Drawing the Lines

November 28, 2012 at 11:42 am | Posted in Congress, Economy, Obama Administration, Politics, Taxes | Leave a comment
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The bombardment has already started, and will intensify until, as the year ends, either a solution to the “debt crisis” will emerge—or our fearless leaders will kick the can down the road. Again.

There are actually three sides to the discussion. One side believes that the need to eliminate the national debt has been overhyped. After all, they say, people have been crying for decades that the sky has been falling. But it hasn’t, and it isn’t. People, regardless of nationality, have been falling over themselves trying to lend us money, with the result that the interest rate on our national debt is at an all-time low. (There are many other arguments for not worrying so much…but I understand that one, and agree with it.) What we need to do is worry about improving the economy as a whole; if we can do that, the national debt will take care of itself.

The other sides are mostly debt hawks, and they have framed the discussion in terms of reducing/eliminating the national debt, with the health of the general economy at a lower priority.

One group (let’s call them conservatives for short) has an economic philosophy akin to the European Austerity policy. They believe we can’t afford social programs, we need to spend more money on the military, and we must reduce taxes. They say that cutting social programs (especially entitlement programs) will save the money we need to reduce the deficit. They say that by reducing taxes we will induce business and wealthy individuals to create more jobs, thus raising more revenue to further reduce the deficit.

But look what Austerity has brought the Europeans: their economies are in decline, and their people are rioting or striking because they’re not getting a fair return on the time and energy they spend working. They’re not creating jobs. They’re not increasing revenue. They are imposing poverty on their populations.

Another group (yes, we’ll call them liberals) believes differently. They’d like to increase taxes on the very rich. The increases won’t make a bit of difference to the lifestyles of these people, nor cause them to fire people. The proposed increases would apply only to the income over $250,000. The liberals would like to eliminate certain tax breaks treasured by big businesses and wealthy individuals, like the oil depletion allowance. They’d like to eliminate tax breaks that help pay for corporate jets, and tax loopholes that encourage businesses to make as much of their money as possible overseas and avoid taxes here. Liberals say that by increasing taxes on the very wealthy and eliminating tax breaks and loopholes we’ll increase revenue we can apply to the national debt.

They’re probably right. But both groups are forgetting that the best way to reduce the national debt is to create jobs. We need to invest in physical infrastructure, like roads, bridges, power grids, and buildings. Those physical projects will create thousands and thousands of jobs, most of which can only be done here. The workers who get those jobs will pay taxes and buy products, creating more revenue for the government and more demand for products, thus even more jobs. Employers will hire, but only if there is more demand for their products and services.

The federal government needs to invest in the states. Money for education will help our workers compete in an ever more challenging workplace—and provide jobs for teachers. Money for public safety will reduce crime rates and improve state and local responses to disasters—and provide jobs for police officers, firefighters, and disaster relief workers. Those are only a couple of examples of areas where federal investment can provide programs, equipment, and jobs to improve our lives. And the workers who get these new jobs will pay taxes and buy products, creating more government revenue and more demand for products and services.

The top priority is not the national debt: it’s the economy. The conservatives and the liberals need to work together, to find compromises that will get the job done. You need to pass this message to your friends and let your elected representatives know how you feel. They need to stop “standing on principle” and start governing: the country is at stake.

Run in circles, scream, and shout

December 17, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Posted in Media, Obama Administration | Leave a comment
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Dear Governments and Media Outlets: Wait a minute. Stop. Take a deep breath. Put your heads down on your tables and close your eyes. The milk and cookies will be here soon.

Why are you all screaming about Julian Assange and Wikileaks? They didn’t steal any secret documents. The Swedish government has made two criminal accusations of Assange. They say that he had consensual sex with a woman twice, the second time without a condom. And they say that while having consensual sex with another woman (a friend of the first woman) his condom broke while he was climaxing—and he continued to climax. Did you ever try to stop in the middle of a climax? Well, the women went public because each one is angry at him for cheating on her with the other. But one of them has quit cooperating with the prosecutors anyway.

The Swedish government issued a warrant for Julian’s arrest; the British government arrested him and held him, setting bail at $316,000. The Swedish government wants to extradite him, but when told about the bail said “Huh? Bail?” (OK, I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the point.)

