orman’s verve or Billy Mays’ voice. But I’ve discovered a revolutionary risk-free investment plan straight from those who brought us the economic meltdown. So in this column-fomercial, I won’t waste your time with Ginsu knives or cash-for-timeshare schemes — I’m going to help make you rich beyond your wildest dreams!
Look, we’ve all heard about Wall Street’s losses. But you probably didn’t hear about corporate America’s newest sure thing: a path to financial freedom far more reliable than any decent-paying job. It’s something so old-fashioned that even amateur investors can understand it!
It’s called graft — a surefire wealth creator that takes your investments, modifies laws and delivers returns that the best stock trader could never dream of! This is the ShamWow of strategies, the Flowbee of economics, the Ronco of investing. Just look at the profits it generates!
In the last decade, the financial industry’s $5 billion investment in campaign contributions and lobbyists resulted in deregulation, which generated trillions for executives. And when the bubble burst, there was another boatload of free money! By Bloomberg News’ account, $12.8 trillion worth of taxpayer loans, grants and guarantees — all to Wall Street!
But wait … there’s more!
The Associated Press this week reports that "companies that spent hundreds of millions lobbying successfully for a tax break enacted in 2004 got a 22,000-percent return on that investment" — $100 billion in all. That could be you!
Of course, the secret is investing heavily in specific political stocks.
For example, the banking industry recently paid Rahm Emanuel $16 million for about two years of work. That investment was recently paid back when, as President Obama’s chief of staff, Emanuel led the January campaign to release another $350 billion in bank bailout funds. Turning a $16 million down payment into a $350 billion payout — that’s huge!
Likewise, Goldman Sachs hired former Senate aide Mark Patterson as one of its lobbyists — an investment that proved a huge winner when Patterson became the Treasury Department’s chief of staff and the agency subsequently killed proposals to limit executive compensation at bailed-out banks. Cha-ching!
And the hedge fund industry paid economist Larry Summers $5.2 million in 2008 for part-time work — an investment that hit pay dirt when Summers became Obama’s top economic aide and the administration resisted tough international hedge fund regulations that some G-20 countries wanted. Show me the money!
That’s right, the surest way to make big cash is not to invest in people with proven business experience or in valuable entrepreneurial ventures, but in blue-chip members of Permanent Washington — career politicos and bureaucrats who inevitably get back into positions of power and payback! …
My e-mail inbox is flooded with copies of an op-ed from today’s New York Times arguing that pigs running around outside have “higher rates” of Salmonella, toxoplasma, and, most alarming, trichina than pigs raised in factory farms. The writer, James McWilliams, is a prize-winning historian at Texas State San Marcos whose forthcoming book is about the dangers of the locavore movement to the future of food.
I put “higher rates” in quotation marks because that is not what the study measured. The study on which McWilliams based his op-ed is published in Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. The investigators actually measured “seropositivity” (antibodies) in the pigs’ blood. But the presence of antibodies does not necessarily mean that the animals – or their meat – are infected. It means that the free-range pigs were exposed to the organisms at some point and developed immunity to them. The industrial pigs were not exposed and did not develop immunity to these microorganisms. But you would never know that from reading the op-ed. How come?
Guess who paid for the study? The National Pork Board, of course.
The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins has much to say about all this. My point, as always, is that sponsored studies are invariably designed in ways that produce results favorable to the sponsor. In this case, the sponsor represents industrial pork producers.
From the Greenwald column just posted, but important enough that I wanted to give it extra emphasis:
The Obama DOJ is now squarely to the Right of an extremely conservative, pro-executive-power, Bush 43-appointed judge on issues of executive power and due-process-less detentions. Leave aside for the moment the issue of whether you believe that the U.S. Government should have the right to abduct people anywhere in the world, ship them to faraway prisons and hold them there indefinitely without charges or any rights at all. The Bush DOJ — and now the Obama DOJ — maintain the President does and should have that right, and that’s an issue that has been extensively debated. It was, after all, one of the centerpieces of the Bush regime of radicalism, lawlessness and extremism.
