Little Somalia?

The political mess in Guinea-Bissau, a small former Portuguese colony on the coast of West Africa, has gotten to the point where the United Nations found that drug traffickers are leaving due to perpetual instability. When the traffickers leave, it’s pretty much a failed state. Is Guinea-Bissau the next Somalia? There’s an election today, but nobody expects anything useful to happen.

Recent events include (NYT, link above):

First the general was blown up. Then the president was shot dead, the former prime minister was arrested and tortured, a presidential candidate was killed in his villa, and the former defense minister was ambushed and shot on the bridge outside town.

 
So people have pretty much given up there. At least there still is a government.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

More on Unemployment

Yesterday I reminded everyone to check the U6 unemployment, which gives a better picture of the unemployment situation in this country. There’s another reason I forgot to mention, other than that it doesn’t ignore the chronically unemployed.

It’s being said that this is the worst unemployment in 26 years (which goes back to 1983). That’s true if one looks at the official rate over that period (BLS graph):

But the problem is, and I wish the old media would remember this, the official definition of unemployment changed in 1994, to exclude the chronically unemployed (who lack job opportunities in their area), which makes the situation look better. Not only does that mean that a slight decrease in unemployment does not automatically point to recovery (because people could just give up looking for a while and then be excluded), but it also means that the magnitude of the recession is ignored in media reports. Saying that this is the worst unemployment in only 26 years simply isn’t true. Using the U6 from 1994 to present and comparing that to the old official rate before 1994, which used roughly the same definition, we find that this is the highest unemployment since probably as far back as the Great Depression. This is probably the worst in 71 years.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows me only back to 1948, but between 1948 and 1994, the highest unemployment was in 1982, when it reached 10.8% unemployment. Compared to the present (U6) unemployment, 16.4%, it’s evident that you have to go back past 1948 to find a higher unemployment rate than now. So I’m pretty sure that means going all the way back to the Great Depression, when (if I recall correctly) unemployment reached 25% at one point. After a brief recovery, it climbed back to 19% or so in 1938.

But all that is obscured when the old media decides to ignore the 1994 definition change that artificially lowers the official unemployment rate by 7 points in the month of may.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

US Unemployment at 16.4% (U6)

It’s the first Friday of the month, which means today’s labor report is out from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for last month. The U6 unemployment rate nationwide hit 16.4% for May 2009.

This is much higher than the normally quoted U3 rate, of course, in case that seems high to you. But as I explained when the February data came out, we should be looking at the U6 to get an accurate understanding of the situation. I encourage you to read that post, if you didn’t before, since understanding the difference between the “official rate” and the U6 rate is critical, in my opinion, to understanding the US economy, especially when we’re not in a recession.

I call the U6 “real” unemployment, just like people talk about “real” wage growth (which accounts for inflation).

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

American Exceptionalism and the Torture Debate

Mark Thompson at the League of Ordinary Gentleman has what I think is an excellent post on how torture runs contrary to this idea that America is an exceptional country.

If you think the United States is just another country, or even just another Western country, then the moral issues of whether waterboarding is torture, or whether it was a war crime to drop the atomic bomb, can and perhaps should be either irrelevant or only of minor significance compared to whether those actions saved more lives than they cost. But if you are a true believer in American exceptionalism, then you must accept that maintaining that exceptionalism comes with costs, perhaps sometimes in human lives.

Shining cities don’t just appear and maintain their shine without sacrifice and risk-taking by their citizens. It does no one any good to pretend otherwise; nor does it do any good to secretly and gradually apply a bit of plaster and polish to a monument from which you have taken much gold restores the monument to its previous glow. Instead, that monument must be stripped of its plaster for all to see in its newly grotesque shape. Then, and only then, can the people properly evaluate whether the lost shine was worth the increase in safety.

 
He goes on to state in the post and in the comments that America is not and has often not been the right country or the most free. Instead, he bases his ideas of American exceptionalism on the founding documents of our nation, which laid out the premise that all men are created equal and endowed with certain natural rights. Since I’m in a historical minded mood (I should be studying instead of writing this…), I wondered about this.
Read more

If he can walk and chew gum…

Or: Why President Obama must deal with the torture issue now

It got really cliche when supporters countered critics of Obama’s bold agenda by saying the president was capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

Even some people in the administration kept saying that. If he can work on Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, and health care all at the same time – since he does have all these people working for him – it seems theoretically possible to do some other things simultaneously as well.

Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, says Obama is focused on “looking forward” and not back, which is supposed to be a good enough explanation for his disinterest in following the law and investigating and prosecuting those in the previous administration who authorized or carried out torture.

