Sunday, December 30, 2012

Fiscal Lemmings

As of the time of this writing, Congress and the President have a little more than 36 hours to come to some sort of agreement or we will, "go over the fiscal cliff."  It is important to understand what is meant by the, "fiscal cliff."  In its failure to act on meaningful deficit reduction as outlined by the Simpson-Bowles commision and as part of a previous deal to raise the government's debt ceiling, Congress passed a law that mandated certain tax increases and spending cuts to kick in automatically unless a new law aimed at deficit reduction was passed.  The problem many have with the fiscal cliff is that it raises taxes and cuts spending across the board rather than in a targeted fashion.  While the silver-tongued persuasively argue that our deficit should be addressed with surgical precision, using a scalpel rather than a chainsaw, to target tax increases to those who can best afford them and cutting waste and redundancy rather than cutting programs that benefit real people; the realty is such arguments are usually a smokescreen to allow protection of favoured constituencies. 

If no agreement is reached, on January 1, 2013, the payroll tax cut will expire and everyone's income tax rates will revert to Clinton era rates.  Other than poverty assistance programs, all government spending will be cut across the board approximately 8%, including military spending.  Republicans don't want this to happen because they refuse to raise anyone's taxes and they don't want to cut one cent from military spending.  Democrats don't want this to happen because, although they spent years arguing that the Bush tax cuts were irresponsible and Clinton tax rates were appropriate, they only want to raise taxes back to Clinton rates on the wealthy and they don't want to cut entitlement spending.  Currently, both parties are focusing on the effects of the tax hikes on middle class families and on the economy and any "deal" that seems likely to emerge will probably entail skipping the hard spending cuts, making no cuts in military spending, and raising taxes on people making somewhere between $250,000 and $1,000,000 per year, depending on what kind of deal can be reached.  While this would avoid, "the cliff," it would be the worst possible outcome for our country.  We would avoid a short term impact on the economy from higher taxes, but make no progress to reducing our deficit or long term fiscal responsibility.  For twelve years now, Americans have been getting more and more government and paying less and less for it.  This has to stop.  As far as I can tell, the only way to get any meaningful cuts in federal spending from our two political parties is to go over the cliff and accept Clinton era tax rates for everyone (these rates didn't seem to stunt economic growth in the 1990's).

This morning on ABC's This Week, former Governor Howard Dean (D-VT) argued in favour of going over the cliff.  He pointed out that the most important problem facing our country today is our deficit, which desparately needs to be reduced and expressed the opinion that the only way to both increase revenue and decrease spending appears to be at this point to let the New Year roll in without a deal.  He also argued that doing so would cause short term losses in financial markets but that in six months they would rally because uncertainty would be removed:  everyone would know what tax rates would be, everyone would understand that finally there is going to some spending cuts, and everyone would know that the United States is at last curbing its deficit.  He's right and conservatives Marc Thiessen and Avik Roy made identical points in the Washington Post and the National Review on Friday (December 28, 2012). 

A deal that generates minimal increased revenue by raising taxes on only a small fraction of Americans, that does not subtantially reduce federal spending, and that does not cut military spending at all is not in the best interests of our country.  While there are valid concerns about the effects of higher taxation on the economy, continued borrowing and printing is more detrimental as it devalues the currency and must ultimately be paid back with interest, representing an even higher hidden tax on future generations.  If some phony eleventh hour deal is reached, Wall Street will rally and Americans will breathe a sigh of relief at avoiding the scary cliff.  But the reality is, Howard Dean, Marc Thiessen, and Avik Roy are right. We should be rushing like lemmings over this cliff.  Now is not the time for a deal.  Now is the time for Congress to engage in what John Randolph of Virginia called in 1828, "masterly inactivity."

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Happy New Year, 1984

As 2012 comes to a close it seems more and more likely that the new year will not be 2013, but rather George Orwell's 1984.  While it is still difficult to envision the oppressiveness of Mr. Orwell's Stalinist Oceania taking root in the United States, Sinclair Lewis was right to warn us in a similarly themed novel that simply believing, "It Can't Happen Here," will not secure our liberty.

