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Saturday, April 19

Beat the Devil: The Devil and Departmentalization, Part 3

To summarize up to this point:

Unchecked government departmentalization is to the rule of a few (an oligarchy) what a juggernaut is to a flea. Once the contraption is set in motion it crushes the Iron Law of Oligarchy and everything else in its path. The ensuing chaos also squashes particracy (the rule of one of more political parties).

This, I submit, is where the elective and administrative systems of American government are at present. I think this claim can be validated simply by following the daily news from official Washington or by studying the 51 nation U.S.-led NATO/ ISAF prosecution of the Afghan War, which according to my back of the envelope calculations deployed at its height 37,182 departments, all fought to a draw by 4 chain-smoking Pakistani generals.  (I think one downside to warfare by departmentalization is that it creates such chaos the war can be over for years before anyone notices.)

For more background on the Iron Law of Departmentalization, how the federal government has managed to continue functioning after a fashion in the midst of chaos and how the Devil got involved in all this, see the first and second posts in this series.

In this writing I examine how various approaches at improving government stack up against the Iron Law of Departmentalization.
Non-Centralized Government

By the time Hitler's tanks rolled into Poland the great democracy project that Robert Michels, Max Weber and so many other European political thinkers had dedicated their lives to working on was in ruins. Surveying the devastation from the mountain fastness of Switzerland, a Swiss historian named Adolf Gasser penned his magnum opus, Gemeindefreiheit als Rettung Europas ("Communal Freedom as the Salvation of Europe"), published in the first edition in 1943. 

In the book Gasser identified strong centralized government coupled with very weak municipalities as the great enemy of democratic government.  He argued that "countries with democratic constitutions can only be viable if they have federalist structures and the municipalities have extensive, legally guaranteed autonomy," to quote Swiss editor Robert Nef's analysis in his 2003 paper, In Praise of Non-Centralism.

(See Section 9, "Federalism and Municipal Autonomy" pp. 71-75 for Nef's discussion of Adolf Gasser's work. I think Nef's paper also does a good job of summarizing the concepts of non-centralism, including federalism, and the strongest arguments for this approach to democratic governance. The English version of Nef's paper is in PDF format and is free.)
Gasser's ideas have relevance today; they were summarized in Wikipedia's article on representative democracy and mentioned in its article on libertarian municipalism.  However, Gasser was analyzing the effects of centralized government on the patchwork of countries on the European continent, all of which combined could fit into the continental United States 2-1/2 times.  So while municipal autonomy can ward off the worst effects of departmentalization gone berserk in a small country, what happens when a municipality is as large as one or more European countries?  Some idea of what happened is found in this passage from Wikipedia's article on local U.S. government:
It is common for residents of major U.S. metropolitan areas to live under six or more layers of special districts as well as a town or city, and a county or township. In turn, a typical metro area often consists of several counties, several dozen towns or cities, and a hundred (or more) special districts.

In one state, California, the fragmentation problem became so bad that in 1963 the California Legislature created Local Agency Formation Commissions in 57 of the state's 58 counties; that is, government agencies to supervise the orderly formation and development of other government agencies.

One effect of all this complexity is that victims of government negligence occasionally sue the wrong entity and do not realize their error until the statute of limitations has run against them.
Here again we see at work the Iron Law of Departmentalization, which makes no distinction between local and central government.  And the fragmentation doesn't speak to the redundancy problem, which is huge for U.S. government because the country and its population are so very large:
Even the experts can't agree on the total number of [U.S.] federal government agencies, commissions, and departments.  Most estimates suggest there are probably more than 2,000 of these. They each have an area of specialization — some much broader than others — but their duties often overlap, making administration more difficult. To complicate things even more, many agencies have counterparts at the state and local level.

Its size, complexity, and overlapping responsibilities leave the federal bureaucracy open to constant attempts to reorganize and streamline.
(The number 2,000 doesn't touch on the actual number of departments in U.S. government as distinct from entities named 'department,'  and the article I quote above doesn't take entities into account that have come into existence during the Obama administration.)
Before I leave Adolf Gasser's ideas here's a summary of his major points, from the Wikipedia article on representative democracy:
1. Society has to be built up from bottom to top.
2.  As a consequence, society is built up by people who are free and have the power to defend themselves with weapons.
3. These free people join or form local communities. These local communities are independent, which includes financial independence, and they are free to determine their own rules.
4.  Local communities join together into a higher unit e.g., a canton.
5.  There is no hierarchical bureaucracy.
6.  There is competition between these local communities e.g., on services delivered or on taxes.
Sounds good on paper except #5, which skews everything else on the list unless the hierarchy is in a nonprofessional government administration.  While nonprofessional government reflects organization, and even generates a hierarchical aspect (chiefly based on the authority of expertise and experience), this can't be considered oligarchic. Nor can it be considered bureaucratic, not unless one wants to term all organizations of people as bureaucratic, which skews both the concept of organizations and bureaucracy.
What About Public-Private Partnerships and Ngos?

Ngos -- "Nongovernmental organizations" -- (also called non-profits) and for-profit contractors have bred like rabbits during the past quarter century. As with the for-profits, there's been a mind-boggling proliferation of ngos that contract with U.S. government at all levels. One drawback to these partnerships is that, as with for-profit contractors involved in government projects, the taxpayer has a hard time sorting through who's responsible for the mistakes.  Was it a government screw-up, or was it the ngo that screwed up?  We saw this again and again at the height of the Afghan War, which employed so many for-profit contractors and ngos that nobody could keep count, let alone sort through who was responsible for what.

