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18 September 2008

Dersu Uzala, Akira Kurosawa, 1975

One of his best, and least known, films:

Statement of Ralph Nader September 16, 2008 Before the Constitution Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee on “Restoring the Rule of Law”

Mr. Chairman and members of the Constitution Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony on the important and fundamental topic of “Restoring the Rule of Law” to the workings of the Executive Branch. I ask that this statement be made part of the printed hearing record and I commend you for taking the initiative to explore what steps the next President and the next Congress must take to repair the massive damage that President George W. Bush has done to the rule of law and our democracy.

When the President beats the drums of war, the dictatorial side of American politics begins to rear its ugly head. Forget democratic processes, Congressional and judicial restraints, media challenges, and the facts. All of that goes out the door. Dissenting Americans may hold rallies in the streets, but their voices are drowned out by the President speaking from the bully pulpit.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the resulting quagmire, is Bush’s most egregious foreign policy folly, but reflects a broader dynamic. Remember retired General Wesley Clark’s stinging indictment of the administration: “President Bush plays politics with national security. Cowboy talk. The administration is a threat to domestic liberty.”

President George W. Bush often uses the words and terms, “freedom,” “liberty,” and “our way of life” to mask his unbridled and largely unchallenged jingoism. The politics of fear sells. Cold war politics sold. The war on terrorism sells. But it’s a very expensive sale for the American people. Even with the Soviet Union long gone, America’s military budget amounts to half the operating federal budget. While vast resources and specialized skills are sucked into developing and producing redundant and exotic weapons of mass destruction, America’s economy suffers and its infrastructure crumbles.

As the majority of workers fall behind, Bush has appointed himself ruler of Baghdad and, with the complicity of a fawning Congress, is draining billions of dollars away from rebuilding America’s public works—schools, clinics, transit systems, and the rest of our crumblinginfrastructure. How does Bush sell America on this diversion of funds and focus?

With the politics of fear at his back, President Bush and company openly tout the state of permanent war. There are no limits to their hubris. The same Bush regime that applies rigid cost-benefit analysis to deny overdue government health and safety standards for American consumers, workers, and the environment sends astronomical budgets to Congress for the war on stateless terrorism. Bush’s own Office of Management and Budget throws its hands up and observes that the usual controls and restraints are nowhere in sight. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) deems the Pentagon budget to be unauditable. To appropriate runaway spending in the name of homeland security, the powers-that-be need only scream one word: Terrorism!

If you ask Bush Administration officials how much this effort will cost, they recite a convenient mantra: “whatever it takes to protect the American people.” In fact, trillions of dollars annually would not suffice to fully secure our ports, endless border crossings by trucks and other vehicles, the rail system, petrochemical and nuclear plants, drinking water systems, shipments of toxic gases, dams, airports and airplanes, and so forth. So “whatever it takes” is actually a prescription for unlimited spending. Much of the war on terrorism involves domestic guards and snoops. The word “terrorism,” endlessly repeated by the President and his associates, takes on an Orwellian quality as a mind-closer, a silencer, an invitation to Big Brother and Bigger Government to run roughshod over a free people.

A country with numerous and highly complex vulnerable targets cannot be fully secured against determined, suicidal, well-financed and equipped attackers. That obviously doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take prudent measures to reduce risks, but our allocation of funds must be made realistically, and we shouldn’t just throwing money at the problem. And, our policies and expenditures must address the climate in which terrorism flourishes.

Then there’s the great unmentionable. If you listen to President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and the other members of their cabal, well-financed suicidal al Qaeda cells are all over the country. If so, why haven’t any of them struck since September 11? No politician dares to raise this issue, though it’s on the minds of many puzzled Americans. As General Douglas McArthur advised in 1957, and General Wesley Clark did much more recently, it is legitimate to ask whether our government has exaggerated the risks facing us, especially when such exaggeration serves political purposes—stifling dissent, sending government largesse to corporate friends, deflecting attention from pressing domestic needs, and in concentrating more unaccountable power in the White House to pursue wars that provide a recruitment ground for more stateless terrorists.

George W. Bush willingly moves us toward a garrison state, through the politics of fear. We’re experiencing a wave of militarism resulting in invasive domestic intelligence gathering and disinvestment in civilian economies. The tone of the President has become increasingly imperial and even un-American. As he once told his National Security Council, “I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the President . . . I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.” The president has implied that he occupies his current role by virtue of divine providence. His messianic complex makes him as closed-minded as any president in history. Not only is he immune from self-doubt, but he fails to listen to the citizenry prior to making momentous decisions. In the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, Bush didn’t meet with a single major citizens’ group opposed to the war. In the weeks leading up to the war, thirteen organizations— including clergy, veterans, former intelligence officials, labor, business, students—representing millions of Americans wrote Bush to request a meeting. He declined to meet with a single delegation of these patriotic Americans and didn’t even answer their letters.

Bush’s authoritarian tendencies preceded the march to Baghdad. First, he demanded an unconstitutional grant of authority from Congress in the form of an open-ended war resolution. Our King George doesn’t lose sleep over constitutional nuance, especially when members of Congress willingly yield their authority to make war to an eager president. Next, Bush incessantly focused the public on the evils of Saddam Hussein (a U.S. ally from 1979–1990), specifically how his weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Queda posed a mortal threat to America. The Administration’s voice was so loud and authoritative, and the media so compliant, that all other voices—of challenge, correction, and dissent—were overwhelmed. And so Bush plunged the nation into war based on fabrications and deceptions, notwithstanding notes of caution and disagreement from inside the Pentagon, the CIA, and the State Department. This was a war launched by chicken hawks, counter to the best judgment of battle-tested army officers inside and outside the government.

In retrospect, it is clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction except those possessed by the invading countries. It also seems clear that Saddam Hussein was a tottering dictator “supported” by a dilapidated army unwilling to fight for him and surrounded by far more powerful hostile nations (Israel, Iran, and Turkey). The notion that this man posed a mortal threat to the strongest nation in the world fails the laugh test. Bush’s dishonest and disastrous maneuvers to take our country to war meets the threshold for invoking impeachment proceedings under Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution.

Some brave Americans did speak out against the war, or at least expressed grave reservations. The media were mostly cheerleaders—uncritical of the leader, dismissive of dissenters, indifferent to their obligation to search for truth and hold officialdom’s feet to the fire.

The legal profession, except for a handful of law professors and law school deans and Michael S. Greco, a past President of the American Bar Association, provided very little organized resistance to the Bush war. The situation was even worse within government.

The system of checks and balances requires three vigilant branches, but Congress has disgraced itself from virtually the beginning of the Bush administration, assisting an extraordinary shift of power to the executive branch. In October 2001, a panicked Congress passed the Patriot Act, without proper Congressional hearings, giving the Bush administration unprecedented powers over individuals suspected (and in some cases not even suspected) of crimes. Subsequently, Congress gave the President a virtual blank check to wage a costly war.

In these respects, and others, the war on terrorism has important parallels to the Cold War. Domestically, the latter was characterized by relentless focus on a bipolar world largely dictated by the iron triangle of giant defense companies, Congress, and the military leadership, mutually reinforced with campaign contributions, lucrative contracts, new weaponry, and bureaucratic positions. A foreign policy responsive to the iron triangle produced some perverse results. The United States overthrew any number of governments viewed as too congenial to similar reforms that our own ancestors fought for—land reform, workers rights, and neutrality toward foreign countries. We replaced such governments with brutal puppet regimes. We also used our armed forces to protect the interests of the oil, timber, mining, and agribusiness industries.

Indeed, such policies long preceded the Cold War. No one articulated it more clearly or candidly than Marine General Smedley Butler, whose provocative eyewitness accounts rarely made their way into our history books:

I spent 33 years in the Marines, most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for Capitalism. I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909–1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American Sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
“War is a racket,” Butler wrote, noting that it tends to enrich a select few. Not the ones on the front lines. “How many of the war millionaires shouldered a rifle?” he asked rhetorically. “How many of them dug a trench?”

Butler devoted a chapter of his long-ignored book, War Is a Racket, to naming corporate profiteers. He also recounted the propaganda used to shame young men into joining the armed forces, noting that war propagandists stopped at nothing: “even God was brought into it.” The net result? “Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability.”

Does this all sound familiar? The September 11 attack gave rise to a corporate profiteering spree, including a demand for subsidies, bailouts, waivers from regulators, tort immunity, and other evasions of responsibility. Before the bodies were even recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center, the Wall Street Journal was editorializing that its corporate patrons should seize the moment.

Foreign policy amounts to more than national defense, and national defense amounts to more than a mega-business opportunity for weapons and other contractors. All too often, corporate sales priorities have driven defense priorities, leading to militarization of foreign policy.

Consider the 1990’s “peace and prosperity” decade, possibly the greatest blown opportunity of the twentieth century. In 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed in a bloodless implosion. Suddenly, we faced the prospect of an enormous “peace dividend,” an opportunity for massive savings or newly directed expenditures since the main reason for our exorbitant military budget had disappeared. Not so fast, said the military-industrial complex, there must be another major enemy out there—maybe Communist China, or a resurgent Russia, or some emerging nation developing nuclear weapons. We allegedly needed to prepare for the unknown, hence went full-speed ahead with tens of billions for missile defense technology, considered unworkable by leading physicists.

In the battle for budget allocations, what chance did the “repair America” brigades have against the military-industrial complex? More B-2 bombers or repaired schools? F-22s or expansion of modern health clinics? More nuclear submarines or upgraded drinking water systems? We know who won those battles. And after 9/11, it was no contest.

As the perceived threat shifted from the Soviet Union to stateless terrorism, the weapons systems in the pipeline from the Cold War days moved toward procurement. On top of that is the chemical, biological, surveillance, detection, and intelligence budgets to deal with the al Qaeda menace. Everything is added, almost nothing displaced. We are constantly told by politicians and the anti-terrorist industry that 9/11 “changed everything.”

This sentiment suggests the lack of proportionality of our new permanent war. It’s also a sentiment that must make Osama bin Laden ecstatic. Bin Laden wanted to strike fear in America. He did so, and then watched as the first response to this fear was a sweeping crackdown on people with a Muslim or Arab name or visage. Thousands were detained or arrested or jailed on the flimsiest of suspicions, opening the Bush administration up to the charge of hypocrisy when we challenge Islamic nations about due process violations. All of this created more contempt for America among young people throughout the Middle East, no doubt helping the recruiting efforts of our enemies.

Bin Laden must have delighted in attempting to push America toward becoming a police state and sowing discord among us. He must have been thrilled by red and orange alerts, inconvenience at airports, and all kinds of excessive expenditures damaging our economy. And bin Laden must have taken perverse delight in press reports that Bush believes he was put on this earth by God to win the war on terrorism. If he wished to inspire a clash of civilizations, he apparently found a willing collaborator in Bush, who invaded Iraq, prompting Bush’s retired anti-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke to write in his book, Against All Enemies, that by invading and occupying Iraq, “We delivered to al Qaeda the greatest recruitment propaganda imaginable...” Bin Laden must have been very pleased to hear the news about Bush’s war of “shock and awe”.

As all this suggests, America’s response to 9/11 was not only disproportionate but also counterproductive. A Washington think-tank fellow said something sensible: “When you are fighting terrorism, you want to do it in a way that does not produce more of it.” Are we doing that? Terrorism takes many forms, as in the Sudan, as in the Rwanda rampage that claimed 800,000 lives, the state terrorism of dictators, the added terrorism of hunger, disease, sex slavery, and man-made environmental disasters. With no major state enemy left, what can we do to prevent and diminish these various forms of terrorism, as well as deter more suicidal attacks from fundamentalists? Perhaps we need to redefine national security, redirect our mission, reconsider our relations with other countries.

