3/30/2012 1:44:59 PM
Perhaps fueled by increasing
gridlock in Washington,
lately there have been a lot of studies published on why people form and keep the
political beliefs that they do. While none are particularly encouraging for those who want to see government work, the findings offer some insight on why politicians reaching agreement is tougher than it sounds. A couple of weeks ago, Psychology Today reported that researchers at the University of Nebraska
have pointed to a
biological basis for ideology. In general, they reported, liberals have a
deep psychological propensity to focus more on positive forces and outcomes,
while conservative minds are more occupied by what is potentially threatening. These
tendencies, the researchers said, may go beyond environmental factors like
geography or parenting styles.
Haidt agrees that deeper forces are at play. Earlier this year, he told Bill Moyers (and Company) that human
beings are not well designed for objective or rational analysis. It turns
out we’re much better at choosing a side, and finding evidence and arguments to
support it. In other words, cognitive dissonance plays a much bigger role in
how we understand politics than we may have thought. In a recent book, The
Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are
Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt outlines his view that
conscious reasoning has very little to do with how we form our ideas about the
This would certainly concur
with new research from Duke
University. There, psychologists
found that potential
voters consistently prefer candidates with deeper voices. As Futurity reports, participants were
asked to choose between a number of voices saying “I urge you to vote for me this
November.” The participants consistently preferred the deepest voices, and that
was true whether the choices were male or female. Participants also chose the
deeper voices when asked to identify voices with traits like strength,
competence, or trustworthiness. This was especially true of men, leading
researcher Rindy Anderson to speculate on whether women’s higher voice pitch
had something to do with the glass ceiling.
Of course, none of this
bodes well for actually getting things done, but does help clarify the past several
years of partisan bickering. We tend to blame ideology for a lot of political
problems, but it’s hard to see how we could escape it.
But here’s my favorite
explanation: a study by Scott Eidelman, a University of Arkansas
psychologist, recently found that conservatism
may be most people’s first instinct in how they view the world. According
to Miller-McCune, when distracted or
performing more than one complicated task, participants were more likely to
express conservative ideas and beliefs. These included, according to Eidelman, “an
emphasis on personal responsibility, an acceptance of hierarchy, and a
preference for the status quo.”
In another portion of the
study, Eidelman asked participants to drink heavily before completing a survey
measuring their politics. Amazingly (read: wonderfully), this experiment produced
the same results, as did pressuring participants with time constraints, and distracting
them with repetitive tape loops.
What this exactly means is
hard to say. Eidelman argues that the results will satisfy no one: the research
implies that conservative ideas are instinctual, but also somewhat knee-jerk. And
of course, it’s just as likely that a liberal will hold hasty or unexamined
beliefs, whether or not they’re inebriated or their favorite candidate has a
deep voice. What these findings may speak to, then, is a growing fascination
with ideology at a psychological or biological level—a sense that gridlock in Washington, like say
policy, must have some deeper
& Company, Futurity,
(now Pacific Standard).
Image by Tom
Arthur, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/26/2012 9:25:51 AM
This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
Pepper spray. SWAT teams. Twitter trackers. Biometrics. Student security
consultants. Professors of homeland security studies. Welcome to Repress U,
class of 2012.
Since 9/11, the
homeland security state has come to campus just as it has come to America’s towns
and cities, its places of work and its houses of worship, its public space and
its cyberspace. But the age of (in)security had announced its arrival on campus
with considerably less fanfare than elsewhere -- until, that is, the “less lethal” weapons were unleashed in the fall of 2011.
Today, from the
City University of New York to the University of California, students increasingly find
themselves on the frontlines, not of a war on terror, but of a war on
“radicalism” and “extremism.” Just about everyone from college administrators
and educators to law enforcement personnel and corporate executives seems to
have enlisted in this war effort. Increasingly, American students are in their
In 2008, I laid out seven steps the Bush administration had taken to create a
homeland security campus. Four years and a president later, Repress U has come
a long way. In the Obama years, it has taken seven more steps to make the
university safe for plutocracy. Here is a step-by-step guide to how they did
Had there been
Davis, no Lt. John Pike, no chemical weapons wielded against
peacefully protesting students, and no cameras to broadcast it all, Americans
might never have known just how far the homeland security campus has come in
its mission to police its students. In the old days, you might have called in
the National Guard.
Nowadays, all you need is an FBI-trained, federally funded, and “less lethally”
armed campus police department.
pepper-spraying of students at UC Davis was only the most public manifestation
of a long-running campus trend in which, for officers of the peace, the
pacification of student protest has become part of the job description. The
weapons of choice have sometimes been blunt instruments, such as the extendable
batons used to bludgeon the student body at Berkeley,
Baruch, and the University of
Puerto Rico. At other times, tactical officers have turned to “less-lethal”
munitions, like the CS gas, beanbag rounds, and pepper pellets fired into crowds
at Occupy protests across the University of California system this past
everything we see of the homeland security campus, there is a good deal more that
we miss. Behind the riot suits, the baton strikes, and the pepper-spray cannons
stands a sprawling infrastructure made possible by multimillion-dollar federal
grants, “memoranda of understanding” and “mutual aid” agreements among law enforcement agencies, counter-terrorism
training, an FBI-sponsored “Academic Alliance,” and 103 Joint Terrorism
Task Forces (which provide “one-stop shopping” for counterterrorism operations
to more than 50 federal and 600 state and local agencies).
“We have to go
where terrorism takes us, so we often have to go onto campuses,” FBI Special
Agent Jennifer Gant told Campus Safety Magazine in an interview last
year. To that end, campus administrators and campus police chiefs are now known
to coordinate their operations with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “special advisors,” FBI “campus liaison agents,” an FBI-led National Security
Advisory Board, and a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, which instructs
local law enforcement in everything from “physical techniques” to “behavioral
science.” More than half of campus police forces already have “intelligence-sharing
agreements” with these and other government agencies in place.
a SWAT team
campus police forces have decisively escalated their tactics, expanded their
arsenals, and trained ever more of their officers in SWAT-style paramilitary
policing. Many agencies acquire their arms directly from the Department of
Defense through a surplus weapons sales program known as “1033,” which offers, among other things, “used grenade launchers (for the deployment of less lethal
weapons)... for a significantly reduced cost.”
the most recent federal data available, nine out of 10 campus agencies with
sworn police officers now deploy armed patrols authorized to use deadly force. Nine
in 10 also authorize the use of chemical munitions, while one in five make
regular use of Tasers. Last August, an 18-year old student athlete died after
being tased at the University
campus police squads have been educated in the art of war through regular
special weapons training sessions by “tactical officers’ associations” which
run a kind of SWAT university. In October, UC Berkeley played host to an “Urban
Shield” SWAT training exercise involving local and campus agencies, the
California National Guard, and special police forces from Israel, Jordan,
And since 2010, West Texas A&M has played host to paramilitary training programs for police from Mexico.
