Universal Rights

Matt TaibbiMatt Taibbi wrote an interesting article about civilian drone killings, At Least We’re Not Measles: Rationalizing Drone Attacks Hits New Low. The article generally is an attack on all those (including an embarrassing number of liberals) who have been apologizing for these attacks. In particular, he goes after Michael Kugelman, who argues that we shouldn’t worry about drone deaths because more people in Pakistan die each year from measles. Great argument, huh?

But late in the article, Taibbi gets to an issue that is very close to my heart: universal rights.

This whole thing is crazy. In our own country, we don’t allow the government to torture criminal suspects and/or kill people without trial—because it’s wrong. If it’s wrong here, it’s wrong in Yemen or Iraq or Afghanistan; if it’s wrong to do it to an American citizen, it’s wrong to do it to a Pakistani. Our failure to recognize that and our increasingly desperate attempts to rationalize or legitimize this hideous program gives the entire world an automatic show of proof of American bigotry and stupidity.

I read the entire Constitution of the United States recently. What I found was that there are a total of 22 references of “citizen.” And pretty much without exception, these references have to do with voting: who can be president, senator, representative, and who can vote for them. I bring this up because back a while, I heard some people talking about how only citizens have rights of Habeas Corpus. This is what the Constitution says about this in Article I Section 9: “The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” You see: no “citizen” there. Conservatives like to claim that the Bill of Rights is just about citizens. It isn’t. This goes back to the Declaration of Independence (and further), where Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” That’s “all men” and not “all men who just happen to be born in a particular place.”

This is all about natural rights. Either these rights are universal, or they aren’t real. As a nation, we can’t run all over the world forcing other countries to treat their people by our standards of universal rights. But we also can’t deny those rights by running all over the world killing people without due process of law. Claiming that it is all okay because we are at war is just an apologia. We are always at war and so can always claim that. It is the same as claiming that we can kill anyone we want to because we are America. And if you scratch the surface of arguments like those of Michael Kugelman, that’s all that you’ll find.

This article was based in part on a prior article.

Bitching About Snickers Satisfies

My sister directed me to this Liberals4America Facebook page: While you were busy bitching about a guy who bought a Snickers with food stamps, this was happening to your tax dollars!

Exxon

What I find most disturbing about this is the guy bitching about the “abuse” of food stamps. In many cases, he’s a liberal, or at least liberal-leaning. But he’s the kind of guy that Republicans can get to vote for them. All they need is a candidate who says the magic words in the magic way—someone like Ronald Reagan or Marco Rubio. And this is the real problem that we face.

If we all stick together, we can do something about the most profitable company in the world not paying any taxes. But we can’t do a thing if conservatives manage to set us against each other. Sure, there are poor people who take advantage of the system. But they represent nothing compared to the rich people who take advantage of the system. That’s what we have to remember.

And there’s something else. Why do people think it is wrong to buy a Snickers with food stamps? We all enjoy junk food from time to time. Why is it that we expect the poor to lead ascetic lives? Isn’t there something wrong with all of us who want to punish people for the crime of being poor? Isn’t this just another example of assuming that poverty is the result of moral inadequacy? Shouldn’t the example of just about every rich person throughout history prove to us that this isn’t that case?

Let he who is without sin start the bitching!

Afterword

That tax refund of $156 million? That’s $5 per second. A common variation of this quotation is that in the time you were bitching, Exxon pocketed $9,000 of your taxes. That would be equivalent to a half hour of bitching. I wouldn’t doubt that the quote came from an annoyed liberal who had to listen to a friend complain for a half hour about this. I know people who will go on and on about this kind of thing. Kind of like complaining about a hangnail after your arm was just ripped off.

FISA: Don’t Hold The Phone

FISAYou gotta love this. You know the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)? It’s the act that sets up courts to make sure that secret wiretaps of suspected foreign agents were all above board—that law enforcement agencies weren’t going crazy just wiretapping everyone. You may remember that the Bush administration was very unhappy with it because it was getting in the way of keeping America safe the way the administration did right up to the morning of 11 September 2001.

Funny thing about the FISA courts. The government has made 38,093 requests from 1979 through 2011. In that time, the FISA courts have denied—Wait for it!—just 11 requests. In fact, before 2003, they never denied a request. Of the 11 rejections since then, 10 were during the Bush administration. To some extent, this understates how much the FISA courts do. Often the courts get the government to modify their requests. These are things like, “You want 39 wiretaps, but we’re only gonna give you 38!” So it is still pretty bad.