From the vantage point of departmentalization, no matter how noble-minded a ngo's mission, the ones that partner with government are not doing this for free.  So government hiring of ngos for projects is actually a shell game with tax money -- a very expensive game. A public-private partnership is another way of saying unrestricted proliferation of de facto government departments.  So there you see the Devil sitting in a cubicle, laughing at you and drinking an ngo-brewed latte at your expense.

The same problem is found in the so-called Golden Triangle partnership, the triangle being government, civil society (read "ngos"), and for-profit corporations. Coca-Cola (yes, the soft drink company) has been promoting the Golden Triangle approach to improving the quality of drinking water in Africa.  But while the term was never to my knowledge mentioned in connection with the NATO-ISAF operation in Afghanistan, the operation at least in terms of 'developing' Afghanistan was "Golden Triangle" spelled backward.  Again, any type of government partnership with an external organization equates to an extension of departmentalization.
What About No Government?

The idea has been suggested in the United States, and quite loudly in recent years by principled anarchists (i.e., ones that don't support violent means of challenging government), and by the more doctrinaire Libertarians. But again size matters, both in geography and population.  A small country with a small population can conceivably get away without a permanent government.  That would certainly solve the problem of rampant departmentalization in government. Yet this solution is not available to any large country, not that I can see.
The tack would be suicidal for the United States. One reason is balkanization. Then there is the problem of oligarchy.  The term is used very loosely in this country and usually it simply means an "elite." But if Americans want to see a real oligarchy they need to look into the history of post-Soviet Russia, which is what popularized the term "oligarch" in the modern era. A handful of men got control of a vast tract of territory because there was no functioning central government to speak of, and the provincial governments were running their own shops. Actually I think it was two handfuls; I don't remember the exact number of the original oligarchs but it was around 10.  Yet the rule of those oligarchs was absolute and they greatly abused their power, until Vladimir Putin and his "St. Pete" crew of deputies strapped on six shooters, in a manner of speaking.

(As to how a couple handfuls of men -- businessmen -- got the upper hand with Russia's military, I'd guess they offered the brass a deal they couldn't refuse: you can run the country and starve, or we can run the country and make sure everyone in the military gets paid, and on time.)

In any case you do not want to see a country the size of the USA with no government because nature really does abhor a vacuum in this case. Of course there are people who do want to balkanize the United States.  I think George Soros has given money to every secessionist movement that exists in the USA.  But breaking up one's country as a way to beat the Devil would, I suspect, give the Devil a good laugh.
What About Virtual Government?

This is cutting-edge stuff but it boils down to using the Internet as a substitute for brick and mortar government, with "adhocracy," the inverse of bureaucracy, as the means of administering the virtual government. I'll talk at greater length about such ideas in a future post. For now, and with regard to departmentalization, if the #StopKony video incident taught anything it was that the moving hand, having clicked "Like," moves on.

The virtual world is no substitute for the real world when it comes to the commitment needed to make government work. This observation goes double for volunteer government administration.

What About the Tea Party Approach?

This boils down to lopping off entire cabinet-level departments from government. The approach can't work in today's political climate in the USA, in which roughly half the voters want to keep all the cabinets.

Besides, a certain number of those laid off government workers will just go to work for ngos or private contractors that get hired by governments. So there you have right back on your doorstep all the departments you got rid of by shutting down cabinet departments.  Only now these departments are even harder for Congress to monitor because technically they're no longer government.
And what happens when Congress passes legislation that requires the installation of just the type of government departments that were shut down when their cabinet-level departments were dispensed with?  If those government workers were laid off they'll have to be reinstated.

Yeah. The Devil's pretty clever.

The Devil's going to stay clever unless we stop asking how to chop down big government and instead zero in on how the profit motive works to make government better.

Putting the Profit Motive, and Individual Efforts, in the Right Place

A mere century ago in the USA, as Paul Glover has pointed out, Americans were managing many of their civic duties without help from paid professionals in government:
" ... one-third of American households were members of 'benevolent societies.'  They pooled money and labor to meet needs.  Paying pennies per week, members built and owned genuinely nonprofit hospitals, orphanages and old folks' homes.  Hundreds of such 'fraternal benefit' groups -- funny-handshake buddies like the Shriners, Moose, Elks, Odd Fellows -- were the original medical insurance companies.  Farmers organized electric co-ops that brightened rural nights.  They owned general stores, warehouses and granaries."
Amazing how many workable solutions people can devise when they have to donate their time to governing their affairs -- and how much ready and efficient cooperation they can garner from other designated fools during the solution's implementation phase.

The same principle was at work during one era in ancient China.  Doctors were paid only while the client was in good health.  This spurred Chinese physicians to develop a comprehensive system of disease prevention, one that has held up even in modern times. Again, it's amazing how well the mind works when the profit motive is put in the right place.
Here's a way to put the profit motive in the wrong place: If we keep paying people to write legislation, they're going to do it to the sky, whether or not legislative bills need to be proposed.  If it's a volunteer enterprise, then we'll see more consideration of what has to be written into law.

