March 31, 2019

Crisis: American Prisons, Sanders & Medicare-for-All, Human Nature, Killer Robots, On Russiagate

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous, than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
  -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.



1. Summary
Crisis Files
     A. Selections from March 31, 2019

This is a Nederlog of Sunday, March 31, 2019.

1. Summary

This is a crisis log but it is a bit different from how it was until 2013:

I have been writing about the crisis since September 1, 2008 (in Dutch, but since 2010 in English) and about the enormous dangers of surveillance (by secret services and by many rich commercial entities) since June 10, 2013, and I will continue with it.

On the moment and since more than three years (!!!!) I have problems with the company that is supposed to take care that my site is visible [1] and with my health, but I am still writing a Nederlog every day and I shall continue.

2. Crisis Files

These are five crisis files that are mostly well worth reading:

A. Selections from March 31, 2019:
1. The Liberal Betrayal of America’s Most Vulnerable
2. Sanders Bets Big on Medicare-for-All

3. The bad news on human nature — in 10 findings from psychology

4. Killer robots already exist – and they’ve been here a very long time

5. Matt Taibbi and Aaron Maté on How Russiagate Helped Trump
The items 1 - 5 are today's selections from the 35 sites that I look at everyorning. The indented text under each link is quoted from the link that starts the item. Unindented text is by me:

1. The Liberal Betrayal of America’s Most Vulnerable

This article is by Robert Scheer on Truthdig. It starts as follows:

It’s no secret that the U.S. incarcerates a shocking number of swaths of its own people, primarily the poor and people of color. With 2.3 million Americans
currently being held in prisons, the country has the largest prison population in the world. But even as awareness of mass incarceration grows, two crucial questions remain at the heart of the debate on prison reform: Why does the U.S. imprison so many people, and how do we change our toxic approach? These are the issues Tony Platt, author of “Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States,” and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer discuss in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.”

Yes. And this is a good article that is too long to properly excerpt in Nederlog.

Here is some more:

“When I started writing this book,” says Platt, a scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. “I was trying to answer the question: Why is it so difficult to make any kind of fundamental, decent, humane change in criminal justice institutions? Why are [our leaders] so resistant to this?”

Part of the reason, he argues, is that there has been a bipartisan, right-wing effort—that includes leaders from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton—to dehumanize large portions of American society, especially people of color. This demonization largely succeeded due to a penitentiary system designed to divide Americans, often along racial lines, both inside and outside of prisons.

Well... I have to say I do not think that the above stated theory of Platt is very clear, for on the one hand there is the effort "to dehumanize large portions of American society, especially people of color" and on the other hand there is "a penitentiary system designed to divide Americans, often along racial lines, both inside and outside of prisons", and neither of these supposed facts is formulated clearly, nor is their interaction, if any.

What I will take as a fact is that the American prison system, like the American legal system, is quite unfair to the poor and especially to the black poor.

Here is a partial explanation of what I take as a fact:

“You could go to any prison and institution in Scotland, in France, in Italy, and Germany for sure, and the Netherlands and Sweden and so on, and you’d find an effort to try to follow what the United Nations [says] prison should be, which is that prisons should approximate the conditions outside of prisons as much as possible.

“But the United States does not look to other countries to learn from them. The United States is always about exporting law and order, exporting corrections, exporting policing to other countries. Part of the foreign policy of the U.S. has been to do that, and very rarely does it stop and say, ‘Well, what should we be importing back to here?’ ”

Yes, I think that is basically correct. And perhaps I should add that from my own point of view, which is that of an academically qualified Dutchman, I think both the American prison system and the American legal system often seem very unfair, and again especially to the poor and the black.

Here is some more:

TP: Well, there’s a tendency these days for people to say the United States proportionally incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. I don’t know if that’s true. I just don’t think we know what the real situation is in China and Russia, which are the big competitors in incarceration. I think the U.S. is in the ballpark; I think the U.S. is close. When you compare the U.S. with Canada or Australia or New Zealand, or France and England, then there’s no contest. There’s no other country that’s comparable to the United States in terms of its political economy that puts as many people away, that hires as many cops, and invests as much money in repression as this country does.

I take it that is a fact, that is that "the United States" more than any other country, with the possible exception of China and Russia, "hires as many cops, and invests as much money in repression as this country does".

Here is the last bit that I quote from this article:

RS: (..) [I]t seems to me the surveillance society that we’ve entered is the Orwellian society. That you can isolate people, you can do predictive policing, you can say these are the people we don’t need, they don’t have the skillset, and we’re going to lock them up and throw away the key. You have a group like Palantir, which that’s what they do. Our police force seems to have this predictive policing; it was a group started by the CIA, In-Q-Tel. And so I’m just wondering whether in fact we are moving to this Orwellian world, or is that an overused example to frighten young children?

