US Government

Incompetent Government

Tuesday, September 13th, 2005

Great short letter to the editor in the NYTimes today caught my attention:

To the Editor:

David Brooks says liberals “need to explain how a comprehensive governmental failure is going to restore America’s faith in big government.”

Of course it won’t. But it should provoke America’s intolerance of incompetent government.

Such failure is not inevitable; government built the levies, and parts of government were trying to improve them. And bereaucracy is not limited to government; I have seen many documents in private industry that were just as absurd as New Orlean’s emergency preparedness plan.

Rather than attack the idea of government–even while grudgingly admitting its necessity–we must understand which parts of the New Orleans plan worked and which ones didn’t, and why some government agencies were effective while others were useless.

–Bruce Burger, Seattle, Sept. 11, 2005

Very well said.

Bill Moyers speaks The Truth: The New American Political Movement is Religion

Saturday, September 10th, 2005

This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long, long while. Bill Moyers elucidates the religious and moral situation of the United States with a clarity simply not found elsewhere.

Here is an amazing passage I am posting only to whet your appetite, but you really should read it yourself.

Not many people at the time seemed to notice that Osama bin Laden had also been reading his sacred book closely and literally, and had called on Muslims to resist what he described as a “fierce Judeo-Christian campaign” against Islam, praying to Allah for guidance “to exalt the people who obey Him and humiliate those who disobey Him.”

Suddenly we were immersed in the pathology of a “holy war” as defined by fundamentalists on both sides. You could see this pathology play out in General William Boykin. A professional soldier, General Boykin had taken up with a small group called the Faith Force Multiplier whose members apply military principles to evangelism with a manifesto summoning warriors “to the spiritual warfare for souls.”

After Boykin had led Americans in a battle against a Somalian warlord he announced, “I know my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his God was an idol.” Now Boykin was going about evangelical revivals preaching that America was in a holy war as “a Christian nation” battling Satan and that America’s Muslim adversaries will be defeated “only if we come against them in the name of Jesus.”

For such an hour, America surely needed a godly leader. So General Boykin explained how it was that the candidate who had lost the election in 2000 nonetheless wound up in the White House. President Bush, he said, “was not elected by a majority of the voters – he was appointed by God.”

Not surprising, instead of being reprimanded for evangelizing while in uniform, General Boykin is now the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. (Just as it isn’t surprising that despite his public call for the assassination of a foreign head of state, Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing was one of the first groups to receive taxpayer funds from the President’s Faith-Based Initiative for “relief work” on the Gulf Coast.)

We can’t wiggle out of this, people. Alvin Hawkins states it frankly: “This is a problem we can’t walk away from.” We’re talking about a powerful religious constituency that claims the right to tell us what’s on God’s mind and to decide the laws of the land according to their interpretation of biblical revelation and to enforce those laws on the nation as a whole. For the Bible is not just the foundational text of their faith; it has become the foundational text for a political movement.

Homeland Security, or the Department of Peace?

Thursday, September 8th, 2005

I really have been so caught up in my own nonsense that I haven’t even deeply parsed and analyzed what has gone on since the feds fumbled dealing with the Katrina approach and aftermath, but I will say this.

We spend billions of dollars on supposedly preventing unseen harms, on supposedly stopping catastrophes before they happen. The irony here is that we knew this catastrophe was coming, and we did nothing. The catastrophe happened and we still did nothing. And people suffered from its aftermath, and only then we did something (but only slightly more than nothing).

As I said in an earlier post on a completely different topic, we should just all come to our fucking senses and not spend a god-damn dime on homeland security. You think that’ll open the flood gates for terrorism? Fine. Let them come, let them attack. If the Bush administration is allowed to think in terms of “this many innocent lives may be sacrified for the greater good,” then I will too. I can deal with 3,000 people dying if it means we have $300 billion dollars to spend to save and ameliorate lives in this country.

