The Economist’s perfect critique of America’s hypocrisy

Ever notice how we start wars in order to “promote democracy” abroad, then use secret courts to limit those same freedoms at home?

All this somehow got me thinking of the doctrine of “democracy promotion”, which was developed under George W. Bush and maintained more or less by Barack Obama. The doctrine is generally presented as half-idealism, half-practicality. That all the people of the Earth, by dint of common humanity, are entitled to the protections of democracy is an inspiring principle. However, its foreign-policy implications are not really so clear. To those of us who are sceptical that America has the authority to intervene whenever and wherever there are thwarted democratic rights, the advocates of democracy-promotion offer a more businesslike proposition. It is said that authoritarianism, especially theocratic Islamic authoritarianism, breeds anti-American terrorism, and that swamp-draining democracy-promotion abroad is therefore a priority of American national security. If you don’t wish to asphyxiate on poison gas in a subway, or lose your legs to detonating pressure-cookers at a road-race, it is in your interest to support American interventions on behalf of democracy across the globe. So the story goes.

However, the unstated story goes, it is equally important that American democracy not get out of hand. If you don’t want your flight to La Guardia to end in a ball of fire, or your local federal building to be razed by a cataclysm of exploding fertiliser, you will need to countenance secret courts applying in secret its own secret interpretation of hastily-drawn, barely-debated emergency security measures, and to persecute with the full force of the world’s dominant violent power any who dare afford a glimpse behind the veil.

Go read the whole article. It’s the single best piece of writing that’s come out of the NSA scandal.

Everyone should fear the police state

Salon has an amazing piece of investigative journalism by Radly Balko about the militarization of the police force in the United States over the last few decades. It’s a bit long, so I excerpted the parts I think everyone should see. If you have the time, I recommend reading the whole story.

A 2009 G-20 summit shows us that we can be arrested for pretty much anything:

The most egregious police actions seemed to take place on the Friday evening before the summit, around the university, when police began ordering students who were in public spaces to disperse, despite the fact that they had broken no laws. Students who moved too slowly were arrested, as were students who were standing in front of the dormitories where they lived.

A University of Pittsburgh spokesman later said that the tactic was to break up crowds that “had the potential of disrupting normal activities, traffic flow, egress and the like. . . . Much of the arrests last night had to do with failure to disperse when ordered.” Note that no one needed to have broken any actual laws to get arrested. The potential to break a law was more than enough. That standard was essentially a license for the police to arrest anyone, anywhere in the city, at any time, for any reason.

“What’s that? Freedom of press you say? ‘Cuff him, Jim.”:

At the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, police conducted peremptory raids on the homes of protesters before the convention had even started. Police broke into the homes of people known to be activist rabble-rousers before they had any evidence of any actual crime. Journalists who inquired about the legitimacy of the raids and arrests made during the convention were also arrested. In all, 672 people were put in handcuffs.

I think we can all agree that matching shirts are cute. Especially when they’re bragging about beating non-violent protestors:

Perhaps the best insight into the mentality the police brought to the DNC protests could be found on the T-shirts the Denver police union had printed up for the event. The shirts showed a menacing cop holding a baton. The caption: DNC 2008: WE GET UP EARLY, TO BEAT THE CROWDS. Police were spotted wearing similar shirts at the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. At the 1996 DNC convention in Chicago, cops were seen wearing shirts that read: WE KICKED YOUR FATHER’S ASS IN 1968 . . . WAIT ’TIL YOU SEE WHAT WE DO TO YOU!

“I don’t care about any of this, the only people who have to worry about the police are criminals.” Or, you know, small business owners:

In June 2006, Ruttenberg filed a civil rights suit alleging that, among other things, using a SWAT team to conduct an alcohol inspection was an unreasonable use of force.  In 2010, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit denied his claim. So for now, in the Fourth Circuit, sending a SWAT team to make sure a bar’s beer is labeled correctly is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The United States is the wealthiest country in the world, but your average person wouldn’t know that: median wealth in America is less than 1/3 of that in countries with lower inequality

It’s A “0.6%” World: Who Owns What Of The $223 Trillion In Global Wealth:

Interestingly, the ranking by median wealth is slightly different, favoring countries with lower levels of wealth inequality. As was the case last year, Australia (USD 195,000) tops the table by a considerable margin, with Japan, Italy, Belgium, and the UK in the band from USD 110,000 to 140,000, and Singapore and Switzerland with values around USD 90,000. The USA lags far behind with median wealth of just USD 55,000.