I remember about a decade ago having a conversation with someone, who was likely a partisan Democrat, who asserted he couldn't support George W. Bush because of the PATRIOT Act.  While I didn't think quickly enough to ask whether or not he had voted for Bob Dole in 1996 because Bill Clinton proposed the same measures in his 1995 anti-terrorism bill, I do think he was right to be leary of the PATRIOT Act.  Its only saving grace was that provisions would sunset unless renewed, so that if it was an overreach it could be corrected later when cooler heads prevailed.  Unfortunately, the PATRIOT Act has been renewed in its entirety (most recently in 2011).  Its most controversial provisions include allowing the government to search your personal records, whether library, financial, medical, etc., without your knowledge or consent; allowing for secret searches of your home or property without your advanced knowledge; allowing the government to demand your records from a third party by subpoena (a security letter) that requires no probable cause or judicial oversight; broadening the definition of a domestic terrorist; making easier to deport legal aliens; and loosening the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillence Act) restrictions on eavesdropping.

As threatening as these measures are to civil liberty, what has happened since is absolutely chilling.  After discovering that the Bush administration had been ignoring the FISA law and not getting warrants for eavesdropping on calls made overseas, Congress, instead of impeaching the President, passed amendments to the FISA law essentially allowing warrantless eavesdropping.  More recently, the government has created the National Counterterrorism Center to sift through any and all government databases to look for evidence of possible criminal activity, even for individuals not currently under active investigation.  Although Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has, for now, dropped his bill that would allow the federal government to read all e-mail without a warrant, the Senate recently left provisions to require a warrant for all e-mail searches (regardless of how long it has been stored on a third party site) out of amendments to the Video Privacy Protection Act.  Federal courts have ruled that the government does not need a warrant to track your whereabouts via your GPS enabled cell phone.  On December 31, 2011, President Obama signed the 2012 renewal of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a provision of which labels the United States as one battlefield in the war on terrorism and therefore anyone apprehended on U.S. soil, suspected of terrorism, can be detained indefinitely without charges being filed and without access to counsel or the courts.  At the President's insistence, language that would have protected U.S. citizens from this treatment was removed from the bill before final passage.  Although an amendment sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA) that would restore constitutional protections of due process to American citizens suspected of terrorism was passed last month, Congress seems poised to pass a 2013 renewal of the NDAA that strips American citizens of this protection (further proof that lawmakers don't read the bills as the Senate voted for the amendment restoring protection for U.S. citizens 67-29 and then voted for a 2013 NDAA stripped of those protections 81-14).  Finally, the government maintains a program of targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists and reserves the right to assassinate even American citizens suspected of terrorism without due process.  Actually the administration claims that internal review by White House officials constitutes "due process."  It is a strange concept of due process, indeed, that does not involve formal charges, confrontation by an accuser, access to counsel, review by an impartial judge and trial by a jury of peers.  As discussed in a previous post, the administration has already assassinated American citizens under this program.

So what does all this mean?  It means that it is currently considered legal for the government to sift through your personal records and information in government data bases, read your e-mails, eavesdrop on your overseas phone calls, monitor the books you check out from the library or videos you rent, and track your whereabouts via your mobile phone all without your knowledge and without a warrant.  If, after this massive invasion of your privacy, it then suspects you of terrorism or ties to terrorists it can apprehend you and hold you indefinitely without access to counsel or without a trial.  Or, alternatively, it could order your execution, again without leveling any charges or allowing access to counsel or trial by jury.  In other words, your fourth amendment protections against unlawful searches and seizures and your fifth amendment protection not to be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law have now become completely meaningless.  Since all this can be done in secret and without warrants or trials, the government need not produce publically or in court any evidence whatsoever that their suspicions about you are true and therefore there is actually nothing preventing the unscrupulous from misusing this authority arbitrarily.  In other words, your only real protection against having these powers used unjustly against you when you have done nothing wrong is the good intentions of those that wield this power.  Perhaps the current administration is scrupulous about who it spies on, who it detains, and who it assassinates; but even if that is true, what is to prevent subsequent administrations from being less scrupulous?  Doesn't this level of government surveillence, government detention, and government assassination sound like Big Brother's Oceania?  And it has already happened here.

