Is the US a police state?

Some of this blog’s readers may be old enough to recall what used to happen in brutal Latin American dictatorships in the second half of the 20th century, when opponents of the government were picked up by the secret police and never heard from again, except when their mutilated dead bodies occasionally turned up. A whole network of state-sponsored secret prisons, systematic torture, and murder was put into place and paramilitary groups and so-called ‘death squads’, operating under the auspices and protection of the governments and usually consisting of security forces in plain clothes, used to carry out all manner of atrocities, leaving the public in a state of permanent fear.

It is time to ask the question: Is the US now such a police state? The immediate answer is, of course, no. The fact that I can pose this question publicly and periodically excoriate Obama, and before him Bush and Cheney, for their appalling violations of human rights and their flouting of the law and the constitution without fearing that I will be summarily arrested or murdered by the security forces tells us that for the most part and for most people, we still have what appears to be a nation of laws.

But it is the use of the qualifier ‘most’ in the previous sentence that should give us pause because ‘most’ is simply not good enough. The fact remains that we have now reached a stage in the so-called ‘war on terror’ that the US, while not a police state, has adopted some of the features of a ‘national security state‘. If the US government thinks you are a real danger to it, then it can and will unleash (and has unleashed) its powers to deny you your rights of life and liberty, the law and constitution be damned. The government claims it has the right to kidnap you, imprison you indefinitely, torture you, and even kill you, without any judicial process or even access to a lawyer, simply because it considers you to be a ‘terrorist’. The denial of some of these constitutional rights can be triggered not by any actual wrongdoing or serious harm to public safety but merely the threat of embarrassing the government by revealing its wrongdoing, such as done by whistleblowers.

What saves me (and most people) from any of the above deprivations of life and liberty is that I am simply not important enough. But that should not be the basis for complacency. We are not yet in a full-blown police state but the fact is that both Democratic and Republican administrations claim the power and right to ignore the law and constitutional protections for whatever reason and whenever they feel like it. This is a very worrisome sign for the future.

It is the bipartisan nature of this consensus that is particularly troubling. Compare this with what happened after the change of government in England. The new Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition government’s first policy statements strongly reaffirmed their strong commitment to dismantling the national security state set up by the outgoing Labour government. The UK is also going to investigate acts of torture and give compensation to victims:

The Liberal Democrat MEP Sarah Ludford said: “Only a very thorough cleaning of the stables can re-establish Britain’s reputation as a nation of principles rather than a sidekick to appalling human rights abuses. It should also be judge-led, held as far as possible in public, and not rule out the possibility of prosecutions.

One has to see, if course, if the British government follows through on these promises but it is at least a step in the right direction.

Compare that with what is happening in the US. After strongly condemning the Bush-Cheney regime’s violations of all manner of civil liberties when he was a senator and when he was running for president, Obama not only turned 180 degrees and embraced those policies as soon as he won, he has even extended those abuses. Glenn Greenwald points to what is taking place in the US under Democratic Party rule that we thought was going to undo the abuses of the Bush-Cheney regime:

We get — from the current Government — presidential assassination programs, detention with no charges, senseless demands for further reductions of core rights when arrested, ongoing secret prisons filled with abuse, military commissions, warrantless surveillance of emails, and presidential secrecy claims to block courts from reviewing claims of government crimes. The Democratic-led Congress takes still new steps to block the closing of Guantanamo. Democratic leaders push for biometric, national ID cards. The most minimal surveillance safeguards are ignored. Even the miniscule limits on eavesdropping powers are transgressed. And from just this week: “Millions of Americans arrested for but not convicted of crimes will likely have their DNA forcibly extracted and added to a national database, according to a bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday”.

Another total reversal of an Obama position is that he now goes after whistleblowers who reveal government wrongdoing, after earlier supporting whistleblower rights. In fact, Obama harasses whistleblowers more than Bush ever did.

As a candidate, Obama promised transparency, accountability, and reform of extremist Bush policies. As president, he usurped unchecked surveillance powers, including warrantless wiretapping, accessing personal records, monitoring financial transactions, and tracking e-mails, Internet and cell phone use to gather secret evidence for prosecutions. He also claims Justice Department immunity from illegal spying suits, an interpretation no member of Congress or administration ever made, not even Bush or his Republican allies.

As a result, his national security state targets activists, political dissidents, anti-war protestors, Muslims, Latino immigrants, lawyers who defend them, whistleblowers, journalists who expose federal crimes, corruption, and excesses who won’t disclose their sources, and WikiLeaks.

This is not the change that we believed in.

POST SCRIPT: Obama’s long list of hypocrisies

The Daily Show documents Obama’s hypocrisy on civil liberties, habeas corpus, rendition, wiretaps, and whistleblowers. During the Bush-Cheney regime, I used to hate to listen to them speak, so great was the discrepancy between their smug words about upholding the law and democracy, and their deeds. I have already reached that stage with Obama, where I cannot stand listening to his preening, self-righteousness blather either.

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Book review: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

This is an extraordinary book about one family’s experience with Hurricane Katrina.

As long time readers of this blog may recall, I was furious at the way that the poor people of New Orleans were treated like scum during and after Katrina (see my earlier posts here, here, here, here, here, and here), so much so that I couldn’t bear the thought of reading another story about it.

But Zeitoun is on the short list of ten books that are competing to be selected as the choice for my university’s common reading program for next year. Since I am on the selection committee, I feel obliged to read all of them. Once I started it, however, I could barely put it down, it is so well-written. It is written in a documentary style, using language that is spare and understated, yet extraordinarily compelling.

