Category Archives: Politics

Buzz Fugazi Twitter Bombs The Frack Out of Chickenhawk Clowns

Check out the twitter feed of Buzz Fugazi and grab some pithy talking points. Use them the next time you visit some wingnut Congresstool wanting to slash funding for public infrastructure and environmental regulations and cut taxes for the wealthy while piling on sales taxes, making your speeding ticket cost $2000, reducing the minimum wage, and exploding the debt for another unfunded pointless war that will not make us more safe.

When was the last time we reduced the size of the Federal Bureaucracy by getting into another war? The same every time we collapsed the economy by raising the minimum wage. It happens every year on the 5th of Never!

What ISIS Really Wants

http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/what-isis-really-wants/384980/

AP/The Atlantic

What ISIS Really Wants
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
Graeme Wood

MARCH 2015

What is the Islamic State?

Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.

The group seized Mosul, Iraq, last June, and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been its leader since May 2010, but until last summer, his most recent known appearance on film was a grainy mug shot from a stay in U.S. captivity at Camp Bucca during the occupation of Iraq. Then, on July 5 of last year, he stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, to deliver a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph in generations—upgrading his resolution from grainy to high-definition, and his position from hunted guerrilla to commander of all Muslims. The inflow of jihadists that followed, from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.

Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of al‑Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as “Sheikh Osama,” a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaeda’s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the group’s priorities and current leadership.

Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)

We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohammad Atta’s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.

Nearly all the Islamic State’s decisions adhere to what it calls, on its billboards, license plates, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology.”
There is a temptation to rehearse this observation—that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise—and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.

The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic State’s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not—cannot—waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and “smash his head with a rock,” poison him, run him over with a car, or “destroy his crops.” To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishments—the stoning and crop destruction—juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an “uncircumcised geezer.”)

But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops alone—unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Control of territory is an essential precondition for the Islamic State’s authority in the eyes of its supporters. This map, adapted from the work of the Institute for the Study of War, shows the territory under the caliphate’s control as of January 15, along with areas it has attacked. Where it holds power, the state collects taxes, regulates prices, operates courts, and administers services ranging from health care and education to telecommunications.
I. Devotion

In November, the Islamic State released an infomercial-like video tracing its origins to bin Laden. It acknowledged Abu Musa’b al Zarqawi, the brutal head of al‑Qaeda in Iraq from roughly 2003 until his killing in 2006, as a more immediate progenitor, followed sequentially by two other guerrilla leaders before Baghdadi, the caliph. Notably unmentioned: bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, the owlish Egyptian eye surgeon who currently heads al‑Qaeda. Zawahiri has not pledged allegiance to Baghdadi, and he is increasingly hated by his fellow jihadists. His isolation is not helped by his lack of charisma; in videos he comes across as squinty and annoyed. But the split between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State has been long in the making, and begins to explain, at least in part, the outsize bloodlust of the latter.

Zawahiri’s companion in isolation is a Jordanian cleric named Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, 55, who has a fair claim to being al-Qaeda’s intellectual architect and the most important jihadist unknown to the average American newspaper reader. On most matters of doctrine, Maqdisi and the Islamic State agree. Both are closely identified with the jihadist wing of a branch of Sunnism called Salafism, after the Arabic al salaf al salih, the “pious forefathers.” These forefathers are the Prophet himself and his earliest adherents, whom Salafis honor and emulate as the models for all behavior, including warfare, couture, family life, even dentistry.

The Islamic State awaits the army of “Rome,” whose defeat at Dabiq, Syria, will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.
Maqdisi taught Zarqawi, who went to war in Iraq with the older man’s advice in mind. In time, though, Zarqawi surpassed his mentor in fanaticism, and eventually earned his rebuke. At issue was Zarqawi’s penchant for bloody spectacle—and, as a matter of doctrine, his hatred of other Muslims, to the point of excommunicating and killing them. In Islam, the practice of takfir, or excommunication, is theologically perilous. “If a man says to his brother, ‘You are an infidel,’ ” the Prophet said, “then one of them is right.” If the accuser is wrong, he himself has committed apostasy by making a false accusation. The punishment for apostasy is death. And yet Zarqawi heedlessly expanded the range of behavior that could make Muslims infidels.

Maqdisi wrote to his former pupil that he needed to exercise caution and “not issue sweeping proclamations of takfir” or “proclaim people to be apostates because of their sins.” The distinction between apostate and sinner may appear subtle, but it is a key point of contention between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Denying the holiness of the Koran or the prophecies of Muhammad is straightforward apostasy. But Zarqawi and the state he spawned take the position that many other acts can remove a Muslim from Islam. These include, in certain cases, selling alcohol or drugs, wearing Western clothes or shaving one’s beard, voting in an election—even for a Muslim candidate—and being lax about calling other people apostates. Being a Shiite, as most Iraqi Arabs are, meets the standard as well, because the Islamic State regards Shiism as innovation, and to innovate on the Koran is to deny its initial perfection. (The Islamic State claims that common Shiite practices, such as worship at the graves of imams and public self-flagellation, have no basis in the Koran or in the example of the Prophet.) That means roughly 200 million Shia are marked for death. So too are the heads of state of every Muslim country, who have elevated man-made law above Sharia by running for office or enforcing laws not made by God.

Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute.

Musa Cerantonio, an Australian preacher reported to be one of the Islamic State’s most influential recruiters, believes it is foretold that the caliphate will sack Istanbul before it is beaten back by an army led by the anti-Messiah, whose eventual death— when just a few thousand jihadists remain—will usher in the apocalypse. (Paul Jeffers/Fairfax Media)
Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State. Many refuse to believe that this group is as devout as it claims to be, or as backward-looking or apocalyptic as its actions and statements suggest.

Their skepticism is comprehensible. In the past, Westerners who accused Muslims of blindly following ancient scriptures came to deserved grief from academics—notably the late Edward Said—who pointed out that calling Muslims “ancient” was usually just another way to denigrate them. Look instead, these scholars urged, to the conditions in which these ideologies arose—the bad governance, the shifting social mores, the humiliation of living in lands valued only for their oil.

Without acknowledgment of these factors, no explanation of the rise of the Islamic State could be complete. But focusing on them to the exclusion of ideology reflects another kind of Western bias: that if religious ideology doesn’t matter much in Washington or Berlin, surely it must be equally irrelevant in Raqqa or Mosul. When a masked executioner says Allahu akbar while beheading an apostate, sometimes he’s doing so for religious reasons.

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

Every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent me to Haykel. Of partial Lebanese descent, Haykel grew up in Lebanon and the United States, and when he talks through his Mephistophelian goatee, there is a hint of an unplaceable foreign accent.

According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Our failure to appreciate the essential differences between ISIS and al-Qaeda has led to dangerous decisions.
The Koran specifies crucifixion as one of the only punishments permitted for enemies of Islam. The tax on Christians finds clear endorsement in the Surah Al-Tawba, the Koran’s ninth chapter, which instructs Muslims to fight Christians and Jews “until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” The Prophet, whom all Muslims consider exemplary, imposed these rules and owned slaves.

Leaders of the Islamic State have taken emulation of Muhammad as strict duty, and have revived traditions that have been dormant for hundreds of years. “What’s striking about them is not just the literalism, but also the seriousness with which they read these texts,” Haykel said. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

Before the rise of the Islamic State, no group in the past few centuries had attempted more-radical fidelity to the Prophetic model than the Wahhabis of 18th‑century Arabia. They conquered most of what is now Saudi Arabia, and their strict practices survive in a diluted version of Sharia there. Haykel sees an important distinction between the groups, though: “The Wahhabis were not wanton in their violence.” They were surrounded by Muslims, and they conquered lands that were already Islamic; this stayed their hand. “ISIS, by contrast, is really reliving the early period.” Early Muslims were surrounded by non-Muslims, and the Islamic State, because of its takfiri tendencies, considers itself to be in the same situation.

If al-Qaeda wanted to revive slavery, it never said so. And why would it? Silence on slavery probably reflected strategic thinking, with public sympathies in mind: when the Islamic State began enslaving people, even some of its supporters balked. Nonetheless, the caliphate has continued to embrace slavery and crucifixion without apology. “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” Adnani, the spokesman, promised in one of his periodic valentines to the West. “If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.”

In October, Dabiq, the magazine of the Islamic State, published “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” an article that took up the question of whether Yazidis (the members of an ancient Kurdish sect that borrows elements of Islam, and had come under attack from Islamic State forces in northern Iraq) are lapsed Muslims, and therefore marked for death, or merely pagans and therefore fair game for enslavement. A study group of Islamic State scholars had convened, on government orders, to resolve this issue. If they are pagans, the article’s anonymous author wrote,

Yazidi women and children [are to be] divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations [in northern Iraq] … Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Koran and the narrations of the Prophet … and thereby apostatizing from Islam.
II. Territory

Tens of thousands of foreign Muslims are thought to have immigrated to the Islamic State. Recruits hail from France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Australia, Indonesia, the United States, and many other places. Many have come to fight, and many intend to die.

Peter R. Neumann, a professor at King’s College London, told me that online voices have been essential to spreading propaganda and ensuring that newcomers know what to believe. Online recruitment has also widened the demographics of the jihadist community, by allowing conservative Muslim women—physically isolated in their homes—to reach out to recruiters, radicalize, and arrange passage to Syria. Through its appeals to both genders, the Islamic State hopes to build a complete society.

In November, I traveled to Australia to meet Musa Cerantonio, a 30-year-old man whom Neumann and other researchers had identified as one of the two most important “new spiritual authorities” guiding foreigners to join the Islamic State. For three years he was a televangelist on Iqraa TV in Cairo, but he left after the station objected to his frequent calls to establish a caliphate. Now he preaches on Facebook and Twitter.

Cerantonio—a big, friendly man with a bookish demeanor—told me he blanches at beheading videos. He hates seeing the violence, even though supporters of the Islamic State are required to endorse it. (He speaks out, controversially among jihadists, against suicide bombing, on the grounds that God forbids suicide; he differs from the Islamic State on a few other points as well.) He has the kind of unkempt facial hair one sees on certain overgrown fans of The Lord of the Rings, and his obsession with Islamic apocalypticism felt familiar. He seemed to be living out a drama that looks, from an outsider’s perspective, like a medieval fantasy novel, only with real blood.

Last June, Cerantonio and his wife tried to emigrate—he wouldn’t say to where (“It’s illegal to go to Syria,” he said cagily)—but they were caught en route, in the Philippines, and he was deported back to Australia for overstaying his visa. Australia has criminalized attempts to join or travel to the Islamic State, and has confiscated Cerantonio’s passport. He is stuck in Melbourne, where he is well known to the local constabulary. If Cerantonio were caught facilitating the movement of individuals to the Islamic State, he would be imprisoned. So far, though, he is free—a technically unaffiliated ideologue who nonetheless speaks with what other jihadists have taken to be a reliable voice on matters of the Islamic State’s doctrine.

We met for lunch in Footscray, a dense, multicultural Melbourne suburb that’s home to Lonely Planet, the travel-guide publisher. Cerantonio grew up there in a half-Irish, half-Calabrian family. On a typical street one can find African restaurants, Vietnamese shops, and young Arabs walking around in the Salafi uniform of scraggly beard, long shirt, and trousers ending halfway down the calves.

Cerantonio explained the joy he felt when Baghdadi was declared the caliph on June 29—and the sudden, magnetic attraction that Mesopotamia began to exert on him and his friends. “I was in a hotel [in the Philippines], and I saw the declaration on television,” he told me. “And I was just amazed, and I’m like, Why am I stuck here in this bloody room?”

The last caliphate was the Ottoman empire, which reached its peak in the 16th century and then experienced a long decline, until the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, euthanized it in 1924. But Cerantonio, like many supporters of the Islamic State, doesn’t acknowledge that caliphate as legitimate, because it didn’t fully enforce Islamic law, which requires stonings and slavery and amputations, and because its caliphs were not descended from the tribe of the Prophet, the Quraysh.

Baghdadi spoke at length of the importance of the caliphate in his Mosul sermon. He said that to revive the institution of the caliphate—which had not functioned except in name for about 1,000 years—was a communal obligation. He and his loyalists had “hastened to declare the caliphate and place an imam” at its head, he said. “This is a duty upon the Muslims—a duty that has been lost for centuries … The Muslims sin by losing it, and they must always seek to establish it.” Like bin Laden before him, Baghdadi spoke floridly, with frequent scriptural allusion and command of classical rhetoric. Unlike bin Laden, and unlike those false caliphs of the Ottoman empire, he is Qurayshi.

The caliphate, Cerantonio told me, is not just a political entity but also a vehicle for salvation. Islamic State propaganda regularly reports the pledges of baya’a (allegiance) rolling in from jihadist groups across the Muslim world. Cerantonio quoted a Prophetic saying, that to die without pledging allegiance is to die jahil (ignorant) and therefore die a “death of disbelief.” Consider how Muslims (or, for that matter, Christians) imagine God deals with the souls of people who die without learning about the one true religion. They are neither obviously saved nor definitively condemned. Similarly, Cerantonio said, the Muslim who acknowledges one omnipotent god and prays, but who dies without pledging himself to a valid caliph and incurring the obligations of that oath, has failed to live a fully Islamic life. I pointed out that this means the vast majority of Muslims in history, and all who passed away between 1924 and 2014, died a death of disbelief. Cerantonio nodded gravely. “I would go so far as to say that Islam has been reestablished” by the caliphate.

I asked him about his own baya’a, and he quickly corrected me: “I didn’t say that I’d pledged allegiance.” Under Australian law, he reminded me, giving baya’a to the Islamic State was illegal. “But I agree that [Baghdadi] fulfills the requirements,” he continued. “I’m just going to wink at you, and you take that to mean whatever you want.”

To be the caliph, one must meet conditions outlined in Sunni law—being a Muslim adult man of Quraysh descent; exhibiting moral probity and physical and mental integrity; and having ’amr, or authority. This last criterion, Cerantonio said, is the hardest to fulfill, and requires that the caliph have territory in which he can enforce Islamic law. Baghdadi’s Islamic State achieved that long before June 29, Cerantonio said, and as soon as it did, a Western convert within the group’s ranks—Cerantonio described him as “something of a leader”—began murmuring about the religious obligation to declare a caliphate. He and others spoke quietly to those in power and told them that further delay would be sinful.

Social-media posts from the Islamic State suggest that executions happen more or less continually.
Cerantonio said a faction arose that was prepared to make war on Baghdadi’s group if it delayed any further. They prepared a letter to various powerful members of ISIS, airing their displeasure at the failure to appoint a caliph, but were pacified by Adnani, the spokesman, who let them in on a secret—that a caliphate had already been declared, long before the public announcement. They had their legitimate caliph, and at that point there was only one option. “If he’s legitimate,” Cerantonio said, “you must give him the baya’a.”

