There’s a lot of speculation going around lately about what’s the source of all the trouble in the Crimea region of Ukraine. Many are blaming Moscow for stirring up trouble, possibly as a precursor to an invasion. I’m here to reassure you now that the truth is something far, far more sinister:
It’s the people at Rand McNally.
To understand why, you have to go all the way back to the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. Things were looking good at first for high school students; we had one less Germany to memorize for Geography class, and only one Berlin to worry about, but we still had it pretty easy as far as Eastern Europe and Asia went. Basically all you had to know was “U.S.S.R.” and “China” and you got at least a C.
Then suddenly the U.S.S.R. broke up without any warning, and overnight we’ve got a Georgia that was never on our minds, more –ia’s than a Cthulhu summoning, and so many Stans you’d think it was a callback for “A Streetcar Named Desire”. In short, we got screwed. Oh sure, you might think the concerns of a few high school students pale in comparison to the desperate need to live free of tyranny, but you are overlooking one key element: these were the future mapmakers of the world. And nobody messes with mapmakers with impunity.
They bided their time, waiting decades to get all the pieces in place. They manipulated elections, staged revolutions, and even plotted assassinations where they needed to. Think I’m being paranoid? Think about this: they know where you live. They know where everybody lives. Nobody dares to cross them, not if they know what’s good for them. Do you really believe the Apple Maps roll-out was such a disaster because Apple can’t design an app? They wouldn’t play ball, and they got punished for it. Google pays their dues every month.
And now those poor high school kids who failed Geography because of a bunch of whiners who yearned to be free of a totalitarian regime are finally getting their ultimate revenge. They’ve manipulated the world and Russia in particular to dance to their merciless tune, all for one purpose: to thin out the number of countries they have to print on a map.
Hey, it’s less crazy than anything Vladimir Putin can come up with.
I’ve been surprised lately by some of the vitriol being directed at Jan Brewer following her veto of SB 1062 (that would be the “anti-gay” bill that got through the Arizona Senate, or “screamingly offensive and blatantly homophobic bill” if you want to aim for accuracy). The reason I’ve been surprised by the vitriol has been from the source: it’s come from people I know who are liberals. That’s right, some liberals are angry that Jan Brewer didn’t sign this prejudicial garbage.
The argument, as best as I understand it, is that the politicians who run Arizona now are evil to the core, and having passed this bill would have simply reaffirmed that fact for all the world to see, and (hopefully) would have created a popular uprising (I’m not sure if this would have been at the polls or in the streets) that would depose those same politicians and bring in some sort of proper, upstanding government that would have respect for human rights, common decency, and all right-minded folk. (Such a government would be a historical anomaly, but I digress.)
“Evil” is a strong word. Disagree with someone all you want, but evil puts them in a camp where there is no compromise, there is no common ground, and there is no understanding. That’s the same sort of language used by the people who would have seen this law succeed, and not just the politicians. I’m not trying to suggest that these are wonderful people, or that I would ever want to join them for tea, but unless a bloody armed rebellion IS the goal, heated rhetoric like this serves no purpose except to ensure determined and continued opposition.
Regarding Ms. Brewer specifically, I have heard is said that she came to the right outcome for the wrong reasons, those being politically rather than ideologically motivated ones. I for one believe we should applaud her all the more if that is the case; in today’s charged ideological climate, going “against the grain” of your own (or your party’s) convictions because that’s what the people who elected you want seems to be a virtue in short supply. Actions speak so much louder than words, and reasons don’t matter when outcomes are faulty; they should be equally relevant when the outcome is correct. If she got to the right place, regardless of her reasons, she should be praised, so that she will (hopefully) learn that there can be positive outcomes to taking good actions, just as there are negative outcomes for bad actions. We train politicians in the same way we train animals, even if the animals are smarter and less likely to bite the hand that feeds.