Dave Eggers tells the true story through the eyes of a devout Muslim couple in New Orleans caught up in the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina. The husband Abdulrahman Zeitoun (known to everyone by just his last name which is pronounced ‘zay-toon’) was born in Syria but is now a long-time resident of the US. He is the co-owner with his American-born wife Kathy (who had converted to Islam before she met him) of a prosperous construction and renovation business,

After evacuating his wife and their four children to Baton Rouge at the last minute before the hurricane struck, Zeitoun stays behind to look after his own house and the rental properties he owns and those of his friends and neighbors. Using a canoe that he had bought earlier on a whim and which now turns out to be invaluable, he rows around the silent and submerged parts of the city and in the process discovers stranded people and animals and starts helping them out. By indiscriminately helping anyone in need he comes across, this generous and tireless man enters a calm and exalted state and begins to think that god has a plan for him and had placed him in that awful situation to be a good Samaritan to the people and animals in his adopted city and nation.

But then suddenly everything turns upside down. He and others are arrested by security forces who ignore their claims that they were on their own property and, in what can truly be described by the term Kafkaesque, he finds himself held for weeks in makeshift prisons under appalling conditions with cruel guards and indifferent officials, not allowed even a single phone call to his lawyer or to his frantic wife and family.

Zeitoun is a profoundly disturbing book. In a graphic demonstration of what the government’s real priorities are, it contrasts the ruthless efficiency with which the government and its security forces rounded up ordinary people and treated them like dirt, with the appalling inefficiency and incompetence it displayed when dealing with the real humanitarian needs of people facing implacable forces of nature. It is a gripping account of what it is like when all the protections we take for granted are thrown out of the window in the name of security aided by xenophobia, and the dangers that arise when security forces are trained to ignore normal human feelings and treat people as enemies. If the US security forces can treat ordinary American citizens in America this way, one can only imagine how they treat their perceived enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book shows the creeping power of the national security state and the danger of allowing governments the right to think that they can disregard constitutional protections and the basic human rights of people. We tend to think of the armed services of a country as being there to defend the country from external enemies, or even on occasion to attack other countries. This is how these extremely expensive institutions are sold to the public. But we must never forget that another purpose of a nation’s military is to enable the government to control its own people when it wants to, and in order to do that the soldiers must be trained so that if anyone, even members of their own local community and nation, is identified as a potential enemy, all human feeling is ignored and that person is treated like garbage. The fact that soldiers can be trained to be like that is a testament to how far we have gone along the road to becoming a national security state.

What happened in New Orleans during Katrina was compounded by the fact that the police in that city has long had a reputation of being highly corrupt and racist, preying on poor and black people, so that the police was seen by them as the enemy. Finally in July 2010, six police officers were charged with shooting people without cause during Katrina. The June 2010 issue of Z Magazine (not available online) has an article by Darwin Bond-Graham that gives the results of a long investigation into their practices. Titled The New Orleans Police Department’s Culture of Corruption and Repression, it gives the sordid details of how they and the local power elite operated with impunity. Fresh Air had an interview with one of the reporters who investigated the murders and which led to indictments against sixteen police officers for shooting, murder, and cover-ups.

Even though Zeitoun himself was a hard-working and prosperous businessman, whenever he and his wife had any encounter with the police such as a routine traffic stop, she would insist on doing the talking, hoping that her white skin and local accent would enable them to avoid trouble.

Zeitoun is not just the story of what happened to one family because of a hurricane. It is also a grim reminder of the dangers of creating a national security state, driven by fear and paranoia, in which people sacrifice the rule of law for a spurious sense of security. What happened in New Orleans occurred under the Bush-Cheney regime which sought the elimination of all the major constitutional provisions that safeguard our rights to due process.

I would liked to have said that Barack Obama has reversed these policies. But although expressing vehement opposition to the Bush-Cheney policies when campaigning for president, he immediately reversed course upon his election and has taken those draconian measures even further. While he has admirably spoken out against the xenophobia that is at the base of the ridiculous opposition to the proposed new Islamic Center called Cordoba House in New York City, he has not taken any steps to dismantle the national security state he inherited, and has in fact expanded its reach.

POST SCRIPT: FBI investigates peace activist

A mother of five children, a registered nurse, who happened to attend a demonstration in support of Palestinian rights, gets a visit from the FBI. She shows remarkable calmness and presence of mind by videotaping the encounter, which you can see by clicking on the link

Just in case you should ever be visited by the FBI for whatever reason, here are some guidelines that outlines your rights.

Do you think that you are safe from FBI harassment because you are a law-abiding citizen? The fact is that the modern state has all manner of vague and obscure statutes that all of us unwittingly break. Susie Madrak at the website Crooks and Liars describes one such case where a US Senator invoked such a law to harass someone who merely wrote him an angry email. Madrak also mentions the book Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent by civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate who says that the average person now commits roughly three felonies a day without even knowing it. So if the government does not like you for any reason, they can always try and nail you for violating some law that you did not even know existed. Silverglate argues that this is now possible because the long-standing practice of prosecutors needing to show intent to commit the crime is vanishing.

Be nice to hospitality workers

By now everyone in the US must have heard about the JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater who got so fed up by the way he was treated by a passenger that he used the intercom to curse her out and left the plane. Grabbing a beer and using the emergency chute to make his dramatic exit was an inspired touch. Slater has become something of a folk hero for his take-this-job-and-shove-it action and I would not be surprised to see a made-for-TV movie about disgruntled flights attendants soon. Slater even became Stephen Colbert’s Alpha Dog of the Week.

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Slater was arrested and is now out on bail, facing charges of reckless endangerment and criminal mischief that could put him in prison for up to seven years, which seems excessive to me. His lawyer has provided more details of what happened.

Flight attendants in general have expressed great sympathy for him, saying that he did what many of them have only fantasized about. My niece worked as a flight attendant for a few years and has her own share of stories about rude and obnoxious people on planes. The following apocryphal story describes the kind of pettiness and self-indulgence that airline workers have to routinely deal with:

In my youth, I was friends with a TWA flight attendant who used to tell this tale: A fellow attendant had just finished serving dinner (so you know how long ago this was), and a woman rang her call button. “This potato,” she said to the attendant, pointing to a small baker on the tray, “is bad.”

