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NSA vs. The Fourth Amendment

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, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Yes, that’s the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the fourth item in the Bill of Rights. But a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post reveals that our government is collecting information directly from the servers of  Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple.  And that’s searching and seizing without probable cause.

 It’s too early to say that our National Security Agency is tracking every email we send or receive, and every phone call we make or receive, how long we spoke and to whom.  After all, we only found out about the program today. What do we know, right?

 On the other hand, we do know the government doesn’t have probable cause to believe that all citizens with telephones and/or  email accounts have committed a crime. Nor has a judge issued two or three hundred million warrants based upon probable cause.

 Some defenders of the National Security Agency say that the agency doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment by gathering all this metadata  — data about data — because it isn’t actually listening to your phone conversations or reading your texts or examining the sites you visited or the photos you posted or received. It’s only tracking, only recording who you talk with and for how long, only recording what websites you visit, and so forth. The NSA gathers this metadata so it can sift through it, sift through all of it, to uncover patterns which may or may not look suspicious. So all those people, those people referred to in the Fourth Amendment, they have nothing to worry about. Except their privacy.

Student Loans – the Cost of Borrowing

Belushi & college jerseyThe House of Representatives recently passed legislation which gives college students a hand up and also slaps them in the face. On one hand, the legislation stops student loan interest rates from doubling, but on the other hand it ties the interest rate to the rate on 10-year Treasury notes – a rate which is already rising. This is a Republican bill, and it passed largely along party lines.

Currently, 7.4 million students with federal Stafford loans pay 3.4 percent interest, but the rate will double to 6.8 percent if Congress doesn’t do something about it. Democrats nailed the rate to 3.4 percent when they controlled the House. Republicans tried to raise the rate last June, but the public outcry was so loud that they backed down and extended the old rate for one year.

Well, here we are a year later and Republicans have decided it would be dandy to allow the interest rate to be reset annually. Interest would be the same as on a 10-year Treasury note, plus an additional 2.5 percent for the Stafford loans. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects rates on Stafford loans will rise to 5 percent in 2014 and 7.7 percent in 2023. Stafford loans for college kids would be capped at 8.5 percent, and loans for graduate students and parents would have a top of 10.5 percent.

TransUnion, the credit information company, estimates that on average students graduating this year will leave college with a $24,000 debt along with their new diplomas. Fidelity, the financial services corporation, estimates the average student loan debt is closer to $35,000 per graduate.

The economist Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate,  writing in the New York Times, pointed out a couple of  dismal distinctions between the United States and other countries: “America is distinctive among advanced industrialized countries in the burden it places on students and their parents for financing higher education. America is also exceptional among comparable countries for the high cost of a college degree, including at public universities.”

Live Long And Prosper…

A few days ago,  Republicans in the House voted to kill Obamacare by taking its money away. If you think this is stale news, you’re right. And also wrong. Stale and not stale, because although House Republicans voted to get rid of Obamacare just this month, this most recent vote was the 37th time they’ve tried.

The United States — the greatest free-enterprise country on the planet — has tried to get along on private health insurance plans for half a century after national plans became common in Canada and the nations of Western Europe. The results haven’t been so good. In fact, the US spends more on health per person than most industrially advanced nations, and generally gets poorer results. Here below is a table by the World Health Organization.  It lists nations according to the life expectancy of their citizens. Longest life expectancy at the top of the list, a shorter life as you go down the list. See if you can find the United States.

Rank Country Overall life expectancy at birth Male life expectancy at birth Female life expectancy at birth
1  Japan 82.70 79.45 85.82
2  Switzerland 82.59 80.30 84.69
3  San Marino 82.56 81.98 83.28
4  Italy 82.38 79.83 84.74
5  Singapore 82.35 80.12 84.58
6  Iceland 82.30 80.30 84.00
7  Andorra 82.22 79.03 85.36
8  Australia 82.16 79.99 84.33
9  Spain 82.10 79.00 85.15
10  Qatar 82.08 81.31 83.27
11  Israel 82.05 80.19 83.76
12  Monaco 81.89 78.57 85.09
13  France 81.77 78.46 84.95
14  Sweden 81.74 79.79 83.62
15  Canada 81.54 79.50 83.50
16  Luxembourg 81.52 79.06 83.77
17  Cyprus 81.48 79.39 83.68
18  Norway 81.40 79.27 83.45
19  New Zealand 81.30 79.42 83.09
20 Netherlands 81.20 79.18 83.06
21  Austria 81.10 78.39 83.65
22  Greece 80.94 78.27 83.64
23  Ireland 80.73 78.64 82.78
24  South Korea 80.72 77.35 83.86
25  Finland 80.71 77.59 83.78
26  Germany 80.66 78.29 82.99
27  United Kingdom 80.49 78.50 82.40
28  Belgium 80.40 77.79 82.92
29  Malta 80.38 78.78 81.98
30  Slovenia 80.12 76.60 83.42
31  Portugal 80.08 76.96 83.10
32  Kuwait 79.86 79.54 80.37
33  Denmark 79.46 77.38 81.50
34  Chile 79.28 76.17 82.34
35  Costa Rica 79.14 77.02 81.34
36  Bahrain 78.72 77.67 80.09
37  United States 78.57 76.12 80.93
38  China 75.56 74.05 77.17
39  Brazil 74.33 70.97 77.75
40  Russia 68.85 62.97 74.82
41  India 65.46 63.81 67.30

Yes, the United States is 37th in life expectancy among the nations of the world. The CIA ranks us 33rd in its list based on UN member states.

