At a time when President Biden and congressional Democrats are pushing to expand the breadth of entitlements to include free preschool and subsidized child care, little attention is given to the fact that the country’s biggest existing entitlement program—Social Security—is a financial wreck.
The program’s payouts have exceeded revenue since 2010, but the recent past is nowhere near as grim as the future. According to the latest annual report by Social Security’s trustees, the gap between promised benefits and future payroll tax revenue has reached a staggering $59.8 trillion.
That gap is $6.8 trillion larger than it was just one year earlier. The biggest driver of that move wasn’t Covid-19, but rather a lowering of expected fertility over the coming decades.
That trend has already been steadily undermining the program. In 1960, for every Social Security beneficiary there were 5.1 workers adding payroll taxes to the system. That ratio has shrunk to 2.7 and is expected to reach 2.2 by 2036.
The Social Security trust fund is projected to run out in 2033. Absent other action, that would trigger a 20% cut for everyone receiving benefits at that time.
While 2033 is just 12 years from now, it’s hard to predict when an appropriate sense of crisis will actually take hold in Washington. We can, however, speculate on what measures the inevitable reckoning with the program’s insolvency could include.
Payroll Tax Hike Coming?
First, Congress could look to increase revenue. According to the Social Security trustees’ report, maintaining current benefits would require a major hike of the payroll tax—from 12.4% to 17%. Most Americans already pay more in payroll taxes than income taxes.
For those employed by others, the current 12.4% Social Security tax is split, with employers and employees each paying 6.2%. Self-employed people pay the full 12.4%, though income tax deductions cushion the blow somewhat. (Many economists argue “employer contributions” are largely an illusion: the employer payroll tax reduces wages, they say, which means the cost is ultimately borne by employees.)
In addition to raising the payroll tax rate, Congress could also expand its reach. Today, it’s applied to incomes up to $142,800. Many Democrats, including Biden, have proposed repealing that cap, either gradually or all at once.
Defenders of the cap say it’s consistent with Social Security’s founding philosophy that an individual’s benefits should be related to the amount they contributed—if benefits have a ceiling, so too should the individual’s required contribution.
Repealing the cap would make the program more explicitly redistributionist in nature. Higher earners could end up receiving benefits that are just a quarter of what they contribute.
Other Social Security Fixes: Pick Your Poison
In 2017, Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter DeFazio proposed not only removing the payroll tax cap—misleadingly calling it a “loophole”—but also hitting high-income households with a new 6.2% Social Security tax on investment income.
In addition to considering novel ideas like that one, we can expect policymakers to take inspiration from the last major “fix” to Social Security. Brokered by President Reagan and House speaker Tip O’Neill in 1983, it centered on:
Decreasing benefits, by increasing the normal retirement age from 65 to 67, with the change gradually implemented according to birth years.
Making Social Security benefits taxable for higher-income beneficiaries. Up to 85% of a beneficiary’s benefits are now taxable. This tax originally affected 10% of beneficiaries, but now hits more than half of them.
Of course, taxing benefits is just a roundabout way of cutting them: Rather than trimming their monthly payments, Uncle Sam commands half of today’s beneficiaries to give some of the money right back.
In addition to increasing the normal retirement age and raising taxes again, Congress may also consider means-testing—that is, cutting benefits outright for those above certain income levels.
The problem with means-testing is that the overwhelming majority of benefits are paid to lower and middle class Americans. Unless it hits the middle class, means-testing doesn’t put a meaningful dent in program outlays.
Meanwhile, means-testing carries an administrative cost. According to a study by the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research, that administrative burden “would eliminate most, if not all, of the savings from a plausible means test on affluent beneficiaries.”
There’s another crafty way to cut benefits—for all beneficiaries: Reform architects could put a damper on Social Security’s cost of living increases. With inflation surging, that’s not a possibility to be taken lightly.
Younger Americans Beware
While there’s no way of knowing which assortment of changes will comprise the next round of Social Security reform, one thing seems clear: If the 1983 reform is any indication, we can expect the consequences of the next big fix to fall heaviest on younger people.
“The largest tax increases and the maximum benefit cuts targeted people who were 11 and younger at the time,” wrote Brenton Smith of Fix Social Security Now. “The political calculus behind the bipartisan compromise is simple: 11 year-olds can’t vote.”
Originally a safety net for the elderly—at a time when full retirement age was beyond life expectancy—Social Security is increasingly a mechanism for transferring wealth from younger people to older people. On average, that means it’s also a mechanism for transferring wealth from less well-off people to more comfortable people.
That reality is masked by the government-cultivated myth that our individual payroll taxes go to an account used to fund our own benefits. In truth, they’re immediately paid out to retirees who entered the system before us.
As the ratio of younger workers to older beneficiaries continues its decline, expect the victimization of youth by this compulsory Ponzi scheme to grow ever harsher. In that light, Social Security’s dilemma isn’t so much a financial crisis as it is a crisis of conscience.
This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republished with permission.
On May 14, 2019, Ameal Woods drove from rural Mississippi to Houston with $42,300 in cash. He was ready to achieve a major goal he and his wife had worked, saved and borrowed for: Purchasing a second semi truck for the fledgling trucking business he operated with his brother, and perhaps a trailer, too.
Along Interstate 10 in Texas, however, his entrepreneurial dream turned into a nightmare. It started when Woods was pulled over by a Harris County sheriff’s deputy who claimed Woods had been following too closely behind the truck in front of him.
The deputy asked Woods if he was carrying drugs or money. Seeking to be cooperative, Woods said he was carrying cash in the trunk and consented to a search of his vehicle.
The deputy proceeded to the trunk, took the money, handed Woods a receipt, and sent him on his way without charging him with anything.
“All my cash. All my life savings. All my dreams. He got it,” says Woods in an Institute for Justice video profile embedded at the end of this article.
Woods had become a victim of civil asset forfeiture, a controversial practice that authorizes police to seize money, cars, trucks, houses or anything else they merely accuse of having a link to criminal activity—regardless of whether the property owner is charged with a crime.
Woods says all his money was legally acquired: $22,800 from his own savings, $13,000 borrowed from his niece and another $6,500 lent to him by his wife, Jordan Davis.
Davis says she’d worked overtime shifts in her job as a restaurant cashier to help accumulate the money Woods needed to pursue his business goals.
“I worked hard for that money,” says Davis. “There were days that I didn’t even want to go to work because I’m tired, and to just have it taken, with no explanation is terrible. How do you start over?”
It was an even more devastating blow for Woods: “All of my drive, all of my motivation, everything was gone.” He went into a deep depression. Rather than expanding his business, he’s been reduced to doing odd jobs.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Puts Property on Trial
Violating the American justice system’s cornerstone presumption of innocence, those whose property has been taken via civil asset forfeiture must prove their property wasn’t involved in a crime—or lose it forever.
That particular case illustrates that, even where a crime is charged, civil asset forfeiture can still be the instrument of terrible injustice: Police seized the Gremlin after arresting its owner for mere marijuana possession, saying it had been used to “transport” marijuana. The seizure was upheld by the state supreme court.
Property is regularly taken from third-party owners too. For example, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office has pursued the forfeitures of houses simply because a child living in the home had been caught selling drugs.
One calculation puts the median value of forfeited property at $1,276. Many victims of civil asset forfeiture, weighing the time and expense of challenging the seizure against the uncertainty of victory, simply surrender to the government—a dynamic that only encourages police to keep on taking people’s property without charges.
Woods, however, isn’t backing down. Thanks to the Institute for Justice—which calls itself “the national law firm for liberty”—Woods and his wife are now lead plaintiffs in a class action suit against Harris County, a suit that claims the county’s confiscations from him and others violate the Texas constitution’s prohibitions against unreasonable seizures.
News Flash: Law-Abiding People Carry Cash
According to the police affidavit, Woods’ money was presumed to be connected to “illegal activity” because:
It was a large amount
The money was vacuum-packaged and wrapped in tape
Woods appeared nervous
Some of the money belonged to someone else: his wife, Jordan Davis
Sometime after the seizure, a police dog allegedly alerted to the presence of narcotics (more on this later)
For most people, the idea of holding and carrying tens of thousands of dollars in cash for legal, everyday purposes is simultaneously unnerving and inconceivable.
However, according to a 2019 FDIC survey, 7.1 million American households are “unbanked,” meaning no member of the household has a checking or savings account. The proportion of unbanked households is higher among black, Hispanic, American Indian, lower-income and less-educated households.
Woods, who grew up and still lives in rural Mississippi, says his father didn’t trust banks. Long ago, he told his son he’d attempted to withdraw his money from a bank, only to have the employees pretend he had no account. Woods was taught from a young age to keep his money close, and he made it a practice to cash any checks he received.
When it came time to go shopping for a semi truck and trailer, Woods viewed cash as a plus, believing it drives better deals when negotiating with owner-operators and shipping businesses looking to offload secondhand tractors and trailers.
As for Harris County’s claimed alarm over the fact that the money was wrapped in plastic, Woods says he’s long vacuum-bundled his savings to protect it from the elements and to facilitate hiding it around his property.
His system worked—he says a home burglary a few years ago left his cash stash intact. If only he knew in May 2019 what he knows now: In addition to burglars, we should all keep our cash hidden from the police too.
In Harris County, Plunder with a Pattern
As with laws in many other states, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure §59.06(c) creates a sinister profit motive, authorizing police departments, prosecutors and municipal, county and state governments to keep seized property and use it for their own purposes.
According to the petition in the class action suit, civil asset forfeitures added $7.7 million to Harris County’s law enforcement salary and overtime budgets between 2018 and 2020.
Even more troubling than that steep, self-serving tally are two patterns seen in the seizures.
Remember how the Harris County Sheriff’s Office claimed that a dog alerted for the presence of illegal drugs after officers had already seized Woods’ money? The Institute for Justice found 92 other cases where the alleged dog alert came after the seizure.
Drug-sniffing dogs are deeply problematic under any circumstances—various studies have pegged the false-alert rate at 66 to 80% or more. Their use is even more dubious where property is being seized without charges filed, as the unverifiable claim of a dog’s reaction merely serves to pad a vague accusation that cash or other property is connected to illegal activity.
Of course, within a system that empowers deputies to enlarge their own overtime fund, we can’t ignore the possibility that an enthusiastic dog-handler influenced or over-interpreted the dog’s behavior—or that the handler or someone else made it up entirely.
A second pattern emerges from the Institute for Justice’s scrutiny of Harris County seizures: As with the Ameal Woods case, every one of Harris County’s 113 civil-forfeiture petitions filed since 2016 was based on an affidavit signed by an officer who wasn’t at the scene. Eighty of them were signed by the same person.
Between that and the fact that the affidavits use copy-and-paste, nearly identical language, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has seemingly built a civil asset forfeiture assembly line, one that’s focused on relentlessly padding the agency’s budget by seizing property from the public it purportedly exists to serve.
Those who do try to contest Harris County seizures face long waits for justice. Woods’ $41,680 was seized in May 2019, but the agency’s procedural sloth meant he had to wait until this fall—two years and four months—for his case to actually start.
