Monday, May 29, 2006

Terrorism, Porn, and Other Alibis

Interesting BBC article about web censorship and policing in various authoritarian countries. It offers a lot of hidden lessons for Americans.

China and Cuba both claim not to interfere with their citizens' web access even though they obviously do. They also monitor web usage with a thoroughness that the NSA must envy. China and Cuba say that they only interfere with access to pornographic and terrorist sites. Apparently, in China Amnesty International is either pornographic or terrorist. Its site is blocked. So is the BBC's, Human Rights Watch's, etc, etc.

These days, in secular states (like western democracies or the remaining "communist" countries), it's pretty much impossible for the government to be forthright about censoring, snooping, and arresting simply to protect its own interests or even the religious and moral values of countries whose citizens diagree among themselves what those values are. (In contrast, the United Arab Emirates feels comfortable telling surfers that websites like is being blocked because it's "inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates").

So the convenient alibi for censors and snoopers, worldwide, is now fighting "pornography" and "terrorism." It's a good alibi. Most people are opposed to terrorism. And—publicly—most people are opposed to pornography, or at least silent about it. The danger is that, if the government is determined, almost every imaginable behavior or thought of the citizenry will fall under one heading or the other. Criticizing the goverment? Terrorism. Leaking information about dubious coding in the Diebold's touch-screen voting software? Terrorism. Criticizing the war in Iraq? Terrorism.

I think most people—or at least most leftists—get the dangers letting the government censor and snoop indiscriminately on the pretext of fighting terrorism. We all know how dangerous that is, if for no other reason that legitimate anti-terrorist activity left unsupervised by elected officials will almost inevitably devolve into authoritarian and/or politicized spying. So I won't go on about that here.

But I'm not sure it's as clear to most people that the fight against pornography is equally flexible and dangerous.

At the most superficial leve, I think trying to censor or ban porn is itself misguided and dangerous. It's not that I don't understand how anti-porn campaigners feel. Feminist anti-porn activists are probably right that porn tends to reinforce really dangerous notions about women's roles. (Though, theoretically, that means that all gay porn and most genuine lesbian porn are totally unproblematic.) And the religious anti-porn activists probably are right that spending all day wanking off to sex between strangers is probably lousy for people's souls.

(I actually suspect that a lot of PG-13 movies and TV shows are actually worse for us on both counts; mainstream entertainment that sells tight asses, abs, and silicon tits while pretending to not be selling them probably does more to give people stupid ideas about sex, love, and other human motivations than all the copies of Cream-Filled Twinks 5 put together.)

But, even where I agree with some of the assumptions and conclusions of the anti-porn crowd, I've never seen how it's the government's job to regulate it. Once people are over eighteen, their ideas, their kinks, and their bodily fluids should be entirely their own. My diet may be unhealthy, my sleep schedule may be unhealthy, my laundry schedule, my opinions about people different from me, my opinions about cum-drenched cheerleaders may all be desperately unhealthy, but it's none of Uncle Sam's business, thank you very much.

But the bigger problem with the anti-porn campaign is that it's often not actually about porn at all. Over the past five or six years, "pornography" the above-the-waves code phrase for sexuality, and the people in this country who are after porn are often also after a whole lot more—who you sleep with, how you sleep with them, whether you sleep with anyone at all.

With "pornography" as the rallying cry, conservative religious groups in this country (most of them Catholic or evangelical Christian) are subtly and successfully moving to limit access to contraception as part of their efforts to make it practically or even legally impossible to engage in forms of sexual activity that they disapprove of. Check out the Russel Shorto's recent "Contra Contraception" in the New York Times. Dan Savage is also up in arms about this and providing some very interesting—and sobering—coverage in the form of "Straight Rights Updates" in his Savage Love column. Alabama has already banned the sale of sex toys, and South Carolina is making noises about following suit. Group after group, including the Bush administration, wants schools to stop talking to children about contraception–abstinence is the only acceptable sex education.

So not only do we have censorship, we have outright bans on behavior between consenting adults. Or between consenting adults and inanimate objects. The tactical brilliance of this move is that it almost inevitably forces people who don't want to be told who and how to fuck in the position of defending Hustler or the merits of Hairy Slotter's Triple-Head Magic Wand. And that's either intellectually or socially embarrassing. But the real fight has much more important stakes.

This is a fight about whether our society should be structured by historically ossified guidelines about procreation developed in times and places in which women were inconsequential except as wombs and baby-sitters and in which contraception was neither widely available nor reliable. This is a fight about whether gay people get to be considered real people in the eyes of the law. It's about whether you should have to be married to get laid. And, once you're married, it's about whether you should be having only the kind of sex that might lead to procreation.

This is a real fight, and it's about real issues. Don't let them get away with pretending it's okay to censor pornography or, more to the point, don't let them get away with pretending that their attempts to dictate the acceptable limits of human sexuality and behavior are somehow the same as saying that Larry Flynt is an asshole.

And to any conservative Christian readers who've managed to get this far (you're hardy, I'll say), remember, my friends, that China has a lousy record on all modes of expression, not just porn, and it has state policies mandating that parents have no more than one child. Do you really feel comfortable letting the state set policies on such issues, even if the current administration happens to share your sense of how those policies should look?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Might I Suggest a Better Flap?

Read the post below this one, it's more substantive. But, can't resist chiming in on this issue... Apparently, conservative blogger Jonah Goldberg has proven that Al Gore is a liar because, while in Cannes for the debut of his new movie, he said that when he was fifteen he spent some time in France studying Sartre and Camus while a lot of biographies about Gore have him working on a family farm when he was 15. Gore's a liar! The 59 year old apparently didn't quite remember when he took a teenage trip to France to study Sartre! Nobody denies, by the way, that Gore did, indeed, take a teenage trip to France to study Sartre. This is just stupid.

So... I suggest a new, more important debate. Gore knows who Sartre and Camus are and read and discussed their works in French (something I haven't done because I can't read French and certainly can't debate existentialism in that language). So... does Bush even know who Camus and Sartre are? Has he ever even read a passage, even in translation like I have to, of either of their works? If he hasn't, doesn't that make him an ignoramous? Let's make a scandal out of that. At least that would involve, you know, reading.

Why these stories about the Clintons?

