Thursday, February 26, 2015

Motivate Facts

ABC airs a Canadian series “Motive” during the summer. “A feisty Vancouver homicide detective tracks down the most cunning of killers by trying to figure out the motive to the crime” reads the promo for the show. The third season has begun airing up north and is due to hit the Lower 48 this summer. It’s an interesting twist on the procedural where the who-dunnit is determined by the why-dunnit. The old “just the facts ma’am” don’t apply's getting to a conclusion via the emotion. It’s not too dissimilar from what American politics has become – where the motive has trumped facts.

Former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani made international headlines on Feb. 18 2015 when he said that President Obama “doesn’t love America.” It is an asinine assertion and it has no place in the serious discourse of American public policy. As a freedom loving zealot I welcome the former mayor’s right to say stupid things. As a responsible citizen I am embarrassed that his remarks have (a) been taken seriously and (b) been widely disseminated and (c) become part of a ‘dialogue’ about the motives of the 44th President. I hesitated to perpetuate the nonsense by commenting on it, but it has taken on a life of its own, become the subject of polls and is actually being seriously discussed. Giulianai is a failed Presidential candidate who is addicted to the tabloid spotlight and he said something hugely provocative and the media ate it up, giving him a platform to reinforce his opinions. This is an individual who has no official role in any government today and is not likely to have one in the near future. The comments, however, feed into the salacious side of journalism and were outrageous enough to get passionate responses.

Donald Trump pops up in the news regularly with various claims and implications. Journalists give him visibility because he generates controversy and viewership. His latest headline came when he expressed his upset that “Mexico…walk[ed] away with all the gold” at the Oscars (with the win by director Alejandro Iñárritu’s “Birdman.”) Aside from the factual inaccuracy in his statement – the film is an American film – why on earth is a failed businessman with a crappy reality show opining on anything? While he has the right to say whatever he likes – and often does - why is he given a platform in national media as if he’s somebody who should be listened to?

Outrageous statements that are not based in facts are not the sole dominion of one political perspective. Al Sharpton has built a career – and indeed a movement – on racially tinged and factually inaccurate events. Nearly 2 years ago the New American published a comprehensive analysis on how Sharpton has spent 25 years lying and manipulating the truth. Sharpton himself doesn’t disagree with the conclusion as quoted in the article.

Journalist Brian Williams and Commentator Bill Riley are currently the subject of various investigations of fabrications that they told while reporting stories.

The Iraq War after the events of 9/11/2001 began as a result of inaccurate information. Lots of fingers have pointed at lots of people. The fact is that war was started with a premise that was wrong. The motive? Does it matter? The fact should be disturbing enough.

George Washington was the first President of the United States, the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, and one of the Founding Fathers is also famous for his honesty. Perhaps the best known story about Washington's childhood is that he chopped down his father's favorite cherry tree and admitted the deed when questioned: "I can't tell a lie, Pa." Too bad that that the man's character didn't rub off on the city named for him. 

It took from Sept. 5, 1774 until March 4, 1789 to draft and ratify the U.S. Constitution…nearly 15 years along with warfare and infighting along the way. The United States can survive division and discontent. In fact, it thrives - it's the basis of Jeffersonian Democracy. In today's media environment would the issues that were being thrashed out in developing the Constitution been able to be looked at without assessing the motive behind somebody's position? No - and that's the issue. It doesn't matter if Obama loves America or not - challenge his policy, but don't challenge the man. There are few policies that President Obama has that I support or endorse, but I have no doubt that he loves the country as much as I do.  

It’s time to get back to some basics, focus on facts and have those front and center while the theorizing of the why can be relegated to rooms with couches and professionals.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Proactive Perpetual War

I tend to be proactive, planning things in advance. It wasn’t always so. In high school I’d wait until the last possible moment to complete assignments – procrastination became part of how I got through the first couple of years. A teacher called me out on why he thought I procrastinates. He pointed out that since I wait until the last minute if I only get a C I can always blame it on the lack of time, but if I was proactive and still had a C then that would mean I had more work to do. So I embraced the inevitability of my being a mediocre a student and began doing things in advance of deadlines.  I'm not sure that was the teacher's intended result! Washington DC is not known for being forward thinking, but the past few weeks show that the U.S. Government has now carefully planned for perpetual war.

The U.S. Constitution outlines how War is to be declared. Article 1, Section 8 outlines all of the “do’s” and “don’ts” that govern the Republic. Congress is empowered to declare war. It last did so on June 5, 1942.  Congress provided military intervention/support in a variety of locations based on a United Nations declaration or on an Authorization for use of Military Force (AUMF). Seeking to limit the President’s ability to use military force without Congressional approval, in 1973 the War Powers Resolution was passed with a 2/3rds majority in both the House and the Senate – overriding a Presidential Veto. It became law, though it contravened the constitution and gave away key responsibilities of the legislature.

