Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Warms your heart, Part Three

Before any nanny-nanny naysayer turns up here to blather on with one of the long-since stale and refuted claims that always seem to come up whenever global warming is discussed (see Rule #11), let me deal with a few:

1. Yes, global warming is real. I think I already covered that.

2. Yes, it is caused by human activities. On that point, you could look at the list of ten indicators of a "human fingerprint on climate change" offered up by Skeptical Science.

(Quick sidebar before someone goes off on this: The terms "global warming" and "global climate change" mean the same thing and are used interchangeably. Some prefer the former term because that is what is happening - the world as a whole, i.e., the waters, the land, and the atmosphere, is on average getting warmer - and some prefer the latter because they think it more accurate; they think the former implies everywhere will get warmer while in fact some places will get colder even as the world average temperature goes up. Both terms refer to the same set of facts and the same set of predictions.)

Getting back to the point, you could check out the fact that last March, the Met Office, the UK's national weather service, issued an analysis of 110 peer-reviewed papers on climate change that have appeared since the 2007 IPCC report and determined that the evidence for a human impact is stronger than ever.
"What this study shows is that the evidence has strengthened for human influence on climate and we know that because we've looked at evidence across the climate system and what this shows very clearly is a consistent picture of a warming world," said Dr [Peter] Stott [of the Met Office].
A couple of months after that, in May, the US National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences, issued a set of three reports that described the case that climate change is caused in large part by human activities as "compelling."
The core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious debate and careful evaluation of alternative explanations.

"Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems," the report concludes.
Finally for the moment anyway, at the end of September the Royal Society, one of the world's leading scientific academies, issued a "Summary of the Science" of climate change. It begins by saying this:
There is strong evidence that the warming of the Earth over the last half-century has been caused largely by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use, including agriculture and deforestation.
Climate Progress, a leading global warming science site, trashed the report as "bland, pointless, and confused" and a waste of time because it gave some of the uncertainties in understanding climate change equal attention to the parts that are settled science - such as that yes, we are screwing with the climate, reflected in the fact that, as the document says,
each decade since the 1970s has been clearly warmer (given known uncertainties) than the one immediately preceding it.
Now, it is true that some naysayer sites grabbed onto the report, citing its reference to uncertainties and claiming the Royal Society had "joined the deniers." Those naysayers, of course, were distorting the report for their own ends via cherry-picked paragraphs and edited quotes. But I still think the Climate Progress attack, which seemed mostly concerned with the opening the document provided for the naysayers, was off-base and unduly, very unduly, harsh, especially considering this was a consensus document that included two self-proclaimed skeptics among its co-authors - which means even those skeptics had to agree with the statement that it's human activity that's driving the warming.

3. No, it is not the Sun, as a lot of peer-reviewed studies have shown. For example, a 2009 study concluded that no more than roughly 14% of the currently-observed warming could be from the Sun. Another from 2009 said the Sun was responsible for no more that 6-8% of the warming over the entire 20th century and its effect was "negligible for warming since 1980." A third from 2008 put the maximum effect at around 10%.

And those are the high end. Other studies over the past few years (this is one example) suggest that over the past few decades, below-average solar irradiance may have actually generated a slight cooling trend, which would mean that instead of causing global warming, the effect of the Sun of late has actually been to conceal the true extent of human-caused warming.

As a side note, the range of possibilities in those studies, from generating a slight cooling to 14% of the warming, does not prove the models and analyses are "unreliable." It does demonstrate the great complexity involved in trying to pin down the size of various forcings and effects, which no one denies. The point, however, is that the studies agree that the Sun's effect on observed warming is small; they only disagree on just how small.

And by the way, no, it's not cosmic rays or any of the rest of that nonsense, either.

4. No, I have not been cherry-picking research papers and yes, there is a consensus not only about global warming but about our role in generating it. For one thing, the academies of science of 19 nations plus a large number of non-governmental science bodies agree with the contention of human-caused global warming.

Consider this: A 2009 survey of over 3,000 scientists in a variety of related fields that "included participants with well-documented dissenting opinions on global warming theory" found that 82% agreed that "human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures." What's more,
[i]n general, as the level of active research and specialization in climate science increases, so does agreement
with that statement: Among climatologists who are "active publishers on climate change," that is, who do research on climate change and publish in peer-reviewed journals, agreement that humans are a significant contributor to global warming reached 96%. Those who insist there is a scientific "controversy" are either misinformed, uninformed, or lying.

I know that I've not even begun to exhaust the list of nanny-nanny naysayer nitpicks - Skeptical Science has a list of 130 of them (with their refutations) - but I figured that "Yes, it's real; yes, it's us; no, it's not the Sun; and yes, there is a consensus" covered the obvious ones.

Something I have noticed, though, about naysayer arguments: Like the good right-wingers most of them are, they will simply deny reality until it becomes undeniable, at which point they will start saying "Well, of course, that. We always knew that. The real issue is this over here." That is, they will airily acknowledge what they previously vociferously denied without ever admitting to the shift. (Consider it a variation on Rule #3.) So perhaps I should take some comfort in the fact that those among the nanny-nanny naysayers who actually try to argue the science have been forced to go from denying that global warming even exists to denying humans had anything to do with it to denying that humans had a lot to do with it to arguing that "it won't be so bad" to, largely, nitpicking at individual graphs and data points. Gradually, they are being brought to heel by the harsh reality of fact.

Take what comfort you can from that.

Footnote: One more tidbit for the nanny-nanny naysayers. A link to a video showing that global warming was considered a problem by at least some scientists - in 1956. (Thanks go to DD at Notes from Underground for the tip.)

Warms your heart, Part Two

Just as the evidence for warming continues to mount, so too does evidence of visible impacts. I mean beyond things like the loss of ice, which are taken as evidence of warming, and I don't mean future impacts, I mean present-day impacts on animals and people.

Besides the already-mentioned thousands of walruses forced onto the land in Alaska, there is the fact that
researchers said last winter's massive snowstorms that struck the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic U.S. states were tied to higher Arctic temperatures.

"Normally the cold air is bottled up in the Arctic," said Jim Overland of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. But last December and February, winds that normally blow west to east across the Arctic were instead bringing the colder air south to the Mid-Atlantic, he said.
Others have pointed to the record-breaking heat wave in Russia thus summer and the nationwide floods in Pakistan. Meanwhile in Mexico, research points to a drying out and shrinking of farm output in some regions. At the Cancun summit,
[a]gronomists are due to report on shifting weather patterns that are destabilizing the world's food supply and access to clean water, and that could lead to mass migrations as farmers flee drought or flood-prone regions.
Meanwhile, the UK is seeing abnormally early snow and bitter cold weather.

Now, as I've said many times in the course of arguing this topic, individual weather events prove nothing in themselves: One cold snap does not disprove global warming any more than one heat wave proves it. But enough individual events gathered together can create a pattern of anomalous weather that is a sign of global warming that does impact human societies.

Even more direct, however, is the plight of low-lying island nations, who earlier this month called for
urgent funding to help combat sea level changes that are already damaging many coastal communities.

At a climate change conference in the South Pacific nation of Kiribati, President Anote Tong called for the quick release of funds to help vulnerable states deal with climate change impacts. ...

[C]oastal areas of low-lying island states are being inundated by rising sea water levels. States like Kiribati and Tuvalu in the South Pacific and the Maldive islands in the Indian Ocean are seeing coastlines, coastal villages and gardens drowned under high tides. ...

Low-lying Kiribati is suffering sea water incursion into its 32 coral atolls that reach no more than 6 feet (2 meters) above sea level....

