Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Leaving Syracuse

I left Syracuse in May of 1987 as flurries fell.  I missed my own graduation I was so anxious to cross the country and start my post-college life (and escape the never ending snow).  I have not returned to my alma matter nor to the city which seems fortuitous since to enter the city via the airport you now need TSA authorization.  According to both NBC News and the Daily Mail passengers can’t leave the arrival area at Syracuse airport without approval from the TSA.  Passengers must now enter a pod and wait for the TSA to electronically authorize them to leave the terminal – from which they can’t return.  

Way back in the last century when I would go from Boston to Syracuse I flew the nascent airline People’s Express before Continental ate them up only to later merge with United.  The flight attendants would come up and down the aisle collecting payment and all the fares were fixed and flat.  (Bit of trivia: They were also the first airline to charge for checking a bag:  $3 and snacks cost you $0.50.)  It was the predecessor to Southwest and so many other discount airlines.  Of course in those days you went right up to the gate without having to undress, justify your travel plans to a government official or have your possessions searched for the privilege of going from point A to point B in your own country.
Now it seem the old days are 2013 when TSA agents would staff the exit areas by the gates to insure that passengers don’t turn around after crossing a particular point (arbitrarily chosen by some committee somewhere no doubt).  How many of these agents have we all seen dozing off, reading books, talking to other agents?  I didn’t realize they were the last line of defense in the U.S. security protocol against terrorism.  Now very expensive looking pods will require each passenger to step in, and then a robotic voice will authorize their departure or direct them to be detained.  The TSA claims that this will save costs for staff and improve security.  Likely it won’t save time for passengers and will make flying even more festive than it is today.
I’ve done some search engine looking to see what security breaches have occurred with passengers turning around at the end of the gate area and causing mayhem, harm and threats of terrorist activity.  While Bing and Google aren’t the most definitive way to identify all cases that fall in that definition, it is noteworthy that the bots couldn’t find one.  So it’s unclear what the agents, and now the pods are protecting against. 
TSA agents are paid between $17,083 per year and $24,977.  (The more senior you are the wages can go up to $120,326.)   The pods at Syracuse’s Hancock Airport were installed as part of a $60 million upgrade – the actual pod cost wasn’t identified – but suffice to say each pod likely cost more than the cost of paying $75K per year (3 shifts of agents per day).

Earlier this month (Nov 2013)  the Government Accountability Office completed its investigation into the $1 billion (with a b) TSA program to observe and talk with passengers as a deterrent to terrorism.  The report said the results were “no better than chance.”  Put another way:  the TSA could have flipped coins and gotten the same impact as the billion dollars it spent on the program.  I’m comforted by the TSA’s sudden concern for thrift.
Cost-effectiveness doesn’t appear to be a priority for the TSA when the full body scanners that showed people naked were abandoned back in 2007.  Now those units are being sold at $0.10 on the dollar to prisons.  The money the TSA is suddenly concerned about saving is all pass-through dollars anyway – fees and taxes charged specifically to cover security costs have increased the cost of air travel for every ticket, every leg since 9/11.  Doubtful that those fees will be reduced with all this cost savings going on.
Electronic devices have now been authorized by the TSA.  The freedom to use a Kindle was hard fought and took many years.  What will it take to restore the freedom to leave the airport without proving your innocence?  (Or to at least get enough people outraged about being literally held prisoner by the government.)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Death of Hope