What is most remarkable about this is that during the Bush administration, 14,353 requests were made (38% of all requests). And note: this is a much higher request rate than either of the administrations surround it. I think this means that the Bush administration was just generally more interested in spying than in protecting anyone. Nonetheless, given the very large number of requests and the the very low number of denials (0.07%), what was the big deal the administration made of the FISA courts?

Regardless of all this, we ought to take note of just how feckless is “government oversight.” The fact is that all of the power players in the public and private sectors are inbred. They take care of there own and under most circumstances they don’t care at all about the little people like you and me. If you see the American Revolution as a war between the people and the aristocracy, then we lost that war. The aristocracy won. And silly us who think that one part of the aristocracy is going to protect us from another.

H/T Matt Taibbi

Minimum Wage and EITC

Arindrajit DubeMike Konczal recently interviewed economist Arindrajit Dube about the minimum wage. In a blog post after the interview, Konczal explained something that Dube had talked about and it is really interesting. You see, there are people like Matt Yglesias who argue that the best way to help the poor is to give them money directly. Enacting things like the minimum wage just messes with the economy. So instead, we should raise their incomes directly through mechanisms like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Except that it isn’t that simple.

As Konczal notes, many economists complain that taxes do not necessarily fall on the people who are directly taxed. For example, they claim that corporate taxes just get passed onto consumers in the form of higher prices. (As I noted yesterday, this is nowhere near the whole story.) But when it works the other way, most economists are blind to it.

Here’s how it works. When the government gives poor people money through the EITC, it allows employers to pay them less. It is estimated that for every dollar given in EITC, employers siphon off 27 cents in lower wages. That’s a lot. That means that 27% of the EITC program goes to often very big companies. But wait…

Minimum wage to the rescue! By keeping the minimum wage at a reasonable level, it prevents companies from siphoning off money from the EITC, because they can’t reduce wages very much or at all. Thus, the minimum wage and EITC work in tandem to better help the working poor.

Unlike a lot of people who push the non-minimum wage line, Matt Yglesias is very open to new evidence. I’ll be very interested to see if he takes note of this.

Update (18 February 2013 3:35 pm)

Matt Yglesias has spoken. I think he’s being a little deceptive. As I recall, he came down on the EITC side of this discussion. But now, he is calling for Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI). This would be a government program that makes sure that everyone has some basic amount of money with which to live. He notes that this amount would effectively set a minimum wage because no one would work for less given that they get paid for doing nothing. I agree with him: a modern economy ought to be able to provide people with their essentials. And it is important to remember that this would help people take risks and try to build new products and services. As a man who has started a lot of companies, I can tell you that you think much more about the consequences of failure than you think of all the piles of money you will make if you are successful. Knowing you have a fallback is critical. But I still think that Yglesias is hedging.

Needed: More Drunk Witnesses

Sarah KliffSarah Kliff reported yesterday on research that shows, Drunk Eyewitnesses Are Just as Good as Sober Ones. The research was performed by researchers at the University of Gothenberg. They specifically looked at whether people who watch a video of a crime could identify the perpetrator in a line-up a week later. Half the subjects were drunk when they watched the video. And what a surprise! The drunk viewers were as good as the sober ones.

The reason this is the case is that people are really bad eyewitnesses—whether sober or drunk. But strangely, this does not seem to be the take away that the researchers get from the results. They note that many crimes happen where people are drunk. So now, in court we can use drunk witnesses without the fear of (mostly) defense attorneys arguing that the eyewitness testimony ought to be discarded.

I take the opposite from this research: sober people are no better eyewitnesses than drunks! Juries find eyewitness testimony extremely powerful. The last thing our justice system needs is more unreliable, often racist, eyewitness testimony.

It boggles my mind that criminal justice researchers would pitch their results in such an evil direction. Look, I’m all for convicting the guilty—at least when it comes to real crime, as opposed to moralistic “crime.” But our criminal justice system is too often more like a random conviction generator than anything else. But not completely random. If you’re white in the suburbs, you’re probably safe. If you’re black in a city: good luck! Because if you have bad luck, you’ll likely be picked out of a lineup by some drunk the police grabbed off the street.