In parts of Kiribati whole villages have had to be relocated due to severe coastal erosion, food crops have been destroyed and fresh water wells contaminated by sea water.
At the Copenhagen climate summit last year, the developed nations agreed to establish a fund of $100 billion annually to aid poor and small nations such as Kiribati deal the with impacts of global warming. To give you an idea of how much (or little) that is, it is less that three-fifths of what the US alone will spend on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Fiscal 2010, according to the Congressional Research Service. (See Table 1 in this report.)

So just in this list we've got animal habits, weather patterns, food supplies, access to clean water, and the coastlines of island nations all already, today, being affected by global warming. The future is already here and it's just getting started.

Warms your heart, Part One

So yesterday another one of those global meetings about global warming began, this one at a resort in Cancun, Mexico because of course you can't expect all these important people to meet any place less than 5-star.

This meeting, however, is just a bit different: Instead of the grand pronouncements of sweeping optimism about how some incredibly significant new agreement was in the making, this one seems to be starting from the idea that real progress on a final, binding international agreement to actually control greenhouse gas emissions is going nowhere. Talk has turned to
debating how to mobilize money to cope with what's coming — as temperatures climb, ice melts, seas rise and the climate that nurtured man shifts in unpredictable ways.
That is, the focus has shifted from prevention to mitigation and the hope is not for agreements or solutions but for "incremental progress" on side issues such as establishing accounting rules both for "fast-start finance" aid promised to poor countries to help with mitigation and for nations such as China and India to report on their efforts to slow their emissions growth (not, note, to reduce emissions but to reduce their rate of growth).

This is going on even as the evidence that global warming is not only real but that its effects are already visible just keeps growing.

- In August, NOAA reported on Arctic sea ice, which had reached its minimum extent for the year. That extent was 22% below the 1979-2000 average and the 14th consecutive August with below-average sea ice extent. In September the sea ice extent was the third smallest in the last 30 years; the three smallest September extents have come in the last four years. Tens of thousands of walruses came ashore in northwest Alaska because the sea ice they normally rest just wasn't there.

The agency's annual Arctic Report Card, based on the work of 69 researchers in eight countries, reported that temperatures in the Arctic had been running over 70F. (over 40C.) above normal for the first nine months of 2010. It also said that glaciers and ice caps in the region continued to lose mass an an increasing rate, the temperature in permafrost is rising, and Greenland was experiencing record temperatures and continued ice and glacier loss. It said a "."

- In October
[t]he government's National Climate Data Center reported Monday that the January-September period is tied with 1998 for the warmest first nine months on record.
- Also in October, a new study out of the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that
[t]he United States and many other heavily populated countries face a growing threat of severe and prolonged drought in coming decades.... [W]arming temperatures associated with climate change will likely create increasingly dry conditions across much of the globe in the next 30 years, possibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely, if ever, been observed in modern times.

Using an ensemble of 22 computer climate models and a comprehensive index of drought conditions, as well as analyses of previously published studies, the paper finds most of the Western Hemisphere, along with large parts of Eurasia, Africa, and Australia, may be at threat of extreme drought this century.

- NOAA maintains a list of 11 indicators of climate change, chosen because "we would unambiguously expect them to increase or decrease if the world were warming." Seven would be expected to increase, four to decrease. All 11 clearly show evidence of warming

Well, just last week there came a twelfth:
A first-of-its-kind NASA study is finding nice cool lakes are heating up — even faster than air.

Two NASA scientists used satellite data to look at 104 large inland lakes around the world and found that on average they have warmed 2 degrees (1.1 degree Celsius) since 1985. That's about two-and-a-half times the increase in global temperatures in the same time period.
University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver called the data "another brick in the wall." What some of the folks gathered at Cancun need is a brick to the head.

Click here!

From time to time you see those political ads on various websites that have keywords like "stop" or "prevent" or whatever. Often they are going on about Obama or "the left" or "Big Labor" or "environmental radicals" and so on.

I sometimes check them out because they can - and sometimes do - tip me to something I hadn't heard about that I should be in favor of.

Recently, the ad I've noticed shows a scowling Obama with the text "Tell the Senate to Oppose Obama's Latest Big Labor Scheme" which flips to "Police and Firefighters Forced to join a union?" The word "Forced" is in bold red letters. So I checked and this is what I found.

Turns out the ad is from the National Right to Work Committee, a well-known right-wing anti-worker outfit, griping about what they labeled the "Police and Firefighter Monopoly Bargaining Bill." (It's actual name is the "Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2009" - so much for the "latest scheme" part. It's only sponsor is Harry Reid. Oh, and it's a re-introduced version of the "Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2007" - so much for the "Obama" part.)

What the bill does is simply to extend some, emphasize some, of the protections of federal labor law to public safety workers - generally, police and firefighters - employed by state and local governments. In a majority of states, such workers already have the legal right to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. In others, mostly in the South and the mountain states, they don't. One example of the latter is North Carolina, where state law forbids state or local government from signing contacts with any labor group representing any public employees. The bill would override such laws to the extent they affect public safety workers.

But when I say "some" protections, I mean it: The bill specifically bans any "labor organization" from engaging in a
sickout, work slowdown, strike, or any other organized job action that will measurably disrupt the delivery of emergency services and is designed to compel an employer ... to agree to the terms of a proposed contract. [Section 6(a)]
In other words, yes, you can have a union and yes you can have collective bargaining but no, you have no means beyond requests to obtain any goals. Saying you can have a union but you can't engage in any job action is like saying yes, you can have health insurance but it comes with a $25,000 deductible.

Still, I suppose that anything that would chip away at anti-worker practices and policies is to the good. Again, however, there's an important word, in this case "would." There actually appears to be little chance the bill will come up and no action on it has been taken since it was reported out of committee in April.

So why the ads? It appears to be little more than the typical right-wing drum-beating, trying to get the base (or at least some part of it) all riled up about some phony crisis or horrible portent of imminent doom. Besides, with the state of the economy, continued unemployment, and people desperate for any work they can find, the right-to-workers (who have as much to do with the rights of workers as the right-to-lifers have with the rights of living people) haven't had a whole lot to do of late and a little "Big Labor"- and "Obama"-bashing are always good to put a few fund-raised bucks in the ol' pro-corporate bank account.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Stuff-yer-face Day

Otherwise known as Thanksgiving. As a Thanksgiving Day gift to all of you, I'm going to tell you everything we know about the "first Thanksgiving," that 1621 event featuring the settlers of Plymouth colony and the natives.
Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And though it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.
That's it. That's all of it. That is the only roughly contemporaneous description of the event that has survived. It comes from a letter dated December 11, 1621 which was written by, it is believed, Edward Winslow (although no name is actually attached). It was published in 1622 in a book commonly called Mourt's Relation.

The only other even near-contemporaneous account comes from William Bradford who wrote about it in his journal (published as Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647) at least 10 to 12 years later. Even there he just sort of brushes by it, endorsing Winslow by referring to "not feigned but true reports."
They now began to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses against the winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took in good store, of which every family had its portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so large of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.
So there you have it. That's what the entire "first Thanksgiving" story is built on. Yes, there are reasonable guesses that can be made and even reasonable conclusions that can be drawn about additional details, but the point is those range from "maybes" to "very likelys" and do not reach the level of "we knows."

We can say, for example, that the celebration very likely took place in late September or early October (because it was shortly after harvest). Among the foods, we can confident they had fowl (such as duck or goose and quite possibly turkey because Bradford specifically mentions turkeys), fish, and deer, since those are mentioned. We can assume some others such as squash (a common feature of household gardens) and a sort of coarse corn bread. It is very likely water was the only beverage as their supply of barley would be limited (Bradford elsewhere says the English grains "grew indifferent good") and there would not have been enough time for brewing since harvest.

