Devastation in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. Photo: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection/Flickr
Ever since the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, world leaders have agreed on 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) as the maximum acceptable global warming above preindustrial levels to avert the worst impacts of climate change (today we’re at about 0.8 degrees C). But a new study, led by climatologist James Hansen of Columbia University, argues that pollution plans aimed at that target would still result in “disastrous consequences,” from rampant sea level rise to widespread extinction.
A major goal of climate scientists since Copenhagen has been to convert the 2 degree limit into something useful for policymakers, namely, a specific total amount of carbon we can “afford” to dump into the atmosphere, mostly from burning fossil fuels in power plants (this is known as a carbon budget). This fall, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pegged the number at 1 trillion metric tons of carbon, or about twice what we’ve emitted since the late 19th Century; if greenhouse gas emissions continue as they have for the last few decades, we’re on track to burn through the remaining budget by the mid-2040s, meaning immediately thereafter we’d have to cease emissions forever to meet the warming target.
The study, which was co-authored by Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs and published on Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, uses updated climate models to argue that the IPCC’s carbon budget would in fact produce warming up to twice the international limit and that even the 2-degree limit would likely yield catastrophic impacts well into the next century. In other words, the study says, two of the IPCC’s fundamental figures are wrong. MORE
Jacob Hacker, director of Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies, is one of the most astute political analysts around. His 2010 book, Winner Take All Politics, co-authored with Berkeley’s Paul Pierson, is one of the best chronicles of how rising economic inequality leads to greater political inequality in a vicious cycle, as those who have amassed vast fortunes use them to buy political clout, which in turn enables them to set the rules of the game in such a way that they can enrich themselves further. The book would become an inspiration for Moyers & Company’s first three episodes.
Two years later, Hacker proposed a health care reform scheme that would have expanded Medicare while retaining the existing system of employer-based insurance – he basically championed the “public option” before the legislative debate over the Affordable Care Act had begun.
Now, with the bungled rollout of Obamacare leading the evening newscasts and just a week after Senate Democrats changed the filibuster rules to combat unprecedented obstruction in the upper chamber, Moyers & Company caught up with Hacker to get his take on recent events.
Joshua Holland: In Off Center, you detailed how a relatively small group of conservative ideologues were able to push the political center rightward. One of the ways that happened was that they rejected some of the longstanding norms that made our admittedly clunky democracy – with all of its checks and balances and minority vetoes — work, or at least work to a certain degree. Can you connect that to Harry Reid’s decision to finally eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominations and presidential appointments?
JacobHacker: I think it’s a very big deal. The fact is, as we wrote in Off Center, our political system has been affected very badly by the highly unequal polarization of the two parties. When we talk about polarization, we often think it’s like a barbell with equal weight on both sides, but in fact the right side is much heavier than the left side and that off center drift has created huge incentives for the conservative side to push the bounds of acceptable political behavior.
There’s an arms race quality to it. Once one side has breached a norm, then the other side feels pressured to do so as well. Both sides are playing this game, but the side that’s really pushing the ball down the court, if you will, is the Republican side.
So the filibuster had become, essentially, a de facto rule of 60. Until last week, everything but the budget was essentially subject to a 60-vote threshold and in a body that is already quite malapportioned. And that’s a remarkably anti-majoritarian system.
So we’ve moved in the direction of greater democracy. I think it’s one small step for Democrats, and one giant leap for democracy. MORE
Update: The Electronic Privacy Information Center reports that the court just granted the government more time to decide whether to release the kill switch plan. It now has until January 13.
This month, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the Department of Homeland Security must make its plan to shut off the Internet and cellphone communications available to the American public. You, of course, may now be thinking: What plan?! Though President Barack Obama swiftly disapproved of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak turning off the Internet in his country (to quell widespread civil disobedience) in 2011, the US government has the authority to do the same sort of thing, under a plan that was devised during the George W. Bush administration. Many details of the government’s controversial “kill switch” authority have been classified, such as the conditions under which it can be implemented and how the switch can be used. But thanks to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), DHS has to reveal those details by December 12 — or mount an appeal. (The smart betting is on an appeal, since DHS has fought to release this information so far.) Yet here’s what we do know about the government’s “kill switch” plan:
What is a kill switch? A kill switch refers to the government’s authority to disconnect commercial and private wireless networks — affecting both cellphones and the Internet — in the event of an emergency, such as a viable threat of a terrorist attack.
How does a kill switch work? There isn’t any kind of big red button the Obama administration can push to turn off the wireless networks in the United States. Instead, there are a few ways the federal government could exercise its power to shut down and restore Internet and cellphone service (see below). It’s also unlikely that a “kill switch” would cause a nationwide blackout. Instead, the government is explicitly authorized to target a ”localized area” — such as a bridge — or potentially an “entire metropolitan area,” according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. (Both DHS and the White House declined to comment for this article.) MORE
Last January, before the 113th Congress convened, Bill spoke with Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, about the need to eliminate the silent filibuster in the Senate. Years ago, senators who wished to make a stand on an issue had to literally stand, and talk, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style, bringing their grievances to the floor and making them known to the American public.
But in recent years, senators could filibuster — essentially placing a hold on a nominee or a piece of legislation — without laying out their reasons for doing so. They could even filibuster anonymously. And Republicans were increasingly doing so to hold up not only legislation but even the most apolitical presidential nominees. As a result, the Senate became less and less productive.