The simple fact is I believe all politicians are guilty until proven innocent, and I have yet to see that proof for any of them. If you plan to sit down to eat with them, bring your longest spoon. But when one of them finally manages to do something right, even by accident, at least reward them a little. They might recognize the “why” that goes with the “what”. It’s even possible others will learn by example.
So we have a solution at last to the latest installment of the ongoing fiscal crisis (#thanksfornothing), which involves yet another passing of the very large buck down the road to some near-term future date when it’s likely something equally ineffectual will be done, mostly because the same teams will be running the same plays (kind of like watching the Jacksonville Jaguars take on the Denver Broncos every Sunday for a year. What? I can be topical.) The real questions at this point should be “how did we get into this mess in the first place?” and more importantly, “how do we prevent these ^(#_*%!$& from doing it again?”
As for how we got here, I’m not going to take a partisan stance. As I’ve said before, a plague on both your houses (of Congress). But there is one answer that applies equally to both parties, one that has been coming for a long time, and it is a word that gets hurled at both equally (usually by the other side): gerrymandering. As long as one party has control of a state when redistricting time comes along, they rig the elections – excuse me, draw the districts so very carefully that there is no way they can lose. This creates a scenario in which the extreme elements of either party are more likely to win out and “compromise” becomes a dirtier word than “moderate”. It’s been more apparent among Republicans than Democrats in the last few years because they’ve been more successful with this strategy in the latest round of redistricting, as well as the fact that the only powerbase they have is in opposition to the sitting President, so of course they push back, but both sides do it.
So what’s the answer? I would suggest a third party organization that is not directly connected to the process gets to make the districts, perhaps the folks behind the United States Elections Project. Or maybe a panel composed of a representative from each party currently eligible to produce a candidate for that state, with ties being broken by the current governor. The current “winner takes all” strategy masquerading as “politics neutral” is clearly broken and needs to be done away with to be replaced by something that more accurately represents the needs of the constituency; perhaps actually injecting some real politik into the process at the beginning rather than the end will help to break down the borders and create détente, if not civility.
Another option (and one that I favor even more) is to get the money out of the hands of politicians. Now I know I have argued before that money equals speech, and I’m not backing away from that. But note what I said: get the money out of the hands of politicians. They have chosen to be public officials (even the candidates), which means different (and stricter) rules should apply to them. Also they pander to the most extreme causes because those are the people most likely to donate to them, not just to vote. If we capped the amount of money they can spend in an election, suddenly the incentive isn’t there for them to be so fast on the trigger with the votes. There’s also a world of other organizations and individuals who are free to spend all the money they want (or should be) in support of the candidates they like, so long as they don’t coordinate directly with those candidates. The more moderate candidates will have a broader base of support, both from individuals and organizations, and are at least more likely to have a better chance of getting some second-hand support.
This would also free the current office-holders up from the constant “campaign treadmill” where they win an election and then start the donor circuit just to pay for the next campaign. Maybe then they’ll have enough time to sort out all the problems that still plague us. Or maybe they’ll just spend more time arguing with each other. Either way, it’s something new, which is one step up from the current broken system.
The NSA Knows
(Sung to the tune of “Anything Goes” by Cole Porter)
Times have changed,
As I’m sure we can all agree,
Since the Americans rebelled
And they created a country.
They should list several Rights of Man,
Instead of answering the call,
They would be tossed into the can!
In olden days the Fourth Amendment
Was looked on as something sacred,
But Snowden showed,
The NSA knows.
You thought your email, text and Facebook
Were safe from some spook taking a look.
Under your nose,
The NSA knows.
The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today,
And black’s white today,
And day’s night today,
When warrants today
Are issued today
By secret courts today
And though I’m not a philosopher
I know that it’s unpopular
When you propose,
The NSA knows.
When grandmama whose age is eighty
In night clubs is getting matey with gigolo’s,
The NSA knows.
When something’s done in South America
Particularly Brazil and Mexico,
The NSA knows.
