Judge, Jury & Executioner

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I’ve criticised Rand Paul in the past on a few issues, but none of my previous doubts and nitpicks can dilute the sheer brilliance of his almost-thirteen-hour filibuster.

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The absurdity of the legal framework built up by the Bush and Obama administrations was a house of cards for Paul to poke at and watch crumble. Paul’s key question is does Obama believe he can order the killing of an American citizen, on American soil, based on nothing more than his own judgment that the person is a threat?

Under the Fifth Amendment, suspects are entitled to the due process of law:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

And how can any President claim that his own judgment, or that of his Attorney General counts as the due process of law? The targeted drone killings that have occurred in foreign lands — and which Holder admits could theoretically occur on American soil — are very simply extrajudicial killings. And extrajudicial killings are utterly barbaric, incompatible with modern civilisation, incompatible with any notion of human rights or due process, and incompatible with the Constitution.

The status quo evolved very much out of post-9/11 paranoia, as exemplified by Dick Durbin’s Cheneyesque questions aimed at Paul toward the end of the Filibuster, and by Eric Holder’s initial written response referencing Pearl Harbour and 9/11:

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Neither Rand Paul nor myself are suggesting that an attempted violent attack should not be stopped using necessary means (although not excessive means). But if an act of terror has not commenced (and even in many cases where an act of terror has commenced) it should be possible to arrest and question a suspect, rather than killing them. If a suspect can be arrested, charged and tried, there should be no reason why that should not happen.  And unless an act of terror has actively commenced, or unless a suspect can be convicted beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law the government’s suspicion is only a suspicion, and the government has absolutely no business detaining or punishing a suspect.

After 9/11, due process was effectively suspended, and for all of Obama’s lip-service to “change”, this mindset prevailed through his first and into his second administration. Rand Paul’s dogged, tireless questioning — as well as the work of questioners in the media such as Glenn Greenwald, Conor Friedersdorf, Spencer Ackerman, and Micah Zenko —  is acting as a catalyst to break the public and governmental mindset that allowed for the suspension of due process. Due process matters. If it hasn’t been proven that someone has broken the law why should they be punished for it? As humans we have inalienable rights. The fear of terrorism does not trump the right to be tried under the presumption of innocence.

The strength of Rand Paul’s argument means that defenders of the status quo have had to resort to spurious or ad hominem arguments to mount a defence of the President’s position — attacking Paul’s positions on other issues, for example. It was encouraging to see Rand Paul questioning the entire notion of targeted killings and signature strikes altogether, and not just worrying about the prospect of such affairs on American soil. Due process is preferable in all circumstances.  I would have preferred to see Osama bin Laden captured and tried, rather than killed.  Due process is not a sign of moral weakness, but a sign of cultural strength, of sanity, of civilisation.

The Obama administration must eventually understand that their position is untenable. Large swathes of the mainstream media are coming around to the idea that Rand Paul is asking important questions and that due process is more important than national security panic and threat inflation. Paul has struck a blow for the Constitution at the right moment, and to a judicial edifice that has become bloated and corrupt, treating too-big-to-fail bankers with impunity, while coming down like a tonne of bricks on minor intellectual property infractions. He has harnessed the image of a lone filibustering Senator standing up to the machine of the establishment to strike a blow to those who are trying to defend the indefensible. At the very least, Rand Paul has made real oversight of the drone program possible. Hopefully, the days of signature strikes and of targeted killings are numbered. Hopefully, the Constitution and Bill of Rights will reign supreme again in Washington D.C.

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Who Should Be Giving Thanks This Thanksgiving?

Not the wider public.

Our financial system is broken. Our political system is broken. Oligarchs and their cronies reap easy rewards — bailouts, crony capitalism, corporate handouts, liquidity injections, favourable “regulation” (that puts oligarchs’ competition out of a business) — while taxpayers pay the bill.

But no such thing lasts forever.

Thanksgiving is very much the day of the black swan. Nassim Taleb used the example of a turkey fattened up for Thanksgiving as an example of a black swan phenomenon. The turkey sees itself being fed every day by the turkey farmer and assumes based on past behaviour that this will continued indefinitely until the day comes when the farmer kills the turkey. Nothing in the turkey’s limited experiential dataset suggested such an event.

But Thanksgiving also commemorates the end of pre-Columbian America, a huge earth-shattering black swan for the people of the Americas. The day before the first European immigrants landed in North America, very little in the Native Americans’ dataset suggested what was to come.

In a globalised and hyper-connected world, drastic systemic change can occur faster than ever before.

All it takes is the first spark.

