Sunday, March 29, 2009

As more information dribbles out, the futility of torture is the inevitable conclusion

Washington Post has an article on the valuable information obtained from the torture of Abu Zubaydah, supposedly an al Qaeda high operative.

Anyone who is willing to consider that the purpose of interrogation is not retribution or revenge, and it is valuable information, would recognize that torture doesn't work. It can even be counterproductive. So, the conclusion of this article should not be surprising. It is, however, something that will force the Obama Administration to either come clean about it, or continue to stonewall as the previous Administration did. There is indication in this article that the Administration is not moving swiftly to clear stuff up. I can understand why, this is going to look back, proof that the US tortured and we will take a hit. And politically it will be hard to prosecute former Bush Administration officials. Maybe Spain will do it for us.

Some excerpts from the article:

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu
Zubaida's tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials
who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained
through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful
information from Abu Zubaida -- chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates
-- was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.
These revelations could lead to all of the folks we have detained getting off...some probably should, but others, no... nevertheless

Others in the U.S. government, including CIA officials, fear the
consequences of taking a man into court who was waterboarded on largely false
assumptions, because of the prospect of interrogation methods being revealed in
detail and because of the chance of an acquittal that might set a legal
precedent. Instead, they would prefer to send him to Jordan.

Of course, there are others who disagree and I wonder if we will ever get a definitive understanding of this shadowy world..I doubt it if Congress doesn't investigate it.

It's simply wrong to suggest that Abu Zubaida wasn't intimately involved with
al-Qaeda," said a U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of
anonymity because much about Abu Zubaida remains classified. "He was one of the
terrorist organization's key facilitators, offered new insights into how the
organization operated, provided critical information on senior al-Qaeda figures
. . . and identified hundreds of al-Qaeda members. How anyone can minimize that
information -- some of the best we had at the time on al-Qaeda -- is beyond me."

It is important to keep in mind that it is not that Zubaydah is innocent, he isn't, though he may not be quite the bad guy he was billed. He did provide significant and useful information, but not because of torture.

Abu Zubaida quickly told U.S. interrogators of Mohammed and of others he
knew to be in al-Qaeda, and he revealed the plans of the low-level operatives
who fled Afghanistan with him. Some were intent on returning to target American
forces with bombs; others wanted to strike on American soil again, according to
military documents and law enforcement sources.

Such intelligence was significant but not blockbuster material. Frustrated, the Bush administration ratcheted up the pressure -- for the first time approving the use of
increasingly harsh interrogations, including waterboarding.

It is disappointing that revelations like this don't create more anger. AIG bonuses paid to execs who had nothing to do with the AIG mess, but were brought in to clean up the mess raises all kinds of anger, but not this.

Monday, March 23, 2009

First bank and financial institutions, then manufacturing and eventually everyone?

A reader left a comment on my last post, "Mob Rule in Congress" supporting something being done with the bonus paid to top talent at AIG. While I agree that this problem exacerbates the social problem of increasing inequality, the idea that Congress should do something unconsitutitonal (in reponse to anger and not the issue my reader raises, growing inequality) I still disagree (strongly) with. why? because will you ever see an angry populace demanding a pay increase for anyone? No. Anytime financial compensation gets into the public view, the resopnse is negative. Whether it be for CEOs, or for teachers, or for police, for legislators, anyone....the public gets miffed about it. I think it has to do with the growing inequality, but the answer is not to pass legislation one "high-paying" job at a time to curb the problem.

The angry mob should be largely ignored...I doubt it will carrry over to the next election.

the growing inequality should be dealt with by a more progressive tax structure (though I detest the idea of increasing taxes on work....let those who performed for their bonus have it, but those who just reap the dividends of others' gains, should be taxed at least as much as work).

Pass legislation making unions more relevant, easier to form, collectively bargain all state jobs...though a good argument can be made not too, but I'd still support it.

Get the nurses, accountants, police, firefighters, teachers, dental hygienists, SECRETARIES, all unionized, and that would help narrow the income inequality gap very quickly. And it would not be under goverment action.