Murderers, drug lords, financiers who fraudulently steal huge sums money—all of you stand aside. Julian Assange’s condom broke, which puts him ahead of you in the Master Criminal category, requiring more than $300,000 in bail. Vindictive, yes. Silly, yes. If you believe they want him that badly because of a broken condom I have a nice toll bridge for sale.

Despite the screaming and yelling, nobody has actually charged Wikileaks with anything, and the reason is quite simple: as far as anybody knows they didn’t steal anything, buy anything stolen, or sell anything stolen. They took material that was given them—250,000 U.S. Government classified documents. They gave copies of these documents to three newspapers: Le Monde in France, El Pais in Spain, and The Guardian in Great Britain. The Guardian gave the documents to the New York Times. Wikileaks worked with these newspapers on timing the release, and redacted its copies in cooperation with the newspapers to prevent intelligence sources from being revealed or national security being compromised. I think that counts as responsible journalism, and if what was released makes governments uncomfortable, that’s too bad. One of the most important functions of the free press we have under our constitution is to make governments uncomfortable.

By the way, U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, who is alleged to have stolen the documents, has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest in May, according to reports. He hasn’t been convicted; his trial has not even begun. In many places extended solitary confinement is considered torture. It is certainly unheard-of in pre-trial confinement! What happened to the principle that the accused are innocent until proven guilty? Private Manning should probably be confined until trial, but he should be confined under the same conditions as other accused people. If found guilty he must pay the penalties prescribed by law, and he should serve his time under the same conditions as any other convict. Anything less is vindictiveness, not justice.

How about the people who designed the procedures and environment that allowed an Army private to allegedly steal 250,000 classified documents? A few heads need to roll, I suspect. President Obama has ordered federal agencies to review their procedures on classified material. Better late than never.

There are some questions about this whole incident that need to be examined. Should governments have secrets? If so, what ought to be secret and what should be fodder for whistle blowers?

Should governments have secrets? Absolutely. It is impossible to conduct the business of governing, diplomatic and otherwise, without keeping some things secret, at least for a time. Just to look at the diplomatic side of things, frank communication between diplomats in the field and diplomats at home is critical to good diplomacy. If diplomats must fear that their cables may be released to the public they won’t speak frankly and honestly, and U.S. interests will be compromised. The same thing is true for personnel matters; for military matters; for financial negotiations, etc.

I don’t mean these secrets should be kept secret forever, and I don’t mean that everything government does should be secret. We all know that there are people in government who classify documents to conceal wrongdoing or incompetence. There must be checks and balances, and there are: the freedom of the press I mentioned earlier is one. It’s part of the media’s job to find out what’s going on, and to let the public know about it. Whistleblowers are another: they bring to the attention of the media—and therefore the public—things that the public ought to know, but that are being concealed.

But I don’t think we’re dealing with a whistleblower here. There are simply too many documents involved, and it’s not credible that the alleged thief knew enough about them to select the documents that show a specific problem. I think we’re dealing with the actions of a disgruntled individual, and the problem is that he was able to steal so much classified information.

Government, get your house in order. Improve your security, protect classified information, and prosecute any criminal wrongdoing. But don’t be vindictive—even when your security is inadequate, even when the theft of a huge number of classified documents makes a big, worldwide stink.

And Julian…trust me, you need to start buying a better grade of condom. And using one every time.

It’s Over; the Democrats lost. Why? What’s Next?

November 4, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Posted in Congress, Economy, Obama Administration, Politics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “Unprecedented Republican sweep.” OK. Democrats, Progressives, and Liberals lost. The Republicans gained control of the House, and made gains in the Senate.

Why? Let’s look at some numbers. Republican leaders, who surely read the exit polls, say the message is clear: “Repeal healthcare reform!” But according to those exit polls, only 18% say healthcare reform is the top issue. 48% want to repeal it. 47% said keep or expand healthcare. Doesn’t sound like a mandate to me.

House Minority Leader (and presumptive Speaker) John Boehner says the “loud message” from the voters is “Cut spending!” Well, 39% say that cutting the deficit should be Congress’ top priority—but 37% say the government should spend more, to create jobs. 39% to 37%: another non-mandate.

It’s interesting to note that most of the voters in this election cycle were older, blue-collar white men from the South and Midwest. Those areas are not the twinkling stars of our economy, folks, and those voters are suffering.

