Category Archives: Politics

On Taking Law Enforcement Away

This tweet by the so-called president makes very little sense:

“So-called judge” and “which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country” are more than just inappropriate. And so we have the “so-called” president and the “so-called” president who “takes law-enforcement away from the country.”

I’m pretty sure that there’s adequate law left over.

How to Write about Being Incorrect

I’m somewhat puzzled by this use of language by David Graham at The Atlantic regarding the whole Frederick Douglass imbroglio. He writes:

In a way, Trump isn’t totally wrong about Douglass “getting recognized more and more,” though one is left to scratch one’s head at where precisely he noticed that.

First we have the hedge phrasing “In a way,” which has become a prepositional tic. I wonder what “way” is meant here. If the writer writes “In a way,” we would expect a description or definition of “the way.” In what “way,” for example, is the president “right”? And then we have the grammatical couple of “isn’t totally wrong,” which would suggest that the lego bricks in use here are both stable and unstable. We might write: “almost right”?

I would suggest that Conor Friedersdorf is more accurate in just writing the plain English of this example:

The mix of Trump’s incompetence and Bannon’s casual bellicosity endangers America.

The Year of the Neglected Subordination in Politics

It’s probably going to be the year of “if you like your current insurance you can keep your current insurance. Period. End of story.” The story line is already broadcasting.

This is why I can’t go into politics because what I would say is: “Yes, I said it, now go fuck yourself.”

In one instance, in Green Bay, the president said this: “No matter how we reform health care, I intend to keep this promise:  If you like your doctor, you’ll be able to keep your doctor; if you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan.” Here’s a link to other instances.

The president made a blunder because this is an incomplete thought. The subordinating conjunction problem in politics  should be a famous war between the devil and its details. In other words, President Obama should have said, “You can keep your insurance unless it doesn’t meet the new specs because there are new specs which I’ve listed ad nauseum.” The conjunction problem comes with the existence of Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus, who represents “foresight.”  Sometimes it’s impossible to know the political consequences when many people are aware of unarticulated but obvious facts. For example, many people after 2011 knew that certain insurance products would not meet the “new specs” and would therefore be illegal. But agents, like insurance companies, and members of Congress, and the President, neglected to provide a photo of the devil to their customers.

Now, here’s why the statement is not a lie. Everyone knew that the ACA would prohibit price gouging. There were insurance plans priced higher for women than for men. Logically, if a person likes being gouged and the law prevents this gouging, then regardless of whether one likes being gouged, one cannot keep the plan that gouges them, and certainly a company can’t offer the gouging plan as legal. Here’s another way Obama could have said what he knew at the time: “If you like your compliant plan, you can keep it.” But that wouldn’t be accurate either because an insurance company, I’m sure, might have numerous compliant plans and simply not offer them for renewal.

The president’s statement is like defining pornography. Most people knew what he meant because they read between the thick strokes. But the quotes make for good fun, I suppose. His statement is a broad assurance for the majority yet inaccurate and a blunder.

It should be noted that there are many corollaries. Let’s say you like your car but you like your car precisely because it doesn’t have seat belts. You will hear many people say: “You can drive whatever car you want in this country.” You know what they mean.

So, if I were a politician I would not make stuff up to defend against the “keep it if you like it” generalization. I would say: “Yeah, I said it, but you can’t drive a car with seat belts made out of toilet paper.”

Must Reads for Americans: When the Bizarre becomes Logical

After more reports on NSA and tech, these concerning Apple, I decided to include the recent ruling by Judge Pauley in the morning’s reading. I think the ruling should be required reading for Americans. The prior link goes to what appears to be a photocopy of the tezt, which is just about as bad as a pdf for cutting and pasting. One of the significant issues at the heart of the ACLU’s case is the fact that they’re Verizon customers and that the NSA has access therefore to their workflow and communications. We learn this under the Claims section on page 12. The next section has to do with whether or not the ACLU has standing to sue. The government is claiming that the ACLU doesn’t have that status, which is a good move because Verizon has a lot of customers (see page 24), potentially making for a pretty bad-ass class action. I’m a Verizon customer, also, and I also use lots of keywords that might flag me on this blog and in my Twitter stream.

