June 25, 2011

Mixed Message on Libya

In what has got to be one of the great political mixed messages of all time, the House of Representatives on Friday voted to deny congressional approval to extend U.S. involvement in Libya for up to one year, but then refused to deny funding to continue prosecuting our ongoing military activity in that country.  President Obama is already in violation of the War Powers Resolution, so it remains to be seen what effect, if any, this will have on American interventionism.  Perhaps the idea Ruben Bolling expresses below is what we need...

June 19, 2011

Object Lesson 9,568 on the Corrupting Effects of Power

The checks and balances that underpin the federal government - the system by which each of the legislative, executive and judicial branches limit the power of the other two - are crucial to the continued success, however occasionally wobbly, of representative democracy in the United States.

Under the Constitution, war powers are divided between the President and Congress. Congress may declare war, raise and support military forces, control war funding and make laws necessary to carrying out armed conflict. The President, meanwhile, is commander-in-chief of the military, with the power to repel attacks against U.S. territory, responsibility for leading the armed forces, and, as with all legislative acts, the power to veto acts of Congress, including declarations of war.

This fundamental structure was bolstered by the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which was passed in order to further restrain the president from taking the United States without the agreement of the legislature. The Resolution requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action, and prohibits military forces from remaining in combat for more than 60 days (allowing an additional 30 days for withdrawal) unless Congress had provided an authorization for the use of military force or a declaration of war.

And there's the rub.  President Obama began providing military support to rebels in Libya fighting to overthrow Muammar Gadaffi well over two months ago, and while he duly informed Congress of this action, there has been no authorization for the use of military force or declaration or war from Capitol Hill since.  In other words, Mr. Obama's 60 days are up.  Congressman Dennis Kucinich, stymied in his attempt to advance a resolution in the House of Representatives demanding the president end his unconstitutional involvement of American forces in Libya, is leading nine other congressmen in suing Mr. Obama in federal court - along with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates - to end the U.S. presence in Libya.

Glenn Greenwald breaks down the ludicrous post-hoc legal contortions the White House is using to try and justify our continued involvement in The Illegal War in Libya, but while the jurisprudence surrounding armed conflict is indeed interesting, it this paragraph that is chillingly at the heart of the reasons why unilateral presidential war-making is of such concern:
It was equally clear from the start that this Orwellian-named  "kinetic humanitarian action" was, in fact, a "war" in every sense, including the Constitutional sense, but that's especially undeniable now.  While the President, in his after-the-fact speech justifying the war, pledged that "broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake," it is now clear that is exactly what is happening.  "Regime change" quickly became the explicit goal. NATO has repeatedly sought to kill Gadaffi with bombs; one attack killed his youngest son and three grandchildren and almost killed his whole family including his wife, forcing them to flee to Tunisia.  If sending your armed forces and its AC-130s and drones to another country to attack that country's military and kill its leader isn't a  "war," then nothing is.
In my view, that is entirely correct, and while it may well be that there are very good reasons for supporting the rebellion against Libya's longtime despot, if they're not good enough to pass muster on the Hill, then, by law and by definition, they are not good enough to justify our continued military intervention.

Several years ago, Barack Obama at least purported to agree that constitutionally-unsupported military adventurism was beyond the pale.  In a speech in August of 2007, then-candidate Obama laid out the principles by which he stated he would operate if he were elected to the Oval Office:
No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.
He followed up those broad strokes a few months later, with specifics in a Q&A with Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage wherein then-candidate Obama was unequivocal in his belief that Congress must ultimately authorize long-term conflict:
The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.

As Commander-in-Chief, the President does have a duty to protect and defend the United States. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.
What we are seeing with Barack Obama in office is a man not only diametrically different on the subject of war powers from the man who campaigned for the presidency, but one who has enshrined the worst civil liberties abuses of his predecessor despite speaking out against them in the past, and a man who is now bringing an unprecendented number of prosecutions against government whistleblowers.

To be clear, the problem is not with the Constitution, the law or with those who expose malfeasance, as hacktivist collective Anonymous warned NATO in a recent statement:
The government makes the law. This does not give them the right to break it. If the government was doing nothing underhand or illegal, there would be nothing "embarassing" about Wikileaks revelations, nor would there have been any scandal emanating from HBGary. The resulting scandals were not a result of Anonymous' or Wikileaks' revelations, they were the result of the CONTENT of those revelations. And responsibility for that content can be laid solely at the doorstep of policymakers who, like any corrupt entity, naively believed that they were above the law and that they would not be caught.
It is unclear whether or not Barack Obama was lying about his consitutional convictions on the campaign trail; it is perhaps more likely that someone or something convinced him to abandon his stated principles for the heavy-handed law-breaking and anti-civil-liberties practices of George W. Bush.  In any case, in the end, it simply doesn't matter; the president's job is not to "protect" us, but to uphold the Constitution - as he promised to do when he was sworn in - and even the administration's top lawyers have advised the President that he is violating the law with regard to Libya.

