In Greek parliamentary elections yesterday, the Syriza party, “a group dominated by Marxist university professors and Communist activists,” won 36.3% of the vote and 149 out of 300 seats, just short of a majority. On top of this, while the center-left New Democracy party came in second with 129 seats, in third place was the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party with 18 seats. Today, Syriza’s leader Alexis Tsipras was sworn in as prime minister after forming a coalition with a small right-wing party, the Independent Greeks. At the Monkey Cage, Dan Hough has a nice analysis of what Syriza is likely to do once it takes power. My point here is not specifically about Greece, but how this illustrates an important thing about democracies: despite their many virtues, bad things happen to democracies during severe economic depressions. It is important to remember this when anyone suggests a huge economic contraction as a solution to a nation’s problems. Whether or not the economic pain will solve the problem at hand, the resulting political turmoil is almost always not worth it.
Greece has suffered immensely since the 2008 economic crises started. Its economy has shrunk by one fourth. We know from the massive political science literature on retrospective voting that parties tend to lose reelection when economic growth is weak. Yet we also know from the historical record that, in the face of extreme economic pain, voters will often turn to any political factions who are not associated with the status quo. Whom they choose and what ideological direction the country goes in is very unpredictable.
It is important to remember this whenever someone suggests that a severe economic collapse is necessary to teach wrongdoers a lesson. In the European Union, some have argued that southern European states like Greece and Spain need to suffer because of their fiscal irresponsibility. In the United States, many on the far left and right argued that the federal government should let AIG and other big investment banks fail. Letting banks fail (instead of bailing them out) had the appeal of punishing the very unsympathetic banking industry and creating an incentive for banks to avoid irresponsible behavior in the future. The Bush and Obama administrations’ response that they needed to bail out the banks to avoid a catastrophic economic collapse got little sympathy.
But whether the alleged wrongdoers (southern European governments or U.S. big banks) are guilty or not, allowing depressions to happen is never a good idea. It is far better to put new rules in place that prevent the bad behavior from happening in the future. When depressions happen, the wrongdoers may or may not learn the intended lesson, but even if they do, those effects will be swamped by bigger consequences: great human suffering and the complete discrediting of the existing political establishment. When dominant parties are discredited, it is very hard to predict who will come to power or what (possibly crazy) agenda they will implement. Here is Larry Bartels’ description of the unpredictable policy consequences of the global Great Depression of the 1930s:
In the United States, voters replaced Republicans with Democrats in 1932 and the economy improved. In Britain and Australia, voters replaced Labor governments with conservatives and the economy improved. In Sweden, voters replaced Conservatives with Liberals, then with Social Democrats, and the economy improved. In the Canadian agricultural province of Saskatchewan, voters replaced Conservatives with Socialists and the economy improved. In the adjacent agricultural province of Alberta, voters replaced a socialist party with a right-leaning party created from scratch by a charismatic radio preacher peddling a flighty share-the-wealth scheme, and the economy improved. In Weimar Germany, where economic distress was deeper and longer lasting, voters rejected all of the mainstream parties, the Nazis seized power, and the economy improved. In every case, the party that happened to be in power when the Depression eased went on to dominate politics for a decade or more thereafter. It seems far-fetched to imagine that all these contradictory shifts represented well-considered ideological conversions. A more parsimonious interpretation is that voters simply—and simple-mindedly—rewarded whoever happened to be in power when things got better.
Sending a democracy into a deep depression is like playing Russian roulette with its political system. It is never a good solution to a policy problem. Almost any other remedy is preferable.
Count me unsurprised about the British resurgence. Three years ago, when many pundits were pronouncing Britain dead in the water (after all — they weren’t even smart enough to adopt the Euro…), I wrote this here:
The people of this country are a lot hardier than they are sometimes given credit for, and are more able to persist through difficult times than perhaps even they themselves know (or remember). And more generally, human beings are remarkably good at squeezing joy, love and meaning out of life even when things are not going as they wished or hoped economically.
And that’s why as I walk through London these days I am possessed of a most un-British spirit: Open, unembarrassed and unrestrained optimism about the future of this country and the people in it.
Mark Golding is the Jamaican Minister of Justice. Below the fold is the text of a press release from his office about legislation that would decriminalize of cannabis possession and legalize its production and sale for medical use and for use in Rastafarian religious observance.
In addition, the fine print:
Permits the cultivation of five or less ganja plants on any premises, which will be regarded as being for medical or therapeutic use of the leaves or for horticultural purposes
In other words, the proposal is for complete but noncommercial legalization.
The system of complete legal prohibition of ganja in Jamaica has been in place since 1948, has not worked and is no longer considered fit for purpose.
Note the cross-national difference in terminology: to “table” a bill means to offer it, not to defer its consideration. Also note that under a parliamentary system, a Cabinet bill is likely to become law without much modification.
STATEMENT BY MINISTER OF JUSTICE
ON THE DANGEROUS DRUGS (AMENDMENT) BILL FOR POST-CABINET PRESS BRIEFING
The public will recall that in June and September, 2014 Cabinet approved the amendment and enactment of legislation to, among other things:
i. Make the possession of two ounces or less of ganja a non-arrestable, ticketable infraction that does not result in a criminal record;
ii. Permit the use of ganja for religious, medical, scientific and therapeutic purposes;
iii. Prohibit the smoking of ganja in public places;
iv. Provide for the grant of licenses to permit the development of a lawful industry for medical ganja and industrial hemp.
The much-anticipated legislation to make provisions treating with these legislative reforms was, on January 19, 2015, approved by Cabinet for tabling in the Houses of Parliament. It is a Bill entitled the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act 2015.
The system of complete legal prohibition of ganja in Jamaica has been in place since 1948, has not worked and is no longer considered fit for purpose. The reality is that ganja remains as prevalent in Jamaica as it ever was, perhaps more so. Many thousands of Jamaicans have been arrested, detained prosecuted and convicted for possession and smoking of ganja. It has been a source of deep distrust, bitterness and dysfunctional relationships between many youths and the Police. It has damaged many lives through criminal records which prejudice employment prospects and travel possibilities. It has abrogated the rights of the Rastafarian community, who regard the plant as a holy sacrament, who have faced nearly a century of oppression in giving expression to their religious beliefs.