Consider, instead, what Barack Obama — before he became President — repeatedly claimed to believe about these issues. The Supreme Court’s Boudemiene ruling was issued at the height of the presidential campaign, and while John McCain condemned it as "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country," here is what Obama said about it in a statement he issued on the day of the ruling:
Today’s Supreme Court decision ensures that we can protect our nation and bring terrorists to justice, while also protecting our core values. The Court’s decision is a rejection of the Bush Administration’s attempt to create a legal black hole at Guantanamo – yet another failed policy supported by John McCain. This is an important step toward reestablishing our credibility as a nation committed to the rule of law, and rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus. Our courts have employed habeas corpus with rigor and fairness for more than two centuries, and we must continue to do so as we defend the freedom that violent extremists seek to destroy.
My, what a ringing and inspiring defense of habeas corpus that was from candidate Barack Obama. So moving and eloquent and passionate. And that George W. Bush sure was an awful tyrant for trying to "create a legal black hole at Guantanamo" — apparently, all Good People devoted to a restoration of the rule of law and the Constitution know that the place where the U.S. should "create a legal black hole" for abducted detainees is Bagram, not Guantanamo. What a fundamental difference that is.
Even worse, here is what Obama said on the floor of the Senate in September, 2006, when he argued in favor of an amendment to the Military Commissions Act that would have restored habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees. I defy anyone to read this and reconcile what he said then to what he is doing now:
This is getting bad. Glenn Greenwald:
It was once the case under the Bush administration that the U.S. would abduct people from around the world, accuse them of being Terrorists, ship them to Guantanamo, and then keep them there for as long as we wanted without offering them any real due process to contest the accusations against them. That due-process-denying framework was legalized by the Military Commissions Act of 2006. Many Democrats — including Barack Obama — claimed they were vehemently opposed to this denial of due process for detainees, and on June 12, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Boumediene v. Bush, ruled that the denial of habeas corpus rights to Guantanamo detainees was unconstitutional and that all Guantanamo detainees have the right to a full hearing in which they can contest the accusations against them.
In the wake of the Boumediene ruling, the U.S. Government wanted to preserve the power to abduct people from around the world and bring them to American prisons without having to provide them any due process. So, instead of bringing them to our Guantanamo prison camp (where, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, they were entitled to habeas hearings), the Bush administration would instead simply send them to our prison camp in Bagram, Afghanistan, and then argue that because they were flown to Bagram rather than Guantanamo, they had no rights of any kind and Boudemiene didn’t apply to them. The Bush DOJ treated the Boumediene ruling, grounded in our most basic constitutional guarantees, as though it was some sort of a silly game — fly your abducted prisoners to Guantanamo and they have constitutional rights, but fly them instead to Bagram and you can disappear them forever with no judicial process. Put another way, you just close Guantanamo, move it to Afghanistan, and — presto — all constitutional obligations disappear.
Back in February, the Obama administration shocked many civil libertarians by filing a brief in federal court that, in two sentences, declared that it embraced the most extremist Bush theory on this issue — the Obama DOJ argued, as The New York Times‘s Charlie Savage put it, "that military detainees in Afghanistan have no legal right to challenge their imprisonment there, embracing a key argument of former President Bush’s legal team." Remember: these are not prisoners captured in Afghanistan on a battlefield. Many of them have nothing to do with Afghanistan and were captured far, far away from that country — abducted from their homes and workplaces — and then flown to Bagram to be imprisoned. Indeed, the Bagram detainees in the particular case in which the Obama DOJ filed its brief were Yemenis and Tunisians captured outside of Afghanistan (in Thailand or the UAE, for instance) and then flown to Bagram and locked away there as much as six years without any charges. That is what the Obama DOJ defended, and they argued that those individuals can be imprisoned indefinitely with no rights of any kind — as long as they are kept in Bagram rather than Guantanamo.