Last week, the New York Times published a pretty pointless and vapid feature about the Clintons that seemed to suggest they have a "cold," marriage. We're supposed to care becayse Hillary might run for President in 2008 and because Gore might run too and because there is a sense in the air that the reaction to 8 years of Bush will result in popular nostalgia to return to Clinton's pretty effective tenure in office.

The Times story has sparked a lot of discussion about whether or not the media is tougher on Democrats than Republicans and about why Bush, who has now brought us into two wars, one on a dubious pretext, and who might be leading us to a third with Iran, has gotten an easier ride in the press than Clinton did, and that the Clintons are even getting now. If you want to see the whole debate ably presented in one lengthy, but well written article, click these words because Jamison Foser at Media Matters has done just that.

Ironically, Media Matters is the organization set up by the reformed David Brock, who brought the consverative magazine, "The American Spectator" to prominence in the 1990s by writing dishonest attack articles on Anita Hill and on the Clintons.

My take is that complaints about the media giving Bush a much easier time than it gave Clinton are totally true and valid. For some writers, like Brock during the 1990s, the attacks were motivated by politics and, as Brock described them in his very revealing and still worth reading confessional book "Blinded by the Right," a desire to use the media to remove the Clintons from office.

But, Brock's story aside, the question remains: At the level of writers and editors at influential publications, is there a bias against the Clintons specifically and against the center-left in general?

Well, I've been working in New York media for nearly seven years now and I've met a lot of writers and editors and the people I've met almost universally love the Clintons. For one thing, we're all New Yorkers. We're the people who, when Hillary moved here from Arkansas and said she wanted to be our Senator, gave her overwhelming support. Had she actually wound up running against Giuliani, I have to admit that, even in retrospect, the result would have been too close to call, but even if she had lost, she'd have garnered so many votes that you could say, beyond all argument, that New York accepted and supported her. The Clintons are rock stars in these parts and a lot of the writers and editors we're talking about here are from these parts. It's just not credible to claim that the majority of writers and editors living and working in New York have an agenda to undermine the Clintons, or progressives in general. Most of them are progressives, after all, and most of them love the Clintons.

So, how to explain the rough Clinton ride in the press?

First, you have to set aside people with 1990-Brockian ambitions as a special case. They're out there and they're really writing to undermine Bill and Hillary. But, they're in the minority.

I suggest, as a possible explanation, the "Brangelina Factor." Most of the people writing and editing in these parts really like the Clintons and thus, really want to write about them. So, they get a chance, a tip, a premise, and maybe it's about a vapid subject like "What's the Clinton sex life like?" but, they want to write about the Clintons and that's what they have and so... they do. I'm not saying that's a good thing. Indeed, it's as absurd as all the coverage about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie but, like those actors, the Clintons are rock stars. In the end, all of us in the media want to write about rock stars. It really is true that a trivial story about a prominent subject will get better play than a substantive story about an obscure subject.

I'm not defending the press here. This is a true failure of thought and action. A good story has real impact, after all. It's about something important. How often Bill and Hill get their groove on together is not at all important.

But, I suggest that the problem with the media coverage that we're discussing here has less to do with politics and, sadly, a lot to do with "star fucking."

David Rees Discusses War, Bullshit

Just found this hour-long presentation by David Rees (Get Your War On) at Columbia U. in Oct. 2005. He gives a sort of director's audio track for some of his cartoons and talks about the ethics of war. Interesting stuff.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Should We Close Gitmo?

The UN Committee Against Torture says that we should close our prison camp at Guantanomo Bay. And... that committee should know. Members of the committee include countries like Egypt, Chile and China -- all experts in having, *evil German accent* "Vays uv making you talk!"

But, they're right. Even if, within China, probably at this very moment, more unspeakable acts, sponsored by the Chinese government, are occurring than what we've found out about Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, the committee is right.

I actually have a very Republican, pro-Iraq war, reason for taking this stance: We're supposed to be bringing freedom to people and "winning hearts and minds." In short, according to the Republican rhetoric that's driven our very aggressive post 9-11 foreign policy, we're supposed to be trying to convince people around the world to not only not hate the U.S., but to want to be more like the U.S. The logic, at least the logic of the right wing, aggressive rhetoric, has always been that we have to forcibly free people from their current governments because that, once free, they'll choose to stop fighting us and to emulate us.

But, for that to work... we have to be perfect. Being, "not as bad as some countries," simply won't do. World-changing, populist revolutions are never waged by people who assemble to "make things less bad." If Thomas Jefferson had started the Declaration of Independence with a call to, "Make the lot of the American less rotten than it is under the rule of the British," then we Americans would still be speaking bloody English right now. Thomas Paine didn't tell the colonists that it was "Common Sense," that their lives could, if they took drastic action, become somewhat less deplorable. Hell, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara didn't rouse the Cuban peasants to war with the promise that they would overthrow Batista in favor of a kinder and gentler oligarch.

See, though I think that Republican hawks have purposefully and dishonestly tried to sell us a fairtale that says that if we overthrow dictators, people will naturally assemble constitutional democracies, I do kind of believe in the root of the fairytale. The Divine Right of Kings only exists, after all, because only a God who doesn't answer direct questions would ever choose a King (the people, given a free choice, generally won't).

But, though that root idea is probably true... it ain't easy in practice. In fact, it stinks on ice. The American Revolution led to a country that almost fell apart a hundred times until the Civil War, when it did actually fall apart for awhile, and then it was reassembled. The French Revolution led to a Democracy that led to... Napolean as dictator. Gorbachev brought glasnots to Russia, which led to Yeltsin bringing nascent democracy and now we have Putin who, at the moment, might continue the democratic process or might wind up as a dictator who's still in power 20 years from now.

Throwing off the yoke of an oppressive government isn't enough. It wasn't enough for the Americans who did it to the British -- we had a war between brothers before it became clear that Europe wasn't going to take over again -- and it really hasn't been enough for ANY country.

If the mission of our foreign policy, at the moment, is to convince the people of Afghanistan and Iraq that they should work to form democratic governments in their country than we have to set an example beyond the one we've already set which, so far, can be summed up as, "We're so powerful that we blew your former governments to smithereens."

We are, in fact, what pop stars and athletes who want to party in their spare time always say they don't want to be -- we're role models.