All in all, the failures of Congress and the judiciary to reign in an out-of-control Executive Branch significantly contributed to the erosion of the “rule of law.” And, working to restore the “rule of law” will require Congress to embrace its duties as a co-equal branch of government.

Throughout our nation’s history, we have witnessed sacrifices in civil liberties that went too far. We should not get swept away by rhetoric and exaggerations suggesting that the current threat is greater than those we faced before -- rhetoric routinely employed throughout history to justify curtailment of civil liberties.

The "war on terrorism" does present one new aspect. Unlike all of the nation's previous wars (with the partial exception of the Cold War), it is "limitless in duration and place," which has major ramifications for our civil liberties. In the past, the arguably extra-constitutional powers assumed by government in war-time (such as the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War and the internment of the Japanese during World War II) were understood as temporary measures, with a return to the status quo ante expected as soon as hostilities ceased. The same cannot be said about our current concern with terrorism.

In the absence of a time when we clearly revert from war back to peace and reclaim our usual civil liberties, we need to be particularly careful about the "temporary" surrender of these rights. Inertia is a potent force and we run the risk of forfeiting liberties we never reclaim, especially when fighting a war that may never end. This may be a good reason to drop the nomenclature "war on terrorism." It's certainly good reason to sunset laws that compromise civil liberties.

Here, as so often, we can learn from the founders. The nation's first law that dangerously curtailed civil liberties, the infamous Sedition Act in late 1799, lasted only a few years. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it was not repealed by Thomas Jefferson's Democrat-Republican Party after he and it came to power in 1801. They didn't have to take action: the act was, by its own terms, to expire after two years unless reauthorized.

In a similar vein, Congress should attach to each law that materially diminishes our freedoms an automatic expiration in two or four years unless, after the designated period, Congress determines that the act: 1) achieved enough in terms of security to justify its diminution of our freedom, and 2) remains necessary. Similarly, civil liberties-diminishing executive orders should automatically expire unless renewed by the president or through legislative enactment. Holding Congress accountable for the ongoing suspension of civil liberties is indispensable for preventing abuses.

Yale Law professor Bruce Ackerman recently devoted a book to essentially a single proposition: the need for a mechanism to ensure that, following any major terrorist attack, responsive measures that limit civil liberties be temporary. (Ackerman terms his proposal an "emergency Constitution," but it is actually a statutory approach requiring no constitutional amendments.) Ackerman proposes many specifics - for example, that all emergency powers subside after two months, and every reauthorization require a higher degree of congressional support (60% the first time, 70% the next time, and so forth), but the specifics are less important than the insight that animates it: liberties taken in times of crisis will not necessarily be returned after the crisis subsides. Government officials may be sanguine about retaining powers seized during a national emergency, and, regrettably, the American people may become accustomed to diminished liberty.

Courts provide a degree of protection, but Ackerman emphasizes the courts' dangerous tendency to lump all wars together and allow precedents derived from earlier wars to dictate decisions in very different circumstances. Thus emergency measures enacted for a major threatening war like World War II are invoked as justification for sweeping governmental powers during far more limited engagements. Not all wars are created equal, and Ackerman argues that the war on terrorism does not pose a threat to America's existence like the Civil War. The biggest difference between the battle against terrorism and other major engagements is not the nature of the threat as much as its duration (although, again, the Cold War suggests that this, too, is not unprecedented). Ackerman rightly emphasizes this point. Because the present state of hostilities could last decades, it is imperative that we not casually accept all curtailments of liberty enacted in its name.

As the experience with the U.S.A. Patriot Act suggests, an attack on the United States sets in motion irresistible pressure for immediate action. The U.S.A. Patriot Act permits federal agents to search our homes and businesses without even notifying us, simply by asking a court for a warrant -- a court that almost never says no. It permits the government to find out from libraries and bookstores what we've been reading and prohibits the librarian or store owner from telling us about the snooping. The Act permits government to listen in on conversations between lawyers and their clients in federal prisons, and to access our computer records, e-mails, medical files, and financial information on what is essentially an enforcement whim. It eviscerates the great constitutional restraint called "probable cause." Without probable cause, government agents can covertly attend and monitor public meetings, including at places of worship.

The enhanced government powers were not narrowly tailored to prevention of terrorist attacks. Rather, as Professors Laurence Tribe and Patrick Gudridge observed, under the guise of preventing another 9/11, Congress took action affecting "the most commonplace bureaucratic and policing decisions . . . not only at obvious focal points of precaution like airports but also at other, seemingly unconnected institutions such as public libraries," expanding government power "in the everyday settings of general police procedures and criminal prosecutions of defendants charged with strictly domestic crimes." We witnessed, in their apt phrase, the "bleeding of emergency into non-emergency, of extraordinary into ordinary."

Note that Bruce Ackerman's "emergency Constitution" does not prevent the President and Congress from responding fully to the initial attack and doing whatever is necessary to ward off subsequent attacks. To the contrary, it clarifies and codifies the emergency powers needed to achieve these goals. But, critically, it also clarifies and codifies that such a response will not permanently curtail civil liberties.

During periods of relative calm, it is hard to realize what may transpire when times cease to be calm. We need to remember that President Roosevelt herded the Japanese Americans into camps during World War II. Ackerman rightly asks us to consider whether we can be certain that millions of Arab Americans won't be interned if Muslim extremists strike us again. Of course, any preexisting restraints may be swept aside in the post-attack environment, but that is no reason not to do everything we can to put the breaks on future over-reaction now, while things are relatively calm. Ackerman reminds us that we needn't choose between giving presidents the authority to handle emergencies and safeguarding civil liberties during normal periods. We can and must do both.

Three days after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), permitting the President to "use all necessary and appropriate forces against those nations, organizations or persons he determined planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or harbored such organizations, or persons." At that point, the Bush administration and Congress did not know which nations played a role in assisting those who attacked us. The U.S. government just wanted to do whatever was necessary to punish the perpetrators of the attacks.

The most open-ended terms in AUMF, "appropriate" and "aided," present an obvious risk. What about nations that may have provided minimal aid to bin Laden? At one point or another, at least a dozen nations may have given safe haven to him or members of his organization - out of indifference, inertia, or domestic political calculation, not to help him launch an assault on America. Such assistance may be something for us to protest and actively discourage in the future, and there are numerous diplomatic and economic means for doing so, but AUMF appears to authorize the President to wage all-out war against any such nations if he elastically interprets the phrase "aided the terrorist attacks of 9/11."

We needn't speculate that a president might interpret the authorization elastically. Under the guise of using necessary and appropriate force against persons and organizations that may have played some role in the attack, the Bush administration engaged in extensive eavesdropping on telephone calls by and to American citizens. Such surveillance may be necessary to help capture terrorists or thwart specific attacks, but the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) already exists for that purpose and FISA courts have been overwhelmingly compliant with requests for warrants to wiretap. Under the guise of AUMF's authorization of "necessary and appropriate force" to fight those involved in the 9/11 attack, the administration ignored FISA's requirement of a warrant, which is a felony under FISA’s terms.

Can AUMF reasonably be read to trump FISA? Conservative columnist George Will notes that "[n]one of the 518 legislators who voted for the AUMF has said that he or she then thought that it contained the permissiveness the administration now discerns in it." The argument that it nevertheless trumps FISA, observes Will, is "risible coming from [an] administration" that purports to demand strict construction of statutes to ensure conformity to legislative intent. The Bush Administration also cited a second legal basis for the eavesdropping program: the President's inherent war-making authority under Article II of the Constitution. On this interpretation, surveillance required no Congressional authorization.

The dangers of this monarchical doctrine, and its disregard for separation of powers, are too obvious to belabor. Congress should not assist the executive in a power-grab by providing additional war-making weapons that amount to a blank check. Admittedly, it is hard to thwart a president hell-bent on expanding executive powers and willing to mangle the Constitution in the process. George Will jokingly proposes that when Congress passes laws authorizing executive power, it should "stipulate all the statutes and constitutional understandings that it does not intend the act to repeal or supersede." A more realistic approach is for Congress to accompany its grant of power with a straightforward stipulation that it is "subject to the limitations of existing law." Moreover, Congress should accompany such legislation with a definitive procedure for consultation on whatever war-related powers the executive chooses to exercise. In fact, Congress should never authorize the president to use all "necessary and appropriate force" without a declaration of war.

The notion that the Administration was listening to whatever conversations it wanted without any need to show any basis for suspicion, and would happily have done so indefinitely (the American people and most members of Congress were unaware of the surveillance program until it leaked), because years earlier Congress authorized use of "necessary and appropriate force" against those who assisted a terrorist attack - this notion vividly illustrates the dangers of an open-ended authorization of force. Permitting the Executive Branch exclusive power to define its own authority virtually guarantees the supplanting of the rule of law by the rule of men. That this may happen in practice, with the executive branch ignoring or circumventing legal restraints, is no excuse for Congress to create the monster itself.

Vice President Cheney suggested that surveillance is solely a means of keeping tabs on known terrorists, not a matter of eavesdropping on ordinary Americans for no reason. This view would allow the government to employ surveillance against anyone about whom it has some suspicion, however remote. A more alarming peril is that surveillance will be used as part of a campaign to discredit, harass or intimidate political opponents. This possibility is just the kind of abuse the founding fathers saw the Fourth Amendment as safeguarding against.

The 1763 British case of Wilkes v. Wood is worth noting. John Wilkes was a popular member of Parliament who authored an anonymous pamphlet attacking the King. The ministry proceeded to break into Wilkes' house and seize his private papers. It also rounded up many of his friends as well as the publishers and printers of the offending pamphlet. The Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures represented a response to such politically-motivated abuse of power.

If the founders saw the need for protection against this sort of thing, history vindicated their judgment. Richard Nixon notoriously ordered illegal wire-tapping of political groups and persons whom he considered hostile, and his administration wasn't the first. It was a Democratic attorney general under Democratic presidents who engaged in illegal surveillance of Dr. Martin Luther King. Of course, Nixon, John and Robert Kennedy, and J. Edgar Hoover did not see themselves as engaged in unjustified, undemocratic behavior. Rather, people in power tend to rationalize such misconduct, convincing themselves that their opponents are actually disloyal and dangerous to America. In other words, the risk is not that an administration will decide it wants to hear innocent conversations between citizens, but rather the conversations of certain political adversaries. On the flimsiest or most attenuated evidence, officials may convince themselves that such persons present a threat to the nation.

Moreover, as the framers well understood, the power to search, seize, and harass tends to be exercised by government officials below the public's radar. Legal scholar John Hart Ely notes that the Fourth Amendment was motivated by "a fear of official discretion," a recognition that in exercising powers over individuals based on suspicion, "law enforcement officials will necessarily have a good deal of low visibility discretion."

This observation suggests the fallacy of those who minimize concern about civil liberties and offer reassurance that only phone calls involving terrorists will be monitored. That might be the case if all relevant decisions were made by accountable officials, but the reality on the ground is often different. Some of the worst abuses of civil liberties will inevitably result from the clandestine actions of unaccountable, lower-level officials. They mustn't be supplied with the means unnecessarily.

Nor must we acquiesce in the intuition of many innocent laypeople, stoked by politicians' rhetoric, that those who obey the law have nothing to fear. Again, as the founders well understood, the world isn't neatly divided between innocent citizens and Osama bin Laden, with the government interested in using surveillance solely to disrupt the latter. In our much messier world, vigilance against governmental abuse should not be swept aside by naive or disingenuous rhetoric.

