Saturday, August 16, 2014

Obama To Meet With Ferguson Hero!

Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson is America's newest media hero. He was quickly elevated to this position when called upon to clean up the mess created in Ferguson by an over zealous and heavy handed  police force.  Governor Jay Nixon on Thursday appointed Johnson to take over security after concerns were raised about how local police had used tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters earlier in the week. The media has been generous on its coverage of Johnson showing him as a man of strength and courage walking the streets of the troubled area where he had been raised. His program of reaching out and creating a dialogue with those angry over the death of a black teenager at the hands of white police officer has garnered national attention.

Anger boiled over again early Saturday morning when protesters stormed into a convenience store that Michael Brown was accused of robbing. Police and about 200 protesters began clashing late Friday after another tense day in the St. Louis suburb, a day that included authorities identifying the officer who fatally shot Brown on Aug. 9. At the same news conference in which officer Darren Wilson was named, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson released documents alleging that Brown stole a $48.99 box of cigars from the convenience store, then strong-armed a man on his way out. Police said they found evidence of the stolen merchandise on Brown's body.

According to a Fox News article Johnson said one tear gas canister was deployed after a group of rioters became unruly. Before midnight, some in what had been a large and rowdy but mostly well-behaved crowd broke into that same small store and began looting it. Some in the crowd began throwing rocks and other objects at police, Johnson said. One officer was hurt but details on the injury were not immediately available. Johnson said police backed off to try and ease the tension. Looting spread to a couple of nearby stores with some of the looters carrying guns. No arrests were made."We had to evaluate the security of the officers there and also the rioters," Johnson said. "We just felt it was better to move back." About a dozen people eventually blocked off the front of the convenience store to help protect it.

Allegations that Brown committed a robbery and the release of surveillance video that shows a man wearing a ball cap, shorts and white T-shirt grabbing a much smaller man who had come from behind the store counter and "forcefully pushed him back" into a display rack. This portrayal of Brown as a thug and a bully angered attorneys for Brown's family and others, including U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay. Earlier Friday night, the Democratic congressman took a bullhorn and told protesters, "They have attempted to taint the investigation. They are trying to influence a jury pool by the stunt they pulled today." Family attorney Daryl Parks said Brown's family was blindsided by the allegations and release of the footage.

An all out effort to raise this event to the highest level of racial injustice is being made as people are coming out of the woodwork to make a statement and claim a moment of fame. For example another family attorney, Benjamin Crump, said police "are choosing to disseminate information that is very strategic to try to help them justify the execution-style" killing. Crump, who also represented the family of Trayvon Martin, the teenager fatally shot by a Florida neighborhood watch organizer who was later acquitted of murder. In reality it boggles the mind to compute the odds of these two families sharing the same attorney.

Brown's family and supporters now have name of the officer responsible for the shooting. Wilson is a six-year police veteran, two in neighboring Jennings and four in Ferguson. He has no previous complaints filed against him and the Ferguson police chief described Wilson as "a gentle, quiet man" who had been "an excellent officer." St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch said it could be weeks before the investigation of the shooting wraps up. The Justice Department confirmed in a statement that FBI agents had conducted several interviews as part of a civil-rights investigation into Brown's death. In the days ahead, the agents planned to canvass the neighborhood where the shooting happened. I suspect Officer Wilson is not overjoyed at the split-second decision he made, the road before him is very ugly. In time the violence and circus will settle down and morph into finger-pointing.

I want to be one of the first to go on record  to predict Johnson will soon be on his way to meet with President Obama. This will allow the President to make a forceful statement flanked by Johnson and community leaders as to how tragic this all is and chalk it up to racism pure and simple. Many Americans who have been the target of a swat team raid, myself included, will point to a larger factor and one that the President has been complacent in and even encouraged to develop. The continued militarizing of Americas police forces. This has been going on for years. Police have moved from the mission of "to serve and protect" to waging a war against enemies like terrorism, drugs, alcohol, and crime. Sadly, the American people have been caught in the crossfire. Spinning this event with a message that serves the President does not lessen the role of Obama and the NSA in moving us further down the path to becoming an Orwellian state.

