Reactions About Recent Snowden Revelation

Glenn GreenwaldThere is a depressing new article over at The Guardian today by James Ball, Julian Borger, and Glenn Greenwald, US and UK Spy Agencies Defeat Privacy and Security on the Internet. It contains more revelations from the Edward Snowden files. I’ll be writing about it more, but basically it means that the NSA can break most forms of encryption, but they don’t even have to do that because they work with high tech companies to put weaknesses in products. I assume these weaknesses are things like back doors where the NSA and other spying agencies can just reach in and grab the data as easily as if they had the user’s password.

I already know what the reaction is going to be to all of this. The government will claim that this information should never have been leaked and that it puts American (UK, whatever) lives at risk. The high tech companies will claim that certainly they have never worked with the NSA—at least not when they weren’t forced to by law. And the media will claim that there is nothing new in this report. They will all be lying for their own selfish reasons.

None of this information ever puts lives at risk because to a very large extent: it can’t. The vast majority of documents are classified because they embarrass the government. The purpose is not to keep them away from our enemies but to keep them away from us. We see this again and again. Declassified documents from decades ago always turn out to be the most pathetic things that never should have been classified in the first place. And one of the good things that Clinton did while president was open things up a bit and declassify a lot of documents. When Bush came into office, the administration immediately started reclassifying documents. That shows how foolish the whole thing is.

I know the high tech mindset very well. And it is true that small young companies really do have high ideals. Most of them are also fairly anarchic in their thinking and don’t like the idea of government spying. It is all part of the internet mindset. But after these little startups become real companies, everything changes. Then they only care about such ideals as a branding issue. There are lots of economic reasons for these companies to play nice with the NSA and other questionable parts of the government. So of course they are providing the keys to all their customers’ data. And they don’t care about this at all—as long as their customers never find out.

The media obsession with claiming that none of this information is new is particularly interesting. It depends upon a kind of urbane cynicism that just assumes that the government is doing all kinds of bad stuff. So: of course the government is spying on all of us; only a rube thought anything else! There are two problems with this. First, there is a difference between suspecting and knowing. Second, by that logic, we don’t need journalists at all. Why do we hold up Woodward and Bernstein as heroes? After all, many people suspected that Nixon was up to no good. All they did was tell us that politicians are corrupt. Big deal!

So expect all of these very predictable reactions. But don’t buy them for a minute. The government, business community, and media are not our friends. They are doing everything they can to keep us in the weak, poor, and blind.

Don’t Bomb Syria

Syrian Refugees

Senator Boxer / Senator Feinstein / Representative Thompson:

This one is pretty simple. It is a tragedy. But it doesn’t seem like our government has tried very hard to get a negotiated settlement to the civil war. Now would be a good time for us to work with Russia on this. I very much want to see that.

But even if that fails, I think that an attack on Syria will be bad. It won’t help them and it will likely only make us look worse in the region and worldwide.

Frank Moraes

Short and sweet. It doesn’t take much.

Good News on Obamacare Won’t Change Conservatives

We Heart ObamacareSy Mukherjee wrote one of the funniest headlines I think I’ve ever read, Major New Study on Obamacare Premiums Should End the “Rate Shock” Hysteria Once and for All. Let me provide some background here, because I don’t cover it much. On the right, people have been fear mongering that because of Obamacare, there will be “rate shock”: everyone who currently buys their own insurance (a fairly same percentage of the people anyway) will see their rates go up—way up.

Part of the problem is that the same insurance for different people costs different amounts. For example, as I rush toward the fifty year line, I will pay more than some twenty-something. Similarly, not all insurance plans are the same. Some cover more. Some have more co-payments. This has allowed conservative supposed wonks like Avik Roy to claim that prices are exploding under Obamacare. Roy has also argued that we should make Obamacare more like the Swiss system without actually understanding that it is even more liberal than our system. The point is that conservatives will continue to find reasons to claim that Obamacare is just no good.

That’s why I thought the headline was so funny. Facts will never stop conservative hysteria about anything. Look: Avik Roy isn’t stupid. Not at all. But what he is is an apologist for conservative policy and against liberal policy. I’m sure he sees it as his job to attack Obamacare in any way that he can. That’s true of the whole right wing establishment. Even the head of the CATO institute—the only remaining conservative think thank (all the others have become propaganda mills)—said that if one of their studies found something he disagreed with ideologically, he would kill it. That’s the kind of thing we are dealing with on the right, so no study will change what they are saying.

This new study is from the The Kaiser Family Foundation and it is large: spanning 17 states (plus DC) where data are available. And the results are quite good. They indicate that the estimates from the Congressional Budget Office have tended to be a bit higher than things are turning out. “Fifteen of the eighteen rating areas we examined have premiums below this level, suggesting that the cost of coverage for consumers and the federal budgetary cost for tax credits will be lower than anticipated.” This is good news, but hardly surprising. Earlier, more limited studies have found exactly the same thing.

