Make Text Messages Private

           Nearly a decade ago, the Edward Snowden revelations prompted a national debate about data security. Polls show that a growing number of Americans take data-security precautions like choosing different passwords for online accounts and using encrypted communications platforms like Signal. Eight out of 10 people believe companies should be required to obtain direct consent to collect or sell their data.

But there still hasn’t been any meaningful discussion about data privacy. Text messages, particularly one-on-one exchanges as opposed to group chats, feel as intimate as whispers across your pillow. Do you expect your text messages to remain private? I bet you do. Most people do. Why am I so sure? Because so many people mouth off in text messages that get them into trouble.

The law, on the other hand, does not codify the reasonable expectation of privacy to the dispenser of digital diarrhea. Either the sender or the recipient of an SMS may publish it anywhere she likes, including a public forum like social media. And that’s scary. If you’re honest with yourself, there’s probably at least one text in your history that you hope never sees the light of day.

In a high-functioning society, laws and social mores are aligned. It is time to close the yawning gap between our privacy-be-damned laws and Americans who behave, and obviously believe, as though their texts were as private as a verbal chat between friends or lovers.

Crystal Clanton provides a high-profile case in point. Six years ago in late 2015 she was a 20-year-old college senior and an employee of Turning Point USA, an organization that promotes conservative politics on college campuses. According to Jane Mayer at The New Yorker Clanton sent a text message to a fellow Turning Point employee, John Ryan O’Rourke, while the two of them were attending a conference in D.C. “I HATE BLACK PEOPLE” “Like f— them all,” Mayer reported that Clanton wrote, with the expletive spelled out. The context of the leaked conversation suggests that she was reacting to some sort of run-in on the street or in a store.

Clanton was fired by Turning Point after Mayer’s piece about the incident was published in 2017. Now The Washington Post is reporting that Clanton, “a student at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, [has been] selected for a coveted clerkship with William H. Pryor Jr., the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit” and “appears well on her way to the ultimate credential for a young lawyer, a Supreme Court clerkship.”

Clanton questioned the authenticity of the dialogue, pointing out — reasonably, in my view — that an easily-manipulated digital screenshot proves nothing. The Post ridiculed that defense and criticized such well-connected Washingtonians as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas for supporting her.

Setting aside issues of evidence, racism and whether one ought to be subjected to career cancellation over a years-old rant, let’s assume that Clanton actually texted those toxic words. Obviously Clanton never assumed that her texts might someday be made public, much less reprinted in a major magazine and discussed in the pages of one of the most prestigious newspapers in the United States. If her smartphone warned before hitting the “send” paper-airplane icon — “You are about to send a public message. Privacy not guaranteed. Are you sure you want to send?”—she might have thought twice. But smartphones are engineered for impulsivity, not second thoughts.

Clanton has company. Police officers in California, North Carolina, and Texas have been fired and/or prosecuted for sending racist texts. An Alabama sorority ousted its chapter president for texting that Black students smelled bad. A quarterback for the Buffalo Bills had to apologize for texting “guns are good” followed by “Just make them very expensive so only elite white people can get them haha.” The term “elite white people” triggered outrage. Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, was hung on the petard of her texts to former Theranos President and COO Sunny Balwani.

            Particularly in the case of the police, people shouldn’t think such things, much less say them. But that’s not the point. Point is, Holmes assumed that her “on route to dentist my king” was private, just between her and Balwani. We don’t live in a surveillance state like East Germany under the Stasi because Americans intuitively understand that having the right to say stupid, insensitive, unpatriotic, even bigoted garbage behind closed doors, in private, with your confidantes—to make mistakes, to be a jerk, to blow off steam, to try scummy name-calling on for size—is an essential part of freedom of speech.

            Congress ought to pass a law guaranteeing the confidentiality of text messages unless both parties waive their privacy rights or the communications are relevant to a criminal investigation or lawsuit, in which case they would be subject to subpoena.

            Such a reform would not represent a major expansion of privacy rights under American law. If I send you an old-fashioned letter by snail mail, you own the physical letter but I own the copyright of its contents. As per the 1986 case Salinger v. Random House in which the reclusive author sued a biographer to avoid the publication of his personal letters, you might be able to reproduce a small excerpt in your no-doubt incredibly-flattering biography of yours truly. But you will need my express written permission in order to publish my letter in its entirety, or after I die that of my estate. There are exceptions for criminal and civil-court matters such as the use of my letter to defend yourself against any allegations I may have made against you.

            A 2010 case, United States v. Warshak, expanded the reasonable expectation of privacy to email communications. Federal law and those of 11 states, including such populous jurisdictions as California and Florida, bans the recording of phone conversations without the consent of the other party.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet weighed in on the issue of privacy expectations concerning Americans’ text messages. And rationality has been in short supply in lower court rulings. “Any purported expectation of privacy in sent text messages of this type is significantly undermined by the ease with which these messages can be shared with others,” Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Frank Gaziano wrote last year in a ruling against implied privacy rights for texts. By Gaziano’s reasoning, the ability to photocopy or cut-and-paste should also abolish privacy expectations for letters and emails.

