Having Dissed Edward Snowden, Should Barack Obama Pardon Bernie Madoff?
Tis the season for presidential pardons, and all throughout the land the peasants are calling for their Caesar to release not Barabbas this time but the other guy. The "other guy" isn't exactly Jesus of course, but he is nonetheless rather well known for staunchly "speaking truth to power". I'll avoid a re-cap of the shenanigans at play, instead summing it all up by pointing out that yes, the "other guy" – Edward Snowden – did most certainly break the law. However, is breaking the law always such a bad thing? As Martin Luther King Jr. put it,
To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor. Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. The oppressed must never allow the conscience of the oppressor to slumber.
King's and Snowden's country, the United States, has a bit of a history when it comes to preferring freedom from obtrusive government authority as well as of noncompliance when it comes to unjust laws. This began of course with the Boston Tea Party, which was not only an illegal act of disobedience but eventually led to revolution and freedom (of sorts) from Great Britain. Proceeding this were abolitionists who refused to bow down to Fugitive Slave laws, followed by the Civil Rights Movement, and more. On the other hand, what Adolf Hitler did to Jews, political dissidents and other "miscreants" was perfectly legal. In other words, there's lawful and unlawful, but there's also right and wrong.
The question then is: Should Barack Obama pardon Edward Snowden? When recently asked this by German media outlet Der Speigel, this is what Obama had to say in reply:
I can't pardon somebody who hasn't gone before a court and presented themselves, so that's not something that I would comment on at this point. I think that Mr. Snowden raised some legitimate concerns. How he did it was something that did not follow the procedures and practices of our intelligence community. If everybody took the approach that I make my own decisions about these issues, then it would be very hard to have an organized government or any kind of national security system.
At the point at which Mr. Snowden wants to present himself before the legal authorities and make his arguments or have his lawyers make his arguments, then I think those issues come into play. Until that time, what I've tried to suggest – both to the American people, but also to the world – is that we do have to balance this issue of privacy and security. Those who pretend that there's no balance that has to be struck and think we can take a 100-percent absolutist approach to protecting privacy don't recognize that governments are going to be under an enormous burden to prevent the kinds of terrorist acts that not only harm individuals, but also can distort our society and our politics in very dangerous ways.
And those who think that security is the only thing and don't care about privacy also have it wrong.
Come again? Did Obama just say that the very second Snowden "goes before a court and presents himself" that he'd have him pardoned? Am I missing something here?
Of course I am, because that's undoubtedly not what Obama was saying in the slightest with his faux addressing of the issue, made obvious when we realize that Obama's statement is incorrect several times over (made all the more curious since Obama was a constitutional lawyer prior to becoming president). Because if we go back just a few decades we see that Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon before he had been indicted, and if we go back just a few months (we're talking January of 2016) we see that Obama himself pardoned three dual U.S.-Iranian citizens who had yet to be charged. That Snowden can't be pardoned is therefore factually untrue, something that Obama must very well know.
To then suggest that Snowden would actually have a chance to "make his arguments" is also patently false, and which is hard to imagine Obama not being aware of either. Since Snowden is charged under the draconian WWI Espionage Act (meant for punishing foreign spies), this means that he'd be given zero opportunity to make his case before his peers – something that happened to Daniel Ellsberg when he was on trial.
Could this all be evidence of Obama hitting senility a bit early? Although one might somewhat hope so, it's probably more likely the case that Obama's interests simply lie elsewhere. Because the fact of the matter is that over the span of two national elections Obama raised millions of dollars from Wall Street donors, a faction that in return got exactly what it paid for. As Ron Suskind pointed out in his book Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, Obama's appointment of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner rendered any reformation of Wall Street moot from the get-go. In describing Obama's first meeting with the "golden thirteen" (which included JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein), and after Obama had just pointed out that "My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks", Suskind conveys that
After a moment, the tension in the room seemed to lift: the bankers realized he [Obama] was talking about voluntary limits on compensation until the storm of public anger passed. It would be for show.
Following that, there was
Nothing to worry about. Whereas Roosevelt had pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said, "I welcome their hate," Obama was saying, "How can I help?" With palpable relief, the CEOs carried the discussion, talking, easily now, about credit conditions and how loan demand was soft because it should be: businesses were already overleveraged.
It should be no surprise then that not only have the banks gotten bigger under Obama's administration, but that none of the bankers – whose fraudulent behaviour collapsed the United States' housing market and then its economy (and then many of the world's other economies) – saw any criminal prosecution. Was Obama hindered from taking action on this due to an "obstructionist Republican Congress that undermined Obama's presidency"? Hardly, particularly when "hope and change" was essentially a well-marketed cover for a protection racket.
