United States of Secrets

Today I watched the PBS Frontline Documentary “United States of Secrets.” I found it at my local library, and I bet it is at yours as well. I recommend you watch it. It is a detailed history of how America ended up where its government is now spying on its citizens.

The threat of follow-on attacks after 9-11 was sufficient for the executive branch under Bush/Cheney to implement an unprecedented program of domestic spying. They lied about it and tried to cover it up, and they tried to threaten anyone who dared to alert the citizens of what our government was up to. Now we know the truth, but we don’t seem to care enough to do anything about it.

What came through loud and clear to me through this program was that it is naive of us to expect our leaders to fight against this move unless their constituents are demanding change. No elected leader can afford to stop a program when the threat of “causing” harm or death to Americans hangs over them if they try.

The electorate doesn’t care much about Constitutional details when planes fly into a buildings, Ebola lands on our soil, or ISIS jerks chop off the heads of Americans on YouTube.

Any President or member of Congress who fights to prevent the U.S. government from conducting unconstitutional activity in the name of national security will be blamed for allowing the next attack, so they cannot afford to do it. If we don’t want to be spied on by our own government, then we’re going to have to force our representatives to pass specific laws against it.

Taking Back The Welcome Mat – The Catholic Church Closes Its Door to Gays & Lesbians.

The Pope and the Catholic Church sent up a trial balloon. They wanted to see if the conservatives within the church could tolerate hospitality toward gay people. At the end of the day, I guess they determined that they cannot welcome people who sin in the areas of sexuality.

Any church that claims to have Jesus of Nazareth at its head should not have to even discuss whether to be a welcoming church to all people regardless of their “sins.” A common theme in the New Testament is how Jesus offended the conservative religious folk of his time by associating with outcasts of his society. Specifically he was criticized for eating with sinners.

In the Catholic Church the priest is supposed to represent Jesus Christ. These Bishops in Rome failed in their representation. Let’s be clear that what they failed to pass was not some change in direction of doctrine about homosexuality; it was a document that simply reiterated the fact that “people with homosexual tendencies must be welcomed with respect and delicacy.”

Let’s Be Clear about ISIS/ISIL

America needs to be clear about ISIS. It is a terrorist organization. Terrorism is a crime. The fact that this terrorist organization has taken advantage of the power vacuum in Syria and Iraq does not automatically promote this organization into statehood or nation. A nation cares for its citizens and facilitates civilization. ISIS does the opposite of this. Those who live in the area that ISIS claims are not its subjects but rather its victims.

War is not an appropriate response against crime. War is an appropriate response only against a real nation/state. We made the mistake of responding to the September 11th terrorist attack as if it were an act of war. The current anarchy that has allowed groups like ISIS to pretend to be an Islamic state was partly caused by that past error. It is essential that we do not fall into that trap again.

This organization is despicable, and I do not see an easy solution to ridding the world of them, but that should not mean that we react by responding with warfare. I would argue that this plays into their hand. They would love to be able to claim that they are some sort of religious martyr fighting against the western infidels.  They got most of their weapons from America indirectly, and they would love for us to send more weapons that they might be able to capture.

We need to respond as we would to any despicable crime being committed in an area where local law enforcement is ineffective. What does that mean exactly? I don’t know because I am not an expert, but these terrorists need to be tried in court rather than engaged in battle.

The Promise of Affordable Health Care

English: Barack Obama signing the Patient Prot...

English: Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the White House Español: Barack Obama firmando la Ley de Protección al Paciente y Cuidado de Salud Asequible en la Casa Blanca (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The initial roll-out of Obamacare‘s insurance exchange has been plagued by problems. It makes me wonder about what could have been. We will never know how things might have been if we had come together as a country to help people like me who could not get insurance from the private market.

This country has done great things in its history by everyone pulling together for a common goal. Affordable health care could have been one of those things. Instead this ideal has been sacrificed at the altar of political power. Republicans preferred scoring political points against a Democratic in the White House. Their supporters have cheered them on.

Our current mode of operation in this country is to battle each other rather than to co-operate. I fear this spells decline for our nation unless we the citizens  wake up and change course.

Who’s the Fiscal Conservative Now?

Dollars and Cents

Dollars and Cents (Photo credit: kahunapulej)

The Senate is about to pass a bill that the CBO estimates will cut the deficit by $197 billion over the 10-year 2014–2023 period, but there are those from a certain party who won’t vote for the bill unless additional spending of $30 billion is added to the bill. That party is the Republican Party.

Based on the way the Republican Party likes to brand itself as the party of fiscal conservatism and the way they like to brand their opponents as “tax and spend” liberals, it is a little odd that it is members of the Republican Party who are the ones who are insisting on adding $30 billion of government spending.

