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Power brokers must love the street theater

Sigh.

If nothing else, the Occupy Wall Street protests provide (yet another) reminder that the political “Left” can be just as incoherent, unrealistic and authoritarian as the political “Right.” Compare all of the snickering over tricorner hats and overheated verbiage at Tea Party gatherings to wacky signs and this prominent (unofficial) list of demands at the Occupy Wall Street website.

I think both groups have legitimate grievances — overgrown government on the one hand and corporatist cronyism on the other — but the fact is that grassroots political movements are messy. And, in reality, real people on the streets don’t always know what the fuck they’re talking about, even when expressing heart-felt outrage.

So you end up with movements that, at their fringes, compare elected officials to genocidal totalitarian dictators, and demand the destruction of industrial civilization.

Unfortunately, the net beneficiaries of grassroots lunacy are the powers-that-be, who can simply sit back, point at the street theater, and say: “Would you really prefer to put the crazies in charge?”

The real answer, of course, is that we shouldn’t want anybody “in charge”. Because, so long as somebody is in charge, they’ll inevitably accumulate ever-more power on behalf of themselves and their cronies — the root complaints of both the Tea Partiers and the Occupiers.

Wikileaks battle tests state vs. individual power on the Internet

I can’t be the only person who grins every time I hear that Wikileaks has released yet another batch of U.S. diplomatic cables as an in-your-face to the governments trying to shut the organization down. Or beams as the government leans on corporations to cut ties to the organization, only to see one Website turn into 1,000 (you, too, can mirror Wikileaks). And I’m sure I’m not alone in endorsing Dilbert-creator Scott Adams’s sentiment that, “The one thing I know for sure is that I’m a fan of the hackers who are dispensing vigilante justice.” Those are the hackers targeting the government agencies and their allied corporate partners who have been trying to isolate Wikileaks, of course.

It’s not that Wikileaks or its creator, Julian Assange are perfect. Assange seems to seek notoriety — though, would any other type of person take on this job? And, as Adams also noted in his blog, the revelation that the much ballyhooed sex charges against Assange are apparently rooted in weird Swedish laws about condom use and jealousy over bed-hopping “turned Assange from a man-whore publicity hound into Gandhi.”

Well, maybe not “Gandhi,” but the charges look like a bullshit effort to discredit the man.

The continuing survival of Wikileaks and its championing by the pro-information-freedom Anonymous hacker group are an ongoing demonstration of the ability of decentralized organizations and grassroots movements to not only prevail against governments, but even to retaliate against state agencies. As the Washington Post notes, “WikiLeaks is now stronger than ever, at least as measured by its ability to publish online… the Web site’s resilience in the face of repeated setbacks has underscored a lesson already absorbed by more repressive governments that have tried to control the Internet: It is nearly impossible to do.”

Which means that all the Internet evangelists who hoped new online tools would help close the power gap between individuals and governments are now seeing some vindication.

Wikileaks apparently not welcome around these parts

I don’t really fear that the apparent abandonment of Wikileaks by U.S.-based host Amazon.com — presumably under government pressure — really means the end of the excellent anti-state, whistle-blower organization. Truthfully, the sudden denial of hosting services seems like a petulant playground kick in a world of potential alternatives, many of them far beyond the reach of embarrassed American politicians (apparently, the group moved back to Sweden, according to NPR).

Isn’t that telling, though? Governments are reduced to symbolically shuttering Websites for a few days, leaving the actual whistle-blowers and their desire to expose information otherwise untouched. Supposedly, Julian Assange and company have a stash of bank-related documents slated for their next expose. In the unlikely event that they can’t get the Website up and running again, what’s to stop them from zipping and emailing the data to media organizations and bloggers, just as they did the U.S. diplomatic cables? Or I suppose they could go so far as to print the juicy data or save it to thumb drives and physically hand it to people likely to spread the information further.

Ultimately, Wikileaks is about the desire to expose compromising secrets, not about maintaining Websites. And Wikileaks is just one incarnation of that push for transparency — taking the Website, the organization or its leader out of the picture only shifts the action elsewhere.

