Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Last Gasp of American Democracy

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This is our last gasp as a democracy. The state’s wholesale intrusion into our lives and obliteration of privacy are now facts. And the challenge to us—one of the final ones, I suspect—is to rise up in outrage and halt this seizure of our rights to liberty and free expression. If we do not do so we will see ourselves become a nation of captives.

The public debates about the government’s measures to prevent terrorism, the character assassination of Edward Snowden and his supporters, the assurances by the powerful that no one is abusing the massive collection and storage of our electronic communications miss the point. Any state that has the capacity to monitor all its citizenry, any state that has the ability to snuff out factual public debate through control of information, any state that has the tools to instantly shut down all dissent is totalitarian. Our corporate state may not use this power today. But it will use it if it feels threatened by a population made restive by its corruption, ineptitude and mounting repression. The moment a popular movement arises—and one will arise—that truly confronts our corporate masters, our venal system of total surveillance will be thrust into overdrive.

The most radical evil, as Hannah Arendtpointed out, is the political system that effectively crushes its marginalized and harassed opponents and, through fear and the obliteration of privacy, incapacitates everyone else. Our system of mass surveillance is the machine by which this radical evil will be activated. If we do not immediately dismantle the security and surveillance apparatus, there will be no investigative journalism or judicial oversight to address abuse of power. There will be no organized dissent. There will be no independent thought. Criticisms, however tepid, will be treated as acts of subversion. And the security apparatus will blanket the body politic like black mold until even the banal and ridiculous become concerns of national security. 

I saw evil of this kind as a reporter in the Stasistate of East Germany. I was followed by men, invariably with crew cuts and wearing leather jackets, whom I presumed to be agents of the Stasi—the Ministry for State Security, which the ruling Communist Party described as the “shield and sword” of the nation. People I interviewed were visited by Stasi agents soon after I left their homes. My phone was bugged. Some of those I worked with were pressured to become informants. Fear hung like icicles over every conversation.

The Stasi did not set up massive death camps and gulags. It did not have to. The Stasi, with a network of as many as 2 million informants in a country of 17 million, was everywhere. There were 102,000 secret police officers employed full time to monitor the population—one for every 166 East Germans. The Nazis broke bones; the Stasi broke souls. The East German government pioneered the psychological deconstructionthat torturers and interrogators in America’s black sites, and within our prison system, have honed to a gruesome perfection.

The goal of wholesale surveillance, as Arendt wrote in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” is not, in the end, to discover crimes, “but to be on hand when the government decides to arrest a certain category of the population.” And because Americans’ emails, phone conversations, Web searches and geographical movements are recorded and stored in perpetuity in government databases, there will be more than enough “evidence” to seize us should the state deem it necessary. This information waits like a deadly virus inside government vaults to be turned against us. It does not matter how trivial or innocent that information is. In totalitarian states, justice, like truth, is irrelevant.

The object of efficient totalitarian states, as George Orwell understood, is to create a climate in which people do not think of rebelling, a climate in which government killing and torture are used against only a handful of unmanageable renegades. The totalitarian state achieves this control, Arendt wrote, by systematically crushing human spontaneity, and by extension human freedom. It ceaselessly peddles fear to keep a population traumatized and immobilized. It turns the courts, along with legislative bodies, into mechanisms to legalize the crimes of state.

The corporate state, in our case, has used the law to quietly abolish the Fourth and Fifth amendments of the Constitution, which were established to protect us from unwarranted intrusion by the government into our private lives. The loss of judicial and political representation and protection, part of the corporate coup d’├ętat, means that we have no voice and no legal protection from the abuses of power. The recent rulingsupporting the National Security Agency’s spying, handed down by U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III, is part of a very long and shameful list of judicial decisions that have repeatedly sacrificed our most cherished constitutional rights on the altar of national security since the attacks of 9/11. The courts and legislative bodies of the corporate state now routinely invert our most basic rights to justify corporate pillage and repression. They declare that massive and secret campaign donations—a form of legalized bribery—are protected speech under the First Amendment. They define corporate lobbying—under which corporations lavish funds on elected officials and write our legislation—as the people’s right to petition the government. And we can, according to new laws and legislation, be tortured or assassinated or locked up indefinitely by the military, be denied due process and be spied upon without warrants. Obsequious courtiers posing as journalists dutifully sanctify state power and amplify its falsehoods—MSNBC does this as slavishly as Fox News—while also filling our heads with the inanity of celebrity gossip and trivia. Our culture wars, which allow politicians and pundits to hyperventilate over nonsubstantive issues, mask a political system that has ceased to function. History, art, philosophy, intellectual inquiry, our past social and individual struggles for justice, the very world of ideas and culture, along with an understanding of what it means to live and participate in a functioning democracy, are thrust into black holes of forgetfulness.