In her novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe is quick to point out that owner's like Simon Legree are the exception rather than the rule.  Her point is that no matter how unlikely it is for an owner to treat slaves like Simon Legree treated Tom, a system under which such treatment is perfectly legal is immoral.  Likewise no matter how unlikely it is that the above powers could be turned on innocent American citizens, a system in which doing so could be construed as perfectly legal cannot be allowed to stand.  Benjamin Franklin warned us that, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."  Yet this is route we, as a nation have taken.  And so we usher in a new year that is not really 2013, but rather Orwell's 1984.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Maryland Question 6

My apologies to readers outside the state of Maryland for this post on a Maryland ballot question for the 2012 election.  However, the issue of same-sex marriage is one that has been raised in virtually every state in the Union and will be debated in all fifty.  Therefore, I hope the general reader will also find this post of interest - Publius

The state of Maryland will have the following referendum (question 6) on the ballot on November 6, 2012.  A vote for question 6:

Establishes that Maryland’s civil marriage laws allow gay and lesbian couples to obtain a civil marriage license, provided they are not otherwise prohibited from marrying; protects clergy from having to perform any particular marriage ceremony in violation of their religious beliefs; affirms that each religious faith has exclusive control over its own theological doctrine regarding who may marry within that faith; and provides that religious organizations and certain related entities are not required to provide goods, services, or benefits to an individual related to the celebration or promotion of marriage in violation of their religious beliefs.

Although I intend to vote for question 6, I do not think this represents the best solution to the issue.  This issue ultimately revolves around differences of opinion between people of different orientations and different religious traditions about what constitutes a marriage.  Some see it as a sacred union, made holy by God, that is meant only to bind a man and woman together to become one, for the purpose of sharing a life together and raising a family.  Others see it as life-long commitment of fidelity between two people who love one another.  Others still see it as both.  The question is, why should the state be involved at all in this personal arrangement between two people?  While marriage means much more to the couples involved, to the state it merely represents a contract between two consenting adults.  The state's only role should be to mediate contract disputes (separations and divorces).  With any other contract, the state does not need to approve or give a license ahead of time, but the participants do have recourse to go to the state (the courts) if there is a dispute or breech of the contract.  Why does the state treat marriages differently?  If the state were out of the marriage business entirely then everyone would be free to marry whomever he or she chooses, provided both parties are adults and consent, within the dictates of his or her own conscience and religious tradition.  The ideal solution to this issue is not to expand state permission to marry to gay couples, but rather to get rid of state permission to marry altogether.

However, the preferable option is not on the table.  Therefore, I support question 6 as the next best alternative that would still treat everyone equally under the law.  This law would allow gay couples to enter in, and have legally recognized, the same type of life-long committed relationships as heterosexual couples.  Those who oppose gay marriage need not have one.  Churches that view homosexual behaviour as immoral need not perform them.  This is a pro-liberty law on every level.  It expands liberty for gay couples and protects the religious liberty of the traditionally married.

Recognizing the committed relationships of gay couples in no way threatens the time-honoured institution of traditional marriage, which remains a holy, loving, eternal commitment between a man and woman who, God willing, will start a family together.  In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no god.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."  Similarly, it does me no injury to me for my neighbour to have a same-sex spouse or no spouse.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

2012 Endorsement: Gary Johnson

In a previous post during the Republican primary, I endorsed Ron Paul for President in 2012.  With the Republican convention over, Mitt Romney officially nominated, and Ron Paul out of the race (he is not running as a third party candidate and in many states would not qualify to be on the ballot as a third party candidate due to "sore loser" laws), I endorse Gary Johnson, now the Libertarian Party candidate, for President of the United States in the upcoming general election.

In my Ron Paul endorsement, I gave serious thought to Gary Johnson, who at the time was also in the Republican primary.  Ron Paul was the more electable candidate in the GOP primary because of his abortion position that was more in line with rank and file Republicans, his ability to raise money, his organization, and his poll numbers that kept him included in the debates.  Despite lacking these advantages, Governor Johnson was and remains a credible candidate for President of the United States.  A former two-term Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson has executive experience and is the only candidate in the race ever reelected to executive office.  As governor, Gary Johnson engaged in the type tax cutting and spending cutting that other Republicans merely talk about.