“It’s the economy, Stupid!” Some voters wrongly blamed the Obama administration for the sullen economy, but more of them blamed Bush II, and even more blamed Wall Street. The last two groups had it right: the economy was sliding into the tank when Obama took office; the TARP package was started under Bush but passed under Obama. (After they helped pass it the Republicans repudiated it.) The Obama administration successfully bailed out the U.S. auto industry (American made cars are selling better than foreign cars and the automakers are healthy again), and bailed out the financial sector as well. (We, the taxpayers are making a profit on the bailouts, by the way.) The Obama administration passed financial regulation and consumer-friendly credit card laws that will help prevent problems in the future. And they did it over the anguished screams of Republicans—and constant Republican obstructionism.

The avalanche of money from the big-money crowd both at home and abroad is another reason the Democrats lost so many seats, but I’ve already commented on that and will do so again elsewhere. In the main it was the poor economy that bashed the Democrats, even though it’s not their fault.

But the Democrats could have done a lot better on November 2. They simply did not get their message across to the voters, or motivate the voters to go to the polls. During the first two years of his administration President Obama should have exercised the charismatic leadership that got him the job. He, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi should have imposed better discipline on the Democrats in the Congress, should have been less anxious to be “bipartisan,” and should have used the bully pulpit to counter Republican arguments.

What’s going to happen in the next two years? I had lunch yesterday with a friend who had the most likely answer I’ve heard: nothing. Nothing will happen. The House will pass legislation that nobody really likes, after endless hours of wrangling, and between endless hours of hearings and endless investigations of Democrats that will turn up virtually nothing. The Senate will sit on any legislation the House manages to pass. If the Congress actually passes something on the Republican agenda (like the repeal of healthcare reform or the privatization of Social Security) Obama will veto it.

Doing nothing puts us on the road to disaster. If you don’t go forward you will go backward. It’s a law of nature as immutable as the law of gravity. The Democrats—from Obama on down—must get their act together. Get your agenda straight, Democrats! Negotiate among yourselves, but come to an agreement—and stick to it! Work together. Don’t bother to try to work with the Republicans: they’ve said time and time again that they won’t compromise. You still have power, Democrats. Use it.

Or the United States of America will end up being a Third World country.

Google/Verizon Proposal Limits Internet Regulation

August 11, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Posted in Obama Administration, Politics | Leave a comment
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The other day, the Curmudgeon published a story advocating that the FCC reassert its authority over internet common carriers. The story said that the Google/Verizon deal had foundered. At the same time, Google and Verizon released a “policy proposal” that would seriously limit FCC regulation.

With blatant insincerity, the proposal says that the FCC should indeed regulate the internet–but only in specific ways. It proposes that internet service providers (like Verizon) should not be allowed to block access to information providers, or offer a paid “fast lane.” It says that the FCC ought to have the power to prevent or stop such violations.

But there would be exceptions. (Remember the overused phrase “the devil is in the details?”) Wireless access to the internet would not be covered. New services that internet service providers might offer would not be covered. Essentially, the proposal is to allow the FCC to have authority over existing wired services only.

This “proposal” changes nothing, except to make it more important that we tell the FCC to take back the authority it relinquished and impose reasonable regulation on the existing internet services (wired, wireless, or what-have-you) and on all new services as well. It is critical that the internet remain open and equally available to all, at reasonable cost.

According to Jay Schwartzman, senior VP and policy director of the Media Access Project, the plan “creates an Internet for the haves and an Internet for the have-nots.” He goes on to point out that implementing the proposal “may make some services unaffordable for consumers and access to those services unavailable to new start-ups.” That is to say, the proposal would result in a tiered internet, where you’d have to pay more for some services and some data. Not good for the consumer—you and me—and not good for start-up businesses.

One FCC commissioner, Michael J. Copps, opposes the proposal and feels that “It is time…to reassert F.C.C. authority over broadband telecommunications, to guarantee an open Internet now and forever, and to put the interests of consumers in front of the interests of giant corporations.” But FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is wishy-washy on the subject. Although he says that “it is essential that the Internet itself remain open, however users reach it,” he also says that there may be benefits in broadband providers “offering managed services in limited circumstances.”

Chairman (and Commissioner) Genachowski needs some backbone, and ought to stop playing nice-nice with the big internet service providers. They are, as I have said before, common carriers, and the FCC should not negotiate with them. The FCC needs to assert its authority to regulate all common carriers providing services over the internet, whether wired or wireless. Then it needs to do what the Communications Act of 1934 told it to do 75 years ago: make the wired and wireless communication networks equally available to all of the people of the United States.