            Americans who text only to later find themselves exposed to public ridicule or worse clearly expect their messages to remain private. If their expectation is unreasonable, it’s incumbent upon telecommunications companies to tell their customers that everything they say can and will be used against them in the court of Twitter.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the weekly DMZ America podcast with conservative fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Clean Our Mess: Release Guantánamo Detainees in the U.S., Close the Camp

Guantanamo: the Legal Mess Behind the Ethical Mess | BU Today | Boston University            Parents teach their children: you make a mess, you clean it up.

            Twenty years ago, the United States government transformed its naval base at Guantánamo Bay into a legal, moral and foreign-policy disaster. It’s time for President Biden to fulfill his promise to complete the task his predecessors didn’t have the wisdom or desire to do: close America’s gulag.

            Thirty-nine prisoners remain at Gitmo. The Pentagon has cleared 18 for release. Yet they will remain captive until the U.S. finds a country willing to accept them, and offers assurances that they’ll be surveilled to ensure they don’t present a threat to U.S. interests and allies. When possible, former detainees are sent home. Others are either denied the right of return by their home countries or would face torture or execution for domestic political reasons.

            Kidnapped, tortured, held in isolation without visits from friends or family, Gitmo victims  have never been charged with a crime and in many cases were innocent of anti-American activities. After they’ve been cleared for release, they enter a Kafkaesque nightmare—they’ve convinced their interrogators that they shouldn’t be there yet remain behind bars, at a cost to taxpayers of $1.3 million a year each.

Three detainees were cleared more than a decade ago, yet remain at Guantánamo. Six others should have been released early last year. “If I had to make a bet on what’s happening, this is an example of the Biden administration, distracted by the pandemic and the economy, not paying any attention to actually making transfers happen,” said Shane Kadidal, an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represents Sufyian Barhoumi of Algeria. He was cleared six years ago.

The grand fallacy at the heart of this pseudo-legal purgatory is the assumption that ex-Gitmo detainees must go somewhere, anywhere, but the United States. Why, if like Thomas Wolfe they can’t go home again, shouldn’t they be resettled here?

            The detainees are part of a mess that we created. Providing them with a home and whatever else they need to lead productive lives—education, job training, psychological treatment—is the least we can do to make amends for the cruelty and injustice they’ve endured.

            Set aside the psychic smear of the national trauma Americans suffered after 9/11, and it becomes clear under U.S. law and legal culture that these men are as “innocent until proven guilty” as it is possible to be. They were never indicted, much less convicted, of anything, yet they’ve languished under miserable conditions for years. The Defense Department has determined that they don’t present any threat. These men should be treated the same as a U.S. citizen wrongly convicted for a crime he didn’t commit; they should receive financial compensation for their years of false imprisonment and ample resources to help them settle wherever they want to go.

            Might a former Gitmo prisoner, radicalized and shattered by his experience, commit a violent crime or an act of terrorism on U.S. soil after being released? It’s possible. A dozen former detainees returned to Afghanistan and fought against U.S. occupation forces.

            Yet if we have integrity that’s a chance we have to take. We release innocent men and women from prison despite the possibility that years of incarceration have hardened them, exposed them to criminals and may have left them with hatred and resentment of the society that wrongfully convicted them. We don’t try to foist off innocent ex-convicts on some other country on the grounds that they are too damaged to live here. There are, moreover, means of mitigating the risk that a former detainee might pose a danger to Americans: validating their experience by issuing them a public formal apology, ideally by the president himself on national television, prosecuting their military and CIA torturers and allowing victims to testify against them, work permits, entry visas for family members, financial compensation and, of course, surveillance by local authorities.

            These moves would also boost our international reputation.

The Bush Administration relied on the fiction that Guantánamo was a netherworld under U.S. control yet not subject to U.S. legal protections such as the right to a speedy and fair trial, or representation by an attorney, when it chose this imperialist relic of the Spanish-American War to warehouse and torture hundreds of Muslim men whose involvement in jihad ranged from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s role in planning the 9/11 attacks to Osama bin Laden’s chauffeur to regional opponents of the regime in Yemen to nothing whatsoever. In 2008, however, the Supreme Court ruled in Boumediene v. Bush that Guantánamo inmates were in fact entitled to constitutional protections including the right to file a writ of habeas corpus in American courts. Legally, therefore, they’re already in the United States.

Congress passed a law preventing the use of taxpayer money to transfer Guantánamo detainees to the United States. But they’re already here. So there’s no transfer. Besides, the law is almost certainly an unconstitutional violation of the president’s prerogative as commander-in-chief. But why wait for a lengthy court challenge? We’re talking about just over three dozen men. Financing the airfare from Cuba to the lower 48 states could be taken care of by a GoFundMe. Count me in.

