The World According to Nick
Politics, News, Photography, and Triathlons... What don't I talk about?
Monday, 17 October 2011
Can Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party Find Common Ground?

Saturday, after a long bike ride in the wind up to Holy Hill and back, I decided to take my camera downtown to witness "Occupy Milwaukee". What I saw was a group of people who were outraged... about many things:

There were also Ron Paul supporters, Che Guevara fans, Recall Walker supporters, and many others. From everything I saw, it was a very peaceful protest where the police mostly stood on the outskirts and watched what was happening. Mostly what I saw was a group of people who were angry at what happened to our economy. There were some with proposed solutions, like Taxing the Rich, but many were just pissed.

What's interesting here is the reaction by many of those who supported Tea Parties. Sometimes I think it can be hard to tell the difference between the two. It shouldn't be surprising either... for as much as neither side wants to admit it (and it seems like they really don't), the two were angry about many of the same things. TARP and bailouts of the banks by government? Check. Coercion of an entire industry to force people to use their product? Check... sort of. Lack of accountability by anyone for their actions? Double check.

The real difference between the two is where the two groups directed their anger, and who they blamed. The Tea Parties are angry at the government for bailing out industries that are failing, and running up huge taxpayer bills. The Occupy Wall Street folks are angry at failing industries for taking government money, and using their influence to continually ask for more. But those are really two sides of the same coin. Crony Capitalism using Government Power for personal profit. Everyone should be against that.

Now, there are some people who want to take punitive measures... and some people who instead of simply demanding that this corruption stop, want their bailout too. Now, I don't agree with them, but I can't necessarily blame them too. They're unemployed, or their house got foreclosed on... why can't they get bailed out too? Two wrongs don't make a right... but that doesn't mean that people don't think it feels good.

What I have a difficult time understanding is the lack of willingness on both sides to find that common cause. Members of the Tea Party are angrier at the government for Crony Capitalism than they are at companies that collude with the government. When ObamaCare was being debated, how many Tea Party groups did anything to show anger at the insurance companies that were lobbying the government for the individual mandate? I often times hear people talking about how corporations are just responding to the market distortions that government creates... but I hear very little about how many companies actually lobby to create those distortions!

And likewise, the folks involved with the Occupy *blank* movement are angrier at various corporations for taking the money, than they are at the government for giving it out. In fact, they want the government to get more involved in the economy, and somehow through magic, or unicorns with special powers, they think that the cronyism will stop this time. The Occupy *blank* crowd seem to be keen on getting corporate money out of politics, but have been pretty quiet on the fact that Obama has taken more of it than any President in history.

Can Tea Partiers look at ways to hold companies responsible for cronyism? Can Occupy Wall Street look at ways to hold government accountable for misspent funds? I feel like there is a common ground to be found, if we can look at the common problem... crony capitalism... before looking for solutions.

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Monday, 10 October 2011
The United States Really Does Have a Secret Death Panel

The United States government has a panel of people who can decide to kill you, but we don't know who those people are. There is a panel who can decide to kill you, but we don't know how they make that decision. You can't appeal their verdict. You can't defend yourself. You can't see the evidence against you. Sarah Palin warned of death panels because of Obama Care... but it is our War on Terrorism that has lead the United States government to decide that it can kill you whenever it wants.

American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions, according to officials.

There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House's National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.

Lord knows that al-Awlaki is not a sympathetic character. But he is an American citizen, and the evidence that he actually participated in terrorist attacks was far from solid:

The Obama administration has not made public an accounting of the classified evidence that Awlaki was operationally involved in planning terrorist attacks.

But officials acknowledged that some of the intelligence purporting to show Awlaki's hands-on role in plotting attacks was patchy.
There is no doubt Abdulmutallab was an admirer or follower of Awlaki, since he admitted that to U.S. investigators. . . . But at the time the White House was considering putting Awlaki on the U.S. target list, intelligence connecting Awlaki specifically to Abdulmutallab and his alleged bomb plot was partial. Officials said at the time the United States had voice intercepts involving a phone known to have been used by Awlaki and someone who they believed, but were not positive, was Abdulmutallab.