In the discourse on the tradeoff between freedom and security, "patriotism" has been hijacked by those most willing to sacrifice civil liberties. Samuel Johnson famously considered patriotism "the last refuge of a scoundrel" but his biographer Boswell, who passed along that judgment, added that Johnson "did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest." If patriotism is the love of country, then making one's country more lovely is the mark of a true patriot. Blind obedience fails to help a country fulfill its promise.

When Congress moved hastily in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to take measures enhancing security, without carefully considering the dangers of over-reacting and over-curtailing civil liberties, it cleverly titled its legislation the "U.S.A. Patriot Act." Talk about seizing the rhetorical high ground! But Senator Feingold, the sole Senator to oppose the Act (because he saw certain provisions, among others, as needlessly authorizing the invasion of innocent citizens' privacy), was no less patriotic than his peers. To the contrary, Senator Feingold acted in a great American tradition.

Thomas Jefferson was a far-sighted founder who understood the value of political dissent. While sharing his fellow founders' instinctive aversion to political parties (he allegedly remarked that if "I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all"), he nevertheless inspired and led the first opposition party. That party came to power in 1800 in large part because Jefferson appreciated that criticism of the government must be tolerated - indeed, welcomed. The Sedition Act, employed by the Adams administration to punish dissent, reminds us that war fever tends to produce a crackdown on freedom. But it also reminds us that the framers, subject to the same frailties as their successors, were wise enough to provide protection against those frailties. Jefferson and his political allies opposed the Act because it ran afoul of the spirit and letter of the Constitution.

The affronts to the rule of law can come in a variety of forms. Congress allowed President Bush to mislead Congress and to engage in an undeclared war. In a September 3, 2007 oped which appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Mario M. Cuomo, the former governor of New York wrote:
The war happened because when Bush first indicated his intention to go to war against Iraq, Congress refused to insist on enforcement of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. For more than 200 years, this article has spelled out that Congress -- not the president -- shall have "the power to declare war." Because the Constitution cannot be amended by persistent evasion, this constitutional mandate was not erased by the actions of timid Congresses since World War II that allowed eager presidents to start wars in Vietnam and elsewhere without a "declaration" by Congress.
Nor were the feeble, post-factum congressional resolutions of support of the Iraq invasion -- in 2001 and 2002 -- adequate substitutes for the formal declaration of war demanded by the founding fathers.
The Bush Administration sanctioned warrantless wiretapping, and supported wide-ranging violations of privacy. The use of torture, unconstitutional detention policies, suspension of habeas corpus, and immunity for illegal wiretapping by telephone companies, have all brought shame on our country.

And, the Bush Administration’s questionable claims of executive privilege and the presumption that excessive government secrecy is almost always justifiable and beneficial undermine our country’s moral authority to promote democracy. In testimony in July of this year before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives, former Member of Congress Bob Barr said that the “state secret privilege” should “be treated as qualified, not absolute.” He added, “Congress could assist the judiciary by holding hearings and drafting legislation clarifying the authority of judges, procedures to be used to adjudicate executive claims of state secrecy, and sanctions to be imposed for the executive branch’s refusal to comply.” This small, but consequential suggestion, if followed, would do much to avoid the misdeeds that can proliferate when transparency is obscured.

The Bush Administration’s attempt to increase the power of the Executive Branch at the expense of Congress through signing statements even prompted the reserved American Bar Association to adopt a resolution opposing this overreaching abuse. The resolution states:
That the American Bar Association opposes as contrary to the rule of law and our Constitutional system of separation of powers, the misuse of presidential signing statements by claiming the authority or stating the intention to disregard or decline to enforce all or part of a law the President has signed, or to interpret such a law in a manner inconsistent with the clear intent of Congress...
Much of what has been done by the Bush Administration to undermine the rule of law can best be remedied by Congressional action. The next President can, however, start to immediately right the egregious wrongs of the Bush Administration by issuing appropriate Executive Orders to clarify government policies on issues such as torture and abuses of civil liberties.

Let me conclude by saying Congress has been far too docile in dealing with the Bush Administration’s corruption of the rule of law. Indeed, Congress has also been derelict in its duties by resisting consideration of impeachment proceedings.

Prominent Constitutional law experts believe President Bush has engaged in at least five categories of repeated, defiant "high crimes and misdemeanors", which separately or together would allow Congress to subject the President to impeachment under Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution. The sworn oath of members of Congress is to uphold the Constitution. Failure of the members of Congress to pursue impeachment of President Bush is an affront to the founding fathers, the Constitution, and the people of the United States.

In July of this year Elizabeth Holtzman, a former Member of Congress, testified before the House Judiciary Committee. In her testimony she made a compelling case for impeachment. She said:
But sad as the responsibility to deal with impeachment is, it cannot be shrugged off. The framers put the power to hold presidents accountable in your hands. Our framers knew that unlimited power presented the greatest danger to our liberties, and that is why they added the power of impeachment to the constitution. They envisioned that there would be presidents who would seriously abuse the power of their office and put themselves above the rule of law. And they knew there had to be a way to protect against them, aside from waiting for them to leave office.
Her advice to the Committee on the Judiciary of the House of Representatives merits consideration by the House of Representatives, even at this late date. Ms. Holtzman said:
I understand the great time constraints and the virtual impossibility of completing a full-blown impeachment inquiry before this session of Congress is over. Nonetheless, there are compelling, pragmatic reasons--as well as a constitutional imperative--to commence an inquiry now, and pursue it in a meaningful and, constructive way over the few remaining months.
Even if an impeachment inquiry is not completed or does not result in an impeachment vote in the House or the Committee, it still should be undertaken. It is warranted and since impeachment inquiries cannot be evaded by citing executive privilege, initiating an inquiry now would accomplish several valuable purposes:

a) It would send a clear message to the American people and future presidents that the actions engaged in by top Administration officials are serious enough on their face to warrant an impeachment inquiry. It would create a precedent whereby executive privilege does not effectively vitiate a president’s accountability to Congress, as this Administration has sought to do. This would create a deterrent to future administrations. So would the historic nature of impeachment. Opening an impeachment inquiry would put this Administration in a very small category along with only three others in US history that have been the subject of such an inquiry.

b) Because there is no executive privilege in an impeachment inquiry, [pursuing] one would allow the Committee to obtain additional material on presidential and vice presidential conduct which the Administration has until now refused to provide. That material would disclose the details about Administration actions that are currently secret. Those details would better inform Congress about what the appropriate response to this Administration’s actions should be. They would also better inform it about how to avert abuses of power by future presidents. That in itself would be an important outcome of new disclosures. Alternatively, if the Administration still refuses to provide the information and documents requested as part of an impeachment inquiry, that refusal would itself be an impeachable offense under the precedent established in the Nixon proceedings, with the bi-partisan adoption of the third article of impeachment holding that the refusal to respond to committee subpoenas in an impeachment proceeding was an impeachable offense; and

c) It would allow a serious, sober and respectful discussion, in the appropriate and constitutionally mandated forum, of whether or not specific Administration officials committed impeachable offenses. The discussion would include a full and fair airing of evidence and argument on both sides, both allegations and defenses. As I understand it, such a discussion cannot be fully and satisfactorily conducted under House rules without a real impeachment inquiry.
One of the best ways for Congress to prevent future administrations from trampling the Constitution and the rule of law is to use the impeachment powers when necessary. The Bush Administration’s criminal war of aggression in Iraq, in violation of our constitution, statutes and treaties, the arrests of thousands of individuals in the United States and their imprisonment without charges, the spying on Americans without judicial warrant, systematic torture, and the unprecedented use of defiant signing statements should prompt Congress to act immediately after the Presidential elections, when it has more than seventy-five days before the inauguration of the next President.

Let us hope that we have all learned lessons from the overreaching of the Bush Administration that will serve to prevent future destructions of the rule of law – the essence of a just and orderly society.

Thank you.

US Seizes Control of AIG with $85 Billion Bailout

Tariq Ali, Has the U.S. Invasion of Pakistan Begun?

More here:

Tariq Ali:

Gareth Porter and Pakistani analyst Khawar Mehdi:

17 September 2008

Jane's Addiction: Rock n' Roll (Velvet Underground) and Sympathy for the Devil

Q & A with Peter Wallison on Fannie and Freddie


Peter Wallison talked about the history and background of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. His books include Serving Two Masters, Yet Out of Control: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Privatizing Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Home Loan Banks: Why and How, both by AEI Press. He explained a video clip of Treasury Secretary Paulson from Sunday, September 7, 2008, announcing the federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Mr. Wallison is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His previous positions include counsel to President Reagan, general counsel to the Treasury Department, and an aide to Nelson Rockefeller both his time as governor of New York and counsel during his vice presidency, 1972-1976.

Two Recent Howard Zinn Radio Interviews

Uprising Radio
August 22, 2008
Howard Zinn on Obama, McCain, and the State of American Politics

Free Speech Radio News
August 22, 2008
As Democratic convention protestors put the finishing touches on their protest plans, debate over the relevance of the protests exists among the left. Pacifica's Verna Avery Brown spoke with historian Howard Zinn and Labor Activist Bill Fletcher about protest tactics on her show What's At Stake. Professor Zinn encourages protest at the Democratic Convention.

Nader: Political Issues that Matter for 2008

Remember, these issues represent the tip of the political iceberg. But they are indicative of the corporate domination of the Democratic and Republican parties. Click on any of the issues in the table below for more information the issues that matter for 2008, or find out more about the Nader/Gonzalez position on other important issues, including the environment, social, fiscal, market, labor, political and foreign policy.

Nader Obama McCain
Adopt single payer national health insurance On the table Off the table Off the table
Cut the huge, bloated, wasteful military budget On the table Off the table Off the table
No to nuclear power, solar energy first On the table Off the table Off the table
Aggressive crackdown on corporate crime
and corporate welfare
On the table Off the table Off the table
Open up the Presidential debates On the table Off the table Off the table
Adopt a carbon pollution tax On the table Off the table Off the table
Reverse U.S. policy in the Middle East On the table Off the table Off the table
Impeach Bush/Cheney On the table Off the table Off the table
Repeal the Taft-Hartley anti-union law On the table Off the table Off the table
Adopt a Wall Street securities speculation tax On the table Off the table Off the table
Put an end to ballot access obstructionism On the table Off the table Off the table
Work to end corporate personhood On the table Off the table Off the table
Defend, Restore and Strengthen
the Civil Justice System
On the table Off the table Off the table
Adopt the National Initiative On the table Off the table Off the table

Shift the Power

To illustrate how little has changed in four years, other than conditions becoming worse, the 2008 Nader/Gonzalez campaign is posting these policy positions on various injustices, necessities, and redirections that were prepared initially for the 2004 Nader/Camejo campaign. Such a short historical context should give our supporters and viewers an even greater sense of urgency to stop the corporate interests' and the corporate governments' autocratic control -- and the resulting deterioration -- of our society and country.

Affirmative action

Affirmative action

After more than 300 years of de facto affirmative action to benefit white males, we definitely need affirmative action for people of color and women to offset enduring historic wrongs as well as present day inequalities. Continue reading ...



American agriculture is being dominated by two contrary trends in the 21st Century. First, conventional family farm agricultural production is being destroyed by low prices and lack of market access due to mergers, acquisitions by big agribusinesses and their monopsony power over farmers. Second, there is a boom in more sustainable agricultural production and consumption due to increased consumer awareness and demand for healthy, fresh, and nutritious food. Continue reading ...

Civil Liberties

Civil Liberties

Civil liberties and due process of law are eroding due to the "war on terrorism" and new technology that allows easy invasion of privacy. Continue reading ...

Climate Change

Climate Change

The Nader campaign believes it is time to break our addiction to fossil fuels. The evidence of global warming is mounting. We threaten the global environment with our continued use of fossil fuels. Not only is this an ecological threat, it is a tremendous economic threat, facing all of humanity. Continue reading ...

