Thursday, September 25, 2014

All Roosevelt All the Time

My 87-year swimming buddy at the gym asked if I had seen the Ken Burns docu-series on The Roosevelts. I replied – “What’s the rush? I know how it turns out.” To keep up with him, I binged watched it over the weekend. 14 hours in essentially one sitting. The story telling and subject matter is compelling – and Burns uses an A-list cast of voice talent that adds texture and life to their words. The photographs and archive footage are great, though some images were repeated liberally. I’ve produced a few documentaries myself, and been honored with some awards, so I definitely appreciate the skill and nuance that went into the opus. I know the series was good because days later I’m still completely agitated by the damage to the United States that FDR inflicted during his reign.

The United States Government role from its founding until the New Deal was nominal in the direct lives of Americans. FDR empowered and directed that the Government have a hand in people’s day to day lives in a very active way. Such action was justified by the Great Depression and has continued and expanded.

When President Roosevelt swept into office he pushed through a series of legislation that aggressively put the Federal Government in a position of providing for its citizens. Work programs, food programs, housing programs, etc. were all started. The country was in despair – nearly a third of adults were unemployed, millions hungry, being thrown out of their houses. FDR was able to get the country to work as a collective for the first time in its history, and it worked. All of those programs were then found to be unconstitutional, so FDR tried to restructure the Supreme Court.

When the programs stalled and panic began to set in again, Roosevelt pivoted towards another variation of the same idea. The U.S. had been adamantly isolationist. There was Wilson’s World War I which was highly unpopular and afterwards the feeling from the country was even stronger: no more war. So much so that Congress prevented the President from selling equipment to allies unless they were prepaid. When the British couldn’t pay, FDR “loaned” them the planes and boats anyway.

Roosevelt was the John McCain of his time. He may not have been as much of a warmonger as the Arizona senator, but FDR loved the military industrial complex. It took him several years of warnings and threats and scare tactics, but he got the U.S. into World War II. He ignored intelligence warnings about attacks on the U.S.. For the man who came to office proclaiming “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” he certainly mastered cornering the American population into a war it didn’t seek and didn’t want. Once at war the collective came together and succeeded.

FDR was elected four times – less a testament to his political strength and more an example that the media abdicated its responsibility. Much was made in the documentary (as in all coverage of him) about his polio and physical ailments. The most striking (and galling) information was that he was re-elected in the midst of war lying about his health, with his doctor confirming it. He knew he was dying and the country had a right to know. The media knew he disappeared from Washington for months, lost weight and accepted the reports of him being in good health. The result of this omission was that Vice President Truman became President, learned about the nuclear bomb after taking office and then used it. He then started his own war in Korea.

What Truman did militarily has continued on – the U.S. is now an interventionist in global affairs thanks to FDR. His token attempt at preventing war, the U.N., should have a role in those affairs but never had the authority from its member countries to do so.

Economically and socially the collective gains that were made to stabilize the economy worked for a time. The problems happened when those gains became the baseline expectations, otherwise known as an entitlement. Social Security is a perfect example. Instituted to help older employees get off of the work rolls so that younger members of society working in post-Depression America, it was designed to cover minimum living expenses for the final 3 to 4 years of life. It was a cost-effective way to energize employment that never envisioned what to do 20, 30, 100 years later. Today that program now funds people for 25 to 30 years – a level that it was never intended to and never designed to or funded for.  Congress and Presidents have been unable to make changes. Whenever a change has been proposed – to increase the age at which people might be eligible, or increase the contributions that people have to make to fund the program or otherwise decrease benefits, there’s a huge hue and cry. The collective is not willing to contribute as they once were because the greater good is no longer the goal, it is an expectation, a given. Entitlements now consume 2/3rds of the U.S. budget.

It proves that the concept of the collective is good, and in certain instances has worked, but in the long run doesn’t. Today’s political fights of the role of Government aren’t nearly as draconian as the rhetoric would have one believe. The Republicans want to take money from the public and spend it one way, the Democrats want to take money from the public and spend it another way. There’s some differences in how much is to be taken and where it would be spent but the underlying philosophy is the same: it’s All Roosevelt All the Time. Talk about a binge.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Fingers crossed

