Thursday, August 30, 2012

Your Safety is Our Priority?

The Transportation Security Administration’s slogan “Your Safety is Our Priority” became more of a question than a goal on my most recent airport experience a few weeks ago.  Forced to change gates with the same airline at Newark meant leaving one ‘secure’ area and going through security a second time.  This long line was being managed by an agent who was not having a good day.  She would scream out to people “stay to the left” and somebody wouldn’t (or their bag would be in the aisle) and she would keep screaming and pointing at the person to move.  Then the line got backed up when a young woman, traveling alone with her baby, had to dislodge the child from its stroller.  The agent wouldn’t let another passenger hold the baby while the mother folded the stroller and placed it on conveyer belt.  Nor would the agent allow somebody else to help with the stroller.  Another TSA agent tried to help the woman and the managing agent screamed “Don’t you help her.  This is her thing to do.”  America is safer for this diligence?
Railing against the TSA feels a little easy – I mean, who likes undressing and unpacking in public?  Does the 3 ounce limit to liquids really make the skies safer?  And because one deranged individual attempted to make their shoes into a bomb millions have had to walk in stocking or bare feet on a floor traversed by tens of thousands of people each day.  My assumption is wrong.  54% of Americans believe that the TSA is doing a good or excellent job according to Gallup.   
It is estimated that 120 million people a year travel by plane.  That’s approximately one-half of the country, though many of those travelers will be one person traveling several times during the year.  The point is that it is unlikely that any of those who have actually gone through a TSA screening procedure are part of the 54% who think that the TSA is doing a good-to-excellent job.  Much of what the TSA does is theatre – creating the illusion of safety. 
There are a slew of incidents showing drinking and sleeping agents, sexual harassment by agents and theft.  Certainly the majority of agents are well intentioned and committed professionals, but the actions of others impacts the entire organization.
The Associated Press reported this week that airlines are now telling passengers how to dress.  It won’t be long before the airlines lobby the government to have the TSA issues a dress code for passengers.
USA Today reports that after spending millions of dollars on testing various security screening systems, passengers will still have to remove their shoes. 
The attacks of September 11, 2001 changed how everybody travels.  Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania that day was the first Post-9/11 flight:  the passengers having heard of the other attacks heroically took over their plane and crashed it into a field, sacrificing themselves before allowing another the plane to be used against another target.  Today no hijacker could fend off hundreds of passengers.  And if somebody was hellbent on placing a bomb on board, there are dozens of points of entry that have little to no screening (food service delivery, cargo isn't screened, etc.)
Traveling by air today means surrendering our Fourth Amendment rights curbside.  Giving up a core American value for the illusion of security and the ‘convenience’ of travel means that I fall with 13% of Americans who think the TSA screening procedures are not effective.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Numbinating Process

Next week (Aug 24-27) the Republican Party is expected to nominate Mitt Romney as its candidate for President.  A week later (Sept 4-6) the Democrats will do the same for Barak Obama.  Last Memorial Day Gary Johnson got the nomination for the Libertarian Party and Rosanne Barr is the Peace and  Freedom Party candidate.  The nomination process is archaic.  It’s as outdated as American’s idea that they play a part in the process.
Most people have a simplified view that the vote they cast determines which candidate wins.  Delegates are selected based on a variety of methods, unique to each state.  Sometimes the delegates reflect voting results, but in many instances the delegate is not pledged to a particular candidate.  At the quadrennial political conventions delegates nominate a candidate for President and Vice President. 
It’s been a long time since the selection process was not predetermined.  In 1952 when most states chose delegates by state conventions (not primary or caucus) the Republicans had a true brokered convention, choosing Eisenhower over Taft.  1988 both parties began nominating by acclimation.  In recent years the only suspense at a convention was who the presumptive nominee would choose as a running mate.  Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan three weeks before the convention solved that.
Instead of making policy or news, today’s conventions are staged advertisements.  To what end?  The broadcast networks have cut back to three hours per convention - one hour per night.  Most of that will be nattering between anchors and pundits.  Gavel-to-gavel coverage is left to the cable news networks, who will natter away themselves.  Complete coverage will only be available on C-Span and online where a very small number of people will watch.  It’s time to nominate candidates in a different way. 
The Constitution doesn’t require political parties to nominate candidates in any particular method.  60 years ago most delegates were selected in back rooms by party bosses.  Perhaps today its time to reverse that and have candidates determined by voters. 
Every four years Iowa’s caucus and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary have disproportionate significance in weeding out candidates.  By the time California votes most candidates have fallen by the wayside.  In fact, the Libertarian party had nominated its candidate before the state with the largest number of registered libertarians had even voted. 
It’s time for a regional primary system.  New Hampshire’s role as first-in-the-nation can be preserved through multiple days of voting, but the regional totals would be finalized on the same day.  Each week (or two) another region – with a total of four or six regions.  Voters, seeing that their choices matter in determining the ‘winner’ might even participate more.  Candidates and parties would be incentivized to make news and not just promote themselves.   The entire process could be exciting and engaging, not the current numbinating process.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Voluntary Tracking