One important thing - which actually does rise to the level of a "we know" - is that this was not a "thanksgiving" as they would have understood the term. To them, a thanksgiving was a day set aside for prayer to give thanks to God for some special and unexpected blessing. The first public day of thanksgiving in the town was in the summer of 1623: A crop-threatening drought had lead to a day of "humiliation," a day of fasting and prayer to beg forgiveness for whatever they had done to cause God to bring this on them. Literally immediately after, there came a soaking rain which saved the crops and so a day of thanksgiving seemed appropriate.

So no, this was not a thanksgiving. It was a very traditional, very secular, English harvest feast, a celebration of a good harvest to which it was customary to invite those who had been helpful to you over the course of the year (which is why the natives were there). Their harvest wasn't big (note that Bradford called it "small"), but they had one, which surely raised everyone's spirits and gave them confidence in the success of the venture: reason enough to celebrate, especially considering what they had been through so far.

It is truly amazing just how much misinformation, mythology, and general muddle-headedness there is out there on this topic, ranging from images of picnic tables laden with turkey, mashed potatoes, and apple pies surrounded by natives dressed like plains peoples and smiling "Pilgrims" dressed in the fashions of the 1690s to, more recently, scowling tales of drunken, bloodthirsty settlers facing natives "crashing the party" and doing it in such numbers because Massasoit feared he'd be kidnapped or killed otherwise. Both visions are an attempt to overwrite history with ideology.

Plymouth in the fall of 1621 genuinely was a scene of peaceful and friendly relations, of good feeling, between English settlers and their nearest native neighbors. It was brief enough, lasting by even a generous understanding no more than a few decades, and rare enough in our nation's history such that while "the first Thanksgiving" shouldn't be a source of happily-ever-after "why can't we all just get along" fairy stories, neither is there any need to co-opt it into the service of revisionist history that merely looks to change childhood tales of noble settlers and savage natives into one of noble natives and savage settlers. Let it stand on what the actual history tells us and be enjoyed for what it was: a moment of hope and fellowship.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Footnote to something earlier

Two days after the Boston Globe editorially endorsed the new T&A procedures, my reply to which I posted here, columnist Derrick Jackson also defended the T&A searches with the same lame "If you don't like it, don't fly" argument - in addition to suggesting that those who opposed the strip-or-grope were advocates of racial profiling.

My reply, in addition to calling that latter suggestion "vile," was similar to the one about the editorial, asking:
Where else [in addition to airports] should we be expected to passively accept being stopped, searched, technologically stripped, and groped so that you don't have to quiver in fear of The Terrorists every time you leave your house?
I did make one addition to the earlier list of trains, subways, our own cars, and the streets: I added the (non-)option of taking the bus, noting that buses and bus stations had been major targets of bombings in Israel. It ended with this:
Albert Einstein once said that the atomic bomb "changed everything but our way of thinking." Considering that terrorism has existed long before 9/11, it seems it should be said of that event that it changed nothing but our way of thinking. And for the worse.
I'm reminded now that the back cover of Phil Ochs' album "Rehearsals for Retirement" has a poem he wrote that begins with the lines
This then is the death of the American
imprisoned by his paranoia
and all diseases of his innocent inventions
So as I said the other day,
[H]ave we established a police state? No, of course not. But have we established the conditions for one...? Yes. Without question.
Our republic will not fall because you have to go through a strip-scan. But it can fall as a result of the attitudes being increasingly demanded of us and, sadly and potentially tragically, adopted and even eagerly embraced by many among us, attitudes of passive acceptance of the increasing intrusions of government into areas previously held private. Demands, that is, that we surrender to the judgment - which means in essence the power and control - of "the authorities" in a desperate (and ultimately freedom-destroying) search for the chimera of perfect safety from "The Other," whoever that Other may be.

As I've mentioned before, Erich Fromm had something to say about that.

Just for the heck of it

I have referred to Sarah Palin precisely three times previously: once regarding her having gotten a six-month delay in a population of beluga whales being declared endangered, once as being among "the Bushes, McCains, Palins, and Krauthammers," and once in reference to claims about "death panels." She surely is not a usual topic here.

But having just offered one example of unintentional humor, this was too good to pass up.

It seems that on last Sunday's episode of "Sarah Palin's Alaska," Our Lady of the North
dragged her daughter [Bristol] onto a fishing boat and made her whack a bunch of halibut with a billy club. Ma Palin kept talking about how this excursion was a great way to get Bristol away from the media attention.
What makes this tragi-comic is that you know damn well that there were people watching the show going "That's right, Sarah! Good for you!"

Monday, November 22, 2010

Footnote to several of the preceding

Filed under the heading of Unintentional Humor, we find Congressman-elect Allen West, the all-around flake and self-admitted torturer who claimed to have a higher security clearance than the president.

On Meat the Press yesterday, West said that the T&A did a poor job "marketing" the new strip'n'grope and that before it implemented the plan, it "should have put out some type of feelers."

Touching your privates, Four

In response to complaints about the T&A's "get stripped or get groped" policy, the Boston Globe ran a remarkably thick-skulled editorial on Saturday, the flavor of which can be gotten from just the title, which was, no joke, "Airport screening: Patdown or perish." Surrender or die.

It began by whining about the protest encouraged for Wednesday of people refusing to go through the scanners. That, the editorial blubbered, might wind up delaying Thanksgiving dinner for some folks. "The protesters should stay home," it said. The fact that it never penetrated the catacombs of the collective Globe editorial mind the protest is to be done by pre-Thanksgiving travelers who were themselves planning to get on a plane and go somewhere is evidence enough of the level of thought that went into this - appropriate for the season - turkey.

The editorial then quickly ran through the THE TERRORISTS! THE TERRORISTS! argument, gave a quick nod to the one the goes "BFD about the scanners, doesn't bother me so it can't legitimately bother you" and ended by saying that if you don't like the choice of being stripped graphically or searched gropingly, then "Don't fly."

As of tonight, there are over 100 comments, the vast majority ranging from negative to really negative. Leave off the screeching screamers screechingly screaming some variation of "PROFILE MUSLIMS" and those insisting that "it" - whatever "it" happens to be - "is all the liberals fault," and the opinion approached unanimity.

I wrote a comment on - Surprise! - a point I thought wasn't being addressed and I decided to post it here, as well (Links not in original):
Others have said much of what I would have about the numerous inanities in this editorial, so I will confine myself to a single point: The argument that "Ya don't like it, ya just doesn't fly."

Again, others have already noted the sheer bullheaded, dismissive, arrogance on display in that assertion, asking for example how businesspeople who have to get to meetings or people wanting to travel overseas are to avoid flying as a practical matter.

But there's another point, and that's what I wanted to raise: Where does that logic stop? If the argument is (as it in fact is) that we "willingly" surrender our rights for the "privilege" of flying, how can it be that the logic, if you will, stops at the airport parking lot?

Have we forgotten the Madrid train bombings? Should we have to go through being either technologically strip-searched or groped by a stranger in order to get on a train? "Hey, if ya don't like it, don't take the train."

What about the bombings in the London tube? Why should subways not get the same treatment? Don't talk to me about the practicalities involved; surely you're not proposing to sacrifice our security because of a little inconvenience! So it's "If ya don't like it don't take the T."

And driving? Are you joking? Don't you remember the Times Square bomber or, worse, all the car bombs that have been successfully detonated around the world? Why not random stops, searches, roadblocks, body scanners at every toll booth and in every tunnel? "So don't drive."

And how many instances have there been of suicide bombers just walking into a crowd and blowing themselves up? Don't you want protection against The Terrorists? So be prepared to be x-rayed, full body-scanned, searched, and/or felt up any time you're in public. And if you don't like it, you can just stay home.

And who could object? Certainly not The Globe: After all, in the paper's own words, the choice is "Patdown or perish."