For decades the reform of the law relating to ganja has been the subject of several recommendations and reports by public and private sector groups, including the 1977 and the 2003 Joint Select Committees of Parliament and the 2001 Report of the National Commission on Ganja. Nevertheless, despite all this, prior to 2014 nothing was done to right the wrong.
The winds of change have been blowing internationally. There have been significant reforms in some European countries. In our hemisphere, regulated medical cannabis has been permitted in Canada, and recreational liberalisation has been enacted in Uruguay. The United States has recognised the need for some flexibility in approaching this issue, given that many of their own states have introduced laws to permit medical marijuana, and some states have gone further to introduce more general liberalization.
In Jamaica, this Administration has decided to move in a measured, deliberate way towards ganja law reform. The reforms introduced by the 2015 Bill reflect some of the recommendations coming out of the 2001 Reports and other consultations at the local level, and also current developments and trends in other countries.
A significant reform relates to the modification of the penalty for smoking ganja and possession of ganja in small quantities. The harsh penalty for these offenses under the existing law was a common point of concern in all the reports, in particular the imposition of a criminal record and the adverse long-term social and economic consequences suffered by persons convicted of such offenses, predominantly young men, as a result of this.
The first step in our reform was achieved by the passing of the Criminal Records (Rehabilitation of Offenders) (Amendment) Act 2014, which was brought into effect on October 12, 2014. It has removed the attachment of a criminal record for possession of small quantities or smoking ganja. Administrative arrangements have been put in place to facilitate the expungement of the past records.
The new penalty structure introduced by the 2015 Bill, and the removal of the attachment of a criminal record, seek to offer the opportunity for rehabilitation while respecting the human rights of offenders. In addition, the new approach is expected to positively impact the caseload of the courts, as research has shown that these minor ganja cases have significantly contributed to the case backlog which burdens our overstretched criminal justice system.
Another significant reform which has also been the subject of comment and recommendation in the various reports and consultations, relates to the criminalization of the use of ganja by Rastafarians for religious purposes. This is viewed as an undue restriction on their freedom of religion guaranteed under the Constitution and the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms introduced by bipartisan cooperation in 2011, as the sacramental use of ganja is an integral aspect of their religious practice. The provisions of the Bill permit the use of ganja by Rastafarians for religious purposes, and provides also for related activities such as the cultivation, possession and conveyance of ganja pursuant to such use, subject to stipulated requirements.
Further, with increased recognition of the medicinal advantages of ganja, not only locally but also internationally, the Bill provides also for a legal, regulated system for medical, scientific and therapeutic purposes. With the changes to the ganja laws in other territories such as the United States of America, Australia and Canada, and the revenue that has been acquired by them as a result of their reforms, there has been extensive campaigning and consultation surrounding the establishment of a medical ganja industry in Jamaica.
Some Jamaican scientists are already engaged in research into the medicinal uses of ganja, through longstanding ad hoc arrangements. However, a viable medical ganja industry cannot be established without a robust legal framework to support it. We need to position ourselves to take advantage of the significant economic opportunities offered by this emerging industry. The current law prohibits the cultivation, production, import, export, transport, trade in, possession and use of ganja. Therefore, the reforms and objectives proposed can only be accomplished through legislative amendments, primarily to the Dangerous Drugs Act.
Economic opportunities also exist in relation to the production of hemp (i.e. cannabis with a very low level of the psychoactive ingredient THC) and its versatile array of industrial by-products, and the 2015 Bill will also enable a regulated industry in hemp to emerge.
Jamaica is a small independent country that believes in the rule of law. Given our size and limited resources, our national security and territorial integrity depend on upholding the rule of law in the international sphere, and we have always respected and complied with our international obligations, just as we expect other countries to do the same.
Therefore, in considering any change to the law relating to ganja, it is critical that regard must be had to obligations under the relevant international agreements to which Jamaica is signatory. These agreements place certain limitations on the changes that can be made to our domestic law without violating our international obligations. Of particular significance are the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the 1972 Protocol Amending the Single Convention, which list Cannabis among the most dangerous substances which are particularly harmful. Unless and until the stipulated requirements in the abovementioned international conventions are reviewed and adjustments made, Jamaica is obliged to ensure that the reform of our domestic legislation is within the present scheme of our international obligations.
However, these international conventions permit some flexibility. They allow for the use of ganja for medical or therapeutic purposes, subject to regulation by way of a licensing regime, and also industrial hemp (i.e. cannabis with a very low level of the psychoactive ingredient THC). They also recognize the supremacy of the Constitutions of member states, when it comes to the particular domestic regimes to give expression to the obligation to control, restrict and impose sanctions in respect of prohibited activities relating to drugs. The international conventions therefore provide some flexibility in the treatment of the use and possession of ganja in our local context. Our approach to this reform is fully cognisant and respectful of these international conventions and Jamaica’s obligations under them, and seeks to operate within the treaty framework of permissible approaches.
The 2015 Bill that has been approved by Cabinet therefore amends the law taking into account recent developments in other jurisdictions, our local culture and economic advancement, without violating our international obligations.
Illegal drug trafficking and abusive use of ganja
Before I describe the reform provisions in the 2015 Bill, two important aspects of this legislation need to be highlighted.
Firstly, it must be emphasized that these reforms do not represent a softening of our stance on illegal drugs and related criminal activities. Jamaica remains fully committed to the fight against transnational illegal trafficking in all forms of prohibited drugs and the organized crime that it fuels, an ongoing effort which is fundamental to our national security at home and our international reputation and relationships. The financial penalties related to the offences involved in transnational drug-trafficking have become outdated with the depreciation in real terms of nominal monetary values over time. These financial penalties are therefore being significantly increased by the 2015 Bill, and Jamaica will continue to work cooperatively with our international partners to ensure robust law enforcement in this area.
Secondly, it is fully recognised that the use of ganja in Jamaica by adolescents and other vulnerable groups, is a pressing social problem. However, the current approach of outright prohibition of ganja has in no way addressed this problem – in fact, it has made it worse, because many adolescents are attracted to experimenting with things that are regarded as taboo, and this has attracted many of them to ganja use. Whereas public education around unsafe sex and alcohol drinking practices has become quite prevalent, the legal prohibition on ganja has meant that the very real need for public messaging to discourage abusive practices in relation to ganja has been largely ignored.
