Sunday, September 3, 2017

Who is Joan Trumpauer?

In June 1961, Joan Trumpauer was a 19-year-old Duke University student and part-time secretary in the Washington office of Senator Clair Engle of California when she traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to take part in the Mississippi Freedom Ride which took place on June 4. Trumpauer and eight others were promptly arrested and refused bail. Trumpauer served three months in a Mississippi jail.

Joan Trumauer risked her relationship with her family, her education at Duke University, and her life (she was actually hunted by the Ku Klux Klan during Freedom Summer) in order to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. 

She later enrolled in traditionally black Tougaloo college, which had just started accepting white students.

On the 14th of this month (September, 2017), Joan Trumpauer will turn 76. 

Joan Trumpauer is still active and travels several times a year to screenings of the PBS documentary, Freedom Riders (which first aired on May 16, 2011) at colleges and libraries around the United States, joining in interactive Q&A sessions with students.

More about Joan Trumpauer:

Just in case it isn't obvious, I greatly admire this American woman.  Hers is the kind of courage I believe we are all capable of demonstrating, and a type of courage we should all strive to demonstrate, in ordinary acts, in our everyday lives.

And to think, the act for which she was punished was simply the exercise of her American freedoms.  Her crime?  She dissented against authority and, in Mississippi, in 1961, she dissented against public opinion.

There is no freedom in going along with the crowd, agreeing with public opinion, or in supporting your government, regardless of its actions.  The only freedom is in dissent.  Dissent is absolutely necessary for freedom to exist!  Ever thought about that?

Joan Trumpauer was standing up for her own rights, when she stood up in defense of others whose rights were being violated.  That's always how we can all best defend our own liberties.  Because We defend our own rights, liberties, and dignity when we protect the rights of those who we may not even feel deserve them, especially those who are powerless to defend themselves.

Joan Trumpauer is an American hero, and one of my personal heroes.

A Jackson Police Department file booking photograph taken on June 8, 1961 of 19-year-old Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer; Photo provided by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (digitally colourized)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Story of Courage : Brooksley Born

I have been surprised at how often I identify those types of courage I admire most in women.  Not the type of heroism that makes the evening news, but the kind of courage we should all be able to exhibit and to emulate.  The type of courage we're all capable of.  Indeed, we're all called, I believe, to exhibit in our daily lives.In 1996, a powerful Stanford-educated Washington lawyer named Brooksley E. Born was appointed by President Clinton to head the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).  The CFTC had been set up in 1974 to regulate the markets (exchanges) for agricultural commodities.  In the 25 years that followed, the CFTC added stock index futures and currency options to its scope of oversight.  Until Brooksley Born took over, however, the CFTC had largely ignored the fast-growing markets for derivative securities.  Derivatives at that time primarily meant credit-default swaps, which were essentially insurance contracts that allowed bond investors to purchase insurance  against debt default, contracts that could later be sold to investors.  During the 2000's, the derivatives market exploded with the trading of new "synthetic securities" like the collatoralized debt obligations (CDO's) which were packages of "securitized" subprime-mortgages (very risky mortgages). 

When she took her new position as head of the CFTC, Brooksley Born was immediately invited to a private luncheon with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan at his private dining room at the Fed building.  At that meeting, Greenspan surprised her by letting her know that she was not expected to do her job in regulating the new markets for derivatives; those markets, he assured her, were "self-regulating". In what way?  Basically, he told her that no investment broker would defraud its own clients (by misrepresenting the risks of any given investment) and if a broker did that, those clients would ensure that the broker was punished, by moving their money elsewhere.  In other words, he told her that Big Business can always be trusted to do the right thing. How foolish was that belief?  How monumentally stupid was that claim?  We know, now, don't we?  But in 1996, everyone was riding the prosperity wave. We were all going to make money without working for it; we were all going to let our money work for us instead.  No one was prepared to call the emperor naked.  No one, that is, but Brooksley Born.  She left that meeting with the full intent of ignoring Greenspan's advice which was, basically, "don't do your job – just stick to regulating pork bellies and soybeans – but you stay out of our way."

