Monday’s Mtg: Will the U.S. Government Ever Torture Again?

On his first day in office, President Obama banned torture via an executive order. This past summer the Senate voted to outlaw torture for good a part of a routine Defense Department funding bill. It’s not law yet since the House is hostage-taking per usual. But, it will become law.

So, a mere 15 years after the Bush White House ordered torture on a large scale in Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, and around the world. (If you doubt it read the links below.), is that it?  Was our one-presidential administration experiment with torture as a deliberate national policy just a one-off affair and a fading memory? Or, could it happen all over again?  After all:

  • Torture was illegal in 2001, too, and that didn’t stop them;
  • No senior U.S. government officials were ever prosecuted for ordering torture and only a few low-level people were convicted of performing it;
  • The public approved of using torture or, at best, was easily persuaded either it wasn’t really torture or torture was necessary to protect the country;
  • The torture regime’s main architects are openly boastful of how limited and necessary it was; and
  • Republican politicians – including some presidential candidates – say openly they would torture again if “necessary.”

On the other hand, reviving a torture regime might be hard to do in the future, no matter who wins which elections. A lot of thoughtful people in our political system understand what a mess the Bush torture regime was and that our country paid a high price for fairy limited (but NOT zero) benefits. All of those investigations of torture – by the Senate Intelligence committee, Amnesty international and other outside organizations, and the news media – have been pretty damning. It’s not at all clear to me that we would adjure torture if the circumstances were favorable to it (climate of fear, despised enemies, panicked leaders, etc.).  I predict a good discussion..

I’m also hoping that we will focus more on the future conditions that might lead to a repeat of torture, rather than on stale debates over its efficacy  Of course, focusing on the future requires understanding why we tortured in the first place, So, I will open the meeting with a brief retrospective on what the torture regime consisted of and why it was done.

A new topic list will be available, too.

Discussion Questions –

  1. WHY: What led the USG to adopt torture on a large scale after 9/11? Which individuals and institutions failed?
  2. WHAT: How widespread was the torture and was it really administered in a careful and controlled manner, as torture’s advocates insist?
  3. WORKED? Why do some say torture “worked?” How has this argument been refuted?
  4. FUTURE: Under what conditions would pressure build to do it all over again? Which individuals and institutions would have to fail again?
  5. YOU & ME: What role will public opinion play if we face this choice again? Will memories of the post-9/11 torture help or hurt?

Suggested Background Readings –

Next Week: Democratic Presidential Debate Wrap-Up (New Schedule Begins)

Monday’s Mtg: Climate Change – Are Nations Starting to Cooperate?

This year may end up being a very important year for global action to combat climate change. To quote the first article linked to, below, 2015 may turn out to be the year of “…not just good news, but transformational good news, developments that have the potential to mitigate the worst effects of climate change to a degree many had feared impossible.” Some of the optimism is based on unexpectedly-rapid advances in clean energy technologies. But, international political cooperation is starting to look very, very real. The United States, China, the European Union, and about 140 other countries already have pledged to reduce their future greenhouse gas pollution. Starting on November 30, a major, month long negotiation begins under UN auspices in Paris. Almost every nation on earth will attend.

Yet, these negotiations, like all climate wrangling, will be tricky. Major obstacles remain to getting a tough agreement, much less seeing one actually faithfully implemented over the next few decades. In my opening remarks on Monday night, I will summarize the large-scale (but maybe iffy) commitments that major countries have made recently, focusing on the United States, China, India, and the European Union. Then, I’ll discuss the Paris negotiation, trying to identify the biggest obstacles to an agreement and to smooth implementation. It’s not my field, but I think with the help of the articles below and some other materials, I can do that much.

In discussion, we can expand on these points or get into other areas. One of these should be, IMO, how we can make binding commitments in the face of so many uncertainties – and how we can afford not to.  Another, I’m afraid, will have to be whether the Republican Party – the only major political party in the western world that advocates doing nothing about this problem – can successfully sabotage these negotiations. As two articles below make clear, they are trying to do exactly this.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What climate commitments have nations already made? The U.S.? China? The EU? India and other big developing nations?
  2. How bold are these commitments and how firm and how truly binding are they?
  3. What negotiations are ongoing? What can we expect from the UN confab in Paris in December? What are the biggest obstacles to reaching agreement?
  4. Will these commitments be enough to head off the worst climate consequences even if they are met?
  5. How can we make firm commitments in the face of so many uncertainties; e.g., about the amount of GHG that is too much, the nature of future technologies, other countries’ ability to keep their commitments, the GOP’s ability to renege on our promises, etc.?
  6. Will this be an election issue in 2016? Would a GOP unified govt really end all climate negotiations and renege on all of our commitments?