Cohen was opposed to this style of filibuster. “We believe that what a democracy means is that the American people are entitled to get discussion, debate and eventually a vote on the critical questions of the day. But we haven’t had that in decades in the US Senate,” he told Bill.
The Senate voted on Thursday to eliminate the use of the filibuster against most presidential nominees, a move that will break the Republican blockade of President Obama’s picks to cabinet posts and the federal judiciary. The change is the most fundamental shift in the way the Senate functions in more than a generation. MORE
Our ideological debates over the size of government and its role in the economy are often fierce, but what if we’re all missing a larger issue?
Steven Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins, argues that the needless complexity with which our government operates costs us dearly – in dollars, transparency and trust in our institutions. And that’s true for both liberals and conservatives.
Teles borrowed the word “kludge” from the world of computer programming to describe the problem. “A kludge,” he writes, “is an inelegant patch put in place to solve an unexpected problem and designed to be backward-compatible with the rest of an existing system.” Things go wrong in a variety of ways “when you add up enough kludges” leading to “a very complicated program that has no clear organizing principle, is exceedingly difficult to understand, and is subject to crashes.” Teles adds: “any user of Microsoft Windows will immediately grasp the concept.”
Moyers & Company caught up with Teles to discuss how our “kludgeocracy” hurts our government’s ability to function as it should. Below is a transcript of our talk, lightly edited for length and clarity. MORE
Editor’s note: This is the third piece in a series looking at the fact that while Americans enjoy a lower overall tax burden than that of the citizens of other wealthy countries, we also pay four times as much as they do, on average, for out-of-pocket “social costs” in the private sector – health care, retirement security, disability and unemployment insurance and the rest of the social safety net. When you add up what we pay in taxes and what we pay out of pocket, Americans spend about the same share of their economic output on social costs overall as the citizens of some of the most generous, heavily taxed social democracies, but we a get far less secure safety net in return. You can read part one here, and part two, which focuses on health care spending, here.
Americans’ heavy reliance on the private sector to provide social goods and services doesn’t only result in us paying a lot and getting a lot less for it, compared to other wealthy countries. It also makes the financing of our entire social welfare system far less fair. It’s a great deal for the wealthiest, and a huge rip-off for the rest of us.
To understand how, we’ll need some background.
A Nasty Little Myth
The most pernicious myth in American politics holds that only around half the population pays taxes. Sean Hannity put it like this: “If half of Americans pay taxes, and the other half are the beneficiaries of the tax that the other half pay, at some point you say, OK, you got a full voting bloc.” In a call to raise taxes on the poor, Sen. Dan Coates (R-IN) said, “I think it’s important that this burden not just fall on 50 percent of the people but falls on all of us in some form.” He added, “Everyone needs to have some skin in the game.”
The narrative is the epitome of cherry-picking. While 43 percent of households won’t need to pay federal income taxes this year, that’s nothing more than a bit of tax trivia. Federal income taxes make up around 40 percent of federal revenues and a quarter of all taxes paid in this country, while payroll taxes – which virtually all working people pay – also make up around 40 percent of federal revenues (in 2011 and 2012, revenue from the payroll tax represented a smaller share due to the temporary tax reduction in effect during those years). MORE
Why do conservatives have such a visceral hatred of a market-based expansion of health care coverage once championed by the Heritage Foundation – a scheme that their last presidential candidate called an expression of “the ultimate conservatism”?
It’s not only because it was passed by a Democratic president they loathe. According to a recent study of Republican base voters conducted by Democracy Corps, Obamacare “goes to the heart of Republican base thinking about the essential political battle.”
They think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support… [They believe that] insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those dependent on government.
Tea Party participants, in particular, were very focused on those who claim “rights” in the form of government services, without taking responsibility for themselves.
Race, according to the study’s authors, plays an unspoken role in determining who is and isn’t counted among the “deserving” poor.
It also dovetails perfectly with the overarching mythology that animates today’s conservative movement: the belief that there exists a large group of shiftless people whose lifestyles are subsidized by an increasingly overburdened class of hard-working Americans. It’s the ‘makers versus takers’ narrative that animates the movement – from the lowliest right-wing blogger to Mitt Romney’s claim that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay taxes and refuse to take care of themselves.
It’s also complete nonsense. The reality is that virtually all Americans are, at various stages in their lives, both “makers” and “takers.” MORE
NYC Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio talks to the media after voting, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, in the Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Yesterday, New Yorkers went to the polls and elected the city’s first Democratic mayor in two decades, a self-described progressive who campaigned unabashedly against the city’s stark and growing inequalities. The race brought to the fore a particular narrative of New York City, where Moyers & Company is produced: After 12 years of Michael Bloomberg, the city is more stable than it’s been in decades, but it’s also more divided. An influx of newcomers is driving the city’s growing prosperity, but also fueling its phenomenal inequality.
Bloomberg helmed the city during a time of transformation. New York’s darkest days — the crime waves, arson and near-bankruptcy of the ’70s and early ’80s — are now firmly in the past, a memory invoked only by de Blasio’s detractors to illustrate the perceived harm that a break from Bloomberg orthodoxy could bring about.