He calmly picked up the potato, placed it in the palm of his left hand and shook his right index finger at it, saying in a scolding tone, “Bad potato. Bad, bad potato.” His attempt at humor won him a suspension, my friend said.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether Slater should have done what he did and deserves the adulation he has received from some quarters, the whole episode illustrates the inequality and tension that exists between workers in the hospitality industry and the customers.

A couple of years ago my flight was cancelled due to bad weather and there was chaos at the check-in counter as a large number of people tried to find alternative flights. There was only one person to serve all the coach passengers and naturally there were long lines and delays and tempers became frayed, and some people started berating this poor woman although she was not responsible for the mess. Things got so bad that a policeman had to come in to keep some order. I was there for over six hours because I was trying to make an international connection and so was able to observe the fact that this woman did not leave her position even to get food or go to the bathroom but kept a pleasant and smiling face throughout the ordeal, never raising her voice, and standing all the time. It was only late in the evening, after everyone had left and I was the only person remaining that she confided in me that a co-worker had called in sick that day, which was why she was alone, and that she was totally exhausted. I asked her if tough days happened to her often and she ruefully said yes.

One reporter worked as a flight attendant for two days to see what it was like and wrote about her experiences. Her co-workers told her that working first class was harder than coach and that did not surprise me. Airlines themselves are partly responsible for this. In order to get people to fork out extra money for these more profitable upgrades, they have pandered to them that they are so special, giving them all manner of little perks, including laughably ridiculous ones like the little carpet near the boarding gate that ordinary coach passengers are not supposed to step on. It always cracks me up when the person at the gate announces that the proletariat is forbidden to step on that rug. Should we be surprised that some of the pampered people treat flight attendants as their personal servants?

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they treat those who they perceive as subordinate to them. As Dave Barry once wrote, “A person who is nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person.” The notorious John Bolton, hysterical warmonger and George W. Bush’s choice to be US ambassador to the United Nations, was known to berate his staff while being ingratiating to those he felt were his superiors. He was described by an observer as the “quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy”, adding, “I’ve never seen anyone quite like Secretary Bolton in terms of the way he abuses his power and authority with little people… The fact is that he stands out, that he’s got a bigger kick and it gets bigger and stronger the further down the bureaucracy he’s kicking.”

It is true that modern airline travel is frustrating for passengers. But that does not excuse being nasty to the people who are the public face of that industry because they are not responsible for this state of affairs. In fact, they are as much victims as we are because airlines have cut back on personnel to the minimum, requiring those remaining to work much harder and longer. I have a great deal of sympathy for people who work in the hospitality industry like waiters, flight attendants, hotel employees, and the like. These people are on their feet almost all the time, for pay that is not that great, and are required by their employers to be smiling and friendly and obsequious to everyone. And while most people are polite and considerate, because these workers deal with so many people every day, the odds are that they encounter a fair number of jerks in the course of their work day, people seeking an outlet for their own personal frustrations and demons, who take advantage of them by being abusive and rude, knowing that they have to take it and still keep smiling.

Ideally, we should treat everyone equally and well but that is hard to do in practice. But a good rule-of-thumb is that the less power that people have, the greater effort we should put in to swallow our own irritation and annoyance and be nice to them and show consideration and respect, because they have likely had a much harder day than we did.

POST SCRIPT: Anthem for Steven Slater

I remember when this song was released in 1978 that it struck the same chord with fed up workers that Slater’s actions did.

More on red light and speed cameras

The previous post on this topic resulted in such interesting discussions that I want to expand on this topic in a new post.

I actually agree with some of the criticisms that were made about a camera-based system to enforce traffic laws on speeding and running red lights. But my point is that while the police-based system is fundamentally flawed and cannot be made fair and consistent and widespread because of the enormous costs that would need be incurred, the camera-based system as currently implemented is only technically flawed. It should be easy to improve it by purely technical fixes that can also be easily monitored to ensure that the devices work accurately and provide reasonable opportunities for compliance.
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The same sex marriage verdict

Needless to say, I was very pleased with the ruling last week by US District Court judge Vaughn Walker in California overturning the ban on same sex marriage. The case arose because of a challenge to Proposition 8 that was passed by referendum in November 2008 and required the state constitution to add a clause that stated, “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

The judge said that Proposition 8 violated the ‘due process’ and ‘equal protection’ clauses of the 14th amendment to the federal constitution. The due process clause states that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” while the equal protection clause states that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” (The 14th amendment is getting quite a workout these days, with some talking about amending it to prevent children born in the US of illegal immigrants from getting automatic citizenship under the opening sentence that states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”)

Ted Olson, appointed by George W. Bush to be his first Solicitor General, offers the clearest articulation I have yet heard of the case against bans on same sex marriage. He was one of the lawyers that successfully argued the case.

Of course, opponents of same sex marriage are furious and are angrily denouncing the judge as going against the ‘will of the people’. The idea propounded by same sex marriage opponents that courts should always acquiesce to the result of any plebiscite or the actions of legislatures is a curious argument to make, especially in the US, which is firmly based on the principle that the legislature, judiciary, and executive are co-equal branches of government, that none of them is required to give deference or preference to any other. Of course, it is ideal when there is a national consensus on issues and all three branches agree. But one of them has to take the lead on any issue and when it comes to protecting fundamental rights it is the courts that have traditionally done so, because the rights of minorities can be threatened by majorities acting on the passions of the moment.