Last month, a federal judge emphatically rejected the Bush/Obama position and held that the rationale of Boudemiene applies every bit as much to Bagram as it does to Guantanamo. Notably, the district judge who so ruled — John Bates — is an appointee of George W. Bush, a former Whitewater prosecutor, and a very pro-executive-power judge. In his decision (.pdf), Judge Bates made clear how identical are the constitutional rights of detainees flown to Guantanamo and Bagram and underscored how dangerous is the Bush/Obama claim that the President has the right to abduct people from around the world and imprison them at Bagram with no due process of any kind (click image to enlarge): …
Very good column by Jim Hightower, which begins:
As skiers and backcountry hikers know, a whiteout is a blizzard that’s so intense that those caught in it can’t even see the blizzard.
That’s how I think of the Wall Street bailout now swirling around us. So many trillions of our tax dollars are being blown at the financial giants that we’re blinded by the density of it, unable to see where we are or know what direction we’re headed.
However, one way to get your bearings in this bailout blizzard is to focus on the central point that both the bailors (Washington) and the bailees (Wall Street) keep pounding as an irrefutable truth that everyone simply has to accept — namely, the institutions being rescued are too big to fail.
Even sheep know to flee when coyotes howl in unison — and we commoners need to confront the absurdity of this "too big" claim, which forms the rationale for the entire diversion of regular people’s money into rich people’s pockets.
Wachovia, Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Bank of America, AIG — omigosh, cried the Powers That Be, these behemoths are linked to every other behemoth, so if we don’t stuff them with tax dollars … well, we have no choice, because they’re just too big for the government to let fail.
Point No. 1: They have failed. They are kaput. It costs more to buy a snickerdoodle than to buy a share of Citigroup stock. AIG is 80 percent owned by you and me, the taxpayers. These once-haughty outfits are insolvent — wards of the state.
Point No. 2: If they’re too big, why should we sustain them? Let’s be clear about something the establishment doesn’t want you and me to understand — these giants did not get so big and interconnected because of natural market forces and free-enterprise efficiencies. They amassed power the old-fashioned way: They got the government to give it to them. In the past 20 years or so, they lobbied furiously to get Washington to rig the rules so they could latterly bloat … and float out of control.
A new report by Wallstreetwatch.org reveals that from 1998 to 2008, the finance industry made $1.7 billion in contributions to Washington politicians (55 percent to Repubs, 45 percent to Dems), spent $3.4 billion on lobbyists (3,000 of them on the industry payroll in 2007 alone) and won a dozen key deregulatory victories that led directly to today’s financial meltdown.
Inherent in the industry’s push for unbridled expansion was the unstated goal of guaranteeing that they would get taxpayer bailouts if things went badly…
Hilzoy has an excellent post on abusive relationships and why they are often difficult to escape. Her whole post is worth reading. It begins:
In a post on a book about a violent relationship, Linda Hirshman writes:
"It is difficult to understand why she stayed in this awful relationship, given that she was not risking starvation and had no children with her abuser. Which is why, no matter how many times Steiner and Marcotte and the others tell them not to, people keep asking the question. And it’s terribly important to do exactly that. Asking why women participate in destructive relationships is a mark of respect."
I worked in a battered women’s shelter for five years, four as a volunteer, and one as a full-time staffer, so I might be able to answer this question. I’ll try to get to the respect part in a subsequent post. Obviously, this will be too general: people stay for lots of reasons. I knew someone once who had a bad heroin habit, and while getting involved with a guy who beat her up if she tried to leave the house would not be my preferred method of detoxing, it worked for her. (She was still clean the last time I heard.) But generalizations might be better than nothing. I will also refer to abusers as ‘he’, and to their victims as ‘she'; this is accurate in the overwhelming majority of cases.
In some cases, understanding why someone stays is easy. A lot of women are afraid that their abuser would try to harm them if they leave. And with good reason: about a third of female homicide victims were killed by a spouse, lover, or ex-lover; and that’s not counting the women who are "merely" beaten, stalked, and so forth. Staying in a case like this, at least until you had figured out how to leave safely and cover your tracks, is not mysterious or perplexing.