As I said, I don’t cover this stuff very much. The truth is, I see very clearly what is happening. Conservatives hate Obamacare. But they don’t much know why. When I talk to people about the program—on the left or right—they usually don’t understand it at all. But while those on the left just have a wait and see attitude, those on the right think that the program is going to take away their current insurance and replace it with something else. And generally, there is no convincing them otherwise. But the real reason conservatives are against it is because their elites have told them to be. And the elites hate it because it takes away from the “right” kind of people (it taxes the rich) and gives to the “wrong” kind of people (it give the poor healthcare). And no amount of good news about the program is going to change this dynamic for these hateful people.

Loudon Wainwright III for Will

Loudon Wainwright IIIOn this day back in 1667, the Italian monk and non-Euclidean geometrist Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri was born. The great composer, Johann Christian Bach was born in 1735. He was the only clearly Classical of the Bach boys. Here is his Concerto for Flute in D Major:

Scottish poet Robert Fergusson was born in 1750. Romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich was born in 1774. Composer Anton Diabelli was born in 1781. (He’s important but not enough so to quote.) Opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer was born in 1791. Here is a bit from his opera Le Prophete:

One of the three great Russian novelist with the last name Tolstoy, Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy was born in 1817. The very famous French playwright who Shaw hated, Victorien Sardou was born in 1831. Jack Daniel was born in 1846. Guess what he did for a living. Outlaw Jesse James was born in 1847.

Producer Darryl F. Zanuck was born in 1902. The great composer John Cage was born in 1912. Here is one of his many wonderful pieces for prepared piano:

Check out my article Cage Does Cage!

Historical novelist Frank Yerby was born in 1916. The great songwriter John Stewart was born in 1939. Here he is doing his hit “Gold”:

And Freddie Mercury was born in 1946. Here is “Bohemian Rhapsody” sort of live:

Economist Paul Volcker is 86 today. Comedian Bob Newhart is 84. The ur-Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin is 74. Actor Raquel Welch is 73. The great director Werner Herzog is 71. The singer-songwriter Al Stewart is 68. Here he is performing “Year of the Cat”:

And comedian Michael Keaton is 62.

The day, however, belongs to singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III who is 67. Truly, I could have picked 10 people with birthdays today. But I picked Wainwright for my friend Will who really likes him and really hates these birthday posts. Here he is (Wainwright, not Will) doing “Something’s Out to Get Me”:

Happy birthday Loudon Wainwright III!

Syria Is an Entry to War with Iran

SyriaIt is clear that John McCain wants a full out war in Syria with ground troops and the like because he wants a war with Iran. He is not alone in this. I believe that this is largely why most conservatives favor the war. And it is most certainly why all the neocons are on board with this. All of the Americans who claim to be such supporters of Israel are always for attacking Iran because the current conservative Israeli government wants that. But I think this goes deeper than just “protection of Israel.” For one thing, it is not at all clear that attacking Iran is good for Israel.

I think this all goes back to 4 November 1979: the Iranian hostage crisis. Conservatives in America hold remarkably long grudges. We haven’t had official relations with Cuba for over 50 years. Why? I really don’t know. Certainly, we didn’t have any more of a problem with them than we had with the Soviet Union. What is the big deal? Well, I suppose I know what the big deal is. Cuba is a small enough country that we could get away with our childish behavior. The Soviet Union was not.

The same thing is going on with Iran. As “evil” governments go, Iran is quite good. It has created great stability in the region. And if we want the country to liberalize, we ought to, you know, open up the lines of communication. Word is that the people of Iran are quite positive towards us. I am well aware that liberals as well as conservatives use the same trilogy of terror (“axis of evil”) rhetoric. But I really think that if the conservatives like John McCain could just get over their ego hits about the embassy attack, we might be able to have a reasonable relationship with that country and do actual good for its people.

This is all speculation, of course. But we really seem to be focused on Syria. And I understand why liberals are focused on it: Obama blew it. He backed himself into a corner with his talk of “red lines.” Advice to the president: never talk about red lines. The conservatives, however, are interested in Syria in a larger sense. It is part of the bigger reshaping of the Middle East. That Iraq War went so well, maybe they think they can install a Syrian government that is even more allied with Iran. Just kidding. War with Syria is just one step away from war with Iran. And if these conservatives are really lucky, maybe they can get a third world war with Russia!

The real question now is whether or not we are going to go to war with Syria for silly reasons. Are we going to attack them because the president can’t admit to a mistake? Are we going to because conservatives hope to start a regional war? Because that’s the coalition. Once again, the American people are too smart to buy any of it. Like most people the world over, we just want to get on with our lives. We may be horrified about what’s happening in Syria. (I certainly hope so!) But we know starting a new war isn’t the way to help. And those who are for war have different agendas entirely.

The Rich Lack Empathy

Job Creator

A good person never bargains with his kindness. We are all rightly disgusted by quid pro quo corruption. “If you’re nice to me, maybe I’ll approve that zoning change you’ve been asking for.” Such behavior, though common, is reprehensible. That’s why when it goes on, it does so in private. Even the corrupt know that it is wrong.