The court argues, using an Amnesty International case wherein Amnesty failed to “concretely” prove “imminent” injury, that the ACLU does have standing to sue because the NSA had indeed captured its data. That’s about all the love the ACLU is going to get  from the Judge, though (and I’m not quite sure after reading the whole thing that he thinks they do have standing). Most of the reporting on the ruling goes to a question of constitutionality. But my reading of the ruling is that the thinking here is much more complicated. Consider this snippet:

Read in harmony, the Stored Communications Act does not limit the Government’s ability to obtain information from communications providers under section 215 because section 215 orders are functionally equivalent to grand jury subpoenas. Section 215 authorizes the Government to seek records that may be obtained with a grand jury subpoena, such as telephony metadata under the Stored Communications Act.

The Section 215 question here is significant. That’s the part of the Patriot Act that requires, say, the FBI to prove that it needs certain info to pursue a case, and that’s where the FISA court comes into the picture. But the distinction for the court is that it’s not the FBI doing the collecting. That activity is limited only to the NSA. (See page 33). I think Judge Pauley is at his best when he explains why bulk collection can be done by the NSA. He argues that “all phone call metadata” is a class of things the FBI might require as “relevant” in an investigation and that to prohibit the collection of this class of things would  “require the Government to determine wrongdoing before issuing a subpoena–but that determination is the primary purpose of a subpoena” (34). And that’s followed by this: “And in the context of a counterterrorism investigation, that after-the-attack determination would be too late.” And, “Here, there is no way for the Government to know which particle of telephony metadata will lead to useful counterterrorism information.”

Then comes the typical Katz case argument about the “presumption of privacy” issue. But I don’t intent to minimize Pauley’s arguments in this regard because he goes into some pretty good analysis against the ACLU on their privacy assertions and their assertions about “sweep” and “bulk.”

But now to the point. This ruling should be read in full and not just by lawyers. There’s more in it than I can go after at the moment. However, reading the ruling leaves me with a bad taste in the mouth, and I think that Pauley is incorrect. Everyone can understand that keeping information from “the enemy” is critical. If the Red Team coach knows the Blue Team’s plays, then there’s no real game to be played, and if the NSA or CIA broadcasted its moves, whatever group or individual who intended harm would alter their strategy, as any criminal would. But it seems to me the judge is writing in the bizarre context or world where a “war on terror” has been unleashed, and outside this context or world–this new “war condition”–his arguments wouldn’t be required. So the real question is, is any of this stuff legal, not just one program or several by the NSA? If the Patriot Act works inside the context of a “war on terror,” then maybe it’s the “war on terror” that’s the problem here.

I did a little reading on the controversial 215 section. Such language is about as bizarre as it gets, so many safeguards, so many “presumed” safeguards that the law of the falling dominoes would seem to be realized. It’s terrifying language, a house made of a million toothpicks. Why, because it sets up a massive “begging the question” argument: it’s constitutional because it’s constitutional, like claiming that something is legal by virtue of it being on the books, and by the way we just need to do it.

For Pauley, we’re caught between a piece of steel and an anvil. But he sets up his own and our problem with all this, the balance between liberty and security.  He writes, first quoting from Boumediene, “‘Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law.’ The success of one helps protect the other. Like the 9/11 Commission observed: The choice between liberty and security is a false one, as nothing is more apt to imperil civil liberties that the success of a terrorist attack on American soil” (52). That’s a pretty big generalization and amounts to telling people what they should fear most. Rising sea levels will also do a number on civil liberties. This language could only be written in the cloud of the “war on terror” paradigm. And that’s what scares me the most about our current NSA mess.