Footnote;  The incident where I was involved in a swat team raid took place when a police officer saw one of my workers carrying a sawsaw with a long blade into a building where we were doing a small repair job. Mistaking the tool for a gun the building was soon surrounded. Even after entering the building and finding us working, inspecting the tool, and confirming that I had not taken my surprised tenant hostage the over aggressive officer continued to insist he was right while his fellow offices snickered. What is important is this speaks volumes to the officers state of mind.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Modern Monetary Theory is wrong, debt does matter

If the economy was healthy and balanced we would not be experiencing slow growth while massive amounts of money are being printed and poured into the system. The crux of our problem remains in the fact that both people and governments have lived beyond their means by taking on debt they cannot repay. Over the last several decades we have created entitlement societies built on the back of the industrial revolution, technological advantages, capital accumulated from the colonial era, and the domination of global finances. Promises were made on the assumption that the advantages we enjoyed would continue in both Europe and the US. Ever greater prosperity and entitlements were to be sustained through debt financed consumption growth. In that eerie fantasy world, debt fueled consumption was to be the catalyst to bring about evermore growth.

 Now reality has begun to come into focus and it is becoming apparent that this is unsustainable. The entitlements and promises that have piled up have become overwhelming. The world has latched onto and embraced Modern Monetary Theory as the answer to its woes. Referred to as MMT to its many believers it removes much of the risk ahead and guarantees that we will always be able to muddle forward. MMT also known as neochartalism is a economic theory that details the procedures and consequences of using government issued tokens and our current units of fiat money. Newly acquired tools like derivatives and currency swaps are suppose to allow us to print and and control growth going forward thus manipulating our problems away.

Debt is often nothing more that the promise of future payment and is effected by interest rates. It appears debt does matter except in the manipulated land of MMT where what you pay in interest can overnight change everything by redefining the obligations outstanding and coming due. For example In Europe the ECB had to step in to halt the economic collapse of Spain, Italy and several other countries that were on the brink. The ECB did this by artificiality lowering and altering interest rates paid on risky debt. It is important to understand the nature of dept and that some old debt tends to get written off over time other dept forms the foundation to pay for future obligations and as a building base for growth. If all debt is treated the same and diminished the value of both savings and future payments will be devalued. Altering the rate paid in interest completely changes how budgets play out going forward and where people invest.

Politicians looking for the "easy way out" and knowing little about business and the economy reach for answers that only delay disaster or spin optimistic messages that reflect well on them. Even as I type this article President Obama filled his time at a conference in New York with African leaders and left touting Africa as part of the answer and the new land of opportunity for American business to go forward and prosper. A place where we can grow creating jobs here at home while making the world a better place. While this happens what appears to be playing out is a scenario where society is being worn down through attrition and we are developing an "almost surreal" feeling of indifference towards reality. We should not forget much of the debt the world faces must be rolled over within a very short period such as the next five years and time has a way of passing very fast.

In recent years the concept of austerity has been given a bum rap The argument by contemporary Keynesian economists that budget deficits are appropriate when an economy is in recession bolster this movement. They claim it reduces unemployment and helps spur GDP growth, and that in an economy one person's spending is another person's income. If everyone is trying to reduce their spending, the economy can be trapped in what economists call the paradox of thrift, worsening the recession as GDP falls. If the private sector is unable or unwilling to consume at a level that increases GDP and employment sufficiently, thus the argument often heard that the government should spend more, and not less.

In truth an argument can be made that austerity measures do not necessarily increase or decrease economic growth.  All attempts by central governments to prop up asset prices, bail out insolvent banks, or "stimulate" the economy and deficit spending makes stable growth less likely.  Often the typical goal of austerity is to reduce the annual budget deficit without sacrificing growth.  Over time, this should reduce the overall debt burden, as the economy grows.  Blaming austerity for the blow-back from governments living beyond its means is more then unfair, we should at all times conduct business and run our government  with responsible reigns on spending. If a government spends and runs its business in an austere way the issue of when to start cutting or tightening should never surface.

MMT as a cure to past woes adds a whole new exciting dimension to economics that eliminates any potential of failure and concern that the sun will not come up tomorrow. However, there is a major flaw in the concept  of MMT that not only wounds the theory but it is its Achilles heel. What do you do when it becomes apparent the economic efficiency of credit is beginning to collapse? This means that as more money is poured into the system and lower rates are no longer effective in driving the economy forward options evaporate. As the extra GDP growth generated by each batch of loans drops and momentum ends this become the equivalent of pushing on a string and is a sign of exhaustion.