After Baghdadi’s July sermon, a stream of jihadists began flowing daily into Syria with renewed motivation. Jürgen Todenhöfer, a German author and former politician who visited the Islamic State in December, reported the arrival of 100 fighters at one Turkish-border recruitment station in just two days. His report, among others, suggests a still-steady inflow of foreigners, ready to give up everything at home for a shot at paradise in the worst place on Earth.

Bernard Haykel, the foremost secular authority on the Islamic State’s ideology, believes the group is trying to re-create the earliest days of Islam and is faithfully reproducing its norms of war. “There is an assiduous, obsessive seriousness” about the group’s dedication to the text of the Koran, he says. (Peter Murphy)
In London, a week before my meal with Cerantonio, I met with three ex-members of a banned Islamist group called Al Muhajiroun (The Emigrants): Anjem Choudary, Abu Baraa, and Abdul Muhid. They all expressed desire to emigrate to the Islamic State, as many of their colleagues already had, but the authorities had confiscated their passports. Like Cerantonio, they regarded the caliphate as the only righteous government on Earth, though none would confess having pledged allegiance. Their principal goal in meeting me was to explain what the Islamic State stands for, and how its policies reflect God’s law.

Choudary, 48, is the group’s former leader. He frequently appears on cable news, as one of the few people producers can book who will defend the Islamic State vociferously, until his mike is cut. He has a reputation in the United Kingdom as a loathsome blowhard, but he and his disciples sincerely believe in the Islamic State and, on matters of doctrine, speak in its voice. Choudary and the others feature prominently in the Twitter feeds of Islamic State residents, and Abu Baraa maintains a YouTube channel to answer questions about Sharia.

Since September, authorities have been investigating the three men on suspicion of supporting terrorism. Because of this investigation, they had to meet me separately: communication among them would have violated the terms of their bail. But speaking with them felt like speaking with the same person wearing different masks. Choudary met me in a candy shop in the East London suburb of Ilford. He was dressed smartly, in a crisp blue tunic reaching nearly to his ankles, and sipped a Red Bull while we talked.

Before the caliphate, “maybe 85 percent of the Sharia was absent from our lives,” Choudary told me. “These laws are in abeyance until we have khilafa”—a caliphate—“and now we have one.” Without a caliphate, for example, individual vigilantes are not obliged to amputate the hands of thieves they catch in the act. But create a caliphate, and this law, along with a huge body of other jurisprudence, suddenly awakens. In theory, all Muslims are obliged to immigrate to the territory where the caliph is applying these laws. One of Choudary’s prize students, a convert from Hinduism named Abu Rumaysah, evaded police to bring his family of five from London to Syria in November. On the day I met Choudary, Abu Rumaysah tweeted out a picture of himself with a Kalashnikov in one arm and his newborn son in the other. Hashtag: #GenerationKhilafah.

The caliph is required to implement Sharia. Any deviation will compel those who have pledged allegiance to inform the caliph in private of his error and, in extreme cases, to excommunicate and replace him if he persists. (“I have been plagued with this great matter, plagued with this responsibility, and it is a heavy responsibility,” Baghdadi said in his sermon.) In return, the caliph commands obedience—and those who persist in supporting non-Muslim governments, after being duly warned and educated about their sin, are considered apostates.

Choudary said Sharia has been misunderstood because of its incomplete application by regimes such as Saudi Arabia, which does behead murderers and cut off thieves’ hands. “The problem,” he explained, “is that when places like Saudi Arabia just implement the penal code, and don’t provide the social and economic justice of the Sharia—the whole package—they simply engender hatred toward the Sharia.” That whole package, he said, would include free housing, food, and clothing for all, though of course anyone who wished to enrich himself with work could do so.

Abdul Muhid, 32, continued along these lines. He was dressed in mujahideen chic when I met him at a local restaurant: scruffy beard, Afghan cap, and a wallet outside of his clothes, attached with what looked like a shoulder holster. When we sat down, he was eager to discuss welfare. The Islamic State may have medieval-style punishments for moral crimes (lashes for boozing or fornication, stoning for adultery), but its social-welfare program is, at least in some aspects, progressive to a degree that would please an MSNBC pundit. Health care, he said, is free. (“Isn’t it free in Britain, too?,” I asked. “Not really,” he said. “Some procedures aren’t covered, such as vision.”) This provision of social welfare was not, he said, a policy choice of the Islamic State, but a policy obligation inherent in God’s law.

Anjem Choudary, London’s most notorious defender of the Islamic State, says crucifixion and beheading are sacred requirements. (Tal Cohen/Reuters)

III. The Apocalypse

All Muslims acknowledge that God is the only one who knows the future. But they also agree that he has offered us a peek at it, in the Koran and in narrations of the Prophet. The Islamic State differs from nearly every other current jihadist movement in believing that it is written into God’s script as a central character. It is in this casting that the Islamic State is most boldly distinctive from its predecessors, and clearest in the religious nature of its mission.

In broad strokes, al-Qaeda acts like an underground political movement, with worldly goals in sight at all times—the expulsion of non-Muslims from the Arabian peninsula, the abolishment of the state of Israel, the end of support for dictatorships in Muslim lands. The Islamic State has its share of worldly concerns (including, in the places it controls, collecting garbage and keeping the water running), but the End of Days is a leitmotif of its propaganda. Bin Laden rarely mentioned the apocalypse, and when he did, he seemed to presume that he would be long dead when the glorious moment of divine comeuppance finally arrived. “Bin Laden and Zawahiri are from elite Sunni families who look down on this kind of speculation and think it’s something the masses engage in,” says Will McCants of the Brookings Institution, who is writing a book about the Islamic State’s apocalyptic thought.

During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic State’s immediate founding fathers, by contrast, saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdi—a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world. McCants says a prominent Islamist in Iraq approached bin Laden in 2008 to warn him that the group was being led by millenarians who were “talking all the time about the Mahdi and making strategic decisions” based on when they thought the Mahdi was going to arrive. “Al-Qaeda had to write to [these leaders] to say ‘Cut it out.’ ”

For certain true believers—the kind who long for epic good-versus-evil battles—visions of apocalyptic bloodbaths fulfill a deep psychological need. Of the Islamic State supporters I met, Musa Cerantonio, the Australian, expressed the deepest interest in the apocalypse and how the remaining days of the Islamic State—and the world—might look. Parts of that prediction are original to him, and do not yet have the status of doctrine. But other parts are based on mainstream Sunni sources and appear all over the Islamic State’s propaganda. These include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and Baghdadi is the eighth; that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.

“Dabiq is basically all farmland,” one Islamic State supporter recently tweeted. “You could imagine large battles taking place there.” The Islamic State’s propagandists drool with anticipation of this event, and constantly imply that it will come soon. The state’s magazine quotes Zarqawi as saying, “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify … until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.” A recent propaganda video shows clips from Hollywood war movies set in medieval times—perhaps because many of the prophecies specify that the armies will be on horseback or carrying ancient weapons.

Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse. Western media frequently miss references to Dabiq in the Islamic State’s videos, and focus instead on lurid scenes of beheading. “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” said a masked executioner in a November video, showing the severed head of Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig, the aid worker who’d been held captive for more than a year. During fighting in Iraq in December, after mujahideen (perhaps inaccurately) reported having seen American soldiers in battle, Islamic State Twitter accounts erupted in spasms of pleasure, like overenthusiastic hosts or hostesses upon the arrival of the first guests at a party.

The Prophetic narration that foretells the Dabiq battle refers to the enemy as Rome. Who “Rome” is, now that the pope has no army, remains a matter of debate. But Cerantonio makes a case that Rome meant the Eastern Roman empire, which had its capital in what is now Istanbul. We should think of Rome as the Republic of Turkey—the same republic that ended the last self-identified caliphate, 90 years ago. Other Islamic State sources suggest that Rome might mean any infidel army, and the Americans will do nicely.

After mujahideen reported having seen American soldiers in battle, Islamic State Twitter accounts erupted in spasms of pleasure, like overenthusiastic hosts upon the arrival of the first guests at a party.
After its battle in Dabiq, Cerantonio said, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. Some believe it will then cover the entire Earth, but Cerantonio suggested its tide may never reach beyond the Bosporus. An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.

“Only God knows” whether the Islamic State’s armies are the ones foretold, Cerantonio said. But he is hopeful. “The Prophet said that one sign of the imminent arrival of the End of Days is that people will for a long while stop talking about the End of Days,” he said. “If you go to the mosques now, you’ll find the preachers are silent about this subject.” On this theory, even setbacks dealt to the Islamic State mean nothing, since God has preordained the near-destruction of his people anyway. The Islamic State has its best and worst days ahead of it.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was declared caliph by his followers last summer. The establishment of a caliphate awakened large sections of Koranic law that had lain dormant, and required those Muslims who recognized the caliphate to immigrate. (Associated Press)
IV. The Fight

The ideological purity of the Islamic State has one compensating virtue: it allows us to predict some of the group’s actions. Osama bin Laden was seldom predictable. He ended his first television interview cryptically. CNN’s Peter Arnett asked him, “What are your future plans?” Bin Laden replied, “You’ll see them and hear about them in the media, God willing.” By contrast, the Islamic State boasts openly about its plans—not all of them, but enough so that by listening carefully, we can deduce how it intends to govern and expand.

In London, Choudary and his students provided detailed descriptions of how the Islamic State must conduct its foreign policy, now that it is a caliphate. It has already taken up what Islamic law refers to as “offensive jihad,” the forcible expansion into countries that are ruled by non-Muslims. “Hitherto, we were just defending ourselves,” Choudary said; without a caliphate, offensive jihad is an inapplicable concept. But the waging of war to expand the caliphate is an essential duty of the caliph.

Choudary took pains to present the laws of war under which the Islamic State operates as policies of mercy rather than of brutality. He told me the state has an obligation to terrorize its enemies—a holy order to scare the shit out of them with beheadings and crucifixions and enslavement of women and children, because doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict.

Choudary’s colleague Abu Baraa explained that Islamic law permits only temporary peace treaties, lasting no longer than a decade. Similarly, accepting any border is anathema, as stated by the Prophet and echoed in the Islamic State’s propaganda videos. If the caliph consents to a longer-term peace or permanent border, he will be in error. Temporary peace treaties are renewable, but may not be applied to all enemies at once: the caliph must wage jihad at least once a year. He may not rest, or he will fall into a state of sin.

One comparison to the Islamic State is the Khmer Rouge, which killed about a third of the population of Cambodia. But the Khmer Rouge occupied Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations. “This is not permitted,” Abu Baraa said. “To send an ambassador to the UN is to recognize an authority other than God’s.” This form of diplomacy is shirk, or polytheism, he argued, and would be immediate cause to hereticize and replace Baghdadi. Even to hasten the arrival of a caliphate by democratic means—for example by voting for political candidates who favor a caliphate—is shirk.

It’s hard to overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism. The modern international system, born of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, relies on each state’s willingness to recognize borders, however grudgingly. For the Islamic State, that recognition is ideological suicide. Other Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, have succumbed to the blandishments of democracy and the potential for an invitation to the community of nations, complete with a UN seat. Negotiation and accommodation have worked, at times, for the Taliban as well. (Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan exchanged ambassadors with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates, an act that invalidated the Taliban’s authority in the Islamic State’s eyes.) To the Islamic State these are not options, but acts of apostasy.

The United States and its allies have reacted to the Islamic State belatedly and in an apparent daze. The group’s ambitions and rough strategic blueprints were evident in its pronouncements and in social-media chatter as far back as 2011, when it was just one of many terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq and hadn’t yet committed mass atrocities. Adnani, the spokesman, told followers then that the group’s ambition was to “restore the Islamic caliphate,” and he evoked the apocalypse, saying, “There are but a few days left.” Baghdadi had already styled himself “commander of the faithful,” a title ordinarily reserved for caliphs, in 2011. In April 2013, Adnani declared the movement “ready to redraw the world upon the Prophetic methodology of the caliphate.” In August 2013, he said, “Our goal is to establish an Islamic state that doesn’t recognize borders, on the Prophetic methodology.” By then, the group had taken Raqqa, a Syrian provincial capital of perhaps 500,000 people, and was drawing in substantial numbers of foreign fighters who’d heard its message.

If we had identified the Islamic State’s intentions early, and realized that the vacuum in Syria and Iraq would give it ample space to carry them out, we might, at a minimum, have pushed Iraq to harden its border with Syria and preemptively make deals with its Sunnis. That would at least have avoided the electrifying propaganda effect created by the declaration of a caliphate just after the conquest of Iraq’s third-largest city. Yet, just over a year ago, Obama told The New Yorker that he considered ISIS to be al-Qaeda’s weaker partner. “If a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” the president said.

Our failure to appreciate the split between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and the essential differences between the two, has led to dangerous decisions. Last fall, to take one example, the U.S. government consented to a desperate plan to save Peter Kassig’s life. The plan facilitated—indeed, required—the interaction of some of the founding figures of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and could hardly have looked more hastily improvised.

Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it appears the best of bad military options.
It entailed the enlistment of Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, the Zarqawi mentor and al-Qaeda grandee, to approach Turki al-Binali, the Islamic State’s chief ideologue and a former student of Maqdisi’s, even though the two men had fallen out due to Maqdisi’s criticism of the Islamic State. Maqdisi had already called for the state to extend mercy to Alan Henning, the British cabbie who had entered Syria to deliver aid to children. In December, The Guardian reported that the U.S. government, through an intermediary, had asked Maqdisi to intercede with the Islamic State on Kassig’s behalf.

Maqdisi was living freely in Jordan, but had been banned from communicating with terrorists abroad, and was being monitored closely. After Jordan granted the United States permission to reintroduce Maqdisi to Binali, Maqdisi bought a phone with American money and was allowed to correspond merrily with his former student for a few days, before the Jordanian government stopped the chats and used them as a pretext to jail Maqdisi. Kassig’s severed head appeared in the Dabiq video a few days later.

Maqdisi gets mocked roundly on Twitter by the Islamic State’s fans, and al‑Qaeda is held in great contempt for refusing to acknowledge the caliphate. Cole Bunzel, a scholar who studies Islamic State ideology, read Maqdisi’s opinion on Henning’s status and thought it would hasten his and other captives’ death. “If I were held captive by the Islamic State and Maqdisi said I shouldn’t be killed,” he told me, “I’d kiss my ass goodbye.”

Kassig’s death was a tragedy, but the plan’s success would have been a bigger one. A reconciliation between Maqdisi and Binali would have begun to heal the main rift between the world’s two largest jihadist organizations. It’s possible that the government wanted only to draw out Binali for intelligence purposes or assassination. (Multiple attempts to elicit comment from the FBI were unsuccessful.) Regardless, the decision to play matchmaker for America’s two main terrorist antagonists reveals astonishingly poor judgment.

Chastened by our earlier indifference, we are now meeting the Islamic State via Kurdish and Iraqi proxy on the battlefield, and with regular air assaults. Those strategies haven’t dislodged the Islamic State from any of its major territorial possessions, although they’ve kept it from directly assaulting Baghdad and Erbil and slaughtering Shia and Kurds there.

