|Number 514||September 21, 2012|
This Week: Social Security. And Drones.
It's another double issue of Nygaard Notes this week. What am I thinking?! Well, at least there's no mention of the Presidential campaign.
Here's a teaser about some upcoming issues: I'm immersed in research for some major pieces I'm planning to publish having to do with various facets of American ideology, Just World Theory, individualism, and how institutions think. I'm not sure what it's all going to look like, but if I am as far along as I think I am, you should see the first installment in the next issue of the Notes. Unless I decide to talk about the Presidential campaign.
To all you Northern Hemisphere residents: Happy Autumnal Equinox! Happy Vernal Equinox to you Southerners!
From an opinion piece in the New York Times of June 24th, 2012—and reprinted nowhere else, as far as I can tell—come these words from former President of the United States Jimmy Carter:
"Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist, the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable. After more than 30 airstrikes on civilian homes this year in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has demanded that such attacks end, but the practice continues in areas of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that are not in any war zone. We don't know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these attacks, each one approved by the highest authorities in Washington. This would have been unthinkable in previous times."
I don't share Mr. Carter's rosy version of U.S. history in regard to human rights, but it's still significant for a former President to make such remarks. Read the entire opinion piece on the New York Times website.
I announced last week that I will be teaching a free six-week course here in Minneapolis called 21st-Century Propaganda: Thought Control in A Democracy. It'll go from 7:00 to 9:00 pm every Thursday from October 4th until November 8th. It's taught through the EXCOTC experimental schooling collective here in Minneapolis.
We have enough people signed up to make it go, but there is still room for a few more. If you know anyone who might be interested—or if YOU might be interested—go to the EXCOTC website and sign up. If it goes well, I hope to teach it again in the spring. There's a bunch of other free classes, too, so check 'em out.
It has been said that the United States is a nation of laws. I'm not so sure.
Recall an article I mentioned back in Nygaard Notes #509 called "Kill List Logic." In it I discussed a May 29th New York Times article headlined "Secret 'Kill List' Proves a Test Of Obama's Principles and Will." In it we read that "Just days after taking office. . . Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good."
It's simple logic, alright: Superpowers can do whatever they want, and details like international law—or, for that matter, any law—will not be allowed to "box them in."
We can see that the Obama administration defines guilt and innocence in a way that mocks the presumption of innocence that lies near the heart of our system of laws. Since the nation's journalists also know this, we might expect the mass media to refer to future victims of drone strikes using a different criteria. Might we not? Judge for yourself after perusing the following reports from the mass media in this country over the past month or so (sections and headlines appear IN CAPS):
Newsday (New York), August 20 "WORLD: IN BRIEF" "DRONE STRIKE KILLS 7 MILITANTS. Pakistani intelligence officials say missiles fired from unmanned American spy planes have hit two vehicles near the Afghan border, killing seven militants. Three intelligence officials said the strike yesterday came in the Mana area of North Waziristan, which they say is dominated by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a commander whose forces often target U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but they did not know whether his men were targeted. A U.S. drone strike Saturday, also in North Waziristan, killed five Gul Bahadur allies."
"Seven militants." "Five Gul Bahadur allies." No evidence offered.
New York Times August 25 "MILITANT LEADER BELIEVED DEAD IN PAKISTAN DRONE STRIKE. A volley of C.I.A. drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt early Friday killed at least 18 people, security officials said, capping a week of missile attacks that have renewed tensions between Pakistan and the United States, but may have killed a major militant leader. . . , Human rights groups say signature strikes inflict unacceptable collateral damage, but [an American official] said that if Mr. Haqqani was killed, his death and those of other 'high-value targets' would show how such strikes had 'consistently degraded Al Qaeda and its allies' in Pakistan."
"At least 18 people." Anonymous, unmourned.
Voice of America, same day:
"35 suspected militants." No evidence offered.
LA Times, same day: "U.S. drones kill 18 in North Waziristan. . . . The identity of the people killed Friday was unknown."
Not only was guilt not established, but apparently no U.S. official even bothered to find out who they killed!