This needs to change. Therefore, it is intended that a portion of the revenues from the licensing regime that is to be established under the Bill will be used to support a public education campaign to discourage the use of ganja by adolescents, persons with mental disorders, pregnant women and other vulnerable persons, and to mitigate adverse public health consequences associated with the use of ganja. It is also intended that our institutional arrangements for tackling the problems of drug abuse, and in particular our mental health services and the National Council on Drug Abuse, will be strengthened by this source of new revenues. The revenues will also be used to support the regulatory framework being established to govern the medical, scientific and therapeutic ganja industry. The Minister of Finance is given specific authority under the Bill to direct the allocation of these revenues for these important purposes.
I will now describe in general terms the main reform measures that will be introduced by the 2015 Bill.
The Reform Provisions of the Bill
The 2015 Bill:
i. Amends the definition of ganja to exclude hemp;
ii. Makes the possession of two ounces or less of ganja a ticketable infraction that is not subject to powers of arrest or detention, is dealt with outside the court system and does not result in a criminal record;
iii. Removes the existing offence of smoking ganja from the Dangerous Drugs Act, and makes smoking ganja in public places a ticketable infraction that is not subject to powers of arrest or detention, is dealt with outside the court system and does not result in a criminal record;
iv. Permits the cultivation of five or less ganja plants on any premises, which will be regarded as being for medical or therapeutic use of the leaves or for horticultural purposes;
Amendments related to Religious Purpose
v. Permits the possession of ganja for religious purposes as a sacrament, in adherence to the Rastafarian faith;
vi. Empowers the Minister responsible for justice:
• to authorize a person, group of persons or organization adherent to the Rastafarian faith, to cultivate ganja on designated land, to be used for religious purposes; and
• to declare an event an “exempt event” where he is satisfied that it is promoted or sponsored by a person, group of persons or organization adherent to the Rastafarian faith and is primarily for the purpose of the celebration or observance of the Rastafarian faith, so that persons will not be subject to penalty for conveying to, possession or smoking of ganja at the event;
Amendments related to medical and therapeutic purposes
vii. Permits the use of ganja for medical or therapeutic purposes, as prescribed or recommended in writing by a registered medical practitioner, or other health practitioner approved by the Minster of Health;
viii. Permits persons who are suffering from cancer or other serious chronic illness, to import ganja or products comprising ganja, where their use is recommended by a registered medical practitioner, in an amount not exceeding that recommended by the registered medical practitioner (this measure recognizes an immediate need for persons with such illnesses to access cannabis strains and derivative products that have been developed overseas, pending Jamaica developing our own medicinal capacities in this area);
ix. Permits persons visiting Jamaica who provide satisfactory evidence that their use of ganja for medical or therapeutic purposes has been prescribed by a medical practitioner in the jurisdiction where they are ordinarily resident, to purchase permits authorising them to purchase and possess up to two ounces of ganja while in Jamaica, subject to conditions (including the payment of a prescribed fee);
Amendments related to scientific and research purposes
x. Permits the use of ganja for scientific research conducted by an accredited tertiary institution or research institution otherwise approved by the Scientific Research Council;
xi. Empowers the Minister responsible for science and technology, by order, to authorize an institution or body to cultivate and/or import ganja or any part of the plant for scientific research;
Amendments related to the Licensing Regime
xii. Provides for the establishment of a new regulatory body, the Cannabis Licensing Authority, which will be responsible for establishing a lawful, regulated hemp and medicinal ganja industry. The Cannabis Licensing Authority will, with the approval of the Minister responsible for justice, make Regulations treating with (among other things) procedures and criteria for applying for and retention of licenses, permits and other authorizations for cultivation, processing, distribution, sale and other handling of ganja for medical, scientific and therapeutic purposes. The Bill specifically requires that the Regulations must be compliant with Jamaica’s international obligations.
Jamaica recognises that certain monitoring, reporting and other enforcement mechanisms must be implemented to safeguard against the licensed activity being used as a pretext for illicit drug trade or to contribute to financing criminal enterprises. These reforms will be supported by a regulatory framework to be developed and enacted by way of Regulations under the Bill. The new Cannabis Licensing Authority will take the lead in developing the details of the regulatory framework.
It is my intention to table this 2015 Bill in the Senate this week Friday.
The British microprocessor design giant ARM has tweeted 15 predictions for 2015. Some of them are incomprehensible geekspeak: “Benchmark data will shift end-user choice to purpose-optimized servers versus monolithic approaches”. But not this:
Mobile operators will deploy smartphone services as de facto healthcare for rural areas.
How should they know? ARM just makes and licenses processor designs. Licensees incorporate them in complex chips (SOCs); the licensees’ customers incorporate the SOCs in gadgets; the gadgets are sold to final customers. It’s a long chain. But ARM’s business model requires it to keep abreast of these final markets, so it can steer its design programme. That’s why ARM puts a lot of effort into designs for the booming automotive market, and very little into the stagnant one for desktop PCs. The chances are they know what they are talking about.
“Safaricom has employed a wide-network infrastructure across and there is therefore opportunity for us to layer on services that make a difference to the Mwananchi,” Safaricom’s Enterprise Business General Manager, Sylvia Mulinge said in a recent statement. (Mwananchi is the Kiswahili word for “Common man” or “Citizen.”) “We have set up 800 digital villages and target to push the number to 5,000,” she said.
The company has partnered with Cisco to roll out e-health services across Kenya so as to enable patients in rural areas consult with doctors in urban areas. Through its e-health services, small clinics will be stationed in digital villages, where patients can consult doctors via video conferencing facilities.
In case you are worried that this is just feelgood PR, the telcos are into e-health for the money, like Adam Smith’s butchers and bakers. Health ministries even in Africa have budgets, and a major delivery problem; if e-health is value for money, they will pay for it. 800 digital clinics is not greenwashing. 5,000 will be major change.