I was privileged to experience the consecration of the new Episcopal Bishop for Massachusetts last weekend. For those of faith, it’s a particularly important ritual since the ancient ceremony goes back to the Apostles. Other religions have their own ways of elevating and passing forward leaders. Oaths  are deeply rooted in religion though governments have adapted them. The significance of making a promise to fulfill an obligation beyond one’s word – on behalf of a deity – provides additional gravitas to the action. When somebody breaches their duty it’s not just a broken promise, it’s a violation of trust. There are so many violations in politics today to render the original promise null.
Last month marked the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s resignation from office. Many things were at play that led to his decision to leave the office he swore to uphold, but the cover-up became his undoing. That moment seems to have shifted how the American public looked at their Presidents. The election of honest Jimmy Carter in 1976 and a slew of reformers was a response to the Watergate era.
Over time, though, something more insidious has happened. President after President has either lied by omission, misstated their intentions or shamelessly told the press what they thought the public needed to hear.
  • Ronald Reagan claimed he could cut taxes – reducing revenues significantly – while maintaining all government spending without consequence. During his tenure the .S. went from the greatest creditor nation to the greatest debtor nation. 
  • George HW Bush (41) promised “no new taxes…read my lips” and then worked with Congress to raise taxes.  
  • Bill Clinton won the Presidency promising LGBT people he’d be their best friend in office, only to promote and support Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. (Then there was the whole Monica Lewinsky thing.) 
  • George W Bush (43) campaigned on a non-interventionist policy only to launch two wars. 
  • Barak Obama promised to restore integrity to the Constitution as president only to breach nearly every article in the document by criminalizing journalists, spying on citizens and maintaining a personal kill list.
With this as a premise, it should not be surprising that oaths and promises are broken. It’s happening with greater regularity and on significant issues.
When the nation erupted in criticism over the NSA surveillance system, President Obama gave an impassioned speech about how he was asking the Attorney General and Congress to find options to better protect privacy. Instead the existing regulations have been automatically renewing.
In addition to the NSA gathering all communications, the FBI has launched a national facial recognition program. It’s not a concept, the live system is live. The Federal Government will now maintain a database of biometric data on everybody that is accessible by 18,000 law enforcement agencies.
The most dramatic turn that President Obama has done, however, is securing office as an anti-war advocate (receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on his commitment to peace) and now launching a new war in The Middle East because 2 Americans were beheaded.

I guess that promise in the Constitution – the right to be protected against unreasonable searches is another unfulfilled promise. Or maybe his fingers were crossed.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


I like clowns. Generally speaking they don’t bother me though I know others who have a genuine fear of them. Maybe it’s because I tried (and failed) to be a class clown or perhaps it’s because the theatricality fascinated me. I even enjoy the Canadian versions that appear in the various Cirque shows that are now a staple in Las Vegas. Political clowns, however, are something to be avoided – so much so that I generally ignore them and rarely call them out. This week is an exception…so much so that Barnum & Bailey would closely identify with what’s happening.

Senator Ted Cruz (R) came to Washington in 2012 determined to shake up the political establishment. His fiery speeches, libertarian-leaning philosophy and ambition for higher office has made him cat-nip for those in the political elite and the chattering class to mock him and dismiss his ideas. He’s raised millions of dollars and has been quite effective at shifting the status-quo to a more polarized “my way or the highway” environment. In order to control the agenda and policy discussion his ‘trademark’ has been inflamed rhetoric and hyperbolic statements that rev up moderate and liberal commentators while serving as red meat for the folks back home in Texas.

Substantively there’s much that Senator Cruz stands for that I agree with. In many speeches he has demanded that President Obama obtain authorization from Congress before he takes military action against ISIS. He cogently argued that the Constitution provides that Congress alone has the authority to declare war. (The Commander in Chief can use military action when there’s an imminent threat to U.S. interests.) Cruz is absolutely right. The problem, of course, is that this is true for all actions that the President (and his predecessors) have taken since World War II.  U.S. interests have become so widespread and all-encompassing that notifying Congress of military action has become a require act of reporting rather than a request for permission. Demanding a war authorization is the right thing to do; but the reality is Congress ceded that authority a long time ago.

Cruz is scheduled to introduce legislation soon (9/2014) that would revoke the U.S. citizenship of anyone fighting or providing support to terrorist groups working to attack the United States. “Americans who choose to go to Syria or Iraq to fight with vicious ISIS terrorists are party to a terrorist organization committing horrific acts of violence, including beheading innocent American journalists who they have captured,” Cruz said in a statement.
    Of course Congress has no authority in the Constitution to revoke citizenship. Cruz, a lawyer, should know this. The legislation (or even the promise of it) is political theatre. So why give heed to this play versus the more flamboyant grandstanding he did on Obamacare and other issues like Immigration? The idea of this proposed law is McCarthyism, pure and simple. Wikipedia’s definition: “McCarthyism is the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence.” Named after U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy for his dogged pursuit of communists, the term is now used to describe reckless, unsubstantiated accusations, as well as demagogic attacks on the character or patriotism of political adversaries.

