crimes of torture

December 11th, 2014

The Financial Times argues, on its editorial page, that those responsible for the CIA’s brutal, routine use of torture should have their day in court. “The US,” writes the editorialist, “is a country based on the rule of law. That principle must apply to those entrusted with upholding the country’s constitution.”

From the “red scare” of the early 1920s, to McCarthyism in the 1950s and the fallout from 9/11, history offers many examples of America casting aside its values in the name of national security. The CIA’s post-2001 excesses fall into that bracket. There is a pattern of shock, over-reach, hangover and convenient memory failure. It is vital that this time is different. There can be little doubt that the CIA’s practices were morally and legally wrong. The [Senate’s CIA torture] report makes clear they were also flawed on utilitarian grounds. People under torture will say anything to stop the pain.

The next move must be to take action that minimises chances of a relapse. Some … have suggested Mr Obama pardon all those involved from George W Bush downwards. This would enshrine the programme’s illegality without opening up divisively political trials. That is too neat by half. What one president does, the next can undo.

Mr Obama has made it clear he does not want to “relitigate the past”. He should reconsider. Past lapses in US history, such as the Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal, did result in prosecutions, convictions (and ultimately several pardons). There is no reason why this should be different. Where there is a strong chance of a successful prosecution, it should go ahead.

A tortured legacy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks“, Financial Times editorial, 11 December 2014 (metered paywall).

aid for Syrian refugees

December 8th, 2014

This is a cause that deserves our support in this holiday season. Please open your hearts and wallets.

She survived an army siege, and fled mass executions and gang rapes in Syria. But it was only after she reached a safe haven in neighbouring Lebanon that 13-year-old Fatima tried to slit her wrists.

It is not an isolated case. ….

Eleven million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes — and there is no sign that Syria’s almost four-year uprising-turned-civil war is going to end soon. The immediate priorities in a refugee crisis are relatively straightforward: people need shelter and food. But when it becomes a long-term crisis — growing at a rate of 5,000 people a day — the effort can be overwhelming.

Erika Solomon, “2014 Seasonal Appeal: Syria’s stolen childhoods“, Financial Times, 8 December 2014 (metered paywall).

Scroll down to read Lionel Barber’s “Letter from the editor”.

I am surprised that access to this appeal is not open to everyone, without restrictions. Exceptionally, I posted a large part of the editor’s letter and Ms Solomon’s column on my webpage as a pdf file.

The FT appeal is for donations to a women’s support centre run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian organisation founded by Albert Einstein in 1933 to rescue German families facing Nazi persecution. The Syrian refugee crisis is tragic, and funds are woefully inadequate. The UN was forced to reduce food vouchers for 1.7m Syrian refugees due to lack of funding.

The British government is matching all private donations, which doubles the impact of your contribution. To donate in Pounds, US Dollars or Euros, click on this link:

Larry Summers on crumbling infrastructure

December 8th, 2014

This is an excellent op-ed. Click on the link below to continue reading.

Take a walk from the US Air Shuttle in New York’s LaGuardia airport to ground transportation. For months you will have encountered a sign saying “New escalator coming in Spring 2015”. Or take the Charles River at a key point separating Boston and Cambridge which is little more than 100 yards wide. Traffic has been diverted to support the repair of a major bridge crossing the river for more than two years, and yet work is expected to continue into 2016.

The world is said to progress but things that would once have seemed easy now seem hard. The Rhine river is much wider than the Charles yet General George Patton needed just a day to build bridges that permitted squadrons of tanks to get across it. It will take almost half as long to fix the escalator in LaGuardia as it took to build the Empire State building 85 years ago.

Is it any wonder that the American people have lost faith in the future and in institutions of all kinds? If rudimentary tasks such as keeping escalators going and bridges repaired are too much to handle, it is little surprise that disillusionment and cynicism flourish.

Lawrence Summers, “Crumbling infrastructure is a sign of lost collective faith“, Financial Times, 8 December 2014 (metered paywall).

killer police in the USA

December 6th, 2014

Two recent police killings of black men unleashed angry protests when, in each instance, charges were dropped. This raises two questions. First, how many instances of police killings of suspects are there in the USA? Second, how often do police officers face criminal charges for their killings?