The typical conservative response is to get completely sensitive about it. “You wouldn’t say that if one of your family members were among the 3,000 who had to be sacrificed.” Sure I wouldn’t. And George Bush wouldn’t be charging ahead in Iraq if it were his daughters whose lives were on the line. And I wouldn’t cross the street if I knew once I step foot on the other side, one of my friends had to die. But that isn’t a way to reason about things. Sensitive situations simply push away the moral issue and replace it with a familial one. We study this very much in Ethics, for example:

A train hurtles down it’s track, towards a junction. The junction can either leave the train upon it’s current track or divert it. On the current track stand five people. On the diversion track stands a single person. All, like the train driver, are unaware of the imminent collision. Only you, standing at the junction box, are aware of what is about to occur.

You therefore have a choice before you; to leave the junction box lever untouched and see five people die, or to close the lever and in doing so shift the train to the diversionary track, and see one person die.

What do you do?

“Well, ” you think to yourself, “I would rather no one died at all, but since there’s no getting away from it, it’s better than only one person dies, rather than five, so I will close the lever.”

A variation of this thought experiment, which points to the difficulty of choosing one life over another, has the single person be your mother, and the five others be five anonymous bystanders. In this variation, you have a choice: let the train kill 5 bystanders, or let the train kill your mother.

Of course, most people respond to that thought experiment by saying they’d rather kill the five people, especially since killing the five requires little action, while killing your mother would require the push of the lever. But that obscures the main issue: if the people were anonymous, you’d choose one death over five. Therefore, the fact that you are so intimately connected to your mother should not enter into it when we reason about what the morally right decision is.

In this case, I look at our Homeland Security spending as having many, many hidden harms. One, it enthrones the military-industrial complex yet again, putting weapons manufacturers at the forefront of our capitalist system, and allowing them to feed the politicians with the things they need and get big contracts in return. In this sense, we all pay a kind of tax to weapons dealers, and we pay it without even being able to measure what kind of protection this tax affords us.

Second, it creates a constant state of panic, which shrouds other important domestic and foreign political issues. Security, terrorism, homeland security: these have become the #1 issues of our time, almost a national obsession. Healthcare, unemployment benefits, fair capitalism, small business support, science and research, all of that has taken a back seat. And, it is reflected in the federal discretionary budget.

Meanwhile, the paradox is that so far, we only have, in America, the 3,000 deaths of September 11 as our major loss of life directly from Al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations, yet we probably have between 10 and 100x that many deaths from other preventable causes that could be saved with the use of the hundreds of billions we toss into the anti-terrorism toliet bowl. (Among others, people who can’t afford healthcare, the homeless, domestic violence, gun violence, suicide, drug overdose, crime-related deaths, on and on).

Furthermore, we have the upcoming generational deaths that are much harder to measure but are equally important: pollution, environmental disasters, and chemical tampering with our food, which could each lead to cancers and other health-related disorders.

Aside from this, we have a less grave but perhaps even more important loss: the flight of our brain share. Our educational system is crumbling alongside the competition, and the best our incompetent government can do is yell “privatize!” We have poor, smart kids who can’t afford an education, and these kids will end up in drugs, crime, or both. We have high school systems that encourage apathy, lack of civic duty, and unchecked consumerism, and we have the least intellectually curious generation possibly ever. These harms mean that when I get older, and look over the society that the Bush administration has shaped, I will not even see the tiny, rare bits of political activism you see around us today. The Left, I’m afraid, is really dying, even from the bottom-up.

Did I seem to tread off-topic? Well, I didn’t. All of this is related to how singly-focused we have become on “homeland security.” I just keep repeating to myself what my Dad said to me a long time ago: “Do you think that when fascism was taking hold in Italy, we all knew it was happening? Fascists don’t arrive waving flags of fascism and calling themselves fascists. Fascists arrive looking like you or me, telling us all that we need protection, and that they have a vision. You then follow along, because it sounds good, and because you’re scared. And then before you know it, you’re no longer asking questions; you’re just following orders.”

Intelligent Design? Show me the science.

Monday, August 29th, 2005

By a philosopher I much enjoyed reading during my Consciousness class, Daniel Dennett. Read it.

Corporate Pork in the Age of “Homeland Security”

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005

As reported on most major news stations, Air America, and Slashdot, Lockheed Martin was awarded a big $212 million contract to install thousands of cameras in NYC’s subway system and a wireless network which, incidentally, will not work in moving cars. I don’t know whether the cameras themselves will actually work in the cars (it seems to me if one seems a technical hurdle than the other will as well), but that remains to be seen.