Corporate Crime

Corporate Crime

The US needs to crackdown on corporate crime, fraud and abuse that have just in the last four years looted and drained trillions of dollars from workers, investors, pension holders and consumers. Among the reforms needed are resources to prosecute and convict the corporate executive crooks and to democratize corporate governance so shareholders have real power; pay back ill-gotten gains; rein in executive pay; and enact corporate sunshine laws, among others. Continue reading ...



Education is primarily the responsibility of state and local governments. The federal government has a critical supporting role to play in ensuring that all children -- irrespective of the income of their parents, or their race -- are provided with rich learning environments, equal educational opportunities, and upgraded and repaired school buildings. Continue reading ...

Electoral Reform

Electoral Reform

Our democracy is in a descending crisis. Voter turnout is among the lowest in the western world, and America ranks in the bottom three of countries that hold free elections. The reasons for this democracy crisis are many: Redistricting ensures very few incumbents are at risk in one-party districts, and paperless voting machines call into question whether every vote is being counted. Barriers to full participation of candidates proliferate, making it very obstructive for third party and Independent candidates to run. These problems silence alternative viewpoints and decrease voter confidence. Continue reading ...

Energy Policy

Energy Policy

We urge a new clean energy policy that no longer subsidizes entrenched oil, nuclear, electric and coal mining interests -- an energy policy that is efficient, sustainable and environmentally friendly. We need to invest in a diversified energy policy including renewable energy like wind and other forms of solar power, more efficient automobiles, homes and businesses -- a policy that breaks our addiction to oil, coal and atomic power. Continue reading ...

Environmental Policy

Environmental Policy

The epidemic of silent environmental violence continues. Whether it is the 65,000 Americans who die every year from air pollution, or the 80,000 estimated annual fatalities from hospital malpractice, or the 100,000 Americans whose demise comes from occupational toxic exposures, or the cruel environmental racism where the poor and their often asthmatic children live in pollution sinks located near toxic hot spots (that are never situated in shrubbered suburbs), preventable, harmful, situations abound. Continue reading ...

Fair Tax

Fair Tax

The complexity and distortions of the federal tax code produces distributions of tax incidence and payroll tax burdens that are skewed in favor of the wealthy and the corporations further garnished by tax shelters, insufficient enforcement and other avoidances. Continue reading ...

Fair Trade

Fair Trade

NAFTA and the WTO make commercial trade supreme over environmental, labor, and consumer standards and need to be replaced with open agreements that pull up rather than pull down these standards. Continue reading ...

Federal Budget

Federal Budget

The United States needs a redirected federal budget that adequately funds crucial priorities like infrastructure, transit and other public works, schools, clinics, libraries, forests, parks, sustainable energy and pollution controls. Continue reading ...



The state of health care in the United States is a disgrace. For millions of Americans it is a struggle between life, health and money. The Nader Campaign supports a single-payer health care plan that replaces for-profit, investor-owned health care and removes the private health insurance industry (full Medicare for all). Continue reading ...



Nader favors a two-state solution and believes that the United States needs to highlight the broad and deep peace movement in Israel and its counterparts among Palestinians and among Americans of the Jewish faith. Continue reading ...



Since January 2001, 2.7 million jobs have been lost and more than 75% of those jobs have been high wage, high productivity, manufacturing jobs. Overall 5.6% of Americans are unemployed while 10.5% of African Americans are unemployed. Unemployment among Latinos is nearly 30 per cent higher than January 20, 2001. Continue reading ...

Media Bias

Media Bias

The mass media in the United States is extremely concentrated, and the messages that they send are too broadly uniform. Six global corporations control more than half of all mass media in our country: newspapers, magazines, books, radio and television. Our democracy is being swamped by the confluence of money, politics and concentrated media. Continue reading ...

Middle East Peace

Middle East Peace

Below is the complete letter Ralph Nader sent to the Washington Post in response to an editorial criticizing his comment that Israel is a puppeteer of the US government. When it published the letter on August 21st, the Post edited out the 4th to 6th paragraphs. These are important paragraphs illustrating that Nader's positions are consistent with those of many Israelis and American Jews. Continue reading ...



As the wealthiest country in the world, with high productivity per capita, a country that produces an abundance of capital, credit, technology and food, we can end poverty. Yet, according to the Bureau of the Census, poverty and hunger for children and adults is increasing rather than decreasing -- 34.6 million Americans lived in deep poverty, 12.1% of the U.S. population. Continue reading ...

Shift the Power

Shift the Power

The three documents below provide the "tools of democracy" that shift the power so people can regain control of their government, empower themselves as consumers, and strengthen themselves as workers. Without the facilities making it easy for Americans to band together to develop organizations with staff and budget to protect their interests workers, consumers, and voters have few ways to challenge those organized for other purposes for example corporations organized with contrary policies and demands. Continue reading ...

Worker's Rights

Worker's Rights

The rights of workers have been on the decline. It is time to reverse that trend and begin to give workers, the backbone of the US economy, the rights they deserve. Workers need a living wage not a minimum wage; access to health care and no unilateral reductions in medical benefits and pensions for current employees and retirees. Employers should not be able to avoid these benefits by hiring temporary workers or independent contractors. Continue reading ...

Ralph Nader Interview

Part 1:

Part 2:

Presidential Candidate Ralph Nader Prison Reform Plan

Click here to watch (RealPlayer).

C-SPAN Interview with Ralph Nader (I), July 2, 2008

Check it out here.

Ralph Nader, Statement on Auto Industry Bailouts

The Big Three are in big trouble, and they have themselves to thank for it.

Ford and General Motors have reported substantial losses in the second quarter amounting to $15.5 billion, and $8.7 billion, respectively, while Chrysler, which was bought off last year by a private equity firm, Cerberus, refuses to reveal its financial standing.

It is no wonder why their lobbyists were spotted schmoozing with members of Congress at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, liquoring up in their plush suites and private parties while they made their case for direct government loans which, if approved, would likely add to our federal deficit.

Last December, Congress approved a $25 billion loan to automakers and their suppliers under the Energy Independence and Security Act, though it has yet to be funded. That bill includes a modest requirement for automakers to increase their average vehicle fuel efficiency to 35 mpg -- a benchmark we should have set decades ago, and would allow the companies to have their way with virtually no oversight or accountability.

This corporate Congress cannot be expected to issue serious demands, set tough conditions, or impose strict rules on the auto companies to ensure their workers receive fair pay and benefits, and prevent their fat-cat executives from making off big while leaving their companies in shambles.

Such blatant giveaways have become the norm in Washington since the corporate stranglehold of Congress and the White House have smothered the forces seeking worker, consumer and environmental justice.

But this recent example should not discount our long history of dealing with corporate failures in more public and effective ways than just ponying up billions on demand at any big corporation's whim.

In 1979 when Chrysler was on the verge of bankruptcy, the automaker came crying to Congress for a bailout, which they eventually got, but Congress wasn't as much of a pushover.

Back then, at least the corporate chieftains were grilled by Congress and had to agree to give something back for Uncle Sam bailing them out -- good jobs and pensions for their workers, and more efficient cars to reduce reliance on foreign oil and reduce prices at the pump.

Now the CEOs don't even have to leave Detroit and they get much more money for almost no return commitment to America, while they outsource jobs and pollute our environment.

During discussion on a proposed loan bill to bailout Chrysler in October 1979, Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) who chaired the Senate Banking Committee issued his opposition to Chrysler's request and noted: "We let 7,000 companies fail last year -- we didn't bail them out. Now we are being told that if a company is big enough... we can't let it go under." He went on to call the proposed deal “a terrible precedent.”

Raising the government's demand for performance standards, President Carter's Treasury Secretary William Miller told Chrysler officials, “it's going to be so awful, you'll wish you never brought the whole thing up.”

Today, we rarely hear such candid opposition to corporate orders shouted at their congressional servants who lack the fortitude to put serious restraints and conditions on mismanaged, reckless big business and their overpaid CEOs seeking tax-payer salvation.

As a part of the Chrysler deal in the late Seventies, the government took out preferred stock warrants and after the company turned itself around and repaid its loan seven years early, the government ended up cashing out, receiving $400 million in the appreciated stock.

And Congress made clear to Chrysler that it had specific conditions the company had to meet before receiving the loan guarantee. It forced the company to contribute $162,500,000 into an employee stock ownership trust fund geared to benefit at least 90 percent of its employees, design more fuel efficient autos to help reduce consumption of foreign oil, and prohibit wages and benefits from falling below a level set three months before the legislation was passed.

Today, congressional actions to grant multi-billion dollar loans to the corporations lack the reciprocity some in Congress demanded 30 years ago. Before Congress irresponsibly dips into the public piggy bank, this time it would be wise to look back at how the government once dealt with Chrysler's dilemma, require clear benchmarks to deliver on the next generation of green collar jobs, improved fuel efficiency and gain a substantial return on its investment, not just in monetary value, but in the longterm viability of the domestic motor vehicle fleet.

Congress needs to call on the auto industry to innovate their way out of this morass into which they've engineered themselves into. A sensible strategy would be to issue stock warrants to the government, like in the 70s, which would create an incentive for Congress to keep pressure on the auto industry to improve. Public Congressional hearings are a must.

Will Congress echo its actions of 30 years ago when it scrutinized corporate demands, grilled company executives, and imposed conditions to ensure fair compensation and safety for workers? Or will Congress continue down the road of corporate servitude, refusing to stand up for workers, consumers, taxpayers and the environment in its session-ending stampede and flight away from auto industry accountabilities?

David Noble on his Beyond the Promised Land

Interesting historian of technology discusses the cultural background to the current form of investor-rights-based globalization, as well as the antiglobalization movement's rejection of the kind of millenarianism that suffuses both capitalist and socialist ideology:

Another interview here.

Nader Releases 10-Point Plan to Recover from Financial Crisis

Tuesday, September 16, 2008 at 12:00:00 AM

Press Release
Contact: Toby Heaps, 202-441-6795, toby@votenader.org


Eight years ago, consumer advocate Ralph Nader correctly predicted that the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) were on track to follow the savings and loan industry of the 1980s and 90s into a big financial heap of trouble. Nobody listened, and taxpayers are now at risk of losing tens of billions of dollars. Wall Street is being shaken to its foundation. American International Group Inc., the biggest U.S. insurer by assets, is now teetering on the brink of ruin after suffering losses of $18 billion in the past three quarters, largely due to its sub prime mortgage exposure.

"Nader Rips Mae and Mac," declared the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal on June 16, 2000. "Ralph Nader, warning of a potential taxpayer bailout similar to the savings and loan crisis, urged lawmakers to cut government benefits to mortgage-market giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- which he called 'poster children for corporate welfare.'"

This year Nader, who is also running for president as an independent, is getting credit for his prescience.

"Give one presidential candidate credit for identifying the problem and getting the policy right -- and doing so before the twin government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac went into the tank in mid-July," wrote Lou Dubose in The Washington Spectator on Aug. 1. Dubose went on to quote Nader's June 15, 2000 Congressional testimony about HR 3703 [search for "Nader" on page, see below, or see comment to this post], a bill that would have reigned in some of the most dangerous tendencies of GSE's, had it passed.

In a letter to SEC Chairman Christopher Cox in 2006, Nader also criticized the exorbitant salary of GSE executives Jamie Gorelick, Daniel Mudd, Robert Levin and Timothy Howard, and noted that their financial incentives were in direct conflict with consumer financial security because of the grave moral hazard created by accounting manipulations they sanctioned that benefited their personal wealth, with no penalty for being caught.