St. Louis Post-Dispatch August 30 "WORLD DIGEST" "OFFICIALS SAY 5 KILLED IN DRONE ATTACK IN YEMEN. Military officials say an airstrike has hit a vehicle carrying suspected militants as it traveled in eastern Yemen, killing five. . . Officials wouldn't say who carried out the attack, but the U.S. has used drones in the past." (Here's another clue as to the identity of the attacker: The Washington Post reported on April 26th that "The United States has begun launching drone strikes against suspected al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen under new authority approved by President Obama that allows the CIA and the military to fire even when the identity of those who could be killed is not known, U.S. officials said.")
So when five "suspected militants" are killed, it doesn't matter who they are.
Monterey County Herald (California) September 1, 2012 "THE WORLD" "U.S. DRONE STRIKE KILLS 5 MILITANTS IN PAKISTAN. U.S. drones fired a barrage of missiles at a vehicle and a house in a Pakistani tribal area bordering Afghanistan on Saturday, killing at least five suspected militants, Pakistani officials said. Two intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. drones fired seven missiles at targets in the village of Degan in an area of North Waziristan close to the Afghan border. . . . Recent drone strikes have killed militants affiliated with Bahadur's group."
"Suspected militants." No evidence.
Investors Business Daily September 4, 2012 "IBD'S TOP TEN" "DRONE KILLS MILITANTS IN YEMEN. A U.S. drone strike killed 8 al-Qaida members in a remote part of Yemen, the gov't said. The men killed were heavily armed and local officials believe they could have been on their way to carry out an attack. Arabian Peninsula al-Qaida operations are based in Yemen."
Of course these men "could have been on their way" to anywhere. And could it be that they were heavily armed in order to defend themselves or others in their area?
No reporter knows what "local officials" in "a remote part of Yemen . . . believe." They might know what some officials said. That's different, as we learn from a September 6th report in the London Guardian, which tells us that "There is a long history of senior Yemeni officials lying to protect Barack Obama's secret war on terror." That history goes back almost three years to a time, the Guardian says, "When US cruise missiles decimated a tented village in December 2009, [and] at least 41 civilians were butchered alongside a dozen alleged militants, as a parliamentary report later concluded. As we now know, thanks to WikiLeaks, the US and Yemen sought to cover up the US role in that attack. 'We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,' President Saleh informed US Central Command's General Petraeus."
It Only Has to be Authorized by OUR Laws
Two newspapers in the United States over the past month have mentioned the phrase "international law" in regard to drone attacks. One was the Los Angeles Times, and the other was the Bismarck Tribune, which reprinted the LAT story. The Times story, on August 25th, quoted Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Moazzam Ahmad Khan as follows: "As we have repeatedly said, we regard drone attacks as illegal, counter-productive, a violation of our sovereignty ... and in contravention of international law."
Going outside of the United States uncovers a bit more on the legal context for such killings. The London Guardian on June 21st of this year ran an article headlined "Drone Strikes Threaten 50 Years of International Law, Says UN Rapporteur." The Guardian reported that "Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions, told a conference in Geneva that President Obama's attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, carried out by the CIA, would encourage other states to flout long-established human rights standards. In his strongest critique so far of drone strikes, Heyns suggested some may even constitute 'war crimes.'"
On September 10th CNN's Chief White House Correspondent reported that "According to CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen, the Obama administration 'authorized 283 strikes in Pakistan, six times more than the number during George W. Bush's eight years in office.'" Drone strikes have also "been used against suspected militants in Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Libya," CNN tells us, adding that they are "one of the president's preferred tools."
When CNN interviewed President Obama on the subject, he told them that the use of drones is "something that you have to struggle with," and that a drone target must meet 'very tight and very strict standards. It has to be a target that is authorized by our laws. It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative. It has to be a situation in which we can't capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States."
Imagine the President of, say, France, tracking down a "suspect" in Minnesota and launching a drone strike that kills the suspect and 5 other, unidentified, people. Then he says that the target was "authorized" by French laws. Is this hard to imagine? I hope it is. And I hope that it is self-evident that people in Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and Libya differ little from people in France and the United States.