But one side effect of New York’s transformation is its growing economic inequality, a gap more dramatic than seen in other American cities. Earlier this year, the average rent in NYC topped $3,000. During Bloomberg’s mayoralty, homelessness increased by 73 percent. Parts of Queens, Brooklyn and upper Manhattan have undergone dramatic demographic shifts as rents have skyrocketed. The rising cost of an apartment in New York’s more far-flung neighborhoods is a handy bellweather for the city’s transformation, and an examination of the diversity of the places New Yorkers call “home” is one of the clearer windows into the trend toward inequality. MORE
Voters across America are heading to the polls today for state and local elections, and just like in federal elections, big business has been writing big checks to campaigns across the country. To follow the money in your state, see which industry topped the list of campaign contributions in the last election cycle:
Using data from www.FollowTheMoney.org, we mapped which industries gave the most to state-level campaign donors for the 2012 election (ballot initiatives and party PACs excluded) and limited our search to the top business in each state. We also excluded unions, law firms and nonprofits, since political giving from these entities can be associated with a variety of industries. MORE
Part one of this series, “The High Cost of Low Taxes,” noted that while Americans enjoy a tax burden lower than that of other wealthy countries, we also pay four timesas much as they do, on average, for out-of-pocket “social costs” in the private sector – on health care, retirement security, disability and unemployment insurance, and the rest of the safety net. When you add up what we pay in taxes and what we pay out of pocket, the US spends about the same amount on social costs overall as some of the most generous, heavily taxed social democracies, but we get a far less secure safety net in return.
But those are just numbers on a spreadsheet. Fran and Randy Malott understand those costs more viscerally. The Whittier, Calif., couple aren’t living the American dream right now. They haven’t for a while. They were slammed when Wall Street’s house of cards came tumbling down, and now they’re feeling the squeeze of the Great American Rip-off.
Fran lost her job as a customer service representative in 2009, at the height of the Great Recession. “A lot of companies are getting rid of customer service these days,” explains Randy. He lost his job managing a temp agency a year or so later. The Malotts are two of what Paul Krugman called “the forgotten millions” – the long-term unemployed who face unique barriers to reentering the workforce, including discrimination by potential employers just because they’ve been out of work for an extended period. “And our age doesn’t help either,” says Randy. He’s 59 and she’s 60. “There was unemployment for a while,” Randy says, “and now we’re getting by on savings.”
He tells Moyers & Company, “we live pretty frugally,” but the $1,600 a month they’re forking over for health insurance represents about half their total spending. The Malotts are a healthy couple, yet they’re watching their life savings drain away, in large part due to their health insurance company. The $140,000 the Malotts had socked away for retirement is now down to around $45,000. “We’ve got quite a ways to go before Social Security and Medicare kick in,” says Randy.
The Malotts are in a tough spot, like a lot of people who find themselves in similar circumstances. Studies have shown that long-term unemployment causes stress and illness. In the rest of the world’s highly developed countries, the Malotts’ health care would be covered by their government – the risk of long-term unemployment would be spread across an entire society – which means they’d have one less serious stressor, and around $45,000 more in the bank than they do today. MORE
On January 21, 2013, Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president of the United States. Just as he had promised when he began his first campaign for president six years earlier, he pledged again to turn the page on history and take US foreign policy in a different direction. “A decade of war is now ending,” Obama declared. “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
Beyonce sings the national anthem at the ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, file)
Much of the media focus that day was on the new hairstyle of First Lady Michelle Obama, who appeared on the dais sporting freshly trimmed bangs, and on the celebrities in attendance, including hip-hop mogul Jay-Z and his wife, Beyoncé, who performed the national anthem. But the day Obama was sworn in, a US drone strike hit Yemen. It was the third such attack in that country in as many days. Despite the rhetoric from the president on the Capitol steps, there was abundant evidence that he would continue to preside over a country that is in a state of perpetual war.
In the year leading up to the inauguration, more people had been killed in US drone strikes across the globe than were imprisoned at Guantánamo. As Obama was sworn in for his second term, his counterterrorism team was finishing up the task of systematizing the kill list, including developing rules for when US citizens could be targeted. Admiral William McRaven had been promoted to the commander of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), and his Special Ops forces were operating in more than 100 countries across the globe.
After General David Petraeus’s career was brought to a halt as a result of an extramarital affair, President Obama tapped John Brennan to replace him as director of the CIA, thus ensuring that the Agency would be headed by a seminal figure in the expansion and running of the kill program. After four years as Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser, Brennan had become known in some circles as the “assassination czar” for his role in US drone strikes and other targeted killing operations.
When Obama had tried to put Brennan at the helm of the Agency at the beginning of his first term, the nomination was scuttled by controversy over Brennan’s role in the Bush-era detainee program. By the time President Obama began his second term in office, Brennan had created a “playbook” for crossing names off the kill list. “Targeted killing is now so routine that the Obama administration has spent much of the past year codifying and streamlining the processes that sustain it,” noted The Washington Post.
Brennan played a key role in the evolution of targeted killing by “seeking to codify the administration’s approach to generating capture/kill lists, part of a broader effort to guide future administrations through the counterterrorism processes that Obama has embraced,” the paper added. “The system functions like a funnel, starting with input from half a dozen agencies and narrowing through layers of review until proposed revisions are laid on Brennan’s desk, and subsequently presented to the president.”
Obama’s counterterrorism team had developed what was referred to as the “Disposition Matrix,” a database full of information on suspected terrorists and militants that would provide options for killing or capturing targets. Senior administration officials predicted that the targeted killing program would persist for “at least another decade.” During his first term in office, The Washington Post concluded, “Obama has institutionalized the highly classified practice of targeted killing, transforming ad-hoc elements into a counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining a seemingly permanent war.”