The political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, in his essential book “Democracy Incorporated,” calls our system of corporate governance “inverted totalitarianism,” which represents “the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry.” It differs from classical forms of totalitarianism, which revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader; it finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. The corporate forces behind inverted totalitarianism do not, as classical totalitarian movements do, replace decaying structures with new structures. They instead purport to honor electoral politics, freedom of expression and the press, the right to privacy and the guarantees of law. But they so corrupt and manipulate electoral politics, the courts, the press and the essential levers of power as to make genuine democratic participation by the masses impossible. The U.S. Constitution has not been rewritten, but steadily emasculated through radical judicial and legislative interpretation. We have been left with a fictitious shell of democracy and a totalitarian core. And the anchor of this corporate totalitarianism is the unchecked power of our systems of internal security.

Our corporate totalitarian rulers deceive themselves as often as they deceive the public. Politics, for them, is little more than public relations. Lies are told not to achieve any discernable goal of public policy, but to protect the image of the state and its rulers. These lies have become a grotesque form of patriotism. The state’s ability through comprehensive surveillance to prevent outside inquiry into the exercise of power engenders a terrifying intellectual and moral sclerosis within the ruling elite. Absurd notions such as implanting “democracy” in Baghdad by force in order to spread it across the region or the idea that we can terrorize radical Islam across the Middle East into submission are no longer checked by reality, experience or factually based debate. Data and facts that do not fit into the whimsical theories of our political elites, generals and intelligence chiefs are ignored and hidden from public view. The ability of the citizenry to take self-corrective measures is effectively stymied. And in the end, as in all totalitarian systems, the citizens become the victims of government folly, monstrous lies, rampant corruption and state terror. 

  The Romanian poet Paul Celancaptured the slow ingestion of an ideological poison—in his case fascism—in his poem “Death Fugue”: 

Black milk of dawn we drink it at dusk 
we drink it at noon and at daybreak we drink it at night 
we drink it and drink it 
we are digging a grave in the air there’s room for us all
We, like those in all emergent totalitarian states, have been mentally damaged by a carefully orchestrated historical amnesia, a state-induced stupidity. We increasingly do not remember what it means to be free. And because we do not remember, we do not react with appropriate ferocity when it is revealed that our freedom has been taken from us. The structures of the corporate state must be torn down. Its security apparatus must be destroyed. And those who defend corporate totalitarianism, including the leaders of the two major political parties, fatuous academics, pundits and a bankrupt press, must be driven from the temples of power. Mass street protests and prolonged civil disobedience are our only hope. A failure to rise up—which is what the corporate state is counting upon—will see us enslaved.

A Simple Economic Truth America's Super Rich Don't Want Us to Know About

The truth about how different types of tax cuts really impact American society.

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For the past 32 years, Americans have been living a lie. It's a lie that helps out rich people and screws working people, and it's a lie that needs to be called out.

The people promoting this lie - most all of them rich people themselves - have been so good at promoting this lie that pretty much everybody believes it. It's even asserted as fact, without contradiction, in the mainstream media. But it's a lie.

The lie is that raising income taxes on rich people and hugely profitable companies hurts economies and even leads to unemployment. The truth is that raising income taxes on rich people and hugely profitable companies actually helps economies and causes companies to hire more and more people, thus lowering unemployment.

What makes this lie particularly relevant right now is that the French Constitutional Council - their court that decides what's constitutional and what's not - has just agreed with the new socialist government that it's totally legal to raise the very top income tax rates on very wealthy individuals and hugely profitable corporations to 50 percent (effectively 75 percent when you add in their other taxes like our FICA that funds healthcare and retirement).