In October, the
University of North
Carolina at Charlotte
got its very own SWAT team, equipped with MP-15 rifles, M&P
40 sidearms, and Remington shotguns. “We have integrated SWAT officers into the
squads that serve our campus day and night,” boasted UNC Charlotte Chief of
Police Jeff Baker. The following month, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina,
a SWAT team staged an armed raid on an occupied building, pointing
assault rifles at the heads of activists, among them UNC students.
The long arm of
Repress U stretches far beyond the bounds of any one campus or college town. As
reported by the Associated Press this winter, the New York City Police
Department (NYPD) and its hitherto secret “Demographics Unit” sent undercover operatives to spy on
members of the Muslim Students Association at more than 20 universities in four states across the
Northeast beginning in 2006.
None of the organizations or persons of interest were ever accused of any
wrongdoing, but that didn’t stop NYPD detectives from tracking Muslim students
through a “Cyber Intelligence Unit,” issuing weekly “MSA Reports” on local chapters of the Muslim Students
Association, attending campus meetings and seminars, noting how many times
students prayed, or even serving as chaperones for what they described as “militant paintball trips.” The targeted institutions ran
the gamut from community colleges to Columbia
the AP’s investigation, the intelligence units in question worked
closely not only with agencies in other cities, but with an agent on the
payroll of the CIA. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, facing mounting calls to
resign, has issued a spirited defense of the campus surveillance program, as has
Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “If terrorists aren't limited by borders and
boundaries, we can't be either,” Kelly said in a speech at Fordham Law
The NYPD was
hardly the only agency conducting covert surveillance of Muslim students on
campus. The FBI has been engaging in such tactics for years. In 2007, UC Irvine
student Yasser Ahmed was assaulted by FBI agents, who followed him as he was on his
way to a campus “free speech zone.” In 2010, Yasir Afifi, a student at Mission College
in Santa Clara, California, found a secret GPS tracking device affixed to his car. A half-dozen agents
later knocked on his door to ask for it back.
the undocumented out
students are followed closely by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
through its Student and
Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). As of 2011, the agency was
keeping tabs on 1.2 million students and their dependents. Most recently, as
part of a transition to the paperless SEVIS II -- which aims to “unify
records” -- ICE has been linking student files to biometric and employer
data collected by DHS and other agencies.
information stays forever,” notes Louis Farrell, director of the ICE program.
“And every activity that’s ever been associated with that person will come up.
That’s something that has been asked for by the national security community...
[and] the academic community.”
Then there are
the more than 360,000 undocumented students and high-school graduates who would
qualify for permanent resident status and college admission, were the DREAM Act ever passed. It would grant conditional permanent
residency to undocumented students who were brought to the U.S. as
children. When such students started “coming out” as part of an “undocumented
and unafraid” campaign, many received DHS notices to appear for removal
proceedings. Take 24-year old Uriel Alberto, of Lees-McRae College, who recently went on
hunger strike in North Carolina’s Wake County jail; he now faces deportation
(and separation from his U.S.-born son) for taking part in a protest at the
Since 2010, the
homeland security campus has been enlisted by the state of Arizona to enforce
everything from bans on ethnic studies programs to laws like S.B. 1070, which makes it a crime to appear in public
without proof of legal residency and is considered a mandate for police to
detain anyone suspected of being undocumented. Many undocumented students have
turned down offers of admission to the University of Arizona since the passage of the law, while
others have stopped attending class for fear of being detained and deported.
an eye on student spaces and social media
and undocumented students are particular targets of surveillance, they are not
alone. Electronic surveillance has expanded beyond traditional closed-circuit
TV cameras to next-generation technologies like IQeye HD megapixel
cameras, so-called edge devices (cameras that can do their own analytics), and
Perceptrak’s video analytics software, which “analyzes video from
security cameras 24x7 for events of interest,” and which recently made its
debut at Johns Hopkins University and Mount Holyoke College.
At the same
time, students’ social media accounts have become a favorite destination for
everyone from campus police officers to analysts at the Department of Homeland
In 2010, the DHS National
established a Media Monitoring Capability (MMC). According to an internal
agency document, MMC is tasked with “leveraging news stories, media reports and
postings on social media sites… for operationally relevant data, information,
analysis, and imagery.” The definition of operationally relevant data includes
“media reports that reflect adversely on DHS and response activities,”
“partisan or agenda-driven sites,” and a final category ambiguously labeled
With the Occupy
movement coming to campus, even university police departments have gotten in on
the action. According to a how-to guide called “Essential Ingredients to Working with Campus Protests” by
UC Santa Barbara police chief Dustin Olson, the first step to take is to
“monitor social media sites continuously,” both for intelligence about the
“leadership and agenda” and “for any messages that speak to violent or criminal
Coopt the classroom and the laboratory
At a time when
entire departments and disciplines are facing the chopping block at America’s
universities, the Department of Homeland Security has proven to be the
best-funded department of all. Homeland security studies has become a
major growth sector in higher education and now has more than 340
certificate- and degree-granting programs. Many colleges have joined the Homeland Security and Defense
Education Consortium, a spinoff of the U.S. Northern Command (the
Department of Defense’s “homeland defense” division), which offers a model
curriculum to its members.
discipline has been directed and funded to the tune of $4 billion over the last five years by DHS. The goal,
according to Dr. Tara O’Toole, DHS Undersecretary of Science & Technology,
is to “leverag[e] the investment and expertise of academia… to meet the needs
of the department.” Additional funding is being made available from the
Pentagon through its blue-skies research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency, and the “intelligence community” through its analogous Intelligence
Advanced Research Projects Activity.
At the core of
the homeland security-university partnership are DHS’s 12 centers
of excellence. (A number that has doubled since
I first reported on the initiative in 2008.) The DHS Office
of University Programs advertises the centers of excellence as an “extended
consortium of hundreds of universities” which work together “to develop
customer-driven research solutions” and “to provide essential training to the next
generation of homeland security experts.”
But what kind
of research is being carried out at these centers of excellence, with the
support of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars each year? Among the 41 “knowledge products” currently in use by DHS or being
evaluated in pilot studies, we find an “extremist crime database,” a
“Minorities at Risk for Organizational Behavior” dataset, analytics for aerial
surveillance systems along the border, and social media monitoring
technologies. Other research focuses include biometrics, “suspicious behavior
detection,” and “violent radicalization.”
Privatize, subsidize, and capitalize
Repress U has
not only proven a boon to hundreds of cash-starved universities, but also to
big corporations as higher education morphs into hired education.
While a majority of the $184 billion in homeland security funding in 2011 came
from government agencies like DHS and the Pentagon, private sector funding is
expected to make up an increasing share of the total in the coming years,
according to the Homeland Security Research Corporation, a consulting firm
serving the homeland security industry.
Each DHS Center
of Excellence has been founded on private-public partnerships, corporate
co-sponsorships, and the leadership of “industry advisory boards” which give big business a direct
stake and say in its operations. Corporate giants allied with DHS Centers of
Martin at the Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to
Terrorism (START), based at the University
of Maryland at College Park.
and AT&T at the Rutgers University-based Command, Control,
and Interoperability Center for Advanced Data Analysis (CICADA).
