Friday, January 23, 2015

Federal Employment Redux - how the House's Selective memory hurts Americans

The House of Representatives wants to continue cutting the size of the federal workforce presumably without cutting the number of this the federal government has to do:

“We’ve racked up $18 trillion in debt simply because Washington has no idea when to stop spending,” Lummis said in a statement. “Attrition is a solution that requires the federal government to do what any business, state or local government would do to cuts costs — limit new hires.”
As I have noted before:

First, looking at federal civilian employment trends since 1962 (Data courtesy OPM.gov), I find that the federal government is nowhere as big as it has been in my life time.  Specifically, the federal government topped out at over 3 Million employees under President Reagan, began to shrink under President Bush 41, shrank dramatically under President Clinton (to less then 2.65 Million), climbed again under President Bush 43 (During the prime years of the Great Recession), and began to shrink again under President Obama. 
 Given the lionizing that St. Ronnie receives these days, I really have to wonder how many current Republican politicians remember what he actually did.  Even if they do, the Federal Government is shrinking in employee size naturally, so I fail to see how this does anything real to the government's continued Congressionally inflicted debt crisis.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"We have come to our Nation's Capitol to cash a check:" How Dr. King's legacy is being destroyed by income inequality and Citizen's United



For someone who spends time thinking and writing about politics and policy, the juxtaposition of the holiday celebrating the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the State of the Union address by the Nation’s first African American President, and the fifth anniversary of the Citizen’s United ruling can’t be ignored.   What makes it all the worse, however, is that the President tonight should – if he wants to keep Dr. King’s legacy alive – make another round of proposals that require starting with rolling back Citizens United.

Unfortunately, This MLK Day finds us in a more divided, more racially, more economically unequal society.  Like it or not, the SCOUTS prediction that their decision in Citizen’s United would decrease campaign corruption – because unlimited funds for “speech” by corporations and other groups would “allow” more people to know who gave what to whom – the reality is that BOTH parties are now both heavily dark money funded, and funded in such significant amounts by super PACs that the political speech of ordinary people is effectively drowned out. In a day and age where it takes $1 Billion or more just to get to the White House, no one can realistically say that any person (except a billionaire or two) has as much political speech as a corporation or Super PAC.  This is critically important, because in the wake of the SCOTUS gutting of the Civil Rights Act, all an individual has left is their speech (since in many cases they have defacto lost their vote).

In turn, that court-created inequality in political speech of necessity creates economic inequality where there was none, and enlarges it where it already exists.  Wages after the Great Recession are stagnant at best, and the reality is that while unemployment keeps dropping, the two biggest forces driving it are people taking lower wage jobs (and often at less than full employment) and people simply exiting the workforce all together.  These things, not coincidentally, have driven corporate profits up to the highest levels in decades.  Sadly, the income inequality that this created is now coming back to haunt those corporations, as lower gas prices give underpaid workers some economic breathing room to clear up debts and begin saving again.  Consumers can also spend again (though it seems they aren’t – waiting further price drops), but many more of them may well lose their jobs in the formerly growing energy sector if prices continue to stay low.  In addition, the financial sector that is now the “bedrock” of our economy is taking stock hits to energy sector stocks, which means that Wall Street will likely start advocating for government interference in the market to boost oil prices. After all, you can’t invest tens of millions of dollars on a Presidential candidate, or tens of thousands on a Senator if they don’t help you stay afloat, can you?

All of this would look and sound eerily familiar to Dr. King, who died in 1968 preparing his Campaign for the Poor as the next chapter of his Civil Rights Movement work.


Then, as now, most of the poor of working age had jobs, but, as King puts it: “they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.” In 1968, 25 million people — nearly 13 percent of the population — were living below the poverty level, according to the Census Bureau. (In 2013, 45.3 million people — 14.5 percent were below the poverty level.)


