December 10, 2011


I read somewhere recently that 10,000 Americans (or at least 10,000 people holding Social Security numbers) sign up for benefits every day. This makes intuitive sense, using that "first approximation" approach favored by the serious mathematician. The Baby Boom Generation, spanning birth dates of about 18 years from 1946 to 1964, is that infamous, self-involved demographic cohort comprised of about 75 million souls. 10,000 people per day extends out to 3,650,000 per year; multiplied by 18 = ~65 million, but I doubt that the birth rate was absolutely smooth over the whole period. My guess is that babies really started popping during the Eisenhower years, when the schools became over-crowded, the demobilized military settled down to the American dream, and suburbs sprouted like mushrooms all over this once-verdant land.

Meaning, under this tentative analysis, that the fiscal problems will get worse in the years ahead, as the Boomers, in larger numbers, keep aging, determined to stay alive and vibrant in their Peter Pan way, and to retire to that life of sublime leisure to which the Laws of Nature and Nature's God supposedly entitle them.

Except, of course, it's not going to turn out that way. In part exacerbated by this gimmicky payroll tax cut which the O Man has thrown out as a sop to his supposed supporters (in lieu of anything real), the Social Security fund is already running a $46 billion cash on cash deficit, 6 years ahead of schedule. Over the next ten years, the deficits will add up to $1.2 trillion; if this number rings a bell, it's because it's the same number the so-called Super Committee was seeking to cut from the federal budget over the same decade (they weren't really cuts, of course; they were reductions in the rate of increase). Yet the SuperDuper Group never even considered Social Security, since Obama & Co. decided ahead of time that none of the big drivers of the deficit could even be considered as part of the program of reduction (Social Security, Medicare-Medicaid/Defense/Interest Expense).

Dmitry Orlov said something interesting recently in his talk at Orcas, Washington (which you can find in mp3 format at, his website) about the perceptive biases of humans when faced with change. It went something like this: humans find it very difficult to imagine very different circumstances, a fundamentally changed contextual reality, so to speak, which lies in the future; yet when that new context arrives, everyone assures everyone else that they knew all along it would be like this. We can see a lot of that in the reactions of Americans to the Depression we've been in since 2007. Things have really, really changed a lot during that time period. All of our language about the future, our plans, have all been altered. We've become inured to the idea that our economy is centrally planned by a private banking cartel (the Federal Reserve), that the monopolistic control of the market by a few surviving large banks, by a few surviving large telecommunications companies (which also own the media), by a few large surviving Big Box retailers, are now the way things are. That the federal government will run $1 trillion-plus deficits each and every year (an amount absolutely unimaginable even five years ago), that bank accounts earn absolutely no return, that your house will just keep losing value year after year, are all now in the natural order of things.

Thus, when we think of something like Social Security, the same perceptual bias (this homeostasis preference) makes it difficult for the Boomers, who are diverting the headwaters of Social Security to themselves the way Los Angeles sucks the Owens Valley and the Colorado River dry, to think there might come a day when the younger generation rebels at the idea of supporting their tennis and golf activities with a brutal, off-the-top tax that this younger generation can barely afford because of the crappy economy, all while the younger ones live with the certainty that the system will die before they can draw a penny in benefits.

When I put it that way, you have to admit that the Baby Boomers, those classic narcissists, are pretty freaking stupid. Just because AARP is swollen with Boomers now, and the average age in the U.S. Senate is about 105 years, does not mean that these conditions will prevail indefinitely. The younger generation of workers and job seekers (more of the latter than the former these days), knowing the whole dumb system is headed for extinction, are going to get rid of Social Security as soon as their voting bloc comes into dominance.

It's just the way it is. Socialism doesn't work because human beings are fundamentally selfish assholes (I'm kidding, kids - you're just doing what I would do - although see below for the meaning of this comparison). All psychological studies support this view. Humans have no sympathy for humans (or any other life form) at a distance, unless the situation is personalized. For example, I blew twenty bucks at breakfast this morning. My guess is that this is enough dough to furnish a basic staple to a West African family for about a month. So why didn't I just eat a couple of eggs at home and mail a check for twenty bucks to a relief organization? Because I'm fundamentally a selfish asshole interested in "self actualization" and "living the good life." A kind of "duh" moment there.

The only way I can think to change the Social Security dynamic, therefore, is to change its impersonality. We're at the point where only three workers support each beneficiary. I've mentioned before that I'm old enough for Social Security but I just keep on working, like the fool I've always been. That means that me and two other guys are supporting someone, somewhere, in this great land of video-viewers. We're a wage-slave team, me and these two guys. It's possible that the person I'm supporting is younger than I am. What I'm proposing is that I be given a name, and a picture, and maybe a letter once in a while from My Beneficiary, thanking me for continuing to harden my arteries and blow out my liver for his sake.

That's what I would like to call the new program, My Beneficiary, modeled on some of those adopt-a-child deals you can get in on. Suppose my guy is a retired fellow living in Omaha, Nebraska. Let's say his name is Earl Jones (that's a good name for a retired guy - Earl). Earl used to work in a farm equipment store, till he got sick of it and quit at age 62, which is pretty easy to do in Nebraska, what with the the houses costing a couple of hundred bucks now. Earl's drawing about $900 a month now, him and the little lady, who's also on the dole (but she's not my adoptee - some other team has that honor).

