Does Obamacare Restrict Religious Freedom
At some point I wrote about this and I was a little more charitable about the opposing opinion, but the more I think about it attempts to oppose parts of Obamacare on religious freedom grounds are way off.
For instance, let's take Hobby Lobby. Last year Hobby Lobby sued the federal government over contraception coverage regulations in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Hobby Lobby's position is (my emphasis):
On November 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., a case arising out of commitment of the Green family, the sole owners of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., to live out their deeply held religious convictions by “operating their company in a manner consistent with biblical principles.”
The logic doesn't hold up though. The federal government isn't mandating that Hobby Lobby pay for "four specific potentially life-terminating drugs and devices". They're mandating that insurance companies pay for it (because they're used in accepted medical practices). But, you say, Hobby Lobby is required to offer one of these plans (or pay a fine). True, but Hobby Lobby is also required to pay wages to its employees, which they can use to buy all the abortions they want. Should Hobby Lobby be exempt from paying its employees a wage because its employees can go buy things that Hobby Lobby finds morally objectionable? Of course not. Hobby Lobby isn't being forced to use nor pay for these drugs and devices. The decision to do so is on the employee who's using the plan.
These principles were put to the test when the federal government mandated that the Greens and their family businesses provide four specific potentially life-terminating drugs and devices through their employee health plan in conflict with their deeply held religious convictions. While the Green family has no moral objection to providing 16 of the 20 FDA-approved drugs and devices that are part of the federal mandate, providing drugs or devices that have the potential to terminate a life conflicts with their faith.
11/27/2013 1:25:05 AM
Filed Under: US Politics
Keywords: religion obamacare religious+freedom health+care abortion
The Shutdown is Bullshit
What the Republicans are doing right now is bullshit. And let's be clear, this government shutdown - plus the maybe possible, but hopefully they're not that crazy, debt default - is almost completely the Republicans' fault.
Now let me be clear. I don't think the tactics being used break any rules. There's more to being a politician than just policy. There are a lot of techniques for getting what you want that don't involve convincing others of the merit of your position. In fact, that's mostly how it works. I dislike things like the filibuster and log rolling and earmarks, and I want them changed, but that's how the system works right now. And what the Republicans are doing is within the bounds of a flawed system.
But here's why it's bullshit. In what we consider normal political battles winning means you get your legislation passed and losing means you don't. If the legislation improves people's lives (or is perceived to) then more people vote for the winning side, and less for the losing side. If the legislation does the opposite then the reverse happens. The reward and punishment come at the ballot box for the different sides of the fight.
What the Republicans are doing is punishing the entire country for their inability to pass legislation (which is, in this case, the repeal of legislation). They're saying that if the other side doesn't agree with them they're not going to punish them by beating them in election, they're saying they're going to punish the entire country by shutting down its government or possibly letting it default on its debt.
It's ridiculous, and it's pretty clearly not that lazy "both sides do it" crap that people fall back on when they don't want to have to defend their position.
Think of it this way, what if the Democrats threatened to shut down the government or have the US default if the Republicans wouldn't pass Obamacare?
10/7/2013 12:50:39 AM
Filed Under: US Politics
Keywords: obamacare republicans
How Breaking Bad Will End
There are three new Breaking Bad episodes left. Stop crying. The most recent episode ended in the middle of a gunfight between Todd's Merry Band of Neo-Nazis and DEA agents Hank and Gomez. Walt is handcuffed in an SUV in the middle of the shooting, while Jesse is cowering in a car behind Hank and Gomez. We know this needs to be resolved, but we also know two other things. We know Walt spends his 52nd birthday on the run, in a Denny's, with all his hair back. We also know that he returns to his abandoned house looking for his ricin, with a pretty bad-ass gun in his trunk.
Let me tell you my theory about how this all ends. I don't actually think this is the way Vince Gilligan ends it, but it makes sense to me given what we know.
First, I think Gomez dies. I don't want him to, but one of the good guys probably has to get it. How those Nazi scumbags missed Hank and Gomez after having them lined up for a good 60 seconds and firing first I'll never know. Hank survives. Walt survives. The bad guys round up Jesse.