If you have not already done so, please write Mr. Genachowski and tell him so. His email address is Julius.Genachowski@fcc.gov. Send copies to the President and your senators and congressman, whose contact information is easily available at Congress.org. If you want to send snail mail, Chairman Genachowski’s address is: Federal Communications Commission, 445 12th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20554.

Want to Pay More to Use the Internet?

August 9, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Posted in Obama Administration, Politics | Leave a comment
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The internet is a whole lot like the telephone network… and the railroads…and even the roadways…except that the internet carries data for the most part. Data like email messages, movies, files you found by searching on Google travels between internet sites and your computer. It works like cars driving from place to place at rush hour: the speed varies depending on the amount of traffic, and the farther the cars (or data) have to go the longer it takes, but everything moves at the same speed.

The problem is that broadband carriers (like AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon) can change things so that some kinds of data go faster, and other kinds go slower, and they’d like to do that. They’d like to charge more for some kinds of data than other kinds of data. They’d like to scan your emails for key words so they could sell your name to marketers who do “targeted marketing.” They’d like to make exclusive deals with certain blogs and web sites–and block your access to competing blogs and web sites. They’d like to do lots of things, none of which are in your interest, and most of which will end up costing you money and limiting your access to internet sites and information.

The way things stand today, they can do it. The FCC, which used to enforce the rules on the internet, decided a few years ago that it didn’t want to do that any more, so at this point internet services provided by broadband carriers are pretty much unregulated.

But the FCC was established by the Communications Act of 1934 with the mission to “make available, so far as possible, to all people of the United States . . . A rapid, efficient, Nationwide, and worldwide wire and radio communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges, for the purpose of the national defense, [and] for the purpose of promoting the safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communication.” The internet carriers clearly provide communications services: the FCC has jurisdiction. All it needs to do is to formally declare that it has jurisdiction! That will give it the ability it gave up several years ago to regulate internet providers the way it regulates other common carriers.

In May, the FCC announced a “third way” plan to regulate internet common carriers a little bit, and entered negotiations with Google and Verizon, which were cutting a deal about the internet. The terms have not been announced, but the deal apparently foundered. Meanwhile, the FCC’s plan has apparently foundered too; that’s just as well, because the FCC shouldn’t be negotiating with members of the industry–It should be regulating them.

I don’t suggest extensive regulation. But, like the telephone system, the internet is operated by common carriers. Common carriers should allow all users–information providers and information users–equal access to everything that’s out there, while protecting our privacy–and at fair and reasonable cost. That won’t happen without regulation.

I urge you to write to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to tell him you want the FCC to declare its jurisdiction over internet service providers, and to ensure that the common carriers who operate the internet are appropriately regulated. You can send him an email at Julius.Genachowski@fcc.gov (and it would be a good idea to copy the President and your senators and congressman). If you want to send snail mail, Chairman Genachowski’s address is Federal Communications Commission, 445 12th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20554.

Don’t let John die

November 30, 2009 at 1:16 pm | Posted in Congress, Healthcare, Obama Administration, Politics | 1 Comment
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Recently The New York Times published an Op-Ed piece by Nicholas Kristof, titled Are we going to let John die? It’s the story of a man who will die soon—because he can’t get healthcare.

A friend wrote me and said he didn’t understand why John is having problems with his healthcare, that he doesn’t think our healthcare system is broken, that he doesn’t think the healthcare reform bills would do anything for John, and that he doesn’t want the government stepping in and spending lots of money.

This is my response.

Here’s why is John having problems with his healthcare:

  • Because of his condition he is unable to work.
  • Because he is unable to work he lost his health insurance.
  • His wife’s insurance company won’t cover him because he has a pre-existing condition—and neither will any other insurance companies.
  • Emergency rooms can’t do much for him. They can give him a pain pill, but they can’t treat the condition. And he’s gone to the ER so often that one hospital told him not to come back until he gets insurance.
  • In August he qualified for Medicaid, but the payment rates are so low in Oregon that he can’t find a doctor who will do the operation he needs.

The healthcare reform bills would help John in a couple of ways. Both bills would make insurance companies take him on despite his pre-existing condition. The House bill (and probably the Senate bill) would prohibit his insurance company from dropping him because he lost his job. And a strong public option would reduce premium costs by making health insurance companies compete.