The constitutionality of the Act has been questioned from the outset. Rather than amending the Constitution this Resolution simply attempts to replace and refine one part of it. That argument is long past and philosophically still important to have – but in practical terms both Congress and Presidents for over 40 years have adhered to the tenets of the Resolution, so it is framework that the country has operated within. The Act requires the President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war.

President Obama has embraced his role as Commander in Chief by deploying the military in numerous situations. Africa, Syria and  Afghanistan are just the most newsworthy. While military personnel in Iraq diminished to nearly zero, tens of thousands of military advisors are back flooding into the country. In 2012 The Guardian analyzed where the military were situated and while the countries varied from when he took office in 2008 the totals did not. 

For all of those deployments the President has cited the War Powers Resolution and President Bush (43)’s 2001/2002 AUMFs against Al-Queda, Iraq and other terrorists. Relying on the open-ended Bush era authorizations President Obama has not always fulfilled the notification requirements of the 1973 Resolution. In fact, President Obama in six years of being in the Oval Office has only asked for Congressional authorization to use the miliary oncelast week.  On 2/11/2015 the Obama administration asked for a new AUMF – one purportedly more narrow, but many have interpreted it to be a much broader authorization. The need for a new authorization is to clarify but not replace the 2001/2002 authorizations, though it is assumed that the older ones would then be rescinded when the new one is approved.

Much of the U.S. (and indeed the world) economy is framed around the military industrial complex. Total world spending on military expenses in 2009 was $1.531 trillion US dollars. 46.5% of this total was spent by the United States. In 2015 the figures are significantly higher.

Why is an AMUF needed now? Could it be that there is an economic imperative to keep the economy on a war footing and insure that the Military Industrial Complex remains active? Cynicism would answer with a resounding aye. Never mind the sentence right after the war designation:  "...To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two years."  It's no small irony that Congress continues to fund "wars" (military actions) it hasn't declared far in excess of the two year threshold in the Constitution.

There is a provision in the proposed AMUF which has the authorization expire in three years – right when a new President takes place. The anti-war candidate who became the 44th President is proposing a structure to permit himself the ability to take unilateral military action against any “terrorist” while allowing the authorization to expire as his successor takes office. Could it be that Barak Obama is thinking of his legacy? With an expiration of the AMUF he could to claim that his campaign promise to end wars was fulfilled including the end of military force. The Authorization would allow him to continue as he has been: the President who starts and ends wars on his own.

The Constitution outlines how war is to be declared and funded. There is no reason – logistical or political – where the letter of the law and the spirit of the law couldn’t be fulfilled. There’s no need even for the War Powers Act. Congress should rescind any and all military authorizations that are in place today, not approve any others and insist that the Executive Branch ask Congress for authorization each and every time war is embarked on. If the President believes that War is vital and necessary it is up to him to make the case to the American people and their representatives who can then vote for or against war. As it stands now the U.S. is headed on a perpetual war footing.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Let it Snow?

May 5, 1987 flurries fell in Syracuse. I was done with Mother Nature and done with college. I headed west. Growing up in New England – New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts – I am not surprised to find January and February cold and snowy. It’s just what happens. Into my third year of living in metro Boston I’ve lived through Super Storm Sandy, the Blizzard of 2013 that closed the City and now the Winter of 2015 that seems to have stymied the most hearty New Englander. Three major storms/blizzards dropping some 76 inches of snow in downtown Boston and over 90 inches in other parts of the state over a few weeks (with more to come) shows the practical application of the role of Government.

During major storms the public looks to Government to deliver basic services. Power is expected to be on, streets should be plowed and public transit needs to work. No matter one’s political belief in the role of Government – big or small – these expectations exist. When something doesn’t work, most people are reasonable given the immediate circumstances but in short order look to assessing blame, even when their own philosophy may have contributed to the issue. When something collapses and fails miserably fingers are pointed and how you see Government’s role becomes an important part of the analysis and the way to fix the issue.

The City of Boston has been paralyzed – literally closing for 4 days over a 2 week period. Sidewalks and side streets are afterthoughts in the clean-up process and the basic infrastructure of getting around has nearly collapsed.

The collapse of the MBTA system has become Example D’Jour. The oldest public transit system in America the system is the fourth busiest in the country with over 2 million passenger trips each day. 40% of low-wage workers in Boston and 30% of other-wage workers rely on the “T” to get around town. The economic impact of each snow day is not immediately known, but estimated at $200 million.

Many blame the T’s inability to function on a lack of investment and a shrinking budget. The MBTA’s operating budget for 2015 is nearly $2 billion, up 164% from 10 years ago and up 269% from 1991 (according to MTBA’s budget document from their site.) Wages at nearly $500 million is the number one cost, followed by debt service of nearly $425 million. The debt was incurred as part of the Big Dig project where some stations had to be moved and changed which saddled the MBTA with approx. $4 billion in debt. When the debt was incurred, the funding mechanism for the T changed with a portion of the state sales tax dedicated to supporting the system. 16% of the sales tax is dedicated to the MBTA - $970 million in 2015’s budget.  Since the restructured funding mechanism went into place there has been $2.7 billion in principal payments made on the debt and $4.9 billion in interest payments. The dedicated sales tax intended to offset the additional debt costs has in the same period generated $15.8 billion, leaving plenty to go towards operational issues. Ridership has stayed stagnant, so the MBTA has not been starved financially since the increase in funding far exceeds the increase debt costs.

