Everybody got this broken feeling, 21

22 01 2016

This is a piece about the not-so-curiously skewed understanding of security which marks our political discourse:

When you cannot be bothered to ensure that the sick can access health care, people die. When you cannot be bothered to stop corporations from polluting the earth, people die. When you cannot be bothered to monitor workplaces for the hazardous practices under which their employees operate, people die. When you cannot be bothered to protect citizens from a law enforcement apparatus charged with protecting them, people die.

But we rarely hear about these aspects of keeping Americans safe until a crisis like Flint emerges. The ongoing notion of safety in politics, absent something headline-grabbing like poisoning an entire city, is relegated to the foreign-policy sphere. And playing up threats from abroad, often of dubious relevance, numbs the nation to the numerous other ways in which Americans are put in peril every day. And of course, there are fewer special interests clamoring to protect water supplies and workplaces than there are defense contractors wanting to go to war against a foreign threat.

To which I can only say: hear! hear!

But it also points to the necessity of functional government, and of the taxes needed to sustain that government.

As such, whatever good Bill Gates, et. al., may or may not be accomplishing, that NGOs are stepping in to provide services like vaccination or education only points to the failure of government, be it due to corruption, war, or lack of resources.

I’m not necessarily opposed to such philanthropy in a misguided heighten-the-contradictions! way—the need for clean water or mosquito netting is an immediate one, and without them, as David Dayen noted above, people die—but the private provisioning of public services certainly does take pressure off of incompetent government.

It’s also worth pointing out that foundations such as Gates’s are possible because people are able amass incredible fortunes and, in the US, pay relatively low taxes.

To the chase: is Bill Gates responsible for poisoned water in Flint? No.

And yes, insofar as he has profited from a system which tells people that acclaim in one’s field and small fortunes are not enough, but that freedom if only possible if millionaires are allowed to become billionaires and that massive corporations require the protections of government which are disdained when offered to the poor.

We in the United States live in an incredibly wealthy society, more than able to pay for competent government; that our government is, as in Flint or Ferguson, so often is not reflects the dysfunctions within the polity itself—and one of the chief sources of that dysfunction is our unwillingness/inability to say Enough! to those who have way, way more than enough.





Same as it ever was

30 05 2015

There are three issues for which American presidents will always—despite campaign promises, previous votes, and party positions—go their own way:

Trade, energy, and security.

Presidents will always seek expanded trade agreements, greater access to energy resources, and whatever is necessary to secure what we now, alas, call the Homeland.

Democrats and Republicans will vary in how they go about this business—Dems may talk more about renewables and Republicans may project a greater hawkishness—but in the end, each of them, as president, will sign the trade deals, drill for oil and gas, and sop up every last bit of information flowing through the leaky pipes of cyberspace, all to “strengthen America”.

This cuts across interests in both parties. Environmentalists and labor activists will get screwed by Dems on energy and trade, perhaps placated with a few wilderness set-asides or anodyne words in trade deals; hawks and nativists will be unsatisfied by Republicans daunted by popular opposition to extended wars and willingness to open borders to both people and products, respectively; and (civil) libertarians will be screwed by presidents of both parties when it comes to the ever-expanding national security state.