Having therefore let the Band of Barabbas' go hog-wild, and having no intention of pardoning Snowden, I can't help but wonder why Obama doesn't just do what his heart must truly desire – to pardon the boldest Band of Barabbas member of all, Bernie Madoff.
And I'm hardly joking here. Nearly eight years ago when the manure was hitting the fan I couldn't help but go around asking others (with tongue firmly planted in cheek), "Hey wait a second. If the big banks are getting bailed out, why isn't Bernie Madoff getting his fair share as well? Doesn't he just need some stimulation? Could bailing out Madoff not get things rolling again and save the economy?" That obviously got people thinking I was a crack-baby or something, but that doesn't negate the fact that the Bank of Madoff hit a snag for essentially the same reason that the big banks got thrown off kilter: they're all Ponzi schemes. As Wes Jackson put it during his speech at The Land Institute's 2010 Prairie Festival, "Bernard Madoff deserves a ticker tape parade for showing a small part of a much larger Ponzi scheme."
But while Madoff's Ponzi scheme is easy enough to understand – he required continual inputs of new money from investors so that he'd be able to make payouts to previous investors, in effect enabling his "bank" to maintain the appearance of solvency – the greater Ponzi schemes we live amongst aren't as easy to see. As economist John Kenneth Galbraith famously stated, "The process by which money is created is so simple that the mind is repelled."
Perhaps the best way to pull back the veil on this is via explaining the "magic" that goldsmiths performed some 400 years or so ago. Back when gold was the monetary standard people often kept their "money" in the goldsmiths' vaults for safekeeping. In return they were given notes of credit, notes which many people decided to trade amongst themselves rather than worrying about the bothersome and repetitive tasks of continually withdrawing and depositing their gold. Many goldsmiths then realized that hardly any of the gold ever left their vaults – about 90% just sat there – and so got the unscrupulous idea to not only conjure a few extra credit notes out of thin air, but to lend out those notes with interest (otherwise known as usury, which used to be a big no-no in the Bible and the Quran until its definition [in the bible] got watered down to mean charging too much interest rather than charging any interest at all).
In effect, due to the goldsmiths' finagling there ended up being more notes in circulation than there was gold which the credit notes could be redeemed for. (This is now practiced by banks in a more modern fashion under the moniker of fractional-reserve banking, backed up by paltry Federal Deposit Insurance's and such.) On top of that, the added charge of interest meant that not only did the divide between credit notes and redeemable gold increase even further, but that people – and the economic system as a whole – were thus placed on a treadmill whereby they had to keep running faster and faster lest the monetary system collapse in on itself. How's that so?
Take this analogy: Imagine a blank slate where money doesn't yet exist. A bank is then started up and proceeds to create $1,000 out of thin air (which is exactly what banks do today and is how roughly 95% of our money is conjured into existence). It lends out $100 to each of 10 farmers to facilitate their trading amongst one another, tacking on top of that an annual interest rate of 10%. The bank therefore expects back a total of $1,100 at the end of the year, but it only created $1,000. In other words, there is an inherent shortfall of money in the system – by $100 – from the get-go. While at the end of the stipulated year some of the ten farmers may have earned enough from their peers to pay back their loans plus interest, there will not only be inevitable losers due to the inherent $100 shortfall in the system, but any farmer who not only made enough money to pay back the $110 but also earned some extra cash which they stuck under their mattress for safekeeping effectively took money out of the system and left even less for the "losers" at the other end – "losers" who effectively have even less possibility for securing the needed money to pay back their loans, never mind the added interest.
So while the charging of interest means that a perpetual widening of the gap between the rich and the poor is baked into the system, it also means that the system is inherently bankrupt and would implode in on itself were it not for the banks continually conjuring more and more money into existence in order to try and pay off (more like cover up) the inherent shortfall. New and increasing supplies of conjured money are therefore continually lent out (all with added charges of interest of course) so that said "suckers" can service at least the interest on their previous loans by going into even more debt, in the process bestowing upon the bankers' Ponzi scheme(s) the appearance of solvency.
If you're starting to scratch your head and say to yourself, "Hold on a second, this kinda sounds like what's going on with Greece," then congratulations! You now understand how the monetary system works! (You can read my two posts on the Greece story here and here.) That being said, unscrupulous goldsmiths/bankers/Ponzi schemers weren't always given the free pass as they are today.