Another way of looking at the health of a country is to look at its infant mortality rate. The infant mortality rate is calculated simply by figuring the average number of infant deaths in every one thousand live births. The United Nations Population Division lists the United States as 34th.

The Unreasonable Question about Iraq

Richard Perle

Richard Perle

We’ve now come to the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq and it appears that the story of that event isn’t being clarified, but simply smoothed over. Yes, we must focus on the world today and look forward to what lies in the future. But unless we are clear minded about what happened in the past,  unless we understand what went wrong and why, we’ll be making the same errors again.

Despite the fantasies of  Vice President Dick Cheney, there was no connection between the terrorist attacks of September 11 and Saddam Hussein. And despite the repeated announcements by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, there was never any credible evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and planned to use them against the United States.

There was, of course, a lot of vague speculation and fanciful rumor about Saddam’s presumed biological and chemical weapons. And intelligence services of friendly nations with a common interest tend to reinforce each other. But intelligence estimates are only estimates; they are never absolute statements rendered with certainty. As a matter of fact, investigators sent into Iraq in the days just prior to the war found no such weapons, and objective reports from our own personnel found no reason to believe the weapons existed. That part of history seems to have been erased from the page. (more…)

Economics 101, Quiz #1

Adam Smith

Adam Smith

Q. What does the phrase “Privatize the profits, socialize the losses” refer to?

A. It refers to an economic system where a private enterprise keeps whatever profits it makes, and taxes society at large to cover its losses.

Q. That sounds impossible! Can you give an example?

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

A.When the banking system in Cyprus made bad bets and suffered losses in billions of Euros, putting the nation’s economy at risk, the grand plan to make up for those losses was to take money from the bank accounts of those trusting souls who had put their money in the bank.

Q. Then what happened?

A. The depositors, no longer trusting souls, immediately began to take their money out of the bank.

Plan B should be ready soon.

Assessing Chuck Hegel

Chuck Hegel was interrogated by the Senate Armed Services Committee prior to their deciding whether or not to confirm him as Secretary of Defense. Now we have some idea as to what it was like to be questioned by the Inquisition.

Chuck Hegel

Chuck Hegel

Hegel is the first cabinet nominee in history to have his confirmation hearing preceded by smear and attack ads on television, ads paid for by anonymous donors. The New York Times has said that Sheldon Adelson, the pro-Israel billionaire, is invested in the fight against Hegel, but it’s impossible to say that he has financed the ads.

During the hearing Republican members of the committee badgered Hegel — beat up on him verbally might be a more accurate description. John McCain hammered his former friend because Hegel, though a Republican Senator at the time, had said that the Iraq “surge” was a foreign policy disaster. McCain asked Hegel if he had been wrong and heatedly  pursued Hegel for a yes or no answer. Hegel said he’d leave the judgement up to history.

Hegel was pounded for remarks he made about lobbyists for Israel, referring to them as “the Jewish lobby.” (Just in passing, it might be noted that in a letter to the New York Times, Henry Siegman, who worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, this country’s biggest pro-Israel lobby, reported that “the organization was referred to by everyone in the Jewish community as ‘the Jewish lobby for Israel.’” ) Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina,  was furious that Hegel had said lawmakers had been intimidated into doing “dumb things” on behalf of the lobby. You might wonder why Graham got so very, very worked up about that. Americans routinely say that Congress is intimidated by lobbyists and does dumb things. (more…)

The Monster That Ate The House

 Sometimes you just can’t win. And sometimes even winning doesn’t work the way you want it to. Pity the Republicans. Currently, Republicans control most governorships and most state legislatures. And their success in the states over the years put them in the position of being able to redraw the boundaries of certain congressional districts. These victories have made it impossible for the Republican Speaker of the House to do politics — which is to say, make deals.

GerrymanderMaybe you’ve seen this political carton before. It’s been around — it was first printed in 1812. Back then, Massachusetts’ Governor Gerry and his allies redrew the lines of the state’s electoral districts to give his party safe-and-sure voting districts. One of the districts was so contorted that on a map it looked like a salamander. And since it was the handiwork of Governor Gerry, it became known as a gerrymander. This is the monster that dined on the House of Representatives the last two years.

Sometimes the people drawing political maps want to break up an area where the opponent has a sure win, other times they may want to draw a district that snakes this way and that in order to gather like-minded voters into a safe-for-our-party haven. But there’s a dangerous downside for a political party that gerrymanders too well.

When a party has redrawn congressional districts so it will surely win, the real contest becomes the primary vote. Then the only question is who the sure-to-win party will run in the upcoming congressional election. But the only people who turn out to vote in the party’s primary are the most zealous members of the party — a relative minority. And that minority of zealots tends to be further to the left or further to the right of the national party. This is particularly true for Republicans.  (Think Tea Party.)