Redefining Politics

I have readings ready for class on Tuesday, November 4. I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s voting day, and the day represents a culmination of semester long work in terms of a course plot. In any event, given the elections, which feels strangely distant from reality, this post by Greenstein and Kogan at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reminds me of some frustration about political ecology, by which I mean the way people interact with and shape governance culture.

November 4 will be a good example of this ecology in the ambient round. The relationship on display between the states and the federal government is a part of the Christie/Obama narrative but not part of the larger narrative on display in the governance sales job.

I’ve learned over time that politics should be a form of problem solving. But it’s hard to solve problems when the wrong narrative is being written. We could ask this question and try to make people care. We could ask what drives “the nations long-term fiscal problems” outside of the immediate issue of a destroyed abode after a storm somewhere on the eastern coast.

Several conservative analysts and some journalists lately have cited figures showing substantial growth in recent years in the cost of federal programs for low-income Americans. A recent report the Congressional Research Service prepared for Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) provides one such set of figures.[1] These figures can create the mistaken impression that growth in low-income programs is a major contributor to the nation’s long-term fiscal problems.

In reality, virtually all of the recent growth in spending for low-income programs is due to two factors: the economic downturn and rising costs throughout the U.S. health care system, which affect costs for private-sector care as much as for Medicaid and other government health care programs.

I ask: why should it matter that the narrative that defines a problem be taken more seriously?

When there are critical problems that need solving.

I leave the rest to suggestion.

Big Ideas, Bold Ideas, or just Ideas

In politics it’s a possible thing to adjust the definitions of words to convince other people, to hide actions, or to create desired or undesired images. We’ve heard over the last few years, for example, characterizations for some ideas as big and bold when better usage would be the less flavorful but more precise term: “ideas.”

Ideas are, as they say, while adjectives serve to create images or portraits of them. Hoover Dam was a part of a “big idea,” when in reality, the work was big, perhaps even bigger than the dam, and the plan to manage flooding, irrigation, power and so forth was large scale.

I don’t disagree with the word bold to characterize an idea, but appropriateness does matter. We know what’s intended. Perhaps many novels and poems are composed with big ideas in mind. I reach for them myself. To transform the way America makes power wholly from renewables is a big project but it’s not a big or bold idea. One hundred years ago it would have been a crazy idea or fantastic, like Cyrano de Bergerac’s writings about the moon.

If a scientist claimed that the universe was made out of jello, some would say this was a bold notion. If it was shown that, indeed, the universe was made of jello, then we could accurately claim that this was the truth as opposed to being false.

I’d rather go with good idea/bad idea.

On Trust, Honesty, and Authority: A Review of Twilight of the Elites

In TS Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men, Eliot ends with reference to famous whimpers: those of Fawkes and Marlow. The poem is something other than its apparent whole in the context of other works.

Like reading a soda bottle for its calculus and its physicality, its material ecology.

Or like reading bond deals in this article titled The Scam Wall Street Learned from the Mafia by Matt Taibbi, which tells the story of United States of America v. Carollo, Goldberg, and Grimm. Taibbi describes the shenanigans in similar terms as Christopher Hayes’s book Twilight of the Elites. An example: Taibbi first:

This incredible [fair price] defense, which the attorneys for all three defendants led with, perfectly expresses the awesome arrogance of the modern-day aristocrats who run our financial services sector. Corrupt or not, they built this financial infrastructure, and it’s producing the prices they genuinely think are fair for us – and for them. And fair to them is the customer getting the absolute bare minimum, while they get instant millions for work they didn’t do. Moreover – and this is the most important part – they believe they should get permanent protection from the ravages of the market, i.e., from one another’s competition. Imagine Jack Nicholson on the witness stand, dressed in a repairman’s uniform and tool belt. Who’s gonna fix those refrigerators? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? You can’t handle the truth!