Essentially, no one wanted to question the safety or the honesty of the new and growing markets for these new securities.  No one wanted government regulators ensuring that these markets were safe and honest.  Why?  Because they were all getting rich.  In fact, they all got unbelievably rich.  The whole derivative market was designed to be too complex to be understood, much less "regulated."  What's the word they loved to use?  It was too "exotic," they said, to regulate.  The only people who really understood what they were up to were in the business of defrauding others.  And then, along came Brooksley Born.

Brooksley Born wasted no time; she began immediately studying the derivatives markets and coming to the conclusion that they were extremely vulnerable to a market collapse.  She was concerned about a lack of government regulation and a lack of transparency in the trading of derivatives. She was also concerned about the risks associated with subprime mortgages, those high-risk mortgage-based derivatives (or CDOs). Her work at the CFTC was strongly opposed by Alan Greenspan (who had blocked tougher government regulations on derivatives before she took office) and those working with him inside the government, Robert Rubin, Treasury Secretary; Larry Summer, Assistant Treasury Secretary; and Arthur Leavitt, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

On May 7, 1998, under the direction of Brooksley Born, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued a "concept paper,"  which brought her concerns to the public, or at least to the financial world.  The paper asked for input from regulators, academics, and derivatives traders on "how best to maintain adequate regulatory safeguards without impairing the ability of the OTC (over-the-counter) derivatives market to grow and the ability of U.S. entities to remain competitive in the global financial marketplace."  Greenspan and his cronies were livid.  Their response was immediate.  Within hours, Greenspan, Rubin and Levitt issued a joint statement condemning the CFTC for the "concept paper."  They were attacking Brooksley Born for wanted to regulate the irresponsible trading of very risky financial instruments.

Born's concept paper stated plainly that there would be no changes to existing regulatory guidelines or changes to existing exemptions from those guidelines.  The fact that this relatively mild paper created so much concern in the industry is an indication that something was terribly wrong with the markets for these new "exotic" securities, and they all knew it.

On July 30, 1998, Larry Summers (as Assistant Treasury Secretary) testified before congress that "the parties to these kinds of contract are largely sophisticated financial institutions that would appear to be eminently capable of protecting themselves from fraud and counterparty insolvencies." In other words, he echoed Alan Greenspan's claims that these markets were too sophisticated to be properly regulated and, besides, they were "self-regulating."  It was a totally bullshit claim.

They tried to challenge the CFTC on legal grounds (though they had none).  Eventually, they used their influence with the Congress of the United States to enact legislation to neuter the CFTC, first adding language to an agricultural appropriations bill to restrict the CFTC from regulating these markets; later they convinced a compliant Congress to pass the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 (oh, definitely review this page if you have time, all the players are there) which basically eliminated all federal government oversight of derivatives trading.  That Act of Congress (which was passed a year after Brooksley Born left the CFTC) basically paved the way for the ramp up in mortgage-backed securities trading that led to the financial collapse of 2008. It set the stage for the financial crisis that followed later that same year.

With the benefit of hindsight, and knowledge of the events that followed, we now know that Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, and Arthur Leavitt misjudged the dangers posed by derivatives contracts or misrepresented those risks to Congress.  We know, beyond any doubt, that these men were wrong.  And Brooksley Born was 100% right.  

Brooksley Born exemplifies a type of courage we can all possess.  It's the courage to stand firm on principle when all those around us are abandoning their own.  All she had to do was "go along" like everyone else.  Pretend there was no elephant in the room.  Accept the lie and look out for number one.  She could've made a lot of money by just not speaking the truth.  Instead, Brooksley Born chose the difficult path, the dangerous path, the lonely path.  That's the very rarest form of courage -- a courage that leaves a person standing alone.  I know.

