October 2010

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Republican victory

The predicted Republican victory in one or both houses in November has a number of disturbing subtexts. Americans have no memory and have already forgotten that the Republican party assisted at the creation of the current financial crisis. Americans have no patience and won't give a new administration even four years to solve a problem. Americans have no insight into political realities, and are turning to the people who will protect only the rich to create jobs for the rest of us. Americans are easily taken in by lurid rhetoric, no matter how irrational, the most ridiculous example of which is the uninsured fighting for the right to continue being uninsured--the right to continue suffering and dying. Obama seems to have failed to take charge and capture the American imagination as Roosevelt did--certainly, Roosevelt facerd very similar Republican opposition and rhetoric. But the people attacking his birth and religion and,in a disguised way, his race--people who are part of the Republican mainstream or funded by them--have worked very hard to assure he had no chance. Criticizing Obama is like faulting a 747 for being unable to get off the ground when you gave it only ten feet of runway.

Student loans

An article in the Times for September 4 describes two women, a medical student with a stunning quarter million dollars in loan debt so far, and a woman with a bachelor's degree who incurred $170,000 worth. There has been a tuition bubble these last thirty or so years just as there was a real estate or an Internet bubble, and it is having some similar consequences. It is a very unwise and dangerous choice to go that far into hock just to get an undergraduate education, and there is no guaranty that with a mere BA the latter woman will be able to earn enough to pay off her debt. Even the doctor-to-be is facing a situation in which she may never slip up, never take time off to have children, in order to be debt free when she is in her fifties (!!). Banks which lend these amounts of money for education are engaging in many cases in exactly the behavior of banks which loaned absurd amounts of money for real estate purchases by people who would never be able to repay it unless a miracle occurred. Such lending is doubly irresponsible, putting the bank at risk and ultimately forcing bail-outs with public money, but also encouraging individuals to engage in risky behavior. The spectacle of young people starting their adult lives as much as a quarter million dollars underwater is very disturbing. The role of government in sponsoring, encouraging and guaranteeing student loans also needs to be re-examined. A government role which made sense when people were graduating with $20,000 in debt looks entirely different when the number is ten times as much.

Recruiting Taliban--and implications

An article in the Times for September 7 reports that a program to recruit Taliban fighters to the Afghan governmental side has almost stalled, in large part because Taliban front line troops do not regard their employer as a losing proposition. When we are figfhting a cruel, well armed insurgency, we tend (in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) to have weak, venal partners unwilling to risk their own lives and without the charisma and message which will cause a substantial chunk of the populace to stand up and risk theirs. This leaves unpalatable choices: either to abandon these countries, or to rule them directly (enough nonsense about pacifying the enemy sufficiently to turn the countrries over to these weak venal governments). Again, this raises the question whether, purely pragmatically and from a military standpoint, we would be better off not occupying these countries, but retaining our ability to strike at them if they misbehave. This is the policy Israel has followed in Gaza and Lebanon: that the cost in lives and treasure of occupation isn't worth it.

Kabul Bank

The story of the Kabul Bank confirms that the weak governments we support in third world countries are based on bribery and theft. The founders of this bank loaned the President's brother five million dollars to buy seven percent of the shares. Now, as people lose confidence and a run on the bank continues, President Karzai will have to use public money to prop up the family investment.

South Africa

"Trees never grow into heaven." I think of this Scandinavian expression when I study the outcomes of two national experiments in democracy which started with such great hope, Russia and South Africa. The latter country is now harassing and threatening with indictment journalists who report on rampant corruption. The President, with his aura of scandal and ignorance, often behaves more like an old fashioned dictator than like the leader of the largest and most stable democracy on the continent. And at least one younger official of the African National Congress is beginning to use extremely hateful rhetoric about white people, Zimbabwe-style.

Lisa Murkowski

The moderate Alaska Republican, who lost the Senate primary to Tea Party candidate Joe Miller, has decided to run anyway, as an independent. This is a good way of flipping Sarah Palin (who endorsed Miller) the bird. Maybe she can even get re-elected that way, like Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, if Democrats and independents vote for her. I would, if I lived in Alaska.

Steven Slater

Congratulations to flight attendant Slater, for the most amusing resignation ever (cursing out an obstreperous passenger on the plane's PA system, deploying the emergency slide and grabbing a beer as he launched himself down it). The French invented the term "l'esprit d'escalier" for the riposte you think of when you are the stairs leaving the party, and its too late to say it. Slater lived very much in his moment. Maybe we can call it "l'esprit d'emergency slide".