(A curious side argument by opponents of the verdict is that Judge Walker is openly gay and that this somehow brings his impartiality into question. I fail to see the relevance of his personal sexuality. After all, everyone has some sexual preference. Why would we assume that an openly heterosexual judge would be more impartial on this issue than an openly homosexual one? Are they arguing that the case should have been tried by a hermaphrodite or bisexual or neutered judge? Adding to the irony, Walker was first nominated to the federal bench in 1987 by Ronald Reagan but his nomination was stalled because he was perceived as being insensitive to gays and poor people. He was re-nominated in 1989 by George H. W. Bush and confirmed.)

It is important to realize that the judge’s verdict did not create a new right. The judge pointed out that the right to marriage has always existed and is considered a bedrock principle of society. What Proposition 8 did was deny that existing right to a particular group. The judge said is that you cannot deny a right to selected individuals or groups without showing that actual harm would ensue if that right were not denied.

And this is where supporters of Proposition 8 and opponents of same sex marriage in general have failed miserably. They have been unable to provide any evidence of any actual harm that might ensue except for vague and even ridiculous fear mongering that allowing same sex marriage was some kind of slippery slope that would eventually result in people marrying their farm animals. (Tom Tomorrow’s cartoon from 2004 addressing this issue is still relevant.) As the judge concluded, “Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license.”

The idea that one group of people can, under the guise of protecting marriage in what they claim is its most wholesome form, introduce conditions to deny the right of marriage to another group is neatly skewered in this Onion parody.

New Law Would Ban Marriages Between People Who Don’t Love Each Other

It seems pretty obvious that opposition to same sex springs entirely from religious beliefs (because some ‘holy books’ condemn homosexuality) or from some vague moral principles that can usually be traced back to those religious beliefs or because opponents think that gay sex is somehow icky. But it is not the role of the courts to adjudicate moral or religious issues or to pander to the prejudices of people, even if they are in the majority. As the judge said in his ruling, “A state’s interest in an enactment must of course be secular in nature. The state does not have an interest in enforcing private moral or religious beliefs without an accompanying secular purpose.”

What puzzles me are those people who are willing to devote so much time and energy to opposing same sex marriage. What kind of person tries to deny other people rights that they themselves enjoy? People on either side of the gun control debate (for example) are campaigning for results that apply to everyone equally, including themselves. Same sex marriage opponents have no such redeeming quality. They want all the secular and material benefits that marriage provides them while denying them to others.

While I have generally been gloomy about the direction that the US is heading in political and economic matters and in civil liberties, providing equal rights to gay people is one area where I am very optimistic. The country is definitely moving in the right direction, not least because of demographic changes. Young people simply do not see the point in discriminating against gay people.

The opponents of equal rights for gays are well and truly losing this war, even if they win some minor skirmishes here and there. My advice to them is to concede defeat gracefully. For the times, they are a’changing.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the verdict

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The puzzling opposition to red light and speed cameras

I am often taken by surprise at the kinds of things that people get really upset about. For example, many cities and states have recently taken to placing cameras strategically at various points to catch speeders and people who run red lights. The camera takes a photo of an offender and you get the citation in the mail. I didn’t think too much about this innovation and when I did it seemed to me to make a lot of sense. At the very least, it releases police to do more important work like catching criminals. It seems like such a waste to have police spend huge amounts of time lurking just to catch the occasional speeder.

Furthermore, the camera system seems to have the advantage of complete impartiality. It does not care what kind of car committed the offense, whether it is a dull old minivan or a flashy red sports car. More importantly, it does not discriminate among drivers either. The camera does not know or care if you are old or young, rich or poor, black or white, attractive or homely, well-spoken or inarticulate. It does not care if you are a person of influence or a nobody. Cameras do not profile people.

In other words, these cameras allow us to actually practice the ideals of justice, completely blind to everything except whether one has committed the offense or not. And yet, these cameras are generating huge amounts of controversy with citizen petitions and referenda demanding their removal and state legislature passing laws banning them. And since the people leading this charge tend to be those who belong to the middle and upper classes, their voices are, of course, heeded. What explains this fervor against something so reasonable?

Some people object to the red light cameras by claiming that they are designed to trap people, because the duration of the yellow lights is made too short to allow one to stop safely without being rear-ended. But this seems to me to be a technical issue that can be resolved easily with proper guidelines and standards. Also, drivers are supposed to keep a safe distance behind the car in front to allow for such sudden stops.

Others argue against the cameras on the grounds that they were installed as revenue generators rather than to encourage safer driving. So what if they are? I do not understand this objection. After all, the laws and fines were already there. No one seemed to have any problem with them being enacted. It is strange that what people are objecting to is them being enforced more vigorously and efficiently. The fact is that these camera are catching people who are violating the law. If people want to defy their municipality’s cunning plan to increase revenues, all they have to do is obey existing traffic laws.

And the laws that are being violated are hardly unreasonable laws. No one will deny that people who speed and run red lights are placing other people at risk. Nor are the laws so secret and subtle that one does not know one is violating them. All drivers know what they should do when approaching a traffic light. In the US especially, speed limit signs are ubiquitous and one has little excuse for not knowing what it is on any given stretch of road.

I was really puzzled by this opposition to traffic cameras until I read an article by George Monbiot in the London Guardian discussing similar puzzling opposition in England.

In every other sector, Conservatives insist that it is daft for human beings to do the work machines could do. In every other instance they demand that police officers be freed from mindless tasks to spend more time preventing serious crime. In all other cases they urge more rigorous enforcement of the law. On every other occasion they insist that local authorities should raise revenue and make their schemes pay for themselves. But it all goes into reverse when they are exposed to the beams of a fiendish instrument of mind control.

