Saturday, January 24, 2015

Department of Homeland Insecurity

The mission of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is to make America more secure. Former director of DHS, Tom Ridge, said this on the first anniversary of DHS: "this Department has a clear mission statement -- specifically, that we will lead the unified national effort to secure America. We will prevent and deter terrorist attacks and protect against and respond to threats and hazards to the nation."

FEMA is a division of DHS, and their mission is, "to support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards ("

This has caused me to wonder, "how secure have Americans been feeling since DHS was established in 2003?" This brief post will consider some of the highlights.

Natural Disasters

Since we're on the subject of FEMA, we can be optimistic and suppose that they've improved on their performance since the epic fail that was hurricane Katrina. But the American people might be feeling less secure -- despite the presence of DHS and FEMA -- because they are noticing that something's going on with the climate, and it's either an evil genius with a weather machine or global warming. FEMA is there to address the symptoms, but not very much is being done about the underlying cause.


The most conspicuous function of DHS is securing America from terrorism. According to a Gallup poll, Americans felt less safe in 2013 than they did shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. This perception is well-founded, because the United States armed forces have been entering a growing number of nations and causing their residents to become bitterly resentful of the United States and its people. Foreign intelligence experts believe that our Syrian intervention will likely create an unprecedented "terrorist diaspora" to various locations around the world.


Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a second department of DHS, and the mission of ICE has been to control unauthorized immigration into the United States. If we look at the trends since DHS was established, the flow of unauthorized immigrants has increased (see chart).

Transportation Security Administration (TSA)

TSA employees operate metal detectors and engage in various other activities that are said to improve airline safety. But it is worth mentioning that, from the standpoint of basic psychology, seeing a metal detector or being scrutinized by a security officer may remind people of terrorism (see a study on this topic). So, instead of making people feel safer, these measures may make many people feel less safe.


Since DHS was established, Americans have become more afraid of their government. This may have less to do with DHS than with the shady activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the realization by growing numbers of Americans that their elected leaders and the judiciary serve the interests of the few and definitely do not serve the interests of the many. 

If you believe the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the largest threat to national security is the national debt, and low confidence in the U.S. government may have something to do with concerns about the debt. The government spent $222.8 billion in 2013 just to cover the interest owed.

Similarly, U.S. General Carter Ham has declared, “I believe ever more firmly about this very strong connection between sound economic policy and our national security,”  he added that... [countries] where people feel they have opportunities — for themselves and their children — have more stability and security. Those areas also have the best governments, least amount of conflict and increasing respect for human rights (source).

Personal debt may be making a lot of Americans anxious, and if the people are anxious, they're apt to lose confidence in the government. As it stands, millions of Americans likely consider themselves to be "middle class" on account of owning a car, big screen TV, and a house (or at least, the bank's permission to occupy the dwelling). However, Debt-serfdom and zero assets does not equate to middle class (source).

I'm not suggesting that there's anything the DHS can really do about that. But it is entirely possible that DHS is designed to deal with threats that are neither the most likely to happen nor the most severe threats to the homeland. And this is a big deal because, in the coming year, the cost to the American taxpayer for DHS will be $38 billion. 

The More Serious Threat
As already mentioned, the nation's coffers are emptying and Americans' coffers are emptying, we are all more vulnerable to unanticipated events such as (yet another) military engagement or another economic meltdown.
Income-strapped Americans are unable to save for retirement.

"From the end of 2000 to the end of 2013, the gold value of the dollar fell by 77%," according to this source. This is because both G.W. Bush and President Obama have been pursuing a weak dollar policy. If current trends continue, an increasing number of elderly will seek relief (Social Security and Medicare) from a relatively small proportion of working-age Americans. American jobs will continue to be exported, thus downward wage pressure will also continue.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Against Identity Politics

In honor of Benjamin Franklin's birthday, this post will consider the problem of Identity Politics. The Founders -- and Franklin in particular -- was alert to the danger that the American colonists would form up into small antagonist camps.

Different groups of colonists had different grievances with the despotism of King George III. The merchant classes were concerned about George's monopolistic restraints on trade. The famous Boston Tea Party had much to do with the merchant classes' profits from illegally imported tea, which they feared they would lose when mandated to only accept tea from the East India Company. The poorer classes were concerned about their lack of political voice. They railed against the theft of income by regressive taxes. The Stamp Act tax, for example, injured those of limited wealth to a greater extent than it did more affluent colonists.

In many respects, the merchant classes and the poorer classes were natural adversaries. And it is an example of the genius of the Founders that they were able to bridge these differences and create a coalition in favor of violent secession from the British Empire.