The same principle applies throughout all the tasks of governing, and this is easy to see when one studies Paul Glover's approach. Glover is a community organizer -- a real community organizer, not the faux kind that organizes people to attempt to get more out of government and support political candidates.  If your community has a problem, you go to Glover and he shows the community how to solve it.
In one sentence his approach is 'Go ahead and do it.'  You say your community is upset with Wall Street?  Why not have the community start its own stock exchange?  (He's pointed out that there used to be two dozen regional stock exchanges in the USA.)  Unhappy with the banks?  Why not start your own community bank or credit union? Mad at the medical establishment?  Start your own medical clinic co-op.  Think U.S. money is overpriced?  Create your own community money; yes, it's legal tender.
Now try to imagine how much time, energy, and money are saved by this approach -- and how much negativity and conflict are avoided -- by doing it yourself rather than pouring billions of dollars into highly divisive, confrontational political campaigns that promise much and deliver little.

Those who say many Americans won't use Glover's approach because they act like sheep are wrong.  People do need to be shown an action path if they don't have the time or experience to put one together from scratch.  But once they understand how a procedure works, of course they'll build the path and use it.
That's what Paul Glover does as a community organizer. He shows communities how to build a path.  His solutions are not pie in the sky ideas; they're practical, financially feasible, and can be done on a community basis, as Glover has demonstrated. And, as he's pointed out, this approach is actually an old story in the USA.  It's a matter of remembering the story and applying it to our times.  It's basically a matter of reallocating human and financial resources.

As with everything, you get what you pay for. When we outsourced the chore of governing to a permanent class of professionals, what we paid for and got were incredibly powerful systems that allowed us to reallocate a portion of our time to dealing with personal matters.  This had great benefits in some respects, but part of the price was a professional class that evolved oligarchies. These were in turn overrun by the process of departmentalization, and so order gave way to chaos. The chaos is only being managed right now, and not very well.

Trying to localize the chaos, trying to chop it down by decentralizing it, is to miss the actual situation we're facing, as is attempting to bust up a particracy by adding more political parties.  The situation is that we've arrived at the point where the hassles of dealing with the chaos generated by ever-expanding permanent government are costing Americans more time and money than the hassles are worth. In that case, reallocate the time and money to handling aspects of government that citizens can reasonably do themselves on an unpaid basis.  Put the profit motive where it's supposed to be and we'll see actual solutions instead of problems being endlessly stirred around.

But is it possible in this era to govern ourselves a mostly volunteer basis?  Can we dispense with the majority of permanent government institutions without ceding nationalism and plunging into lawlessness and a complete breakdown of social order?  Can we insure accountability for governing decisions with volunteer lawmakers and administrators?

All that's like asking if one can walk from Boston to San Diego in an hour.  No, can't happen.  But Paul Glover did actually walk that entire route; I don't know how many hours it took him but the point is that eventually he showed up in San Diego.  Same principle for changing the way we govern.  One foot in front of the other. This won't dismantle permanent government, but eventually through attrition will offset the excesses that arise from the Iron Law of Departmentalization, which is rooted in the very human tendency to generate an endless series of problems to solve when it's paid to do so.

I'll give the last words to Paul Glover as he finishes his thought about the America of 100 years ago:
" ... Together, these mutual aid associations became an essential precursor to the middle class itself.  By lowering the costs of living Americans gave themselves raises. Resulting discretionary income freed them to patronize neighborhood businesses, which incubated chain stores.  Working class families asserted individuality through competitive consumption.

And now, adapted for our times and temperament, the mutuals are needed again.  We step from the treadmill of debt to take control of life."

Wednesday, April 16

What happened when "C'est la vie" became the U.S. government's guiding principle

How to make a smart government (or person) stupid

Maintaining U.S. dollar hegemony is the issue that has quietly dominated official Washington since the end of World War Two.  If Barack Obama didn't know that before he became U.S. President, Larry Summers would have spelled out the reality for him during his first week in the White House. Whatever sociopolitical agenda Obama had in mind, it didn't mean squat unless his administration could maintain the dollar's status as the world's chief reserve currency.
This explains the curious sameness to Washington policy no matter which political party is in power.  Behind the stage show of political elections the brass knuckles agenda of defending the U.S. dollar's premier status is the only agenda that counts. If the status is lost it's game over because the U.S. federal government no longer knows how to survive unless other nations purchase large chunks of its debt. That's because its responses to the myriad challenges of this new era have been characterized by incompetence on an increasingly grand scale.  The escalating incompetence was also in evidence in the British Empire in the years running up to World War One and during British management of their war effort.

How, then, did the British Empire manage to survive for so long, with idiots in charge? 

For the same reason the United States has survived mistakes that would have destroyed any other nation: the British currency unit, pound sterling, was the world's major reserve currency.  This meant that no matter how much the British government screwed up, the reserve status of their currency kept it afloat.

There is a catch, however, to every fall being amply cushioned.  The people who ran the British Empire became incapable of learning from mistakes. There was no need to learn. 

Once the impetus to learn from mistakes is removed, there is no surer way to turn intelligent people into stupid ones.  It happened to the British, it probably happened to the Roman Empire, and it's happened right here in the USA.