If our healthcare system isn’t broken, how could John’s problem be solved?

He’s going to die. He’s going to die because he doesn’t have health insurance, or the money to pay for the healthcare that would save his life. He is one of the roughly forty-eight thousand people who die each year because they are underinsured or uninsured.

Healthcare reform is expensive, sure. Yet the Congressional Budget Office says that both the House and Senate bills will more than meet President Obama’s requirement that they “not add a dime to the deficit.” They will actually reduce the deficit. Can we afford healthcare reform? Yes.

But healthcare reform is not simply a financial issue. It’s a moral issue. We have the ability, so it is immoral and unethical to evade our responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves. It would be nice if friends, relatives, churches, and social organizations could take care of the problem. But they can’t. It is simply too big, too complex, and too expensive for that. Who is left?

We can’t afford not to reform our healthcare system! We must do the right thing and make healthcare available to everybody.

The Republicans, Joe Lieberman, and the Blue Dog Democrats are doing everything they can do to keep the status quo. I don’t suppose most of them want John to die, or would simply let him die. But apparently they would rather see John die than lose the contributions they get from the health insurance companies. And most Republicans simply want to see President Obama fail because they think it will be to their political advantage—but that’s another discussion.

We won in the House, and we cannot let healthcare reform be emasculated or defeated in the Senate. Write or call your senators—both of them—and tell them that, like most of the people in your state, you want real health reform, including a strong public option. They’ll listen, because you have something the health insurance companies don’t have: the vote.

House passes major healthcare reform bill: Cheers from the left, boos from the right

November 8, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Posted in Congress, Healthcare, Obama Administration, Politics | 1 Comment
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It was no big surprise. Saturday evening the House passed its healthcare reform bill—certainly the most important healthcare legislation to be passed since Medicare. The sad part is the number of Democrats who voted against it. My representative did. Despite letters and phone calls from his district (23% of the non-elderly residents of Mr. McIntyre’s district are uninsured) Mr. McIntyre voted the way his real constituents—the health insurance industry—wanted him to vote. He voted no.

But the bill passed, and most of us are cheering and rolling up our sleeves in preparation for the Senate debate. Of course there are those who oppose this legislation, and some of them responded to the email I sent around last night. For example, my son the Conservative (oh, where did I go wrong?) wrote:

“He’s going to vote against it? Good! You’re right, I should call him and congratulate him for taking the right stance. This healthcare reform bill, as I understand it, is a fiscal abortion. It is time for our government to stop spending money like mad!! Obama has TRIPLED(!!!) our national debt in less than a year! Enough with entitlements! How about we work for and earn what get?”

I should perhaps tell you that my son Peter has three children of his own, plus two stepchildren. One of Peter’s kids is in the U.S. Marines, and is to be deployed this Spring to Afghanistan. Another is a Senior at SUNY New Paltz, majoring in Theater Arts. Another, just over a year old, is the family comedian. And Peter’s two step-daughters are in elementary school.

The following is my response (with minor edits):

“If you think the bill is a fiscal abortion you don’t know what it says.  It will actually reduce the National Debt!

 “When you say that President Obama has tripled the national debt, you forget that Bush left office with the economy going over a cliff and two hugely expensive wars eating us up.  The Bush administration rammed a fiscal stimulus package through, but it was completely unmonitored, and we will probably never know how the money was actually spent.

“The Obama administration fiscal stimulus had more teeth in it (although not nearly enough) and has brought the economy back from the brink.  The package didn’t go far enough, according to many economists, but the economy is showing signs of recovery.  Unfortunately employment has not recovered, and according to the administration, job creation is now the economic priority. It should be.

“Think about this:  suppose I were to get some debilitating disease and need nursing home care.  Without Medicare I’d literally have to beggar myself to get that care, and if the disease lasted more than a few months you’d have to help too:  Sell your house, trade in your vehicles on clunkers, and tell Abby, Emily, and Fred to forget about college.  Would you do that?  I hope not.

 “‘Work for what we earn and get’ is a good idea, as is the idea of helping your needy family members. In today’s world the government must step in because few us have the financial strength to provide the help that may be necessary. The “family” has to be a lot bigger to make it possible to support the members.  Things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA are supporting your needy family members, and that’s good.   Helping our needy family members across the nation is the right thing to do.  Did you read my blog?  45,000 Americans died last year because they were uninsured or underinsured.  Is that right?  I don’t think so.