Now Hayes:

We now see ourselves ruled by a remote class. They may not wear flowing robes, or carry miters, but they are marked in their own way as separate and distinct. The distance between those who will be bailed out and those who will not is the ultimate social distance, and it has grown so vast it now strains the bonds of representation that hold the republic and its people together. (215)

Taibbi’s piece explores, by telling the story of the Carollo case, the extent of this “corruption.”

Hayes’ book is about corruption and an idea he terms the “crisis of authority.” It’s not about the casual remark I often hear (and speak myself): “politicians, oh, they’re all crooks.” My father would frequently bristle with this sort of language at the mention of Nixon. Both Hayes and Lessig explore the nuance. Taibbi’s is a more concentrated version.

But to get at this nuance requires inspection of the notion of authority and its complex of relations and opposites, some of which I’ll go into from a literary and geological perspective.

Consider Beowulf and his “war” with Grendel as a tale. Beowulf partly derives his authority from his observable prowess of arms and intelligence. They hear him undue Unferth and they see him fight. In Yi Fu Tuan’s terms, recalling his tremendous Space and Place, the parent is a “place” to a child, a source of comfort, trust, and orientation. Beowulf acts as this sort of orienting agent, and when he eventually dies by dragon, the community will tend towards disorientation. So the metaphor goes. And so, knowing Beowulf’s authority mediated by reputation, Hrothgar hires him.

Beowulf is “trusted” by being “entrusted” with the task of protection. Connectedness is associated to trust in a geographic sense oriented on the “physical” body. Hrothgar breaks a piece of himself or his ability and gives it to Beowulf: he is given the authority to act in Hrothgar’s place. And he knows what he’s giving up in that bargain. A wedding band works in similar geographic terms. I wear a “piece” of my partner on my finger. Hence connectedness and yet another link: honesty, which, etymologically speaking is a characteristic a body earns from others. It would be hard to judge someone honest without some form of relationship. Trust as Trustee, one who may act in another’s place.

Our modern relationship with ULAs is instructive, which is a form of non-agreement agreement. When a user clicks Accept to upgrade their version of the Flash Player, I doubt that that user reads the agreement. Users may not really know what they’re agreeing to, which is a form of blind trust or faith. The consequence of clicking Do Not Accept will result in an expensive paper weight. In other words, this is a form of piecing oneself out without knowing where your pieces are going, a form of disorientation or space blindness.

Lawrence Lessig, Christopher Hayes, and Matt Taibbi cut into this form of disorientation through their examinations of modern corruption. People don’t trust institutions and for good reason. But we should. That’s the significant issue. When municipalities go through the bonding process, they shouldn’t have to worry about banks gaming the system. Taibbi writes

Over the years, many in the public have become numb to news of financial corruption, partly because too many of these stories involve banker-on-banker crime. The notorious Abacus deal involving Goldman Sachs, for instance, involved a hedge-fund billionaire ripping off a couple of European banks – who cares? But the bid-rigging scandal laid bare in USA v. Carollo is a totally different animal. This is the world’s biggest banks stealing money that would otherwise have gone toward textbooks and medicine and housing for ordinary Americans, and turning the cash into sports cars and bonuses for the already rich. It’s the equivalent of robbing a charity or a church fund to pay for lap dances.

Who ultimately loses in these deals? Well, to take just one example, the New Jersey Health Care Facilities Finance Authority, the agency that issues bonds for the state’s hospitals, had their interest rates rigged by the Carollo defendants on $17 million in bonds. Since then, more than a dozen New Jersey hospitals have closed, mostly in poor neighborhoods.

Much of these stories, as Hayes details, have to do with the modern concept of space and place and how perceptions have changed between people in relation to those concepts, as Tuan develops them: place as connection and space as disconnection. Congress, our representatives, our goods makers, our banks, our varieties of media have become removed, not geographically in the sense of being somewhere (we know some building somewhere houses the servers) but removed from experiences that effectuate the building of relationships that return human regard and positive meaning not simply reinforcements of self. Partly, this is the story of polls that show extreme negatives and distrust for modern institutions. For Lessig, the reasons for this distrust are less important than the mere fact that the distrust is real.