Con Edison at the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE),
based at the University
of Southern California.
Boeing, and Bank of America at the Purdue University-based Center for Visual Analytics for Command, Control, and
Interoperability Environments (VACCINE).
Cargill, Kraft, and McDonald’s at the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD),
based at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
universities have struck multimillion-dollar deals with multinational private
security firms like Securitas, deploying unsworn, underpaid, often
untrained “protection officers” on campus as “extra eyes and ears.” The University of Wisconsin-Madison,
in one report, boasts that police and private partners have been
students have gotten into the business of security. The private intelligence
firm STRATFOR, for example, recently partnered with the University of Texas
to use its students to “essentially parallel the work of… outside consultants”
but on campus, offering information on activist groups like the Yes Men.
Step by step,
at school after school, the homeland security campus has executed a silent coup
in the decade since September 11th. The university, thus usurped, has
increasingly become an instrument not of higher learning, but of intelligence
gathering and paramilitary training, of profit-taking on behalf of America’s increasingly embattled “1%.”
Yet the next
generation may be otherwise occupied. Since September 2011, a new student movement has
swept across the country, making itself felt most recently on March 1st with a national day of action to defend the right
to education. This Occupy-inspired wave of on-campus activism is making visible
what was once invisible, calling into question what was once beyond question,
and counteracting the logic of Repress U with the logic of nonviolence and
education for democracy.
For many, the
rise of the homeland security campus has provoked some basic questions about
the aims and principles of a higher education: Whom does the university serve?
Whom does it protect? Who is to speak? Who is to be silenced? To whom does the
of Repress U are uninterested in such inquiry. Instead, they cock their
weapons. They lock the gates. And they prepare to take the next step.
Alexander Gould-Wartofsky is a writer from New York City
and a MacCracken Fellow in Sociology at New York University.
His writing has received Harvard’s James Gordon Bennett Prize and the New York Times James B.
Reston Award, and has appeared in the Nation, the Harvard Crimson,
The Huffington Post, and Monthly Review, along with TomDispatch. He is
currently writing a book about Occupy
Wall Street. His website is
TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
3/21/2012 11:50:48 AM
This post originally appeared on Tom Dispatch.
If you’ve been fretting about faltering math education and falling test scores here in the United States, you should be worried based on this campaign season of Republican math. When it comes to the American military, the leading Republican presidential candidates evidently only learned to add and multiply, never subtract or divide.
Advocates of Pentagon reform have criticized President Obama for his timid approach to reducing military spending. Despite current Pentagon budgets that have hovered at the highest levels since World War II and 13 years of steady growth, the administration’s latest plans would only reduce spending at the Department of Defense by 1.6% in inflation-adjusted dollars over the next five years.
Still, compared to his main Republican opponents, Obama is a T. rex of budget slashers. After all, despite their stated commitment to reducing the deficit (while cutting taxes on the rich yet more), the Republican contenders are intent on raising Pentagon spending dramatically. Mitt Romney has staked out the “high ground” in the latest round of Republican math with a proposal to set Pentagon spending at 4% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). That would, in fact add up to an astonishing $8.3 trillion dollars over the next decade, one-third more than current, already bloated Pentagon plans.
Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journalengaged in polite understatement when he described the Romney plan as “the most optimistic forecast U.S. defense manufacturers have heard in months.”
In fact, Romney’s proposal implies that the Pentagon is essentially an entitlement program that should receive a set share of our total economic resources regardless of what’s happening here at home or elsewhere on the planet. In Romney World, the Pentagon’s only role would be to engorge itself. If the GDP were to drop, it’s unlikely that, as president, he would reduce Pentagon spending accordingly.
Rick Santorum has spent far less time describing his military spending plans, but a remark at a Republican presidential debate in Arizona suggests that he is at least on the same page with Romney. In 1958, the year he was born, Santorum pointed out, Pentagon spending was 60% of the federal budget, and now it’s “only” 17%. In other words, why cut military spending when it’s so comparatively low?
Of course, this is a classic bait-and-switch case of cherry-picking numbers, since the federal budget of 1958 didn’t include Medicare, Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The population was 100 million less than it is now, resulting in lower spending across the board, most notably for Social Security. In fact, Americans now pay out nearly twice as much for military purposes as in 1958, a sum well in excess of the combined military budgets of the next 10 largest spending nations.
Of course, in a field of innumerates, Santorum’s claim undoubtedly falls into the category of rhetorical flourish. It’s unlikely that even he was suggesting we more than triple Pentagon spending -- the only way to return it to the share of the budget it consumed in the halcyon days of his youth. (Keep in mind that profligate Pentagon spending in that era ultimately prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to coin the term “military-industrial complex.”) Still, Santorum clearly believes that there’s plenty of room to hike military spending, if we just slash genuine entitlement programs deeply enough. He would undoubtedly support a Pentagon budget at Romney-esque levels, as would Newt Gingrich based on his absurd claim that the Obama administration’s modest adjustments to the Pentagon’s record budgets would result in a “hollowing out” of the U.S. military.
Mitt Romney at Sea
But let’s stick with the Republican frontrunner (or stumbler). What exactly would Romney spend all this money on?
For starters, he’s a humongous fan of building big ships, generally the most expensive items in the Pentagon budget. He has pledged to up Navy ship purchases from 9 to 15 per year, a rise of 50%. These things add up. A new aircraft carrier costs more than $10 billion; a ballistic missile submarine weighs in at $7 billion or more; and a destroyer comes with a -- by comparison -- piddling price tag of $2 billion-plus. The rationale for such a naval spending spree is, of course, that all-purpose threat cited these days by builders of every sort of big-ticket military hardware: China.
As Romney put it late last year, if the U.S. doesn’t pump up its shipbuilding budget, China will soon be “brushing aside an inferior American Navy in the Pacific.” This must be news to former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who noted in a May 2010 speech to the Navy League that the fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined -- 11 of which, by the way, belong to U.S. allies. As for the Chinese challenge, much has been made of China’s new aircraft carrier, which actually turns out to be a refurbished vessel purchased from Ukraine in 1998 and originally intended to be a floating casino. It would leave the U.S. with only an 11 to 1 advantage in this category.
It’s true that China is increasing the size of its navy in hopes of operating more freely in the waters off its coast and perhaps the contested South China Sea (with its energy reserves), but it is hardly engaged in a drive for global domination. It’s not as if Beijing is capable of deploying aircraft carriers off the coasts of California and Alaska. In the meantime, Romney’s shipbuilding fetish doesn’t add up. It’s as ludicrous as it is expensive.