It's a myth that the USA became a hyperpower when the Soviet Union was signed out of existence. It became a hyperpower once the U.S. dollar was established as the world's major reserve currency. A casualty of the situation was the American public's say in Washington; this happened because the federal government no longer needed to rely on taxation. The revenue from taxes was chump change when the rest of the world's importing nations had no choice but to buy U.S. government debt.

The downsides weren't immediately evident. But by 1968 it became clear to other governments that the U.S. was using the dollar's reserve status as a blank check to finance its war boondoggle in Indochina -- by then "Vietnam."  So some of the major trading nations in Europe launched a concerted war against the U.S. dollar. When the dust settled, in 1973, the U.S. had hung onto its hyperpower status but the dollar peg was dead, replaced by a system in which the dollar and other currencies would float against each other in value.

The Saudis were the biggest winner in the deal. Just as the post-World War Two United Kingdom had to turn to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to keep itself afloat after it found it didn't know how to survive without being buoyed by its currency, so the United States became dependent on the petrodollar and Saudi influence at OPEC. 

From Too Big to Fail to C'est La Vie

But then began a series of banking crises in the United States, one crisis seeding another, every crisis signaling bad to worse management of the U.S. economic system. The era of Zombie banking arrived, which was soon mirrored in Zombie U.S. state and municipal governments and Zombie industries.  Everything became too big to fail, requiring federal bailouts, whether it was the savings and loan industry, the City of New York or the U.S. steel industry.

But it was only money. And there was always more money where that came from, thanks to the rest of the world's nations buying up U.S. dollars to keep their currency reserves replenished toward purchases of imported oil or any other major items.

The Japanese, not too big too fail, and not cursed with the Yen being the world's major reserve currency, had been able to learn from their mistakes. In the post-World War Two period they became avid disciples of American manufacturing practices and in particular quality control. With those lessons and a great deal of elbow grease and innovation they transformed products that had been synonymous with junk into ones that were the world standard for quality.
The response from Washington?  I've blanked out the memory of whether this happened on the floor of the Senate or the House of Representatives, but members of Congress donned safety glasses then swung hatchets and sledge hammers at piles of Japanese electronic products.

But it was okay.  C'est la vie had become Washington's guiding principle because when you command the world's major reserve currency there's always more than one way to deal with a pesky trade rival.  And there is never a need to learn from mistakes.  Until it's too late to learn.


Tuesday, April 15

Today's USA, straight out of the plot of "Aliens"

For me the most striking aspect of the NSA Affair is the number and range of American phonies it's exposed:

The Conservatives who bathe in Eau de Constitution and drape themselves in the American flag, betraying every value this country was founded on.

The Liberals who turn out to be jackboot fascists.

The human rights activists whose activism stops at challenging the Democratic or Republican party lines.
The War Hawks who look the other way when the nation's premier spy agency showed itself to be a dud at uncovering terrorist plots.

The computer-internet industry giants who built their reputations on being anti-Big Brother, secretly working hand in glove with clandestine government surveillance programs.

The Libertarians who see nothing wrong with suspicionless surveillance as long as the government isn't breaking down their door.

Yes, you just never know anymore what will pop out at you from an American.

But how did it happen in a country that enshrined straight speaking? How did we produce so many two-faced people?  Can we just blame this on the Media-Politics Industrial Complex?


Monday, April 14

U.S. government no longer works the way textbooks say: The Devil and Departmentalization, Part 2

Not Your Grandmother's Federal Bureaucracy

1.  The federal government is the USA's single largest employer. At the heart of the NSA debates is an argument that the U.S. government needs secrecy to conduct its most sensitive business.  Yet the argument has been mooted by the present era.  There is no more "inside" and "outside" of U.S. government; there's a kind of superhighway running through it, a highway made up of millions of subcontractors -- non-employees, non-civil servants. Yet unlike a highway, which is designed by engineers and consciously built, this highway wasn't engineered; it just happened, as departments proliferated like rabbits and hordes of contractors made up the perennial shortfalls occasioned by the fact that there weren't enough people in the civil service to handle all the designated tasks in government.

2. Under such conditions, careful oversight of government administration became paramount. Yet the oversight could only happen in slapdash fashion in a representative democracy that supports a huge political industry.  In that milieu much of White House, Cabinet-level and congressional oversight works out to Cover Your Ass.

3.  Many aspects of government work became so technical that even if Congress doubled in size it would still be dependent on lobbyists who translate technical stuff into plain English -- translate according to what lobbyists think congressional committees need to understand about technical stuff.  So while lobbyists aren't part of government they form a second superhighway, also not planned, not engineered, running through U.S. government.

4. The consultancy issue.  Today key government agencies are dependent on consultants who know that they know more than the people they're advising.  Meanwhile, the people in government know that the consultants know more than they do -- and that they're making more in consulting fees than the annual salary the government employees receive.  This situation does not conduce to the esprit de corps in a traditional civil service (or military service).

5. The revolving door. Many people working in government, even in high positions, go back and forth between jobs in the private and public sectors.  This influences officials who know that whatever key decisions they make while in government can boost or ruin their chance for a plum job in the private sector. The traditional civil service model, which represents a lifetime career in government, wasn't designed to deal with the revolving door and how it affects decision-making.
6.  "The United States Civil service exams have since [the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978] been abolished for many positions, since statistics show that they do not accurately allow hiring of minorities according to the affirmative action guidelines."(1)

Interpreters of the reform act didn't take into account the nature of bureaucracy, which is that it runs on written directives and statements of problems. The civil service exam helps establish that the people working in government who have to communicate with each other in writing can be reasonably assured they'll understand each other.  To remove that baseline means of establishing clear channels of communication is to throw sand in the gears of government.

