Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Getting Something for Nothing:
  Goldman Sachs is at it again.

A small item in the newspaper caught my attention. ”Goldman Sachs to Fight Recidivism” read the headline. “Oh good” I thought, “Goldman Sachs is finally seeing the error of its ways.” They are not going back to their bad old ways of making lots of money. But no such luck. The article did not disclose a change of heart at Goldman Sachs but referred to a new moneymaking strategy called “Social Impact Bonds.”
This is the new scam.
The government would like to reduce the recidivism rate among young men who end up in jail for drug or other, not terribly serious offenses. But unfortunately the government doesn’t have any money.
Enter private investors. They advance the cost of the recidivism fighting program to the government. If the program works, the government pays the private investors. If the program does not work, the private investor loses.
This program is promising if you look at it this way: suppose the recidivism program works. Fewer young men who have been incarcerated will be returning to the same life once they are released from prison. More of them will find legitimate jobs, start stable marriages and contribute to society by working, and paying taxes, and being good parents. As a consequence less money is needed to incarcerate young men for their second or third stint in prison. The government saves money and therefore is able to pay for the recidivism funding program which before it could not afford.
Everybody wins. The government is able to afford social programs it did not have the money to pay for without the social impact bonds. The private investors make money. It is clearly a win-win situation. Hallelujah!
Looked at more closely, this program is not quite as attractive.
To begin with, the government needs to pay a number of different subsidiary agents. Someone needs to study different anti-recidivism programs and recommend the one which they regard as the most promising one. The social program experts will surely want to get paid for their services. The government will have to pay for that.
Then a bunch of lawyers will have to draw up a contract between a social service provider – the people who will actually put the anti-recidivism program in place – and the government. Those lawyers will certainly want to get paid. The government will have to spring for that too.
Once the program is in place, someone needs to evaluate it. The evaluators will also need payment and the government will be the one to pay.
These and other costs will cut substantially into the supposed savings the social impact bond will provide for governments that should enable them to pay back investors in successful social programs.
But of course the government is not going to be able to realize those savings anyway. The government does not keep its funds in very many different separate accounts. No account is dedicated to anti-recidivism efforts from which, if less is paid out, more money is left over to repay Goldman Sachs for their investment. If some expenses are cut in one place, that money easily flows out into another expenditure.
Remember the peace dividend? In 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War came to an end and there was a lot of talk about the money we were going to save because we would no longer be on military alert against possible Russian attacks. A significant amount of money would be saved that could now be spent on various social programs. Well, that never happened because the money saved just trickled into this government program and that new military procurement effort and no one ever saw any of the so-called “peace dividend.”
While Goldman Sachs is promising to reduce recidivism among young black men in the big cities, they are up to their old tricks, selling clearly unpromising investments to unsuspecting clients. At Goldman Sachs recidivism is alive and well.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why Government Surveillance is so Dangerous. 

In the copious discussions of government snooping into our phone calls and into many other bits of information about each of us, the issue of privacy is always central. The critics of government surveillance say that we do not want the government to violate our privacy. But, personally, I do not care whether the government knows what I buy where, or what books I read. My political persuasions are there for everybody to see who reads my books or blogs. By itself, the government knowing many facts about myself is of little interest.

What worries me is what the government is going to do with all this information. It may be that I worry about that because I grew up in a totalitarian country where the government used the then much more limited information it had to arrest people at will and make them disappear in concentration camps, in underground weapons factories, or to kill them. The knowledge governments collect about its citizens becomes deadly when it is used to arrest, torture, and kill citizens.

A friend of mine tells me this story: “When I visited Argentina not too long ago, I talked to a family that survived the dictatorship. They saw people all around them being rounded up in the middle of the night and disappearing, never to be heard of again. No one knew what had provoked that mistreatment. So they decided they would not talk about anything political to each other, even in the dark of night, in their bedroom.” They had discovered that a government that has information about you may well be a deadly enemy.