Hayes in his last chapter runs through not just the negative attitudes but also data about egalitarian views, citing a study by Norton and Ariely. Hayes concludes, “We are more egalitarian than we, ourselves, realize” (228). This is significant in relation to polls weighing positive negative view on institutions. In a sense, this is a “search for” fairness or an alert to the synthesis between trust, authentic experience, fairness, reciprocity and cooperation. See Cremer and Tyler (pdf) for one aspect of this kind of study.

It’s pretty intuitive that people would trust what is near (place) and distrust what is distant (space). When what has been near and is soon found to be distant or unfathomable (see Taibbi on the Carollo case), the sense of self-trust is damaged. That which was once perceived an invulnerable (Penn State) shown to be vulnerable or outright criminal also points back to our own sense of confidence. As Hayes puts it: “They [Tea Party and Netroots] share a sense that they are no longer in control, that some small, corrupt core of elites can launch an idiotic war, or bail out the banks, or mandate health insurance, and despite their relative privilege and education and money and social capital, there’s not a damn thing they can do about” (232).

Thus, when Grendel attacked the Twin Towers on 9/11 and brought them down, we sought out Beowulf. But those Beowulfs entrusted to us have proven themselves inadequate to the task, as cheats, fakes, and Unferths. This analogy is overly simplistic: we live in a big country not in a Geat village. Nor is it all that profitable to write what might seem a glorification of a poem pointing to anything resembling real-world experience; that would be like holding to the images of football coaches in their honorific poses, chiseled into bronze. Beowulf is an ideal, but its metaphors can be telling and significant. In a world of polymaths, all the polymaths would starve, as Plato argued in The Republic. We need to count on and rely on each other and share our talents in our complex ecologies.

Hayes argues in his solution for reconnection. I interpret this as a rebuilding of a sense of place. When one walks into a local bank, he or she shouldn’t distrust the banker. The banker doesn’t need to scam the citizen. People will argue that to write “reconnection” amounts to naiveté. I argue it doesn’t. One might want to scam or cheat a neighbor, but this is not a requirement. The municipalities in Carollo case could have received fair deals from the brokers; Barkley’s could have simply represented their LIBOR numbers on the level; the executives at Country Wide could have done business that exacted fair returns; Paterno could have sought justice; bin Laden could have sought other means to his ends; et cetera et cetera, minus mental illness, delusion or whatever other phenomenon get in the way of sensible means to ends. But none of this is what happened, of course, and the pathologies of position are powerful forces.

Reconsidering our language with one another is another step, in addition to the solution proposed by Hayes in terms of coalition building, because this “rebuilding of trust” requires careful reflection on how to talk, write, and otherwise exchange ideas. Unfortunately, at the moment, our political, contract, and other forms of language are almost incoherent and in may ways walled off by ideology and what amounts to king-of-the-hill defensiveness and zero sum world views. In a way, we are ourselves looking for the Higgs boson. It’s somewhere in all that “space out there.”

Styles of Bad Reporting: CBS and Weird Journalism

Last night we watched a report by CBS news on the ALEC organization. It’s called Who is ALEC? It’s a good example of how not to do a report on an organization that is objectively controversial and that has seen lots of reportage in other news organs, most of it critical, which is the real news.

The first mistake is that the report doesn’t even talk to ALEC. It interviews Chip Rogers, a Senator from Georgia, who’s obviously a supporter of the organization.

We sat down with Rogers this week for an interview on the floor of the Georgia State Senate, where he is Republican majority leader, to find out what ALEC is really about.

This is a title fumble and a bizarre decision by CBS. How would this logic go: Let’s find out who ALEC is, go to Chip Rogers, he’ll know. He’ll give us the “real skinny.” Pardon my snideness, but what were the editorial and production decisions here? If CBS wanted to know about ALEC, they could have gone to the web site and read the About page. Instead, the interview descended to classic propaganda. CBS could have included at least one critic for the purposes of counter point.