Companies have already ushered savings from interest paid on debt into the earning column and a major reason inflation remains low is they are sitting on a hoard of cash this has lowered the velocity of money. We must remember the artificially low FED controlled interest rates are a massive one-off or onetime tailwind that is mainly behind us.  When rates stop going lower or reverse the positive effect will ebb and become a major headwind. With massive government debt in many countries and the economy still weak this headwind has the potential to become devastating. The collision of MMT, social unrest over inequality, and other destabilizing factors have the potential to create the perfect storm.

The situation that  is developing that may require a massive shift in future lifestyles over a very short and painful time-frame. The failure for countries to address their long term debt problems coupled with the number of  growing people nearing retirement with little in the way of saving bodes poorly for the economy going forward. Big changes in Medicare that are occurring under the radar also should raise concern. If and when a deep hit to the system takes place we could suffer the triple threat, and as confidence falls the credibility, and the competence of those in charge will be called into question. If this happens the fabric of society may be severely challenged.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Where Wealth Is Held

A recent article presented to me delved into the subject of high earning Americans and where their wealth came from. This got me thinking about the so called wealth effect as well as how all that wealth was held. The really big earners in recent years have benefited greatly from the surging stock prices as much of their income has come from financial markets and gains in equities. Many people seem to think this is the hope of our future. When you have more than you need or want to put money away for a rainy day where do you store it? If you rated people on a "wealth chart" by how many tangible assets they owned you might be shocked to find much of the wealth people own is in paper and this is full of risk.

It could be said that "paper wealth" is merely a promise of future value. Unfortunately, this leaves much of society and many rich individuals vulnerable to rapid financial loss if the tides of fortune shift or if values rapidly change. Currently not only are we faced with banks paying little in the way of interest we must also fear they or the government might reach in and seize part of our money. By forcing people to pull their money out of banks and other safe investments in search of higher yields we have driven up stock prices. Some of these stocks have reached unbelievable multiples.

People often do not understand money and wealth. Myths about both run rampant and become intertwined with deeply rooted personal feelings passed down from parents or acquired, these feeling often muddy and skew how people deal with wealth. An example would be anyone who felt deep down that money was the root of all evil would react to winning the lottery far differently then someone with the belief that you can buy happiness. I have even heard poor people say they didn't see much point in winning a lottery of  several hundred thousand dollars because "that's not much money." When the B word "billions" is so prevalent in society today it is understandable many people exist with distorted values.

Truth be told most people are not overly endowed  with discipline this includes many people that amass a fortune. This often means that many wealthy people tend to "misplace" or lose track of where they have placed their wealth. Sometimes it is simply put into a system that is on autopilot. Years ago I purchased a property from a doctor on contract. The doctor having bought the property on contract had me just send the payments to the man he bought it from so he would not be bothered. After many years I contacted the doctor to discuss a discount for a cash payoff and his accountant discovered the first seller had been paid off years before and continued taking money he had no right to. The doctor was shocked and getting his money back proved difficult.

Annuities, pensions, stocks, and such promises of future payment tend to dominate the list of favorite vessels in which to store wealth and many of these are leveraged to maximize returns and garner higher yields on our investment. Cash is another option but holding it in your possession leaves one open to theft and means the money will earn no interest. What is often  missing or over looked is tangible fully paid for items and things that are likely to hold their value and in the direct possession of the owner. People tend to avoid tangible assets in their control because they are often inconvenient. Valuables can be a pain to have about and they often need to be insured which also calls attention to their existence.

When you subcontract out control of your wealth or turn it over to a money manager you often get promises but no iron clad guarantee. Confidence in a money manager can quickly be dashed, all the people invested with Bernie Madoff  discovered just how suddenly things can go south and promises turn hollow. While it has become both fashionable and common in recent years to let someone else who knows and specializes in financial planning and markets to control this segment of our lives I feel it is a big mistake and a dereliction of duty. Wealth should come with a warning notice saying "Holder Beware This Commodity May Vanish Spoil Or Grow Obsolete At Any Time!"