But, apparently President Obama is not reading my blog. Because he is going to try to legislate compensation. One could argue that since the government owns so much of these banks, that they are the new boss, but it looks like more than that: Here is the full article. Here is the excerpt:

One proposal could impose greater requirements on company boards to tie
executive compensation more closely to corporate performance and to take other
steps to ensure that compensation was aligned with the financial interest of the
And why only tie executives? why not junior exectuvies, secretaries? Why not me, a college professor to how many student credit hours I generate? Doctors are billable hours folks, why not me, or anyone? Nope, I don't agree with this, it is not for the defensible reasons (decreasing social inequality), it is for purely political reasons and of the worst kind--anger. this is not leadership. This is little different than what George Bush did with the Iraq war.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mob Rule in the Congress

All the public outrage at AIG paying bonuses to its top people with public money lead Congress to pass an unconstitutional law to tax those bonuses at a 90% tax rate. While I can appreciate the political win this was for Dems, because the angry public will like what Congress did, but half of Republicans voted for a 90% tax bracket. Genius.

Nevertheless, passing an obvious unconstitutional law, even though it will never get through the Senate, is a momentous waste of time. There is serious stuff that needs to be done. Anger like this is a flash in the pan, these political stunts don't address the anger that will still be there a month from now.

We blew up our constitution in a fit of fear following 9/11 and now anger over legal employment contracts, lead to a willingness to violate the constitution. Shameful.

President Obama nailed it on the head on Leno's show, these practices are legal. And that is a problem.

But, if President Obama thinks he can handle all this stuff with laws, he is nuts. The money will find a way.

The AIG bailout is a distraction from the much more serious issues facing us. Even the price tag of the bonus is dwarfed by the what, trillion that the government has printed? Here comes inflation to eat away at my retirement...what the market downturn didn't get, inflation can eat away at, too. Yippee.

I hope President Obama can fix this mess. But, I don't think anyone, really, if they are honest, really knows how to do it. There are ideologues of all stripes, but they operate more on maintaing the truth of their ideology than fixing the problem.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Morality isn't for the weak

This article in the NYT Review of Books is something for all of us to be ashamed of. The US public should demand an investigation and prosecutions of those responsible.

Don't shrug your shoulders, read it

An excerpt:

Two and a half months after Abu Zubaydah woke up strapped to a bed in the white room, the interrogation resumed "with more intensity than before":

Two black wooden boxes were brought into the room outside my cell. One was tall, slightly higher than me and narrow. Measuring perhaps in area [3 1/2 by 2 1/2 feet by 6 1/2 feet high]. The other was shorter, perhaps only [3 1/2 feet] in height. I was taken out of my cell and one of the interrogators wrapped a towel around my neck, they then used it to swing me around and smash me repeatedly against the hard walls of the room. I was also repeatedly slapped in the face....

I was then put into the tall black box for what I think was about one and a half to two hours. The box was totally black on the inside as well as the outside.... They put a cloth or cover over the outside of the box to cut out the light and restrict my air supply. It was difficult to breathe. When I was let out of the box I saw that one of the walls of the room had been covered with plywood sheeting. From now on it was against this wall that I was then smashed with the towel around my neck. I think that the plywood was put there to provide some absorption of the impact of my body. The interrogators realized that smashing me against the hard wall would probably quickly result in physical injury.

This is real, not some fantasy entertainmment from the Fox Network.

How about ‘hoping’ for greater good to prevail?

previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 3/15/09

“I hope he fails.” These four words, uttered by conservative political entertainer Rush Limbaugh during his radio broadcast on Jan. 16, 2009, referring to the imminent Obama presidency, and later reiterated at the Feb. 28, 2009, CPAC meetings aimed specifically at the stimulus package, has set off something of a firestorm.

I think it is also important to include this from Mr. Limbaugh’s January broadcast, after linking liberalism and socialism and implying that President-elect Obama is a socialist, he said: “So I can answer it, I hope he fails. And that would be the most outrageous (italics added) thing anybody in this climate could say. Shows you just how far gone we are. Well, I know, I know. I am the last man standing.”

“Most outrageous” has more to do with Mr. Limbaugh’s statement than his likely views on Mr. Obama or politics in general. I sometimes wonder why no one has ever thought Mr. Limbaugh is just the Elmer Gantry of conservative politics.

There is no doubt that Mr. Limbaugh’s “most outrageous” remarks have stirred the pot. Democrats and liberals are reaping some benefit from the controversy, but the real food fight is among Republicans and conservatives. As I write this, Newt Gingrich is squaring off against Mr. Limbaugh while Michael Steele, Chairperson of the RNC, continues his fence straddling (he seems not good at it and has fallen onto the fence several times likely damaging sensitive aspects of his standing among Republicans and conservatives).