A Nationwide Scourge
This article uses Harris County to illustrate civil asset forfeiture, but it’s important to realize the practice exists in various forms throughout most of the United States, and everywhere federal agencies are present. Only a small handful of states have abolished it entirely.
In 2018 alone, 42 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Justice and Treasury departments took in over $3 billion in forfeitures. Buried in those billions are many more agonizing personal experiences like that of Ameal Woods.
Though some states offer better protections for property rights than others, “federal equitable sharing” creates a loophole: State and local police can team up with federal officers to seize property under federal law and pocket up to 80% of the haul, with no regard to what state law says. (You can learn about your state’s forfeiture policy in this Institute for Justice report; state profiles start on page 59.)
The class action suit against Harris County is one of several active cases against civil asset forfeiture being pursued by the Institute for Justice. Davis says his participation isn’t just for him: “I’m fighting for myself. I’m fighting for others. I’m fighting for everybody it happened to in the past. I’m fighting for my dream. Cash is not a crime. For no one.”
This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republished with permission.
With Thursday’s passage of a continuing resolution that funds government operations until December 3rd, Congress dodged one fiscal cliff, but a bigger one looms ahead.
The federal government has maxed out its credit, and if Congress doesn’t raise the statutory debt ceiling by October 18, the Treasury won’t be able to cover all of Uncle Sam’s obligations.
With Democrats controlling the House, Senate and White House, Republicans have declared they’re leaving it entirely up to the Democrats to raise the ceiling through the budget reconciliation process. Democratic leaders and their media allies claim that would be too complex, time-consuming and risky.
However, if past experience is a reliable guide, we can expect a couple weeks of harsh rhetoric, media hype and hand-wringing that culminate in the debt ceiling being modified for the 99th time in its 104-year history.
That said, amid all the attention paid to the Capitol Hill debt-limit poker game that not only pits Democrats against Republicans but also progressives against moderate liberals, it’s easy to lose sight of a hard truth about America’s $28 trillion debt: As a burden that will fall on future generations, government debt is a form of taxation without representation and is therefore profoundly unethical.
Today’s Debt is Tomorrow’s Taxation
“No taxation without representation” was a rallying cry of the American Revolution. Even in today’s divided country, the notion is still embraced as a bedrock principle of fair government by people of all political stripes.
Too few, however, appreciate that government debt is taxation without representation.
The federal government has racked up more than $28 trillion of debt—that’s more than $86,000 for every citizen alive today. With huge annual deficits now considered normal, there’s no hope it will be repaid any time soon. That means every deficit dollar is a burden that will be forced on future Americans who didn’t elect the spendthrifts who are shackling them to it.
Though debt has been a steady fixture in American government, it’s at an alarmingly high level today and projected to skyrocket even higher over the next 30 years—which is as long as the Congressional Budget Office makes projections.
Note the official $28 trillion of debt greatly understates the true peril—by omitting something that’s required on any private firm’s balance sheet: unfunded liabilities. Add promised Social Security, Medicare and other government benefits, and the real U.S. debt is somewhere between $113 trillion and $239 trillion.
Now that they’ve lost control of the legislative and executive branches, Republicans who fell off the debt-hawk wagon during the Trump administration are urging fiscal restraint.
West Virginia Democratic senator Joe Manchin begs to differ. “What I have made clear to the President and Democratic leaders is that spending trillions more on new and expanded government programs, when we can’t even pay for the essential social programs, like Social Security and Medicare, is the definition of fiscal insanity,” he said in a statement issued Wednesday.
Five Ways Today’s Debt Will Haunt Future Americans
The millstone that today’s government is tying around the necks of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren is multifaceted:
Higher taxes. When the income tax was launched in 1913, the maximum rate was 7%. Today, it’s 37%, and we’ve already seen rates well north of that over the last century. Expect marginal rates to rise and deductions to fall.
New taxes. Those who foolishly wish for a “wealth tax” on the richest Americans are oblivious to the reality that—just as we saw with the income tax—it would inevitably expand to hit the middle class too. That Trojan horse isn’t the only possible menace: politicians may pursue a value-added tax or national sales tax too.
Higher interest rates. The less confident borrowers are in Uncle Sam’s ability to repay, the higher interest rates they’ll demand on Treasury debt. Since interest is an ever-larger component of government spending, that creates a vicious circle. And since Treasury rates serve as a market benchmark, higher Treasury rates mean higher rates on consumer and business loans too.
Inflation. The Federal Reserve aids and abets deficit spending by buying Treasury debt with money created out of thin air. That, in turn, feeds price inflation of the sort now emerging in the wake of the Feds’ unhinged pandemic spending spree. Diminished buying power thus acts as a stealthy form of taxation.
A drag on the economy. “Assuming we never face a full-on debt crisis like the one we have seen play out in Greece, we’ll then face the unfortunate yet increasingly likely scenario of becoming not-much-growth Japan,” writes senior George Mason University research fellow Veronique De Rugy at Reason. “At least 40 academic studies published since 2010 observe the debt-growth relationship.”
While it will create plenty of grist for next year’s election advertisements, Washington’s debt-ceiling theatrics will likely do little to change the government’s long-term debt trajectory. That would require something neither party has shown a meaningful appetite for: real spending cuts.
Meanwhile, mainstream media messaging will continue conditioning Americans to view huge deficits as perfectly acceptable, with the Overton window of discourse centered on just how huge they should be.
In turn, that distorted framing will further inhibit citizens’ realization that today’s government debt is a growing tax unfairly imposed on Americans who haven’t even been born yet.
This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republishehd with permission.
The story of 9/11 is filled with painful “what-ifs.” Among the most prominent:
What if the CIA hadn’t blocked two FBI agents from alerting Bureau headquarters that a future 9/11 hijacker had obtained a multi-entry U.S. visa?
What if the FBI hadn’t nixed agents’ request for a warrant to search the computer of “20th hijacker” Zacharias Moussaoui after his arrest in August 2001?
What if the FBI hadn’t ignored a Phoenix agent’s July 2001 recommendation to contact aviation colleges across the country, on suspicion that Osama bin Laden was preparing extremists to “conduct terror activity against civilian aviation targets”?
Those what-ifs give us all pause, but they weigh heaviest on those who were closest to them, such as retired FBI counterterrorism agent Ken Williams, author of the so-called “Phoenix memo.”
Though his unheeded warning about extremists at flight schools looms large in the saga of 9/11, Williams is haunted by two more what-ifs that are lesser-known but equally gut-wrenching:
What if his request for a surveillance team to monitor bin Laden disciples at an Arizona aviation school hadn’t been declined in favor of the FBI’s pursuit of drug smugglers?
What if he hadn’t been ordered to suspend his investigation of those extremists for several months to help with an arson case?
For Williams, the answer is all too clear: His investigation would have led to the scrutiny of two future 9/11 hijackers—and that scrutiny may have started unraveling the entire plot.
Extremists at Embry-Riddle
In April 2000, Williams received an important tip from a confidential informant who’d once been a member of a Middle Eastern terrorist organization.
The informant had built a stellar reputation for providing valuable information. “I used to refer to him as my E.F. Hutton,” says Williams. “When he spoke, you listened.”
The informant told Williams that two foreign students were attempting to recruit Phoenix-area Muslims to an organization called Al-Muhajiroun, or “The Emigrants.”
Founded in Saudi Arabia and then banned by the kingdom in 1986, Al-Muhajiroun was unabashedly extremist. Before 9/11, the group referred to itself as “the eyes, the ears and the mouth of Osama bin Laden,” says Williams.
In 1998, the group’s leader issued a fatwa, or religious decree, declaring jihad against the U.S. and British governments and their interests—including airports. After 9/11, Al-Muhajiroun became notorious for organizing a “magnificent 19” conference in London in honor of 9/11’s 19 hijackers.
The informant gave Williams one of the flyers the pair had been using in their recruiting drive. The phone number on the flyer belonged to Lebanese student Zakaria Soubra. Via surveillance of Soubra, Williams and his team identified his counterpart as a Saudi named Ghassan al-Sharbi.
Both were students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. Williams describes it as a prestigious school providing an “Ivy League” education in aviation and related sciences.
Soubra was studying aviation security, while al-Sharbi studied engineering. The two were also making frequent, two-and-a-half-hour drives to Phoenix to recruit new members of Al-Muhajiroun from area mosques.
Williams and another agent traveled to Prescott to interview them at the small room they shared at a cheap motor lodge. Williams quickly noticed it was decorated with photos of Osama bin Laden, Ibn al-Khattab of the Arab Mujahideen in Chechnya, and wounded mujahideen fighters.
In his years of experience, Williams had grown accustomed to Middle Eastern students being “meek, mild and intimidated as shit when you show up at their door”—the product of growing up in countries with iron-fisted security forces. Soubra, however, was a jarring exception.
“He told me he considered the FBI, the United States military and the United States government legitimate military targets of Islam, and he described bin Laden as a great Muslim brother,” says Williams. “He was raising his voice, and you could see the veins on the side of his temples start to pop out of his head.”
“Trust me, I did everything in my power to get him to assault me or my partner…try to push us or do something so we could arrest him for assault on a federal officer,” says Williams.
On the way out, he told them, “We know what you’re all about and we’re not going away. If you cross that line, you will go to jail. We’ll find you wherever you’re at.”
“I don’t generally don’t make those kind of threats, because they’re idle, but I wanted to kind of up-it a notch with them,” says Williams.
Links to a Possible 9/11 “Dry Run”
Williams discovered that Soubra and al-Sharbi were driving a car registered to Muhammad al-Qudhaieen, a Saudi student living three hours away at the University of Arizona.
Months earlier, in November 1999, al-Qudhaieen and Hamdan al-Shalawi, a Saudi attending Arizona State, were involved in an incident that prompted an America West flight to Washington, D.C. to make an emergency landing in Columbus, Ohio.
Crew members said the two had asked a variety of suspicious technical questions, and that al-Qudhaieen twice attempted to open the cockpit door. He told investigators in Columbus he’d mistaken it for the bathroom door.
Noting that these were students at a top-notch university with experience traveling internationally, Williams says he finds the excuse ridiculous.
“They were conducting an intelligence-collecting operation on board the aircraft, to see how the flight crew was going to react and see how far away they could get with doing things,” he says.
The America West incident has been cited in ongoing civil litigation in which 9/11 families, survivors and insurers allege various Saudi officials helped facilitate the al Qaeda plot. Al-Qudhaieen and al-Shalawi were traveling at Saudi expense to an event at the Saudi embassy.
The pair were released after questioning. Immediately after the incident, Williams says, they held a press conference in Washington and claimed to have been victims of Islamophobia.
Williams says the public relations move was likely part of al Qaeda’s strategy: Well-publicized, embarrassing accusations of bigotry against America West would make other airline and airport employees reluctant to react to future suspicious behavior.
Al-Qudhaieen and al-Shalawi’s profession of innocence was undermined in November 2000, when the FBI received reports that al-Shalawi trained in Afghanistan to conduct attacks like the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers housing facility in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American service members and injured hundreds.
After being questioned by Williams, Al-Sharbi fled the United States. In the wake of 9/11, he was arrested in Pakistan with Abu Zubaydah, who was then one of the world’s most-hunted al Qaeda associates.