Some observers have called for escalation, including several predictable voices from the interventionist right (Max Boot, Frederick Kagan), who have urged the deployment of tens of thousands of American soldiers. These calls should not be dismissed too quickly: an avowedly genocidal organization is on its potential victims’ front lawn, and it is committing daily atrocities in the territory it already controls.

One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding. Former pledges could of course continue to attack the West and behead their enemies, as freelancers. But the propaganda value of the caliphate would disappear, and with it the supposed religious duty to immigrate and serve it. If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.

Abu Baraa, who maintains a YouTube channel about Islamic law, says the caliph, Baghdadi, cannot negotiate or recognize borders, and must continually make war, or he will remove himself from Islam.
And yet the risks of escalation are enormous. The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself. The provocative videos, in which a black-hooded executioner addresses President Obama by name, are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: irrespective of whether they have given baya’a to the caliph, they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment. Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance. The rise of ISIS, after all, happened only because our previous occupation created space for Zarqawi and his followers. Who knows the consequences of another botched job?

Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it, through air strikes and proxy warfare, appears the best of bad military options. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq—they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.

The humanitarian cost of the Islamic State’s existence is high. But its threat to the United States is smaller than its all too frequent conflation with al-Qaeda would suggest. Al-Qaeda’s core is rare among jihadist groups for its focus on the “far enemy” (the West); most jihadist groups’ main concerns lie closer to home. That’s especially true of the Islamic State, precisely because of its ideology. It sees enemies everywhere around it, and while its leadership wishes ill on the United States, the application of Sharia in the caliphate and the expansion to contiguous lands are paramount. Baghdadi has said as much directly: in November he told his Saudi agents to “deal with the rafida [Shia] first … then al-Sulul [Sunni supporters of the Saudi monarchy] … before the crusaders and their bases.”

Musa Cerantonio and Anjem Choudary could mentally shift from contemplating mass death to discussing the virtues of Vietnamese coffee, with apparent delight in each.
The foreign fighters (and their wives and children) have been traveling to the caliphate on one-way tickets: they want to live under true Sharia, and many want martyrdom. Doctrine, recall, requires believers to reside in the caliphate if it is at all possible for them to do so. One of the Islamic State’s less bloody videos shows a group of jihadists burning their French, British, and Australian passports. This would be an eccentric act for someone intending to return to blow himself up in line at the Louvre or to hold another chocolate shop hostage in Sydney.

A few “lone wolf” supporters of the Islamic State have attacked Western targets, and more attacks will come. But most of the attackers have been frustrated amateurs, unable to immigrate to the caliphate because of confiscated passports or other problems. Even if the Islamic State cheers these attacks—and it does in its propaganda—it hasn’t yet planned and financed one. (The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January was principally an al‑Qaeda operation.) During his visit to Mosul in December, Jürgen Todenhöfer interviewed a portly German jihadist and asked whether any of his comrades had returned to Europe to carry out attacks. The jihadist seemed to regard returnees not as soldiers but as dropouts. “The fact is that the returnees from the Islamic State should repent from their return,” he said. “I hope they review their religion.”

Properly contained, the Islamic State is likely to be its own undoing. No country is its ally, and its ideology ensures that this will remain the case. The land it controls, while expansive, is mostly uninhabited and poor. As it stagnates or slowly shrinks, its claim that it is the engine of God’s will and the agent of apocalypse will weaken, and fewer believers will arrive. And as more reports of misery within it leak out, radical Islamist movements elsewhere will be discredited: No one has tried harder to implement strict Sharia by violence. This is what it looks like.

Even so, the death of the Islamic State is unlikely to be quick, and things could still go badly wrong: if the Islamic State obtained the allegiance of al‑Qaeda—increasing, in one swoop, the unity of its base—it could wax into a worse foe than we’ve yet seen. The rift between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda has, if anything, grown in the past few months; the December issue of Dabiq featured a long account of an al‑Qaeda defector who described his old group as corrupt and ineffectual, and Zawahiri as a distant and unfit leader. But we should watch carefully for a rapprochement.

Without a catastrophe such as this, however, or perhaps the threat of the Islamic State’s storming Erbil, a vast ground invasion would certainly make the situation worse.

V. Dissuasion

It would be facile, even exculpatory, to call the problem of the Islamic State “a problem with Islam.” The religion allows many interpretations, and Islamic State supporters are morally on the hook for the one they choose. And yet simply denouncing the Islamic State as un-Islamic can be counterproductive, especially if those who hear the message have read the holy texts and seen the endorsement of many of the caliphate’s practices written plainly within them.

Muslims can say that slavery is not legitimate now, and that crucifixion is wrong at this historical juncture. Many say precisely this. But they cannot condemn slavery or crucifixion outright without contradicting the Koran and the example of the Prophet. “The only principled ground that the Islamic State’s opponents could take is to say that certain core texts and traditional teachings of Islam are no longer valid,” Bernard Haykel says. That really would be an act of apostasy.

The Islamic State’s ideology exerts powerful sway over a certain subset of the population. Life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies vanish in its face. Musa Cerantonio and the Salafis I met in London are unstumpable: no question I posed left them stuttering. They lectured me garrulously and, if one accepts their premises, convincingly. To call them un-Islamic appears, to me, to invite them into an argument that they would win. If they had been froth-spewing maniacs, I might be able to predict that their movement would burn out as the psychopaths detonated themselves or became drone-splats, one by one. But these men spoke with an academic precision that put me in mind of a good graduate seminar. I even enjoyed their company, and that frightened me as much as anything else.

Non-muslims cannot tell Muslims how to practice their religion properly. But Muslims have long since begun this debate within their own ranks. “You have to have standards,” Anjem Choudary told me. “Somebody could claim to be a Muslim, but if he believes in homosexuality or drinking alcohol, then he is not a Muslim. There is no such thing as a nonpracticing vegetarian.”

There is, however, another strand of Islam that offers a hard-line alternative to the Islamic State—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions. This strand has proved appealing to many Muslims cursed or blessed with a psychological longing to see every jot and tittle of the holy texts implemented as they were in the earliest days of Islam. Islamic State supporters know how to react to Muslims who ignore parts of the Koran: with takfir and ridicule. But they also know that some other Muslims read the Koran as assiduously as they do, and pose a real ideological threat.

Baghdadi is Salafi. The term Salafi has been villainized, in part because authentic villains have ridden into battle waving the Salafi banner. But most Salafis are not jihadists, and most adhere to sects that reject the Islamic State. They are, as Haykel notes, committed to expanding Dar al-Islam, the land of Islam, even, perhaps, with the implementation of monstrous practices such as slavery and amputation—but at some future point. Their first priority is personal purification and religious observance, and they believe anything that thwarts those goals—such as causing war or unrest that would disrupt lives and prayer and scholarship—is forbidden.

They live among us. Last fall, I visited the Philadelphia mosque of Breton Pocius, 28, a Salafi imam who goes by the name Abdullah. His mosque is on the border between the crime-ridden Northern Liberties neighborhood and a gentrifying area that one might call Dar al-Hipster; his beard allows him to pass in the latter zone almost unnoticed.

A theological alternative to the Islamic State exists—just as uncompromising, but with opposite conclusions.
Pocius converted 15 years ago after a Polish Catholic upbringing in Chicago. Like Cerantonio, he talks like an old soul, exhibiting deep familiarity with ancient texts, and a commitment to them motivated by curiosity and scholarship, and by a conviction that they are the only way to escape hellfire. When I met him at a local coffee shop, he carried a work of Koranic scholarship in Arabic and a book for teaching himself Japanese. He was preparing a sermon on the obligations of fatherhood for the 150 or so worshipers in his Friday congregation.

Pocius said his main goal is to encourage a halal life for worshipers in his mosque. But the rise of the Islamic State has forced him to consider political questions that are usually very far from the minds of Salafis. “Most of what they’ll say about how to pray and how to dress is exactly what I’ll say in my masjid [mosque]. But when they get to questions about social upheaval, they sound like Che Guevara.”

When Baghdadi showed up, Pocius adopted the slogan “Not my khalifa.” “The times of the Prophet were a time of great bloodshed,” he told me, “and he knew that the worst possible condition for all people was chaos, especially within the umma [Muslim community].” Accordingly, Pocius said, the correct attitude for Salafis is not to sow discord by factionalizing and declaring fellow Muslims apostates.

Instead, Pocius—like a majority of Salafis—believes that Muslims should remove themselves from politics. These quietist Salafis, as they are known, agree with the Islamic State that God’s law is the only law, and they eschew practices like voting and the creation of political parties. But they interpret the Koran’s hatred of discord and chaos as requiring them to fall into line with just about any leader, including some manifestly sinful ones. “The Prophet said: as long as the ruler does not enter into clear kufr[disbelief], give him general obedience,” Pocius told me, and the classic “books of creed” all warn against causing social upheaval. Quietist Salafis are strictly forbidden from dividing Muslims from one another—for example, by mass excommunication. Living without baya’a, Pocius said, does indeed make one ignorant, or benighted. But baya’a need not mean direct allegiance to a caliph, and certainly not to Abu Bakr al‑Baghdadi. It can mean, more broadly, allegiance to a religious social contract and commitment to a society of Muslims, whether ruled by a caliph or not.

Quietist Salafis believe that Muslims should direct their energies toward perfecting their personal life, including prayer, ritual, and hygiene. Much in the same way ultra-Orthodox Jews debate whether it’s kosher to tear off squares of toilet paper on the Sabbath (does that count as “rending cloth”?), they spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that their trousers are not too long, that their beards are trimmed in some areas and shaggy in others. Through this fastidious observance, they believe, God will favor them with strength and numbers, and perhaps a caliphate will arise. At that moment, Muslims will take vengeance and, yes, achieve glorious victory at Dabiq. But Pocius cites a slew of modern Salafi theologians who argue that a caliphate cannot come into being in a righteous way except through the unmistakable will of God.

The Islamic State, of course, would agree, and say that God has anointed Baghdadi. Pocius’s retort amounts to a call to humility. He cites Abdullah Ibn Abbas, one of the Prophet’s companions, who sat down with dissenters and asked them how they had the gall, as a minority, to tell the majority that it was wrong. Dissent itself, to the point of bloodshed or splitting the umma, was forbidden. Even the manner of the establishment of Baghdadi’s caliphate runs contrary to expectation, he said. “The khilafa is something that Allah is going to establish,” he told me, “and it will involve a consensus of scholars from Mecca and Medina. That is not what happened. ISIS came out of nowhere.”

The Islamic State loathes this talk, and its fanboys tweet derisively about quietist Salafis. They mock them as “Salafis of menstruation,” for their obscure judgments about when women are and aren’t clean, and other low-priority aspects of life. “What we need now is fatwa about how it’s haram [forbidden] to ride a bike on Jupiter,” one tweeted drily. “That’s what scholars should focus on. More pressing than state of Ummah.” Anjem Choudary, for his part, says that no sin merits more vigorous opposition than the usurpation of God’s law, and that extremism in defense of monotheism is no vice.

Pocius doesn’t court any kind of official support from the United States, as a counterweight to jihadism. Indeed, official support would tend to discredit him, and in any case he is bitter toward America for treating him, in his words, as “less than a citizen.” (He alleges that the government paid spies to infiltrate his mosque and harassed his mother at work with questions about his being a potential terrorist.)

Still, his quietist Salafism offers an Islamic antidote to Baghdadi-style jihadism. The people who arrive at the faith spoiling for a fight cannot all be stopped from jihadism, but those whose main motivation is to find an ultraconservative, uncompromising version of Islam have an alternative here. It is not moderate Islam; most Muslims would consider it extreme. It is, however, a form of Islam that the literal-minded would not instantly find hypocritical, or blasphemously purged of its inconveniences. Hypocrisy is not a sin that ideologically minded young men tolerate well.

Western officials would probably do best to refrain from weighing in on matters of Islamic theological debate altogether. Barack Obama himself drifted into takfiri waters when he claimed that the Islamic State was “not Islamic”—the irony being that he, as the non-Muslim son of a Muslim, may himself be classified as an apostate, and yet is now practicing takfiragainst Muslims. Non-Muslims’ practicing takfir elicits chuckles from jihadists (“Like a pig covered in feces giving hygiene advice to others,” one tweeted).

I suspect that most Muslims appreciated Obama’s sentiment: the president was standing with them against both Baghdadi and non-Muslim chauvinists trying to implicate them in crimes. But most Muslims aren’tsusceptible to joining jihad. The ones who are susceptible will only have had their suspicions confirmed: the United States lies about religion to serve its purposes.

Within the narrow bounds of its theology, the Islamic State hums with energy, even creativity. Outside those bounds, it could hardly be more arid and silent: a vision of life as obedience, order, and destiny. Musa Cerantonio and Anjem Choudary could mentally shift from contemplating mass death and eternal torture to discussing the virtues of Vietnamese coffee or treacly pastry, with apparent delight in each, yet to me it seemed that to embrace their views would be to see all the flavors of this world grow insipid compared with the vivid grotesqueries of the hereafter.

I could enjoy their company, as a guilty intellectual exercise, up to a point. In reviewing Mein Kampf in March 1940, George Orwell confessed that he had “never been able to dislike Hitler”; something about the man projected an underdog quality, even when his goals were cowardly or loathsome. “If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.” The Islamic State’s partisans have much the same allure. They believe that they are personally involved in struggles beyond their own lives, and that merely to be swept up in the drama, on the side of righteousness, is a privilege and a pleasure—especially when it is also a burden.

Fascism, Orwell continued, is

psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life … Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet … We ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.
Nor, in the case of the Islamic State, its religious or intellectual appeal. That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

Anti-vaxxers are not the enemy: Science, politics and the crisis of authority

An authority crisis disintegrates common ground and makes us all inept in the face of an ecological disaster. Here’s a concise overview reprinted from Salon.

http://www.salon.com/2015/02/07/anti_vaxxers_climate_deniers_and_the_crisis_of_authority/

Anti-vaxxers are not the enemy: Science, politics and the crisis of authority
My kids got their shots! But climate denial is far more dangerous, and a larger cultural crisis looms behind both
By ANDREW O’HEHIR, blogging for Salon

SATURDAY, FEB 7, 2015 10:30 AM MST

Salon montage
One of the central characteristics of our age – which those of us with fancy educations often call the postmodern era, although even that term is starting to feel old – is a widespread crisis of authority. It isn’t quite true that nobody believes in anything and nobody trusts the experts, as in the rootless world of moral relativism feared by conservatives. It’s more that everybody gets to pick their own beliefs, their own experts and their own evidence. This is something like the crisis of meaning that Nietzsche foresaw when he pronounced that God was dead, but he was only half right. The old God whose judgment everyone in the Western world feared is gone, all right – but he has divided and multiplied, like cancer cells, into an endless pantheon of new gods.