Thus, the more ideologically-minded partisans on either side of the divide will be forsaken again and again, the everlasting Charlie to President Lucy.

~~~

As one of those ideologically-minded partisans, I have some sympathy for those who want to believe that this time, this time things will be different, and who disillusioned when they are not.

But as a fan of Machiavelli, I think it is better for us not to have illusions about power.

The promises are nice–necessary, even, to move us to canvass and call and get out the vote—but they go only so far as politics will allow them.

And on trade, energy, and security, that ain’t very far.





You spin me right around, baby, right around

9 10 2011

The national security state must be expanded in order to guarantee the security of those who secure the state:

Last month, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, delivered a speech in which he strongly denied the accusation that the administration had sometimes chosen to kill militants when capturing them was possible, saying the policy preference is to interrogate them for intelligence.

The memorandum is said to declare that in the case of a citizen, it is legally required to capture the militant if feasible — raising a question: was capturing Mr. Awlaki in fact feasible?

It is possible that officials decided last month that it was not feasible to attempt to capture him because of factors like the risk it could pose to American commandos and the diplomatic problems that could arise from putting ground forces on Yemeni soil. Still, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan demonstrates that officials have deemed such operations feasible at times. [emph. added]

The number of soldiers in the field has to be increased so as to increase the security of the soldiers in the field.

The number of police has to be increased so as to increase the security of the police.

Every action demonstrates the need for more action; there is no such thing as overreaction.

You can never be too safe.





Cash money, ain’t got no use for you

18 12 2010

No no no no no no NO! No. No no no. NO!

In terms of public safety and national security, the sooner the world moves to a digital cashless economy, the better.

So says Professor Jonathan Lipow. To which I respond, well, you read my first line.

Consider the opening graf:

THE 500-euro note is sometimes called the “Bin Laden” — after all, Europeans may never see the 500 euro, but they know it is out there somewhere. Unfortunately, Al Qaeda’s leader and the 500-euro bill are connected in another way: high-denomination bills make it a lot easier for terrorists to operate.

Got it? A joke about a name actually reveals a deeper reality!

Although, exactly how high-denomination currencies make it easier for terrorists isn’t really explained so much as it is “analogized”:

Organized crime has always been a cash industry. In 1969, the Treasury stopped issuing $500, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 bills specifically to impede crime syndicates — the only entities that were still using such large bills after the introduction of electronic money transfers.

It is up to the reader to suss out the reason for big bills: My guess is that it’s a lot easier to store a load of cash if that load is a pallet-full rather than a room-full.

In any case, while it is clear that terrorists and other assorted bad guys [and presumably a few bad broads] prefer cash to credit because, as Lipow helpfully points out, one can collect and dispense cash without showing any ID whatsoever(!!!!) it is not at all clear that bin Laden and his henchmen [what a great word, by the way, henchmen: it even sounds sinister] are actually using those 500-euro notes.

But no matter: the point about the mob was just to reinforce that bad guys and dolls use cash, and that the government can make it harder for those bad guys (and dolls) to use lots and lots of cash.

(Did such actions lead to a lessening of organized crime? Well, no, since Lipow himself notes that drug traffickers pile up the cash, only now in $100 denominations. But that’s another column, right?)

(And for another aside: We should be grateful that after distribution about $19 billion in cash in Iraq and Afghanistan,

the military has gradually realized that the anonymity of cash makes it easy for terrorists and insurgents to smuggle in money and make purchases without a trace.

So the Treasure figured out in 1969 that cash was king among the kingpins, but it took the military 40 years to figure this out? Or is that, too, another column?)

Anyway. Lipow then tells us the solution to all these terroristic and trafficking woes is to move from actual to virtual cash, not just cell-phone based but, preferably, “smart cards with biometric security features.” He offers the charming example of the Universal Electronic Payments System:

In South Africa, the technology company Net1 now distributes social welfare grants to almost four million people. It’s simple: with a battery-operated, point-of-sale device akin to a credit-card terminal, money is transferred from one person’s card to another; during the process, the cards download and record each other’s transaction records.

