Edge of Chaos is a political podcast starring Joe Ryan and Neurotoxin. Its aim is to have a free-flowing discussion of news and current events that also examines the empirical outcomes of public policy, avoiding biases based on ideology and policy intentions. Listener discretion is both advised and encouraged.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

In This Choice Election, Choose To Not Care About The Outcome

“I found a very liberating position for myself as an artist, and that was: I sort of gave up on the human race and gave up on the American Dream, culture and nation, and decided that I didn’t care about the outcome. I gave me a lot of freedom from a kind of distant platform to be sort of amused…to watch the whole thing with a combination of wonder and pity, and then try to put that into words.” --George Carlin on Charlie Rose, 1996

There are wise words above from a great man, a man who after a whole decades-long career spent becoming a household name decided that he was on the wrong track all along and changed course. He decided to not be a cheerleader anymore, and instead dedicated the remainder of his life and career to looking on amusedly at the “human experiment” from afar, and chronicled the human race’s slow circle down the drain so it could be repeated in his shows in an amusing manner. His ability to separate and disconnect is something I now envy.

This election will go down as a very significant point in history, I am sure. Mostly this is because it pits the two most hated candidates in modern history against each other in probably the single worst “choice” election we have seen as a nation. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are both loathed, derided and feared in extremely large numbers and yet, we will be forced to choose between these two (or choose some form of third option that’s either sitting at home or voting third party, both equally insignificant protest actions that still results in one of these two clowns winning anyway) on November 8th. But how did we get here? What can be done?

I will not use this space, or this article, to chronicle how we got here. I am not enough of an expert, or eloquent enough a writer to properly recite the various misdeeds, mistakes and flat-out dumbassery that happened along this road to hell we now find ourselves on as a nation. But what can be done? For me, it is simple: take a cue from Father George. Tune out. Drop out. Stop caring. Because as George once said, “It’s a Big Club, and you ain’t in it! You and I are not in The Big Club.”

This, of course, is a somewhat uncommon notion, and I would guess a somewhat unpopular one, especially in this Age of Outrage we’re now in. Everyone has their cause these days, and it seems more and more that people resort to petty yelling and screaming to emotionally push their particular cause along, whatever it is, even in the face of overwhelming factual evidence that they are merely tilting at windmills. No matter. They will be heard NOW, dammit, and you will bend to their will. From time to time I am sure I have been guilty of this myself. But whether it is the tacit (and many times not very tacit) racism and nationalist jingoism of the Trump ilk, the insane pseudo-scientific drivel peddled on the extreme left that wants us all worked into a frenzy about gluten and vaccinations, the crusaders that will not leave one bathroom unattended lest someone dressed in “the wrong clothes” sneaks in, and etc, etc, etc, it goes on and on and on. And I’m frankly just tired of trying to act like I understand or keep up with, or most importantly care about any of it. So I think I’m just going to stop being like everyone else, and try harder to be more like George.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a decision I am making lightly. Also don’t misunderstand: even George cared about those close to him, and never wished any of them harm. But aside from that, he simply ceased caring about humans as a group, and the grand “human experiment” in progress on this planet. Individuals he valued very highly, but humans in groups and particularly humans in groups with some sort of common cause were simply expendable to him. The simple truth is there is typically very little one can do in a macro sense to affect national or global trends and cultural shifts. Simply put, such changes are like runaway trains and the three choices a person has are get on the train, get out of the way, or step in front of it and get run over. I think I was a rider on the train, but I’m thinking more and more that I just want to jump off, and watch the inevitable train wreck from afar with an emotional detachment that frees me to find humour in the tragic times we see ourselves in today, with the ability to not take any of it too seriously.

Donald Trump did this to me. Hillary Clinton did this to me. Fox News did this to me, as did Breitbart, David Duke, the North Carolina bathroom warriors, the folks in Texas that need to suppress the vote at any cost and all the rest. If you want to act like you have a stake in these things, and invest in them, you’ll inevitably hit the brick wall of futility as the train rushes by. Sometimes the river cannot be forded, redirected, dammed up or contained. In the end Mother Nature does win. So maybe I should just float downstream from here, stop trying to be one of the schemers, one of the planners. Maybe I should just be one of the detached amused people, like George, and look on this all as a great deal of entertainment. When looked at through this prism, I can see where this election, and the absurd ones that are sure to follow, will live up to that expectation without any trouble. Here’s to enjoying the trip around the drain.

“I don't believe there's any problem in this country, no matter how tough it is, that Americans, when they roll up their sleeves, can't completely ignore.” --George Carlin

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Why I Might Vote for Hillary in November

With the results of Super Tuesday now fully in the record books, and the two main front runners of each party’s primary now firmly in the driver’s seat, both party establishments are now reckoning with what seems like a foregone conclusion: it will most likely be Donald Trump vs Hillary Clinton in November. This has caused much gnashing of teeth and a predictably irrational, apoplectic reaction as the Republican establishment pictures just what a Trump candidacy might mean to their rapidly fracturing party going forward and while that is an entertaining storyline, I want to focus on the Democratic party, and what Bernie’s now seemingly inevitable defeat will mean to the movement he’s led so far (and continues to lead at the moment).

Make no mistake, the candidacy of Senator Bernard Sanders has definitely exposed some deep fissures amongst those who call themselves Democrats. It has opened up and exposed a divide between Democrats under 40 and those over 40. It has opened up an even wider gulf between those supportive of the “corporate Democrat,” those in the mold of Obama, Hillary and old Bill himself, and those who have tired of the lip service paid to Progressive issues while embracing the corporate establishment, pushing them more towards people like Bernie or Elizabeth Warren. I count myself in the latter group, and I found it refreshing that Bernie could so effectively be our Ron Paul: the old guy who’s been around a while but managed to not be co-opted by a corporate special interests, the truth teller who didn’t mind getting booed at a debate so long as he was making a point he felt was right, and the populist who bucked against the system as-is, with the incremental changes that seem to be an inexorable part of American government. Simply put, people like us were tired of all talk and little action, while the middle class vanished and the rich continued going to the bank. Bernie gave us hope, but now he has seemingly fallen short, just as Ron Paul did before him.

So where does that leave us, the disaffected masses? Exit polling has already made clear the reason Hillary is winning: she’s captured the support of minorities, she’s captured the support of older people who show up to the polls in large numbers, and she’s captured the support of women. But mostly, she has not seen the sorts of large turnout numbers that Bernie has said all along were needed to upend the race and give him the nomination. For all the folks that show up to his rallies, they’re not showing up to the polls in equally large numbers. Bernie said it all along: turnout matters. So if you did turn out, and voted, but are now disappointed that your horse didn’t win because more supporters like you didn’t do the same, what are you to do? Stay home in November? No. You do what I’m planning to do in the event that Bernie cannot somehow win: you suck it up and vote against Donald Trump anyway.

Now: let me set the record straight for the uninitiated. Listen to my podcasts going back 18 months or so. I am no fan of Hillary as a candidate. She’s slimy as hell, she’s part of the same corporate oligarch class that was long ago bought and sold to the highest bidder, and I have no doubts that, if elected, she would, much like Obama before her, bow to her corporate masters in some way or another. But is my distaste for her enough for me to stand on the sidelines while a disaffected and uneducated horde of first-time voters propels a reality star “billionaire” charlatan into office? No. And if you give a shit about the future of this country, you won’t either.

Obviously this proposition I’m making is the nose holds of all nose holds. But sit back for a moment and imagine the sorts of special interests that will have the ear of King Trump. Do you honestly think he’s not for sale as he claims? Isn’t this the same guy who has hawked everything on television from steaks, to Vodka, to cheap Mexican-made suits, to so-called “universities,” to mortgage companies (extra points: he opened the mortgage company in 2006, just in time for the housing market to implode)? Isn’t this the “builder” that has, multiple times, been sued for attaching his name (licensed for a tidy fee by the actual builder) to buildings that were later never built, most notably in Mexico and Tampa? Do you honestly think he wouldn’t do something like continue the Koch brother funded war against solar power in Nevada and Florida, continue to allow the coal industry and the fossil fuel industry pretend we can still burn everything in site without consequence? Do you honestly think Trump desires to lessen the overall influence of corporate power over government in this country? Do you honestly think he will appoint as many as 3 reasonable, sound jurists to fill present and future vacancies on the Supreme Court? The list of questions goes on and on. I’m no fan of Hillary specifically. But if Trump is the alternative, doesn’t the choice become clear?

Hillary is part of the slimy Clinton political machine. Why was there such a dearth of other Democratic candidates? Why were there so few debates, and why were they put on Saturday nights when no one was watching? Why does every tie along the way in this primary process always seem to go to Hillary? It is quite obvious to those with clear vision that the Democratic Party establishment and the powers that be have been in the tank for Hillary since the beginning of this process, and that she will bring every dirty trick to bear to win. It’s also clear she has a trustworthiness problem amongst the electorate, underscored by the ongoing and damaging email scandal that even this week produced a key witness that now has immunity to speak at length about what went on. Where this goes is anyone’s guess. It may go nowhere.