How we treat our own citizens, then, is up for international scrutiny. But, beyond that, how we treat their citizens is being closely watched. I've too often heard the argument, about Abu Grhaib and Gitmo, that what our soldiers did to some Iraqis is nothing compared to what Saddam did to Iraqis. Fine. I accept the point. But, it's a pointless point. If we're to convince millions of scared and skeptical people that they should want to build countries in the mold of the U.S. then we can't behave in ways that can even be compared to how Saddam behaved, or how the Taliban behaved. If we're really going to "win hearts and minds," then we have to exhibit behavior that is so virtuous and civilized that to compare our methods to Hussein's would be as ridiculous as comparing somebody guilty of insider trading to Hitler. We simply must hold ourselves up to an impossible standard of goodness. Sure, we'll never reach that standard, but we have to be trying, and we have to be trying in a noticeable way. THAT will convince people.

One other niggling problem I have with Gitmo -- it's for both members of Al Qaeda AND members of the Taliban. Now, I have no problem with us being at war with Al Qaeda. They started it, after all. But, the Taliban? That was just a political movement. Yes, it was a political movement that I hate and that I think is retarded, but it's also a political movement that we were giving money to right up until September 11th. I don't mean to go overboard with my relativism here. For a long time before 9-11, lefties like me were arguing that the Taliban, which oppressed women and anyone who didn't agree with its theology, shouldn't have been getting money from the U.S. and, indeed, should have been sanctioned, if not attacked. The Left in the U.S. and Europe was anti-Taliban WAY before it was fashionable. My point is that while the Taliban was rightly punished for harboring Al-Qaeda after 9-11 that the Taliban didn't actually attack us. Al-Qaeda did. So, in a sense, Gitmo does house a lot of political prisoners -- people who were never in Al-Qaeda but who happened to be members of a political party that we actually supported up to its final days.

See, we can make fun of the United Nations for forming a committee full of countries that practice torture that has decided to wag the finger at us. And we can laugh at the U.N. because it's just a debating society that has a building on Manhattan's East Side with a view of Queens but that lacks the might, force or will to actually MAKE the U.S. pursue or abandon any policy. But, if the Republicans who spoke so loudly before and after the invasion of Iraq about the importance of using our military to free oppressed people and to win them over in a way that will turn their animosity towards us into admiration were really serious, then they should be leading the drive to close Gitmo.

With Gitmo open, with the indefinite detentions, the allegations of torture, the allegations that we send suspects to countries who are on that UN Committee (Egypt, I'm looking at you) so that somebody else will torture them... we're losing the battle for "hearts and minds."

Republicans, I'm calling you out here. If you really believe that the U.S. can use its military might to free people from dictators and that we can then use our own example to convince those people to rule themselves with some semblance of fairness and stability, well... if you believe that, I respect that belief. But, if you believe that, then you'll want to close Gitmo as well. And, you'll want to get to work making America a good enough, just enough, and joyous enough country that anyone watching from the outside will want that for themselves.

There are tons of cynical reasons for dismissing the U.N.'s request. But we could serve our own stated interests by doing what the U.N. asks.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Spending Your Political Capital in 2006

Depressingly, America's future now seems to depend in large part upon the Democratic Party. America desperately needs the Republicans out of power, and the 2006 midterm elections offer that possibility--if people give money and give it appropriately.

In 2006 the Republican party is vulnerable in ways it hasn't been in recent elections. And it deserves to be. Republican social conservatives are reaching further and further right for their support and their agenda, Republican fiscal conservatives have been replaced by big-spending pod-creature lookalikes from the planet DrunkenSailor, Republican hawks are busy listening to your phone calls, and Republican power-brokers are making their phone calls from prison phones. Meanwhile, sane, responsible Republicans (at least those without presidential ambitions) are conspicuously wondering who gets to keep the dog if they break up with the party.

Sadly, the Democrats don't seem to have figured out their strategy yet. DNC Chairman Howard Dean and Illinois Rep. Rahm Immanuel (who's in charge of the Democrats' efforts to retake the House) are reportedly banging heads over how to take advantage of the Republicans' disarray. Dean wants to spread the DNC's money more evenly across the US on the theory that the Democrats will never build a healthy party if they have to write off the south and the mountain west in every election. He thinks that if the DNC can build a real apparatus in current Republican strongholds, Republicans will have to play better defense and spend more of their money in areas that they can currently take for granted. Rahm thinks that the Democrats will win in the long term only if they can win in the short term, and he thinks that it's suicidal to be planning for the long term when another two years of Republican control of all the branches of government will let Republicans rearrange the goverment to make retaining that control even easier.

They're both right, of course. And both of their goals are necessary, if not easily reconciled. Poll after poll shows that if the 2006 midterm elections were about what the voters thought of the President and the Repubicans in Congress, the Democrats would be shoo-ins to regain control of the House and Senate. Sadly, the elections aren't entirely about the will of the people. Republican gerrymanders over the past decade have given them too many unfairly "safe seats" and US population distribution works out such that Democrats are often clustered in relatively few, densely populated districts, while Republicans are spread more evenly throughout the country. (The great big red map we saw after the last election tends to be the result of Republicans winning a lot of 51-49% districts while, in general, the Democrats win bigger in fewer.) The Democrats do need a broader party infrastructure in the long term and they do need to get the Republicans out in the short term. Neither seems possible without the other.

Let's hope that Rahm and Dean can work out a compromise and move forward. The less bitching and infighting they do over this, the better off the Democrats will be this year. After all, whether or not Dean has already spent too much of the party's money raised for this election ($64 million of $74 million) doesn't change the fact that the Republicans have raised almost twice that (about $140 million). The Republicans have more to spend and they have all the advantages of being in power. So the DNC needs some damn unity and discipline and--frighteningly--the rest of us need the DNC.

Whether Dean or Rahm has the right strategy for the DNC, small Democratic donors should lean more toward Rahm's model than Dean's in their own individual giving. Anybody opposed to the Bush administration's policies (about 70% of the country at the moment) needs to target their giving and their support. Money is a nasty and depressing fact of political power in this country, and it's crucial to give candidates in key elections at least some of your money this year. And you should be giving some money this year, as much as you can. I will be.