Police state by default

I’ll say right out that Paul Karl Lukacs has bigger stones than me. When I’m going through Customs — or airport security in general — I may venture into testiness on my own behalf or run interference if my young son is getting the third degree (yes, it’s happened), but I’m generally focused on getting past the Gestapo, not on asserting my rights. So I applaud Lukacs for answering “none of your business” to a nosy Customs official when questioned about his overseas trip. His experience went like this:

“Why were you in China?” asked the passport control officer, a woman with the appearance and disposition of a prison matron.

“None of your business,” I said.

Her eyes widened in disbelief.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“I’m not going to be interrogated as a pre-condition of re-entering my own country,” I said.

This did not go over well. She asked a series of questions, such as how long I had been in China, whether I was there on personal business or commercial business, etc. I stood silently. She said that her questions were mandated by Congress and that I should complain to Congress instead of refusing to cooperate with her.

She asked me to take one of my small bags off her counter. I complied.

She picked up the phone and told someone I “was refusing to cooperate at all.” This was incorrect. I had presented her with proof of citizenship (a U.S. passport) and had moved the bag when she asked. What I was refusing to do was answer her questions.

Ultimately, Lukacs was allowed to go on his way because Americans really don’t have to do anything but show a customs declaration and proof of citizenship in order to re-enter the country. Of course he had to cool his heels first because … well, just because. He hadn’t respected their authoritah, after all.

It makes you think …

There are a lot of protections against official nosiness and pushiness on the books or in our legal traditions that go relatively unused. They go unused, of course, because officialdom makes it increasingly unpleasant to assert those rights. If the cost of telling a police officer to mind his manners is a strip search and a night in the lock-up, followed only months later by a lukewarm apology and an off-hand acknowledgment that you were in the right, many people simply stop telling cops where to get off. Even the occasional cash settlement isn’t going to be worth it for the average person. As time goes on, we forget what our rights are, and officials are trained in procedures rather than the legal scope of their authority. Eventually, the rights in question may still exist on the books, but largely as quaint museum-quality exhibits.

And then you run across the occasional Paul Karl Lukacs, willing to take a figurative bullet in the hopes that one of the gray-haired supervisors remembers a few vestigial legalisms.

So the question is … Is it a tactic on the part of officialdom to expand their power? Or is it more of a case of institutional mission-creep, fueled by our own timidity and laziness?

Either way, our rights become meaningless if we abandon them because it becomes a hassle to assert them.

And note that not a single statute is altered along the way to changing the balance of power between the folks wielding the power of the state and the rest of us.

Modern-day ‘capital strike’ becomes more likely

Pundits have been speculating for months that the United States is undergoing a “capital strike” of the sort that occurred during the Great Depression — that is, frightened and confused by government policies and the (often contradictory) directions in which they tug the economy, investors are sitting on their money rather than putting it into new and existing ventures that might generate jobs and prosperity. That speculation appears to be firming up into reality, as new reports indicate both disenchantment with the Big O among his well-heeled backers and (likely related) widespread unwillingness to invest in the U.S. economy.

Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man, described the earlier version of the phenomenon in a 2009 column:

“Fat cats” is what President Barack Obama just called bankers. He also invited them to the White House this past week.

The reason for the mixed message is that the president is cross with banks: They have refused to heed his orders to lend. The dynamic of preachy executive and elusive lenders recalls the mid-1930s, when a petulant Franklin Roosevelt gave a label to banks’ puzzling behavior: “capital strike.” …

Observing that banks maintained what had once been considered ample reserves, 1930s monetary authorities reasoned that increasing reserve requirements on paper would have little effect: Their increase was merely a de facto recognition of an accumulation that had already occurred.

The authorities forgot these bankers had been burned. The wary banks reacted by stashing away yet more cash. The result was an unforeseen tightening and less cash in the economy.

Election cycles also contribute to capital strikes. Banks today know that whatever the White House says, it has to stop pouring out the cash eventually, probably after midterms. Banks in the 1930s held on to cash because they knew Roosevelt would stop spending after the 1936 election, and he did.