"As you continue to investigate the Fannie Mae accounting debacle, we are writing to urge you to seek civil sanctions, including disgorgement, from senior executives who profited directly from the misconduct at Fannie Mae, and that you urge the Department of Justice to give careful consideration to criminal prosecution of these individuals," wrote Nader.

Candidate Nader has called for an immediate halt to the increase in the national debt, an end to corporate subsidies and unconditional taxpayer bailouts of corporations, and a start to the aggressive prosecution of corporate criminals.

Today, in his prepared remarks for New York Times editors in its Washington Bureau, Nader stated : "Given the contrast between the 'free market' ideology of the Republicans and the corporate or state socialism that is their increasing practice, the time is ripe for full Congressional hearings next year on the organized power, greed and lack of regulation that is shaking the foundations of Wall Street."

Nader added, "What we need to do now is find a just way to deal with the millions of homeowners facing foreclosure and make sure that this level of financial market manipulation does not happen again." He elaborated a 10-point plan to cool off the financial markets meltdown:

Immediate Changes Required for Any Bailout

  • No bailouts without conditions and reciprocity in the form of stock warrants
  • No more lobbying for any company that is bailed out
  • No golden parachutes and get out of jail free cards for guilty executives
  • No bailouts without public hearings

Changes to Housing Market

  • Reduce the moral hazard in U.S. mortgage markets by introducing covered bonds for the majority of mortgage products as they do in Western Europe. That gives institutions that finance mortgages an incentive to be prudent, because they cannot just unload them and wipe their hands clean of the liability, but are instead on the hook if the homeowner defaults.
  • Maintain neighborhood stability and housing security by passing a law with a sunset clause allowing below median-value homeowners facing foreclosure the right to rent-to-own their homes at fair market value rates.
  • Avoid future housing bubbles by removing implicit government guarantees for new mortgages that exceed thresholds of greater than 15-20 times the annual fair market rent value of the home.

Structural Changes to Financial Markets

  • Make the Federal Reserve a Cabinet Position, so it is accountable to Congress, as well as making sure all Federal Reserve Bank presidents are appointed by the President and answerable to congress.
  • Reduce conflicts of interest by taking away power for auditor and rating agency selection from companies and placing it in the hands of the SEC to be administered on random assignment.
  • Implement a securities speculation tax, starting with derivatives to deter casino-style capitalism.

For more information, visit votenader.org.


  • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI) (from June 2000)

Nader rips Mae and Mac

Published: June 16, 2000

Ralph Nader, warning of a potential taxpayer bailout similar to the savings and loan crisis, urged lawmakers to cut government benefits to mortgage-market giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- which he called "poster children for corporate welfare." But some lawmakers said that acting hastily could raise the cost of buying a home by increasing borrowing costs for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are called government-sponsored enterprises.

Copyright 2000 Journal Sentinel Inc.

16 September 2008

Richard Lewontin, "Internalist Explorations of Meaning," Harvard, December 13, 2007

Click title above if you have trouble with the file below:

Video thumbnail. Click to play
Click To Play

15 September 2008

To Be or Not to Be: Ralph Nader Confides in Cardozo the Parrot

Totally hilarious. Now this is a new kind of political commercial.

History of the World, Part I, Mel Brooks, 1981

Nova: Infinite Secrets: The Genius of Archimedes

Mark Steel on Karl Marx from Socialism 2008

Funny guy:

Sarah Palin's Vlog

Noam Chomsky, "A Review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior" in Language, 35, No. 1 (1959), 26-58.

The original demolition of Skinner -- pretty entertaining to read!

Chomsky later pilloried Skinner further -- negative reinforcement? -- in the NYRB on the occasion of another, more popular (and frightening, from what I can glean) book of Skinner's, which I'll paste in below:

Volume 17, Number 11 · December 30, 1971

The Case Against B.F. Skinner

By Noam Chomsky

Beyond Freedom and Dignity
by B.F. Skinner

Knopf, 225 pp., $6.95


A century ago, a voice of British liberalism described the "Chinaman" as "an inferior race of malleable orientals."[1] During the same years, anthropology became professionalized as a discipline, "intimately associated with the rise of raciology."[2] Presented with the claims of nineteenth-century racist anthropology, a rational person will ask two sorts of questions: What is the scientific status of the claims? What social or ideological needs do they serve? The questions are logically independent, but the second type of question naturally comes to the fore as scientific pretensions are undermined. The question of the scientific status of nineteenth-century racist anthropology is no longer seriously at issue, and its social function is not difficult to perceive. If the "Chinaman" is malleable by nature, then what objection can there be to controls exercised by a superior race?

Consider now a generalized version of the pseudo-science of the nineteenth century: it is not merely the heathen Chinese who are malleable by nature, but rather all people. Science has revealed that it is an illusion to speak of "freedom" and "dignity." What a person does is fully determined by his genetic endowment and history of "reinforcement." Therefore we should make use of the best behavioral technology to shape and control behavior in the common interest.

Again, we may inquire into the exact meaning and scientific status of the claim, and the social functions it serves. Again, if the scientific status is slight, then it is particularly interesting to consider the climate of opinion within which the claim is taken seriously.

In his speculations on human behavior, which are to be clearly distinguished from his experimental investigations of conditioning behavior, B. F. Skinner offers a particular version of the theory of human malleability. The public reception of his work is a matter of some interest. Skinner has been condemned as a proponent of totalitarian thinking and lauded for his advocacy of a tightly managed social environment. He is accused of immorality and praised as a spokesman for science and rationality in human affairs. He appears to be attacking fundamental human values, demanding control in place of the defense of freedom and dignity. There seems something scandalous in this, and since Skinner invokes the authority of science, some critics condemn science itself, or "the scientific view of man," for supporting such conclusions, while others assure us that science will "win out" over mysticism and irrational belief.

A close analysis shows that the appearance is misleading. Skinner is saying nothing about freedom and dignity, though he uses the words "freedom" and "dignity" in several odd and idiosyncratic senses. His speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behavior. Furthermore, Skinner imposes certain arbitrary limitations on scientific research which virtually guarantee continued failure.

As to its social implications, Skinner's science of human behavior, being quite vacuous, is as congenial to the libertarian as to the fascist. If certain of his remarks suggest one or another interpretation, these, it must be stressed, do not follow from his "science" any more than their opposites do. I think it would be more accurate to regard Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity as a kind of Rorschach test. The fact that it is widely regarded as pointing the way to 1984 is, perhaps, a suggestive indication of certain tendencies in modern industrial society. There is little doubt that a theory of human malleability might be put to the service of totalitarian doctrine. If, indeed, freedom and dignity are merely the relics of outdated mystical beliefs, then what objection can there be to narrow and effective controls instituted to ensure "the survival of a culture"?

In view of the prestige of science and the tendencies toward centralized authoritarian control which can easily be detected in modern industrial society, it is important to investigate seriously the claim that the science of behavior and a related technology provide the rationale and the means for control of behavior. What, in fact, has been demonstrated, or even plausibly suggested in this regard?

Skinner assures us repeatedly that his science of behavior is advancing mightily and that there exists an effective technology of control. It is, he claims, a "fact that all control is exerted by the environment" (p. 82). Consequently, "When we seem to turn control over to a person himself, we simply shift from one mode of control to another" (p. 97). The only serious task, then, is to design less "aversive" and more effective controls, an engineering problem. "The outlines of a technology are already clear" (p. 149). "We have the physical, biological, and behavioral technologies needed 'to save ourselves'; the problem is how to get people to use them" (p. 158).

It is a fact, Skinner maintains, that "behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences" and that as the consequences contingent on behavior are investigated, more and more "they are taking over the explanatory functions previously assigned to personalities, states of mind, feelings, traits of character, purposes, and intentions" (p. 18).

As a science of behavior adopts the strategy of physics and biology, the autonomous agent to which behavior has traditionally been attributed is replaced by the environment—the environment in which the species evolved and in which the behavior of the individual is shaped and maintained. [P. 184.]

A "behavioral analysis" is thus replacing the "traditional appeal to states of mind, feelings, and other aspects of the autonomous man," and "is in fact much further advanced than its critics usually realize" (p. 160). Human behavior is a function of "conditions, environmental or genetic," and people should not object "when a scientific analysis traces their behavior to external conditions" (p. 75), or when a behavioral technology improves the system of control.

Not only has all of this been demonstrated, according to Skinner, but as the science of behavior progresses, it will, inevitably, more fully establish these facts. "It is in the nature of scientific progress that the functions of autonomous man be taken over one by one as the role of the environment is better understood" (p. 58). This is the "scientific view," and "it is in the nature of scientific inquiry" that the evidence should shift in its favor (p. 101). "It is in the nature of an experimental analysis of human behavior that it should strip away the functions previously assigned to autonomous man and transfer them one by one to the controlling environment" (p. 198). Furthermore, physiology some day "will explain why behavior is indeed related to the antecedent events of which it can be shown to be a function" (p. 195).

These claims fall into two categories. In the first are claims about what has been discovered; in the second, assertions about what science must discover in its inexorable progress. It is likely that the hope or fear or resignation induced by Skinner's proclamations results, in part, from his assertions that scientific progress will inevitably demonstrate both that all control is exerted by the environment and that the ability of "autonomous man" to choose is an illusion.

Claims of the first sort must be evaluated according to the evidence presented for them. In the present instance, this is a simple task, since no evidence is presented, as will become clear when we turn to more specific examples. In fact, the question of evidence is beside the point, since the claims dissolve into triviality or incoherence under analysis. Claims with regard to the inevitability of future discoveries are more ambiguous. Is Skinner saying that, as a matter of necessity, science will show that behavior is completely determined by the environment? If so, his claim can be dismissed as pure dogmatism, foreign to the "nature of scientific inquiry." It is quite conceivable that as scientific understanding advances, it will reveal that even with full details about genetic endowment and personal history, a Laplacean omniscience could predict very little about what an organism will do. It is even possible that science may some day provide principled reasons for this conclusion (if indeed it is true).

But perhaps Skinner is suggesting merely that the term "scientific understanding" be restricted to the prediction of behavior from environmental conditions. If so, then science may reveal, as it progresses, that "scientific understanding of human behavior," in this sense, is inherently limited. At the moment we have virtually no scientific evidence and not even the germs of an interesting hypothesis about how human behavior is determined. Consequently, we can only express our hopes and guesses about what some future science may demonstrate. In any event, the claims that Skinner puts forth in this category are either dogmatic or uninteresting, depending on which interpretation we give to them.

The dogmatic element in Skinner's thinking is further revealed when he states that "the task of a scientific analysis is to explain how the behavior of a person as a physical system is related to the conditions under which the human species evolved and the conditions under which the individual lives" (p. 14). Surely the task of a scientific analysis is to discover the facts and explain them. Suppose that in fact the human brain operates by physical principles (perhaps now unknown) that provide for free choice, appropriate to situations but only marginally affected by environmental contingencies. The task of scientific analysis is not—as Skinner believes—to demonstrate that the conditions to which he restricts his attention fully determine human behavior, but rather to discover whether in fact they do (or whether they are at all significant), a very different matter. If they do not, as seems plausible, the "task of a scientific analysis" will be to clarify the issues and discover an intelligible explanatory theory that will deal with the actual facts. Surely no scientist would follow Skinner in insisting on the a priori necessity that scientific investigation will lead to a particular conclusion, specified in advance.

