Sunday, August 19, 2007

Wave Hello to the Spy Satellite

I have to confess I've never understood the uproar over privacy issues. I'm law abiding. I don't particularly care whether my bald head shows up in a CIA database of satellite photographs. If NSA wants to keep track of my conversations with my brother about the Cleveland Indians' bullpen, that's OK. If things really, truly get Orwellian in this country some day, then we have a lot more to worry about than whether the government is listening into our conversations or taking pictures of our new cars.

Some people talk about an erosion of Americans' fundamental rights and liberties. As an aside, it's ironic to me that those who argue about rights often wade into hypocrisy. Some of those who insist on an expansive view of the right to bear arms are willing to suspend things like the right to a fair trial, while some of those who would like to pretend the Second Amendment doesn't exist want to read a right to privacy into every corner of the Constitution. OK, that's me the centrist talking. There are extremes on both sides of the political divide. But I probably sound like a conservative here to my more liberal friends when I question whether this alleged erosion of liberty is dangerous or is happening at all.

So, just what are our fundamental rights? They are enshrined in the Bill of Rights and in things like the Declaration of Independence, where the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are asserted. And then there's more than two hundred years of precedents set down by Court decisions. I'm not a Constitutional scholar, so this is just one layperson's opinion. But let's look at some of the recent developments related to the war on terror and how they impact our rights, namely the newly legal power of the Executive Branch to conduct wiretaps with diminished Legislative or Judicial oversight, and the changing rules about using "spy satellites" to capture and store photographs of domestic targets. Leaving aside the issue of oversight for a moment, what rights do these developments really impact?

The only impacted right that I can think of is the Second Amendment right to be "secure...against unreasonable searches and seizures." There's no explicit right to be secure against observation or surveillance, unreasonable or otherwise. The inalienable right to liberty, as enumerated in the Declaration and the Fifth Amendment, may be a little fuzzier, but there's little way to argue that increased surveilliance reduces liberty. Liberty impacts what we are free to do, not whether the government is able to watch us do it. It gets a little creepy to think about being followed or watched, and I suppose in a perfect world I'd rather that the government not be taking my pictures or recording my conversations, but it is not a perfect world. If increased surveilliance can help protect us from terrorist attack, it is worth it.

"Wait a minute," I say to myself. There must be things like Peeping Tom laws. I'm not going to research it. I have other things to do. But I'm pretty sure there are laws against looking into neighbors windows. At the very least, it's frowned upon. But that's just weird. There's a sniff test that says this stinks. People shouldn't go snooping around each others' houses, and the government shouldn't capriciously be peeping into our homes recording what we do. But that's not what this is about. It's about letting loose on the reins that society places on its own government, so that the government can do one of its primary jobs, which is protect the people. Allowing a little more snooping seems to have the potential to vastly improve our security, without adding much stink at all to society.

"But what if?" many will hasten to ask. What if this gets out of control, and surveilliance turns into unreasonable searches and seizures, or real curbs on our liberties. What if an unscrupulous administration (such as the current one?) ministerprets data it receives from surveilliance and turns it into an excuse to wrongfully arrest and imprison an innocent citizen? Current plans don't allow for that. Arrests still require warrants, for example. But it's possible to see things devolve in this direction.

So if there's anything to be alarmed about, it's the degree to which Congress is allowing the administration to operate without oversight. The wiretapping authorization is for six months. Congress should take greater care at before the end of that period to ensure that the increased ability to conduct surveillance on domestic targets does not get out of hand, and does not actually go so far as to impinge on our rights and liberties.

So, wave hello to the spy satellite, and whisper sweet nothings to the NSA. As long as there are adequate checks and balances to avoid the abuse of power by any one branch of government, then there are far more important things to worry about.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

My Politics

I've always found politics fascinating, but I've never had the stomach to be a true junkie. I care more about policy outcomes than I do about the political game, which is probably what led me to get a degree in public policy, and perhaps what caused me to become disillusioned and jump ship to the private sector upon graduation.

I call myself a slightly left-of-center moderate. I'm not a polarizer. I try to appreciate nuggets of wisdom in all parts of the political spectrum. I believe in multi-partisanship, and squirmed when I read the Daily Kos extolling the virtues of the populist Dean approach over the centrist DLC approach to building and sustaining a Democrat majority. But I squirm even more when I even think about Karl Rove, so I guess that makes me left-of-center, if my viscera are any guide.

Why left-of-center philosophically? I'm an environmentalist. I believe in a foreign policy based on diplomacy and coalitions, rather than saber rattling and going-it-alone. I want to live in a society where children and youth have equal access to quality health care and education and where there is some kind of economic safety net for all citizens. I don't have a problem with paying a bit more in taxes to achieve worthy policy goals.

Why not all-the-way left? I guess I'm a Clintonian when it comes to welfare. The lefty in me values fairness and a helping hand for those in need, while the amateur economist in me wants to avoid creating incentives for depending on public handouts. I support free trade. If workers get displaced through outsourcing, the answer is more training - and maybe relocation assistance - not trade barriers (although I'm willing to accept trade barriers as a response to other countries' unfair trade practices).

I hate the polarizing issues that seem to hijack political primaries with simplistic declarations and do not contribute to sophisticated solutions. For example, setting a deadline for the pullout of troops from Iraq is not realistic. A desired outcome should be defined, and the withdrawal of troops should be tied to that. Worse than that, political rhetoric can be dominated by fringe issues whose supporters are paranoid of the slippery slope: guns and abortion come to mind. I call them fringe issues - to the irritation of many people, I know - because they are not as important as finding a solution to Social Security and Medicare solvency. They are about rights, which are fundamental to society, but there are easy solutions, if the zealots would just set aside their paranoia. What's so terrible about reaffirming the right for a person to keep a handgun at home or go hunting with a rifle, while requiring adequate background checks and prohibiting the personal possession of automatic weapons? What's so terrible about reaffirming the right for a woman to have an abortion early in her pregnancy, or when her health is in jeopardy, but drawing the line at the point where the fetus would be viable outside the womb (premature babies are surving at something like 26 weeks these days)? The vast majority of Americans would support both these positions, and yet extremists pull political rhetoric in their direction.

It's presidential politics season, and I haven't found a candidate that I like - Obama comes closest, but I worry about his lack of executive experience. I'll keep looking. I'll be intrigued if January finds us without strong, clearcut candidates, opening a door for Bloomberg to throw in his hat.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


It's 2007. Blogs have been around for a long time. A lot of people give me credit for being in tune to popular technology, but I just didn't get it. Why was everyone blogging? Who were all these people who wanted their inner thoughts posted for all to see. More than that, why was anyone reading blogs? Most of them are crap. So why am I doing this? Well, for one thing, I've come around. I get that the blogosphere is a way for people to express themselves - one of those "human desires" - and a mechanism for surfacing good writers, without having to rely on the bureaucracy of the publishing world. That's the really cool part to me, and is the essence of what I think is interesting about so-called Web 2.0. It's providing a creative forum to anyone who has an internet connection, and letting the world judge for itself whether what's posted is worth reading. What's worth it gets a new audience, and what's not fades away.

I don't have a theme other than variety. I'm going to write about whatever interests me. Other than the web itself, I imagine I'll write about politics, Cleveland sports, religion, science, philosophy, travel. I'll post some pictures, since I like to take pictures. I'll rant occasionally about DC traffic and drivers. I fancy myself somewhat of an iconoclast, but maybe I'm really not.

The name? Well, I'm not sure I'm ready to say just yet. One or two people should be able to figure it out.