If driving fast cars you like,
If low bars you like,
If old hymns you like,
If bare limbs you like,
If Mae West you like
Or me undressed you like,
Watch for agents in plainclothes!
Your Google drive
Has tax returns
Or your Flickr account shows your friends in nude photos?
The NSA knows.
If saying your prayers you like,
If green pears you like,
If old chairs you like,
If back stairs you like,
If love affairs you like
With young bears you like,
Watch out for privacy’s foes!
And though I’m not a philosopher
I know that it’s unpopular
And I propose -
The NSA goes!
Back when I was in my late teens, I was about average for a teenage boy. Which is to say I was a dumbass. Strike that: I was a pig-headed, obstinate, willful, ignorant dumbass. (And that’s being somewhat charitable.) I had all the hallmarks of your typical teenage male: I was always sure I was right, I wouldn’t listen to others, I had to have things my way… you know the drill. Finally things got to the point where my parents were just about done with me, and a good family friend sat me down for a talk.
He approached me with advice that I remember to this day: “Don’t bet the farm on a pair of twos.”
He didn’t tell me I was wrong, he didn’t tell me to shut up and listen to my elders, any of the usual approaches that do no good with someone like that. He simply explained to me in excruciating detail how I was basically powerless to affect any real change, and if I kept pushing things I was going to end up alienating everyone who cared about me and anyone who might agree with me. He also answered my usual outraged protests about how I was in the right by pointing out this had nothing to do with right and wrong, this was about who was in charge. There are those who have power, and those who don’t. I could keep going the way I was and lose every friend I had, or I could back off and wait for a time when I had some influence or things might go my way.
It was good advice, and I bring it up because I see the House Republicans doing the same thing today. Whether or not I agree with their politics is irrelevant. The majority of the Senate does not, and President Obama most certainly does not. By continuing to press forward with bills that they know will never be accepted, not only daring but de facto demanding a government shutdown, the Republicans are betting the farm on a pair of twos. The farm in this case is the U.S. economy and the pair of twos is any possibility that the Democrats and Pres. Obama will take more flak from the American public over the shutdown than the Republicans will. After the spanking that the economy took after the last debt limit crisis, in what universe does it seem like a good idea to hold the economy hostage in an effort to “stand by your principles”? Do they really believe that the majority of Americans won’t notice, or even better, will thank them for it?
I understand that on all the news shows the Republican (and especially Tea Party) leadership is repeating ad nauseum that Americans don’t want the Affordable Care Act. For all I know they’re right, although as usual I am mighty suspicious when someone is so insistent about something that benefits them so completely and costs them nothing. That having been said, I would expect a party so concerned with fiscal responsibility to understand the concept of “costs and benefits”. The cost to waging this particular battle when there is, quite literally, no hope of winning is astronomically high; the benefits are extraordinarily low, unless they are still listening to the same pollsters who told them right up to the eleventh hour that Mitt Romney would win the White House.
The real problem is that in this particular poker game, the guys deciding to stay in to the last card aren’t putting up the blind, and they don’t have to pay up when the showdown is over. That falls on the rest of us, and that time is coming fast.
I’ve been doing my best to hold my tongue on the issue of Syria, but things have been mounting for quite a while and at some point staying silent becomes indistinguishable from acquiescence. Hopefully adding my voice to the choir will, if nothing else, lend weight and credence to the idea that Americans are tired of war, tired of policing the world, and tired of “going it alone if we have to”.
Let me start by discussing a point that came up over beers with a friend last week. I mentioned to him that it seemed as if this is a very liberal (in the modern sense) sort of war, what with it being a “humanitarian intervention” (which is a contradiction in terms if ever I heard one). He completely agreed, which is almost tragic since he is a died-in-the-wool liberal. I say it is tragic because it pained me to see him so disheartened by even allowing for the idea; it seemed to me not because he was disappointed in any one politician, but more like he was disappointed in humanity as a whole, or at least those he saw as fellow travelers. Conservatives will go to war in the name of “national interest” (resources), while liberals will go to war in the name of “humanitarian causes” (people). But how are people ever going to be better off by blowing them up?
