Wednesday, April 29, 2009

100 Days In

Before handing out awards to congratulate President Obama for being the first black president to host an Easter Egg Roll or the first black president to struggle with his teleprompter, let us look at his real accomplishments thus far, good (yes, some) and bad (plenty).

President Barack Obama has endured a mountain of criticism for his cabinet nominees and members. A number (Geithner, Daschle, Sebelius) have been rightly deemed tax cheats and have embarrassed the president and the ones in charge of vetting candidates. Americans generally have a low tolerance for politicians who get away with something that would land normal folks in heap big trouble. The president’s claim of a "new era of responsibility" gets questioned when an unusual number of his nominees have tax troubles, especially when many Americans themselves are struggling, as well as when the president promises “change” by digging up Clinton-era partisan hacks. However, a compliant media has done much to keep the new president rather unscathed.

Upon the assumption of his office, Barack Obama was faced with an economic crisis not of his doing, but of which he took complete ownership. His method of alleviation was ramming through an economic stimulus bill in the same manner and through the same rhetoric of his much-detested predecessor: this emergency is too catastrophic to wait any longer; if we wait any longer, we will be doomed. The bill is too important to read. Pass it or we will all die. Sound anything like the Patriot Act?

After campaigning against 8 years of Republican corruption and proliferate spending, the president embarked on the aforementioned stimulus bill and the pork-laden omnibus bill, bringing the Obama budget soaring somewhere around $4,000,000,000,000 for fiscal year 2010. While the spending done by the Republicans during George W. Bush’s reign was beyond reprehensible and also worth protesting, the monumental debt already created under President Obama sends the message that Bush-era spending was only the beginning.

In the whole financial debacle, the president insisted that spending would get us out of the recession. That assertion assumes that since a lot of spending and bailouts got us into this mess, lots more spending and bailouts will get us out. It is an assertion that many Republicans share when they are in power that no matter how much short-term success it might generate, the value of the dollar continues to plummet and making the another recession inevitable. It is the same old solution only wrapped in a much bigger box.

One of the most defining aspects of the Bush administration was its "Global War on Terrorism," designed to quash tyranny abroad so that liberty in American can be preserved. Actions such as the Patriot Act and the excesses permitted to agencies like the TSA and others have certainly undermined American liberty at home. An incident at Lambert Airport in St. Louis, MO has already been chronicled here before, but another incident in the Southwest suggests that unarmed and unsuspicious Americans are still harassed by their government, even under the supposed civil liberty-minded President Obama (begin video at 8:01, then here, and here).

On the foreign policy front, President Obama promised change but so far has not delivered much. He quickly announced that American troops would be leaving Iraq by August of next year, that is, excepting the 50,000 "residual" forces that are scheduled to remain until at least 2011. However, as news trickles in that Sunni insurgents don’t play nice when the bribe money starts to dry up and civil war resumes, there will be added pressure on the president to keep troops there to pacify the latest uprising and make John McCain’s suggestion that troops stay there for 100 years sound like it came out of Barack Obama’s mouth.

Farther east, as the president promised, Obama has already escalated matters in the increasingly lawless Afghanistan. With poor supply lines, a disintegrating Pakistan quickly succumbing to the Taliban and more Afghans looking to the Taliban for help, American troops will be either relegated to being person bodyguards for President Karzai in Kabul or left to wander in the desert until they get picked off.

Why? There is nothing to be won in Afghanistan. Bin Laden is nowhere to be found. The Taliban is taking over again and the Afghans, notoriously xenophobic, are not resisting local thugs in favor of foreign armies. So the question must be asked again, why does the president want to wander in this graveyard of empires?

The recent and much-publicized Latin American trip drew a lot of attention, particularly from the president's critics on his right. He was called weak for merely sitting and listening to Nicaraguan Marxist dictator Daniel Ortega delivery an anti-American screed. President Obama was denounced for shaking the hand of Venezuelan thug Hugo Chavez at the same summit. Rather than turning tables over in disgust over the president’s inclination to grin and bear it, perhaps he was acting like a new head of state should act: quietly. None of these Latin American clowns, who have wrecked their countries almost without exception, pose any threat to the United States. Are we supposed to shoot down any foreign head of state that has the audacity to question the God-given right of the American government to do whatever it wants around the world? The American Conservative columnist Daniel Larison rightly points out that there is nothing to fear from these goons: they thrive (or even survive) based on anti-American rhetoric. The president was right to either let them do their schtick or outright ignore them. It was an episode of calm disposition, something sorely lacking under President Bush.