As Glenn Greenwald said so well:

What's crucial to keep in mind is that nobody can see this "evidence" which these anonymous government officials are claiming exists.  It's in their exclusive possession.  As a result, they're able to characterize it however they want, to present it in the best possible light to support their pro-assassination position, and to prevent any detection of its flaws.  As any lawyer will tell you, anyone can make a case for anything when they're in exclusive possession of all the relevant evidence and are the only side from whom one is hearing; all evidence becomes less compelling when it's subjected to adversarial scrutiny.  Yet even given all those highly favorable pro-government conditions here, it's obvious - even these officials admit - that the evidence is "partial," "patchy," based on "suspicions" rather than knowledge.

Frankly, I think the evidence is likely even less reliable and more patchy than is being let on. After all, with all the controversy that this has generated, if the government did have a slam dunk case against him, they would be waving it in the air. If you have nothing to fear, then you would alleviate all those concerns, and let everyone see your evidence. And remember that al-Awlaki was never convicted, nor even accused in court of single crime. As Ron Paul said:

"I don't think that's a good way to deal with our problems," Paul told reporters. "Al-Awlaki was born here; he is an American citizen. He was never tried or charged for any crimes. No one knows if he killed anybody. We know he might have been associated with the underwear bomber. But if the American people accept this blindly and casually that we now have an accepted practice of the president assassinating people who he thinks are bad guys, I think it's sad.

"I think what would people have said about Timothy McVeigh? We didn't assassinate him, who we were pretty certain that he had done it. Went and put through the courts then executed him. To start assassinating American citizens without charges, we should think very seriously about this."

Yes, al-Awalki was not in the United States. But we have ways of handling that. He could have been tried in absentia. Hell, the least we could have tried to do was to put out an international arrest warrant against him, but it doesn't even seem that the United States government could even be bothered to carry out that tiny bit of formality against one of it's own citizens. al-Awalki was not even in an active combat zone. If he can be killed in a country we are not at war with, where else can they assassinate people without evidence?

Harold Koh, the State Department's legal adviser, says such attacks are justified by international law and by the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Congress passed after the September 11 attacks. "The United States is in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, as well as the Taliban and associated forces," Koh says. "Individuals who are part of such an armed group are belligerents and, therefore, lawful targets."

But unlike a conventional war, this "armed conflict" is fought on a "battlefield" that spans the globe by "belligerents" who do not wear uniforms and are not readily identified. Hence Koh's reasonable-sounding law-of-war argument amounts to claiming that the executive branch has the unreviewable authority to kill enemies that it unilaterally identifies anywhere in the world.

The geographic reach of this license to kill exceeds even that of an old-fashioned tyrant accustomed to shouting, "Off with his head!" Imagine how the U.S. would react if a foreign government claimed it had the right to kill people on the streets of New York because it considered them "belligerents."

Not that it takes much work these days to go to war with a country. After all, Obama declared war on Libya without the consent of Congress, and shopped around for an opinion to justify it, why not do the same against Yemen, and just make that an active combat zone. See how easy it all is these days? Decide on the outcome first, and then figure out how to justify it later. We don't need laws, or the Constitution for any of this anymore. That is all far too inconvenient.

If you're Patrick Dorwin at Badger Blogger, the idea that a United States citizen should be tried in court, or maybe even given the least protection of the Constitution makes you "pro-terrorist". So you can't even question the methods. You can't question the policy of secret panels putting American citizens to death with secret evidence. This is the ultimate extreme of "you're either with us or you're against us", and it is a shameful thing to do. You may think he was somehow an enemy combatant, but to suggest that you're not even allowed to question the decision without being a terrorist lover is plain wrong.

Do I think that Americans, here in the United States could be put on a kill list and assassinated in our own borders? Lord, I hope not. But considering that you can now be put on a "Terrorist Watch List" and not know it... and that even if you are cleared in court of any wrongdoing, you may not necessarily be removed from it, I find it all more than troubling. These are the kinds of decisions that must be made in the complete light of day, because the consequences of them are the most extreme, and are the powers are the most easily abused.