What prompted me to write this essay are Web polls, similar to the one this paper began running, asking if it was unpatriotic to hope President Obama fails. I think polls like this are meaningless, usually leading to wasted energy that could be focused on dealing with the problems at hand. Just as supporters of President Bush’s controversial invasion of Iraq silenced (patriotic) criticism of that decision with attacks on critics’ patriotism, some Democrats, including those in President Obama’s administration are doing the same. Partisans point fingers and justify their actions with, “well, you did it when you were in power.” These exchanges are reminiscent of a schoolyard except no teacher steps in to remind the children that “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

I do think, with no evidence that I can marshal here, that there is a sector of Americans who believe to criticize the president, regardless of party, is unpatriotic. I think they are wrong, for what that is worth, but it would be an interesting poll that some news organization should conduct.

Fox News sponsored a poll of 900 registered voters in August of 2006 and found that 7 percent of Republicans, 34 percent of independents, and 51 percent of Democrats did not want President Bush to succeed. Overall, 63 percent wanted him to succeed despite President Bush’s approval ratings in the 30s at the time. This suggests a more sophisticated understanding of issues than we are seeing now, or at least at how they are being framed.

A person “hoping” that President Obama fails is different than someone believing the president is wrong. I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny. I don’t hope it doesn’t make a delivery at my house on Easter. To “hope” that something doesn’t happen (or to hope it does) suggests some level of belief in the possibility. Hence, Rush Limbaugh hopes President Obama fails because he recognizes the possibility that he could succeed. It is not that Mr. Limbaugh believes Mr. Obama will fail, it is that he recognizes that he could be successful, thus he “hopes” he fails.

Among President Obama’s goals is to stabilize and unfreeze the credit markets. I cannot imagine that many would disagree with that goal. Since no one really knows how to solve the problem, how we get there is going to cause disagreement. To “hope” that the plan fails, seems to me, to put partisan differences above the greater good. To believe the plan will fail or have deleterious side effects is, for some, intellectual honesty, as would be to also admit, “I hope I am wrong.”

Hoping that any president fails isn’t unpatriotic; however, it is intellectually dishonest.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The China Syndrome

Remember when the "China Syndrome" referred to the idea of a nuclear power plant "melting down?" That movie sparked our fears of Three Mile Islands occuring (and then we had Chernobyl). But I digress before I gress.....

The new China Syndrome can be found here In short, China is worried about its investments in US debt. Read about how US banks are beginning to reject the money from the US govt because of meddlesome "strings." Yeah, our Chinese creditors (soon to be called "overlords", ugh, would that be landlords) are nervous. Some excerpts (and commentary)

China, the U.S. government’s largest creditor, is “worried” about its holdings
of Treasuries and wants assurances that the investment is safe, Premier Wen Jiabao said.
I'm sure we can reassure the Premier. President Obama is very reassuring. He's a confidence builder. Will that be enough?

The Premier has specific requests:

“I request the U.S. to maintain its good credit, to honor its promises and to
guarantee the safety of China’s assets."

We've made promises? Different than to anyone else who buys T-bills? Uh, well, we could put an armed guard on the "assets"

For those who might be wondering what do the Chinese have to do with our spending spree, the Chinese provide more than just cheap (in so many ways) goods for our Wal-Marts.

“China’s purchases of American debt have been one of the few bolts keeping
the wheels on the global economy,” said Phil Deans, a professor
of international affairs at Temple University in Tokyo. “If China stops buying
where does Obama’s borrowing to fund his stimulus come from?”

Oh. I get it. So, the Chinese don't realize that they are caught in a gordian knot. If they stop purchasing our debt, their past purchases degrade....makes you want to go back to being the isolated exotic country it used to be, doesn't it.?.

Not quite afraid yet? What is here to compare to a nuclear plant melting down, how about this:

China should seek to “fend off risks” as it diversifies its $1.95 trillion
in foreign-exchange reserves, Wen said. Yu Yongding, a former
adviser to the central bank, said in an interview on Feb. 10 that the nation
should seek guarantees that its Treasury holdings won’t be eroded by “reckless

Who defines "reckless policies?" Tax cuts could be seen as reckless, afterall, that is how we repay our debt. Or how about how we and the IMF and World Bank used austerity programs to bring Latin American welfare states to their knees by demanding cuts in social programs and more purchases of weapons. I'd prefer health coverage to a tank parked in my driveway.

“China is worried that the U.S. may solve its problems by printing money,
which will stoke inflation,” said Zhao Qingming, a
Beijing-based analyst at China Construction Bank Corp., the country’s
second-biggest lender. “If the U.S. can make sure this won’t happen, then China
will continue to invest.”