As President, Governor Johnson would submit a plan to balance the federal budget next year.  This plan would include meaningful entitlement reform, a massive reduction in military spending by ending our involvement in unnecessary foreign wars, and the elimination of corporate welfare and industrial subsidies.  Governor Johnson would abolish the IRS and replace the income tax with a national sales tax, a position I also advocated in a previous post.  While Governor Johnson has not advocated a position on tighter monetary policy, he has promised a credible audit of the Federal Reserve.  As President, he would not sign extensions of the PATRIOT Act or reauthorizations of the NDAA that allow for infinite detention of American citizens.  He would end the practice of targeted assassinations of American citizens without real due process and stop the aggressive raids of medical marijuana clinics.  He is the only candidate in the race who will avoid a war with Iran.  If we are serious about limiting the scope of government, promoting peace, dealing with our debt crisis to create an atmosphere in which sustainable economic growth is possible, and restoring our civil liberties, then the only credible candidate is Gary Johnson.  Governor Johnson has both the principles and the executive experience to get the job done.

Some would argue that voting for Governor Johnson, or any third party candidate that isn't likely to win, is wasting your vote.  Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney represent the status quo.  With only minor differences, they both represent continuing the same failed policies of the last twelve years.  The same government tinkering with the marketplace, the same relentless assault on civil liberties in the name of security, and the same overseas military adventurism.  How is voting for that not a waste of a vote?  While I acknowledge that Governor Johnson is unlikely to prevail in November, it is equally important to acknowledge that real change, the kind of change we need to protect both our liberty and our security, is not going to come from either major party if we continue to endorse their maintenance of the status quo.  On the other hand, if enough Americans take a stand in November, if enough object to the two party duopoly, if enough make it clear that the status quo is unacceptable, then maybe, just maybe, the seeds of change can be sown.  If Gary Johnson can achieve a meaningful share of the vote, say 5% nationally or 1-2% in a swing state that decides the result in that state, then perhaps one of the two major parties would get the message and understand that those of us that believe in liberty and limited government can no longer be ignored (or face irrelevancy as a consequence of ignoring us).  Don't waste your vote on the status quo this November.  Strike a blow for liberty and vote for Gary Johnson!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Nationalize Facebook?

This article in Slate the most asinine thing I have ever seen (OK, OK, second most asinine. The most asinine was the Facebook page, “Libertarians for Obama).  The premise is that to protect our privacy the federal government that eavesdrops on phone conversations, tracks whereabouts using the GPS on our cell phones, doesn’t need a warrant to place tracking devices on our vehicles and monitors what we check out from the library should take over Facebook.  Absurd.

Translation: Facebook is successful and profitable, Facebook has outcompeted its competitors, Mark Zuckerberg has gotten rich off Facebook, and that is just not fair so the public should own it instead.

It isn’t really even about privacy as the article goes on to explain all the wonderful things government could do if it had access to our Facebook data, “Many academics are finding that big social network data sets can generate surprising and valuable information for addressing social problems—for instance, public health and national security. Researchers are working on ways to use social networking patterns to predict the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. We could even use Facebook data to analyze criminal networks in the United States or terrorist networks around the world. We'd want to be careful about the circumstances under which our security services had access to Facebook data…”  And, later in the article, “Facebook’s data harvesting could be used to improve public policy, yet scholars rarely find the company willing to collaborate on important research questions,” which sounds an awful lot like Facebook PROTECTING our privacy to me.

The bottom line is Facebook is not private.  It is a public forum on the internet.  Anything you post here, any data you put into your profile about yourself is not private.  It is no more private than what you say to friends at a party or shout across a public square.  If you want to keep something private, don’t put it on Facebook.  We all use Facebook voluntarily and can choose not to use it if we are concerned about the privacy of our data (I know many people who do not use it for that reason).

As someone who frequently posts things critical of the government, I for one would stop using it if the government took it over.  But, I suppose if the government took over Facebook there would also be an individual mandate to use it since we have determined that the government can force you to do anything as long as they do so by taxing you for not doing it.  Then Facebook could be just like the two way televisions in Oceania

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Commerce Clause and Health Care Reform

The signature legislative achievement of President Obama's first term has been the passage of comprehensive health care reform.  The bill has many laudable goals, including allowing adult children still in school to stay on their parents' health insurance for longer, allowing health insurance to be portable so one does not lose it if one loses his or her job, and mandating coverage for people with preexisting conditions.  There is broad bipartisan agreement on these provisions and they are not controversial.  Another laudable goal of the legislation is to provide universal coverage: to make sure every American has health insurance coverage.  The legislation does so by mandating that everyone purchase private health insurance (with an assistance program for those who cannot afford it) or pay a penalty for not having health insurance.  It is this provision that is controversial and has led to challenges of the law in the courts.  After hearing oral arguments two months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule next week on the constitutionality of the health insurance mandate.