Next Week:  Torture – Will we ever do it again?

Monday’s Mtg: How Big a Problem is Public Ignorance Of Politics and Public Affairs?

Gee, the problem of easily-exploitable voter ignorance springs to mind a lot these days, doesn’t it? No matter when or how (or if?!) Donald Trump’s presidential campaign collapses, many of us have learned a hard lesson about the political illiteracy and gullibility of a significant chunk of the American electorate.

Not this guy. Sure, the American public’s ignorance of public affairs and political issues is as old as the republic. Call it “civic ignorance,” the vast extent of which is a kind of dirty little secret in politics and political science. Surveys going back many decades reveal that few American adults have ever had even a cursory understanding of basic civics and political developments. They don’t know what’s in the Constitution, how govt is structured and functions, how political decisions get made or even who makes them, or what their tax dollars get spent on and why. As our guest this week, Pope Francis, might say, “the poor (-ly informed) will be with you always.”  Har.

(Oh, ad I’d like us to discuss Trumpism as a movement next schedule. I think the outright bigotry and intolerance of some voters explains his popularity more than his ability to exploit their naiveté about public affairs.  But, YMMV.)

Yet, something sure seems different, doesn’t it? I think a number of factors have converged in recent years to make civic ignorance easier to exploit and even more damaging to the country than it has been in a while. Polarized voters that ache to have their beliefs reinforced. Polarized elites that are happy to do so using new media and technology. Hucksters and grifters posing as political commentators. An angry, slowly declining middle class that’s unsure who to be angry at.  And so forth.

Maybe I’m wrong. I think our first order of business in discussion should be to define what civic ignorance means so we can distinguish it from other motivators of political opinions/actions that we might find bafflingly wrong. Political differences, as we’ve discussed many times, often stem from different political values or worldviews, alternate priorities for what govt should be doing, or different rationally-considered interests. Ideology is not ignorance, frequent appearances to the contrary.


  1. What: How would you define a problematic level of “civic ignorance?” What do peole not know that they should know? How much knowledge is it reasonable to expect regular people to have about this stuff?
  2. Who: How widely does this ignorance vary among Americans; e.g., by education, age, party ID, ideology, etc.? Do people that know more about politics really make better decisions about it (see link)?
  3. When-where-compare: Has civic ignorance gotten worse or better in recent decades? Is the need to be knowledgeable really greater nowadays?
  4. Why: Do people have good reasons for ignorance; e.g., distrust of govt, believing your vote doesn’t matter, lazy/biased news media? à How often do we see ignorance when it’s really something else, like different moral values, priorities, or objective interests?
  5. Harm: What damage all this civic ignorance cause? To your preferred (progressive or conservative) outcomes? To trust in govt? To polarization? To democracy’s health?
  6. Harmers: Who exploits civic ignorance? Which side does it most? Worse than it used to be?
  7. No harm no foul? Some people think public ignorance is NOT really a big source of our problems. What do they argue? Persuasive?


Next Week: Are nations finally starting to cooperate on climate change?

Topics needed for 2015/Q3

Dean and Carl will help me pick topics soon.  Please add ideas of yours in comments or email them to me by the end of this week.

The new schedule will probably extend into next January, covering the period right before the first presidential primary.


Monday’s Mtg: What Are Natural Rights and Why Does It Matter?

Yesterday (9/17/15) was national Constitution Day, so I thought Monday might be a good date to discuss this idea of Bruce’s. Natural rights may seem like an arcane philosophical matter. But, they are a huge deal to many conservatives. The existence and implications of natural rights is one of the main (although not the only) intellectual justifications for political conservativism. And, a moral foundation.  And a secret ingredient for constitutional interpretation, one that renders much of the 20th century’s activist government literally illegal.

In a nutshell, natural rights are a priori human rights, the basic freedoms that God or nature allegedly endows us with prior to any political arrangements we create. These rights are indefeasible: A political system based on natural law principles may not legitimately take them away from us except in narrow, exceptional circumstances. Conservatives that anchor themselves in natural law/natural rights, I’ve observed, tend towards libertarianism, believing that the natural right of life, liberty, and property are pretty much the only freedoms that the federal government must protect.  Congress can make “positive law” that advances other goals, but only in very limited circumstances.  The pursuit of happiness? To most conservatives I read and know, it’s something we’re entitled to chase after, but only with the protections of the Bill of Rights’ negative liberties to support us.

