Thursday, September 11, 2014


I like clowns. Generally speaking they don’t bother me though I know others who have a genuine fear of them. Maybe it’s because I tried (and failed) to be a class clown or perhaps it’s because the theatricality fascinated me. I even enjoy the Canadian versions that appear in the various Cirque shows that are now a staple in Las Vegas. Political clowns, however, are something to be avoided – so much so that I generally ignore them and rarely call them out. This week is an exception…so much so that Barnum & Bailey would closely identify with what’s happening.

Senator Ted Cruz (R) came to Washington in 2012 determined to shake up the political establishment. His fiery speeches, libertarian-leaning philosophy and ambition for higher office has made him cat-nip for those in the political elite and the chattering class to mock him and dismiss his ideas. He’s raised millions of dollars and has been quite effective at shifting the status-quo to a more polarized “my way or the highway” environment. In order to control the agenda and policy discussion his ‘trademark’ has been inflamed rhetoric and hyperbolic statements that rev up moderate and liberal commentators while serving as red meat for the folks back home in Texas.

Substantively there’s much that Senator Cruz stands for that I agree with. In many speeches he has demanded that President Obama obtain authorization from Congress before he takes military action against ISIS. He cogently argued that the Constitution provides that Congress alone has the authority to declare war. (The Commander in Chief can use military action when there’s an imminent threat to U.S. interests.) Cruz is absolutely right. The problem, of course, is that this is true for all actions that the President (and his predecessors) have taken since World War II.  U.S. interests have become so widespread and all-encompassing that notifying Congress of military action has become a require act of reporting rather than a request for permission. Demanding a war authorization is the right thing to do; but the reality is Congress ceded that authority a long time ago.

Cruz is scheduled to introduce legislation soon (9/2014) that would revoke the U.S. citizenship of anyone fighting or providing support to terrorist groups working to attack the United States. “Americans who choose to go to Syria or Iraq to fight with vicious ISIS terrorists are party to a terrorist organization committing horrific acts of violence, including beheading innocent American journalists who they have captured,” Cruz said in a statement.
    Of course Congress has no authority in the Constitution to revoke citizenship. Cruz, a lawyer, should know this. The legislation (or even the promise of it) is political theatre. So why give heed to this play versus the more flamboyant grandstanding he did on Obamacare and other issues like Immigration? The idea of this proposed law is McCarthyism, pure and simple. Wikipedia’s definition: “McCarthyism is the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence.” Named after U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy for his dogged pursuit of communists, the term is now used to describe reckless, unsubstantiated accusations, as well as demagogic attacks on the character or patriotism of political adversaries.

The era of Communist baiting in the United States is still a blemish on this country’s record of democracy.

The Islamic States of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) is a Sunni extremist group that follows al-Qaeda's hard-line ideology and adheres to global jihadist principles. It is not a friend to the U.S. or to western style democracy. I do not support them, their ideas, ideals, practices, actions or anything about them. As vehemently and completely as I oppose all that they stand for I equally believe in individual’s rights to support something I don’t. Just because an American citizen supports ISIS (or Vladamir Putin or anybody else) is no reason to take away the citizenship that guarantees them the right of free expression and free association.

Individuals must be held responsible for their actions. In the event somebody took an action contrary to U.S. law, then there are consequences and the Constitution already considers all of that.

Introducing a piece of legislation that is not constitutional, inflames public opinion and further polarizes the political discourse is sadly not new, nor unique to Senator Cruz. As a de facto protégée of Senator McCarthy it will take years to undo the damage if this progresses. With a paralyzed legislative process its unlikely that it will ever become law. It’s this sort of behavior that gives clowns a bad name and make people afraid of them.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hide N Seek

My niece and my nephew love playing Hide and Seek – with each other and with other kids. Adults are able to join in – and when lots of people are around it can be a great way to burn off some youthful energy. When I was that age I never much enjoyed the game – fearful that I’d either never be found or could never find the person hiding. Perhaps that’s why I don’t like surprises. I prefer games where there’s a lot of certainty about the rules and what’s supposed to happen. With a clear structure, it’s easier to figure out what’s permissible and what isn’t. Would that the world of politics were that clear.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan popularized the quote: “you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to you own facts.” At a time that American politics are more polarized than ever, the fight for determining what is the baseline truth is more important than ever. I, along with many others, have addressed this dichotomy several times in various blogs. What’s different? Now, according to The Week the United States Government is spending $1 million to be the arbiter of what’s truthful:

Called "Truthy" after a running gag on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, the project is centered at Indiana University, where the Computer & Information Science & Engineering Department has accepted a federal grant of nearly $1 million for the effort.  Truthy has a wider scope than just fact-checking, though. The grant's abstract states that the database will provide analysis of "meme diffusion in large-scale social media by collecting and analyzing massive streams of public micro-blogging data," which might be useful for public relations firms, media organizations, and perhaps even individual consumers. However, what Indiana University's researchers claim as Truthy's public benefit raised a few eyebrows. “We will create a web service open to the public for monitoring trends, bursts, and suspicious memes," the abstract concludes. “This service could mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.”

The White House Press Corps tends to regurgitate press releases and administration talking points with very little pushback, context or even acknowledgement that they are being spoon fed the news. Now the Administration itself is going to be the arbiter of what’s misleading? The government itself is going to determine what is propaganda and what isn’t? The same Administration that has literally criminalized reporters for doing their job is going to “assist in the preservation of open debate?” Who will be making that determination? A political appointee? Somebody who has to be approved by Congress? Or perhaps a life-long bureaucrat like Lois Lerner? Even though this news report comes from the esteemed publication The Week, I nonetheless checked through to make sure that this wasn’t an Onion article – the absurdity and gall is just too mind boggling.

The Obama Administration has rightly complained and bemoaned its frustration that they haven’t been able to accomplish much legislatively because there’s a minority in the House of Representatives that has thwarted them for six years. As I’ve written before: too bad, that’s the U.S. system…either live with it or figure out a way to work around it or adjust your expectations. One of the ways the Republicans have been able to stymie the Administration is its ability to control the narrative and the ‘facts’ whereas Team Obama seems incapable of getting their perspective out. The solution to that problem is a communications issue – it is not empowering the government itself to decide what the truth is.

The news came out days before a long holiday weekend at the end of the summer. The major media haven’t picked it up. In a $3.77 trillion expense budget, $1 million is a miniscule percentage. There are numerous for-profit, third-party companies that have made their business determining who’s pants-are-on-fire. As a fierce capitalist I know that these private companies would beat out any government designed and funded program. As a pragmatist and realist, I know that when the government gets into a sector – it makes the rules and so the game is rigged and free enterprise can’t equally compete. If the “Truthy” project moves from trial to full implementation, we’ll all be playing the Hide N Seek game…about facts…and America will be much worse for it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Biddah, biddah, biddah

I’m a terrible gambler…in the traditional sense. When it comes to entrepreneurship, I’m a total risk taker. But when it comes to lotteries, slots, etc., it’s never been my thing. For years I had a client in Las Vegas and I’d spend 2 or 3 days a week there. It took me nearly 18 months to play a slot – and then it was the penny slot for about 5 minutes or less than a dollar. When the mega-lotteries hit the $100 million jackpots, then I’ll play. On eBay I’m more apt to “buy it now” than to bid. Auctions are a staple of the fundraising circuit, just as bad food and long speeches are. Television has popularized the auction process with Storage Wars and its various clones. Having people compete to buy something, or to donate is relatively harmless and many find it entertaining. Providing a cash prize for voting? That just seems like a bad idea, but it’s exactly what Los Angeles is considering. 

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission recommended that the City Council consider a cash-prize drawing as an incentive to vote. Less than 20% of registered voters show up for municipal elections, so some fresh thinking is in order. There’s another 30 to 35% of the population that is eligible to vote, but isn’t even registered, which would bring the participation rate in LA to below 15%. Winners are then determined by just 8% of the population they’re serving.

I love Los Angeles – its sprawl, its opportunities, its diversity, and, yes, even its traffic. (MUCH preferable over Boston traffic which just stops.) Mayor Richard Riordan did a lot of extraordinary things for the city, getting it back on track after the Earthquake and Bush (41) Recession. One of the worst things he had to compromise on was allowing the creation of Neighborhood Councils in the City Charter revision that was approved and took hold in 2000.