Pathetic. This is the result of having inequality comparable with Uruguay and the Phillippines. I mean really – here’s some countries we’re worse than: Iran, Nigeria, and Uganda. China has greater income equality than the United States!

Historians need to stop treating the founding fathers as ‘sacred’

Jonathan Freedland, reviewing ‘Karl Marx’ for the New York Times:

Not that this relatively soft treatment of Marx’s anti-Semitism detracts from the overall achievement of the book. Sperber forces us to look anew at a man whose influence lives on. And he also offers a useful template for how we might approach other great figures, especially the great thinkers, of history — demystifying the words and deeds of those who too often are lazily deemed sacred. For all the books that have been written about America’s founding fathers, for example, we still await the historian who will do for them what Jonathan Sperber has done for Karl Marx.

Like the Smithsonian’s The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life portrays Marx for all his human faults. It would be nice if we’d stop treating the founding fathers of the United States as some kind of moral guides.

United States flies bombing exercise over Korea

North Korea readies rockets after U.S. show of force | Reuters:

On Thursday, the United States flew two radar-evading B-2 Spirit bombers on practice runs over South Korea, responding to a series of North Korean threats. They flew from the United States and back in what appeared to be the first exercise of its kind, designed to show America’s ability to conduct long-range, precision strikes “quickly and at will”, the U.S. military said.

I really hope this situation doesn’t escalate to the point where either side actually thinks it’s a good idea to use nuclear weapons.

The United States will never turn into Greece

No, the United States Will Never, Ever Turn Into Greece:

To translate from stats-speak: our equation for non-euro countries tells us increasing debt by 1 percentage point of GDP only increases borrowing costs by 1.3 basis points. And that result isn’t even statistically significant. In other words, there is no evidence of a debt tipping point for countries that borrow in money they can print.

Yay for statistical evidence!

Elizabeth Warren goes after banking regulators in HSBC case

elizabeth warren hsbc

“Elizabeth Warren Comes Out Swinging Against Banks”:

The latest example came last Thursday during a Banking Committee hearing, when Warren demanded answers from a panel of federal regulators as to why the multinational bank HSBC got off with a fine for money laundering for Mexican drug cartels — along with violating international sanctions against several countries, including Iran and Libya — when people caught with drugs go to jail for life.

“No one individual went to trial, no individual was banned from banking and there was no hearing to consider shutting down HSBC’s activities here in the United States,” Warren said. “So … what does it take? How many billions of dollars do you have to launder for drug lords and how many economic sanctions do you have to violate before someone will consider shutting down a financial institution like this?”

I am astounded by the fact that no one went to jail as a result of the HSBC investigation.

This is why New World Order believers are idiots


seth myers amy poehler really

From a Yahoo News piece about North Korea threatening to nuke the United States:

The resolution specifies some luxury items North Korea’s elite is not allowed to import, such as yachts, racing cars, luxury automobiles and certain types of jewelry. This is intended to close a loophole that had allowed countries to decide for themselves what constitutes a luxury good.

“These sanctions will bite and bite hard,” said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice.

The export of luxury goods to North Korea has been prohibited since 2006, though diplomats and analysts said the enforcement of U.N. sanctions has been uneven.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, welcomed the council’s move, saying in a statement that the resolution “sent an unequivocal message to (North Korea) that the international community will not tolerate its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

The organization that has trouble keeping Communists from having yachts and sports cars is supposed to take over all world governments and behead the Christians. 