 “Can you rely on the private sector?  Well…no.  Between 2000 and 2007 health insurance company profits rose by about 400%.  The cost of healthcare caused over a million bankruptcies last year; over 1.5 million people lost their homes.  Is that right?  I don’t think so.

 “Healthcare reform is not just a financial or philosophical issue.  It is those, but it is also a moral issue.  Yesterday’s House vote was a mighty victory on both fronts, and I celebrate it with my mind and my spirit.

 “Our next challenge is the Senate, and I hope you’ll become an enthusiastic supporter of healthcare reform.  After all, it’s in your own interest!”

I post these words—Peter’s and mine—with his permission, and because I hope they will reassure those of you who are on the left and perhaps even change some minds on the right. Please, dear readers, think about it.

Oh, by the way…

October 10, 2009 at 7:58 am | Posted in Congress, Healthcare, Obama Administration, Politics | Leave a comment
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I used Congress.org to write emails to my elected representatives on healthcare reform, and I’ve reproduced the emails below. I strongly urge you to send similar letters (but for best results, don’t copy mine). If you prefer, phone your reps: ask for the staffer who handles healthcare reform and leave a message. Or, write a letter. But do it, please: putting pressure on these people, showing them that public opinion is strong on this issue, is the best way to get the job done.

President Obama

When you ran for President you promised us a strong healthcare reform package with a robust public option. Like most Americans, I know we need that package badly: it’s important that we get it, and I care little about the politics and processes. I want it done. Now.

I worked on your campaign and voted for you, but I’ve been disappointed in your lack of aggressive leadership on this issue. Mr. President, the country relies on your strong leadership to get a bill—like the ones in the House—passed in Congress and signed into law.

Please: get it done!

Representative McIntyre

Healthcare reform will soon come to a vote in the House. It is a critical issue. Like most Americans, I want to see a bill that reins in the health insurance companies, makes them compete with each other, and includes a strong public option. We can do this, as every other industrialized nation does, and failure to do it would result in financial disaster for individuals, and for the nation.

Remember, Mr. McIntyre, it is the people who vote, not the corporations. And the people care about this issue. Like the people of North Carolina, you must support real, robust healthcare reform. Get it done!

Senator Kay Hagan

Healthcare reform will soon come to a vote in the Senate. It is a critical issue. Like most Americans, I want to see a bill that reins in the health insurance companies, makes them compete with each other, and includes a strong public option. We can do this, as every other industrialized nation does, and failure to do it would result in financial disaster for individuals, and for the nation.

Remember, Ms. Hagan, it is the people who vote, not the corporations. And the people care about this issue. Like the people of North Carolina, you must support real, robust healthcare reform. Get it done!

Senator Richard Burr

Healthcare reform will soon come to a vote in the Senate. It is a critical issue. Like most Americans, I want to see a bill that reins in the health insurance companies, makes them compete with each other, and includes a strong public option. We can do this, as every other industrialized nation does, and failure to do it would result in financial disaster for individuals, and for the nation.

Mr. Burr, you have voted against virtually every piece of legislation since January. That’s childish, and it’s not what you were elected to do. Remember: it is the people who vote, not the corporations. And the people care about this issue. Like the people of North Carolina, you must support real, robust healthcare reform. Get it done!

The torture in our past

April 22, 2009 at 7:07 am | Posted in Bush Administration, Obama Administration, Politics | Leave a comment
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It’s not “enhanced interrogation,” it’s torture. It’s ugly, it’s immoral, it’s illegal, and as President Obama has said several times, we don’t do it.

That is to say, we don’t do it now. We used to do it: we did it at “black” CIA sites, at Abu Ghraib, at Baghram and Gitmo, and (via extraordinary rendition) at prisons in other countries. That’s not a theory, it’s established fact: the United States of America committed war crimes, broke the Geneva Conventions and associated treaties, and broke its own laws. The question is, what do we do about it?

We investigate, and—if the investigation reveals individuals who committed crimes—we prosecute the perpetrators. That’s not an option. It’s called the Rule of Law.

Of course justice ought to be tempered by mercy. I don’t think we ought to prosecute the grunts who actually did the torturing unless investigation shows them to have been aware (or uncaring) that their acts were illegal. Citizens of a country regarded as highly ethical, they were told that the acts of “enhanced interrogation” they were asked to perform were approved by their government; legal, necessary, and justified by the circumstances. They may have had doubts, but I think it’s expecting too much to ask them to refuse to carry out what they believed were lawful orders.