Dr. King understood, as do a few folks today, that access to the voting booth, or forced desegregation, would do little to ease the plight of racial minorities if their economic condition – along with the economic condition of the poor whites who were often their most violent opposition – didn’t improve.  Then, as now, minorities and poor whites compete for fewer and fewer lower paying jobs, and that competition stokes much of the fear used by politicians to drive a wedge between groups that should be allied.  Yet because he was unable to carry on with his important work, we are left to apologize to our descendants, as we seem unwilling to do anything to support the radical change now necessary to keep the Dream Alive.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

White Privilege and Young Black Men Dying - Why Ferguson Hits so Close to Home

Watching all the events unfold these past months in Ferguson, Missouri - to say nothing of the ongoing violence against unarmed black males generally - I have grown increasingly weary, as well as sad and angry.  Perhaps its because I grew up in a church congregation that still prides itself on having more white members get arrested in Baton Rouge's civil rights movement then any other; perhaps its because I once watched a Grand Wizard of the KKK miss getting elected governor by only a few 1000 votes; perhaps its because I graduated from an inner city high school in the south, where the student population was 64% black (nearly a decade after court ordered desegregation); perhaps its because one of my youngest daughter's bestie's is black, and her mom is referred.as my oldest son's "other mother."

Or, more likely, it's all those things, plus growing with a mom who led a ticket buying sit in to get all the tickets to a movie house so her black dorm-mate could join her for a Saturday matinee. All those things compel me to speak out about racial injustice - which the killing of Michael Brown most certainly was.

Yet in the wake of the Ferguson killing (and killings closer to home), my need to speak is more urgent, more compelling, and VERY personal.  You see, any one of those teenagers and young men could be my nephew, which would vault me into the now cliched role of the uncle who speaks for the family.

My sister in law has 3 half African American children, the youngest a son. My nephew is now 7, and as he continues to make his way in the world, he's already having to deal with the fact that his skin color, his hair texture, his facial features mark him as different from his mom, or his favorite uncle.  More then once when I've been with him on family visits I've noticed well meaning people of all backgrounds and ethnicities look at he and I as we go about our business with more then passing glances.  In this day and age no one says anything - though there have been a couple of older ladies who smile sweetly as if to acknowledge that male role models are important no matter what the circumstances.

But those kind looks will one day - if the statistics are to be believed - be replaced by locking of doors, crossing of streets, and lowering of academic demands.  All over his skin color.

Unfortunately for my nephew, his neurology will be working against him just as much as his skin color.  Thanks in part to several minutes of oxygen deprivation as an infant, he now lives with several mental health issues, two of which make it seriously hard to control his impulses and to permit him to empathize with others.  Both, thankfully, are under some control with medicine, but more then once a grown up has had to intervene with him because he started hitting a cousin he claims to love because said cousin was "annoying him." Equally disturbing are his very occasional statements about being in-between two arguing angels on his shoulders -like on TV Uncle P! - and the fact that its getting harder to listen to the good angel.

So, here you have a young black man (who is half Norwegian) growing up in a time of significant distrust of young black men, who can't always control his tendency to violence, who thinks very concretely, and wants what he wants when he wants it because he's not physically wired for delayed gratification.  Say he hits 14 or 15 or 18, and this manifests itself with police getting involved.  Maybe someone "annoyed" him.  Maybe he thinks someone took something from him.  Maybe they said something about his mom.  Whatever the reason, unless he meets a cop trained to recognize and deal with mental health issues there's a very good, and very sad, statistical likelihood he'll end up dead, because his brain's wiring will be working against him without anyone realizing it until its too late.

So sure, tell me white male privilege means I don't get to get angry about this.  Yell at me that I don't know what its like to live as a black man today; warn me the you are coming for me the next time a young black man dies at the hands of cops.  I'm fine with all that - I'm happy to let you vent - so long as you show up for my nephew's funeral, look me in the eye, and tell why putting me on the sidelines was a good idea.  Tell me how angry young African Americans, now clearly taking up the mantel of their elders, don't need my help just as much as my mom's dorm-mate did in the 1960's.  Do that while you help me hold up my grieving, white, sister in law, and you can dismiss me all you want in the here and now.