In support of his belief that science will demonstrate that behavior is entirely a function of antecedent events, Skinner notes that physics advanced only when it "stopped personifying things" and attributing to them "wills, impulses, feelings, purposes," and so on (p. 8). Therefore, he concludes, the science of behavior will progress only when it stops personifying people and avoids reference to "internal states." No doubt physics advanced by rejecting the view that a rock's wish to fall is a factor in its "behavior," because in fact a rock has no such wish. For Skinner's argument to have any force, he must show that people have wills, impulses, feelings, purposes, and the like no more than rocks do. If people do differ from rocks in this respect, then a science of human behavior will have to take account of this fact.

Similarly, Skinner is correct in asserting that "modern physics or most of biology" does not discuss such matters as "a crisis of belief" or "loss of confidence" (p. 10). Evidently, from this correct observation nothing follows about the science of human behavior. Physics and biology, Skinner observes, "did not advance by looking more closely at the jubilance of a falling body, or…the nature of vital spirits, and we do not need to try to discover what personalities, states of mind, feelings, traits of character, plans, purposes, intentions, or the other perquisites of autonomous man really are in order to get on with a scientific analysis of behavior"; and we must neglect "supposed mediating states of mind" (p. 15).

This is true enough, if indeed there are no mediating states that can be characterized by an abstract theory of mind, and if personalities, etc., are no more real than the jubilance of a falling body. But if the factual assumptions are false, then we certainly do need to try to discover what the "perquisites of autonomous man" really are. Skinner might argue, more rationally, that his "science" does not overlook these "perquisites," but rather accounts in other ways for the phenomena discussed in these terms. We shall see directly what substance there is to such a claim.

It is hardly possible to argue that science has advanced only by repudiating hypotheses concerning "internal states." By rejecting the study of postulated inner states Skinner reveals his hostility not only to "the nature of scientific inquiry" but even to common engineering practice. For example, Skinner believes that "information theory" ran into a "problem when an inner 'processor' had to be invented to convert input into output" (p. 18).

This is a strange way of describing the matter. Suppose that an engineer is presented with a device whose functioning he does not understand, and suppose that through experiment he can obtain information about input-output relations of this device. He would not hesitate, if rational, to construct a theory of the internal states of the device and to test it against further evidence. He might also go on to try to determine the mechanisms that function in the ways described by his theory of internal states, and the physical principles at work—leaving open the possibility that new and unknown physical principles might be involved, a particularly important matter in the study of behavior of organisms. His theory of internal states might well be the only useful guide to further research. By objecting, a priori, to this research strategy, Skinner merely condemns his strange variety of "behavioral science" to continued ineptitude.

We cannot specify, a priori, what postulates and hypotheses are legitimate. Skinner's a priorism in this regard is no more legitimate than the claim that classical physics is not "science" because it appeals to the "occult force of gravity." If a concept or principle finds its place in an explanatory theory, it cannot be excluded on methodological grounds, as Skinner continually insists. In general, Skinner's conception of science is very odd. Not only do his a priori methodological assumptions rule out all but the most trivial scientific theories; he is, furthermore, given to strange pronouncements such as the assertion that "the laws of science are descriptions of contingencies of reinforcement" (p. 189)—which I happily leave to others to decode.

It is important to bear in mind that Skinner's strictures do not define the practice of behavioral science. In fact, those who call themselves "behavioral scientists" or even "behaviorists" vary widely in the kinds of theoretical constructions that they are willing to admit. W. V. O. Quine, who on other occasions has attempted to work within Skinner's framework, goes so far as to define "behaviorism" simply as the insistence that conjectures and conclusions must eventually be verified by observations.[3] As he points out, any reasonable person is a "behaviorist" in this sense. Quine's proposal signifies the demise of behaviorism as a substantive point of view, which is just as well. Whatever function "behaviorism" may have served in the past, it has become nothing more than a set of arbitrary restrictions on "legitimate" theory construction, and there is no reason why someone who investigates man and society should accept the kind of intellectual shackles that physical scientists would surely not tolerate and that condemn any intellectual pursuit to insignificance.

Let us consider more carefully what Skinner means when he asserts that all behavior is externally controlled and that behavior is a function of genetic and environmental conditions. Does he mean that full knowledge of such conditions would permit, in principle, specific predictions as to what a person will do? Surely not. Skinner means that genetic and environmental conditions determine "probability of response." But he is so vague about this notion that it is unclear whether his claims about determinism amount to anything at all.

No one would doubt that the likelihood of my going to the beach depends on the temperature, or that the likelihood of my producing a sentence of English rather than Chinese is "determined" by my past experience, or that the likelihood of my producing a sentence of a human language rather than of some imaginable but humanly inaccessible system is "determined" by my genetic constitution. We hardly need behavioral science to tell us this. When we look for more specific predictions, however, we find virtually nothing. Worse, we discover that Skinner's a priori limitations on "scientific" inquiry make it impossible for him even to formulate the relevant concepts, let alone investigate them.

Consider, for example, the notion, "likelihood of my producing a sentence of English rather than Chinese." Given a characterization of "English" and "Chinese" by an abstract theory of postulated internal states (mental states, if you like), one can give some meaning to this notion—though the probabilities, being negligible under any known characterization of determining factors, will be of no interest for the prediction of behavior. But for Skinner, even this marginal achievement is impossible. For Skinner, what we call "knowledge of French" is a "repertoire acquired as a person learns to speak French" (p. 197). Therefore probabilities of speaking French or other languages will be defined by referring to such "repertoires."

But what does it mean to say that some sentence of English that I have never heard or produced belongs to my "repertoire," but not any sentence of Chinese (so that the former has a higher "probability")? Skinnerians, at this point in the discussion, appeal to "similarity" or "generalization," but always without characterizing precisely the ways in which a new sentence is "similar" to familiar examples or "generalized" from them. The reason for this failure is simple. So far as is known, the relevant properties can be expressed only by the use of abstract theories (for example, a grammar) describing postulated internal states of the organism, and such theories are excluded, a priori, from Skinner's "science." The immediate consequence is that the Skinnerian must lapse into mysticism (unexplained "similarities" and "generalization" of a sort that cannot be specified) as soon as the discussion touches the world of fact. While the situation is perhaps clearer in the case of language, there is no reason to suppose that other aspects of human behavior will fall within the grasp of the "science" constrained by a priori Skinnerian restrictions.

Skinner's response to criticism about such matters is illuminating. He believes that people attack him and argue against his "scientific picture of man" because "the scientific formulation has destroyed accustomed reinforcers" and causes "behavior previously reinforced by credit or admiration [to] undergo extinction," since "a person can no longer take credit or be admired for what he does." And extinction, he asserts, "often leads to aggressive attack" (p. 212). Elsewhere, he accuses his critics of "emotional instability," citing comments of Arthur Koestler and Peter Gay to the effect that behaviorism is "a monumental triviality" marked by "innate naïveté" and "intellectual bankruptcy" (p. 165). Skinner does not attempt to meet this criticism by presenting some relevant results that are not a monumental triviality. He is unable to perceive that objection to his "scientific picture of man" derives not from "extinction" of certain behavior or opposition to science, but from an ability to distinguish science from triviality and obvious error.

Skinner does not comprehend the basic criticism: when his formulations are interpreted literally, they are clearly false, and when these assertions are interpreted in his characteristic vague and metaphorical way, they are merely a poor substitute for ordinary usage. Such criticisms cannot be overcome by verbal magic, that is, by mere reiteration that his approach is scientific and that those who do not see this are opposed to science, or deranged. Similarly, Skinner claims that Koestler's characterization of behaviorism is seventy years out of date, but does not indicate what great achievements of the past seventy years Koestler has neglected. In fact, the achievements of behavioral science that are not trivial, so far as we know, have no bearing on the problems that Skinner discusses.

It is for this reason that Skinner assures the reader that he has no "need to know the details of a scientific analysis of behavior" (p. 22), none of which is presented. It is not the depth or complexity of this theory that prevents Skinner from outlining it for the lay reader. For example, Jacques Monod, in his recent work on biology and human affairs,[4] gives a rather detailed presentation of achievements of modern biology that he believes to be relevant to his (clearly identified) speculations. I should add, to make myself clear, that I am not criticizing Skinner for the lack of significant achievement in the behavioral sciences as compared, say, to biology, but rather for his irresponsible claims regarding the "science of behavior," which Skinner does not bother to tell the reader about but which has allegedly produced all sorts of remarkable results concerning the control of behavior.

If a physical scientist were to assure us that we need not concern ourselves over the world's sources of energy because he has demonstrated in his laboratory that windmills will surely suffice for all future human needs, he would be expected to produce some evidence, or other scientists would expose this pernicious nonsense. The situation is different in the behavioral sciences. A person who claims that he has a behavioral technology that will solve the world's problems and a science of behavior that both supports it and reveals the factors determining human behavior is required to demonstrate nothing. One waits in vain for psychologists to make clear to the general public the actual limits of what is known. In view of the prestige of science and technology, this is an unfortunate situation.


Let us now turn to the evidence that Skinner provides for his extraordinary claims: e.g., that "an analysis of behavior" reveals that the achievements of artists, writers, statesmen, and scientists can be explained almost entirely according to environmental contingencies (p. 44); that it is the environment that makes a person wise or compassionate (p. 171); that "all these questions about purposes, feelings, knowledge, and so on, can be restated in terms of the environment to which a person has been exposed" and that "what a person 'intends to do' depends on what he has done in the past and what has then happened" (p. 72); and so on.

According to Skinner, apart from genetic endowment, behavior is determined entirely by "reinforcement." To a hungry organism, food is a positive reinforcer. This means that "anything the organism does that is followed by the receipt of food is more likely to be done again whenever the organism is hungry" (p. 27); but "Food is reinforcing only in a state of deprivation" (p. 37). A negative reinforcer is a stimulus that increases the probability of behavior that reduces the intensity of that stimulus; it is "aversive," and, roughly speaking, constitutes a threat (p. 27). A stimulus can become a conditioned reinforcer by association with other reinforcers. Thus money is "reinforcing only after it has been exchanged for reinforcing things" (p. 33). The same is generally true of approval and affection. (The reader may attempt something that Skinner always avoids, namely, to characterize the "stimuli" that constitute "approval.")

Behavior is shaped and maintained by the arrangement of such reinforcers. Thus, "We change the relative strengths of responses by differential reinforcement of alternative courses of action" (pp. 94-95). One's repertoire of behavior is determined by "the contingencies of reinforcement to which he is exposed as an individual" (p. 127). An "organism will range between vigorous activity and complete quiescence depending upon the schedules on which it has been reinforced" (p. 186). As Skinner realizes (though some of his defenders do not), meticulous control is necessary to shape behavior in highly specific ways. Thus, "The culture…teaches a person to make fine discriminations by making differential reinforcement more precise" (p. 194), a fact that causes problems when "the verbal community cannot arrange the subtle contingencies necessary to teach fine distinctions among stimuli which are inaccessible to it." "As a result the language of emotion is not precise" (p. 106).

The problem in "design of a culture" is to "make the social environment as free as possible of aversive stimuli" (p. 42), "to make life less punishing and in doing so to release for more reinforcing activities the time and energy consumed in the avoidance of punishment" (p. 81). It is an engineering problem, and we could get on with it if only we could overcome the irrational concern for freedom and dignity. What we require is the more effective use of the available technology, more and better controls. In fact, "A technology of behavior is available which would more successfully reduce the aversive consequences of behavior, proximate or deferred, and maximize the achievements of which the human organism is capable" (p. 125). But "the defenders of freedom oppose its use," thus contributing to social malaise and human suffering. It is this irrationality that Skinner hopes to persuade us to overcome.