Add it all up and Williams was clearly onto something big in the year 2000.
However, since his investigation subjects hadn’t committed any overt criminal acts, building a case would require a lot of work, with an emphasis on visual surveillance—tracking comings and goings, identifying associates by photographing them and checking their license plates, noting places subjects and their associates routinely visit.
It’s a highly labor-intensive undertaking. In the FBI, doing it well means calling in the agents of the Special Operations Group (SOG).
“Surveillance is the only thing these agents do,” says Williams. “They’re given extensive training on the tradecraft of whatever enemy they’re looking at…(including) how al Qaeda functions. They study whatever we have in our intelligence quivers so they know what to look for when they’re out there,” says Williams.
“Every agent can do some surveillance,” he continues, “but these guys have old beater automobiles, they have aircraft capabilities, electronic capabilities, photographic capabilities—video and still—and they’re trained how to use all this stuff.” Their observations are summarized in a daily report provided to the lead agent on the case.
However, none of that would be available to Williams: Despite the disturbing set of facts and associations he’d uncovered, his request for SOG support was denied.
Chalk it up to a warped set of institutional priorities: In the pre-9/11 FBI, counterterrorism often took a back seat to drug investigations.
“I’ve got this threat I’ve identified through my training and expertise. I’m telling my command staff ‘these guys are the real deal, this is no bullshit,’ yet (my bosses are) still held accountable to meeting what headquarters has set as priorities for the southwest border states—and that’s drug interdiction and that’s taking down cartel members,” says Williams.
Williams says he doesn’t blame his Phoenix supervisors, because they were following priorities dictated in Washington. He does, however, resent that the FBI had to pursue drug cases at all.
“What angers me about it and what I get upset about is—that’s what the whole Drug Enforcement Administration was created to counter. We were the only agency at that time that protected the United States from terrorists. You’ve got the DEA, every police agency and their mother looking at drugs. Why can’t the FBI get out of the drug trafficking arena and concentrate on protecting the national security of the United States of America in the areas where we have the sole purview to do it? If we don’t do it, nobody’s doing it at that time,” Williams says.
America’s powerful post-9/11 marijuana legalization trend makes the de-prioritization of his counterterrorism case all the more aggravating in retrospect.
“Some of the stuff we were competing with were marijuana smuggling cases. Now, for chrissakes, every other corner out here has a marijuana dispensary. They’re as frequent as Starbucks,” says Williams.
Denied SOG support, Williams and his teammates soldiered on without it, conducting their own off-and-on surveillance as best they could.
“I was doing it haphazardly. I was doing it by myself and maybe with a couple squad mates,” says Williams. “But there’s a huge degree of difference between having an SOG team on a target and a group of non-SOG-trained agents who do it part-time at best.”
Even in well-resourced situations, pursuing such a case can take a lot of time. “Some people think 12 months in an investigation is a long time—not when you’re working these kinds of cases like Soubra and Al Sharbi,” says Williams.
Collecting intelligence, trying to recruit informants, and amassing the information needed to obtain more investigative authority is a slow grind. The lack of SOG support made it all the more difficult.
The prioritization of drug cases was a major drag on Williams’ investigation, but things were about to come to a screeching halt.
An Arsonist Unwittingly Abets al Qaeda
In December 2000, someone started setting fire to million-dollar houses under construction along the border of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. One of them was even burned twice. Eleven structures were torched in all.
The media speculated that the arson was the work of an eco-terrorist organization—perhaps the Earth Liberation Front or something akin to it. In messages at the crime scenes and elsewhere, the perpetrator started identifying as the “Coalition to Save the Preserves,” and seemed to revel in taunting police.
The arson spree was racking up millions of dollars in damage and commanding high media attention. Between public pressure amid mounting concerns the fires could take a deadly turn, Phoenix police asked the FBI for help.
Williams received a profoundly unwelcome order: He and every member of the Phoenix counterterrorism squad would have to shelve their current investigations and pursue the arson case full-time.
“I went to my supervisor at the time, Bill Kurtz, and I said, ‘Bill, you can’t take me off this case. This is the real deal…these guys are with this al Qaeda group that we’re starting to learn about, that blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania’.”
The decision stood. And the timing couldn’t have been worse.
The very month Williams was forced to turn his eyes away from Arizona’s network of al Qaeda sympathizers, Hani Hanjour and Nawaf al-Hazmi moved from Southern California to Phoenix.
Nine months later, they would hijack American Airlines Flight 77. Hanjour himself would steer the Boeing 757 into the Pentagon.
Williams is confident that, had he not been diverted to the arson case, Hanjour and al-Hazmi would have come under his scrutiny: “There’s no question in my mind. I’m convinced we would have crossed paths with them. Guarantee you.”
“All these guys were in the same circle. We got the two guys on America West Airlines doing their dry run and collecting intel. We’ve got Ghassan al-Sharbi who was arrested with Abu Zubayda, so he was kind of a big shot. And then we’ve got these two guys getting ready to kill themselves on September 11th coming into our area. All these guys are living within miles of each other. They would’ve been bouncing off each other, I guarantee,” he says.
Williams did help solve the arson spree, which turned out to be the work of a lone, thrill-seeking arsonist named Mark Warren Sands, who was indicted on June 14, 2001.
Williams gives his former supervisor Kurtz full credit for expressing regret to the 9/11 Commission about having taken Williams off the terror case.
He holds lingering anger, however, for the arsonist who put Kurtz in a tough position.
“I wish I could prosecute him for something tied to 9/11, because he really took our eyes off the guys in Prescott,” says Williams.
With the arson case closed, Williams ramped his counterterrorism investigation back up, posting his now-famous “Phoenix memo” on July 10.
With his investigation first slowed by a lack of surveillance assets and then halted for months by the arson investigation, his recommendation for a nationwide FBI campaign to contact civil aviation universities and colleges in search of extremist students was submitted just two months before 9/11—and then ignored until it was too late.
A Reunion with al-Sharbi
Having been arrested in Pakistan with Abu Zubaydah, Ghassan al-Sharbi—the quieter of Williams’ two Prescott investigation targets—is now detainee #682 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A 2016 government profile said “he has been mostly non-compliant and hostile with the guards…his behavior and statements indicate that he retains extremist views.”
You’ll recall that Williams closed his Prescott interview of al-Sharbi with a warning: “If you cross that line, you will go to jail. We’ll find you wherever you’re at.” Little did Williams know it would happen halfway around the world.
After al-Sharbi was captured, Williams traveled to Gitmo to question him. When Williams entered the room, he says al-Sharbi’s face signaled his recognition—with an expression that said, “Oh, shit.”
Williams greeted him by saying, “I told you we’d find you.”
Recalling the scene with a chuckle, Williams says, “It was a Hollywood moment. You couldn’t script it any better.”
A New Focus: Making a Case Against Saudi Arabia
While that moment gave Williams something to smile about, 9/11 remains a constant and grim presence in his life.
There’s no escaping the nagging question of how the world may be different had he received the surveillance support he’d requested, or if he hadn’t been reassigned to the arson case.
“I what-if that every day of my life and I will til the day I die,” he says. “How close were we?”
“My ex-wife used to say I was obsessed with it, but I’d say, ‘Well, how can you not be obsessed with it? There’s thousands of people dead and you’re somehow associated with this,” recalls Williams.
In 2017, Williams hit the FBI’s mandatory retirement age of 57. He soon found a perfect outlet for his 9/11 obsession: He’s working with attorneys representing the families and survivors of the 9/11 attacks in their civil suit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is still in the pre-trial phase.
His work is done under a protective order that prevents him from sharing what he’s learned from depositions and from reviewing still-classified documents from Operation Encore, the FBI’s investigation of Saudi government links to 9/11.
However, he’s unequivocal about what it adds up to: “The evidence is there.”
His work on the case goes against the wishes of the FBI. As Williams told me in a 2018 story that broke the news, a lawyer from the FBI’s Office of the General Counsel told him not to join the plaintiffs’ legal team, saying it could impact “other pending litigation” and undermine the pursuit of warm relations with Saudi Arabia.
This time, though, Ken Williams gets to set his own priorities.
This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republished with permission.
Though the war in Afghanistan is over, its grim history is filled with hard truths about what it really means to serve in the American military.
Those truths are particularly relevant to anyone contemplating enlistment or commissioning in the armed forces. With that in mind, here’s a warning label informed by the grim lessons of Operation Enduring Freedom—the failed and futile 20-year war in Afghanistan.
You Could Lose Your Life Or Limbs In a War That Accomplishes Nothing
After 9/11, the U.S. government was right to lash out at Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. However, that mission was largely accomplished by the end of 2001. As Scott Horton wrote in Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, within three months of 9/11, “there were not enough (al Qaeda) left alive to fill a seventeenth-century pirate ship.”
The balance of the war was a futile effort to replace the Taliban with a government more palatable to western powers. Today, after more than 2,400 U.S. service members were killed and more than 20,000 wounded, Afghanistan is ruled by the Taliban, just as it was two decades years ago.
You May Have to Fight Enemies Created By Your Own Government
Al Qaeda and the Taliban can be traced directly to a 1979 CIA operation, conceived by national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and approved by President Carter, that provided aid to opponents of Afghanistan’s then-pro-Soviet government, in hopes of drawing the USSR into a protracted, hopeless war.
As I wrote in a pointed 2017 Brzezinski obituary, “the Carter and Reagan administrations, along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, funded, organized, transported, armed and trained Salafist extremists to fight the Red Army in a holy war on behalf of Islam. Among those who joined the cause were future al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.”
“The enduring global impact of this 10-year program bears emphasis: The CIA and Saudi GID recruited jihadists from all around the Muslim world, creating relationships and networks that would evolve into not only al Qaeda, but also ISIS and many other Salafist terrorist groups across several continents.”
You May Be Ordered to Tolerate Pedophilia
A disturbing, centuries-old Afghan custom called bacha bazi (“boy play”) frequently involves the enslavement and sexual abuse of young boys. In the 1990’s, the Taliban government outlawed it. Under the U.S.-sponsored government, however, it was not only tolerated, but was often practiced by Afghan officers within nightly earshot of U.S. service members.
Reckless Waste Management Could Kill You, Years After Your Service is Complete
The U.S. military is regularly billed as a modern fighting force. However, when it came to disposing of vast amounts of waste in Afghanistan and Iraq, military commanders chose a decidedly medieval method.
In a phenomenon that’s been likened to the illness and death caused by Agent Orange jungle defoliant in Vietnam, there’s a growing consensus that the burn pits have given War on Terror veterans respiratory conditions and a variety of cancers. As with Agent Orange, symptoms may surface years after exposure.
Your Mission May Bring Death and Misery to Vast Civilian Populations
If PTSD strikes you, you may be inflicted with angry and aggressive behavior, recurring memories of traumatic events, nightmares, physical reactions to certain stimuli, difficulty expressing emotions, detachment from family and friends, feelings of hopelessness, lack of interest in things you used to enjoy, substance abuse, feelings of overwhelming guilt and suicidal thoughts.
Even thousands of miles of distance from your enemies can’t immunize you against PTSD: Drone operators working from the comfort of an air-conditioned buildings at stateside bases have been stricken too.