   Footnote; Please feel free to explore the blog archives and as always you comments are encouraged. Below are two articles related to the subject above,

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

ISIS Is A Plan Gone Awry
To Americans eager to forget what is happening in Iraq the crisis there is easier to ignore because of other events throughout the world. Things have deteriorated to the point that Americans are using every opportunity to take their eyes off what is happening, Iraq has become a train wreck and is rapidly morphing into a failed State. It is often unwise to take your eyes off a problem for long because when you look back you might find that things have gone horribly wrong, this is the case in Iraq and Syria. The lyrics from a song "slip sliding away" come to mind as a way to describe the massive investment made in Iraq by America. Recently a group called ISIS shocked much of the world by swiftly capturing Mosul in an offensive that allowed the group to take control of major parts of northern and western Iraq. On June 29, 2014 the Islamist militants declared  an Islamic "caliphate" in an area straddling Iraq and Syria and trumpeted the declaration in videos seen around the world.

A jihadist from the Islamic State went on to warn "We will break other borders," signifying more expansion was planned. Iraq and the Levant alternately translated as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed religious authority over all Muslims and aspires to bring much of the Muslim-inhabited regions of the world under its direct political control including the nearby territory in the Levant region, which includes Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Kuwait, Cyprus, and part of southern Turkey. The leader of ISIS is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi says it is the caliph of Muslims everywhere. It also announced that it was changing and shortening its name to Islamic State. Hundreds of supporters were shown celebrating the announcement by firing guns into the air in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa. ISIS is known for its harsh Wahhabist interpretation of Islam, and brutal violence directed at Shia Muslims and Christians. In addition to attacks on government and military targets ISIS is responsibility for attacks that have killed thousands of civilians. Success on the battlefield has bolstered their standing and even talk of taking Baghdad has been battered about.

Many analysts have dismissed the announcement of a caliphate as hubris, and a gamble for support as the group has surged in size from 3,000 fighters to 20,000 or more.  Many solders flee rather than fight this cruel hoard that knows no mercy and where surrender means you will be most likely be executed. The group has even beheaded some of its enemies to intimidate those who might resist its advance. Groups like ISIS are unyielding and demand loyalty to their values and cause. The militant message is either convert or be killed. When ISIS moves in the institutions that govern day to day life are destroyed or remade. Reuters reports the group shores up its control over communities with a combination of force and fear. After meeting armed resistance in the town of al-Alam for nearly two weeks they kidnapped 30 local families and sent the town's most influential citizens a simple message about the hostages: Weeks later it appears only a few gunman patrol the town at night so comfortable is the Islamic State in its control through fear." As ISIS sinks its roots into the areas it occupies it will widen its base and dislodging it grows into a far more difficult task.

After ISIS retook control of Raqqa earlier this year, it created the al-Khansaa' Brigade, an all-female unit operating in the city. Its purpose is to apprehend civilian women in Raqqa who do not follow a strict Sharia law that includes a mandate that all women be fully covered in public and that they be accompanied by a male chaperone. Abu Ahmad, an ISIS official says they need a female brigade to "raise awareness among women, and arrest and punish women who do not follow the religion correctly. Jihad is not a man-only duty. Women must do their part as well." The women who join the brigade are either women of Raqqa who wanted to take part in ISIS or often the wives of the men who have come to fight. "ISIS created it to terrorize women," says Abu al-Hamza, a local media activist. The brigade raided the city's Hamida Taher Girls School and arrested 10 students, two teachers and a secretary on the grounds that some of them were wearing veils that were too thin. Others were accused of wearing hair clips under the veil or showing too much of their faces

It only took the Sunni militant group a little over a month to take over Syria's energy infrastructure and cripple the Assad regime. What's more troubling is that ISIS holdings now include nearly all of Syria’s oil and gas fields. While these are hardly significant on a global scale, they allow ISIS to be self-sustaining and self-funding. A monopoly over fuel in the territory it has captured gives them leverage over other armed Sunni factions who could have threaten its dominance. The militants also seized four small oilfields when they swept through north Iraq last month and are now selling crude oil and gasoline from them to finance their newly declared caliphate. Near the northern city of Mosul, ISIS has taken over the Najma and Qayara fields, while further south near Tikrit it overran the Himreen and Ajil fields during its two-day sweep through northern Iraq in mid-June. The oilfields in ISIS hands are modest compared to Iraq's giant fields near Kirkuk and Basra, which are under Kurdish and central government control, most of the 80 or so oil wells held by ISIS are sealed and not pumping. More troubling is the news they have just hours ago taken over Iraq's largest dam and now control a great deal of the water in the area.