BBC journalist Taylor Kate Brown looked into this. She discovered that the total number of individuals killed by police officers is not known, because reporting to the FBI is voluntary. The “several thousand” police killings recorded by the FBI between 2005 and 2011 is thus an underestimate.

An estimated 41 of these “several thousand” cases went to trial. In the remaining “several thousand” cases, all charges of murder or manslaughter were dropped, without trial. Astonishingly, the legal system treats corruption and other white collar crimes more harshly. “[T]his tendency to not charge”, Ms Brown writes, “does not exist as strongly for police officers investigated for non-violent crimes”.

This bears repeating. Only a small number (perhaps 41) of “several thousand” killer police officers were charged with a crime for killing an individual while on duty. These are the cases that went to trial. The number of convictions is even smaller.

“Everybody knows policing is violent, and [jurors] don’t want to second guess those decisions,” says Philip Stinson, a researcher at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and former police officer.

Juries – both grand juries and trial juries – tend to “give every possible benefit of the doubt” when it comes to police officers who have killed while on-duty, Dr Stinson says.

But the secrecy of the grand jury proceedings make it hard to know why that was. ….

Comprehensive nationwide numbers of how many police officers kill individuals while on duty do not exist. ….

Mr Stinson’s own research found 41 police officers were charged with murder or manslaughter between 2005 and 2011. In the same time period, the FBI recorded several thousand justifiable homicides.

Taylor Kate Brown, “The cases where US police have faced killing charges“, BBC News, Washington, 5 December 2014.

Ms Brown describes several of the 41 trials of police killers. One caught my attention.

In Baltimore in 2008, Police Officer Tommy Sanders was indicted for voluntary manslaughter while on duty when he shot and killed Edward Lamont Hunt.

Mr Sanders told the court Hunt had been staring at him across a car park at a shopping centre. As he was searching Hunt, the officer said Hunt assaulted him and ran off. After giving chase, Sanders told the court he saw Hunt reach for something.

Mr Sanders fired three shots, two hitting Hunt in the back.

During the trial, multiple witnesses said Hunt had never assaulted the officer, nor did he reach into his coat while running.

Hunt was unarmed.

While the evidence led a grand jury to charge Hunt, he was eventually found not guilty.

But the case was slightly different than recent cases of white police officers being accused of bias in handling of black suspects – Mr Sanders himself is black.

This is the type of justice we might expect in an oppressive dictatorship, not in a prosperous democracy, not in the “land of the free”.

For more information, click on the ungated link above.


militarisation of US civilian police

December 5th, 2014

The Financial Times today published a strongly-worded editorial in the wake of killings by police officers of two unarmed men: one in Ferguson (Missouri) and another on Staten Island (New York City).

Protesters have understandably focused on the fact that both men — Michael Brown and Mr Garner — were African-American and that their police killers were white. It is undeniable that black Americans are disproportionately more likely than other ethnic groups to be the victims of police shootings ….

There is a huge imbalance in the US penal system. All Americans should be concerned. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, more than half of the 426 “justifiable homicides” that occurred in 2012 were white. By comparison there were zero police killings in neighbouring Canada that year. …. [Emphasis added.]

Using armoured personnel carriers and stun grenades, these operations [50,000 Swat raids on private homes each year] could as well be taking place in Baghdad during the height of the Iraq insurgency. Often they result in deaths. Invariably they spread terror.

It would be a travesty were Mr Obama’s plea for dialogue to be monopolised by race. That would imply the US justice system was basically sound except for its racial bias. The latter is a window on a far larger problem. Put simply, America’s civilian police culture is turning paramilitary.  [Emphasis added.]

The crisis of America’s shoot-first justice system“, Financial Times editorial, 5 December 2014 (metered paywall).


the inadequacy of social pensions in Vietnam

December 4th, 2014

Vietnamese social pensions are tiny, and coverage is low. Basic benefits equivalent to US$8.50 a month are available for residents aged 60-79 who pass a compressive means-test. The pension continues from age 80 with the same benefits, and the required test of means is reduced to a pension test. (Assets, as well as income other than pension income, are disregarded for applicants aged 80 or older.) Wealthier provinces top up the basic pension.