Every few days, employees from the payments system head out to the villages and make their own money transfers, downloading the transaction histories of the cards they come into contact with, which contain the histories of the cards they interacted with, and so on. That data is then downloaded into the company’s mainframe, as a way of monitoring the flow of funds across the cards.

Best of all, the system can function offline and off the power grid, providing a secure means of payment under all conditions and without any geographic limitations. And the incremental cost of executing a transaction via this system is essentially zero. It is a promising model for the global economy.

It’ll be cheap, easy, and fun!

No, what’s important about this system is not any benefit provided to consumers, but that the crooks, absent the ability to accumulate funds off the books, would find their transactions open to audits:

In a cashless economy, insurgents’ and terrorists’ electronic payments would generate audit trails that could be screened by data mining software; every payment and transfer would yield a treasure trove of information about their agents, their locations and their intentions. This would pose similar challenges for criminals.

Because in a cashless economy, there’s no way—no way—these criminals could dodge a (gasp!) audit, amirite? And since electronic systems are by definition impenetrable, there’s also no way that these same criminals could smash their way through or tunnel their way under these virtual walls to hide, steal, or otherwise mess with these currency bytes, right? Right?

I’m snarking on Lipow, perhaps undeservedly—after all, I’m hardly a fan of either Al Qaeda or organized crime—but he hijacks the wheels (and grease) of the economy in service to the omnipresent national security state without a consideration for all of the other licit purposes of real-world currency, or any inconveniences (or worse) to people of that same world without cold, hard, cash.

Following Lipow’s example, I won’t bother actually to spell out all those inconveniences (Matthew Yglesias provides some possibilities in the link, above), but let’s consider some of those “or worse” scenarios.

  • You don’t have enough money to open a bank account, or enough of a steady infusion of funds to overcome any of the fees associated with low-money accounts. As a result, you are shut out of the economy.
  • You lose your e-cash-card (loss, theft, catastrophe) and have no way to access your account. No one can lend you money to tide you over, because the problem is not the lack of money, but lack of access to the money.
  • You are in an abusive relationship and need funds to get away. Abuser is able to track you through your purchases, or in some way interfere with your ability to access your funds.
  • The government doesn’t like you and slams down a gate between you and your money. (Think this can’t happen? Consider what happened to Muslim charities designated in some way as “terrorist”: their funds were frozen; search “muslim charities funds frozen” for examples. Or asset forfeiture when the cops think you’ve committed a crime; see here and here, among others).
  • The government doesn’t like you and pressures financial institutions to block your access to funds; see WikiLeaks.

The thread running through these possibilities? The loss of access, which can inhibit not just your purchases, but your purchase on the economy, your mobility, and your ability to engage in disfavored political activity.

Admittedly, the last three examples  could be used against me just as I used the only-partial-effectiveness of Treasury Dept. actions to halt crime against Lipow, to wit: these things are already happening in the cash-ready world. Unlike, Lipow, however, I don’t argue that this means we should get rid of all e-money and rely solely on cash.

The virtual economy is useful, which is one of the reason that so many of us have moved happily into it, i.e., we were neither suckered nor coerced into doing so. Common currency was developed, as Adam Smith pointed out, as a convenience to both buyer and seller (as well as a way for sovereigns to accrue and maintain creditable wealth), and while some might have grumbled at the loss of commodity-barter, it is likely that most others liked the fungibility and—wait for it—accessibility of currency.

In other words, currency gave its holder options.

This mix of actual and virtual money seems to me to offer money-holders a reasonable array of options. Don’t like holding cash? Go with the debit or credit card. Prefer shopping online? Ditto. Like being able to fish a buck or two out of your pocket to buy a slice of pizza or to toss into a busker’s guitar lid? Cash. Don’t want a store (or another household member)  to track your spending—or know it was you who bought something embarrassing? Ditto. Want the convenience of the card as well as the ability to buy and sell anonymously? Duh, both.

You can do variously nefarious things with cash, of course, as well as have variously nefarious things done to you, but so, too, with electronic monies. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it were more likely for you to be victimized electronically than, um, cash-ically—but I won’t push it.