Next, I think they take Hank, Jesse, and Walt back to Nazi headquarters. Walt is on their team and they need him so he's OK. Jesse might be spared because he's nobody to them. But Hank, Hank's a DEA agent. The Nazis know he has to die. But Walt doesn't want to let that happen. Walt is all sorts of evil but maybe the one redeeming quality he has is that he really does see Hank and Jesse as family. He is a despicable liar, but I actually believe him at this point when he says he doesn't want them harmed. I also believe he didn't want Todd to shoot Drew Sharp, and I believe he knew how to poison Brock without killing him. While his ego has allowed him to do unspeakable things, I think there's some good left in him. And he has leverage with the Nazis because he's the only guy who can cook that blue meth.
Maybe the Nazis are waffling a little because Walt represents a lot of money. But then Lydia shows up. And you know she's going to tie up every loose end. The Nazis are about to kill Hank and Jesse, but Walt uses Science! to help Hank or Jesse or Hank and Jesse to escape. That's tonight's episode.
The Nazis are obviously pissed off now. So flash forward to Hank on the run in the next episode. Lydia is after Walt, but remember, she's won't leave anything to chance. She's probably after Jesse, Hank and his family, Walt's family, probably Saul, and maybe even the staff of the car wash. She's after everyone Walt cares about. Blah, blah, blah, a bunch of stuff happens.
In the finale, Walt comes back to his vandalized house to get his ricin. He's going to use this to kill Lydia or Jack because they are going after his family. After all of Walt's bullshit about doing this for his family we're coming full circle. The video confession this season, just like in the first season. Burying his money where he first cooked in the RV in the first season. If we're going full circle let's go back to why Walt started this in the first place. At the very beginning he was doing it for his family. Sure, it was ego that made him do it the way he did it. He eschewed help when he could have had it. And he cooked meth way longer than he had to. But at the beginning he wanted to provide for his family.
Breaking Bad has always kept us guessing. Walt has been trending further evil ever since his first cook. What better way to end the season than to turn Walt back into the anti-hero?
Here's what convinced me, even though I don't have any confidence that my theory will happen. In the flash forwards Walt has his hair back, just like he did at the beginning before the evil inside him came out.
9/15/2013 5:43:54 PM
Filed Under: Art and Culture
Keywords: breaking+bad amc tv
The X-Files at 20
The X-Files is 20! This write-up by Brian Phillips isn't great, but this paragraph is a great description of the "monster of the week" episodes:
The X-Files was probably the first great TV show to be galvanized by the Internet and the last great TV show to depict a world in which the Internet played no part. Its fan culture found a home online early in the series' run, but though the role of computers became both more central and more realistic as the show progressed,3 it was possible at least through the fifth season or so to see the Web as a distraction, something with no important bearing on anyone's life. Remember when you could turn it on and off? We often credit the Internet with the disintegration of the old American monoculture, because it liberated us to be absorbed by our own interests, to spend our time downloading obscure anime, say, rather than caring about Madonna or ABC. But the Internet also created a new type of monoculture: It made every place accessible to every other place. We could no longer assume that the peculiarities of our own environments were private. Our hometown murders might appear on CNN.com. The world of small-town X-Files episodes is still that older world of extreme locality, where everyone in town grows up knowing that the rules here are different and we handle it ourselves. Children vanish or trees kill people or bright lights appear in the sky, but there is no higher authority to appeal to and it has nothing to do with what goes on 10 miles down the road. In my hometown we knew that the spillway by the lake was where you painted a memorial if your friend was killed in a drunk-driving crash. It's the same thing. Here is here. And this, it goes without saying, is just the opposite of the here-is-everywhere world inhabited by the conspiracy, which is global in scale, utterly connected, and ruled by pseudonymous men whose flat-affect, no-eye-contact meetings were almost the personification of a chat window.
In fact, I wrote something similar to this a while ago about The X-Files:
Fringe is a modern-day knock off of X Files. From what I've seen it follows the same mythology/MOTW structure. I don't mean that as an insult; I enjoyed what I saw of Fringe in its first season (Lance Reddick and Kirk Acevedo are great), but I just didn't have the time to keep watching it. A problem with Fringe is that I don't really believe it the way I did with X Files. X Files happened in a time when it was possible to have government conspiracies to cover up aliens or a fluke man swimming in the sewers all just beneath the public's view. Today a satanic cult of teachers would get tweeted before it killed any school children. A freaky carnival killer would get seen by Google street view. Messages boards would gin up all those monsters of the week and spill them out onto local TV news.