The BBC has a list of elections that are likely to be close this year. I'm sure other places do too. If you have ones you like, please add them as comments.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Right's Relativism

Mike's post directly below about the NSA poking about in your phone records without a court warrant makes a good and obvious point much like the good and obvious point we've been making for a while now about most of the Bush administration's illegal actions: they're illegal. There are laws that explicitly say they're not allowed to do what they're doing; there are no laws that allow them to do so. Vague and unsubstantiated recourse to the President's constitutional duties to "defend America" don't count. Last I checked, mumbling "fighting terrorism" isn't actually a legal defense. If it is, I'm gonna make a fortune with my new "We're Fighting Terrorism!" plaques to hang on the walls of meth labs and kiddie porn studios across America ($39.99 + s&h, red, white, & blue only).

In the most immediate ways, it's clear what's happening here: people trying to defend the legality of illegal programs find themselves spinning, spinning, spinning like snake-oiled merry-go-rounds. Not too complicated, not too interesting even, except that our freedoms are at stake.

But part of how they're spinning is interesting. I remember in the 80s and early 90s, when cultural conservatives had their gender-appropriate panties in celibate bunches over the dangerous "relativism" creeping into American culture and higher learning. Why, they protested, if we accept the notion that French way of life is good if the French like it even though--perhaps they haven't noticed?--it isn't the same as the American way of life, then we throw all standards out the windows. Morality become meaningless in a multicultural world, they argued, because the premise of multiculturalism is that one should embrace all cultures, even when their fundamental values contradict one's own.

Something happened, though, in the mid to late 90s that inverted that stance. Not in the most obvious sense: cultural conservatives still put morality (their morality) at the center of all their political projects. Which is their right, of course. But despite their hostility toward "relativism" and "lack of standards" cultural conservatives have actually embraced relativism in the pursuit of their moral agenda.

And this relativism is a factual and logical relativism. Which is intriguing because facts and logic should be less understandable in relativist terms than morality is. Thoughtful people, even those who agree on certain bedrock fundamentals, tend to agree that there are areas of moral uncertainty. If you and your friend believe that liberty and empathy are the highest values, you might well disagree over how and whether to prioritize one over the other in a particular situation. This is no less true among cultural conservatives than among liberals.

But facts and logic would seem to be more objective and less susceptible to any kind of relativism. One can dispute the accuracy of facts and one can contest the soundness of a given chain of logic, but if one accepts the facts as accurate and the logic as sound then one has to accept the conclusions reached through applying the logic to the facts.

But in the last decade or so, cultural conservatives have seemed increasingly less likely to do so. The Bush administration is a prime exemplar. Despite the fact that virtually the entire scientific community feels confident about the reality of global warming and the causal contribution of human activity to it, Bush ignores it. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of evolution, Bush insists that students should also be taught "intelligent design" in science class. And Saddam's WMDs, etc., etc.

The core problem here is one of faith of the kind that "surpasseth understanding." Let me be clear: I'm not singling out Christianity. Or even religion. There are plent of secular believers who are just as guilty of this. What I mean by "faith" is that feeling of certainty in one's morality that so deeply and completely informs one's actions that one no longer sees any need to test one's beliefs either against their consequences or against the world in which they exist. If my faith requires me to believe that the sun rotates around the earth, then it must. If my faith requires me to believe that white people are inherently superior, then they are. If my faith requires me to think that all that serial killers need to change their way is a nice bowl of oatmeal and a big hug, then then I'll invite them over one morning to meet my kids.

And If I feel that what I'm doing is right, then it's right. And if it's right, it's must be all other things good--must be beatiful, true, lovable, puppy-eyed, and kitten-purry. And, of course, legal.

Which is why this latest round of revelations about the NSA raiding my phone records without permission from me or the courts worries me so much. Or part of why. The other source of my concern is the more typical civil libertarian concern that a cynical, power-hungry faction of the national security apparatus is using the pretext of yet another indefinite war, this time the war on terror, to strengthen its power over me and all Americans. But the cynics don't worry me any more than the zealots. The true-believers in the security appartus and the administration scare me because they believe so intensely that they don't have to think any more, don't have to fact-check any more. They want to help their America in the way that they think it needs helping. They believe that's right. And if they're doing what's right, it must be legal. And they'll tell you with all sincerity that it's legal.

And if you point out that, gosh, for it to be legal it would a) have to not be illegal and b) to have some legal justification, they wonder why you can't understand simple truths. If you point out that it's weird to on the one hand endorse "strict constructionism" in interpreting the Constitution while on the other hand ignoring the Constitution, they wonder why you hate America.

But or course those of us worried about the NSA's snooping don't hate America. Most of us love the version of America articluated during the revolution against England: the new republic was to have "a government of laws, not men." It's a government run by cetain rules and procedures that everybody has to stick to or change in certain defined ways. It's not a government in which the law is whatever the President says it is. (Le droit c'est lui.) It's not a government of men and women who have decided that, as good people, they don't have to worry about the laws.

If these committed patriots want to protest the laws and go to jail like patriotic protesters have done for centuries, they have that right. Maybe even that obligation. But they don't have the right to break the laws while claiming to enforce them. The laws matter. The laws--especially laws protecting Americans against tyrannical expansion of power--are there to protect us not only from criminals, not only from traitors, but also from well-meaning zealots who decide that they and they alone can truly read the laws, that they alone can read the hidden permissions in the laws, in the stars, where the rest of us see only prohibitions.

Emotion and belief are crucial, and we couldn't function in the world without them. They allow us to see beyond the way things are to see what they could be. But responsible government, like responsible protest, has to acknowledge how things are before trying to change them. Otherwise, it will change them, but only for the worse.

Friday, May 12, 2006

A Simple Issue and A Complex Character

Let's start with the simple issue: AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon handed over reams of call data to the National Security Agency, which was operating without a warrant, even though laws are in place that would have, had the NSA thought the appropriate court would have actually granted them a warrant for such data, allowed the agency to ask for the warrant from a secret court with classified records.

Some commentators claim this is a legal gray area. It isn't. In order to believe that it's legal, you have to reference a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that said that toll records are not to be considered private because everybody knows that phone companies keep such records in order to bill their customers.

