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.