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Jane Mayer on Snowden—with video

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The New Yorker videos are good. Mayer writes:

My interview of Edward Snowden, conducted remotely in front of an audience at the New Yorker Festival, was a chance to pose not just my own questions but also those that have been raised by his fiercest critics. One of his most interesting answers was his explanation for why he had decided to flee the United States. A number of detractors have suggested that if Snowden, who disclosed controversial top-secret N.S.A. programs to reporters, truly wanted to commit an act of civil disobedience for reasons of conscience, then he should have faced the legal consequences, making his case to the American public while standing trial at home.

When I asked why he didn’t take this route, Snowden said that because of the way national-security laws have been interpreted since September 11, 2001, he believed that the government had deprived him, and other whistle-blowers, of ever having the opportunity to make their cases in this time-honored tradition. Instead of being allowed to make his arguments in an open, public court, he said, his lawyers were told that the government would close the court for national-security reasons. (When asked to comment, a Justice Department spokesman would say only, “It remains our position that Mr. Snowden should return to the United States and face the charges filed against him. If he does, he will be accorded full due process and protections.”)

Snowden said that he would “love” to return to the United States and stand trial, if he could be assured that it would be open and fair. He said, “I have told the government again and again in negotiations that if they’re prepared to offer an open trial, a fair trial, in the same way that Daniel Ellsberg got, and I’m allowed to make my case to the jury, I would love to do so. But they’ve declined.”

Instead, Snowden said, “They want to use special procedures. They want a closed court. They want to use something called the Classified Information [Procedures] Act.”

Snowden pointed out that in other post-9/11 whistle-blower cases, such as those of the former N.S.A. employee Thomas Drake, the government invoked national-security concerns in order to keep the public from fully hearing the basis of his arguments. (I covered Drake’s case, and remember well the stifling secrecy surrounding the proceedings; in the end, the serious charges were dropped in return for Drake pleading guilty to a single misdemeanor.) National security became, in essence, a form of legal censorship, blocking communication between the accused and the American public. With no assurance that he could make his case to the American public at home, Snowden said that he instead has found himself, ironically, in Russia, a state not exactly known for its defense of civil liberties.

I asked him what he missed about the United States. “The question is, What don’t I miss?” Snowden replied. “It’s a great country.”

By all means, watch the videos.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2014 at 3:51 pm

Wage stagnation

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I think the lack of wage growth is simply because businesses and corporations are now so totally focused on increasing their profits that they do not want to spend money on anything: not on taxes, not on wages, not on plant maintenance, not on supplies. They are continuing an effort to reduce costs everywhere because increasing prices doesn’t work well when the great mass of consumers are underpaid and thus cannot afford things—so that cutting cost becomes the primary strategy to increase profits.

Obviously there are exceptions, but one economist seems to go along with the idea. Jared Bernstein has an interesting article in the Washington Post. Here are his conclusions:

. . .

And that’s what I think is really going on here. Worker bargaining power may be so diminished in this country that it’s become what you may recall from Algebra II as a “non-continuous function.” That is, wage growth doesn’t continuously accelerate as slack is diminished. It plods along until the job market is at truly full employment, which is the only thing that we can count on to budge wage growth from its entrenched moorings.

That’s just a hypothesis, but here are some things you’d expect to see if I’m right:

— Employers complaining about not finding the workers they need but not raising pay to get them. Check.
— High levels of income inequality. with most of the growth flowing into profits, not wages. Check.
— Less movement in the job market by workers seeking to upgrade to a better job. Check.
— A flattening of the slack/wage-growth curve, as shown above. Check.

The U.S. business model has devolved to a point where raising pay is antithetical to sound practice. If you’re a successful employer, it’s the very last thing you do, and you do it only if you’re pushed to the wall by such a tight labor market that you’ll literally lose workers and, thus, profits if you don’t.

That, in turn, has two implications. First, policymakers seeking to raise workers’ pay need to be mindful of this dynamic and push for chock-full employment and other countervailing measures, like a higher minimum wage. Second, the Federal Reserve must factor severely diminished worker bargaining power into its calculus, a factor that militates against preemptive tightening.

Longer term, workers need a lot more bargaining clout. But that won’t happen until there’s a politics that reacts to all this technical analysis with the urgency it deserves. I know, the working class isn’t the donor class. But they are, or at least they should be, the voter class, and last I checked, at least on paper, this is still a democracy.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2014 at 3:38 pm

Laura Poitras and Edward Snowden

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I just found a couple of excellent long reads about the Snowden affair and Laura Poitras’s role in it.

First is an interview of Poitras by Tom Englehardt; second is an article by Alex Pasternack in Motherboard. I strongly encourage you to read both.