In an editorial in the Summer 2012 issue of MERIP's Middle East Report, the editors tell us why drones are the "preferred tool" of the United States: "Sleek and silent, guided by satellites and shifts of desk jockeys half a world away, [unmanned drones are] supposed to wreak surgical havoc and then scan the wreckage without much notice." But violence—whether by outright invasion or by "surgical" drone strikes—only begets more violence. Here is the MERIP editorial's concluding paragraph, which I think tells the story briefly and well:
"It would be hard for Obama not to be a smarter steward of US empire than his predecessor, but the creeping campaign in Yemen reminds us of 1998, when we wrote in this space that US missile strikes upon bin Laden's al-Qaeda 'exhibit a wide firing range but a narrow strategic vision.' Today's favorite tactic is similarly not surgical; the drones court blowback as they kill untold numbers of real people and inflame the crisis in the places where those people live."
On August 2nd the Associated Press (AP) announced its plans to release a four-part series of stories examining "the state of Social Security and its long-term health." The reason, according to the editor who directed the series, was that "Few things affect more Americans than the future of Social Security, and yet it's an issue mostly invisible during the current campaign." True, it's not talked about much, but when I saw how distorted and confused the AP report turned out to be, I wondered if it might not be better to say nothing.
I'll try to make time in a future issue of Nygaard Notes to analyze just how wrong-headed the AP series was, but for now I'll just print a revised version of an article I wrote back in 2005. My intention is to address what I consider to be—amongst all the misunderstandings that are rampant concerning Social Security—the most fundamental misunderstanding of all.
This misunderstanding was revealed in the very first installment of the AP series, which appeared on August 5th. The headline on this kick-off piece read, "Social Security Not Deal it Once Was for Workers." In the article, the basic question that the AP attempted to answer for its readers was, "How can you get a better return on your Social Security taxes?"
After years of propaganda, a large and growing number of people share the misunderstanding revealed in that headline: They think that Social Security is a program of INDIVIDUAL INVESTMENT. It's not, and was never meant to be. Instead, it is a program of SOCIAL INSURANCE. In order to understand the difference between these two types of systems—which is the key to having even a glimmer of understanding about what is at stake in this huge public debate—we need to understand both the difference between "individual" and "social," and between "investment" and "insurance." The ideas are not complicated, they've just been obscured by propaganda.
INSURANCE versus INVESTMENT
When you invest money—for retirement or anything else—it makes sense to evaluate your investment, as the AP did, in terms of what you get out of it, or your "return." After all, that is why people invest money: to make more money.
When we think of Social Security this way, it makes sense to ask how good a "deal" it is, in terms of what you "get back" on your "investment." This way of evaluating Social Security is so common that it likely doesn't seem strange to most readers. Let me point out how strange it is.
Imagine someone telling you your car is a piece of junk because it doesn't float. You'd laugh, because you know that it wasn't designed to float. It was designed to function on solid ground. Not only would you laugh, you would think to yourself, "This person doesn't understand what automobiles are all about." And you would be skeptical of any future assessments from that person of the quality of automobiles. And so it should likewise be when people say that Social Security is a piece of junk because it doesn't earn a good "return" for everybody. That's not what it was designed to do.
As I said above, the program was designed as a system of Social Insurance. Here's how insurance works: With insurance, you only get something back if you lose something. I hope I never collect anything on my home insurance, for example, since that would mean my house has burned down, or some other horrible thing has happened. Still, I pay my home insurance premium every year and I don't think I am wasting my money. Why not? Because I know that, if and when I do lose something, I have insurance. If I never "get back what I paid in," that's a good thing. And, if I lose something, and DO get back some of what I paid in, what I get back is related to what I lost, not to what I paid in. And that, too, is a good thing. That's the nature of insurance. That is not the nature of investment.