It’s entirely expected for somebody with my media platform to rage against right-wing kooks on television — or right-wing kooks in elected office, for that matter — who claim that climate change is a hoax or that vaccinating children against preventable diseases is dangerous and unnecessary. I agree that those people are deluded or misinformed, and in the case of climate denial they are serving as the agents of larger and darker powers. But those issues are not the same, no matter how closely they have become linked in the liberal and conservative hive-minds. For one thing, anti-vaccine sentiment is found across the political spectrum, although it’s most common among the libertarian-minded right and the anarchist-minded or New Agey quadrants of the left. Attempts to cram the vaccine issue into the binary discourse of partisan politics or the “culture war” are intellectually lazy, and misrepresent its true significance. Furthermore, the dangers of climate denialism are many orders of magnitude worse than the dangers of anti-vaxxer hysteria, which feels like one of those sideshow issues in American politics that’s really about something else.

What links the anti-vaccine movement to climate denialism — and to many other things that may appear unrelated — is that both are manifestations of the crisis of authority. As represented by people like Glenn Beck and Rand Paul, they also display that crisis in its relatively new and intriguingly crazy right-wing costume. Know-nothing congressmen and vapid TV hosts stand courageously against the pointy-headed Ph.D. elite: They are not scientists, they assure us (scoring points with their core audience), but they know what they believe! Meanwhile, bicoastal liberals are granted an irresistible opportunity to proclaim their own enlightenment and decry the stupidity of others. As gratifying as it may be to congratulate ourselves for composting our coffee grounds and watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s show and believing in Science, it’s missing the point.

Indeed, it’s not entirely clear that we “believe in science,” or that we should. Many of us who vaccinate our kids and understand that climate change is an urgent global problem feel less convinced by scientific assurances that genetically modified organisms and pesticide-laced produce are harmless. Hey, thalidomide and DDT were safe too! You don’t have to dispute the scientific principles behind vaccination to feel uneasy about the giant pharmaceutical corporations, with their long and ugly histories of avarice and falsehood, who actually manufacture and sell vaccines. Those who seek to undermine mainstream science on climate change or vaccination or evolution or whatever else may be wrong on the merits (according to you and me and almost every actual scientist), but when it comes to the validity of science as a social institution, they have a point and we all know it.

Science, properly speaking, does not “believe” in itself. Any ethical scientist will tell you that the history of science is a history of doubt and mistakes and accidental discoveries. What is demanded here is not faith in people with white coats and prestigious degrees, who are just as likely to be evil and corrupt as anyone else, but critical thinking (which, by the way, is at the core of the scientific method). I specifically mean the ability to follow the threads of ideas back to their sources, and the ability to ask who benefits and who loses when a certain idea wins out. That’s a skill that can be learned by anyone, and one that is effectively suppressed in our current educational economy. It’s also the only possible way out of the American impasse around science, and the feedback loop created by the crisis of authority.

Let me try to forestall a few of the angry comments: I am not covertly agreeing with anti-vaxxers, I don’t want to give up my smartphone or undo the elimination of smallpox, and I don’t assert, after the style of 1970s French philosophy, that there is no such thing as objective reality and that it’s all a game of language and ideology. Still, the crisis of authority is a cultural phenomenon, meaning that it really is about language and ideology more than verifiable facts. To insist that “our side” has access to true facts and legitimate authority, while the other side relies on quacks and charlatans, is not much different from saying that our God is great and yours is a filthy donkey. We may be correct (in either instance), but the case is inherently unprovable in any terms the other side is ever likely to accept.

The crisis of authority is by no means limited to anti-vaccination loons and climate deniers, and is not exclusively found on the right. For the past half-century and more it has largely been the left that has challenged social, cultural and political orthodoxy on white supremacy, the Vietnam War, nuclear power, the oppression of women and LGBT people and the destruction of the environment for profit, among many other things. Until recently, American conservatives saw themselves first and foremost as defenders of authority and moral order, buttresses around a fortress of shared values that was buffeted by a corrosive tide. That impulse still exists, as with the recent rush to embrace “American Sniper” and the petulant NYPD protest, but at this point it’s mostly nostalgia. The fortress has been swamped, the moral order is in ruins and the shared values have been scattered like driftwood. All that is solid melts into air, and even the right has become relativistic: the anti-establishment strain of radical and conspiratorial thought that was once found only on the discredited John Birch fringe has become the conservative mainstream.

No doubt the crisis of authority is a double-edged sword, which leads to unpredictable and sometimes dangerous consequences. It fuels widespread distrust of government and political apathy on one hand, and vibrant feminist debate and youth activism on the other. Since we all believe in something, it is likely to make us all uncomfortable at some point.) But it isn’t inherently unhealthy, and to some degree we have to take the good with the bad and do our best to sort through the chaos. Making fun of anti-vaxxers, and conflating their anxiety and bewilderment with the mendacious corporate trolls of climate denial, feels like an attempt to erect a temporary bulwark of centrist-liberal meaning that the crisis of authority cannot undermine. It won’t work.

As I’ve said, this crisis is nothing new. It’s the natural and inevitable consequence of an era of deepening disillusionment in which every important social institution — government, military and police; religion, sports and higher education; big business and the financial sector – has had its turn in the spotlight and been deemed corrupt or compromised. The collective loss of faith in those institutions – the metaphorical death of Nietzsche’s God – made it possible for Edward Snowden to break his vow of silence and flee to Hong Kong with a trove of classified documents, for adults who suffered abuse decades earlier to speak out against revered priests and beloved athletic coaches, and for young people to take to the streets by the thousands to proclaim that black lives matter.

Many people feel deeply uncomfortable with some or all of those things, just as you and I, very likely, are made queasy by Jenny McCarthy’s claims about the dangers of vaccination, or by the spectacle of every single Republican in the United States Senate striking the manly position that climate change is not real or at least not caused by humans. As I said earlier, I don’t think those issues are remotely comparable in terms of severity, and I think the classic question of Cui bono?, or who benefits, yields very different results. McCarthy and her ilk may be hawking advice books or valueless supplements or whatever, but they are not intentionally spreading lies on behalf of oil companies and big polluters, or trading short-term profits for the survival of the planet. Most people making the decision not to vaccinate are mothers who are being demonized for a confusion and mistrust that is in fact widely shared, if in less dramatic form.

For better or worse, at least climate denial and the vaccine debate are in the forefront of public discourse. Numerous forms of authority still lie concealed, or are carefully protected. I don’t know how to evaluate a former German newspaper editor’s recent claim that for years he published stories supplied to him by the CIA, because the story has been entirely ignored by the American media. Then there’s the new government in Greece, the first one in Europe to directly challenge the fiscal austerity regime imposed by global financial institutions. That’s a story of political and economic confrontation that could reshape the history of our century. It has been covered, all right — in a defensive and patronizing tone transparently designed to reassure readers that the neoliberal order often called the “Washington consensus” is not in danger, and that the silly radicals in Athens will have to grow up and take their medicine like everybody else.

Critical thinking about the nature of authority might induce us to wonder why those stories are invisible, or spun as dry policy questions for readers of the business pages, while so much bandwidth is occupied with making fun of a few vaccine loons. It might cause us to notice that treating people who feel genuine uncertainty about mainstream medicine as if they were low-achieving children only makes the problem worse, and that it’s absurd to assert that questioning the Catholic Church or the National Football League is good, but questioning the name-brand institutions of the scientific world is bad.

Science considered as a method and a process is likely, over the long haul and after a lot of trial and error, to provide us with good answers. Science expressed as a social and historical institution – as a source of authority, in other words — is another matter entirely, and a far more complicated story than we can tell here. It has extended life and cured disease and improved agriculture, and it has brought us eugenics and the Tuskegee experiments and Hiroshima and Zyklon-B and a whole host of amazing pesticides and herbicides and preservatives and plastics that have permeated every square millimeter of the planet’s surface and the bodies of all its creatures, and whose long-term effects are not known but don’t look that great.

Trust in science, my ass. Questioning science is an urgent and necessary aspect of contemporary critical thinking, and the questions that anti-vaxxers start with are entirely legitimate: What are you putting in my kid’s body? Is it safe, and is it necessary? Who’s making money off this, and what do we know about them? And even beyond that: Can I trust that you are telling me the truth? My kids have had all their shots, and I believe that people who refuse vaccination are putting together shreds of old anecdote and flawed evidence and conspiratorial ideology to reach a faulty conclusion. As we have recently discovered, this can have unfortunate public health consequences. But I speak for many parents when I say that I don’t begrudge those people their doubts, because I have shared them. That last question, which lies at the heart of both the vaccine issue and the entire crisis of authority — “Why should I trust you, after all the lies I’ve been told?” — still gives me a twinge sometimes.

Chicago Trib: Elite accounting tactics cut Rauner’s tax tab

If you believe Bruce had no idea Stu Levine was getting paid off and no idea what Stu Levine was doing with that money, I guess it’s no surprise that he’s not exactly sure where his losses came from. That doesn’t translate well into transforming the financial woes of Illinois.

www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/elections/ct-bruce-rauner-income-tax-breaks-met-20140702,0,209825.story

Elite accounting tactics cut Rauner’s tax tab

Returns show GOP hopeful used fee waivers — a strategy now under IRS scrutiny — to pay much less than top bracket’s rate

By Jeff Coen and Bob Secter, Tribune reporters

12:04 AM CDT, July 2, 2014

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IRS data show Bruce Rauner to be one of the 11,000 richest tax filers in the nation, but most of the millions he made in recent years was taxed at 15 percent — less than half the top federal rate for the wealthy, a review of tax documents released by the GOP governor hopeful shows.

One reason behind that sharp discount is that Rauner took advantage of a strategy that yielded big tax savings on his share of investment fees paid to his private equity firm, GTCR. That strategy is allowed under tax rules but has come under IRS scrutiny.

An analysis of the limited records Rauner has released, conducted by the Tribune in consultation with tax experts, gives the fullest picture yet of the steps he took to trim his tax bill. In ways both big and small, the Republican businessman’s financial profile is one driven by tax-reducing strategies often out of reach for those of more modest means:

•Rauner’s campaign is built around his resounding success at the helm of GTCR, through which he earned millions of dollars a year. But a major portion of that money was reported to the IRS as capital gains taxed at a preferential 15 percent, including money from so-called management fee waivers used by many private equity firms to reduce tax bills for key partners.

•For three years, Rauner reported little regular business income, the tax category that includes partnership earnings and is subject to a top tax rate of 35 percent. Instead he claimed losses of $3.1 million in 2011 and $12.7 million the year before.

•Complicated tax rules related to those business income losses freed Rauner from paying any Social Security or Medicare taxes in 2010 and 2011, despite his reporting healthy earnings in other income categories and listing a combined adjusted gross income for those years of about $55 million.

•In 2012, Rauner claimed an additional $53 million in adjusted gross income, bringing his total for three years to $108 million and easily placing him in the top federal tax bracket of 35 percent then in effect. Tax breaks, however, reduced his effective tax rate for those years to slightly more than 19 percent, about the same rate paid by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, whom Rauner is trying to unseat.

Rauner’s combined federal tax bill was $20.7 million from 2010 through 2012. Quinn’s, according to his tax returns for those years, totaled about $106,600 on income of about $568,000, giving the governor an effective tax rate of 18.8 percent.

Likely the wealthiest office seeker in Illinois history, Rauner has used more than $6 million of a personal fortune he pegs at more than $500 million to substantially bankroll his campaign for governor. Yet Rauner has offered voters only a narrow glimpse into his personal finances, releasing three years of basic tax forms without the kind of detailed, supporting documentation such as schedules that many other candidates often make public.

Experts say the limited nature of his tax disclosure makes it difficult to draw a complete financial picture of Rauner, and the candidate himself has been reluctant to fill in many of the gaps.

In a Tribune interview focused on his taxes, Rauner said his returns “very carefully” adhered to the tax code and that he paid everything owed. At the same time, he said he could not recall some details surrounding losses he claimed and deductions he took.

“My income is based upon a whole lot of things. It’s capital gains through carried interest. It’s through management fees I get across all the funds,” said Rauner, who characterized his earnings as “lumpy” because they fluctuated widely from year to year.

“I’ve been a very large owner in every GTCR fund over 32 years. I also have other personal investments, some of which generate ordinary income of various types, some of which generate capital gains, some of which generate interest income,” Rauner said. “Breaking apart all that detail is hard to do.”

Central to Rauner’s campaign is his financial success, which he argues is proof of the kind of leadership savvy needed to turn around a financially ailing state. But that approach comes against the backdrop of a broad national argument over the meaning of an ever-widening gap between incomes of the wealthy that keep growing and those of the middle class that have been stagnant for years.

That debate led to political headaches in 2012 for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, then the Republican presidential nominee.

And there are significant parallels between Romney and Rauner, both of whom made fortunes at the helm of private equity firms. During his campaign, Romney released two years worth of voluminous tax returns that provided considerable fodder for critics who argued that he took ample advantage of tax code loopholes favoring the wealthy.

While Romney released more than 700 pages of returns and schedules, Rauner’s financial disclosures have been much less extensive.

The campaign of the Illinois Republican has released copies of the two-page 1040 tax forms filed jointly by Rauner and his wife, Diana, for 2010, 2011 and 2012without any accompanying documents. The candidate sought an extension on filing his 2013 tax returns and has yet to submit them, a spokesman said.

In 2012, the intense focus on Romney’s wealth and taxes spilled over into the business practices of his old firm, Bain Capital, which was found to have engaged in the same sort of fee waivers that have helped Rauner lower his taxes. Since then, the practice has attracted the attention of the IRS, with a top attorney for the tax agency disclosing at a legal conference in Chicago last year that it has begun looking into the broad use of the strategy across the private equity industry.

“We don’t like what we see in all cases,” the IRS attorney, Clifford Warren, was quoted as saying by several tax industry trade publications.

Experts say most large private equity firms have employed the strategy, some more aggressively than others.

Private equity firms make money for their partners in a variety of ways. Most, including GTCR, take a 20 percent cut of earnings from the large investment pools they oversee — revenue referred to as “carried interest” but treated as preferentially taxed capital gains. To encourage investment, federal tax law has long conferred special low tax rates on such investment profits.

Another lucrative source of equity firm revenue is management fees, essentially charges for the service of overseeing investments. Most equity firms levy a 2 percent annual charge on the assets they manage for clients, but Rauner has said the GTCR charge is 1.5 percent.

Service fees charged by most professionals, be they money managers or plumbers, are typically considered regular income and subject to taxation at the top of whatever tax bracket the individual qualifies for under the federal progressive tax system, tax experts said. In Rauner’s case, that was 35 percent through 2012.

At its core, the fee waiver strategy is an accounting maneuver that blurs the line between management fees charged by equity firms like GTCR to manage funds for investors and profits generated by the firms’ investments in the funds they manage.

In short, equity firms technically waive collecting on millions of dollars of management fees they are owed, but that hardly means they forgo the value of those fees. Instead, that gets reflected as a stake in the very investments they manage.

When the investment fund turns a profit, often within months, the equity firm receives the cash value of the waived fees and distributes that among its partners.