To buy that argument, though, you'd also have to believe that congress never passed another telecom law after 1979. But, congress has passed new laws since then and those laws clearly say that such information can't be surrendered, even to a government agency, without a warrant.

But, but, say the gray-area believers, the companies just gave the NSA a bunch of phone numbers, with no names attached, so no harm no foul! Which would mean you'd have to believe that the NSA can't, even if it wants to, match a phone number to a phone customer. Which means you have to believe that the NSA doesn't have access to Google. This morning, I typed my home phone number into google, with NO other information. Up popped my full name and current address. Try it yourself. I'd post a link to my own search here to prove my point but... then I may as well change the name of this blog to my full name, home phone number and home address.

Those in the gray area also say that it's just records. Nobody's eavesdropping on calls without a warrant. But, at this point, shouldn't the government find some way to prove that assertion? Look, I don't really think that the NSA is listening to my phone calls. But let's look at the facts: The President said, a few months ago, that this program didn't have anything to do with domestic calls at all. That's now been proven to be a lie. The NSA, which could have asked for a warrant to get the information they wanted, didn't. So the recent record proves that both the President and the NSA will act without warrants whenever they think they can get away with it and will lie about it. Given that, why blindly believe that they haven't listened into call content without warrants?

This is simple: it was an unlawful act by both the telcos and by the government and the government has lied about it for months, divulging facts only when they become impossible to ignore.

Now for the complex character:

Former Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio has long been lumped in with other executive scamsters from the telecom stock bust. He stands accused of insider trading, among other misdeeds. Let's assume, just for the sake of argument, that he's guilty. He's also the guy who, when approached by the NSA, and when told that his company could lose out on lucrative classified government contracts if he didn't comply, stood his ground and decided to follow the telecom laws that congress past since the Supreme Court's 1979 decision.

Villain or hero? Hey, people are complicated.

They're far more complicated, and I say this with apologies to any budding constitutional lawyers out there, than even the most Byzantine laws that our government enacts and enforces.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Let's Play "Ask the NSA!"

Hmmm, let's just ask the NSA whether or not they're supposed to be gathering phone records of billions of domestic telephone calls.

First, the NSA's description of its own mission, which seems to suggest that it's focused on foreign, not domestic spying:

"The National Security Agency/Central Security Service (NSA/CSS) is the Nation's cryptologic organization. Its twofold mission is the protection of U.S. information systems and the production of foreign signals intelligence information. NSA/CSS is on the high-tech frontier of communications and data processing and is a major center of foreign language analysis and research within the U.S. government."

And, here's the question posed directly, on its FAQ page:

"Does NSA/CSS unconstitutionally spy on Americans?

No. NSA/CSS performs SIGINT operations against foreign powers or agents of foreign powers. It strictly follows laws and regulations designed to preserve every American's privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fourth Amendment protects U.S. persons from unreasonable searches and seizures by the U.S. government or any person or agency acting on behalf of the U.S. government."

So, sheesh, it seems like if the NSA is collecting that phone data without the supervision of any court or without any authority telling it that such searches and seizures are reasonable that the agency is, by its own definition, out of control.

He's the Decider

Bush says that whatever the NSA is doing, it's legal.

Well, glad we cleared that up.

Giving or Fixing?

[Jon sez: read this one to the end! It's good! It builds to a point! Honest!]

Long-time BBC correspondent Matt Frei recently published a piece on the BBC's website in which he argues that the rest of the world (by which he means Europe) could learn something from America's "culture of giving." He points out that Americans give more money to charity than any other people in the world.

It made me feel all warm and tingly. Until I thought about it, whereupon I realized that it doesn't make much sense.

First off, there Frei's piece begs major factual questions: do American’s give a higher percentage of our income than the rest of the world, or do we just have more money to give? After all, only Norway has the same per capita GDP as the US. So (making up numbers), is our 2.2% trumping Belgium’s 2.8%? Further, do we give a higher rate of the money not required for physical survival than the rest of the world? That is, after deducting the cost of minimal food and shelter, which might be (again making up numbers) 50% of the paycheck of an American earning the median income, are we giving at a higher rate on the remaining 50% than Italians, who may only have 40% left over?

But let's assume for the purposes of debate that we not only give more money to charity but that we also give to charity a higher percentage of our non-survival income than do Europeans.

Does that mean Americans are more generous? No. It means that we're differently generous.

Frei himself could easily have reached the same conclusion. He points out something that makes that conclusion obvious: "It is impossible to imagine modern America without philanthropy, because so many of the institutions funded by the state in Europe are financed by private citizens in this country."

So, Europeans are in fact shelling out for many of the same things Americans are. They’re just doing so in the form of taxes rather than charity. For them, this means fewer take-home euros, but it also means more guaranteed social benefits including but not limited to: cheap or free higher education, cheap or free health care, substantial workers' protections, and meaningful protection against the problems of unemployment. We Americans tax ourselves at lower rates, which means we don't have those things. The only major collective expense that we outspend Europeans on (in terms of percentages) is military spending, which accounts for 1.5-2.5 times more of our GDP than does military spending in most European nations.

So if Americans want to do something about poverty and its consequences, we have to give to charity because a much smaller percentage of our tax money is going to basic social services than Europe's tax monies.

You might say that it's six of one, a half-dozen of the other. The social services in place in Europe help people one way, while charitable organizations in the US help them another. To an extent that's true, but it’s not true enough. In terms of helping everyday people, guaranteed social services are a better bet.

First, they're guaranteed. You don't have to hope that donors will step up for your particular distress. You know that the government will step up because you or your parents paid taxes for the safety net you're about to land in. Second, because everybody in the country is enrolled, the economies of scale are tremendous. You get cheaper insurance through your employer (if you have a large employer) because your employer can get cheaper service bargaining for 2,000 people than you can bargaining for one. And your insurance company can get cheaper drugs bargaining for 2 million people than you can bargaining for one. So imagine the benefits of having 200 million people bargaining for the same drugs. Also, despite the inevitable waste of government bureaucracy, governmental social services are still probably more efficient than charitable ones (especially if the departments aren't run by halfwit cronies of the President) not only because charities have no particular fixed standards of efficiency but also because the governmental model requires coordinating the efforts of only a handful of government organizations rather than scores of private charitable organizations each with their own fixed (and partially redundant) overhead costs.