But assuming we get in November what it seems like we will get today, it means a choice between Trump (or whoever ends up being brokered in) and Hillary. The sooner we address this reality the better we will be able to deal with it when it comes time to. This election is lost already, if the aim was to get someone different, someone not in the mold of corrupt and incestuous politics-as-usual who was also not ragingly unreasonable or insane. That ship has sailed. So in the light of day, do you trust Cruz, or Rubio, or Trump with 3 Supreme Court appointments? With addressing the ever-obvious danger of global climate change? With not starting World War 3 in what has become a perilous foreign political landscape? I cannot say I trust Hillary 100% with these issues, but I trust any of the Republican candidates 0%. So my choice, given the options, is clear.

So, Hillary supporters, you get what you wanted. In the end I will, indeed, shut the hell up (not completely, who am I kidding?) and vote for Hillary. I will not do it quietly, and I will not for one second let up on my criticisms of her along the way, up to and after the day that she is elected into office, assuming that she is. And I will work to change the electoral landscape along with other disaffected Bernie voters to ensure we are never, ever presented with such poor and horrible choices again. It is the least we can do to prevent World War 3 abroad, and Mad Max at home.

But I will still hold my nose the whole time I’m in the voting booth this November. It is my right as an American.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Free Speech: A Much Needed Refresher Course

The recent shooting incident at a “draw the prophet Mohammed” event in Garland, Texas has, once again, started a vehement and contentious debate about the nature of “freedom of speech” in America today and quite frankly it pisses me the hell off. “What, you don’t like freedom of speech debates?” you may ask. And my answer? No. Why? Because time and time again, when these debates have an occasion to come up, America displays over and over that a majority of its citizens slept through Civics class in school and have no idea what the First Amendment is and what it actually means in practice.

Let’s start with the most basic tenet of the First Amendment. There is NO SUCH THING as absolute freedom of speech rights for citizens of the United States of America. Let me repeat: no US citizen has an absolute right to freedom of speech in America. Don’t believe me? What about this whole list of things you can’t say under the law? What about obscenity? Sedition? Threats or incitements of violence? Defamation, including things like libel and slander? Yes, there’s a whole boatload of things you can’t say in America, things that, if said, carry legal consequences with government-imposed sanctions involved, up to and including jail time.

Which leads me to our next civics lesson: FREE SPEECH RIGHTS ARE ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT. PERIOD. The first amendment was crafted for the express purpose of limiting the power of the federal government to enforce its will on the citizenry. That’s all. If some radio jackass says something stupid, homophobic, racist or anti-Semitic, it is NOT a violation of the first amendment if that person is fired from his job due to protests and pressure on advertisers that cause the host’s employer to decide their host’s job isn’t worth the bad press. Sure, he can say what he wants, within the limits of the exceptions to free speech I posted above, but it’s not like he’s immune to any sort of negative reaction to his words, especially since a radio host is really only there to sell advertising space for his employer, not turn sponsors away by alienating the listening audience. Radio, television, and even internet media are a business, not an arm of the government. As private enterprises, it is their prerogative who appears on their air and who does not. And firing someone like Don Imus, for example, because he said something ignorant and seemingly racist, is not an infringement on his first amendment rights, unless you somehow think silencing protests against media figures is somehow NOT a violation of first amendment rights at the same time. Simply put, unless government goons shut a radio or television show down because it was critical of the government (take a look at Soviet Russia or any of the South/Central American dictatorships for examples of this), there’s no first amendment issue in play. Period.

So let’s check your new knowledge with a little quiz that put the facts I just presented into practice, shall we? Let’s say someone makes an art exhibit of the Virgin Mary that is partially made of elephant dung? Is this display, in and of itself, protected from government reprisal by free speech rights or not?

Take a minute if you need to.

Done thinking?

Ok so: is the painting itself protected free speech or not? Yes, it is. And the exhibition was indeed allowed to go on, but only after the museum director filed suit in federal court against Mayor Giuliani for a First Amendment violation. The system works.

So, is drawing the prophet Mohammed in a magazine, or having an art exhibition where drawings of him are shown, protected free speech under the law also? You can clearly see that it is, right? And indeed, no government agency or person tried to shut either of these things down.

But two psychos with guns did show up at the exhibition in Garland, didn’t they? You can see, I hope, based on what we just discussed that the mere fact such psychos exist in the country is not an infringement of the First Amendment, right? And it seems fitting that the First Amendment was quite literally applied with lethal force in this case, as an off duty cop working as a security guard shot both would-be attackers dead in their tracks, right? There’s the difference: free speech that simply offends someone’s religious morality: allowed. “Free speech” practiced by idiots pointing guns at people and demanding they shut the shit down? Punishable by death if you’re dumb enough to try it in Texas.

Let’s go on from there. People expressing discomfort and supposing that maybe a Mohammed exhibit was just asking for trouble? That’s not a First Amendment issue either: they’re allowed to victim blame all they like, as long as they don’t end up somehow getting the government to shut down the next exhibition. Oh, and if these same folks stand outside the next exhibition with protest signs? Well that’s THEIR First Amendment rights in action, see?

Here’s the takeaway: anyone can be as racist, as anti-gay, anti-Jewish, anti-Mexican and anti-Islamic as they like. Just take one look at Fox News’ continuing existence for proof of this (I know…rimshot). As long as that person is not arrested the moment their racism, homophobia, or anti-whateverism is made known and persecuted for their beliefs, there is no violation of the First Amendment if it’s suggested that maybe the bigot in question is an idiot with stupid opinions. That’s what the First Amendment is: the right to say stupid shit and to piss off other people with the stupid shit you say. This country needs to spend a lot less time pontificating out loud about who has First Amendment rights and who doesn’t, at least until they crack open a book or two, learn a few things, and demonstrate outwardly that they understand what the wording of the Bill of Rights really means in practice. But then, my saying that doesn’t mean it will happen under penalty of law, and that’s just the way the founders and framers wanted it.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How To Stop Enabling Terrorism

I'm sick to death of the entire world being held hostage by a tiny minority of violent sociopaths that has, in recent years, become adept at manipulating governments to restrict civil liberties and throw due process to the wolves, often to the fervent cheers of the latter's own constituents. Don't let fancy modern terms like "terrorist" fool you; there have always been people with a propensity for acts of mass violence. Present policy to prevent said acts, however, driven largely by fascination with motives, continuously empowers such people politically, and encourages more of them to act on their urges. This policy is, by far, the most egregious incompetence committed by the modern State, and will arguably be its undoing. It's called "terrorism" because it's meant to induce mass hysteria and irrational collective behavior; and how anyone can look at government responses to 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, or Charlie Hebdo, and not realize the terrorists are thinking "mission accomplished" is beyond me. Hence, I give you 10 policy suggestions to effectively reduce and deter acts of mass violence rather than enable them.


Violent perpetrators love to claim fancy motivations - religion for the Tsarnaevs and Kouachis, nationalism for Breivik, anti-government sentiment for Loughner, Brinsley, and Frein. Others, like Holmes, Lanza, and Rodger, so clearly present psychotic symptoms that the behavior gets popularly attributed to their psychiatric diagnoses. But let's face it, the overwhelming majority of people who hold the views in question, even on very radical levels, are not out committing acts of mass violence; and neither are most people with psychiatric diagnoses, even those who are very ill. So clearly, something else is leading to the behavior. What just about all perpetrators studied have in common are anti-social personality traits, or profound lack of empathy for fellow humans; but there are millions of people with these traits who don't commit mass-murder. The bottom line is, while the desire to understand the motivations of mass-murderers is understandable, we do not yet have adequate information to profile and identify potential culprits before they strike - although we do know they love attention for themselves and whatever cause they claim to represent, and tend to idolize each other. Fabricating this knowledge so we can FEEL secure perpetuates the problem. Policies that stigmatize religious and political beliefs, or mental health diagnoses, not only unfairly discriminate millions of innocent people, but also give the violent criminals exactly what they want - sympathy for their motive, even if sympathizers disagree with their methods. The undeserved pedestal then encourages others prone to sociopathic behavior to replicate it, with the excuse of political martyrdom. Ignoring perpetrators' claims to fame and insistently marginalizing them as morally reprehensible, violent criminals would effectively isolate them in society, and likely reduce the number of potential perpetrators who act on their urges.