All that maneuvering might sound esoteric, but it carries profound tax consequences. Tax rates changed in 2013, but before that it meant the difference between paying a 35 percent rate on fee income or a 15 percent rate on investment income.

Put another way, for every $10 million in management fees an equity firm waived, it could save its partners $2 million in taxes.

“It’s a technique that is entirely tax-driven,” said Victor Fleischer, a professor who teaches tax law at the University of San Diego and has written extensively about fee waivers. “There’s no business motivation behind it.”

Brian Krob, a corporate lawyer for the Chicago firm of Ungaretti & Harris, said equity firms began charging management fees years ago to cover administrative costs of overseeing huge pools of money. But as the industry exploded in size a decade ago, he said, the income from fees greatly outpaced the costs of running the funds.

With that, the fees became profit centers in their own right for equity firms, which quickly began devising creative ways to minimize the tax consequences, Krob said.

For years, Rauner said, GTCR had relied on a traditional fee structure as it organized a series of investment funds. Clients paid management fees to GTCR, which then distributed the money among Rauner and his partners, who then were taxed on that income at top rates, he said.

That changed in 2009, he recalled, when the firm was organizing a new investment pool, known by Roman numeral as Fund X, that grew to more than $3.7 billion. At that size, the fund could generate more than $56 million annually in management fees for GTCR.

This time the partners opted to forgo taking fees in cash and instead use fee waivers, Rauner recalled, adding that he was hesitant about the strategy but acquiesced to the wishes of other partners. For one thing, he said, the approach required more paperwork.

Rauner said tax consequences were only one of many considerations weighed. “The tax element is one of the factors,” he said. “It’s all about trading off less certainty for more upside. If you really, really hit it out of the park you can make more money from carried interest just from raw performance. But there’s less certainty to it.”

Critics, however, contend the strategy involves little risk because equity firms like GTCR, as managers of the investment pools, can be paid the cash value of fees as soon as there is a profit.

“It’s a total tax game. There is no nontax reason for it,” said Gregg Polsky, formerly a professor in residence at the IRS who now teaches at the University of North Carolina School of Law. “In reality, everyone knows that. It creates the appearance of risk to try and get a tax result.”

Polsky said equity firms are at the controls of the investment funds they manage. He said the only scenario that could prevent them from recouping waived fee revenue is if a fund lost money from start to finish without a single profitable quarter.

“If hell freezes over, they might not get their 2 percent, but that’s not going to happen,” Polsky said.

Rebecca Wilkins, an expert on fee waivers with the Washington-based Citizens for Tax Justice, said the maneuver gives private equity partners a tax edge over even CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Those executives, she noted, may be paid millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and stock options, but those are earnings on which they typically are taxed at the highest rates.

“By taking their compensation in this way, they are avoiding ordinary income tax rates, which were 35 percent at the time, plus Social Security and Medicare taxes,” she said.

For most wage earners, those so-called payroll taxes are deducted directly from paychecks. But Rauner said he hasn’t taken a regular salary since the early 1980s.

For business executives like Rauner, the IRS provides an alternative method for paying Social Security and Medicare taxes called the self-employment tax.

Rauner’s tax returns report a payment of $15,777 of self-employment tax in 2012 but no payments in 2010 or 2011. He said he and his wife didn’t owe the tax in those two years because it is applied to only certain types of income — in his case the category that showed multimillion-dollar losses in regular business income.

That is not to say that Rauner did not report making millions of dollars off GTCR and other enterprises, but his tax returns spread it among a variety of income categories and it is impossible to determine why he declared such big losses in one of those without the supporting tax documents Rauner declines to release.

Asked to explain those losses, Rauner said he couldn’t recall details but speculated that a portion was likely connected with large ranching operations he owns in Montana and Wyoming. “Some of it’s farm and ranch income or losses,” he said. “That goes up and down year to year. Some of it’s operating losses from other investments that I have made.”

Despite owing no payroll taxes for two years, Rauner at the same time did remit what are known as household employment taxes, his returns show. Those are tax withholdings deducted from the pay of two personal assistants to cover their Social Security and Medicare taxes, among other things.

Rauner said he would not be releasing additional tax documents beyond the 1040s he had made public. The experts consulted by the Tribune said such broader disclosure would almost certainly shed light on the business losses he claimed as well as other strategies used to minimize Rauner’s tax bill.

“Obviously, in virtually every year the vast bulk of my income is capital gains, because that’s where my assets go, to purchase equities, ownership in both business and real estate,” Rauner said.

He said his returns show large variations from year to year in interest income, self-employment income and other categories.

“Some of those categories of income are susceptible or part of the Social Security, Medicare taxation system and some of those sources of income are not. But some of those sources of income are positive in some years and losses in some years. That’s just the nature of the business.”

jcoen@tribune.com

bsecter@tribune.com

President Obama’s remarks on the economy, Minneapolis, MN

Having been accused repeatedly of being a mindless fanboy/shill for our lame duck President, I decided to take 30 seconds away from my normal focus: upcoming elections (not re-fighting elections already won, but, hey, if the Prez is such a big stupid head why did you lose to him twice, wingnuts? Cuz we Dems are so so much dumber we didn’t see the golden opportunity for electing two GOP nominees that were pretty well disliked by their own party HOW COULD WE NOT SEE THE APPEAL WE SO SO DUMB MINDLESS LIBTARD PEOPLE!!!!!!!) so here you go, wingnuts. Eat it.

President Obama’s remarks on the economy, Minneapolis, MN.

Fri Jun 27, 2014 at 10:36 AM PDT

President Obama’s remarks on the economy, Minneapolis, MN

by Transcripts EditorsFollow for Transcripts and Documents

THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
______________________
For Immediate Release                             June 27, 2014
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
ON THE ECONOMY
Lake Harriet Band Shell
Minneapolis, Minnesota
 

 

 

10:15 A.M.CDTTHE PRESIDENT:  Hello, Minneapolis!  (Applause.)  How is everybody doing today?  You look good.  (Applause.)  It is good to see all of you.  I miss Minneapolis.  I missed you guys.  Go ahead and have a seat, I’m goingto be talking for a while.  (Laughter.)So we’ve got some wonderful folks here today.  I want to acknowledge a few of them.  First of all, your outstanding Governor, Mark Dayton.  (Applause.)  Your wonderful senators, Al Franken and AmyKlobuchar.  (Applause.)  Congressman Keith Ellison.  (Applause.)  Your Mayor, Betsy Hodges.  (Applause.)  And all of you are here, and that’s special.I want to thank Rebekah for not just the introduction and for sharing her story, but for letting me hang out with her and her family for the last couple of days.  I really like her.  (Laughter.)  And her husband is like the husband of the year.  Generally, you don’t want your wife to meet Rebekah’s husband, because she’ll be like, well, why don’t you do that?  (Laughter.)  Why aren’t you like that?

I’ve been wanting to visit a place where all the women are strong and the men are good-looking, and the children above average.  (Applause.)  And this clearly is an example of what Minnesota produces.  So yesterday, Rebekah and I had lunch at Matt’s Bar, had a “Jucy Lucy” — (applause) — which was quite tasty.  We had a town hall at Minnehaha Park, although I did not take a kayak over the falls, which seemed dangerous.  (Laughter.)  We got ice cream at Grand Ole Creamery — very good, very tasty.

And then this morning, Al Franken and I and Secretary Tom Perez, our Secretary of Labor who’s here — Tom, stand up — (applause) — we stopped by a community organization that helps with a lot of job programs and job placement programs.  And this program in particular was focused on young moms.  It was really interesting talking to them, because there are teenage mothers, 16 to 18, and it was a great pleasure for me to be able to say to all of them that my mom was a teenage mom, and she was 18 when she had me — and to be able to say to all of them that here in this country, it is possible for the child of a teenage mom, a single mom, to end up being President of the United States.  (Applause.)  And I think that it maybe gave them something to think about.

So you guys have been great hosts, Minnesota.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Thank you!

THE PRESIDENT:  You’re welcome.  (Laughter.)

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  We love you!

THE PRESIDENT:  I love you back.  (Laughter and applause.)

So I want to give you a sense of how this visit came up.  As some of you know, every day we get tens of thousands of correspondence at the White House.  And we have a big correspondence office, and every night the folks who manage the correspondence office select 10 letters for me to read.

And the job of these letters is not to just puff me up — so it’s not like they only send me letters saying, Mr. President, you’re doing great.  (Laughter.)  Sometimes the letters say thank you for something I may have done.  Sometimes the letters say, you are an idiot and the worst President ever.  (Laughter.)  And most of the stories, though, are stories of hardship, or hard-won success, or hopes that haven’t been met yet.  Some appreciate a position that I may have taken; some disagree with what I’m doing.  Some consider policies like the Affordable Care Act to be socialism; some tell stories about the difference that same policy may have made in folks’ lives.

So I’m getting a good sample of what’s happening around the country.  And last month, three young girls wrote to me that boys aren’t fair because they don’t pass the ball in gym class.  (Laughter.)  So there’s a wide spectrum — and I’m going to prepare an executive order on that.

But the letter that Rebekah sent stood out — first of all, because she’s a good writer, and also because she’s a good person.  And the story that she told me reminded Michelle and I of some of our own experiences when we were Rebekah and her husband’s age.  And in many ways, her story for the past five years is our story, it’s the American story.

In early 2009, Rebekah and Ben, her husband, they were newly married, expecting their first son, Jack.  She was waiting tables, he was in construction.  Like millions of middle-class families who got hammered by the Great Recession — the worst recession since the Great Depression — life was about to get pretty hard.  “If only we had known,” she wrote, “what was about to happen to the housing and construction market.”

Ben’s business dried up.  But as a new husband and dad, he did what he had to, so he took whatever jobs he could, even if it forced him to be away from his family for days at a time.  Rebekah realized she needed to think about how her career would unfold, so she took out student loans and enrolled in St. Paul College, and retrained for a new career as an accountant.

And it’s been a long, hard road for them.  They had to pay off debt.  They had to sacrifice for their kids and for one another.  But then last year, they were able to buy their first home, and they’ve got a second son.  And they love where they work, and Ben’s new job lets him be home for dinner each night.  (Applause.)  And so what Rebekah wrote was, “It’s amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to.  We’re a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.”

And that describes the American people.  We, too, are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.  And today, over the past 51 months, our businesses have created 9.4 million new jobs.  Our housing market is rebounding.  Our auto industry is booming.  Our manufacturing sector is adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s.  We’ve made our tax code fairer.  We’ve cut our deficits by more than half.  More than 8 million Americans have signed up for private insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act.  (Applause.)  So here in Minnesota, you can now say that the women are strong, the men are good-looking, the children are above average, and 95 percent of you are insured.  (Applause.)

And it’s thanks to the hard work of citizens like Rebekah and Ben and so many of you that we’ve come farther, we’ve recovered faster than just about any other advanced economy on Earth.  More and more companies are deciding that the world’s number-one place to create jobs and invest is once again the United States of America.  (Applause.)  That’s the good news.  And you don’t hear it very often.

By every economic measure, we are better off now than we were when I took office.  (Applause.)  You wouldn’t know it, but we are.  We’ve made some enormous strides.  But that’s not the end of the story.  We have more work to do.

It wasn’t the end of Rebekah’s story, because she went on to write in her letter, “We did everything right.  The truth is, in America, where two people have done everything they can to succeed and fight back from the brink of financial ruin -– through job loss and retraining, and kids, and credit card debts that are set up to keep you impoverished forever, and the discipline to stop spending any money on yourselves or take a vacation in five years — it’s virtually impossible to live a simple middle-class life.”  That’s what Rebekah wrote.  Because their income is eaten up by childcare for Jack and Henry that costs more each month than their mortgage.  And as I was telling Rebekah — Michelle and I, when we were their age, we had good jobs and we still had to deal with childcare issues and couldn’t figure out how to some months make ends meet.

They forego vacations so they can afford to pay off student loans and save for retirement.  “Our big splurge,” Rebekah wrote, “is cable TV, so we can follow our beloved Minnesota Wild, and watch Team USA in the Olympics!”  (Applause.)  They go out once a week for pizza or a burger.  But they’re not splurging.  And at the end of the month, things are tight.  And this is like this wonderful young couple, with these wonderful kids, who are really working hard.

And the point is, all across this country, there are people just like that, all in this audience.  You’re working hard, you’re doing everything right.  You believe in the American Dream.  You’re not trying to get fabulously wealthy.  You just want a chance to build a decent life for yourselves and your families, but sometimes it feels like the odds are rigged against you.

And I think sometimes what it takes for somebody like Rebekah to sit down and write one of these letters.  And I believe that even when it’s heartbreaking and it’s hard, every single one of those letters is by definition an act of hope.
Because it’s a hope that the system can listen, that somebody is going to hear you; that even when Washington sometimes seems tone deaf to what’s going on in people’s lives and around kitchen tables, that there’s going to be somebody who’s going to stand up for you and your family.

And that’s why I’m here — because I want to let Rebekah know, and I wanted to let all of you know that — because you don’t see it on TV sometimes.  It’s not what the press and the pundits talk about.  I’m here to tell you I’m listening, because you’re the reason I ran for President.  (Applause.)  Because those stories are stories I’ve lived.  The same way that when I saw those young teenage moms, I thought of my mother.  And when I see Rebekah and Ben, I think of our struggles when Malia and Sasha were young.  And they’re not distant from me and everything we do.

I ran for President because I believe this country is at its best when we’re all in it together and when everybody has a fair shot, and everybody is doing their fair share.  (Applause.)  And the reason I believe that is because that’s how I came here.  That’s how I got here.  That’s how Michelle and I were able to succeed.  (Applause.)  And I haven’t forgotten.

And so even though you may not read about it or see it on TV all the time, our agenda, what we’re fighting for every day, is designed not to solve every problem, but to help just a little bit.  To create more good jobs that pay good wages — jobs in manufacturing and construction; energy and innovation.  That’s why we’re fighting to train more workers to fill those jobs.  That’s why we’re fighting to guarantee every child a world-class education, including early childhood education and better childcare.  (Applause.)  That’s why we’re fighting to make sure hard work pays off with a wage you can live on and savings you can retire on, and making sure that women get paid the same as men for the same job, and folks have flexibility to look after a sick child or a sick parent.  (Applause.)

That’s what we’re fighting for.  We’re fighting so everybody has a chance.  We’re fighting to vindicate the idea that no matter who you are, or what you look like, or how you grew up, or who you love, or who your parents were, or what your last name is, it doesn’t matter — America is a place where if you’re doing the right thing, like Ben and Rebekah are, and you’re being responsible and you’re taking care of your family, that you can make it.

And the fact is, we can do that.  If we do some basic things, if we make some basic changes, we can create more jobs and lift more incomes and strengthen the middle class.  And that’s what we should be doing.  And I know it drives you nuts that Washington isn’t doing it.  And it drives me nuts.  (Applause.)  And the reason it’s not getting done is, today, even basic commonsense ideas can’t get through this Congress.