The president’s dealings with the Somali pirates and hostage situation were swift and effective. The situation was rather quickly defused as the abducted captain was rescued and all of his captors were killed or surrendered. He dealt with stateless warriors in the only way that was manageable and despite calls from all corners to confront the stateless Somalia, (bombing them) he has rightfully deflected all pleas thusfar to enter into another tribal fiasco.

It has only been 100 days, but it looks like things are remaining very much the same. The new regime has only repackaged the same old disasters and called it "change." Some things have been good, as those that have been covered here, but the future is not very bright. Debt soars higher than sky-high and the foreign wars look here to stay, even under a Democratic president. As the old saying goes, people get the government they deserve.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dangerous Torture

The big news last weekend, other than President Obama's (gasp!) handshake with Hugo Chavez, was that the previously-classified "torture memos" were irresponsibly declassified, revealing state secrets, and forfeiting pivotal information in the long war against "Islamofascism."

No sooner were the memos made public did President Bush's remaining supporters on talk radio and Fox News jump to the microphone in a race to be the first to claim that President Obama was playing politics with America's security. Sean Hannity called it "stupid." Rush Limbaugh called the president "naieve." Bill O'Reilly doesn't want to use guidelines found in the army field manual, while in the same conversation, Karl Rove called the action "lunacy" and "a psychological victory for the terrorists."

All of these outrages reveal the twisted logic that suggests that "enhanced interrogation techniques" actually make the country safer.

As tempting as this view is, it all acts on an assumption that waterboarding, the most controversial of the techniques, saves lives. Apparently saying "Waterboarding isn't torture" enough times makes it true (or deciding that anything said because of waterboarding makes it true as well). Or saying "But waterboarding worked!" enough times, even if it might be a little morally questionable, makes it right. If Machiavelli would have approved, then I guess that's all that matters.

We routinely hear that these techniques kept America safe. After 9/11, we hear, we couldn't take any chances. After 9/11, the government didn't know what to do so they used waterboarding to get to the bottom of the issue and try to prevent another attack. Let's examine that claim.

Before 9/11, Osama bin Laden had declared war on the United States (1996) for stationing soldiers on the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia, supporting its corrupt regime, and offering unconditional support to the Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinians.

In 2000, the naval destroyer USS Cole was targeted for bombing by bin Laden. Conservatives, especially since 9/11, have routinely pointed to the bombing of the Cole as evidence of Bill Clinton's negligence concerning the terrorist threat. In this case, they are right. And since they are right, it undermines the claim that torture or waterboarding works and is necessary in the "Global War on Terror."

This shows that the terrorist threat was bubbling just beneath the surface and that the U.S. government could have begun taking action against terrorists because they were showing themselves to be a threat to the U.S., or at least making the U.S. a target. And put this on top of the fact that the government already knew bin Laden was responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Surely someone could have connected the dots: the Cole, the 1993 bombing, and a declaration, and figured out that something was brewing. For people who were paying attention to U.S. actions around the world, the horrors of 9/11 were not an earth-shattering or earth-changing event, but a predictable event.

So, we should have known that an event like 9/11 was coming. It could have been figured out by following world news through a major national newspaper or reading on the internet. It would not take waterboarding someone to figure out that the country was due for blowback from its foreign policies.

Also consider this: the media habitually tell the American people that the only people who participate in these horrific acts of terror are religious fanatics who desire to die for their faith. Events like 9/11 give credence to this view. So if part of being a terrorist means dying for the cause, why would they reveal anything under waterboarding or torture? Dying is the goal, isn't it? Why would they bother telling anything even if they knew anything if dying is the goal?

I now feel compelled to ask waterboarding defenders this: What did waterboarding 2 people, one of them the supposed mastermind of 9/11, a total of 266 times tell us about the terrorist attacks that curious internet users could not have found out for themselves?

What this boils down to is that torture or "enhanced interrogation" does nothing to make America inherently safer. The real fear that I have regarding these memos is not that by revealing their contents, they make America less safe because terrorists will be able to train for waterboarding. No, the real fear I have is that the contents of these memos will make America less safe because they can be used as a recruiting tool for the terrorists.

Just as the invasion of Iraq fueled terrorist recruiting because it was viewed as the conquest and rape of an innocent Muslim country, these memos will say to the Muslim world "We tortured."

We can debate until Judgment Day whether waterboarding is torture or not but in the Muslim world, they see an imperial power incarcerating Muslims and torturing them. That creates a further incentive for people who might not be inclined to to join the jihad to do so. And that is why this matters.

Our country has made a mess for itself by not understanding our enemy. The waterboarding issue is just another incident of missing the point.