State Secrecy

A panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has over-ruled a smaller panel of the same court, and dismissed a lawsuit brought by torture victims against the government on a "state secrecy" theory. The state secrecy doctrine in American constitutional law is a court-generated approach, not mentioned in the Constitution. It holds that certain decisions of the executive branch, relative to national security, may not be reviewed by the courts.

State secrecy is an extremely murky doctrine. It says, paradoxically, that everything done by certain parts of the executive relatively openly may be litigated, while anything done by the military or intelligence agencies covertly cannot be reviewed. In other words, democratic and rights based doctrines such as due process and the ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, simply stop being applied when it comes to certain activities of the executive. This makes democracy effectively optional, at the President's discretion.

This concept then leads to further and very grievous logic chopping, concealing gross racism as well. If CIA agents are waterboarding 'wogs" in overseas black prisons, let them. But what happens when the CIA, in its diligent pursuit of national security goals, starts waterboarding American citizens in New York City? We've already seen a number of cases struggle with the concept that we can freely do things to citizens of other countries abroad that would not be permissible against our own citizens here.

A good way to solve the confusion, as always, is to perform a thought experiment. Let's suppose that a CIA official, with the President's blessing, decides that barbecuing the babies of Taliban officials will demoralize them and lead to American military victory in Afghanistan. Special covert baby-barbecuing squads are deployed which descend by helicopter, seize the infants of Taliban commanders, and then cook them (sometimes cooking the wrong baby, of course). Are we really arguing that such a policy, as an official tool of U.S. government policy, should be immune from Court review? Should it really make a difference in this case, by the way, whether the babies being cooked are U.S. citizens on U.S. soil? Or whether the barbecuing is being done by the FBI or the CIA?

If you think this is an over the top example, consider one of the assertions made by one of the victims in the case just dismissed by the 9th circuit. The CIA released him to North African officials, who made cuts in his penis and poured a stinging liquid into them. Then the CIA took custody of him again--confirming the theory that the agency actively collaborated with other nation's intelligence agencies it knew would engage in torture-- and he ended up in Guantanamo. He is now free in Britain.

Interest and national policy

An article in the Times for September 9 compares the situation of debtors, who are making out like bandits today refinancing at the lowest interest rates in half a century, with that of the thrifty who cannot retire (or stay retired) on the money they have saved because they can't make enough interest. In other words, national policy, as applied by the Fed in setting interest rates, is to screw the thrifty and support the profligate. Not too many years ago, if you had a million dollars saved, you could make $50,000 on it. Today, $10,000 or less. This policy forces retirees to gamble their money in stocks or junk bonds, to make higher returns.

Targeted Killings

American born cleric Al-Awlaki has been responsible for a lot of murder. He advised the Fort Hood shooter, among many others, on the claimed theological underpinnings of mass murder, and has been directly implicated in four or five other terrorist acts and attempts.

The government putting him on a list of valid drone targets has resulted in a very innovative ACLU lawsuit, challenging the planned extrajudicial execution of Al-Awlaki. While I felt the government went much too far in arguing, some years ago, it could arrest an American citizen on U.S. soil and send him to Guantanamo without trial, I think the targeting of Al Awlaki falls just on the other side of a hard to define line.

There is no prohibition in international law on operations aimed at specific, named commanders of enemy forces. During World War II, when American intelligence received notice that Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto would be flying on a particular day, they scrambled planes which successfully shot him down. Al Awlaki, who has personally, publicly promoted war against the United States and been involved in specific murderous operations, should not be shielded either by his American citizenship or civilian clothing.

An interesting approach would be to offer Al Awlaki a criminal trial in our civil law system if he surrenders to U.S. jurisdiction. Refusal to do so would further justify his presence on the list of authorized targets.

I continue to oppose military commissions and the existence of Guantanamo on the grounds they are being used to short-cut civil justice for people already in our hands. I think the civil courts should be used to the broadest scope possible--but I don't think the entire warfighting process should be subjected to court supervision. Al Awlaki, unlike the Guantanamo prisoners, is beyond the reach of arrest or extradition; there is no way to bring him in for trial without his cooperation.

Tax cuts for the richest

The Republicans are threatening to hold up the passage of middle class tax cuts unless the Bush-era tax breaks for the wealthiest are also extended. This is an act of stunning hypocrisy, as extending these cuts will increase the deficit, which they have vowed to end, by $700 billion. The wilfull ignorance of ordinary voters who buy Republican "trickle down" arguments is mysterious to me. What you get when you hand large amounts of cash to the wealthiest is a "jobless recovery", like we are having now. Their philosophy:"Why create American jobs if you can grow a business without the hassle of doing so? U.S. workers are annoying, cost money, and require attention."