A natural rights-based philosophy, IMO, serves two other purposes, politically. First, arguments based on natural rights seem to be, well, natural and common sense, and who could be against nature?  Second, natural rights can be conceived of as either God-given or derived from nature or reason.  This helps to marry together religious conservatives and more secular-minded libertarian ones.  See, since natural rights are directly referenced in the Declaration of Independence (“inalienable rights”) and the Declaration also mentions God, then, if you’re a Declarationist, you can say that the Constitution has a fundamentally religious purpose even though God is absent from the Constitution’s text..

As for me, I’ve never quite figured out several things about natural rights. Such as how we’re supposed to be dead certain what they are and where they stop. Also, it’s unclear to me why any set of natural rights has to be eternally unchanging.  Can’t our conception of fundamental human rights that need protecting evolve as our societies evolve?. But, YMMV.

Below are some readings on natural rights and their political ramifications. Most are by conservative writers that put these rights at the center of our political system, plus a few progressive rebuttals. I also separated out some more complex articles on constitutional doctrine and legal history for the true masochists among us (you know who you are.).

I’ll open Monday’s meeting with a short summary of the issue of natural rights and then give Bruce a chance to do his thing.


Next Week:  Public Ignorance as a political problem.  Donald, here we come!

Monday’s Mtg: Which Natural or Human-Made Catastrophes Should Most Worry Us?

This one is a fun albeit a bit dark topic idea from Bruce. Our meeting Monday is three days after 9/11, and a mass casualty terrorist attack is a real possibility. (ISIS is using chemical weapons as we speak.). Preventing another 9/11 or worse has been a necessary obsession of the national establishment every hour of every day for many years now.

But, what about other natural or human-caused catastrophes, Bruce asks? Which one(s) of them should also concern us a lot and which ones really just belong on overwrought History Network episodes or in Zombie Apocalypse movies? Obviously, climate change should be high up on the list. Many people think it IS the list. Others are long-standing fears, like nuclear war, pandemics, and mega-earthquakes. Still others are more cutting edge and speculative, like a disaster stemming from nanotechnology or out-of-control artificial intelligence.  We could all end up being Sarah Connor.

For Monday, I would like us to do better than a History channel episode by focusing on something more tangible than scary speculation: Disaster risk assessment and planning. Disaster preparation is a vast field, and was high priority long before 9/11. (Visit FEMA’s website to get a hint of the scale and scope of it.)  The first article I link to below summarizes a study that, I think, analyzes the risks of different big cats in a systematic way. I will read it and other basic stuff on disaster planning and try to open our meeting with some information on how the pros worry about these things.

We are discussing climate change on October 5, but the focus will be on ongoing international negotiations, not projected impacts. So, the links on climate this week are brief and concern the risks of not acting (which are often ignored, BTW).

Discussion Questions –

  1. Which ones: What are the worst natural or human-made catastrophes that experts fear could occur? What is the conventional wisdom on their probability and impacts?
  2. Assessing Risk: Whose job (in govt and the private and non-profit sectors) is it to assess these risks? How do they do it?
  3. Prevention I: Who is doing what? How do we know it’s enough?
  4. Prevention II: How willing are Americans to pay for disaster prevention and have their lives inconvenienced to prepare for them?
  5. Responses: How do you think Americans would react if a big catastrophe struck us? How would it change our politics?


Next Week: Natural rights’ existence and implications.

Monday’s Mtg: Does California’s Ballot Initiative Process Need Fixing?

Did you know some changes have been made recently to our state’s ballot initiative process? Neither did I, so it’s a good thing Filip suggested we discuss our legendarily-disastrous initiative process on Monday.

How legendarily-bad? In the words of one journalist (link) “:

…past ballots have been riddled with arcane, single-interest skirmishes supported by expensive professional signature-gathering efforts and misleading advertising campaigns and mailers. Measures have been specifically designed to contradict competing initiatives – or to mask the purposes and consequences to confuse and mislead voters. Even well-intentioned efforts have been marred by drafting errors, poor legal reasoning and unintended policy outcomes from proposals not vetted or analyzed by experts.