It is a little odd but not a lot odd. This is the pattern of the Republican Party: they like to talk big about being conservative spenders and deficit hawks, but history shows that they are quite fond of adding to government spending so long as it is for stuff they want the government to spend its money on.

They like government to spend money on “security.” Heck they created a whole new branch of government: Homeland Security. Recent estimates are that this new department has cost us $791 billion since it began ten years ago. Even adjusting for inflation that is more money than we spent on the New Deal.

Republicans also like to spend money that end up in the coffers of corporations rather than in the pockets of individuals. When individuals benefit, their stock portfolios don’t perform nearly as well as when they use tax dollars to churn up business for publicly owned companies.

The stock market has swooned over the past few days at the thought that the Federal Reserve might soon end its stimulus package for banks and corporations. The American people only got an anemic stimulus package 5 years ago, and Republicans are blocking any consideration of doing more. One of the reasons, among many, is, I believe, that the Federal Reserve  ties its stimulus for banks and corporations to the unemployment rate. The party for Wall Street ends when people go back to work, so why would Republicans want people to go back to work?

Back In Time To Solve A Crime

National Security Agency seal

National Security Agency seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 2006, Denzel Washington starred in thriller titled “Déjà Vu.” I really love this movie. It had a clever premise: scientists had stumbled across a way to perform surveillance in the past. They could literally see and hear what was going on in a particular place a certain number of hours earlier.  It was fun to imagine how one might go about solving a crime by using a window into the past.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but in a sense, we already had the technology to do something similar. In the digital age, so many records are kept by businesses that if only we could somehow preserve them all, then we would have a way of stepping back in time to see what happened. We could simply look up the records. The problem is that by the time you know who your suspect is, most of that past data is long gone.

An elegant but troubling solution is to gather information on everyone and store it in a lock-box somewhere so that it is available if and only if we later can show probably cause for needing the information.

This is exactly what our National Security Agency has been doing for years with phone records. The public reaction has been typical of the way we tend to react to things that involve new technology. We freak out a little bit in ways that are likely to seem funny to future generations.

I think we should be delighted at the clever idea of allowing law enforcement access to the past in this way. I think we should also be concerned about the potential for abuse of this lock-box of information. Our energies should get past the shock, and we should embrace this inevitable advance in law enforcement (storing surveillance videos is just one of many possible extensions of this idea that are sure to come). At the same time we should roll up our sleeves to develop an equally elegant solution to ensure that this data remains inaccessible without a warrant.

Giving “Pro-Life” A Bad Name

For the past several decades the Republican Party has cobbled together an alliance between “social conservatives” and “fiscal conservatives” to create a powerful political bloc of voters. As a result, the Republican Party has had to vigorously embrace policies that are hostile to the Supreme Court guaranteed right of women for a safe a legal abortion. They successfully shifted the argument away from privacy, freedom, and the life of the pregnant woman to the sanctity of life for a fetus.

At the same time, the Republican Party has made itself subservient to the wishes of gun manufacturers in America. This has been done in the name of protecting the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This allegiance has secured plenty of campaign financing and the loyalty of a small but avid group of paranoid survivalists who believe that at any moment either our society is about to collapse into anarchy or our government is about to transform into a dictatorship.

Guns, guns, guns

Guns, guns, guns (Photo credit: paljoakim)

The reaction of American citizens to the Sandy Hook tragedy has tested the Republican Party. Nine out of ten Americans believe that no one should be able to buy a weapon without going through some sort of background check. It is a matter of protecting innocent life from crazy people with weapons. This issue has tested Republicans in two ways. First it has tested them to determine whether they represent special interest groups or the American voters. Second it has tested them to determine what sort of life they consider worthy of protection.

If we lived in a country with a democratic system where majority rules, it would now be impossible to buy guns without a background check. But such a law was not passed by Congress. In fact, such a law was never allowed to be considered by Congress because a minority of members of the Senate blocked it. Virtually all of these Senators were Republicans.

So we have learned several things. The Republican Party is not pro-life; they are pro-fetus, but first graders can be gunned down at school and they don’t think anything needs to be done about it. In state houses across America, Republican politicians are falling all over themselves to write new laws to protect fetuses, but they have no interest in passing laws to protect children.

The Republican Party does not represent people; they represent corporations. 90% of the people said, “do something,” but the gun lobby said, “do nothing.” When the relevant people rose up and demand action, and the relevant corporations rose up and say, “no,” Republicans listened to their corporate masters rather than the citizens they ostensibly represent.

The Republican Party doesn’t really believe in the power of democracy. They betray their party’s name because there is nothing “republican” about a bunch of people who betray those who they represent in order to please a lobbying group.

Many of us are angry about how the Republicans allowed the NRA to win this battle. It will be interesting to see whether our outrage and determination will prove strong enough and durable enough to win the war against gun violence in America.