The moment they pass through its rays, Conservatives turn from penny-pinching authoritarians into spendthrift hoodie-huggers. They demand that a job now performed consistently and cheaply by machines should be handed back to human beings, who will do it patchily and at great expense. They urge that police officers be diverted from preventing serious crime to stand in for lumps of metal. They insist that those who break the law should not be punished or even caught. They clamour for councils to abandon a scheme that almost pays for itself, and replace it with one that requires constant subsidies.

Monbiot has a convincing theory as to why traffic cameras cause people to reverse almost every principle they claim to uphold, despite the fact that such cameras lead to reductions in traffic accidents and mortality rates. Monbiot argues that it is the very impartiality of the cameras that, rather than being seen as the good thing it undoubtedly is, is causing the opposition. Most people think that they somehow have an edge that they can use to escape paying the fine if they are caught by real live traffic police. They think they are important enough or look respectable or influential or attractive enough, or that they can manufacture some plausible excuse, that will get them off the hook. It is just the young and poor and people of color who tend to be out of luck when it comes to finding ways to escape.

In other words, traffic cameras commit the worst offense: they do not respect class privilege. I have to agree with Monbiot’s conclusion, though in the US I would expand his group from ‘conservatives’ to all members of the better-off classes: “The real reason why Conservatives hate the enforcement of speed limits is that this is one of the few laws which is as likely to catch the rich as the poor: newspaper editors and council leaders are as vulnerable as anyone else. The Conservative reaction to speed cameras suggests that they love laws, except those which apply to them.”

POST SCRIPT: Threatening the 14th amendment

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Film review: No Country for Old Men and the Coen brothers’ oeuvre

You have to grant writers-directors-producers Joel and Ethan Coen one thing: they make interesting films. Not for them the formulaic, genre-tailored approach to filmmaking. Not for them endless sequels to hits or even to follow up a hit film with one similar in style. Each film seems to go off in a different direction from the previous one and stands alone. They take risks and for that quality alone one has to respect them.

Having said all that, the results are a mixed bag and I cannot say that I have enjoyed all the films that I have seen of their oeuvre: Raising Arizona (1987), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), No Country for Old Men (2007), Burn After Reading (2008), and A Serious Man (2009).

I tend to prefer the more lighthearted films in that list. Raising Arizona (made before Nicholas Cage became insufferably annoying) was good, as was The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Burn After Reading. The Hudsucker Proxy was passable but A Serious Man was a serious disappointment.

One thing about their films that I dislike, especially the later ones, is their tendency to end abruptly, leaving multiple story threads unresolved. I know that real life does not have everything tied up neatly at the end like an Agatha Christie novel, and I can live with some level of lack of resolution but No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man all left me feeling annoyed at the end at their seeming pointlessness because even the main storyline is unresolved. (I should have really liked the last one because the main character is a physics professor and I could actually understand the quantum mechanics equations that he wrote on the board. But even that feeling of smug superiority was insufficient to make me like the film.)

Some of their films, especially Fargo and No Country for Old Men, had some seriously violent scenes that don’t appeal to me but the former film was much better in that it had a much better story and more plausible characters. I had avoided seeing No Country for Old Men for a long time because of its reputed violence and also because it was based on a book by Cormac McCarthy. The latter fact was greatly emphasized in advertising for the film because McCarthy is an acclaimed writer for his depictions of the modern American southwest. But I had read his highly praised novel All the Pretty Horses and did not like it at all and had to really struggle to complete it. But I finally decided to watch the film since people were speaking so highly of it.

My misgivings were justified. No Country for Old Men is a pretty bad film. After seeing it, I had the same feeling as after seeing the highly touted Pulp Fiction (1994), a film that turned me off Quentin Tarantino for good. Both films were praised by critics as masterpieces but I thought both were awful. What was the point of all that blood and gore? Just to sicken viewers? While violence does not appeal to me, it is not an automatic disqualifier. David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) was actually pretty good because the violence was necessary to drive the story forward.

I have mentioned before that one thing that really annoys me is implausibility, and violent films are particularly prone to this failing because the characters have amazing self-healing capacities. Lead characters may be beaten to a pulp but the wounds and bruises disappear remarkably quickly. I can overlook this if the films are really well made but if not, they quickly degenerate into farce.

It seems like filmmakers have found the secret to rapid recovery from life-threatening trauma: put on a new set of clothes. In No Country for Old Men, the Josh Brolin character is shot and is bleeding profusely, is nearly dead, but manages to make it to a hospital. After being treated, he immediately discharges himself, staggers out, goes to a store, buys new clothes, and within hours is walking around without any hint that he had almost died. Meanwhile, Javier Bardem, playing a psychopathic killer and drug dealer chasing the Brolin character, is shot in the leg and is bleeding badly. He limps into a pharmacy, and while everyone is distracted by an explosion he created, swiftly collects all manner of medicines and bandages, goes back to his motel, and treats his own injury by giving himself anesthetics and antibiotics and even extracting the bullet. (It was incredible that he knew exactly what medical items he needed, where to find them on the pharmacy shelves, and what he should do to treat himself. Is he supposed to have gone to medical school before becoming a killer?) Then a few hours later he also gets a new set of clothes and resumes his murderous spree without any sign of discomfort. It was at this point that the film jumped the shark and I could not take it seriously anymore.

In another implausibility, the Bardem character leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake, many of them killed using a device used to slaughter cows that requires him to carry with him a bulky metal cylinder that presumably contains compressed gas. And yet he moves openly, even going back soon to the scenes of his previous murders, without even being pursued by police, let alone confronted by them. He was supposed to be an evil and sinister man who has no compunction about killing but the whole thing was so over the top that towards the end of the film I started laughing at its absurdities, never a good sign for a film that is supposed to be serious. Or was it the intention of the filmmakers to make a tongue-in-cheek spoof of violent films?

(Oddly enough, just the day before I had watched Bardem play the milquetoast highly romantic lead in Love in the Time of Cholera, based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The contrast in roles was striking.)

