Monday, December 15, 2014

Khodorkovsky on Western sanctions, Putin's prospects

I'm pretty sympathetic to most of erstwhile oligarch Khodorkovsky's arguments about Western-Russian relations. Even regarding the harm of economic sanctions. Yet the sad truth is that, barring sanctions, the West has no real way to influence the Kremlin besides military force. 

Sanctions that hurt the Russian people, who could be looked upon as captives of an authoritarian Putin regime, are a kind of evil, let's not deny that. But they are a lesser evil than: 1) doing nothing, i.e. appeasing the use of military conquest in Europe, and the scary consequences that unopposed aggression could bring, or 2) open military conflict, up to and including World War III.

The most hopeful statement in Khodorkhovsky's piece is his prediction that Putin's regime won't last more than 10 more years. But what kind of regime will follow it?  Unfortunately, the czarist-Stalinist-Putinist template has worked in Russian history, and no other template has. A peaceful, Western-integrated Russia would have to establish a new paradigm, and that would be very difficult without some kind of political or societal revolution in Russia. And revolutions are scary, unpredictable things, especially in a psychologically scarred, brain-drained, isolated and economically depressed country like Russia.

By Mikhail Khodorkovsky
December 11, 2014 | Huffington Post

Where were the Tea Parties on CRomnibus?

Where were the Tea Parties when their Republican party just put taxpayers on the hook for up to $300 trillion in bailouts for banks' risky bets on derivatives??

(NB: America's GDP in 2013 was $17 trillion.)

The TPs, as legend has it, were a spontaneous "grassroots" movement in response to the TBTF bank bailouts, but were actually about opposing a minor proposed bailout for distressed mortgage borrowers. A bailout that never happened. 

At any rate, despite all the TPs' huffing and puffing, the TBTF banks were bailed out to the tune of about $30 trillion, and now the 10 largest banks are 28 percent LARGER than they were before!. Just to show Wall Street's power, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon himself made calls to wavering Congressmen urging them to vote on the CRomnibus bill. (Ask yourself: Why was this provision on derivatives so important to Dimon? The answer should scare you.)

Opposing this CRomnibus rider would seem to be right in the TP's anti-bailout wheelhouse, wouldn't it?

Wouldn't it??  Where are you Tea Parties when America needs you? Where was your outrage?  Your consistency? [Crickets chirping].You're just far-right Republicans, that's all you are. To the dustbin of history with you!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Conservatives decry U.S. 'elite'...just the wrong one

An anonymous conservative forwarded this op-ed to me. In response, I'm not going to get into this whole Gruber-Obamacare thing because it's dumb. But it is odd that Mitt Romney gets a pass for employing Gruber while Obama does not.

I'm bringing Williams' column to your attention because of his repetition of a conservative meme: that liberal professors are the "elite" in America

What gets me is that conservative willfully ignore the real American elite: the super rich, the One Percent, or more exact, the 1% of one percent.

Indeed, the Sunlight Foundation discovered that, "In the 2012 election, 28 percent of all disclosed political contributions came from just 31,385 people. In a nation of 313.85 million, these donors represent the 1% of the 1%, an elite class that increasingly serves as the gatekeepers of public office in the United States."

But no, nutty professors with elbow patches are really running things.

Here's another illustration of the absurdity of a professorial "elite."  There are about 1.2 million college professors and instructors in the U.S. And there are over 11 million company CEOs and Presidents in the U.S.  The average CEO makes over $15 million, while the average full-time professor makes $127,000 and the average college instructor makes $50,000. 

So there are much fewer college teachers than CEOs, they're poorer, they don't influence consumer tastes, the economy, lobby the government or give huge campaign contributions the way CEOs do. And that's not even counting the CFOs, CMOs, boards members, and the true "capitalists" of the private sector who don't have jobs and let their money work for them. 

I think what really bothers conservative is that college professors' influence over American society is not proportional to their wealth and political influence. After all, isn't getting your way most of the time and bossing people around what rich people are supposed to do? Isn't that the whole point? That just seems correct to conservatives. Yet somehow in our free-market country, these eggheads in academia have managed to carve out a precious exception where they enjoy the power, (often while earning less than six figures), to mold young minds. That just goes against the natural order.

It's the same thing at the level of K-12, (even conservatives would blush to call schoolteachers America's "elite"): these poorly paid teachers, most of them women, very sneakily or just by default (since nobody else wants to do it) retain the enormous power to shape young people's attitudes about the world. And it drives conservatives nuts. Nobody with so little economic power should have so much (potential) influence over people.