And sometimes I’m supposed to be politic about how I say things — (laughter) — but I’m finding lately that I just want to say what’s on my mind.  (Applause.)  So let me just be clear — I want you think about this — so far this year, Republicans in Congress have blocked or voted down every single serious idea to strengthen the middle class.  You may think I’m exaggerating, but let me go through the list.  They’ve said no to raising the minimum wage.  They’ve said no to fair pay.  Some of them have denied that there’s even a problem, despite the fact that women are getting paid 77 cents for every dollar a man is getting paid.

They’ve said no to extending unemployment insurance for more than three million Americans who are out there looking every single day for a new job, despite the fact that we know it would be good not just for those families who are working hard to try to get back on their feet, but for the economy as a whole.  Rather than invest in working families getting ahead, they actually voted to give another massive tax cut to the wealthiest Americans.

AUDIENCE:  Booo —

THE PRESIDENT:  Don’t boo, by the way.  I want you to vote.  (Laughter and applause.)  I mean, over and over again, they show that they’ll do anything to keep in place systems that really help folks at the top but don’t help you.  And they don’t seem to mind.  And their obstruction is keeping a system that is rigged against families like Ben’s and Rebekah’s.

Now, I’m not saying these are all bad people; they’re not.  When I’m sitting there just talking to them about family, we get along just fine.  Many of them will acknowledge when I talk to them — yes, I know, I wish we could do something more, but I can’t — but they can’t be too friendly towards me because they’d be run out of town by the tea party.  (Laughter.)

But sometimes I get a sense they just don’t know what most folks are going through.  They keep on offering a theory of the economy that time and again failed for the middle class.  They think we should give more tax breaks to those at the top.  They think we should invest less in things like education.  They think we should let big banks, and credit card companies, and polluters, and insurers do only whatever is best for their bottom line without any responsibility to anybody else.  They want to drastically reduce or get rid of the safety net for people trying to work their way into the middle class.
And if we did all these things, they think the economy will thrive and jobs will prosper, and everything will trickle down.

And just because they believe it, it doesn’t mean the rest of us should be believing it — because we’ve tried what they’re peddling, and it doesn’t work.  We know from our history that our economy does not grow from the top down, it grows from the middle out.  We do better when the middle class does better.  We do better when workers are getting a decent salary.  We do better when they’ve got decent benefits.  (Applause.)  We do better when a young family knows that they can get ahead.  And we do better when people who are working hard know that they can count on decent childcare at an affordable cost, and that if they get sick they’re not going to lose their homes.

We do better when if somebody is stuck in a job that is not paying well enough, they know they can go get retrained without taking on huge mountains of debt.  That’s when things hum.  And with just a few changes in priorities, we could get a lot of that done right now if Congress would actually just think about you and not about getting reelected, not about the next election, not about some media sound bite, but just focus on you.  (Applause.)

So that’s why I’ve said, look, I want to work with Democrats and Republicans.  My favorite President, by the way, was the first Republican President — a guy named Abraham Lincoln.  So this is not a statement about partisanship.  This is a statement about America and what we’re fighting for.  And I’m not going to let gridlock and inaction and willful indifference and greed threaten the hard work of families like yours.   And so we can’t afford to wait for Congress right now.  And that’s why I’m going ahead and moving ahead without them wherever I can.  (Applause.)

That’s why I acted to raise more workers’ wages by requiring federal contractors to pay their employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour.  (Applause.)  That’s why I acted to help nearly five million Americans make student loan payments cap those payments at 10 percent of their income.  That’s why I made sure more women have the protections they need to fight for fair pay in the workplace.  (Applause.)  That’s why we went ahead and launched new hubs to attract more high-tech manufacturing jobs to America.

And, now, some of you may have read — so we take these actions and then now Republicans are mad at me for taking these actions.  They’re not doing anything, and then they’re mad that I’m doing something.  I’m not sure which of the things I’ve done they find most offensive, but they’ve decided they’re going to sue me for doing my job.  I mean, I might have said in the heat of the moment during one of these debates, “I want to raise the minimum wage, so sue me when I do.”  (Laughter.)  But I didn’t think they were going to take it literally.

But giving more working Americans a fair shot is not about simply what I can do — it’s about what we can do together.  So when Congress doesn’t act, not only have I acted, I’ve also tried to rally others to help.  I told CEOs, and governors, and mayors, and state legislatures, for example, they don’t have to wait for Congress to raise the minimum wage.  Go ahead and raise your workers’ wages right now.  And since I first asked Congress to raise the minimum wage, 13 states and D.C. have raised theirs, including Minnesota, where more than 450,000 of your neighbors are poised to get a raise.  (Applause.)

When Gap raised wages for its employees, job applications went up through the roof.  It was good for business.  I even got a letter from a proud mom right here in Minneapolis who just wanted me to know that her son starts his employees at $15 an hour, at Aaron’s Green Cleaning here in town.  (Applause.)  There they are!  (Applause.)  So the letter said, “We are very proud of his people-centered business philosophy!  Three cheers for a decent living wage!”

So we don’t have to wait for Congress to do some good stuff.  On Monday, we held the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families, and we heard from a lot of other families like Ben and Rebekah.  They count on policies like paid leave and workplace flexibility to juggle everything.  We had business owners who came and told me they became more profitable when they made family life easier for their employees.

So more companies are deciding that higher wages and workplace flexibility is good for business — it reduces turnover, more productive workers, more loyal workers.  More cities and states are deciding this is good policy for families.  So the only holdout standing in the way of change for tens of millions of Americans are some Republicans in Congress.

Because I just want to be real blunt:  If you watch the news, you just see, okay, Washington is a mess, and the basic attitude is everybody is just crazy up there.  But if you actually read the fine print, it turns out that the things you care about right now Democrats are promoting.  (Applause.)  And we’re just not getting enough help.

And my message to Republicans is:  Join us.  Get on board.  If you’re mad at me for helping people on my own, then why don’t you join me and we’ll do it together?  (Applause.)  We’ll do it together.  I’m happy to share the credit.  You’re mad at me for doing some things to raise the minimum wage, let’s pass a law — Republicans and Democrats giving America a raise.

If you’re mad at me for taking executive action to make it easier for women to find out if they’re not getting treated fairly in the workplace, let’s do it together.  You can share the credit.  (Applause.)  You’re worried about me trying to fix a broken immigration system, let’s hold hands and go ahead and make sure that this country continues to be a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.  I want to work with you, but you’ve got to give me something.  You’ve got to try to deliver something — anything.  (Applause.)

They don’t do anything — (laughter) — except block me.  And call me names.  It can’t be that much fun.  (Laughter.)  It’d be so much more fun if they said, you know what, let’s do something together.  If they were more interested in growing the economy for you, and the issues that you’re talking about, instead of trying to mess with me — (laughter) — then we’d be doing a lot better.  That’s what makes this country great, is when we’re all working together.  That’s the American way.

Now more than ever, with the 4th of July next week, Team USA moving on down in Brazil — (applause) — we should try to rally around some economic patriotism that says we rise or fall as one nation and one people.  Let’s rally around the idea that instead of giving tax breaks for millionaires, let’s give more tax breaks for working families to help pay for childcare or college.  (Applause.)

Instead of protecting companies that are shifting profits overseas to avoid paying their fair share, let’s put people to work rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our airports.  (Applause.)  Let’s invest in manufacturing startups so that we’re creating good jobs making products here in America, here in Minnesota.  (Applause.)  Rather than stack the deck in favor of those who have already got an awful lot, let’s help folks who have huge talent and potential and ingenuity but just need a little bit of a hand up so that we can tap the potential of every American.

I mean, this isn’t rocket science.  There are some things that are complicated — this isn’t one of them.  Let’s make sure every 4-year-old in America has access to high school — high-quality preschool — (applause) — so that moms like Rebekah and dads like Ben know their kids are getting the best quality care and getting a head start on life.  Let’s redesign our high schools to make sure that our kids are better prepared for the 21st century economy.  Let’s follow the lead of Senator Franken and Secretary Perez and give more apprenticeships that connect young people to rewarding careers.  (Applause.)

Let’s tell every American if they’ve lost their job because it was shipped overseas, we’re going to train you for an even better one.  (Applause.)  Let’s rally around the patriotism that says our country is stronger when every American can count on affordable health insurance and Medicare and Social Security, and women earn pay equal to their efforts, and family can make ends meet if their kid get sick, and when nobody who works full-time is living in poverty.  We can do all these things.

And so let me just — let me wrap up by saying this.  I know sometimes things get kind of discouraging.  And I know that our politics looks profoundly broken, and Washington looks like it’s never going to deliver for you.  It seems like they’re focused on everything but your concerns.  And I know that when I was elected in 2008 and then reelected in 2012, so many of you were hoping that we could get Washington to work differently, and sometimes when I get stymied you’d think, oh, maybe not; maybe it’s just too tough, maybe things won’t change.  And I get that frustration.  And the critics and the cynics in Washington, they’ve written me off more times than I can count.

But I’m here to tell you, don’t get cynical.  Despite all of the frustrations, America is making progress.  Despite the unyielding opposition, there are families who have health insurance now who didn’t have it before.  And there are students in college who couldn’t afford it before.  And there are workers on the job who didn’t have jobs before.  And there are troops home with their families after serving tour after tour.  (Applause.)  Don’t think that we’re not making progress.

So, yes, it’s easy to be cynical; in fact, these days it’s kind of trendy.  Cynicism passes off for wisdom.  But cynicism doesn’t liberate a continent.  Cynicism doesn’t build a transcontinental railroad.  Cynicism doesn’t send a man to the moon.  Cynicism doesn’t invent the Internet.  Cynicism doesn’t give women the right to vote.  Cynicism doesn’t make sure that people are treated equally regardless of race.

Cynicism is a choice, and hope is a better choice.  And every day I’m lucky to receive thousands of acts of hope — every time somebody sits down and picks up a pen, and writes to me and shares their story, just like Rebekah did.  And Rebekah said in her letter — she ended it, she said, “I’m pretty sure this is a silly thing to do to write a letter to the President, but on some level I know that staying silent about what you see and what needs changing, it never makes any difference.  So I’m writing to you to let you know what it’s like for us out here in the middle of the country, and I hope you will listen.”

And I’m here because Rebekah wrote to me and I want her to know I’m listening.  I’m here as President, because I want you all to know that I’m listening.  (Applause.)  I ran for office to make sure that anybody who is working hard to meet their dreams has somebody in Washington that is listening.  And I’m always going to keep listening.  And I’m always going to keep fighting.  (Applause.)

And your cares and your concerns are my own, and your hopes for your kids and your grandkids are my own.  And I’m always going to be working to restore the American Dream for everybody who’s willing to work for it.  (Applause.)  And I am not going to get cynical; I’m staying hopeful, and I hope you do too.

Thank you.  God bless you.  God bless America.  (Applause.)

END               10:50 A.M. CDT

9 Questions Billionaires Disparagingly Ask About the People They Exploit

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9 Questions Billionaires Disparagingly Ask About the People They Exploit

How the 1% willfully misunderstands the 99%.

Photo Credit: Maslowski Marcin/Shutterstock.com

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Last year eight Americans — the four Waltons of Walmart fame, the two Koch brothers, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett — made more money than 3.6 million American minimum-wage workers combined. The median pay for CEOs at America’s large corporations rose to $10 million per year, while a typical chief executive now makes about 257 times the average worker’s salary, up sharply from 181 times in 2009. Overall, 1% of Americans own more than a third of the country’s wealth.

As the United States slips from its status as the globe’s number one economic power, small numbers of Americans continue to amass staggering amounts of wealth, while simultaneously inequality trends toward historic levels. At what appears to be a critical juncture in our history and the history of inequality in this country, here are nine questions we need to ask about who we are and what will become of us. Let’s start with a French economist who has emerged as an important voice on what’s happening in America today.

1) What does Thomas Piketty have to do with the 99%?

French economist Thomas Piketty’s surprise bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is an unlikely beach read, though it’s selling like one. A careful parsing of massive amounts of data distilled into “only” 700 pages, it outlines the economic basis for the 1%-99% divide in the United States. (Conservative critics, of course, disagree.)

Just in case you aren’t yet rock-bottom certain about the reality of that divide, here are some stats: the top 1% of Americans hold 35% of the nation’s net worth; the bottom 80%, only 11% percent. The United States has such an unequal distribution of wealth that, in global rankings, it falls among the planet’s kleptocracies, not the developed nations that were once its peers. The mathematical measure of wealth-inequality is called “Gini,” and the higher it is, the more extreme a nation’s wealth-inequality. The Gini for the U.S. is 85; for Germany, 77; Canada, 72; and Bangladesh, 64. Nations more unequal than the U.S. include Kazakhstan at 86 and the Ukraine at 90. The African continent tips in at just under 85. Odd company for the self-proclaimed “indispensable nation.”

Piketty shows that such inequality is driven by two complementary forces. By owning more of everything (capital), rich people have a mechanism for getting ever richer than the rest of us, because the rate of return on investment is higher than the rate of economic growth. In other words, money made from investments grows faster than money made from wages. Piketty claims the wealth of the wealthiest Americans is rising at 6%-7% a year, more than three times as fast as the economy the rest of us live in.

At the same time, wages for middle and lower income Americans are sinking, driven by factors also largely under the control of the wealthy.  These include the application of new technology to eliminate human jobs, the crushing of unions, and a decline in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage that more and more Americans depend on for survival.

The short version: A rising tide lifts all yachts.

2) So why don’t the unemployed/underemployed simply find better jobs?

Another way of phrasing this question is: Why don’t we just blame the poor for their plight? Mention unemployment or underemployment and someone will inevitably invoke the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” line. If workers don’t like retail or minimum-wage jobs, or if they can’t find good paying jobs in their area, why don’t they just move? Quit retail or quit Pittsburgh (Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis) and…

Move to where to do what? Our country lost one-third of all decent factory jobs — almost six million of them — between 2000 and 2009, and wherever “there” is supposed to be, piles of people are already in line. In addition, many who lost their jobs don’t have the means to move or a friend with a couch to sleep on when they get to Colorado. Some have lived for generations in the places where the jobs have disappeared. As for the jobs that are left, what do they pay? One out of four working Americans earn less than $10 per hour. At 25%, the U.S. has the highest percentage of low-wage workers in the developed world. (Canada and Great Britain have 20%, Japan under 15%, and France 11%.)

One in six men, 10.4 million Americans aged 25 to 64, the prime working years, don’t have jobs at all, a portion of the male population that has almost tripled in the past four decades. They are neither all lazy nor all unskilled, and at present they await news of the uncharted places in the U.S. where those 10 million unfilled jobs are hidden.

Moving “there” to find better work isn’t an option.

3) But aren’t there small-scale versions of economic “rebirths” occurring all over America?