There are some good and practical reasons for supporting the health insurance mandate.  First, it does provide coverage to everyone.  No American would ever have to forgo medical treatment due to not having coverage.  Secondly, it is the mandate that allows for the ability to cover patients with preexisting conditions.  Some of the 47 million Americans who lack health insurance lack it because they are unable to afford it.  However, others choose not to buy it.  Those that choose not to buy it are usually either wealthy (and can afford cash payments for health care) or young and reasonably healthy and therefore they are taking the calculated risk that they will not need health insurance in the short term.  The only way health insurance companies could afford to add patients with preexisting conditions for whom it is clear there will be many claims to pay is to have this pool of patients who are unlikely to file claims paying premiums to offset the cost of the others.  The mandate accomplishes this and this represents the crux of the administration's argument in favour of the mandate.  Because choosing not to buy health insurance affects the coverage of others, either the ability to cover those with preexisting conditions or the increased premiums we all pay to defray the cost of treating the uninsured in hospitals and emergency rooms (it is illegal to deny emergency care to anyone regardless of their insurance status), the government has the interests of others to protect and therefore the right to make health insurance compulsory.  The same principle is often argued on the state level to make automobile insurance compulsory (although the comparison is a poor one because auto insurance mandates are state mandates, not federal and one can evade an auto insurance mandate by choosing not to drive).

There are many reasons why an individual health insurance mandate may not be the best way to achieve universal coverage, but such a discussion is beyond the scope of this post (although some of them were very well articulated by the President when he was running for the Democratic nomination).  Assuming, however, that the individual mandate is a good, or perhaps the best, way to achieve universal coverage; just because a policy or piece of legislation is good, practical, effective, and/or just does not make it legal or constitutional.  The powers of federal government are defined and limited and those limits should only be exceeded by constitutional amendment because such expansion of federal authority sets precedent for future acts of government and there may be unintended, negative, consequences of transferring sovereignty from the people to the government.  As the great, progressive, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (a Woodrow Wilson appointee) said in his dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States (in which he argued the federal government should not have the authority for wiretapping), "Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficial.  Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers.  The greater dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."  Therefore it is important to ask of any potential legislation not, "will it work? or will it help people?" but rather, "is it constitutional?"  Ideally this question should be asked by legislators before passing legislation, but when Congress passes and the President signs legislation without regard to its constitutionality, the appropriate forum for constitutional review is in the courts.  While some may be using a legal challenge to the President's health care legislation cynically and opportunistically to thwart the President's agenda or prevent others from having access to health care, the fact remains that it is important to always ask whether any expansion of government power is constitutional.  That question has been asked in the courts and soon the Supreme Court will rule.

The constitutionality of the individual mandate boils down to an interpretation of the commerce clause in Article I of the constitution which gives Congress the authority to pass laws regulating economic activity.  According to the text, Congress has the power, "To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes."  It grants power to regulate interstate commerce only.  However, as the economy of the United States has become progressively more intertwined it has been argued that commerce in one state has an effect on the others and therefore the federal government has assumed broad powers to regulate nearly all commercial activity.  Indeed, since the New Deal, courts have historically upheld this expansive view of the commerce clause.  However, to argue that the individual mandate falls under the commerce clause is to argue that the commerce clause empowers the government to regulate the lack of commerce. Commerce consists of the voluntary exchange of goods or services between buyers and sellers.  There may be laws governing how such exchange is structured and there may be a tax on the transaction, but the action itself consists of voluntary cooperation between buyer and seller.  The health insurance mandate is nominally a tax (there is a fine levied if one does not purchase health insurance), but it does not regulate how health insurance is bought and sold or tax the actual sale.  It does in fact take someone who had chosen NOT to engage in commerce and force them to do so.  This is an absurd reading of the commerce clause.  There may be good reasons for doing it, as discussed above (and it may be perfectly legal for states, such as Massachusetts, to do) but it clearly falls outside the enumerated powers of federal government.  Who knows whether or not such a mandate, if upheld, would ultimately lead to a grosser infringement on individual liberty, but that is the whole point: negative consequences may be unforeseen.  For these reasons, the Supreme Court should strike down the individual mandate and Congress should either amend the constitution to specifically allow the federal government to determine when commerce shall occur (rather than allowing spontaneous commerce) or pass a health insurance bill without a mandate which either allows the purchase of health insurance across state lines (an example of interstate commerce) or provides a public option for the uninsured as candidate Obama articulated.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Some Personal Reflections on Memorial Day