Romney is also a major supporter of missile defense -- and not just the current $9-$10 billion a year enterprise being funded by the Obama administration, primarily designed to blunt an attack by long-range North Korean missiles that don’t exist. Romney wants a “full, multi-layered” system. That sounds suspiciously like the Ronald Reagan-style fantasy of an “impermeable shield” over the United States against massive nuclear attack that was abandoned in the late 1980s because of its staggering expense and essential impracticality.
If the development of Romney’s high-priced version of a missile shield were again on the American agenda, it would be a godsend for big weapons-makers like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, but would add nothing to the defense of this country. In fact, it stands a reasonable chance of making things worse. Given the overkill represented by the thousands of nuclear warheads in the American arsenal, the prospect of a nuclear missile attack on the United States is essentially nil.
As arms experts like Dr. Theodore Postol of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have pointed out, in the utterly unlikely event of a massive nuclear missile attack, Romney’s plan would be virtually useless. There’s just no way to provide a near-perfect defense against thousands of warheads and decoys launched at 15,000 miles per hour. The only reasonable defense against nuclear weapons would be to get rid of them altogether, a course suggested by scores of retired military leaders, former defense officials, and heads of state. Even Henry Kissinger has joined the “go to zero” campaign, supporting a far more sensible approach to the nuclear dilemma than Romney’s fantasy technical fix.
The Romney anti-missile program would, however, do more than just waste money. It would restore the Bush administration’s plan to emplace a long-range anti-missile system in Europe officially aimed at Iran but assumedly capable of taking out Russian missiles as well. Given that the Obama administration’s far more limited plan for Europe has already caused consternation among Russia’s leaders, imagine the harsh reaction in Moscow to the over-the-top Romney version. It could put an end to any hopes of further U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions -- a significant price to pay for a high-tech boondoggle with no prospect of success.
Ensuring a Cost-Overrun Presidency
If you were hoping that, with an eye to fighting yet more disastrous wars in the Greater Middle East like the $3 trillion fiasco in Iraq, the U.S. would raise ever larger armies, then Mitt’s your man. While Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s latest plan would reduce the Army and Marines by about 100,000 over the next five years -- essentially rolling back the increases that were part of the post-9/11 buildup -- the former Massachusetts governor would double down by adding 100,000 more troops to present force levels.
His rhetoric and the bona fides of his neoconservative advisors suggest that one place President Romney might send those bulked up forces would be to Iran as “boots on the ground.” He has repeatedly claimed that, if President Obama is re-elected, Iran will get a nuclear weapon, and has asserted that if he is elected it will not. He has mocked the president for not being “tough enough” on the Iranians and implied that a Romney administration would consider force a go-to option against that country, rather than a threat meant to back up a diplomatic strategy.
Keep in mind that if Romney were to follow through on these costly undertakings and others like them, it would only add to the good old-fashioned waste and fraud that’s the norm of Pentagon contracting these days. As former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen pointed out, the post-9/11 national security spending binge played havoc with any sense of fiscal discipline at the Pentagon, eliminating the need to make “hard choices” or “limit ourselves” in significant ways. In his former position as Pentagon procurement czar, Under Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter acknowledged that “in a decade of ever-increasing defense budgets... it was always possible for our managers... when they ran into a technical problem or a difficult choice to reach for more money.”
Romney’s Republican math would ensure that this will continue. Defense giants like Lockheed Martin, whose F-35 combat aircraft has more than doubled in price over original projections, must be salivating at the prospect of another cost-overrun presidency, which would result in soaring profits and few punishments.
And let’s not forget the “spend more” brigades in the Republican House, led by Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA). Having received more than three quarters of a million dollars in campaign contributions from weapons contractors since 2009, he has never met a weapons system he didn’t like. Under a Republican administration, McKeon and his pork-barrel pals in Congress would have free rein to jack up spending on weapons and personnel with little concern for the impact on the deficit.
If a Republican president were to follow through on his campaign pledges, massive Pentagon increases and a dogged resistance to raising revenues would also result in major hits to every other item in the federal budget, from education to infrastructure. According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Romney budget plan could cut domestic discretionary programs by as much as 50% over the next 10 years.
In an April 1967 speech against the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King assailed the buildup for that conflict as a “demonic destructive suction tube” that drew “men, money, and skills” away from solving urgent national problems. Romney’s military buildup would waste far more money than was expended during the Vietnam years. His presidency would exceed King’s worst nightmare. When will someone ask him to explain his fuzzy math?
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, a
, and the
Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex
. (To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Hartung discusses how to manipulate Pentagon budgets, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 William D. Hartung
3/14/2012 3:20:23 PM
The bike lanes and pathways of Minneapolis are a local source of pride, and rightly so. The city’s majestic 50.4-mile Grand Rounds pathway system connects countless neighborhoods together in a cohesive, reliable network that’s as user-friendly as it is beautiful. In 2010, Bicycling magazine named Minneapolis the #1 Bike City in the U.S., citing innovations the city’s bikes-and-peds-only below-ground Greenway through the center of town. But most important in the decision was the biking culture that goes along with innovations like that: the bicycling couriers, the dozens of bike shops, the relentless winter commuting. In places like Minneapolis, cycling is not just a hobby or subculture—it’s a legitimate alternative for getting around, on par with public transit or driving.
But like other bike-friendly cities, Minneapolis owes a lot to federal investment in cycling infrastructure. And that investment looks perilously insecure.
Last month, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted to eliminate federal funding for bicycling projects and infrastructure. As PRI reports, last year, federal support amounted to $1.2 billion—less than 2 percent of all transportation spending—that went toward projects like the Safe Routes to School program as well as Complete Streets initiatives aimed at maintaining safe spaces for bikes and pedestrians on roadways. In the House Committee version, all of this would have been taken out. To the relief of many, a Senate version introduced early in March restored this funding, and it is likely to pass this week. The close call served as a reminder of how important federal dollars are in maintaining and expanding cycling options for city dwellers—and how much Washington’s spending priorities have recently shifted.
For the past 20 years, federal support for bicycling infrastructure has steadily gone up. As Urbanland points out, biking in any major U.S. city wasn’t so easy before 1991 when Congress (and then-President George Bush Sr.) earmarked federal dollars for cycling infrastructure for the first time. The bill allotted less than 2 percent of federal transportation funding to expand bicycle infrastructure, but that was enough to completely reshape the look and feel of many cities like Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon (another recent #1 Bike City winner). And as The Nation reports, on the grassroots side, the Complete Street Movement has been advocating safer and more expansive bike routes for years. Governors in a number of states have approved their proposals, including Minnesota, and Complete Street language has found its way into federal legislation. In 2005 Minneapolis was also the recipient—along with Sheboygan County, WI; Marin County, CA; and Columbia, MO—of a $25 million federal grant for a pilot program to further development biking and walking paths over 10 years.
