Thursday, February 23, 2012

Driving Ms Irony

My car is officially a Minnesotan.  It was registered last week in an effort that leaves me wondering why the entire populace hasn’t converted to Libertarianism.  My local DMV is located on the second floor of Sears.  (I didn’t even know that Sears was still in business!)  Is it convenient or irony that the entrance is just off of the luggage department?  

My number got called and for the next forty minutes I got to learn along with the clerk how to transfer a lease from out of state – something she’d never done before. This being Minnesota, everybody was terribly nice, which made the big sign “Profanity not allowed” another paradox.  I complimented the clerk on her handwriting since none of the forms could be put into the computer system sitting on the desk.  All forms had to be hand written and legible.  When I gird myself to get the driver’s license, it’s a whole other building in another part of town.  And in the event a physical driving test is required, that’s in a third building in a third part of town.  I checked the calendar and was relieved to see it was still 2012.

My information will get into the state system, and it will then be shared with some other states and ultimately with the federal government.  There has been a long march towards a National ID card.  In 2005 Congress passed the REAL ID Act,  which set forth certain requirements for state driver's licenses and ID cards to be accepted by the federal government for "official purposes."  By 2008 all 50 states asked for either an extension for compliance or declined to participate.  This brief victory won’t last long.  Currently the PASS ID Act is a revised version of REAL ID and awaits congressional action.  

With the states and the public resistant (even hostile) to having a national identification system, Congress turned its focus to accomplishing its same goal (tracking all citizens for national security purposes) in a more palatable way.  Illegal immigration has been a hot button political issue for centuries – going back to my Irish kinfolk coming over to America (and before).  E-Verify is an innocuous sounding program that seems to make a lot of sense – verify if a potential employee has a valid social-security number and is eligible to work in the U.S.  Run by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services the program analyzed 559,815 cases in 2001.  In 2011 17,400,000 cases were reviewed.    The program has many new enhancements, one of the most touted is self-check – where residents can check their own eligibility

Less prominent is the “improvement” where drivers license checks are conducted along with employment verification.  Mississippi holds the distinction of opening up its database to the federal government.   States Rights – a campaign mantra for many candidates – is becoming a catch phrase rather than a principled stand since its impact is diminishing.  Why does the U.S. Federal Government need to have access to whether I got a parking ticket?  It’s not that I have anything to hide – it’s another shift from a presumption of innocence to a presumption of guilt.
'The United States of America, I hear you knocking but you can't come in'

As a civil libertarian the idea that the Government keeps records on its citizens is an anathema.  I reconcile that belief with the reality that driving (for example) is a privilege and not a right – so complying with rules of the road, licensing requirements, etc. are all part of the trade off.

Philosophically I veer towards open borders as a solution to immigration issues where dignity has been sacrificed for so many who want to live in the US.  “If you want to come to the good ole USA, pack a bag and hitch a ride.  All are welcome.  We’ll sort it out when you get here.”  Even for my Libertarian brethren this is a bit much because the world doesn’t have the luxury of pure philosophy – it needs practical application.  In an era where billions have been spent on the Border Fence the concept of open borders is alien to nearly all.  It is another irony (bordering on hypocrisy) that the same politicians who insist that the U.S. needs to have fences and borders are equally determined to invade other sovereign nations and occupy them.

In 2008 as the economy collapsed, fear determined US foreign policy, and Republicans fumigated on security – states said “no” to sharing all of our information with the federal government.  Today under a Democratic President with an improving economy let’s hope that State’s independence and individual privacy aren’t lost.  No, that isn't a's hope.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Season of Love

The season of love was upon us this week. On Monday Washington state Governor Chris Gregoire signed into law a measure that legalized same-sex marriage in Washington state, making it the seventh in the nation to provide gay and lesbian couples the right to wed. That was right in time for Valentine’s Day – another holiday with origins in the Church that has been commercialized. I missed my tradition of going out with unattached friends to a romantic restaurant to celebrate our singleness while mocking the lovebirds we’re surrounded by. Our annual fun wasn’t always universally appreciated. Oklahoma State Senator Constance Johnson can relate to people not getting the joke.

In response to a ‘personhood bill’ Senator Johnson offered an amendment that said: “Any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.” The blogosphere lit up that Oklahoma was outlawing masturbation. Some people still don’t quite get that the amendment was designed to be outrageous.