Redefining “Imminent Threat”
In early 2013, a Department of Justice “white paper” surfaced that laid out the “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen.” The government lawyers who wrote the 16-page document asserted that the government need not possess specific intelligence indicating that an American citizen is actively engaged in a particular or active terror plot in order to be cleared for targeted killing. Instead, the paper argued that a determination from a “well-informed high level administration official” that a target represents an “imminent threat” to the United States is a sufficient basis to order the killing of an American citizen. But the Justice Department’s lawyers sought to alter the definition of “imminent,” advocating what they called a “broader concept of imminence.”
They wrote, “The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons will take place in the immediate future.” The government lawyers argued that waiting for a targeted killing of a suspect “until preparations for an attack are concluded, would not allow the United States sufficient time to defend itself.” They asserted that such an operation constitutes “a lawful killing in self-defense” and is “not an assassination.”
Nine-year-old Nabila Rehman holds a photo with a drawing she made depicting a drone strike that killed her grandmother, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)
Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU called the white paper a “chilling document,” saying that “it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen.” Jaffer added, “This power is going to be available to the next administration and the one after that, and it’s going to be available in every future conflict, not just the conflict against al-Qaeda. And according to the [Obama] administration, the power is available all over the world, not just on geographically cabined battlefields. So it really is a sweeping proposition.”
In October 2002, as the Bush administration prepared to invade Iraq, Barack Obama gave the first major speech of his national political career. The then-state senator came out forcefully against going to war in Iraq, but he began his speech with a clarification. “Although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances… I don’t oppose all wars.” Obama declared, “What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.” During his first campaign for president, Obama had blasted the Bush administration for fighting the wrong war — Iraq — and repeatedly criticized his opponent, Senator John McCain, for not articulating how he would take the fight to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
As his first term in office wound down, the overwhelming majority of US military forces had been withdrawn from Iraq and plans for a similar drawdown in Afghanistan in 2014 were being openly discussed. The administration had succeeded in convincing the American public that Obama was waging a smarter war than his predecessor. As he ran for reelection, Obama was asked about charges from his Republican opponents that his foreign policy was based on appeasement. “Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaeda leaders who have been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement,” Obama replied. “Or whoever is left out there, ask them about that.”
As the war on terror entered a second decade, the fantasy of a clean war took hold. It was a myth fostered by the Obama administration, and it found a ready audience. All polls indicated that Americans were tired of large military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and the mounting US troop casualties that came with them. A 2012 poll found that 83 percent of Americans supported Obama’s drone program, with 77 percent of self-identified liberal Democrats supporting such strikes. The Washington Post–ABC News poll determined that support for drone strikes declined “only somewhat” in cases where a US citizen was the target.
President Obama and his advisers seldom mentioned the drone program publicly. In fact, the first known confirmation of the use of armed drones by the president came several years into Obama’s first term. It was not in the form of a legal brief or a press conference, but rather on a Google+ “Hangout” as the president took questions from the public. Obama was asked about his use of drones. “I want to make sure that people understand actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” Obama said. “For the most part, they have been very precise, precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates. And we are very careful in terms of how it’s been applied.”
He rejected what he called the “perception” that “we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly” and asserted that “this is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases, and so on.” Obama added: “It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash. It’s not a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions. And it is also part and parcel of our overall authority when it comes to battling al-Qaeda. It is not something that’s being used beyond that.”
Michael Boyle, a former adviser in the Obama campaign’s counterterrorism experts group and a professor at LaSalle University, said that one of the reasons the administration was “so successful in spinning the number of civilian casualties” was the use of signature strikes and other systems for categorizing military-aged males as legitimate targets, even if their specific identities were unknown. “The result of the ‘guilt by association’ approach has been a gradual loosening of the standards by which the US selects targets for drone strikes,” Boyle charged. “The consequences can be seen in the targeting of mosques or funeral processions that kill non-combatants and tear at the social fabric of the regions where they occur.” No one, he added, “really knows the number of deaths caused by drones in these distant, sometimes ungoverned, lands.”
Are our own actions, carried out in the name of national security, making us less safe or more safe?
Using drones, cruise missiles, and Special Ops raids, the United States has embarked on a mission to kill its way to victory. The war on terror, launched under a Republican administration, was ultimately legitimized and expanded by a popular Democratic president. Although Barack Obama’s ascent to the most powerful office on Earth was the result of myriad factors, it was largely due to the desire of millions of Americans to shift course from the excesses of the Bush era.
Had John McCain won the election, it is difficult to imagine such widespread support, particularly among liberal Democrats, for some of the very counterterrorism policies that Obama implemented. As individuals, we must all ask whether we would support the same policies — the expansion of drone strikes, the empowerment of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the use of the State Secrets Privilege, the use of indefinite detention, the denial of habeas corpus rights, the targeting of US citizens without charge or trial — if the commander in chief was not our candidate of choice.
But beyond the partisan lens, the policies implemented by the Obama administration will have far-reaching consequences. Future US presidents — Republican or Democratic — will inherit a streamlined process for assassinating enemies of America, perceived or real. They will inherit an executive branch with sweeping powers, rationalized under the banner of national security.
In 2012, a former constitutional law professor was asked about the US drone and targeted killing program. “It’s very important for the president and the entire culture of our national security team to continually ask tough questions about ‘Are we doing the right thing? Are we abiding by the rule of law? Are we abiding by due process?’” he responded, warning that it was important for the United States to “avoid any kind of slippery slope into a place where we’re not being true to who we are.”