I was watching The Chris Matthews' Show yesterday and found a conversation the panel had about military service interesting.   They were discussing whether or not military service in a political candidate made much difference anymore with regard to electability.  The youngest person on the panel (Kasie Hunt) pointed out that it is no longer as universal an experience as it once was.  In the Greatest Generation almost everyone served. The same was true for Baby Boomers who were subjected to a draft during the Vietnam war.  But, in my generation (X) and younger, as we have fought wars with an all volunteer service, a far fewer percentage have served.  She went further to explain that less of us these days even know someone who is serving or has served.   This strikes me as true.  While I have friends who have served or are serving, the last members of my family to serve fought in World War II.  Despite extended conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have not lost anyone and, of course, our homeland has not truly been threatened.  While many have lost loved ones in these conflicts, my experience is far from unique.  In fact, I'll wager it is the norm.  Relatively few of us are feeling the pain or experiencing the horror of these wars.

It should not be lost on any of us that even when war is necessary, it is horrible.  Today is a day to remember those who have paid the ultimate price and rendered what President Lincoln called, "the last full measure of devotion," in the defense of our nation and for the cause of liberty.  Robert E. Lee observed, "It is well that war is so terrible, else we should become too fond of it."  But for most of us, is it so terrible?  Most of us live in peace and comfort while volunteers, men and women far braver than I, risk life and limb on battlefields half a world away on our behalf.  Which begs the question, what impact does the fact that a majority of Americans don't experience the horror of war have on our war policy?  Are we too quick to engage in conflict?  Have we become, as a society, too fond of it?  Certainly our political leaders order these young men and women to their deaths with impunity.  The Dick Cheneys, Newt Gingriches, Barack Obamas, Rick Santorums, Mitt Romneys, and Hilary Clintons have all advocated for the projection of military power abroad without ever having served themselves or even having sons and daughters serving (John McCain is a notable exception here.  While I often disagree with his hawkishness, at least he knows full well what he is asking our servicemen and women to do).  Those that decide whether or not we go to war do so without any personal stake. They are all, as Congressman Paul described them, chicken hawks.  How easy is it for them to order other people's sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles into battle?  How easy is it for us to let them when we are not impacted directly by their sacrifice?  For my fellow trekkers (and others who share my view that everything they ever needed to know in life they learned from watching Star Trek), I am reminded of the original series episode, "A Taste of Armageddon," in which two planets remain perpetually at war for eons because the war is entirely computer simulated, with casualties then assigned to report to painless execution chambers.  Without the violence and destruction and with relatively few providing the sacrifice, the societies in this episode tolerated war indefinitely and had no incentive to seek peace.  Is this what is to become of us?  Shall we become society perpetually at war because we have removed its sting from most of the population?

Let us today remember all those who have paid that terrible price and let us pray for the day when there are no more of them to remember.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Free Speech

Although the U.S. Supreme Court did not rule on a federal law restricting free speech until the 20th Century, debate about what the constitutional protection to free speech means is as old as the republic itself.  Jefferson was swept into the presidency in 1800 largely due to the unpopularity of the Alien and Sedition Acts, signed into law by President Adams in 1798.  Specifically, the Sedition Act made it a crime to publish, "false, scandalous, and malicious," writing against government officials.  Opponents of the act argued that it made it a crime to be critical of the government and that this was unconstitutional under the first amendment which mandates, "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech..."  In the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, respectively argued, that these laws were unconstitutional and should be nullified by the states.  In the Kentucky Resolution, Jefferson pointed out that protections on free speech are designed specifically to protect speech that is, "obnoxious to the views," of the government, "or thought dangerous to...their elections or other interests..."  The lesson here is clear.  The first amendment exists to protect your right to be critical of your own government.  Without it, political opposition can be silenced by force and imprisonment, or by the threat of force, and society can no longer remain free.  Although the first amendment initially applied only to the federal government, the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment now extends this constitutional protection to all levels of government.  In Brandenburg v. Ohio [1969] the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this protection extended even to the advocacy of violence as long as such advocacy did not constitute an, "incitement to imminent lawlessness."