TP: Well, I agree with you that surveillance systems are at the heart of what the carceral state does: regulates people, watches people, tracks people. Once people have been identified as being dangerous or troublesome or criminal, they sort of face a social death for the rest of their life. But this isn’t a new phenomenon.
Well... I do not think that Scheer thought this tracking, surveilling and regulating people is "a new phenomenon". I think that what Scheer meant is that this old phenomenon these days has taken a definite Orwellian shape, simply because this tracking, surveilling and regulating of people has grown tenthousands of times stronger with the internet than in the days before the internet, and if so, I think Scheer was quite correct.

There's a whole lot more in the article, which is too long to be properly excerpted, but it is recommended.

2. Sanders Bets Big on Medicare-for-All

This article is by Bill Boyarsky on Truthdig. It starts as follows:

The 2019-model Bernie Sanders has aged well, looking as spry as he did four years ago. His speeches are the same, too. But where they were once dismissed as too radical, they are now mainstream, clearly focusing on the ills of an America that has grown more inequitable since he last ran for president.

I say, which I do especially because I did not dismiss Bernie Sanders "as too radical" in 2016, and I also think that is somewhat misleading, for Bernie Sanders did get quite a large number of votes in 2016, albeit fewer than Hillary Clinton.

Here is some more - and "these people" are the American poor:

The coming election is about these people. Some are Trump voters, some are not. Among them are the many victims of the huge gap between the rich elite on top and the growing number of poor people.

I’ve always thought that health care is the issue that encompasses every aspect of this inequality, a belief that has been strengthened each time I visited a county hospital or a clinic. Without the certainty of care, millions are a step away from financial ruin and death.

Yes, I think that is correct. Here is more (and Reding is part of a union of nurses who also supported Sanders in 2016):

“We’ve been on the ground canvassing for Medicare-for-all,” Reding said. Their reception, both nurses said, was much different than it was four years ago. “It’s the difference between night and day, ” she said. “These are people who come out after they have done their research. Medicare-for-all is the fire-starter, the catalyst.”

It is a catalyst because guaranteed medical care, as represented by Medicare-for- all, would bring about a great improvement in American life on many levels.

I agree with the second paragraph, but I think the first quoted paragraph seems a bit strong.

Here is some more:

Improvements have been proposed by congressional Democrats. A simple cure would be to increase the subsidy, leaving in place Obamacare’s complex system of private insurance, public “marketplaces” and a variety of plans with different costs and benefits. Even simpler would be to eliminate private insurance, including employer plans, and provide health insurance through a single government plan. That’s Medicare-for-all.

It would be a federal government-administered program providing coverage to all U.S. residents. “Medicare-for-all would result in a major shift in the way in which health care is financed in the U.S.—away from households, employers and states to the federal government and taxpayers,” the Kaiser Family Foundation says.

Yes, I think that is basically correct - and in Holland the system is Medicare-for-all, including a law which forces everyone to pay the premium to one's insurers. (I do not myself think this is a very good system, but then I am comparing it with the previous Dutch system, which was similar or better in health care, but considerably cheaper.)

This article ends as follows:

I don’t know whether Sanders can win. With so many Democratic candidates floating around, it’s too early to talk about that. But in a Los Angeles park, filled with supporters, Sanders no longer looked too radical—and his victory didn’t seem so improbable.

Once again, I did not think that Sanders "looked too radical" in 2016. And I am a supporter of Sanders not because I agree with everything he stands for, but because Sanders is one of the few Democrats that I think is basically honest. And this is a recommended article.

3. The bad news on human nature — in 10 findings from psychology

This article is by Aeon on AlterNet. It starts as follows:

It’s a question that’s reverberated through the ages – are humans, though imperfect, essentially kind, sensible, good-natured creatures? Or are we, deep down, wired to be bad, blinkered, idle, vain, vengeful and selfish? There are no easy answers, and there’s clearly a lot of variation between individuals, but here we shine some evidence-based light on the matter through 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature:

Well... I am a psychologist (and also a philosopher), and I would say most human beings clearly are both: "essentially kind, sensible, [and] good-natured", especially towards the members of those groups we are members of, and also "bad, blinkered, idle, vain, vengeful and selfish", namely especially towards members of groups we are not members of (and that are opposed by some or all groups we are members of).

Also, since I am both a psychologist and a philosopher (of science, mostly), I should add that I do not have much trust in most statistics on psychological characteristics that I saw.