By Walter E. Williams
November 2014 | Creators

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Friedman's 2009 piece on U.S. torture still correct (Stratfor)

Here's the practical part of George Friedman's 2009 op-ed on U.S. torture for intelligence gathering, and it's still on-target:

The problem with torture — as with other exceptional measures — is that it is useful, at best, in extraordinary situations. The problem with all such techniques in the hands of bureaucracies is that the extraordinary in due course becomes the routine, and torture as a desperate stopgap measure becomes a routine part of the intelligence interrogator's tool kit.

At a certain point, the emergency was over. U.S. intelligence had focused itself and had developed an increasingly coherent picture of al Qaeda, with the aid of allied Muslim intelligence agencies, and was able to start taking a toll on al Qaeda. The war had become routinized, and extraordinary measures were no longer essential. But the routinization of the extraordinary is the built-in danger of bureaucracy, and what began as a response to unprecedented dangers became part of the process. Bush had an opportunity to move beyond the emergency. He didn't.

If you know that an individual is loaded with information, torture can be a useful tool. But if you have so much intelligence that you already know enough to identify the individual is loaded with information, then you have come pretty close to winning the intelligence war. That's not when you use torture. That's when you simply point out to the prisoner that, "for you the war is over." You lay out all you already know and how much you know about him. That is as demoralizing as freezing in a cell — and helps your interrogators keep their balance.

And here's the philosophical part:

And this raises the moral question. The United States is a moral project: its Declaration of Independence and Constitution state that. The president takes an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic. The Constitution does not speak to the question of torture of non-citizens, but it implies an abhorrence of rights violations (at least for citizens). But the Declaration of Independence contains the phrase, "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind." This indicates that world opinion matters.

At the same time, the president is sworn to protect the Constitution. In practical terms, this means protecting the physical security of the United States "against all enemies, foreign and domestic." Protecting the principles of the declaration and the Constitution are meaningless without regime preservation and defending the nation.

Let me repeat something: The U.S. is a moral project on display for the whole world.  It's not just another country defending its people and borders. U.S. conservatives and liberals alike believe in "the American way," whatever they take that to mean. So if we allow harm to that moral project, we allow harm to the essence of who we are. We become something else. That's why myself and others have argued since 9/11 that if we allow the terrorists to change who we are, then they've already won. They've convinced us to abandon our moral project.

Now to Friedman's qualifier on that: "Protecting the principles of the declaration [of Independence] and the Constitution are meaningless without regime preservation and defending the nation."

But the U.S. regime has never been threatened; and the defense of the nation was never in question -- perhaps only the defense of a few thousand potential citizens of that nation. No threat that we know about has risen to the level of a gun to the head of America, or an existential threat.

Furthermore, it's clearly not worth taking every possible precaution possible against any imaginable threat. Those threats have to be real and of sufficient magnitude and likelihood. And the costs mustn't exceed the benefits.

To put it in everyday terms, as my conservative friends like to do, think about the safety of your home. If you're honest, you would probably admit there are several measures you could take to make your home safer against intruders, accidental injury, fires and natural disasters. But there are costs and trade-offs to all these measures; and at a certain point each one of us says, "I've done enough," knowing full well we could be safer if we were willing to spend more, endure more inconvenience, etc. And these are only the material costs and trade-offs -- not moral costs and trade-offs involved in torturing people!

I say this to ward off oft-heard arguments, mostly from conservative politicians and pundits, that the U.S. Government exists primarily to protect us from every military or terrorist threat, both real and imaginable. No, it doesn't. Because the costs of doing that wouldn't be worth it. Indeed, trying to do "everything possible" could even make life in the U.S. not worth living, and make abandoning our "moral project" seem like a more appealing option. That's the danger. 

By George Friedman
April 20, 2009 | Stratfor

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Godspeed, Ebola 'czar' Ron Klain!

Am I missing something or is the "unqualified" Ebola czar Ron Klain the most successful "czar" under any U.S. President? No Americans died, Ebola is off the TV and out of the papers, we're all breathing easy again.... I mean, the only possible retort I can think of is that Ebola wasn't that big a deal to begin with; that the CDC had it under control all along; that maybe the GOP and its colleagues on Fox and talk radio just made it erupt into a pants-shitting crisis to win votes and then promptly dropped it mid-November as soon as they had what they wanted -- a Congressional majority...

..But no, no. I can't accept that cynical explanation. I prefer the more positive explanation: that Ron Klain is public health genius on par with Albert Sabin and a saint on par with Mother Teresa.

Godspeed, Mr. Klain!  We thank you for your selfless service to our country!

By Anita Kumar
December 8, 2014  | McClatchy Washington Bureau