See the beauty of this? I'm not paying taxes into an amorphous, faceless bureaucracy. I'm supporting Earl Jones, who just wants to rest his old weary bones amid the corn fields of Nebraska, maybe pitch some horse shoes or go bowling on the weekend (or any day of the week, thanks to me and My Team). Now I have a mission, a purpose, for my work. It's to keep Earl in Geritol, Budweiser and Viagra. I think I could happily work for years more, knowing now that there is a Higher Calling behind that damn form SE. Earl Jones: My Cause. And then, of course, it's also good karma. One of these days I will myself be up for adoption, when we're probably down to two workers per freeloader.

So a big shout-out to Gens X & Y: I'm available. Adopt me now and avoid the Christmas rush.

December 06, 2011

An American Citizen's Guide to Protecting Oneself from the American Government, Part 2

"When the government fears the people, there is democracy. When the people fear their government, there is tyranny." - Thomas Jefferson.

(Just as an aside: if the current crop of politicians, the ones sporting a sub-10% approval rating with their own electorate, had been in power in 1776, does anyone have any doubt we would all still be enjoying high tea at 4 pm, riding to hounds and saying things like, "Jolly good!" ?)

But now on to the exciting caffeine-driven conclusion: Yesterday we were considering the Senate's decision (by the way, I'm talking about the Senate with the Democratic majority, where no legislation can pass without the enthusiastic support of these great "liberals") to turn the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) of 2001, the one used to retaliate against an Egyptian, 15 Saudis, a guy from the UAE, and a couple of other non-Afghan Arabs, by invading, logically enough, Afghanistan - that piece of legislation passed in a fevered rush in that mangled autumn of 2001 - into an authorization to use this same military force right here at home, against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Including Americans, because now the "whole world is a battlefield." Thus raising an interesting question or two, such as, how did a President who signed an order fast-tracking the closure of Guantanamo as his first order of business turn into a leader who is enthusiastic about using Guantanamo as a prison for his own people?

Anyway, while they were at it, "broadening the scope" of the AUMF, the Senators, including those liberal Democrats, decided to upgrade the kind of people we ought to use military force against. Well, here we go:

"renews the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) with more expansive language: to allow force (and military detention) against not only those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and countries which harbored them, but also anyone who “substantially supports” Al Qaeda, the Taliban or “associated forces” (Sec. 1031); "
As we said yesterday, in fact. Now, I'm a lawyer, so I'll let you in on a little secret, a trick of the trade: lawyers read statutes carefully. Every little nook and cranny might come in handy in an argument. Everything might turn on the use and meaning of one little phrase, artfully deployed. So when I read language such as that last sentence, my mind begins by seeing how far you can extend the meaning while still observing the intent of the legislation. And when you do that, where you wind up is an "enemy of the state" under this expanded AUMF is anyone, including an American, who "substantially supports" a force "associated" with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. It behooves us all to figure out what this sloppy language just might mean, because while travel restrictions to Cuba are still in force, there are exceptions for certain circumstances.

Now, what does "substantially support" mean? And what is a "force" "associated" with Al Qaeda or the Taliban? Not to sound too paranoid, but if a SEAL team shows up in your living room at three a.m., you might want to have a tentative answer on the tip of your tongue. Let us take an example: let's say that you are concerned about all of the Iraqis displaced in the period between 2003 and 2011, the millions exiled or forced out of their homes by the civil war that broke out as the result of the American invasion. You decide to give to a charitable organization named Dar Es Salaam (House of Peace), which putatively provides aid to Iraqi orphans.

Okay, stop right there. I wouldn't do that if I were you. These charities are notorious for operating as funding mechanisms for Al Qaeda. Or so I've read. In fact, if I were you, I would stop giving to charities altogether. Okay, maybe the March of Dimes, or something recommended by Nancy Reagan. But that's it. Nothing with a funny sounding name. Generally speaking, criminal statutes are supposed to be kind of specific, so you are forewarned if you're going off the rails, but "substantially supporting" something "associated with" something else, when none of these terms gets defined, does not comport with this general rule, and the consequences of being wrong could be pretty dire.

How about simple dissent? Suppose you're in a conversation (or, God help me, write a blog) in which you describe your opposition to the war in Afghanistan. Does that "substantially support" the Taliban? In regimes such as the Soviet Union and in Nazi Germany, dissent itself was criminalized, and you can imagine how far you would get splitting hairs about whether your support was "substantial" or not. The truth of the matter is that is how police states work. You don't know whether you have any rights or not, because the system has moved from one where the laws are clear and well-defined to one where we allow individuals, such as the President, to determine unilaterally who is and who is not an enemy of the State. Whether you become a target of the U.S. military, with its new mission, probably depends less on what you have done than on whether you have drawn attention to yourself, because we have eliminated due process. The accusation is the same as a conclusive finding of guilt. That is what is meant by "indefinite detention" without trial.