Also, in this country the charitable model tends to cost more money for certain very expensive problems. People who don't get the education and health care that make them productive citizens tend to become major drags on society--criminals or people incapable of paid or unpaid labor. Criminals and mental patients are incredibly expensive to the taxpayers. Strangely, we're willing in this country to pay taxes toward law and order (and even sometimes psychiatric institutionalizations) even though we'd pay less if we paid earlier for education and health. Even people who are just too chewed up to work require a lot of resources from the state and from their families.

My biggest problem with Frei's piece, though, is its embarrassing adulation of wealthy philanthropists. He breathlessly talks about parents who donate $24,000 to their child's school, about Andrew Carnegie, James Smithson, Bill Gates, and Ted Turner.

But what he doesn't mention--and here's the problem--is that such rich people give as much as they want to give rather than give as much as the problem requires. Now, Turner and Gates are both phenomenally generous men, particularly by the standards of billionaires. (Americans earning comfortable middle-class incomes are, percentagewise, more generous than people making more.) But as Turner points out, he can afford to give the UN a billion dollars even after losing $6bn in the late 1990s. As Turner puts it, "It's not as if I'm missing any meals or anything." The same is true for corporations, which tend to give only if they in some way turn a profit on it (tax write-offs and image enhancement being the main reasons).

Parenthetical note: Turner chose to be that generous to the UN because the US (Republican) Congress is too cheap, petty, and isolationist to pay its back dues. There's a nutshell version of the American "culture of giving."

Moreover, the Gates Foundation’s hugely valuable work notwithstanding, the super-rich and corporations tend also to give not where the money is most needed as measured by standards of human suffering and desperation but instead to causes that they most want to be associated with. "The Metropolitan Opera House in New York," Frei reverentially tells us, "would not exist without philanthropy. Nor would the Museum of Modern Art or the New York Public Library."

Now, I'm an aspiring artiste. I value the arts. Any healthy society has a healthy appreciation for truth, beauty, imagination, and creativity. But any healthy society has--first--healthy citizens. Citizens who see doctors. And it has trained citizens, i.e. people who can read, write, and understand math, science, and history well enough to vote knowledgeably and to organize around their beliefs effectively. If I had to choose between better and more effective schools and health care on the one hand and the Met and the MOMA on the others, I'd go with health and knowledge, thanks all the same.

Cutting funding to the NY Public Library would a more bitter pill, but the NYPL's situation isn't not so dire as Frei suggests. In fact, it's a good illustration of the problematic choices evident in many public organizations partially supported by private charity. In FY 2003, the NYPL had a total budget of $274 million dollars. About 11% of that came from contributions. If you assume that the endowment (which provides the investment income) all came from charitable donations, then the contribution percentage goes up to 22%. Granted, 22% is a lot. Even an 11% hit would be deeply painful, but my hunch is that large charitable donations are at least as likely likely to fund exhibits than books and computers. And, though I'm a fan of the arts, I'd be able to cope if New York's philanthropists channeled an extra $15-30 million annually to AIDS prevention and literacy programs at the expense of NYPL exhibits like Joshua Levine's "SKRAWL" ("an investigation[] into genetic manipulations and scientific procedures... [featuring] pink and yellow squirrels moving against the serene sky blue wall [that] invites viewers to contemplate and to decipher the mutant-like appearance of these creatures").

So, in a healthy democracy, taxpayer-funded social programs have these advantages: they're guaranteed, they're funded according to need rather than inclination, and they're targeted at the basics, however unglamorous those might be. All of these add up to one major advantage: they are designed to benefit the society at large by offering genuine, meaningful, and immediate equality of opportunity. In America--and everywhere else--charity just does not work like that. Almost inevitably, charity ameliorates existing problems without any prospect--or even intention--of eliminating them.

For all he gives to charity, Bill Gates is still the world's richest man. Ted Turner isn't hurting either. But even there, I’m not sure they’re giving away more money annually than they make on interest and investment income from the money they already have (much less their new income). Their charitable giving might change their tax burden, but certainly isn’t changing their tax bracket. The only super-rich who change their tax bracket with charity do so by dying first and then donating.

And even there, billionaire legacies aren't necessarily stories of inspiring generosity. Take one of Frei’s historical heroes, Andrew Carnegie. All that money Carnegie so magnanimously willed away to ameliorate social ills was accrued by his ruthless pursuit of wealth during an era during which those social ills made the accrual of wealth a lot easier. It was an era in which the eight-hour day, the forty-hour-week, limitations on child labor, and notions of worker safety were all considered pipe dreams or the thin edge of the communist wedge. Naturally, those millions helped people, including Carnegie’s former employees at his still mills. But if Carnegie had paid his workers a fair wage in the first place or if the government had taken more tax dollars from his corporations and turned the money into social programs, Carnegie's workers wouldn't have needed his charity in the first place. Praising rich people who donate some of the money they earned by paying their employees the bare allowable minimum is a lot like praising the guy who steals someone’s wallet before eventually returning half the money in it.

And, like wealthy individuals, corporations--particularly publicly traded ones--are never going to donate more than they make or donate to causes that undercut their profitability, no matter how just and important those causes might be. Imagine non-union WalMart donating billions to the AFL-CIO. Or Exxon donating billions to the EPA's enforcement wing. Or private prisons donating billions to afterschool programs and legal reform groups that would reduce the number of criminals and lower the sentencing requirements for minor crimes. Can't imagine it? Of course not. Those same corporations might donate a bit of money to those causes to make themselves look better, but to give enough to actually eliminate the problem would be a deeply stupid business move. And whatever you want to say about the CEOs of large corporations, they are far from stupid about business.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not just rich-bashing. All of us make the same calculations, albeit on a smaller scale. I'll often give a buck or two to a homeless guy. I'll occasionally give slightly more to a homeless shelter or advocacy group. I pay $20 a month to an organization that helps out poor kids worldwide. I do NOT give the homeless guy $20, much less invite him back to my place, give him a shower, some new clothes, figure out how to get him whatever psychiatric services he might need, help him work on his resume and interviewing skills, and, once he gets a job, loan him the money to pay first, last, and deposit his own place.