So what are we to make of the rich folks I wrote about yesterday? These are the people who publicly and proudly tell us that we’d better keep their taxes low or they won’t create any more jobs. This isn’t even corruption; this is outright extortion. Even with all my cynicism, it is amazing that our society puts up with such things. After all, such statements are made by people who are doing very well. And far from public excoriation, most of our society simply cowers in fear while the minions of the rich dutifully lower their taxes.

I recently came upon a great article from two years ago, Understanding Our National Empathy Deficit. It discusses the fact that the rich are less empathetic than the poor. Of course, the public perception is just the opposite. This is because the rich get so much credit for the opera houses they build—they demand it! But let’s be clear: my occasional donation of a dollar to a stranded high school student sets me about a proportionally to a billionaires million dollar gift to his alma mater.

Three social scientists are the University of California tested whether the rich really do have less empathy than the poor. They had groups of rich and poor people play games that involved giving away real money. And regardless of the format of the games, the rich always gave away notably less. It’s all about learned behavior:

People of modest means, the scholars point out, don’t have the resources to control their own environments. They have to depend on others. They learn, in the process, how to read other’s emotions. They become more empathetic.

People from wealthy households, by contrast, don’t have to depend nearly as much on others. Their wealth and “higher station in life” give them the luxury of focusing much more single-mindedly on self. They have less need to understand what other people are feeling. Over time, they feel and show less empathy.

I really like that take on it because it shows that the rich are not necessarily bad people,[1] but the social environments affect how they behave. And the scientists understand what this means to public policy. “This dynamic, observes [co-author] Keltner, has clear implications for trickle-down public policy approaches that expect the rich to demonstrate a hefty dose of nobless oblige. That expectation, he notes bluntly, rates as ‘improbable, psychologically.'”

What I think is that all the self-congratulations and extortion of the rich when calling themselves “job creators” was enough to demonstrate their lack of empathy. But I’m glad to see that actual lab evidence backs it up. Now if we could just get policy makers to act on this information. Or at least get the public to understand the myth of the job creator.

[1] I still believe that lacking empathy helps in business success, so I don’t think this is entirely environmental.

Conservatives in Libertarian Clothing

Rand PaulThis morning at Political Animal, Ed Kilgore wrote an excellent article, Rand Paul’s “Bible-Thumping” Nothing New. It discusses perhaps my biggest problem with Rand Paul and to a lesser extent his father Ron. Rand Paul is a social conservative. So how is it that also has this reputation as the libertarian white knight?

As I am fond of pointing out, it used to drive me crazy that at libertarian events, 95% of the people were really Republicans. In fact, a clear majority of these people were Rush Limbaugh fans. What distinguished them from ordinary conservatives was that they had systematized their ideology. But that didn’t generally turn them into libertarians. They were instead, conservatives with a libertarian gloss. And this is why, for example, you find “libertarians” who are anti-choice. Sure, they can make a libertarian argument: they just make the totally unreasonable assumption that full citizen rights apply to zygotes. No real libertarian who hold such a belief and indeed, the Libertarian Party has generally been pro-choice, even if their candidates and much of their rank-and-file are not.

An even better example is racism. It’s amazing how Paul will claim that he absolutely, positively is not a racist. But somehow his biggest policy positions feed right into the desires of bigots throughout the nation. When there was news that Ron Paul’s newsletter editorials were filled with explicit and implicit racism, the nation was shocked. But it shouldn’t have been. The very basis of libertarian thinking is that everyone gets what they deserve and when that isn’t so it is just because of government interference. So if dark skinned people are poor, it must be in their genes. Jason Richwine isn’t an aberration: he is what the movement is all about.

And it isn’t just people on the margins. Remember Ayn Rand’s apologia for the theft of the land of the native peoples in America:

They didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using… What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent.

This isn’t even a libertarian argument; it is fascism, pure and simple. Our culture is better than theirs so we have a right to do whatever we want. But notice how Biblical the argument is: the land is given to us to developed. And there is this strange anti-evolutionary notion that somehow we aren’t animals. Even if Ayn Rand was an atheist, there is a lot of religion in her work. And that’s true of most libertarians, most especially Rand Paul.

Kilgore lays it out perfectly:

And as every alert observer should realize by now, the “constitutional conservative” movement of which Rand Paul is a leading champion fuses theocratic and capitalist ideological tenets into a sort of free-market authoritarianism in which the only legitimate role of the state is to defend absolute property rights and traditional culture. The proper question isn’t whether Paul can maintain a tactical alliance with the Christian Right; it’s whether constitutional conservatives like Paul can maintain a tactical alliance with actual libertarians.

Of course, the reason we have the likes of Rand Paul is that “actual libertarians” are extremely rare. It is not only an extremely hard philosophy, it is an extremely naive one. And Paul’s position on war only indicates that he doesn’t care about anyone else; it isn’t a principled stand. It goes right along with the conservative belief that the US Constitution only applies to citizens. We Americans are good and the rest of you can go to hell. (The fact that Paul reaches the right conclusion with the wrong thinking doesn’t matter.)

So when you hear Rand Paul pontificating as he is wont to do, just remember: he’s a conservative with a libertarian gloss. Or if you prefer: a conservative in libertarian clothing.