“How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile? How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?” asked one former drone operator at The Guardian.
Superior Officers May Deceive the American People About a War You’re Stuck In
In 2019, the Washington Post published a large set of documents about the Afghanistan war, including 1,900 pages of transcripts and notes from Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) interviews of U.S. and other officials.
Much like the Vietnam War’s Pentagon Papers, the Afghanistan Papers revealed senior officials’ optimistic public pronouncements about the war’s progress were completely at odds with the facts being reported to them on a daily basis.
As the Post wrote, “the documents contradict a long chorus of public statements from U.S. presidents, military commanders and diplomats who assured Americans year after year that they were making progress in Afghanistan and the war was worth fighting.”
Counterinsurgency Warfare Makes You More Likely to Suffer Genital Injuries and Double-Leg Amputations
Unlike conventional warfare, counterinsurgency operations emphasize foot patrols, which make soldiers vulnerable to improvised explosive devices.
Following a 2010 shift toward counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, the military’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany saw a 60% spike in the share of inbound casualties with a limb amputation and a 90% increase in the proportion with genitourinary wounds.
If You’re Killed By Friendly Fire, the Pentagon May Lie to Your Family About It
Eight months after 9/11, NFL player Pat Tillman turned down a $3.6 million contract and enlisted in the U.S. Army. In April 2004, he was killed by fellow soldiers in the midst of a battle in Afghanistan.
Army brass, however, presented the public with a Hollywood ending to his unlikely story of selfless American patriotism. For weeks, the Army promoted a false account of his death—declaring he’d died in a line of “devastating enemy fire.”
Tillman’s family wasn’t told the truth until weeks after his death, and his nationally-televised memorial service. Subsequent Army and DOD investigations determined Tillman’s superior officers had almost immediately learned he’d been killed by friendly fire.
After You Swear Loyalty To the Constitution, You May Be Used In A Way That Violates It
By virtue of a widely-worded, open-ended congressional authorization to use military force (AUMF), one can reasonably argue the Afghan war was within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution, which reserves the power to declare war to the Congress.
The same can’t be said for most U.S. military action over the recent years. From an attack on Syria in “retaliation” for a government gas attack that didn’t happen to regime-change intervention in Libya, brazenly unconstitutional warfare is now the norm, not the exception.
You Will Be Joining An Enterprise That’s Pushing the U.S. Government Toward Financial Ruin
The doomed war in Afghanistan squandered $2.3 trillion, and with more than 800 installations in more than 70 countries around the world, the sprawling U.S. military empire will this year alone consume $700 billion the U.S. government doesn’t have.
If you naively thought the end of the Afghanistan war would spark some belt-tightening, consider that House Republicans just announced a proposal to tack on another $25 billion to President Biden’s already bloated 2022 proposed DOD budget of $753 billion.
The national debt is a towering $28.7 trillion..and counting. So-called “defense” spending—which has enriched contractors as steadily as it’s helped bring despair and alternating destruction and reconstruction to countless millions—is a major reason why the government is marching steadily toward a financial meltdown.
Journalists May Desert You
If your war is being mismanaged, don’t count on major American media to keep your plight in the public eye, pressure Congress to perform oversight of your mission or urge the president to end it.
In 2020, the regular nightly evening news broadcasts of ABC, CBS and NBC added up to over 14,000 minutes of programming. Out of that, the three networks devoted just five minutes to Afghanistan.
Military Service Doesn’t Equate To Serving One’s Country
Despite the best hopes of many an enlistee or newly-commissioned officer, it’s essential to understand that military service is primarily service to one’s government—not to one’s country. There’s a vast difference.
After the prompt shattering of al Qaeda in Afghanistan was complete, the 20-year nation-building fiasco there didn’t render a service to the people of the United States. Neither did the catastrophic invasion of Iraq on false premises, or the ensuing occupation.
Indeed, the entire war on terror has made the world a more dangerous place for Americans and non-Americans alike.
As Scott Horton writes in Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism, “In a perverse imitation of our enemies, the policy of American dominance in the Middle East amounts to murder-suicide on a mass scale. The treasury is empty, the infantry is exhausted, the Bill of Rights is in tatters and the American people do not believe in the war anymore.”
Even if Horton’s correct in saying the American people have had enough already, eager foreign interventionists—working in harmony with defense contractors and parasitic foreign governments—still dominate Washington and the media-think tank ecosystem that surrounds it.
The war in Afghanistan may be over, but the potential for would-be U.S. military service members to be pointlessly harmed and to inflict pointless harm remains high.
Between a continued presence in Iraq, the illegal occupation of Syrian territory, troops deployed in Africa without the knowledge of Congress, saber-rattling over Taiwan, the pointlessly provocative expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders and an Israeli government seemingly eager to fight Iran down to the last American, the late-stage U.S. empire and its too many allies are still poking hornet nests all around the globe.
As a (non-combat) veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve, Pennsylvania National Guard and U.S. Army, I can attest to the fact that there are many benefits to military service, and they’re well-advertised.
However, anyone contemplating military service owes it to themselves to look inside the shiny red, white and blue packaging wrapped around it, and come to a full and sober appreciation of what service in today’s stumbling U.S. empire could really mean to them.
This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republished with permission.
In mid-May, news broke of a disturbing incident at Bucknell University: Outlets across the country reported that, on the eve of final exams, a mob of 15 to 20 intolerant male students had victimized the school’s LGBTQ community via an attack on a residence hall established as a “safe space” for community members.
The intruders were members of a former Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) fraternity chapter that was shut down in 2019 over hazing violations. Before hosting the “Fran’s House” LGBTQ residential group, the building at the center of the disturbance was TKE’s decades-long home at Bucknell.
Students living in the house said the TKE brothers banged on doors and windows, yelling, “Let us in…this isn’t your home…this is our home.” One apparently exposed himself; someone allegedly urinated on the porch.
That same evening, the house’s residential advisor published a lengthy and emotionally-charged open letter to Bucknell President John Bravman, recounting how the experience of “20 inebriated former fraternity members harass(ing) the LGBTQ+ community” left his “legs shaking with adrenaline.”
On the morning after the disturbance, Bucknell raced to issue a statement condemning what it called a “horrific incident.”
In a fateful contradiction, the university simultaneously promised an independent investigation to ascertain the facts while embracing the assumption that this was an attack on the LGBTQ community.
“We cannot erase the ugliness and subsequent trauma of last night’s transgression against the students of Fran’s House and, implicitly, many others, but we can commit to addressing it in a way that protects LGBTQ Bucknellians and better ensures their safety in the future,” said the statement issued by Bravman along with the school’s provost and its associate provost for equity and inclusive excellence.
Bucknell’s dramatically-worded embrace of the hate crime narrative poured gasoline on the public relations fire. By characterizing the episode as a “horrific incident” against LGBTQ students that left administrators “sorrowful,” the university handed journalists and editors just what they needed for sensational, click-inducing coverage.
Stories erupted at the nation’s most prominent outlets, with headlines describing a shocking hate crime at the highly selective Pennsylvania school:
And then, two months after the school’s nationwide hate-crime humiliation, Bucknell announced that a university-commissioned independent investigation by law firm Cozen O’Connor “found no evidence that the students outside of Fran’s House on May 13 were motivated by bias against the residents and their affinity as an LGBTQ+ community.”
Good luck finding that news at the Washington Post, New York Times,USA Today, NBC News, CNN, Fox News, New York Post, The Hill, Boston Globe, The Advocate, New York Daily News, Insider Higher Ed, Los Angeles Blade, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, Seattle Times and countless other outlets that pushed the false, Bucknell-encouraged hate crime angle.
Hate Motive Doubtful from the Start
I took special interest in this incident: I graduated from Bucknell and I’ve been an enthusiastic booster of my alma mater.
When I first saw the headlines, I was embarrassed that such an ugly event happened at Bucknell. As I read the details, however, I immediately grew skeptical about the hate crime narrative and troubled by the university’s official statement.
From all accounts, it sounded like drunk senior-class TKEs—still deeply resentful of the university’s closure of their chapter—took a final trip to their cherished former home and obnoxiously took out their lingering anger at the expense of whomever was unlucky enough to be occupying it.
Consistent with that, something was conspicuously absent from the witness accounts: any claim that homophobic, transphobic or similar slurs were directed at them. Rather, the TKEs yelled, “This isn’t your home…it’s our home.”
As supposed evidence of an anti-LGBTQ motive, the residential advisor said the TKEs “(swung) a metal bar at our flag pole that displays our pride flag.” However, it seems plausible the inebriated intruders would have taken a swat at any flag on “their” house other than a TKE flag.
I wasn’t the only doubter of the hate crime narrative. Days after the incident, freelance journalist and self-described former “gay frat boy” Skylar Baker-Jordan, writing at Medium, said his initial reaction was “outrage.” After diving into the details, though, he concluded “there is nothing in this reporting to suggest what happened was a targeted attack on the LGBT community.”
It’s one thing for the occupants of the LGBTQ house—rattled by a jarring disturbance—to leap to the conclusion they were targeted because of their LGBTQ status. It’s another for the university to embrace that assumption in a message to the campus community and the media.
Reacting to a CNN story, a Bucknell classmate texted me his own thoughts, which concisely summed up the situation: “Don’t think it was quite an intentional LGBTQ hate crime, but it is now.”
Hate Crime Assumption a Recurring Phenomenon
In Bucknell administration offices, in newsrooms, dorm rooms and across social media, the fact that LGBTQ students lived in the house was enough to trigger firm convictions that the fraternity brothers’ trespassing was motivated by anti-LGBTQ bias.
Had a different special interest group happened to live in the former TKE house, we’d likely have seen headlines decrying a racist, xenophobic or anti-semitic attack at Bucknell. On the other hand, as Baker-Jordan wrote in May, “Had (this) been a regular dorm, this never would have made national news.”
The Bucknell incident exemplifies a broader phenomenon in which aggression directed at people who are members of a marginal group is assumed to be motivated by the victims’ status. Of many examples of this national syndrome, two stand out as particularly illustrative.
In March, a white man attacked three massage parlors in Atlanta, killing eight workers. The killer’s whiteness and the fact that six of the dead were Asian women was enough to ignite a media, government official and public uproar characterizing the attack as a racist, anti-Asian hate crime.
In the immediate aftermath, the Washington Post alone publishedsixteen articles framing the attacks as racially motivated. Then we learned the killer had patronized some of the parlors he attacked. He told police he’d battled sex addiction and lashed out at the parlors because he viewed them as a source of temptation—not because of the heavily Asian demographic profile of their employees.
In 2016, Omar Mateen murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. Five years later, politicians and activists continue to promote the fiction that Mateen was driven by anti-LGBTQ bias. There is absolutely no evidence to substantiate that assumption and plenty to contradict it.
Clinging to hate crime mythology about the Pulse attack isn’t just a dishonest means of advancing the LGBTQ cause, it also does harm by hiding Mateen’s real motive: He made it emphatically clear he killed in retaliation for the U.S. bombing of Muslims in the Middle East. Burying that motive diminishes Americans’ ability to weigh the domestic costs of their government’s foreign interventions.