If Obama were the only person in charge of doing everything at once, this might be a reasonable thing to say. But he’s not. He’s the head of a gigantic administration (and he could, for that matter, leave it entirely up to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, like he’s supposed to, and not worry about it). That means it’s possible for the administration to be looking forward and back at the same time.

Like Janus, the Roman god of doorways and the namesake of the month of January:
janus

But on a serious note… think about it this way: If people committed crimes in the previous administration (and the evidence is overwhelming that they did), then they should be prosecuted. Because what sort of signal does it send to less-than-honest people in current and future administrations? If we prosecute, it tells people they can’t get away with it just because they’re out of office. If we don’t prosecute, it tells them that laws don’t mean anything because everyone will be ready to move on and “look forward.”

It doesn’t make sense to me that we should just “look forward.” That’s the same argument that Gerald Ford used in pardoning Nixon, and it pissed everyone off and may have cost him the 1976 election. Sure, it’s a distraction and it’s politically draining, but if we don’t hold up the law, does the law mean anything? Why bother writing laws if we never plan on enforcing them?

If we always cower because we don’t want to look like we’re politically motivated in carrying out the law, then it encourages further law-breaking. That’s not a slippery slope argument, it’s just reality. There are bad people out there who want to do illegal things, some of them will break the law anyway, but some of them will be stopped because they know there will be consequences.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been looking at this in a different light, and he also makes these points and others better. Particularly, he suggests that there is a double standard for how the law gets enforced:

Endorsing justice, consequences, and “personal responsibility” for poor black fathers, as Obama does for instance, is moral, upstanding, and honest. Endorsing justice, consequences and “personal responsibility” for your colleagues who are charged with safegaurding the future of hundreds of millions of people is, apparently, mere retribution. What a joke.

 
Our country is based on the rule of law. If we enforce the laws for the poor minorities, we also have to enforce the laws for the powerful, rich white guys. I’d like to see these right-wing nuts stop defending illegal torture and start calling for enforcement of these laws, just as loud as they call for enforcing immigration laws and other such things.

We don’t get to pick and choose.

 
NATE UPDATE: More TNC on moving forward

Here’s what TNC actually thinks about “moving forward”

There’s a bar in the East Village that offers five shots of anything for ten bucks. I’m going there tonight, and taking 10 shots of anything the crowd reccommends. Then I’m going to stand on the street soliciting random women for sex. Should I be arrested I shall have the perfect rejoinder, “Officer, I think we should focus on looking forward.” Should I be slapped, I’ll have the perfect rebuttal, “Baby, I think we really should be focused on looking forward.” Should I succeed and come home, hung-over, and have to face my spouse’s accusing eyes, I shall be armed with the perfect riposte, “This relationship should focus on looking forward.”

 
This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

“CIA official: no proof harsh techniques stopped terror attacks”

Oh? That headline comes from McClatchy DC:

WASHINGTON — The CIA inspector general in 2004 found that there was no conclusive proof that waterboarding or other harsh interrogation techniques helped the Bush administration thwart any “specific imminent attacks,” according to recently declassified Justice Department memos.

That undercuts assertions by former vice president Dick Cheney and other former Bush administration officials that the use of harsh interrogation tactics including waterboarding, which is widely considered torture, was justified because it headed off terrorist attacks.

 
Unsurprising. Didn’t know it had been found codified yet in an official document. There was a Bush speech in 2006 that explains that a foiled 2002 plot was later identified by torturing KSM in 2003, suggesting that some information was gained but not anything vital or time-sensitive that stopped an attack. The 183 waterboardings just explained to the CIA which plot had been stopped previously by a local arrest of an Al Qaeda agent.

By the way, I skimmed and read parts of the 2005 Bradbury memo, which the McClatchy article above mentions later as citing (and contradicting) the 2004 memo. I didn’t get to that part yet, but I’ll check into it.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Torture “safety measures”

More disturbing discoveries in the torture memos: doctors were on hand with equipment to perform emergency tracheotomies on detainees in case they stopped breathing properly due to extensive water boarding.

You know, where they cut a hole in your throat so you can get enough air not to die.

I don’t understand how people can still insist this wasn’t torture.

I’ve crawled through several sections of the 2005 memo cited (pdf) myself now. The tracheotomy part can be found in the second paragraph of page 14. (I actually read the memo backward for some reason, but this particular part is on p. 14). I’ve also found from reading it that these rules were created pretty much in response to worse torture before this, such as the repeated waterboarding of KSM 183 times in one month… though they don’t acknowledge that.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.