So we make our choices—sometimes after much thought, sometimes with no thought at all—and do what we can.

I disdain the glib security-versus-liberty equations, not least because they are not necessarily opposites, and don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another; this particular “versus” implies a death-match which doesn’t necessarily exist.

“Necessarily” is the key term: Sometimes they are in relation to one another, and sometimes one does have to choose more risk in exchange for more freedom, and less freedom in exchange for less risk (although, even here, I question whether trading away one’s freedom will result in greater security—but I’ll leave that for another day).

Lipow, however, commits the opposite error: he doesn’t even consider that his quest for security could have any effect on liberty, large or small; in his eagerness to close off the options of criminals, he doesn’t much consider the effects on the options of the rest of us.

“Money’s destiny is to become digital,” he quotes an OECD report. But he and the report’s authors forget that money doesn’t have a destiny.

It has a use.

Which means we should, theoretically, have some say in how it is used.





God, cops, and, oh, God and cops

8 01 2009

He wouldn’t shake my hand. He said something about ‘respect,’ but it wasn’t clear if he were asking me to respect his wish not to shake my hand, or if he were demonstrating respect for me by not shaking my hand.

I smiled and said ‘Okay’, but, hmmmm, not so okay.

No hand shaking because he’s a man and I’m a woman. A dick, and I get a handshake. No dick, no shake.

So what’s the big deal? He showed me the apartment, didn’t he? He wasn’t unkind or unwilling to deal with me: he simply didn’t want our hands to touch. Different standards of personal boundaries, that’s all.

And on one level, that’s true. I like handshakes, but hugs, not so much. And I certainly don’t want someone feeling me up by way of introduction. Boundaries and preferences.

Perhaps had he not mumbled ‘respect.’ Again, it’s entirely possible that he was demonstrating his respect for me—but I don’t think so. When a man fears my hand, simply because it’s a female hand, I don’t respect that fear. No, I’m not going to force someone to shake my hand—duh, boundaries—but respect that fear of a female touch? Nope.

Oh, but this was about his religion, his relationship to God, and had nothing to do with me. Except that I was there, and I wasn’t feeling particularly respected.

So what do you do in these situations, where respect for the other seems to require a disrespect for oneself? Is there an equitable behavioral solution?

So we don’t shake hands. Perhaps that’s the best we can do.

_____

How many people have been ‘justifiably’ killed by police—i.e., how many victims of disputed deaths (i.e., clearly those not immediately involved in criminal violence) have had their demands for justice unheard because the police were able to claim self-defense—before the advent of mobile technology?

What would have happened to the police officers on trial in the Sean Bell shooting in NYC had someone had video of the events that night? Would anyone have taken Michael Mineo (allegedly injured and sodomized by police in Brooklyn subway station) seriously had video not surfaced which corroborated at least part of his claim against the police? What about what happened to Christopher Long, the Critical Mass bicyclist in Union Square who was charged with assaulting an officer—only to have those charges withdrawn after video clearly showed the officer assaulting the bicyclist? What about all those Republican National Convention protesters freed after film footage effectively erased police justifications for those arrests?

And now, Oscar Grant, the young man shot to death by BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police New Year’s day. Would there be a vigorous investigation absent the cell phone video of the shooting? And what of allegations that BART officials sought (unsuccessfully, as it turns out) to confiscate any images of the shooting? And police claims that Grant was not cuffed while he was shot—while witnesses dispute this? Perhaps it was an accident, perhaps the officer didn’t mean to shoot Grant. But what the hell was he doing drawing his weapon on an unarmed man on the ground? (And what does it mean for the supposed professionalism of police forces if they kill citizens accidentally?)

I’m not necessarily a fan of the deployment of recording technologies in the public realm. I like my privacy, and while appearing in public does, of course, mean just that—appearing—I think of myself as ‘passing through’: I get to come and go. Recording techs freeze that passage, making permanent what I have always assumed evanescent.

And closed-captioned television (CCTV) as deployed by police and security forces? Nuh-uh. Yes, it’s supposed to make us all safer, help the police catch the bad guys, serve as a deterrent, and hey, it just might. But who the hell is in charge of those nifty CCTV cameras? Who controls that footage? Who decides who has access to it, what is kept, and what is deleted? Is CCTV for the public’s protection—or the police’s?