Notice, I did say over three dozen. That’s because all 39 Guantánamo victims are legally innocent under American law, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. None of them have ever faced trial in an actual civilian courtroom and never will because their testimony was extracted under duress. KSM, for example, was infamously waterboarded 182 times. If the rule of law and due process mean anything, all 39 prisoners — not just those who have been cleared to leave — should not be transferred to maximum-security prisons on the American mainland, as liberals generally suggest. They should all be released in the United States and given every possible resource to live out their lives peacefully and successfully.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the weekly DMZ America podcast with conservative fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Perhaps We Need More Uncertainty, Maybe

            “We know where they are,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in March 2003 about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. “They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.” We found nothing. Rumsfeld knew nothing. A year after the invasion, most voters believed the Bush Administration had lied America into war.

At the core of that lie: certainty.

            The 2002 run-up to war was marked by statements that characterized intelligence assessments as a slam dunk. “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us,” Vice President Dick Cheney said in August 2002. “These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence,” Secretary of State Colin Powell told the UN.

            Rumsfeld knew that if he said that Saddam probably had WMDs it wouldn’t have been enough. Americans required absolute certainty.

            Imagine if the Bushies had deployed an honest sales pitch: “Though it is impossible to know for sure, we believe there’s a significant chance that Hussein illegally possesses weapons of mass destruction. Given the downside security risk and the indisputable fact that he is a vicious despot, we want to send in ground troops in order to remove him from power.” The war would still have been wrong. But our subsequent failure to find WMDs wouldn’t have tarnished Bush’s presidency and America’s international reputation. Trust in government wouldn’t have been further eroded.

            False certainty has continued to poison our politics.

            Four months into Trump’s presidency 65% of Democratic voters didn’t believe he had won fairly or was legitimate. 71% of Republicans now say the same thing about Biden. What’s interesting is the declared certainty of Democrats who decry Trump Republicans’ “Big Lie.” Biden probably did win. But it’s hardly certain.

            It is not popular to say so, but there is nothing unreasonable or insane or unpatriotic about questioning election results. From Samuel Tilden vs. Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 to Bush vs. Gore in 2000 many Americans have had good reason to wonder whether the winner really won. Only an omniscient deity could know for certain whether all 161 million ballots were counted correctly at all 132,556 polling places in the 2020 election.

Democracy requires faith. If evidence indicates that our faith is unwarranted it must be fully investigated; otherwise we must assume that official results are accurate.

The Republicans’ refusal to accept the official results is only slightly less justifiable than the Democrats’ overheated “Big Lie” meme.

“We have been far too easy on those who embrace or even simply tolerate this idea [that Trump was the true winner of the 2020 election], perhaps because it has completely taken over the Republican Party, and we still approach any question on which Republicans and Democrats disagree as though it must be given an evenhanded, both-sides treatment,” Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman wrote January 6th. “We have to treat those who claim Trump won in precisely the same way we do those who say the Earth is flat or that Hitler had some good ideas. They are not only deluded, they are either participating in, or at the very least directly enabling, an assault on our system of government with terrifying implications for the future. They are the United States’ enemies. And they have to be treated that way.”

Whoa. I am terrified of the slippery-slope implication that even talking about a topic is out of bounds. If mistrust of the competence and integrity of thousands of boards of elections and secretaries of state and public and private voting machines makes one a domestic enemy of the United States, what does that say about the 65% of Democrats and 71% of Republicans who doubted the results of the last two elections?

Why not just say that we think Biden won and there’s no reason to believe otherwise? It may be easier to shout down doubters than to make a well-reasoned argument but our laziness betrays insecurity.

Every day we make decisions based on uncertainty. The plane will probably land safely. The restaurant food probably isn’t poisoned. The dollar will probably retain most of its value. Why can’t Democrats like Waldman admit that election results are inherently uncertain? Republicans know it—at least they know it when the president is a Democrat—and Democratic arguments to the contrary of what is obviously true only serve to increase polarization and mutual mistrust.

Vaccination and masking politics are made particularly venomous by rhetorical certainty that, given that science is constantly evolving and COVID keeps unleashing new surprises, cannot be intellectually justified. Those of us who have embraced masks and vaccines (like me) ought to adopt a humbler posture: I’m not an epidemiologist, I assume that scientists know what they are doing, I’m scared of getting sick so I’m following official guidance. Sometimes, as we know from history, official medical advice turns out to be mistaken. I’m making the best guess I can. Most of us are blindly feeling our way through this pandemic. We should say so.

We also need to express uncertainty about climate change. There is scientific consensus that the earth is warming rapidly, that human beings are responsible and that climate change represents an existential threat to humanity. I believe in the general principle. But it’s irresponsible and illogical to attribute specific incidents to climate change considering that extreme weather existed centuries before the industrial revolution. We will never reach climate change deniers by overreaching as when the Post described late December’s Colorado wildfires as “fueled by an extreme set of atmospheric conditions, intensified by climate change, and fanned by a violent windstorm.” Why not instead say “probably intensified” or “believed to have been intensified”?