Against the danger of a spirit of faction arising that would break the coalition, Franklin famously warned, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Today, the American people face a similar crisis. The only hope of enacting sweeping political change is that a broad-based grassroots movement will come together and remain united by common purpose. And I need not demonstrate to you that the need for sweeping political change exists, beyond pointing out that in a recent poll 73% of Americans agreed that our government is on the side of corporations and not on the side of average citizens. In a recent poll, an unprecedented number of Americans identify themselves not as Republicans or Democrats but Independent voters: 43% identify as independents, which is the greatest percentage observed since the question was first put to voters in 1988 (source).

One important engine that drives a spirit of faction among American voters is a phenomenon known as Identity Politics. Self-described feminists are inclined to vote for female candidates, African-Americans are inclined to vote for African American candidates, and Latino(a) voters are inclined (or so it is believed) to vote for politicians who toss in a few words of Spanish during their speeches.

As the 2016 election cycle nears, it seems almost inevitable that Hillary Clinton will become the democrats' nominee for president. This is a shame because there are numerous candidates who'd be better choices: Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb, and Rocky Anderson are each fervent opponents of Wall Street influence, whereas Mrs. Clinton accepts money from Goldman Sachs. The three men mentioned wish to curtail American military involvement abroad, whereas Mrs. Clinton seeks, or has sought, military action against Libya, Syria, and Iran.

Now, there are also better qualified women than Mrs. Clinton to run for president, such as Elizabeth Warren and Jill Stein. But Mrs. Clinton has cynically used her husband's economic and political influence to make herself a nationally recognized figure, and conspicuously drapes herself in the mantle of feminism.

Identity Politics is dangerous because people who fall victim to it lose their critical faculties. They regard Mrs. Clinton as a champion for women's rights even though she clearly is not. How could anyone who supports trade with China or the Transpacific Partnership be called a a champion for women's rights? We know that women in China are enslaved, undergo forced abortions and are so bereft of hope that they throw themselves from the tops of the Dickensian factories where they are obliged to labor. We know that some of the member nations of the Transpacific Partnership enforce laws that disenfranchise women.

Turning now to the gist of this post, let's consider the ideology of race and gender which forms the basis of Identity Politics. The question is whether "racism" and "sexism" provide the best explanations for social inequality observed when we compare whites and African Americans or compare men and women.

One can hardly deny that the legacy of slavery has harmed African Americans greatly. One can hardly deny that African Americans continue to be disadvantaged in American society. Yet, in looking at the historical context which gave rise to slavery, we see the machinations of Southern oligarchs who sought to increase their profits by reducing wages.

In looking at the historical context which gave rise to American gender inequality, we see the brutal factory system that emerged in 19th century America. Women were asked to live in factory housing, work long hours, and accept low wages. Northern oligarchs, such as the owners of the infamous Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, sought to increase their profits by reducing wages.

In looking at the context which gave rise to the plight of Latino/a Americans. The situation clearly deteriorated after President Bill Clinton enacted NAFTA. Local industries were devastated; the illicit industry in drugs has thrived, and desperate Mexicans seek to flee the disastrous conditions that exist in their own country by crossing the border into America. NAFTA was the brainchild of multinational oligarchs with influence in American government, who sought to increase their profits by reducing wages.

Am I glossing over the fact that African Americans are in fact denying economic opportunities because of the color of their skin or that women are in fact denied opportunities because of their gender or that Latino(a)s are denied opportunities because of their refugee status and language barriers and skin? No, I am not. Instead, I will suggest that discrimination on the basis of these characteristics finds its origin in a mentality which regards some human beings as having less inherent worth than others.

And it is plain that, although ACTUAL racial and gender discrimination exist, there are some instances in which it is merely PERCEIVED. A woman may, for example, be denied a job for some reason other than her gender. An African American may be denied a job not because of the color of his or her skin, but because he or she is the victim of historical forces which have resulted in his or her having a poorer education. Or perhaps the African American lacks the genteel refinements by which a member of the upper class decides the kind of person with whom he or she would prefer to work. When racism is only perceived and has little ACTUAL impact, we have upper class African Americans sending their children to the best colleges. There, they will learn to embrace the class system and like Barack Obama or Clarence Thomas or Condoleeza Rice, because active participants in the system which drives the poor further into poverty and concentrates the wealthy into fewer and fewer hands.

We know that the burden of poverty is disproportionately shouldered by women, African Americans, and Latino(a) Americans. But poverty is also borne by whites. Visit the southern states and one will see that the legacy of Southern Oligarchy continues to blight the existence of whites belonging to the lowest castes of society. Visit any American prison and you will see a larger number of white men than you might expect if your only experience with prison is what you see on television. And these men are not violent, on the whole, nor frightening; what is more commonly the case is that they are broken men, with their eyes perpetually downcast out of fear of catching the attention of a correctional officer or fellow inmate, with little hope of successful reintegration after they are released.

In conclusion, then, I will suggest that there is a cause that ought to be embraced by 99% of Americans, with unity of purpose and passion. I do not believe that this unity exists today.