Still. Video techs in the hands of individual citizens may aid in just the kind open subversion of the security state ideology that’s needed. And no, I don’t think the US is a police state (cf. the bit, below, on Shirin Ebadi and Iran) but the security state ideology, which demands that all other values bow before the shield, is corrosive of an open society. The notion that anything goes as long as one is made secure may—may—make us citizens safer from one another, but it sure as hell doesn’t make us any safer from those security forces.

And it sure as hell doesn’t have anything to do with justice.

Justice does need security, and citizens in an open society need a competent—repeat, competent—police force. Citizens with video techs can’t make the  police more competent, but they can at least expose incompetence—and worse.

_____

Shirin Ebadi, kick-ass activist, is coming under even more pressure from the Iranian government.

According to the LA Times, young thugs from the Basiji Militia, which has connections to the Revolutionary Guard, attacked Ebadi’s home and shouted ‘Death to the pen-pushing mercenary.’

(An aside: Death to the pen-pushing mercenary? Really? That’s the best they could do?)

Police were called, did nothing.

Ah, the security state. . . .

_____

Hamas is full of shit, and shits. They’re totalitarian gangsters, providing much-needed basic services to the Palestinians of Gaza in return for using ‘their people’ as shields in their war against Israel.

Hamas leaders may call themselves freedom fighters or the resistance or martyrs for God, but what do they have to offer those they seek to liberate but a more correct (i.e., non-Jewish, non-Israeli) violence, a more correct oppression? They’re mobsters, performing the same ‘services’ for Gazans that Italian, Irish, Russian, Chinese, etc., organized crime syndicates have done for their immigrant communities.

Remember the scene which opens the first Godfather? ‘I believe in America’, the man tells Don Corleone, before he goes on to beg for help in seeking vengeance for his daughter’s rape. The police can do nothing; could the Don help? The man is berated: why didn’t you come to us first? But the Don will help, in exchange for a favor. . . .

The analogy is inexact, but it works well enough: in the absence of trust in the legal authorities, one will turn to whatever enforcers are available. And in the absence of any countervailing authority, those enforcers are as likely to subjugate as protect—will subjugate in the course of protecting—their communities. It’s an illicit version of the security ideology, mirroring claims of the necessity of violence and the suppression of dissent.

So Hamas is a Palestinian mob. Hell, it’s worse than a regular mob, not least because it directly endangers Palestinian civilians by firing rockets and weapons from within civilian areas. Hamas knows Israel will retaliate, will shell and bomb and shoot into neighborhoods and schools and homes and kill Palestinian civilians—deaths which can then be blamed on Israel. But Hamas, too, is at fault.

Note that I say ‘too.’ The Israeli government knows exactly what Hamas is doing, and they point repeatedly to evidence of Hamas’s tactics. But this hardly absolves Israel of responsibility for civilian deaths. To state that ‘Hamas fires rockets at civilians on purpose, and we do so only incidentally’ doesn’t quite wash in the face of hundreds of Palestinian dead and thousands wounded. How many times can you say ‘Oops, sorry’? Or ‘Sorry, but. . .’? No, Palestinian civilians matter as little to the Israelis as they do to Hamas.

I have read (and heard on the radio) a number of comments by Gazans blaming Hamas for the destruction, but that hardly means they love Israel. They are a hostage population, used and abandoned.

So what the hell to do? Even if Israel manages to weaken or even destroy Hamas, then what? What happens to the people of Gaza? To the blockade of the territory and immobilization of the people? What about the Occupied Territories and Jerusalem? There are still the competing claims to the land, competing claims for justice, for security. There is still the intransigence and hostility of most of Israel’s neighboring states.

What a fucking mess. So the Israeli Defense Force wins by pounding Hamas and Hamas wins if it survives the pounding and everyone else loses. Death all around.

. . . . ‘Yes, but whose deaths matter more?’

_____

A re-thought on God, hands, and respect: Opponents of same-sex marriage complain that advocates are trying to force respect for these marriages, and running over any concerns over the sacred nature of matrimony and the moral and social disorder indicated by open same-sex relationships.

I guess I get their distress. To respect same-sex relationships is to disrespect their own beliefs, and themselves. Why should respect only run one way?

Again, in cases where respect for A requires disrespect for B, tolerance may the best one can hope for. I don’t respect your beliefs, and you don’t respect mine, but we’ll recognize that each gets to retain her beliefs.

The difficulty with marriage, of course, is that it involves the law—another discussion. And I don’t want any laws on the proferring or withholding of hands.