The era of Communist baiting in the United States is still a blemish on this country’s record of democracy.

The Islamic States of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) is a Sunni extremist group that follows al-Qaeda's hard-line ideology and adheres to global jihadist principles. It is not a friend to the U.S. or to western style democracy. I do not support them, their ideas, ideals, practices, actions or anything about them. As vehemently and completely as I oppose all that they stand for I equally believe in individual’s rights to support something I don’t. Just because an American citizen supports ISIS (or Vladamir Putin or anybody else) is no reason to take away the citizenship that guarantees them the right of free expression and free association.

Individuals must be held responsible for their actions. In the event somebody took an action contrary to U.S. law, then there are consequences and the Constitution already considers all of that.

Introducing a piece of legislation that is not constitutional, inflames public opinion and further polarizes the political discourse is sadly not new, nor unique to Senator Cruz. As a de facto protégée of Senator McCarthy it will take years to undo the damage if this progresses. With a paralyzed legislative process its unlikely that it will ever become law. It’s this sort of behavior that gives clowns a bad name and make people afraid of them.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hide N Seek

My niece and my nephew love playing Hide and Seek – with each other and with other kids. Adults are able to join in – and when lots of people are around it can be a great way to burn off some youthful energy. When I was that age I never much enjoyed the game – fearful that I’d either never be found or could never find the person hiding. Perhaps that’s why I don’t like surprises. I prefer games where there’s a lot of certainty about the rules and what’s supposed to happen. With a clear structure, it’s easier to figure out what’s permissible and what isn’t. Would that the world of politics were that clear.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan popularized the quote: “you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to you own facts.” At a time that American politics are more polarized than ever, the fight for determining what is the baseline truth is more important than ever. I, along with many others, have addressed this dichotomy several times in various blogs. What’s different? Now, according to The Week the United States Government is spending $1 million to be the arbiter of what’s truthful:

Called "Truthy" after a running gag on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, the project is centered at Indiana University, where the Computer & Information Science & Engineering Department has accepted a federal grant of nearly $1 million for the effort.  Truthy has a wider scope than just fact-checking, though. The grant's abstract states that the database will provide analysis of "meme diffusion in large-scale social media by collecting and analyzing massive streams of public micro-blogging data," which might be useful for public relations firms, media organizations, and perhaps even individual consumers. However, what Indiana University's researchers claim as Truthy's public benefit raised a few eyebrows. “We will create a web service open to the public for monitoring trends, bursts, and suspicious memes," the abstract concludes. “This service could mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.”

The White House Press Corps tends to regurgitate press releases and administration talking points with very little pushback, context or even acknowledgement that they are being spoon fed the news. Now the Administration itself is going to be the arbiter of what’s misleading? The government itself is going to determine what is propaganda and what isn’t? The same Administration that has literally criminalized reporters for doing their job is going to “assist in the preservation of open debate?” Who will be making that determination? A political appointee? Somebody who has to be approved by Congress? Or perhaps a life-long bureaucrat like Lois Lerner? Even though this news report comes from the esteemed publication The Week, I nonetheless checked through to make sure that this wasn’t an Onion article – the absurdity and gall is just too mind boggling.

The Obama Administration has rightly complained and bemoaned its frustration that they haven’t been able to accomplish much legislatively because there’s a minority in the House of Representatives that has thwarted them for six years. As I’ve written before: too bad, that’s the U.S. system…either live with it or figure out a way to work around it or adjust your expectations. One of the ways the Republicans have been able to stymie the Administration is its ability to control the narrative and the ‘facts’ whereas Team Obama seems incapable of getting their perspective out. The solution to that problem is a communications issue – it is not empowering the government itself to decide what the truth is.

The news came out days before a long holiday weekend at the end of the summer. The major media haven’t picked it up. In a $3.77 trillion expense budget, $1 million is a miniscule percentage. There are numerous for-profit, third-party companies that have made their business determining who’s pants-are-on-fire. As a fierce capitalist I know that these private companies would beat out any government designed and funded program. As a pragmatist and realist, I know that when the government gets into a sector – it makes the rules and so the game is rigged and free enterprise can’t equally compete. If the “Truthy” project moves from trial to full implementation, we’ll all be playing the Hide N Seek game…about facts…and America will be much worse for it.