Los Angeles – the city not the county – is home to 4 million people. That is larger than 27 other states in population.  It is governed by a Mayor and 15 City Council members who each have a district they represent. The 2000 City Charter clarified the roles of the legislative and executive branches – a wholesale improvement over the prior system which had a very weak governing system. But to pass the changes, the Charter also introduced the concept of Neighborhood Councils. According to the city: “The goal of the Neighborhoods Councils is to promote public participation in City governance and decision-making process to create a government more responsive to local needs.”

There are 95 Neighborhood Councils. Can you imagine Kentucky, Connecticut or Nevada (all states with smaller populations than LA) having to deal with 95 councils participating in the decision-making process with their legislatures? They each have their own budget, their own elections, their own agendas. There’s even an organizing alliance with staff to support them. It’s not chaos – it’s just ineffective. Much of the work that they do replicates what a City Council office should do – working directly with constituents. Moving anything legislatively takes eons as it has to go through this labyrinth of connectivity with the neighborhood councils.

The idea is nice – people would participate with local government if it was local and part of their neighborhood. The more people participate, then the more engaged they are. The more engaged and the higher likelihood that come election time, more people will exercise their civic responsibility. The reality after nearly 15 years is that it hasn’t increased participation. Many of these neighborhood councils are dormant, scrambling to fill positions or having people keep their roles for years and year. The participation rate of elections is so low that the Ethics Committee thought a lottery would be the ideal way to boost the engagement that having micro-localized government was intended to do. With that thinking, we might as well put up elections to the highest bidder. Oh, wait...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Life and Death

A few weeks back I visited a Parish for the first time. A lovely New England Church epitomizing church going in August: doors were open, fans were positioned just so, and there were a smattering of people. The few kids were wriggling every which way. The pews filled to about 30 (in a place that holds 15 times that). The Rector was on a month-long holiday, and a long retired priest navigated the service with the help of lots of bits of paper. As the organist banged out the hymns, I seemed to be a soloist as there was no choir and the other folks didn't even open the book. At the time for the sermon, the substitute priest came to the center of the sanctuary – quasi-Oprah style - and didn't take the pulpit. Oh Jeez, I thought, a wanderer! Despite my initial judgments, that homily has stuck with me. Weeks later the question that he posed has so resonated with me that it must be shared.

Why must we kill each other? That’s the question.  What is the point of life? That existential question has kept philosophers, priests, rabbi’s and many others occupied for millennia. But it’s not the question that we can do much about. This question about why we kill each other is one we should be able to address.

In international affairs today we can look to Israeli’s and Palestinians lobbing missiles  at each other, with a death toll in the thousands. Syria’s been killing its own people for years – with 700 tribal members being slaughtered this week (8/17/14). Many African countries have been locked in civil wars and strife for generations. In the Congo the bloodiest part of the war hasn’t abated much. In Ukraine dozens were killed this week (8/19/14) in the shelling of a Russian convoy of humanitarian supplies. Iraqi’s various religious factions are solving their differences violently – and the U.S. is helping with bombs and personnel. In Afghanistan fighting is stronger than ever. Then of course there’s President Obama’s kill list, which continues to expand.

For the past two weeks in the U.S. Ferguson, MO has been the focal point as the city erupted in violence over the killing of a young black man by a white police officer. Chicago had 82 shootings and 14 fatalities this past July 4th. Schools have become battlefields – so much so that this week the Compton Schools in California have authorized assault rifles for school police.

This litany of examples is depressing, largely from the past 6 weeks – July to mid-August 2014. A longer look would yield so many more examples, it’d be hard to comprehend. Conflict is not going to go away. There will be groups wanting power and control that others have – and will use force to change it. This has been happening since the caveman. Killing is a very effective method of achieving the result. I'm not so naiive to think that will change wholesale, but the underlying philosophy does deserve to be challenged, because somehow it has become acceptable to kill each other to get our way.

What if we as a people, as a species, decided that killing wasn’t right. That life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were more than words declaring independence. What if we solved our conflicts in another way? What if we just decided not to kill each other?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Hi Ho Hi Ho, it's off to war we go

I’m a middle child. Popular psychology enthusiasts have come up with a variety of characteristics that are common to people who are first born, last born, and everything in between. According to “Middle children are peacekeepers by default. They are the mediators.” There’s truth in that description for me, though I’m not totally convinced my traits are due to birth order. Even during the dozen plus years that I was away from the Church, I’ve objected to war and preferred peaceful solutions. As a person of faith the Church provides a natural framework to oppose war. That doesn’t mean all religious people are pacifists. In fact, most aren’t. Many of the wars throughout the ages have been over issues of God.