The issue of abortion is one which divides the nation, families and communities. One’s position is impacted by the totality of one’s human experience – faith, custom and societal considerations amongst a whole range of criteria.

A powerful argument exists that a woman’s body is hers and she must controlled it. Ask anybody who has gone through or been around a pregnancy and there’s a powerful argument that life begins at contraception. These two statements are not as diametrically opposed as they appear. It’s when politics gets involved that it gets messy.

The Democratic platform says: “Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.”

The Republican platform says in part: “We support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”

The Libertarian platform states: “Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.”

According to the CDC the abortion rate in the U.S. in 2008 was 1.6%, constant from the prior year. 91.4% of the procedures were performed prior to 13 weeks. The CDC’s statistics indicate that 98.4% of pregnancies are completed, and a microscopic 1/100th of pregnancies undergo a later term procedure. The energy, effort and dollars that are aligned with both ‘sides’ of the abortion issue seem to be disproportionate to the impact abortions actually have.

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation nearly destroyed themselves by circuitously wading into the abortion issue when they attempted to revise the funding of mamograms. Republicans threatened to shut down the U.S. government last August over funding of Planned Parenthood. In both of these instances the proponents of one political perspective have tried to win the political debate by eliminating access. Abortion is legal. There are three branches of government that could be utilized to address the issue. Trying to short circuit the process takes an already emotional and volatile issue just distorts it further.

I celebrate life and am the proud Uncle and Godfather to my niece and nephew. I passionately believe in individual liberty and in a woman’s right to control her own body. I acknowledge the dichotomy of these statements. I’m not unique in the conundrum. My desire in this season of love is that the reconciling of this issue happen individually and privately.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

OK Dokey BK

This week I joined an illustrious echelon. I am now in the same ranks as General Motors, Donald Trump’s companies and millions of Americans. I am bankrupt. This is not something that I’m particularly proud of, but I’m also not embarrassed by it. My favorite document, the U.S. Constitution authorizes Congress to enact "uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States."

Going bankrupt is an oft-misunderstood process. For individuals there’s a misnomer that the process is akin to a law procedural on television. It’s not. It’s all about paperwork. There are reams of it to fill out before filing – listing all of one’s possessions and all of the debts owed. Copies of bills, bank statements, tax returns: anything that is listed need to be provided. Several times.

The 2005 revision to the code requires some education so that individuals learn from the experience and don’t have to repeat it. The first course is about a half-hour and pretty self-explanatory. After the initial filing but before the formal hearing a second course is required. The course is 5 to 6 hours --- and sections are timed to make sure that you don’t go too fast. It makes Driving School seem like a afternoon at the beach.

The Hearing is run by an appointee of the Trustee – a fancy way of describing a clerk. It’s held in a large auditorium style room – no witness boxes in sight. There’s 8 to 10 questions that get asked (out of maybe 15 total rotating questions). Some people get grilled further, others not. The average hearing took 90 seconds. Mine might have eeked closer to 2 minutes after I heard about 30 cases. In a few months when some more paperwork wends its way through the Federal bureaucracy it’ll be official.

According to the Bankruptcy Court in 2011 71% of all filings were fully liquidated, 28% reorganized individual’s debt and 1% were corporate restructurings. This statistic reinforces the fear that when a business goes bankrupt there’s a fear that it will disappear. The majority of the reorganizations, however, are of the large companies.

Take Tribune. It’s been in the court system for three years – one of the longest in history. (Dow Corning is the longest at 9 years.) The lawyers have pocketed $231 million so far.  Numerous plans have been rejected from one creditor group or another. Compare that to the GM bankruptcy – the fourth largest in U.S. history. It went through in 33 days thanks to some unorthodox rulings by the courts that stripped some creditors of their rights.

Nobody has a right to good credit – it’s earned. If you pay your bills reliably the reward is a high credit rating and low interest payments if you borrow money. My credit rating was 810 at one point…out of 850. Today it’s half – in the low 420’s. That’s the consequence of not paying bills – credit is taken away, if reinstated it will be at usurious rates because the risk will be perceived to be higher.