I know this almost goes without saying, but this is really a waste of taxpayer dollars. People will say this is a good step, that anything goes to make them feel safer, but in the end, we have to think about the facts.

9/11 didn’t happen because of a failure of security or intelligence. It happened because of a failure of imagination. We’ve said this time and time again, but perhaps now we’re forgetting just how surprised we were that terrorists decided to hijack our airplanes and fly them into our buildings while we were worrying about trucks full of explosives being driven into the underground parking garage.

People have worried about subways being a terrorist target for years, even before 9/11. Therefore, it’s quite likely they won’t be a target. It will more likely be an unattended package in Times Square, where it’s crowded and relatively light on security, or a smuggled package into Carnegie Hall, where the well-to-do nature of the crowd makes no one suspect anything, or any other number of possible things that are completely not obvious. Because protecting against a terrorist is ultimately futile, because smart ones will obviously choose means that you didn’t think of, then why take these measures at all?

Well, one reason is because people in public policy feel this pressure to do something, so that when something does happen, they won’t be fired on the grounds of taking no steps to counter terrorism. Then, we hand $200 million dollars over to a corporation that already lives and breathes on our taxpayer dollars for fighter jets and missiles, and we never look back.

In return for this false sense of safety, we get other hidden harms. Invasion of privacy? Check. Feeling like you live in a police state? Check. $200 million dollars we could have spent on health care, education, or retirement benefits? Check.

How about when the new “anti-terrorism” cameras start being used to spot young black kids who might be carrying marijuana, so we can lock them up? Are there legal exemptions in this system if, when approaching a person for suspection as a potential terrorist, finding a bit of marijuana isn’t admissable as evidence against this person? I doubt it. It’s probably just like the cameras in the parks around New York; installed, supposedly, to prevent rape, but used most often to bust drug deals.

My other concern is much more practical. These cameras won’t work. I heard the woman who sponsored the project for the MTA saying the purpose was to be able to find a suspicious package, identify it, and dispatch bomb sniffing dogs to “take care of the situation.”

You must be kidding, right?

First of all, whoever will be manning the camera stations, if they are anything like the luggage screeners in the airports, I very much doubt they will notice “suspicious packages” when we need them to. Second, following the trends of most modern terrorists, you’ll be looking at a suspicious bag at the West 4th Street station, while a young man wearing a backpack suddenly explodes.

What if the coordinated terrorists decide to drop “suspicious packages” all over most of the subways in Manhattan, at about the same time. 30 suspicious packages across New York. They’ll only actually blow up 10 of them, but you’ll be spread so thin by that point that you won’t even know how to respond.

Do you see what I’m getting at? How futile is this stuff? I know it’s hard to accept, I know it’s cold and maybe downright mean, and you may be saying, “Andrew, you’re full of shit, you don’t understand this at all,” but this is what I say to all this spending:

Fuck it. Fuck it all. Don’t spend a god-damn dime on pre-empting a terrorist attack.

Spend it, instead, on providing health care for sick Americans. Making sure the unemployed get employed so they don’t turn to crime. Focusing on education in poor neighborhoods where crime is common. In the end, you spend $200 million dollars in any of those, and you’ll probably save a few hundred lives every year, and at least we can measure it, and at least I don’t have to sacrifice my civil liberties for it.

In this country, we spend over $400 billion on defense. That’s more than our combined spending for Education, Housing, Justice, Housing Assistance, Environment, Employment, Science/space and Transportion, among other things. And it’s not just slightly more; it’s $100 billion more.

Real Time with Bill Maher and Conservative Boneheads

Monday, August 22nd, 2005

There’s a great blog post over at The Liberal Doomsayer, and I provided a reply. Here it is.

Great post. Found your blog via Technorati search for Bill Maher (wanted to see what the blogosphere was saying about his latest show, which I just caught last night).

To call her a bubblehead is right on… I couldn’t believe some of the spin this woman was selling. Do you remember when she said that the reason she can say that Iraqi women are doing better now than before the war despite the fact that journalists and reporters have said otherwise is that “as you know better than anyone, Bill, the media in this country doesn’t always tell us the truth.”