Social security

I am selfishly very disturbed by the prospect of raising the social security age beyond sixty two and a half. (I am 56.) I understand the problems with the program and funding it in the near future, as the number of older people covered becomes disproportionate to the number of younger workers paying into it. In fact, I have said before that Social Security is morally indistinguishable from a Ponzi scheme. On the other hand, with 2.2 million Americans 55 and older currently unemployed, raising the social security age will effectively contribute to creating a new starving class. Shades of the 1980's, when there were rumors of old people eating catfood.

The Tea Party mentality

In my first jury trial, representing a medical malpractice plaintiff, I excused a grim faced potential juror just because I didn't like him. The attorney for the doctor congratulated me: "That was the perfect defense juror. Doesn't have anything, and doesn't want anyone else to have anything, either."

I am still wrestling with the idea of people who would rather be crushed by medical debt than have insurance. Maybe this explains them: they are so used to living with dire want, they resist any attempt to help them or others.

Snowe and Collins

Its really time for the two moderate senators from Maine to acknowledge that their Republican party has left them and to become independents, like Joe Lieberman. If Lisa Murkowski gets elected, maybe the independent bloc in the Senate (which also includes Bernie Sanders of Vermont) can form a new party (how about the Common Sense Party?) and become a sought-after group of swing voters. Bringing our country closer to being a parliamentary democracy, where more than two parties are represented. Which would be a good thing.

Quoted without comment

Sharron Angle, Tea Party candidate who won the nomination in Nevada: Rape victims who get pregnant should make "what was really a lemon situation into lemonade". Christine O'Donnell, Tea Party candidate who won the Delaware nomination: having women in the military service academies "cripples the readiness of our defense".

Legal bribery

As expected, the very wealthy and large corporations, mostly Republicans, are making huge anonymous donations to organizations which buy attack ads. The Supreme Court opened the floodgates with the Citizens United decision earlier this year. As I said in the first issue of the Spectacle in January 1995, this is legalized bribery; the candidates hew to the wishes of those who hand them the money, and not the rest of us, who vote for them.

Coral reefs

This is going to be another really bad year for the coral reefs, bleaching and dying in the hot water brought about by global warming. Reefs support not only tourism, but fisheries. I would like to hear one Republican spokesperson step up and explain why we don't need them on earth.


Have you ever noticed that someone who is lying about his failure to do something will offer two or more excuses, when one will do? I find this a fascinating "tell". "I wasn't feeling that well, then the car wouldn't start." The automotive problem would have been fine; addition of the other signals a guilty conscience. Moral: make one excuse, never more.

Recall elections and referendums

The Framers had a fear of direct democracy, as expressed through-out the Federalist papers. They loved the concept of a republic where we elect representatives, then trust them; they detested the idea of the entire population turning out to decide things on impulse, as in ancient Athens.

When I first published the Spectacle, I was on the side of the ancient Athenians. Now I find myself more persuaded by the Federalist. The proof is the nationwide phenomenon of recall elections. Mayors are making hard decisiosn to end deficits, cutting city payroll and raising property taxes, and people are coming out in droves to recall them. Firing a mayor who is trying to do the right thing, will not result in balancing the checkbook, or any other coherent policy to replace it. Similarly, referendums in California have largely contributed to the destruction of the state, starting with the one decades ago which cut taxes without restricting spending. I could not be more convinced right now that voters should not attempt to make policy directly.


An article in the Times for September 23 reports yet another study which suggests that mammograms aren't doing a lot of good. Some of the cancers they detect are too small and insignificant ever to do harm. Others would have the same outcome if discovered by touch and treated. We are spending millions of dollars on unnecessary testing, contributing to an overpriced system, high premiums, loss of insurance coverage, and the bankruptcy of hospitals which are legally required to provide care and don't get paid.

The games in India

India is taking a serious black eye right now for its failure to build housing and a venue for the South Asian games it was supposed to host in a few weeks. The buildings are unsafe, dirty and full of excrement; a bridge and a roof of new construction have already fallen in. Yet India is an apparently thriving democracy. Actually, there is no contradiction here, but, unfortunately, cause and effect. Just as America has lost competency, through an over-concentration on the verbiage and money of politics and a loss of interest in actual substantive skills, India is an example of a democracy which probably never acquired that commitment to competence in the first place. It is more likely a pirate democracy, as ours is fast becoming, where everyone is stuffing his pockets, and the devil take the hindmost. India is shamed by the comparison to China, host of the last Olympics, which is an authoritarian bureaucracy which apparently still knows how to Get Shit Done.