Differences in Christianity have been used as a reason to go to war, so much so that much of Europe’s map exists because of the various wars over the centuries. In the Middle East the Palestinians and the Israelis have been fighting for what seems like the beginning of time. An Islamic jihad is now wielded as justification for attacks by some countries and groups against others. There’s liturgical support for such actions in each denomination., whether it be the Bible, the Torah or the Quran. There’s also liturgical support opposing such violence as well. How to choose whether to address conflict with bombs or other methods is the challenge that faces political leaders.

The United States came into being with explorers and founders who didn’t want to see the country devolve into factions over religion. They fled Europe in part to avoid religious battles. The result is that the very first Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that the Government will not make any law respecting the establishment of or impeding the free exercise of religion. Over time the pendulum of how courts have interpreted this has swung in various directions. More recent decisions seem to weigh closer towards having religion be a core part of public life. Certainly the leaders have.

George W. Bush said that the invasion of Iraq was “willed by God.” The 43rd President throughout his tenure often used Bible quotes as justification for many things – but especially in matters of war. In contrast Barack Obama won the Presidency thanks in part to a passionate opposition to the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, one of his Administration’s successes has been fulfilling Obama’s pledge to remove American troops from Iraq. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in anticipation of those actions. It’s been a short lived victory.

On August 7, 2014 the President authorized airstrikes in Iraq. “We do whatever is necessary to protect our people. We support our allies when they're in danger," Obama said. According to UPI: “The announcement comes as religious minorities in Iraq, including Christians, fled Sunni Muslim militants operating under the name the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.”

For six years the Obama Administration worked to get Americans out of the country. Having succeeded in that, there shouldn't be any of “our people” there to "protect." As to supporting “our allies?” Syria rebels and many African conflicts are quick examples where the same justification could be used, but hasn’t been.

Pundits, spin-masters and various other talking heads wrap themselves into a pretzel-like contortion in explaining how putting American military personnel and dropping bombs isn’t war. The dictionary definition of war is: “a conflict carried on by force of arms.” In less than a week nearly 1,000 U.S. military personnel have been deployed to Iraq. U.S. bombs are being used to kill people. It may be justified as humanitarian, but it’s war nonetheless.

Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution states “The Congress shall have Power To declare War.” World War II was the last time the Congress officially declared war. This Congress, which can’t seem to agree on anything, isn’t likely to break the decades long pattern of allowing the Executive Branch to usurp this responsibility. That’s particularly ironic given the lawsuit filed against the Administration for not following the law. I digress. I guess bombing Iraq means that Barack Obama isn’t a middle child?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Truth isn’t stranger than fiction

I just finished the recent Tom Clancy novel “Support and Defend.” Like his other books there is plenty of action, intrigue, conspiracy and patriotism at play. And, to be clear, it’s a Tom Clancey novel in that it’s in his style. The man’s been dead for nearly a year. It’s the second book his collaborator Mark Greaney has published under Clancey’s aegis. No matter, the page-turning (in my case screen swiping) taught storytelling with explosions and intrigue is an amusing escape. As I clicked through to the last page I then checked a news site to discover that after months of vehement and outraged statements to the contrary, the CIA admitted to spying on the U.S. Senate.

Mediaite reports: “CIA Director John Brennan admitted that the agency had hacked into Senate computers, as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was looking into the CIA over Bush-era torture tactics. That was in stark contrast with the defiant tone Brennan struck months ago when he adamantly denied those claims.”

President Obama the next day expressed “full support” for the Director. According to the Huffington Post the President said: “Keep in mind that John Brennan was the person who called for the [inspector general] report.” 

According to a CIA Inspector General’s Office report, agency employees in 2009 hacked Senate computers being used to compile a report on the agency’s infamous detention and interrogation program -- a move that critics have characterized as a significant breach of the separation of powers.”

As mortifying as this incident is, it occurs inside of an even more important issue. The U.S. Senate, more than a dozen years after 9/11 issued a report on so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. As Senate staffers were working on that report the CIA hacked into their computers to see what they were working on.

The President’s succinctly summarized the findings: “We tortured some folks.” Once in office Obama banned the practices, but despite this he justified the torture: “It is important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had.”