Debt & Obesity

The waistline bubble began to expand at just about the same time as the debt bubble:

First, it’s important emphasise that correlation is not causation — more than 99% of murderers have consumed water in the twenty four hour period preceding a murder. But it is clear that the effects of globalisation are at play in both cases (simply because globalisation has transformed the American economy) – far fewer Americans have to do physically demanding manufacturing work, and thanks to the mechanisation of agriculture and food production there are far more calories-per-American available to consume.

The interesting difference between debt and obesity is that while it is possible from historical evidence to construct a fairly coherent model linking excess outgrowth in debt with recession and depression — for example, I conjecture that a depression becomes inevitable when debt service cost growth consistently outpaces income growth  — there is no such historical evidence available for obesity, because there has never in known world history been an obesity epidemic of such proportion, so there is no way to know how the obesity bubble may burst.

To what extent do the healthcare overheads of an obesity epidemic act as a drag on economic growth? According to an estimate by the CDC, $147 billion.

How much of a drag on the real economy is supporting those who have dropped out of the labour force due to obesity-related illness like diabetes, fatigue, depression and cardiovascular illness?

Well, we know that in the years that obesity has been exploding, that the disabled proportion of the workforce has almost tripled:

That’s almost 9 million individuals receiving Federal disability — almost six million more than we would have if the number of those receiving Federal disability was proportionate to the numbers at the beginning of the Ford administration. And if each disabled worker was contributing the per-capita average of $46,546 to GDP, the US would be producing roughly $279 billion more output. Even if only half of the increase is associated with obesity (a very, very, very conservative estimate) that equates to around $140 billion of  lost output. That — especially when considered next to the healthcare costs — is a pretty big gap, and that does not even begin to consider that the obese workers not on disability tend to be associated with lowered productivity.

So to what extent has the debt acquisition been an attempt to paper over the cracks of an economy increasingly losing productivity due to obesity and obesity-related illness, and to what extent is obesity linked to the current American employment and growth weakness?

Well, we know that it is possible to blow up a huge debt bubble without a high level of obesity, because Japan has been mired in a debt-fuelled depression for the last twenty years without any associated obesity epidemic, and because the Great Depression was preceded by a huge outgrowth in debt, but no such outgrowth in obesity. And certainly, the United States lives with far greater burdens than the effects of obesity — for example, the quantifiable burden of invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan has been greater in the past decade than the quantifiable burden of growing national obesity. This is not to mention the effects of job migration, maintaining a global empire with bases in over 150 countries, and bailing out Wall Street banks. Debt has been a means to paper over the cracks of lost productivity and an American empire living far beyond the means of its productivity — but there is far more to that than just the outgrowth in obesity.

But obesity is causing a significant output loss, which by definition contributes to the wider problems.

Netanyahu’s Red Line

Netanyahu wants a red line on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East:

Where exactly should we draw it?

As Justin Raimondo notes:

Here is a nation which refuses to even admit it acquired nukes long ago, and which disdains the Nonproliferation Treaty, making the case for war against a neighbor that has indeed signed the NPT and is abiding by its requirements.

That treaty gives Tehran the right to develop nuclear power. Furthermore, there is zero evidence Iran is embarked on a nuclear weapons program: our own intelligence community tells us they gave that up in 2003 and show no signs of resuming it. Their own religious and political leaders have denounced the possession of nuclear weapons as sinful: the Israelis, on the other hand, haven’t bothered reassuring us they would never use the nuke they won’t admit they have.

In a rational world, Israel would be in the dock, answering for its unwillingness to come out of the nuclear closet and admit what the whole world knows by now.

The West has sent out a message that the only way for unpopular regimes to avoid invasion is to obtain nuclear weapons. North Korea sought and obtained nuclear weapons and their vicious and economically-failed regime has stayed in power. Qaddafi gave up his nuclear ambitions, and was soon deposed by British, French and American airpower. If Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon — and the CIA and Mossad, as well as the IAEA agree they that they are not currently doing so — perhaps the fact that nuclear-armed Israel and the nuclear-armed United States keep threatening non-nuclear Iran with attack has something to do with it?

And even assuming that they are going for a nuclear weapon, how close is Iran to a nuclear weapon? According to former IAEA consultant Clinton Bastin, possibly as much as ten to fifteen years away:

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu:

Iran may be in your red zone, but can not score.

Sure, Iran could divert a few tons of 3.5% or a ton of 20% enriched uranium hexaflouride gas for enrichment to 90+%. But what then?

No one has ever made a nuclear weapon from gas. It must be converted to metal and fabricated into components which are then assembled with high explosives.