And the text of this article is too long to be properly excerpted in Nederlog. What I decided to do is to copy all of the ten points, but to delete all or most of the texts that accompany each point. Also, while I more or less like the ten points that follow, I do so mostly because I have read a great lot of strongly optimistic views on humans, that were also said to supported by "psychology".

Finally, I also happen to think that psychology is not much of a real science, so my own view of the evidence that is given is rather skeptical.

Here goes:

We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human. (..)

We experience Schadenfreude (pleasure at another person’s distress) by the age of four, (..)

We believe in karma – assuming that the downtrodden of the world deserve their fate. (..)

Yes, I think all three are more or less true of most persons (and as I said, I deleted most explanations: if you want to read them go here and click).

Here is some more:

We are blinkered and dogmatic. If people were rational and open-minded, then the straightforward way to correct someone’s false beliefs would be to present them with some relevant facts. However a classic study from 1979 showed the futility of this approach – participants who believed strongly for or against the death penalty completely ignored facts that undermined their position, actually doubling-down on their initial view. (..)

We would rather electrocute ourselves than spend time in our own thoughts. (..)
I think these facts are especially true of "people" who are not intelligent, but then I agree that at least half of any large unsorted human population is not intelligent, in the simple sense that half such groups do have an IQ that is less than 100.

We are vain and overconfident. Our irrationality and dogmatism might not be so bad were they married to some humility and self-insight, but most of us walk about with inflated views of our abilities and qualities, such as our driving skills, intelligence and attractiveness – a phenomenon that’s been dubbed the Lake Wobegon Effect after the fictional town where ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average’. (..)

We are moral hypocrites. (..)

I think the first of the above two facts is again more true of the none too intelligent, although I agree vanity probably applies to all human groups. And I think it is - or rather: ought to be - a plain fact that the great majority of all persons are moral hypocrites - and for more see my Features of Moral Norms, that was originally written in 2004, and lists 9 more or less similar points about moral norms, as this article lists points about "human nature".

Here is some more:

We are all potential trolls. As anyone who has found themselves in a spat on Twitter will attest, social media might be magnifying some of the worst aspects of human nature, in part due to the online disinhibition effect, and the fact that anonymity (easy to achieve online) is known to increase our inclinations for immorality. (..)

Well, I am sorry, but I hate all a-social media; I have never been part of any of them; and I will never be, so this does not apply to me, nor can I properly investigate it. (But there are more like me.)

Here is the last bit that I quote:

We favour ineffective leaders with psychopathic traits. (..)

We are sexually attracted to people with dark personality traits. Not only do we elect people with psychopathic traits to become our leaders, evidence suggests that men and women are sexually attracted, at least in the short term, to people displaying the so-called ‘dark triad’ of traits – narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism – thus risking further propagating these traits.

In fact, these is a partial explanation for both points, for people with "narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism" often do look as if they are good leaders or strong persons (which they are not).

Anyway... this is a strongly recommended article not so much because I agree to or believe the psychology that went into them (in fact I don't), but because it is a list of ten negative traits that are shared by many humans, to various extents.

4. Killer robots already exist – and they’ve been here a very long time

This article is by The Conversation on AlterNet. It starts as follows:

Humans will always make the final decision on whether armed robots can shoot, according to a statement by the US Department of Defense. Their clarification comes amid fears about a new advanced targeting system, known as ATLAS, that will use artificial intelligence in combat vehicles to target and execute threats. While the public may feel uneasy about so-called “killer robots”, the concept is nothing new – machine-gun wielding “SWORDS” robots were deployed in Iraq as early as 2007.

Our relationship with military robots goes back even further than that. This is because when people say “robot”, they can mean any technology with some form of “autonomous” element that allows it to perform a task without the need for direct human intervention.

These technologies have existed for a very long time.

Yes indeed - and in fact the statement that "humans will always make the final decision on whether armed robots can shoot" is a fallacy that very probably was intentional and strongly depends on - intentional - vagueness, such as the fact that the code that robots run was written by humans.

Here is some more:

During World War II, mathematician Norbert Wiener laid the groundwork of cybernetics – the study of the interface between humans, animals and machines – in his work on the control of anti-aircraft fire. By studying the deviations between an aircraft’s predicted motion, and its actual motion, Wiener and his colleague Julian Bigelow came up with the concept of the “feedback loop”, where deviations could be fed back into the system in order to correct further predictions.

Wiener’s theory therefore went far beyond mere augmentation, for cybernetic technology could be used to pre-empt human decisions – removing the fallible human from the loop, in order to make better, quicker decisions and make weapons systems more effective.