If we want to make the waterboarding issue moot, then we must make the impetus for terrorism moot as well and come home.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Fed Did It

Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

Last fall the bank bailouts, Wall Street bailouts, and home foreclosure crisis all hit at virtually the same time creating a fiscal disaster for millions and a political disaster for the incumbent party, its president, and his potential successor. People panicked when John McCain, who had been picking up steam, validated his Republican primary assertion that he didn’t understand much about the economy, and anxious voters sitting on the fence flocked to the freshman senator from Illinois.

Talking heads filled the TV screens with each party hack pointing to their adversary, claiming that it was their party’s policies that set up the financial Armageddon. Democrats pointed to the Bush tax cuts and Republican deregulation policies while the GOP said it was the affirmative action-backed Community Reinvestment Act begun under Jimmy Carter and rejuvenated by Bill Clinton that was the real reason for the economic tsunami.

The Democrats claimed that it was all the banks’ fault for the housing crisis. It was because of President Bush’s deregulation of the market that caused banks to loan out money to people who could not pay it back. They used the crisis as the justification for economic regulation because laissez-faire economics, like everything else he touched, had obviously failed under George W. Bush. In fact, George W. Bush did true free marketeers no favors when he made his prime-time television address pleading for the bank bailout and readily conceded that he had to "chuck" his free market principles.

The speech was played perfectly by the Democrats who could point out that even President Bush could concede that his deregulation contributed to the problem. That, however, operates on the assumption that just because George W. Bush said something means it is true.

An alternative reading of recent history is made by historian and best-selling author Tom Woods of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, the prominent libertarian think tank. In his concise, highly readable, but quickly assembled book, Dr. Woods points to an altogether different culprit, one that is neither the Republicans’ supposed deregulation nor the Democrats’ affirmative action feel-good policies.

The author asks, why would so many institutions, in different areas of the business world, suddenly collapse and look like total buffoons all at the same time? Perhaps the variable is something outside of them. Woods’ thesis is that the source of all our money problems is the Federal Reserve.

One of the most neglected components of American life, Woods argues that the actions of the Fed preclude us from having a genuinely free market. The Fed was brought into life to succeed the First and Second Banks of the United States by a legislative act in 1913. For nearly 100 years, the Fed has been a part of American life that has received virtually no scrutiny. Woods believes it is time to scrutinize.

The Federal Reserve, he says, keeps interest rates artificially low by continually injecting dollars into the money supply, creating the illusion that more saving has been done which can thus be used in long-term projects such as home construction. Woods (along with economists Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, and F. A. Hayek) concludes that these conditions, manipulated by the Fed in an earlier epoch, also caused the Great Depression.

Woods address both sides of the political aisle and indicts both for their hand in the crisis. Woods digs into the history of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (CRA), a piece of legislation supported by President Jimmy Carter designed to pressure banks into making home loans to people of all segments of society, regardless of their credit history. The act resurfaced during Bill Clinton’s administration and the spirit of the act was invoked by George W. Bush in his push for an "ownership society."

The CRA resulted with banks receiving threats of lawsuits which ultimately led to the lowering of their lending standards, and a symptom of the crisis becomes evident. A condemnatory passage of the Democrats, Woods relates the story of Clinton HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo patting himself on the back for winning a "discrimination" settlement against AccuBanc Mortgage that ended with the bank being forced to issue loans on an affirmative action basis, which the secretary knew full well would end in a higher number of defaults (20-21).

Far from a real laissez-faire capitalist, George W. Bush threw in his lot with the "home-owning for minorities" scheme that his Democratic predecessors conjured up. He regularly supported regulations, even if not in word, certainly in deed.

Woods unequivocally rejects regulation as the solution for this and any financial crisis. Similar to security restrictions after a terrorist attack, the regulations and restrictions imposed are designed to protect people from yesterday’s catastrophe. Regulations are, in short, counterproductive and miss the current and potentially future crisis.

The answer, Woods insists, is not regulation because it has already been tried and failed.

He points out that regulators are government employees, not business savvy men. Shortly before Enron imploded in 2001, the SEC checked them out and found things A-OK. As we know from the Enron debacle, it was insiders who really knew what was going on and figured it out, which, while certainly late in the game, was still faster than the government discovered it.

Another example of government regulation of the economy is the presence of insured commercial bank deposits. He writes, "Any 'deregulation' of the banking system that permits the banks to take greater risks while maintaining government (that is, tax payer) insurance of their deposits is not genuine deregulation from a free-market point of view," (46).