Travel through some of the old Rust Belt towns of this country and you’ll quickly notice that “economic rebirth” seems to mean repurposing buildings that once housed factories and shipping depots as bars and boutiques. Abandoned warehouses are now trendy restaurants; a former radiator factory is an artisanal coffee shop. In other words, in a place where a manufacturing plant once employed hundreds of skilled workers at union wages, a handful of part-timers are now serving tapas at minimum wage plus tips.

In Maryland, an ice cream plant that once employed 400 people with benefits and salaries pegged at around $40,000 a year closed its doors in 2012. Under a “rebirth” program, a smaller ice cream packer reopened the place with only 16 jobs at low wages and without benefits. The new operation had 1,600 applicants for those 16 jobs. The area around the ice cream plant once produced airplanes, pipe organs, and leather car seats. No more. There were roughly 14,000 factory jobs in the area in 2000; today, there are 8,000.

General Electric’s Appliance Park, in Louisville, Kentucky, employed 23,000 union workers at its peak in 1973. By 2011, the sputtering plant held onto only about 1,800 workers. What was left of the union there agreed to a two-tier wage scale, and today 70% of the jobs are on the lower tier — at $13.50 an hour, almost $8 less than what the starting wage used to be. A full-time worker makes about $28,000 a year before taxes and deductions. The poverty line for a family of four in Kentucky is $23,000. Food stamp benefits are available to people who earn up to 130% of the poverty line, so a full-timer in Kentucky with a family still qualifies. Even if a worker moved to Kentucky and lucked out by landing a job at the plant, standing on your tiptoes with your lips just above sea level is not much of a step up.

Low paying jobs are not a rebirth.

4) Can’t people just get off their couches and get back to work?

There are 3.8 million Americans who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. These are the country’s long-term unemployed, as defined by the Department of Labor. Statistically, the longer you are unemployed, the less likely it is that you’ll ever find work again. Between 2008 and 2012, only 11% of those unemployed 15 months or more found a full-time job, and research shows that those who do find a job are less likely to retain it. Think of it as a snowball effect: more unemployment creates more unemployable people.

And how hard is it to land even a minimum-wage job? This year, the Ivy League college admissions acceptance rate was 8.9%. Last year, when Walmart opened its first store in Washington, D.C., there were more than 23,000applications for 600 jobs, which resulted in an acceptance rate of 2.6%, making the big box store about twice as selective as Harvard and five times as choosy as Cornell.

Telling unemployed people to get off their couches (or out of the cars they live in or the shelters where they sleep) and get a job makes as much sense as telling them to go study at Harvard.

5) Why can’t former factory workers retrain into new jobs?

Janesville, Wisconsin, had the oldest General Motors car factory in America, one that candidate Obama visited in 2007 and insisted would be there for another 100 years. Two days before Christmas that year and just before Obama’s inauguration, the plant closed forever, throwing 5,000 people out of work. This devastated the town, because you either worked in the plant or in a business that depended on people working in the plant. The new president and Congress quickly paid for a two-million-dollar Janesville retraining program, using state community colleges the way the government once used trade schools built to teach new immigrants the skills needed by that Janesville factory a century ago.

This time around, however, those who finished their retraining programs simply became trained unemployables rather than untrained ones. It turned out that having a certificate in “heating and ventilation” did not automatically lead to a job in the field. There were already plenty of people out there with such certificates, never mind actual college degrees. And those who did find work in some field saw their take-home pay drop by 36%. This, it seems, is increasingly typical in twenty-first-century America (though retraining programs have been little studied in recent years).

Manufacturing is dead and the future lies in a high-tech, information-based economy, some say. So why can’t former factory workers be trained to do that? Maybe some percentage could, but the U.S. graduated 1,606,000 students with bachelor’s degrees in 2014, many of whom already have such skills.

Bottom Line: Jobs create the need for training. Training does not create jobs.

6) Shouldn’t we cut public assistance and force people into the job market?

At some point in any discussion of jobs, someone will drop the nuclear option: cut federal and state benefits and do away with most public assistance. That’ll motivate people to find jobs — or starve. Unemployment money and food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) encourage people to be lazy. Why should tax dollars be used to give food to people who won’t work for it? “If you’re able-bodied, you should be willing to work,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said discussing food stamp cuts.

The problem with such statements is 73% of those enrolled in the country’s major public benefits programs are, in fact, from working families — just in jobs whose paychecks don’t cover life’s basic necessities. McDonald’s workers alone receive $1.2 billion in federal assistance per year.

Why do so many of the employed need food stamps? It’s not complicated. Workers in the minimum-wage economy often need them simply to survive. All in all, 47 million people get SNAP nationwide because without it they would go hungry.

In Ohio, where I did some of the research for my book Ghosts of Tom Joad, the state pays out benefits on the first of each month. Pay Day, Food Day, Mother’s Day, people call it. SNAP is distributed in the form of an Electronic Bank Transfer card, or EBT, which, recipients will tell you, stands for “Eat Better Tonight.” EBT-friendly stores open early and stay open late on the first of the month because most people are pretty hungry come the Day.

A single person with nothing to her name in the lower 48 states would qualify for no more than $189 a month in SNAP. If she works, her net monthly income is multiplied by .3, and the result is subtracted from the maximum allotment. Less than fifty bucks a week for food isn’t exactly luxury fare. Sure, she can skip a meal if she needs to, and she likely does. However, she may have kids; almost two-thirds of SNAP children live in single-parent households. Twenty percent or more of the child population in 37 states lived in “food insecure households” in 2011, with New Mexico (30.6%) and the District of Columbia (30%) topping the list. And it’s not just kids. Households with disabled people account for 16% of SNAP benefits, while 9% go to households with senior citizens.

Almost 22% of American children under age 18 lived in poverty in 2012; for those under age five, it’s more than 25%. Almost 1 in 10 live in extreme poverty.

Our system is trending toward asking kids (and the disabled, and the elderly) to go to hell if they’re hungry. Many are already there.

7) Why are Walmart and other businesses opposed to SNAP cuts?

Public benefits are now a huge part of the profits of certain major corporations. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Walmart was oddly blunt about what SNAP cuts could do to its bottom line:

“Our business operations are subject to numerous risks, factors, and uncertainties, domestically and internationally, which are outside our control. These factors include… changes in the amount of payments made under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Plan and other public assistance plans, [and] changes in the eligibility requirements of public assistance plans.”

How much profit do such businesses make from public assistance? Short answer: big bucks. In one year, nine Walmart Supercenters in Massachusetts received more than $33 million in SNAP dollars — more than four times the SNAP money spent at farmers’ markets nationwide. In two years, Walmart received about half of the one billion dollars in SNAP expenditures in Oklahoma. Overall, 18% of all food benefits money is spent at Walmart.

Pepsi, Coke, and the grocery chain Kroger lobbied for food stamps, an indication of how much they rely on the money. The CEO of Kraft admittedthat the mac n’ cheese maker opposed food stamp cuts because users were “a big part of our audience.” One-sixth of Kraft’s revenues come from food stamp purchases. Yum Brands, the operator of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, tried to convince lawmakers in several states to allow its restaurants to accept food stamps. Products eligible for SNAP purchases are supposed to be limited to “healthy foods.” Yet lobbying by the soda industry keeps sugary drinks on the approved list, while companies like Coke and Pepsi pull in four billion dollars a year in revenues from SNAP money.

Poverty is big business.

8) Should We Raise the Minimum Wage?

One important reason to raise the minimum wage to a living one is that people who can afford to feed themselves will not need food stamps paid for by taxpayers. Companies who profit off their workers’ labor will be forced to pay a fair price for it, and not get by on taxpayer-subsidized low wages. Just as important, people who can afford to feed themselves earn not just money, but self-respect. The connection between working and taking care of yourself and your family has increasingly gone missing in America, creating a society that no longer believes in itself. Rock bottom is a poor foundation for building anything human.

But won’t higher wages cause higher prices? The way taxpayers functionally subsidize companies paying low-wages to workers — essentially ponying up the difference between what McDonald’s and its ilk pay and what those workers need to live via SNAP and other benefits — is a hidden cost squirreled away in plain sight. You’re already paying higher prices via higher taxes; you just may not know it.

Even if taxes go down, won’t companies pass on their costs? Maybe, but they are unlikely to be significant. For example, if McDonald’s doubled the salaries of its employees to a semi-livable $14.50 an hour, not only would most of them go off public benefits, but so would the company — and yet a Big Mac would cost just 68 cents more. In general, only about 20% of the money you pay for a Big Mac goes to labor costs. At Walmart, increasing wages to $12 per hour would cost the company only about one percent of its annual sales.

Despite labor costs not being the most significant factor in the way low-wage businesses set their prices, one of the more common objections to raising the minimum wage is that companies, facing higher labor costs, will cut back on jobs. Don’t believe it.

The Los Angeles Economic Round Table concluded that raising the hourly minimum to $15 in that city would generate an additional $9.2 billion in annual sales and create more than 50,000 jobs. A Paychex/IHS survey, which looks at employment in small businesses, found that the state with the highest percentage of annual job growth was Washington, which also has the highest statewide minimum wage in the nation. The area with the highest percentage of annual job growth was San Francisco, the city with the highest minimum wage in the nation. Higher wages do not automatically lead to fewer jobs. Many large grocery chains, including Safeway and Kroger, are unionized and pay well-above-minimum wage. They compete as equals against their non-union rivals, despite the higher wages.

Will employers leave a state if it raises its minimum wage independent of a nationwide hike? Unlikely. Most minimum-wage employers are service businesses that are tied to where their customers are.  People are not likely to drive across state lines for a burger. A report on businesses on the Washington-Idaho border at a time when Washington’s minimum wage was nearly three bucks higher than Idaho’s found that the ones in Washington were flourishing.

While some businesses could indeed decide to close or cut back if the minimum wage rose, the net macro gains would be significant. Even a small hike to $10.10 an hour would put some $24 billion a year into workers’ hands to spend and lift 900,000 Americans above the poverty line. Consumer spending drives 70% of our economy. More money in the hands of consumers would likely increase the demand for goods and services, creating jobs.

Yes, raise the minimum wage. Double it or more. We can’t afford not to.

9) Okay, after the minimum wage is raised, what else can we do?

To end such an article, it’s traditional to suggest reforms, changes, solutions. It is, in fact, especially American to assume that every problem has a “solution.” So my instant suggestion: raise the minimum wage. Tomorrow. In a big way. And maybe appoint Thomas Piketty to the board of directors of Walmart.

But while higher wages are good, they are likely only to soften the blows still to come. What if the hyper-rich like being ever more hyper-rich and, with so many new ways to influence and control our political system and the economy, never plan to give up any of their advantages? What if they don’t want to share, not even a little more, not when it comes to the minimum wage or anything else?

The striking trend lines of social and economic disparity that have developed over the last 50 years are clearly no accident; nor have disemboweled unions, a deindustrialized America, wages heading for the basement (with profits still on the rise), and the widest gap between rich and poor since the slavery era been the work of the invisible hand. It seems far more likely that a remarkably small but powerful crew wanted it that way, knowing that a nation of fast food workers isn’t heading for the barricades any time soon. Think of it all as a kind of “Game of Thrones” played out over many years. A super-wealthy few have succeeded in defeating all of their rivals — unions, regulators, the media, honest politicians, environmentalists — and now are free to do as they wish.

What most likely lies ahead is not a series of satisfying American-style solutions to the economic problems of the 99%, but a boiling frog’s journey into a form of twenty-first-century feudalism in which a wealthy and powerful few live well off the labors of a vast mass of the working poor. Once upon a time, the original 99% percent, the serfs, worked for whatever their feudal lords allowed them to have. Now, Walmart “associates” do the same. Then, a few artisans lived slightly better, an economic step or two up the feudal ladder. Now, a technocratic class of programmers, teachers, and engineers with shrinking possibilities for upward mobility function similarly amid the declining middle class. Absent a change in America beyond my ability to imagine, that’s likely to be my future — and yours.

Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at his blog, We Meant Well. Van Buren’s next book, Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent, is due out in March 2014.

Fed. Ct.: Rauner’s GTCR orchestrated “bust out” scheme; lawsuit has merit | Republican News Watch

Fed. Ct.: Rauner’s GTCR orchestrated “bust out” scheme; lawsuit has merit

By DOUG IBENDAHL • May 6, 2014

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The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Florida has issued a ruling which contains some very bad news for GOP gubernatorial nominee Bruce Rauner.

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The Federal Court’s March 14 Opinion describes a “bust out” scheme orchestrated by GTCR, the private equity firm chaired by Rauner for years up until October 2012. The Court ruled that claims against GTCR for aiding and abetting a breach of fiduciary duty have merit and therefore can proceed.

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The Court also ruled that claims for breach of fiduciary duty can proceed against Edgar Jannotta, formerly one of Rauner’s fellow GTCR principals. Jannotta is currently one of the largest financial contributors to Rauner’s campaign.

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Under Rauner’s chairmanship of GTCR the firm was accused of complicity in the wrongful deaths of multiple nursing home residents. GTCR was then later accused of participating in a scheme allegedly intended to fraudulently transfer assets for the purpose of hiding them from successful plaintiffs and other creditors.

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Litigation in U.S. Bankruptcy Court is just part of the ongoing fallout from the disastrous attempt by GTCR’s principals (including Rauner) to get richer by building a nationwide nursing home empire.

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You can read the Judge’s entire 40-page Opinion from March 14 HERE.

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Among other things, this latest Federal Court ruling further exposes two big lies by Rauner. First, Rauner has repeatedly claimed his firm was not involved in day-to-day operations. But here is what the Federal Judge wrote: “[a]side from raising capital for THI [Trans Healthcare, Inc.], the GTCR Group was also instrumental in THI’s day-to-day management and administration.” (See p. 4 of the Opinion for more.)

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Second, Rauner has repeatedly claimed his firm got out of the nursing home business prior to the deaths which became the subject of lawsuits and enormous jury awards. Again, the Federal Court’s Opinion details the timeline and proves Rauner’s claims are false.

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The Judge’s Opinion observes that the alleged “bust out” scheme “has all the makings of a legal thriller.”

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The Judge is definitely correct. Page 9 of the Opinion for example describes one part GTCR’s alleged “bust out” scheme which would be comical if not for the tragic circumstances:

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In the second linked transaction, THI sold all of its stock in THMI to the Debtor for $100,000. The Debtor had been incorporated just months before the transaction by the law firm of Troutman Sanders, where Forman (one of FLTCH’s owners) was a partner. The Debtor’s sole shareholder is Barry Saacks, an elderly graphic artist who currently lives in a nursing home. Although Saacks has some recollection of being asked if he was interested in buying computer equipment, he was not aware that he owns the Debtor or that he acquired the stock in THMI. And, it turns out, Saacks (who did not have any money to buy any computer equipment in the first place) did not pay the purchase price—FLTCH apparently loaned him the $100,000—nor did he ever receive any of THMI’s assets. In short, the complaint paints this as a sham transaction. (Emphasis added.)