I often equate the perpetrators of the crimes in question to harmful household pests, to illustrate my lack of moral opposition to hunting them down, and violently disposing of them if they present difficulty in being brought to justice - be it by holding hostages or hiding out in a remote desert. However, following the metaphor, government methodology in disposing of these individuals often resembles swinging an aluminum bat in one's own kitchen. When government turns counties into concentration camps (Boston, Paris), levels whole communities using munitions banned by the Geneva Convention (cluster bomb drone-strikes in Yemen), or occupies countries on unfounded suspicion of affiliation (Afghanistan, Iraq) - it creates fame, fodder, and sympathy for the perpetrators and resentment for itself. On the other hand, the actual killing of Bin Laden and the Kouachis, and the capture of Tsarnaev, demonstrates these blunt instruments are completely unnecessary, and that law enforcement and intelligence/covert agencies are perfectly capable of neutralizing the threats with minimal if any collateral damage. Using these modern methods - which cost a fraction of those intended for the government vs government conflicts of the 20th century - would also serve to isolate the criminals in society, sending the message to potential copy-cats that they will be quickly and unceremoniously disposed of, rather than become monster-celebrities with a significant impact on human history.


While mass violence is never excusable and 2 wrongs don't make a right, it would further serve to isolate the criminals to remember that their victims were often engaged in morally reprehensible behavior themselves. Charlie Hebdo, for example, is a disgusting hate speech rag, and being targeted by violent criminals didn't make it less of one. It's perfectly reasonable to express sympathy for victims of violence even if their own behavior was despicable, but public and political response in the aftermath often crosses the line by praising said behavior as heroic and imitating it. Another example was the attempt by law enforcement brutality apologists to spin Brinsley's murder of 2 NYPD officers as an example of police heroism. Needless to say, there are people rightfully offended by these victims' behavior and political positions, and temporarily deifying them drives such people to sympathize w/ the criminals and feel marginalized, when the objective should be to marginalize the criminals by including such sentiments in the reaction.


While this is more of a European problem than a US one, there is no easier way to breed hate and resentment of all of society than w/ limits on free expression. Most EU member nations have legal exceptions to free speech, particularly speech that can be deemed anti-semitic or as Nazi apologism, for obvious historic reasons. In practice, this puts anyone criticizing anything remotely Jewish - such as the highly deserving Israeli government, or saying anything remotely nationalist, in danger of legal penalties; while Arabs and Muslims who often criticize Jerusalem can be caricatured and publicly belittled ad infinitum. The problem w/ exceptions to free expression is that they're invariably arbitrary and subjective, leaving what's acceptable to the discretion of the State, which ultimately undermines criticism of itself and equality before the law for its detractors. Living up to the principle of freedom of expression that Western governments often claim to protect against foreign terrorists might actually contribute to breeding fewer domestic ones.


One fearmongering tactic often used by apologists for militarized response to violent crime is to point out that many criminals are driven by religious extremism to suicide attacks - an attribution that's flat out inaccurate. Suicide attacks are an inconveniently common strategy in human conflict. The Kamikaze pilots of Imperial Japan certainly were not Fundamentalist Muslims, and interestingly - neither were the first suicide attackers in the modern Middle Eastern conflict. Militant Islamic Fundamentalism didn't come around until the 1970s, and the insurgents that battled Israel for the preceding 30 years were Arab Nationalists. They began to resort to suicide bombings when Israel adopted gun laws that made it impossible to walk 2 blocks in that country w/ out encountering someone open-carrying a loaded rifle; and anyone using anything other than instant explosives would be gunned down before doing any significant amount of damage. This policy also reduced overall violent crime in Israel to near 0 - surprising only gun control activists in the US. Every criminal that engages in mass-violence is arguably suicidal, as they know they will at best live out their lives in prison isolation. They commit the crime seeking monster-fame and political recognition, and the prevalence of armed civilians likely to put them out of their misery before they do enough damage to get on the news hence makes an effective deterrent. Some would still try, but the overall incidence would be reduced, leaving only those as brilliant and meticulous as Holmes remotely successful.


While it's counter-intuitive, closed borders are actually a foreign terrorist's winter dream. While in theory these are supposed to screen out security threats, in practice they are hopeless bureaucracies laden with contractor corruption that mostly serve to inconvenience citizens, and as outlets for bigoted attitudes toward foreigners. The idea that these paper pushers will actually keep out anyone entering w/ the intent of mass violence is not supported by anything in observable reality - I remind you that every 9/11 high-jacker entered the US legally, that the Tsarnaevs traveled back to Chechnya twice, and that the Kouachis re-entered France using their passports after fighting for Al Qaeda in Iraq. The system is NOT working, but it is an insatiable resource toilet that allows dangerous criminals to get lost in the overwhelming pool of people being screened, and contributes to political resentment. Doing away with it and committing some of the resources to intelligence services focused solely on violent foreign criminals ought to be far more effective.


The welfare state in its existing iteration, particularly in relation to immigrants and refugees, is another policy gift to violent extremists. Motivated by bureaucratic convenience, refugees and immigrants are commonly placed in crowded, isolated subsidized housing surrounded by fellow expatriates that look like them and speak their language. In Europe, they are then given handouts indefinitely that they must remain where placed to receive, whereas in the US they are typically settled in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods and left to fend for themselves within a few months. Bureaucrats and politicians are then surprised that the groups in question don't effectively assimilate, attract discriminatory attitudes from neighbors, grow dependent on handouts, and in some cases have children that grow up violent, mass-murdering sociopaths. I'm a social worker, and I can tell you that any time social welfare is administered centrally by standard-setting bureaucrats w/ 0 understanding of the situation they're dealing with; the level of incompetence will resemble this scenario, w/ outcomes to match. Social welfare has to be administered to the community by the community before it has any hope of doing more good than harm.


I have discussed discrimination and economic inequality as significant contributors to breeding the violent crimes in question in several blurbs, and the handouts given to corporate entities on both continents, as well as regulations that insulate them from competition under the guise of consumer protection, are a primary culprit in both. White hood wearing, swastika-waving idiots parading down the street really aren't causing anyone any harm; what perpetuates economic inequality between races and ethnicity are the discriminatory attitudes of landlords, loan officers, employers, and other gatekeepers who administer economic opportunities. In 50 years of laws against these practices in the US, and longer in many European countries, the disparity in question has hardly budged - because the attitudes in question are so ingrained and subconscious, those acting on them are often not even aware they're doing so. An alternative method to combat bigotry is to force whoever is engaging in it to carry the economic costs of doing so. Small businesses are, overall, far less discriminatory in hiring and client treatment practices simply because they cannot afford the inefficiencies of the subconscious standards in question; whereas large corporations simply add these to an already existing, long list of counter-productive standards, the costs of which they pass on to taxpayers in the form of corporate subsidies and which regulations prevent small businesses from taking competitive advantages of. Even in the unusual event that they get caught - such as Wells Fargo paying $2B in fines for discriminatory lending practices in 2013 - the enforcement of the laws provides little incentive for actual change. There is no reasonable excuse for this, and doing away with it would have a myriad of economic benefits, including less incentive for desperate violent crime.


As I mentioned in the opening statement, the purpose of these kinds of crimes is to create hysteria that leads to self-destructive, irrational policies; and nothing is more conducive to such an equation than unilateral decision-making fueled by populist passions, as well as by personal ire as chief executives are the direct bosses of law enforcement and feel the tragedy happened on "their watch". The primary rationale for division of power and Constitutional limitations on both majority rule and unilateral executive authority is to keep hysterical mob reactions from turning into public policy; and yet in the last decade and a half, legislation aimed at curbing crimes that produce such reactions has eroded the limitations meant to keep them in check. The result is more than just a waste of resources in border control and erosion of civil liberties and due process through militarized responses and regulations of expression, and even more than the collective insanity that breaks out every time yet another act of mass-violence illustrates the futility of those so-called "preventive" measures. Resource waste and inequality before the law always disproportionately effect the poor and marginalized minorities, because these groups are already at risk and don't have the resources to defend themselves when they fall victim to the blunt practices in question. And as I have discussed blurb after blurb, these are crucial elements in breeding sociopathic behavior.


Friday, February 13, 2015

What Brian Williams' Downfall Means to American Media Today

"Boy, that escalated quickly.  I mean that really got out of hand fast!" - Ron Burgundy in Anchorman

By now most of you have heard at least part of this story: Brian Williams, long tenured host of NBC Nightly News, the lurking zombie version of the newscasts of Cronkite and Murrow long ago, has been suspended for six months without pay for embellishing a story about being shot down in Iraq during the 2003 invasion.  I repeat this only for context, and I apologize.  To be blunt this story has been covered to death, and to put it gently it's mildly annoying at this point.  And today, when fresh allegations surfaced that Williams, once again, was caught in a braggadocious lie told to David Letterman during an appearance on his show, I had to roll my eyes one more time and finally put virtual pen to paper to comment on the whole mess.

