27 January, 2012

It's for your own good

Department of Homeland Security
Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr
Yeah, right.

A recent Freedom of Information  Act suit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center reveals some of the fun the Department of Homeland Security has been having in the name of "protecting" us--or whoever they think they're protecting.  According to the findings

...the DHS has hired and instructed General Dynamics to monitor political dissent and the dissenters. The range of websites listed as being monitored is quite impressive...
Some of the more high profile and highly trafficked sites being monitored include the comments sections of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, Wired, and ABC News. In addition, social networking sites Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are being monitored. For the first time, the public not only has an idea who the DHS is pursuing with their surveillance and where, but what they are looking for as well. General Dynamics contract requires them to “[identify] media reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. Government, DHS, or prevent, protect, respond government activities.” The DHS also instructed General Dynamics to generate “reports on DHS, Components, and other Federal Agencies: positive and negative reports on FEMA, CIA, CBP, ICE, etc. as well as organizations outside the DHS.” In other words, the DHS wants to know who you are if you say anything critical about the government.
You better watch out, you better not cry.  They know when you've been sleeping, they know when you're awake.  They know if you've been "bad" or "good" (by their definition), so be good for goodness sake.

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This is what journalism looks like

You may have missed this.  And even if you'd seen it you might not have recognized it.  It's called journalism.  We used to have it in the United States.

Global Threats

English: An anxious person
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The ink is dry on the contract for the new textbook I'm to co-author.  It's entitled Global Threats (CQ Press, 2013), and I'm a little anxious about it.  Last time I tried to write a textbook it was on Soviet politics--and the Soviet Union collapsed.  Trying to keep up with what was happening, while it happening, was impossible. Even if I could have kept up with everything up to the day I handed in my sections, the book would have been overtaken by events long before it was out the door of the publisher.  Trying to do the impossible produced a lot of unnecessary anxiety then, and thinking about it still triggers a little anxiety today.

The good news is I know better now than to attempt the impossible.  As long as I keep my perfectionist tendencies in line, this new book should not only be possible, but fun.  How often do I get (paid) to speculate on as many possibilities as I can think of for the collapse of nations and civilizations?  The book encourages brainstorming, and that's one of my favorite activities.  It's as if I get to write a bad science fiction novel without the going to the trouble of developing believable characters.

So if I get anxious it's my own fault: I'm the one who can choose to set the bar higher than any real person can achieve, or worry about how my work will be received by others.  Instead, I'll do my best to produce good work and have some fun.

17 January, 2012

A small step in the right direction

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld shares a ...
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I have a dream.

I have a dream where Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush are in cages, tried for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and violations of the Bill of Rights.

I'd prefer to see it in an American court. I'd like to think we can police our own, and only an American court can handle Constitutional violations. But I'd be willing to accept handing them over to the International Criminal Court. Perhaps a combined trial with the remaining leadership of Al Qaeda.

If it's the best we can do, I'd even accept a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, similar to that after Apartheid in South Africa. At least then we could get the truth out, shame those who thought they cold hide their crimes, and build a consensus to never do it again.

Meanwhile, I have to settle for whatever small steps are made. One of these is a recent report by the World Organization for Human Rights and the Washington College of Law at American University. It's entitled INDEFENSIBLE: A Reference for Prosecuting Torture and Other Felonies Committed By U.S. Officials Following September 11th, and it does a solid job of starting to make the case for the prosecution. From the Table of Contents:
II. The Attorney General Has the Authority to Appoint Special Counsel to Investigate and, Where Warranted, Prosecute Crimes Committed by United States Government Officials.... 20
A. Department of Justice Regulations grant the Attorney General authority to appoint Special Counsel............................................................................. 20
B. The Attorney General also has the power to delegate broad authority to a special prosecutor pursuant to the U.S. Code. ........................................... 32
C. Where the subject matter of the investigation could raise serious conflict of interest issues pertaining to the DOJ, the DOJ regulations should be invoked as the appropriate source of authority for appointing Special Counsel ............. 36
III. The Orchestrated Effort by Former Top-Level Administration Officials to Implement a Detainee Interrogation Program Resulted in the Widespread, Systematic, and Unlawful Abuse and Torture of Detainees ......................... 38
A. High-ranking members of the Bush Administration issued policies or directives
authorizing detainee abuse ................................................................ 39
B. Senior-level U.S. government officials set out to create a legal framework that would justify the use of unlawful interrogation tactics against detainees.......... 48
C. The policies and directives issued by top U.S. government officials authorizing specific interrogation tactics were the direct cause of detainee torture, and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment...................................................................82
IV. High-Ranking U.S. Government Officials Violated U.S. Domestic and International Law by Approving or Facilitating the Use of Torture and Other Forms of Human Rights ViolationsAgainst Terror Suspects ........................114
A. Top U.S. officials unlawfully conspired, facilitated, and directed the commission of torture and other human rights violations in violation of international law......................114
B. Top U.S. officials may also be held criminally accountable for contributing to, or conspiring to commit, crimes in violation of other U.S. federal criminal laws ...................... 117
C. Bush Administration officials conspired to violate the Torture Act by agreeing to, forming, and implementing policies and procedures detailing and recommending acts violating the Torture Act ........................................... 140
D. Officials who have either aided, commanded, or counseled for the commission of felonies, or who conspired to do the same, may be prosecuted in U.S. courts under 18 U.S.C. § 2 and 18 U.S.C. § 371 ...................................... 156
E. No legal defense may be raised that would preclude investigation or prosecution of individuals who approved or facilitated the commission of torture ..................................... 228
V. Conclusion....................................................240
Maybe I'll use this for my UN and Law class. Have them try the case?