In any event, here’s an extract on the question of Who ALEC IS:

“They look at us and say, ‘Hey, here are the legislators that believe in free markets; here are the legislators that believe in limited government,'” Rogers said. “It really is a shame that companies have to continually look over their shoulders to protect themselves from an onerous government.”

ALEC member companies are a Who’s Who of the Fortune 500: tobacco giants Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris) and Reynolds American; telecommunications leaders AT&T and Verizon; energy conglomerates ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Koch Industries; big pharmaceutical firms Bayer and Pfizer; State Farm insurance and United Parcel Service. None of the companies on ALEC’s corporate board would grant us an interview.

What ALEC does for legislators is create model bills mostly on fiscal issues that are templates for 800 to 1,000 bills introduced in the 50 state legislatures every year. ALEC has claimed to members that 20 percent [of] its bills become laws.

All kinds of weird and news worthy conclusions can be drawn from this lift. The Senator: 1) thinks he’s “onerous.” 2) ALEC is his ghost writer 3) ALEC writes 20% of the law. Additionally, consider this quote:

But at least 20 companies cut ties with ALEC this year after it had drifted into non-economic issues such as “stand your ground” self-defense laws and strict photo voter identification laws.

The report never defines what it means by “drifted into” and fails to follow it’s own logic in this quote:

ALEC had no role implementing the stand your ground law in Florida, where teenager Trayvon Martin was allegedly shot by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, who has asserted a “stand your ground” defense. But ALEC did create a similar model bill after Florida’s law.

The report makes no effort to explain the final sentence.

One final note. I think it’s perfectly fine for reporters to ask questions that test a person’s logical points. In this next quote, the interviewer makes no attempt to do this in an illogical response to a question about voter IDs.

“Simply telling the person who is taking your vote who you are is not much of a burden, and at the end of the day, if you’re allowing one person to vote illegally, you’ve just cancelled out my vote,” Rogers said. “It’s really common sense – if you are going to vote, tell us who you are.”

Voter ID was an issue that led Wal-Mart to quit ALEC, telling the group in a letter it had weighed in “on issues that stray from its core mission.” In a statement to CBS News, Wal-Mart mentioned its support of the Voting Rights Act and the company’s efforts to help employees register to vote.

Rogers addressed Wal-Mart’s concern head on: “If I were to go to Wal-Mart, and I were to attempt to buy a bottle a beer, I would assume that Wal-Mart would ask me for identification. If not, they could lose their license to sell that product. I would hope that most Americans cherish the right to vote a little more than they do the right to buy a bottle of beer. So, I think it is a little disingenuous on Wal-Mart’s part in that they’re actively engaged in indentifying people using photo ID to suggest that is a reason they no longer want to be actively engaged with ALEC.”

The Senator is jumping to the conclusion that a voter who has come to the precinct is an illegal voter. On what cause? Where’s the evidence? Voter ID’s aside, the reporter could have asked Senator Rogers why he thinks his analogy is sound, legally and functionally. Maybe everyone could “register to purchase alcohol.” Even I hadn’t thought of that.

CBS should do some serious thinking about editing. This is incompetent.

Weird Political Writing: More on the Bizarre

I caught this Fallows entry through the feeds (meaning RSS). Fallows is, I imagine, reporting on the Romney campaign. In this report he makes remarks about shit Romney does, which just seems odd as “reports from the road” genres go. We learn that Romney is taken by touch pads and talked to a doctor about changes of address, who may or may not have been exaggerating. I don’t see how this “information” makes sense.

A brief spat developed over this piece at The Daily Caller in my FB feed. It’s an example of the “irony thing” again from a Conservative organ, wherein there’s a bit missed about the definition of hypocrisy, context framing, and the ability to construct an argument not with evidence or appeals but rather with a humorless grin.

Since we can’t get a million infrastructure jobs up and running, we need something better to do, I guess.