The real question is what it is that is going to "perish." It seems our civil liberties are in greater danger from cowering editorialists than we are from terrorists.
For me as an individual, the airlines and the T&A can go screen themselves. I'll stick with Amtrak.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Touching your privates, Five

On a more, if you will, national rather than personal level comes the news - again from the middle of October - that
in a brief filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Obama Administration continued the government's half-decade-long battle to ensure that no judge ever rules on the legality of the National Security Agency's warrantless dragnet surveillance program, a program first revealed in 2005 by the New York Times and detailed by technical documents provided by former AT&T technician Mark Klein.
That from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which goes on to say that this was
the government's response to EFF's appeal of the Jewel v. NSA case, a lawsuit brought against the government and government officials on behalf of AT&T phone and internet customers whose communications have been swept up in the mass surveillance program along with those of millions of other Americans.
In January, the district court dismissed the suit on what EFF politely calls the "incorrect" grounds - but which I say are the truly bizarre grounds - that
because so many Americans have had their communications and communications records illegally obtained by the government, no single person has legal "standing" to challenge the ongoing program of government surveillance.
Is that clear? The court ruled that because millions of people were illegally spied on, none of them have a right to complain. A masterpiece of doublethink.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Touching your privates, Three

Around the end of October, city officials of Boston announced plans for an all-in-one supercard to be distributed to students.
[T]hey can use [the card] to ride the MBTA [the local mass transit system], withdraw books from city libraries, play sports, attend after-school programs at community centers, and access meal programs at their schools.

The so-called BostONEcard will also be used to take attendance and may eventually serve as a debit card, among other potential uses.
It includes multiple bar codes, an RFID chip for use on the MBTA, and the student's picture. The intent is to expand the current test program at one school to include all public school students in the city's middle and high schools.
“This may not be Big Brother, but it certainly feels like Little Brother," said Carol Rose, American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts executive director.

She questioned whether the information could be subpoenaed by law enforcement agencies or whether it could be surreptitiously slipped to marketing companies.
There would have to be "stringent privacy protections," she said.
“The question is who has access to this database, which when combined reveals a treasure trove of personal information about our children, including what they read, what they eat, where they go, and how much money they have. That information is highly confidential."
I've got a better idea: Ditch the cards. Personal privacy should not be secondary to administrative convenience.

Footnote: Boston schools are not the first to go for the technological quick-fix of the all-knowing card.

Touching your privates, Two

Also in mid-October,
Yasir Afifi, a 20-year-old computer salesman and community college student, took his car in for an oil change ... and his mechanic spotted an odd wire hanging from the undercarriage.
It proved to be a GPS device that the FBI had planted on his car.

Use of surreptitiously-planted GPS trackers by police or federal agents, enabling them to track your movements 24/7 without the hassle of needing an actual person to do it, is becoming more and more common - and is often done without any sort of warrant whatsoever.

Different federal courts have reached different conclusions about the practice. For example, in August the federal appeals court in Washington DC threw out the conviction of an accused cocaine dealer named Antoine Jones, ruling that
the accumulation of four-weeks worth of data collected from a GPS on Jones' Jeep amounted to a government "search" that required a search warrant [which was never obtained].

Judge Douglas Ginsburg said watching Jones' Jeep for an entire month rather than trailing him on one trip made all the difference between surveilling a suspect on public property and a search needing court approval.

"First, unlike one's movements during a single journey, the whole of one's movements over the course of a month is not actually exposed to the public because the likelihood anyone will observe all those movements is effectively nil," Ginsburg wrote. The state high courts of New York, Washington and Oregon have ruled similarly [as has that of Massachusetts].
But three other federal circuit courts have disagreed. For example, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of accused marijuana grower Juan Pineda-Moreno, who was arrested with a lot of pot in his Jeep after the warrantless GPS device attached to his car alerted agents that he was at a suspected "grow site."
"The only information the agents obtained from the tracking devices was a log of the locations where Pineda-Moreno's car traveled, information the agents could have obtained by following the car," Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain wrote for the three-judge panel.
Sure. If they'd done it 24/7. The court was also unconcerned, clearly, with the fact that it wasn't even a matter of police being able to track the car remotely: The process was, according to the accounts, automated. The observation, the tracking, was all done by the computer system and actual people didn't get involved until that system "alerted" them that this would be a good time to move in.

Editorializing on the case, the Boston Globe decried
advancing technology [that] makes possible a degree of relentless 24/7 surveillance that would have been the stuff of science fiction four decades ago. ...

[The court] ruled that the agents had done nothing wrong in planting the GPS tracker, since there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in an open driveway. After all, the judges reasoned, no one would object “if a neighborhood child had walked up Pineda-Moreno’s driveway and crawled under his Jeep to retrieve a lost ball or runaway cat."

When the full circuit refused to reconsider the case, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote a fiery dissent: “There’s no limit to what neighborhood kids will do, given half a chance: They’ll jump the fence, crawl under the porch, pick fruit from the trees..." Is it only the well-to-do whose cars — secure in underground garages or behind tall walls or electric gates — are protected by the Fourth Amendment?
Even more, the panel's reasoning, the kind repeatedly used to justify shrinking our zone of personal privacy in the face of official desires to intrude on it, is strained to say the least. Because I'd have no objection to a child retrieving a lost ball from under my car - which affects neither me nor the car and has no future impacts - I can't object to government agents attaching something to my car which does affect me and the car and will have future impacts? What the hell kind of logic is that? Because I allow neighborhood children to be on my lawn I can't object to a bunch of loud drunks gathering there later? What?

Kozinski also wrote that
the widespread use of the [GPS] device [by law enforcement] was straight out of George Orwell's novel, "1984".

"By holding that this kind of surveillance doesn't impair an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, the panel hands the government the power to track the movements of every one of us, every day of our lives," [he said.]
Kozinski, who immigrated from Communist-era Romania in the 1960s, declared that
[t]here is something creepy and un-American about such clandestine and underhanded behavior. To those of us who have lived under a totalitarian regime, there is an eerie feeling of déjà vu.
Because different courts have reached different decisions, the Supremes are likely going to have to rule on this issue at some point. George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr says it comes down to the issue of
public vs. private. As long as the GPS devices are attached to vehicles on public roads, Kerr believes the U.S. Supreme Court will decide no warrant is needed. ...

"The historic line is that public surveillance is not covered by the 4th Amendment" ... Kerr said.
The fact that this is not "public" surveillance but technological surveillance, the fact that you are not being observed by people but, in essence, by a computer system, the fact that you continue to be observed even if you enter private property (because how does the GPS know the difference), none of that matters. The fact that agents had to sneak onto your property to clandestinely plant a device in order to allow for the surveillance in the first place doesn't matter, either. All that matters, it seems, is to make it ever-easier for the cops to shrink our range of "reasonable expectation of privacy" to only those areas our technology does not currently reach.

Footnote Won: The Obama administration has asked the DC appeals court to reconsider its ruling, calling the decision "vague and unworkable." It also asserts that agents will lose access to a tool they use "with great frequency."

As for the first part, the ruling was "get a warrant." What the hell is "vague" about that? As for the second part, besides an admission that the practice of technological tracking has become commonplace for the feds, isn't it also an admission that it's being used in cases where the feds could not get a legitimate warrant? Otherwise, how would they "lose access" to GPS tracking?

It may indeed be such an admission, because in the case of Yasir Afifi, it appears he was tracked simply due to his extensive connections to the Middle East without evidence of suspected criminality.

Footnote Too: In its editorial, the Globe called on Congress to
impose reasonable guidelines on the use of high-tech surveillance without a warrant or probable cause. Several states have already done so.... Federal law-enforcement agents should be held to the same requirement.
Seems like a good idea. Which requires being willing to be called "soft on crime." Which means it will never happen.

Touching your privates, One

The case of John Tyner seems an appropriate hook for a quick rundown of a few privacy-related things I noted of late. Be aware that some of these are more than a month old but that I tend to collect these and post a bunch at once.