A great show, and worth another watch some time. Thanks to my brother for the link.
9/12/2013 1:03:48 AM
Filed Under: Art and Culture
Keywords: the+x-files tv
The Case Against Syria
I fall on the side of not attacking Syria, but I don’t think it’s a clear cut decision.
There have been over 100,000 deaths in the war, about half of which have been civilians. Now the Syrian government has apparently killed over 1,400 people in a chemical weapons attack. The Obama administration warned Syria not to use chemical weapons and now wants to attack Syria as punishment for that attack.
There are a lot of issues here.
For one, after finding no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, do we trust the intelligence pointing to the Syrian government? After reading Legacy of Ashes I have a hard time believing most intelligence. I happen to think the Syrian government was probably behind the attack. But I do have some doubts.
The number of civilian deaths rivals what happened on 9/11. Without a doubt it was an atrocity. Then again, so are 100,000 deaths. It’s hard to justify a response based on a death count when we’ve let this many die so far. I’m the type of person who thinks stopping the deaths of innocent people in other countries is worth something. So in that respect I don’t think Syria is “none of our business”.
If we’re talking about this attack being an immediate threat to national security that warrants an act of war though, it is none of our business. Syria has not attacked the United States nor any of its allies. Action against Syria further stretches the American military, making us less safe. Furthermore, unlike Iraq a decade ago, what is happening in Syria is a civil war. The rebels are more than capable of fighting back. Getting involved in a brutal civil war puts American lives at risk and could bog us down in a conflict for longer than we want. Will we get the Obama who helped get troops out of Iraq and limited the America’s engagement with Libya, or the one who continues to drag the war in Afghanistan on?
What it now comes down to is whether the use of chemical weapons warrants punishment. The use of chemical weapons around the world does actually endanger American interests. If Syria can use chemical weapons without punishment it might be more likely to use them against US troops or allies.
The use of chemical weapons is also against international law. This is where many Americans will guffaw about the UN, but I do believe international law is important. I think you could make the case that laws against using chemical weapons have in fact reduced casualty counts since they were implemented, especially in wars involving European countries. If we don’t attack are we signaling that the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction will not be opposed anymore? That is a powerful argument in favor of action.
Then again, if this is international law then this should be an international action. I’ve said this a hundred times on this blog, but that’s a very hard thing to do because nations around the world - especially the nations of the security council - have wildly different goals and standards of human rights. The Iraq War kind of ended the American people’s concern for international law, so I doubt this paragraph is going to persuade anyone. Still, there are few countries that seem willing to join the United States. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” was mostly just countries that the United States bribed whose citizens vehemently opposed the war, but even Bush convinced the government of the United Kingdom.
There is the added issue of US credibility. Obama made a mistake in warning Assad if he did not already have support for the attacks from the American people, Congress, American allies, and/or the UN. While I think attempting to get authorization from congress is the right decision, I also think it’s a tacit admission by Obama that the American people are not behind. He’s looking for cover. Just because he made a mistake earlier doesn't mean America should commit to another more costly mistake now.
Assuming we do get involved, what are we trying to accomplish? Are we just bombing random targets as punishment? Or are we trying to take out Syrian chemical weapons. Given that Obama has rightly gone to Congress for authorization, it might be weeks before an attack. At that point will we be able to find them given our recent intelligence failure with regards to weapons of mass destruction?
Having that goal is paramount because there will be more civilian deaths as a result of our attacks. As a nation with tremendous military power, it is time to acknowledge that our actions will always cause unwanted deaths. These will not be “surgical strikes”. There is no such thing. There needs to be a strong case against the Syrian government and there needs to be a clear plan of action to justify those deaths.
I haven’t seen enough of either to convince me that the Obama administration is advocating the right course of action, despite all the arguments in favor of the attack.
9/4/2013 11:31:59 PM
Filed Under: US Politics
Keywords: syria war barrack+obama
Bradley Manning Verdict
I didn’t take too many non-engineering classes in college. One I did take was about Greek civilization. I enjoyed reading the tragedies so much that I’d often pick them out if I was browsing a used book store. Euripides' The Trojan Women (my review) takes place after the Trojan War as the Greeks go about collecting their spoils. I was always a fan of Hector, him having lost his battle with Achilles on account of some bullshit trickery by Athena. When the prince of Troy dies his wife Andromache is taken by Achilles’ son. That leaves the question of Astyanax, her infant son. The child obviously cannot hurt the Greeks, but they refuse to take the chance that he will grow up and avenge his father’s death. In a final act of dishonor in a dishonorable war, they throw him to his death from the walls of Troy. The great Greek army, you see, was so scared of an event that might happen decades in the future that it killed a baby.