House winnings

High taxes, or the prospect of tax increases, do damage as well. In 1937, a tire company executive explained the effect of Roosevelt’s confiscatory rates upon the investor: “He will not risk financing new ventures if the government take is greater than that of the average gambling house.”

Infantilizing the private sector also makes it shut down. In the 1930s, Roosevelt, like Obama, alternated between coddling banks and companies and giving them the equivalent of a good spanking. Both can be counterproductive. The editors of Time magazine formally recognized that by printing a regular rubric over its weekly reports: “Last week the U.S. Government did the following for and to U.S. Business …”

Writing in The Freeman, historian Burton Folsom, Jr. further draws out some of the parallels between then and now:

The sequence of massive federal spending followed by a lack of recovery plus tax hikes is poison for a politician. Therefore Roosevelt sought scapegoats to explain his failure. Wall Street bankers were his favorites. He called them “economic royalists” and blamed them for causing the Great Depression. He also blamed America’s top businessmen for instigating a “capital strike”—they were refusing to invest in order to make him look bad. FDR then launched IRS investigations of key Republicans and used the newspapers to encourage hostility toward these targets.

Obama has followed FDR’s playbook of attacking Wall Street bankers and various corporate leaders. He condemns the raises these bankers sometimes receive and the profits earned by some large oil companies and health insurance companies.

In June, on ABC News, George Will raised the possibility that Obama is reaping the same results as FDR, saying:

The Bush tax cuts are going to expire. Interest rates have to go up sooner or later. The House, just before going on recess, passed a so-called jobs bill with $80 billion more dollars of taxes in it. There may be climate change regulation. No one knows quite how Obama Care is going to effect the private sector. In pandemic uncertainty, capital goes on strike.

But, so far, this has largely been speculation. Have the Wall Street types who heavily supported Barack Obama’s presidential run turned against him? And are investors really stashing their cash rather than risk it in an environment of anti-business hostility and economic uncertainty?

The Magic Eight Ball now seems to suggest the answer is: You better believe it!

The New York Times reports on the u-turn a major Wall Street backer of Obama has made in his opinion of the president and his policies:

Daniel S. Loeb, the hedge fund manager, was one of Barack Obama’s biggest backers in the 2008 presidential campaign.

A registered Democrat, Mr. Loeb has given and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democrats. Less than a year ago, he was considered to be among the Wall Street elite still close enough to the White House to be invited to a speech in Lower Manhattan, where President Obama outlined the need for a financial regulatory overhaul.

So it came as quite a surprise on Friday, when Mr. Loeb sent a letter to his investors that sounded as if he were preparing to join Glenn Beck in Washington over the weekend.

“As every student of American history knows, this country’s core founding principles included nonpunitive taxation, constitutionally guaranteed protections against persecution of the minority and an inexorable right of self-determination,” he wrote. “Washington has taken actions over the past months, like the Goldman suit that seem designed to fracture the populace by pulling capital and power from the hands of some and putting it in the hands of others.”

This is important, even the Times concedes, because:

Mr. Loeb’s views, irrespective of their validity, point to a bigger problem for the economy: If business leaders have a such a distrust of government, they won’t invest in the country. And perception is becoming reality.

Just last week, Paul S. Otellini, chief executive of Intel, said at a dinner at the Aspen Forum of the Technology Policy Institute that “the next big thing will not be invented here. Jobs will not be created here.”

Mr. Otellini has overseen two big acquisitions in the last two weeks — the $7.7 billion takeover of the security software maker McAfee and the $1.4 billion deal for the wireless chip unit of Infineon Technologies. If he is true to his word, those deals will most likely lead to job cuts in the United States, not job creation.

And it’s not just one ticked-off hedge-fund manager and a disgruntled tech executive — it seems to be oodles of investors preferring to keep cash under the mattress rather than throw it into whatever the economy and the unpredictable folks tinkering with its controls may bring their way. Business Week interviewed Professor John Paglia of the Pepperdine Private Capital Markets Project about his latest semi-annual report. Paglia tole the magazine that, despite high demand for investment among small businesses, and increased credit-worthiness, “there’s a dearth of capital opportunities for the upstart businesses that potentially—down the road—could lead us to economic prosperity.” Banks, venture capitalists and angel investors are declining to make loans to such an extent that “[t]he No. 1 concern for private companies is access to capital. Nearly 31 percent cited that, even more than the 27 percent that said the economy is their top concern.”