For this first one, consider a Wall Street Journal report from mid-October according to which, AP says
several popular Facebook applications have been transmitting users' personal identifying information to dozens of advertising and Internet tracking companies. Facebook said it is working to fix the problem, and was quick to point out that the leaks were not intentional, but a consequence of basic Web mechanisms.
Facebook officials insisted no personal information was "misused" as a result, but that isn't the point:
[P]rivacy advocates said it's problematic that the information was leaked at all, regardless of what happened to it.
Exactly. Facebook encourages people to reveal more information because the more public you are, the more Facebook services you can be tied to and the more you'll use Facebook. And the more that ad companies can know about you, whether the release of that information is deliberate or accidental.

Of course, there are always those - such as in this case media critic Jeff Jarvis - who are ready and willing to embrace the corporate line and declare privacy advocates big wusses getting all worked up over nothing. No harm, no foul, they say and what's the big deal anyway?

I suppose it's too much for their cramped brains to realize that the time to deal with privacy issues and leaks and the like is before they involve harm and before they're a big deal.

Flying off the handle

You obviously know about John Tyner, the guy who became an instant folk hero by refusing to submit to the increasingly-customary crap people go through at airports.

He refused to go through the full-body strip scanner, then refused the groin grope. Okay, he was told, you won't submit, you can't fly. So I won't fly, he says, gets a refund on his ticket, and goes to leave the airport, escorted by TSA staff. Then he is told, oh, no, you can't leave the security area without submitting to the grope. Once we pick you for enhanced interro- er, search, you can't just leave. If you do, he was told, you'll be subject to a fine of $10,000.

The TSA confirmed that, actually calling a press conference to announce it had opened an investigation targeting Tyner - and to note that actual penalty could be $11,000.

Apparently realizing that it is not conducive to institutional power to be the target of bad headlines and public mockery - including calls to investigate the agency and for people to refuse the scanners the day before Thanksgiving (one of the busiest travel days of the year) - T&A chief John Pistole told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that "I don't anticipate anything" coming down on Tyner, while continuing to insist that the whole security jazz is absolutely necessary and THE TERRORISTS! THE TERRORISTS!

Which is pretty much how things stand right now. But as is often the case, there's something about this, some side to it, that I think hasn't received enough attention: the fine. Yes, he's apparently not going to be charged, which is good. But that still leaves the fact that he could have been and other people still can be in the future.

Get this now: The only argument offered in this whole airport security theater, the only basis for demanding people surrender their privacy and their Constitutional right against unreasonable search, is that flying is some sort of "privilege" and so you "willingly" agree to be scanned, digitally-stripped, and felt up in order to fly and if you don't agree, well, just don't fly. In fact,
[w]hen he tried to assert his rights, Tyner was told by a TSA supervisor on tape, “By buying your ticket you gave up a lot of rights.”
Janet Napolitano, Führer of the Ministry for the Defense of the Fatherland, said the same thing, blandly declaring that "if people want to travel by some other means," well, they can go right ahead and do that.

That is, take it or leave it. And we do mean take it: Tyner's experience was far from the worst. For example,
[r]adio host Owen JJ Stone ... claims that as he was passing through airport security this past weekend clad in sweatpants, he was informed by a TSA agent that the rules had changed for those wearing “baggy clothing.”

Stone further maintains that the agent told him “I have to go in your waistband, I have to put my hand down your pants.”
The same article described the case of Thomas Mollman, 54, of Missouri City, Texas, who said at Fort Lauderdale Airport he was felt up
between the underwear, right on the skin, all the way around the back, all the way around my front, 360 degrees, touched inappropriately.
Meanwhile, a woman from Amarillo is suing the government, claiming that during a grope
the agent pulled the plaintiff’s blouse completely down, exposing plaintiffs’ breasts to everyone in the area,
in the words of the suit. It also alleges that security staff laughed and made jokes about the incident "for an extended period of time," with one male T&A employee telling her he'd missed it so "he would just have to watch the video."

Such experiences can be summed up in Napolitano's touching plea to air passengers in a USA Today op-ed:
We ask for cooperation, patience and a commitment to vigilance in the face of a determined enemy.
That is, we expect passive submission and obedience and BE VERY AFRAID!

But hey, tell you want, grant that. Grant all of that just for the sake of argument. Grant for the moment that flying is a "privilege" and we "give up a lot of rights" for that "privilege." Tyner was not going to fly. Tyner had agreed that as a result of his grousing about the grope he would not be getting on that plane. He had accepted the rules and was heading to leave the airport.

And that's when officials threatened to prosecute him! They insisted that once he was in the security area, he couldn't leave without their permission. This even though the entire argument of the "security" system, the entire rationalization for all the scans, scopes, and gropes, no longer existed: He was not going to fly.

It was a true Morton's fork: His choice was either to submit - which he didn't want - or refuse, leave, and get fined $11,000 - which he also didn't want - or, apparently, to just stay in the security area until he starved (or became "more cooperative," in the creepy parlance of the security state).

But more to the point here, what possible rationale could there be for prosecuting him for leaving? Having been told, having the whole basis for the entire process being, agree or "travel by some other means," when he chose the latter he was told pretty much in so many words that he couldn't make that choice, that doing so is illegal. Why? For what? What is the crime here?

The excuse - I can't being myself to call it a reason - for this inanity is that the T&A doesn't want THE TERRORISTS to go into the security area, "gather intelligence" - that is, look around - and then leave.

Time for the next italicized question: Just how stupid does T&A think these people are? Just how lamebrained do they think anyone planning a terrorist strike is? You want to "gather intelligence?" Fine. You get a ticket, you go into the security area with the rest of the passengers, you scope the place out, you go through the screening, and you get on the goddam plane!

Oh, no no no, T&A assures us. That's not what would happen. Oh no, a terrorist wouldn't try to be inconspicuous, wouldn't try to fade into the crowd. Oh no, a terrorist would refuse the screening, turn around, and leave - thus drawing to themselves the attention of every f'ing security guard in the whole damn place. And will the prospect of that undesired attention deter them? No way - but the idea of a freaking fine will stop them in their tracks.

Head. Desk.

We are headed in a dangerous direction. Someone noted that when things have happened on planes, it has been the passengers who acted and prevented a worse outcome - and expressed a concern that the sort of people who would act in those sorts of situations are the same sorts who are increasingly choosing to "travel by some other means" and what that might mean in a future incident. However real that worry, it is clear that a docile, compliant public shuffling through airports in their stocking feet and standing passively with their hands raised while a stranger grabs their genitals is not one conducive to a free society.

So have we established a police state? No, of course not. But have we established the conditions for one, conditions where citizens are expected to passively cooperate with ever-more intrusive, ever-more psychologically dominant official demands such that simply to engage in what is for many an everyday experience -flying - becomes an act of submission to arbitrary authority? Yes. Without question.

At some point we have to as a people say "Back off - you've gone too far." I say we have reached, indeed we have passed, that point.

Footnote: There is some pushback. The very fact that Pistole had to answer Senate questions about Tyner and the screening process was one, temporary though it may have been. Besides the petition at Firedoglake to investigate the TSA and the call to boycott the scanners on November 24, linked above, there is the push by the US Airline Pilots Association for its members to refuse to cooperate with the scanners and call in sick if they find the grope too distressing. Meanwhile, two commercial pilots - one man and one woman - have filed suit, claiming the procedures are unconstitutional.

Privacy being an area where the left and right overlap, a number of right-wing sources have also condemned the intrusiveness of the screenings. This is from the National Post, a right-wing Canadian daily (links as per the original):
Apparently Ralph Nader, an accomplished crusader if ever there was one (for safety, ironically), thinks the naked-picture policy can be beaten. A bipartisan group of New Jersey politicians is pressing the TSA to end the use of the porno-scanners. Congressman Ron Paul has introduced to the House this week The American Traveler Dignity Act.
Jeffrey Goldberg and even World Nut Daily have joined in.