In the years since World War II, the computer has emerged to sit alongside cybernetic theory to form a central pillar of military thinking, from the laser-guided “smart bombs” of the Vietnam era to cruise missiles and Reaper drones.

Yes, this is mostly true, although I would have preferred it if they had given Wiener's definition of cybernetics, which is "the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine" (which seems considerably clearer to me, and which is by Wiener).

Here is the last bit that I quote from this article:

While Predator and Reaper drones may stand at the forefront of the public imagination about military autonomy and “killer robots”, these innovations are in themselves nothing new. They are merely the latest in a long line of developments that go back many decades.

While it may comfort some readers to imagine that machine autonomy will always be subordinate to human decision making, this really does miss the point. Autonomous systems have long been embedded in the military and we should prepare ourselves for the consequences.

That is, more simply: You very well may be killed by a drone or a robot or a computer, and to say, as the US Department of Defense did say, that "humans will always make the final decision on whether armed robots can shoot" is essentially misleading propaganda

5. Matt Taibbi and Aaron Maté on How Russiagate Helped Trump

This article is by Katie Halper on Common Dreams and originally on Truthdig. It starts as follows:

The claim that President Trump engaged in collusion with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election was so pervasive and unquestioned that only a handful of journalists demonstrated the healthy skepticism required by their profession. Last week, special counsel Robert Mueller delivered his report on the Trump-Russia investigation to the Justice Department, which then released a four-page summary written by Attorney General William Barr. While the full report is over 300 pages, and Mueller punted on the question of obstruction, he found no evidence of collusion. Despite this, the “Russiagate” truthers, if you will, are doubling down on the Russiagate narrative, moving the goalposts to focus on the possibility of obstruction of justice and conveniently ignoring that the collusion that was so central to their theory has not been established.

I think this is mostly correct, and I also think this may have been inspired by Rachel Maddow, who is one of the "“Russiagate” truthers" who is "doubling down on the Russiagate narrative", although I grant this last point is second hand for me, since I do not watch Maddow since three or more years.

Also, I am one of the few who insisted that "Russiagate" was nonsense from the start, although I deny that I am a journalist (since I am a psychologist and a philosopher, who was academically qualified in these respects, but never as a journalist).

Here is some more:

In a recent episode of my podcast, I spoke with two journalists who pushed back on the Russiagate narrative: Aaron Maté, contributor to The Nation and former host and producer for “The Real News” and “Democracy Now!,” and Matt Taibbi, the award-winning Rolling Stone journalist and author of four New York Times best-sellers. They weighed in on the way Russiagate benefited Trump, undermined journalistic integrity and thwarted a real resistance.

Yes indeed, and this is a good and interesting interview, of which I will quote just two bits. This is the first:

KH: Where are we right now in the Russiagate investigation?

AM: Where we are is that the conspiracy theory has collapsed. For two years, the dominant narrative has been that Trump is in cahoots with Russia, engaged in a conspiracy with them, is compromised by them, and that Robert Mueller was going to uncover it. He was going to uncover the smoking gun. And Robert Mueller has just rendered his verdict, and he didn’t. He found no evidence of a Trump-Russia conspiracy.

Yes, that is quite true. Here is one more bit:

MT: In March 2017, I wrote an article saying this story is a minefield for the Democratic Party and particularly for journalists, because Trump had made it such an important part of his message that journalists were out to get him, that they were representatives of the elite who would stop at nothing to undermine this presidency. And to me it seemed the only way we could possibly lose with the public in a contest with someone like Trump is if we completely abdicated the standards of the profession and did what he accused us of doing, which would be politicizing our jobs and using trumped-up evidence to try to make him look bad. That was the one option out of an infinite number of ways we could have pursued covering his presidency. That was the one thing that could have really helped him. And we did it. Not only did we do it, but we did it, basically, to the exclusion of everything else, for years.

Yes, except for the fact that I strongly dislike attributing to us - "we" - what I and indeed Matt Taibbi, who is the speaker above, never did do nor wanted to do. But otherwise he is correct, except for the few.

There is a whole lot more in the article, which is strongly recommended.

[1] I have now been saying since the end of 2015 that is systematically ruining my site by NOT updating it within a few seconds, as it did between 1996 and 2015, but by updating it between two to seven days later, that is, if I am lucky.

They have claimed that my site was wrongly named in html: A lie. They have claimed that my operating system was out of date: A lie.

And they just don't care for my site, my interests, my values or my ideas. They have behaved now for 3 years as if they are the eagerly willing instruments of the US's secret services, which I will from now on suppose they are (for truth is dead in Holland).

The only two reasons I remain with xs4all is that my site has been there since 1996, and I have no reasons whatsoever to suppose that any other Dutch provider is any better (!!).
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