Englehardt begins:

Here’s a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! stat from our new age of national security. How many Americans have security clearances? The answer: 5.1 million, a figure that reflects the explosive growth of the national security state in the post-9/11 era. Imagine the kind of system needed just to vet that many people for access to our secret world (to the tune of billions of dollars). We’re talking here about the total population of Norway and significantly more people than you can find in Costa Rica, Ireland, or New Zealand. And yet it’s only about 1.6% of the American population, while on ever more matters, the unvetted 98.4% of us are meant to be left in the dark.

For our own safety, of course. That goes without saying.

All of this offers a new definition of democracy in which we, the people, are to know only what the national security state cares to tell us.  Under this system, ignorance is the necessary, legally enforced prerequisite for feeling protected.  In this sense, it is telling that the only crime for which those inside the national security state can be held accountable in post-9/11 Washington is not potential perjury before Congress, or the destruction of evidence of a crime, or torture, or kidnapping, or assassination, or the deaths of prisoners in an extralegal prison system, but whistleblowing; that is, telling the American people something about what their government is actually doing.  And that crime, and only that crime, has been prosecuted to the full extent of the law (and beyond) with a vigor unmatched in American history.  To offer a single example, the only American to go to jail for the CIA’s Bush-era torture program was John Kiriakou, a CIA whistleblower who revealed the name of an agent involved in the program to a reporter.

In these years, as power drained from Congress, an increasingly imperial White House has launched various wars (redefined by its lawyers as anything but), as well as a global assassination campaign in which the White House has its own “kill list” and the president himself decides on global hits.  Then, without regard for national sovereignty or the fact that someone is an American citizen (and upon the secret invocation of legal mumbo-jumbo), the drones are sent off to do the necessary killing.

And yet that doesn’t mean that we, the people, know nothing . . .

Continue reading.

And Pasternack begins:

I get my face photographed and printed on a temporary ID card that I deposit into a slot and I get on an elevator and am led down a hallway. On a desk, I spot a signed letter with the Vice President’s seal. I’m brought into a windowless room, and there is the filmmaker Laura Poitras. On a coffee table is a MacBook Pro with a sticker that says “National Security Agency—Monitored Device.” Behind her, there’s a framed Ricky Gervais poster. We are at the offices of HBO, which began discussions to acquire the TV rights to her new film, “Citizenfour,” even before it was finished, not long before it premiered at the New York Film Festival to a standing ovation. We shake hands and I display my recorder. “Mind if I record?” I ask.

She laughs briefly and agrees. “That’s very respectful, given the context,” she says.

The context is quite serious. It was a 12-minute video made by Poitras that in June 2013 attached a name and a face to disclosures of a massive secret and legally dubious global surveillance system. A year earlier, Poitras became the first journalist to communicate with the NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden, then anonymously. Though she shared bylines on stories in the Guardian and the Times and Der Spiegel, much of the reporting was done by Glenn Greenwald and others, most recently at The Intercept, the upstart outlet where Poitras is also now also a founding editor. She has been in more of a hide-out mode, working on her much-anticipated documentary on multiple computers out of a bunker-like editing studio in Berlin. She moved there from New York in 2012, after years of getting stopped at the airport every time she tried to fly; starting in 2006, her air tickets were marked “SSSS” for Secondary Security Screening Selection, subjecting her to extra scrutiny at the borders.

She is no longer stopped, but wagers that she is still watched by her own government. She uses her cell phone sparingly and has become an expert in encrypted communications. “I really do feel that there are some really angry powerful people, mad at the reporting that we’re doing. I should expect they’re paying attention to my communications and who I spend time with.”

I asked her if she thought that by speaking with her, I too would end up on such a list.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2014 at 3:22 pm

The government can punish you for a crime for which you’re not convicted

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Somehow I’m not surprised. Radley Balko writes in the Washington Post:

Most Americans probably believe that the government must first convict you of a crime before it can impose a sentence on you for that crime. This is incorrect: When federal prosecutors throw a bunch of charges at someone but the jury convicts on only some of those charges, a federal judge can still sentence the defendant on the charges for which he was acquitted. In fact, the judge can even consider crimes for which the defendant has never been charged.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Jones v. U.S., a case that would have addressed the issue. The National Law Journal summarizes the facts: . . .

Continue reading.

And what’s worse, the government can also break the law to make you guilty of a crime, if the government can make money from it. Elliott Hannon writes at Slate:

How long is a yellow light? Most people would—reasonably—have no idea the exact length of time before a traffic light goes from yellow to red. The answer is: A minimum of three seconds, according to federal safety regulations. What happens when a mere tenth of second is shaved off that time and a yellow light lasts 2.9 seconds? If you thought, not much, you’d be wrong.

The city of Chicago and its mayor, Rahm Emanuel, are taking heat—thanks to aChicago Tribune investigationfor ever-so-quietly sanding that measly tenth of a second off of the length of yellow lights in the city this past spring. The impact was substantial: 77,000 additional red light camera tickets were issued, at $100 a pop, which added up to nearly $8 million forked over by unsuspecting drivers.