The T&A remains defiant - but Tyner's case could prove to be the one, the always-unpredictable one, that touches a nerve in just the right way at just the right time to make an actual difference. We can certainly hope so.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


If I was on Twitter, I might have heard about this sooner. But I'm not, so I just came across it now.

Last January 6, a young man named Paul Chambers was irritated when Robin Hood airport outside Doncaster, England, was closed by a winter storm. He had plans to fly out of that airport to see a woman he had gotten to know online. Frustrated at the potential cancellation of his plans, he tweeted this to his followers:
Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!
The message was discovered five days later by an airport duty manager who was browsing the Web.
The manager forwarded the offending tweet on to his station manager, and - even though the threat was deemed "non-credible" - it was passed on to police.
On January 13, Chambers was arrested. Even though police determined that the comment was a joke "for only his close friends to see" according to his police case file, he was charged with "sending a menacing electronic communication" - that is, of making a threat. In May, he was convicted. This, again, despite the undisputed facts that it was deemed a "joke" and "non-credible" as a "threat" and the supposed "threat" was never sent to the supposed target, which would not have even known about it but for pure chance.

This past Thursday, his appeal was rejected. Not only rejected, his punishment was increased: He'd originally been fined a total of £1000; on Thursday the appeals judge added an additional £2600 for "prosecution costs."

The danger such a decision presents to freedom of speech online needs or at least should need no explanation, not when you can be arrested, convicted, and punished for what everyone involved agrees was a joke.

Well, okay, no, not everyone: The appeals judge - who "icily lectured the courtroom about the impropriety of sending Twitter updates during the case," claimed that "any ordinary person would have been menaced by the tweet." Well, if that's true then "any ordinary person" is a goddam flaming idiot. I mean, come on: threatening to blow up an airport if it is not open? Saying in essence that "I want that airport open and if it's not open in a week I'll keep it closed?" That's like making a "threat" along the lines of "You'd better feed me, or else I'll go on a diet" or "If you don't stop laughing, I'm going to tickle you." Who in their right mind could take that seriously as a threat? In point of fact, no one and yes I am fully aware of what I am suggesting about the appeals judge.

Chambers has suffered more than a fine as a result of this:
He was fired from his job as an administrative and financial supervisor at a car-parts company. He moved to Northern Ireland ... and was fired from a subsequent job after his employers discovered his criminal record. He is now unemployed.
So he is out of a job as well as some £3600 (about $5800) for failing to have sufficiently absorbed the "watch what you say lest you irritate some official or another" mantra, the "don't make waves or even ripples" meme. Star Simpson could tell him something about that.

On the upside, almost immediately upon the loss of the appeal thousands of tweets started appearing under the tag #IAmSpartacus either re-tweeting Chambers' original post or making their own comic "threats" against a variety of targets. AP said it counted 5000 in just two hours.

As I noted at the top, I'm not on Twitter, so I can't participate directly in the campaign of solidarity, but I'll say here that unless within a week and a bit Robin Hood airport adopts a policy of free beer and pretzels, I'll send a team of overweight middle-aged guys to do the full monty on the main concourse after which they will pee on the benches.
A spokeswoman for South Yorkshire Police, which originally arrested Chambers, scoffed and said "no" when asked if police planned on arresting any of Chambers' online fans.

But she refused to answer when asked why the thousands of jokey threats to blow Robin Hood Airport "sky high" would be treated any differently than Chambers' original tweet, which resulted in his arrest.
Of course she couldn't answer because there is no coherent response available. Right now, count on officialdom to hunker down and try to wait it out. Because even if the furor disappears, this case as a precedent, as a source of support for future, harsher limitations, will not. It will still be there, waiting to be whipped out.
Police and prosecutors "seem to have completely ignored the notion of context, which is a very dangerous thing," said Padraig Reidy of the London-based Index on Censorship. "If he genuinely intended to blow up the airport, he wouldn't have tweeted it. It's obviously a joke."
Reidy also said that
"The verdict demonstrates that the UK's legal system has little respect for free expression, and has no understanding of how people communicate in the 21st Century."
I suspect it's more likely true that they do understand - and the prospect of being unable to control such technology-driven intellectual anarchy, the prospect of not being able to confine communication within "acceptable limits," with appropriate "respect for authority," scares the living hell out of them. And that's why cases like this happen: to remind people who's boss.

As a footnote, after the hearing, British actor Stephen Fry renewed his promise to pay Chambers' fine. Good on him.

And another thing

Hello to Unknown News readers (and thanks as always to H&HH for the link) and to Jon Swift Memorial Roundup 2010 readers. Maybe you'd like to check out some of my other posts.

The Christian Science Monitor's coverage of the draft proposal from the co-chairs of the Cat Food Commission starts this way:
The Democrat and Republican who cochair President Obama's debt commission haven't offered a magic fix for federal deficits, but they've tried to make one point loud and clear: Answers to America's fiscal challenges will involve "shared sacrifice."
"Shared sacrifice." Oh, my. What a high-sounding phrase. What a wonderful, "we're all in this together" sound bite. Group hug, gang, and a round of Kumbaya!

What a pile of unmitigated crap.

There are a hell of a lot of people in this country who over the past couple of decades have done their share of sacrificing, their share and more. They have seen their wages stagnate, their real household incomes fall, their household economies maintained only by working more hours.

We - millions of us - have lost our jobs, some of us so long ago that unemployment benefits are a memory. We have lost our health coverage and with it our access to health care. Growing numbers of us have lost our homes as foreclosures rise and rise again, foreclosures often driven by outright fraud by the banking industry. More and more of us have sunk into poverty and seen our children go hungry. We have seen our futures darken, our hopes that our children will be better off than us shrivel, and discovered too often that the light at the end of the tunnel is just a neon arrow pointing down another tunnel.

And now we are being told that we "all" have to "sacrifice." We "all" must "share the burden." We "all" have to "share the pain." And we are being told this by the very people who have gained, who have gotten richer, fatter, more comfortable, more secure, even as we, like Alice, have been doing all the running we can do, to keep in the same place. They are the ones who now dare to tell us that we "all" have to do our part so their stock portfolios won't be damaged in some future financial crunch.

So tell us, Erskine Bowles, tell us, Alan Simpson, tell us any of you sitting in your clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, with your white collars and cut fingernails,* tell us what you are going to sacrifice. Tell us what part of the pain you are going to bear. Not vague generalities about groups and classes with charts and graphs and bullet points, but you, yourself. How great will be your "sacrifice?" How great will be your burden, your pain?

Because I say to you that if we "all" must sacrifice, if we "all" must bear our burden, I say to you that the amount of sacrifice in the decades to come should be directly proportional to the amount of gain in the decades just past. That those who have gained the most should give up the most. And that those among us who have already sacrificed, already lost, have already borne their share and more, should not be expected to sacrifice, should not be expected to be the widow giving her two mites to the treasury until after - after, I say - you prove that you will do more than the rich who cast in only what they thought they could just as well do without.**

You want to talk about "sacrifice?" Fine. Show us your cards. Put up or fucking shut up.

Updated with the link to the Taibbi piece and thanks go to, again, Blckdgrd for the tip.

*Look up quotes from C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. No link because in any I found, the relevant quote was buried in a long list of others and so the link was pretty useless. You're on your own.
**Mark 12:41-44

Friskies for all!

Well, not for the rich, of course, but yeah, for most of us. And it's not even Fancy Feast or something, fer cryin' out loud, but plain old dry.

I don't feel compelled to say much about the Cat Food Commission because so many others - including even some Democrats - are already saying it. But I do want to make a few disjointed observations on different aspects of the newly-released co-chairs' draft proposals on the theme that they repeatedly and I suspect unintentionally revealed themselves and their true aims.