Those of us who believe greenhouse gases are warming the planet should argue that, while nothing is ever 100% certain, it’s a high probability and, anyway, what’s wrong with reducing pollution? People who are certain that climate change isn’t real may be annoying, and given that the human race is at stake, perhaps dangerous. But the answer to incorrect certainty isn’t equal-and-opposite correct certainty.

It’s uncertainty.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, co-hosts the weekly DMZ America podcast with conservative fellow cartoonist Scott Stantis. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Corporate Journalists are Blind to a Big COVID Lesson

Episode 24.5 - Literary Scandals 201 - Fax Machines, Man — The Bookstore

           One of my complaints about mainstream media is that they recruit reporters from inside the establishment—Ivy League colleges, expensive graduate journalism programs, rival outlets with similar hiring practices. Some staffs develop admirable levels of gender and racial diversity. But they all come from the same elite class. Rich kids believe in the system and they accept its basic assumptions.

            On New Year’s Day a reporter (UPenn and Oxford, of course) published a solid piece for The Washington Post about an important issue, how America’s “fractured healthcare system” hurts our response to COVID-19. Seeking to answer the question of why the pandemic is still going on after the miraculously rapid development and distribution of vaccines, the Post identified organizational shortcomings as part of the problem, citing the need for “improvements on the delivery side.” She quoted an expert who called for “increasing staffing and funding for local health departments, many of which have been running on a shoestring. Officials in some local health departments still transfer data by fax.” Both true. I’ve been asked to fax my records recently.

            But.

            Nowhere in the Post piece was there any mention of what the United States is missing that most other countries in the  world are not: a unified national healthcare system like the United Kingdom’s NHS.

            I’m not talking here about fully-socialized medicine or a single-payer Medicare For All system like the one championed by Bernie Sanders, although I strongly believe Americans need and deserve one. This isn’t about who pays for healthcare (though it should obviously be covered 100% by the government).

It’s about data integration.

In the same way that law-enforcement agencies across the country can access criminal records from other jurisdictions via the FBI’s National Data Exchange system, public-health officials need access to a real-time, constantly-updated source of every report of disease whether it’s known or novel, the visit was paid for in cash by the patient or covered by insurance, or it was diagnosed by a country doctor, walk-in urgent-care center or a giant urban hospital system.

A fully-integrated national healthcare database would be a powerful side benefit of a national healthcare system like Medicare For All. But how likely is Bernie Sanders’ pet project to cross the mind of a writer who graduated from UPenn and Oxford and has a gold health insurance plan provided by her employer, who is Jeff Bezos?

Here in America, the nation’s top epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control are flying blind, relying on algorithmic models that estimate what’s going on rather than providing accurate, precise situational awareness.

I tested positive for COVID-19 on December 30. I notified my doctor’s office on January 1 but due to the holiday didn’t hear back until January 3. Will New York City authorities and/or the CDC be notified about my case and, if so, when?

Several friends and friends of friends also tested positive during the Omicron surge using home tests. Many, probably most, didn’t tell their doctor. You have to assume that official numbers for Omicron have been significantly underreported.

If we had a national healthcare system instead of a medical Wild West in which the ailing are jostling against each other fighting over $24 testing kits like shoppers rushing into Best Buy on Black Friday, testing would be handled through clinics and doctor’s offices in coordination with the federal government—which would instantly compile the results.

A national healthcare database could include “visualization tools to graphically depict associations between people, places, things, and events either on a link-analysis chart or on a map. For ongoing investigations, the subscription and notification feature automatically notifies analysts if other users are searching for the same criteria or if a new record concerning their investigation is added to the system… [allowing] analysts to work with other analysts across the nation in a collaborative environment that instantly and securely shares pertinent information.”

I lifted that last quote from an FBI description of their police database. Crime, by the way, kills a small fraction of the number of Americans who die from disease.

HIPAA regulations governing patient records would need to be modified by Congress, but consider the potentially lifesaving benefits even when there is no longer a pandemic. Medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States.

Decentralized recordkeeping is a public-health disaster. If you live in Wyoming, there is no good reason that your healthcare records shouldn’t be accessible to first responders driving the ambulance that responds to a call that you collapsed and are unconscious at a mall in Florida. As soon as you are identified—something that could be facilitated by a national healthcare ID card that you carry in your wallet or as an app on your smartphone—EMS workers could use your patient history to identify chronic problems. They could avoid a medication to which you might be allergic or feel confident in administering one thanks to the knowledge that you are not.

I didn’t go to UPenn and Oxford. As an independent writer, I pay my own health insurance. I am reminded of America’s crappy healthcare system every time I pay my ACA bill and every time I cough up a co-pay. Newspapers like the Post may or may not need me. But they definitely need people like me if they want to relate to the readers they’re trying to serve.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

America’s Tortured Take on Political Violence

Shays' Rebellion of 1786: Causes and Effects

[Original post modified 1/9/22 to correct an error as noted below in the text]

          In line with other surveys taken in the run-up to the anniversary of the January 6, 2021 Capitol Hill riot, a new NPR/Ipsos poll finds that 32% of Republicans and 22% of Democrats say that political violence is sometimes justified. The media is going nuts—as usual.