And yet this broad protection of expression critical of government is under attack in 2012 by a federal court in Virginia.  A Virginia sheriff (B.J. Roberts) fired six employees.  One of these employees, Daniel Carter, claimed that he was fired for clicking "like" on the facebook page of Sheriff Roberts' rival in his reelection bid, Jim Adams.  While it is far from clear that this was the reason that Mr. Carter was dismissed, the judge in this case declared that the issue was moot because clicking "like" on facebook did not constitute protected free speech!  A U.S. magistrate in Florida has ruled that a facebook page set up to criticize a teacher is protected speech under the first amendment, but Judge Raymond Jackson in Virginia ruled that simply clicking "like" on facebook does not amount to "expressive speech," as a posted comment would.  Really?  How is clicking "like" any less expressive than writing a cheque to a political campaign, something the Supreme Court has ruled is political speech?  How is it any less expressive than planting a sign in your front yard or putting a bumper sticker on your car, actions that everyone would recognize as protected political speech?  All are public statements made in support of a political candidate.  Isn't it the point of the first amendment to prevent precisely what is alleged to have happened in this case: the intimidation or retributive action taken by an employer or an elected official (in this case both) against someone for having opposing political views or supporting an opposing candidate?  How in the world could anyone who spent five minutes in law school, or ten seconds reading and thinking about the first amendment, dismiss this issue so casually? 

We can only hope Mr. Carter is appealing this decision and that an appellate court will recognize its absurdity.  Until then be careful: while I am protected in writing this blog, if you like it on facebook and your employer or elected official does not, you are not protected from retribution.  Unless, of course, you leave a comment.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Smith-Amash Amendment

Sent this letter to my Congressman today urging him to support an amendment to the NDAA authored by Adam Smith (D-WA) and Justin Amash (R-MI) that would restore protections against indefinite detention to U.S. citizens.

I realize that after the next election (with the redistricting), I will no longer reside in your district.  Nonetheless, I am writing as a current constituent and previous supporter about an important issue before this Congress.

As you know, at the beginning of the year, the House and Senate passed and President Obama signed a renewal of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Among other things, this act grants the Executive branch the authority to indefinitely detain, without charges or trial, terrorist suspects apprehended in the United States.  Initially designed to give the federal government the same power to deal with foreign nationals planning terrorist acts on U.S. soil the same way it deals with enemy combatants captured in Afghanistan or Iraq, the original language of this bill (and previous authorizations) has included language to protect U.S. citizens from being treated this way.  However, President Obama insisted that such protections be removed before signing the bill and the final version passed into law grants the authority to detain any American citizen indefinitely for suspicion of terrorism without allowing that person access to counsel or trial or producing evidence.

This is an egregious assault on the civil liberties of Americans.  Everyone deserves their day of court.  The state must show guilt beyond reasonable doubt.  On this, the Constitution could not be clearer.  The fifth amendment states, "no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."  It is a strange concept of due process, indeed, if it does not include access to counsel, a speedy trial, an impartial judge, and a jury of your peers.

While this provision of the law is blatantly unconstitutional, it will remain in effect until such a time as there is an effective legal challenge in the courts.  I am writing you to ask your support in stopping this erosion of civil liberties before it reaches federal courts.  Please support the Smith-Amash amendment to the NDAA to preserve the due process rights of American citizens and restore the protections to these rights that were initially in the bill.  Thank you.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Is This Really Where Our Passion Goes?

How many of you, like me, no longer identify yourself with one of the two major political parties? How many of you who don't identify yourself as Democrat or Republican have partisan friends of both persuasions? How many of those of you who don't identify yourself as either Democrat or Republican and have partisan friends of both persuasions use a social networking site like Facebook or Twitter?