The multi-city grant will not be affected by whatever happens in the House and Senate this month, but funding in other parts of the country is less secure. This year is a critical one for transportation funding, as benchmark legislation enacted in 2003 is set to expire soon. And unfortunately for cyclists, it’s also a big year for fiscal conservatism. As Huffington reports, The February House bill was only the latest in a series of barebones transportation proposals that have sent biking infrastructure to the chopping block. Fully three transportation bills introduced last fall would have cut or eliminated funding for cycling projects, the latest a proposal by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in November. At issue is whether states can afford to set aside money for these initiatives, when so much of our nation’s (cars-only) infrastructure is in disrepair. Misunderstandings are also rife, says Huffington’s Joan Lowy: in defending his legislation, Paul said that states’ priorities should not be focused on “beautification,” which apparently includes things like bike safety projects.
Paul’s attitude about urban cycling may be a harbinger of a changing dynamic in Washington, one that sees government spending on almost anything as suspect. While much can change over the next five months, right now it seems like the G.O.P. will likely retain the House, and even have a decent shot at the Senate, according to The Hill. Should this happen, transportation policy could look very different this time next year.
But urban cyclists are nothing if not committed. Already, three-time Cyclocross champion Tim Johnson has begun a 520-mile trek from Boston to the National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., scheduled for later this month. The trip and the summit are meant to raise funds and awareness on bike politics and safety, reports Slowtwitch. The Summit also aims to push Congress toward action on the Senate bill, which may stall due to lack of support in the House, says Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. Whether that happens will depend on whether cycling enthusiasts can muster enough of a presence in Washington later this month, writes Clarke in the League’s blog.
For years, funding for cycling infrastructure has been more or less below the mainstream radar. It is, after all, a tiny percentage of federal transportation spending, and bikers themselves are a growing, but still small, group of people. But as gas prices approach potential record highs this summer, cycling may enter the national conversation in a bigger way. Whether we can repeat success stories like Minneapolis and Portland may have a lot to do with what happens this year.
Sources: Bicycling Magazine, PRI, Urbanland, The Nation, Bike Walk Twin Cities, Huffington, The Hill, Slowtwitch, League of American Bicyclists, NPR.
Image by jglsongs, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/13/2012 11:26:07 AM
This post originally appeared on TomDispatch.
Oil prices are now higher than they have ever been—except for a few frenzied moments before the global economic meltdown of 2008. Many immediate factors are contributing to this surge, including Iran’s threats to block oil shipping in the Persian Gulf, fears of a new Middle Eastern war, and turmoil in energy-rich Nigeria. Some of these pressures could ease in the months ahead, providing temporary relief at the gas pump. But the principal cause of higher prices—a fundamental shift in the structure of the oil industry—cannot be reversed, and so oil prices are destined to remain high for a long time to come.
In energy terms, we are now entering a world whose grim nature has yet to be fully grasped. This pivotal shift has been brought about by the disappearance of relatively accessible and inexpensive petroleum—“easy oil,” in the parlance of industry analysts; in other words, the kind of oil that powered a staggering expansion of global wealth over the past 65 years and the creation of endless car-oriented suburban communities. This oil is now nearly gone.
The world still harbors large reserves of petroleum, but these are of the hard-to-reach, hard-to-refine, “tough oil” variety. From now on, every barrel we consume will be more costly to extract, more costly to refine—and so more expensive at the gas pump.
Those who claim that the world remains “awash” in oil are technically correct: the planet still harbors vast reserves of petroleum. But propagandists for the oil industry usually fail to emphasize that not all oil reservoirs are alike: some are located close to the surface or near to shore, and are contained in soft, porous rock; others are located deep underground, far offshore, or trapped in unyielding rock formations. The former sites are relatively easy to exploit and yield a liquid fuel that can readily be refined into usable liquids; the latter can only be exploited through costly, environmentally hazardous techniques, and often result in a product which must be heavily processed before refining can even begin.
The simple truth of the matter is this: most of the world’s easy reserves have already been depleted—except for those in war-torn countries like Iraq. Virtually all of the oil that’s left is contained in harder-to-reach, tougher reserves. These include deep-offshore oil, Arctic oil, and shale oil, along with Canadian “oil sands”—which are not composed of oil at all, but of mud, sand, and tar-like bitumen. So-called unconventional reserves of these types can be exploited, but often at a staggering price, not just in dollars but also in damage to the environment.
In the oil business, this reality was first acknowledged by the chairman and CEO of Chevron, David O’Reilly, in a 2005 letter published in many American newspapers. “One thing is clear,” he wrote, “the era of easy oil is over.” Not only were many existing oil fields in decline, he noted, but “new energy discoveries are mainly occurring in places where resources are difficult to extract, physically, economically, and even politically.”
Further evidence for this shift was provided by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in a 2010 review of world oil prospects. In preparation for its report, the agency examined historic yields at the world’s largest producing fields—the “easy oil” on which the world still relies for the overwhelming bulk of its energy. The results were astonishing: those fields were expected to lose three-quarters of their productive capacity over the next 25 years, eliminating 52 million barrels per day from the world’s oil supplies, or about 75% of current world crude oil output. The implications were staggering: either find new oil to replace those 52 million barrels or the Age of Petroleum will soon draw to a close and the world economy would collapse.
Of course, as the IEA made clear back in 2010, there will be new oil, but only of the tough variety that will exact a price from us all—and from the planet, too. To grasp the implications of our growing reliance on tough oil, it’s worth taking a whirlwind tour of some of the more hair-raising and easily damaged spots on Earth. So fasten your seatbelts: first we’re heading out to sea—way, way out—to survey the “promising” new world of twenty-first-century oil.
Oil companies have been drilling in offshore areas for some time, especially in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caspian Sea. Until recently, however, such endeavors invariably took place in relatively shallow waters—a few hundred feet, at most—allowing oil companies to use conventional drills mounted on extended piers. Deepwater drilling, in depths exceeding 1,000 feet, is an entirely different matter. It requires specialized, sophisticated, and immensely costly drilling platforms that can run into the billions of dollars to produce.
The Deepwater Horizon, destroyed in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 as a result of a catastrophic blowout, is typical enough of this phenomenon. The vessel was built in 2001 for some $500 million, and cost around $1 million per day to staff and maintain. Partly as a result of these high costs, BP was in a hurry to finish work on its ill-fated Macondo well and move the Deepwater Horizon to another drilling location. Such financial considerations, many analysts believe, explain the haste with which the vessel’s crew sealed the well—leading to a leakage of explosive gases into the wellbore and the resulting blast. BP will now have to pay somewhere in excess of $30 billion to satisfy all the claims for the damage done by its massive oil spill.
Following the disaster, the Obama administration imposed a temporary ban on deep-offshore drilling. Barely two years later, drilling in the Gulf’s deep waters is back to pre-disaster levels. President Obama has also signed an agreement with Mexico allowing drilling in the deepest part of the Gulf, along the U.S.-Mexican maritime boundary.
Meanwhile, deepwater drilling is picking up speed elsewhere. Brazil, for example, is moving to exploit its “pre-salt” fields (so-called because they lie below a layer of shifting salt) in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean far off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. New offshore fields are similarly being developed in deep waters off Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
By 2020, says energy analyst John Westwood, such deepwater fields will supply 10 percent of the world’s oil, up from only 1 percent in 1995. But that added production will not come cheaply: most of these new fields will cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to develop, and will only prove profitable as long as oil continues to sell for $90 or more per barrel.