The Iron Law of Departmentalization and U.S. Government

The seven factors are in addition to the perennial problems in any kind of job sector, public or private: bad decisions based on human error, corruption, negligence, cronyism, poorly conceived agendas, budget shortfalls.

All this is in addition to a situation famously associated with bureaucracy known as stovepiping or silo-ing, and which can become very problematical when departments in effect weaponize information they control.

Piled on top of all this is the law I identified in the first post in this series:
[W]hen the number of departments in a government reaches the magic number, the juggernaut of departmentalization crushes everything in its path, including the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

Now what is the magic number?  From my back of the envelope calculations it's the number at which everyone gives up trying to make an accurate count of the number of departments.
(Departments would include agencies, commissions, services, etc., as well as departments within a department no matter how they're named; e.g., division, section, etc.)
From all this I'd say there's an Iron Law of Departmentalization, which simply stated is that chaos cancels out oligarchy when departments proliferate like rabbits.
 I went on to observe that the American government had reached the magic number. Here I was challenged by a colleague who asked me to name the date when I claim the magic number was reached.

The Magic Number

According to Charlotte's bookie the magic number was reached at 5:17:33 PM Eastern Time on March 4, 1972.  Make of that what you will. I haven't been able to reach my own spirit guide since Charlotte sequestered my means of communication with the Other Side.

By the way the situation has gotten out of hand, although I'm not going to report her to the police. Besides, what would I say? Hello, officer?  There's a possum living in my garage who's using Ouija boards to help a bookie's spirit set up a major bookmaking operation; get here quickly maybe you can catch them in the act.

And no I don't feel like explaining how she got hold of a second Ouija board, beyond observing that things like this can happen when one gets too chummy with wildlife. Although it seemed a good idea at the start. We're in a rut here in Washington when it comes to opinion sources -- same old think tanks, press briefings, lobbying organizations. I thought it would be helpful to get a fresh point of view, one untouched by cynicism, so why not ask a passing squirrel, possum, and raccoon what they thought about, say, the latest trade talks between China and the U.S.?  But I noticed a change in Charlotte after she began reading policy journals.  She became facile.

Just checking to make sure this discussion of bureaucracy isn't putting anyone to sleep.

The Jackson Pollock School of Foreign Policy

As early as January 2008 I identified this school as becoming the dominant one in Washington's foreign policy establishment. By 2011, when I discussed the headless horseman style of decision-making that the Jackson Pollock School had popularized, Washington was careening toward events that would result in the death of an American Ambassador in Libya.  Since then Congress has logged many hours attempting to establish which government shops were in charge of U.S. policy in Libya at the time. When last I checked the guessing game continues.
As Les Campbell, Middle East chief for the U.S. National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, told the Associated Press in 2011:
Speaking as a Canadian, one of the beauties of the U.S. system is that there are many, many entry points in many centers of power, and they can have conflicting policies.
He was specifically referring to what by then was open knowledge in Washington: that some departments in the American government had been supporting Hosni Mubarak while others were promoting 'confidence-building' measures to help Egyptians get rid of Mubarak.
This is not beautiful. This is not covering bets, as the AP reporter speculated was the case. This is not policy. It's chaos, which has had very unfortunate consequences  for Egyptians.
Had Enough?

All the above is my way of telling Julian Assange and other hacktivists that if they think the biggest problem with government is lack of transparency they're still back in the 20th Century, for all their computer expertise.

The problem, at least in the United States, is that representative democracy and its two-party political system crashed into the realities of the modern era.  A casualty of the situation was the means by which American government is administered. 

That the administration is still functioning after a fashion is only because of the factors I named in the first post in this series, and because people can navigate the damnedest road conditions if they have no choice.  But when the daily grind in a federal bureaucracy amounts to navigating chaos, it's time for an overhaul of the system of government before the chaos knocks us all over the cliff.
What kind of overhaul?  The question has engaged a growing number of Americans over the span of the past decade. In the next installment, forthcoming this week, I'll make a start at examining the best-known attempts at forging a new way of governing ourselves, and a lesser-known one.

1)  From Wikipedia's article on the United States federal civil service


McDonald's has taken a big step to help improve Americans' fast food habits

It was a long time coming but congratulations to McDonald's!  The next task, I hope, is to move into serving organic ingredients in their most popular meals, starting with salad ingredients. I understand that would have to be done slowly but by 2020 -- once they've absorbed improved nutritional offerings  there should be enough interest in the USA to allow them to take the first steps in adding organics to the basic menu.

As I noted in the last post, the wheel has turned.  It's now a matter of vision and leadership among the largest retail food companies and fast food giants.  That translates into finding ways to make the transition to organics profitable for the companies and affordable for the consumers.  Much of this will depend on helping established organic farmers expand their operations. 


Target, Walmart, target Whole Foods and Trader Joe's prices on selected organic processed foods

Cutting costs by about 25 percent on selected organic foods for Walmart customers will drive greater consumer demand for organic foods, thus helping organic farmers. Of course there will be many losers among nonorganic processed food manufacturers as organics become more affordable.  But the wheel has turned. If people have the choice at roughly the same price they will choose organics.