It seems this Islamic militant group understands the power of the purse and as a revenue earner it now levies taxes on all vehicles and trucks bringing goods into Mosul. A large truck must pay $400, while small trucks are charged $100 and cars $50. Ahmed Younis, a Baghdad expert on armed groups, said the Islamists were in effect establishing an economic state based on the increasing resources and infrastructure under their command. Considering its grip over oilfields and its growing economic activity, the Islamic State will "transform into an economic giant with assets of billions of dollars," he said. Petrol stations in Mosul are now selling fuel supplied by traders working with ISIS, which charges either $1.0 or $1.5 a litre depending on quality. One petrol station owner in the city said the fuel is brought from Syria and is triple the price before, but drivers have to buy it now that subsidized government fuel is gone. ISIS is now the sole sponsor of the imports from Syria where the group controls oilfields in the Syrian province of Deir al-Zor. They use part of it for their vehicles and sell the rest to their traders in Mosul.

 A spokesman for the Iraqi military claims ISIS is a threat to all countries. Qassim Atta suggested it could change the international community's reluctance to intervene. "I believe all the countries, once they read the declaration will change their attitudes because it orders everybody to be loyal to it," he said. Iraqi state TV broadcast footage of convoys of tanks being driven to Tikrit. Residents in the frontline cities in the fight against Isis, such as Baquba and Samarra, say Shia militias are leading the fight against the militants and wielding inordinate power and that in some cases security forces are deferring to them. This makes for a very ugly picture as things in Iraq continue to escalate with reports that  ISIS has placed IEDs in places such as Mada'in, Yusifiyah, and Mahmudiyah in the southern belts of Baghdad. The deployment of volunteers from southern Iraq to Kirkuk province signifies the spread of their role to protect shrines in areas where ISIS is making advances.

According to a report published in Reuters, the group known as ISIS may have actually been trained over the last two years by the United States government in Jordan. It would be quite ironic if the United States was actually responsible for the training those now destabilizing the Iraqi nation. It was not known whether those doing the training were direct members of the US government or if they worked for a private firm, but the main focus of the training was on anti-tank weaponry. The report continues that 200 men were trained at the facility and that over 1200 were to be added in a plan to prepare to free Syria from the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad. French and British advisors were present as well to aid in the training and according to Jordanian intelligence sources the program was designed to create fighters to be a part of the ISIS group. The plan appears to have been to train 10,000 “moderates” of Islam in the hope that they would reinforce American interests in the region.

Arizona Senator John McCain even paid a visit to the group during training to show his support. McCain was photographed with General Salim Idris, who was later expelled from the group because he was seen as too moderate for them. The new leader of the group is General Ibrahim al-Douri. He was the Vice-President of the Revolutionary Council under former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and was supposed to be the successor to Hussein. Al-Douri has been on the US most wanted list since the second Gulf War began and many inside the United States government thought he was dead. It appears he now has a huge war chest at his disposal, which has come from US allies, including Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These are all Sunni based countries which support the ISIS group out of frustration over President Barak Obama’s failure to oust Al-Assad. After Obama failed to take action they have decided to take actions of their own.

Now we have seen the erasure of the Syria-Iraq border by a group that is considered too radical for al-Qaeda, the takeover of Iraq’s second largest city, the kidnapping of international diplomats, and the declaration their new caliphate each act as a major signal about how grave the situation has become. The problems in the area are not contained by the old border and we must view Iraq and Syria as completely interwoven, they may be two different countries, but one theater in reality. The situation is fluid and creating some rather strange alliances. In a move that muddies the water even more the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu voiced support for Kurdish statehood, this position clashes  with the US preference to keep sectarian war-torn Iraq united. Pointing to the mayhem in Iraq, Netanyahu called for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan as part of a broader alliance with moderate forces across the region.