Oh, that’s right. If Iraqi women were doing better, the media would want us to think otherwise! When we on the Left say that the media is distorting the truth, say by presenting White House PR as “the truth” or presenting America in the most favorable light possible, the reason we are able to prove this at all is because we know that press access to the White House is controlled by the White House (duh), and therefore, journalists don’t want to piss off the administration too badly since that might cost them contacts in high places.

Would it offend anyone to provide definitive journalistic proof that Iraqi women are doing better after the Iraq war? Of course not! The White House would love an article like that, and we on the left wouldn’t mind it either–after all, what, the hell, are we spending billions of dollars for if humans aren’t even getting basic rights in Iraq?

But this bonehead Conway really is just a talking head of the right, who parrots what the right-wing machine tells her to say. She is what Paul Krugman recently called “an echo chamber”, who simply assumes that what other people tell her in her conservative circles must be true.

Remember when she mentioned that John Kerry voted against what she called “the body armor bill”? She referred to the $87 billion package as “the body armor bill,” even though FactCheck.org and other actual analysts have thoroughly proven the distortion in this claim (a distortion used by Bush to win the election of 2004). It pissed me off that Bill Maher didn’t call her bluff and instead simply used the equally propogandistic “Well, Kerry fought in Vietnam.”

In reality, the proper response would be to point out that the $87 billion package included $300 million for upgraded vests, yes, but that was a mere 1/3 of 1 percent (i.e. 0.33%) of the actual bill’s spending.[1] Do you think what Kerry voted against was those $300 million, or is it more rational to assume that Kerry voted against the other $86,700 million dollars spent in that bill?

1. http://www.factcheck.org/article155.html

Sadness and remorse for the worst acts of human history

Sunday, August 21st, 2005

Wow, I worked myself up at this late hour thinking about issues related to the morality of warfare (or lack thereof, as it were), and in particular to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A particularly naive /. poster (is the adjective “naive” redundant here?) pointed out how we can often forget that “civilians can be enemy combatants,” and he mentions a Mitsubishi plant in Nagasaki, as if that were most casulaties occured in Nagasaki (nonsense of course, since over 100,000 deaths occured in that unfortunate city). He then compares America to a police station and Japan to a “man who runs at the station with a bat,” and concludes that it is therefore “all the man with the bat’s fault.” If that reasoning weren’t pathetic enough, he provides another justification for dropping the bombs: that Japan would have done the same, but to New York! Ah, the things I could teach the average /. writer about argumentation. I really hope these aren’t the same folks I meet in the workplace of my future. Read the rest of this entry »

CAFTA: Is this democracy?

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2005

Check out a few links about CAFTA: 1 2 3 4 5.

Disgusting. My take? Globalization in its most ruthless form is going to be seen in the next few years in each of the countries affected by CAFTA. Then there’s going to be a long track record of failure for the theories of globalization, from NAFTA and Mexico, to WTO effects on Jamaica, to CAFTA in Central America and Dominican Republic. And then what are we all going to say? We’re still supporting these theories on “faith”? Or will we wake up and smell the coffee, and realize that “globalization,” the way it is sold now by politicians and even theoreticians, is nothing more than “handing public capital over to corporations, basically for free”.

Or, perhaps more pointedly: restoring the world order of imperial powers and their subjugated colonies.

My only fear is that by the time we realize this, globalization will have so evolved that the “imperial powers” won’t be rich governments, but rich transnationals, and the subjugated colonies won’t be third-world countries, but all countries and all people who don’t have major stakes in the ruling corporations.

Cringely’s Realization: Youth aren’t disciplined?

Tuesday, November 9th, 2004

What do you think? The reason Cringely was wrong was because the youth aren’t disciplined? They’re great at being energetic about a campaign, but horrible at showing up to vote for it? Judge for yourself.

Resignation is not the answer

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2004

I watched the election results stream in yesterday and this morning, and my first thought was the same as yours: this is America, like it or not. There is no hope. 1984 is approaching, we might as well resign ourselves to a fate as the mindless “proles.”

However, after seeing Ralph Nader’s energizing speech the night before the election, I came to some important realizations, and I have a different attitude about the years ahead, given this Bush victory. Read on…