People's Blog for the Constitution » Report calls for prosecution of top government officials for acts of torture

13 January, 2012

Paging Jason Bourne

Map showing ethnic and religious diversity amo...
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Every so often the curtain parts and one sees the world is a lot more like a spy movie than most people want to believe. Memos have leaked from the the CIA describing a "false flag" operation by the Israelis, directed against Iran, in which an anti-Iranian terrorist group was told they were being sponsored by the Americans. In this world, you can never be entirely sure who you are working for, or with. And once discovered (during W's administration), what was the reaction?
The CIA memos of the incident have been "blue bordered," meaning that they were circulated to senior levels of the broader U.S. intelligence community as well as senior State Department officials.
What has become crystal clear, however, is the level of anger among senior intelligence officials about Israel's actions. "This was stupid and dangerous," the intelligence official who first told me about the operation said. "Israel is supposed to be working with us, not against us. If they want to shed blood, it would help a lot if it was their blood and not ours. You know, they're supposed to be a strategic asset. Well guess what? There are a lot of people now, important people, who just don't think that's true."
False Flag - By Mark Perry | Foreign Policy

10 January, 2012

It's hard to manuafacture a god

From the looks of things, the attempt to consolidate Kim Jong-un's godhead are not going well with all sectors.  Some of them are downright laughable.  The ever-fascinating Nightwatch describes what's going on:

North Korea: Sunday, 8 January, was the birthday of Kim Jong-un, but it passed without fanfare. Instead, millions of North Koreans viewed a 50-minute television program showing Kim Jong-un greeting enthusiastic soldiers, driving a military tank, handling weapons, sitting in the cockpit of a military aircraft and riding a horse. 
Comment: North Korean propagandists have indulged in the theater of the absurd with the 50 minute documentary on the military genius of a young man raised in a Swiss boarding school who has never worn a uniform, never trained with a weapon and never done a pushup as an adult. In North Korean tanks and personnel carriers and in all North Korean combat aircraft, Kim Jong-un probably would be disqualified as a crew member or pilot because his girth would not allow him to fit, except for a photo op. Armor and flight officers have strict height, weight and girth requirements. 
In their zeal to manufacture a leader, the propagandists risk blow back from real soldiers. There were numerous assassination attempts against Kim Chong-il by soldiers because he had no military background, never wore a uniform or submitted to military training. He had a half-brother who did, however, and rose to the rank of colonel, but was exiled to Poland as an ambassador. 
Only Kim Il-sung was a genuine, Soviet-trained and advised military leader. Kim Jong-un resembles his grandfather in appearance, but that is where the likeness ends. This leadership transition is not being well-handled, from outside appearances, and cannot be considered stable based on the need to manufacture military credentials for Kim Jong-un. 
The need to manufacture military credentials for the successor is the best evidence yet that the military are in control and must be placated. The family leadership group around Kim Jong-un appears to want to restore the party's authority, which Kim Chong-il eviscerated and reviled for most of his tenure. However, in the short term, they cannot. Thus they apparently must pander first to the Korean People's Army. The Army, for now, is dominant in this power struggle, but the tension offers opportunities for South Korea and the US to nurture greater Party control.