I would add an even worse problem: The legislature is forbidden to modify the wording of a proposition before it is placed on the ballot or after it’s passed if it amended the state constitution. So, we end up with law that Fil hates, like Proposition 65, that requires those annoying signs in restaurants that warn people they are about to be served carcinogens; and ones I hate, like Prop. 98, that forces 40% of the state budget to be spent on K-12 education, no matter other needs.

The modest changes to the process made recently probably will not eliminate these gigantic problems or make the public better at self-legislating. But, as I’ll explain, they might help a little. Moreover, together with other government reforms passed recently (like having an independent citizens’ commission draw legislative districts and a “top two” primary system) they might just change California’s dysfunctional political system into something better. Maybe into something less unwieldy and better able to solve problems.

I’ll open our Labor Day meeting with a brief review of the ABCs of California’s direct democracy processes (initiative, referendum, and recall election), highlighting recent changes to the processes. Then, I will ask Fil for his thoughts and we can discuss the issues generally.


Next Week: Which Natural or Human-Made Catastrophes Should Most Worry Us?

Monday’s Mtg: Is Big Finance Finally Tamed?

After seven long years, the most destructive financial crisis since the Great Depression is beginning to fade into memory – and myth. We haven’t talked about it in a while (2010 bailouts, 2012 EU crisis). Most discussions these days still are focused on assigning blame. This is understandable as well as necessary for accountability and for moral and ethical reasons. But, it shortchanges, IMO, another more timely aspect of the financial crisis that gets way too little public attention: Are our governments doing enough to prevent or a least, better contain the next one? Is our fragile financial sector finally tamed and at an acceptable cost?

We have to know the answer because there’s always another crisis. Since 1980, the world has seen 6 major global financial crises; a dozen or so smaller, regional ones; and, by one count, close to 150 single-country banking crises. Crises are frequent, getting bigger, and are easily transmitted around the globe. Our global financial system has yielded many benefits, but it is bubble-prone, panic-prone, and seemingly inherently unstable.

Since 2008, governments put in place a smorgasbord of new regulations to try to better monitor global finance, fix the system’s worst vulnerabilities, and prevent or better respond to the next crisis. What’s been done is very complicated (maybe too complicated, as we’ll discuss). I read a lot on this subject, but I don’t know the whole lay of the new regulatory and macroeconomic land very well, especially some of the more arcane efforts.

So, I thought Monday we would focus our discussion on the most important actions taken in the United States to prevent future financial catastrophes. Most of them stem from the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law, so I will open us up by describing the basics of what that law tried to do and the major regulations that have come out of it. I may also briefly outline some other governmental actions in this area that have gotten even less media coverage but will affect us all.

Of course, we cannot spend an entire evening discussing banking regulations. (Who would want to?) So, in discussion maybe we can focus on a few big macro-level issues, like the “too big to fail” problem, the benefits versus the costs of new regulations, and the obstacle of Wall Street’s vast political power.

Discussion Questions –

  1. Causes – Big Finance: How much blame do private financial actors deserve for causing the crisis? How big a factor was financial fraud and lawbreaking? Were the banksters “out of control?”
  2. Causes – Who else: Were deeper, structural causes the real problem? What did governments do wrong and why?
  3. Choices: After the crisis hit, what options did governments have to stem the crisis and reform the system? Why did they choose some (bailouts) and not others (nationalizing big banks, aid to homeowners)?
  4. Fixes: What was done in the end? What is in the Dodd-Frank law?  What else?
  5. Results: How can we know if these policies are either (1) working, or (2) working too well by burdening the financial sector/real economy?
  6. What do you think will happen in the next crisis? Same old same old, or something more radical?


Next Week: Is it time to change California’s ballot initiative process?

Monday’s Mtg (8/24/15): How Common Are Wrongful Criminal Convictions?

This week we have an interesting topic from Linda, our defense attorney. I  know little about the issue of wrongful criminal convictions. Like everybody else, I read about them on occasion. But, only the really egregious ones make the national news, like the recent case of a man freed after serving 34 years for a rape/murder he did not commit.

Fortunately for us (and for at least a few of the falsely imprisoned), a number of organizations are dedicated to exonerating such people, notably The Innocence Project and Their heartbreaking cases, or even a quick Googling of the topic, suggests the scale of this problem could be larger than most people imagine. It’s not just murders and rapes and pre-DNA convictions. Wrongful convictions may be fairly common for lesser crimes, like assaults or burglaries. These miscarriages of justice have many causes, including:

  • Bad evidence: Shaky eyewitnesses, false confessions, and bad forensic science;
  • Police and prosecutorial misconduct: Some accidental, good-faith mistakes; some deliberate and malicious;
  • Incompetent defenses: Bad defense attorneys and underfunded and overworked public defender systems.