Here’s more from the Tribune: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2014 at 2:10 pm

Posted in Government, Law

Democracy in the Mideast will require participation of Muslim political parties

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Neil Thompson has an insightful essay at Informed Comment, worth thinking about:

When many Westerners think of the Middle East today they tend to see a region gripped by religious and sectarian violence. What all the many conflicts have in common is the participation of inflexible and fanatical groups of fighters dogmatically opposed to the further modernization and Westernization of their home countries. If they seize power, it is feared that they will impose a backwards-looking theocratic form of governance across the spaces that they dominate, and will trample on the human rights of vulnerable groups. The panacea for this in the eyes of many Western citizens is to temper religious fervour by separating it from politics and implementing a secular and liberal democratic system of government. However, no Middle Eastern state has yet to obtain such a system by its own efforts, while Western attempts to enact nation-building have so far ended in failure. Consequently, Western policymakers have tended to back authoritarian governments as a bulwark against fundamentalist rule.

The chronic weakness of state authority in the Middle East, coupled with the flourishing of extremist movements, once helped to maintain this ‘strongman’ model of governance. Yet, this strategy is now regarded at best as a stop-gap measure rather than a long-term solution to the region’s myriad problems. The default Western response to this double-sided problem has been to propose the transfer of functions performed by some religious organizations (for example healthcare) over to a stronger state. Under this scenario, religious groups would cease to perform political functions and the state would guarantee their freedom to practice their beliefs without interference.

Towards Religious Democracies

But what if the West’s secular state model is a merely a product of its own historically violent struggles with modernity in the 17th century? Up until this point in time, the very idea that religious authority should have no place in the political system of a European state would have been controversial to say the least – just as it is in parts of the modern day Middle East. But the creation of democratic systems in Indonesia and Turkey help to disprove the notion that Muslim or Middle Eastern cultures are incapable of living under democratic systems. But the ‘secularist’ price for Islamist participation in the political process was the promise not to pursue a theocratic or one-party model of government once in power.

While the Middle East’s secularists cannot keep the influence of Islamist organizations out of political life, Islamists are seemingly unable to monopolize power without resorting to the same type of oppression that discredited their republican or monarchical enemies. Democratic elections therefore offer a third path between two oppressive political systems. However, developing organic and sustainable democratic processes undoubtedly takes time; the collapse of Libya and Iraq as functioning states shows that removing a dictator does not immediately create the conditions for political transformation. If anything, the ongoing travails within these countries helps to reinforce that the Middle East has been through a whirlwind of political ferment since decolonization began a mere five or six decades ago.

Stop Taking Sides

The emergence of democratic states in other parts of the Islamic world suggests that they can also emerge in Arab and Middle Eastern states. It is also highly likely that any indigenous political group that attains significant popularity under these systems will be influenced by Islam. This is in much the same way as many Western political parties are influenced by Christian frameworks and assumptions, such as Germany’s Christian Democratic Union. Just as Western politicians have to be in favor of ideals such as “freedom” or “democracy“, leaders in Muslim-majority countries also have to appeal to the core values of their societies. Invoking Islam is both a legitimizing measure and a short-cut to the communication of ideas.

Most Islamist movements also offer programs of action that do not necessarily threaten the West. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood’s determination to secure power via democratic processes diverges with the aims of groups like IS or Al-Qaida’s Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra. The West’s tolerance of the removal of elected Islamist political movements by force should be regarded as a strategic blunder that has helped to encourage jihadist narratives of victimization. The recent killing of al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane is a case in point. While this Somali militant group’s profile has undoubtedly increased over the past few years, its rise to prominence was facilitated by the overthrow of its more locally-focused predecessor in a US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. By being seen to take sides in inter-Muslim disputes and colluding against fundamentalists with their local enemies, the West has indirectly encouraged more extreme forms of Islamism. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 6:28 am

The Social Security office of judges who hear appeals for disability benefits is 990,399 cases behind

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One of the things that happens with a dysfunctional Congress is that government begins not working—services seize up, benefits fail to be delivered. Given that this is exactly what one party—the GOP—wants to happen, it’s hard to see how to fix it. For a long time, the role of Congress had been to make sure the government worked. Now a good part of Congress wants government not to work, and they strive mightily to that end. What’s weird is that they accept no responsibility for their own actions: they starve the CDC, for example, cutting its budget drastically over a decade, and then they blame the CDC when the cuts leave it unable to respond. This drives good employees from the government—but that’s the idea. The GOP is working continuously and with determination to destroy the American government because that government is the sole remaining obstacle to corporations being able to get away with whatever they want. We are assured that this state of nature for corporations will improve our lives, not because corporations care about anything other than profit but because the invisible hand of the market will clean up the toxic spills and oil pollution, it will ensure that insurance companies honor their contracts and do not sell deceptive plans, it will repair our roads and provide good schools for all citizens, and so on. Only in fact the invisible hand of the market seems to slap consumers and caress corporations.