The reallocation of Iraqi security forces from Baghdad signals the fact that the tide of war may be shifting for the worse. Iraq has become increasingly more vocal in demanding U.S. assistance Bloomberg reports the Iraqi Ambassador to U.S. Lukman Faily called for U.S. air strikes warning that Iraqis are skeptical about U.S. intent to support Iraq in its fight against Sunni terrorist groups, saying that "other countries will step in to fill the vacuum if greater American support isn’t forthcoming." Faily calls for U.S. air strikes to stop influx of terrorists from Syria, to target “terrorist camps,” and precision air strikes even in urban areas. He also said that Iraq has chosen the U.S. as its preferred strategic partner sighting that it has bought huge amounts of  U.S. military equipment and plans "to buy billions more." If Iraqis do not believe meaningful U.S. assistance is forthcoming, they will not have enough incentives to adopt political reforms.

While the U.S. needs to view ISIS as a threat to U.S. and regional interests and this would suggest more military involvement to push back ISIS the crisis is ultimately a political one, not a military one. Changing the politics in the region is key. While the United States continues to debate its next move Syria, Iran, and Russia have been taking action in ways that are often not aligned with US interests. Along with political pressure, more U.S. military assistance to Baghdad and even to the Kurds will give the U.S. political leverage when it comes time to help the Iraqis renegotiate their political compact. Many people feel immediate and urgent action is needed to protect Americas interest in the area and say the moment in which the U.S. can make a difference and truly affect the outcome is closing. Sadly, like many Americans I have no brilliant ideas on how to proceed in what appears to be a war between Sunni and Shia factions.

 Footnote; This post dovetails with many of my recent writings. Other related articles may be found in my blog archive, thanks for reading, your comments are encouraged.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Crafting A Better Society

The Largest City Most People Have Never Heard Of
Ask the average person. What and where is Lagos? Not only do most people have no idea about this they cannot name the highest elected officials in their own state or more then a city or two in China. According to Wikipedia the free online encyclopedia Lagos is a port city in Nigeria and the seventh fastest-growing city in the world. The latest reports estimate the population at 21 million, making Lagos the largest city in Africa. To the right is a photo of the city's center and skyline.

I want to emphasize just how little most people know about the world and to make the point about how important real knowledge is. In our modern world we are constantly assaulted with so much data, information and noise that it is often hard to stay focused. How people live their lives and the quality of those lives is important in defining our existence and society. With all the debate about gay marriage, gun control, funding pre-k, and such we should put high on our agenda the goal of crafting a better, smarter, and overall improved society. Programs to promote and teach better parenting should be considered and made a focal point of in this endeavor.

Simple does work! We can start by passing laws the average person can understand after that leave it up to the courts by putting fines upon those that fail to follow the law and its spirit. The clowns in Washington have gone over the top in creating legislation that is incomprehensible. Word processors and copy machines created a major shift in the way our government functioned. Before that it was much harder for Washington to generate laws that were 500 plus pages that read like a bad book. These laws confuse and complicate our lives. The day word processing replaced the manual typewriter a monster was unleashed and from it poured word, after word, after word.

Easier is not always better! This post was inspired by a comment made about online shopping, the comment was " I prefer the 'no effort' approach of Amazon shopping and view it as the way of the future..." After I pointed out the benefits and reasons to support our local stores such as our the money remaining in our community longer creating local jobs and bolstering local institutions.  The question I was forced to ask is, what is best for society? Using unemployment as an example, many people view it as a trap people fall into but can't fall out of. While we say the rate of "unemployment" has stabilized at a terrible but not quite as  terrible level understanding how unemployment impacts society long-term is more difficult and very important.

Just the other day I caught myself asking, how stupid have we become? In a world of massive information how uninformed is the average person? The answer may be so disturbing that we can't handle the truth or we may simply be to lazy or stupid to address it. So much to learn, so little effort to do it. A curse of modern technology is what has been described as garbage in garbage out. Sometime less is more. Man is an animal that has tied and has bound his fate so tightly to machines that we are become dependent on them for everything.