As if baseless assumptions about real events weren’t enough to thwart Americans’ ability to gauge actual levels of intolerance in the country, the picture is further muddied by outright hate crime hoaxes, such as a black student writing racist graffiti at Albion College in April.
Kentucky State University criminal justice and political science professor Wilfred Reilly has created a database of hundreds of such hate crime hoaxes and written a book about the phenomenon.
Bucknell’s Reaction a Disservice to the University and LGBTQ People Everywhere
Particularly where college administrators are concerned, the urge to overreact and baselessly authenticate the hate-victim claims of aggrieved parties is, to some extent, understandable.
After all, in a woke culture that declares “silence is violence,” administrators who fail to immediately embrace the victims’ narrative run the risk that an activist mob will turn its wrath on school officials, accusing them of being “part of the problem.”
On top of the danger to reputations and job security, there’s the chance they could find themselves, like the president of Evergreen State College, essentially taken prisoner in their own office.
Of course, however imperative it may seem while under duress, abandoning reason, respect for facts and due process has its own costs.
Given Bucknell’s subsequent investigation found no evidence that the TKEs’ hooliganism was motivated by anti-LGBTQ bias, the university’s statement implicitly endorsing the bias-motive claim fed a media misinformation frenzy that baselessly bruised the school’s reputation.
Needlessly embarrassing alumni, students and faculty wasn’t the only bad outcome: The university’s approach surely stoked undue anxiety among LGBTQ people across the country.
“Stories like this, framed in a way to suggest there was some concerted attack on the LGBT community…help perpetuate an unwarranted climate of fear on our campuses,” wrote Baker-Jordan, who noted that support for gay and lesbian people has doubled over the last 30 years. “This was not a targeted attack on the LGBT community, rather a fraternity party gone too far. That distinction matters, because I do not want LGBT students feeling any less safe than they need to feel.”
By cultivating excessive fear via a false account of what happened at Bucknell, the nationwide mischaracterization of the incident feeds a cycle where future incidents in other places will be more prone to misinterpretation too.
It should be also be noted, that, while some of the TKE brothers who descended on their former house were apparently guilty of harsh, intrusive and lewd behavior that frightened members of Fran’s House, the university’s May 14 implication that the TKEs had carried out an anti-LGBTQ attack was inconsistent with the ideals of due process and fair treatment of the accused.
I asked Bucknell if President Bravman regretted the May 14 statement language, or if the university wished to acknowledge any lessons learned from the barrage of bad publicity invited by Bucknell’s dramatically-worded embrace of a false narrative.
A university spokesperson referred me to Bravman’s July 12 statement that “summarizes findings of the investigation and represents Bucknell’s final position on the incident.” However, that statement lacks any evaluation of the administration’s handling of the episode.
Meanwhile, since there’s been essentially no follow-up reporting that an outside investigation contradicted the school’s initial stance, for too many people, their “final position” is that Bucknell had a “horrific” anti-LGBTQ incident in May.
Bucknell Grants LGBTQ Group’s Request
In an open letter posted shortly after the incident, Bucknell’s LGBTQ residential affinity group requested it be assigned a permanent residence: “Under no circumstances should Fran’s House be in jeopardy of losing their physical space due to the requirements Bucknell enforces to fill roster spots as opposed to creating inclusive living spaces.”
In July, when Bravman announced the findings of the investigation, he declared the former TKE house would become “the permanent campus affinity house for LGBTQ+ students and their allies.”
When it made its plea for a permanent space, the LGBTQ residential affinity group said, “Never again should someone feel entitled to come to our home and say it’s ‘their house and not ours’.”
At the same time, let’s hope Bucknell University will never again undermine its own reputation by impulsively endorsing a false narrative.
This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republished with permission.
In the early 11th century, King Canute—while at the peak of his power—set out to demonstrate to his fawning courtiers the limited power of royal edicts.
After having his throne placed by the sea’s edge, he sat down and commanded the tide to stop rising. When the water began washing over his feet, he declared, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings.”
Nearly a thousand years later, facing a different force of nature—COVID-19—an entire global generation of presidents, prime ministers, governors, mayors, public health officials, scientists and citizens is being given the same lesson.
However, where Canute’s lesson sprang from his humility, this lesson springs from the hubris of the present-day ruling class and the credulity of the masses who place far too much faith in their rulers’ power.
The lesson was pointedly driven home on July 19th. That was “Freedom Day” in the United Kingdom, with government ending restrictions on social contact, allowing the reopening of remaining establishments such as nightclubs, and abandoning mask mandates.
Two weeks before Freedom Day, as the Delta variant relentlessly pushed the UK’s case count higher, 122 prominent scientists and doctors submitted a letter to The Lancet calling the planned easing of restrictions “a dangerous and unethical experiment.”
On the eve of Freedom Day, the UK’s daily case count was over 40,000. Imperial College London mathematical biologist Neil Ferguson told the BBC it was “almost inevitable” the end of restrictions would prompt daily cases to soar to 100,000 and perhaps even 200,000.
Mother Nature was about to deliver a harsh comeuppance to Ferguson and others who’d have us believe government restrictions and mask mandates offer a potent defense against Covid contagion: Cases promptly went into a two-week free fall.
In addition to fostering well-founded doubt about the benefits of lockdowns and face coverings, the turn of events should also cultivate healthy skepticism about the pronouncements of the public health establishment.
Hopefully, Ferguson’s particular humiliation will immunize officials, journalists and citizens against trusting Imperial College London’s COVID-19 models.
Those models, which played a key role in enabling unprecedented, draconian lockdowns around the world—have been wildly wrong again and again. For example, Imperial College London projected Sweden’s relaxed approach to COVID-19 would leave nearly 100,000 Swedes dead by July 1, 2020. The actual count: 5,700.
The United States has endured its own false alarms about what will happen when government-imposed restrictions are eased. Grim predictions and accusations of gubernatorial indifference to human life accompanied the ending of restrictions and mandates in states like Iowa, Texas and Florida, and proved as wrong as the ones made in the UK last month.
Lacking Canute’s humility and undaunted by contrary evidence, the great majority of officials, scientists and pundits who’ve favored coercive government measures have proven stubbornly incapable of entertaining the possibility that these interventions—which have boosted depression, suicide, alcohol abuse, drug overdoses, domestic violence and undiagnosed cancer—aren’t a net positive for public health after all.
That resistance to contrary evidence extends to a great many everyday citizens whose unwavering support of lockdowns, business restrictions, remote schooling and mask mandates is part of a politicized tribal identity.
Exasperatingly, that tribe embraces “trust science” as a mantra, oblivious to the fact that the scientific method hinges on the reliable replication of results that supports one’s theory—something sorely lacking where lockdowns, masking and other measures are concerned.
The “trust science” crowd is likewise oblivious to the fact that scientists are far from unanimous in supporting those government-imposed nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), and that highly-credentialed scientists from esteemed institutions are among the most vigorous dissenters.
The most prominent demonstration of such dissent came with the October 2020 “Great Barrington Declaration.” Led by professors from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, epidemiologists and public health scientists from around the world expressed their “grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies.”
The declaration has now been signed by more than 58,000 medical and public health scientists and medical practitioners. Their numbers and credentials don’t guarantee their views are correct; however, they do bely the presumption of a scientific consensus behind coercive mitigation policies.
Among three original Stanford signatories to the declaration is biophysics professor and Nobel Prize recipient Michael Levitt. He and a group of Stanford and international scholars have been analyzing Covid-19 data since January 2020.
Referring to the steep drop in cases after UK restrictions were eased, Levitt recently asked the Twitter-verse: “Can anyone show clear correlation between NPI or other restrictions & reduced COVID-19 cases anywhere? I keep trying & failing. We really need to know this to deal better with future pandemics.”
Levitt isn’t the only reputable scientist who sees little if any correlation between government-imposed NPIs and COVID-19 trajectories.
“We’ve ascribed far too much human authority over the virus,”said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, in a recent interview with the New York Times. “These surges have little to do with what humans do. Only recently, with vaccines, have we begun to have a real impact.”
“We had record high cases, hospitalizations and deaths in January, followed by a precipitous decline throughout February and into March…this does not reflect anything to do with…human mitigation. This is the natural ebb and flow of the virus we’ve seen time and again around the world,” said Osterholm on his COVID-19 podcast.
In that vein, those who exclusively attribute today’s surging case counts in southern states to lagging vaccination rates and purported local mismanagement should note that:
The southern wave’s timing roughly parallels the region’s 2020 summer surge, which should prompt consideration that seasonality—alongside Delta’s greater transmissibility among even the vaccinated—may be the dominant driver
While Florida is considered the new epicenter of the pandemic, the state’s vaccination rate matches the national average
Oregon, despite an above-average vaccination rate, is experiencing its own sharp spike—but has been spared the kind of contemptuous scorn that journalists and Democratic politicians heap on Republican-led Florida
Every NPI Deserves Scrutiny
Over the course of the pandemic, some anti-Covid-19 measures have fallen out of favor in light of new findings and observations. For example, with the understanding that surface transmission of Covid-19 is extremely unlikely, far fewer people are wiping groceries with Clorox.
Perhaps because they’re bolted into place, the nation’s thicket of plexiglass dividers have shown more staying power, despite research indicating they may not only be futile, but could actually be making matters worse by thwarting ventilation. In March, the CDC withdrew its recommendation for barriers on school desks, but has apparently stopped short of discouraging their broad use elsewhere.
Though it’s now socially acceptable to question the use of disinfectants and plexiglass, questioning masks can get you suspended from social media and tarred as a promoter of disinformation—even when you’re citing peer-reviewed studies.
However, with other widely-embraced mitigation measures fading in light of new data, intellectually honest people should be equally open to the question of whether widespread face-covering—particularly with anything other than an N-95 mask—is worthwhile.
That forbidden discussion is starting to creep into mainstream media. In a recent appearance on CNN, the University of Minnesota’s Osterholm—a former COVID-19 advisor to President Biden—caused a stir by saying, “We know today that many of the face cloth coverings that people wear are not very effective in reducing any of the virus movement in or out.”
That’s because Covid-19 particles are astoundingly small. Hard as it is to imagine, the imperceptible gaps in surgical masks can be 1,000 times the size of a viral particle. Gaps in cloth masks are well larger than that.
Osterholman has offered a highly relatable standard by which to judge if a particular face covering serves as a meaningful barrier against particles that small: “If you were in a room with somebody smoking, would you smell it in your device that you are using?”
That standard not only eliminates cloth masks, but surgical ones too.
Beyond the realities of nanoparticle science and the conclusions of previous studies, the case for masking is undermined by what we’ve observed during the pandemic.
Sweden, for example, never widely embraced masking. While its per capita Covid death count is well higher than neighboring Finland and Norway, it’s the 15th lowest out of the 31 European Union countries and the UK.
If face-covering were such an essential life-saving practice, Sweden wouldn’t be found in the middle of the EU pack. It would be dead last.
That said, using COVID-19 death counts alone to evaluate outcomes is problematic. Different testing protocols can mean an individual would be positive in one country and negative in another. Jurisdictions also differ in what exactly comprises a COVID-19 death—was it a death from COVID or merely with COVID?