First off let me repeat what many of you, the ones who pay closer attention than most, have likely already said: how is this news?  How is the revelation that a man whose job it is to prop up a dead method to deliver nightly current news, as if such programs are still appointment viewing in this country for anyone under the age of 65, is at best an "embellisher" and at worst a wanton liar surprising in the least?  Have the other navel gazing members of the media in this country, the ones breathlessly expressing shock and dismay at a man seemingly torpedoing his credibility whilst giving repeated verbal affirmations that their own is nothing short of righteous and true by comparison, simply forgotten what we in the real world see when we see them?  Or are they just that ignorant of the true nature of their business, and their own place in the sideshow?

The fact that "mainstream news," and by that I mean the main news divisions of NBC, ABC and CBS, and let's say CNN also, is now expected to be a driver of ratings and accordingly changed into a reliable source of exaggeration, embellishment, fear and Chicken Little levels of irrational paranoia is old hat, and old news.  While "news people" tell me they, and only they, are the one and only source of the 100% true news in the world, it's a lie we're all trained to see as a lie.  So why is taking that idea one step further, that this guy truly "lives" his lies in a slightly more public way, such a shocking thing to these dolts?  Why is Wolf Blitzer, he of the "so poor, so black," and other simple-minded gaffes, beating down my door to tell me how outrageous it is that Williams bent the truth?  Why does CNN likely now have a team of producers tracking down everything Williams ever said looking for other fibs to report?  Why are people now piling on for him to be fired with a zeal that almost looks like it's rooted in abject fear for their own credibility?

Jon Stewart had his fun with this story of course, and an unexpected defense came from Bill O'Reilly during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and both of these are very explanatory in different ways.  Stewart's point is obvious: you're piling onto a man caught in a lie when the very war he lied about should never have happened in the first place?  A war that happened after one of the most disgusting examples of media war drumbeating not seen since the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars?  During which the outright lies and fabrications produced by the Bush administration were dutifully reported as cold, hard and inescapable facts?  You're kidding me, right?  We expected this from the propaganda machine that is Fox News, but I suppose no one should have been surprised when the other "mainstream" networks wanted in on the fun.

O'Reilly's defense of Williams was interesting, especially when he said the "adrenaline" of war reporting "can cause anchors to embellish."  Did he just say a tad more than he should have from an industry insider point of view?  Did he tacitly admit that in the flurry of battle, during a really "important" historical moment, facts tend to take a back seat to action and "adrenaline?"  Maybe it's just me but I always pictured these guys framing just the right shot for a stand-up to make it look as interesting and dangerous as possible, possibly even to the point of "staging" such a shot if it didn't exist naturally.  Maybe I'm just so jaded by coming up during the "reality TV era" that I just assume most of what I see is conditioned to elicit the highest level of response from me, whether it's anger, fear, outrage, excitement or all four, but I always assumed this was true.

So what exactly are we all talking about?  Like Jon Stewart asked, is this a moment of self-reflection when the media tries a bit harder to really give us the news and not just the most attention grabbing headlines?  Will facts become important over fluff once again?  Will anything substantially change, or are we just all pretending to be outraged until the story has run its course?  Because the jaded side of me thinks it's just the latter.  Next week we'll all pretend to be outraged about something else or some other scapegoat, I suppose.

And so it goes.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Bounce Boehner

When Democrats had their asses handed to them in 2014 even more resoundingly than I predicted they would, I pointed out that this was, among other things, a message to Republicans that they did not need to do anything differently until Democrats acknowledge their political agenda and strategy are hopelessly obsolete and out of touch with the American electorate, oust their leadership, and re-brand themselves as a different party. However, I also pointed out that as soon as Democrats did this, Republicans would need to make significant changes to their own agenda, strategy, and leadership - or they would find themselves where Democrats are today. Put more simply, neither party really has anything substantive to offer Americans in their current incarnations; but Republicans are winning because Democrats represent the despised and failing status quo policies, whereas Republicans have re-branded themselves as blocking these from being funded, extended, and enacted further.

Democrats ARE Re-branding, However

To my significant surprise, the Democratic Party seems to have caught on to these trends and observations. First the DNC ordered a review of why they lost the election. Sure, DNC Chair Schultz completely refused to acknowledge Americans' fundamental disagreement with the party's agenda, framing the review as an evaluation of strategy and message. But, for one, as I pointed out in numerous pre-election posts, the Democrats' strategic practices desperately need to evolve into the 21st century; so this is still a reasonable, albeit partial, reaction to the problem. More importantly, common sense suggests that high-ranking politicians and committee chairs don't often order audits of their own failures and poor work outcomes, unless they are under pressure to do so. I don't pretend to know what's going inside the Democrats' party committees, but my guess is that after THAT election - Schultz and other high-ranking members are at the top of everyone's shit list. This audit is in many ways her attempt to prevent the likely cleansing of party leadership, which I still think may happen, and new leadership will bring not only updated strategy, but also an updated policy agenda that actually appeals to voters. Secondly, on the legislative side of things, we saw an overwhelming majority of Democratic legislators in the House and Senate abandon Obama in the lame duck session and refuse to vote for his spending bill, instead following the firebrand, Progressive-appealing Elizabeth Warren.

Are Republicans Ready For That?

I unapologetically remind our conservative readers that it took the intransigent, self-indulgent Republican establishment no less than 4 years after a similar electoral rebuke in 2006 to oust detached party officers, re-evaluate strategy, and begin to renounce the disastrous legacy of George W. Bush. In those 4 years, continuing to follow their bitterly despised President, the GOP endured another well-deserved electoral beating in Congress in 2008 - with Americans voting for Democrats to oppose the status quo of endless war and the police state, rather than because Democrats offered substantive new policy. That populist protest vote gave us the Democratic triumvirate that passed Obamacare in 2010, and even despite this, the Republican about-face in 2010 largely came through popular revolt - from the endless Primary lynchings of establishment candidates in favor of Tea Parties like Mike Lee and Rand Paul, to the eventual disowning of Neocon Michael Steele as RNC chair. And looking at the brewing battle over the Speakership of the House, the arrogance of the Republican establishment continues to stand in the way of party evolution into the 21st century, even as Democrats look poised to overtake them in this regard.

Conservative Warrior? More Like Neocon Lackey

Several Congressional Republicans, including stalwart Iowa conservative Steve King - whom I once had a lot of respect for - have come out in support of keeping John Boehner as Speaker on the grounds that ousting him would prevent the Republican Party from using its newfound Congressional gains and control of the Senate to enact the policy changes it has been fighting for. This begs the question - what reason do we have to believe John Boehner will actually do that? The House Speaker who used the phrase "we will fight the President tooth-and-nail" in regards to the December spending bill ended up being the President's only ally in the battle that ensued. Boehner led his own conference to pass the disastrous legislation that would have invariably failed otherwise, as even the President's party's own leadership in the House opposed it.

Why behave in such a cowardly fashion? Why follow Barack Obama in a polarized political climate when your own party base openly hates him, in many cases personally and unreasonably? Why do this when the election just demonstrated that causing gridlock is not a threat to your party as things stand?

I don't claim to be able to read John Boehner's mind, but I as a professional I can only see 2 possible explanations. The first is that Boehner succumbed to pressure from certain elements within the Republican establishment, particularly corporate donors that depend on Federal government payments such as defense and security contractors, as well as Wall St that is notorious for playing both parties. Every shutdown and even every threat of one causes these cartels of malignant scum to lose gargantuan amounts of money, and while in my opinion they could not be strangled out of existence fast enough, perhaps John Boehner - who receives campaign contributions from them - doesn't quite share my disposition. The other theory is that Boehner is genuinely that out of touch with the political preferences of the American electorate, particularly the base of his own party. After all, this poll indicates a whopping 60% of the latter do not want him retained as Speaker. I actually lean slightly toward the latter theory, as it would explain Boehner's overall clumsiness and its contribution to the shutdowns and shaky work of the House during his tenure, although I wouldn't attribute those trends to JUST him by any stretch of the imagination. Whether its corruption or simple incompetence, however, if either is true - Boehner does not belong anywhere near that Speaker gavel.

Scandalous Steve 'Smoochy' Scalise

Then there is the Steve Scalise embarrassment. Personally - and I have made this argument MANY times in defense of both Ron and Rand Paul - I realize that a speaking engagement or other similar association does not indicate political affiliation with a group nor ideology. I've worked in this field for a long time, folks, and politicians have to constantly engage and negotiate with groups and organizations they disagree with or even find odious; because people in those groups vote and have money to give. That being said, the new Majority Whip's history of associating with White Nationalists was a colossal exercise in stupidity and incompetence, because every first year intern in any political office or campaign knows that White Nationalists are toxic, and that no amount of money nor support received from them will balance out the resulting PR catastrophe. Again, in Ron Paul's defense, his association with these groups is quite dated - they were less toxic in the 1980s. In his recent Presidential campaigns, he also fully acknowledged this association while virulently renouncing these groups' views. Scalise admissibly made this mistake when he was very young - 36 is toddler-hood for a political career. But he did do it in 2002 when the toxicity of the association was undeniable; and today, as a Representative pushing 50, his response to it coming back to bite him in the ass was to pretend he didn't realize he was speaking at a White Nationalist conference. REALLY Steve? Even giving Scalise the benefit of the doubt that he did not in fact share the conference's views; his handling of this incident in comedic resemblance to a scene from the film "Death to Smoochy" demonstrates he is a narcissistic and incompetent politician - qualities that were evident to anyone that watches Capitol Hill as closely as I do long before his appointment to Majority Whip.

