This Week in Good News
Guess what? Your genes belong to you, not to a corporation. This is so straightforward, even the ordinarily divided Supreme Court agreed unanimously.
In Arizona, Republican Governor Jan Brewer hangs tough and scores a big win for her state, helping 300,000 low-income people get healthcare coverage.
Also, there are more public libraries in America than McDonald’s or Starbucks locations.
This Week in Spying
The still-unfolding NSA surveillance story is too complicated to go into much detail about, and here at TwiA world headquarters, our opinions remain largely unformed. Yes, the NSA has been spying on Americans for years. Yes, they’ve taken that data mining to extremes. But if that spying has produced actionable intelligence that allowed the government to stop terrorist plots before people were hurt, as they claim, then it has been successful. If, on the other hand, data about Americans is misused in any way, that’s a problem. What we can say for sure is that although there’s plenty of blame here (if you’re of the mind that anybody should be blamed), ultimately it’s Congress that passed the laws allowing this surveillance, and have periodically renewed that authority. If the NSA is to be reined in, Congress will have to agree that it’s a priority and become functional enough to do something about it. And they should—the bill that Senator Jeff Merkley (D/OR) introduced this week could be a good starting point.
Here’s how we tweeted in the good old days (via Maddowblog.msnbc.com)
The other point is that defense contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked information on the NSA programs to the press and who says, "I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” is in fact wrong, right there. Whether what he did is for the good of the country is debatable, and that debate will probably go on for years and never really be settled. But Snowden is a long-time employee of defense contractors, with Top Secret clearance, and before that he worked for the CIA for a while. I know what oath he took when he began that employment, because I’ve taken the same oath. It’s a promise not to reveal the classified material to which one is exposed on that job. It applies forever—not just while you’re working for the government or a government contractor—forever. Snowden made that promise, and he broke it. Bradley Manning did the same thing, in the Wikileaks situation. Maybe they both thought they were breaking their promises for the “right reasons.” In Manning’s case, his broken promise put American lives at risk and potentially wasted millions of taxpayer dollars. We don’t know yet if Snowden’s revelations put lives at risk, but what we do know is that some 29-year-old contractor probably doesn’t have all the information at hand to know what or who he might be putting in danger, or to make the judgment call that all the people around him who’ve carefully handled classified materials are wrong and he’s right.
During the Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations, particularly (during the Obama administration we haven’t necessarily grown the private contracting community, but we haven’t done much to shrink it, either), we have outsourced vast swaths of our intelligence and defense capabilities to private contractors. As with the privatizing prisons and education and other traditionally public services, this raises the cost to taxpayers, while reducing efficiency and lessening security. For example, you can have a private company with defense contracts bidding against other private companies with defense contracts to do testing of products developed by yet other private companies, also with defense contracts. Each of those companies builds in profit. Every contract employee is billed to the government at about double their salary—for every $50,000 per year a contractor makes, the taxpayers are billed $100,000 per year, which covers administrative costs to the contracting company, their share of health insurance, retirement, and other benefits, and profits. If you subtracted out all those profits and had the DOD doing its own testing of its own systems with its own employees, how many billions could you save the taxpayers?
On a related matter, yes, it’s disturbing that the NSA is compiling all this data on us, but it’s not particularly surprising or all that sinister. The goal, at least, is to protect us from terrorist attacks, and that’s a worthy effort. But anyone who’s overly concerned about privacy had better not be using Facebook or Google, or ATMs, or EZ-Pass, or a loyalty card at the supermarket or gas station, or any credit card anywhere, or setting foot anywhere near Las Vegas or on any major street in any big city. Corporations amass data about us all the time. Government comprises people we elect and people we know—my father spent his lifetime working for the DOD, and a more honorable man you could not hope to meet, and I work with government employees on a daily basis, and none of them, to my knowledge, want to know who I’m calling on the phone, or why. With government, you’ve got at least a 70-30 chance that the people mining data are on our side. With corporations, there’s no question—they are absolutely 100% on their own side, and nobody else’s. They’re not looking out for you, except to whatever extent that coincides with their own bottom line. Privacy is, in many ways, a vanishing concept in the information age (but here are a few tips to claim a little more of it). That doesn’t mean we should give up on it. But I’m less concerned with how the NSA will use what it has on me than I am with how corporations will use what they learn to pry money from my wallet.