We have arrived here by a very strange path, but arrived here we have. The spirited opposition to this AUMF expansion was led by Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. He actually wanted to repeal the AUMF for Iraq altogether, given that its mission of eliminating Saddam's weapons of mass destruction had already succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The liberal Democrats were having none of that. I just throw that out there in the hopes of clarifying your voting tendencies.

December 05, 2011

An American Citizen's Guide to Protecting Oneself from the American Government

To get right to it, the Senate, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, the American penitentiary system, the American court system, and all the police departments in all the cities and states throughout this great land are insufficient to protect us from, you guessed it, terrorists. If we didn't talk about terrorists, what would we talk about? Our bankruptcy? Public approval of Congress might fall below its current 10% if they start in on that.

Now on a personal note: I'm almost as American as they come. If I trace my lineage back through four grandparents, three strands (both paternal grandparents, my maternal grandmother) run very deep into the American soil. Indeed, the arrival of these ancestors from Europe is lost in the mists of time, but it was hundreds of years ago. My "people" (as my people say) have long made North America their home. I really would not know how to be anywhere else, so I feel the need to adapt, right here, to changing circumstances.

And man have those circumstances changed. I suppose the simplest way to say it is that as soon as the first jet hit the first tower at the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001, the country completely lost its mind. I don't know how else to put it. Yes, a lot of people died that day, somewhere around 3,000 souls. To put this number in perspective, about 1,100,000 (one million one hundred thousand) Americans die every year as the combined total for heart disease and cancer. If you divide that number by 365, you get the number... ~3,000. In the same way that the deaths of 9/11 were tragic for the loved ones of the victims, all of these deaths, happening every single day of the year in the same number, are tragic losses for the loved ones of the newly deceased. Yet the country goes on. The loved ones mourn, pay tribute to their lost relatives and friends, and go back to the process of living their lives. That's how life is.

So what ia it about 9/11 that has forced the United States government, and two consecutive presidents, to wage holy war not just on Terrorism, but on the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights, its most important charter? Was it the existence of civil liberties and legal due process that led to the attacks of 9/11? I don't think so. I've read the Report of the 9/11 Commission, and the reasons the 19 hijackers succeeded are pretty obvious. The higher-ups at the White House, at the Immigration & Naturalization Service and at the FBI (in particular) fell down on the job. George W. Bush and Richard Cheney were totally negligent and derelict in their duty to protect the country. The field agents, particularly of the FBI and CIA, did good work. They suspected something was up, detected the mysterious presence of Arabs taking flight lessons in American schools while omitting instruction on taking off and landing, and reported it up the chain of command. But no one in the White House did anything.

With such an embarrassing breach of duty to explain away, Bush & Cheney did what politicians usually do: they created a distraction by starting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What is harder to understand is why, ten years after 9/11, we're still going insane. Thus, we have the Levin/McCain bill in the Senate, which will formalize and codify the madness. Here's what it will do:

"renews the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) with more expansive language: to allow force (and military detention) against not only those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and countries which harbored them, but also anyone who “substantially supports” Al Qaeda, the Taliban or “associated forces” (Sec. 1031); "
Now, when they say "anyone," they mean anyone. This law will permit the U.S. military to deal with Americans whom the President, in his discretion, designates a suspected terrorist. An American can be taken into custody by the military, detained indefinitely, sent to Guantanamo, and disappeared forever. Or an American can simply be shot dead. It is a repeal of the concept of Posse Comitatus, which used to forbid the use of the military in domestic law enforcement; indeed, the concept of "law enforcement" has actually been superseded by this bill. Realistically, was the Gestapo engaged in "law enforcement" or something else entirely?

To give you an idea of how bad all of this is (in case the above isn't bad enough), Senator Carl Levin, a co-sponsor of this bill (working with the deranged senator from Arizona, John McCain), has, I suspect, good motivations for this legislation. Under this bill, an American will at least receive the protections of a "prisoner of war," and thus be entitled to the Geneva Convention's accountability rules. An American (if he survives the initial encounter with the military in his front yard), will have the right of habeas corpus. The nebulous designations of suspected terrorists as "enemy combatants," etc., the netherworld which allows for so much extra-legal mischief, will at least be reined in somewhat. I think this is what Levin is doing; he's a guy I've generally respected, and he's probably thinking this is as good as it gets. We've arrived at the point where we allow the President simply to gun down Americans who are designated as suspected terrorists, so any kind of "formality," even something as nuts as this, is better than nothing.

Our President and former Constitutional law instructor, Barack Obama, has threatened to veto this bill. If you're deluded enough to think he would veto it because it deprives Americans of civil liberties protection, then I hate to disturb your sweet dreams, but that's not it. No, he's concerned about his "flexibility" in dealing with terrorism, and if Americans, at the very least, can claim to be "prisoners of war" then it will be harder to ship them off to black sites in torture-friendly countries to "extract actionable intelligence."

I trust this was the Change you were Hoping for. I think I'll do a Part 2 to discuss the vagueness of the actual charging elements of the new, expanded Authorization for Use of Military Force -- including Americans this time.