“Since 1988, the MBTA has been the fastest expanding transit system in the country, even as Greater Boston has been one of the slowest growing metropolitan areas in the United States,” according to the Boston Globe in 2006.

The dramatic increases in funding have gone towards expanding services – though the service still does not run late at night. A one-year pilot program is ending that allowed trains and busses to run until approx. 2am. New lines have been added. Maintenance has been neglected and is considered the cause of why the trains can’t run on the tracks in the snow or cold.  There is little capital investment - the subway cars on the Red Line are 44 years old and on the Orange line 32 years old. In a region that has the largest number of higher education institutions than anywhere else on earth – the main form of public transport is as old as those student’s parents.

The expansion has been at the expense of maintenance. The Boston Herald reported that In 2009 the MBTA recognized that it needed to catalog and identify all areas of its system that were needed to be maintained. The Federal Government agreed and provided a $1 million grant to build a system to centralize and track of maintenance needs. Six years later the project is still not complete, the MBTA has no idea of the scope of maintenance needs. That’s not a lack of investment or interest, that’s a lack of competence.

Everybody in Massachusetts has a vested interest in the MBTA working. A Big Government philosophy includes additional taxes to provide funding to the T to fix its problems. Smaller Government thinking would be more market based with a solution built around existing resources. That battle will go on and in Blue Massachusetts (even under a new Republican Governor) with a hybrid is likely.

Whatever the fix winds up being: it needs to work. The failure of the T is a case study in bad management over a long time and multiple administrations that has ample funding and made strategic choices that has resulted in a sub-par delivery of its core services. This is just the latest example of why I advocate for less government funding and more market based solutions. There’s plenty of blame to go isn’t partisan. It’s not unreasonable to expect a system that the people have funded to work. Even in bad weather. Let it snow.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Give me Liberty … or Give me Terror

I recently watched the History Channel’s mini-series “Sons of Liberty.” It’s everything that we’ve come to expect from the cable channel: a good looking cast, some great battle scenes, fudging of key facts and 21st century language put into 18th century mouths. I doubt very much that Benjamin Franklin said of the idea of Independence: “Well, that’s an absolutely bat-shit crazy idea.” In this telling, the British referred to the Colonists as terrorists, though the word would not be coined for some thirty years. Historically accurate? No. Amusing diversion? Yes. Its timing was good as invoking the terrorist description has become the de-facto label for evil, even though much of what’s called that today isn’t.

Al Jazeera English’s editor recently had an email leaked. The communication to reporters and editors at the news network (funded by the Qatar Government) reminded them to be more careful in the use of all wording, especially the terms ‘terrorist’ and ‘jihad.’ “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter,” the email said. "Words that have a tendency of tripping us up. Avoid characterizing people. Often their actions do the work for the viewer." He’s absolutely right, both politically and journalistically.

In October of 2014 a gunman killed a soldier at Canada’s national war memorial and then stormed Parliament. In response last week (1/30/15) Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced new legislation that will further criminalize terrorism, allowing the government to approach and hold suspects up to five years based on “threats” and allow the state to remove “objectionable” material from the Internet. "Over the last few years, a great evil has been descending upon our world, an evil that has been growing more and more powerful: Violent jihadism," Harper said. The change in the law comes after one incident that killed one individual.

The U.S. passed and has renewed the Patriot Act in response to the horrible events of 9/11/2001. The law has been blamed for limiting many freedoms promised under the Constitution, and has been hailed for protecting the country from further attacks. Local municipalities are now taking the defense against terrorism one step further.

In New York a pilot program is being launched that equips police officers with machine guns. The Strategic Response Group will be dedicated to “disorder control and counterterrorism protection capabilities” against attacks which the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence John Miller said was an “inevitability” in NYC. This new squad will be used to investigate and combat terrorist plots, lone wolf terrorists, and… protests. “It is designed for dealing with events like our recent protests,” Bratton said. 

Last week a fourth grader in Texas was suspended for making “terrorist threats” --- suggesting that he had a ring that could make his classmate disappear. According to Kermit Elementary School officials, 9-year-old Aiden Steward told a classmate that he possessed a magic ring forged in Mount Doom — a fictional location from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings series. This absurd response to two kids playing may be an extreme example – but it exists and the punishment was meted out and the definition of terrorism ever expands.

How many indignities and incidents took place in the 1770’s until the revolution actually started? Was it the state telling citizens what they could say, where they could say it and how they could assemble? Patrick Henry is said to have coined the phrase “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” in 1775 as a way to get the Virginia House to commit its troops to the Revolutionary War. Such a statement today might well be labeled a terrorist threat and the speaker subject to arrest. I’m with our ancestors. Give me liberty.