Fearful expressions that we might lose our democracy to an act of terrorism, coup attempt, assassination or another form of brute force have been a staple of official propaganda for years. A December 2021 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science notes: “Since 2016 we counted 2,863 mentions of political violence on news television, more than 630 news stories about political violence, and over 10 million Tweets on the topic of the January 6th riot alone.”

            Politicians of all stripes constantly state that, as Trump commented after the 2017 Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, political violence “has no place in America.”

            These rote declarations are completely divorced from reality.

Contrary to the wishful thinking of many commentators, the United States of America is not Switzerland. From the Shay’s and Whiskey rebellions to the Civil War and the urban uprisings of the 1960s to the 2014 Bundy standoff, there is nothing new about the fact that, in many Americans’ minds, violence sometimes does solve things. We are a restive people frequently divided by great questions that go unresolved for long periods of time. On occasion such a clash results in a refusal to peacefully acquiesce to accept government authority.

            Our republic rests upon a paradox. We teach schoolchildren that in the late 18th century the personal assessment of some colonists that the British government was unjust followed by their decision to take up arms was not merely justified, but noble and heroic. In the 21st century, however, any analogous judgment that this government is corrupt and unresponsive to their needs is beyond the pale—and an armed revolt would be the act of treasonous maniacs.

            One is reminded of Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who brutally conquered six rival kingdoms, killed more than a million enemy soldiers, declared himself emperor of unified China and only then self-servingly recast himself as a great lover of peace. Revolution that installs me is good; revolution against me is bad.

            Like many other independent states the United States was born in the blood and fire of a violent uprising. Washington, Jefferson and the other Founders were insurrectionists, separatists, traitors to the crown and — considering their considerable wealth, power and privileges—ingrates to boot. “Violence never wins,” Vice President Mike Pence said on January 6th—speaking near a rotunda that displays sculptures of men who won a new country by unleashing political violence against the regime of George III.

            Adding to our national cognitive dissonance over the legitimacy of political violence is the problem of the Confederacy—the biggest armed rebellion in our history and one for which no one was ever held legally accountable. Signaling that Southern secession might not really have been that wrong after all, the victorious North opted not to prosecute Confederate President Jefferson Davis for fear that he would be able to prove the legality of southern secession at trial. In 1868 President Andrew Johnson expanded on Lincoln’s plans and issued amnesties and pardons for all former Confederate soldiers, officers and political leaders willing to swear allegiance to the U.S.

            Until last year’s Black Lives Matter protests (which included the successful deployment of violence alongside nonviolent protests) prompted officials in cities like [deleted “New Orleans and” 1/9/22—in fact, New Orleans removed their statues in 2017]  Richmond, Virginia to remove Confederate statues, the general attitude of white Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line toward the insurrectionist South was one of forgiveness and bemused tolerance. Congress restored and President Gerald Ford approved the restoration of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s citizenship, which had not been approved during his lifetime due to a paperwork mix-up, in 1975. President Jimmy Carter did the same for Davis in 1978. Tolerance for cultural expressions of white Southern “heritage” endured until recently; the startling stars-and-bars artwork painted on the orange Dodge Charger used in the 1980s TV comedy “The Dukes of Hazzard” only received pushback in 2020, when Amazon considered pulling the show’s archives from its streaming service.

            To sum up the official line: the American Revolution was a fully-justified, admirable use of political violence (24,000 dead British soldiers) that created the best country ever. The Southern secession that attempted to cut the best country ever in half, a conflict fought mainly over slavery—resulting in the deaths of 620,000 people, 2% of the country’s population—was forgivable.

Political violence now, on the other hand, is not now nor ever will be, morally or legally permissible.         

This is logically contradictory on its face. For a country almost constantly involved in military action throughout the last two centuries, many times in efforts to replace the governments of other countries, which uses assassination drones to murder political adversaries abroad and deploys the police to arrest and brutalize street protesters, to argue that political violence is inherently illegitimate is ridiculous.

It would make more sense to embrace a realistic stance closer to Jefferson’s famous reaction to Shay’s rebellion that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Preceding that line in his 1787 letter is a thoughtful musing followed by proto-realpolitik: “What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them.”

“Pacify.” In other words, the real-world solution to political violence is greater political violence—by the state.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Student Loans: A Silent Scandal No More

            Student loans, long a non-issue that ruined countless lives, have finally become a political flashpoint in the conflict between progressive and moderate Democrats. Yielding to lefties’ pressure after Joe Manchin torpedoed Build Back Better, President Biden has extended Trump’s pandemic relief to 43 million federal borrowers by pausing payments another three months, to May 1.

