Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A cowardly excuse from one of Dick Cheney's willing executioners

Philip Mudd, a former deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, defended the use of torture on both MSNBC's show Morning Joe and CNN's New Day show with Chris Cuomo as co-host. Much like the incorrigible Dick Cheney, he defended torture, but then added a twist by blaming the American people.

"Excuse me, common sense? You have the majority of the American people still saying this is okay. We went to the people who determined what U.S. statutes say. They were clear. I personally spoke to members on both sides of the aisle in the Congress. They told me either ‘okay,’ or ‘is this it?’ — in other words, ‘aren’t you doing more?’ The mood of the population is reflected by the American security service. The mood of the population is, ‘this is okay, this is more than okay. And, by the way, if we see ever see another jumper from the 100th floor of a building in New York, it’s on you.’ You want to know what that’s like, Chris? We were dealt a hand of deuces, and we ran the table in the casino. I thought it was great work." (Quote from the blog Mediaite, December 16, 2014.
With the same logic, most tyrants could defend any terror and abuse by claiming that they just did what the people wanted them to do. A new Pew Research Center poll (December 16, 2014) found that 51 percent of Americans believe that CIA's torture was justified. And much like most American's believed in Dick Cheney's lies about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in the year that lead up to the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq, 58 percent now believe that the torture was effective, despite the fact that the senate report based on CIA's internal documents showed that it did not.

Mudd's defense is nothing but a version of "the Devil made me do it," or as Eve told God according to the Old Testament: "The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:13).

Note: For a background on the "willing executioners" debate, check out this Wikipedia  article.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Roubini on the Rise of the Machines and the Future of the Economy

The financial and economic guru Nouriel Roubini gave a speech on December 4th at the Bloomberg BusinessWeek 85th Anniversary Dinner, which was held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The title of his "official toast" was “Rise of the Machines: Downfall of the Economy?

To be a toast for Manhattan socialites, it was probably great, but when you read the published version on Roubini's Edge it fizzles somewhat. To begin with, his understanding of the birth of the computer is flawed. 
"This wave of technological innovation began in 1947 with the invention of the transistor. A little over 10 years later, the microchip appeared; and, soon after that, computers followed. From these basic roots, the rate of innovation simply exploded."
Well, no. The first electronic computers were created around 1940 and used vacuum tubes rather than the microchips he mentions, which later made microcomputers and PCs possible. (He may be forgiven for this transgression as he after all is an economist and not a techie.)

Roubini said that ”technologists claim that the world is on the cusp of a series of major technical breakthroughs” and that this is not just about IT, but a much broader third industrial revolution.

Yes, it is plausible that the IT-revolution of the past 30 years will be followed by an industrial and economic revolution due to broad technological progress, but let’s pause for a moment and remember that the technological and industrial revolutions of the late 19th and early 20th century contributed to the economic and political shifts in "plate tectonics" that resulted in two world wars. 

The destabilizing impact of new technology and globalization is truly global, and the world's political systems (including and maybe especially in democratic political systems) are at loss for how to respond. Technology opens possibilities, but it is a double edged sword, and where it cuts depends on who wields it and for what purpose. 

The best part of Roubini's speech was his reflection on job destruction and whether new jobs can make up for lost ones. The picture Dr. Doom painted here is dark, and he includes education in his scenario (maybe somewhat unfairly as teachers are not as easily replaced by algorithms as it at first may seem.)

He does criticize the "winner-takes-all capitalism" and increasing inequality, and reminds us of John Maynard Keynes's optimistic prognosis from 1930 that we soon would need to work no more than 15 hours a week, but contrasts it with another possibility in "the Brave New World" of labor-saving technology – “20% of the labor force will work 120 hours a week while the other 80% will have no jobs and no income.”

After that dystopic scenario (we can ignore his reference to "the Singularity" and Steven Hawking’s silly provocation that mankind should get think of leaving Earth in fear of artificial intelligence), one might have expected more in terms of a remedy than the whimper of an ending that we are served up: a longing for an enlightened despot/leader (Otto von Bismarck, Teddy Roosevelt or William Gladstone) and giving workers “skills” needed “to participate in the wealth that capitalism generates.”

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Are we heading towards a new 1968?

The very fabric of society is tearing.

Ferguson. This is just the beginning. What exactly happened during those 90 seconds when a white police officer killed a young unarmed black boy while fighting his inner demons may never be clear, but what is clear is that America's poor and especially its young and people of color are losing whatever faith they had left in the legal and political system.

We may be entering another 1968 -- the year when young people across the world took to the streets protesting wars and injustice. The governments had failed to deliver on hope and justice, peace and prosperity, focusing all their effort on protecting the rich and waging wars that were often ill-conceived and ill-executed.

The Great Recession (which began in 2007 and exploded in the autumn of 2008) robbed the American middle class of its security, pulled the rug under the Black and Latino population at the same time as it allowed the obscenely rich tenth of a percent to multiply their undeserved wealth.

Charles Dickens would have said that it was the best of times and the worst of times. It all depended on if you belonged to the top quintile or the bottom four quintiles. Inequality has exploded in America and the rest of the world and the "losers" -- as Mitt Romney and many conservatives -- like to call ordinary people, have lost their patience. The result is deep anger, frustration, social unrest and in some cases extreme political movements.

The very fabric of society is tearing and the economic, political and legal system is unable to address its deepest and most serious problems.

The Democratic Party is a party without ideas and only a few steps behind the Republican Party as far as corruption goes. The Republican Party is equally void of ideas (unless we call the Tea Party's hatred of the United States's first black president a set of ideas rather than an ignorant mix of populism and racism), but at least twice as corrupt as its rival.

We've had a Democratic president for six years, and although he led the country out of the recession George W. Bush and his Republicans let lose, he failed to stand up to Wall Street, and compromised away much of the support he had on the left and center-left. The Republican strategy has rested on two legs, political obstruction even when it undermined the country's economy and national security and voter suppression. They know that they the demographic changes in the U.S. work against them, so they have been working hard, and the Supreme Court have enabled them, at disenfranchising the majority of America's population.

Today they have a lock on the economic and political power. All that is left is the Presidency. But as we have seen over the past six years, they can pretty much run the country without controlling the Presidency.

Hence the disillusionment among the poor, a large part of the middle class and the minorities (despite the fact that they will soon become a majority of eligible voters.)



Morris Fiorina, a political scientist at Stanford, is similarly critical of the “upscale capture” of the Democratic Party. In an email, he wrote that in the aftermath of the financial collapse of 2008,
the country is desperate for economic relief, but as time goes on it becomes clear that the administration’s economic policy is to take care of the financial sector, where hundreds of people are clearly guilty of fraud in any layman’s view. The result is building disappointment, resentment, and rage in the public, which results in the 2010 debacle.
“Today,” Fiorina writes,
We have a situation where voters can choose between a party that openly admits to being a lap dog of Wall Street and a party that by its actions clearly is a lap dog but denies it. At least vote for the honest one.
Thomas B. Edsall: Who Will Save the Democratic Party From Itself? (New York Times, November 25, 2014)

The Social Impact of the Great Recession

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Ferguson protests around U.S. clog streets