The lie that tax increases - like the one the French Constitutional Court just approved - raise unemployment, and that tax cuts reduce unemployment, is widely believed because, like so many Big Lies, it has a small germ of truth at its center. That germ of truth is that when people who spend all (or nearly all) of their income every year - poor people and working-class people - have a little more money in their pocket, they spend it. That increases economic activity - there's more demand for goods and services. To meet that demand, employers hire more workers.

So, you'd think that if you cut the taxes on poor and low-wage people, they'd have more money, which they'd spend, and it would stimulate the economy. That's true - except for one thing, which is the germ of the lie that rich people use to get everybody to think that tax cuts for rich people help economies.

And here's that lie. While it would be true that if you cut income taxes on the poor and low-end working people so they had more money in their pockets it would stimulate the economy, it's impossible. Why is it impossible? Because, as Rush Limbaugh and Mitt Romney point out as often as possible, the bottom 47 percent of American workers make so little money that they don't pay any income taxes. So there's nothing to cut. When Republicans talk about tax cuts, they're not talking about tax cuts for working people.

But what about cutting taxes on rich people? Wouldn't that give them more money to spend - or even invest - which would stimulate economic growth? That's the core, of course, of the tax religion of Limbaugh (who has a reported $400 million contract) and Romney (who was reported to have paid no taxes for years on hundreds of millions in income). Cut rich people's taxes, they say, and the good times will roll!

The thing that makes this a lie is that rich people behave differently from poor and working class people. When they get extra money from tax cuts, they don't spend it. After all, they already have pretty much everything they may want or need.

Instead, as we learned about Mitt Romney in 2012, they open bank accounts in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland and stash that money for future generations. Or, they'll buy an American company, like Sensata, and move it to China where they can get cheaper labor and pollute all they want. Or, since they got the money relatively easily and don't worry so much about losing it - after all, their basic needs are already covered - they gamble with it. They call it "investing in real estate and the market," but it's really just gambling.

None of this, of course, translates into America jobs.

And history backs this up.

In 1922, when Republican Warren Harding dropped the top tax rate from 73 percent down to 25 percent, it kicked off a gambling real estate and stock market bubble that burst in 1929. President Roosevelt fixed that by raising the top tax rate on the uber-rich back up to over 90 percent, which led to over 40 years of stability and prosperity. Rich people left their money in their companies, and only took 30 times what their employees did as pay. The economy boomed, and the middle class prospered.

Then Reagan dropped the top tax rate down to 28 percent, leading within a year to the worst recession since the Great Depression, followed by the Savings and Loans crisis.

Bill Clinton took the top income tax rate back up to 39 percent and - presto - the economy boomed. But then Bush junior came into office, cut it back down, and we got another crash. And lots of unemployment.

It's a simple point of fact. Four times since 1913 we've had big tax cuts on the rich, and two led to major crashes, while the other two led to stagnation for working people. All, however, made the rich a lot richer.

And when taxes have gone up? As author Larry Beinhart points out [3], "Since 1950 we have had five tax increases on the rich. Four out of five times unemployment went down." Things got better, in other words, for working people.

The flip side, as Beinhart points out, is that, "Since 1950 we have had ten cuts to the top marginal [tax] rate. Six out of ten times unemployment has gone up." Tax cuts for the rich, in other words, screw working people at least 60 percent of the time, and never help working people.

When Ronald Reagan came into office, taxes on rich people were over 70 percent, and the American middle class was the strongest it's ever been. Ever since the Reagan tax cuts, however, we've been lurching from bubble to bubble, economic crisis to economic crisis.

The French have figured it out that if you want a stable economy, you need to tax the rich. That's why their version of the Supreme Court just OK'ed a big new tax on the wealthiest people in France. The countries of Scandinavia have been taxing their billionaires and millionaires for over a half a century, and doing so has worked great for places like Sweden and Denmark. And the history of much of the 20th century shows that taxing the rich works right here in America, too.

So if we really want an economy that works, then we need do just one simple thing: ignore the Republican lies and roll back the Reagan tax cuts.