If this works in Kenya, it will be rapidly replicated. The mobile phone revolution in Africa has wirelessed the continent – with >700m subscriptions, probably 80% of Africans have access to a least a basic mobile phone. Smartphones and 3G networks are following (another ARM prediction is 64-bit smartphones for under $70). Current Internet penetration is 26% for Africa as a whole, with 51m Facebook accounts. The operators are parts of big multinational groups: Safaricom is 40% owned, and operationally controlled, by Vodafone. The company launched the mobile phone payment system M-Pesa in Kenya in 2007, and has now spread it to 10 countries, including India. M-Pesa has rivals, like this one sponsored by India’s Airtel operator.
The mobile operators have found themselves in the unlikely position of being the first universal utility to reach half of the world’s population. They have already become de facto banks. If e-health takes off, they will become healthcare providers too.
Safaricom’s digital clinics don’t quite match ARM’s prediction. The clinics will presumably piggyback on the high-quality microwave links the operators have set up to their cellphone towers, and there’s no mention of smartphones. But mobile telcos are run by IT types, with no preconceptions about the proper way to deliver health care, and a keen understanding of their own technology. Why not set up a Kenyan WebMD, in Swahili, Luo, Masai, and Kikuyu? A smartphone is a very capable multimedia communications device: it has a microphone you can link to a stethoscope; a camera you can link to visual probes; and wifi you can connect to a cheaply pre-equipped blood pressure or blood sugar monitor. That’s a lot of diagnostic kit already.
This sort of health care was pioneered years ago in the days of radio in the sparsely populated Australian Outback, and more recently in the Canadian North. These are tiny niches in terms of the population covered. Telemedecine in the developing world is about to change the lives of billions of Mwananchi.
If you didn’t know anything about Alan Gross other than what you saw on television, you probably thought it was appropriate for him to sit next to First Lady Michelle Obama as a guest of honor at this year’s State of the Union address.
Television news reporting told the story of Gross as a humanitarian unjustly jailed in 2009 by a repressive Communist regime for the crime of bringing intent access to Cuba’s small Jewish community. His release from prison in December was part of President Obama’s plan to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba after half a century of regime-change policy in the United States.
This TV news narrative had bipartisan support. In announcing his administration’s shift in Cuba policy, Obama said Gross “was arrested by Cuban authorities for simply helping ordinary Cubans.” Marco Rubio, the anticommunist Republican senator from Florida, said Gross was innocent of all charges against him and that he’d been “taken hostage” for “helping the Jewish community in Cuba have access to the internet.”
Neither was the case. He wasn’t “simply” helping ordinary Cubans. He wasn’t “taken hostage” and he was not “innocent” of breaking Cuban law. I don’t mean to falsely equate Obama’s and Rubio’s statements. One points to the failed policies of the past while the other points to a more pragmatic, hopeful and unknowable future. But the facts behind Gross’s escapades have been largely known since at least 2012 thanks to the dogged reporting of the Associated Press’s Desmond Butler. At the time of his release, any cub reporter could have searched newspaper archives to learn more about Gross. That his presence at the State of the Union address did not raise an eyebrow in Washington, that he was recognized as a kind of hero in the fight for democracy and justice around the world, speaks volumes to the impotence of our national media and the lengths to which President Obama is willing to go to end the still lingering absurdities of the Cold War.
In 2009, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) paid Alan Gross, through a third party, almost $600,000 to go to the island nation to install military-grade internet equipment in Jewish synagogues that could not be detected by the government in Havana. Gross’s company specialized in installing computer electronics in remote areas and had worked in developing countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
In Cuba, Gross was part of a USAID program that was funded by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which codified the Kennedy-era Cuban Embargo into law and explicitly called for overthrow of the Castro regime. According to the Government Accountability Office, the United States government has spent more than $200 million since 1996 on so-called “pro-democracy programs” meant to destabilize the Cuban government from the inside.
The GAO report noted that Cuban law forbids citizens from working with “U.S. democracy assistance activities.” Therefore, by necessary, any pro-democracy program could not have been conducted openly. But American law forbids the State Department, which oversees USAID, to engage in covert operations. For this reason, USAID always says its Cuba programs are not “covert” but rather “discreet.” Gross was, however, not discreet enough.
According to reporting by Lou Dubose of The Washington Spectator, Cuban intelligence knew about Alan Gross as early as 2004 when he first delivered illegal networking components to a contact in Havana. That contact turned out to be an undercover Cuban agent well known to American diplomatic corps but apparently unknown to USAID, an agency ostensibly dedicated to economic development. On his fifth trip to Cuba, in 2009, Gross was detained and later sentenced to 15 years for “criminal acts against the independence of the Cuban nation.”
Gross wasn’t only paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to subvert the Cuban government; he understood that by installing banned internet networks, he was breaking Cuban law (Havana tightly controls access to the internet). “This is very risky business in no uncertain terms,” Gross wrote in trip reports reviewed the AP’s Desmond Butler. Gross said: “Detection of satellite signals will be catastrophic.” A Cuban Jew made it “abundantly clear” to him “that we are all ‘playing with fire.’”
Development Assistance Inc., the third-party company that subcontracted with Alan Gross, said he remitted regular reports of his activities, and that the entire Cuban escapade was his idea. A spokesman for the Maryland-based company told the AP in a statement that Gross “designed, proposed, and implemented this work” for DAI. Moreover, DAI said that it briefed USAID on everything Gross was doing. It might be noted that the head of USAID, Raj Shah, announced his resignation before news broke of Obama’s shift in Cuba policy.
So the evidence thus far suggests that Gross knew the risks. If so, Gross knew he was endangering American Jews who thought they were helping Cuban Jews when they were in fact unwittingly smuggling, piece by piece, networking components banned by Cuban law. Among these were a “subscriber identity module,” or SIM, card available only to military and intelligence agencies. When asked how Gross came to be in possession of such high-level covert technology, a spokesman for USAID more or less shrugged his shoulders. “We are a development agency,” he told the AP, “not an intelligence agency.”
Gross also endangered the privileges Jews enjoy under Castro, according to the Spectator. Because it is illegal for Cuban citizens to cooperate with “U.S. democracy assistance activities,” Gross identified himself as a humanitarian, not an agent of the American government. An unnamed congressional aide with knowledge of the Gross affair told the Spectator: “Cuban Jews had access to the internet for years before Gross started working with them. He used the Jewish community for cover.”
