Thursday, June 27, 2013

Summer Recess

 In nearly 25 years of Los Angeles living, I never missed the “seasons.”  They exist in California – just on a more nuanced scale.  You have pilot season, upfronts, festivals and of course the most exciting season of all:  awards! As last week’s solstice marked the start of summer now that I’m on the East coast I find it remarkable that people’s way of life actually adapts to this variance on the calendar.

Churches, offices and even retail businesses have “summer” hours.  Traffic flows towards water-based communities with regularity – and even the local transit authority has a seasonal train down to “The Cape.”  It feels quaint somehow, almost as if I’m on the back lot of a summer blockbuster.  People take it quite seriously though…and it’s not unique to the Boston area.  There was a similar surge of outdoor activities during my summer in Minnesota last year.  (There Mother Nature has it out for you year round so people will do anything during the handful of days when it’s temperate.)
This is also the season of Supreme Court rulings and plenty is being opined on the recent spate of decisions.  Next SCOTUS season, though, is what has caught my attention.  The Court has already announced that they are going to review the recess appointments of President Obama.  At issue is when the Senate is in “recess” – is it when they’re not conducting business or when they are out of town or when the session is over?  Depending on whether the body is in recess (intra-session or inter-session) is where this case lies.
President Obama appointed several people to the National Labor Relations Board when the Senate was technically in session, but wasn’t able to meet to fulfill its role to ‘advise and consent.’  They were in session because for the majority of the Obama presidency every three days a Republican goes into the Senate Chamber, calls the senate into session, and the adjourns.  They weren't able to 'advise and consent' because everybody else was out of town.
The framers of the country intended key appointments to be made with the ‘checks-and-balances’ in place.  When one branch of Government refuses to participate, we either have gridlock or another branch will step up it’s role.  In December 2011 that’s exactly what President Obama said he would do:  “Where Congress is not willing to act we’re going to go ahead and do it ourselves.”  So he did – and now we’ll see what the third branch has to say about it.
Wikipedia notes that according to the Congressional Research Service Recess Appointments of recent Presidents.  (They aren’t distinguished between inter and intra-appointments.)
·         Ronald Reagan 240
·         George Bush 77
·         Bill Clinton 139
·         George W. Bush 171
·         Barak Obama 32 (so far)
The Supreme Court season is not a short period of time - its impact is long lasting.  Long after the Obama Presidential Library has opened future residents of the Oval Office will be impacted by this gamesmanship between the Legislative and Executive branches.  Did either side think of the consequences?  What if the appointments are invalid?  Does that mean that all of the decisions and actions that those who were appointed get automatically rescinded since they weren’t legitimately appointed?  (The company who brought the lawsuit hopes so – because they didn’t like the ruling they got from the Labor Relations Board and that’s why they brought the suit.)
So then potentially all decisions from all recess appointees from all time could be null and void.  Well, that's a nifty way to shut down the Government.  It’d cause chaos and gridlock that could implode the government.  Sounds like a post-season start to the Obama legacy.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Terrorists, Commies and the Boogeyman

Monsters University opens tomorrow – the long awaited Pixar sequel to its hit Monsters, Inc.  Can’t wait to see it!  I spend a huge amount of my non-working time consuming television or movie entertainment.  The vast majority of that time is following a who-dunnit or a procedural or some good versus bad variation.  I don’t go much for the AMC shows where watching is not all that different from watching paint dry.  Even the soapy shows that are a guilty pleasure have people whom the viewer roots for and those who you don’t.  American foreign and domestic policy is based on the exact same principal.
Good versus evil goes back to the dawn of time, and has been part of story-telling as long as there have been stories.  In political terms any major event in American (or world) history will find the same narrative.  The trick is that one person’s Freedom Fighter is another person’s Rebel and traitor.  In the 1930’s Hitler was the bad guy.  Then it was the communists.  Today its terrorists.

Whoever is being vilified might have also been a hero.  The two most recent and dramatic examples are Osama bin Laden whom the U.S. funded and supported in the 1980’s when Russia invaded Afghanistan.  After 9/11 he (obviously and necessarily) became the enemy.  Sadam Hussain was funded and his entire regime was propped up for decades by U.S. taxpayers until the Iraq war in 1991 when after he invaded Kuwait he became part of what President Bush (43) later described as the “axis of evil.”
Having a villain is a convenient way to tell a story in 43 minutes on television, or 2 hours at the movies.  For some policy it’s helpful.  The implications of a policy are far better to be understood with reason and analysis than colored by human emotion. 
Of course everybody wants to be safe.  It’s part of our survival instinct as human beings.  At what cost, though?  The Constitution and the Bill of Rights – two predominant documents that guide how Americans live and are governed make no mention of being individually safe.  But when something happens, politicians respond.
1)     America is attacked and an entire group of people are quarantined as a precaution and a nation goes to war militarily.  (Japanese internment after WWII – and post 9/11 actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and the use of Guantanamo.)
2)      America could be attached at any time by an “enemy state” or a “terrorist” – so anybody who believes that the role of government is to take money from one group of people and reallocate it to another must be investigated and their patriotism questions.  (McCarthyism in the 1950’s – and the Patriot Act today.)
3)      America is attacked and to safeguard any future attack citizen’s purchases are evaluated, the books borrowed from the library are tracked and private communications are gathered for potential monitoring.  (The Patriot Act and the NSA tracking of American communications.)
The people who legislate and support these type of responses aren’t bad people, aren’t unpatriotic and aren’t deliberately trying to undermine democracy.  I just happen to believe that transparency begets freedom and freedom begets more freedom.  There are scary people out there, scary things out there.  But nothing is more scary than pulling down the blinds and shielding us from the truth.  The creatures in Monsters University are scary enough!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Do you surrender?