Fortunately, politicians can’t redraw state boundaries.  Senators have to seek votes across an entire state, not a rigged congressional district. There are some no-compromise senators, but on the whole the Senate is more temperate and more moderate than the House — which is what the founders planned. Now a bipartisan group of eight senators has come up with an outline for immigration reform. After the presidential election, the Republican party realized that it would go on losing national elections unless it took a position on immigration that was within at least a few hundred miles of the Democratic party. (more…)

What Didn’t Happen

Inhofe, JIm Senato

Senator Jim Inhofe

Something didn’t happen in the Senate last week, so you may not have heard about it. What didn’t happen? The US Senate didn’t ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The Convention, including its goals and some of the wording, was modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act. That pioneering legislation was guided through the Senate a couple of decades ago by Republican Senator Bob Dole, Senate majority leader at the time. One of his arms was all but useless due to injuries suffered in World War II.  Bob Dole himself, 89-years old and now in a wheelchair, was brought onto the floor of the Senate to bolster support for passage.

Ratification of treaties and conventions of this sort requires a two-thirds majority, but 38 Senators – all Republicans – refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The Convention bans discrimination against people with disabilities and promotes their full participation in Society. It’s been signed by 154 nations and ratified by 126 and entered into force in 2008.  Senator Jim Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma, is typical of those opposing the Convention. “The treaty threatens U.S. sovereignty,” he said.

Nothing Has Changed, Everything Has Changed

Betsy Ross sewing the flag for George Washington by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Betsy Ross Sewing the Flag for George Washington, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

It’s over! The seemingly endless campaign has ended! As soon as it became clear that Obama would be back in the White House for four more years, it also became evident that he’d be facing essentially the same Congress and certainly the same major players. But while much remains the same, a lot has changed. And some of the changes are remarkable.

Two states, Colorado and Washington, astonished the other forty-eight by voting to decriminalize marijuana. It’s clear that the vote puts those states in conflict with the federal government, but we have no idea what it does to those currently imprisoned for previously illegal pot possession.

And two other states, Maine and Maryland, voted to legalize gay marriage —  a decision which had never before come from the popular vote but only from legislatures or the courts.

A few months ago, Democrats seemed positioned to lose up to six seats in the Senate; instead, they added two. And Tammy Baldwin became not only the first woman senator from Wisconsin, but the first openly lesbian to be elected to the Senate. We haven’t tracked each of them down, but according to the Victory Fund, which supports gay and lesbian candidates, at least 118 gay or lesbian candidates won their races.

All in all, it was a good election cycle for women. There will now be more women in the Senate than ever before. Indeed, New Hampshire will have a woman governor and its entire Congressional delegation will be composed of women.

Presidential Debate # 2

Stag at Sharkey's by George BellowsObama came out fighting this time and the debate was a slug fest. The media  folk who for the past week had been telling us that undecided voters were dismayed by Obama’s lackluster performance in the first debate, now tell us those same voters are worried about the nasty alpha-male behavior of the candidates. Frankly, we’re getting tired of being told what voters are thinking. About half favor Obama and about half favor Romney. We think we’ve got that right. And then there are the undecided voters. We think those famous undecided voters must be stupid or willfully ignorant. Can’t they tell the difference between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama?  Maybe the undecided can tell the difference but can’t make a choice. In either case, we suggest they stay home and not to go the polls on election day. And, yes, we’re feeling grumpy.

As for the consequences of this second debate — Yes,  Barack Obama showed there’s still fight in him, that he wants the job, that he’s still “presidential.” Mitt Romney had done a remarkable job of establishing himself as a plausible president in the first debate, and he wasn’t  knocked down in this one. But you knew all that already. Other democracies have electoral campaigns  that last a few months. You’re probably getting tired of this everlasting presidential contest and scandalized by the billions being spent on advertising. So are we. Let’s talk about the painting above this post.


The painting above is Stag at Sharkey’s by George Bellows. Bellows was a member of the “Ashcan School,”  a group of eight painters who painted realistic scenes of urban life,  focusing especially on the poor.  Stag at Sharkey’s was painted in 1909 when boxing in New York was tolerated but not quite legal – nicely suggested by the black background  and the darkness surrounding the starkly illuminated fighters. Bellows also made a lithograph of this same scene, and in that work  musculature of the boxers is clear and correct, whereas in this painting the bodies are represented  by raw slabs of paint with only a minimal attempt at anatomical accuracy. But that rawness, our visual recognition that the paint has been slapped and smeared violently onto the canvas, gives the painting the stunning immediacy and violence of the fight itself. Of course, George Bellows didn’t violently  smear the canvas with paint — he merely made it look that way. You’ll also notice the dynamic imbalance of the boxers stance is made visually stable by the depiction of the referee, the three figures combining to make a solid pyramidal structure. Boxing in New York gained legal status and a firm set of rules in 1920 with the Walker Law which established an athletic commission to oversee the sport and to regulate the boxing matches.

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.