Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for October 26th, 2014

Ideology and Investment

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Paul Krugman discusses why the US no longer invests in its own future:

America used to be a country that built for the future. Sometimes the government built directly: Public projects, from the Erie Canal to the Interstate Highway System, provided the backbone for economic growth. Sometimes it provided incentives to the private sector, like land grants to spur railroad construction. Either way, there was broad support for spending that would make us richer.

But nowadays we simply won’t invest, even when the need is obvious and the timing couldn’t be better. And don’t tell me that the problem is “political dysfunction” or some other weasel phrase that diffuses the blame. Our inability to invest doesn’t reflect something wrong with “Washington”; it reflects the destructive ideology that has taken over the Republican Party.

Some background: More than seven years have passed since the housing bubble burst, and ever since, America has been awash in savings — or more accurately, desired savings — with nowhere to go. Borrowing to buy homes has recovered a bit, but remains low. Corporations are earning huge profits, but are reluctant to invest in the face of weak consumer demand, so they’re accumulating cash or buying back their own stock. Banks are holding almost $2.7 trillion in excess reserves — funds they could lend out, but choose instead to leave idle.

And the mismatch between desired saving and the willingness to invest has kept the economy depressed. Remember, your spending is my income and my spending is your income, so if everyone tries to spend less at the same time, everyone’s income falls.

There’s an obvious policy response to this situation: public investment. We have huge infrastructure needs, especially in water and transportation, and the federal government can borrow incredibly cheaply — in fact, interest rates on inflation-protected bonds have been negative much of the time (they’re currently just 0.4 percent). So borrowing to build roads, repair sewers and more seems like a no-brainer. But what has actually happened is the reverse. After briefly rising after the Obama stimulus went into effect,public construction spending has plunged. Why?

In a direct sense, much of the fall in public investment reflects the fiscal troubles of state and local governments, which account for the great bulk of public investment.

These governments generally must, by law, balance their budgets, but they saw revenues plunge and some expenses rise in a depressed economy. So they delayed or canceled a lot of construction to save cash.

Yet this didn’t have to happen. The federal government could easily have provided aid to the states to help them spend — in fact, the stimulus bill included such aid, which was one main reason public investment briefly increased. But once the G.O.P. took control of the House, any chance of more money for infrastructure vanished. Once in a while Republicans would talk about wanting to spend more, but they blocked every Obama administration initiative.

And it’s all about ideology, an overwhelming hostility to government spending of any kind. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 October 2014 at 8:37 pm

Interesting development: Peace Prize Laureates Urge Disclosure on U.S. Torture

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Charlie Savage reports in the NY Times:

A dozen Nobel Peace Prize laureates are urging President Obama to make “full disclosure to the American people of the extent and use of torture” by the United States, including the release of a long-delayed Senate report about the C.I.A.’s torture of terrorism suspects after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The laureates told Mr. Obama, who was awarded the Peace Prize himself in 2009, that the report’s prospective release has brought the United States to a “crossroads,” and that he must do more to bring closure to an era when the United States set an example that “will be used to justify the use of torture by regimes around the world.”

“It remains to be seen whether the United States will turn a blind eye to the effects of its actions on its own people and on the rest of the world, or if it will take the necessary steps to recover the standards on which the country was founded, and to once again adhere to the international conventions it helped to bring into being,” they wrote.

The joint letter was organized by two of the laureates, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and former President José Ramos-Horta of East Timor, and is part of a broader online petition campaign at TheCommunity.com, whose chairman is Mr. Ramos-Horta. An advance copy was provided to The New York Times.

The appeal comes as the White House continues to wrestle with how much of a 480-page executive summary of the report should be declassified, an issue that pits the C.I.A. against the mostly Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. . .

Continue reading.

In related news Obama is reversing his earlier anti-torture stand—Obama does a lot of reversing of his various stances—as reported earlier in the NY Times by Charlie Savage. I don’t think Obama has any firm principles regarding torture (or much of anything else, so far as I can see). That story begins:

When the Bush administration revealed in 2005 that it was secretly interpreting a treaty ban on “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” as not applying to C.I.A. and military prisons overseas, Barack Obama, then a newly elected Democratic senator from Illinois, joined in a bipartisan protest.