Brazil’s offshore fields, considered by some experts the most promising new oil discovery of this century, will prove especially pricey, because they lie beneath one and a half miles of water and two and a half miles of sand, rock, and salt. The world’s most advanced, costly drilling equipment—some of it still being developed—will be needed. Petrobras, the state-controlled energy firm, has already committed $53 billion to the project for 2011-2015, and most analysts believe that will be only a modest down payment on a staggering final price tag.
The Arctic is expected to provide a significant share of the world’s future oil supply. Until recently, production in the far north has been very limited. Other than in the Prudhoe Bay area of Alaska and a number of fields in Siberia, the major companies have largely shunned the region. But now, seeing few other options, they are preparing for major forays into a melting Arctic.
From any perspective, the Arctic is the last place you want to go to drill for oil. Storms are frequent, and winter temperatures plunge far below freezing. Most ordinary equipment will not operate under these conditions. Specialized (and costly) replacements are necessary. Working crews cannot live in the region for long. Most basic supplies—food, fuel, construction materials—must be brought in from thousands of miles away at phenomenal cost.
But the Arctic has its attractions: billions of barrels of untapped oil, to be exact. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the area north of the Arctic Circle, with just 6 percent of the planet’s surface, contains an estimated 13 percent of its remaining oil (and an even larger share of its undeveloped natural gas)—numbers no other region can match.
With few other places left to go, the major energy firms are now gearing up for an energy rush to exploit the Arctic’s riches. This summer, Royal Dutch Shell is expected to begin test drilling in portions of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas adjacent to northern Alaska. (The Obama administration must still award final operating permits for these activities, but approval is expected.) At the same time, Statoil and other firms are planning extended drilling in the Barents Sea, north of Norway.
As with all such extreme energy scenarios, increased production in the Arctic will significantly boost oil company operating costs. Shell, for example, has already spent $4 billion alone on preparations for test drilling in offshore Alaska, without producing a single barrel of oil. Full-scale development in this ecologically fragile region, fiercely opposed by environmentalists and local Native peoples, will multiply this figure many times over.
Tar Sands and Heavy Oil
Another significant share of the world’s future petroleum supply is expected to come from Canadian tar sands (also called “oil sands”) and the extra-heavy oil of Venezuela. Neither of these is oil as normally understood. Not being liquid in their natural state, they cannot be extracted by traditional drilling materials, but they do exist in great abundance. According to the USGS, Canada’s tar sands contain the equivalent of 1.7 trillion barrels of conventional (liquid) oil, while Venezuela’s heavy oil deposits are said to harbor another trillion barrels of oil equivalent—although not all of this material is considered “recoverable” with existing technology.
Those who claim that the Petroleum Age is far from over often point to these reserves as evidence that the world can still draw on immense supplies of untapped fossil fuels. And it is certainly conceivable that, with the application of advanced technologies and a total indifference to environmental consequences, these resources will indeed be harvested. But easy oil this is not.
Until now, Canada’s tar sands have been obtained through a process akin to strip mining, utilizing monster shovels to pry a mixture of sand and bitumen out of the ground. But most of the near-surface bitumen in the tar-sands-rich province of Alberta has now been exhausted, which means all future extraction will require a far more complex and costly process. Steam will have to be injected into deeper concentrations to melt the bitumen and allow its recovery by massive pumps. This requires a colossal investment of infrastructure and energy, as well as the construction of treatment facilities for all the resulting toxic wastes. According to the Canadian Energy Research Institute, the full development of Alberta’s oil sands would require a minimum investment of $218 billion over the next 25 years, not including the cost of building pipelines to the United States (such as the proposed Keystone XL) for processing in U.S. refineries.
The development of Venezuela’s heavy oil will require investment on a comparable scale. The Orinoco belt, an especially dense concentration of heavy oil adjoining the Orinoco River, is believed to contain recoverable reserves of 513 billion barrels of oil—perhaps the largest source of untapped petroleum on the planet. But converting this molasses-like form of bitumen into a useable liquid fuel far exceeds the technical capacity or financial resources of the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. Accordingly, it is now seeking foreign partners willing to invest the $10-$20 billion needed just to build the necessary facilities.
The Hidden Costs
Tough-oil reserves like these will provide most of the world’s new oil in the years ahead. One thing is clear: even if they can replace easy oil in our lives, the cost of everything oil-related—whether at the gas pump, in oil-based products, in fertilizers, in just about every nook and cranny of our lives—is going to rise. Get used to it. If things proceed as presently planned, we will be in hock to big oil for decades to come.
And those are only the most obvious costs in a situation in which hidden costs abound, especially to the environment. As with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, oil extraction in deep-offshore areas and other extreme geographical locations will ensure ever greater environmental risks. After all, approximately five million gallons of oil were discharged into the Gulf of Mexico, thanks to BP’s negligence, causing extensive damage to marine animals and coastal habitats.
Keep in mind that, as catastrophic as it was, it occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, where vast cleanup forces could be mobilized and the ecosystem’s natural recovery capacity was relatively robust. The Arctic and Greenland represent a different story altogether, given their distance from established recovery capabilities and the extreme vulnerability of their ecosystems. Efforts to restore such areas in the wake of massive oil spills would cost many times the $30-$40 billion BP is expected to pay for the Deepwater Horizon damage and be far less effective.
In addition to all this, many of the most promising tough-oil fields lie in Russia, the Caspian Sea basin, and conflict-prone areas of Africa. To operate in these areas, oil companies will be faced not only with the predictably high costs of extraction, but also additional costs involving local systems of bribery and extortion, sabotage by guerrilla groups, and the consequences of civil conflict.
And don’t forget the final cost: If all these barrels of oil and oil-like substances are truly produced from the least inviting of places on this planet, then for decades to come we will continue to massively burn fossil fuels, creating ever more greenhouse gases as if there were no tomorrow. And here’s the sad truth: if we proceed down the tough-oil path instead of investing as massively in alternative energies, we may foreclose any hope of averting the most catastrophic consequences of a hotter and more turbulent planet.
So yes, there is oil out there. But no, it won’t get cheaper, no matter how much there is. And yes, the oil companies can get it, but looked at realistically, who would want it?
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a
, and author of the just published
The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources
(Metropolitan Books). To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses his new book and what it means to rely on extreme energy, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Michael Klare
Image by miss karen, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/12/2012 8:34:50 AM
The whole Kony 2012
debate has gotten me thinking about how activism has changed over the past few
years, especially with the explosion of social media use. Back in 2010, Malcolm
Gladwell wrote a much-read piece in The New
Yorker about the so-called “Twitter
Revolutions” in Moldova and Iran the previous year. Many observers had
jumped to the conclusion that social media had reinvented grassroots activism,
that, of all things, Facebook and Twitter were now powerful tools for populist
change. But as Gladwell argued, activists’ use of Twitter in both countries had
been way overblown, and in fact, it
was hard to see how social media could ever live up to claims like that.