The Forbes article on the new development notes that it's not known at this point whether Whole Foods and Trader Joe's will play along with a price war.


Sunday, April 13

U.S. cattle ranchers: Let Americans eat soybeans

The ranchers know their herds have been decimated by drought but they're still exporting beef to beat the band. This is now putting the cost for a pound of beef out of reach of what many Americans can afford. 

The solution?  I can think of two.

1) Request that these beef industrialists, which is what they actually are, sell their property to American ranchers who will put the American food consumer before the rest of the world. Ditto for the dairy industrialists.  Yet somehow I think these Americans will listen as much to this request as the French aristocracy did to food complaints from the rabble.

2)  Have Americans start a letter-writing campaign to Apple and Microsoft:  "Hi. I can't afford to buy your products because I'm spending so much of my paycheck on beef and dairy items at the grocery store.  Have a nice day!"

That might translate into some action somewhere along the line.

But this is one of the downsides of a nation that lives on credit. Cattle ranchers selling the rug out from under their fellow Americans didn't start with the drought; it's been going on for decades, and getting worse every decade.  They're been getting away with jacking up domestic prices because they know the American consumer will suck it up, pay the higher food costs, and pay for other purchases on credit.  Only this time they've gone over the top on the excuse of drought.

If Americans started paying cash for a few years, they would feel the pain more and this would translate into fairer and more rational business practices -- rational in that it's suicidal to a society to short your countrymen in critical areas in order to turn a bigger profit overseas.


Thursday, April 10

Bill Clinton to Ed Snowden: Waiter, oh waiter, you're spilling the soup

The imagery that came to my mind on reading Clinton's "sort of an imperfect messenger" comment about Snowden.  There's Snowden with about 10 journalists frantically trying to stop a runaway train before it pulls into the station marked Tyranny. There's Clinton sitting in the dining car, trying to decide should he have the poached salmon.


The increasingly strange story of Tamiflu and Relenza anti-viral drugs

"The patent for oseltamivir [generic name of Tamiflu] is held by Gilead Sciences and is valid at least until 2016. Gilead licensed the exclusive rights to Roche in 1996. ... Gilead is politically well connected: Donald Rumsfeld served as chairman from 1997 until he became U.S. Secretary of Defense in 2001; former Secretary of State George Shultz and the wife of former California Governor Pete Wilson serve on the board.
"In November 2005, U.S. President George W. Bush requested that Congress fund US$1 billion for the production and stockpile of oseltamivir, after Congress had already approved $1.8 billion for military use of the drug. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld recused himself from all government decisions regarding the drug."
-- From Wikipedia's article on oseltamivir

I suggest you study Wikipedia's entire article before you read the following news report, Researchers raise questions about flu drugs.  The new study is by no means the first time research findings have raised questions about the drugs. And while I don't recall whether Wikipedia mentions this, Tamiflu was supposed to be a resort for people with already compromised immune systems who manifested flu symptoms. That was before Swine Flu, when governments began dispensing Tamiflu from their stockpiles as if it was Halloween candy.  From then on the drug was heavily marketed to the general public for any type of flu. 

The trick that went along with the treat was that the Swine Flu virus had a lot of fun with Tamiflu when the drug got into wide use.  See this March 2014 article for information on that angle, and there are many other articles on the subject of anti-viral drugs and viral mutations.)
If Tamiflu or Relenza were a magic bullet, you could make out an argument that in a crisis, with hundreds of millions of human lives at stake, you have to take your chances with the possibility of an extremely deadly mutation arising from the virus's battles with the antivirals.
But Tamiflu is not a magic bullet and neither is Relenza.  So I think physicians and public health officials might want to do a little weighing motion with their hands: Possibility of Doomsday Virus vs. Recommending the Patient Gargle With Salt Water.

Researchers in this area of medical science are trying to find a way to thread the camel by screwing around with genomes, as you can see from the March 2014 article.  Here I'm reminded of I am Legend -- the movie; I didn't read the book. Although the story got the Hollywood focus-grouped treatment it was at root a parable about human overreach.

One thing I would like to know about Tamiflu: Just how was it that the drug developer got the idea to distill the main ingredient in a cooking spice, star anise, to create the key ingredient in the drug?  Did the idea come in a dream?  Through the dartboard method of drug development?  From gazing into a crystal ball, perhaps?  Or was it by reading books on Chinese and Indian traditional medicine? 

The bolded emphasis in this news report is mine:
Researchers raise questions about flu drugs

Michelle Healy, USA TODAY 7:03 p.m. EDT April 9, 2014

A new review is questioning the effectiveness of two key drugs enlisted in the fight against influenza and in turn the investments by governments to stockpile the drugs in the event of a global flu outbreak.
The antiviral drugs Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir ) are commonly used to treat influenza in healthy adults and children.

In the case of Tamiflu, the drug does shorten symptoms of influenza by about half a day — as the manufacturer suggests — but there is insufficient evidence to support claims that it reduces hospital admissions or serious complications, such as confirmed pneumonia or bronchitis, says the review published today by The Cochrane Collaboration, a non-profit, international health-care research network, and the British medical journal BMJ.