I am geographically challenged. And that’s being charitable. It’s not just that I have difficulty in pointing out where Idaho is on a US map, but in making my way around town. After nearly a quarter of a century living in Los Angeles I still needed assistance in getting around parts of town. Moving to the Twin Cities in January I became even more dependent on GPS. The few times that the app was down resulted in adventures best left to the “Amazing Race.” I am acutely aware of the irony that my reliance on satellite navigation is made possible because the U.S. Government (Defense Department) first realized an effective use for the technology.

The military usage allows for efficient and accurate delivery of weapons, troops against targets. The system operates in real-time and was made available for commercial use under the Clinton administration. The technology has wide uses in military and civilian life. As a smaller government libertarian it’s unlikely that I would philosophically support investments in developing new technologies that become huge commercial successes. That really is the role of the private sector.

For the convenience of a hand held guide I have surrendered my privacy. The GPS system not only tells me where to go, it keeps track of where I’ve been. It is literally a two way street. Perhaps this is the cost of having government develop a technology and give it over for commercial use.
According to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association there are 285 million mobile units in the US as of June 2010. As of August 14, 2012 the U.S. population clock shows 314,159,265 people (or to math geeks, pi). That means that 90% of Americans carry a tracking device…voluntarily…or more likely, without realizing.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported this week that each Minneapolis city police cruiser is equipped with a camera. Police cameras capture license plates of every car it ‘sees’ along with the date and GPS location. The data captured is available for view by anybody who asks – the benefits of Minnesota’s freedom of information act. So if you’re curious about your spouse or your child, just ask the police to find out where the car has been. Like the person from the gym and wonder where they spend their time? Put in a request to the cops on their license plate. Fear not, the name and address information isn’t released…that’s considered private.

This week the FTC
fined Google a record $22.5 million because the company was tracking where people visited online with one particular browser (Safari ) after saying it wasn’t tracking. One government agency can capture and track where people are in the real-world but in the digital world that same tracking by a private company is fined. It’s no longer ironic, it’s surreal.

American’s used to relish privacy. Generation S (as it’s being dubbed for Social Media) is being conditioned with a different definition and expectation of privacy. Generational divides happen throughout human history. The difference here is that the surrendering of privacy by Generation S means that it affects Generation X, the Baby Boomers – the Greatest Generation – everybody. The Fourth Amendment guards Americans against unreasonable searches and seizures. I guess tracking nearly every American isn’t unreasonable if it’s done voluntarily.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Home is where...?

Tuesday night of this week was “National Night Out” – where communities gathered to be neighborly and to work with local law enforcement to protect their homes.  Beyond security where people live validates the adage “Home is Where the Heart Is” which originated with Pliny the Elder in AD 76.  Cavemen (and women) earned their moniker even earlier than that because of whetre they created shelter.  Where one lives symbolizes so much of who we are.  My recent move to St. Paul, MN from Los Angeles, CA proved the theory.
Neighborhoods help define individuality by the types of shops, cafes and amenities there are – or are not.  I have been fortunate that even in the most challenging times in my life I’ve always had a place to stay.  They’ve varied in quality and I’ve experienced enough sketchy situations to be grateful for what I now have.  Not everybody has that luxury.  According to the National Alliance to endHomelessness there are 636,017 Americans who are homeless. 
There are some homeless who choose the lifestyle – not having responsibility for material goods, freedom to move about – whatever.  This group is statistically quite small.  20- to 25% of homeless have a serious mental illness.   Untreated mental disease is a huge problem that the health care system and the legislative process hasn’t addressed.  The majority of the homeless population, then, doesn’t have shelter due to other circumstances.

According to the U.S. Census there are 132,232,000 homes in the US – 18,843,000 (nearly 19 million) are vacant.  
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the divisions of the Federal Government that guarantee the majority of U.S. mortgages – and this week posted a $5.1 billion profit after U.S. taxpayers bailed out the agencies to the tune of $193 billion.
It would be simplistic and na├»ve to think that with 19 million vacant homes (that the U.S. taxpayer owns a majority of via Freddie and Fannie) and 600,000 homeless that there might be a public policy solution to both issues.