More importantly, though, when we solely focus on Covid-19 deaths, we ignore the suicides, fatal overdoses and other unintended deaths that result from the lockdowns themselves.
That’s why it’s best to compare countries using excess all-cause mortality: total deaths beyond what’s expected in a normal year. By that measure, lockdown- and mask-eschewing Sweden had one of the best 2020 excess mortality rates in all of Europe—23rd-lowest out of 30 countries.
(It again trailed Finland and Norway, but a variety of factors undermine the idea they present a full-on apples-to-apples comparison; what’s more, by some measures, Finland and Norway had even less stringent policies during the first several months of the pandemic.)
CDC is “Following the TV Pundits”
Vinay Prasad is an associate professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco and co-author of Ending Medical Reversal: Improving Outcomes, Saving Lives. “Medical reversal” is what happens when new data shows a commonly-accepted practice is not helpful—or is actually harmful.
Decrying the lack of randomized trials backing many COVID-19 policies, Prasad recently wrote, “When it comes to non-pharmacologic interventions such as mandatory business closures, mask mandates, and countless other interventions, the shocking conclusion of the last 18 months is this: We have learned next to nothing,”
Referring to the CDC’s decision to once again recommend universal indoor masking in areas of higher COVID-19 transmission, Prasad wrote, “The CDC director calls this ‘following the science,’ but it is not. It is following the TV pundits.”
While declaring his openness to the possibility that masking can be an effective public health intervention, Prasad says mandates should be driven by evidence—and that the CDC isn’t offering any.
Prasad, who doesn’t shy away from endorsing coercive government action when he thinks it’s warranted, concludes:
“When the history books are written about the use of non-pharmacologic measures during this pandemic, we will look as pre-historic and barbaric and tribal as our ancestors during the plagues of the middle ages. What the books won’t capture is how, in the moment, our experts were simply so sure of themselves.”
This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republished with permission.
Just when the forces of rationality had seemingly established a beachhead in the public health domain, they’re back on defense again, as the CDC declares vaccinated and unvaccinated people should wear masks indoors in areas of the country experiencing high transmission, and every schoolchild should be condemned to wear a mask all day long.
The moves, which come in response to surging case counts, seem to demonstrate an impulse that animates many questionable government policies: “We have to do something,” regardless of whether that something can be reasonably expected to have a material impact on the problem at hand.
Ample Reason to Doubt Masks’ Value
Most public and media discussion of mask policy reflects a foundational assumption that may well be false—namely, that widespread, all-purpose mask-wearing has had any meaningful impact on slowing the spread.
Intuition tells us covering our faces must be worthwhile. After all, if the virus is emitted from our noses and mouths, covering those openings has to make a big difference, right?
That gut feeling misleads us, though, because we tend to only think of the virus in terms of visible, tangible droplets masks can absorb. Indeed, the initial scientific consensus held that COVID-19 was exclusively transmitted by droplets, prompting the emphasis on distancing six feet from each other—room enough for gravity to pull those droplets out of the air.
That exclusive-droplet-transmission consensus proved wrong. We now know COVID-19 is spread to a great extent via aerosols—a term that describes particles so small they can easily float along in the air, traveling well beyond six feet.
Even that description fails to convey how unfathomably small COVID-19 viral particles actually are—and why masks are a mismatch.
How small are they? As little as 20 nanometers.That means the “material gaps in blue surgical masks are up to 1,000 times” as large as a Covid-19 viral particle,according to Colin Axon, who has advised the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
Gaps in typical cloth masks can be 5,000 times the size…to say nothing of all that air that’s merely redirected past masks’ edges when we exhale.
A Tale of Two Countries
While the comparative virus and mask dimensions give one pause, they merely form the basis of a reasonable hypothesis that masks do little to inhibit the mobility of viral particles.
What really counts is observed results in the real world—and what we’ve observed should sow creeping doubt in even the most fervent masking advocate.
“All around the world you can look at mask mandates and superimpose on infection rates, you cannot see that mask mandates made any effect whatsoever,” said Axon to The Telegraph.
While there are many illustrations of that conclusion, perhaps none is more vivid than a comparison of Sweden—which, as a society, never went all-in on masking—and Germany, whose government in January went beyond merely requiring “face coverings” and mandated the use of medical-grade masks.
Despite Sweden’s sharply lower use of masks—and a much more relaxed approach in general—the country’s 12-month experience is essentially indistinguishable from what’s observed in Germany. Rather, one sees a force of nature taking its seasonal course.
“The best thing you can say about any mask is that any positive effect they do have is too small to be measured,” said Axon, a Brunel University (London) lecturer in engineering who notes that “when the particle enters another body, it returns to a biomedical issue, but the mask debate is about the particle journey,” where his knowledge applies.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s experience delivers a one-two punch. First, there’s no indication the imposition of mask mandates slowed transmission, which marched along in seasonal fashion. Second, the recent reopening of the country and lifting of mask mandates amusingly coincided with the beginning of a steep reversal of the summer surge in cases.
(Graphs courtesy of Ian Miller, whose Twitter and Substack pages offer many more statistical illustrations that raise questions about the effectiveness of both masks and lockdowns.)
Masks May Be Counterproductive
As with so many ill-considered government programs—such as the war on terror or the war on drugs—mask mandates may actually serve to amplify the peril they’re meant to minimize.
That’s because unwarranted confidence in masks can give wearers a false sense of security and lead them to neglect risk management steps that are actually worthwhile.
That’s the view of Harvard Medical School epidemiologist and biostatistician Martin Kulldorff. “Naively fooled to think that masks would protect them, some older high-risk people did not socially distance properly, and some died from #COVID19 because of it,” he said in a May 2021 tweet.
Kulldorff’s tweet was short-lived. Twitter’s thought police, whose Orwellian curation of Covid content centers on a presumption of CDC infallibility, promptly blocked the tweet and locked the Harvard scholar out of his account.
Masks: The Last Taboo in Covid Discourse?
Today, relatively few scholars and prominent health professionals join Kulldorff and Axon in publicly questioning the value of widespread masking.
However, if the history of the controversy over COVID-19’s origin is any indication, there may be many others who harbor doubts, but, fearing the social and professional repercussions of speaking their minds, are waiting until it’s safer to do so.
In May of this year, nineteen scientists published a letter in the journal Science demanding an investigation that would examine the possibility the virus escaped from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. One of the scientists said she and others didn’t speak up last year because they were apprehensive about being associated with Trump and his supporters.
There’s an obvious parallel to masks, which have been embraced by millions of Americans not only for their perceived health value, but as a means of signaling their virtue and membership in the liberal and/or anti-Trump tribe.
That emotional and political attachment to masks—which infects the media as well as individual citizens—represents a powerful barrier to an intellectually honest evaluation of their effectiveness. The sooner that barrier begins to crumble, the better off we’ll all be.
This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republished with permission.
According to leaked emails obtained by Middle East Eye, an unnamed Republican Party figure orchestrated the defeat of a proposed 2016 GOP plank calling for the declassification of 28 pages on Saudi government links to the 9/11 plotters.
That individual then notified Trump presidential campaign manager Paul Manafort of the plank’s defeat and claimed credit for providing instructions to “our political team” to kill it.
Manafort forwarded the news to Tom Barrack—Trump’s billionaire friend, surrogate and fundraiser—who notified Yousef al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States.
The behind-the-scenes communications seem to suggest that Trump campaign officials and associates, eager to strengthen their relationships with Gulf officials, supported efforts to thwart the release of the 28 pages even though candidate Trump had spoken favorably of it.
Months before the Republican convention intrigue, however, Trump implied he would release the 28 pages if elected, and suggested they could reveal Saudi guilt for 9/11.
At a February 2016 campaign event, Trump said, “It wasn’t the Iraqis that knocked down the World Trade Center. We went after Iraq, we decimated the country, Iran’s taking over…but it wasn’t the Iraqis, you will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center, because they have papers in there that are very secret, you may find it’s the Saudis, okay? But you will find out.”
“Really confidential but important. Please don’t distribute.”
During proceedings of the platform committee at the July 2016 Republican national convention, the national security subcommittee approved a plank urging the release of the 28 pages. However, it was rejected when it went before the full platform committee.
Soon after, a Republican party source, whose name is not known, sent a self-aggrandizing email to Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. In part, it read:
“Paul. Something you can pass along to your friend Tom Barrack. I made certain that language that was anti the Saudi Royal Family was removed from the platform. It was inserted by AIPAC lobbyists and would have been a part of the 2016 Platform. When I saw the amendment that was passed in the subcommittee, I gave instructions to our political team to remove the language in the full committee.”
The full email follows this story. Middle East Eye concluded that “Paul” is Paul Manafort via other context in the leaked email conversations. (Below, I’ll dismantle the bizarre suggestion that AIPAC was behind the plank and reveal who actually wrote it.)
After receiving news of the plank’s defeat from Manafort, Barrack—who later chaired Trump’s inauguration committee—forwarded it to al-Otaiba, calling it “really confidential but important. Please don’t distribute.”
Since the platform proceedings were carried live by CSPAN, Barrack’s request for confidentiality seems intended to conceal Manafort and Barrack’s support of the plank’s demise, as they quietly worked to curry favor with the Saudi-aligned UAE and the kingdom itself.
Manafort, who now stands famously indicted for a variety of charges that include obstruction of justice, conspiracy to launder money, making false statements, witness tampering and acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, was once a registered agent of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, along with many other regimes known for violating human rights.
“The emails will be of interest to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has widened the scope of his inquiry into potential Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election to include whether the Emiratis and Saudis funneled payments to Trump’s election campaign,” writes Hearst.
His report also paints a picture of an increasingly warm personal relationship between Barrack and the UAE’s al-Otaiba. “You’re an amazing man,” gushed Barrack after al-Otaiba hosted him at a dinner that also included Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir. Barrack thanked his host for serving “irreplacable wine.”
The emails also illuminate Barrack’s project to mold Trump’s thinking about the region. “I would like to align in Donald’s mind the connection between the UAE and Saudi Arabia which we’ve already started with Jared (Kushner),” he wrote to al-Otaiba.
Saudi Guardians at the GOP Convention
If the unidentified Republican figure’s boast was truthful, then, by all indications, that person’s instructions to kill the 28 pages plank found their way to Steve Yates, a former deputy national security advisor to vice president Dick Cheney.
A member of the platform committee and then-chair of the Idaho Republican Party, Yates moved for the plank’s rejection and gave a brief speech heavy on fallacious arguments echoing those being contemporaneously advanced by Saudi-accommodating CIA director John Brennan.
Before it was voted down, two Trump-aligned members of the platform committee also spoke against the plank:
Thomas Dadey, who co-chaired Trump’s New York campaign and was later named to Trump’s transition team.
Darcie Johnston, Trump’s Vermont campaign manager who went on to receive a job as a special assistant in the new administration’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Yates become an informal advisor to the Trump transition team, where he played a supporting role in Trump’s controversial receipt of a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president.
Barrack Sought to Curtail Trump’s Exploitation of Clinton-Saudi Links
Hearst provided 28Pages.org with another email exchange not quoted in the Middle East Eye story, one that shows Barrack’s high interest in shielding Saudi Arabia from embarrassing comments by Trump on the campaign trail, and in making sure the UAE ambassador knew about it.