By continuing to maintain American military involvement in Libya without the approval of Congress, Mr. Obama is arrogating powers to himself that the foundational laws of this country do not grant him, violating his oath of office, and continuing the distractions that keep us from addressing the corruption and class warfare that continues to turn the once-proud United States into a banana republic kleptocracy for the benefit of a few.

Senator John McCain today criticized the field of 2012 Republican presidential candidates for what he termed their "isolationism" in not strongly supporting involvement in Libya.  Bulletin to the senior senator from Arizona: if you want America to continue its intervention in Libya, get a declaration of war or an authorization for the use of military force.  We've had enough conflict without end, and so have the troops:

June 5, 2011

Condemned to Repeat History

The big economic news of the past several days has been that our current slow, jobless recovery has gotten even more sluggish, with unemployment moving back up over nine percent, the stock market softening, consumer confidence eroding, housing prices continuing to crater, and growth in gross domestic product (GDP) dropping from over three percent to under two.  As alarming as all of this, it should surprise no one.

The reason that it should surpise no one is that the United States has been in this position before, and we are in the process of repeating the same mistakes we made then.  In 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt became President, the economy had been languishing for years in the wake of the Great Depression, which had begun under his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, with the stock market crash of 1929.  In response, FDR began implementing a set of programs and policies that, together, were known as the New Deal.  The New Deal utilized government spending - particularly around infrastructure and jobs creation - to kickstart the American economy, producing results with which it was hard to argue.

Once America's gross domestic product had surpassed pre-carsh levels, however, some of Rooselvelt's advisers advocated cutting back on New Deal initiatives, and their arguments would be familiar to anyone listening to the GOP's self-styled budget hawks of 2011.  Tremendous concern was expressed about the budget deficit, inflation and the national debt, with the result that government stimulus programs were sharply curtailed in 1937 in the name of a balanced budget.  The result?  One year after the U.S. GDP had climbed to a record high, it contracted sharply.  The reason?  The private sector had still not recovered from the damage wrought by the Great Depression, and the only player with the wherewithal to stoke the demand that drives the economy - the government - was no longer spending.

In a nutshell, this is very likely what we are seeing today, and it is potentially the beginning of, if not a double-dip recession, at least stagnation.  A number of leading economists - perhaps most notably, Paul Krugman - have been saying for a long time that a second stimulus package was probably needed, but that advice has been effectively buried under a blizzard of conservative opposition rooted in the belief that - despite the weight of history and basic economic principles - "the government cannot create wealth or value; only the private sector can", and therefore cannot help drive the economy.

Since that maxim is so often repeated, let me in turn reiterate the necessary response: that is utter and complete nonsense.  All economies - despite claims that we must do things like cut taxes so the wealthy can "creat jobs" - are driven by demand.  Period.  End of story.  No one in the private sector - and I do mean no one - creates a job unless he believes there is a demand for whatever the output of that job happens to be.   If the purchasing public doesn't have enough disposable income to buy a lot of new automobiles, no car company in the world is going to start adding to its workforce because it got a tax break and now has more cash on hand.  It just doesn't happen.  

Don't believe me?  Well, American companies are sitting on more cash right now than at any other time in history, but unemployment hasn't been below 7.4% since George W. Bush left office, and it's over nine percent right now.  Despite being highly liquid, and despite gigantic companies like General Electric paying an effective tax rate of zero - yes, zero - private sector firms simply aren't "creating jobs."  There's a very good reason for this: there isn't enough unmet demand to justify generating additional supply through hiring, and the consequences of over-staffing and creating excess capacity for a private sector company are compressed margins, losses, or even bankruptcy - none of which are desirable if you're a CEO.

If private industry isn't providing jobs, the only other mechanism capable of putting money in the hands of people who will spend it is the public sector.  This can be accomplished through a variety of tactics including social welfare payments, the creation of government jobs, and tax cuts.  The last, however, only make sense to pursue if private sector cash reserves aren't already at record highs.  Further, social welfare payments are quickly spent by their recipients - they need the money, remember - while tax cuts often result in saving or building cash reserves - as we see today - which do nothing to spark the economic engine.

Additional government spending will unquestionably increase the budget deficit and the national debt in the short term, but both of those are readily addressed once demand has been reignited, consumption resumed, and taxation of that economic activity commences.  Tax cuts, by contrast - even ignoring the cash currently being horded by non-job-creating "job creators" - take longer to work, and by their very nature, diminish the rate at which government debt and the budget deficit can be reduced because the government is collecting less revenue.  (There are still claims made that cutting tax rates raises aggregate tax revenues - i.e. although less money is collected on each transaction or from each individual or corporation, the volume of activity makes up for that fact - but there is no actual data whatsoever to support that contention.)

So, where does that leave us?  Well, until the news media, President Obama and Congress stop fixating on government debt and the deficit - or in the case of House Republicans, pretty much anything but jobs - and begin focusing on growing employment, exactly where we are today: limping along with a massive pool of unemployed workers and stagnating growth.

Get used to it, America; there are strong indications we're going to be here for a while.