Life in the Electronic Concentration Camp

The Many Ways That You’re Being Tracked, Catalogued and Controlled

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“[A security camera] doesn’t respond to complaint, threats, or insults. Instead, it just watches you in a forbidding manner. Today, the surveillance state is so deeply enmeshed in our data devices that we don’t even scream back because technology companies have convinced us that we need to be connected to them to be happy.”—Pratap Chatterjee, journalist

What is most striking about the American police state is not the mega-corporations running amok in the halls of Congress, the militarized police crashing through doors and shooting unarmed citizens, or the invasive surveillance regime which has come to dominate every aspect of our lives. No, what has been most disconcerting about the emergence of the American police state is the extent to which the citizenry appears content to passively wait for someone else to solve our nation’s many problems. Unless Americans are prepared to engage in militant nonviolent resistance in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi, true reform, if any, will be a long time coming.

Yet as I detail in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, if we don’t act soon, all that is in need of fixing will soon be unfixable, especially as it relates to the police state that becomes more entrenched with each passing day. By “police state,” I am referring to more than a society overrun by the long arm of the police. I am referring to a society in which all aspects of a person’s life are policed by government agents, one in which all citizens are suspects, their activities monitored and regulated, their movements tracked, their communications spied upon, and their lives, liberties and pursuit of happiness dependent on the government’s say-so.

That said, how can anyone be expected to “fix” what is broken unless they first understand the lengths to which the government with its arsenal of technology is going in order to accustom the American people to life in a police state and why being spied on by government agents, both state and federal, as well as their partners in the corporate world, is a problem, even if you’ve done nothing wrong.

Indeed, as the trend towards overcriminalization makes clear, it won’t be long before the average law-abiding American is breaking laws she didn’t even know existed during the course of a routine day. The point, of course, is that while you may be oblivious to your so-called law-breaking—whether it was collecting rainwater to water your lawn, lighting a cigarette in the privacy of your home, or gathering with friends in your backyard for a Sunday evening Bible study—the government will know each and every transgression and use them against you.

As noted by the Brookings Institution, “For the first time ever, it will become technologically and financially feasible for authoritarian governments to record nearly everything that is said or done within their borders — every phone conversation, electronic message, social media interaction, the movements of nearly every person and vehicle, and video from every street corner.”

As the following will show, the electronic concentration camp, as I have dubbed the surveillance state, is perhaps the most insidious of the police state’s many tentacles, impacting almost every aspect of our lives and making it that much easier for the government to encroach on our most vital freedoms, ranging from free speech, assembly and the press to due process, privacy, and property, by eavesdropping on our communications, tracking our movements and spying on our activities.

Tracking you based on your consumer activities: Fusion centers, federal-state law enforcement partnerships which attempt to aggregate a variety of data on so-called “suspicious persons,” have actually collected reports on people buying pallets of bottled water, photographing government buildings, and applying for a pilot’s license as “suspicious activity.” Retailers are getting in on the surveillance game as well. Large corporations such as Target have been tracking and assessing the behavior of their customers, particularly their purchasing patterns, for years. In 2015, mega-food corporations will be rolling out high-tech shelving outfitted with cameras in order to track the shopping behavior of customers, as well as information like the age and sex of shoppers.

Tracking you based on your public activities: Sensing a booming industry, private corporations are jumping on the surveillance state bandwagon, negotiating lucrative contracts with police agencies throughout the country in order to create a web of surveillance that encompasses all major urban centers. Companies such as NICE and Bright Planet are selling equipment and services to police departments with the promise of monitoring large groups of people seamlessly, as in the case of protests and rallies. They are also engaging in extensive online surveillance, looking for any hints of “large public events, social unrest, gang communications, and criminally predicated individuals.” Defense contractors are attempting to take a bite out of this lucrative market as well. Raytheon has recently developed a software package known as Riot, which promises to predict the future behavior of an individual based upon his social media posts.

Tracking you based on your phone activities: The CIA has been paying AT&T over $10 million per year in order to gain access to data on Americans’ phone calls abroad. This is in addition to telecommunications employees being embedded in government facilities to assist with quick analysis of call records and respond to government requests for customer location data. They receive hundreds of thousands of such requests per year.