Mr. Obama supported legislation to make it clear that American officials were legally barred from using cruelty anywhere in the world. And in a Senate speech, he said enacting such a statute “acknowledges and confirms existing obligations” under the treaty, the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

But the Obama administration has never officially declared its position on the treaty [and indeed President Obama has resolutely ignored the provisions of the treaty that legally require the investigation of credible allegations of torture and prosecution of those responsible—Obama, for example, allowed the CIA to destroy all the video records of their torture sessions and has constantly said that we must not “look back” at the crimes committed before he became president, because…. {unclear} – LG]. . .  [N]ow, President Obama’s legal team is debating whether to back away from his earlier view. It is considering reaffirming the Bush administration’s position that the treaty imposes no legal obligation on the United States to bar cruelty outside its borders, according to officials who discussed the deliberations on the condition of anonymity. [No torture in the US, but the US can torture anywhere else in the world—they just have to transport the victim to another country or into international waters, and then (in Obama’s view) torture is perfectly legal and acceptable. – LG]

The administration must decide on its stance on the treaty by next month, when it sends a delegation to Geneva to appear before the Committee Against Torture, a United Nations panel that monitors compliance with the treaty. That presentation will be the first during Mr. Obama’s presidency.

State Department lawyers are said to be pushing to officially abandon the Bush-era interpretation. Doing so would require no policy changes, since Mr. Obama issued an executive order in 2009 that forbade cruel interrogations anywhere and made it harder for a future administration to return to torture.

But military and intelligence lawyers are said to oppose accepting that the treaty imposes legal obligations on the United States’ actions abroad. They say they need more time to study whether it would have operational impacts. They have also raised concerns that current or future wartime detainees abroad might invoke the treaty to sue American officials with claims of torture, although courts have repeatedly thrown out lawsuits brought by detainees held as terrorism suspects. [To be clear courts have thrown out those lawsuits because Obama and Bush should “National security!!” as loud as they can, and the DOJ pleads with the courts to throw out the cases lest the US fall. That’s how the US can kidnap innocent people, torture them for months, and there are no repercussions, no investigations, and no lawsuits allowed. The CIA is a Mafia, and the President is the don. – LG]

The internal debate is said to have been catalyzed by a memo that the State Department circulated within an interagency lawyers’ group several weeks ago. On Wednesday, lawyers from the State Department, the Pentagon, the intelligence community and the National Security Council met at the White House to discuss the matter, but reached no consensus.

Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman, said Mr. Obama’s opposition to torture and cruel interrogations anywhere in the world was clear, separate from the legal question of whether the United Nations treaty applies to American behavior overseas.

“We are considering that question, and other questions posed by the committee, carefully as we prepare for the presentation in November,” Ms. Meehan said. “But there is no question that torture and cruel treatment in armed conflict are clearly and categorically prohibited in all places.”

In Mr. Obama’s first term, his top State Department lawyer, Harold H. Koh, began a push to reverse official government interpretations that two global rights treaties — the torture convention and a Bill of Rights-style accord — imposed no obligations on American officials abroad.

Both treaties contain phrases that make it ambiguous whether they apply to American-run prisons on foreign territory. For example, the provision barring cruelty that falls short of torture applies to a state’s conduct “in any territory under its jurisdiction.” . . .

Continue reading.

UPDATE: The first story above, which discusses at some length the prohibitions specified in the Convention Against Torture but is completely silent on the requirements of that law, prompted me to send this letter to the editors:

Charlie Savage’s report, “Peace Prize Laureates Urge Disclosure on U.S. Torture,” discusses the prohibitions of the Convention Against Torture (cruelty, torture), but is oddly silent on what the Convention requires: that credible allegations of torture MUST be investigated, and if evidence is found, those responsible for torture must be prosecuted.

President Obama has ignored this law with his childish “Look forward, not back.” And yet we routinely investigate and prosecute crimes that have already occurred (i.e., all crimes). Why not these? Because powerful people in the US can do whatever they want?

In fact, the Obama Administration does not even allow innocent people the US has kidnapped and tortured to have a day in court. When lawsuits are brought, the Obama Administration cries, “State secrets!” to get the cases thrown out.

This behavior is so contemptible, and so violates the Convention Against Torture, that I found it astonishing that Savage’s article doesn’t even mention it—until the penny dropped.

Of course: this silence is another instance in which the NY Times is obeying a request/demand from the White House, just as the NY Times (as an accessory after the fact) helped the White House conceal the completely illegal warrantless wiretapping program.

So it’s business as usual for you: helping the government hide its criminality, just as before.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 October 2014 at 6:25 pm

President and Govs. Cuomo and Christie debate Ebola quarantine; no people with actual medical experience and knowledge involved

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Somehow I don’t think any of these three should be making a medical or public health decision: they have the power but lack the expertise. In particular, Cuomo and Christie seem to be arguing from ignorance, with no interest in the facts but lots of interest in posturing. Here’s what a knowledgeable person thinks, FWIW.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 October 2014 at 5:06 pm

This is how the GOP has to win elections: The Georgia chapter

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Alice Ollstein writes at ThinkProgress:

ATLANTA, GEORGIA—A court could decide any day now whether tens of thousands of Georgia voters can cast a ballot this November, a choice that could sway the outcome of the state’s neck-and-neck races for Governor and Senator.