Iran lacks experience with and facilities for these processes which are very dangerous because of potential for a criticality accident or nuclear explosion. Iran would not jeopardize its important, fully safeguarded nuclear programs by an attempt to have a deliverable, one kiloton yield nuclear weapon ten to fifteen years later.

IMPORTANT NOTE: North Korea was able to make and test a nuclear explosive soon after withdrawing from safeguards because plutonium for reactor recycle was in a form usable for a weapon.

So let’s be clear about who is threatening who:

How would Americans feel if Iran had stationed troops and aircraft on the Mexican and Canadian borders and conducted military excursions into American territory, including funding and training armed dissidents to overthrow the American government (as happened to Iran in 1953 when America overthrew a democratically-elected Iranian government and imposed a dictatorship there)? How would Americans feel if Iran, Russia and China were blowing up American scientists and using computer viruses to attack American infrastructure? How would Americans feel if Iran, Russia and China imposed sanctions on America that led to hyperinflation of the dollar?  Under those circumstances, would America not seek the means to defend itself?

Iran is not blameless, and continues to provoke Israel through its support for Hamas and Hezbollah and through eliminationist rhetoric. But given the level of provocation from the Israeli and American side, it is astonishing that Iran remains free of nuclear weapons. Yet it is a fact that Iran is not armed with nuclear weapons, and it remains a fact that Iran has not attacked nor occupied any foreign lands since World War 2. Iran is not an expansionistic country.

As neocon provocateur Patrick Clawson essentially admitted in advocating for a false flag attack to get America to war, Iran is not likely to attack either the United States or Israel. So when it comes to drawing red lines, we in the West would do well to draw a red line around our behaviour — because right now, we in the West are the ones who are stirring up trouble by threatening to strike first.

One Simple Rule To Stop Unnecessary Wars

I’m sick of war.

Officially the cost of the war on terror has been $1.3 trillion. And military spending — especially the interest on debt to pay for past wars — keeps growing year on year:

As General Eisenhower noted:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

The cost in life was been ever steeper; over a million Iraqis died.

But it’s more than cost; this a problem of responsibility. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney live a comfortable life of wealth and leisure, four years after leaving office having started two destructive, costly and ineffective wars of choice. They didn’t fight. None of their children fought. But lots of American and British soldiers and innocent Arabs got their limbs and heads blown off.

Of course, military deterrence — and sometimes military action — is necessary.

As Eisenhower noted:

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.

The trouble is that war is a great excuse for weapons contractors to make lots of money, and weapons contractors happily fund war-mongering politicians into power. That’s the self-perpetuating military industrial complex.

So the problem then lies in differentiating the necessary actions from the unnecessary.

I propose a simple heuristic for this purpose, one that if introduced would also render the war-mongering politician — the Congressman who votes to authorise, or the President who signs the authorisation into law — personally responsible:

If you start a war, you have to fight. If you cannot fight, then your nearest fit relative has to fight.

This puts the skin back into the game. You want to risk blood and treasure to start a war? If it’s that important, you’ll put your body and blood on the line before you ask any soldier to fight, or any taxpayer to pay. If not, then it must not be necessary.

Would George W. Bush have started the Iraq war had he known his two daughters would be conscripted, and shipped off to Iraq to find Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction?

I doubt it.

Should the Rich Pay More Taxes?

It’s a multi-dimensional question.

The left says yes — income inequality has soared in recent years, and the way to address it (supposedly) is to tax the rich and capital gains at a higher rate. The right says no — that the rich already create more jobs and wealth, because they spend more money, and why (supposedly) should they pay more tax when they already pay far higher figures than lower-income workers?

Paul Krugman made the point yesterday that the tax rate on the top earners during the post-war boom was 91%, seeming to infer that a return to such rates would be good for the economy.

Yet if we want to raise more revenue, historically it doesn’t really seem to matter what the top tax rate is:

Federal revenues have hovered close to 20% of GDP whatever the tax rate on the richest few.

This seems to be because of what is known as the Laffer-Khaldun effect: the higher rates go, the more incentive for tax avoidance and tax evasion.

And while income inequality has risen in recent years, the top-earners share of tax revenue has risen in step:

So the richest 1% are already contributing around 40% of the tax revenue, taxed on their 34% share of the national income. And even if the Treasury collected every cent the top 1% earned, America would still be running huge deficits.

Yet the Occupy movement are still angry. A large majority of Americans believe the richest should pay more tax. More and more wealthy Americans — starting with Warren Buffett, and most recently Stephen King are demanding to pay more taxes.

King writes:

At a rally in Florida (to support collective bargaining and to express the socialist view that firing teachers with experience was sort of a bad idea), I pointed out that I was paying taxes of roughly 28 percent on my income. My question was, “How come I’m not paying 50?”