As our lives center around interacting with machines and we become more focused on our personal gratification each of us becomes the center of our own universe and a part of humanity quietly slips away. Crafting a better society is difficult when you are slowly being "dumbed down" by the forces around you and everyday life. The leisure we gained by harnessing machines to lessen our daily toil was to generate time to think and enjoy life. Instead we often choose less noble pursuits and distractions. Values and education does matter. This my friends is why we seem to be making little progress in solving the many real problems we face.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

When Propaganda And Surveillance Intersect!

For decades a so-called anti-propaganda law prevented the U.S. government's mammoth broadcasting arm from delivering programming to American audiences. But on July 2, 2013 that taboo came silently to an end with the implementation of a new law passed in January. This unleashes thousands of hours per week of government-funded radio and TV programs for domestic U.S. consumption. This "reform" was criticized by many human rights activist as a green light for U.S. domestic propaganda efforts. Prior to that time the massive amount of U.S. programming produced by the Broadcasting Board of Governors such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks could only be viewed and broadcast in foreign countries. The programming varies in tone and quality, but its breadth is vast and it is sent out to more than 100 countries in 61 languages.
Government Propaganda And Surveillance Don't Mix

Unleashing propaganda is a slippery slope and blurs the definition of truth. Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed towards influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position by presenting only one side of an argument. Propaganda is usually repeated and dispersed over a wide variety of media in order to create the chosen result in audience attitudes. The message is often created by spinning, scrubbing, molding, and shaping it until it resembles little in the way of truth before sending it out to the public. It can go as far as to encourage a "call to action" where those listening are asked to push forward the agenda. The saying "power corrupts and absolute power absolutely corrupts" is well rooted in examples of abuse throughout history.

I like the saying concerning pornography that it is hard to define but we all know it when we see it. The problem with propaganda is that often goes undetected or is accepted as truth. With media such a dominate force in shaping our thoughts and opinions we should be very concerned as to who controls it and the agenda it pursues. One of the ugly realities of modern communication is the ability to send out millions of messages directly and unfiltered, this lends itself to be used in unsavory ways or to gain advantage. This becomes a real problem when one person or a small group controls the message and uses an army of tax paid employees to shape, spin, and send it forth. When government takes an active role in creating these programs both government accountability and the role of free press and media is directly diminished.

While I'm uncertain as to where my distrust of authority figures stems from this feeling has been reinforced by many incidents that I have witnessed over the years. An ugly example of how propaganda or a government shaped message can do massive harm is how the euphoria over the "victory" in Iraq has now been replaced by increasing doubts about how the Bush administration justified and reported on the war. No weapons of mass destruction were found and the Iraqi people we were to liberate did not greet American troops with open arms. Letters to the editor in major newspapers complain that the Bush administration lied about the war. Many in the press are now suggesting that the pro-war arguments of the administration were deceitful and that the public was duped by propaganda into supporting a phony war. 

Americans' suspicions of propaganda by their own government have a long history. World War I which ended America's isolation from major European conflicts, was modern propaganda's launching pad. Both sides in this global conflict, especially the Allies, employed this method of mass persuasion to defeat their enemy. In April 1917, shortly after declaring war on Germany, the Wilson administration established the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which at its peak employed 150,000 people. Its goal was the creation of a "war will" among an ethnically diverse American population. Abroad, its purpose was to convince the public that a reliable, honest, and invincible America would defeat German militarism making the world safe for democracy.

When countries wrestle each other for dominance on the world stage, government-sponsored propaganda can get pretty intense. Some of the anti-American stuff that came out of North Korea during the Korean War was brutal and make the American soldiers out to be monsters that enjoyed torturing women and children. A major point of this article is to show how disruptive to truth propaganda can be. North Korean propaganda doesn’t simply attack the U.S. for past failings but instead it accuses U.S. servicemen of engaging in some pretty messed up acts that terrify the people of Korea into blind obedience to their “protective” government. The more restrictive a government and the less information that flows, the less aware its people become. 

Once this starts occurring it becomes easier for a government to set the agenda according to its own interests. The sole aim of any form of propaganda is to influence an audience in an emotional rather than rational manner. This week the U.K. government defended its surveillance activities within the country in front of a special tribunal that heard complaints from privacy and human-rights groups. Without confirming that snooping was taking place they said that there were sufficient safeguards including the tribunal itself that made sure the government wasn't abusing its spying power. They added that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, a law enacted in 2000 that lays out the framework for surveillance, was clear in setting out what type of interception could take place.