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There is definitely some complexity in this litigation and that’s reflected in the Opinion. But it’s a must read for every Illinois voter. We previously used the term “bust out” to describe Rauner’s firm’s experience in the nursing home business. But it’s not every day you see a Federal Judge using the term and so vividly explaining its application.

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While the Illinois press has largely given Rauner and his firm a pass, our judicial system fortunately has not.

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Doug Ibendahl is a Chicago Attorney and a former General Counsel of the Illinois Republican Party.

via Fed. Ct.: Rauner’s GTCR orchestrated “bust out” scheme; lawsuit has merit | Republican News Watch.

Rights Are for People Like Us | The Weekly Sift

Rights Are for People Like Us | The Weekly Sift.

Rights Are for People Like Us

Those high-flown principles put forward by the militiamen defending Cliven Bundy’s rights … do they apply to anybody else?


The best summaries I’ve seen of the conflict between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the federal Bureau of Land Management are from the local St. George News and the Washington Post. Cutting it down somewhat: the BLM charges that Bundy has been grazing his cattle on public land without paying grazing and tresspass fees for 20 years. (They got their first court order telling him to stop in 1998; he ignored it.) The claimed fees now amount to over $1 million, and so April 5 the BLM started seizing some of Bundy’s illegally grazing cattle.

Self-appointed defender of Freedom.

Armed militiamen who support Bundy started gathering at a camp on April 10, and on April 12 the BLM backed down after what the Las Vegas Review-Journal described as “a 20-minute standoff … [w]ith rifles pointing toward each side”. The BLM released a statement:

Based on information about conditions on the ground, and in consultation with law enforcement, we have made a decision to conclude the cattle gather because of our serious concern about the safety of employees and members of the public.

The Bundy Ranch blog described the scene like this:

The result was a group of Bundy’s family members and supporters making a slow advance on a line of armed agents who kept ordering them to halt. At one point, the protesters were even told “one more step and you’re dead,” but the group kept coming, eventually walking easily through the line of federal agents and SWAT members who obviously didn’t have the courage of their convictions. According to InfoWars, the BLM had already announced it was leaving, but the county sheriff refused Bundy’s demand to disarm the federal agents and return his cattle. Within about a half hour, the cattle were released from the federal pen.

In other words, federal agents tried to enforce the law, were met with armed resistance from a mob, and decided to temporize rather than start killing people. On the extreme Right, this was celebrated as a victory for Freedom. Bundy’s son said, “The people have the power when they unite. The war has just begun.”

And the mainstream Right went along. The Powerline blog wrote “Why You Should Be Sympathetic Toward Cliven Bundy” while admitting “legally, Bundy doesn’t have a leg to stand on.” National Review‘s Kevin Williamson made “The Case for a Little Sedition“, saying

Of course the law is against Cliven Bundy. How could it be otherwise? The law was against Mohandas Gandhi, too

Fox News commentator Andrew Napolitano described the BLM (and not the miltiamen) as “a group of thugs dressed in military uniform with loaded M16s pointed at a rancher and his family.” Fox News produced this sympathetic segment, in which National Review editor Rich Lowry described the resistance as “in the finest American tradition of civil disobedience going back to Henry David Thoreau.”

To me, the Bundy incident has captured much of the basic sickness of conservatism in America: The rhetoric is full of high principle, but it’s hard to find any actual principle that would apply to anyone other than People Like Us — people like the people who belong to the conservative fringe.

It’s tempting to characterize this kind of thing as racism. Certainly that’s what the NYT’s Timothy Egan is suggesting with:

If you changed that picture to Black Panthers surrounding a lawful eviction in the inner city, do you think right-wing media would be there cheering the outlaws?

But it’s more subtle than that. Probably a black man who behaved like a far-fringe-rightist in all other ways could become People Like Us and come to have similar “rights” recognized. But the Black Panthers are clearly not People Like Us, so it would be an absolute horror if they were to arm themselves and resist the law. Likewise, it would be a horror if a Hispanic militia decided to liberate one of Sheriff Arpaio’s detention camps for immigrants. If some miltiamen got killed in such an attempt, I doubt Fox News would lament about “government overreach”. The Occupy protesters weren’t People Like Us, so they could be thrown off public land with impunity. Imagine the outrage if Occupy had militarized Zuccotti Park!

One of the reasons Bundy is supposed to deserve sympathy is that “his family has been ranching on the acres at issue since the late 19th century”. You can imagine how far similar sympathy would extend if armed Native Americans were threatening to kill whites over land their people had been hunting and fishing on for thousands of years. Hispanics have been wandering back and forth across the Rio Grande for centuries, but if they do it today, we have to enforce the Rule of Law. If people get killed, well, so be it.

But not People Like Us. When we feel wronged and take up arms, everyone should sympathize, the government should show restraint, and the media should re-litigate our case to the general public.

A number of Bundy’s sympathizers are rehashing the bizarre claims he has made in court: that the federal government can’t own land inside a state, or that the federal government is itself illegitimate. Bundy repeatedly refers to the federal government’s ownership as “unconstitutional”, probably because his reading of the Constitution never got as far as Article IV:

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States

This is why we have courts, to adjudicate disputes like this. Bundy made his argument in court and lost. Most people don’t then get to appeal their case to the Court of Nuts With Guns. But People Like Us do.

Whenever Bundy supporters are given media time, I would like to see them challenged to state their position in such a way that they would support similar rights for people not at all like them and not already part of the conservative movement. And I’d like to see mainstream conservative pundits confronted with a different challenge: Are there any limits to what you will support if the people doing it are on your side?

The Parable of the Mashed Potato Police

http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/03/tsa-confessions-mashed-potato-police-105116.html#.UzeMKsfQqmM

The Parable of the Mashed Potato Police

And other tales of working for the TSA.

By JASON EDWARD HARRINGTON

I recently had a bad flashback. I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep when I was hit with a vivid memory from my time as a Transportation Security Administration officer at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. It was 2008, and I was conducting a bag check when three of my TSA colleagues got into an argument with a passenger at the checkpoint. Things got pretty heated.

The subject of debate? Whether mashed potatoes were a liquid or a solid.

In the end, of course, the TSA agents had the last word: Since the potatoes took the shape of their container, they were determined to be a liquid—specifically, a gel. That’s the official TSA line. “Liquids, aerosols and gels over 3.4 ounces cannot be brought through security.” The potatoes were forcibly surrendered.

If you’re anything like me, you may have thought, “Well, mashed potatoes are technically gelatinous, so…”—which sends one down the rabbit hole of bureaucratic absurdity that ends with a passenger looking a TSA officer in the eye and saying, “Do you really think my mashed potatoes are a terrorist threat?” And the officer, if he or she is just an all-around tool, saying: “Ma’am, possibly. Rules are rules.”

I’ve had a lot of flashbacks lately—nearly buried memories that have come flooding back ever since Politico Magazine published “Dear America, I Saw You Naked,” my first-person account of working for the TSA and anonymously blogging about my adventures in airport security.

Another one: It’s 2010, and a passenger is trying to bring her live goldfish through security. One of my co-workers informs her that the fish can go through but the water cannot. The woman is on the verge of tears when a supervisor steps in to save the fish’s life.

And another: Working alongside a screener who always demanded that pacifiers be removed from infants’ mouths and submitted for X-ray screening before the babies and their mothers were permitted to pass through the metal detectors.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to come out of what I now see as the life-changing experience of having my story go viral is the realization of just how much I still have left to tell about my six years at the TSA—the strange checkpoint happenings, the colorful passengers and the outrageous, real-life TSA characters.

Americans took my initial report as confirmation of what they always dreaded about a humiliating experience so many millions of them had shared. But I also realized that there was a part of the story I hadn’t fully told: about a government agency and its leaders, and how they came up with the absurd policies that turned me and my colleagues into just-following-orders Mashed Potato Police.

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Soon after the article went up on the Politico website, I sent a note to my editor marveling at the fact that I had 30 new Twitter followers, up from a grand total of 240. I’d thought my article would get passed around in government and civil-liberties circles—a curiosity story of an anonymous TSA blogger unmasking himself, and that would be it.

Little did I know that within a few hours I’d be getting an average of three emails a minute—in the middle of the night—including interview requests from Good Morning America, Today, NBC Nightly News, The Kelly File and many others. And while my 30 new followers had at first seemed like a big deal, a few days later I had more than 5,000. Stephen Colbert even joked about my story. Stephen Colbert!

I got more emails in response to the article than I had in my entire year and a half writing my blog, Taking Sense Away, even when I revealed on the blog that the “nude” scanners didn’t work and that TSA employees were making predictably awful jokes about passengers’ bodies. I got only one piece of hate mail in response to my Politico Magazine article: an anonymous message that informed me that I was a “goon” because, it said, “Once a TSA goon, always a TSA goon.”

A few people did reach out to warn me that I am almost certainly being monitored by intelligence agencies now that I have revealed myself as a critic of the TSA. “My ex-husband is now a senior executive at the NSA at Fort Meade,” one said. “The NSA will probably track you.”

I’m not sure how credible these warnings are, but after being the subject of two official government responses—in which TSA denied and downplayed the claims made on my blog and in my essay—it’s hard not to worry that I’m being watched. I’ve received so many letters making this point that I now take it for granted that my every online move is being monitored by someone, somewhere. If the truth is more banal, so be it: I’d much rather be paranoid and wrong.

Most of the responses from current and former TSA employees were just as supportive as those from the general public—and that was another surprise. Quite a few read like letters from inmates: “Hi Jason. Remember me? We worked Terminal 1 together for a year-long bid. I am so glad you made it out and are doing something interesting with your life! Patting down crotches all day was the worst, wasn’t it?”

But some TSA employees saw my essay as an attempt to smear frontline workers. They were angry that I seemed to place responsibility for the agency’s problems squarely on the shoulders of low-ranking employees, rather than focusing on upper management and underlying organizational problems.

That was the argument in the email that gave me the most pause, a note from one of my former co-workers at O’Hare: “Obviously, TSA is not my dream job,” it said. “Sometimes I go home crying. I’d love it if you wrote more about the incompetency of the managers who got their jobs because of who they know. What you did will definitely make my job harder, because who will be attacked? Every worker on the floor in a uniform. Am I angry? No. But write more. Tell about those unqualified managers who take no part in the checkpoint operation, and who humiliate their workers. I know you’ve seen it all. Tell them.”

It’s an important point, and in fact that was my goal in launching my blog while still working on the TSA payroll: to call attention to the agency’s systemic flaws, while also defending the good, hardworking members of the nearly 50,000-deep frontline TSA workforce.

The agency was the product of a panicked national moment—fertile soil for poor decision-making—and irrationality was etched into the TSA’s DNA. Like most passengers, the average screener regrets the atmosphere of “permanent emergency” that has permeated airport checkpoints since 9/11,a reactionary culture passed down from TSA leadership year after year. And yet the most common concerns among TSA screeners usually stem from organizational flaws closer to the checkpoint floor.

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One of the agency’s biggest problems is its arbitrary promotion system, which is also the source of a lot of outrage in letters I’ve gotten from current and former TSA workers. I saw signs of rampant cronyism and favoritism at O’Hare while I was there, and the emails I’ve received from around the country contain similar observations. And it’s not just me seeing this: Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced it would launch an investigation after a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report found “rampant” favoritism at the TSA.

The second most common cause for complaint that I’ve heard from floor-level employees is the yearly re-certification system. While I was there, an officer’s suitability for his or her job was determined in large part by a two-hour test administered once a year, in which a TSA screener was put before two clipboard-wielding test administrators and observed while giving patdowns and doing bag searches on test subjects.

In practice, this meant that screeners who were rude to co-workers and passengers or just generally incompetent but had made it through their probationary period could hang onto their jobs by learning to work the system. All they had to do was give a convincing two-hour performance once a year—their conduct the rest of the time carried relatively little weight.

I personally experienced the absurdity of the TSA’s certification bureaucracy when I was informed one day—more than two years after I’d been hired, and after having checked thousands of driver’s licenses and passports—that I was not on-record as having ever received travel-document training from the TSA. Apparently, my certification papers had been lost, so I was pulled off the travel-document checking position on the spot and de-certified until I took the training class again.

“So does this mean,” I asked my supervisor, “that all the passports and driver’s licenses that I’ve cleared through security over the past two years have been security breaches?”

“Let’s not think about that,” my supervisor said.


Coming out from anonymity has allowed me to take part in trying to change the TSA: I was contacted by a staffer for Sen. Tom Coburn, the ranking member on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and the watchdog group Judicial Watch, which asked me to help in an investigation of assault and molestation claims against the TSA. I told Judicial Watch everything I knew about how complaints are handled at TSA checkpoints, including that the yellow complaint cards passengers are given to voice their concerns are widely regarded as a joke by TSA supervisors. “Rarely does anyone actually read those” was something I heard all the time.

I also signed a declaration for blogger and civil liberties activist Jonathan Corbett’s ongoing lawsuit against the TSA over its use of the body scanners, swearing that everything in my essay about the agency was true so that he could submit it as evidence. He had a 24-hour deadline; if I’d had more time I would have added a statement describing how I had repeatedly witnessed TSA breaking its promise to the public that the screeners who reviewed the full-body scanner images would never come face-to-face with the passengers whose naked bodies they’d just seen.

In a few places around the Internet, I’ve found my name and Edward Snowden’s mentioned in the same sentence—in one case framed as “Jason Harrington is no Edward Snowden.” But let’s be clear: I never fancied my crotch-patting tales to be on par with revelations of top-secret global surveillance programs.

One thing I wrote—my very first blog post, which informed the public that many TSA employees felt the radiation-emitting Rapiscan imagers were ineffective, and that the TSA tried to work around the machines’ inherent flaws with secret directives involving additional patdowns—qualified as a whistleblowing act. Other than that, I’ve mostly just been telling stories of public interest.

That doesn’t mean I don’t consider some of what the TSA has been doing the last few years scandalous; I do. Perhaps the most egregious waste of money at the agency right now is the SPOT program, in which “Behavior Detection Officers” are supposed to read people’s body language in order to identify would-be terrorists.

A decade in, we’ve now spent a billion dollars on the program despite the fact that it’s based on pseudoscience that has been debunked in one study after another, and there’s no proof it has turned up even one terrorist threat. Many of the Behavior Detection Officers I knew at O’Hare privately admitted that their program amounted to a lot of walking around all day getting paid a lot of money for doing nothing.

I used to hear all the time from both passengers and TSA agents that airport security would make great fodder for a TV show or book. Since my essay was published, I’ve heard from agents and producers who share that sentiment, and I recently signed with a literary agent. With any luck, my true TSA stories will be bound for bookshelves soon.

One of the most common questions I get now is: “Do you get extra screening when you fly these days?” I haven’t flown since my essay was published, but I will soon.

Then again, there’s a train that can get me to New York. It may take 16 hours longer, but sleeper cars are kind of nice, and besides, the nation’s railways are relatively clear of the Transportation Security Administration. For now.

Jason Edward Harrington is a writer and MFA candidate in the creative writing program at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Follow him on Twitter @Jas0nHarringt0n.