Kim Jong-un.  Born last Friday in 1984 (photos from a birthday in 2009).

see Nightwatch

06 January, 2012

Why I am not an Austrian economist

I do, however, empathize which much of what they do, and why. A lot of social science is model-building and smuggled assumptions. Where I disagree is with their assertion that they are immune from doing the same things. A good case in point can be found in Mark Crovilli's article on "absolute" knowledge and science. If you are interested, follow the discussion in the comments section. We'll see if anyone responds to mine:

Excellent article. One of the great things about a well-reasoned argument is you can identify precisely where you you disagree with it. In this case, everything up to "absolute certainty in science cannot be acquired by means of the "scientific method" and the collection and interpretation of empirical evidence. For beings that lack omniscience, collection and interpretation of empirical evidence can only yield imperfect and subjective beliefs about how the world works" makes perfect sense to me.

However, the statement "absolute certainty in science can only be acquired by discovering propositions about the world that can be known to be true a priori — propositions that cannot possibly be thought to be false" smuggles in an assumption I do not agree with: that there are statements about the real world that can be known a priori. I see no reason to assume such things exist, and every reason in my experience to assume they don't. Cases where things have been suggested as a priori true about the world that exists (as opposed to a world or system set up by a theorist) seem to me to be cases of a failure of imagination. The real world--whatever that is--is not only stranger than we imagine, it's probably stranger than we *can* imagine. All our concepts are imperfect simplifications.

Thus, partial "explanation" is the best we can do. See what works, see what doesn't, revise our models appropriately. If you want "absolute" knowledge from science, you're going to be disappointed.

(in my opinion, of course--that goes with the territory)
I suspect one of two things will happen. Either (a) my point will be completely ignored, or (b) it will trigger rage among the true believers. People love to protect cognitive consistency. I hope I'll learn something interesting. Maybe the students of Mises can teach me more than I've given them credit for.

What Is a Scientific Theory? - Mark R. Crovelli - Mises Daily

03 January, 2012

Tonight's lesson from the Iowa caucuses

One empire down, one to go?

Here's an interesting perspective on where we've been and where we're going, as articulated by Monika Halan:
The fracturing post-World War II equations showed through the plaster in 2011. The 63-year period from 1945 to 2008 will be remembered as the time when two dominant ideas about people and money, and how we choose to organize ourselves around these ideologies, died. One version delinked people from money; the other put money before people. The first collapse was in 1991 when the dominant interpretation of collectivism shattered the Soviet Union into 15 shards. The classless, moneyless, stateless, egalitarian society, which took from each according to his ability and gave to each according to his need, crumbled under the weight of authority and effort that was needed to impose something so state-centric and unnatural in place. Progress does get measured by money, and the severe scarcities and the dysfunctional economies of the Soviet bloc hastened the collapse—the delinking of people and money did not hold true. 
But handing over the keys to the market caused another collapse, and 2008 was when the interpretation of individualism in the form of predatory capitalism began its death dirge when the US’ financial sector demonstrated what unregulated greed can do. This version of capitalism (which was not what Adam Smith envisaged) delinked risk from reward, made a section of labour behave like capital, and made governments subordinate to the transnational corporation. That version of capitalism, emboldened by the breakdown of communism, pushed for and got what were called “free” markets and “less” government. But markets, as was later found out, were not really free—but compromised by the 1% who held the levers of control to move the system. And move it they did, towards appropriating more and more for themselves.
But there's more to it than that: both post-war empires overextended themselves. The Soviets couldn't pull back and manage a real "restructuring" (perestroika) and failed to keep "openness" (glasnost') under sufficient control to keep the empire intact. Today, with greater technologies for information transparency--and heavy-handed attempts to restrict it--the parallels for the US are too close for comfort. Do we really think the TSA is just for the external threat?

And then there's the Chinese. The Chinese government is watching the various "Springs" of recent history and finding it's too vulnerable for comfort. Little noticed in the growth of Chinese military power is the fact that the internal security forces now have a budget that rivals that of the PLA.

Old patterns of social organization and control are breaking down, but there's no consensus on what will replace them. Probably the best we can do is encourage experimentation, and see what works (and for whom) in various circumstances. But that's precisely what those in power are most opposed to trying. This could get interesting.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - Home - livemint.com

02 January, 2012

Why I am not a "big-L" libertarian

The short answer: for the same reason I'm not an anarchist, or a communist, or whatever--I don't trust absolute principles.