On June 22, 2016, Trump delivered a formal, high-profile campaign speech at the Trump Soho hotel in New York in which he attacked opponent Hillary Clinton, accusing her of corruption during her tenure as secretary of state.
On the same day, in an email to al-Otaiba, Barrack wrote, “I also made sure in his speech against Hillary today that he did not mention or antagonise the issue of her taking Saudi Arabian money! All good.”
Al-Otaiba replied, “I think he did mention Hillary taking Saudi money :)”
The ambassador was correct: Trump said “Hillary took $25 million from Saudi Arabia…where being gay is also punishable by death.”
The Saudi-Clinton monetary connection was one of many dimensions of Clinton’s record that dampened progressive liberal enthusiasm for her, and thus contributed to the low Democrat turnout that proved fatal to her campaign. However, in Barrack’s own political and perhaps financial calculus, fully exploiting that dynamic apparently took a back seat to protecting the interests of Saudi Arabia.
28 Pages Plank Not the Work of AIPAC
The unidentified Republican party member’s claim that the plank was the brainchild of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is not merely odd—given the under-the-table alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel—it’s also false.
The plank was introduced by delegate and Maine state senator Eric Brakey—and the language was personally drafted by me, Brian McGlinchey.
The libertarian Brakey contacted me after hearing my July 6, 2016 appearance on The Tom Woods Show, in which I discussed the growing, nonpartisan drive to declassify the 28 pages. He expressed his interest in introducing a plank supportive of the cause and I drafted language for him to use.
Reached with news of the intrigue surrounding his plank, Brakey says, “It doesn’t necessarily surprise me. There’s a lot that happens (at party conventions) out in front for people to see, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If there were really powerful people trying to stamp it out, we must have been on to something, and we found out we were on to something when they were released.”
As it turned out, the 28 pages were declassified just days after the platform battle, albeit with many remaining redactions.
Among other things, the 28 pages revealed many troubling connections between the 9/11 hijackers’ support network and other people of interest to investigators and then-Saudi ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
However, thanks to a perfect storm of major competing stories, a comprehensive U.S. government campaign to downplay the pages’ significance, and the media tendency to report official stances with little or no questioning, their impact was muted.
“It’s kind of a shame they’ve been swept under the rug,” says Brakey.
Tom Barrack’s Email to UAE Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba Regarding 28 Pages Platform Plank
Middle East Eye provided me with a copy of the content of this email chain
From: Tom Barrack
Sent: Wednesday July 13, 2016 8.02 AM
To: His Excellency Yousef Al Otaiba
Really confidential but important. Please don’t distribute. Where are you this summer. Would love to get together
Sent from my iPhone
Removed from Platform
Something you can pass along to your friend Tom Barrack.
I made certain that language that was anti the Saudi Royal Family was removed from the platform.
It was inserted by AIPAC lobbyists and would have been a part of the 2016 Platform.
When I saw the amendment that was passed in the subcommittee, I gave instructions to our political team to revoke the language in the full committee.
The final report of the Platform Committee does not contain the language.
1. Saudi Arabia
a. Removed a section in the Platform that was inserted to embarrass the royal family. The section called for the release of 28 pages of sensitive documents gathered during the 911 investigation. The pages allegedly contain information that asserts involvement by the Saudi Government/Royals as related to the alleged Saudi funding of terrorists who were involved in the 911 bombings
This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republished with permission.
A recurring theme in national tax debates is the idea that everyone should pay their “fair share” of taxes.
While that aspiration’s validity is widely taken for granted, the stark reality is there’s no such thing as a “fair share” of federal taxes.
To understand why, let’s first scrutinize what’s meant by “fair.” When paired with “share,” the most fitting definition is “reasonable, right and just.”
If the United States government were limited to its only morally sound function—protecting rights, liberties and lives—perhaps one could entertain the theoretical notion of a “reasonable, right and just” share of the cost.
However, that ideal is far from today’s grim reality, as tax revenue is used to assault rights, liberties and lives of Americans and people around the world—to say nothing of the sprawling waste and cronyism associated with a 2021 budget of $6.8 trillion.
So tell me:
What exactly is my “fair share” of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which enforces economic sanctions that purposefully inflict suffering on innocent civilians in foreign lands?
What’s my fair share of the tyrannical practice of civil asset forfeiture, in which cash and other property is seized from citizens without any requirement to file charges?
What’s my fair share of the $1.2 trillion allocated in 2021 for the unconstitutional Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Education and Transportation, and Small Business Administration?
What’s my fair share of the cages in which the government confines people for choosing to intoxicate themselves with a plant or a powder rather than a bottle?
What’s my fair share of the several trillion dollars spent on the overwhelmingly pointless war in Afghanistan or the even more catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq?
What’s my fair share of so-called “Covid relief” money used to bail out fiscally irresponsible state and local governments and pay unemployed people more than they were making on the job?
What’s my fair share of the jaw-dropping $81 million the CIA paid to two depraved psychologists who crafted the agency’s immoral and ineffective post-9/11 torture program?
What’s my fair share of the unjust prosecution of journalist Julian Assange for publishing documents that revealed wrongdoing and embarrassed powerful politicians?
What’s my fair share of the $3.8 billion handed over to the Israeli government this year—with every one of those dollars violating a U.S. law?
What’s my fair share of the $1.6 trillion cost of the snakebit, contractor-enriching F-35 fighter jet program—which the Pentagon already wants to replace with something else?
What’s my fair share of the ongoing salary of the U.S. Central Command’s General Kenneth F. McKenzie, who betrayed his oath to the Constitution by carrying out President Biden’s unlawful orders to bomb Syria?
What’s my fair share of $1.5 million spent encouraging eastern Mediterranean youth to stop smoking hookah?
Anticipating objections, please note that the moral standing of federal income taxation isn’t buttressed by whatever few authorized, proper, efficient and beneficial undertakings it finances.
Let’s say your homeowners association does a fine job providing basic services and maintaining common facilities, and you contentedly pay your annual “fair share” of $2,500.
However, the HOA then announces it will:
Spend $80,000 to impose unemployment, malnutrition and the degradation of medical services in a neighborhood across town
Give a contractor friend of the HOA president $200,000 to do $50,000 worth of sidewalk work
Pay two men $90,000 a year to torture suspected car burglars and vandals
Shrugging off your objections that the proposed new undertakings are immoral, corrupt, wasteful and unauthorized by the HOA bylaws, the board informs you that—using the same allocation method as before—your dues have doubled to $5,000.
“You may not like everything we’re doing now,” they say, “but don’t forget—some of the money goes to plow snow and maintain the swimming pool. You benefit from that.”
Given how half the money will be used, do you think one can rationally insist it’s only “fair” that you pay the $5,000?
For the record—and the benefit of our government monitors—I pay every dollar demanded by the federal tax code. I pay not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the coerced thing to do. And if the lawless, immoral HOA threatened to lock you in the clubhouse basement if you didn’t fork over the $5,000, I’m sure you’d pay them too.
But, like me, you’d thoroughly reject the idea that there can be anything “fair”—that is, reasonable, right and just—about your share of the coerced funding of unlawful, wasteful and morally repugnant pursuits.
This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republished with permission.
There’s a 101-year-old law most Americans have never heard of, one that shaves tens of billions of dollars out of the U.S. economy every year for the narrow benefit of politically-influential shipbuilders, shipyard unions and shipping lines.
The Jones Act does that by essentially barring foreign vessels from transporting freight or people between two U.S. ports. Among many other ill effects, the elimination of competition drives shipping prices far above what a free market would dictate.
Only 46 countries have such laws, and, according to the World Economic Forum, the United States imposes the most stringent ones of all. The Jones Act not only requires that commercial vessels traveling between American coastal ports or along inland waterways be American-flagged, but also American-owned, American-built, American-maintained, American-repaired and American-crewed.
In addition to covering transport from, say, Baltimore to Houston or river transport from New Orleans to St. Louis, the Jones Act even applies its anticompetitive muscle to non-contiguous parts of the country such as Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Guam.
A bow-to-stern assessment of the Jones Act’s impact will lead rational observers across the political spectrum to conclude it should have been torpedoed long ago.
Antiquated National Security Rationales
National security is a claimed rationale for many a destructive policy, and that’s the case with the Jones Act as well. In the words of one of its defenders, the Jones Act is “crucial (for) the U.S. to maintain an independent shipbuilding and marine cargo capability to serve our nation in wartime.”
If the Jones Act is supposed to guarantee the country can tap a vast U.S. merchant marine fleet during major wars, it’s been a spectacular failure: Between 1960 and 2016 alone, the number of private, U.S.-flagged, oceangoing ships plummeted from 2,926 to just 169.
Officially titled the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act was enacted just after World War I, and the reasoning espoused by its defenders is correspondingly out of step with modern warfare and logistics.
Long gone are the days when soldiers piled into troopships for voyages across the sea. In today’s conflicts, they and much of their heavy equipment are whisked to foreign theaters on cargo jets.
That’s not to say ships are irrelevant to large-scale military deployments. However, in practice, the Pentagon places limited reliance on U.S. commercial ships. For Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, 26.6% of equipment was delivered by foreign-flagged ships and only 12.7% by U.S.-flagged commercial vessels. Notably, only one of them was a Jones Act-compliant craft.
The protectionist shelter provided by the Jones Act has undermined the competitiveness of the U.S. shipbuilding industry by shielding it from market forces that would otherwise guide it to developing specialized expertise.
“Rather than specializing in the production of one, two, or several types of ships and purchasing other vessels from foreigner builders more adept at their production…U.S. shipbuilders complacently settle for mediocrity across a range of commercial ship classes,” wrote Colin Grabow, Inu Manak and Daniel J. Ikenson in a 2018 Cato Institute study.
High-cost mediocrity positions the U.S. shipbuilding industry to cater only to the domestic market forcibly made its captive by the Jones Act—little surprise, then, that exports only account for about 5% of the industry’s revenue.
The Jones Act is supposed to ensure a thriving American shipbuilding industry, yet the industry has withered. While Japan has more than 1,000 shipyards, there are now only around 124 of them left in the United States, just 22 of which are capable of building ocean-going cargo ships and other substantial vessels.
Meanwhile, there’s reason to question the premise that it’s risky for intra-country shipping to benefit from the efficiency and prowess of foreign shipbuilders—who could theoretically turn their backs during future hostilities.
When the Jones Act was enacted in 1920, shipbuilding was heavily concentrated in Europe. Today, however, the world’s top eight shipbuilding countries are South Korea, China, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Romania, Vietnam and Germany. That’s a globally-diversified list dominated by treaty allies and countries with whom relations are friendly—to say nothing of the fact that trade helps discourage conflicts.
Artificially Raising the Cost of Shipping
All forms of protectionism push prices higher than they would be in the face of open competition. The Jones Act comprises multiple layers of protectionism, with a pronounced effect.
Thanks to the requirement that Jones Act vessels be American-made using American steel, the ships used in domestic transport are far more expensive than they should be. According to a 2017 Congressional Research Service study, U.S.-built coastal ships cost $190 to $250 million—compared to just $30 million for a similar ship built abroad.