At this point an annoying, though obvious, question intrudes. If Skinner's thesis is false, then there is no point in his having written the book or our reading it. But if his thesis is true, then there is also no point in his having written the book or our reading it. For the only point could be to modify behavior, and behavior, according to the thesis, is entirely controlled by arrangement of reinforcers. Therefore reading the book can modify behavior only if it is a reinforcer, that is, if reading the book will increase the probability of the behavior that led to reading the book (assuming an appropriate state of deprivation). At this point, we seem to be reduced to gibberish.

A counterargument might be made that even if the thesis is false, there is a point to writing and reading the book, since certain false these are illuminating and provocative. But this escape is hardly available. In this case, the thesis is elementary and not of much interest in itself. Its only value lies in its possible truth. But if the thesis is true, then reading or writing the book would appear to be an entire waste of time, since it reinforces no behavior.

Skinner would surely argue that reading the book, or perhaps the book itself, is a "reinforcer" in some other sense. He wants us to be persuaded by the book, and, not to our surprise, he refers to persuasion as a form of behavioral control, albeit a weak and ineffective form. Skinner hopes to persuade us to allow greater scope to the behavioral technologists, and apparently believes that reading this book will increase the probability of our behaving in such a way as to permit them greater scope (freedom?). Thus reading the book, he might claim, reinforces this behavior. It will change our behavior with respect to the science of behavior (p. 24).

Let us overlook the problem, insuperable in his terms, of clarifying the notion of "behavior that gives greater scope to behavioral technologists," and consider the claim that reading the book might reinforce such behavior. Unfortunately, the claim is clearly false, if we use the term "reinforce" with anything like its technical meaning. Recall that reading the book reinforces the desired behavior only if it is a consequence of the behavior. Obviously putting our fate in the hands of behavioral technologists is not behavior that led to (and hence can be reinforced by) our reading Skinner's book. Therefore the claim can be true only if we deprive the term "reinforce" of its technical meaning. Combining these observations, we see that there can be some point to reading the book or to Skinner's having written it only if the thesis of the book is divorced from the "science of behavior" on which it allegedly rests.

Let us consider further the matter of "persuasion." According to Skinner, we persuade ("change minds") "by manipulating environmental contingencies," specifically, "by pointing to stimuli associated with positive consequences" and "making a situation more favorable for action, as by describing likely reinforcing consequences" (p. 91f.). Even if we overlook the fact that persuasion, so characterized, is a form of control (a variety of "reinforcement") unknown to Skinner's science, his argument is in no way advanced.

Suppose Skinner were to claim that his book might persuade us by pointing to positive consequences of behavioral technology. But this will not do at all. It is not enough for him to point to those consequences (e.g., to draw pictures of happy people); rather he must show that these are indeed consequences of the recommended behavior. To persuade us, he must establish a connection between the recommended behavior and the pleasant situation he describes. The question is begged by use of the term "consequences."[5] It is not enough merely to conjoin a description of the desired behavior and a description of the "reinforcing" state of affairs (we overlook, again, that not even these notions are expressible in Skinner's terms). Were that sufficient for "persuasion," then we could "persuade" someone of the opposite by merely conjoining a description of an unpleasant state of affairs with a description of the behavior that Skinner hopes to produce.

If persuasion were merely a matter of pointing to reinforcing stimuli and the like, then any persuasive argument would retain its force if its steps were randomly interchanged, or if some of its steps were replaced by arbitrary descriptions of reinforcing stimuli. Of course, this is nonsense. For an argument to be persuasive, at least to a rational person, it must be coherent; its conclusions must follow from its premises. But these notions are entirely beyond the scope of Skinner's science. When he states that "deriving new reasons from old, the process of deduction" merely "depends upon a much longer verbal history" (p. 96), he is indulging in hand-waving of a most pathetic sort.

Consider Skinner's claim that "we sample and change verbal behavior, not opinions," as, he says, behavioral analysis reveals (p. 95). Taken literally, this means that if, under a credible threat of torture, I force someone to say, repeatedly, that the earth stands still, then I have changed his opinion. Comment is unnecessary.

Skinner claims that persuasion is a weak method of control, and he asserts that "changing a mind is condoned by the defenders of freedom and dignity because it is an ineffective way of changing behavior, and the changer of minds can therefore escape from the charge that he is controlling people" (p. 97). Suppose that your doctor gives you a very persuasive argument to the effect that if you continue to smoke, you will die a horrible death from lung cancer. Is it necessarily the case that this argument will be less effective in modifying your behavior than any arrangement of true reinforcers?

In fact, whether persuasion is effective or not depends on the content of the argument (for a rational person), a factor that Skinner cannot begin to describe. The problem becomes still worse if we consider other forms of "changing minds." Suppose that a description of a napalm raid on a foreign village induces someone in an American audience to carry out an act of sabotage. In this case, the "effective stimulus" is not a reinforcer, but the mode of changing behavior may be quite effective, and, furthermore, the act that is performed (the behavior "reinforced") is entirely new (not in the "repertoire") and may not even have been hinted at in the "stimulus" that induced the change of behavior. In every possible respect, then, Skinner's account is simply incoherent.

Since his William James Lectures of 1947,[6] Skinner has been sparring with these and related problems. The results are nil. It remains impossible for Skinner to formulate questions of the kind just raised in his own terms, let alone investigate them. What is more, no serious scientific hypotheses with supporting evidence have been produced to substantiate the extravagant claims to which he is addicted. Furthermore, this record of failure was predictable from the start, from an analysis of the problems and the means proposed to deal with them.

It must be stressed that "verbal behavior" is the only aspect of human behavior that Skinner has attempted to investigate in any detail. To his credit, he recognized early that only through a successful analysis of language could he hope to deal with human behavior. By comparing the results that have been achieved in this period with the claims that are still advanced, we gain a good insight into the nature of Skinner's science of behavior. My impression is, in fact, that the claims are becoming more extreme and more strident as the inability to support them and the reasons for this failure become increasingly obvious.

It is unnecessary to labor the point any further. Evidently Skinner has no way of dealing with the factors involved in persuading someone or changing his mind. The attempt to invoke "reinforcement" merely leads to incoherence. The point is crucial. Skinner's discussion of persuasion and "changing minds" is one of the few instances in which he tries to come to terms with what he calls the "literature of freedom and dignity." The libertarian whom he condemns distinguishes between persuasion and certain forms of control. He advocates persuasion and objects to coercion. In response, Skinner claims that persuasion is itself a (weak) form of control and that by using weak methods of control we simply shift control to other environmental conditions, not to the person himself (pp. 97 and 99).

Thus, Skinner claims, the advocate of freedom and dignity is deluding himself in his belief that persuasion leaves the matter of choice to "autonomous man," and furthermore he poses a danger to society because he stands in the way of more effective controls. As we see, however, Skinner's argument against the "literature of freedom and dignity" is without force. Persuasion is no form of control at all, in Skinner's sense; in fact, he is unable to deal with the concept. But there is little doubt that persuasion can "change minds" and affect behavior, on occasion quite effectively.

Since persuasion cannot be coherently described as the result of arrangement of reinforcers, it follows that behavior is not entirely determined by the specific contingencies to which Skinner arbitrarily restricts his attention, and that the major thesis of the book is false. Skinner can escape this conclusion only by claiming that persuasion is a matter of arranging reinforcing stimuli, but this claim is tenable only if the term "reinforcement" is deprived of its technical meaning and used as a mere substitute for the detailed and specific terminology of ordinary language. In any event, Skinner's "science of behavior" is irrelevant: the thesis of the book is either false (if we use terminology in its technical sense) or empty (if we do not). And the argument against the libertarian collapses entirely.

Not only is Skinner unable to uphold his claim that persuasion is a form of control, but he also offers not a particle of evidence to support his claim that the use of "weak methods of control" simply shifts the mode of control to some obscure environmental factor rather than to the mind of autonomous man. Of course, from the thesis that all behavior is controlled by the environment, it follows that reliance on weak rather than strong controls shifts control to other aspects of the environment. But the thesis, in so far as it is at all clear, is without empirical support, and in fact may even be empty, as we have seen in discussing "probability of response" and persuasion. Skinner is left with no coherent criticism of the "literature of freedom and dignity."

The emptiness of Skinner's system is revealed when he discusses more peripheral matters. He claims (p. 112) that the statement "You should (you ought to) read David Copperfield" may be translated, "You will be reinforced if you read David Copperfield." No matter how we try to interpret Skinner's suggestion, giving the term "reinforce" its literal sense, we fall into utter confusion. Probably what Skinner has in mind when he says that it is "reinforcing" to read David Copperfield is that the reader will like it or enjoy it, and thus be "reinforced."

But this gives the game away. We are now using "reinforce" in a sense quite different from that of the laboratory theory of behavior. It would make no sense at all to try to apply results about "scheduling" of reinforcement, for example, to this situation. Furthermore, it is no wonder that we can "explain" behavior by using the nontechnical term "reinforce" with just the meaning of "like" or "enjoy" or "learn something from" or whatever. Similarly, when Skinner tells us that a fascinating hobby is "reinforcing" (p. 36), he is surely not claiming that the behavior that leads to indulging in this hobby will be increased in probability. Rather, he means that we enjoy the hobby. A literal interpretation of such remarks yields gibberish, and a metaphorical interpretation merely replaces an ordinary term by a homonym of a technical term, with no gain in precision.

In fact, Skinnerian translation, which is easily employed by anyone, leads to a significant loss of precision, for the simple reason that the full range of terms for the description and evaluation of behavior, attitude, opinion, and so on, must be "translated" into the impoverished system of terminology borrowed from the laboratory (and deprived of its meaning in transition). It is hardly surprising, then, that Skinner's translations generally miss the point, even with the metaphorical use of such terms as "reinforce." Thus Skinner asserts that "a person wants something if he acts to get it when the occasion arises" (p. 37). It follows that it is impossible to act to get something, given the opportunity, without wanting it—say, to act thoughtlessly, or out of a sense of duty (we can, as usual, reduce Skinner's assertion to triviality by saying that what the person wants is to do his duty, and so on). It is clear from the context that Skinner means "if" as "if and only if." Thus it follows from his definition of "want" that a person cannot want something without acting to get it when the occasion arises, say for reasons of conscience (again, we can escape to triviality by assigning such reasons to the "occasion").

Or consider the claim that "we are likely to admire behavior more as we understand it less" (p. 53). In a strong sense of "explain," it follows that we admire virtually all behavior, since we can explain virtually none. In a looser sense, Skinner is claiming that if Eichmann is incomprehensible to us, but we understand why the Vietnamese fight on, then we are likely to admire Eichmann but not the Vietnamese resistance. Similarly, Skinner asserts, "Except when physically restrained, a person is least free or dignified when he is under threat of punishment" (p. 60). Thus someone who refuses to bend to authority in the face of severe threat has lost his dignity.

The real content of Skinner's system can be appreciated only by examining such cases, point by point. The careful reader will discover that in each case a literal interpretation of Skinner's statements, where terminology is understood in something like the technical sense, yields obvious falsehood, and that a loose metaphorical interpretation does permit the translation of the familiar descriptive and evaluative vocabulary of ordinary discourse into Skinner's terms, of course with a loss of precision and clarity, in view of the poverty of his system.

We can get a taste of the explanatory force of Skinner's theory from such (typical) examples as these: a pianist learns to play a scale smoothly because "smoothly played scales are reinforcing" (p. 204); "A person can know what it is to fight for a cause only after a long history during which he has learned to perceive and to know that state of affairs called fighting for a cause" (p. 190); and so on.

Similarly, we can perceive the power of Skinner's behavioral technology by considering the useful observations and advice he offers: "Punishable behavior can be minimized by creating circumstances in which it is not likely to occur" (p. 64). If a person "is strongly reinforced when he sees other people enjoying themselves,…he will design an environment in which children are happy" (p. 150). If overpopulation, nuclear war, pollution, and depletion of resources are a problem, "we may then change practices to induce people to have fewer children, spend less on nuclear weapons, stop polluting the environment, and consume resources at a lower rate, respectively" (p. 152).