I’m reminded of the end of that story when I read about Bradley Manning. (No, his case is not as severe as the murder of a child.) The final verdicts have been made in the Manning trial. In all he was convicted of 20 of the 22 charges against him, but found not-guilty of the most serious charge of "aiding the enemy".
Manning was arrested in May of 2010, but his trial did not start until June of 2013. That’s three years without a trial. I’m not sure how close court-martial proceedings must adhere to the Constitution, but at the very least 3 years violates the spirit of the Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. Furthermore, the conditions of his confinement were so egregious that his sentence will be reduced by 112 days, telling me that his right to avoid cruel punishment (the Eighth Amendment) was violated as well.
Manning was not a dangerous inmate. It’s hard to imagine the length and severity of his confinement were necessary for his "safety" either. This was clearly punitive treatment before Manning was convicted of anything - i.e. before there was reason for punitive treatment.
It all looks like the actions of scared people. Certainly "we the people" have shown ourselves to be very scared since 9/11. (I'll admit to that.) "We" are quite willing to reduce our liberties and ignore human rights violations if we think it makes us safer. (I won't admit to that.) But I doubt most people know much about the Bradley Manning story. That’s sad, because the amount of scandalous data he released should be enough to keep more than a few journalists fed for years. There is a compelling case to be made that Manning is a very important whistleblower in that respect. On the other hand, there is a good case to be made that Manning should be in jail. I think each side of that debate can be separated from this discussion though.
I think also our national security apparatus was scared by what Manning did. And I do think that part of the government can be honestly separated from "we the people". I tire of people complaining about "the government" as if it’s some entity they have no control over. We live in a nation with many democratic points of control, so it's often a lack of effort that stops people from getting what they want out of the government. So more and more I try to make my arguments be not about what the government is doing, but about what we are letting the government do (or asking it to do). But there is a legitimate level of secrecy and autonomy that should be afforded to those who work in national security. They've taken some more than they were given, and we've given them more than is needed, but I think there is a level of secrecy that is necessary and acceptable. So I think it's accurate to treat them as separate in this discussion.
These people are a different type of scared. While "we the people" are scared in a general sense, the national security part of the government can point to specific fears that arise from Manning’s actions. What Manning exposed might not be the most damaging information, but it still shocked the people who were keeping it secret. I don’t consider these people evil, but I think they know they've gone too far, that what they’re doing does not jibe with how most Americans think of their country. The treatment of Bradley Manning is in response to this, and response was almost juvenile in nature. It showed fear. It was certainly unprofessional and tainted the legitimacy of the verdict. They had him and they had a case against him.
I think there are few debates where there is really an “American” side versus an "un-American" side, but I certainly feel what has been done in the Manning case flies in the face of my views on what America is and should be.
8/9/2013 1:32:29 PM
Filed Under: US Politics
Keywords: bradley+manning 6th+amendment 8th+amendment wikileaks
Stopping Those Damn Illegal Immigrants
Illegal immigration is illegal. There are people who are really upset about this.
It’s true, the US should enforce it’s laws. I’m amazed though at how angry people get at the illegal immigration issue. I have friends on Facebook who post any news story that shows illegal immigrants in a bad light. They’ll call them rats and all sorts of dehumanizing language. Any negative story is proof of the rottenness of the entire lot.
I get some of the anger. There’s a law and it’s being broken. Here’s the thing though, illegal immigration is not really illegal. It provides too much of a benefit to be truly illegal.
Illegal immigration is illegal like going 60 MPH in a 55 MPH zone is illegal on a road designed for safe travel at 65 MPH. It’s like steroid use in baseball after the ‘94 strike. It’s illegal and the police can stop you, but there’s little incentive too. The law is violated too much to realistically enforce it completely. More importantly, it not only doesn’t cause much harm, but it actually provides a benefit. Let me outsource this argument to Eric Posner:
But the reality is that the United States has long been well served by a three-tiered system of immigration. The top tier consists of highly desired foreign workers, who are offered green cards, which typically lead to citizenship. The second tier consists of skilled and semi-skilled people who can obtain short-term visas, usually for three years. Some of them prove themselves while here, and end up acquiring a green card as well. Then there is a third tier, typically unskilled people, who can be removed at any time and for any reason, yet are frequently permitted certain privileges, such as a driver’s license. They are also permitted to work—while in practice being denied the protection of employment and labor laws. We call these people "illegal immigrants" but that is a misnomer. Little effort is made to stop them from working or to expel them. And those who proved themselves by staying employed, learning English, and making enough money to afford a moderate fine, were given a path to citizenship in 1986, as may occur again if Congress passes immigration reform this year.