But all of these examples are really symptoms of the problem. While affirmative action legislation is bad and regulations are unfruitful and government pressure on banks is also bad, they would all go away if only the Federal Reserve was abolished. The Fed is the instrument that powers all of these poor economic activities. The Fed is the lender responsible for the money banks lend out to unqualified borrowers. The Fed is run by unelected men and truly accountable to no one. It prints paper money which, by virtue of no metal backing, can never be exchanged, and is literally, only paper.

A secondary aspect of Woods’ solution is to return to a gold standard monetary system. Since 1971 and the Bretton-Woods accord, the United States has been on fiat money, that is, money that is not backed by any metal, be it gold, silver, or anything else. Since the government never has to worry about people coming in and demanding gold or silver in exchange for their reserve notes, the people are stuck with them. And since there is nothing to restrain the government by way of the people regarding money, they are free to continue printing as much paper money as they want. This, Woods concludes, is what makes bailouts possible.

This, in fact, is one of Woods’ most compelling arguments. If money can truly be printed at will, and there is nothing people can do that would force government to spend responsibly, that makes bailouts not only possible, but likely. A currency that is based on an exchangeable metal is actually a restraint on government. If politicians have to worry about people coming in and demanding gold or silver for their paper money, they will think twice before spending beyond their means. Also, the very existence of a central bank feeds into the bailout mentality as the "lender of last resort," usually means it will ultimately get to fulfill that duty.

All of this supports the famed Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle, a theory which won F. A Hayek the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974. The theory states that whenever a central bank creates circumstances which create a false prosperity through the printing of money, which lowers interest rates, a bust will inevitably end the boom. This is precisely what happened in America. People who would have otherwise been considered unqualified for loans received loans. Woods says it is similar to a basketball team expanding the roster by two spots. Even though two more people get to be on the team, they would not have otherwise been considered qualified for the team.

The point is that reality eventually caught up with the housing bubble and caused the collapse. It was a predictable but inevitable event. The central bank can try to delay the bust but doing so only makes the bust worse, since there would be more time to manipulate the false sense of prosperity. According to this argument and logic, the Federal Reserve is the institution that made the housing bubble and bust possible.

The only downside of Meltdown is a common one among free market uber alles advocates. Woods writes about the free market as if all problems would instantly vanish without regulations and the central bank. While I cannot help but agree that the country’s financial situation would improve if we really enacted a laissez-faire economic where the government actually kept its hands off the economic system, the reader cannot help but notice the faith rhetoric that is inherent to the free market system.

Take a passage from page 65: "The market gradually weeds out business owners who do a poor job as stewards of capital and forecasters of consumer demand by punishing them with losses and, if their inefficiency persists, driving them out of business altogether. So why should businessmen, even those well established and who have passed the market test year after year, suddenly all make the same error?" Now simply replace "market" with "God" and the reader can get the sense that the free market is supposed to be infallible. If only the market was really free, then all the financial problems of this country would be resolved. One can almost see the biting satire of Stephen Colbert and his claims of Republican "Moneytheism." Yet, that is really the only shortcoming in Meltdown, one of interpretation and the fear of parody.

Now that the recession is in full swing, and by virtue of this book, we have an opportunity to confront the problem. Shall we continue to blame everyone on the other side and point to policies that have made themselves obsolete while an institution, the Fed, remains untouched? If Woods (and his polemical predecessor Murray Rothbard) is correct and the Fed is the main reason for not only the current crisis but the Great Depression, isn’t it time that there was finally at least a debate on the American central bank? Isn’t it time that we at least begin to discuss whether an unaccountable government institution might be the source of our problems instead of some inane bickering about regulations or the CRA?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Tyranny by any Other Name

I recently reported on "a minor victory" when the state of Missouri rescinded its report that supporters of Ron Paul could be accused of being domestic terrorists or militia members. There was substantial outcry over the unjustness of the accusations and the report was rescinded a week ago. Some of us, myself included, thought that maybe we could turn things around if we only keep our public officials attuned to our concerns about liberty. However, an episode that occurred in St. Louis last week should serve as a grim reminder that just because George W. Bush went home to Texas less than 90 days ago, invasive government has stayed right where it is.

Last weekend, just after the Missouri Information Analysis Center (MIAC) took back its report, there was a successful gathering of Ron Paul supporters at the first Campaign for Liberty regional conference who met to learn more about America’s tradition of freedom and how to take action in our local communities to make sure our liberties are not eroded even more.

One of the Campaign for Liberty’s few employees (as many are volunteers), a young man named Steve Bierfeldt, was preparing to board a plane at the St. Louis airport following the events of the weekend. There, he received a highly aggressive cross-examination from the TSA that might as well have come from the Spanish Inquisition.