In May 2009, Brooksley Born was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award in recognition of the "political courage she demonstrated in sounding early warnings about conditions that contributed to the current global financial crisis".  At the award ceremony, Brooksley Born took the opportunity to reiterate her warning that these un-regulated markets in derivative securities will ultimately lead to many more years of economic failure. JFK's daughter Caroline Kennedy, in presenting the award, said, "... Brooksley Born recognized that the financial security of all Americans was being put at risk by the greed, negligence and opposition of powerful and well connected interests ... The catastrophic financial events of recent months have proved them [Born and the FDIC's Sheila Bair, with whom she shared the award] right."
Charles Aulds

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Our earth does not wobble

I remember when I saw my first iPhone (it was an iPhone 4).  What astounded me most (but seemed completely ordinary to everyone around me, even real tech geeks) was how much technology was packed inside the thing ... most astonishingly, for the cost.  The gyroscope chip inside costs about $2.60.  Adding in the cost of the accelerometer (65 cents), the spatial orientation (and changes in that orientation) is sensed and measured with extreme accuracy, for $3.25.   That's mind-boggling to someone who knew anything at all about the cost of that same technology in 1969 (the year of the first manned moon landing).

The GPS in the iPhone was itself, quite amazing, and I spent several days trying to understand (if only from a layman's standpoint) how the Global Positioning System works.  When I thought I kind of understood the basic theory of it, I still couldn't understand how a satellite, which is in a geostationary orbit around the earth, and always ... ALWAYS ... precisely above a specific point on the earth's surface could deal with the wobble of the earth.  I mean, everyone knows that the earth wobbles like a drunken sailor, right?  Isn't that why we have seasons? 

And guess what I learned? The earth does not wobble; its axis doesn't change with the seasons ... it only appears that way from a fixed point on earth. Technically, it does precess or "wobble," but that occurs in a 26,000 year cycle. Over the course of a human lifetime, the change is so small it can be disregarded; the tilt of the earth changes so slowly, GPS works well enough for most purposes (they probably correct for it mathematically).

Here's the thing:  the earth's axis points in the same direction all the time, roughly 23.5 degrees from an axis perpendicular to an imaginary plane passing through the earth and the sun.   See the diagram below, the best one I've seen to describe it.  Note, the earth is not wobbling ... the orientation of a point on the earth changes relative to the sun ... but the planet's axis of rotation remains constant relative to that imaginary plane.

And that's why geosynchronous satellites do, indeed, remain (exactly) in place above a fixed point on the earth's surface.   Because the earth's orientation relative to that satellite doesn't change.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A dream, barely remembered, but one that will never be forgotten

It was five years ago, in January 2012 that I had a very vivid and disturbing dream that affected me for days.  I wrote down the details, but told no one about the dream for two days.  Usually I try to avoid telling a dream until 24 hours have passed.  You ever try to tell a dream to your spouse when you wake up; it's still fresh in your mind, but you can't, for the life of you, convey why the dream affected you?  You just sounded silly, right? The more vivid the dream, the more difficult it is to retell. 

So, I waited two days to tell this one to my wife.

In the dream, I was employed to assist in the removal of an old woman's body from a nursing home.  She was a complete stranger to me.  My boss and I entered the nursing home and we went to her room.  There was one other person in the room, a woman who was going to clean the room when we left.  The old woman, the "deceased", was in her bed.  My boss and I took the old woman's arms, she was very tiny, frail, and her skin was so pale it was almost translucent.  We lifted her out of the bed by her arms, so that we held her upright.

When we lifted her, the woman groaned, and my boss looked at me and said, "happens sometimes."  But I was surprised when the woman looked directly into my eyes and said, "Where are you taking me?"  I realized then that she wasn't dead.

"She's alive!" I said.

My boss looked at me and said, "No, she's been examined and declared dead.  She's dead.  What you're seeing is an autonomic response; she's gone."

I couldn't believe it.  "Listen, the woman knows what we're doing.  She's alive."

My boss said, "Let me put it to you this way: she is officially and unquestionably dead.  I have seen the death certificate.  It's not our job to question that; it's our job to dispose of the corpse."