Moreover, while I think the assumption that battered women stay because they are just dumb, or have staggeringly bad judgment, is wrong and insulting, there are a whole lot of battered women, and it would be very surprising if none of them stayed for such reasons. We asked women who came to our shelter when the abuse had started; one woman told me that her husband had thrown her from a moving car on their first date, at which point I wondered silently why on earth there had been a second date, let alone a subsequent marriage. But in my experience such women were a vanishingly small minority.
What is hard to understand, I take it, is …
Yesterday we told you about the Obama Justice Department’s invocation of a sweeping state secrets privilege in a warrantless wiretapping case. But that may not be the only area in which the new administration’s war on terror tactics recall the worst excesses of the Bush years.
Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that detainees at Guantanamo had the right to appeal their detentions in federal courts. But since then, only a few cases have been completed. And in an interview with TPMmuckraker, David Cynamon — a lawyer for four Kuwaiti Gitmo detainees who are bringing habeas corpus claims against the government — said that the Justice Department has been consistently dragging its heels in the case, denying detainees their basic due process rights and furthering what he called the "abandonment of the rule of law."
"The Department of Justice has been doing everything in its power to delay and obstruct these cases," said Cynamon, whose clients were picked up in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in the period after the 2001 U.S invasion of Afghanistan. "They’re not doing anything to move the case along, and doing everything to avoid it."
Asked whether he had observed a shift of any kind in the government’s approach since the Obama administration came into office, Cynamon flatly replied: "None whatsoever."
That has been, to me, the biggest disappointment and mystery. It did not surprise me in the slightest that the Bush administration would do everything in its power to subvert the Supreme Court’s ruling. I expected that. What I did not expect is that there would be absolutely zero change in the stonewall strategy when the [new] administration came in.
Cynamon said he didn’t expect to see a change "on January 21st." But, "there’s been enough time now that you can’t simply say ‘it’s still operating on auto pilot from the previous administration’. So I have been disappointed and frustrated not to see a change."
Cynamon detailed three specific areas in which the government is stonewalling. First, …
Yesterday, I outlined six reasons for progressive activists to approaching the Obama administration mainly with an attitude of "distrust and pressure," aka "make him do it." Today, I am happy to present the counter-argument to that post, "The Case for Trust and Support," aka "give him a chance."
To my surprise, I think the trust and support argument is actually very strong. It focuses on five main reasons:
- President Obama’s progressive background
- President Obama’s voting record in the Senate
- Democratic trifectas are rare
- A major shift toward the public sector has occurred in just the first few weeks of President Obama’s administration.
- The Senate is the real problem anyway.
In writing the argument, I found it very persuasive. I think you might, too. Of course, given that our checks and balances system of government was founded on distrust of power, that might remain the best, default attitude for citizens to take.
Continue reading. For example, his explication of point 5:
Because the Senate is the real problem: It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Senate, rather than the Obama administration, is the biggest obstacle to progressive governance right now. If we were dealing with only the House and the Obama administration, there would be a noticeably more progressive government in America. From health care reconciliation, to 100% auction cap and trade, to a larger stimulus package, to bailout reform, to bankruptcy "cramdown" reform, and even to executive compensation, the Senate has moved to the right of both the House and the Obama administration. As such, it is the Senate, and not the Obama administration, against whom we should be directing more of our distrust and pressure.
Just imagine what we would have accomplished in terms of legislation without the Senate over the past few months. The stimulus would have had a hundred billion more in spending, 100% auctions would be on their way, hundreds of billions for new health care would be on its way, bankruptcy "cramdown" would be law, EFCA would be law, executive compensation limits would be far more severe, and on and on and on. However, if we had the Senate but there was no President, the legislative accomplishments would have been pretty much the same.
While there have been moments where the Obama administration has been checked by Congress on the business tax or executive compensation, overall the filibuster-based Senate, and Evan Bayh’s conservodems, are the real problem.