The U.S. Government’s credit rating was downgraded in August 2011. A whole range of reasons have been identified, many of which have merit. The bottom line, though, is that the debt that the U.S. carries now equals the total size of the annual U.S. economy – and by the end of this year the debt will exceed income. Imagine owing $110 but only earning $100 --- no matter if you turned over everything you earned you couldn’t pay the debt. As a result those who are owed the debt get concerned and raise the interest rate.

It’s ironic, then, that the largest bankruptcy in history is of a financial institution. Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008 not only stands shoulders above WorldCom ($639B to $104B) but it also has the distinction of being the catalyst for the Financial meltdown of 2008.

When used properly the bankruptcy code allows individuals who have gotten into trouble an opportunity to be set on a new or revised path. Medical bills cause 60% of all bankruptcies according to CNN.  preventing foreclosure is the next significant reason, often from unemployment or changing circumstances. Last year (2011) 1.37 million people filed, an 11.9% drop from 2010 and an even larger drop from 2005 when 2 million people filed.

The core structure of the U.S. Government’s budget is broken. Our forefathers envisioned a need to allow people a structure to start over. Maybe it’s time for leaders from the Executive and Legislative branches to come together and restructure like so many businesses and individuals do when circumstances change. I know that won’t happen, especially in an election year. But if they don’t, they risk one of our creditors stepping in and forcing a restructuring. When that happens history will record it as the launch of World War III.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Privacy Lost and Found

I hate to get lost. Whether it’s the actual reality of not knowing where I am or whether it’s a control issue, nothing ignites my Irish temper like being lost. GPS is one of the world’s most vital inventions and untold wasted hours have been saved, let alone my emotional equilibrium. It’s value far outweighs the irony that the Government invented the system for military purposes. I was at crossroads when this incredible tool is used by authorities to track people. Last week privacy was very much in the news with Twitter caving to Governmental authority, Google introducing its consolidated policy and the Supreme Court ruling that the Fourth Amendment still has relevance.

The U.S. Supreme Court took a stand for privacy last week and ruled that if government agencies want to use GPS to track somebody, they need a warrant. Perhaps more stunning than the constitutional reinforcement, was that it was unanimous. The Court has been polarized in recent years with many controversial issues being decided 5-4, reflecting the country’s political divide. Plenty of cases with the current court have been unanimous, but it is rarer for a decision that tackles the role of government to find commonality. It is tremendously reassuring that in a philosophical tug-of-war between government and individual liberty that the Fourth Amendment protections are intact.

The decision was nuanced in that the GPS device the police used in the case is not like the Tom-Tom or ap on one’s Smart Phone, but rather a separate device surreptitiously planted on a car to follow people. The more complex issue of authorities tapping into devices that everyday people are using was sidestepped. Government intrusion into individual liberty was central to Twitter’s revised policy that was immediately (and wrongly) labeled censorship.

When a Government goes to Twitter and says “Take down this post” – the new policy of the company is to take it down for that region only. An anti-government tweet in China may not be seen there, but would still be seen in other areas of the world. The company’s approach is geared towards keeping the totality of their service operational while mitigating the impact of censored data. In August 2011 the British Government considered shutting down Blackberry’s Messenger service as a way to control the riots. Given that as an alternative, Twitter’s post-by-post censorship policy actually seems reasonable. An important distinction here is that Twitter isn’t doing the censorship, a Governmental authority is.

The U.S. Government announced it is looking into Google’s new 85-word consolidate privacy policy. What chutzpah!  The U.S. Government has created an entire subset to the economy based on secrecy – best explored by the award winning series “Top Secret America” by the Washington Post that was a newspaper series, a documentary and now a book. These experts in hiding information from the public are now going to launch an investigation into a private company.

When Google’s new policy comes into effect on March 1, information from most Google products will be treated as a single trove of data, which concerns privacy advocates. It makes sense that a for-profit company would find value in leveraging all of their products together. They even explain how they define “evil”  in their corporate philosophy page. Google’s products and services are ubiquitous but there are other alternatives available and there is always the option of just not logging in!

In mid-January major Internet companies protested the proposed Internet censorship regulations. In November 2011 I wrote about the proposed legislation. In August 2011 I wrote about censorship  in foreign lands and in the US. In May 2011 I wrote  how Americans value secrets with nearly a million of our citizens carrying Top Secret clearances. My blog posts show a long term passion for privacy – where a GPS was nearly required to find examples of victories for freedom. Let’s hope that #trend is changing.