I understand that the “trigger event” was the presumed use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons. I only say “presumed” because I have not seen the evidence, nor have most people, and there is still some debate in the international community, although I am willing to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt on this one (although in all honesty we’ve been burned by bad intelligence before). Even allowing that the assertion is true, I’m going to have to say something likely provocative: so what? Chemical weapons are horrible, it’s true. But so are conventional weapons. Chemical weapons kill indiscriminately, it’s true. But so do conventional weapons. Chemical weapons cause devastation on a massive scale, it’s true. But so do conventional weapons. The assertion is that 1,300 people died in that one attack, while more than 100,000 have died in the conflict overall in the past two years. At the risk of sounding perverse, I must ask: are those 1,300 people “more dead”?
What I don’t understand is why some people think it is wrong to go to war when you have identifiable national interests on the line but it is okay to go to war when you have nothing on the line but your conscience. What amuses me (in a gallows humor sort of way) is watching these same people and the politicians who represent them twist in the wind as they try to defend the same sort of action they once vigorously protested, bending over backwards to explain how “this is different”. Well, clearly it’s different. You can’t even pretend the U.S. has anything to gain from getting involved. On the plus side nobody will be shouting “No blood for oil!” at you. Instead they’ll just be shouting “No blood!”
Another friend pointed out that, having drawn this “red line” on Syria, President Obama (and by extension America) risks looking weak if we don’t take action. While I certainly understand that, I don’t believe it justifies moving forward. That’s as much as saying “I told my friends I would jump off this cliff without a parachute, and they’ll think I’m chicken if I don’t!” Yes, there will be ramifications in the world, likely very negative ones, if we don’t take action in the absence of a deal involving Syria surrendering their chemical arsenal. But that discounts the reality that there are also consequences and costs to taking action as well, and some of those could be similar or identical to the fallout we fear from holding back. The difference is that if we don’t take direct military action we don’t suffer the negatives that come with it either.
Of course, if we want to see the upside of military action, we can look to history and see how well that plays out. Come to think of it, better not. We’ve had a mixed bag at best since 1950, and a piss poor performance in this century. Well, we can always conjecture on the possible value and outcomes, and we have many experts to call on, don’t we Senator McCain? Of course, your information is only as good as your source, as Dr. Ms. Elizabeth O’Bagy can tell us (if she’s still being published).
The saddest part of all of this is that it has created another opportunity for Vladamir Putin to become (or at least appear to be) the voice of reason. Yes, that Vladamir Putin. The same one who thinks nothing of wiping his mouth with his own people’s civil rights. And yet somehow this situation has created a space where he can get away with saying (with a straight face) “We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.” When we have created not one but two situations in the space of a year where Putin’s Russia looks like the bastion of decency and goodness in the world and the U.S. comes out looking like the bad guy, we’re doing something seriously wrong.
And we are doing something seriously wrong, and have been for decades. We approach each international crisis not with the idea of “how can we relieve the suffering here?” or “how can we help minimize this?” or even (admittedly my favorite) “how do we stay the hell out of this?”, but rather with “what should we do about this, and how big of a hammer should we use?” The first assumption may not be a military approach, but it is the second, and it’s a close second, and the entire world knows it. That influences every discussion we have, every policy decision we make, and every negotiation. It also affects our status as a world target. Setting aside the question of whether we are helping to create more terror than we are stopping, the simple fact is that when someone wants attention, they don’t get it by picking on the smallest kid in the room. They get it by picking the biggest guy around and punching him right in the eye (or at least putting a stink bomb in his shoe). We’ve insisted on being the biggest guy around as a prophylactic measure since the end of WWII, and it’s done little to no good. Maybe it’s time we try abstinence instead.