And that brings the issue back to Boehner. Why appoint such an incompetent, scandalous clown to what is arguably the most crucial position in your party's leadership in terms of political agenda? For those who don't know, the "Whip" is called that because his job is to keep the caucus voting in line with party leadership. And why continue to defend him even as this dirty laundry is taken up by Democrats and aired out for the country to see? Not only is this another indicator of Boehner's incompetence, but it also speaks volumes to the establishment's desperation and reluctance to accept its inevitable replacement by Tea Party conservatives. Scalise's one claim to fame as a Representative has been to consistently talk like a Tea Party conservative but vote with the establishment, and my only theory on why he was appointed was as a last ditch effort to mend the growing divide between these 2 sides. Let's not forget the appointment was made hastily following the Tea Party's unapologetic firing of Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the June Primary, and previous Whip Kevin McCarthy stepping up to succeed him. Again, whether Boehner genuinely expected that insulting the Tea Party's intelligence in this fashion would succeed in appeasing them, or whether he simply figured he was finished in any case if it doesn't succeed - these are more indicators his days in the leadership must come to an end.

Conclusion: Boehner HAS To Go, For the GOP's Sake

Unusually, I won't finish my post with a prediction of whether Republicans will keep or oust John Boehner as Speaker of the House on Tuesday; largely because the equation involves too many complicated variables not easily accessible for public review.
However, I WILL make the prediction that should Republicans keep Boehner, Democrats in the next 2 years will surpass them in terms of being viewed as the party that opposes the rotting status quo, attract a slew of disgruntled voters, and temper Republican success in the 2016 election - though I still highly doubt a Democrat could win the White House.

With the exception of some genuine Tea Party types, Republicans are NOT popular. What persistently keeps them in office is a variety of fringe elements, including libertarians and disgruntled independents, reluctantly turning out for them to keep the Democrats' from enacting more of their disastrous central planning agenda; while Progressives' disillusionment with the same agenda keeps them that demographic home. An agenda and strategy update in the Democratic Party that falls more closely in line with Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders than with Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton would not only revitalize the Progressive base for Democrats; but would make the fringe elements again consider both parties. Libertarians and independents have a love-hate relationship with the likes of Elizabeth Warren - I know I do. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that we prefer a Democratic Party that follows Elizabeth Warren to a Republican Party that follows Barack Obama, which is what John Boehner has demonstrated he will do. And really, any self-respecting Republican should share that outlook.

It's that simple, Republicans. Bounce Boehner, or be bounced as the party of the 21st century by your allies.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Eric Garner, Michael Brown and The Rest: "The Divide" In Action

With the rulings in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, and the protests that have followed, it seems like a natural time to open a discussion on police tactics and race, but I want to approach it from an angle that looks at the vast differences in how certain demographics deal with police, but most importantly how the police deal with them.

What gets lost in incidents like Ferguson, like Eric Garner and etc, is the difference between being white and middle class and being black and poor when it comes to interactions with law enforcement. And sometimes the black part is enough to make a huge difference, even when the person in question isn’t poor. Don’t believe me? Let Bunk from The Wire (otherwise known as actor Wendell Pierce) tell you a thing or two about this disparity.  Most whites simply do not live in the world he describes, and the divide is significant.

This flies over the heads of many whites from middle class backgrounds, and I include myself in this list (once upon a time anyway).  Whites are used to Officer Friendly who says things to them like “How are you today, sir?” and “Can I be of any assistance?” whereas the average black urban youth from the “rough side” of town has probably been asked where they're coming from, where they're going, why they're at a particular building and the like more times than they can count. Officer Friendly and Officer Inner City tend to dress differently also. Typically you aren’t arrested for the crime of standing in front of your own house after a long shift at work in a predominantly white suburb, but that totally happens in the inner city.  It's no wonder that the mantra is often "don't talk to cops" in the inner cities, with trust being at all-time lows on both sides for decades and decades now in many places.  How can you expect any cop and any average resident in one of these areas to have anything but a testy exchange with one another when they meet on the streets for some reason?  This doesn't happen only because the suspect is hiding something or resisting arrest.  Sometimes it happens because the person knows a particular cop is always busting heads in his neighborhood, whether the busted heads were actually guilty of something or not.  If you're white and middle class or above, have you ever had an interaction with a cop at a routine traffic stop like Wendell describes above?

It is for this reason that whites from middle class backgrounds who haven’t had to grow up fearing police cannot comprehend why someone might be combative, defiant, agitated, or somewhat resistant when a cop comes along and starts firing questions at them. They can’t understand why the person doesn’t just immediately comply with every order the cop gives, the nanosecond he gives it. Surely the cop just wants to sort out the truth, and surely he’s not just trying to bust heads and pad stats for the commissioner downtown or anything right? Just do what the cop says! And you won’t get killed! It’s warped logic that just doesn’t compute on inner city streets, and while I’m not exactly advocating a “fuck tha police” stance like NWA suggested some years back, I am asserting that these interactions that make news, like Eric Garner for example, are not nearly as clear cut as the media makes them out to be. And frequently middle class whites lack the context for these interactions gone wrong. The fault surely must be squarely on the guy that died for getting killed. In their view there simply is no other explanation. To suggest otherwise is severely contradicting everything they’ve been raised to believe about authority and police power.

"Why don't they just..." is usually a phrase that starts off a comment that makes me, the one who has a tendency to notice and has researched cases of police abuse in the news, just cringe inside from the sheer ignorance I am about to absorb.  Probably the most disturbing part of this is the assumption that at any time, and for whatever reason a cop deems appropriate regardless of law or departmental policy, someone can be summarily executed on the streets without trial or representation.  I suppose this complacency is akin to how most Americans are OK with us using drones to execute people, including American citizens, in faraway countries without trial and most times without solid evidence aside from flimsy-sounding "intelligence" that indicated the person may be an "imminent threat."  That idea, of you being the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, being seen with the wrong people, or stepping out of line in any way or even so much as seeming like you're anything less than Joe Good Citizen and thus deserving of execution meted out by police on the streets, is probably the most destructive thing about how American society functions today.  Let me be clear: if someone goes for a cop's gun, if someone places a cop under an actual imminent threat of death, the cop has a right to defend themselves.  But having said that, the definition of what is and is not an imminent threat on a cop's life has certainly broadened in the last decade or so, and to my eyes it seems like the policy now is "shoot now, ask questions later."  Ask yourself, can a cop determine within only a few seconds of arriving on scene that a 12 year old child is a threat to his own safety, even though he is twice the kid's size?  Even if he has a partner with him?  Judge for yourself.  What if I also told you this cop didn't exactly have the best judgment in the world?  What do you think now?

Tamir Rice "shouldn't have been pointing his fake gun everywhere."  I challenge you to tell me how many kids you think have ever wandered aimlessly around a city park during a boring day pointing fake guns at stuff and making believe they're some badass.  And I've heard people tell me it's a black thug thing, too.  Hell, I did these things as a 12 year old before, and I'm as white as you can get without going albino.  Should I have been rolled up on and shot within seconds by a "distracted," "weepy" cop who "couldn't communicate clear thoughts?"  Is someone's interpretation of a child pointing a fake gun at inanimate objects as some sort of thug pantomime enough to warrant that child's life being snuffed out on the spot?  Really?  Seriously?  Please help me to understand, America.  Do black lives matter?  Hard to say they do right now.

Michael Brown at least had a thug element to it, with the cigar theft and some of the witness testimony.  It was handled poorly, but a portion of blame does rest with him, I have to admit.  But I believe the cop got off with one there too, and he's lucky for that.  And thankfully he's forcibly retired from the streets now, so unless he goes Zimmerman on someone we should be safe from his trigger happiness from here on.  But what about the cops who killed these guys?  Or these?  Read the stories.  Did those people (some of them children) all deserve to die for what they did?  Did Eric Garner really deserve this for essentially dodging stupid state tax laws?  Did Luis Rodriguez really deserve to be beaten to death because his wife slapped his daughter in a moment of anger?  Or have we maybe become just a tad too OK with cops going from talking to someone to killing them within seconds as if there was no other choice?  Are we going to have a talk about police practices in this country that truly gets at the heart of the matter or will this be like Sandy Hook starting an entire nationwide pissing match over guns and numbers of rounds in clips while the whole discussion of how we ignore mental health care in this country sits around undiscussed?  Meaning that in the end nothing changes, and we go on with business as usual?