We are going down a very bad road in this country, in many ways. Killing without conviction, and especially condemning those who even question the decision will only take us further down that horrible road. We must turn around while we still can.

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Thursday, 06 October 2011
Steve Jobs - The Man, The Myth, The Legend

As everyone in the world knows right now, Steve Jobs passed away yesterday. I'm writing this blog post while I watch Pirates of Silicon Valley, and remembering the history of one of the greatest battles in modern times... Microsoft vs. Apple. Of course that war is far from over... and that is not what is important to talk about now. But what did Steve Jobs do, and what does he represent? In many ways, Steve Jobs represents the best that America is and can be. Strangely enough, though many, if not most people would agree with that statement... if you described Steve Jobs and what he did without mentioning his name, those same people would likely think that unnamed man was a failure, and an unpatriotic businessman.

Steve Jobs never graduated college. The man he cofounded Apple with, Steve Wozniak, didn't graduate college until after Apple was well on its way to being a success. Oh by the way, Steve Jobs smoked pot too.

We remember Steve Jobs for his remarkable successes towards what ended up being the end of his life. The iPod, iPhone and iPad are what every other company aspires to create, and what people wait in lines to buy. Of course, Steve Jobs was also at the helm of some remarkable failures early in his career. There was the predecessor to the Macintosh, the Lisa. And of course, after Jobs was fired from Apple, he started a new computer company called NeXT Computer which went nowhere. What made Steve Jobs a great businessman was not to throw away that which failed, or deny the failure, but to accept the failure, learn what went wrong and fix it, while keeping those new ideas that made something great.

At his core, Steve Jobs was a businessman, but he never really invented anything. What he did was perfect things. He also knew the true value of things. And that latter skill is the one that made Steve Jobs truly successful. He took concepts that other companies never thought would be successful, or never could be sold to regular people, and saw what they did not. Because they never valued what they created, they sold it to him cheaply, and he turned around and did something great with it.

Steve Jobs did not invent the MP3 player, though he certainly did what no other company was able to do... make it truly useable. And then he did what he'd never been able to successfully do before with it... sell computers. Steve Jobs did not invent the telephone, but he found a way to merge it with other technologies to create a new something that nobody can think of living without. In an age where people seem convinced that a company should succeed and people don't understand why consumers won't buy a product even though a few people think its great... Steve Jobs figured out what people actually wanted and sold it to them. No pressure... no demands. He made great products, and so people naturally wanted them.

Of course, there was a time when Apple was in trouble. Perhaps some people remember what happened almost 15 years ago... when the enemy himself, Bill Gates, literally looked over Steve Jobs on the screen and took part ownership of his company and helped save it:

Of course, looking back on it today, its surprising that ever needed to happen. And if you look at that time as the lowest point in the war... you can say that Apple has certainly fought back and in many ways is winning. Once again, Steve Jobs did what every great businessman does. He learned from his failures, kept what worked, and changed what didn't.

For a more personal view of Steve Jobs, I suggest you read this piece from All Things D, and Engadget looks back on Steve Jobs in his own words.

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Thursday, 08 September 2011
Is Fraud Required to Make Social Security a Ponzi Scheme?

There has been renewed debate, after some comments leading up to last night's Republican Debate, as to whether or not Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme. When defending Social Security against this particular claim, it's supporters generally include a list of attributes of a Ponzi Scheme, and how Social Security doesn't meet the criteria. But before we get too much into this, what exactly is a Ponzi Scheme? Here is one good definition I found:

A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to separate investors, not from any actual profit earned by the organization, but from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors.

Fairly straight forward. It is a scheme in which no real investment occurs, but instead money is paid to early entrants by later entrants into the scheme. As long as money keeps getting paid into the system by later entrants, then the scheme continues paying the earlier entrants. Now, so far, I think that Social Security meets this definition. No real investment actually occurs in this scheme. While some people may consider "Treasury Bonds" to be an investment, all you're actually doing is funding government operations on the promise of later payments from future taxpayers, who also have to buy into Social Security. So those general tax revenues to pay off the Treasury Bonds, combined with the Social Security taxes paid by current workers, pay for the benefits of past workers.