(Side note: the ever-bizarre Senator Rand Paul (R/KY) disagrees with reports saying that Senators all knew about and most voted for the laws keeping the NSA programs in place. Paul’s take? “The most ridiculous thing I hear from people of this persuasion is politicians saying, ‘Oh, nobody was complaining,’ Well, you can’t complain because they put you in jail if you complain, or they don’t tell you if they’re investigating you.” Funny, Ron Wyden (D/OR) and Mark Udall (D/CO) have been complaining for years. Are they in jail? Is any US Senator in jail? Rand Paul is a continuing example of the worst impulse in American politics—the desire to make Americans fear their own government. Richard Hofstadter warned us about it in 1964, and they’re still at it today (and the next time you hear someone raving about “Sharia Law” being implemented here, go back and reread Hofstadter’s section on Freemasonry). Paul and his kind should, finally, knock it off.)
This Week in Court
The trial of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin (who would have graduated from high school this week if he had not been killed) began this week. Charles Pierce of Esquire is not only the most entertaining political blogger in the country (TwiA included), but a very smart guy, and he reminds us this week that whatever happened on that night would not have happened had Zimmerman—a “self-appointed neighborhood watch captain,” to use a phrase prohibited by the judge—followed the directions of the police dispatcher he called initially. The dispatcher said, “We don’t need you to do that.”
Zimmerman decided he knew better, and did it anyway. Because he did, Trayvon’s parents didn’t get to see him put on a cap and gown this week. It’s hard to get past that fact.
This Week in Intentional Fiscal Calamity
Yet another voice—this one of Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, warns against sabotaging the economy by taking the debt ceiling hostage. Will Congressional Republicans listen?
This Week in Income Inequality
What The Great Gatsby tells us about income inequality and social mobility. Hint: More of the former means less of the latter.
This Week in Unwinding
Joe Klein is a slightly left-of-center columnist for Time, and a guy with whom I often disagree. Here, he writes about a new book, George Packer’s The Unwinding. The book sounds fascinating and worth serious consideration in whatever passes for the corridors of power these days. And Klein brings up some important points, worth a discussion. We need to get past the idea that government is necessarily bad—that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that hurts Americans, because if you think it’s bad, then trying to make it good undermines your whole philosophy. We need good government. We need government that can afford to inspect places that are inherently explosive. We are all in this together, and that knowledge should be the starting point of any political conversation.
This Week in Nutty
Every now and then, we get a politician on the scene whose every pronouncement seems like it was written by the Saturday Night Live writing staff, back when SNL was funny. A current example is Virginia lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson, who has said, among other things, that evolution can’t be real because monkeys can’t talk, that practicing yoga is opening the door to demonic possession, and that the key to building wealth through God is not giving to the poor, but giving to him. And by the way, Mr. Jackson, when you self-publish a book about the Ten Commandments, it helps if you know how to spell “Commandments.”
Yet another candidate whose campaign website might have been created by the folks at The Onion is Georgia Representative Paul Broun, who’s running for the US Senate there. Broun’s got a poll up on the site, and one of the oh-so-pertinent questions it asks is, “When you go to your mailbox or answer your phone, who do you fear more?”
To which the only reasonable answer is, if you’re afraid when you go to your mailbox or answer your phone, you need professional help, and probably large quantities of medication.