But the bigwigs? They decided to use torture, justified it, and wrote the policies that approved it. They must pay for their crimes.

It will be argued that torture works. Wrong. You may occasionally get useful information by torturing somebody, but most of what you get is useless, because the person you’re torturing will say anything, literally anything, to get you to stop. Interrogation is like sales: you establish rapport, and you persuade the subject that it’s in his or her best interests to tell you what you want to know. You tend to get very good, very useful information that way. Just ask the detectives on your local police force: they do it all the time.

It will be argued that torture is used by national officials who are under very great pressure to get good information before some terrible thing happens. Pressure? They’re supposed to be able to handle pressure: that’s why we hired them. In a nation of laws, they are supposed to be able to make the right decisions; the morally, ethically, and practically correct decisions—even under very great pressure.

If they don’t make the morally and ethically correct decisions we become just like our enemies. We turn into a nation whose actions help terrorist organizations to recruit members. We turn into a nation that has lost the moral high ground, and whose forces (and other citizens) are subject to the same treatment we give our enemies. A nation that deplores and prosecutes war crimes in others—while committing them itself.

That is unacceptable. The Attorney General, Mr. Holder, must appoint a special prosecutor. The prosecutor must be independent, highly respected, and ethically above reproach. He must be able to conduct an investigation in a highly charged environment, to navigate the shoals of political pressure, and determine the truth. Then he must prosecute those who ordered and justified the use of torture, because they violated the law. They caused the United States to violate treaties and conventions that it proudly helped write. They are criminals under U.S. law, and war criminals under international law.

I hope you’ll write your elected representatives, and the Attorney General, on this issue. I already have.

Obama OKs Wiretaps?!

April 19, 2009 at 12:26 pm | Posted in Obama Administration, Politics | Leave a comment
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He’s done a lot of good things. He’s taken the right steps (mostly) to get our economy going again. He’s made tremendous progress in mending relations with our allies—and in reassuring our enemies that we’ll talk with them and not just blindly swing a cudgel in their direction. But he’s made some mistakes—serious ones—that we cannot ignore.

The warrantless wiretapping mess is one. The Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP) is the program under which the National Security Agency has tapped the electronic communications and communications records of thousands of ordinary Americans—in many cases without a warrant. Not just foreign communications: purely domestic communications were caught in the dragnet, as were Americans’ communications with foreigners who had not the faintest connection with terrorism. That’s just wrong, and Candidate Barack Obama said so in ringing tones during the campaign.

But President Barack Obama has not only adopted the Bush policy, he has extended it!

During the Bush administration the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a suit against the NSA, seeking to stop the program. But the Obama Justice Department recently filed a motion to dismiss the suit, formally adopting the Bush administration policy, and extending it to give the government immunity from being sued over wiretaps—even if they are found to be illegal!

We have a right to privacy. It’s guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, which says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. And no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

If we can’t sue the government for violating our right to privacy we have no recourse. If we have no recourse…do we have a right to privacy? I’m not a Constitutional lawyer or scholar, but like you, I can read—and think. And I think that if this motion is accepted it means we have lost our right to privacy. If it can’t be enforced it does not exist.

The motion should be withdrawn. The TSP, which rests on a tottering tower of specious legal arguments designed to get around the Fourth Amendment, must be amended to preserve the rights of Americans. Those who designed, approved, and implemented the program should be investigated. If criminal acts are found, the perpetrators must be tried.

The problem is that President Obama feels he’s in a political bind. On one side are the people who voted for him because he represented change from the constitution-bending policies of the Bush years. On the other side is the intelligence community, whose support we need to fight terrorism. And there is this: no president has ever voluntarily given up powers that a previous president has acquired.

But the vast majority of the country is on President Obama’s side: we will support him in changing the TSP and the FISA so they no longer trample on our rights. The intelligence agencies are the tools of the president; they are not his master. If he acts fairly, prosecuting only those who have committed criminal acts, the intelligence community will come around. The intelligence community has just as much skin in the anti-terror game as anybody. More than some.

Barack Obama could be remembered as the consummate politician who did the right thing; the president who voluntarily gave up powers that his predecessor assumed in disregard or defiance of the constitution.

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful legacy?

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