If you’ve been railing against illegal immigration then this is going to upset you, but it’s true. Even the harshest critics of the federal government’s handling of immigration law reap huge benefits from illegal immigration. If you took a minute to actually add the benefits up, it would embarrass you how much you benefit. It makes calls for mass deportation particularly disappointing.
Illegal immigrants do break the law, but they break the law in the sense that everyone breaks the law. Think of traffic laws, which everyone breaks but which are also only enforced selectively—largely against people suspected of committing drug crimes or other misdeeds. The law against illegal entry is (sort of) enforced at the border, but hardly at all against people once they arrive, except if they commit serious crimes, in which case they are sent to jail and then deported.
The system exists because it serves America’s interests. Americans have a voracious appetite for unskilled labor—in the form of nannies, gardeners, restaurant workers, agricultural laborers, construction workers, and factory hands. And foreign countries contain huge pools of unskilled labor. Unskilled Mexican laborers would rather pick strawberries in the United States for a pittance than pick strawberries in Mexico that are exported to the United States, and for which they are paid even less than a pittance. U.S. businesses would rather pay illegal workers a pittance than Americans a pittance and a half.
What is ingenious about our system is that it allows us to take advantage of unskilled labor at low cost; exile those people who cause trouble; and ultimately grant amnesty to those who prove their worth by working steadily, learning English, and obeying criminal law. They will leave on their own when unemployment rises, and come back when labor is in demand. In this way public policy recognizes a sliding scale of legal protections for aliens, offering the strongest protections to those we want the most, and the weakest protections to those we are less sure about.
Contrary to what you may have heard on South Park, I subscribe to the theory that illegal immigrants actually create jobs in the US. For instance, in the agricultural sector
"It’s a simple story," says Edward Taylor, an agricultural economist at U.C. Davis and one of the study’s authors. "By the mid-twentieth century, Americans stopped doing farm work. And we were only able to avoid a farm-labor crisis by bringing in workers from a nearby country that was at an earlier stage of development. Now that era is coming to an end."
If those jobs aren’t held by illegal immigrants in the United States, they’ll be held by legal residents of other countries. The market, if given the opportunity, will hit the price the consumer wants for a given commodity.
This is not to say illegal immigration doesn’t cause problems. Any influx of people will put extra strain on social services and infrastructure. The scale of these problems though is overblown. Rhetoric and anecdotal evidence is too often played up over broad statistics.
Illegal immigrants are blamed for all sorts of things. They’re blamed for disrupting American society, but in reality they assimilate just fine. They are blamed for putting an undue strain on social services, but their tax contributions are often ignored.
The most heated claims are about the amount of violent crime illegal immigrants commit. Violent crime makes people emotional, so often one such incident will skew people's perceptions of the entire situation. Statistics show Hispanics as a whole commit crime at a rate comparable to white Americans. As Hispanic populations grow in the Southwest - a growth fueled by both legal and illegal immigration - crime rates have been dropping. There are certainly violent illegal immigrants, but the overall picture is of a group that commits slightly more crime due largely to the fact that it is poorer, younger, and more male. Critics may point out that these people are committing a crime just by being in the United States and that that means they are more likely to commit other crimes. I think the opposite. To quote from yet another article debunking the illegal immigrant high crime myth:
For one thing, the consequences of being arrested can be enormous for illegal immigrants, which is an obvious deterrent to crime. For another, immigrants, as a group, aren’t typical of the population. The fact that they have picked up and moved to another country suggests that they have more ambition, and perhaps even more skill, than the average person. This could help explain why the United States, a nation of immigrants, is such an economic powerhouse.
It amazes me what we are willing to do to stop this "problem". Look at what states like Alabama and Arizona have done. They are willing to give authorities extra power to detain people simply for not having proper identification. This American Life recently did an episode on Alabama where the state comes off as a straight-up police state.