Tracking you based on your computer activities: Federal agents now employ a number of hacking methods in order to gain access to your computer activities and “see” whatever you’re seeing on your monitor. Malicious hacking software can be installed via a number of inconspicuous methods, including USB, or via an email attachment or software update. It can then be used to search through files stored on a hard drive, log keystrokes, or take real time screenshots of whatever a person is looking at on their computer, whether personal files, web pages, or email messages. It can also be used to remotely activate cameras and microphones, offering another means of glimpsing into the personal business of a target.

Tracking you based on your behavior: Thanks to a torrent of federal grants, police departments across the country are able to fund outrageous new surveillance systems that turn the most basic human behaviors into suspicious situations to be studied and analyzed. Police in California, Massachusetts, and New York have all received federal funds to create systems like that operated by the New York Police Department, which “links 3,000 surveillance cameras with license plate readers, radiation sensors, criminal databases and terror suspect lists.” Police all across the country are also now engaging in big data mining operations, often with the help of private companies, in order to develop city-wide nets of surveillance. For example, police in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, now work with IBM in order to “integrate new data and analytics tools into everyday crime fighting.”

Tracking you based on your face: Facial recognition software promises to create a society in which every individual who steps out into public is tracked and recorded as they go about their daily business. The goal is for government agents to be able to scan a crowd of people and instantaneously identify all of the individuals present. Facial recognition programs are being rolled out in states all across the country (only twelve states do not use facial recognition software). For example, in Ohio, 30,000 police officers and court employees are able to access the driver’s license images of people in the state, without any form of oversight to track their views or why they’re accessing them. The FBI is developing a $1 billion program, Next Generation Identification, which involves creating a massive database of mugshots for police all across the country.

Tracking you based on your car: License plate readers, which can identify the owner of any car that comes within its sights, are growing in popularity among police agencies. Affixed to overpasses or cop cars, these devices give police a clear idea of where your car was at a specific date and time, whether the doctor’s office, the bar, the mosque, or at a political rally. State police in Virginia used license plate readers to record every single vehicle that arrived to President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 from Virginia. They also recorded the license plates of attendees at rallies prior to the election, including for then-candidate Obama and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. This data collection came at the request of the U.S. Secret Service. Incredibly, Virginia police stored data on some 8 million license plates, some for up to three years.

Tracking you based on your social media activities: The obsession with social media as a form of surveillance will have some frightening consequences in coming years. As Helen A.S. Popkin, writing for NBC News, has astutely observed, “We may very well face a future where algorithms bust people en masse for referencing illegal ‘Game of Thrones’ downloads, or run sweeps for insurance companies seeking non-smokers confessing to lapsing back into the habit. Instead of that one guy getting busted for a lame joke misinterpreted as a real threat, the new software has the potential to roll, Terminator-style, targeting every social media user with a shameful confession or questionable sense of humor.”

Tracking you based on your metadata: Metadata is an incredibly invasive set of data to have on a person. Indeed, with access to one’s metadata, one can “identify people’s friends and associates, detect where they were at a certain time, acquire clues to religious or political affiliations, and pick up sensitive information like regular calls to a psychiatrist’s office, late-night messages to an extramarital partner or exchanges with a fellow plotter.” The National Security Agency (NSA) has been particularly interested in metadata, compiling information on Americans’ social connections “that can identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions and other personal information.” Mainway, the main NSA tool used to connect the dots on American social connections, collected 700 million phone records per day in 2011. That number increased by 1.1 billion in August 2011. The NSA is now working on creating “a metadata repository capable of taking in 20 billion ‘record events’ daily and making them available to N.S.A. analysts within 60 minutes.”

Tracking you from the skies: Nothing, and I mean nothing, will escape government eyes, especially when drones take to the skies in 2015. These gadgets, ranging from the colossal to the miniature, will have the capability of seeing through the walls of your home and tracking your every movement.

To put it bluntly, we are living in an electronic concentration camp. Through a series of imperceptible steps, we have willingly allowed ourselves to become enmeshed in a system that knows the most intimate details of our lives, analyzes them, and treats us accordingly. Whether via fear of terrorism, narcissistic pleasure, or lazy materialism, we have slowly handed over our information to all sorts of entities, corporate and governmental, public and private, who are now using that information to cow and control us for their profit. As George Orwell warned, “You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

Thus, we have arrived in Orwell’s world. The question now is: will we take a stand and fight to remain free or will we go gently into the concentration camp?