My Not So Humble Wife and I recently moved into a new house, and I discovered that moving when you are middle class and in your late 30s is a lot different from moving when you are poor and in your middle 20s. My past experience with moving involved a lot of grunting, lifting, swearing, sweating, and general disorganization. This time there was far less of all of that, mostly because my wife was there to organize things, but there was also another very notable difference: money.
You see, when you’re in your 20s and poor, you lack the resources to do much besides rent or borrow a truck, call a bunch of friends and offer them beer and pizza in exchange for their labor (the barter system at work), and then bust your hump as hard as you can to get the job done. It may take all day, it may even take all night, but you do what needs doing because there are no other options. Money changes things. Specifically, it enables you to pay someone else to do the heavy lifting. When you’re in your late 30s and it’s a lot harder to get a bunch of friends together (especially friends who are capable of doing hard labor), that makes a huge difference.
There were also all the little things that can go wrong that went so much more easily this time around. Lost something in the move? Sure, we can go digging around for it, but do we have the time? There are fifteen other things we need to do. Just buy another one. Something got broke? Not to worry, we can replace it. The old place needs to be cleaned before we move out? Why spend three days doing it ourselves when we can hire a cleaning service?
This may sound profligate and wasteful, but there was a method to the madness. The philosophy here (as I explained it to my wife, and she was kind enough to quote back to me in a moment of panic) was that there are two kinds of problems in this world: the kind you can throw money at and make them go away, and the kind you can’t. The former are the easy ones. I know that’s a bit reductive, but it’s true. What I discovered in this latest round of madness… excuse me, moving is that there are any number of difficulties we face, and we are both at a point in our lives with multiple competing priorities for our time. If there is a way to “buy off” one or more of those priorities, or just to make a problem not be a problem by spending money on it, it’s well worth the cost to do so.
Of course, being me I couldn’t just leave that thought alone, so I had to chase it down a bit. I followed that line of logic and realized that it sounded an awful lot like the sort of thing I have for so long accused politicians of doing: mindlessly throwing money at problems rather than considering whether or not the money is actually fixing anything or improving the situation. I am well aware that applying lessons from microeconomic situations to the macroeconomic is a dangerous game that tends to lead to faulty conclusions, but it did lead me to some interesting realizations.
Politicians, little as I think of them as a class, don’t just throw money around for the fun of it. They have to have some reason, if only because there are so many competing priorities for the money and they want to support the best of them (defining “best” as you see fit and as your view of politicians demands). Only there are so very many problems, and it’s so hard to stay on top of them all. Drugs, childhood obesity, unrest in the Middle East, civil rights, gun control, education reform, energy policy, foreign intelligence, minimum wage, income inequity, NSA spying… the list goes on and on. It’s not like when our country was young and could just call up a couple of friends, rent a truck, and move out West. How do you know which are the problems that can be solved by throwing money at them and which ones need more complicated solutions?
There has to be some problem, some issue that someone has brought to their attention, and that someone has convinced them can be made to go away by throwing money at it. This makes it an easy problem. And solving problems is what we send politicians to Washington for, right? Those people are called “lobbyists”, and they’re very good at what they do. It’s not that they don’t care, or that they don’t believe, it’s that they do care, and they do believe, and that’s why they need the money: because they have a problem to fix.
So I think I understand a little better now. It’s seductive to try to solve problems by throwing money at them. There are just a couple issues with that approach, as we’re finding: you can’t solve every problem just by throwing money at it, and no matter how easy it is with someone else’s money, sooner or later you run out.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of “The March on Washington”, and in celebration of that fact there is another memorial march being held in the same place. As a good libertarian I might be expected by some to rail against the goals of this march, or even the original, and certainly some of my past posts might be seen as reflecting a lack of sympathy for the plight of minorities in this country. In honor of this momentous occasion, I’d like to take the opportunity to set forth my beliefs on the matter.
