Category Archives: Politics

Noah is a Rousing call for Christian Environmentalism

It has been a grim week for the planet, but the movie Noah offers a glimmer of hope by delivering a spectacular wake-up call to Christians – reminding them that it is God’s creatures who are going extinct and God’s jewel of a planet that is being destroyed.

NoahWith the environmental movement desperately trying to protect the earth, energetic Christian environmentalists would be a welcome addition.

We all know the biblical story of Noah: humans have wandered far from the Garden of Eden, with immoral cities, plundering and killing. The movie Noah adds an interesting twist that makes the story jump into the 21st century – the most visible evil is how humans are befouling the earth. As the movie begins, we find Noah and his family living in an odd wilderness. Later, when they begin their journey to discover God’s vision for Noah, we suddenly realize that the wilderness is a forested area that has been completely, ruthlessly, denuded of trees and top soil by heedless human farmers.

The cruel and disheveled people they meet on their journey are literally starving to death as the earth becomes barren under the weight of human development. Only Noah seems able to recognize the beauty and worth of the animals, plants, and birds that struggle to share the planet with these ravenous humans.

The movie has a series of unexpected plot twists that put everyone in the family under intense moral strain but throughout, the sense of wonder and reverence for the creatures and the fullness of life on the plant remains a constant – right down to Noah’s final words after the flood, asking his family to replenish, not subdue, the earth.

The Federal Reserve vs. the Tea Party

The Federal Reserve turned down its invitation to a Tea Party.  The Fed looked at the havoc Tea Party Republicans want to create with the U.S. budget and decided to put more sand bags in the economic dike.

Ben Bernanke and his fellow bankers decided on September 18 to keep buying $85 billion in mortgage bonds and treasury bonds, hoping they can keep the feeble economic recovery from collapsing into recession when the Tea Party Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling.

The good news is that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is trying to keep the economy on track as we head into a serious collision between the Democrats and the Republicans over the federal budget and the debt ceiling resolution – both of which have to be resolved in October.  The bad news is the economic expansion is so weak, a few weeks of political confusion might plunge us back into recession.

Buried in the back part of stories about the Federal Reserve’s decision was the grim news that the Fed’s economists have lowered their predictions for economic growth.  The new prediction is for tepid growth of 2.0 to 2.3 percent this fall – a rate that will not put many people back to work.  The Fed and the mass media have finally noticed what I pointed out last spring in this blog – much of the fall in the unemployment rate is coming from people dropping out of the labor force.

Look at this, the number of people in the labor force, that is, working full or part time or looking for work, fell by 312,000 in August.  As a result the labor force participation rate fell to just 63.2 percent – the lowest it has been since 1978, back when it was pretty common for only one adult in a household to be working.  The impact is staggering – the unemployment rate has fallen 2.7 percentage points from a peak of 10 percent in 2009 to 7.3 percent in August.  The majority of that decline, 1.8 percentage points is from the drop in the participation rate!

Enter the Tea Party/Republican Party.  In utter disregard for the spreading poverty around them, the House of Representatives voted 217 to 210 to slash $40 billion from the Food Stamp program.  This is the latest round in the right’s relentless push to re-distribute income through tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor.  As usual, this subversive program is obscured by a fog of words proclaiming a moral crusade against deficit spending and the undeserving poor.  For example, Representative Marlin Stutzman of Indiana, who led the Republican push for the cuts, said “This bill eliminates loop-holes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path.”

What nonsense.  The 44 million Americans, one in every seven of us, who have their income supplemented by food stamps and the 48 million Americans without health insurance are not causing our economy to stumble along.  The Republicans have been using this “blame-the-victims economics” for over a generation.

It only works if the rest of us are unable to see that the root causes of our problems lie in the selfish decisions being made by bankers, hedge fund managers, right-wing CEOs, and the political leaders they support with millions in political donations.  Don’t take my word for it, ask Ben Bernanke.  If the Federal Reserve Board is afraid of the political plans of the Republican Party, then we should be too.

Labor Day Lament

News Item: economists are concerned that income from American wages and salaries fell by $21.8 billion in July of 2013, about -0.3%.  The decline was led by $7.7 billion lost because of forced furloughs for federal employees.  However, dividend income increased by 2.2 percent and rental income by 1.3 percent, so the category “income from assets” went up by 0.7%.  Consumer spending, boosted by increases in spending by upper income groups, rose 0.1 percent.

News Item: To the delight of many consumers, Twinkies and other Hostess products are back on the shelves.  When the company went bankrupt in the fall of 2012, 15,000 union workers lost their jobs.  The new company emerged from bankruptcy with no union workers and a whittled down wage and benefits package – for example, former employee pensions have been reduced from $1,800 per month to $500 per month.