We imprison way too many people.  But we're also killing too many people, and at some point the police actually need to be held to the higher standard they supposedly uphold.  It's a nice platitude, but in practice it always seems to fall on the dead guy to do all he can to not be killed, not on the cop who pulls the trigger or wields the club.  Time was you only shot someone when you had no choice.  Now according to the masses you can cross some arbitrary line of etiquette and lose your own right to live.  But I am taking a stand now and saying no, and I think alongside the demands for body cameras, we ought to start asking for cops to actually live up to the mantra to serve and protect, and demand independent accountability to make sure they are.  Far be it for me to say I have all the answers here, but we should at least have the conversation.  If not now, when?  How many more need to die?


Monday, November 24, 2014

Ferguson WILL Explode

I don't pretend to know which direction the grand jury will rule regarding Officer Darren Wilson, and I contend that anyone who claims to know is blowing smoke. I also don't pretend to know which way it should rule, as all Joe and I have advocated for here is an objective, impartial investigation that requires Wilson to demonstrate lethal force was justified - amid a belligerent clown choir of pundits from both sides of the issue insisting they know what happened based on a slew of mind-numbing generalizations and stereotypes. But what I can predict, with absolute certainty, is that the grand jury ruling will be followed by days if not weeks of extreme, violent unrest. And I put the odds at about 30% that said violent unrest will not be limited to Ferguson or even to Missouri, but will spread to a number of other cities nationwide. This situation stopped being about Michael Brown within a week of his death.


I've been saying for a couple of years now that the US is a political powder keg just waiting for the right spark. The primary reason for this is the stubbornly stalled economy which is not anywhere near recovering from the collapse of 2008, Obama and his braindead groupies regurgitating the same obsolete and non-representative measures notwithstanding. Lack of financial resources - as a result of unemployment or underemployment, cuts to social safety nets that they were dependent on, and lingering debt from half a decade ago - leaves people with a penchant for civil unrest. As I've discussed in multiple posts and shows, compliance with the law is a function of cost-benefit analysis. The political system frustrates most people in some way, but they comply because generally speaking, taking it on is not worth risking the lives they have. However, when they experience years of economic struggle and insecurity with little hope of regaining stability, the balance in said equation begins to shift; and taking the frustration directly out on the system becomes a palatable option for enough people to overwhelm its resources and threaten it. This effect is especially acute when it involves large proportions of young people struggling for employment; as it leaves them with a lot of spare time and energy to direct toward addressing their political and economic misery.

Then there are more demographic-specific factors. The urban poor have been hit from every angle with cutbacks to the resources they normally rely on - from affordable housing to SNAP to service jobs. The middle class may not have been driven into poverty; but swaths of educated, middle-income earners have been forced into a perpetual focus on immediate survival - something the poor are used to, but this demographic finds unacceptable and will rebel if it does not see a way to remedy. Veterans - of whom we now have many due to over a decade of war - have been marginalized by the horrendous incompetence of the VA and cuts to other public services they utilize. And a number of political minorities - from civil libertarians to evangelicals - have found their ideologies and lifestyles endangered by the ever-growing cancer of Federal overreach, from the NDAA to Obamacare.

Of course most of the demographics involved don't lay this out in such clear-cut terms. In fact, many of them blame each other, particularly the urban poor continuing to hope for government assistance and accusing the far right and libertarians of having sabotaged it, and many in the latter demographic as well as the middle class in general blaming the urban poor and occasionally immigrants for relying on handouts and being drains on the system. But while they remain somewhat divided, all of these elements have a common enemy in our disastrously corrupt and intransigent justice system; which with every passing year becomes more of an unapologetic for-profit industry for private prisons, correctional and law enforcement unions, and defense contractors who now make their money selling military equipment to law enforcement agencies. You want to see a poor, urban liberal, a libertarian, an evangelical, and a disabled veteran get along? Put a cop in full combat gear in front of them.

Why It Hasn't Happened Already

In the past year or so, we have seen at least two manifestations of mass civil disobedience in the US, each of which I thought had the potential to become the spark to light the powder keg. But both fell short.

The first surrounded the government shutdown in late 2013, which involved a slew of blatantly unconstitutional antics by the obscure National Park Police - ranging from attempting to keep veterans from visiting memorials on Veterans Day to ordering people to leave their privately owned homes and businesses that sit on Federal land. These antics were widely and unapologetically nullified. Embarrassing and hilarious images of people walking around in Federal parks despite the barricades circulated on social media, along with stories of residents and business owners daring the National Park Police to arrest them, and the disobedience culminated in a group of veterans and activists dumping 100s of barricades from DC area sites in front of the White House in protest.

The second, of course, was the Bundy Ranch, and there is little need to discuss the details of that incident as we have already done so ad nauseum.

What these incidents had in common with each other that is unlikely to happen in Ferguson is that the government backed off. And while there are status quo apologists that will burst blood vessels in their heads saying I'm wrong - it backed off in both cases because the people making the decisions realized they were outnumbered and overwhelmed, and did not have the resources to win a violent clash. In the case of the shutdown, said decisions were likely made at local command levels. Low-ranking officers who instructed their operatives to shut down Federal sites and evict residents may or may not have been following general guidance from DC, but what they invariably did not have in the bureaucratic chaos of a shutdown is orders on what to do about the widespread disobedience. Contrary to popular conjecture, most law enforcement officers are NOT wanton killers that will engage in violence against civilians at the drop of a hat, and their officers were additionally deterred by the PR threat of engaging in such actions against veterans. Hence, when people laughed and told the NPP where they could stick their shutdown and their barricades, the officers mostly stood around and looked stupid for lack of a better plan.

The Bundy Ranch was far more interesting in that it involved an actual armed standoff with a meticulously organized coalition that had clear objectives and leadership. It's difficult to know the precise size and scope of said coalition, but it obviously involved very diverse elements from libertarian and nationalist militias from all over the Southwest to high-ranking and wealthy officials and organizations within the Mormon Church. Said coalition demonstrated tremendous amounts of discipline and restraint, reportedly expelling several members that behaved in a trigger-happy, provocative fashion toward law enforcement. By the account of one EoC contributor, the two clowns that murdered two Las Vegas police officers several weeks later were present at one point; and were asked firmly to leave for trying to provoke a gunfight. It also helped, of course, that many of the Federal agents involved - from the even more obscure BLM - were from the same small, rural community; and also demonstrated commendable restraint and dedication to resolve the conflict peacefully. Hence, in both cases, the government side of the powder keg acknowledged just how powerful and diverse the opposition it was facing was, and chose to defuse the situation by backing down.

Ferguson Is Disastrously Underestimated

Compare this to Ferguson. I don't know particularly what to attribute this to, but the executive politicians making the decisions for how to deal with the Ferguson unrest - ranging from police chiefs to Governor Jay Nixon to Obama - appear to be engaged in a contest of who can make the dumbest one. Every time the government throws more law enforcement resources at the situation, it escalates further, with more violence and higher numbers of more diverse people on the streets. And yet the executives' response continues to become more belligerent with each step, from the St Louis County PD rolling out in full combat gear and shooting stun grenades into the backyards of random houses in proximity, to Jay Nixon's unconstitutional "pre-emptive" declaration of a State of emergency last week.

It's tempting to formulate very ugly theories about why the government can't respect the Ferguson protesters the way it did the Bundy Ranch militias or the veterans during the shutdown. Is it simply because it's Missouri, and most of the protesters are black and poor, whereas the officials involved are predominantly white and affluent? Is it because the protesters' coalition hasn't demonstrated the same amount of cohesion and restraint; being unable to rein in the small fringe of idiots throwing bricks and setting fires? Is it because the government agencies involved are high-profile ones from all levels, and have a difficult time coordinating any sort of stand-down order, but feel compelled to back each other or even one-up each other? I don't know, and I don't pretend to know.

But what I do know is that the size, diversity, and resolve of the Ferguson coalition are all enough to make the Bundy Ranch one into an historical footnote. And every time executive action tries to stop this coalition via disorganized, haphazard intimidation; the coalition gets bigger, angrier, and more diverse. I believe we have passed the point of no return in terms of avoiding violence when the grand jury ruling is finally announced, I just hope that someone on the government side of the equation has the sense to react in an effective fashion. But judging by the 'competence' in dealing with this situation they have all demonstrated so far, I highly doubt it.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Bureaucracy's Last Stand

What Is Bureaucracy?