Why don’t I? Well, maybe because I'm selfish. But so then are the vast majority of Americans. Beyond the label of selfishness, the problem is that each of us could individually go broke giving to charity without doing anything beyond making each of us a prime candidate to receive handouts from the charities we'd just endowed. Along similar lines, it's great that in a city with no mandatory recycling program I nonetheless recycle (or, honestly, that I don’t get in the way of my girlfriend doing so). But it's pretty painless for me. And even if I were to make my life radically painful, even if I were to walk everywhere and to modify my lungs to exhale oxygen rather than carbon dioxide, by myself I still wouldn't do a damn thing to fix global warming.

That's why a system of social guarantees funded by the taxpayer is ultimately a better model. If--despite bitching and grumping--everybody has to pony up what it takes to make real progress against poverty, ignorance, and illness, then a society has a real chance to fix the problems. If not, then we can take heart in knowing that there will always be a desperate need for America to continue its self-perpetuating “culture of giving.”

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Was that Funny?

So sometimes I'm a little slow to react to breaking news. But my philosophy is that if breakiing news is good, then broken news must be better. And so (wait for it...) in the spirit of blogging on broken news, I want to talk about Stephen Colbert's recent speech at the White House correspondents' dinner, in which he addressed why the news out of the White House and the coverage of it is often so dysfunctional.

The blogosphere has been ever so excited about the speech for the last week or so. First and foremost, this would seem to prove that the blogosphere needs a date. Maybe a hot stone massage and a happy ending.

Still, the speech was interesting, if for no other reason than because people disagree so angrily about it. The only thing everyone can agreee on is that Colbert stood at the podium, two or three yards from Pres. Bush and, under the guise of praise and agreement, told President Bush that he was a mean-spirited, incompetent liar with a proclivity for shady dealings.

Shockingly, people on the left found this funnier than people on the right. That explains a lot of the debate right there. Colbert was doing satire rather than one-liners, and satire is only funny if people can sympathize with your world view enough to understand why you think your object of satire is absurd or wrong. Along similar lines, I'm sure that there would have been more laughter in the room if Colbert hadn't repeatedly torn into the White House correspondents for spending the first five years of the Bush presidency working as subcontractors for the White House public relations office.

But I don't think that's all there was to it. A lot of people in the room did sympathize with Colbert's satirical point of view enough to have found his material funny, and there still weren't a lot of laughs, at least not nearly as many as I think the act deserved. Obviously, this is hard stuff to talk about with any certainty; comedy doesn't lend itself to theorization. Still, something happened in that room that went beyond the easy categories of funny/not-funny.

I'm willing to bet that most of the audience actually did find a lot of what Colbert was saying pretty funny. I just think they found it uncomfortable at the same time, so uncomfortable that it didn't feel quite right to laugh, at least not too loudly. I was talking to Mike about this, and he thinks a lot of the discomfort came from the correpondents themselves, who not only didn't especially appreciate being satirized but also felt uncomfortable on behalf of Pres. Bush. That's probably right. But even more interesting, I think that the discomfort came from the fact that Colbert was calling Bush out. And he was doing so very publicly and very directly. And any such calling-out is always a tense moment, particularly when you're calling out a guy who will (as audience member Joe Wilson could have attested) put your wife in harm's way if you call him out.

Now, I think a lot of the hysterical condemnation of Colbert from the right is just goofy. "Not funny," though untrue, is a fair enough criticism. Colbert was hired as a comedian. If he wasn't funny, he failed. But "disrespectful" is a non-starter as a basis for critique. A lot of Colbert-bashers seem to think that Colbert showed up at a White House dinner or even a private dinner in the President's residence and went after him there. He didn't. It's was the White House correspondents' dinner, not a White House dinner. Over decades, the dinner has become known for satire, much of it at the expense of the President. Bush knew that. The President wasn't simply a guest of honor--he was the guest of honor at a roast.

What I think is interesting, though--and what I think explains so much of the discomfort and nervous silence during Colbert's act--was that given Colbert's schtick, the act formally functioned as the inverse of a roast: instead of standing up and expressing an affection for the President under the guise of tearing him a new one, Colbert got up and tore him a new one under the guise of expressing affection. Given the subject matter (Abu Grahib, illegal wiretapping, failures in Iraq, secret European prisons, the President's hostility toward logic and inconvenient facts, the President's 32% approval ratings), the implication quickly became that only a buffoon could support the President--and, of course, that the President is his own biggest suporter.

I think Colbert's act was very good. Brilliant in spots. And pretty ballsy. But I also think it would have been hard to laugh at if I'd been in the room precisely because the funniest parts of the Bush administration--the parts Colbert honed in on--are also, in Colbert's terms, "super-depressing." They're serious. They're the kind of things you have to laugh at to keep from crying, not the kind you laugh at until you cry. In that sense, I think the awkwardness in the room was more Bush's fault than Colbert's. If you don't want people's satire of your performance to be uncomfortable, don't invade countries on a whim, hire and fire incompetent cronies for jobs that people's lives depend on, ignore the CIA when it tells you things you don't want to hear, etc., etc.

Imagine, if you will, a structurally similar performance (fake praise=satire) for Clinton or Bush I. We would have gotten jokes about points of light, tax hikes, mangled sentences, french fries, blowjobs, trailer trash. It probably would have been funny. It probably would've gotten more laughs. But that's because none of the "scandals" of either adminstration actually mattered to anyone except the career politicians involved. They were, by and large, minor affairs or outright bullshit. The same can't be said for Bush II's scandals. And when humor is honest about serious stuff, it can still be funny, but it usually isn't comfortable.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Stock Market! And 2006 and 2008.

As a guy with a 401k that's devoted 100% to equities (about 80% US, 20% foreign, if you care) I've been pretty happy, of late, to watch my balances rising along with the Dow, the S&P 500 and the MSCI EAFE indexes. Stocks are up! Yay!

But, putting my own retirement accounts aside and getting political again (because this is, after all, a political blog)... there's really no cause for euophoria, at least when we're judging how the stock market is reacting to the current US government.

The Dow is, as I write this, at about 11,500. It'll likely fall a bit Monday as traders take profits, but we're comfortable over 11,000 and corporate profits and prices compared to those profits (along with other fundamental valuations) do seem to support a continued rise in the broad markets. I wrote at my employer's Web site, at the start of 2006, that the Dow would hit 12,000 by the end. I stand by that. I happen to think, despite obvious negative evidence like, say, oil and energy prices, that the market will give a decent return this year.