That former law professor was Barack Obama.
The creation of the kill list and the expansion of drone strikes “represents a betrayal of President Obama’s promise to make counterterrorism policies consistent with the US constitution,” charged Boyle. Obama, he added, “has routinized and normalized extrajudicial killing from the Oval Office, taking advantage of America’s temporary advantage in drone technology to wage a series of shadow wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Without the scrutiny of the legislature and the courts, and outside the public eye, Obama is authorizing murder on a weekly basis, with a discussion of the guilt or innocence of candidates for the ‘kill list’ being resolved in secret.” Boyle warned:
“Once Obama leaves office, there is nothing stopping the next president from launching his own drone strikes, perhaps against a different and more controversial array of targets. The infrastructure and processes of vetting the ‘kill list’ will remain in place for the next president, who may be less mindful of moral and legal implications of this action than Obama supposedly is.”
In late 2012, the ACLU and The New York Times sought information on the legal rationale for the kill program, specifically the strikes that had killed three US citizens — among them 16-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki. In January 2013, a federal judge ruled on the request. In her decision, Judge Colleen McMahon appeared frustrated with the White House’s lack of transparency, writing that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests raised “serious issues about the limits on the power of the Executive Branch under the Constitution and laws of the United States, and about whether we are indeed a nation of laws, not of men.”
She charged that the Obama administration “has engaged in public discussion of the legality of targeted killing, even of citizens, but in cryptic and imprecise ways, generally without citing to any statute or court decision that justifies its conclusions.” She added, “More fulsome disclosure of the legal reasoning on which the administration relies to justify the targeted killing of individuals, including United States citizens, far from any recognizable ‘hot’ field of battle, would allow for intelligent discussion and assessment of a tactic that (like torture before it) remains hotly debated. It might also help the public understand the scope of the ill-defined yet vast and seemingly ever-growing exercise.”
Ultimately, Judge McMahon blocked the release of the documents. Citing her legal concerns about the state of transparency with regard to the kill program, she wrote:
“This Court is constrained by law, and under the law, I can only conclude that the Government has not violated FOIA by refusing to turn over the documents sought in the FOIA requests, and so cannot be compelled by this court of law to explain in detail the reasons why its actions do not violate the Constitution and laws of the United States. The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me; but after careful and extensive consideration, I find myself stuck in a paradoxical situation in which I cannot solve a problem because of contradictory constraints and rules — a veritable Catch-22. I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch of our Government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”
How to Make Enemies and Not Influence People
It is not just the precedents set during the Obama era that will reverberate into the future, but also the lethal operations themselves. No one can scientifically predict the future consequences of drone strikes, cruise missile attacks, and night raids. But from my experience in several undeclared war zones across the globe, it seems clear that the United States is helping to breed a new generation of enemies in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and throughout the Muslim world.
Those whose loved ones were killed in drone strikes or cruise missile attacks or night raids will have a legitimate score to settle. In an October 2003 memo, written less than a year into the US occupation of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld framed the issue of whether the United States was “winning or losing the global war on terror” through one question: “Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?”
More than a decade after 9/11, that question should be updated. At the end of the day, US policymakers and the general public must all confront a more uncomfortable question: Are our own actions, carried out in the name of national security, making us less safe or more safe? Are they eliminating more enemies than they are inspiring? Boyle put it mildly when he observed that the kill program’s “adverse strategic effects… have not been properly weighed against the tactical gains associated with killing terrorists.”
In November 2012, President Obama remarked that “there’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” He made the statement in defense of Israel’s attack on Gaza, which was launched in the name of protecting itself from Hamas missile attacks. “We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians,” Obama continued. “And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.” How would people living in areas of Yemen, Somalia or Pakistan that have been regularly targeted by US drones or missile strikes view that statement?
Toward the end of President Obama’s first term in office, the Pentagon’s general counsel, Jeh Johnson, gave a major lecture at the Oxford Union in England. “If I had to summarize my job in one sentence: it is to ensure that everything our military and our Defense Department do is consistent with US and international law,” Johnson said. “This includes the prior legal review of every military operation that the Secretary of Defense and the President must approve.”
As Johnson spoke, the British government was facing serious questions about its involvement in US drone strikes. A legal case brought in the United Kingdom by the British son of a tribal leader killed in Pakistan alleged that British officials had served as “secondary parties to murder” by providing intelligence to the United States that allegedly led to the 2011 strike. A UN commission was preparing to launch an investigation into the expanding kill program, and new legal challenges were making their way through the US court system. In his speech, Johnson presented the US defense of its controversial counterterror policies:
“Some legal scholars and commentators in our country brand the detention by the military of members of al-Qaeda as ‘indefinite detention without charges.’ Some refer to targeted lethal force against known, identified individual members of al-Qaeda as ‘extrajudicial killing.’
“Viewed within the context of law enforcement or criminal justice, where no person is sentenced to death or prison without an indictment, an arraignment, and a trial before an impartial judge or jury, these characterizations might be understandable.
“Viewed within the context of conventional armed conflict — as they should be — capture, detention, and lethal force are traditional practices as old as armies.”
The Era of the Dirty War on Terror
In the end, the Obama administration’s defense of its expanding global wars boiled down to the assertion that it was in fact at war; that the authorities granted by the Congress to the Bush administration after 9/11 to pursue those responsible for the attacks justified the Obama administration’s ongoing strikes against “suspected militants” across the globe — some of whom were toddlers when the Twin Towers crumbled to the ground — more than a decade later.