I’m a child of the post-Camelot America, being born a year after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  This week the world notes the 50th anniversary of the murder, and with it come reflections, analysis and not a few conspiracy theories.  There’s little debate, however, that November 22, 1963 in Dallas marked the death of hope for a generation.
The rest of the 1960’s were marked by often violent clashes between groups – whether it was over issues of war, poverty or a rash of other issues as America broke free of its 1950’s constraints.  More assassinations followed so that the death of an inspirational leader (like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy) became part of the landscape of America.
In February of 2008 in the midst of the primary campaign Barack Obama was suddenly surging ahead of then front-runner and expected nominee Hillary Clinton.  I remarked to a friend: “I hope he don’t win.”  My friend, expecting a rash of policy invective from me was surprised when I gave my reason: “They’ll probably kill him.”  My own cynicism and years of seeing violence as a tactic in American politics had led me to the likelihood that a smart, successful, passionate leader of color would more likely be killed than serve as President.  It certainly wasn’t a glowing commentary on the state of race relations in America and likely reflected some innate racism of my own.  Of course I didn’t want that to happen (then or now or ever), nor was I predicting it, but in my mind I was somehow expecting it.
The junior Senator from Illinois went on to best the former First Lady and sweep past a war hero to become the 44th President.  He did so with a carefully crafted campaign that instilled hope, optimism and brought millions of young citizens into the political process.  Five years on, barely a year after his reelection, President Obama carries his lowest personal and job approval ratings ever.  The rollout of his signature legislative victory has been a fiasco.  Gridlock in the nation’s capital is so extreme that partisanship bests policy.  The economy continues to stagnate as Congress is unable to pass a budget, let alone agree to fund the debts it has already incurred without performing a three-act Opera.  Fingers are pointed and responsibility is abdicated.  The notion of hope that Obama preached is a bittersweet memory from those who most supported him and those of us who didn’t, but still wanted him to succeed.
Had my remark come to fruition, I wonder whether the spirit of Obama would have prevailed more than the reality.  There’s some debate over the effectiveness of JFK as an actual President versus his impact as a martyr and the slew of legislative victories that followed under President Johnson’s tutelage.  Could Joe Biden have gotten bipartisan support for health care, economic reforms, etc.?  Would Hillary have been tapped and appointed as VP?  We’ll never know, and it’s rather morbid to hypothesize.  As we mark the 50th Anniversary of the death of the Camelot-era – we do so against a backdrop of the birth and death of hope for today’s generation.  In this case, though, the leader lives on and is the one who killed his own dream.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Dishonoring Veterans

Millions of Americans took at least a moment on Monday, November 11 to salute Veterans on the day originally set aside to remember the World War I Armistice, later known as Armed Forces Day and now celebrated as Veterans Day.  The social network messages were authentic – and on my feed I learned about family members of friends who bravely served the U.S.  Veterans are those men and women who have served the United States militarily – in a range of roles and purposes over a variety of wars, military conflicts and interventions.  They have taken orders and fought for the principles of freedom and democracy.  My own pacifism and abhorrence of war does not mitigate my appreciation, respect and honor for those who have served.  Unfortunately the very government that lauds their service has undermined their contributions while basking in their bravery.

Nearly gone from this week’s celebrations is the 2013 summertime discovery that some 600,000 Veterans have up to a year to wait for benefits they are entitled to.  The contract that the government makes with soldiers, sailors, infantry and everybody in between is in exchange for service, you are entitled to healthcare and other benefits.  I may not like war, and I may think that the Government is too bloated in too many ways – but taking care of those who have served is something this Libertarian believes is the Government’s role.  The benefits need to be effective - in delivery of service and cost.  They're not now.  In addition to the extensive waits those returning from duty have for physical health care, USA Today earlier this month reported that more than 1/3rd of Veterans waiting mental health care have to wait longer than the VA’s own goals for wait times.
Conditions at VA hospitals have been an ongoing challenge.  Complaints go back to 2007 when unsanitary conditions were found at Walter Reed Hospital and others.  Five years later CNBC this week just completed a four-month investigation and found that pieces of bone were left on instruments at a VA hospital because they weren’t cleaned properly.  (The administrators at that hospital received generous financial bonuses for their work.)
Approx. 60,000 veterans are homeless, and according to Stars & Stripes this week, Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki still hopes to eliminate homelessness amongst veterans by 2015, but is no longer convinced it’s possible.
According to Wikipedia The United States Department of Veterans Affairs is second largest government department, after the Department of Defense.  In 2009 its budget was $87.6 billion and they employed nearly 280,000 people at hundreds of Veterans Affairs medical facilities, clinics, and benefits offices and is responsible for administering programs of veterans’ benefits for veterans, their families, and survivors.  The VA 2014 Budget request for 2014 is $152.7 billion.
There are approximately 21.2 million Veterans in the US today.  Based on the 2014 budget request – the budget allows for $7,202.83 per Veteran.  Adequate financial resources does not appear to be the problem with a near doubling of the budget in four years.
In my lifetime the military has been staffed by volunteers.  I have not had to choose between my faith and beliefs and fulfilling my responsibility and obligation as a citizen by serving in the military (which may not be as incongruent as I think they are.)   I’ve written extensively about the financial costs and the political costs of war.  The biggest cost, however, is the human one.  Death is certainly a horrible consequence of war, but for those who survive must be treated with respect, dignity and appreciation.  Not just on the 2nd Monday of November, and not just with patriotic appeals – but at the very least by delivering what was promised by the Government they risked life and limb for.  That would be the honorable thing to do.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