Since the 1970s, fierce competition from foreign imports has pushed many companies to reduce wages to maintain profit rates that will keep their Wall Street investors happy.  Since then, there have been a series of campaigns led by Republicans, think tanks, and right-wing talk shows to reduce the wages of “undeserving” groups of workers.  Democrats have responded to these campaigns by gradually increasing funding for federal job training programs.

One by one, groups that had middle class wages and benefits have been targeted and subdued.  So, on Labor Day, 2013, with real salaries and wages at approximately the same level as they were in 1973, I publish this lament, with acknowledgements to Pastor Martin Niemoller:

In the 1970s they said regulated industries were fueling inflation, and the process of de-regulation led to slashed wages in the airline and trucking industries,

But I did not speak out because I didn’t work in transportation;

Then, in the 1980s they said the wages and pensions of blue-collar manufacturing workers were making America uncompetitive in world markets, and crushed the Air Traffic Controllers union and many other unions,

But I did not speak out because I didn’t work in manufacturing;

Then they said that middle managers were useless bureaucrats who were making American companies uncompetitive, and those workers were forced into early retirement,

But I did not speak out because I didn’t work in middle management;

Then they said in the 1990s that retail workers were unproductive and inefficient, and they computerized stores and gave people part-time shifts without benefits,

But I did not speak out because I didn’t work in the retail trade;

Then they said that teachers were lazy and inefficient and laid the blame for poor children’s lack of educational attainment on teachers unions, companies like Apple got better at avoiding local taxes and hard-pressed tax-payers supported laws that restricted teacher salaries and benefits,

But I did not speak out because I wasn’t a teacher;

Then they said in the 2000s that technical assistance people were inefficient and spent too much time helping people over the telephone, and they replaced them with telephone systems with recorded voices and endless choices or with technical workers from other countries,

But I did not speak out because I did not provide services over the phone;

Then they said that the post office was out-dated and postal delivery people were inefficient, and they passed laws forcing the post office to forward fund its pensions so it began losing money and had to close post offices and lay off employees,

But I did not speak out because I didn’t work at the post office;

Then they said that I was inefficient, my health care benefits were too generous, and I was not competitive in the world economy,

And everyone else was scrambling to get by on their low wages and had no time to speak for me.

The Stock Market and the End of the Bernanke Put – Part I

Since the 1980s, speculation in U.S. financial markets has been supported by first the Greenspan “Put” and then the Bernanke “Put.”  These puts – informal promises by the Federal Reserve Bank to protect the value of stocks and bonds and prevent destructive crashes, will come to an end if the Fed stops buying housing bonds and allows interest rates to rise this fall.

The wealthiest 1% of Americans, who own about 33% of the total value of stocks and bonds on Wall Street, are upset about the amount of risk they face without the Fed pouring money into the economy.

PART I  To understand why the stock market jumps up and down depending on what Ben Bernanke says, you have to understand the Greenspan “Put.”  In the 1970s, the post-WWII golden age of American prosperity came to an end.  The combination of staggering oil price increases, fierce competition from foreign imports, and resistance to wage cutbacks by unionized workers led to “Stagflation” – an unhappy world of slow growth and high inflation.

Profits for non-financial corporations were squeezed by these trends; in the late 1970s the rate alternated between 2% and 4%, less than half the profit rate of the 1950s and one third of the profit rate of the mid-1960s. 

In response to intense competition from modern factories in Germany, France, and Japan, U.S. industrial firms began what Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison wrote about in their ground-breaking book The De-Industrialization of America.  In a process that now seems commonplace to us, many companies closed old, unionized factories in the northeast and mid-west, moving them first to the south and then overseas.

Other manufacturing firms were purchased, their assets sold for cash, and the shell of the company then allowed to go bankrupt.  The blockbuster movie Wall Street captures the ruthless scramble to turn factories into cash in the 1980s.

With investment in tangible production assets becoming more risky and less profitable, American banks and investors began turning to financial speculation as a way to maximize their returns.  The newly elected Reagan administration was eager to help, persuading Congress to loosen regulatory restrictions on the savings and loan industry and stocking the government with regulators who looked the other way when new financial instruments like “junk bonds” appeared on Wall Street.

The explosive growth in these new financial products was fueled by a rapid and costly defense build-up which led to federal deficits of 6.1% of GDP in 1983, 5.2% in 1985 and 5.1% in 1986 – the largest peace-time deficits in U.S. history.  These deficits led to wild speculative excesses on Wall Street, vividly captured in Tom Wolfe’s novel Bonfire of the Vanities.

Alan Greenspan, formerly Chairman of Gerald Ford’s Council of Economic Advisors, was appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve in August of 1987, at a time when the roaring stock market had soared 44% in just one year.  Then, on October 19, 1987, a day after the Hong Kong the stock market collapsed, Wall Street stumbled into full financial panic, losing 22.5% of its value in a single day.  Greenspan immediately stepped in, providing large loans to banks and lowering interest rates.  He announced that the Fed “affirmed today its readiness to serve as a source of liquidity to support the economic and financial system.”