June 14, 1777 the Second Continental Congress adopted the flag of the United States.  This week marks “Flag Week” and President Obama, like those before him, has issue a proclamation.  It says, in part, “Wherever our American journey has taken us, whether on that unending path to the mountaintop or high above into the reaches of space, Old Glory has followed, reminding us of the rights and responsibilities we share as citizens.”  The President is eloquent as ever – it’s connecting the rhetoric with his actions where there’s an issue.  Given the news out of the capital the past several weeks, I’m ready to wave the white flag.

For years we’ve known that the Government was collecting huge swaths of data.  I’ve written many blogs about the various invasions, the enormous cost, the lack of accountability and the absurd thesis of “giving up freedoms to save freedom.”   The misnamed “Patriot” Act permits the gathering of this information … then some.  The fact Congress passed it and the President signed it makes it legal, but it doesn’t make it right.

Every American’s phone record now exists in a Government database.  Emails, texts are being collected too.  NSA Director James Clapper assured Americans that they have neither the time nor the inclination to be voyeuristically reading people’s emails or listening to their calls.  I actually believe him.  The issue is that they could.
A number of social media posters have correctly pointed out that we leave footprints of our daily activities in a myriad of ways – checking in via Foursquare, updating statuses with locations, using mapping software to get from point a to point b.  We let grocery stores know the brand of toilet tissue we prefer to save a few cents on gas or other items.  It’s part of the culture.
The difference, however, is that those items are voluntary and they’re gathered, collected and used by private industry.  There's a quid-pro-quo - getting discounts or connecting with people in my life in exchange for giving up bits of information.  But I don’t have to post on social media.  I can buy groceries with cash and not use coupons.  It's not so easy to not participate in the PRISM program.  For the government to not track me I have to stop using other private modes of communication like telephone and email? 


Many supporters of the State have gone on the offensive asking anybody who questions the program what they have to hide.  That, of course, is not the point and underscores the fundamental shift society has undergone since 9/11.  There used to be a presumption of innocence in the U.S.  Way back in the good old days of 2000.
William Driver nicknamed the U.S. flag “Old Glory” in the 1830’s.  It seems apt today that the symbol of Jeffersonian Democracy is referred to in the past tense.  Tracking American communications and movements is meant to ‘protect’ Americans.  From what?  If we no longer have the presumption of innocence, the reasonable expectation of privacy or the ability to dissent without being considered a co-conspirator --- what is it all for?  And how does it distinguish us from our "enemies"?

Pew Research found this week (6/10/13) that 54% of Americans say phone tracking is ok.  45% approve of email tracking of U.S. citizens.  It's all for "security."  With phones tracked and emails collected - even with Russian authorities giving the FBI several warnings:  none of that protected Boston from the Tsarnaev brothers.  Americans have given up fundamental rights in the name of safety only to have the entire theory fail.
Tempted as I am to wave the white flag of surrender, I know that the principals of liberty will rise again.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Plugging leaks

I’m homeless.  I have a roof over my head and a place to stay, but for the first time in over a dozen years I don’t actually own a piece of real estate.  (At one time I had an ownership stake in four properties at once.)  For the past 18 months in two different cities I’ve been staying in temporary digs and for various reasons have divested my holdings.  There is much to miss about being a homeowner and a landlord – but there is much that I am glad not to deal with.  Leaking faucets,  stopped up sewer lines and unstable and unruly tenants top the list of things I don’t miss.
A few months into owning my first triplex the tenant came to me and said “there’s water on the kitchen floor.”  After determining that nobody had spilled anything and nothing above ground was the root cause, I found that a pipe under the kitchen had a leak and was spraying water up through the floorboards.  If the water had been spraying down it would have taken days or weeks of the water settling into the ground before I ever realized the problem.  After extensive discussions with two different plumbing companies I opted to replace the galvanized pipe under the house with copper rather than just plug the one leak that was likely to put pressure on the pipes down the line causing other leaks.  It was an expensive and inconvenient process to go through, for me and for the tenants.  Had that leak not sprayed water into the kitchen I never would have known the extent of the problem.

Political leaks no different than plumbing leaks.  It’s a way of finding out where there’s an issue or a problem.  Once the issue is identified then an analysis and evaluation can be done to see whether it’s just moisture or some fundamental structural issue.  This week, four years after the incident, Bradley Manning’s trial began.

The former Private has already admitted to illegally providing Wikileaks with confidential information.  The trial isn’t proving guilt or innocence.  It’s about determining motive – for if Manning was disclosing information like Woodard and Bernstein did in the 1970’s – to highlight policy problems, then he gets 20 years.  If, like the Government / Prosecutor claims, he intended on bringing down the Government, then he gets life.

As I wrote last year:  According to Amnesty International Wikileaks release of information was “a catalyst in a series of uprisings against repressive regimes.”  So the “Arab Spring” uprisings were launched thanks to the open airing of information - the complete antithesis of the Justice Department claims.  It’s a head scratcher (being polite) how the Obama Administration can on the one hand take credit for bringing Democracy to the Middle East while punishing and criminalizing those who actually prompted the revolution.”
Manning’s release of information actually wound up benefitting U.S. foreign policy.  That seems to be a far cry from trying to bring anything down.  Under President Obama, the Justice Department is putting up a dam to stop the flow of information.  I much prefer President Elect Obama who in 2008 had promised instead to “run the most transparent White House in history.”  Clearly that goal has been plugged.