The reader may search for more profound thoughts than these. He may seek, but he will not find.

Skinner alludes more frequently in this book to the role of genetic endowment than he did in his earlier speculations about human behavior and society. One would think that this would lead to some modification in his conclusions, or to new conclusions. It does not, however. The reason is that Skinner is as vague and uninformative about genetic endowment as he is about control by contingencies of reinforcement. Unfortunately, zero plus zero still equals zero.


Let us consider now the matter of "design of a culture." The principles of Skinner's "science" tell us nothing about designing a culture, but that is not to say that Skinner leaves us completely in the dark about what he has in mind. He believes that "the control of the population as a whole must be delegated to specialists—to police, priests, owners, teachers, therapists, and so on, with their specialized reinforcers and their codified contingencies" (p. 155). The controller and the designer of a culture should be members of the group that is controlled (p. 172). When the technology of behavior is "applied to the design of a culture, the survival of the culture functions as a value." If our culture "continues to take freedom or dignity, rather than its own survival, as its principal value, then it is possible that some other culture will make a greater contribution to the future."

The refusal to exercise available controls, Skinner continues, may be "a lethal cultural mutation." "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are basic rights…[but] …they have only a minor bearing on the survival of a culture" (p. 180f.). One might wonder, then, what importance they have for the behavioral technologist who takes the survival of the culture as a value. It may be these and similar recommendations, to which we shall turn directly, that lead some readers to believe that Skinner is advocating a form of totalitarian control.

There is no doubt that in his specific recommendations, vague though they are, Skinner succeeds in differentiating his position from the "literature of freedom." Skinner claims that the latter has "overlooked…control which does not have aversive consequences at any time" (p. 41) and has encouraged opposition to all control, whereas he is proposing a much more extensive use of controls that have no aversive consequences. The most obvious form of control of this benign type is differential wages. It is, of course, incorrect to say that the "literature of freedom" has overlooked such controls. Since the industrial revolution, it has been much concerned with the problems of "wage slavery" and the "benign" forms of control that rely on deprivation and reward rather than direct punishment. This concern clearly distinguishes the literature of freedom from Skinner's social concepts.

Or consider freedom of speech. Skinner's approach suggests that control of speech by direct punishment should be avoided, but that it is entirely appropriate for speech to be controlled, say, by restricting good jobs to people who say what is approved by the designer of the culture. In accordance with Skinner's ideas, there would be no violation of "academic freedom" if promotions were granted only to those who conform, in their speech and writing, to the rules of the culture, though it would be wrong to go farther and punish those who deviate by saying what they believe to be true. Such deviants must simply remain in a state of deprivation. In fact, by giving people strict rules to follow, so that they know just what to say to be "reinforced" by promotion, we will be "making the world safer" and thus achieving the ends of behavioral technology (pp. 74 and 81). The literature of freedom would, quite properly, reject and abhor such controls.

In fact, there is nothing in Skinner's approach that is incompatible with a police state in which rigid laws are enforced by people who are themselves subject to them and the threat of dire punishment hangs over all. Skinner argues that the goal of a behavioral technology is to "design a world in which behavior likely to be punished seldom or never occurs"—a world of "automatic goodness" (p. 66). The "real issue," he explains, "is the effectiveness of techniques of control" which will "make the world safer." We make the world safer for "babies, retardates, or psychotics" by arranging matters so that punishable behavior rarely occurs. If only all people could be treated in this way, "much time and energy would be saved" (pp. 66 and 74). Skinner even offers some indications, perhaps unintentionally, of how this benign environment might be brought into being:

A state which converts all its citizens into spies or a religion which promotes the concept of an all-seeing God makes escape from the punisher practically impossible, and punitive contingencies are then maximally effective. People behave well although there is no visible supervision. (Pp. 67-68.)

Elsewhere, we learn that freedom "waxes as visible control wanes" (p. 70). Therefore the situation just described is one of maximal freedom, since there is no visible control. Furthermore, since "our task" is simply "to make life less punishing" (p. 81), the situation just described would seem ideal. Since people behave well, there will be no punishing. In this way, we can progress "toward an environment in which men are automatically good" (p. 73).

Extending these thoughts, let us consider a well-run concentration camp with inmates spying on one another and the gas ovens smoking in the distance, and perhaps an occasional verbal hint as a reminder of the meaning of this reinforcer. It would appear to be an almost perfect world. Skinner claims that a totalitarian state is morally wrong because it has deferred aversive consequences (p. 174). But in the delightful culture we have just designed there should be no aversive consequences, immediate or deferred. Unwanted behavior would be eliminated from the start by the threat of the crematoria and the all-seeing spies. Thus all behavior would be automatically "good," as required. There would be no punishment. Everyone would be reinforced—differentially, of course, in accordance with his ability to obey the rules.

Within Skinner's scheme there is no objection to this social order. Rather, it seems close to ideal. Perhaps we could improve it still further by noting that "the release from threat becomes more reinforcing the greater the threat" (as in mountain climbing—p. 111). We can, then, enhance the total reinforcement and improve the culture by devising a still more intense threat, say, by introducing occasional screams, or by flashing pictures of hideous torture as we describe the crematoria to our fellow citizens. The culture might survive, perhaps for 1,000 years.

Though Skinner's recommendations might be read in this way, it would be improper to conclude that Skinner is advocating concentration camps and totalitarian rule (though he also offers no objection). Such a conclusion overlooks a fundamental property of Skinner's science, namely, its vacuity. Though Skinner seems to believe that "survival of a culture" is an important value for the behavioral technologist, he fails to consider the questions that arise at once. When the culture changes, has it survived or died? Suppose that it changes in such a way as to extend the basic individual rights that Skinner personally regards as outdated (p. 180f). Is this survival or death? Do we want the 1,000-year Reich to survive? Why not, if survival of the culture functions as a value for the behavioral technologist? Suppose that in fact people are "reinforced" by (that is, prefer) reduction of sanctions and differential reinforcement. Do we then design the culture so as to lead to this result, thus diminishing effective controls rather than extending them, as Skinner urges?

Suppose that humans happen to be so constructed that they desire the opportunity for freely undertaken productive work. Suppose that they want to be free from the meddling of technocrats and commissars, bankers and tycoons, mad bombers who engage in psychological tests of will with peasants defending their homes, behavioral scientists who can't tell a pigeon from a poet, or anyone else who tries to wish freedom and dignity out of existence or beat them into oblivion. Do we then "design our culture" to achieve these ends (which, of course can be given an appropriate Skinnerian translation)? There are no answers to any of these questions in Skinner's science, in spite of his claim that it accommodates (fully, it seems) consideration of "values." For this reason his approach could be as congenial to an anarchist as to a Nazi, as has already been noted.

The libertarians and humanists whom Skinner scorns object to totalitarianism out of respect for freedom and dignity. But, Skinner argues, these notions are merely the residue of traditional mystical beliefs and must be replaced by the stern scientific notions of behavioral analysis. However, there exists no behavioral science incorporating empirically supported propositions that are not trivial and that apply to human affairs or support a behavioral technology. For this reason Skinner's book contains no clearly formulated substantive hypotheses or proposals. We can at least begin to speculate coherently about the acquisition of certain systems of knowledge and belief on the basis of experience and genetic endowment, and can outline the general nature of some device that might duplicate aspects of this achievement. But how does a person who has acquired systems of knowledge and belief then proceed to use them in his daily life? About this we are entirely in the dark, at the level of scientific inquiry.

If there were some science capable of treating such matters it might well be concerned precisely with freedom and dignity and might suggest possibilities for enhancing them. Perhaps, as the classical literature of freedom and dignity sometimes suggests, there is an intrinsic human inclination toward free creative inquiry and productive work, and humans are not merely dull mechanisms formed by a history of reinforcement and behaving predictably with no intrinsic needs apart from the need for physiological satiation. Then humans are not fit subjects for manipulation, and we will seek to design a social order accordingly. But we cannot, at present, turn to science for insight into these matters. To claim otherwise is pure fraud. For the moment, an honest scientist will admit at once that we understand virtually nothing, at the level of scientific inquiry, with regard to human freedom and dignity.

There is, of course, no doubt that behavior can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. This much is not at issue, and the conclusion is consistent with a belief in "autonomous man." If a tyrant has the power to require certain acts, whether by threat of punishment or by allowing only those who perform these acts to escape from deprivation (e.g., by restricting employment to such people), his subjects may choose to obey—though some may have the dignity to refuse. They will understand the difference between this compulsion and the laws that govern falling bodies.

Of course, they are not free. Sanctions backed by force restrict freedom, as does differential reward. An increase in wages, in Marx's phrase, "would be nothing more than a better remuneration of slaves, and would not restore, either to the worker or to the work, their human significance and worth." But it would be absurd to conclude merely from the fact that freedom is limited, that "autonomous man" is an illusion, or to overlook the distinction between a person who chooses to conform, in the face of threat or force or deprivation, and a person who "chooses" to obey Newtonian principles as he falls from a high tower.

The inference remains absurd even where we can predict the course of action that most "autonomous men" would select, under conditions of extreme duress and limited opportunity for survival. The absurdity merely becomes more obvious when we consider the real social world, in which determinable "probabilities of response" are so slight as to have virtually no predictive value. And it would be not absurd but grotesque to argue that since circumstances can be arranged under which behavior is quite predictable—as in a prison, for example, or the concentration camp society "designed" above—therefore there need be no concern for the freedom and dignity of "autonomous man." When such conclusions are taken to be the result of a "scientific analysis," one can only be amazed at human gullibility.

Skinner confuses "science" with terminology. He apparently believes that if he rephrases commonplace "mentalistic" expressions with terminology derived from the laboratory study of behavior, but deprived of whatever content this terminology has within this discipline, then he has achieved a scientific analysis of behavior. It would be hard to conceive of a more striking failure to comprehend even the rudiments of scientific thinking. The public may well be deceived, in view of the prestige of science and technology. It may even choose to be misled into agreeing that concern for freedom and dignity must be abandoned, perhaps out of fear and a sense of insecurity about the consequences of a serious concern for freedom and dignity. The tendencies in our society that lead toward submission to authoritarian rule may prepare individuals for a doctrine that can be interpreted as justifying it.

The problems that Skinner discusses—it would be more proper to say "circumvents"—are often real enough. In spite of his curious belief to the contrary, his libertarian and humanist opponents do not object to "design of a culture," that is, to creating social forms that will be more conducive to the satisfaction of human needs, though they differ from Skinner in their intuitive perception of what these needs truly are. They would not, or at least should not, oppose scientific inquiry or, where possible, its applications, though they will no doubt dismiss the travesty that Skinner presents.


[1] Economist, October 31, 1862. Cited by Frederick F. Clairmonte, review of R. Segal, The Race War, Journal of Modern African Studies, forthcoming.

[2] Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (Crowell: 1968), pp. 100-1. By the 1860s, he writes, "anthropology and racial determinism had become almost synonyms."

[3] "Linguistics and philosophy," in S. Hook (ed.), Language and Philosophy, (New York University, 1969), p. 97.

[4] Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity (knopf, 1971).

[5] As Koestler points out, in remarks Skinner quotes, Skinner's approach represents "question-begging on a heroic scale" (p. 165). It will not do to respond, as Skinner does, by claiming that this is "name-calling" and a sign of emotional instability. Rather it will be necessary to show that this is not the literal and obvious truth (as indeed it is).

[6] See his Verbal Behavior (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957), which incorporates and extends these lectures.