So, what does this say about Bush and his handling of the economy?

It says that it took Bush 6 years to get the broad markets (excluding the Nasdaq, which has still not regained its losses) just to get the Dow and S&P back to the levels that they were at when Clinton loeft office. In other words, were you a right wing partisan investor who stayed out of the market under Clinton and then bought shares the moment Bush sqeaked and clawed by Gore... you'd have just now, after six years and a second election (where Bush barely squeaked by Kerry) have found yourself a bit better than even. You'd have been farther ahead had you put your cash in a money market fund. Since inflation has gone up under Bush (not by a lot, but still up) it's fair to say that your stock returns under Bush have been no better than putting your money in your closet (supposing, of course, that your closet wasn't destroyed by a hurricane that your government couldn't seem to plan for).

In short, Bush has presided over (I say presided over, not "given us," since responsibility is hard to assign here) a short but deep recession and a recovery that took five years just to regain the paper losses that the recession caused. Worse than that, the recovery has been a rough one, driven largely by outsourcing and by (though our unemployment statistics are, and have been, low) a fear of unemployment that has kept wages for workers low. The recovery's been driven by capital gains and dividends (which were given preferential tax treatment) and not by hard work (which has been rewarded with wages that have barely kept up with inflation). It's been, in short, a recovery that can be measured mathematically, but that has left a whole lot of Americans feeling like they're still living in the throes of recession.

The market's up. In a lot of ways, that's good. I have money in stocks. I've watched those balances climb. On a personal level, my wages have outpaced inflation. But that's only because I've been lucky enough to get some promotions. Absent those promotions, I'd have fallen behind. Indeed, at a few points over the last six years, in the times in between those promotions, I really did fall behind, and I felt the pinch. I'm no complaining. Too many better people have had it worse and I'd never insult them by whining. But, it is a fact that, for me anyway, ONLY promotions that were granted at the discretion of people who might well have decided to hold off, have kept my basic wage growth ahead of inflation.

So... the market's up. That's good. I benefit. Many of you benefit as well. If you're in the market, you're getting something. But the economy as a whole? Again, I have to stress... the market's up, but it's only up to the levels that it reached under the Clinton Administration and it took the market nearly six years to get there. Also, when I say, "the market," I mean only the S&P 500 and the Dow. The Nasdaq hasn't come close to regaining its losses. Finally... Wall Street's measure of our economy just doesn't reflect or illuminate the struggles of people's day to day lives. Today, for example, the government released a job's report that told us that job creation was only about 2/3rds of what economists expected. You stock investors out there will know that a company that misses earnings estimates by even a penny can be punished to an absured degree. But when the government admitted that it's policies had created just 2/3rds of the jobs they led people to expect... the Dow went UP 140 points. That's because our government's failure convinced investors that the Federal Reserve will not continue to raise interest rates in order to slow down the economy. A company that misses earnings will pretty much never be told by investors that the company's shortfall simply represent reasonable, rather than uncontrollable growth. But, when it comes to our government, that's how things work.

Not only are we just now tenuously grasping at the stock market valuations that we had achieved six years ago, but the stock market is actually signalling to the country and telling us all that slower, more moderate growth is good. From one point of view, the stock market is right. From the point of view of somebody struggling in this economy, somebody working hard but somehow falling behind rather than getting ahead, it's an insult.

I think that in 2006 and in 2008, Republicans will crow about stock market returns. I happen to think, for reasons aside from politics, that Republicans will have the numbers behind them when they crow. Corporate earnings are, indeed, up. They're also, based on projections, heading up. When you buy a share of stock, you're buying a share of earnings. So, share prices should continue to climb.

But that doesn't mean that the economy is well managed. When you judge returns on stock investments, you can pick any start point you want. If you bought the broad market on Jan 2, 2006, or Jan 2, 2003, or Jan 2, 2002, and held it until now... you made money. If you bought it on Jan 2, 1999 or Jan 2, 2000... you're probably about even and wondering what all the fuss was about.

Beyond that, however... if you're just working for a living, and working hard... you're likely falling behind. So, by the stock market measure, we're just now back where we started. By a lot of other measures, we're way behind. In 2006 and 2008, don't let the Republicans use raw numbers in order to win elections. Because, by even the measure most favorable to them... they've done pretty much nothing. By ever other measure... they've done harm.

Porter Goss and the CIA

This is by no means an in-depth evaluation of Porter Goss's tenure as head of the Central Intelligence Agency but, Bush has, speaking kindly of the man who just resigned his post, remarked that Goss left the CIA with a five year plan that is meant to reform and improve its operations.

Sometimes, we forget when these people actually start their jobs.

Goss took over the CIA in September 2004.

It's May 2006 right now. Not even two years into his term.

Had his five year plan been so brilliant then I dare say that no matter what... his tenure would have lasted at least five years.

Just sayin'.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Constitution Actually Does Matter

Sen. Arlen Specter will be convening hearings in June to look into President Bush's belief that he's above the laws that he signs into being. Bush has taken the completely bizarre stance that if he issues a "signing statement" at the time of signing a bill, then his statement determines what the bill says. Apparently what the bill says doesn't determine what the bill says.

And conservatives say that academics live in a world of relativism and careful misreading.

The problem with Bush's stance is that it's so extreme and irrational that discussing its implications makes one sound paranoid. But Bush's stance really is the foundation for an unconstitutional, authoritarian power grab. He might not intend it that way, but that's what it is. If the President gets to decide what laws "actually" mean, there's no point in having a Congress or a judiciary. We should just crown him Emperor and get it over with.

Article I, Section 7, Clause 2 of the Constitution and says (pay attention, strict constructionists):

Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it.

If the President signs a bill, it's law. Period. If he doesn't like it, he can veto it. The President gets a bill like the rest of get a bank loan: If we sign it, we have to pay it back. If we don't sign it, we don't. But nobody lets us sign the loan and then say afterward, "By signing this loan, I consent only to the conditions of the loan that give me the money; I maintain my right to ignore all provisions requiring me to pay it back with interest. In fact, this document isn't really a loan from a bank. It's a Christmas present. From aliens."