The higher cost of building, maintaining, repairing and manning Jones Act ships makes the cost of operating such a vessel more than double what it takes to sail a foreign ship.
Ultimately, higher costs and restricted competition means sharply higher prices for users. For example:
A 2014 study noted that shipping crude oil from the Gulf Coast to the northeastern United States costs between $5 and $6 per barrel, compared to just $2 to move it from the Gulf Coast to eastern Canada.
A Federal Reserve Bank of New York study found that shipping a container to Puerto Rico from the east coast of the United States costs $3,063, compared to just $1,504 to deliver it to the Dominican Republic.
Higher prices for waterborne transport between U.S. ports is just the beginning of the Jones Act’s effect on America—by their nature, shipping prices have a powerful ripple effect on the cost of a vast range of raw materials and finished consumer products across the U.S. economy.
The Jones Act is especially harsh for American island territories: After all, Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico can’t consider alternatives like rails and roads. According to a report commissioned by the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce, the cost of importing goods from U.S. ports was 151% higher than from non-U.S. ports.
It’s worth emphasizing that Puerto Rico has a 44% poverty rate, and every dollar Puerto Ricans waste on artificially high shipping prices is a dollar that can’t be put to use for something else that’s dearly needed.
Pushing Commerce into Less Eco-Friendly Alternatives
Thanks to the high replacement cost of Jones Act-compliant ships, domestic maritime operators put off buying new vessels longer than they should.
Sixty-five percent of Jones Act container ships are more than 30 years old—11 years older than comparable ships in the fleets of other developed countries. Lacking the benefits of recent design and construction innovations, these vessels are necessarily less fuel-efficient and more accident-prone.
Meanwhile, higher prices for water-borne shipping pushes businesses to alternatives. The impact is apparent: In the United States, just 2% of freight travels by sea, compared to 40% within the European Union.
Sea freight is easily the most carbon-efficient mode of shipping. Given that, when the Jones Act pushes businesses to substitute trucks, railways or aircraft, that exacts a needless toll on the environment. Pound for pound and mile for mile, a truck emits 3.8 to 6 times as much carbon dioxide as a sea freighter.
The substitutions create other costs to society, including heavier road traffic and greater wear and tear on bridges and highways. While trucks represent just 10% of miles traveled in America, they drive over 75% of road maintenance needs.
Government Intrusion Warps Buying Decisions
Higher costs and ecological impacts aren’t the only poison fruit of the Jones Act: By limiting the number of available vessels, the Jones Act also distorts also the decisions of market actors to the detriment of American buyers and sellers alike.
For example, given a paucity of Jones Act-compliant vessels that can transport liquefied natural gas (LNG), Massachusetts is compelled to import much of its required LNG from Russia, despite America’s status as the world’s third-largest producer of that commodity.
It’s even worse for Puerto Rico, which buys almost all its LNG from other countries. Meanwhile, the nearby Dominican Republic buys about half its LNG from the United States. Yes, thanks to the Jones Act, being a part of the United States actually stops Puerto Rico from buying LNG from American producers.
A Failure in Times of Crisis
The Jones Act is said to better position the United States to persevere through natural disasters and other crises, but time and again, crises demonstrate the law has the opposite effect. With too few Jones Act-compliant vessels to meet sudden, urgent needs, the government is repeatedly compelled to issue waivers that allow foreign-flagged vessels to bring supplies to disaster areas.
For example, waivers were issued in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast—over the callously self-serving objections of Jones Act-protected shippers, shipbuilders and unions, and Republican and Democratic legislators doing their bidding.
Waivers were also issued after Hurricanes Rita, Sandy, Irma and Maria, and earlier this year when the Colonial Pipeline shutdown created fuel shortages in the eastern part of the country.
Dispersed Costs, Concentrated Benefits
According to a comprehensive 2018 Cato Institute study, “Accounting for the actual inflated costs of transportation and infrastructure, the forgone wages and output, the lost domestic and foreign business revenue, and the monetized environmental toll puts the annual cost of the Jones Act in the tens of billions of dollars.”
Cato is not alone; others have also concluded the Jones Act is a net negative for the American economy, including the U.S. International Trade Commission, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and various economists and researchers.
Other countries have realized the benefit of easing similar restrictions: After New Zealand did so in 1994, it saw rates for coastal shipping fall by 20 to 25% over the next six years.
Despite the overwhelming case against the Jones Act, it has now commenced its second century of harming U.S. producers and consumers for the benefit of certain shipbuilders, shipyard employees and domestic maritime operators.
Short of total repeal, much good could be accomplished by easing any of the Jones Act’s restrictions. For example, Congress could exempt Puerto Rico, Alaska and other non-contiguous territories, or end the requirement to use ships built in the United States.
In May, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and Representative Tom McClintock (R-CA) introduced the Open America’s Water Act (S. 1646 and H.R 3205), which would repeal the Jones Act altogether.
In a stark demonstration of “the tyranny of the status quo,” neither has attracted even a single cosponsor.
Flag Day is upon us, with the Fourth of July not far behind. No better time for a frontal assault on a cherished American ritual—the Pledge of Allegiance.
Though conservatives will be most aghast at this undertaking, the open-minded ones will soon discover they should be among the pledge’s greatest critics.
Before I open fire, a brief explanation for international readers: The Pledge of Allegiance is recited by children across America at the start of start of each school day. It’s also incorporated into many meetings held by federal, state and local governments and private groups as well.
Standing and facing the flag with hand over heart, one recites: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
A Government Loyalty Oath Written by a Socialist
Many who consider the pledge a cornerstone of conservative values will be surprised to learn it was written by a Christian Socialist named Francis Bellamy, who was run out of his pulpit at a Boston church for preaching against capitalism, and who called Jesus Christ a socialist.
His radical cousin, Edward Bellamy, wrote a popular novel, Looking Backward, which glowingly describes a future in which government controls the means of production and where men are conscripted into the country’s “industrial army” and compelled to work in roles assigned to them by central planners.
While working for The Youth’s Companion, a children’s magazine, Bellamy wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892, timed to be introduced in patriotic celebrations accompanying the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival.
According to a summary of Bellamy’s account of his writing of the pledge, he aimed for brevity, as well as “a rhythmic roll of sound so they would impress the children and have a lasting meaning when they became grown-up citizens.”
Given his beliefs, Bellamy was well-suited for creating a loyalty oath that conditions Americans to subordinate themselves to a powerful central government. Make no mistake—in pledging allegiance “to the republic,” Americans are doing precisely that.
That’s consistent with Bellamy’s wish for state sovereignty and individual liberties to yield to a centralized national government, but it’s starkly at odds with the founding spirit of the country.
Central to that spirit are the notions that government should be a servant and not a master, and that all government should be viewed with deep, ongoing wariness— certainly not the reverence demanded by the Pledge of Allegiance.
Free people have no business pledging loyalty to any government. It’s government that has a duty of loyalty to the people, with no more essential demonstration of that loyalty than the protection of the rights of individuals.
Conditioning America’s Youth for Subservience
Bellamy didn’t just write the pledge, but also instructions for an accompanying ritual that feels simultaneously religious and militaristic:
“At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the Flag the military salute—right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it… At the words, ‘to my Flag,’ the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, towards the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.”
Yes, Bellamy directed civilian children and adults to render a military salute to the flag, perhaps laying the philosophical groundwork for the eventual creation of the socialist “industrial army” his cousin envisioned in his novel.
The arm outstretched toward the flag came to be called the “Bellamy salute,” and it endured for several decades before its striking similarity to the Nazi salute prompted its replacement in 1942 by the familiar hand-over-heart gesture.
I haven’t always felt this way. Conditioned by 13 years of public school, I continued sincerely reciting the pledge at various functions far into my adult life. Following my U.S. Army service, I’d even stand at attention with heels locked—Bellamy would’ve been proud.
It was only after learning the true meaning of liberty and the animating spirit of our system of government that my mind was changed. If your experience is like mine, once you begin recognizing the pledge as the authoritarian loyalty oath that it is, you’ll soon develop disdain for its nearly every phrase.
50 States, Infinitely Divisible
Two elements of the pledge are especially destructive of a healthy mindset regarding the relationship between the American people and government: “One nation” and “indivisible.”
First, in creating the United States of America, the founders were not forming a single nation. The U.S. Constitution is a compact of independent states, with the word “states” taking its highest political meaning that puts Virginia, for example, on par with France.
That compact delegated certain, limited powers to a federal government so it could perform stated functions in service to the separate states. As James Madison wrote, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite.”
Fifty different sovereign societies exercising numerous and indefinite powers, without regard to the federal government and, whenever necessary, in outright defiance of it. That’s the United States of America.
With each “one nation” incantation, however, American children and adults are conditioned to view their states as insignificant political subdivisions, while embracing the primacy of the federal government and the centralization of power in Washington, DC.
However, of the pledge’s 31 words, “indivisible” should give greatest offense to American patriots. The very existence of the United States—created by secession from the British empire—is a testament to political divisibility as a foundational human right.
The Declaration of Independence explicitly expresses that sentiment:
“Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed—that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
By reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and proclaiming the United States of America “indivisible,” Americans disclaim their human right of self-determination. They also surrender their ultimate means of holding government accountable: Every government should exist under perpetual threat of disintegration.
Scouring the pledge for positives, one can appreciate that Bellamy rightly referred to the government as a republic and not a democracy—an important yet underappreciated distinction.
Likewise, we can all embrace the idea of “liberty and justice for all.” However, the pledge implies that’s the current state of affairs, rather than a far-off ambition.
That ambition is undermined by the powerful central government advanced by Bellamy’s pledge. Today, it faces a potent new threat from those who, pursuing “equity,” seek to undermine the rights of individuals by imposing new forms of government-sanctioned discrimination.
Making an Idol Out of Cloth and a False God Out of Government
Civics aside, it’s worth noting that, since its introduction, the pledge has also sparked objections on religious grounds—and I’m not referring to the 1954 addition of the words “under God,” and its attendant controversy about the separation of church and state.
Rather, many religious people reasonably view pledging allegiance to a flag as a form of idolatry, or something uncomfortably close to it. Before you scoff at the idea that the U.S. flag has evolved into a “graven image” in the Second Commandment sense, consider that citizens are encouraged to dispose of worn-out flags by burning them and, after a period of silent reflection, burying the ashes.
Other religious individuals are put off by the idea of swearing faith to a government. One such critic quotes the Christian bible’s Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters.” You don’t have to ponder that long to see many profound conflicts between the bible’s values (e.g., “blessed are the peacemakers,” “thou shalt not steal”) and the U.S. government’s.
An Authoritarian Spectacle That’s Not Going Anywhere
No matter where the hand is placed in what Gene Healy rightly calls a “slavish ritual of devotion to the state,” it’s safe to say if the Pledge of Allegiance had never existed, and Americans were to observe a similar rite in another country, most would surely recoil at the authoritarian spectacle.
Alas, there could be no such opportunity: Richard Ellis, author of To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance, looked but couldn’t find another country that has anything like it.
Created by a socialist and now fiercely championed by those who think they’re conservatives, the Pledge of Allegiance will likely continue warping Americans’ thoughts about the relationship between citizens and government for many more years to come.
This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republished with permission.
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