Oh, well, give them the plates, give them to the Chinese now, so they can do what they do anyway, just counterfeit the money (only it wouldn't be counterfeiting if we gave them the plates). Heck, just outsource the printing to them, we'll get it cheaper, they get more industrial jobs, and eventually they get the money anyway.

Now, those reckless policies, could they also mean something about our reckless foreign policies, like babbling about human rights, democracy, freedom, and hot dogs?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged
China, while visiting officials in Beijing on Feb. 22, to continue buying U.S.
debt, which she called a “safe investment.” She didn’t press China on its
foreign-exchange policy, backing away from January comments by Geithner that the Chinese government manipulates its currency to boost exports.

We already know about Secretary of State Clinton's silence on the human rights and democracy stuff. Her new Chinese policy is clear: protect Chinese assets (our debt).

The solution is simple, buy more junk on credit to keep the Chinese economy plugging along at their targeted 8% growth, more Wal-Marts will open, thus employing more folks here, China gets its income, more folks will pay (higher) taxes, we can repay our debt, gosh, I'm worried about nothing. Hey, should I just ignore the blinking light on the control panel here?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Snapshot of views shows more tolerant America today

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 3/8/09

I found an interesting joint press release from CBS News and The New York Times. Released February 1, it compares selected public opinion polls from 1979 and a poll they sponsored taken in January 2009. Scholars of public opinion know that trends are more revealing than a "snapshot" so being able to compare a recent snapshot with a very similar one from 30 years ago should make good fodder for a sociological essay.

As bad as our economy is, after a summer of $4+ gas prices, a steady year long decline in the stock market, rising unemployment, and deficit spending, Americans are more optimistic about the future than 30 years ago. 46 percent in January 1979 reported believing life would be better in the future. 61percent believed the future would be better in January 2009. The pollsters noted that the recent poll was taken just as President Obama was to be inaugurated. Indeed, while the 30 year mark is compelling as a news hook, it would be interesting to see what a comparison between January 1981 and January 2009 would be with the inauguration of the undeniably optimistic and stubbornly sunny Ronald Reagan. He, too, promised change to the American people. Could Americans just be in denial?

Times were much different then, however. Interest rates in January 1979 were very high, the prime rate was better than 11%. The prime interest rate last month was about 3 percent. Unemployment was higher, though not what it was to become in 1979. For much of the 70s, stagflation was the economic policy challenge, while stimulating economic activity is the challenge today.

Despite increased optimism about the future, we think America is less powerful today than in the past. 19 percent thought America had gained in the world since 1969 but only 12 percent think America is more powerful now than 10 years ago. Undoubtedly the reality check of 9/11 revealed our vulnerabilities. We don't face foes like the Soviet Union as we did in 1979. Americans are well known for having short historical memories, we don't face "mutually assured destruction" today as we did then, but we are vulnerable today in ways we weren't then, such as greater reliance on foreign oil, a reliance on China to fund our debt, and a loss of some respect in the world due to recent foreign policies.

30 years has brought significant change in Americans’ views on homosexuality. The late seventies saw the rise of family values organizations. The Moral Majority was formed in 1979. Opposition to legal abortion, opposition to homosexual rights, and opposition to “illicit” sex, were their most significant rallying points. While this type of organization has and continues to wield significant political sway, their sway on public opinion appears to be nil. 30 years ago nearly two-thirds of Americans viewed homosexuality as wrong. In January 2009, only 41 percent did. The only age group in which a majority viewed homosexuality as wrong is those over 65 years of age. On this issue, tolerance and a more liberal view appear to be winning out.

Views on abortion have not changed either. 30 years ago, 54 percent indicated abortion should be legal under certain circumstances. That is pretty much the view since 1973 after Roe v. Wade. If there is any movement at all, it is toward a more liberal viewpoint, 28 percent last month, compared to 22 percent 30 years ago, indicated abortion should be legal under any circumstance.

Despite 20 years of Republican administrations pushing abstinence, there is virtually no change in Americans’ views on pre-marital sex. About 60 percent view it as “not wrong.” Ronald Reagan began the “war on drugs” in the 1980s. 69 percent of Americans in 1979 indicated that marijuana should not be legalized. Only 52 percent expressed that view last month.

As with any snapshot, the framing of the shot by the photographer will emphasize some things and miss others. The same is with polling. How would American’s views on immigration compare from 30 years ago? How about on issues of tax fairness? On smoking? Views on crime and punishment would be a very interesting set of snapshots to examine. Views on pornography from 30 years ago, with the growth in that industry due to internet delivery probably would reveal a more tolerant and liberalizing view I suspect. The snapshots here suggest a general move to more liberal and tolerant views, perhaps in keeping with the election of our first African American to the Presidency.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

How similar are things now to 1981?