The review also cites evidence from treatment trials (when the drug was given for about five days) that Tamiflu increased the risk of nausea and vomiting in adults by around 4% and in children by around 5%.
And evidence from prophylaxis or prevention trials (when the drug was given for about six weeks) showed Tamiflu use was related to increased risks of headaches, psychiatric disturbances, especially depression and confusion, and renal problems.

The review of studies related to the nasal spray Relenza found fewer adverse effects compared with Tamiflu, but also showed no effectiveness against flu complications or reducing hospitalizations.

Although Relenza likewise reduced symptoms by about half a day, the reviewers report "that it may be no better than other symptom relief medications," such as drinking clear liquids, gargling with warm salt water, and using saline nasal drops, over-the-counter decongestants, and pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

In a statement, Relenza-maker GlaxoSmithKline says, "We continue to believe the data from Relenza's clinical trial (program) support its effectiveness against flu and that when used appropriately, in the right patient, it can reduce duration of flu symptoms."

Tamiflu-maker Genentech, a division of Roche, also challenged the review's conclusions, noting that the researchers focused on only 20 out of 77 clinical trials, "all made available to them," and excluded "real-world data" from non-Roche-sponsored observational trials.

In some cases, the reviewers also failed to analyze the appropriate statistical information, which "doesn't give you an accurate representation of what the true effect of the medicine is," says Barry Clinch, principal clinical scientist with Roche.

Peter Doshi, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical health services research at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy and a co-author of the Cochrane review, says he's not interested in "health scares. What we've found here are statistically significant increases."

"Do I know absolutely for certain, without a shadow of a doubt, that Tamiflu is responsible for these (negative effects), based on the trial methodology? No. But what I'm seeing here are clear reasons to be concerned about and to look into it further," he says.

Claims about the effectiveness of the antiviral drugs were a key factor in decisions made by governments around the world to stockpile the drugs in case of a global flu outbreak and was widely used during the 2009 H1N1/swine flu pandemic, says Fiona Godlee, editor-in-chief, BMJ.

Since that pandemic, Cochrane investigators, commissioned by the United Kingdom government, have attempted "to get to a sound evidence base as to whether this drug was effective and safe," says Godlee.
The new report cites a U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) document stating that the U.S. has spent more than $1.3 billion buying a strategic reserve of antivirals. The British government has spent almost £424 million or $710,030,400 for a stockpile of about 40 million doses, according to documents.

Unlike the case in many countries, FDA-approved labeling for Tamiflu says that the drug "has not been shown" to prevent serious bacterial complications like those associated with pneumonia and other upper respiratory infections, a fact that "contradicts the assumptions that were made when stockpiling occurred," Doshi says.

In 2012, after reviewing an earlier Cochrane review that raised similar questions about the value of the antiviral medications for the prevention and treatment of influenza, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not change its recommendation on the use of the antiviral drugs, calling them "an important adjunct in the prevention and treatment of influenza."

CDC's response this week was similar. "We carefully review all available data including randomized controlled trials and observational studies when making recommendations. There is a substantial and growing number of observational studies that show the clinical benefit of antiviral treatment of seasonal and pandemic influenza."


Tuesday, April 8

Police State Jottings: Mr Cantelo's Chicken Establishment and your brain

Mr Cantelo's Chicken Establishment ...

There is a difference between a tyranny and a police state even though the two can work out to the same.  The original police state arose in the Germanic kingdoms in the 1850s in the wake of the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848 a.k.a. Springtime of the Peoples.  Since then the term has taken on so many meanings that last year when I turned to a study of the police state I couldn't make heads or tails of what one actually was. 

So I went back to where it all started. Once on the solid ground of the police state's origins, which I learned about from sociologist Mathieu Deflem's revelatory paper International Policing in Nineteenth-Century Europe: The Police Union of German States, 1851-1866 (first published in 1996 in the International Criminal Justice Review), I was able to work up an objective definition of the term:

It's a government that in effect criminalizes the entire governed population. This, then, provides the state with a rationale to deploy draconian surveillance measures against the populace.

At the time I wrote about the issue for Pundita readers (September 16, 2013) I along with I think most Americans had yet to absorb all the issues connected with NSA files being released to the public.  And so I assumed that while the United States was on track to becoming a police state it hadn't happened yet. But as the implications of the NSA surveillance programs became clearer and the rollout of NSA files continued I learned that by my own definition of the term the U.S. government had transformed into a police state during the previous five-seven years.

That is, it'd criminalized the American population although to be precise it had "pre-crimed" the population, holding it under potential suspicion of future criminal acts.

What's more the government was accomplishing what German police in the 1850s could only dream of doing: it was in effect criminalizing the entire world population. The goal was to surveil every single man, woman and child; to collect and store every utterance, every action, that could be picked up from any digital or electronic means. 

By the new year it was evident from the rollout of NSA files that the policing hadn't stopped at collection and storage of data.  The American government was using the data to carry out various types of clandestine cyber actions, not only against foreign governments it designated as enemies, but also against selected American citizens; i.e., those individuals the government considered troublesome or potentially so.
And so I began to cram on NSA and related issues. By now I've plowed through an estimated 3,500 scholarly papers, articles (including opinion) and news reports, and even this effort has barely made a dent.  Yet despite the mountain of information available to the public it's still too early to attempt to encompass the situation. Glenn Greenwald's book isn't due for publication until the end of this month.  Reportedly the book will reveal far more about the complicity of U.S. industries in setting up the police state than published so far. And Ed Snowden said just days ago that the worst revelations from the NSA files are yet to come.

