Drones Are Like Structured Finance

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Drone and structured finance are both new technologies. Structured finance products, like securitization of mortgages into tranches including subprime, didn’t by themselves cause the financial blowup in 2007 and 2008. They were operating as a financial innovation within a bigger game of mortgage creation and a housing bubble pushed by the government and the FED. In the same way, drone warfare is a killing innovation. It’s not a first cause of the bubble in the U.S. kills of people overseas. It’s an innovation within something bigger, which is the U.S. initiated “war on terror.”

That war never was a real war. It never was declared. It never had an identifiable enemy. It never had clear aims that would bring it to a close, if it were a war. The “war on terror” was a convenient blanket term to cover attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama retired the term “war on terror” from his official vocabulary, but the administration still speaks of terrorism, counterterrorism and kill lists.

What happened with structured finance and what’s happening with drones is that the adoption and increased use of the technologies come to have an independent effect on the underlying phenomena, the housing bubble and the war on terror’s killing bubble. Being effective and low-cost technologies, they heighten the bubbles as people use them intensively. The indiscriminate use or broad use or overuse of these technologies cause problems all their own  and, in the hands of their users, who were investment bankers and now U.S. government officials,  they become contributory causes of new problems.

I’ve run across a 3-month old article by a member of the Leadership, Rosa Brooks. You can read it here or here. What led me to this was my interest in nearby Niagara Falls Air Base being turned into a drone center, for the Leadership cannot think of anything better for American men and women to do than to produce death and spying at a distance, for export and for domestic use.

Brooks doesn’t condemn the War on Terror, or empire, or any of the basic causes that have driven the overseas killing machine of the U.S. government and made welcome to it the drone technology; but she does recognize that unrestricted drone killing has serious drawbacks to the U.S. government and the rule of law. It’s always good to find criticism of government coming from within the Leadership itself. Hers are both direct and indirect. I’ll mention a few.

She indirectly admits that the U.S. killing machine overseas is more or less unbounded, and the use of drones has made it even more unbounded because drones lower the cost of killing. The killing machine is not hemmed in by law or morality. It is not restrained by objections coming from mass society due to the costs or due to Americans getting killed and injured. It is not restrained by the mass conscience, so to speak, of mass society. She writes:

“If killing a suspected terrorist based in Yemen or Somalia will endanger expensive manned aircraft, the lives of U.S. troops and/or the lives of many innocent civilians, U.S. officials will reserve such killings for situations of extreme urgency and gravity (stopping another 9/11, finally getting Osama bin Laden). But if all that appears to be at risk is an easily replaceable drone, officials will be tempted to use lethal force more and more casually.

“And this, of course, is exactly what has been happening over the last four years. Increasingly, drone strikes have targeted militants who are lower and lower down the terrorist food chain, rather than terrorist masterminds. Strikes increasingly target individuals who pose speculative, distant future threats rather than only those posing urgent or catastrophic threats. And drone strikes have spread ever further from ‘hot’ battlefields, migrating from Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia (and perhaps to Mali and the Philippines as well). Although drone strikes are believed to have killed more than 3,000 people since 2004, only a tiny fraction of the dead appear to have been so-called ‘high-value targets’.”

Ms. Brooks admits that the killing is going on in secret, “…President Obama’s administration still refuses to openly acknowledge that the CIA uses drone strikes anywhere other than Pakistan (and this was acknowledged only recently and grudgingly.”

She admits that the War on Terror has no ending: “But outside Afghanistan, the United States is not in a conventional war. It’s in an open-ended conflict with an inchoate, undefined adversary…”

She admits that no one outside the officials who direct the killing even know who the enemies or combatants are…”administration assertions about who is a combatant and what constitutes a threat are entirely non-falsifiable because they’re based wholly on undisclosed evidence.”

She admits that the U.S. killings in this “murky context” are operating way beyond the law:

“In this murky context, it’s facile to assert that the law of war ‘obviously’ applies to all U.S. drone strikes and leave it at that. That amounts, in practice, to a claim that the executive branch has the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely anonymous individuals.”

It becomes clear that Brooks is very worried about an Executive that operates a secret killing operation over large portions of the world with few restraints on a basis that asks everyone else to “trust” them. She writes “Do we really want to live in a world in which the U.S. government’s justification for killing is so malleable?” and “…’trust us’ is a pretty shaky foundation for the rule of law.”

Her other pragmatic or utilitarian worries about unrestricted drone warfare are equally of note. She argues that the U.S. is setting very dangerous precedents. Drones are very cheap. Other nations can use them secretly too, as the U.S. has, and they can cry “terrorist” just as vaguely and indiscriminately as the U.S. has: “Other states — and ultimately, nonstate actors — will follow America’s example, and the results won’t be pretty.”

Another of her reservations is that the drone strikes are creating more terrorists than they are killing. Another is they are destabilizing societies.

While all of these criticisms and more have been voiced by libertarian and other critics of U.S. policies and the Empire, it is good to see the critique making its way into the Leadership. Ms. Brooks is a lawyer whose writing here shows a concern for the rule of law. It’s unclear precisely what she wants, other than some kind of legal framework to control drone use and perhaps control the Executive. Such vagueness is often the case in the intramural struggles within the Leadership. It’s only when a person abandons the Leadership or any hope of getting ahead within it or any dependence on its favors that the possibility of radical critiques opens up.

Abandon the Empire.

UPDATE: Here are two more examples of innovations that have become overused. These were sent to me by Vaughn Treude.

Electroshock weapons, or the taser. Their wide adoption by police was supposed to substitute for other forms of violence at lower cost, but the taser has resulted in more violence and deaths. Police shootings seem not to have declined. Reports of the public’s misuse of civilian tasers are much harder to find than reports of police misuse.

Anti-depressants. These were supposed to improve upon drugs like Valium. Their wide adoption and over-prescription by government-licensed doctors have resulted in far more side effects and sometimes suicidal/homicidal behavior in some persons.

I wonder if there is a general law at work here concerning innovations in the hands of government and government-regulated industries making matters worse. This has been true of military innovation, poison gas, and WMD. Government tinkering around with uncurable and easily spread viruses is clearly a danger.

12:52 pm on December 23, 2012