Historically, most social movements, like civil rights in the U.S., had been
based on what sociologists call “strong ties”—activists were more likely to
commit time, energy, and personal safety, if they belonged to a strong,
cohesive group of like minded friends. By contrast, social media are based on “weak
ties” with very low personal commitment required of participants. Facebook
users were more likely to belong to a “Save Darfur” online group than to make
protest signs or risk arrest. If social media were having an impact on young
people, it was not in terms of civic engagement.
A lot of things have happened since then, most importantly
the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. Both made heavy
use of social media to organize, communicate, and get the word out to a
larger public. Facebook allowed activists in Tunisia to coordinate and plan
the radar of a clueless and very 20th-century regime. A new
smartphone app allowed activists in the U.S. to broadcast episodes of
police brutality as they were happening. And, yes, Twitter let demonstrators
communicate in mass numbers quickly and effectively (some state prosecutors
have even subpoenaed
Occupy protesters’ Twitter feeds in recent months).
But, in spite of those developments, Gladwell’s argument
still has a lot of validity today. The fact is that the basic elements of
grassroots activism have not changed since the invention of Twitter. The role
social media played in Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square was to facilitate and
streamline on-the-group organizing, not to take its place. The important
flashpoints in those movements were still physical, and involved the same
dynamics as previous grassroots struggles. And as The Atlantic’sNathan
Jurgenson has argued, Occupy
was in many ways explicitly low-tech, from the (entirely print) People’s
Library, to general assembly hand signs, to the iconic human microphone. While
Occupy made use of new media to organize and coordinate with itself, once
organized, it behaved much more traditionally.
And yet there are many activists and groups that still seek
to address very real issues entirely through social media. Over the past decade
or so, Facebook has probably been the most notorious. Especially in the U.S.,
issue-oriented Facebook groups have a history of being very popular, very good
at raising awareness, but
very bad at raising cash and affecting change, says Evgeny Morozov in Foreign Policy’s Net Effect blog. Like Gladwell, Morozov points to a brand of
activism that is low-risk and essentially unconnected with larger groups or
experiences. A powerful illustration is the group a Danish psychologist started
in 2009 to address a problem that didn’t actually exist (the group opposed a
never-planned dismantling of a fountain in Copenhagen). Within a week, the
group had 28,000 members. And interestingly, activists in the Global South seem
to be much better at translating digital participation into physical action. An
Facebook group in Colombia got hundreds of thousands of people to march
against the guerilla force in almost 200 cities in 2008. This may be because while joining a political Facebook
group from Bogota or Cairo can be a brave act of personal conscience, in the
U.S., there is very little danger. And in a network of weak ties, low personal risk means low personal investment.
This brings us to the now-ubiquitous Kony 2012 campaign, a
movement that has generated quite a bit of awareness
and controversy over the past few days. A viral video on the group’s
website has already garnered tens of millions of views, but many observers have
criticized the film’s overly
simplistic portrayal of Ugandans and the larger conflict. Spending only a
few of its thirty minutes on East Africa, the film’s moralistic message seems more
akin to White Man’s Burden than humanitarianism—and many have criticized its
commodification of the conflict, especially in light of Invisible Children’s allegedly
shady finances. The group has certainly accomplished its stated goal of
raising awareness about Kony, the LRA, and child soldiers in Africa, but it is
hard for many to connect the film’s slick simplicity and the group’s
consumerist message with facts on the ground.
But more broadly, Invisible Children’s use of social media
has much more in common with groups like “Save Darfur” than with genuinely
grassroots battles like Occupy. In the film, the campaign’s founder Jason
Russell talks about the need to “make Joseph Kony a household name.” To do
this, they want to get the attention not only of the American public, but also
of “20 culture makers” and “12 policymakers,” including Bill Gates, Lady Gaga,
and Ban Ki-moon. While Russell urges ordinary people to call their
representatives and poster their neighborhoods, it’s these 32 people that he
believes will have the most impact. “We are making Kony world news by
redefining the propaganda we see all day, everyday, that dictates who and what
we pay attention to,” he says.
But it’s hard to see how this redefinition plays out,
especially as the campaign relies almost exclusively on the “weak ties” and
low-risk participation that generally have very little social impact. If it’s
our job to spread the video, buy
the “Action Kit,” get the attention of celebrities, and not much else, what
exactly are we redefining? In the film, Russell laments that “the few with the
money and the power” tend to frame and address issues in their interests, but
that’s exactly what Invisible Children is seeking to do. In encouraging young
people to participate in clearly delineated ways for clearly delineated
reasons, the group ignores the critical thinking and bottom-up organizing that
made other movements so successful—with or without social media.
Of course, all this has to do with what Invisible Children
hopes to accomplish. If their goal is to “make Joseph Kony a household name,”
then they did a fine job. The popularity of the group’s film was unprecedented,
speed with which it spread was astounding. As a result, tens of millions of
people know more about Uganda and East Africa than ever before. However, if the
group wants to work out some of the complicated questions that have surfaced
over the past week about Uganda’s own
poor human rights record, or the U.S.’s equally poor history of
humanitarian intervention, or the neocolonial
dimensions the campaign has assumed, then more bottom-up methods of
organizing may be a good place to start. As Occupy and the Arab Spring have
shown, young people have a lot more to offer than their money and their
Sources: Kony2012.com, Christian
Science Monitor, The
New Yorker, Wired,
Jazeera English, Huffington
Daily Beast, Amnesty
3/6/2012 11:09:41 AM
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
What’s worse: to be persecuted and indicted for trying to expose an act of wrongdoing—or to be ignored for doing so?
Whistleblowers have been under intense scrutiny in Washington lately, at least when it comes to the national security state. In recent years, the Obama administration has set a record by accusing no fewer than six government employees, who allegedly leaked classified information to reporters, of violating the Espionage Act, a draconian law dating back to 1917. Yet when it comes to workers who have risked their careers to expose misconduct in the corporate and financial arena, a different pattern has long prevailed. Here, the problem hasn’t been an excess of attention from government officials eager to chill dissent, but a dearth of attention that has often left whistleblowers feeling no less isolated and discouraged.
Consider the case of Leyla Wydler, a broker who, back in 2003, sent a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) about her former employer, the Stanford Financial Group. A year earlier, it had fired her for refusing to sell certificates of deposit that she rightly suspected were being misleadingly advertised to investors. The company, Wydler warned in her letter, “is the subject of a lingering corporate fraud scandal perpetrated as a ‘massive Ponzi scheme’ that will destroy the life savings of many, damage the reputation of all associated parties, ridicule securities and banking authorities, and shame the United States of America.”