Given that illegal immigrants must live lives outside of work, they will set up families and build communities. You can call that a crime if you will, but families and communities are what our society stable. So when we get tough on illegal immigration we'll break up
those families and disrupt those communities across the country, making people less secure.
On the federal level it's worse. In the midst of the NSA spying scandals we've seen recently, I wish people would have the same concern about government overreach when it comes to immigration. The current immigration reform talk has some good ideas in it, but as with any talk of leniency there always has to be a show of toughness. The law-and-order types want to build a giant wall spanning the 2,000 mile border between America and Mexico. They want tens of thousands of new federal border agents. They want to militarize a peaceful border with one of our allies. Our society has become much safer over the years, both in terms of violent domestic crime and external threats, yet the militarization of the US-Mexico border is in direct contrast.
Look what we’re willing to do to our society to stop something that is a net benefit to our economy. I keep asking myself, what are we trying to stop?
7/30/2013 2:24:02 AM
Filed Under: US Politics
Keywords: illegal+immigration immigration
Transparency is a Good Thing
A while ago I had some thoughts about the Stock Act in relation to the topic of transparency, but never got past the outline phase of a blog post. Given the debate over the fate of Edward Snowden, I think it’s a good time to finish those thoughts.
The Stock Act was an attempt to limit insider trading by Congress. Though the benefits to members of Congress of such trading may have been slightly overblown, I think it was a good bill.
However, well, there was a however:
However, in March a report ordered by Congress found that airing this information on the Internet could put public servants and national security at risk. The report urged that the database, and the public disclosure for everyone but members of Congress and the highest-ranking executive branch officials—measures that had never been implemented—be thrown out.
Congress and the President quickly obliged. The article that quote comes from ran the report by security experts who roundly debunked the findings.
Bluntest of all was Bruce Schneier, a leading security technologist and cryptographer. "They put them personally at risk by holding them accountable," Schneier said of the impact of disclosure rules on Congress members and DC staffers. "That’s why they repealed it. The national security bit is bullshit you’re supposed to repeat." (Three of the four experts we consulted opted for the same term of choice.)
(Side note: read Bruce Schneier)
For the sake of argument though, let’s say the report is not bullshit. Let’s say what the report says
Making this information available in this fashion fundamentally transforms the ability (and the likelihood) of others—individuals, organizations, nation-states—to exploit that information for criminal, intelligence, and other purposes.
As some of the security experts pointed out, if criminals needed an online database to get this information, then they weren’t very good criminals. But fine, the online database would make it easier for people to exploit public servants. Ergo, repeal the Stock Act, right?
The problem with this argument is similar to the problem we have with Edward Snowden’s leaks. Both cases might negatively impact national security, but they clearly increase transparency in government. And transparency in government is not just a feel-good thing liberals invented. It is a benefit to society. It is an advantage over secrecy. Transparency, and the accountability that comes with it, helps government run better. Transparency exposes mistakes and conflicts of interests. Mistakes by our leaders are obviously bad and must be punished (at the polls). Conflicts of interest cause leaders to decide in favor of themselves over the country, and must be avoided. For example, the states secret privilege, which is the basis for much of the "secrecy is needed for national security" argument, is founded on a lie meant to cover up a military screw up.
There are many reasons democracies function better than other forms of government and this accountability that comes from transparency is one of them. Sometimes I feel like people never stop and think why America and other democracies are good places to live. Varying degrees of functioning institutions, good economic conditions, and free citizenry were not ordained by providence, nor did they happen by mistake.
Just because you can show some sort of negative influence on national security, does not mean a policy is a net negative for the country. As I once said about dissent in a time of war:
I've said before, any morale that our enemies can gain from our free and open political process is nothing compared to what we gain by having a free and open political process.
My theory is that we’ll find that the NSA programs Snowden leaked end up not being the main tools used to stop many, if any, terrorist attacks. Whether they do or not, we need to be able to debate some of this. Yes, some secrecy is needed. When most people have no idea of the scope of a government program though, there needs to be less secrecy.