Or, stand beside me.  Work with me to hold all police, politicians, and leaders accountable for the abysmal failure of our Nation to fully embrace people of color.  Demand that all our children be educated about the true roots of our institutional racism and the real reasons our nation nearly tore itself apart in the Civil War,  Let me be angry with you, so you don't have to help me bury another innocent young black man.


Friday, September 26, 2014

If you can't publish, how can they make you perish? Bias against marine conservation papers in scientific journals

As a semi-reformed oceanographer and marine scientist, I still read scientific publications regularly. I even manage to sneak in a paper or talk to a professional meeting every couple of years. And right now, this situation hits home because I'm trying to write a conservation oriented paper for scientific publication that might (over a decade late) get the major portion of my Master's thesis published:
the environmental situation in the marine environment is pretty dire in many respects, and publishing biases exacerbates the problem – getting good science-based management and decision-making that can alleviate marine environmental problems is made even more difficult if timely publication of essential science is prevented by the biases of journal editors.
Part of the problem for me - as someone working in a science agency at HQ - is I don't take data anymore.  This means that if I want to write, and i do, I have to lean on policy or management topics that allow me to synthesize the work of others or to draw out my own small data sets into new and interesting way.  Marine conservation topics - which often cross what used to be a hard boundary between process or characterization studies and applied management of natural resources - are right up the alley that's open to me right now.

Funny thing is I would have thought that the rise of on-line open access journals would have begun to ameliorate this. Perhaps I'll write about that as a paper topic someday - assuming i can find a publisher.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Trickle Down Economics and smaller govenrment led to the Great Recession

Following hard on the heals of all the Thomas Piketty kerfuffle, Harold Meyerson reports on a new paper in the Harvard Business Review by William Lazonik titled "Profits Without Prosperity:" (Emphasis mine)

Like Thomas Piketty, Lazonick, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, is that rare economist who actually performs empirical research. What he has uncovered is a shift in corporate conduct that transformed the U.S. economy — for the worse. From the end of World War II through the late 1970s, he writes, major U.S. corporations retained most of their earnings and reinvested them in business expansions, new or improved technologies, worker training and pay increases. Beginning in the early ’80s, however, they have devoted a steadily higher share of their profits to shareholders.

How high? Lazonick looked at the 449 companies listed every year on the S&P 500 from 2003 to 2012. He found that they devoted 54 percent of their net earnings to buying back their stock on the open market — thereby reducing the number of outstanding shares, whose values rose accordingly. They devoted another 37 percent of those earnings to dividends. That’s a total of 91 percent of their profits that America’s leading corporations targeted to their shareholders, leaving a scant 9 percent for investments, research and development, expansions, cash reserves or, God forbid, raises.
Meyerson summarizes Lazonick's research as essentially throwing open - and the beating to death - the notion of Trickle Down Economics, and draws a stark link to President Reagan's changes in Securities and Exchange Commission regulations on stock buy-backs as the culprit of today's Great Recession (which still very much lingers everywhere BUT Wall Street).  I know that fact-impervious conservative pundits will no doubt shy away from the whole thing, but it should give real conservatives - and fiscal conservatives especially - pause that deregulation (i.e. LESS GOVERNMENT) in the early 1980's resulted in an economic crash in the late 2000's.  Like it or not, as we get ready to "celebrate" American labor this week that the economic fortunes of that labor pool are no longer in their own hands - and all so we can inflate corporate CEO pay apparently.

You can read more HERE

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Media Matters - Polling reflects the chosen media narrative

The fall out from Eric Cantor's recent primary loss and current polling on the President's approval rating highlight a real challenge to modern democracy. Everywhere you look there are stories about the things the President is doing wrong (or not at all) and in the lead up to the Virginia Republican primary the coverage at the national level was on how successfully Cantor had led the GOPs charge to stop the President, not how effectively he had represented his own district.