Today, decisions on who should live or die in the name of protecting America’s national security are made in secret…
The end result of the policies initiated under President Bush and continued and expanded under his Democratic successor was to bring the world to the dawn of a new age, the era of the Dirty War on Terror. As Boyle, the former Obama campaign counterterrorism adviser, asserted in early 2013, the US drone program was “encouraging a new arms race for drones that will empower current and future rivals and lay the foundations for an international system that is increasingly violent.”
Today, decisions on who should live or die in the name of protecting America’s national security are made in secret, laws are interpreted by the president and his advisers behind closed doors, and no target is off-limits, including US citizens. But the decisions made in Washington have implications far beyond their impact on the democratic system of checks and balances in the United States.
In January 2013, Ben Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, announced his investigation into drone strikes and targeted killing by the United States. In a statement launching the probe, he characterized the US defense of its use of drones and targeted killings in other countries as “Western democracies… engaged in a global [war] against a stateless enemy, without geographical boundaries to the theatre of conflict, and without limit of time.” This position, he concluded, “is heavily disputed by most States, and by the majority of international lawyers outside the United States of America.”
At his inauguration in January 2013, Obama employed the rhetoric of internationalism. “We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear,” the president declared. “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation.”
Yet, as Obama embarked on his second term in office, the United States was once again at odds with the rest of the world on one of the central components of its foreign policy. The drone strike in Yemen the day Obama was sworn in served as a potent symbol of a reality that had been clearly established during his first four years in office: US unilateralism and exceptionalism were not only bipartisan principles in Washington, but a permanent American institution. As large-scale military deployments wound down, the United States had simultaneously escalated its use of drones, cruise missiles, and Special Ops raids in an unprecedented number of countries. The war on terror had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The question all Americans must ask themselves lingers painfully: How does a war like this ever end?
Jeremy Scahill is national security correspondent for The Nation magazine and author of The New York Times bestsellers Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army and most recently Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield (both published by Nation Books). He is also the subject, producer and writer of the film Dirty Wars, an official selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the US documentary cinematography prize, now available on DVD. This essay is the epilogue to his book Dirty Wars.
Phoenix Arizona, USA, April, 2009: Tea Party attendee protests government policies with home-made sign. Courtesy: iStock
A growing body of research suggests that we are a nation divided not only by partisanship or how we view various issues, but also by dramatically different cognitive styles. Sociologists and psychologists are getting a better understanding about the ways that deep seated emotional responses effect our ideological viewpoints.
Joshua Holland: Chris, let’s talk about morality. I’m personally offended by the tea partiers’ resistance to giving uninsured people health care. I find it a bit shocking that a political movement could be so filled with animosity toward the idea. But according to NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt — and other scholars — conservatives have a different moral compass entirely. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Chris Mooney: Absolutely. There are many people doing research in the psychology of politics. Jonathan Haidt is a pioneer in the psychology of morality and how that feeds into politics, and it really helps with something like this where you have strong emotional passions that are irreconcilable on the left and the right.
So what you’re describing is his moral foundation of “harm,” which liberals tend to feel more strongly about. These are emotions relating to empathy and compassion – measured by the question of how much someone is suffering and how much that suffering is a moral issue to you. How much is caring for the weak and vulnerable a moral issue to you?
It’s not that conservatives don’t feel that emotion, but they don’t necessarily feel it as strongly. They feel other things more strongly. So to Haidt, this explains the health care debate because liberals feel, most of all, this harm-care-compassion thing. Conservatives feel it a little bit less strongly, even as they have this other morality. Haidt compares it to karma — it’s really interesting — where basically, you’re supposed to get what you deserve. And what really bothers them is somebody not getting what they deserve. So the government getting involved and interfering with people getting what they deserve is really bad. That, I think, is the clash. MORE
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on the high cost of low taxes.
The American people pay a similar amount for social services – health care, retirement security, disability and unemployment insurance and the like – as citizens of European countries with supposedly lavish social safety nets.
But there are two significant differences. First, we pay a hugely disproportionate share of the costs out-of-pocket*, through the private sector. And when things go badly – when misfortune hits — the safety net that we fall back on is truly pathetic in comparison. Call it the great American rip-off.
Nobody needs to tell Leslie Boyd, a former newspaper reporter in North Carolina, about the human costs of this. Her son, Michael Danforth, was born with a defect that made him more likely than most to contract colon cancer. “He could not get insurance at any cost,” she told Moyers & Company, “and he needed colonoscopies every year” to screen for the disease. Danforth’s doctor demanded immediate payment for services rendered – $2,300 for the procedure. “My son was a student so he didn’t have the money,” recalls Boyd. “He didn’t tell me because he didn’t want me to worry.”
Danforth skipped the screening. Two years later, he got sick. He went to emergency rooms for the acute pain he was suffering, but was misdiagnosed three times. The six-footer weighed just 110 pounds when he was finally admitted to a hospital. “His kidneys had already shut down and they found cancer,” says Boyd. “And it had spread — it was too late to save his life.”
Danforth’s wife had a part-time job, which gave the couple too much income to qualify for Medicaid, so they split up as his condition worsened. He applied for Social Security disability benefits but it took 37 months for his application to be processed.
“The first check came nine days after he died,” says Boyd. He was 33 years old.