The issue isn’t going away. 62% of Democratic and 57% of Republican voters aged 18 to 29 told a Harvard Institute of Politics poll that student loan debt is a major problem—a problem they think about when they pay their bills every month.

Left-leaning lawmakers want to go far beyond Biden’s stop-gap extension as well as his long-forgotten campaign promise to cancel $10,000 of debt per borrower. (The average ex-student owes $37,000 in federal loans.) Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren and Ayanna Pressley propose to wipe out $50,000 each; Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez want to forgive all $1.7 trillion.

A bill proposed by Republican Senator Marco Rubio would lower interest payments to zero, instead charging a one-time, non-compounding flat fee that student loan borrowers would pay over the term of their loan.

            Our higher-education financing system is a scandal.

            My grades and test scores were good enough to get into an Ivy League college. I was smart. But I was still a 17-year-old kid. In 1981 I didn’t know you were supposed to tip your barber, that your major field of study might have no bearing on your future career, or that Manhattan and Long Island were different places.

So signing a student loan agreement committing to repay thousands of dollars from a salary derived from some imaginary job in a mysterious future was a surreal experience.

            I sat next to my mom in the lobby of the big bank building in downtown Dayton, clueless. All I knew was that I had to sign a sheaf of incomprehensible documents if I wanted to attend college. As my guidance counselor and teachers and parents had repeatedly warned, without a college degree I would be doomed to subsistence-level fast-food or manual labor—and factory jobs were getting hard to find.

Don’t forget to initial each page.

How much would I earn after graduation? What would be my monthly payment? How does compound interest work? Was 9% a reasonable rate? When would it begin to accrue? What if I became unemployed? I didn’t know and if the banker satisfactorily explained this stuff it didn’t stick to my hippocampus. I invisibly shrugged, hoping that I’d somehow muddle through.

I return to my state of mind 40 years ago whenever I hear someone deplore the ethics of the 15% of student loan borrowers who are in default at any given time. Is an obligation you don’t understand when you agree to it an obligation at all?

            Honoring commitments is important. If you borrow money, you should pay it back. (I did.) But lenders have responsibilities too. As we saw during the subprime mortgage crisis of the late 2000s, the economy suffers when banks recklessly issue loans to borrowers who don’t understand the terms or won’t have enough income or collateral to repay—which is the case for most college loans.

            Student loan lending is predicated on the assumption that graduates will be able to pay back what they owe, plus compound interest, out of the higher income they will earn compared to non-graduates. But 57% of student loan borrowers never graduate from college. Most borrowers, therefore, are naïve teenagers with bleak job prospects. Lending to them is as predatory as it gets.

Clemency proposals annoy people who already paid their loans, not to mention those who bypassed college rather than go into debt. Why should taxpayers foot the bill for others’ luxurious college education?

For one thing, post-secondary education is no longer optional. 65% of all job postings require a post-secondary education, according to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workplace. As long as that’s the case, Americans will believe there’s a common economic interest in cranking out millions of freshly-minted graduates.

Canceling student loans across-the-board would have a low multiplier effect and thus do little to stimulate the economy. But there would still be advantages for everyone, not just borrowers.

Freeing a generation from debt slavery would provide flexibility and capital for new entrepreneurs and allow do-gooders to pursue work in helping professions with low wages. It would add liquidity to the nearly half of Millennials who report that their loan debts forced them to delay buying a first home by an average of seven years. You may not have gone to college yourself yet you may get to retire earlier because you’ll sell your home to a young couple at a higher price.

College expenses in the U.S. are too damn high, the most expensive system of higher education in the world after the U.K. on paper, but Britain’s are cheaper than ours when adjusted for grants and government-imposed price controls. When half of American borrowers continue to owe an average of $20,000 some 20 years after beginning as a freshman, reform is clearly called for.

One promising development is Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s promise to fix broken Bush-era student loan forgiveness programs for those who work in public service, education, healthcare and social work. Byzantine rules and application processes resulted in only 5,500 out of potentially 1 million qualified applicants getting their loans erased in part due to “miscommunication between the Department of Education and the loan servicers, as well as between the servicers and borrowers,” CNN reported about a 2018 General Accounting Office report. But that’s only a start.

Someday, hopefully, college will be free.

Until then, college loans need to be reined in. They’re a big business with no inherent limit upon growth. Colleges and universities have raised tuition and other fees faster than inflation because they know that a wide array of loan packages are available to students and parents. Lenders enjoy a fixed interest rate scheme that not only guarantees them a profit over their own borrowing rates, but also at low risk since it is virtually impossible to discharge student loans in bankruptcy.

These structural problems can be addressed by reducing lenders’ incentives to lend money willy-nilly and by reining in tuition costs. Congress should cap the maximum amount each student can borrow per year at $2500 for those attending community colleges and four-year public universities, and $5000 for those at private institutions. Bankruptcy courts should be given the option to discharge student loan debts. Any college or university that raises overall tuition, housing and other costs faster than inflation should not qualify for federally-subsidized loan payments from their students and ought to lose any federal contracts.