"Ok, I'm not arguing with that," I said.  "I agree, she's officially dead.  I'm not arguing with that. I'm just saying that she's not physically dead."

So my boss says, "Well, I'm telling you that's she's physically dead, ok?  Are you going to argue with me?"

I thought about it and said, "No, I'm not going to argue that point.  I'll concede that she's officially and physically dead.  I am not going to dispute that, but I am under no moral obligation to assist you in what you are doing, and I will not.  What happens now is on your conscience."  And I turned and left the room.

I woke the morning after the dream with a vivid recollection of it in my mind.  I felt really good about it.  The dream confirmed my decision to stop fighting against forces I can't change, and to concern myself only with preserving my own individual sense of honour; my individual sense of morality, decency and humanity.  I can't dedicate myself to the impossible; changing the world, or even changing other people around me.  I'm only responsible for me.  And that's where I draw the line.

But when I told the dream to my wife, she had a completely different reaction, and her response was immediate.  She said, "No, you had more than a moral obligation not to participate.  You were supposed to do all you could to help that woman.  You didn't go far enough in the dream.  You had an obligation to fight for her, regardless of whether or not you could win that fight; because she was helpless to fight for herself."

You talk about being drenched with cold water.  My wife was right.  And that hit me hard.

We fight, not for ourselves only; but for those who cannot fight for themselves.  Morally, we cannot abstain from that fight.  Morally, we cannot choose to leave the room.

But there is only so much, and it is so little, that any of us can do to change the direction of world. None of us can (or should) spend our days picketing outside a military base, or marching with protestors in city streets.  If you have voiced your concerns to others who know and trust you, quietly, privately, but resolutely, expressing your opposition to the systematic reduction of liberty in America (the foundation on which the nation claims to stand), and to the growing acceptance of xenophobia and intolerance,  I believe you've done all that any of us can do.  

When you speak up to haters, no matter how quietly; when you offer an opposing position, no matter how tentatively ... you have done your part; you have sowed a seed, because you have shown others that there is another side, equally as strongly felt, and usually better grounded in reason.

Your silence, however, will almost always be interpreted as tacit agreement.  There's never going to be any way to measure the effectiveness of your dissent.  Never.  Do it anyway. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

I love the Dixie Chicks

On March 10, 2003, in London, at a promotional concert for the Dixie Chicks' "Top of the World Tour", only nine days before the US-led invasion of Iraq, lead vocalist Nathalie Maines told the audience: "We don't want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas". The reaction to this statement from the British audience was a huge wave of applause.  

The reaction in the United States was completely different.  There were immediate radio boycotts, bans of their recordings, and organized burnings of the Dixie Chicks’ music.  Their lives were threatened.  By whom?  By weak-willed rightwing authoritarian followers eager to prove their slavish devotion to their master.  That's who.

It was thought, then, that Nathalie Maines' criticism of America's foolish, headlong rush into war would end her career and that of the Dixie Chicks.  It didn't happen that way.  
Months later in the tour, as the Chicks’ closed a show with their first hit song, "Wide Open Spaces", Natalie Maines told the audience: "You know, they said you wouldn't come. But we knew you'd come because we have the greatest fans in the whole wide world."  The crowd went wild with its enthusiastic applause. And you can hear that on the 2nd CD of Top of the World Tour: Live.

In 2007, they won five Grammy Awards for their album Taking The Long Way (which included the song Not Ready to Make Nice which was a response to their critics).  That album, their first studio album since the 2003 controversy, debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and sold over 2.5 million copies in the US.

The Dixie Chicks were vindicated.  Quite simply, they stood by their principles, when all around them were acting hysterically; they acted courageously, when all around them, Americans folded, giving their allegiances to anyone who made promises of safety and security.

At a time when the world was looking for real American leadership, one of the few places they could find it was in three country music performers from Texas.  