SOCIAL versus INDIVIDUAL
Insurance, in principle, is based on what we know, as opposed to what we don't know. What we know are aggregate numbers, or social statistics. To use the example of home insurance, what we do know—based on history and experience—is roughly how many houses are going to burn down in a given year. What we don't know is which ones they will be. So, we insure the group. Everyone, then, who wants to be in the insured group agrees to pay a premium that amounts to their proportionate share of the costs of replacing all of the homes that will burn down this year, not knowing whether or not one of them will be their own. Insurance, then, even in it's most commercial form, is a social program.
When you are part of an insurance "pool," what you get in exchange for your premium is two things: you get to express solidarity with your neighbors and fellow insurees by paying your share of the social costs of property replacement, and you get the security of knowing that, should you have a loss, all of your neighbors will share in the costs of replacing what was lost, and you won't have to bear the burden yourself.
That, in fact, is the essence of insurance: Everyone chips in to help out those who lose something. If it is standard insurance, we chip in by paying "premiums." If it is Social Security, we chip in by paying taxes. What is the loss that Social Security is intended to insure us against? It's the loss of wages, or income, due to old age, death, or disability. (The program is sometimes referred to as "OASDI," for "Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance.")
The essence of the social insurance program known as Social Security is that it's a deal between the generations, where those who are working chip in to help those who are not, knowing that the same giving will come their way when the time comes. It doesn't deny individual responsibility. People are supposed to work. Parents are supposed to support their children. But, if one can't work for some reason, or if the parents die before their children can support themselves, Social Security is there.
Now, in the world of commercial insurance, there is also the matter of making a profit for shareholders, who care not about solidarity, but about self-enrichment. For them it is an investment, which introduces the tremendous irony of having people investing in other people's bad luck, which turns out to be a sort of "anti-solidarity." That's an important issue, but is not our concern at the moment.
It's not our concern because making a profit is not part of the Social Security program. Unlike commercial insurance, Social Security enriches no individual, nor is it supposed to. It is a social program, the success of which is based on how well it protects all of its participants against the loss of income. And, for the past 77 years or so, Social Security has delivered all promised benefits, on time, at an overhead cost of less than one percent.
Social Security is and has been a system of SOCIAL INSURANCE in which everyone pays in a proportional share and everyone receives in return the security of knowing that they are protected against poverty and deprivation. But the AP and many others insist on talking about it as if it were a system of INDIVIDUAL INVESTMENT which says that some people can get a "good deal" even when some of their neighbors are getting a "bad deal."
The AP story, to its credit, does quote some people who seem to "get it." But the best the AP reporter can say is that "returns alone don't fully explain the value of Social Security. . ." True, but still missing the point: It's not about "returns" at all. It's about security. It's about helping each other. It's about solidarity.
Years of anti-Social Security (and other) propaganda has made the idea of solidarity into a foreign concept for many young people, as evidenced by the concluding quotation in the Associated Press's article. They found a 22-year-old recent college graduate, Mackenzie Millan of Los Angeles, and who spoke about Social Security and her future, saying,
"The money that I put aside now, it's not like that money is going to be waiting for me. That money is going toward someone else. If I wanted Social Security 50 years from now, when I wanted to retire, I would have to hope that someone else is still working and putting money aside in their paychecks to pay for my Social Security at that point."
What she is "hoping" for is called solidarity. And the idea that future generations will, indeed, be "still working" and putting money aside to pay for those who are not working is a succinct summary of exactly how Social Security is designed. It's worked that way for more than seven decades and, if people like Mackenzie can be encouraged to act on their hopes instead of their fears, then Social Security will not only be there for them 50 years from now, but it will be there for their children and grandchildren, and it will be stronger and better due to their hopeful activism.
For a good, 4-minute summary of the nature of Social Security, visit the website of the National Academy of Social Insurance and watch the video "Social Security: Just the Facts"
If you have any Mackenzie Millans in your life, and they're really interested, suggest that they read "A Young Person's Guide to Social Security," put out this past July by the Economic Policy Institute and the National Academy of Social Insurance. It's long, so maybe they can just read Chapter Two: "Social Insurance: The Philosophy Behind Social Security."