6/26/2013 4:05:28 PM
Filed Under: US Politics
Keywords: edward+snowden nsa stock+act transparency
Liberty vs. Safety
A point of disagreement I have with 2nd Amendment supporters is the danger that guns pose to public safety. Supporters will claims guns have the ability to stop an oppressive government, and then turn around and make comparisons to violent crimes committed with knives or baseball bats, or to deaths resulting from car accidents or diabetes or pressure cookers. I still count myself as a supporter of the 2nd Amendment, but I clearly have a different view of the world than they do. The NRA is fond of quoting Robert Heinlein:
An armed society is a polite society.
The second part of that quote is always ignored.
Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.
That paints a grim picture of a world where a simple insult results in death. That is not a world view many will subscribe to. As I've said before, I think gun rights become less important the more stable a society becomes. My point in all of this is this: I don't own a gun, I can't stand the NRA, and I think guns make America slightly less safe, yet I still think individuals should have the right to own guns.
I got to thinking about this in the context of the revelations about the extent of the NSA's ability to gather information. It is not clear that these programs even help make America safer (via LGM).
First, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are increasingly drowning in data; the more that comes in, the harder it is to stay afloat. Most recently, the failure of the intelligence community to intercept the 2009 “underwear bomber” was blamed in large part on a surfeit of information: according to an official White House review, a significant amount of critical information was “embedded in a large volume of other data.” Similarly, the independent investigation of the alleged shootings by U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood concluded that the “crushing volume” of information was one of the factors that hampered the FBI’s analysis before the attack.
I'll flat out say that I don't know the answer. I lean toward the conclusion of the author though. More data increases the variety of cases you need to analyze, and that adds complexity to your algorithms, and complexity increases the probability of errors. But let's say that's not true. Let's say snooping on our Facebook accounts does have some non-zero benefit to national security. Is that the country we want to live in? Haven't we all read Nineteen Eight-Four?
Multiple security officials have echoed this assessment. As one veteran CIA agent told The Washington Post in 2010, “The problem is that the system is clogged with information. Most of it isn't of interest, but people are afraid not to put it in.” A former Department of Homeland Security official told a Senate subcommittee that there was “a lot of data clogging the system with no value.” Even former Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that “we’ve built tremendous capability, but do we have more than we need?” And the NSA itself was brought to a grinding halt before 9/11 by the “torrent of data” pouring into the system, leaving the agency “brain-dead” for half a week and “[unable] to process information,” as its then-director Gen. Michael Hayden publicly acknowledged.
Torture is another example of this. Torture has been shown to have a negative impact on intelligence gathering, both in individual interrogations and attracting new intelligence sources. Though it elicits some information, it more often than not doesn't elicit information that couldn't be obtained through conventional means. For instance, torture had little impact on the killing of Osama bin Laden. But let's say it was effective. It is my contention that we should still oppose it because it violates the basic tenets of the Bill of Rights and those tenets are worth keeping because they are morally right.
We have to be willing to say that our freedoms are worth making us less safe. If the argument is always that this or that infringement on civil liberties is necessary simply because it increases our safety by even the smallest margin then we might as well chuck all of our liberties.
6/12/2013 1:53:05 AM
Filed Under: US Politics
Keywords: 2nd+Amendment gun+control 4th+Amendment nsa 5th+Amendment due+process 8th+Amendment torture
The Ever Expanding Security State
Here’s what I wrote on the eve of the 2008 presidential election:
Vote Obama/Biden for President of the United States tomorrow. I am under no illusion that Barack Obama is going to be some transcendent politician so I don't plan on being disappointed by his presidency. I voted for Clinton in the primaries because she had a better health care policy. Obama's is worse than Clinton's but light years ahead of McCain's. He's more apt to try to get us out of Iraq in a reasonable time frame than McCain, even if that is going to be tough to execute. He's said he'll run a sensible foreign policy where we open the lines of communication with our adversaries. I don't know what else to tell you. I'm not going to say he's perfect in every way but he's acceptable to me and he's definitely a better candidate than McCain.
And yet, I’m still disappointed.
The most disturbing aspect about the recent revelations of the extent of domestic surveillance in the United States is that all of it is legal. It’s not like the NSA warrantless wiretapping or torture by the CIA - programs that were clearly illegal. What Obama has disappointingly done is take existing law and stretched uncomfortably far.
Let's look at what we know. In its leak investigation the Department of Justice had a subpoena for obtaining the phone records of AP journalists and a warrant for tracking Fox News journalist James Rosen. There is no shield law at the federal level to protect journalists and their sources. The NSA’s collection of Verizon phone records is based on provisions in the Patriot Act and was approved by the FISA court. But of course, the FISA court has always been a complete joke.