A conference on population issues convened yesterday, December 3rd, in the northern port city of Hai Phong. The ruling party’s Commission for Publicity and Education organised the conference jointly with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Vietnam.

Participants agreed that “economic outcomes for the elderly” are poor in Vietnam, but came up with few ideas to address the problem. The UNFPA representative suggested one practical remedy: provide more employment opportunities for older persons in need of income! It is possible (probable?) that he was referring only to the ‘younger old’, those in the 60-79 year age group, but the news story provides no clarification.

Less than 100,000 people, accounting for 1.3 percent of the population in … [the 60-79] age group, receive monthly social pension[s], according to the latest statistics of the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social affairs.

The statistics also showed that some of the richer provinces had increased the social pension benefits, such as Hanoi with 350,000 VND (17 USD) and Ho Chi Minh City with 240,000 VND (11 USD) per month. However, most provinces still apply the basic benefit level, as regulated in the government’s decree 13/2010/ND-CP issued in 2010, which is 180,000 VND (8.5 USD).

Due to fewer female workers participating in social security programmes, fewer women benefit from contributory pensions. Less than eight percent of the women above the age of 60 receive a contributory pension, whereas more than 12 percent of the men of the same age group receive the pension.  ….

Arthur Erken, UNFPA representative in Vietnam, said, “The elderly are not the society’s burden; they are also social workforces.”

The government should quickly respond to the rapid ageing of the population and seriously consider employment opportunities for older persons as a means to ensuring income and social welfare for them, he said. ….

The government should also set up a social sponsoring system, strong enough to ensure a combination of different generations in the society, said Arthur.

Elderly seek share of rising incomes“, Social News, Vietnam Net, 4 December 2014.

I have no idea what a “social sponsoring system” might be. Perhaps Mr Erken is referring to private charity or support from relatives. If so, it is not clear how he expects government to set up such a system.

I learned from HelpAge International’s Pension Watch that Vietnam’s social pension is means-tested from age 60 to 79, and pension-tested for those 80 years of age and older. In the 2010 census, 7.8 million persons (9% of the population) was aged 60 and older. HelpAge unfortunately provides no information on the ‘older old’, those aged 80 and older.

deporting wetbacks and other undesirables

December 3rd, 2014

In 2010, there were an estimated 10.8 million undocumented persons living in the United States. Some citizens would like their government to deport all of them. FT columnist Gary Silverman thinks “There is simply no precedent in US history for deporting so many people in one fell swoop”.

The closest we have come in recent decades was probably in 1954, when General Joseph May Swing, commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, led a massive round-up of illegal immigrants in Texas. Such were the cultural sensitivities of the time that the effort was named Operation Wetback.

Gary Silverman, “Absorbing immigrants is a national talent”, Financial Times, 22 November 2014 (metered paywall).

According to Wikipedia, “There were 1,078,168 apprehensions made in the first year [1954] of Operation Wetback …. The total number of apprehensions would fall to just 242,608 in 1955, and would continuously decline by year until 1962, when there was a slight rise in apprehended workers. Deported Mexicans faced extreme conditions and were sometimes left in the desert; 88 deported workers died in 112 degree heat in July 1955.”

A reader from Los Angeles writes that Mr Silverman overlooks an earlier, even larger repatriation of ‘Mexicans’, large numbers of whom were US citizens.

There was a period during the end of the Hoover administration and spilling over into FDR’s presidency where millions of Mexicans were deported. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who were US citizens were also deported in the mass sweeps. …. I find it horrifying that this sordid period in US history is not taught in state schools alongside what was done to Japanese-Americans in the second world war.

Andy Serrano,”Two million repatriated to Mexico over 15 years“, letter to the editor, Financial Times, 28 November 2014.