How come? Well, the data shows pretty clearly that it’s unlikely that revenues would increase.

They may have a fair point that capital gains above a certain threshold should probably be taxed at the same rate as income, because it is effectively the same thing. And why should government policy encourage investment above labour by taxing one more leniently?

But more simply, people like King think the status quo  is unjust far beyond the taxation structure. A lot of people are unemployed:

A lot of people are earning less than they were five years ago:

28% of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages. Millions of graduates face a mountain of student debt, while stuck in dole queues or in a dead end job like Starbucks.

We live in dark times.

From Reuters:

Nearly 15 percent of people worldwide believe the world will end during their lifetime and 10 percent think the Mayan calendar could signify it will happen in 2012, according to a new poll.

With all this hurt, there’s a lot of anger in society. Those calling for taxing the richest more are not doing the same cost-benefit analysis I am doing that suggests that raising taxes won’t raise more revenue.

But they’re not unfairly looking for a scapegoat, either. While probably the greatest culprits for the problems of recent times are in government Americans are right to be mad at the rich.

Why?

This isn’t about tax. This is about jobs, and growth.

The rich, above and beyond any other group have the ability to ameliorate the economic malaise by spending and creating jobs, creating new products and new wealth. The top 1% control 42% of all financial wealth. But that money isn’t moving very much at all— the velocity of money is at historic lows. It should not be surprising that growth remains depressed and unemployment remains stubbornly high.

And every month that unemployment remains elevated is another month that the job creators are not doing their job. Every month that the malaise festers, the angrier the 99% gets.  It is, I think, in the best interests of the rich to try and create as many jobs and as much wealth as they can.  A divided and angry society, I think, will find it even more difficult to grow and produce.

America needs the richest Americans to pay more tax dollars — but as a side-effect of producing more, and creating growth.

If the private sector doesn’t spend its way out of the current depression, eventually the government will have to, of course. But it can do that with borrowed money, not taxed money.

Does Israel Seriously Believe Iran is a Threat?

From Zero Hedge:

Israeli political sources believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has majority Cabinet support for Israeli military action against Iran without American approval.

Really? Is second-strike-capable 200 megaton Israel really afraid of piddly little Iran? Do they not understand that Iran cannot lay a (nuclear) finger on them, for fear of sheer nuclear obliteration?

As I noted back in January:

Even Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad recognises that Iran is not an existential threat to Israel.

Upon leaving his post, Dagan publicly warned against Israel attacking Iran to stop it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

In his latest comments, he said that if Israel attacks Iran, it will find itself at the centre of a regional war that would endanger the state’s existence. Dagan’s intervention is dangerous for Netanyahu because it comes from the right wing of Israeli opinion rather than the left, where the prime minister would expect criticism.

Dagan has been in charge of aggressive Israeli actions abroad in recent years, that have included assassinations in Lebanon, Syria and Dubai and an air attack on a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria. He also criticised Israel’s failure to offer any initiative to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians .

The absence of any workable plan, he said, will leave Israel in a dangerous and weak situation.

This really echoes my thinking: the real threat to Israel, and America is not inaction on Iran, but excessive force. Iran poses little threat, but military intervention to effect regime change in Tehran runs the risk of huge and widespread blowback throughout the Muslim world: terrorism, guerrilla warfare, and deeper intergovernmental hostility, a breakdown of regional trade, and even a wider land war involving Eurasian nations who wish to protect Iran, including China and Russia.

For all the verbiage thrown at determining whether or not Iran is “rational”, and despite the obvious fact that there are many “rational” people like Meir Dagan in power in Israel, perhaps we should have looked more closely at the question of whether the Israeli cabinet is “rational” or not.

Does the possibility of creating a wider war not trouble them?  Did they not pay attention to the recent bellicose statements from other Eurasian states in support of Iran? Do they — unlike the Israeli public — honestly believe that a war with Iran can be won without regime change in Iran, and do they believe they have the time, the resources, and the manpower to achieve such a thing? Do they honestly believe that the United States under Obama will back-up an Israeli attack on Iran, should a larger power move to support Iran? Do they honestly believe that the rest of world will be happy to see oil prices spiking as a result of an Israeli attack? Do they honestly believe that Israeli public opinion will countenance more resources being spent on war, and less on health, housing and public services?

In light of all these problems, I find it hard to believe that Israel will hit Iran. I believe instead that Israel and America will continue their covert war against the Iranian regime and hope to foment an Arab Spring-style revolution in Iran.

But that is to assume that Netanyahu and his cabinet are rational. Maybe they want a big, dangerous and scary war that imperils the Jewish state?