Earlier this year, the Pepperdine Private Capital Markets Project reported that almost half of venture capitalist plan to sit on their cash, despite growing demand for investment, at least over the next year. Said Paglia: “The long-road out of the current recession and tepid marketplace has made it easier to simply keep money locked up.”

The Pepperdine data suggests that the “capital strike,” such as it is, is a reaction to economic uncertainty, rather than a refusal to make money and generate prosperity just to spite the administration (as FDR used to charge). Of course, the Times piece makes it clear that much of that uncertainty can be laid at the feet of the government, so the end result is the same.

Bravo, WikiLeaks

I was traveling and unavailable to comment on the latest WikiLeaks story when it broke. Suffice it to say that the publication of classified U.S. government documents about the floundering imperial effort in Afghanistan illustrates the value of the Website/organization and its editor-in-chief, Julian Assange. Private watchdog efforts like WikiLeaks are absolutely vital, and you better believe I support them in any conflict they may ever have with a government, including the nasty behemoth that presides over the country in which I currently live.

Oh yeah. And Marc Thiessen, the chest-pounding thug who wants the government to use “not only law enforcement but also intelligence and military assets to bring Assange to justice and put [WikiLeaks] out of business” can kiss my ass.

Why not get personal with pushy government officials?

I wonder, really, why we don’t hear about incidents like this more often:

HEMET, Calif. – A man suspected of carrying out a series of booby trap attacks  against police in a small Southern California town was expected to be charged in the case Wednesday, authorities said.

Nicholas Smit was arrested Friday for investigation of making a booby trap and assault on a police officer with intent to commit murder.

Smit is suspected of planting booby traps to hurt a Hemet police officer who arrested him after suspecting that he was growing marijuana, law enforcement officials said.

I no longer have a commercial publisher, so I don’t have to pretend that I disapprove of directly targeting government officials. Yet I’m not specifically advocating putting bear traps on the front seats of cop cars — for one thing, the unwashed masses are likely to get offended that one of the brave “thin blue line” got his steroid-shriveled testicles caught in the trap, and, for another, there’s an unfortunate likelihood of being caught, like the apparently rather dim Nicholas Smit, in Hemet.

But I’m surprised that we don’t hear more about direct, creative targeting of abusive law-enforcement officers and presumptuous officeholders.

Considering how often politicos are caught doing things for which we we mere commoners would be harshly punished, such as neglecting to foot a share of the tab for the politicians’ own spending sprees, or engaging in a little sexual experimentation in public places, wouldn’t it be worth assigning aggressive private investigators to pry into their past indiscretions and monitor their current activities? Of course, not every investigation would pay off, but focusing on especially obnoxious specimens would not only derail the occasional derail-worthy career, it would cast further doubt and disrepute on governing institutions.

Honestly, does anybody really doubt that at least one member of Congress is a serial killer? Or that at least two keep teenagers chained in some dungeon?

Yes, that requires funds, but having worked for a couple of political organizations, I’m impressed by the quantity of money that’s dedicated to low-payoff activities, like lobbying and publicity campaigns.

What about protesting outside the private homes of government officials? It seems unfortunate that when this is most often done, it’s along the lines of Cindy Sheehan’s vigil in Crawford, Texas, which was guaranteed to annoy the neighbors while then-President Bush snored comfortably in the White House.

The goal should be to make the official uncomfortable.

There have been incidents over the years. I seem to remember that a King County, Washington, politician had a load of trash dumped on his front lawn in retaliation for his support for restrictions on property rights. And I believe that a Pennsylvania official who supported a ban on anonymous mail drops was zapped by a local company revealing that he took advantage of just such a service.

And, of course, the Phoenix New Times published Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s home address.

Can you think of any other past examples that might point the way to future tactics?