I agree with Dr. King a great deal, particularly in what he set forth on that day in 1963. Certainly at that time in our nation’s history no person could seriously argue that any minority, of any race, gender or class received equal treatment in America, in any time or place. And to suggest that we have achieved full equality before the law even today, that (to use Dr. King’s metaphor) the bank of justice is no longer bankrupt would be misleading at best and a travesty at worst. We have a drug war in America that disproportionately affects people of color; we have endemic poverty that, again, disproportionately affects people of color; we have endemic unemployment that disproportionately affects people of color; and we are putting in place immigration laws that are targeted at people of color.
Where I disagree with the modern civil rights movement in many ways is through the choice of tactics, not goals. I believe that the state is a coercive device, and social change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. The only value in legislative change is to make all men and women equal in the eyes of the law, which is only natural and right. To try to “level the playing field”, to take from some to give to others because of an accident of birth or choices made by free people is an abomination, regardless of the direction the appropriation flows or the justifications given for it.
The truest value, the highest value, and the one worth fighting for, is freedom. The freedom to make choices, to live one’s life as one chooses, within the bounds of respect for your fellow man’s natural rights and the just laws that flow therefrom. Anything else is anathema. If there are unjust laws (and there are, even still today) then by all means I believe in calls for legislative redress, for there is no other recourse save revolution, which is the worse, albeit sometimes necessary, course. But if your cause exceeds that narrow channel and you still believe it is right and good, the only weapon you should carry is sweet persuasion. In the marketplace of ideas, if you are right, it should suffice.
In closing, I leave you with the words of Dr. King, which I believe are as true today as they were fifty years ago:
“When we allow freedom to ring – when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.’ “
It’s been a banner week for the intelligence community. First David Miranda (note the irony in the name) was detained by British police at Heathrow Airport under the aegis of “terrorism”, and then Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in Leavenworth for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks. As if that wasn’t enough, Pfc. Manning then announced that he would be living as a woman named Chelsea and seeking gender reassignment therapy. Oh, and the NSA admitted they maybe, possibly, might have accidentally illegally intercepted up to 56,000 emails from American citizens per year between 2008 and 2011, in “a direct breach of US law and constitution.” But really, that bit’s not important.
So what do all of these things have in common, other than security leaks and embarrassing the United States government? Step back a minute and think about what you really know about these cases. You certainly know the name Bradley/Chelsea Manning. You may know Mr. Miranda and his partner, Glenn Greenwald. No doubt you know the name of Mr. Greenwald’s source, Edward Snowden. But how familiar are you with the substance of the issues they represent? Other than the words “leaked government documents”, “WikiLeaks”, and “NSA”, do you really know anything?
Probably not. And that’s just how the government wants it.
You may be familiar with the phrase “security theater”. It’s most often used to describe the TSA, one of the greatest examples of security theater of all time. The purpose of security theater is a feel good measure, the political class’ response to the general outcry to “do something!” Unfortunately while the TSA might be compared to stand-up comedians, there’s another kind of performer who shows up in theaters that most folks have forgotten about: magicians.
The greatest, arguably the only, trick in the magician’s bag is misdirection. When the trick is going on here, he convinces you to look there. There are countless ways to accomplish it, from the simple to the insane, and a great magician knows them all. So while we’re all looking over there at Edward Snowden touring around Russia, what are we not paying attention to? As we enjoy the media salivating over Chelsea Manning’s fight for the right to gender reassignment surgery, what aren’t we being bothered by? Even something as potentially unnerving as Mr. Miranda being detained can be forgotten in the space of a news cycle, but so can a report about illegal activity at the NSA. After all, that’s so two years ago.
The truth is we’re being sold personalities instead of facts. I’m not saying I’m for or against what Manning did, nor am I trying to justify the actions that Snowden took. In order to even have that conversation we would need to have a full grasp of what happened, and the cloak of secrecy that keeps being drawn over the events surrounding their actions in the name of “national security” is growing thinner by the day. But that’s okay, because the show goes on, and the audience is getting all the entertainment they need.
So please, all those in Washington who have the power to actually do something about this: take a bow.