For example, the Wall Street Journal quotes Erskine Bowles, the ostensible Democrat co-chairing the ostensibly bipartisan commission, as saying
I told people in the White House I had spent more time listening to people in the opposition party than they had done as a whole group.
Translation: The problem is that President I-Did-It-Your-Way has not compromised enough, has not adopted enough GOPper ideas.
Bowles [also] said the best hope for improving the political environment for [the co-chairs'] ambitious, painful budget plan is to convince people that doing nothing about the federal government's deficit and debt isn't an option
and talked about a "crisis" in five years. In other words, the best hope is to terrify us into submission. Which, I admit, is very probably true.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman notes that among the co-chairs' "Guiding Principles and Values" is "Cap revenue at or below 21% of G.D.P."

The Christian Science Monitor says that 21% of GDP is "higher than its historical average, but a level that requires sharp spending discipline given the boomer retirement wave." Put another way, it's impossible without draconian benefit cuts, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains. That's particularly true considering that during the Reagan years, federal spending was at 22% of GDP.

But the real point comes via Krugman:
This is a guiding principle? And why is a commission charged with finding every possible route to a balanced budget setting an upper (but not lower) limit on revenue?
Why, indeed.

On Social Security, the co-chairs proposed what everyone expected: raise the retirement age and cut benefits. That was no surprise, what with co-chair Alan Simpleton having described us as being like "a milk cow with 300 million tits."

But what has this got to do with the deficit? The only rational answer is nothing at all: Social Security is financed by a separate tax, it does not draw on general revenues, it has a truly huge surplus (created consciously and specifically to prepare the system for the baby boomer retirement bulge) - in fact, by investing that surplus in T-bonds, it has actually helped finance the deficit, rather than add to it.

The co-chairs know this. Writing at Crooks and Liars, blogger karoli notes that the very draft report itself lists as a goal for Social Security to "Reform Social Security for its own sake, not for deficit reduction." So why is the whole section even in the draft? Because the commission provided an excuse, an opportunity, to attack Social Security. No other reason.

On taxes, I hardly find it necessary to comment; it's just the same old same old, proposing to reduce or eliminate tax breaks that matter to the middle class. The revealing part is that they propose to use most of what is gained thereby not to reduce the deficit but to finance a cut in tax rates for the rich and the corporations. That, we can assume, is part of their "Guiding Principle" of "Make America the best place to start and run a business and create jobs." Not the best place to live and work, mind you, the best place for business.

Finally, there is health care, a matter more central than considered in most commentary because, as Krugman says,
the main driver of those pretty charts [showing deficits falling and debt levels stabilizing] is the assumption that the rate of growth in health-care costs will slow dramatically. And how is this to be achieved? By “establishing a process to regularly evaluate cost growth” and taking “additional steps as needed.” What does that mean? I have no idea.
Actually, we do have some idea.

The section of the draft on health care (pages 31-36) is painful to read. The very first cost-saving proposal is to just cut payments to doctors and other providers. The second is to adopt "comprehensive tort reform," the politically expedient way to say "make it harder for patients to sue when they get fucked over by incompetent care or corporate malfeasance." Oh, and the third, I love the third:
Expand cost-sharing in Medicare to promote informed consumer health choices and spending.
"Cost-sharing." "Informed choices." Isn't that just precious. I had something to say about this line of bullshit almost a year ago:
Do you get it? Do you see? The problem, according to [these people], is you. You "overuse" health care. You are insufficiently "cost-conscious." It's all your fault. You don't comparison shop for a cardiologist. You don't independently investigate and evaluate treatment options for your cancer or your diabetes or your hypertension and generate a cost-benefit analysis. You don't personally compare the clinical trials for Avapro and Diovan. And the way to (I love this phrase) "bend the cost curve" is to reduce your coverage and make you spend more out of pocket for what remains through higher deductibles and co-pays - so you'll use less health care, thus keeping the cost down. In other words, the way to make health care more affordable is to make it less affordable.
As for the "additional steps as needed," the draft makes a few suggestions of possibilities, the first among which is to raise premiums. The bigger point, the more revealing point, however, is that the co-chairs want to keep the growth in the cost of health care to no more than GDP+1%, that is, health care costs cannot be allowed to rise any faster than a rate one percentage point above the growth in GDP and whatever cuts have to be made to achieve that, no matter how widespread, damaging, deep, or cruel, well, that's just what ya gotta do 'cause a balanced budget is obviously far more important than public health. Besides, it'll "promote informed consumer health choices" so it's all good.

Last licks go to Paul Krugman:
It seemed obvious, as soon as the commission’s membership was announced, that “bipartisanship” would mean what it so often does in Washington: a compromise between the center-right and the hard-right.
And in the end we get a hard right, right to the center of our future.

Footnote: For what it's worth, Dan Froomkin has an overview of "Ten Flash Points" in the draft proposal. And credit where it's due times two, Froomkin is where I came across the bit about Medicare "cost-sharing" before I searched it out in the draft and I heard about the Froomkin piece via Blckdgrd, who manages to find more online stuff than I ever will.

Friday, November 12, 2010

This should have gone up yesterday #2

This was originally posted on November 11, 2009. It is the second of the posts I've decided to put up every year. As in the previous post, this introductory paragraph and the Footnote, if any, may change year to year. The rest of the post is as per the original. Here it is:

This wasn't about Veterans Day originally, it was about Memorial Day, but I think it fits here equally well.

In May 2002, someone on a mailing list I was on posted a message asking people to take a moment of silence on Memorial Day, saying "Let us ensure that those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom are not forgotten."

In response, I wrote:
And in that silent moment remember, too, the many nonviolent warriors who struggled, searched, sacrificed, for justice and freedom, who remain without songs or memorials to celebrate their lives or their passing, but who at some moment stood weaponless against the machinery of oppression and showed in their simple “No more” a force that can move history.
It is indicative of how we as a culture regard things that on the whole, we celebrate our soldiers while they are alive and our nonviolent warriors only when they are safely dead. Then again, I'm not so sure we're so different from others in that way.

This should have gone up yesterday #1

This is something I posted two years ago on Veterans' Day. I've decided that I'm going to post this and the post that follows every Veterans' Day. There may be slight edits in the intro and the Footnote if there is one, but the main body, the original post from June 2008, is unchanged.

November 11 has become so well-known as Veterans' Day that not many people remember that it was originally called Armistice Day. It was intended to commemorate those who died in World War I by an observation of the end of the war, which ended, at least on the Western front, on "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month." But after World War II, the US changed its day to Veterans' Day and over time it's become not a commemoration of those who have died in war but a celebration of anyone who's ever been in the military. It has slid from a commemoration of the dead and of peace to a promotion of militarism, to the "nobility of sacrifice" of "true" - and apparently the only true, as they are given due unavailable to the rest of us - "patriots."

So for my own observation of Veterans' Day, I'm going to re-post something I first posted in June 2008. Here it is:

I've tried various ways to start this, wanting to make sure that I say what I mean and only what I mean. But I've come to realize that there is no way that will not be misunderstood, either accidentally or deliberately, by some. So I gave up trying to do anything other than say it outright.

I am deeply disturbed by the increasing tendency among "progressives" to adulate all things military, and particularly disturbed by the practice of referring to soldiers routinely as "our heroes" or some similar formulation. Let me be clear here: Soldiers are not "heroes." A "hero" is by definition someone who is in some way extraordinary, remarkable, worthy of emulation. It is at best a risky business to define someone as "extraordinary" simply by virtue of wearing a uniform and in fact it is potentially dangerous as it makes it too easy to slip into the militaristic attitude that what soldiers do goes beyond "necessary evil" or just necessary, beyond even honorable, to admirable, to something to celebrate, an attitude that makes it all to easy to promote additional enlistments, additional weapons, and even additional wars.