Earlier this year, organizers fanned out across nearly every one of Georgia’s 159 counties and registered nearly 90 thousand people who have never voted in their lives, most of them people of color, many of them under 25 years old. But when the groups checked back in late August, comparing their registration database to the state’s public one, they noticed about 50,000 of the registrations had vanished, nearly all of them belonging to people of color in the Democratic-leaning regions around Atlanta, Savannah and Columbus.

Georgia’s state minority leader Stacy Abrams (D), whose group The New Georgia Project led the massive registration drive in March and April, told ThinkProgress what happened next was “deeply disturbing.”

“We asked the Secretary of State to meet with us. We wanted to understand if we were doing something wrong, or if there was another database we didn’t have access to. But he refused to meet with us,” she said.

Joined by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Georgia NAACP, the organizers asked twice more for a meeting about the missing registrations. When early voting began across the state and they still had not heard from the Secretary of State, the New Georgia Project took them to court. In arguments on Friday, Francys Johnson, president of the Georgia NAACP, asked Fulton County Superior Court Judge Christopher Brasher to compel the state to process every valid registration.

“In 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, we were only able to know there were problems when it was too late, when people started showing up to the polls and they were not on the voter rolls, and folks were already disenfranchised,” Johnson explained to ThinkProgress over the phone. “We must catch that disenfranchisement before it takes place.”

Lawyers for Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp and three counties who are also the target of the suit countered that . . .

Continue reading.

Doesn’t it strike you that this is particularly blatant? And doesn’t SCOTUS look very much as though it was in on the deal: gutting the Voting Rights Act not only weakened it, it sent a clear message to those who believe it is okay to win elections by keeping people from voting—and apparently there are many such people in the GOP, looking at all the Voter ID nonsense.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 October 2014 at 2:09 pm

Posted in Election, GOP, Government, Law

Terrific stand-up desk—from Ikea

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More info here. Cheapest desk in the line is $490.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 October 2014 at 1:07 pm

A useful (and cool) skeumorphism

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Screen Shot 2014-10-26 at 1.00.06 PM

Induction stovetops don’t get hot—indeed, in looking at them you have no idea whether they’re off or on, and if so, at how high a heat.

Samsung has a range that uses blue LEDs to cast skeumorphic flames around the bottom of the pan, their size showing the level of heat: bigger flame = hotter. Cool, eh?

Read more here.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 October 2014 at 1:04 pm

Posted in Technology

Q&A with Laura Poitras on Edward Snowden and Citizen Four

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Astra Taylor has a good interview of Laura Poitras in The Nation, pointed out by Kevin Drum. It begins:

When Laura Poitras helped Edward Snowden turn thousands of classified documents into headline news, word spread that he would be the focus of the third installment of her trilogy of documentaries about post-9/11 America. Citizenfour captures Snowden and a small group of intrepid journalists, including Poitras behind the camera, as the NSA scandal breaks. The heroism and resolve required to act under the government’s gaze drive the film. Poitras herself was a surveillance target well before Snowden, detained in US airports some forty times between 2006 and 2012. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

—Astra Taylor

Astra Taylor: When Snowden first contacted you last year, you took an amazing leap of faith. Why did you trust that these messages weren’t entrapment?

Laura Poitras: My gut told me it was legitimate, but I was very cautious in our correspondence. At some point I actually asked him, “How do I know that you’re legitimate, that you’re not trying to entrap me, that you’re not crazy?” And his response was, well, you’ll know when you ask officials for comment on these documents—their response will show that I’m legitimate. You’ll know it’s not entrapment because I’m never going to ask anything of you. I’m just going to tell you things.

But other journalists were afraid to work with Snowden.

There’s a strong culture of fear among journalists right now, because the government is cracking down on both journalists and sources. We see this, for example, with [New York Times reporter] James Risen being subpoenaed and pressured to give up confidential sources. We involved [Washington Post journalist] Bart Gellman when Snowden wanted to release one document early, and Gellman used the Snowden archive to break the PRISM story about mass electronic surveillance. He was going to come with me to Hong Kong to meet Snowden, and the Post became very nervous and pulled out. They told me not to go. I felt like I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t go, so I went.

Why did Snowden meet you in Hong Kong and agree to be filmed? . . .

Continue reading.

I think it’s important to recognize the fear among journalists, another sign of the direction the US is going (along with the increasing bold civil asset forfeiture, the militarization of the police, the way some police departments (NYPD) defy the authority supposedly controlling them, etc.). For example, later in the article,

The NSA is supposed to be focused on foreign threats. Does the fact that they’re spying on everyone mean that we’re effectively the enemy?