Unsurprisingly (at least to me) polling conducted under those narratives did not return an accurate picture if what is going on. Cantor was soundly defeated because he wasn't looking out for his constituents first, and the President gets hug marks for leading on individual issues as the economy gets haltingly better - or at least no worse. Yet the Main Stream Media (as well as the more partisan outlets like Fox and Huff Post) continue to report on the bad or negative angles only, often using false equivalencies to mask real "right and wrong" differences.

If we as a nation are going to resurrect our dying democracy, I think we need to acknowledge that media narratives matter.  Then we need to run the media put of town figuratively until they get back to being honest brokers of information.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Get out the Hoover: the NSA records phone calls as it nails shut the coffin of democracy



Three recent articles show not only how much the Security and Surveillance State has expanded in the last decade, but why the dangers of that expansion are largely going unchecked.
In the first, Glenn Greenwald, Ryan Devereaux and Laura Poitras report on further revelations from the Edward Snowden NSA document file – specifically that the NSA has taken its previous programs of spying on pretty much everyone (including Americans) by collecting their cell phone metadata to a new level.  They report that the NSA is actively intercepting both the phone metadata (records of calls to whom by whom from where) AND the call contents, which it stores in a play-back enabled form for up to a month:


The program raises profound questions about the nature and extent of American surveillance abroad. The U.S. intelligence community routinely justifies its massive spying efforts by citing the threats to national security posed by global terrorism and unpredictable rival nations like Russia and Iran. But the NSA documents indicate that SOMALGET has been deployed in the Bahamas to locate “international narcotics traffickers and special-interest alien smugglers” – traditional law-enforcement concerns, but a far cry from derailing terror plots or intercepting weapons of mass destruction.


Part of Greenwald’s reporting is, in keeping with his prior work, to call out the Washington Post, which reported on this program in March, but did not explicitly mention the countries being targeted.  Greenwald and his colleagues pull the veil back a little further, noting the program is active in the Bahamas, Mexico, the Philippines and Kenya.  They also report that the access to the phone systems was gained through a legitimate law enforcement activity, namely the Drug Enforcement Agency’s agreements with those countries governments that allow DEA agents to collect phone information to track suspect drug cartels.


The DEA has long been in a unique position to help the NSA gain backdoor access to foreign phone networks. “DEA has close relationships with foreign government counterparts and vetted foreign partners,” the manager of the NSA’s drug-war efforts reported in a 2004 memo. Indeed, with more than 80 international offices, the DEA is one of the most widely deployed U.S. agencies around the globe.
But what many foreign governments fail to realize is that U.S. drug agents don’t confine themselves to simply fighting narcotics traffickers. “DEA is actually one of the biggest spy operations there is,” says Finn Selander, a former DEA special agent who works with the drug-reform advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Our mandate is not just drugs. We collect intelligence.”


Greenwald and his colleagues have, therefore succeeded in not just proving the NSA can store whole phone calls, but have made a lie (again) of the fact that US federal law enforcement agencies are NOT part of the massive Security and Surveillance State because they don’t “spy.”
One of the first reactions to this reporting came from Washington Post pundit Erik Wemple, who spent nearly all of his column today highlighting a squabble between the Post, Greenwald and Company, and Wikileaks over whose revelations really serve the public – i.e. who went far enough to help us understand what the real issue is here.  Wemple SEEMS to acknowledge that the Intercept Piece by Greenwald is on a more robust track then the WaPo reporting was:


The Intercept’s partial defiance of the NSA in publishing the names of four countries surely adds contour to the story of MYSTIC — the example of the Bahamas alone fleshes out various legal and diplomatic considerations involved in foreign surveillance. The more careful Washington Post version of the story was interesting yet unsatisfying: Absent a specific country, it was more difficult to reach hard conclusions on the program’s legitimacy, legality and efficacy. Those are the dangers of scaling back detail in consideration of security concerns. When asked if naming just the Bahamas as a way of explaining NSA capabilities would have been a tolerably cautious approach, Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron replied, “You make some assumptions here, but I’m not going to address them.”
There are also perils to The Intercept’s approach. It may have touched off a macho-transparentist scramble to out that one country whose secretness The Intercept genuinely wants to protect.

