The End of Iraq

This stumbling finish to the end of the Iraq war feels like the end of the college football season: inconclusive, no clearly declared winner, no closure or finality, and will stumble forward despite the declaration of The End because there’s too much money in it not to. And as Iraq is planning to buy $13 Billion in arms from the US, it’s a Federal jobs stimulus program, too.*

I recommend this article on the New Yorker, a Date that will Live in Oblivion:

What President Obama called the end of the combat mission in Iraq is a meaningless milestone, constructed almost entirely out of thin air, and his second Oval Office speech marks a rare moment of dishonesty and disingenuousness on the part of a politician who usually resorts to rare candor at important moments. The fifty thousand troops who will remain in Iraq until the end of next year will still be combat troops in everything but name, because they will be aiding one side in an active war zone. The proclaimed end of Operation Iraqi Freedom has little or nothing to do with the military and political situation in Iraq, which is why Iraqis were barely aware when the last U.S. combat brigade crossed into Kuwait a few days ago. And for most of us, too—except, perhaps, those with real skin in the game, the million and a half Iraq war veterans and their families—there’s hardly any reality or substance to the moment.

Yeah, that.

* Suck it, US Census.

What the Hell?

I missed this new development over the weekend. Islam is not a religion and thus isn’t covered by Constitutional First Amendment protections? That must come as one hell of a surprise to the 1.5 billion adherents worldwide. When did this one start? Did I miss a memo?

It says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It does not matter if you consider it a religion or not*. As long as they consider it a religion, it’s a religion! I don’t believe certain religions in this country are any more than fancy cults with Voltron Castle-like buildings but that doesn’t mean I can get them to go away by wishing it so. In the US we all suffer together.

But after this offensive little bit of xenophobia and propaganda, I am off political blogs for… at least an hour. My stomach, it turned.

* United States v. Ballard, 1944

Today in a Daily WTF

“Tea party” activists drawn to Williamsburg and its portrayal of Founding Fathers.

Amid the history buffs and parents with young children wandering along the crushed shell paths of Virginia’s restored colonial city, some noticeably angrier and more politically minded tourists can often be found.

They stand in the crowd listening closely as the costumed actors relive dramatic moments in the founding of our country. They clap loudly when an actor portraying Patrick Henry delivers his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. They cheer and hoot when Gen. George Washington surveys the troops behind the original 18th-century courthouse. And they shout out about the tyranny of our current government during scenes depicting the nation’s struggle for freedom from Britain.

“General, when is it appropriate to resort to arms to fight for our liberty?” asked a tourist on a recent weekday during “A Conversation with George Washington,” a hugely popular dialogue between actor and audience in the shaded backyard of Charlton’s Coffeehouse.

I’ve got nothing.

The 14th Amendment

The 14th Amendment is not getting amended or overturned. Not now, not tomorrow, and not ever. The hill to climb to ratify an amendment to the Constitution is monstrous. But Congress has to do something to keep itself busy. After all, there are no wars going on and the country isn’t in any sort of economic crisis!

In the last 20 years, from 1990 to present, Congress, one side or the other, has tried to repeal some or all of:

– the 26th Amendment
– the 2nd Amendment (to explicitly allow for bigger guns)
– the 22nd Amendment (to allow Reagan to run again!)
– the 16th Amendment
– the 8th Amendment — and replace it with explicit language for parking offenses!

I have heard:

– Obama is from Kenya and not an American;
– Al-Qaeda is impregnating women, sneaking them into the US, making them have their babies, and then whisking the babies off to Al-Qaeda training camps*;
– Single, pregnant Mexican women are sneaking over the border to have babies so they can get themselves access to some fine US welfare better known as the noxious term “anchor babies”;
– They themselves are not recipients of the 14th Amendment because Native Americans are all old, white xenophobes and none of their ancestors ever settled here without proper documentation.

This round of hatred from the Republican mouthbreathers is putting me on edge. Instead of sneaking in xenophobic hatred of “the Other” into debate or commercials or television clips on Fox News, they’re holding hearings on modifying the Constitution. Sure it’s election year posturing but it sets my teeth on edge. Maybe we should go back to former slaves not allowed to become citizens of the United States? Let’s get back to our true Conservative roots. All hail Dred Scott!

Yes, I am aware of the immigration problem in this country. Yes, I also am aware of the economic disparity between two countries that share a border. No, this is not the way to discuss it. Xenophobic hissy fits turn my stomach. It used to be Jews and Italians and Eastern Europeans and Former Slaves and African Americans. The flavor of the week are people from the South.

I also know xenophobia and hatred of “the Other” is a favorite horse to flog during major economic downturns. See re: Eastern Europeans and the Great Depression. Someone who is weak and powerless must be to blame. We cannot go after the powerful, those truly at fault, so we’ll go after the weakest and least protected. Whipping up constituents over issues with no possible delivery is a great way to make short term electoral gains.