The point of living in a society with rules and laws and structure was that no matter how difficult a situation may be there is a code of conduct to participate in the world. A dozen years later after trillions of dollars have been spent and thousands of people have died one of the most political and insular organizations (the U.S. Senate) still found a way to get to the truth. That's how egregious the actions were. The least we can do as citizens is to hold those who breach our trust accountable, even if our leaders show those same people “support.”

The CIA broke the law. And then the broke the law again when the investigation was underway. They did so not to forward some romanticized notion of democracy, but rather to peep into what their investigators were finding out about them. The CIA chief lied repeatedly and vociferously to the Senate under oath about the breaches. There's no consequence: the President fully supports the Director. This is America? This is our ethics? This is why we go to war?  Tom Clancey the novelist would be proud. Tom Clancey the American is rolling over in his grave at this injustice for the country he loved and wrote so patriotically about.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Go ahead, Impeach him

In High School I was a cynic. By college I was a realist. After sobriety I became an optimist. I certainly still have my moments of cynicism and realism – but in a world of difficulties and challenges I try to look for the good in things. Politics makes it very hard. Putting a good spin on bad news is something the Obama White House has mastered. The House of Representatives voted to sue the President over their belief that the Executive Branch hasn’t fulfilled its constitutional duties on the Affordable Care Act by providing waivers to components of the law. (Of course the irony is Congress has voted 37+ times to repeal the law they're suing the President to enforce.) The White House has spun this to be the first step towards impeachment, and the media has taken the story hook, line and sinker.

It’s not all fantasy - there are many in Congress who have called for the President’s impeachment. Rep. Steve Stockman even handed out copies of Impeachable Offenses –The Case For Removing Barack Obama From Office to every member of Congress.

Article II of the United States Constitution (Section 4) states that "The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors." The House of Representatives has the sole power of impeaching, while the United States Senate has the sole power to try all impeachments. The removal of impeached officials is automatic upon conviction in the Senate. Only two U.S. Presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives. Both were acquitted at the trials held by the Senate: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998/1999.

House Speaker John Boehner has said there were “no plans” for impeachment, calling the talk a Democratic tool to raise money.

The LA Times report supports the claim: “On Tuesday (July 30, 2014), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said the party had raised $7.6 million online since Boehner announced the suit in June, including $1 million collected Monday alone after incoming House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), during a network television interview, repeatedly refused to rule out the possibility of impeachment.”

I wrote about the lawsuit last month. Rather than attack any merits that the allegations have – the White House has framed the litigation as the first step towards the impeachment of the nation’s first black President.

The suit actually has legitimate concerns. Under the Constitution the Executive Office is required to implement the laws that Congress passes. It can’t just change them. In the case of the Affordable Care Act, when there were difficulties in the roll-out the President pushed back a number of the deadlines (notably the Employer mandate) without Congressional approval. This is important because it’s not just a technicality – it’s a key funding mechanism of the law. Historically as major legislation is implemented Congress and the Executive Branch work together to amend the law to work out the kinks. In this case Congress refused to make any changes, and the President just changed the rules claiming the ability to do so falls under the expansive authority allowed in implementing legislation. Usually a change that impacts the funding requires Congressional approval, so this will be an interesting case because technically Congress is right. But Congress is right only because it abdicated its responsibility to modify the law as it has throughout history. By tying the suit to impeachment, however, the Democrats are hoping to change the conversation to it being personal and political against Barack Obama. 

The case for Impeachment against President Obama could be strong, depending on one’s interpretation of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The President’s kill list – where he alone chooses whom to execute without the benefit of trial or any form of legal process could be defined as a high crime. And that doesn’t include looking at any of the civil rights issues with the NSA, drone attacks on foreign soil, etc.

George W. Bush could have been impeached for the high crime of sending Americans to war for made-up reasons. Those lies cost lives and treasure amongst other things. Then there’s his Administration’s bullying one bank to bail out another in clear violation of U.S. law. Not to mention the whole torturing of people after 9/11.

In each instance – Obama and Bush – there are good reasons to explore the actions. The political reality, though, is that there aren’t the votes to convict – now or under Bush. Congress has been complicit in the areas that would be explored for impeachment (in both cases) – so unless we’re really ready to throw out the whole bunch, this is just a clever turn-about by the White House. Oh my, is that cynicism creeping into my otherwise sunny disposition?