It was a letter that should have woken the dead and, as it happened, couldn’t have been more on target. Wydler didn’t stop with the SEC either. She also sent copies to the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), the trade group responsible for enforcing regulations throughout the industry, as well as various newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. No one responded. No one at all.
In the fall of 2004, Wydler called the examination branch of the SEC’s Fort Worth District Office to relay her concerns. A staff person did hear her out, but once again nothing happened. More than four years later, as the aftershocks of the global financial meltdown continued to play out, the news finally broke that Stanford had orchestrated a $7 billion Ponzi scheme which cost thousands of defrauded investors their savings.
Making Law for Wall Street
Wydler might have preferred the attention of the Espionage Act to the dead silence that greeted her efforts, and she was hardly alone. As with her, so with Eileen Foster, a former senior executive at Countrywide Financial who, in 2007, uncovered evidence of massive fraud—forged bank statements, bogus property appraisals—perpetrated by a company that played a major role in the subprime crisis that eventually caused the U.S. and global economies to implode. No one listened to her then and no one—in the government at least—seems to care now, either.
Interviewed recently on 60 Minutes, Foster said she would still be willing to provide the names of people at Countrywide who belong in jail, if she were summoned to testify before a grand jury. She may never get the opportunity. As 60 Minutes reported, a Justice Department that has gone to such extraordinary lengths to prosecute national security whistleblowers has made no effort to contact her.
The experiences of corporate whistleblowers like Foster and Wydler underscore a truth highlighted by legal scholar Cass Sunstein in his book Why Societies Need Dissent. The voices of dissidents who have the courage to bring uncomfortable news to light—information that can prevent disastrous economic or other blunders from happening—matter only to the extent that anyone pays attention to them.
“A legal system that is committed to free speech forbids government from silencing dissenters,” observed Sunstein. “That is an extraordinary accomplishment.” But as he went on to note, the formal existence of this right hardly ensures that individuals who exercise it in situations that cry out for opposition have an impact. “Even in democracies, disparities in power play a large role in silencing dissent—sometimes by ensuring that dissenters keep quiet, but more insidiously by ensuring that dissenters are not really heard.”
And it seems that, if the present House of Representatives has anything to say about it, the law will soon ensure that corporate whistleblowers are silenced anew. Although the financial meltdown of 2008 didn’t exactly inspire the Justice Department to hold high-ranking Wall Street executives accountable (to date, not one CEO has been prosecuted for fraud), the abusive practices and billion-dollar scams that regulatory agencies somehow overlooked did prompt some reform. As part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Congress put in place new rules that, at least theoretically, enhanced the protections and incentives available to whistleblowers.
One provision of Dodd-Frank, for example, allows employees to bypass corporate internal compliance programs and report violations directly to the SEC. Another provides rewards for Wall Street whistleblowers who step forward and offer the government tips that lead to successful prosecutions of fraud.
But even these modest steps may soon be reversed. Last year, Congressman Michael Grimm (R-NY) unveiled the antidote to Dodd-Frank’s gestures toward the urge to leak. His “Whistleblower Improvement Act”—a name that Orwell might have appreciated—would do away with the Dodd-Frank protections, such as they are, which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups lobbied against and continue to vigorously oppose.
Grimm’s proposal would indeed mark an “improvement”—for companies hoping to deprive whistleblowers of their voices. If passed, it would strip the financial rewards from Dodd-Frank and require most whistleblowers to first report problems to their employer before even thinking about going to the government. “This would be like requiring police officers to tip off suspects before they begin an investigation,” the Project on Government Oversight has wryly observed.
Harry Markopolos, a financial analyst who repeatedly tried to warn the SEC about Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme—and who, like Leyla Wydler, was persistently ignored—has said the law “reads as if it were a wish list from those who once designed the Enron, Madoff, Global Crossing, Stanford, and WorldCom frauds.” Evidently, that only proved an incentive for the House Subcommittee on Capital Markets to approve Grimm’s measure in December 2011, on a party-line vote, which means it could now be tacked onto some must-pass piece of legislation and enacted.
The Silent Treatment
Should the Grimm Act eventually become law, it would not mark the first time corporate whistleblowers had been encouraged to step forward in the wake of rampant abuse and misconduct, only to discover that public officials had no intention of emboldening them to speak out. Back in 2002, after the accounting scandals broke at Enron and WorldCom, President George W. Bush signed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which made it a crime for companies to retaliate against employees who reported suspected fraud and illegal activities.
“The era of low standards and false profits is over,” Bush declared at the time. “No boardroom in America is above or beyond the law.” It didn’t quite turn out this way. In fact, his administration promptly set about staffing the federal agency in charge of whistleblower complaints with judges determined to deprive employees who reported suspected fraud of the protections they thought they’d just been guaranteed.
According to the Wall Street Journal, of 1,273 complaints filed by employees who claimed they had been subjected to company retaliation for speaking out between 2002 and 2008, the government ruled in favor of whistleblowers 17 times. Another 841 complaints were dismissed unheard, sometimes thanks to minor technicalities. Other times they were tossed out because the potential whistleblowers worked at the private subsidiaries of publicly traded companies, which the Department of Labor bizarrely decided were not covered by the statute.
Some might assume that, if the government ignores corporate whistleblowers again, a citizenry incensed by the greed and recklessness of Wall Street is not likely to allow history to repeat itself. But this might be wishful thinking. Despite the lore of the whistleblower that pervades popular culture, Americans turn out to be less sympathetic to such dissenters than Europeans. Drawing on data from the World Value Surveys and other sources over multiple years, the sociologist Claude Fischer has found that U.S. citizens are “much more likely than Europeans to say that employees should follow a boss’s orders even if the boss is wrong.” They are also more likely “to defer to church leaders and to insist on abiding by the law,” and more prone “to believe that individuals should go along and get along.”
Whistleblowers may often be praised in the abstract and from a distance, but Americans have a tendency to ignore or even vilify them when they dare to stir up trouble in their own workplaces or communities. In the case of Leyla Wydler, it wasn’t just the SEC that disregarded her warnings about Stanford. It was also her fellow brokers, none of whom came forward to defend her, and her clients, who for the most part brushed aside the concerns she voiced about Stanford’s certificates of deposit (and so their own investments).
Later, after the facts had come to light, Wydler testified at a Congressional hearing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before an audience full of defrauded investors. She received a standing ovation. The belated recognition felt nice, she told me, but it would have felt a lot better if more people had listened to her beforehand, and maybe even stood by her side.
If we really want to honor people like Wydler, we ought to make sure that financial industry whistleblowers who emulate her example in the future don’t have to languish in isolation or wait so long for the applause, and that, unlike Eileen Foster, Harry Markopolos, and Leyla Wydler, they will be spared the silent treatment.
Eyal Press is the author of the new book
Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux). To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Press discusses the treatment of American whistleblowers, click here, or download it to your iPod here. Follow Eyal Press on Twitter @EyalPress.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook.
Copyright 2012 Eyal Press
Image by ElectronicFrontierFoundation, licensed under Creative Commons.
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