I watch this process and I’m always relieved that Alexander Hamilton hated people and James Madison felt the unwashed American masses weren’t properly qualified to tinker with the Constitution. The hill to climb to make any modifications is steep. We’ve screwed it up pretty badly once — see Prohibition — but after the Bill of Rights, we’ve only managed to amend the Constitution 17 times in 250 years.

Also, I heard that the 14th Amendment is giving gays the rights to marry, so it’s all good here today. Yay Abraham Lincoln!

* This is my favorite tin foil hat conspiracy theory going around.

Links on the Prop 8 Decision

Nate Silver has some analysis on Ted Olsen and the conservative dynamics as this goes up to the Supreme Court (which it will).

Dahlia Lithwick on Slate calls it a brilliant decision.

Interesting commentary from Orin Kerr (and others) over on the Volokh Conspiracy here and here and here and here.

Some facts from the case on the Atlantic.

The NY Times Subject to Debate website on the gay marriage decision which has several essays worth reading.

There’s lots of stuff everywhere but this seems the least mouthbreather of the lot.

Wyclef Jean, President!

Wyclef Jean to Run for President of Haiti.

Jean told TIME he is going to announce his candidacy for the Nov. 28 election just days before the Aug. 7 deadline. One plan that was discussed, loaded with as much Mosaic symbolism as a news cycle can hold, called for him to declare his candidacy on Aug. 5 upon arriving in Port-au-Prince from New York City, where he grew up after leaving Haiti with his family at age 9. “If not for the earthquake, I probably would have waited another 10 years before doing this,” Jean says. “The quake drove home to me that Haiti can’t wait another 10 years for us to bring it into the 21st century.” Jean sees no contradiction between his life as an artist and his ambitions as a politician. “If I can’t take five years out to serve my country as President,” he argues, “then everything I’ve been singing about, like equal rights, doesn’t mean anything.”

If a man who once performed in movies with a chimpanzee can become President of the United States, and the Terminator can run California, there’s no reason that a member of the Fugees cannot become President of Haiti. If anything, it will focus the media cameras back on Haiti’s post-earthquake plight as he runs for President.

Wikileaks

I know this is a little stale (2 whole days!) but I have some quick thoughts on the whole Wikileaks thing:

1. The documents posted aren’t the Pentagon Papers. They contain nothing people didn’t already know. They say the War in Afghanistan is going badly and was never funded well. No news there.

2. Regardless, these were classified documents and leaking classified documents to unclassified sources is bad. Yet, it was a matter of time. If anyone has been following the Top Secret America series on the Washington Post, you know the Intelligence Community in DC has almost 900,000 people. Holy Jumping Jesus, it’s a government jobs program! And all of those people have been cleared. That’s an awful lot of Trust with a capital-T. If 99% of the people involved are honest and 1% of those people feed information to places like Wikileaks, that’s still 900 people — most of them contractors.*

According to Threat Level, the Pentagon claims it has someone but I would be shocked — SHOCKED — if that was the only person leaking to wikileaks. By a long shot.

3. Why is everyone breathlessly surprised at the rise of rogue media?  Hell, if spammers and phishers can put up renegade sites, run them for a few hours, tear them down, and bring them up somewhere else, why are we so surprised someone with a hard drive can move a PHP wiki?

Really? Surprise? Hosting sites abound — many nicely outside the US jurisdiction. How hard is it to find a DNS server, a LAMP stack, and SCP to upload files? Wikileaks cannot be stopped or killed — and certainly not by some angry words and a shaking finger. If you can hide your millions offshore, you can certainly run a website.

It’s point #3 that gets me — the shock and surprise. I want to Vanna White and say, “The Internet — Let Me Show You It.” What did people think was going to happen when mass communications met guerrilla disclosure and guerrilla journalistic tactics?  Or did we all believe we were going to hold hands and watch FOX News together, forever?


* As a professional security weenie, I have a hard time believing in a mere 1% of dishonesty in contractors.

It’s The Economy, Stupid

Rob, whose gaming blog you should all read, pointed out an article this morning that I now share with you from Bob Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor. This one is about the one and a half dip recession the country is in and what Obama should do:

The President should stop talking and acting on anything else – not the deficit, not energy, not the environment, not immigration, not implementing the health care law, not education. He should make the whole upcoming mid-term election a national referendum on putting Americans back to work, and his jobs bill. Are you for it or against it?

But none of this is happening. The hawks and blue dogs are still commanding the attention. Herbert Hoover’s ghost seems to have captured the nation’s capital. We’re back to 1932 (or 1937) and the prevailing sentiment is government can’t and mustn’t do anything but aim to reduce the deficit, even though the economy is going down.

To which I say: Yes. That. I point to that and say, do that.

I am sadly addicted to the C-SPAN morning call-in show* and every topic, it does not matter what, segues near instantly to “and I do not have a job.” Don’t we have several thousand miles of Gulf Coast that needs to be cleaned? Do we not have idle people who could clean it? Is there not something we can do?