Will I watch the next Coen brothers’ film that comes out? It depends. I think the Coens have a great eye for the absurd and for unusual and quirky characters. In No Country for Old Men, they let excess lead to unintended absurdities and self-parody. But since they do not repeat themselves, I am hoping that this misstep does not occur again.

POST SCRIPT: Annoying actors

In the above review, I mentioned in passing that Nicholas Cage is insufferably annoying. His appearance in a film makes it very likely that I’ll give it a miss. There are other actors who fall into the same category: Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Robin Williams, and Renee Zellweger immediately come to mind.

I am curious if readers of this blog have similar strong dislikes. If so, please post them in the comments.

I must emphasize that what makes these people annoying is their on screen persona and not anything to do with their lives off-screen. For all I know, the people I listed may be exemplary human beings, perfectly charming in person and kind to children and animals. Conversely, Mel Gibson seems like an absolutely appalling person and yet he is not annoying on screen. Tom Cruise seems a little weird but has an agreeable on-screen persona.

Greedy old people

I recently turned 60. I don’t pay much attention to my birthdays but this one is a little special because it signifies that by almost any measure I am now officially an old person, a member of a group a subset of whom has been annoying the hell out of me for a long time: greedy old people.

Let me make it quite clear whom this rant is targeting. It is not aimed at old people who after many decades of hard work are even now struggling to make ends meet on their meager savings and social security checks, some of whom have to continue working well past normal retirement age at dead-end and physically demanding jobs which take a toll on their bodies, in order to obtain the basic necessities of life, such as food and shelter. Those people can leave the room because my words are not aimed at them.

This rant is targeted at those well-off people, who have done well financially and can live comfortably in their old age and yet are constantly on their guard to protect their own standard of living and fight off any changes that might affect them negatively in the slightest, even if those changes might benefit others in great need.

Recently I seem to see an explosion of these people and it is an ugly sight. These people seem to feel that they are entitled to a life of luxury in their old age. They seem to have this sense that such a life is due to them because they have ‘worked hard’ and ‘played by the rules’, though their hard work does not come close to the difficulty of the work done by most poor people.

This increasingly vociferous and obnoxious group of elderly people seem to feel that they deserve to retire to a life of endless golf and travel and restaurant meals and cruises and card games and all the other symbols of the good life. Very few things annoy me more than the spectacle of such well-to-do retirees in their resort complexes complaining about their taxes going towards improving the conditions of those much less fortunate than themselves. They recoil with horror at the words ‘socialism’ and the ‘welfare state’ without realizing how much they themselves benefited from such policies in the past, and do so even now in the form of Medicare and Social Security.

The health care debate brought out some of the worst in this crowd of greedy old people. Some of these people were adamantly against the idea of expanding Medicare for all and other forms of expanding health care access to everyone because they feared that this increased pool of people able to seek treatment might mean longer waits for them to see a doctor. So in order to hoard the benefits of Medicare just for themselves, they were willing to sacrifice the chance for others to get any treatment at all. I am fed up with hearing them complain about the ‘doughnut hole’ in covering prescription drug costs, especially since a single-payer health care system (that they opposed because it was ‘socialized medicine’) would have eliminated that problem. Such people make me sick.

Sam Smith highlights this hypocrisy:

People who complain about the welfare state remind me of the man from Virginia who went to college on the GI Bill and bought his first house with a VA loan. When a hurricane struck he got federal disaster aid. When he got sick he was treated at a veteran’s hospital. When he was laid off he received unemployment insurance and then got a SBA loan to start his own business. His bank funds were protected under federal deposit insurance laws. Now he’s retired and on social security and Medicare. The other day he got into his car, drove the federal interstate to the railroad station, took Amtrak to Washington and went to Capitol Hill to ask his congressman to get the government off his back.

One of the reasons I detest the so-called ‘tea party’ movement is that its ranks, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll, seem to be full of just such people, those who are older, richer, and mean-spirited, who want to hold on to their own benefits while cutting those that they no longer need but serve others. They do not seem to care if public education and public services deteriorate, as long as the grass in their retirement communities is well manicured.

[D]espite their anti-spending rhetoric, Tea Party supporters told pollsters that two of the federal government’s most money-consuming programs, Social Security and Medicare, are worth the cost to taxpayers (maybe not a surprise, given the Tea Partiers’ average age).

While the Tea Partiers take pains to avoid appearing racist, they’re still operating at the nexus of class and race. This seems to have reached a head with healthcare reform. The UW survey’s director, Christopher Parker, summed it up this way: “While it’s clear that the Tea Party in one sense is about limited government, it’s also clear from the data that people who want limited government don’t want certain services for certain kinds of people. Those services include health care.” (my italics)

These people are hypocrites of the worst sort. They take for granted all the benefits that society has provided them, and that they enjoyed when they were starting out in life and needed them, and now think that they made it on their own and are quite comfortable demanding that they be no longer available to future generations. They preach the virtues of the simple life and hardship, but it is only for others. And because this group is wealthy, noisy, and votes disproportionately, they get endlessly pandered to by politicians and covered by the media, breeding in them an even greater sense of entitlement. These people are a menace to the well being of society, disproportionately sucking up resources that should be distributed more equitably to the elderly poor, the sick, children, and young people starting out in life.

Such old people should count themselves lucky that they were able to work all their lives in jobs that enabled them to have a comfortable retirement, unlike many poor people who worked as hard or even harder than them but lived a life of constant worry and stress from paycheck to paycheck, trying to make enough money to feed and shelter their families and give their children a decent education. It is the latter people who really deserve a worry-free retirement to at least partially compensate for the hardships they endured all their lives.