Health insurance profits

My health insurance premiums have already gone up by 50% in two years and are about to increase again. I took a look around and saw this is universal. The companies right now seem to be increasing their premiums as much as they can get away with, as Obamacare is implemented. One result is that employers which offered coverage may be tempted, or even forced, to discontinue it, just as insurers are cancelling child-only policies rather than include kids with pre-existing conditions. The whole mess is an example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions, or, more technically, a study of the unintended consequences of legislation.

Clearly, the new law imposes financial burdens on insurance companies, and a normal business mentality would justify the raising of rates to address these. We then get into a difficult conversation about how much profit is enough; the insurers will groan they can't make a buck, while voices on the left will say they were already making unholy profits. The best way I can think of to avoid this conversation would be to recognize health care, as other civilized countries have, as being something too important to leave to the market. We don't subcontract wars to private companies: Can you imagine generals choosing battlefields, not for their strategic importance, but for their profitablity? Why leave something so profoundly important as health care to the vagaries of a market system? I have written here several times that my risk of becoming ill without adequate insurance is much greater than my chances of being killed by a terrorist bomb. A single payer system, rather than the present fidgeting with regulation of markets, would be the only decisive and courageous way to solve our current problems.

Campaign finance and free speech

The Times for September 24 has a scary analysis of a Republican front organization called "Americans for Job Security", run secretly by lobbyists as a pure money funnel and somke screen concealing the identity and agendas of donors. You pay a "membership fee" of millions of dollars and then, to your pleasurable surprise, the organization--completely unexpectedly, of course-- goes to battle on some cause dear to your heart. Here is an actual example. An Alaskan mogul owns a fishing lodge which may be affected by the licensing of a nearby mine. He joins "Americans for Job Security" and is pleasantly surprised when the organization fights the mine (which would have created jobs and therefore come within the organization's declared mandate).

This kind of lying anonymity is very malignant. Freedom of speech tropes are being used to justify secrecy of actions which are effectively putting a stranglehold on the process the First Amendment was intended to protect. Democrats in particular will be defeated in November based on lying television advertising funded by millions in secret money--the whole "Swift Boat" experience now made ordinary and legal by the Supreme Court. There are justices on the Court, as there are powerful forces in the Republican party, who care nothing for democracy and would be happy to see the forced institution of one party rule. Since at most times more of the money favors the Republicans, we are in greater danger of confirmed, constant oligarchical rule than ever before. The U.S. has felt like a democracy for billionaires for much of my life--but its getting much worse.

Ousting judges

Judges who took bold stands on issues such as gay marriage are facing targeted opposition for re-election and even recall elections across the country.

The constititution provides for the judiciary as an independent branch, acting as a check and balance on the other two. The election of judges, especially in the current vindictive, retrograde and well-financed political environment, essentially makes them a part of the legislature. Judges who conform their decisions to the views of the best financed and most aggressive political party, rather than to their conscience, are not useful to the republic the Framers created.

The solution to this one, unlike most problems, is elegant and simple: judges should not be elected, but should be appointed with life tenure, as they are in the federal system.

The Sudan

The Sudan is likely to split into two countries, an Islamic one and an animist one. This is fine. As Renan taught us, and as has been largely ignored by people since including the North in our Civil War, people shouldn't be forced to stay together who don't want to. This simple rule would have obviated many of the great conflicts of the twentieth and all prior centuries, including battles over Ireland, the parts of Yugoslavia, Kashmir, Spain vs. Basques, etc. Renan called nations "a daily plebiscite", meaning that every day we consent again to be a part of them.

Afghan kites

Here's an ethical spectacle for you. An American-financed event in Kabul at which children were to fly kites with messages about equality and democracy resulted in Afghan policemen beating the children and stealing their kites. In the same week, a national election replete with more stories of ballot-buying and stuffing, threats and coercions, etc.

This is what happens when you try to plant democracy in unsuitable ground. The revolutions Afghanistan would have to go through before most of the population even understood the idea or wanted the result are almost unthinkable.

A related, fascinating study is the mentality of the Americans who planned the event. They are a large part of the reason why our murderous, cynical adversaries in Al Qaeda think we are easy to trick, and too simple-minded to live. Not much has changed since the days of "The Ugly American" and "The Quiet American".


The FBI kicking in doors and searching the homes of anti-war activists in Minneapolis and Chicago is chillingly reminiscent of the worst abuses of the 1960's. These are not people who own guns and plot violence; they appear to be people who lead peaceful demonstrations and distribute pamphlets. The justification is the grossly overbroad "material support for terrorism" act which (according to Elena Kagan, in one of her last arguments as solicitor general) even criminalized the amicus brief I filed in a militray tribunal-related case some years ago.