And I am totally for a payroll holiday on the first $20,000 income. Nothing will get money moving faster than a payroll tax holiday.

Anyway. That. Every time I hear Obama talk about anything that is !jobs bill I will get itchy and bitey and ranty. Not that I will ever vote for a Republican after the last decade but I might not be so keen to donate much cash.

Callers on the C-SPAN morning call-in show are the sort of people who would call in to the C-SPAN morning call in show.

On Risk

We, as competitive monkeys, did not evolve to deal with risk on large scales well. We understand the risk a lion poses (get eaten) or a drought poses (no food) but we do not deal well with large, abstract risk. We dismiss it as a “1 in a million phenomena.” This is a well studied phenomena in computer security: it is difficult to get buy-in from those with the money in security without external pressure like, say, being hacked.

Understanding risk is important to understanding what happened in the Gulf and also what happened on Wall Street. For the Gulf, the issues with dealing with risk are simpler to understand: in a straight up but difficult engineering project quantizing and assessing risk is a well-known process, but dealing with mitigating risk is a matter of money. One must pay for the extra layers of protection or reinforcement. Even if risk is properly assessed, it costs money to mitigate the risks. Spending the money to mitigate the risks cuts into profit margins and adds to project overheads. BP made business choices over engineering choices to maximize profits at the expensive of mitigating risk. Destroying the entire Gulf of Mexico is a difficult consequence to conceptualize — it looks awful big! have you seen it? — so the risk of something that catastrophic is pulled off the table and labeled as “ridiculous.” Engineers are over-conservative whiners, anyway, when money can be made.* Risks were taken with the implicit assumption that if something did happen, the US would step in and BP’s liability would be capped.

The Wall Street risk is similar to the Gulf although the damage is in numbers instead of the environment. The risk of actually damaging the world economy is too large of a risk to contemplate. It cannot possibly happen! So we can over-leverage (Lehman Brothers) or create huge bad investments (Goldman Sachs) or insure all these bad investments (AIG) and nothing bad can happen! Because the numbers may be large but they certainly are not as large as the entire economy. Besides, the FDIC insures depositors so what does it matter if a proprietary trading desk loses everyone’s money? Sure the bank might close and the trader might lose their job if things go bad but look at all this money to invest!

Risk is calculable; most risk is known on a certain level. Risk is understood. But risk pays off in large financial reward, so humans wired to seek out large financial reward will pursue the risk. And they have found a way to fob off the downsides.

The core problem we have right now, today, is that risk is a throw of the dice and the system is rigged so if the dice come up snake-eyes the results are socialized. The bigger the risk, the more the downsides are subject to being covered by the Government. “Privatize the profits and socialize the risk.” When the risk is socialized corporations, constantly in the pursuit of profits, will negate any downside to risk to maximize their returns. This is what a corporation does. Without external pressure for culpability for the downsides of risk, a corporation will never mitigate the risk (expensive) in return for profits. If the corporation is not responsible for the downsides of risk, they’ll just rampage.

This is where the Government has a role to play. The Government can do precisely three things to reign in this behavior:

* Regulate. The Government can enforce a standard playing field with a certain floor of risk mitigation in return for safety and assurance. In return, the Government gives its stamp of approval.

* Litigate. The Government can sue in a post-mortem after disaster to recoup the funds used for cleaning up disaster after risk failed to pay out.

* Regulate AND Litigate. Force corporations to adhere to basic standards and then sue for liability depending on how may of these standards were met.

In an ideal world, we want the Government to do #3. We want the Government to be a licensing and auditing body that forces corporations to a certain level of responsibility and litigate for damages to recoup costs post-disaster. They are supposed to be a third party, not-for-profit, objective body that says, “You do X or else.” Today, for these “Too Big to Fail” institutions, we have none of these.** It’s cheaper to lobby/bribe than it is to comply to regulations, and it is cheaper to pay out on lawsuits than apply safety standards to mitigate the risk. Government is not properly funded with auditors to audit everything that needs auditing. Regulations have been continuously relaxed over the last thirty years.

We should be pressing the Government to enforce the same standards on everyone:

* No one is too big to fail, not even enormous banking institutions or car companies or oil companies.
* Assume a “you break it you bought it” mentality.
* Force corporations to build walls between “risky” business practice and routine business practice.
* Fund Government auditing with teeth.

I don’t think we’re going to do any of these because we, as Americans, are so wrapped up in the concept that a lack of regulations == jobs and short term profits that we cannot get off the mark — and it’s simply not true. It’s a PR job done by the corporations.

The core problem is risk. We need to start having a real conversation about risk across the board. It’s an abstract subject but we’re not having it so the big corporations are being allowed to walk away with their risks still being socialized.

* Engineers who are trained to be paranoid doubly-so.
** Small to mid-sized companies are regulated up the wazoo. Don’t get me wrong. It seems that the bigger you are, the less the regulations mean to you because you can cover the costs of the inevitable litigation by finding the change in the seat cushions and you can afford a huge PR media buy to cover your butt.