A NY Times article discusses how the pattern of layoffs occurring around the country hint at a major restructuring of the economy.

This seems very familiar to me. Some enterprising reporter needs to go back and read news articles from 1981, after Pres Reagan began his plan to fix the American economy. Things got a lot worse, homelessness emerged due to the federal budget cuts, unemployment increased and increased. President Reagan's response to the growing critics was "stay the course."

I was just entering grad school at the time, I recall some of my profs predicting that the Reagan plan would "work" but would grow inequality in the country, which eventually would have its own repercussions....I think we are seeing them now.

The challenge for US seems to me to be this: our labor costs are just too high to be a manufacturing economy any more. Even the green tech that Pres Obama speaks of, already the manufacture of those turbines and blades are heading toward China and other places. Cars will still be manufactured in the US, only because of the costs of transporting them and "good will." There are some things which cannot be shipped over seas, medical care (although an MRI can be taken in the US and read in India) and certain surgeries are going to be done, increasingly in places like India, China, etc, just becuase of labor costs....surgeons there are cheaper than surgeons here.

Financial services is what grew from the reorganization of the manufacturing economy in the 80s. Financial services has run much of its course now. There is a course for the US, and that would be to achieve the visions involved with a seriously well educated populace. If we could become the R&D capital of the world, with manufacturing and other stuff done off shore, the US could become cleaner environmentally (though that would not address global warming) and raise the quality of life for our people. The problem is that it means we have to raise the average educational ad science ability of our populace...something we struggle with right now.

Countries like China and India can do both, their populations are so large, but to compete at the top, in science, technology, etc, we have to improve our education from top to bottom. That, however, is not some simplistic idea like charter schools or new national standards. It means families are going to have to expend as much energy on education as they do on sports, dance, and other co-curricular activities. Schools also have to change, but the schools need the broader culture to change to push those changes along.

My prediction (guess really) is that GM, Chrysler, and other big manufacturers are going to go away. That doesn't mean that cars won't still be made here, but under new (and better) management. Our economy is going to respond to demand....and that demand is going to involve an agining population and one that is going to have to be dealt with (and assuming the economy recovers) have quite a bit of money. Making money on those needs will be local, it won't easily be sent offshore in search of cheaper labor. Much of these jobs will be governmental, paid for by our tax monies, some of which will be related to health care....the others due to the needs of local communities. Some of these will employ older folks and not be greatly paid, but as the bureaucracy expands, there will be a growth in managers, supervisors, etc.

Transportation is ripe for change and in change there is opportunity. Again, the government is going to be involved. A decision is going to be made about the future of cars. Electric cars make a lot of sense, but it is still going to require a lot of infrastructure for recharging. And, there is going to be a need for interstate transportation. The time might return for the car-train, an idea that started and then went away in the 70s. Put your car on a train, go from Chicago to Florida, and then drive the car in have replaced this now, but rail transport between my home and indy (with my electric car) would work....hope the train, then get off do my shopping, get back on the train to go home. OR, if we maintain the idea of liquid fuel, fuel cells are going to need a reasonable infrastructure which I doubt would have been developed without massive federal help.

Agriculture and agricultural methods will continue to be a major area of our economy.

The situation with "old media" suggests a transformation in one area, but "content" is still going to be needed. I'm not sure how making money from "the press" is going to work out....I hope it doesn't become one based on just advertising. The digital revolution will continue and as the generation that has grown up on computers, the envelope will continue to be stretched. Making money from it all, America is still the consummate land of hucksters and they will find a way to make money on it.

Lastly, education is going to become a life long endeavor. More and more areas are going to require recertification, etc....."higher ed" is going to grow and transform into "life long ed." More teachers, administrators, and continuing students. This area may be the basis for the new middle class.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Is our constitution suspended during times of war?

A sobering article appeared in many news outlets today wth a title similar to this: "Bush Administration Memos Claims Vast War Powers"

Is this stuff going to just dribble out until we are so used to it that when the really outlandish stuff (beyond this?) comes out like: Bush Administration Memos Claim President Can Suspend Constitution, disband Congress, and make Military loyal to him"

It will be interesting to see how far the Bush Admnistration thought about going in all of this.

What a pathetic, scared boy Mr. Bush is. He lacked faith that our hallowed institutions could survive terrorism. It stood against a civil war, two world wars, the spectre of MAD with the Soviets, yet, 20 guys with box cutters in an audacious move caused Mr. Bush to lay aside our way of life.
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