Greenspan, over the course of five terms as Fed chairman, would demonstrate again and again that the Federal Reserve was ready to pump money into the economy any time the financial markets got into trouble.  This guarantee of support became known as the Greenspan “Put.”  In the world of finance, a “put” is a contract that gives its owner the right to sell a stock or bond at a certain price regardless of whether the market is falling – essentially a guarantee against severe losses.

With the Greenspan “Put,” banks and investment companies could take more risks.  In response, they began inventing the world of derivatives, hedge funds, sub-prime mortgages, and securitization of loans that proved so unstable in 2000 and 2008. 

Next week in Part II, I will look at two examples of the Greenspan “Put” and then show how Bernanke has done even more than Greenspan.

Postscript: Front page headline in the Wall Street Journal on Friday the 11th, the day after I put up this post: “Stocks Surge to Fresh Highs: Skittish Investors Gain Courage From Fed Chief’s Reassurance on Easy-Money Policy.”

Time for a National Voting Rights Law

The Supreme Court is right, voting rights are threatened throughout the country and national standards are needed for any election involving federal lawmakers.  Voting rights abuses in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and other states reveal widespread attempts to deprive people of the vote.

Voting rights are too important to leave to the whim of state and local governments.

Most commentaries about the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 focus on its impact in the southern states most directly affected by its provisions.  This tendency will be accelerated by the way Texas, in keeping with their cowboy reputation, is rushing ahead to implement a discriminatory voter ID law that will affect thousands of poor people in that state.  (Mississippi is doing the same thing.)

This, of course, is rank discrimination and must not be allowed to succeed.  The NAACP estimates that one-quarter of African-Americans and 16% of Latinos of voting age do not have a government-issued photo ID.

However, we need to keep in mind that there were widespread attempt to limit access to voting in a number of states during the 2012 election season.  In Florida, Republican officials attempted to shorten the popular early voting period, making it harder for people to chose to vote on the weekend and avoid the burdensome task of waiting in line for many hours on Election Day.  Reportedly, the Republicans were disturbed when they discovered that more than four million people voted before election day in that swing state.

In Ohio, Republican officials tried to get rid of the rules instituted in 2008 that allowed people to vote early by absentee ballot and to vote on the Saturday and Sunday before the traditional Tuesday election day.  When they saw that the new rules encouraged minority and working class voters to show up, their earlier enthusiasm for the reform disappeared.

“It just so happened that this was the first time that early voting had been used in large numbers to mobilize African American and Latino voters,” said Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.”

In Pennsylvania, the Republican legislature passed a strict Voter ID law.  However, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state did not do an adequate job of providing voters with an opportunity to acquire state-issued IDs and prevented the law from going into effect in 2012.  The ID law is operational this year and inspiring protests even as I write this posting.

Thus, voting restrictions are not monopolized by backwoods legislatures in Dixie, but are a national issue that requires national solutions.  The President should step forward and propose a national election law that would require fair standards in every election where a federal office is part of the ballot.

Why should Pennsylvania be allowed to require voter IDs and Texas be prohibited?  Voting in every state is a right, not a privilege, and citizens should be encouraged to participate in the political life of the country, not be excluded by discriminatory laws.

NSA Surveillance is an Ineffective Invasion of Privacy

General Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency, told the House Intelligence Committee on June 18th that American surveillance had helped prevent “more than 50 terrorist events” since 9/11 including 10 “homeland-based threats.”  However, when Deputy Director Sean Joyce of the FBI told the committee about two of the cases, the first was of a Kansas City man who contacted an extremist in Yeman who was already being watched by U.S. agencies, and the second was a man from San Diego who wanted to send money to a terrorist group in Somalia who was identified through the use of the NSA database. 

 In other words, two of the ten “homeland-based threats” were really the results of surveillance of known terrorist groups overseas, rather than plots by people in the U.S. who were not already being watched.  The article goes on:

 “In a rare note of skepticism, Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat, pressed Alexander about why the FBI could not use subpoenas to get the necessary domestic phone logs surrounding a suspicious number without the government’s obtaining logs of everyone’s calls. Alexander said he was open to discussion, but added, “The concern is speed in a crisis.”

 Note that the speed in a crisis excuse here is a re-run of the Bush administration’s justification for the use of torture – the bomb is ticking so we need to use water-boarding.  However, the police work necessary to prevent terror plots seldom involves the kind of Jack Bauer “24” style drama.  Even the cases cited by Deputy Director Joyce were initial conversations, not bomb ticking crisis.