No doubt, some readers will say, that this was true in Nazi Germany, or in the different military dictatorships in Latin America in the 70s and 80s, but it is not relevant here. I find it difficult to share that confidence that our government will not violate individual rights.

The war on terror has brought us dangerously close to a mindset where any violation of the liberties of individuals is justifiable by accusing a person of being a terrorist. Anwar Al Awlaki, an Islamic firebrand, who preached against the US government, although an American citizen, and therefore entitled to trial by a jury of his peers, was murdered by a drone without benefit of a trial. His 16-year-old son was killed by our government in a similar manner. He, too, was a citizen of the United States and entitled to a jury trial. He was a minor. No one had accused him of terrorist activities. His problem was that the CIA believed that he needed to die, and he did.

The so-called war on terror has made us less sensitive to violations of personal rights. Nor is this the first time in our history. Here is a relevant quotation from Wikipedia : “During the McCarthy era [in the early 1950s], thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. The primary targets of such suspicions were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activists. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person's real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment and/or destruction of their careers; some even suffered imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that would be declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures that would come into general disrepute. “

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were accused of passing nuclear secrets to the USSR, were convicted and executed. The evidence against them looks, at best, shaky today. Our government will kill innocent citizens.

Similar abuses occurred thirty odd years earlier, at the end of World War I. The Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia, a lot of workers in the US arms industry lost their jobs at the end of the war, while a large number of soldiers came home looking for work. The result was a period of labor unrest. Conservative groups, as well as the government, responded with an anti-Communist witch hunt in which many people where unjustly jailed or deported.

The current war on terrorism is just one more period of hysteria in our history when the government as well as private organizations care little for individual liberties and rights. It is not unreasonable to fear another witch hunt.

The Nazis killed millions, the generals and Argentina and Brazil killed thousands. By comparison, our government has been well-behaved, but we have absolutely no guarantee that it will always be equally respectful of our traditional liberties.

A government fixated on more or less imaginary enemies, with little regard for individual liberties, possessing the vast stores of information about each of us, which our government has stored in its massive banks of NSA computers, is a genuine menace. That is why we must resist government surveillance now because it may land us in a Guatanamo-style detention facility tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Happy New Year with Big Brother Looking over the Shoulder

As we wish each other a happy and prosperous new year, more comes to light about the government’s single-minded and untiring attempts at total surveillance of everybody.

Jacob Applebaum, a computer expert associated with Edward Snowden, spoke to a hackers conference in Germany about already existing different new surveillance devices, or devices being developed by the National Security Agency.

One of these allows government spies to transform your iPhone into a microphone through which big Brother can listen to your phone calls. In his speech, Applebaum wondered aloud whether that device was developed and inserted with the cooperation of Apple. That company has since then denied in a press release that they were in anyway cooperating with the government to make their phones into surveillance tools.

Applebaum also talked about ways in which a properly prepared computer can share every keystroke a user makes with a spy, even if the computer is at that moment not connected to the Internet. While you are manually typing away on an email to an old friend, the message you are composing shows up on the spy agency’s computer.

Another device, either in use or in development, allows someone to read messages posted on a computer from as far as 8 miles away. The snoops do not have to hide in a tree outside your house. They can be quite comfortable and warm while they capture what you are writing on your machine.

Applebaum also stressed that what is at issue here is not just individual privacy. These growing surveillance capabilities threaten the life and safety itself of journalists or of completely innocent bystanders. Applebaum told the story of an Angolan journalist whose computer had clearly been tampered with and was uploading its content to another computer. That other computer, unfortunately, was a government machine. A short time later the Angolan investigative journalist was arrested and is now under indictment and faces many years in prison, torture, and possible execution.

The aim of all the surveillance is not just to give spies a chuckle when they read your emails. The aim is political control, and enforcing conformity to views approved of by the government. Mind control is the ultimate purpose. The real threat of all this surveillance is enforcement of political conformity.

Make a resolution for 2014 to defend our traditional freedoms in every way you can.