L-R: Emily Robison, Nathalie Maines and Martie Maguire, the Dixie Chicks (at Madison Square Garden in June, 2003 on the Top of the World Tour

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What did Chelsea Manning do? (A reminder)

Washington (CNN)  President Barack Obama on Tuesday overruled his secretary of defense to commute the sentence of former Army soldier Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of stealing and disseminating 750,000 pages of documents and videos to WikiLeaks.
The decision – which a senior defense official told CNN was made over the objections of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter – immediately touched off a controversy in the closing days of the Obama administration.

What did Chelsea Manning do to deserve a 45-year sentence (currently being served at Ft. Leavenworth, KS?   Everyone remember?

Nearly seven years ago, on April 5, 2010, Wikileaks released video with transcripts and other documents showing that laughing American troops machine-gunned civilians (including two journalists) from helicopters. Three months later, on July 6, 2010, U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, a 22 year old intelligence analyst with the United States Army in Baghdad, was charged with providing the video to Wikileaks.

He informed the American people of what was being done, in their names, to the unfortunate, defenseless people of Iraq ... in their OWN country.

But such things happen in war, right?  Yes, that is right.  All the time, as a matter-of-fact. 

The significance of the Wikileaks release, though, is that the US military attempted to hide the incident, to keep it secret, and they lied about it.  The official statement initially listed all adult victims as insurgents and claimed the US
 military did not know how they were killed.  Lies.

All I need to know about WikiLeaks is that if it wasn't for Private Manning and WikiLeaks, we would never have known about the US military attempt to hide an incident in which civilians were murdered. Never. Just like we were never supposed to find out about Abu Ghraid, or the PRISM surveillance system.

The attack on civilians occurred three years before WikiLeaks released the "Collateral Murder" video.  Three years.  In three years, no one in the mainstream media showed any interest at all in collecting and disclosing information about those murders.  In three years, the US military focused solely on hiding the act. 

No one in the US military leadership or in the US mainstream media – no one – would ever have stood up and acted honorably.  No one.  You can take that to the bank.  They all failed to do their jobs.  It was necessary for someone else to do their jobs for them.  Pure and simple:  We owe Chelsea Manning.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Personal privacy: essentially, it's a constitutional debate

When the Americans added the Bill of Rights to their Constitution (to ensure its ratification by a few recalcitrant states, I believe) in 1791, it was a revolutionary (pardon the pun) notion that the government should be restrained from infringing on the rights of sovereign citizens. Under Crown law, there were no such restraints on the actions of the King to his subjects.  

At that time, there were no huge corporations that needed to be considered when imposing limits on institutional power.  That is what has changed most in 225 years ... essentially, citizens still have a right to privacy (to be secure in their persons, homes, and possessions) ... government is still restrained, by law, from infringing on those rights.  The difference is that now it is corporations that hold the real power in the US, and pose the greatest threat to individual liberty.  The government serves corporate interests in the US.  That's the nature of its "inverted totalitarianism."

Transparency is the key ... that's why courageous, self-sacrificing, individuals like Edward Snowden are so important.  They expose what we have a right to know, in order for democracy to exist.  Without that transparency, our society is under totalitarian rule.

The "terrorist" threat, insignificant as it is, is being used to stymie attempts at transparency. "National security", you know.  The attack is not one on our privacy; it's an attack on open government and self-governance by the people.

Protecting our privacy should not be our primary concern.  Protecting our rights to that privacy, to live free from government and corporate surveillance and profiling, should be a major concern to all of us.  The fact this it is NOT a concern to most people is an absolute guarantee that those rights will be abridged.  And, in all likelihood, we won't even know about it.

One of the most significant things that was not well understood about the events of last year was that it's not entirely about surveillance. We have seen a trend toward governments that are affording themselves, in secret, greater powers and more and more authority without the consent or awareness of the public.
Edward Snowden, November 7 2014

Section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides everyone in Canada with protection against unreasonable search and seizure. This right provides Canadians with their primary source of constitutionally enforced privacy rights against unreasonable intrusion from the state. Typically, this protects personal information that can be obtained through searching someone in pat-down, entering someone's property or surveillanceUnder the heading of legal rights, section 8 states, succinctly:  Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.