Yet after being arrested, Gross claimed he had no idea that what he was doing was illegal in Cuba, that he had no intention of undermining the government, that the company that hired him, DAI, failed to properly inform him of the risks. At his trial, he said that he was “deeply sorry for being a trusting fool. I was duped. I was used.”
He was also enriched. While Alan Gross was serving his prison sentence, his wife, Judy Gross, sued DAI for $60 million in federal court. The company settled nearly two years ago for an undisclosed sum. Whatever the amount, it’s in addition to $3.2 million that USAID agreed to pay Gross and DAI in November before he was released.
You might say Gross shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place, because a free people deserve free information. You might say Gross isn’t the only one working to undermine governments the U.S. deems unfriendly.
Those claims are true and entirely beside the point. Gross almost certainly knew his activities were illegal and that they endangered the lives and liberties of Cubans and Americans. Yet he was seen at this year’s State of the Union as a hero of democracy and freedom worldwide.
Such is the Cold War’s still tight grip, and such is the absurdity this new Cuba policy hopefully leaves behind.
If you’re looking for information on the upcoming NFL draft, there are few places better than DraftTek. Currently, they have the Tennessee Titans, who own the second pick in the first round, taking Florida quarterback and former national champion and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Here’s their rationale (emphasis mine):
It’s still early in the off-season process, so it’s tough to see if Tennessee believes Zach Mettenberger is the quarterback of the future, or if the team will look in another direction, especially since they are sitting in the top two picks, guaranteeing either Mariota or Winston. Winston has impressed everyone on the field since he completed his first 11 career passes and tore apart the Pittsburgh defense. He has good pocket presence, a strong arm, and most important, the ability to lead receivers and “throw them open.” The NFL will not give great passing lanes, but Winston has shown he can complete passes in tight spaces. It’s a hard skillset to pass on, and if he can do well in interviews, Winston’s “character concerns” will be an afterthought.
Now, when NFL draft prognosticators talk about “character concerns,” they can mean almost anything. They do not usually mean credible allegations of rape. Maybe the prospect smoked weed. Maybe they were in an altercation in a bar. Maybe they were suspended for a few games for unspecified violations of team rules. Perhaps they assaulted their girlfriend. “Character concerns” run a gamut from the concerning to the alarming to the “no way in hell are we drafting this guy.”
Winston does have some of the more garden-variety types of character concerns. He was once handcuffed and released because he was using a BB gun to shoot squirrels near the Florida State campus. In another incident, the police were called because he was stealing soda at a Burger King. He was arrested for shoplifting crab legs at a grocery store, which earned him a suspension from the baseball team until he completed his community service. And then he was suspended for one football game for standing on a table in the student union and yelling misogynistic vulgarities.
These are the kinds of “character concerns” that frequently cause an athlete to get picked lower in the draft than their talent level would otherwise warrant. But rape is the kind of allegation that can prevent a player from being drafted at all. Or, if they are drafted, this can happen:
It was the second day of the 1996 NFL draft. [Christian] Peter’s phone rang. Bill Parcells, then coach of the New England Patriots, was calling to say the team had picked him in the fifth round and Peter should report to the team’s headquarters in a few days for rookie camp.
“Yes, sir,” Peter said he replied. “I won’t let you down.”
Within 48 hours, Peter got another call from the Patriots, suddenly under fire from women’s groups and others for selecting a player with such a violent history. Peter was being released before he had even suited up.
Almost 20 years later, he calls it the worst day of his life.
Don’t feel badly for Christian Peter. When he was a star football player at the University of Nebraska, “he was arrested eight times, convicted four times and accused of assaulting four women.” And he managed to catch on in the NFL, spending a few seasons (to my chagrin) playing for the New York Giants. In the aftermath of the Ray Rice Incident, the NFL consulted Mr. Peter on how to keep their players from beating the shit out of women.
Kathy Redmond, who accused Peter of raping her twice at Nebraska, was incensed that the NFL looked to Peter for insight. She says the decision “shuns the victims.” Natalie Tysdal, whom Peter was convicted of sexually assaulting while at the school, says she was confused.
It’s true that things are better than they were twenty years ago, and it’s also true that the NFL is trying to make things even better, but there’s a broader cultural problem that’s demonstrated by how the rape allegations against Jameis Winston are just brushed aside by the draft analysts. Here are a couple more examples:
Walter Football has Winston going first overall, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
It’s not a matter of what position Tampa addresses, but rather which quarterback it takes. It’s obviously between Marcus Mariota [of Oregon] and Jameis Winston, and I considered the former the favorite until recently. However, Charlie Campbell reported that the Buccaneers currently prefer Jameis Winston over Marcus Mariota.
I think they’re crazy, but the Buccaneers apparently aren’t worried about Winston going nuts in Ybor or at Mons Venus. The latter would have to rename itself Mons Jameis after Winston puts the owners’ kids through college.
At least he expresses some concern about the wisdom, if not the morality, of picking Winston with the first overall draft pick.
Here’s Bleacher Report, which has Winston going as the 6th overall pick to the New York Jets:
Jameis Winston may not need the big stage of the Big Apple, but the Big Apple needs Jameis Winston. Rather, the Jets need him, as they look to move on from the short-lived Geno Smith era and pump some life into a lifeless offense that certainly has potential.
The Big Apple “needs” this guy? Here the “character concerns” are so submerged that you could be forgiven for thinking Winston doesn’t “need” the big stage of New York City because he’s shy or something.
Here’s what Winston is accused of doing:
[Erica] Kinsman says the man then bought her a shot, and after she took it, she started to become very woozy. She faintly remembers being taken in a cab to an apartment, and the next thing she knew, the man was on top of her, engaging in vaginal intercourse with her. She says she begged and pleaded for him to stop, and then saw the man’s roommate enter the bedroom and tell his friend, “Stop What are you doing?”
Kinsman says that the man ignored the roommate’s pleas, and took her to the bathroom, which could be locked from the inside. There, he pinned her head against the tiled floor with his hand, and continued to rape her. When he finished, the man allegedly said, “You can leave now.”