Republican Idol: Europe

Relief map of Europe and surrounding regions

Relief map of Europe and surrounding regions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Don’t let them kid you, Republican’s think that Europe is spot on when it comes to government spending in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Various European nations have responded to the rising debt caused by the crisis by implementing the sort of austerity measures that the Tea Party thinks will save America.

Last week tens of thousands of Spaniards marched in the street over their countries’ latest round of austerity measures. They aren’t thrilled with 26% unemployment. Britain’s David Cameron has implemented an austerity program there. It hasn’t done much to reduce their debt, but it did manage to inspire Moody’s to downgrade Britain’s debt–making it more expensive for them to service their debt.

Ever since the Tea Party took over the GOP, facts and reality haven’t seemed to matter much to their rhetoric or their policies. They have been pining to put the U.S. government on an austerity plan, just like Europe. They may not be happy that one of the first fruits of their labor has been the release of detained immigrants, but that didn’t stop them from deciding to push to make these upcoming cuts permanent for an entire year.

The reality is that this sequester and other austerity measures don’t make any sense while recovering from one of the worst economic downturns in our history. The CBO estimates that our gross domestic product will grow by 1.4 percent this year, rather than the 2.0 growth we’d see without the sequester cuts. The Bipartisan Policy Center estimates that we will lose 1 million jobs in 2013 and 2014 because of the sequester. A former Republican from the Bipartisan Policy Center says its possible that the sequester won’t  even achieve any savings in government outlays.

The reality is that our present course has delivered slow but steady growth. Smart money knows things are going pretty well. That’s why the stock market is flirting with its all-time high. We will eventually reduce our deficit through economic growth, just as we did in the 1990’s, unless the Republicans insist on remaking the U.S. in the image of Europe.

Surprise! Surprise! Chuck Hagel Gets Confirmed By The Senate

The Republicans would like you to believe that Obama’s nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary was so spectacularly bad that it required them to do something unprecedented to stop it. Never before has the Senate filibustered against a Secretary of Defense nominee.

The odd thing was that if you listened to people like my Senator Lindsey Graham, it seemed that this filibuster was necessary to try to force the President to come clean about the attack on Benghazi. If you thought Susan Rice had nothing to do with Benghazi, then Hagel had even less.

Another fierce opponent, John McCain explained the opposition this way:

There’s a lot of ill will towards Senator Hagel because when he was a Republican, he attacked President Bush mercilessly and said he was the worst President since Herbert Hoover and said the surge was the worst blunder since the Vietnam War, which was nonsense. He was anti-his own party and people — people don’t forget that. You can disagree but if you’re disagreeable, then people don’t forget that.

Hagel was being nominated as Secretary of Defense of the United States not some post within the Republican Party, so putting his loyalty to the United States above his party loyalty should be considered a good thing.

McCain and others are on the record as admitting that they knew that Hagel would eventually be confirmed despite their filibuster. [In fact most of them are on the record a week or so ago saying that they wouldn’t filibuster him, but that’s another story!] So their filibuster was never about influencing who would be the next Secretary of Defense. They knew he would be confirmed. Their filibuster did nothing more than block the Senate from confirming him.

This delay was political theater, pure and simple. It served no constructive purpose from the perspective of what’s good for America. The Republicans used it to try to keep alive their narrative that somehow Benghazi represents a huge failure of this administration, and they did it to try to punish a fellow Republican because they thought he had betrayed them.

If the Republicans spent half as much energy towards building up America as they do towards tearing down our President, I wonder where we might be today.

Who’s Interests Are Being Represented?

National Rifle Association

National Rifle Association (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[This is the fifth of a series of blog reposts from my campaign website. This post first appeared on Jun 28, 2012]

One of the central tenets of my campaign is that politics in the U.S. has been corrupted by the need to please special interest groups in order to get elected. Politicians need the money and publicity that such interests offer. One of the reasons I decided to run for office was my determination to offer the voters in Oconee County the opportunity to elect someone whose only interest is representing their interests. I am not pursuing the support of special interest groups.

I read an article this morning that illustrated my point. The U.S. House of Representatives is poised to hold the U.S. Attorney General in contempt of Congress for the first time in the history of this nation. This effort has been a partisan effort. Republicans have been in favor while Democrats have been against this move. Yet, this morning reports are coming in that as many as 31 Democrats may switch sides. The L.A. Times reports:

House vote counters predicted that somewhere between 20 and 31 Democrats would desert their party largely because the influential National Rifle Association threatened to oppose legislators who support the attorney general.

If this article is correct, then these members of the U.S. House will apparently be representing the members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) rather than the voters in their districts. Like most politicians, they have learned that their re-election depends not on how well they represent voters but how well-liked they are by groups such as the NRA.

The only ones who can change this situation are the voters themselves. Voters must demand representation of their interests rather than those of powerful interest groups.

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