 Big Data vs. Real Police Work

 In short, anti-terrorism work is police work, it is detective work, it is connecting evidence and figuring things out work.  NSA is unable to publically disclose even one case where big data was the principle means by which the agency deterred a real terrorist plot in the United States.  If there was such a case, it would be easy for General Alexander to release general details – for example, three men from Ohio were arrested for suspicious activities – without compromising agency methods.

 In fact, I believe the scale of the NSA data program (there are numerous stories about thousands of employees and billions of dollars spent on software and giant computer facilities) makes it less effective right now at tracking people who are possible terrorists.  That is, having billions of pieces of data and millions of people on watch lists, with more added daily, results in a process too vast to be used by people – the use of intuition and flashes of insight which are important in detective work is removed. 

We in Boston are especially sensitive to this issue.  The oldest Boston Marathon bomber, targeted for NSA and the FBI by his native Russian government, was not monitored closely enough to prevent his lethal attack.  Even more stunning are the hostile Twitter posts of his younger brother.  Why were these not flagged?  As least part of the answer is the agencies were busy siphoning up billions of pieces of data instead of carefully examining the ones that really mattered.  The fascination with technology is pushing aside more tradition and more effective methods of police work.

Now is the Time for Limits

The nature and scale of this surveillance program will only grow larger if we don’t create limits and safeguards while we are in this moment of national debate.  Already, there are more than 1,000 government security agencies and over 1,000 private companies invested in surveillance and data management.  More than one million people in these agencies and companies have top-secret security clearances.  As James Carroll pointed out:

“Such massive bureaucracy, staffed by un-named millions but commanded by no one, generates an impersonal dynamic of its own…Moral responsibility is diffuse.  Such a massive institution gathers its own momentum, and neither laws nor the Constitution nor oath-bound authorities may be able to channel it or stop it.”

Remember, this is only a point in time; the expansion of the power to watch you and track your movements is an on-going process.  If nothing is done now, I believe the next phase will be a greatly expanded use of surveillance drones, justified as fighting crime.

 We suffered grievously when we pushed aside fighting terrorism with police work in favor of using military power to invade and crush our enemies.  Let’s not make another terrible error by using computer technology to invade and crush our freedoms.

Big Data is Watching You

NSA surveillance methods can spin webs of guilt-by-association around any American who uses a telephone or the Internet. The end result will be unreasonable invasions of privacy and a big chill on political dissent.

Are you willing to give up your relationships with anyone who doesn’t toe the line?

I was watching the President’s press conference about NSA spying last week in the locker room of my local gym. The guy next to me was adamant that there is no problem. “They aren’t listening to your phone calls,” he insisted. I would not be surprised if this is a common reaction to the new revelations – I don’t talk about terrorism or subversion on the phone or the Internet, so I am free from suspicion.

As I thought about his words while finishing my shower, the flaw in his logic suddenly dawned on me. This kind of spying, using computers to track tremendous amounts of data, relies on the logic of guilt by association. There is no personal connection, no delving into the essence of who you are, no evaluation of you and your motives. This is “watching the tar baby” surveillance. The NSA collects the names and phone numbers and email addresses of tar babies and then records whoever gets touched by them.

The tar babies are anyone the NSA and its fellow spy agencies have decided are possible suspects. Here are a number of people whose names are almost certainly on their lists – Muslims who live in the U.S., people who participated in the Occupy Movement in any way, people who have friends or contacts in countries that are deemed influenced by terrorists, and people who participated in Tea Party rallies. There must be more because there are approximately one million people on Department of Homeland Security watch lists. And the lists are getting bigger. Wired.com revealed last year that NSA is building a $2 billion facility in Utah with enormous computers able to manipulate and track “yottabytes” (10 to the 24th bytes) of data from telephones and the Internet.

What is NSA looking for? First, it wants to identify people like you who might have contacts with one or more of the people on the watch list. Then, you go on the list, too, and the agency computers bring all of your digital information – phone numbers, number of times called, length of call, email destinations, Google searches, etc. – together in your file. The computers then go over your data to see if there are any suspicious patterns. If not, they keep collecting data and adding it to your file until your actions or contacts change, or future political leaders decide something should be done with or to people on the watch list.

Sadly, while all of this might be a bad idea, it is perfectly legal. In 2008, the U.S. Congress, including then Senator Obama, amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to give the executive branch powers to conduct surveillance without an individual warrant. The Supreme Court, in several 5 – 4 decisions has refused to review the revised law.

Thus, my fellow exercise adherent is not immune from being swept into the NSA big data net and now faces a choice – just like the rest of us. Either carefully monitor everyone you communicate with and rapidly cut ties with anyone you suspect might be placed on the NSA watch list, or reject the creeping surveillance state that, in the name of security, is threatening our age-old civil liberties.