And if it’s really in the public interest for so many millions of young Americans to attend college and university, how does it make sense for educational financing to be a lucrative form of usury?

The federal government ought to take over the lending business from banks, with zero-profit interest fixed at the same rates it pays to holders of Treasury bonds. No one should get rich off the backs of 17-year-old kids seeking to better themselves through education.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

 

DMZ America Podcast #26: Why Biden is Tanking, War over Ukraine? and Holiday Blues. Plus: Flamethrower Drones!

You have heard the rest, now here are the best political analysts in America! Cartoonist-hosts Ted Rall and Scott Stantis unravel the mystery of why Joe Biden’s poll approval numbers continue to tank despite the economy not really being that bad, grizzly prospects for the Democrats in the midterms and 2024, Russian saber-rattling along the border with Ukraine and whether we should get involved, as well as feeling seriously bummed about Christmas time and holidays in general. Plus: flamethrower drones!

 

 

Our First Lockdown Experiment Failed. Let’s Not Try a Second One.

           Shutting down businesses and schools felt to many people like a natural response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the extended coronavirus lockdown of 2020 did not follow any widely-accepted standard strategy; lockdowns were sporadic and short-lived during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, the most recent historical parallel. Encouraging and coercing tens of millions of people to shelter in place in 2020 was one of the most radical social engineering experiments in modern history, as novel as the coronavirus itself.

            The political impulse to cancel events and close nonessential services we experienced during the spring and summer of 2020 is reemerging as the highly contagious, albeit anecdotally less severe, omicron variant sweeps through New York City and other hotspots. Broadway theaters, rock and hip-hop performers have canceled performances, the Rockettes closed their season a week early and Mayor Bill de Blasio is considering curtailing attendance at the city’s annual ball drop at Times Square. Rumors that New York City is considering another public-school system lockdown are sparking panic among parents.

Harvard has moved back to remote learning. The World Economic Forum in Davos has been canceled. Quebec is under lockdown, joining the Netherlands. The United Kingdom is considering one.

So, clearly, is the Biden Administration. The feds can’t order lockdowns. But they can pressure states and cities to enact them.

White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci says he doesn’t “foresee” another national lockdown in the United States—yet. Students of political messaging will take note of the careful if-then conditional sentence structure in Fauci’s statement on ABC’s “This Week”: “I don’t see that in the future if we do the things that we’re talking about,” Fauci said. “The thing that continues to be very troublesome to me and my public health colleagues is the fact that we still have 50 million people in the country who are eligible to be vaccinated who are not vaccinated.” What are the odds that vaccine resisters will change their minds in the next week or two?

Americans should consider, as we stare down the barrel of a second wave of “slow the spread”-motivated societal freezes, the pros and cons of the first one last year. Spoiler alert: this is not a movie that deserves a sequel.

Co-conceived in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security and the World Health Organization, the Pandemic Influenza Plan developed to “prevent, control, and respond to…novel influenza A viruses of animal (e.g. from birds or pigs) with pandemic potential,” according to the Centers for Disease Control, was the blueprint for the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza deployed by the Trump and Biden administrations 15 years later to coordinate “all levels of government on the range of options for infection-control and containment, including those circumstances where social distancing measures, limitations on gatherings, or quarantine authority may be an appropriate public health intervention.” Federal officials turned to this Bush-era guidebook when COVID-19 came to America.

            It pains this leftist to admit it, but conservatives who warned of the economic and psychological costs of the 2020 lockdown turned out to have been correct. “Lockdowns do not prevent infection in the future. They just don’t. It comes back many times, it comes back,” President Donald Trump said in April 2020, shortly before much of the country succumbed to lockdown fever. He looks prescient.

With the delta and omicron variants still raging, cost-benefit analysis of the COVID lockdown requires hard data that won’t be available for years. But one thing is clear: the lockdown experiment was far short of an unqualified success.

The economic cost has been staggering. “COVID-19–related job losses wiped out 113 straight months of job growth, with total nonfarm employment falling by 20.5 million jobs in April [2020],” according to a study by the Brookings Institute. 200,000 businesses more than average failed. Harvard economists David Cutler and Lawrence Summers have estimated the total cost of the crisis, much of which is attributable to the lockdown, at $16 trillion if the pandemic were to end this fall—i.e., now.

2020-21 was the Great Lost Year of American public education. With Black students five months behind where they would have been otherwise and whites two months back, virtual instruction was virtually educational.

But what about the benefit? Some studies claimed that lockdowns prevented nearly 5 million cases in the United States; at a mortality rate of 1.6% that works out to 80,000 fewer coronavirus fatalities thanks to the lockdown. But analyses of “excess deaths” indicate that at least 300,000 Americans more than usual died last year due to causes other than the virus itself. Increased alcohol consumption, reduced physical activity and depression culminating in suicide (not last year, when fewer people killed themselves, but in future years) will claim lives years into the future. If the lives-saved column of the ledger comes out a net positive, it probably won’t be by much.