David Fahrenthold writes in the Washington Post:

In an obscure corner of the federal bureaucracy, there is an office that is 990,399 cases behind.

That is Washington’s backlog of backlogs — a queue of waiting Americans larger than the populations of six different states. It is bigger even than the infamous backups at Veterans Affairs, where 526,000 people are waiting in line, and the patent office, where 606,000 applications are pending.

All of these people are waiting on a single office at the Social Security Administration.

Above: Patrick McGarvey, 48, pets his cat Marco at his house in Riegelsville, Pa. McGarvey, who has debilitating back pain, waited seven years, including appeals, to get approval for his Social Security disability benefits. “Some nights my back pain is so bad that my animals are the best company when I’m up,” he said. McGarvey has two cats and a dog. (Kevin Cook for The Washington Post)

Social Security is best-known for sending benefits to seniors. But it also pays out disability benefits to people who can’t work because of mental or physical ailments. And it runs an enormous decision-making bureaucracy to sort out who is truly disabled enough to get the checks — and who is trying to game the system.

Within Social Security, this backlogged office handles appeals of appeals. In most of its cases, the applicants have already been turned down twice by lower-rung officials who didn’t think they were disabled enough.

BREAKING POINTS:

WHERE GOVERNMENT FALLS APART

Fifth in a series examining the failures at the heart of troubled federal systems.

If they appeal to this office, they can plead their case in person, before a special kind of Social Security judge.

The judge is supposed to read the applicant’s medical records and ask questions about medications, limitations and levels of pain. There are 1,445 of these Social Security judges, which means its in-house legal system is larger than the entire regular federal court system — district and appeals courts and the Supreme Court put together.

When they make a ruling, they must decide whether someone is truly unable to hold any job.

That is slow work, made slower by a pileup of outdated rules and oddball procedures. The judges’ official list of jobs, for instance, is a Depression-era relic last updated in 1991. It still includes “telegram messenger” and “horse-and-wagon driver” — not exactly growth industries. It doesn’t mention the Internet at all.

These judges fell behind when Gerald Ford was president. And they never caught up. Along the way, their office has become a bureaucratic parable — about what happens when the machinery of government cannot keep up with its good intentions.

In this case, the system became, in effect, too big to fix: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 5:23 am

Posted in Congress, Government

Rep. Alan Grayson at least believes Congress should fix things

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Like he wants to fix the frequent flier programs run by airlines, programs that share some scam-like characteristics. Christopher Elliott reports in the Washington Post:

Frequent-flier programs are rigged to favor airlines, deceive passengers and cost consumers billions of dollars. At least that’s the contention of one Florida frequent traveler named Alan Grayson.

But it just so happens that Grayson is a member of Congress. And as such, he can ask the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General to investigate airline loyalty programs.

That’s exactly what Grayson, a Democrat, did this summer, and now an audit is underway. It will take about a year for the inspector general to determine whether airline loyalty program practices are unfair and deceptive. But when the dust settles, the DOT might be closer to cracking down on one of America’s favorite addictions: collecting points and miles.

Public opinion on the issue is split. While some frustrated passengers side with the congressman, others vehemently disagree that the government ought to get involved in regulating their points and miles. A new survey by market research firm Colloquy reflects this deep division. It found that 54 percent of U.S. loyalty-program members are “unhappy” with their reward options. Also, 48 percent say that they’ve been “frustrated” by the reward redemption process.

Grayson didn’t respond to requests for a comment on the audit. But in a letter to DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel, he presented his arguments for tighter regulation. “Frequent flyer programs are prone to manipulation by the airlines that control them,” he wrote, likening the estimated $700 billion worth of miles to an unregulated currency. “Airlines establish the rules, the terms, the value, expiration dates, and the sales pitches.” To earn more money, airlines are constantly devaluing this de facto currency, which is “profitable for the airlines, and costly for the consumer,” wrote Grayson.

The congressman zeroed in on federal laws that seem to prohibit the kind of behavior airlines are engaging in, and correctly pointed out that the DOT has some authority to regulate them.

But some say that his critique misses the biggest problem with these schemes. Thanks to loyalty programs, airlines have completely separated their most valued customers from the rest. They lavish top spenders with perks while forcing the less valuable passengers to sit in shrinking seats and pay fees for services that should come with every ticket, such as a seat reservation and the ability to check one bag without paying extra for the privilege. Frequent-flier programs have widened the airborne caste system to the point where it’s hard to believe everyone’s on the same plane. They’re making air travel worse for all but a few privileged elites, according to critics. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 October 2014 at 5:13 am

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