The TSA demanded answers, threatened young Mr. Bierfeldt while the young man remained calm and simply asked whether he was required by law to answer the threatening questions. The TSA thugs either did not know if he was required by law to answer their questions or did not care if he was required by law but kept demanding that he answer them anyway.

This youtube video catches a couple minutes of a rather harrowing exchange between young Mr. Bierfeldt and the people detaining him. The audio provided in the video concludes as he is about to be taken to the police station.

During this questioning, obviously meant to intimidate him, Mr. Bierfeldt has conceded that he does not entirely understand the law, which is why he asked if he was required to answer questions by the law. He clearly says that he will answer questions if he is compelled by the law and will not answer through intimidation. Then at 4:07 of the video, one of the TSA personnel said, "We’re gonna help you understand if you don’t," come with us, that is.

If this had been a movie, and the interrogators were German instead of American, that line probably would have been rendered, "We have ways of making you talk."

As the video progresses, we learn that Steve Bierfeldt was released and not harmed. He apparently gained the suspicion of the TSA goons because he had over $4000 in cash with him. This money, he says later, came from the revenues he got from selling Ron Paul and Campaign for Liberty merchandise to people who are most likely libertarians and who might prefer the anonymity of cash to a credit card that will follow them. And considering the ire raised by the MIAC report that Ron Paul supporters are suspicious, anonymity seems like a rather alluring state of identity.

So what does this whole episode mean? First, it looks like the TSA did not learn about the rescission of the MIAC report or did not care, which can also explain why Mr. Bierfeldt would be so reluctant to tell anyone working for the government about the origin of his large reserve of cash. He might be a terrorist!

Second and still very much with us, are the expansive measures enacted during the Bush administration that we were told were for our own safety and our own good. That was the rationalization many, including myself at one time, made. Hey, if we have nothing to hide, then we have nothing to fear. Search my records! Tap my phones! I’m not a terrorist, so I have no reason to fear my government!

Well, neither did Steve Bierfeldt, according to the law. It is not against the law to carry too much cash with you. It is the Fifth Amendment which protects us from incriminating ourselves and Mr. Bierfeldt employed it respectfully and fearlessly. He was a threat to no one. So why was he being treated like his cash was a machine gun?

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the interrogation recorded is exactly what should be expected in a totalitarian government that roots out political dissidents and locks them up. With the MIAC report in such recent memory, Mr. Bierfeldt had obvious reasons to keep his private contents private. He had plenty of reason to think he was being politically profiled.

This is our tyranny.

Many of President Bush’s remaining supporters still defend the expansive measures our departed leader took in the name of security. They say that he kept us safe from any more terrorist attacks and his expansive security measures are the reason for it. That, of course, falls under the logical fallacy of Post hoc ergo propter hoc, meaning that since these invasive security measures took place after President Bush enacted them, that means they have prevented another terrorist attack.

But this episode reveals something entirely divorced from the idea of national security. Mr. Bierfeldt was not threatening anybody, had not harmed anybody, and was merely asking what the law was pertaining to his detention. If asking for our rights in a certain situation constitutes a threat, this is in fact a tyranny and nothing less.

What else would someone call the treatment he got for merely asking questions. If we should have nothing to fear if we have nothing to hide, then why should the government or its henchmen threaten us for reminding them of our rights and the constitutional limits of their powers?

If this is the way things are run, we are no longer living in a republic. For a republic is a government of laws rooted in the tradition of justice. In the United States, we are fortunate enough to have a written constitution and a bill of rights which tells us exactly what powers the government has and exactly what our rights are.

A tyranny, by definition, abuses its power and represses its own citizens and Romans 13:3 reads, "For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong." No problem there, but what about a ruler (or their surrogates) who holds terror over those who do no wrong, like Steve Bierfeldt?

To bastardize Shakespeare, a tyranny by any other name is still a tyranny.

And in no way is our new president and secular savior Barack Obama absolved from any of the blame for our current situation. A big deal was made when he closed the prison at Guantanamo Bay and announced the end of the use of waterboarding. Yet, he has done nothing to indicate that he wishes to close the equally repressive prison at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan or stop the practice of rendition whereby the U.S. will not waterboard or torture, but send suspects to other countries that do. He was hailed by many for announcing that the end of our combat mission in Iraq will be in 2011, the same as the security agreement decided upon during Bush’s terms in office.

While all can see that President Obama has done some to alleviate some of the tyrannical burdens on foreigners suspected of terrorism, he has done nothing to alleviate the burdens and repressions on his own countrymen in American airports.

And even if using these invasive, bullying, and tyrannical tactics that disregard the rule of law on our own peaceful citizens actually keep us safe, then would we consider ourselves any more free than the Eastern Bloc was?