            As for ordinary Americans, we are voting with our feet: 72% of respondents to a December 14th Ipsos poll said they plan to see family or friends outside of their household over the holidays.

This country can’t handle more lockdowns.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

The Washington Post’s Insane Canonization of Editor Fred Hiatt (Who?)

[NOTE: This piece was edited on  Dec. 14, 2021 at 12:04 pm EST to reflect the addition of a 11th Washington Post article about Fred Hiatt that appeared that morning.]

         As if we needed reminding that Americans don’t trust the news media, a recent report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford found that the United States ranks dead last in news consumer confidence out of 46 countries surveyed.

            One major criticism is that too many journalists appear to reside in a bubble far removed from the day-to-day life of most Americans. Reporters overwhelmingly vote Democratic, are whiter and clustered along the coasts. They are far likelier than the average news consumer to hold a master’s degree and therefore to come from a privileged background.

            Given the elitism endemic to American journalism, it isn’t surprising that so many stories and issues that concern millions of ordinary people go undercovered or ignored by the press. From the gutting of the Midwest by deindustrializing free-trade agreements to the opioid crisis to wages that have been frozen in real terms for half a century, the media keeps missing big trends with major ramifications like the surprise victory of Donald Trump—an event that only came as a shock to people who don’t spend time in flyover country.

            Sometimes, like this week, one major news outlet’s navel-gazing shines a spotlight on the insanely disconnected cluelessness of the professional journalist class. This one involves the recent death by heart attack of Fred Hiatt, the 66-year-old editorial page editor of The Washington Post.

In addition to an obituary and selected outtakes from his opinion writing, the Post published a fawning editorial remembrance (“Fred Hiatt was an editor of surpassing integrity, intelligence and compassion”), an over-the-top essay by a former publisher (“I’ve never known a better editor than Fred Hiatt—or a better person”) and six pieces (so far) by staff columnists: “Fred Hiatt was a bulwark against the culture of contempt,” by Marc A. Thiessen; “Fred Hiatt led with wisdom, wit and a transfixing whisper,” by David Von Drehle; “Fred Hiatt deserves to be remembered long after he is gone,” by Charles Lane; “What I never got to say to Fred Hiatt,” by Dana Milbank (“a man of towering intellect, unerring judgment and moral courage,” Milbank wrote); “The enduring power of an independent voice,” by Colbert I. King; “For Fred: A letter from the heart,” by Kathleen Parker; and “When everyone urgently wanted to talk to me, Fred Hiatt just wanted to listen,” by Shabana Basij-Rasikh.

That’s 11 articles about a person whom 99.9% of Americans, and probably 90% of Post readers, have never heard of. Having met and talked to Fred Hiatt a number of times over the years, I have to think that he would have strongly disapproved of hagiography reminiscent of Libyan newspapers under Colonel Gaddafi.

Or of the goes-to-11 media coverage of the 2008 death of Tim Russert, host of “Meet the Press.”

While it is tempting to chalk up this excess to a combination of genuine sadness, gratitude to a boss who hired (or at least didn’t fire) staffers during the great meltdown of the American journalism industry, and the absence of someone at the helm self-aware enough of the optics to tell his third or fourth or fifth or sixth columnist to write about something else, surely there is something notable about this craziness considering that it emanates from the Post, arguably the most financially-secure print news organization in the United States thanks to its ownership by the world’s second-richest man.

In a business with more than its fair share of gruff, unappreciative executives who never return emails, Hiatt’s professionalism and courtesy stood out. He got back to everyone and treated people with respect. It’s easy to understand why his colleagues liked him. Taking note of the passing of your own tribe is understandable. But a newspaper isn’t supposed to be about the people who make the newspaper.

And 11 pieces? The Post only published two articles about the death of President George H.W. Bush. (They also covered the fact that Donald Trump didn’t attend Bush’s funeral.) Think of all the news and opinion that will never see the light of day in order to make room for that nonsense. For example, the Post has never covered the Steven Donziger scandal.

Like most people, Fred Hiatt was far from perfect. A long-time neoconservative, he pushed the Post’s editorial page, which still doesn’t employ a single progressive, much less a leftist, to the far right. Under Hiatt the Post’s robust support for invading Iraq was so enthusiastic and sustained that it’s possible to argue the war wouldn’t have happened without him, which would have saved over a million lives. He never apologized.

It’s swell to hear that his columnists enjoyed working for him, but in politics and media what matters is not one’s affable office manner but what winds up on the printed page. Fred Hiatt’s editorial pages were and remain a paragon of center-right militarism and milquetoast corporatism, championing middlebrow politics and culture to prop up an establishment dependent on poverty, racism, exploitation of workers and all manner of oppression.

Post readers know what the newspaper is. The orgy of self-congratulation via the lionization of an obscure newspaper executive serves only to further increase distrust of an important media outlet.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.” Order one today. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

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