But those are not options that Broun’s poll offers. Instead, if offers a choice between “Al-Qaeda” and the “IRS.” Last I heard, the IRS hadn’t slaughtered thousands of innocent Americans. Maybe Broun knows something I don’t...no, pretty sure that’s not the case. Broun, by all available evidence, knows almost nothing at all. He’s duplicating Rand Paul’s nonsense here. There are things to be afraid of in this world, people and organizations that might like to hurt you. The American government isn’t one of them. A little healthy skepticism about government is fine—every government, ours included, has been known to take things too far, as the NSA revelations have shown. But our government’s not rounding people up and putting them in camps, not “disappearing” them, and not jailing politicians. Broun, like Paul, should know better, and it’s a disgrace that he doesn’t seem to.
This Week in Missing the Point
The Senate took up comprehensive immigration reform this week. For a while, after the 2012 election, it appeared that Republicans and Democrats alike were on board with the idea. We’ve got around 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in the country, so the idea is, let’s figure out who they are, and if they’re contributing to society let’s give them the opportunity to contribute more while also enjoying the rights and privileges of citizenship. At the same time, let’s get a handle on who’s coming in, cut down on employers who hire the undocumented, and control our own borders. The two sides of that coin are what makes the approach “comprehensive.”
Generally speaking, the right is more interested in the border security aspect of comprehensive reform, while the left is more interested in the path to citizenship (and, incidentally, it should be noted that the right’s priority involves spending more money, while the left’s involves bringing in more revenue, as most economists believe immigration reform will bring a net economic benefit to the country). As should happen in Washington, the two sides have compromised on a bill that gives each side some of what it wants.
But Senator Ted Cruz (R/TX) has a different view: “‘The biggest obstacle to passing common sense immigration reform is President Barack Obama,’ Cruz tells The Fine Print, going on to say that the White House’s ‘insistence’ on including a path to citizenship is standing in the way of the bill’s ultimate passage.”
Of course, Cruz is factually wrong—the “Gang of Eight,” which includes four members from each party, came up with the bill, and those eight want a path to citizenship included. But what Cruz wants is for everyone in Congress to embrace one side—his side—of the coin, while throwing away the other (and therefore the whole notion of comprehensive, not to mention the whole notion of compromise). The fact is, we’ve already made great strides in border security. Undocumented immigration is at net zero—there are as many going out as coming in—and the Obama administration has put more boots on the ground and deported people at faster rates than any previous administration in our history. But there are still millions of people living here, most of them working and paying taxes and paying into Social Security, etc., and we don’t know who they are.
Somebody, please buy Senator Cruz a dictionary. It can even be part of a dictionary, as long as it includes the “co” pages. He’s obviously badly in need.
As an aside, this week the Senate passed a new version of the Farm Bill they passed in the last session, but which the House killed. Cruz bemoans the “unchecked growth of food stamp entitlements” in the bill—which actually cuts more than $4 billion from food stamps over the next decade. So it appears that Cruz also needs the dictionary page that includes “growth.” Let’s get him the whole book after all.
This Week in Offensive Speech
Oh, Congressman Trent Franks (R/AZ), please just shut up. Also, you’re wrong. (Thanks to TWiA special correspondent Marcy Rockwell for the tip.) And Senator Jeff Flake (R/AZ), please shut your son up.
This Week in Giving
This Week in Getting
Fox “News” chairman Roger Ailes got a $250,000 award this week, apparently just for being a good conservative. In his acceptance speech, he told a series of profoundly bizarre lies. Which is par for the course—he was, after all, being rewarded for his work at Fox, where telling lies manufactured to fit a political agenda is the whole point. Apparently his work comes naturally to him.
This Week in Bad Ideas
This Week in Socks
Happy birthday to former president George H.W. Bush.
And speaking of socks...
This Week in Bizarro Headlines
This Week in Photographic Excellence
Entries in the 2013 National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest. Stunning work, of course. (thanks to TWiA foreign correspondent J. Bart Fiebelkorn for the tip.)
This Week in Bears