So listen up, you greedy well-off old people! You do not seem to realize that you are the ones who should complain the least. We are all lucky just to be alive at all. To have lived long lives in fairly good health and without serious deprivation is to have been extremely lucky. To want to hold on to your privileges without sharing those benefits with people who have never enjoyed them is to be piggishly greedy. You should be ashamed of yourselves. So stop whining and shut up.

Thank you.

End of rant.

POST SCRIPT: Those were the days?

And spare me the justifications for the self-centered attitude of greedy old people based on the hardships they allegedly experienced when they were young. Even if people did have a hard life earlier and had to struggle to get to where they are now (though that too is often exaggerated), that still does not justify greed and selfishness.

This classic sketch comedy called The Four Yorkshiremen captures this mentality perfectly.

What is gained by cooking the books?

In the previous two posts (here and here) I discussed how the government cooks the books, particularly with regard to unemployment, inflation, economic growth, and budget deficits, to give people a much rosier picture of the state of the economy than is the case. What is to be gained by this and who benefits?

In his article titled NUMBERS RACKET: Why the economy is worse than we know in the May 2008 issue of Harper’s magazine, Kevin Phillips says:

[S]ince the 1960s, Washington has been forced to gull its citizens and creditors by debasing official statistics: the vital instruments with which the vigor and muscle of the American economy are measured. The effect, over the past twenty five years, has been to create a false sense of economic achievement and rectitude, allowing us to maintain artificially low interest rates, massive government borrowing, and a dangerous reliance on mortgage and financial debt even as real economic growth has been slower than claimed… the use of deceptive statistics has played its own vital role in convincing many Americans that the U.S. economy is stronger, fairer, more productive, more dominant, and richer with opportunity than it actually is.

What is the reality? Phillips says that “Based on the criteria in place a quarter century ago, today’s U.S. unemployment rate is somewhere between 9 percent and 12 percent; the inflation rate is as high as 7 or even 10 percent; economic growth since the recession of 2001 has been mediocre, despite a huge surge in the wealth and incomes of the superrich, and we are falling back into recession.” (Note that Phillips was writing this in early 2008 just at the onset of the current recession when the ‘official’ unemployment rate was around 5% or half the current value. The real unemployment rate now is probably around 20%.)

Cooking the books to make things appear rosier is not done just for psychological reasons, to make people feel good about the state of the economy. While it does help the government politically if the public thinks that the economy is growing, inflation is low, and the government is living within its means, the main reason for cooking the books is that these numbers carry with them serious financial and budgetary implications.

Of them, the most important is the inflation rate. For one thing, social security benefits increases are tied to inflation rates. By making CPI rates seem low, the government can pay seniors less. Philips quotes economic analyst John Williams who says that “if you were to peel back changes that were made in the CPI going back to the Carter years, you’d see that the CPI would now be 3.5 percent to 4 percent higher”- meaning that, because of lost CPI increases, Social Security checks would be 70 percent greater than they currently are.” So by keeping CPI numbers artificially low, the government saves money (which it then spends on wars and tax cuts for the rich) at the expense of poor seniors who are being gradually squeezed into greater poverty but may not understand why that is happening since their benefit payouts are supposed to be rising along with with the cost of living.

But in addition to that, inflation rates are closely tied to interest rates. By keeping interest rates low, the government and business can borrow money cheaply. Borrowing is the only way that American government can finance its operating deficits, continue to fund its endless expensive wars, and maintain the oligarchic looting that has enriched a few while impoverishing the many. Low interest rates were also the basis of the housing bubble. If official inflation rates rise to their real value, the edifice comes crashing down. The collapse of the subprime market was an indicator of the underlying fear that the inflation rate, and along with it interest rates, was going to rise. As Phillips says:

Undermeasurement of inflation, in particular, hangs over our heads like a guillotine. To acknowledge it would send interest rates climbing, and thereby would endanger the viability of the massive buildup of public and private debt (from less than $11 trillion in 1987 to $49 trillion last year) that props up the American economy. Moreover, the rising cost of pensions, benefits, barrowing, and interest payments-all indexed or related to inflation-could join with the cost of financial bailouts to overwhelm the federal budget. As inflation and interest rates have been kept artificially suppressed, the United States has been indentured to its volatile financial sector, with its predilection for leverage and risky buccaneering. Arguably, the unraveling has already begun.

As Robert Hardaway, a professor at the University of Denver, pointed out last September, the subprime lending crisis “can be directly traced back to the [1983] BLS decision to exclude the price of housing from the CPI… With the illusion of low inflation inducing lenders to offer 6 percent loans, not only has speculation run rampant on the expectations of ever-rising home prices, but home buyers by the millions have been tricked into buying homes even though they only qualified for the teaser rates.”

The only way that the US government can continue on its reckless path is if other entities are willing to loan it money by buying its securities. While it can use the social security trust fund to do so (because it controls it), it needs other nations and their sovereign funds to also buy them. In this, the US currently benefits from the dollar still being the world’s reserve currency. If other countries start to hold back from buying US treasury bonds, the government might have to lure them with higher interest rates. That would make budget deficits even worse and rapidly create problems with the ability to repay.

So where are we headed? Paul Craig Roberts, a former editor of the Wall Street Journal and an assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury during the Reagan administration, says that the outlook is gloomy.

With the US bankrupting itself in wars, America’s largest creditor, China, has taken issue with America’s credit rating. The head of China’s largest credit rating agency declared: “The US is insolvent and faces bankruptcy as a pure debtor nation.”

On July 12, Niall Ferguson, an historian of empire, warned that the American empire could collapse suddenly from weakness brought on by its massive debts and that such a collapse could be closer than we think.

The sense of foreboding is widespread, spanning the ideological spectrum. David Stockman, budget director during the time that Ronald Reagan was indulging his supply-side fantasies, thinks the day of reckoning is nigh and that the present Republican leadership is captive to “the delusion that the economy will outgrow the deficit if plied with enough tax cuts… It is not surprising, then, that during the last bubble (from 2002 to 2006) the top 1 percent of Americans — paid mainly from the Wall Street casino — received two-thirds of the gain in national income, while the bottom 90 percent — mainly dependent on Main Street’s shrinking economy — got only 12 percent.”