For the purposes of this post, "bureaucracy" does NOT refer to government agencies. Assuming most readers have not taken classes in sociology, business management, or a related field, the broader definition of "bureaucracy" is a form of organizational structure founded on precisely defined standards and protocols, usually outlined in governing documents. Bureaucratically organized institutions have rigid internal lines of command and authority, clearly outlined qualifications and responsibilities for employees and other participants at all levels, including procedures for promotion and discipline, exact prescriptions for response to most situations, and a slew of other policies aimed to create standardization and uniformity. Most government agencies are in fact organized in this fashion; but so are the majority of large corporations, unions and professional organizations, and many larger political, non-profit, and religious entities.

In fact, this method of organization is so ingrained into modern society that most people simply take it for granted; not recognizing it's a system that was designed by sociologists and unable to imagine the types of institutions I listed above being organized in any other way. However, without getting unnecessarily deep into organizational theory and its history, suffice it to say that bureaucracy was only the first organizational system intentionally outlined by professionals in the industrialization era; and these professionals were none other than the masterminds of socialism and communism - Max Weber and Karl Marx. Further, at least 10 more competing theories have been outlined in the 150 years since bureaucracy's conception, most of them tested and proven far more efficient and compatible with human nature. As you have probably guessed, I'm highly critical of this system and believe it to be obsolete and detrimental to human society, and in this post I'm going to attempt to convince you of my outlook, and posit that the global political unrest we are witnessing largely surrounds a shift away from it.

Basics of Bureaucracy's Pros and Cons

The benefit of bureaucracy is equality before the system. Its uniform standards are aimed at identifying the optimal choice for any variety of decisions - hiring, lending, outlawing, education curriculum, medical treatment, criminal penalties, etc. What pre-dated organizational systems designed by professionals, in the pre-industrial world, was of course organization based on the whims of small and entrenched elites - consisting of rampant nepotism laced openly with bigotry in all forms; and a significant purpose of uniform standards was to counter the devastating effects of these practices on productivity, although Marx and Weber clearly outlined their ideological opposition to bigotry as well. Choices that follow objective, clearly outlined, specific standards aimed to identify the best cadre for a job, best hours for productivity, best law for society, are theoretically blind to ulterior motives, personal favoritism, and race, gender, and other such characteristics.

The costs of bureaucracy are inflexibility and corruption of standards, in that order. In theory, uniform standards sound both equalizing and effective; but standards that will outline the optimal choice are extremely difficult if not impossible to identify. Think about all the factors that truly influence an employee's work competence and performance, or a leader's ability to handle a difficult situation, or a criminal's likelihood of recidivism, or even a parent's capacity to raise their child. Is it truly possible to account for all of these in a standardized policy that prescribes how to make decisions in hiring, promotions, incarceration, or even taking children away from parents? Hence, in practice, the ideal choice mechanism of the bureaucratic system is a blunt instrument, treating individuals and individual situations based on loose categories they can be easily placed in and prescribing the best choice for a majority or plurality of members of that class. Examples of this include everything from educational standards like No Child Left Behind and Common Core, to treatment prescriptions for various diagnoses in health care and psychology, to standardized wages and minimum wage and benefit laws, to credit reports, to legislatively prescribed minimum sentences and sex offender registries. The generalizations that go into making the allegedly optimal choices in each situation are based on approximate correlation rather than causation, and ignore so many confounding variables that they are extremely poor predictors of actual outcomes. In fact, characteristics like race and gender can be compared to bureaucratic standards, in that they are gross generalizations and make terrible predictors of human behavior and capacity. The across-the-board effect is that discretion is taken out of the hands of the people with specific contact to the situation - teachers, doctors, business owners, juries, etc. and placed in a standardized prescription of what would be best in "most" loosely similar cases. Outliers with higher potential - whether they are excelling students, unusually productive workers, or even rehabilitable criminals - have very low incentive to perform under such standards, because their reward will be no more than the average person in the class. On the other hand, outliers with special needs are likely to find themselves left out in the cold because the standardized response does not meet these; discouraging individualized accommodations for students or workers with disabilities, or even exceptionally harsh sentences for especially heinous criminals.

The second cost surrounds the power of the standard setters and standard followers. Bureaucracy is based on the presumption that whoever is performing these functions does so faithfully and is not influenced in their choices by ulterior motives they would like to rationalize through standards - which can involve anything from personal profit to nepotism and bigotry. Much like the expectation of faith-based cooperation in Marx's theory of Communism, this presumption is prohibitively incompatible with human nature, and most modern sociologists that favor bureaucracy accept that a certain degree of corruption will pervade in any bureaucratic system. Their argument in favor of bureaucracy is not that this limitation does not exist, but that the benefits still outweigh these costs.

Why Bureaucracy REALLY Doesn't Work

What really makes bureaucracy the enemy of humanity is not these two costs, but the counter-intuitive interplay between them. A relatively simple bureaucracy where standards are few and general is not prone to high levels of corruption, because it will be easily identified and those charged with setting or enforcing them relieved of their duties. But few and simple standards lead to blunt and inefficient choices that stifle productivity and create unnecessary costs, and bureaucracy's invariable remedy for this is to create more of itself by complicating standards. When standards fail to produce the optimal outcome they're expected to; the bureaucratic response is to refine and update them to account for more factors and fit more potential cases. This would include separately standardized classes for gifted and special needs students, pre-set bonuses for extra work and mandated accommodations for disabled workers, prescribed special conditions for sentencing that can increase or decrease the penalty, and so forth. While these more complicated standards do accommodate a higher proportion of cases, they make the system even less palatable for cases that remain outliers, leading to an invariable further revision. More importantly, however, the perpetually more complex system becomes far more prone to corruption, as special conditions and prescriptions turn into loopholes that can be abused with relative ease, and people charged with setting them become more powerful and less accountable the more specialized and less widely understood their rationale is.

The common remedy for this increasing corruption, in turn, is to create new levels of bureaucracy to standardize the setting of standards - whether these manifest in regulations at higher levels of government to make up for lack thereof at lower levels (such as State vs Federal in Obamacare), or institution-wide policies in private organizations to make uniform the operation of sub-organizations and departments. The end result is a level of complexity so esoteric that even those who have the faith to set standards adequately and follow them simply do not have the understanding nor the capacity to do so; and ignoring or highjacking the standards becomes not corruption aimed at specific ulterior motives, but widely tolerated practice that is only abandoned when following standards becomes temporarily necessary (such as an inspection) or momentarily useful (such as the need to fire a difficult employee). This widespread nullification, in turn, overwhelms the bureaucracy's enforcement resources for its own standards.

The problem with the modern world is that 150 years after its inception, this self-replicating cancer has grown so large and infused itself so deeply into every facet of human society that it is literally strangling global efficiency and productivity. Its immense and often contradictory complexity drives and enables corruption and standard-setting for ulterior motives at the highest levels imaginable - banks and monetary policy, health care cartels and the very definitions of medicine, energy producers of various kinds and policies on climate change and conservation, and so forth. What we are witnessing in the developed world is a return to the cronyism, corruption, economic disparity, and social insecurity of the 19th century that bureaucracy was meant to counter; and these phenomena have domesticated bureaucracy and highjacked its institutions for their own purposes. This problem is actually LESS pervasive in the United States than in most places used for socioeconomic comparison such as China, Europe, Canada and Australia; which is why our economy remains more efficient and productive than those places; but the tradeoff is that we suffer from less apologetic nepotism and bigotry.

Why I Believe Bureaucracy Is On Its Deathbed

Again dishearteningly but unsurprisingly, the response to this trend of various leaders, and especially politicians, has been to double down even more on bureaucratic standards; making them more complex and conceding to higher levels of authority even as the existing ones buckle under the pressure of excessive complexity. Here are a few illustrations.

Ebola: We now have several documented cases of Ebola in the United States. According to the bureaucratically organized CDC, these resulted from medical protocols for dealing with the infected being both inadequate (blunt), and ignored (too complex and cumbersome). So, the CDC is now authoring new, Ebola-specific protocols (for health care professionals to ignore as they add complexity), and President Obama appointed a new bureaucrat specifically to set standards for how to set these standards (more uniformly and bluntly). Republican politicians, not to be outdone, have recommended everything from travel bans standardized to certain countries to health screening protocols at border crossings and airports - more blunt, work-complicating generalizations completely incapable of containing the virus that can be easily manipulated for power abuse and bigotry. Thankfully, Ebola is not very contagious, and the inevitable failure of these protocol updates is unlikely to result in a catastrophic nationwide pandemic. But rest assured, IF a virus as scary as hysterical Americans imagine Ebola to be actually materialized, it would claim 100,000s of lives, and bureaucracy would be powerless to stop it.