She later identified him because they were taking the same class together. Eventually, after being ignored for a long time, she succeeded in proving that the semen collected on the night of the rape belonged to Winston. Still, he wasn’t prosecuted.
Kinsman’s case finally gained some traction in November 2013, when it was reported that DNA provided by Winston matched a DNA sample taken from her underwear on the night of the alleged assault. The odds of the DNA belonging to someone other than Winston were 1 in 2.2 trillion. She couldn’t fathom why it took 11 months for the case to make its way to local prosecutors.
But on December 5, 2013, State Attorney Willie Meggs announced that the case was over, and no charged would be filed against Winston.
They would have had a stronger case to take to court if the crime had been rigorously investigated when it was reported, but this piece isn’t about the investigation or Winston’s ultimate “legal” guilt or innocence.
This guy is going to be the face of some NFL franchise in a few months. He may even be the first player drafted, making him the face of the entire league for a few days. And the fact that there is a very credible allegation that he drugged a woman in a bar and then raped her in his dorm room is basically something that NFL analysts are too polite to mention.
It’s not all on the league officials to protect the integrity of the game. How about the rest of us call things what they are? What this guy seems to have done is a lot worse than what Ray Rice did. Ray Rice knocked his girlfriend unconscious in a casino elevator. Can we talk in the same plain language about what Jameis Winston did?
Last week I recommended Pygmalion. This week I will stick with the films of Leslie Howard, a multi-talented actor/director/producer as well as a true patriot who was taken from us too soon in 1943 when he was murdered along with 16 other defenseless people by the German Luftwaffe. Can a film star be so appealing that the audience will root for a die-hard one-percenter who is battling the cruelty of ignorant poor people in an adaptation of book by a Pro-Imperialist, Pro-Aristocrat author? Well, sink me if Leslie Howard can’t, as you will see in this week’s film recommendation: The 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
The film is set during The Reign of Terror, during which déclassé French mobs cheer as the guillotine ceaselessly beheads tumbril-full after tumbril-full of upper class men, women and children. Enter our brave and dashing British hero, The Scarlet Pimpernel (Leslie Howard), to rescue his fellow nibs and show the Froggies a thing or two along the way, hey wot? In private life this crusader hides behind a foppish, effete image as Sir Percy Blakeney, leading his wife (Merle Oberon) to worry that her husband is incapable of manly action. Meanwhile, a tough, clever French agent named Chauvelin (Raymond Massey) blackmails Lady Blakeney over a past transgression in the hopes that she will ferret out the true identity of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Although the movie contains some exciting action scenes in the early going, it’s really more of a three-handed melodrama (Indeed, the film would have benefited from just a bit more swash in its buckle). Percy doubts his wife’s political loyalty, she despairs of his evident lack of virility and seriousness, and Chauvelin tries to exploit the situation to bring about the death of his hated enemy. What might otherwise have been an overly serious or plodding story is enlivened throughout by Howard’s nearly over-the-top performance as Sir Percy, which he wisely plays for every possible laugh. Sink me, he’s a delight, as is Nigel Bruce in a supporting role as a buffoonish Prince of Wales (Later he would play a similarly comic Dr. Watson in another of my film recommendations).
Raymond Massey, with his dark looks and intense acting, makes a memorable villain as Chauvelin. And 1930s movie icon Merle Oberon is at the peak of her allure. Shortly after this film was made the Hays Code came in to cover up her décolletage with burlap, thereby saving America’s wayward youth from unclean thoughts and perilous temptation. Sadly, Oberon was then in a serious car accident that permanently scarred her lovely face. She did though go on in 1939 to anchor an all-time classic, Wuthering Heights (She also, funnily enough, married The Scarlet Pimpernel’s producer, Alexander Korda, that same year). As a sign of the times and the business in which she worked, this mixed-race actress spent her entire life trying to deny her Indian heritage by invoking the risible claim that she was Tasmanian!
As for the politics of this film, well, only once does an aristocrat (Count de Tornay) in the movie acknowledge that The Terror never would have happened if the rich hadn’t been so out of touch. The author of the novel (a curio to be sure), Baroness Orczy, criticized French aristos for forgetting the code of noblesse oblige and abusing the poor. But neither she nor this film objects to aristocracy in principle, only aristocracy done badly. Should this bother you? Not unless you take this movie way too seriously. This is a Saturday afternoon matinee, not a political science lecture, and it succeeds on those light-hearted terms, particularly because of the standout work of the wonderful Leslie Howard. Best of all, it’s in the public domain (take that, you indolent landed gentry!) so even if you haven’t two farthings to rub together you can see this film for free right here.
Mass demonstrations of solidarity in favor of free speech and against the Charlie Hebdo killings are understandable, but they could inadvertently give cover to actions that subvert the very liberties the protesters cherish. Legitimate public outrage should not be channeled into declaring or escalating wars on Islamic (or any other kind of) terror. Democracies should coolly rely on existing tools and procedures against criminal conspiracies.
The Paris killings certainly have special features. They weren’t an episodic rampage like the 2002 Beltway shootings by two snipers. The murderers, like the antiabortionist killers of doctors egged on by a Catholic priest David Trosch, were religious fanatics. But unlike doctor killers - or the cultists who spewed Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway - this kind of carnage isn’t local. Islamic fanaticism, like the barbarity of many Christian conquistadors in centuries past, traverses continents. And the targets aren’t just infidels: like the pro-slavery mob that killed the abolitionist editor of the Alton Observer in 1837, or the union organizers who dynamited the LA Times building in 1910, the Parisian killers had free speech and a free press in their gun sights.
The killings also evoke a stronger visceral reaction than, say, Boko Haram’s massacres in Nigeria. People naturally care more about their own. Westerners were more moved by the 2004 Tsunami that claimed about 200,000 lives, because the toll included about 9000 Western tourists, than by the 1976 earthquake in China, which claimed tens of thousands more. The killings of eleven Charlie Hebdo employees has similarly agitated journalists more than did the tenfold larger number of government workers blown up by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Yet, even if the killings weren’t run-of-the-mill crimes, what advances could protests propel? Homicidal zealots are likely to be elated, not dismayed, by the condemnation of non-believers. Moderate Muslim leaders or preachers might be shamed into stronger denunciations of Islamic terrorists but such denunciations are also unlikely to have much effect. Even harsh reprisals inflicted on neighbors and relatives have not ended suicide attacks by Palestinians on Israelis. Moreover such collective punishment would now be unthinkable in the US and in West European democracies - mass internments of blameless Japanese-Americans ended with the Second World War.