Enough with the sequester, let’s talk about the long-term

On March 1st, the Obama administration will be forced to institute an $85 billion across-the-board cut to spending on military and domestic programs in the United States. This cut is the result of the summer 2011 standoff over raising the debt limit. Like the debt limit and the fiscal cliff before it, the sequester is only a problem because Washington made it a problem – there is no reason that spending should have to fall immediately other than politicians said it must happen. It’s certainly not because the bond markets think the government is in trouble: as of the time this article was written, two- and five-year US Treasuries have a yield of less than 1%. That means that investors and other nations are essentially paying the United States to keep their money safe for the next few years once inflation is factored in. 

So the market isn’t freaking out about our debt and deficits now. That’s not to say that the bond vigilantes might not come out and demand higher rates over the next few years, right? That would seem likely if it appeared that the United States’s fiscal situation was getting worse, but according to the latest report from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, it seems that deficits are going to become less of a problem over the next few years:

With revenues expected to rise more rapidly than spending in the next few years under current law, the deficit is projected to dip as low as 2.4 percent of GDP by 2015. In later years, however, projected deficits rise steadily, reaching almost 4 percent of GDP in 2023. 

Essentially, this means that we don’t really need to worry about the deficit for the next decade because, as a percentage of gross domestic product, the debt will be remain roughly where it is today. In other words, compared to the economy as a whole, the debt will stay relatively the same size. To better illustrate this point, here’s a graph from the CBO report showing the debt as a percentage of gross domestic product over the last 70 years and the projected debt through the net decade:

Screen Shot 2013 02 25 at 1 47 04 PM

So what should policymakers focus on over the next decade? According to the CBO, the most pressing issue in the coming decades is going to be our aging population and the effect that will have on entitlement spending:

After 2017, if current laws remain in place, outlays will start growing again as a percentage of GDP. The aging of the population, increasing health care costs, and a significant expansion of eligibility for federal subsidies for health insurance will substantially boost spending for Social Security and for major health care programs relative to the size of the economy.

Anyone who has even a slight interest in politics knows that entitlement spending is one of the touchiest subjects in Washington and has been for decades. Any attempt by either Republicans or Democrats to make Medicare and Social Security more fiscally sound is met with hyperbolic criticism. With that said, some plans hurt recipients more than others: raising the eligibility age of Medicare from 65 to 67 would cost patients twice as much as it would save the government, for instance. The safest bet seems to be the fabled “balanced approach” put forward by those on the left and in the center of the political spectrum: use spending more effectively so as to minimize the pain felt by those who rely on the safety net to get by, and increase revenue via closing tax loopholes and raising the percentage of earnings subject to tax to historical levels. Back in early January, Henry J. Aaron wrote a piece for The Atlantic proposing policies that would do just that, including:

  • Boosting the payroll tax rate from 6.2 to 7 percent
  • Taxing currently-exempt cash compensation
  • Raising the cap on earnings that are exempt from the payroll tax (in 2012, payroll taxes were only applied to incomes under $110,100)
  • Reducing benefits for high earners who claim them early
  • Replace Medicare Advantage plans with a more affordable and more efficient “super-Medicare” with slightly higher premiums for those who want more benefits
  • Spending more money to police Medicare fraud
  • Raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67 once the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented in 2014

Any combination of these policies would have a major impact on the long-term budget while causing as little pain as possible on either those who rely on Medicare and Social Security and the tax payers paying for them. Implementing them would reduce government spending by trillions of dollars over the next several decades while preserving the safety net Americans have come to expect from their government.

Update: This article has also been syndicated over at A New Take. The edits they’ve done make it look much nicer, so go check it out!

German manufacturing workers make fifty percent more per hour than those in the U.S.

german manufacturing bmw

The Atlantic:

The conventional wisdom among some observers of the U.S. economy is that manufacturing can’t compete with low-cost labor in China. Germany has shown this viewpoint to be utter rubbish. One study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that hourly manufacturing compensation (wages plus benefits) was $48 in Germany and only $32 in the United States (that study was for all manufacturing workers, not just those in SMEs, but Germany’s manufacturing workers in SMEs make comparable wages to those working for their large corporations).

It’s possible to have a thriving manufacturing sector and have great pay and provide real benefits to workers and still compete with China. Germany proves it. So why don’t we?