And those are just before the wrongful convictions. After a person goes down for a crime, the obstacles to getting his/her case reexamined are enormous. The burden of proof essentially transfers onto the convicted and it’s a large burden (I think). As I’ll discuss in my brief opening, one reason it’s so hard is that being innocent is no excuse. I’m serious. Generally under the law, a convicted criminal cannot be exonerated unless he/she can demonstrate (from prison, often!) that the process under which they were condemned violated their due process rights. If they got a “fair” trial but a wrong outcome, too bad. Plus, 95% of criminals plead guilty in a plea bargain. So, there is no trial at all to question, just the actions of the police and prosecutors, who, as we’ve all seen with recent killings of unarmed citizens, almost always get the benefit of any doubt..

Only a few links this week – Some broad overviews of the problem, plus a little bit on causes and ways to improve the system. My big question on this topic is the last one, below: What does this problem say about our legal system as a whole? Are wrongful convictions just the tragic but infrequent and inevitable “false positives” generated by a gigantic criminal justice system in a very high-crime country? Or, are they yet another manifestation of a rotten criminal justice system, intrinsically connected to mass incarceration, police abuse, etc.?

Hey, not every problem has to be connected to much bigger and long-festering systemic problems. But, where there is the former, there is usually the latter.

Discussion Questions –

  1. Frequency. What do we know about the problem of wrongful criminal conviction? How many are we sure have happened versus estimate? Is the problem a large or small part of American justice?
  2. Who/When: Who gets wrongfully convicted – Which types of crimes and/or defendants and/or victims and/or locales?
  3. Causes. Why does this happen? Is it individual errors or systemic problems?
  4. Solutions. What remedies have been suggested? Which ones have been implemented and by whom? Why/Why not? Results?
  5. Disease or symptom? What does this problem say about our criminal justice system? Tip of the iceberg of injustice? Small, isolated problem?


Next Week: Is the U.S. financial sector finally tamed?


Monday’s Mtg: Anti-Science Views of the U.S. Right and Left

Ali’s idea finally arrives! I imagine our immigrant from Iraq member suggested this topic because he has been shocked to learn how ignorant Americans are about science and how often those beliefs influence public policy.

Me, too. Public ignorance of basic scientific principles and facts is kind of legendary in this country. We have touched on it tangentially before, but not really since 2011 meetings on anti-intellectualism and the politicizing of science. We’re going to debate my pet peeve, political ignorance, on September 28. So, our summer of ignorance will be a long one.

As for science, we all can name a few big areas of illiteracy that make it into the news on a regular basis because it they impact politics and public affairs.

  • Climate change denialism.
  • Anti-evolution/creationism.
  • Vaccines.
  • Genetically-modified organism (GMO) food.

There are others. I’ve met people in recent years that believe the government and/or corporations are dispersing harmful chemicals nationwide in a deliberate effort to increase the rate of disease. Pro-life advocates believe abortions cause breast cancer and the pill is an abortifacient (the AMA and American Cancer Society disagree). Bruce, our neurologist, has mentioned before that a lot of his patients want only “natural” treatments, rather than those icky pharmaceuticals with their industry-bought scientific studies. Abstinence only education. Fluoridated water.

Anyway, I think we should start off on Monday by getting some facts of our own. I’m going to do some research on how many Americans actually believe the major scientific fallacies I listed above. Then, we can debate what to me are the really important questions, like who encourages people to believe this stuff, and why do some anti-science views end up influencing public policy while others do not?  Do “both sides really do it” equally?

Discussion Questions –

  1. How many Americans hold flat-earthly wrong views on the major scientific questions of our day? Has it gotten worse or better in recent decades?
  2. How do these opinions break down by Right and Left, politically? When is ideology/partisanship a driver of ignorance and when is it just coincidence?
  3. Who in positions of influence is abetting this scientific illiteracy? Politicians? Religious authorities? News Media? Bogus think tanks? People making money off the ignorance?
  4. Who cares? Which anti-sci views are hurting us all by influencing public policy (e.g., climate) or third parties (e.g., anti-vaccine)
  5. What can be done? Better science education? Better news media? Less craven politicians?


Next Week: Wrongful Criminal Convictions.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.