[Whistleblower and former NSA official] William Binney talks about how dictatorships have surveilled their populations. When the government starts monitoring its own population, there’s a chilling effect; people become afraid. But there are other types of intelligence-gathering being deployed that’s not NSA. Look at Occupy—you have the NYPD, who have IMSI catchers [devices for intercepting cellphone calls]. Activists and journalists are going to be the canaries in the coal mine. They’ll feel the impact of state surveillance first.

Emphasis added. Who feels first the authoritarian wind? Activists and journalists: dissenters and those who write about them. If you can silence the latter, you can then have a free hand in mopping up the former.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 October 2014 at 12:50 pm

The IRS has its own version of civil asset forfeiture

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Shaila Dewan reports in the NY Times:

ARNOLDS PARK, Iowa — For almost 40 years, Carole Hinders has dished out Mexican specialties at her modest cash-only restaurant. For just as long, she deposited the earnings at a small bank branch a block away — until last year, when two tax agents knocked on her door and informed her that they had seized her checking account, almost $33,000.

The Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Ms. Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes — in fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report.

“How can this happen?” Ms. Hinders said in a recent interview. “Who takes your money before they prove that you’ve done anything wrong with it?”

The federal government does.

Using a law designed to catch drug traffickers, racketeers and terrorists by tracking their cash, the government has gone after run-of-the-mill business owners and wage earners without so much as an allegation that they have committed serious crimes. The government can take the money without ever filing a criminal complaint, and the owners are left to prove they are innocent. Many give up.

“They’re going after people who are really not criminals,” said David Smith, a former federal prosecutor who is now a forfeiture expert and lawyer in Virginia. “They’re middle-class citizens who have never had any trouble with the law.”

On Thursday, in response to questions from The New York Times, the I.R.S. announced that it would curtail the practice, focusing instead on cases where the money is believed to have been acquired illegally or seizure is deemed justified by “exceptional circumstances.” . . .

Continue reading. And do read it all: it will make your blood boil.

It was theft, pure and simple. The IRS stole the money from Carole Hinders bank account even though she had followed the law. The fact that her cash deposits were less than $10,000 at a time is certainly not a crime—if it is, I am in big trouble, because all my cash deposits are below $10,000 at a time—and not breaking a law should not be grounds for simply taking the money. Apparently (according to the story), depositing cash amounts of less than $10,000 is a crime if the intention is to evade the reporting requirements for cash deposits of $10,000 or more—-but surely that intention must be proven in a court of law. One would think that the government cannot simply assume that a cash deposit of $9,000 was made to evade the law. It might be suspicious and warrant investigation, but to simply take the money without ever accusing the person of a crime much less getting a conviction? That is very like an authoritarian government feeling that it can do what it wants to citizens without bothering with things like a trial or court proceedings.

Back in the day, if you hadn’t done anything wrong, the government wouldn’t simply take your money, and if you had done something wrong, the government had to prove it.

Under the new, authoritarian government the US seems to be moving toward, the government can simply do what it wants without really having to prove anything.

The IRS says that they will stop, but there really needs to be some accountability—and if they simply stop voluntarily, they can resume the practice after the kerfuffle dies down. We need a law to absolutely preclude this kind of high-handed and unjustified government taking. This is the sort of thing that triggered the American Revolution.

We need a law against civil asset forfeiture, and we need it now. I have written to both my US Senators and to my Representative asking that (a) civil asset forfeiture be made illegal; and (b) that the persons in the IRS responsible for these seizures be identified and immediately sent to prison in a Federal prison. Once they prove they are innocent, they can be released, but that might take years. Still, I don’t see that they would have any room to complain, given their own actions.

Really, civil asset forfeiture acts as incentive program for government to take your money and your possessions whenever it wants and make you have to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get it back.

It’s hard to grasp what sort of country the US has now become that this sort of thing is regularly done.

Read that entire article. It’s worse than you would believe. For example, later in the article:

Banks are not permitted to advise customers that their deposit habits may be illegal or educate them about structuring unless they ask, in which case they are given a federal pamphlet, Ms. Van Steenwyk said. “We’re not allowed to tell them anything,” she said.

Of course the government doesn’t want people to know the law, because then they might obey it and the government couldn’t take their money. Criminals, of course, doubtless know the law. It’s innocent civilians who get caught.

Keeping laws secret is a favored tactic of authoritarian government (since people can then break a law without realizing it, and then the government has them at its mercy). We are seeing more and more secret laws in the US, along with secret courts and secret court decisions. Not a good sign.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 October 2014 at 4:09 am

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