And, and was totally predictable, the court barely ever rejected a government request for eavesdropping. From its inception, it was the ultimate rubber-stamp court, having rejected a total of zero government applications - zero - in its first 24 years of existence, while approving many thousands. In its total 34 year history - from 1978 through 2012 - the Fisa court has rejected a grand total of 11 government applications, while approving more than 20,000.
And then there’s PRISM, a program that apparently lets the NSA tap into the servers of major internet companies. Yep, legal.
The Protect America Act of 2007 made it possible for targets to be electronically surveilled without a warrant if they were "reasonably believed" to be foreign. That's where that 51% comes in. It was followed by the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, which immunized companies from legal harm for handing information over to the government. And that's the one-two punch that gives PRISM full legal standing.
This is why it is so important to respect the 4th Amendment like we do the 1st and 2nd and to stop these programs before they start. America was scared after 9/11 and so the 4th Amendment was sacrificed to allay those fears. It’s time to stop and realize that we went too far. To quote myself again:
Government never gives up a power you cede it. Barack Obama, despite all this talk of change, is not going to give up powers that might help him stop a terrorist attack even if they curtail civil liberties. Even if, like torture, the power actually harms our ability to stop terrorist attacks, he won't give it up. If a terrorist attack happens after that power was given up then guess what everybody who doesn't realize that correlation does not equal causation is going to blame the attack on? ... Give government a power and it will get abused.
Maybe it’s not "abuse" in this case, but it’s more than we expect or want our government to do, even if it "isn't anything that is brand new", as Harry Reid puts it. Obama has little incentive to renounce these policies or deny any intelligence agency the ability to use them. And Congress has long since abdicated any responsibility it has to protect our security or our civil liberties, opting instead to continually strengthen the presidency. It’s easier for Obama to go back on campaign promises and continue down the path of the Bush administration post-9/11 because there is no political price to pay for doing so. This is not to immunize him from criticism. These programs reduce our civil liberties. I oppose them and I disapprove of Obama and company for implementing them or letting them happen. It makes him a worse president in my eyes.
But it’s clear that this is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. There is no political price to be paid because both sides support this because that’s what the American people want. There is not a large enough constituency of people who will put civil liberties first to give pause to politicians who broaden and strengthen the security state. We care about our safety, but we do not temper that against our liberties until the other side does it, and even then not so much.
A side note: I’ve been stopping myself from taking this opportunity to call bullshit on my conservative friends. Yes, many cheered these policies under Bush. Honestly though, I’ve long tired of the hypocrisy charge. I find it lazy, though I admit it can be fun and I’m not completely above. I’m concerned about the issues involved. So if you’re here to criticize Obama and Eric Holder I had better hear a denunciation of the policies, not just the men. If you do, then we agree. Otherwise, save it for when your favorite radio call-in show finally takes your call. The scandal is not that Obama is a hypocrite, it’s what we have allowed him and our government to do.
Along those lines, let me quote my 2008 self again. The Obama administration needs to be brought to task for this:
Let me just say this: It would be a shame to waste this historic occasion. If we do not hold Obama to his promises we will have wasted it. Not only will we not get what we want (and even if we do try to hold him to it there are going to be things we will be disappointed by...it's going to happen) but Obama will be tagged as some sort of affirmative action President by his critics. The liberals just wanted a black president and didn't care what he did. Don't let this happen. If he screws up call him on it. That's how our ideas remain strong. That's how our democracy remains strong.
You can’t compare the Obama administration to administrations we’ve never elected (McCain, Romney). I still think things would be worse in terms of civil liberties if we had elected the Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Things are hot right now, but if you take a sober look at it, I think Obama still comes out ahead of Bush as well. Implementing new restrictions on civil liberties hurts more than extending existing ones. Then again, we’re only 5 years into Obama’s term. I think comparing Bush to Obama is a good exercise, but I’m not really interested in doing that right now. It’s important to go back and evaluate your decisions, but that comparison right now sounds too much like rationalizing and making ourselves feel better about a flawed choice. Obama is the president and it’s his actions that are hurting civil liberties. We should be looking to stop those right now.
6/11/2013 4:35:37 PM
Filed Under: US Politics
Keywords: barack+obama nsa 4th+amendment security+state