The one thing that many people argue make Social Security differ from a Ponzi Scheme is the notion of fraud. It is argued, correctly, that Social Security is not fraudulent, because regular public reports are made regarding all these income sources and payments. However, is fraud a necessary attribute of a Ponzi Scheme? The real question is, why is fraud one of the attributes of a Ponzi Scheme?

The answer lies in the fact that a Ponzi Scheme is voluntary. People voluntarily invest their money into the scheme, because they believe it is a real investment with a good rate of return. The fraud is only necessary to fool people into buying it. In fact, once the reality of the scheme is discovered by investors, and they stop paying in, the scheme collapses. This idea begs the question... is there an alternate way to get people to invest into a Ponzi Scheme that doesn't require fraud?  The answer is yes, and is how Social Security operates. Also unlike a typical Ponzi Scheme, Social Security is not voluntary. This is why fraud is not a necessary component to the system, because there is no choice but to invest.

To truly answer the question as to whether Social Security is or isn't a Ponzi Scheme, one merely needs to ask what would happen if Social Security stopped being mandatory, and instead was a voluntary system. With all the information known about how Social Security operates, would people continue to voluntarily pay into the system? More importantly, if people stopped paying into the system, would it collapse? The answer to the latter question is a resounding yes, and the answer to the former is probably.

In fact, when possible solutions to Social Security's solvency are discussed, one of the popular options is to raise the Social Security tax. A normal Ponzi Scheme operator would never be able to get away with this once the scheme began it's downfall. Only a system where payment was not voluntary could say that current entrants must pay more to keep the early investors solvent. A normal voluntary Ponzi Scheme would collapse. The Social Security Ponzi Scheme on the other hand merely forces the current "investors" to pay more.

And that is why Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme even without an element of fraud.

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Saturday, 27 August 2011
Cyclists are Banned from Mayfair

As some of you know, I ride with a great group in Wauwatosa called the Tosa Spokesmen. This morning, we were riding from Cafe Hollander in the Village to Pewaukee Lake. Part of our standard route is to take North Ave. west, and then cut over to Center St. through the Mayfair Mall parking lot. This morning, we had a rather large group of 20 cyclists, and got to Mayfair around 7:15 AM. At this time on a Saturday of course, the mall is closed, and the parking lot was completely empty. So we did as we normally do, and turned into the parking lot off of North Ave. at 104th St. and stayed to the western eastern edge of the parking lot heading towards the northern edge so we could cross Hwy 100 onto Center St. at the stop light.

About halfway through the parking lot, a mall cop drove up next to us, not on a Segway unfortunately, but in a sedan. He told us through his car window that this was private property and that cyclists weren't allowed. We told him that we'd be exiting the mall at Center St. and be out of his hair soon. He then drove up next to us again closer to Center St. and told us once again that it was private property, and we weren't welcome.

Now then, it's difficult to say what his problem was. First of all, we've been using this method to avoid Hwy 100 and North Ave. for years without trouble. And as I said before, the mall was closed, and the parking lot was empty. We were disturbing nobody. Whatever his reasons, he made it perfectly clear that cyclists are not welcome at Mayfair Mall.

So I would heed their warning. Do not ride your bike to Mayfair for any reason, especially if you plan on shopping there. In fact, if you own a bike and enjoy riding it, I would suggest you stay clear from Mayfair Mall as well. They may not let you in if they find out you own a bike.

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Friday, 05 August 2011
We Do Run Our Criminal Justice System Like We Run Our Elections

Roland Melnick, over at Badger Blogger, wonders what would happen if we ran our criminal justice system like our elections operate. His assertion, using Sandy Pasch as an example, is that we let people running for office get away with lying and cheating, even if those lies get them elected. He then goes on to compare this to the "exclusionary rule" in the criminal justice system, and argues about how terrible it would be in our criminal justice system if we let the police get away with lying and cheating, and still let the evidence into court, and convict criminals. He asks why we can't hold our elections to the same standards that we hold in the justice system? I'm assuming that he would like to see election candidates "excluded" from running if caught in some act of election related misbehavior.