The High Cost of Low Taxes
Delinking taxes from the services they pay for has arguably been the modern conservative movement’s greatest success. No politician has ever been booed off a stage for promising to cut taxes. But decades of public opinion polling shows that, with a few exceptions, Americans are actually quite fond of the goods and services the public sector provides. They may be wary of the idea of “big government” in the abstract, but they like well-maintained infrastructure, safe food and clean water, efficient firefighting and policing, Medicare and Social Security and virtually every other government-provided service you can name.
This paradox is well known to politicians and policymakers, and has caused a good deal of hand-wringing among those who favor a progressive tax system that raises enough funds to cover the services Americans expect. But there’s another consequence of anti-tax demagoguery: low, low taxes come with a steep cost. In fact, a lower tax bill – especially for federal taxes — actually works against the economic interests of most Americans.
Stroget shopping street in Copenhagen, Denmark. The country had the highest tax burden in 2010. (iStock)
That’s because we pay ridiculously high out-of-pocket costs for things that are provided by the public sector in other developed countries. The difference is quite dramatic. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — also known as “the rich countries club” — tracks both public and private financing of social spending. Americans pay almost four times as much as the citizens of other wealthy countries for things such as retirement security and health care on the private market – 10.6 percent of our economic output versus an average of just 2.7 percent among OECD member states.
The difference is that we ranked near the bottom in the OECD (26th out of 34 countries) in terms of public spending on these services. Government-provided services accounted for around 19 percent of our gross domestic product (GDP), compared with 29 percent of GDP in those high-tax countries. The difference was made up from out-of-pocket spending by citizens.
In the chart below, roll over the colored bars to see the exact numbers.
Breaking it Down
Consider some basic social safety net services and other OECD data:
An American losing a job that paid an average wage will get 47 percent of his or her income replaced by unemployment over the short term. The average replacement rate is 55 percent across the OECD and 57 percent in those eight social democracies (XL).
A single American parent of two down on his or her luck will be eligible for cash and in-kind benefits (welfare, housing assistance, food stamps, etc.) equal to 24 percent of the median income. The same person would see an average of 40 percent of the median across the OECD (XL).
Our public pension system – Social Security – replaces just over 39 percent of average earnings. In the eight social democracies with the highest tax burdens, that figure is almost 54 percent (XL).
Only seven of the 34 countries in the OECD had shorter average life expectancies than US citizens in 2008 (XL). Between 1983 and 2008, average life expectancy grew by six years across the OECD; in the US, we gained a little over three. And only three OECD countries – Chile, Mexico and Turkey – have higher rates of infant mortality (XL).
During the Great Recession, the social safety nets in the eight social democracies kept poverty rates in those countries significantly lower than in the US. Only three OECD countries – Mexico, Chile and Israel – had a higher rate of poverty than the US (XL).
Yet those data don’t capture the simple truth that citizens of other wealthy countries enjoy benefits that Americans can only dream of – things like publicly funded pre- and after-school programs, paid maternity and paternity leave, and wage replacement for people who suffer from extended illnesses.
Perhaps the most dramatic differences in our priorities are reflected in public expenditures on family support. Only two OECD members devote less of their economic output to these benefits: South Korea and Mexico. And we spend dramatically less than the rest – 60 percent less than the OECD average (XL).
The Great Risk Shift
That Americans pay through the teeth for social services isn’t an accident. It’s the result of decades of policymaking based on what’s been sold as an “ownership society.” Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker called it a “personal responsibility crusade” that’s been firmly embraced by corporate America and conservative politicians.
In his book, The Great Risk Shift, Hacker detailed how a huge share of the retirement security and health care burden has been shifted from employers and the government onto the backs of working people themselves. These are the insurances that mitigate one’s risk in a capitalist society, and their loss has left American families exposed and economically insecure. “Social Security, Medicare, private health insurance, traditional guaranteed pensions – all sent the same reassuring message: someone is watching out for you, all of us are watching out for you, when things go bad,” wrote Hacker. “Today, the message is starkly different: You are on your own.” And it turns out that it’s a pretty costly message.
Next in the series: The great private sector health care ripoff.
*I’m using “out-of-pocket” as a shorthand for all private-sector social spending, including things like charitable donations, employers’ and workers’ share of health insurance premiums, contributions to 401(K) plans and similar retirement vehicles, etc.
President Barack Obama stands with, from second from left, former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Thursday, April 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
If the problem-plagued rollout of healthcare.gov is any indication, 25 years of bipartisan efforts to downsize the federal government and turn a broad swath of what was the public sector over to private contractors haven’t yielded the awesome efficiencies the “reinventing government” crowd promised us. What a shocker.
Slate’s David Auerbach dug into the team tasked with delivering this admittedly complex website, and found an impenetrable web of contractors and subcontractors, some with more political connections than experience to recommend them, working on the project with poor coordination and oversight.
The people who get the job are not necessarily the people who are good at delivering a website. They’re mostly just government contractors who are really, really good at the system. Then they subcontract, and that makes the process even more complicated. It’s very hard to build technology by committee.”
And as the problems with the system became apparent, we just shovelled more and more dollars at these same contractors, according to Reuters.
Our never-ending debates about the size of government have always been rather silly when you consider that in the end, quality is always more important than quantity. Good governance is so much more important than some arbitrary, ideologically informed notion of the government being too big or too small.
And the belief — common among conservatives — that the size of government is growing at a breakneck pace is almost laughable. In 2012, there were 355,000 fewer civilian workers in the federal government than there were in Ronald Reagan’s final year in office (and 800,000 fewer total personnel when you include the uniformed military). That’s despite 25 years of economic growth and the addition of several new programs.