ISIS: Despite over a decade of standardized and bi-partisan protocols for dealing with "terrorism" and bringing stability to the Middle East to eliminate safe havens, and unthinkable amounts of resources poured into this effort, we are arguably less safe from acts of violence on our soil than we have ever been in the last 70 years. Islamic Fundamentalists have only gotten more radical and violent, as Boko Haram and ISIS now make Al Qaeda and Hezbollah look reasonable, and the region has only become more unstable and hospitable to them. However, Republicans and Democrats only disagree on which failed protocols from the last 13 years to double down on; tyrannical military occupation that pisses off the local population and drives more of it to radical Islamism (bluntness), or funding/arming/supporting double-dealing regional leaders who, after defeating the problem du jour, BECOME our new problem (corruption). Whichever of these we choose, we are likely to defeat or contain ISIS and create a new, ever more extreme movement that makes them look like altar boys; and if we keep this up we will eventually create one that poses a very serious threat to us. This is perhaps a policy domain where inefficiency and ulterior motives have fused to the point of inseparability because of its esoteric nature and drummed up sense of urgency.

Elections: This effect can even be observed in political campaigns. As I touched on in a previous post, the Democratic Party is poised to again have its ass handed to it by a poorly organized assortment of nay-sayers that pander to disgruntlement with the establishment even within its own party. This disgruntlement is largely driven by the compounding effects of bureaucracy I have outlined here, which actually has little to do with partisanship. And yet its leaders continue to double down on a campaign strategy based on uniform optimal choice standards that perpetually fail to appease outliers (bluntness) and enable localized and specific abuse by challengers (corruption).

What I see the political re-alignment in this country evolving into is a stand-off between the believers in bureaucracy and those so disillusioned with it they want to see it fail at any cost. It's tempting to claim the Democratic Party embodies the former, and it has certainly moved itself closer to that position; but the majority of Republican politicians are guilty of it as well, even some originally elected on promises to oppose it. However, what this does explain is Americans' propensity to keep electing ever-more incompetent and sometimes odious politicians who promise to obstruct and derail the system; in some cases to replace politicians that are now part of it who made the same promises only 4 years earlier. I've been accused by many of supporting the Tea Party and its ambiguous, contradictory, and often infantile and detached agenda. But the reality is that with the exception of a few politicians like Amash, Huelskamp, Massie, and Paul who have always genuinely leaned libertarian - I think the Tea Party's proposals are predominantly insane, like any other reasonable person. However, bureaucracy was failing us long before the Tea Party materialized, and continuing to double down on it is just as insane; no matter how desperately any Progressive tries to blame the Tea Party for what it's a natural response to, or tantrums that bureaucracy "would" work if only humans did not behave the way we naturally do, in truly Marxist fashion. And for this reason, I believe the Tea Party's divisive and obstructionist effect is a positive one for this country; it uses bureaucracy's own shortcomings to cause it to fail more egregiously and undeniably, turning more people against it and speeding its inevitable collapse.

As we have already witnessed, and in line with the shortcomings of bureaucracy I outlined above, it does not take anything close to a Tea Party majority to strangle this monster using its own intransigence; and there is enough popular disillusionment with the system that the Tea Party is NOT going away until said leviathan is dead at its feet. Similar arguments can be made for fringe movements in other developed countries, but this post has gotten long enough and I believe you get the point. The global political gridlock is an enema for a deeply flawed system of societal organization that absolutely has to die for humanity to survive; and while enemas are never pleasant, sometimes they're the only way to purge shit.


Friday, October 10, 2014

The Myers Shooting: The Last Straw For Police Excess?

When Trayvon Martin was killed, the right and the left habitually wrestled over characterizing him as a hardened criminal that deserved it and a cherubic under-aged victim of racism and 'gun violence'. I said firmly from the get-go that he sounded like a juvenile delinquent and probably contributed to the confrontation, but that Zimmerman's deadly force was likely unwarranted.

When Michael Brown was killed, as the same ridiculous conjectural tug-of-war was only shaping up, Joe was yelling at me for saying that he sounded like a thug, but that I saw no reason to believe lethal force was legally justified.

In the case of Vonderrit Deondre Myers, - who, for those that live under a rock, was gunned down by an off-duty St. Louis police officer Wednesday night - I really don't foresee that tired battle over character. He was arrested on June 27 for unlawful use of a weapon, a felony charge, and resisted arrest. At the time of his shooting, he was carrying an illegally possessed firearm, and at least according to the officer's account - fired it at the officer 3 times. There is little question as to whether Myers was a criminal, and even less to say in defense of a man who gets shot by the guy he opened fire on. At least so far, even the protesters seem to agree, as I see hardly anyone defending his innocence. That is what makes this case so unique, and indicative of serious looming political turmoil. A homicide by police that looks justified from all angles is nevertheless spawning protests, garnering nationwide attention, and looks likely to escalate to more violence and confrontations between citizens and police in planned actions this weekend.

Contrary to some abjectly racist assumptions disgustingly popular in the United States; violent crime and assault on police are NOT widely accepted behaviors in our poor, urban communities populated overwhelmingly by minorities. I know this from personal experience working in such communities, as well as from reviewing sociological studies. Like most reasonable people, the average poor, minority American believes that if you commit a violent crime - you deserve to go to jail, if you engage in violence - you have no business complaining about receiving violence in return, and if you open fire on a cop - you should expect to die. In fact, if such communities truly believed anyone killed by police that is poor and a minority is innocent; there would be protests and riots in this country almost daily.

The protests are also being joined by swaths of young, middle class activists concerned with civil liberties and law enforcement excess. While this demographic is more consistent in its distaste for law enforcement and government in general; it is often accused, quite rightfully, by the very poor and minorities it's joining of only complaining from the safety of its suburban homes. Yet this seemingly justified is bringing them out into the streets in ways that only the most unjustified ones have in the past.

Unlike Martin and Brown, Myers is not the kind of police homicide that usually receives this kind of reaction. So why is this unlikely coalition protesting an off-duty cop shooting a man with a documented history of violence who opened fire on him first?

Because to the poor minorities involved in the resistance, every officer is now a bigot and every act of police violence driven by racism. And because to the middle class protesters concerned with overreach and civil liberties, every officer is now a sociopath drunk on power, representing and relying on a corrupt structure of tyranny and incompetence. Both generalizations are grossly misled as the overwhelming majority of officers and agencies meet neither stereotype. But the unlikely bedfellows are united by a simple and destructive consensus that police can do no right. Or, in more social science terms, they are fed up enough with law enforcement engaging in violence with impunity to think compliance with law and order is no longer worth the trouble of putting up with this. There is no reasoning with that mentality, and in extreme cases it leads to the violent ousting of government - as we witnessed recently in Egypt and Ukraine.

I'm not quite predicting outright revolution will occur in the United States within the next couple of months, but I do believe the critical mass has been reached to create significant and permanent policy changes. CNN contributor and civil rights activist Van Jones attributed this to a "wholesale breakdown of trust [between citizens and police]", and I agree completely. No law enforcement agency in the world has the resources to keep everyone in its jurisdiction obedient to the law by force, it is the simple logic of police being outnumbered 1000s-to-1. Most people follow the laws of our own volition, save minor infractions like speeding or littering which predominantly go unpunished, leaving police with enough room to pursue criminals that actually threaten public safety and law and order. Further, law enforcement relies significantly on citizen cooperation in maintaining law and order and apprehending criminals; ranging from supplying information to summoning police to situations of conflict rather than taking the law into their own hands. Both of these elements require a certain widespread faith in both law enforcement's motives and its capacity. So when a critical mass of the population - and this does not require anything close to a majority - begins to see the police as a greater threat to their safety than criminals; law enforcement not only becomes useless and incapable, but law and order itself is threatened as the benefits of non-compliance outweigh the costs in the eyes of enough people to overwhelm its resources. If my estimates of the magnitude of this disobedience movement in coming weeks are accurate - the politicians confronting it will have no choice but to enact significant concessions to its demands to maintain law and order. It helps that many on both sides of the aisle have indicated a desire to take up many of the causes in question, such as demilitarization of police, repeal of multiple laws authorizing police overreach, and accountability measures such as mounted cameras for law enforcement. I believe this eruption of civil unrest, coupled with the upcoming election, may finally spur enough support for their doing so.

Like most large collective reactions to a negative event, this one is coarse and in many ways irrational - seeking retribution against a class for grudges over both real and perceived injustices committed by a few of its members. However, meaningful and lasting social change is rarely achieved through precise and rational action, it certainly was not in the 1890s or the 1960s. So despite its brash nature, I believe this development is overall positive and beneficial for this country. Bringing the authority and political influence of law enforcement agencies in line with the Constitution is LONG overdue, as is bringing their funding in line with economic reality. While we may not all agree on the specifics of how to do so, that statement is one people from across the political spectrum today can get behind, leaving it in need only of a catalyst that pushes reluctant politicians to respond. If you are involved in this, I salute you; but also implore you to keep the violence to a minimum. Remember that the most successful from of civil disobedience is not giving a beating, but being willing to take one.