The problem with his assertion is that the "exclusionary rule", while in existence in theory, doesn't exist in practice, and so the criminal justice system already works just like he says our elections currently do. In theory, the exclusionary rule is supposed to be a check on police abuse. If the police don't get a warrant for a search, or perform some other act where evidence is illegally obtained, it is supposed to be suppressed during a trial. And of course, most people actually believe this happens. After all, you see motions to suppress succeed all the time... on television shows like Law & Order. If only real life were actually like television.

The reality is that the exclusionary rule has taken a beating over time, and that so many exceptions exist to the exclusionary rule, that it might as well not exist anymore to give false hope to defendants who have suffered at the hands of abusive police tactics. One district judge described it this way:

The district judge stated that the granting of motions to suppress was 'almost as rare as hen's teeth. I think I have done two in ten years and none in federal court.'

This was an especially sad note:

In a major metropolitan public defender's office, if you win a suppression motion, someone in the office will bring cake.  It's that big of a deal.

One major exception to the exclusionary rule is the good faith exception, described this way:

There are numerous exceptions to the exclusionary rule.  There's the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule.  Under the good faith exception, when an officer makes a mistake of law or fact, the evidence won't be excluded. The good faith exception has become so dominant that it's more accurate to say we have an exclusionary exception to the good faith rule.

And then came the Supreme Court's terrible decision in Herring vs. United States. In that case, they decided that evidence can't be thrown out when it was due to "isolated negligence". In fact, Antonin Scalia has said that the exclusionary rule doesn't need to exist any more because the police have shown "new professionalism" in the last 20 years that makes it unnecessary because they can police themselves. Of course, the idea that the police can police themselves is as laughable as the idea of an honest politician. There is the always present "blue wall of silence", and also the fact that police enjoy qualified immunity from being sued while performing their duties.

This isn't to say that all police are bad people... in fact for most police officers the exact opposite is true. But the police also are human beings that respond to incentives. When there is pressure on police to make a bust, and they know they can get away with cutting corners, they will. And the fact that the courts don't provide a much needed check on that abuse has been very costly to our criminal justice system. The result is that the police can, and often do, cut corners around your rights while performing investigations.

The fact that our election system behaves the same way is no surprise. After all, the same incentives still apply... and people who benefit from cutting corners in elections also make the rules for elections.

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Thursday, 04 August 2011
Irony in Violent Rhetoric

Monday was a very momentous occasion in Congress. Not only was a debt ceiling compromise bill passed (which didn't actually cut the budget at all, despite what you've heard), but it marked the return of Representative Gabby Giffords. This was her first vote after being shot in the head, and enduring a long, painful recovery process.

Most of us probably still remember the news of Gifford's shooting, and the great debates which took place afterwards concerning the "violent rhetoric" which lead up to the shooting. There were the debates over what words were appropriate... and some people even tried to pass bills outlawing the use of targets in ads and political speech. Democrats all around the country blamed Republicans and their violent language for her shooting. The violent rhetoric, we were told, had to be eliminated before anyone else was hurt.

So you'll understand the irony I see in the fact that so much violent rhetoric is now being thrown in the direction of the Tea Party (and other Republicans) regarding the Debt Ceiling vote... the very first vote Gabby Giffords made after she was shot. They've been called terrorists, Hezbollah, suicide bombers, Satanic... and probably worse, if that's possible. They say that the memories of voters is short, and apparently the memory of politicians is even shorter.

"What happened to civility in politics?", they all cried. The reality, of course, is that it never existed in the first place:

Despite the fact that we've been calling politicians the most horrible things, and wishing upon them the most horrible pains, since the inception of this country... people will always claim that they've been virtuous, and the other side is the one with the problem. So let this serve as a reminder to all. Even on the day that Gabby Giffords returned to the House floor to vote... people couldn't put their violent rhetoric aside.

CATO has more on this re-emergence of violent speak.

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