As France begins to craft their response to the attacks, Western governments could turn to a form of profiling that Edmund Phelps called “statistical discrimination.” This wouldn’t have to be done as crudely as the police “profiling” of African-Americans: only Muslims with statistically high risk factors could be singled out. Some of this is already done: it is no doubt harder for a Yemeni Muslim to get a visa to the US than say a British Muslim (Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, apart). Likewise, US citizens who visit Mosul in ISIS-controlled Iraq presumably attract more attention than if they visit Petra in Jordan. Moreover, statistical discrimination has become routine in the financial sector. Many lenders rely exclusively on statistical models and credit scores to make car and student loans, and the government virtually mandates models for mortgages. Why not do this more broadly and systematically to catch terrorists?
Alas, statistical discrimination often does not work as advertised. False positives and negatives of model-based lending have become a menace as I have previously argued. Blind reliance on credit scores impels lenders to extend $100,000 loans to eighteen year-olds (who happen to have perfect credit scores because they have made timely payments on debt they have carried for a very short time).
The practical problems of ramping up statistical discrimination to detect would be Islamic terrorists are even more daunting. Terrorism is hard to model; there are few terrorist acts and each act has its own idiosyncrasies. Critical variables cannot be observed. Islamic terrorists are by definition Muslim but in civilized societies we don’t tag people by their religions and inferences drawn from names and looks can be misleading. I’ve been mistaken for an Arab when I’m a (Hindu) native of India. And changing the profile of recruits can undermine models. Fanatics can be enlisted from anywhere. If Saudis or Yemenis are flagged for attention, terror networks can turn to Indonesians or native-born recruits.
Instead of relying on statistical predictions governments could (as France appears inclined to do) implement an across the board increase in surveillance. But it is difficult to see how much more could be done on this front when we are likely well past the point of diminishing returns. The US and other governments have given security agencies vast resources and powers to combat terrorism, especially after 9/11. This is on top of a large expansion of prosecutions that have nothing to do with terrorism that has left nearly a third of all adult Americans with an arrest or conviction record. And efficiency suffers when government or private monopolies are given more power, resources, and responsibilities. The problem of achieving less with more tends to be especially acute when independent oversight is weak. And, of all government agencies, security agencies are the most free of oversight and accountability and able to commandeer money and powers with the fewest questions.
Worst of all, increases in targeted or mass surveillance undermine basic principles of a free society. While Muslims are most exposed, the rights and freedoms of all citizens are in jeopardy, including the right to be treated equally under the law, the presumption of innocence, the right to be tried by a jury of peers rather than by statistical models, and the freedom from unreasonable and warrantless searches. Ironically, even the freedom of the press to investigate and report on infringements of these rights becomes a collateral casualty.
Like it or not, following the rules to steadfastly and dispassionately fight crime offers the best protection of our liberties. If harsh repression and unchecked police powers worked, Russia would have long ago ended Chechen terrorism and China would be free of attacks by Uighurs. A government that polices with restraint polices best.
Yet, the response of governments when fanatics succeed in perpetrating high-profile crimes is almost always to do more. The Norwegian reaction to mass killings by Anders Breivik was commendably restrained. But the government did institute sweeping rules against the planning of terrorist acts which according to Olso civil liberties lawyer Jon Wessel-Aas, “allow police to initiate secret surveillance of individuals who have not yet even developed the intent of planning a future terror action.” Governments are influenced by an unfortunate asymmetry. Millions march and world leaders congregate in Paris to denounce the Charlie Hebdo killings. Who rallies against NSA spying?
I just finished reading William Gibson’s The Peripheral (Powells, Amazon) yesterday. It’s his best for some time; maybe, depending on your druthers, the best novel that he’s ever written. It doesn’t have the shock value of Neuromancer (which blew my mind when I read it at the age of fifteen, in a small provincial town in Ireland). However, it’s a much better novel. The Sprawl books are all opaque and dazzling mirrorshades – the surfaces of high-gloss people reflecting the surfaces of high-gloss objects that reflect the surfaces of high-gloss people. The not-quite-science-fiction novels he was writing for a while take the givens of the Sprawl books as a problem, engaging in a kind of archeology of objects and brand names, and how they reflect both the vast systems around us and our individual desires. I like them (they combine the intelligence of Don DeLillo with much of the warmth of Philip K. Dick), but I like his short book of essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor even better (it’s a book full of insights, which, like Borges’ version of Kafka, generates its own predecessors). The Peripheral returns to science fiction – but a science fiction that very clearly reflects present day concerns.
Gibson presents two timelines – one sort-of-nearish future, one several decades out again. They’re connected in some science fictional way that is never explained. The people in the further future are somehow able to access the past timeline (maybe the past timeline is a simulation so good that it’s effectively real; maybe it’s a parallel universe; nobody knows or seems to care, particularly).1 Physical contact between the two universes is impossible, but quite sophisticated forms of information can go back and forth, allowing people from the further future timeline to intervene in what used to be their past (as soon as they start intervening, the past starts to develop along a different path than the one that they know, becoming partly unpredictable).
What’s interesting is not the technology (which isn’t even a macguffin), but the uses that it’s put to. Gibson acknowledges the influence of Bruce Sterling’s short story, “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” which depicts a future that colonizes past timelines as a resource. I would guess that Paul McAuley’s criminally under-appreciated Cowboy Angels (in which an America on one timeline effectively colonizes and exploits other versions of itself in other timelines; our timeline is called the “Nixon sheaf”) is another significant influence (McAuley is thanked as an advance reader in Gibson’s acknowledgments). But Gibson doesn’t want to pursue the general questions of cultural appropriation that Sterling’s story talks about, or the Cold War politics of McAuley’s book. He wants, I think, to talk about the relationship between the 99% and the 1%, using science fiction to turn the social relationships that Piketty and Saez talk about into a kind of ontology.