It’s no accident – we’ve been shrinking down the government and outsourcing as many of its functions as we could for a generation now. The Clinton administration’s “Reinventing Government” initiative – which took place in two phases, known as REGO I and II – resulted in a whopping 17 percent reduction in the federal workforce. The effort conformed to a central belief of Clinton’s New Democrats: that old-school liberals had become too enamored with public programs, and harnessing the power of the “free market” would allow them to deliver better public services at a lower cost.
The initiative resulted in some innovations, like government data being made readily available over the Internet. But 20 years later, Donald Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, told Government Executive, an industry magazine,that it also caused some serious problems. “The reduction didn’t happen in a way that matched workforce needs because they used a strategy for downsizing to hit a target,” he said. “The effort got in the way of the ‘making government work better’ piece. Many with special skills left, and people who stayed might have been those we’d have wanted to leave.”
And here’s the kicker: According to a 1999 study of defense contracting by the Project on Government Oversight (PoGo), even as we were outsourcing a ton of work to the private sector, the agencies that had been “successful at reining in industry fraud” were those hit hardest by the cuts, including a 19 percent cut in staff at the Defense Contract Audit Agency, which had saved “almost $10 for each dollar invested,” and a 21 percent cut in the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office.
When George Bush came into office, his team wasn’t interested in most of Clinton’s “reinventing government” reforms. The exception was outsourcing. Paul Light, a professor of public policy at New York University, told Government Executive that the new administration hated bureaucracy, and championed “procurement reform,” stripping away more layers of oversight in order to further “streamline” the contracting process.
PoGo executive director Danielle Brianwrote in 2007 that all these “changes to procurement law so undermined taxpayer protections that, as many IG inspections are revealing, the contracting system is now rife with waste and abuse. The system lacks real transparency and accountability, and freezes out many smaller firms through extraordinarily weak competition requirements. And some contracting practices, once considered to be unlawful, are now business as usual.”
(Whatever the impact all this outsourcing has had on the delivery of public services, there’s no question it was an effective union-busting technique. That’s just basic math: we’ve moved hundreds of thousands of jobs out of the public sector, with its 36 percent rate of union membership, to the private sector, where only 6.6 percent of the workforce belongs to a union.)
Nobody can say with any certainty that the rollout of healthcare.gov would have gone smoother absent those two decades of so-called “reforms.” But looking at the oversight problems and the tangled web of contractors and subcontractors that had their hand in the process, it’s certainly fair to say that “reinventing government” by gutting it doesn’t appear to have lived up to its promise.
Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA), center, speaks at a news conference with conservative Congressional Republicans who persuaded the House leadership to include defunding the Affordable Care Act in legislation to prevent a government shutdown, at the Capitol in September. From left to right are Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA), Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Much of the coverage of the government showdown has focused on a relatively small group of hardline conservatives within the Republican caucus who have backed their party’s leaders into a fight they didn’t want.
As Ryan Lizza noted in The New Yorker, these lawmakers mostly represent very safe, heavily Republican and disproportionately white districts that don’t look much like the rest of the country. Many of those on the front lines are recent arrivals to Capitol Hill, and they’re pushing a leadership they see as having been too willing to compromise with Democrats in the past.
It’s an important angle. Yet it also obscures what should be an obvious question: Since when do freshmen senators or one- or two-term reps push their congressional leadership around? Historically, it’s been the reverse. And since when does a newcomer to the Senate such as Ted Cruz (R-TX) have the right to tell House Republicans what to do? If there’s only a relatively small group of lawmakers who think defunding the law is a dandy idea, why has every budget resolution with such a provision won more than 200 Republican votes in the House of Representatives during the showdown? Why is this supposedly silent majority of Republicans so docile? Why don’t they push back?
The answer lies in the clout wielded by an extensive web of non-governmental conservative groups supported by mountains of dark money. Those groups see the Affordable Care Act as an existential threat to their worldview and their party and have waged a multipronged campaign to kill it in its cradle. Theirs is the ultimate inside/ outside strategy: They fund primary challenges from the right by upstart candidates against incumbents they view as insufficiently pure. When those true believers get into office, these groups promote them relentlessly to the party’s activist base – filling their re-election coffers with donations by portraying them as courageous mavericks fighting against ossified “RINOS” (Republicans in Name Only). They mount “public education” campaigns and buy ad blitzes, and they coordinate messaging among friendly voices within the conservative media.
Shortly after President Obama started his second term, a loose-knit coalition of conservative activists led by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III gathered in the capital to plot strategy. Their push to repeal Mr. Obama’s health care law was going nowhere, and they desperately needed a new plan.
Out of that session, held one morning in a location the members insist on keeping secret, came a little-noticed “blueprint to defunding Obamacare,” signed by Mr. Meese and leaders of more than three dozen conservative groups.
It articulated a take-no-prisoners legislative strategy that had long percolated in conservative circles: that Republicans could derail the health care overhaul if conservative lawmakers were willing to push fellow Republicans — including their cautious leaders — into cutting off financing for the entire federal government.
With a broad, well-funded campaign, these groups have effectively shifted the balance of power in conservative Washington away from Republican leaders on the Hill and onto a cadre of true believers who will go to any length to destroy a modest set of health care reforms that, just 20 years ago, the very same conservative movement was itself advancing.
So just looking at the rank-and-file members of the “suicide caucus” isn’t enough – it’s like focusing on the marionette rather than the puppet-master.