The root of this, I'm convinced, is that after years of the constant drumbeat from the right that those on the left are "soft" on "national security," that we aren't "tough enough," not ready enough to "do what's necessary" to "protect our way of life," we increasingly have decided to, if you will, fight on those terms; that is, we have absorbed the idea that we have to prove ourselves on "security" issues by proving that we're "tough."

Our means of doing this, a means that first appeared during the Gulf War, was to declare loudly that "We support the troops!" That was our way into the national security debate, a way to (supposedly) oppose the war while, we declared, supporting the men and women sent to fight it. We would prove that we were as committed to the military and national security as the right, just, well, in a sorta different way.

One less important but still revealing example came on Monday during Jon Stewart's interview with Senator Jim Webb. Most of that interview was a discussion about Webb's bill to expand veteran educational benefits, under which, in return for three years in the military, soldiers would receive four years' tuition at their best state college plus the cost of books, plus a monthly stipend. At one point, when Webb said that the least we can do for our soldiers is give them the chance for "a first-class future," the audience burst into loud applause.

And I thought then, as I have before when this bill was being discussed, would there be any chance, any chance at all, of that same sort of reaction if the same proposal was made on behalf of any other group? What if someone proposed paying for four years of college for, say, firefighters? Or cops? How about volunteers in VISTA (now AmeriCorps VISTA)? Or the Peace Corps? The latter two provide some educational benefits for those who put in their time, but nothing vaguely approaching four fully-paid years of college.

What about publicly-funded continuing education for doctors and nurses? Such continuing education is not only a good idea for health care professionals, it's often a requirement for maintaining their licenses to practice. And certainly having doctors and nurses who are up to date on the best knowledge and practice is beneficial to the public. So why not have public financing of that continuing education?

When it comes down to it, why not have public education, tuition-free, taxpayer-supported public education, right up through four years of college for anyone who can show themselves capable of meeting the educational standards for a college degree? Can you seriously imagine a studio audience bursting into spontaneous, enthusiastic applause for someone seriously proposing such an idea?

Why only soldiers? What does it say about us that the idea of paying soldiers' way through college gets ovations while the idea of anyone else getting the same benefit gets at best quizzical stares if not overt sneering rejections? It says that we regard the work of soldiering as inherently more important, inherently more deserving of praise and reward, than the work of others - and the lives of soldiers as inherently more valuable than the lives of the rest of us. That is the attitude we are buying into.

But if it was only things like veterans' benefits, it might not seem particularly important. I say that despite the fact that the amount of money involved in such benefits is not trivial and Webb's argument that his bill just provides the equivalent of educational benefits given to veterans of World War II is quite misleading: For one thing, many of those soldiers had been drafted "for the duration," so it wasn't automatically a matter of three years and out. For another, the avowed purpose of those World War II benefits was to make up for what those soldiers had lost in regard to their civilian careers as compared to those who had not been in the military. That is, they were to insure that soldiers did not wind up being penalized for having been soldiers. They were not intended to give soldiers a leg up over others (or "a first class future") and they most definitely were not presented as being a reward for military service. But that's what they have become over the years and that's how Webb's bill treats them.

I also want to make abundantly clear in case it's not or is willfully ignored that the benefits being questioned here do not include such as medical care, rehabilitation, and counseling for vets wounded either physically or psychologically. But, yes, veterans benefits are too generous to the extent that they become a reward for being in the military. So I am against Webb's bill and I don't give a damn whether it will affect retention rates or not. I am opposed to it so long as soldiers get singled out for an opportunity for higher education that is becoming increasingly financially impossible for many people.

Even so, again, if that's all there was to it, it might not seem like a great big huge deal. But that's not all there is to it, not when we are trying to lay claim to national security chops by out troop-supporting the right, insisting that we're the ones who really support the troops, we're the ones who really support their brave courageous efforts and we prove it by undaunted adulation, blandly treating, with no hint of hesitation, the phrase "have a lot of courage" and the word "soldier" as synonymous.

So we were the ones who loudly decried the lack of body armor and the lack of reinforced plating on military vehicles, accusing the right of "not supporting the troops" as much as we do because of that failure. But as Mark Twain pointed out in "The War Prayer,"
[i]f you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.
In war, in combat, as long as the soldiers are there, there is an unavoidable trade-off: The more you wish for them to remain safe, the more you are wishing for them to kill others. That is what safety in combat means. The more you wish for them to return safely, the more you are wishing for Iraqis not to. The more you wish life for them, the more you are wishing death for others. The more you wish that American mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, don't suffer the loss of a family member, the more you are wishing that Iraqi mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, do.

So when we express "support for the troops" by demanding we "give them the equipment to do the job" and "then come home safely" rather than simply and solely saying "get them the hell out," we are offering a tacit - and sometimes not so tacit - endorsement of the killing. For the sake of the blessing of safety and life for our soldiers, we are calling down the curse of risk and death on Iraqis. When we declare support in terms of equipment rather than withdrawal, that is what we are endorsing. In war, there is no other way.

Undoubtedly, there are those who are prepared to declare American lives are worth more than Iraqi lives. I am not among them.

The emotional embrace of "our heroes" as some sort of disembodied ideal has policy implications beyond the immediate ones. Within that embrace, and the effects can already be seen in various interviews and commentaries, it becomes easy to absorb, absorb so deeply that one is unaware of it, the idea that a veteran's take on the Iraq war - and by extension, all things military - is inherently more valuable than that of others not by virtue of knowledge or logic or informed comment but simply by virtue of being a veteran. We regarded it (correctly) as a scandal when media outlets used retired generals who were actually Pentagon-trained PR flacks as "experts" on military and foreign policy questions in the runup to the Iraq War - but an overlooked point is that the reason retired generals were so prominent in that number was that their status as military people gave them added credibility in the eyes of many viewers and listeners. In our pursuit of "support the troops," we have fallen prey to that same attitude, one that regards the statements of Iraq War veterans as more valuable, more telling, than those of non-veterans. It even has become fairly common to hear dismissive references to those who "never saw combat." At first, that was a legitimate argument, directed as it was against chickenhawks, those rightwingers who were eager for fights, ready for wars, provided they did not have to take part in them. But increasingly it has been used as an all-purpose putdown, even against those on the left who have criticized soldiers - as, I imagine, it would be directed against me (a non-veteran and a Vietnam-era draft resister) were my voice loud enough to attract the attention.

But the real danger is that as the attitude persists, it distorts our way of thinking, drops a magnet on our moral compass. In a bizarre mirror image of the fanatical right, we refuse to blame soldiers who commit atrocities, or, more exactly, we refuse to acknowledge them. We refuse to blame those who shoot civilians even when the attacks are clearly acts of vengeance; we downplay the war crimes and the routine cruelties; we make excuses for those who shoot the wounded or torture prisoners; even when official Pentagon reports casually mention how a US soldier summarily executed a wounded fighter and shot another wounded, unresisting fighter twice in the back, we pay little notice - and if we do, it's usually to brush off complaints with that all-purpose "you've never been in combat" defense. "These things happen in war," we say.

Yes, they do. And "our heroes" are doing them. Which is, even as the deniers seem incapable of recognizing it, the point. Just as the right tries to blame the individuals and exonerate the hierarchy, we want to blame the hierarchy and exonerate the individuals, to remove all their responsibility for their own actions. That is an idea we were supposed to have rejected nearly 60 years ago; apparently, we haven't.

Soldiers are not heroes. They can be heroes, they can act heroically, they can do heroic things - but the act of putting on a uniform and agreeing to put your conscience in a lockbox for the next so many years does not make your life more important than others, it does not make your opinions and insights more worthy of respect than others, it does not exempt you from moral judgment. It does not make you a hero.

And we should not fall prey to hero-worship.
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