Yet one thing is now clear.  Years before the 9/11 attack the American police state was getting underway.  The harbinger was Julian Assange's warning in 1998 about patents the NSA was taking out; in this, history was getting set to repeat itself as the Internet era geared up.  The very actions by the Germanic monarchies in the early 1800s to 'socialize' government and education; i.e., to make them more accessible to the masses, had created many back-seat drivers and thousands more who were determined to outright grab the wheel of government. 

Some of these dissidents and attempted usurpers were among a "radicalized impoverished intelligentsia," as Wikipedia's article on the Revolutions of 1848 in the Austrian Empire described them, who'd found no jobs on graduating from college. The tiny, unsophisticated German police forces found themselves on the pointy end of the stick when it came to wresting order from the mess.  The British government turned out to be quite uncooperative in the effort to extend these attempts at ordering across the Channel, as I learned from Deflem's paper. Charles Dickens, in an article for a magazine he edited, Household Words, had fun with the efforts of the German police at a London industrial exhibition to keep tabs on communists, liberals, democrats, separatists and anyone else who might foment more mayhem on the Continent:
"Conspiracies of a comprehensive character are being hatched in certain back parlours, in certain back streets behind Mr. Cantelo's Chicken Establishment in Leicester Square. A complicated web of machination is being spun -- we have it on the authority of a noble peer -- against the integrity of the Austrian Empire, at a small coffee shop in Soho. Prussia is being menaced by twenty-four determined Poles and Honveds in the attics of a cheap restaurateur in the Haymarket." [1]
 One can only wonder what Dickens would write about the present surveillance state.  Nick Clegg, leader of Britain's Social Democrats, said stoutly a couple weeks ago that GCHQ's suspicionless surveillance measures are "alien to our British values," and led his political party's fielding of a "Digital Bill of Rights" after David Cameron refused to consider the measure.  Good for the Social Democrats! Yet this reiteration of British values is a long way from resolving a situation rooted not in terrorism or international crime but in the very success of liberal democracies.

When met with the digital era the success translated into many millions of back-seat drivers, all Tweeting each other on the daily screw-ups of their respective idiot governments.

The upshot: today's leaders of democratic societies are much in the position of King Friederick Wilhelm surveying the malcontents massed at the barricades in 1848.  They're responding to feeling besieged as well as King Friederick did. (For specifics about the latter see Deflem's paper.)

Barack Obama, who'd wrapped himself in the mantle of political Liberalism during his presidential campaigns, is now cast as an authoritarian heavy, wagging his finger at the restive masses for their gauche insistence on privacy.  You can't have 100 percent privacy and 100 percent security, he admonished.

No one had known that was the issue but when the masses began asking just how much security 0 privacy had bought them NSA came up with hot air, which was quickly investigated by various watchdog groups' e.g., Pro Publica,  and even a panel that Obama himself convened, and which confirmed that yes it was 100 percent hot air.

I reject the findings of the panel, Obama rejoined, and that was that, unless you wanted to count Edward Snowden's comments about NSA's record on fighting terrorism, made in his written testimony to the European Parliament:  The “greatest success the program had ever produced was discovering a taxi driver in the United States transferring $8,500 dollars to Somalia in 2007.”

He added drily that NSA had been too busy monitoring online gaming websites and the phone calls of German ministers to pick up on actual terror plots such as the Boston Marathon one.

Just what is the draconian suspicionless surveillance good for, then?

Glenn Greenwald spelled out some of its uses in a February report for Intercept that gave the paleo-conservatives or libertarians, or whatever they are over at Antiwar.com, nightmares. Justin Raimondo wrote in part:
Whereas J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI used old-fashioned methods – primitive bugging devices, poison pen letters, and physical infiltration of "suspect" groups – today’s Thought Police use the Internet to, as Greenwald puts it, "control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the Internet itself."
In a presentation by the British spy agency GCHQ to the NSA, and the Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand intelligence agencies, the top-secret JTRIG unit instructed their allies in the methodology of targeting and destroying political dissidents, and countering their influence on the Internet. Their approach is oh-so "scientific," citing social science theories about human motivation, giving the whole document the aura of an academic study.
The goal of this covert action program is to create what GCHQ describes as "cyber-magicians," who can work their "magic" on the Internet and their designated targets.
 ... And Your Brain

But applying social science theories to conditioning the behavior of the masses is old fashioned.  One can learn this by watching Charlie Rose's hour-long interview for PBS on March 7, 2013, with a panel of neuroscience experts. The interview, part 13 of Charlie's Brain Series 2, was to discuss "The New Science of Mind and its Public and Policy Implications" or as it can be termed in the vernacular, "The Obama administration's investment in getting inside your head."

All for a good cause, of course, to battle the scourge of Alzheimer's and other brain diseases, although what this has to do with the government needing to know "the nature of decision-making" and the "impact of our biases on our decision-making" -- it's complex.  If you're not a neuroscientist you're not really qualified to ask such questions of your government.

1) See Deflem's paper for the citation for Dickens' remarks.


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