Whatever the outcome, each outlet apparently got the same pitch from the government: “We shared with both news outlets the very same concerns about risks to human life and national security,” says NSA spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines in a statement to this blog.


Of course, as one of Wemple’s more astute commenters noted, raising the issue of an internecine struggle for who got the “outing” right is a way to down play the significance of the additional reporting.

Likewise, David Frum’s column in the latest Atlantic Magazine seeks to divert attention from the real damage that NSA’s action do by trying to refocus readers on the NEED FOR SECRECY that obviates some of the issues Mr. Snowden’s revelations raise.  


Answering such questions is why states maintain intelligence agencies. Awkwardly, however, the very same imperatives that drive states to collect information also require them to deny doing so. These denials matter even when they are not believed.


Of course Frum is better at some in acknowledging that the NSA MAY well get out of line , but he seems to think that mechanisms exist to correct any missteps:


But the implications for national security are especially disturbing. In a world where danger comes as often from substate actors as from competing national governments, democratic governments need more and wider sources of information than before. Of course, the attainment of that information must be governed by law. If the National Security Agency breaks laws, corrective action is called for. But it’s not illegal, according to the most relevant Supreme Court precedent, for U.S. intelligence agencies to collect information on who connects to whom, provided they do not read the contents of messages without securing a warrant first. It’s certainly not illegal for agencies to intercept—and read—messages transmitted outside the United States. Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State Henry Stimson famously closed the Cipher Bureau on the grounds that “gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail.” Yet as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of war, Stimson would read decrypted communications with avidity.


I’m not sure what sort of legal corrective mechanism Mr. Frum envisions, but given that:

1) Congress has given the NSA, American telecom companies (AT&T, Verizon) and probably itself retroactive legal immunity for the spying reported by the New York Times as early as 2004; and
2) The Director of National Intelligence willfully lied to Congress, admitted it, and has yet to be prosecuted for it

I seriously doubt that we’ll ever see any legal corrective actions for the NSA’s over reaches.  That aside, the NSA also appears to have been lying about its desire and ability to collect phone calls themselves, which Mr. Greenwald’s and the Post’s reporting makes clear is not a technical issue so much as a data capacity issue (which the Utah Data Center will likely solve).  And again, now that the lies have been exposed, I suspect we’ll see little if any formal sanctions develop.

Where Frum really gets it wrong (aside from his misguided notions that this sort of spying is still in compliance with the Fourth Amendment) is that allowing Americans to know about this sort of spying is some sort abrogation of effective Executive Branch power execution that Protects Americans.  


As we have become safer, we have, in that very human way, increasingly begrudged the means of our safety. The intellectual and political pendulum has swung against national-security agencies—indeed, against the basic requirements of an effective executive branch, which are the same today as when Alexander Hamilton outlined them in “Federalist No. 70” in 1788: “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.” Self-described reformers insist that the present-day U.S. government suffers from too much of these four elements. Since the 1970s, they have achieved great success in shifting government to be less decisive, less active, less secretive, and less able to move quickly—and not only in the domain of national security.


Again, I don’t know what planet Mr. Frum resides on, but “government” – if he means the Federal Executive Branch run by the President – is anything but “less decisive, less active, less secretive, and less able to move quickly.”  That Mr. Snowden had to flee the US after calling his own employers and the NSA to account is prima fascia evidence of that.  Equally importantly, conflating calls for the NSA to stop spying on Americans by hovering up every bit of electronic data they can get about us with equally strident calls to stop the effectiveness of other Executive Branch agencies (NOAA, NASA, HUD and DOT come to mind) just highlights how far we have really fallen in our national discourse.  The federal executive branch can be an effective protector of and advocate for Americans rights without undermining the social contract with those same Americans in the name of SAFETY.

America has one final shot to get this right.  If we don’t then we will be the enemy we used to spy on.  And that would be the most tragic legacy of 9-11.