The farther future is one in which the 1% has won and become a global ruling class. A set of events called the “Jackpot” (a combination of environmental, technological and social failures) has led to most of humanity dying off. The results of the jackpot were rigged by the usual structural inequalities; those who were already rich and well connected were likely to survive; while those who weren’t so privileged mostly disappeared. This future is dominated by “klepts” (kleptocratic clans), the guilds of the City of London and the like, with the remnants of the state serving not as a restraint on the powerful but as an artifice for balancing between them (the politics is out of Engels via Poulantzas, with perhaps a touch of Wallerstein embedded in the pun in the book’s title). There may be ordinary people in this future, but we don’t see much of them; all that we do see are the powerful and their higher servants (who have privileges, but only on the sufferance of those greater than they).
The nearer future timeline is set in a rural America where the real economy has collapsed, leaving illicit drugs and dead end jobs working for the homeland security (America’s comparative advantage turns out to be in meth, not music, coding and pizza-delivery). In this timeline, we don’t see the 1%, although they’re there in the background. Instead we see the kind of people who are about to be left behind and perish in the Jackpot.
Hence, the science fictional trick of The Peripheral, which is to turn the separation between the 1% and the 99% into a metaphor of physics (or, perhaps, information). The two literally live in different universes. They can perceive each other; they can act on each other to some degree (through proxies enabled by the exchange of information); they cannot physically touch each other. The rural America timeline is a curiosity owned by a minor member of a kleptocratic clan. A few people in it become important by accident – one of them is operating a remote security drone in the further future timeline, and witnesses an important murder. A group of people who were peripheral, who were, indeed, toys, become important for a short period of time.
The result is a dark comedy, played with a very straight face. Two different factions start manipulating the entire world economy of the past timeline in order either to kill or to protect a tiny group of people in a small and depressed corner of rural America. One of these factions certainly seems nicer than the other (although that’s in doubt at some points in the narrative), but it’s not at all clear that its interventions will work out well in the longer run. At best, it’s acting like a Western aid organization in Somalia, trying to do improve things a little, profoundly disrupting local economic and power relations simply by virtue of being there, and hoping that the goodies it brings will be used for socially beneficial purposes and not to enable ‘technicals’.
The novel finishes with something that plausibly resembles a happy ending for the individuals involved – complete disaster is averted, friendships are maintained across the barriers between the twin universes, and a few sympathetic poor people become rich and powerful. There are relationships, and one pregnancy. But the bigger story is one in which nothing really changes. Perhaps the Jackpot (which is a lovely metaphor for the arbitrary-but-not-random rigged game through which people become or don’t become members of the elite) won’t be quite as painful, thanks to the intervention of benign overlords from the future. Even so, the one universe is still a toy of someone in the other. With less benign owners, things would be very different. The world depicted in The Peripheral is one where the best we can hope for is that our masters will be motivated by paternalism or benign neglect. That’s not an especially hopeful vision.
This is just a quick reaction to the commentary on last night’s State of the Union. When watching last night, I was struck by the commentators going on and on about the poor personal relations between the Obama administration and Congress. The explicit or implicit claim in this commentary seems to be the the Obama administration has fewer interactions with Congress than past administrations. The president and his staff are too disengaged, cool, etc, while in the good old days the president and his aids schmoozed members of Congress, helping reduce polarization, get things done, etc.
I’ve heard this theme discussed by DC pundits over and over. It seems especially likely to come up in State of the Union commentary, when there is a lot of discussion time to fill and inter-branch relations are salient because the president is on screen interacting with members of Congress. Last night I watched MSNBC, but I usually watch CNN for The SOTU, and I recall similar commentary there in past years. At one point last night, Chris Matthews specifically lamented that poor personal relations with Congress of the last two administrations (though Matthews was by far not the only pundit to pursue this theme). Obviously the Obama administration and Congress have big ideological disagreements. But are personal tensions or infrequent interactions between the White House and Congress really unusual?
I’m not an expert on presidential-congressional relations, but this must be a myth, right? Chris Matthews’ claim that the golden age of presidential-congressional interactions ended when Clinton left office seems wrong. The Republican Congress of Clinton’s last 6 years, shut down the government, impeached him and hounded him with continuous investigations. A portion of Republicans actually boycotted Clinton’s 1998 inaugural during the first month of the Lewinsky scandal. Even during Clinton’s first two years, when he faced a Democratic Congress, I recall Capitol Hill sources repeatedly complaining to the press that Clinton and his staff were ignoring their needs and concerns. Clinton famously failed to get the 1994 Democratic Congress to even pass a health care reform bill out of committee. In the George H.W. Bush administration, they did pass a 1990 compromise budget, but most Democrats voted against the first Gulf War and Congress forced Bush to veto a series of bills in 1992 (like the Family and Medical Leave Act) to embarrass Bush and help candidate Clinton. What about the Reagan administration, when Congress cut off aid to the Contras and then pursued hearings on the Iran-Contra scandal? Despite Chris Matthew’s recollections, House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s relationship with the Reagan administration in Showdown at Gucci Gulch is depicted as distant and cautious. Reagan’s 1981 budget passed by rolling the majority Democratic caucus in the House. But I suspect that the main difference with the current era is that O’Neill could give in to pressure from Democratic moderates to bring the bill to the floor without worrying that the more liberal members constituting the majority of his caucus would vote him out as revenge. The Carter administration had famously poor relations with the Democratic Congress. During the Ford administration, the executive branch suffered such indignities as the Church hearings. Staff members from the Ford administration, like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Antonin Scalia carried bitterness against Congress and its dominance of the Ford administration through the rest of their carriers. Obviously the Nixon administration didn’t have warm relations with Congress either.
Do we have to go all the way back to the Johnson administration to find a case where the president and his staff were cozy with Capitol Hill? Perhaps it is time to stop blaming recent administrations for this. I haven’t had time to look into whether there is good research on this topic. So if you know of some, please tell me in comments here or on our Facebook page. But it strikes me as a classic case of nostalgia for golden age that (at best) has been gone for a very long time. Call me crazy, but perhaps Congress and the presidency are simply set up for conflict by the American constitutional system?