For starters, it wasn't as if people never caught on to what the goldsmiths were doing way back when. The first people to catch on to the goldsmith's fraudulent creation of extra notes unsurprisingly rushed to the goldsmith's to exchange their credit notes for gold before supplies ran out and their notes were thus deemed worthless. This was (and still is) called a "run on the bank". Initially it was the goldsmiths who pointed the finger at the person/people who started the bank run(s) and got them strung up on the gallows. This eventually got straightened out and the pitchfork wielding masses made sure that it was not them but the goldsmiths who got hung by their necks.
We're currently stuck back in stage one where "the losers" get blamed for the bankers' bamboozling. It isn't the bankers' or the monetary system's fault – it's those damn Greeks who are too lazy to work, those damn Greeks who are so corrupt that they don't pay their taxes, those damn Greeks who spend all their time Greeking one another.
So while Obama has done nothing but play along with the bankers' scam(s), not only did he not even slap the bankers' wrists, but he instead slapped the bankers' salamis while watching them get bigger and bigger. And the only mistake that Madoff made that rendered his salami not worthy of being slapped was that rather than being too-big-to-fail he was too-impotent-to-bail. Sure, Madoff is said to have run the largest Ponzi scheme in history with his Bernard L. Madoff Securities LLC, but this is categorically untrue since the banks' Ponzi schemes are infinitely larger than Madoff's bush league-worthy $64 billion scheme.
That all being said, and although I'm definitely on side with Snowden rather than those who would see him jailed (or worse), I sometimes fail to see the point behind his leaks, and not just because his exposure of the privacy violations partaken by the United States government should be taken as common sense in the first place. No; why I sometimes fail to see the point behind Snowden's leaks parallels something else that Martin Luther King Jr. stated, paraphrased and expanded upon by Morris Berman:
Martin Luther King... apparently said to Harry Belafonte, just before he (i.e., King) was assassinated, that he thought he might have been making a big mistake; that he sometimes felt like he was herding people into a burning church. This is a very different insight, quite obviously, than the notion that black people should be getting a larger share of the pie. After all, who wants a larger share of a rotten pie, or to live in a church that is burning down?
Fact is, while Snowden has a lot of worthwhile things to say about digital rights, he doesn't seem to have anything to say about the bigger picture in which those digital rights exist amongst. That, namely, would be the burning church of fossil-fueled industrial civilization, a civilization whose best-before-date has now been reached due to the emergence of peak oil. The reason for the aforementioned statement is that the Ponzi scheme(s) we live amongst require perpetual growth in order that an increasing amount of loans are progressively taken out so that the system is able to keep from imploding in on itself, and since peak oil means there will no longer be an increasing amount of fossil fuels to power growing growth, well... well awww shit!
While economies will inevitably collapse within collapsing industrial civilization, and since even benevolent governments have been doing little to nothing to address the quandary of peak oil, it's not hard to imagine our peril(s) being blamed on scapegoat after scapegoat, paralleled with reactionary governments clamping down on dissent, leakers of classified information being no exception of course.
With that in mind, Snowden recently pointed out that
Perhaps the best-known case in recent history here is Gen Petraeus – who shared information that was far more highly classified than I ever did with journalists. And he shared this information not with the public for their benefit, but with his biographer and lover for personal benefit – conversations that had information, detailed information, about military special-access programs, that's classified above top secret, conversations with the president and so on.
When the government came after him, they charged him with a misdemeanor. He never spent a single day in jail, despite the type of classified information he exposed.
We have a two-tiered system of justice in the United States, where people who are either well-connected to government or they have access to an incredible amount of resources get very light punishments.
I'm not so sure about Snowden's assessment of this though. Because the only thing that Petraeus did was expose information (albeit highly classified information). What Snowden did was expose a system. Yes, Petraeus may very well have merely had his
salami wrist slapped for what he did because of who he is. But were he to have exposed what Snowden did there's no way he would have gotten off as lightly, and is why there's a slim-to-none chance that Snowden is going to see the light of (American) day anytime soon.
None of that is to say though that Barabbas should be released and that the "other guy" shouldn't be – he should be (as should Chelsea Manning). As a recent CNN article even put it, "President Obama should suck it up and pardon both leakers before the incoming administration makes two ugly situations uglier." Touché.
But regardless of whether or not the "other guy" gets released, there's one thing I can guarantee you, and that's that he holds no super powers that would enable him to forgive us of our sins of having built up a civilization dependent on extremely large amounts of concentrated energy and of having done virtually nothing to wean ourselves off of them after decades of warnings. For when it comes time to pay the piper, cries of privacy violations won't be standing in the Four Horsemen's way, we can be sure of that.