The long answer is articulated by nobel-prize winning economist Ronald Coase in a classic interview:

Reason: Though you are now known as a leading free market economist, you started your intellectual career as a socialist. Why and when did your political views change? 
Coase: They changed gradually. What was most important was the work I did on the economics of public utilities at the London School of Economics. I studied the results of municipal operation of utilities and the effects of nationalization, particularly in the post office. This led to grave doubts about nationalization. It didn't produce the results people said it did. My views have always been driven by factual investigations. I've never started off--this is perhaps why I'm not a libertarian--with the idea that a human being has certain rights. I ask, "What are the rights which produce certain results?" I'm thinking in terms of production, the lives of people, standard of living, and so on. It has always been a factual business with me. I discovered that municipal operation didn't work as well as people said it would, and nationalization did not either. 
Reason: You said you're not a libertarian. What do you consider your politics to be? 
Coase: I really don't know. I don't reject any policy without considering what its results are. If someone says there's going to be regulation, I don't say that regulation will be bad. Let's see. What we discover is that most regulation does produce, or has produced in recent times, a worse result. But I wouldn't like to say that all regulation would have this effect because one can think of circumstances in which it doesn't. 
Reason: Can you give us an example of what you consider to be a good regulation and then an example of what you consider to be a not-so-good regulation? 
Coase: This is a very interesting question because one can't give an answer to it. When I was editor ofThe Journal of Law and Economics, we published a whole series of studies of regulation and its effects. Almost all the studies--perhaps all the studies--suggested that the results of regulation had been bad, that the prices were higher, that the product was worse adapted to the needs of consumers, than it otherwise would have been. I was not willing to accept the view that all regulation was bound to produce these results. Therefore, what was my explanation for the results we had? I argued that the most probable explanation was that the government now operates on such a massive scale that it had reached the stage of what economists call negative marginal returns. Anything additional it does, it messes up. But that doesn't mean that if we reduce the size of government considerably, we wouldn't find then that there were some activities it did well. Until we reduce the size of government, we won't know what they are.

(Thanks to Virginia Postrel for reminding me of this interview.)

It's about estimating and observing consequences, within the context of an ethical framework.  What is the right end to achieve, and how do you avoid a means whose anticipated and unanticipated consequences are worse than the original problem you want to solve? Today, in an era of "negative marginal returns," large-scale government action often (usually) makes things worse.  But not always.

Thus, when I hear Ron Paul talk about reducing America's military presence around the world, I think he's on the right track.  I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise, but the knee-jerk interventionism of the past sixty or so years doesn't seem to be supported by the evidence.  When he talks about ending trade treaties, I want to learn what he'll replace them with.  The world is too interdependent for economic artarky.  International law and organizations have emerged, piecemeal for the most part, because they meet a need.  When he talks about removing all social safety nets, even for catastrophic and random events, he sounds wrong both morally and economically.

The big-L Libertarian Party bills itself as the "party of principle," and I admire that.  I also fear it.  The Bolsheviks were a "party of principle," too.  When political principles become so absolute that they get in the  way of observing and thinking and adapting to change, it's time to rethink the principles.

01 January, 2012

Leaders and the "common good"

On day one I give my foreign policy class three "laws" that explain ninety percent of what states do:
  1. What people *believe* is real determines what they will attempt.
  2. What *is* real determines what will work.
  3. Leaders will do whatever is in their power to stay in power.
There are other factors, but these are the big ones.  It's odd how the hardest one to get people to believe is rule #3.  Now the Economist publishes an interview with Alastair Smith (New York University) in which he gives some great examples of what I've been talking about all these years.  For example,
It is virtually impossible to find any example where leaders are not acting in their own self interest. If you are a democrat you want to gerrymander districts and have an electoral college. This vastly reduces the number of votes a president needs to win an election.  Then tax very highly. It’s much better to decide who gets to eat than to let the people feed themselves. If you lower taxes people will do more work, but then people will get rewards that aren’t coming through you. Everything good must come through you. Look at African farm subsidies. The government buys crops at below market price by force. This is a tax on farmers who then can’t make a profit. So, how do you reward people? The government subsidises fertilisers and hands it back that way. In Tanzania vouchers for fertilisers are handed out not to the most productive areas but to the party loyalist areas. This is always subject to the constraint that if you tax too highly people won’t work. This is the big debate in the US. The Republicans are saying that the Democrats have too many taxes and want to suppress workers. But when they were in power five years ago they had no problem with taxing and spending policies, but now it’s taxing their supporters to reward Democrats. 
Or, as Harry Browne is supposed to have observed, the state breaks your legs, gives you crutches, and claims credit for the fact you can still get around.

And what about the common good?  I don't deny there might be one, but I'd never count on it being the basis of policy.  As Smith observes, "If you’re working for the common good you didn’t come to power in the first place. If you’re not willing to cheat, steal, murder and bribe then you don’t come to power. "