The piracy around the Horn of Africa is maddening, but the fight cannot be won at sea. Matt Yglesias explains:
I don’t know how many of you have played the game “Sid Meier’s ‘Pirates!’”—either the old computer game or the newer Xbox version—but for a while I was a devotee of the Xbox game and I think it illustrates some key points about pirate policy that endure for the modern day. The main one is that anti-pirate military patrols are pretty much a lost cause. The ocean is just too big. A pirate only gets taken down this way because of hubris—you might deliberately try to attack and seize a military ship and wind up biting off more than you can chew. But the risks of actually getting caught are tiny relative to the rewards of successful piracy.
The only countermeasure that really works well is to escort a dedicated merchant vessel with small anti-pirate military craft. This, however, is rarely done for the exact same reason that we’re hesitant to do it today—it’s expensive. Arming the merchant vessels themselves is a geopolitically and legally dicey move in today’s environment. But “Pirates!” illustrates that this is inherently problematic as there are serious tradeoffs between cargo capacity, speed, turning performance, and cargo capacity that give dedicated pirate ships an intrinsic advantage against any kind of economically reasonable hybrid vessel.
So how can the pirates be stopped? Well, fundamentally the viability of your enterprise is “Pirates!” rests on …
Interesting post that begins:
That is the rather provocative question that Richard Posner asked in a 1980 article that I only recently discovered — and I think should be on the reading list of a decent cognitive anthropology course, as the issues are certainly relevant to understanding the cognitive underpinnings of institutions. The term “primitive” may of course deter some from reading on — but that would be a pity, as nothing in Posner’s analysis hinges on the denizens of that kind of human group being less sophisticated than those of agrarian-state and industrial varieties. “Primitive” here means that some crucial elements of large-scale social organization, like economic, judicial and state institutions, are just not there in many small-scale societies. Understanding social life under such conditions is crucial for an anthropology of institutions.
Social organization and the cost of information
Small-scale human groups share some structural features that anyone who ever took an anthropology course will recognize – as these communities are the mainstay of the classical anthropological literature. Posner lists them as the following:
Weak government, ascription of rights and duties on the basis of family membership, gift-giving as a fundamental mode of exchange, strict liability for injuries, emphasis on generosity and honor as high ethical norms.
What is the origin of this particular, highly recurrent bundle of features? Posner points out that the economies of small-scale societies generally produce only a very limited range of goods, many of which are perishable, and that trade with other groups is generally difficult or dangerous, in any case limited. One of the most important features is that transaction costs, particularly information costs, are very high in such conditions, partly because there is no effective government.
Relative to groups with state institutions and regulated markets, more time and energy is required to obtain equivalent information about the natural world and social partners and to make sure that promises are kept, contracts enforced, etc. That would explain why trade with other groups is often minimal or nonexistent, while kin groups or extended kinship groups are the main corporate entities.
Agriculture being the main form of production, the population is immobile — the cost of moving out is very high. Given these factors, insurance is highly desirable, and the best form of insurance is reciprocity driven by kinship relations. This would explain why people extend the idiom of kin relations to larger groups, as a form of insurance against variability in the productivity of different units (typically, households) over time. High information costs may explain other recurrent features of small-scale societies, such as the centrality of gift-giving as a mode of exchange. Gifts are valuable as an insurance premium, and also as providing information about the givers, their resources, and their political affiliations.
Origins of institutions
What is so refreshing in Posner’s model, beyond its empirical interest, is …
I finally made this recipe, and it was an awesome success. When you boil away the water in which the pork pieces were cooked and then get down to the fat, the pork browns extremely nicely. Wonderful taste and mouthfeel.
A reader, partial to D. R. Harris Arlington, suggested that I do a run through the gold razors that I own. Good idea, and I’m starting today with the Edwin Jagger lined Chatsworth in gold: an extremely good razor, BTW, not beloved merely for its looks. I got a very smooth shave, and the Arlington aftershave was a good finish. Over the next while, I’ll work through the gold razors, one or two of which I’ve not yet used.