I would add more history to that supplied by Mr Serrano. US troops invaded Mexico in 1846 and ‘liberated’ the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and parts of Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming. This vast territory – nearly half of Mexico’s land mass — was ceded to the United States in a treaty signed in 1848 by a defeated government. Most Mexicans living in occupied territories remained and, with the exception of native ‘Indians’, became US citizens, even though they were looked down on as ‘foreign’ by the Anglo population.


For further reading, see Wikipedia, and a 2009 unpublished essay by Craig S. Frame titled “Mexican repatriation: A generation between two borders“. Mr Frame wrote this informative essay while studying for an MA in history at California State University-San Marcos.

Source: via Craig S. Frame (2009).





Source: Craig S. Frame (2009)

Obamacare is working

December 2nd, 2014

The Affordable Care Act had three main priorities: to improve access to health care, control the growing cost of health care spending and improve the quality of services delivered to Americans. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, our system was broken – family premiums for employer coverage doubled over ten years, and in 2009, health spending reached nearly 18 percent of the gross domestic product. Finally, the United States lagged behind other similar countries on infant mortality, obesity and hospital-acquired infections.

As a practicing physician and a policy researcher, I can say that improvements in all three key priority areas are really happening. One of my newest patients is a 52-year-old woman with progressively debilitating shortness of breath. She was working two part-time jobs as a waitress, and could not previously afford health insurance until the Affordable Care Act. I found out she had undiagnosed heart disease, which we were able to diagnose and treat. I am also making sure that she receives other important preventive services, such as breast cancer detection and immunizations. Her quality of life was improved dramatically in a matter of weeks, thanks in large part to the the health care law.

But it’s not just stories from doctors’ offices – we are seeing signs of success across the country. ….

Kavita Patel, “Is Obamacare Working? Yes.“, U.S. News and World Report, 26 November 2014 (ungated access).

Continues at the link above.

Kavita Patel is Managing Director of Clinical Transformation, Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform.


the poverty of US politics

December 1st, 2014

FT columnist Edward Luce thinks that US liberals have nowhere to turn. Other than rejecting social conservatism, he writes, there is no compelling reason for voters on the left to support Democrats.

Whatever liberals are smoking, it is no stimulant to new ideas. The left’s sense of destiny is based on America’s shift to a minority-majority nation within the next 30 win. What is missing is a compelling reason for people to embrace Democrats, as opposed to rejecting Republicans. For the time being, the latter can be relied upon to offend minorities – notably Hispanics. But Democrats have remarkably little new to say about the future of America’s middle classes, regardless of ethnicity. ….

Republicans may be getting more monochrome – whites are a shrinking share of the US population and a growing part of the Republican one. But that makes them easier to marshal. It is simpler to target a message to one group than many. ….

In politics, winning is ultimately about ideas. In the absence of new ones, Mrs Clinton’s bridge to the White House looks rickety.years. As the white vote shrinks, each presidential race will be harder for Republicans to

Edward Luce, “Hillary Clinton’s rickety bridge to the White House“, Financial Times, 1 December 2014.


tax breaks in the US

November 27th, 2014

FT Economics Editor Robin Harding writes from Washington that “a plan being negotiated between Democratic leadership in the Senate and Republicans in the House would not only make some tax breaks permanent but actually expand them”.

A deal that could raise deficits by $500bn over the next decade … show[s] how far deficit-cutting has fallen down Washington’s agenda. ….

But the deal would not make permanent the tax credit on earned income or the child tax credit aimed at low income families, prompting the White House to threaten a veto. It would allow a tax credit for wind energy to expire. ….

But the most remarkable feature of the potential deal is the casual willingness to expand the budget deficit and take on debt after years of dire warnings – especially from Republicans – that US was heading for fiscal catastrophe.

That shows how the sharp fall in the federal deficit, down to 2.8 per cent of gross domestic product from more than 10 per cent in the wake of the financial crisis, has freed Congress to placate favoured interest groups via the budget.

Robin Harding, “US Congress considers host of tax breaks“, Financial Times, 27 November 2014 (metered paywall).

Is Congress abandoning austerity because of a perceived need for fiscal stimulus? If so, the tax package would be more effective if benefits were concentrated on the poor – who are most likely to spend additional income – rather than on the wealthy.