The proceedings in front of the special court that investigates complaints against intelligence agencies stemmed from disclosures last year by former American NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters tapped into cables carrying world-wide communications data. Soon after human-rights groups filed complaints that said the government was circumventing laws designed to protect residents' privacy. Ironically this all plays out the same week that with little debate the U.K. government passed an emergency bill requiring telecom companies to retain information about customers' communications for up to a year. The five-day trial this week was unusual because the arguments were made in public and created challenges because many of the arguments were theoretical.

Lawyers for the government said several times that they could neither confirm nor deny whether any of the surveillance  programs existed. The government said confirming or denying allegations contained in the complaints could expose holes in intelligence systems and make future "no comment" responses seen essentially as a confirmation. All this then becomes a bit of speculation as Tribunal panel members would layout examples of how the law would apply to people who were searching the Internet or communicating with others about making bombs. The human-rights groups, however paint scenarios in which people's sexual preferences or choices of reading material would unwittingly come under the scope of government surveillance. 

  When governments spy on their people and government propaganda programs intersect it is very dangerous and the potential of abuse is huge. This leads down a road towards less freedom and is paved with the bones of all those who have failed to be outraged by governments slowly removing their liberties This leaves all of us open to both blackmail or abuse by those in power for what they claim is a greater good as they determine just what that might be. Never overestimate the sophistication and ability of our government to clarify exactly what is happening anywhere and at any time. The recent score of scandals plaguing Washington makes it clear that more fact-free confusion and speculation the fuel of propaganda-based reporting system is in no shortage.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Ukraine Crash A Propaganda Gem

The area where the Malaysian passenger jet MH17 fell in Ukraine is a crash site not a crime site! Painting it as a crime site does not make it so. Whether shot down by accident or intentionally, most of the evidence on how and why this occurred will most likely come from sources other than where the flight went down. I for one feel total disgust and find myself seriously distressed that this tragedy has become nothing more than a propaganda gem to be exploited by those who what to galvanize public opinion against Russia and demonize Vladimir Putin. 
MH17 Is A Human Tragedy

Anyone that has had dealings with so called authorities descending upon their community with ridicule and an agenda can understand the angst of the locals in the crash area. On one hand the locals are told to leave the bodies and all things alone while no real help arrives to set things right. A group of suits flown into a city miles away who visit the crash site for a very short time to view evidence but not collect bodies would rile anyone having to deal with such a bunch of clowns masquerading as help. 

From my experience I suspect many of these investigators and officials could not speak the language and were busy making unrealistic demands on the locals. This would extend to criticizing those who did not bend over to do their bidding and labeling them as uncooperative. A few years ago a large dog that had gotten away from its owner somewhere in the area was hit and killed in front of a building that I owned. A motorist pulled the 90 pound animal up on the city sidewalk leaving him only feet from my front door.

Upon calling the city to have the body of the dead dog picked up they informed my that if the animal was on the sidewalk I would have to dispose of it. The dispatcher suggested I check again to see if it was indeed in the street and not on the sidewalk, to my surprise it was. Not to say the body of a person falling from the sky is like a dog hit by a car I will say neither should be left for days in the sun or where animals are able to feast on the remains. A strong case can be made that it is disrespectful to not cover or move the body to a safe area. 

An article on MSN said ( Fighting flared in eastern Ukraine overnight. The government said it was pressing its offensive near Donetsk and Luthansk.. Malaysia, whose national airline has been battered by its second major disaster this year, said it was "inhumane" to bar access to the site around the village of Hrabove, near Donetsk, but said Russia was doing its "level best" to help.) I would think Ukraine would halt action if they really wanted inspectors and clean up crews to be able to do their work. 

Remember this is a war zone and it does not seem prudent to fly directly over the center of a war zone at only one thousand feet above the official limit. While it may later be proven otherwise most likely the jet was shot down by a missile by accident over a war zone. It is possible more sinister motives exist and the act was intentional but if so a strong argument can be made that Putin had far more to lose by this event than  he could ever hope to gain. Sadly, the deaths of hundreds of innocent people is being used by those who want to fan the flames of war. For them flight MH17 is merely a propaganda gem that has fallen from the sky.