26 years ago the hit movie RoboCop envisioned a near-future where humans and machines would come together to create the police force of the future and save the world.  It’s a half-man, half-machine story that spawned two sequels, a TV series, two animated TV series, a mini-series, video-games and a slew of adaptions/crossovers.  The essential idea that the good guys need to be super-human, a combination of the best of machinery and the best of humanity to beat back the evil bad guys.  It’s a classic Hollywood story and makes for an amusing way to while away time.  Life is now trying to imitate fiction.
Drone warfare (half-human, half-machine) is a missile remote controlled by people and has been quite effective at eliminating scores of people.  President Obama is quoted in the new book Double Down by Mark Halperin and John Heilman.  In CNN’s review the President ”once told aides that he’d gotten ‘really good at killing people.’”
The President keeps a kill list.  He holds meetings but he alone determines who will live and who will die – American, non-American, doesn’t seem to matter.  No evidence needed because there’s no trial.  It's not public because we're "at war."  The President is judge, jury and executioner.  Prior blogs have examined the legality, morality and prudence of this policy.  The fact is that the President’s aggressive use of his self-appointed right to kill people is U.S. policy and nobody in the Legislative nor the Judicial branches are challenging it.  But let's be absolutely clear:  It is beyond stunning to have the President of the “free” world acknowledge that he’s “really good at killing people.”
The review goes to great lengths to frame the comment in a context where the President wasn’t boasting, and, in fact how he might even be “regretful” at how skilled he had become using drone technology.  I have not read the book, and at the risk of commenting on something out of context, it matter nil whether he was boasting or was bemoaning the fact.  He spoke the truth.  He is very good at killing people.  And that should shock, anger…nay infuriate the American public.
Republicans and the political chattering class are beside themselves that President Obama said repeatedly that “if you like your health care plan, keep it” and now it turns out the health insurance companies are canceling plans left and right.  It was not the most accurate thing the President has ever said, and it may even have been a deliberate obfuscation.  Anybody who has ever dealt with insurance knows that the company renames and redoes plans every year.  Annoying? Yes.  Deceitful?  Perhaps.  Worse than killing people without due process?  Not by a longshot.
The National “Security” Administration has vacuumed up bits of data including telephone calls, emails, texts and a whole array of digital footprints on Americans and all of our friends and enemies around the world.  The President, Congress and the Supreme Court have aligned on this strategy.  Legal?  Apparently.  Deceitful?  Absolutely.  Worse than killing people without due process?  Not by a longshot.
Exporting American film, television and digital content is one of the few industries that have a positive trade balance for the United States.  As good as that is for the American economy (direct cash and indirect impact on global culture) – let's not have The Kill List adapted for the screen.  It’s time for President Obama to become more man than machine.  That would save the world...or at least due process.