Paul Krugman also sees disaster looming, saying, “I’m starting to have a sick feeling about prospects for American workers — but not, or not entirely, for the reasons you might think. Yes, growth is slowing, and the odds are that unemployment will rise, not fall, in the months ahead. That’s bad. But what’s worse is the growing evidence that our governing elite just doesn’t care — that a once-unthinkable level of economic distress is in the process of becoming the new normal.” (my italics)

With the oligarchy having its hands in the national till and looting it for their own benefit, I think collapse is inevitable. You can postpone the say of reckoning by cooking the books, but reality will eventually catch up with you. It is for all these reasons that I think the US is in serious trouble unless it changes course.

POST SCRIPT: The oligarchy’s solution to every problem


Yet more fiddling of economic numbers

While the unemployment and CPI figures have been fiddled with to make them appear smaller (as I discussed in yesterday’s post), the number that measures the size of the economy called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has also been fiddled with to make it appear larger than it is and thus appearing to show robust growth.

Kevin Philips, in an article titled NUMBERS RACKET: Why the economy is worse than we know in the May 2008 issue of Harper’s magazine describes the fiddles done with the GDP, which itself was adopted in 1991 when the previous measure of the economy the Gross National Product (GNP) became unpalatable due to rising international debt costs. One of the changes that made the GDP larger consisted of adding to it what is known as ‘imputed’ income to people’s actual income. Imputed income is what one is perceived to get because one is not directly paying for something. This includes “the imputed income from living in one’s own home, or the benefit one receives from a free checking account, or the value of employer-paid health- and life-insurance premiums.” In 2007, this phantom income added as much as 15% to the GDP.

One other major finagle occurred with Lyndon Johnson who was the first to create the ‘unified budget’ that added the surpluses in the social security account to the deficits in the government’s operating budget to make the latter seem smaller than they really were. That practice continues today. It was this disguise that enabled Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and the Congresses of their time, aided and abetted by then Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, to enact huge tax cuts for the rich.

The scam went like this. By creating a phony scare in the early 1980s (similar to the one we are seeing again now) that social security was going broke, they raised payroll taxes. Since there is a cap on the income that is subject to these taxes (in 2009 the cap was $106,800) most of the money in this trust fund comes from the poor and middle class, making it a regressive tax. This increase in payroll taxes resulted in huge surpluses in the social security current account that, because of the ‘unified’ budget, gave people the impression that there was plenty of money in the public treasury and hid the fact that the country was actually operating in the red. The government then rammed through tax cuts for the rich that used up this bogus ‘surplus’. So basically, the money that middle class and poor people were putting into their social security retirement trust fund was being used to provide huge tax cuts for the rich. This has to be one of the biggest swindles in American history. (See David Cay Johnson, Perfectly Legal: The covert system to rig our tax system to benefit the super rich – and cheat everybody else (2003), p. 123 for an excellent analysis on how this racket was perpetrated.)

This was a clear swindle knowingly perpetrated by the oligarchy. When it comes to fiddling the numbers on unemployment, CPI, and GDP, Phillips says, “Let me stipulate: the deception arose gradually, at no stage stemming from any concerted or cynical scheme. There was no grand conspiracy, just accumulating opportunisms. As we will see, the political blame for the slow, piecemeal distortion is bipartisan-both Democratic and Republican administrations had a hand in the abetting of political dishonesty, reckless debt, and a casino-like financial sector.” I am not as charitable as he in dismissing knowing cynical motives.

Phillips makes the correct point that the people who prepare government statistics are professionals who are careful, in their actual reports, to accurately explain what they are doing, at least in the footnotes, so that the reality is there for anyone willing to read carefully. But governments have realized that most reporters in the mainstream media are too lazy or stupid or ignorant or stressed for time to do this kind of careful reading and analysis and instead simply swallow the summaries, abstracts, and press releases put out by high-level government officials, thus allowing themselves to be manipulated. Reporters would do a much better job if they stopped trying to curry favor with high-level people and instead focused their efforts on reading official documents carefully and cultivating low and mid-level officials and whistle-blowers who can tell them exactly what is going on. The latter have less of an ideological or political ax to grind and thus are more likely to tell the unvarnished truth.

Public ignorance of the true state of the economy benefits the government. Phillips adds:

Readers should ask themselves how much angrier the electorate might be if the media, over the past five years, had been citing 8 percent unemployment (instead of 5 percent), 5 percent inflation (instead of 2 percent) and average annual growth in the I percent range (instead of the 3-4 percent range). We might ponder as well who profits from a low-growth U.S. economy hidden under statistical camouflage. Might it be Washington politicos and affluent elites, anxious to mislead voters, coddle the financial markers, and tamp down expensive cost-of-living increases for wages and pensions?

Phillips has to be given credit for warning us in early 2008, before the total collapse of the housing market, of the danger of mortgage debt. He was, however, wrong in predicting that official unemployment figures of 8 percent might make the electorate angry. We are now close to 10 percent with little signs of widespread outrage. This might change with time because the current recession has resulted in unemployment staying high for much longer than previous recessions. I am sure that all of us personally know people who have been laid off and are finding it hard to get work comparable to what they did before.

Next: What is gained by cooking the books?

POST SCRIPT: The Big Brother state

A truly disturbing post from Glenn Greenwald on the assault on our privacy by a government-private sector collaboration, done in order to circumvent laws. I will not excerpt it because you should really read the whole thing.

[UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald has posted an update that the claims of Project Vigilant are highly exaggerated and they may just be publicity seekers.]