Government should not be in the business of guaranteeing mortgages – that’s what banks are for, and government should have broad regulations against fraud.  When the Government promises to pay a mortgage if the homeowner doesn’t, there’s no consequence to the bank for a faulty credit decision.  Without any consequence banks have little incentive to be thorough in their lending practices.  Hence financial meltdowns.

This bad policy dates to the New Deal, and changing this fundamental policy that every President since Roosevelt has enthusiastially endorsed doesn’t seem like a productive way to address the issues.  Government shouldn’t be in the mortgage business, but it is now and it will be for the foreseeable future.

Since the Government owns foreclosed and abandoned properties by virtue of having guaranteed mortgages that didn’t get paid, there is an inventory of vacant properties.  There are also hundreds of thousands of Americans who need shelter.  There has to be a way to take those who need shelter and those houses that need occupants and matching them up.  A simple roof over one’s head won’t solve many of the deeply entrenched psychological and economic challenges that the homeless constituency face.  It would, however, be a start. As long as Government is already this engaged in people’s lives, they might as well be effective at it.  Or they should get out of it completely.
My philosophical ideal is that the private sector should solve these issues. I’ll vote and blog and beat that drum to help try and change minds and policies.  Until something radically changes, the fact is the U.S. Government owns a majority of the mortgages of the 19 million vacant properties and can’t figure out a way to house 600,000 citizens.  If that isn't an indictment of the two political parties, I'm not sure what would be.  At the very least it turns the ancient saying around:  Where is home?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A New York State of Mind

London has the world’s attention this week, not New York, thanks to the Olympics which chose the British capital over NYC as host city.  The gold medal for chutzpah, however, goes to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  He already holds the award for self-financing a campaign ($108 million) against an opponent who spent less than one-tenth the dollars and came within 4.5 points of beating him.  The mayor’s penchant for dictating what New Yorkers can consume made headlines again this week.

The billionaire businessman turned politician first had New York City restaurants ban the use of trans fats in 2006.  The mayor’s next proposal this past May would ban large sodas from being sold in the Big Apple. This week the mayor suggested that hospitals stop feeding baby formula to newborns as a way to encourage breast feeding.  From a health and medical perspective having fewer trans fats, consuming less sugary soda and having babies breast fed is probably the healthier alternative.  Having the Government decide these choices, however, is something else again.
It was surprising, then, to find the nation’s nanny-mayor not jumping on the anti-Chick-Fil-A brigade like majors in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco (amongst others).
“You can’t have a test for what the owners’ personal views are before you decide to give a permit to do something in the city. You really don’t want to ask political beliefs or religious beliefs before you issue a permit. That’s just not government’s job.”  Refreshing comments from Mayor Bloomberg – the same guy who does have government tell people what to eat.  That’s chutzpah New York style.  
The Cathy Family owns the chicken chain and caused a stir when Dan Cathy said: “Well, guilty as charged," in an interview when asked about Chick-fil-A’s opposing gay marriage. Twitter and Facebook ignited in a furor with boycotts on the one side and celebrations on the other. Yesterday was “appreciation day” where throngs of people went to the fast food chain to show their support.  This occurred in largely in response to big city mayors saying the company wasn’t welcome in their towns.
The U.S. economy is structured around supply and demand.  Businesses must operate under a variety of regulations (work practices, industry specific rules, etc.).  Freedom of speech is a cherished right and principal.  The Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that corporations/not-for-profit organizations/unions, etc. could participate financially in the electoral process.  Mitt Romney summarized that decision in his infamous quote:  “corporations are people.”  Well, not quite.

Business owners have the right to express their viewpoints.  They have the right to take their money and give it to causes that support their opinions.  Customers have the right to protest, object and boycott businesses.  It’s this tension why most businesses steer clear of controversial issues and focus on supplying their customers need.  Efforts can be undertaken to change the opinion: protests, shame ... even blogging.  Government and politicians can (and should) rail against short-sighted and ill-informed comments.  Government, however, doesn’t have the right to regulate a business based on what it says, only on what it does. 

A cake shop in Denver two weeks ago refused to make a gay couple a rainbow-layered wedding cake.  That action is not only bad business, but is an action that deserves government intervention.  It’s fine for the owners of the cake shop to oppose gay marriage, misguided as I think that may be.  Refusing service based on those beliefs is discrimination and not permissible.  That is the distinction on where Government actually has a role.

Banning or even threatening to ban a business for its thought/opinion is a slippery slope. If some areas bans a business for what they say about opposing gay marriage, it’s not inconceivable that other areas would ban businesses for supporting gay marriage – or any other topic. And where would we be then?  New York - where chef's might as well go to the Bloomberg school of nutrition.