Those you who can answer yes to all of the above have probably had an experience similar to mine regarding the decision (and subsequent reversal) of the Susan G. Komen foundation (SGK), a charitable organisation dedicated to fighting breast cancer, to end its grant to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening. In the 3+ years I have been on Facebook, I have never seen anything like the passion generated by this decision (well, except for maybe outrage over the Casey Anthony verdict). I am a practicing Catholic and get Facebook posts from some Catholic Church sites which praised SGK for standing up for unborn children (in addition to breast cancer screening and contraception, Planned Parenthood is an abortion provider) and enouraged Catholics to donate to SGK. Meanwhile, my Democrat friends where scathing in their condemnation of SGK, promising to withhold donations and calling them cowards for succumbing to right-wing sex bullies (in reality they succumbed to no one, the new VP of SGK is an opponent of abortion rights and campaigned for Congress on a platform that included cutting federal funding of Planned Parenthood). At their most charitable, my Democrat friends shamed SGK for placing politics ahead of women's health (a fair point to be sure). Clearly SGK realised that they stood to lose more donours than they would gain from Catholics and Conservative Christians. When they reversed their decision, the Catholic sites were outraged at the betrayal, as were many of my Protestant conservative friends, and started encouraging people NOT to donate to SGK. My Democrat friends celebrated the "power of the people," and warned that this battle with SGK and other foes of Planned Parenthood is just beginning.

On one level, it is refreshing to see people that are engaged rather than apathetic. But why is this the issue that gets everyone's dander up? In truth, it isn't really an issue at all. SGK is a private charitable organisation, as is Planned Parenthood. Individuals are free to donate to each, or not, depending on their assessment of the goals of the organisation (and, of course, individuals are free to criticize the organisations for their decisions and change their minds to donate or not based on the organisation's actions). Nor, is there really a significant women's health issue here. The SGK grants accounted for less than 5% of the breast cancer screening provided by Planned Parenthood and it is hard to believe that Planned Parenthood couldn't have found alternative funding for that small number of screenings. And yet, this is what people get excited about.

In Syria, Iran, and Yemen, social media is critical for getting out news about the atrocities of dictators and coordinating resistance. In the United States, we are subject to increasingly more invasive searches at airports; our government can initiate eavesdropping of cell phone calls made overseas without a warrant; under the PATRIOT Act our government can monitor what we borrow from the library and Lord only knows how much our internet activity is monitored; thousands of enemy combatants are held indefinitely (and sometimes erroneously) without charges or access to counsel and one month ago the President of the United States signed into law a new National Defense Authorization Act which redefines U.S. soil as a battlefield in the war on terrorism and removes the constitutional protections that would prevent this same treatment for U.S. citizens apprehended on U.S. soil for suspected terrorism; and the government maintains a program of targeted assassination of American citizens suspected of terrorism, without due process, and recently has used this program to murder an American citizen (Anwar Al-Awlaki) and his 16-year-old son (fortunately the Supreme Court recently ruled that the Administration's claims that it doesn't need a warrant to track American citizens using the GPS on their mobile phones is a bridge too far). But no one seems terribly upset about this systematic bipartisan assault on civil liberties in the name of, "making us safer." Everyone seems to feel if they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to worry about. Despite the history of detention of innocent Americans indefinitely during the Civil War and World War II, Americans seem oddly complacent that our leaders today are more benign and would only do this to "the bad guys." The actions of Susan G. Komen threaten no one's rights. Their decisions neither deprive unborn children of the right to life nor deprive women of access to contraceptives or abortions. But people are upset about this and not about the government's assault on their civil liberties.

Social issues like abortion, contraception, school prayer, and gay rights are called wedge issues for a reason. They are used to divide Americans into partisan groups for the purpose of the politicians who stoke the flames of public opinion over them to motivate people to vote. Indeed, there is probably no more reliable indicator of whether someone is likely to vote Republican or Democrat than one's opinion on abortion. They are a diversion from the real issues that threaten our nation, a sideshow by the great Wizards of Oz that rule in Washington to divert our attention from the man behind the curtain. My friends, we have bigger fish to fry than this. In the words of one of my favourite bands, Pendragon, "Is this really where our passion goes? Is this really where our energy flows?"