Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Christmas Miracle

It’s mid December, and regardless of your religious affiliation – Christmas is upon us. The stores, the sales…the commercialism. There are some of us who approach the holiday through the liturgical season of Advent, but even with that the omnipresence of retail is hard to avoid. The Christmas Miracle story isn't just one narrative, but a nice morphing of the commercial aspect of the holiday and the spirit that its intended. The story has many variations – but the underlying message focuses on the importance of giving. Poverty, wealth, stinginess and extravagance are all examined through a variety of narratives both in books, stories and movies and TV shows. Imagine my surprise when last week the Government provided its own miracle – a moment of transparency if not humility.

The recently released summary of the Senate Intelligence Report on Torture cost $40 million to put together. It took 5 years and the bulk of the 6,000 page report remains classified. What the 525 page unclassified portion tells is some of the most important information to come out of the U.S. government in a long time. It’s not so much a gift or a mea-culpa, but rather an acknowledgement of what actually happened.

Per Wikipedia’s summary: 

“The report details actions by a number of CIA officials, including torturing prisoners and providing misleading or false information about CIA programs to government officials and the media. It also revealed the existence of previously unknown detainees, that more detainees were subjected to harsher treatment than was previously disclosed, and that more techniques were used than previously disclosed. Finally, it offers conclusions about the detention project, including that torturing prisoners did not help acquire actionable intelligence or gain cooperation from detainees.”
In short the report validates those who have long criticized the “War on Terror.” I’m one of them. I’m a pacifist. I’m anti-war. I’m extremely wary of the military industrial complex. I have family and friends who have served the country with distinction and honor and I'm proud of what they do and have done for America. These two statements do not negate each other nor are they in conflict.

The release of this report necessitates acknowledgements where usually I criticize. Let’s think of it in the spirit of A Christmas Carol and consider some past blog posts.

I have been sharply critical of President Barak Obama who came into office claiming that he’d have the “most transparent Presidency” in history only to criminalize journalists and be more opaque than his predecessor on a slew of issues. The creation and release of this report happened under his watch and with his buy-in. While there’s certainly a political element to the report and its release,  it still happened and he should get the credit.

The Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee – Diane Feinstein – even got her own blog some time ago. Her unwavering support of the FISA courts – those secret courts that rubber stamp anything the Government wants without any due process or opposition – got my wrath. Her committee spent an ungodly amount of money and time developing this tome that will never see the fullness of daylight. The summary, however, has shifted the needle and allowed America to see the truth if not to take responsibility for its actions. Kudos for seeing it through.

The media is often the brunt of my analysis. A predilection for gliz and simplicity crowds out nuance and important policy issues in most coverage. Many have continued their partisan coverage of the report, but it seems the majority of outlets reported the facts as outlined in the report. It's important that the public see and hear what happened. 

The content of what has been released is troubling. It’s likely criminal. It’s certainly inconsistent with the values America preaches. It infuriates me for what is done in my name with my tax dollars. The Washington Post's poll shows that a majority of Americans in every demographic believe torture can be justified. That's alarming and not whom I believe Americans to be.

Much of military action today is done to preserve the American way of life – which is a well-worn slogan. More often than not the War on Terror via misnomer “Patriot Act” and other laws like it have torn away at the Constitution that it’s intended to protect. The release of this report, however, is a moment of brightness, a moment of clarity and honesty even if what’s its reporting is contrary to every fiber of my being. It's proof that telling the truth is much better than not.

The real terror is what the other 5,475 pages say. What is there that can’t be released, that is too shameful to reveal? Would that change the poll results, or reinforce them? Before going down that road…let’s celebrate the Christmas miracle that we do have: 8.75% of a report critical of American actions was made public.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Boxing Day is a sucker punch

Boxing isn’t my thing. Too much blood and I never much saw the point of beating the crap out of somebody else. It’s a sport, but never seemed to be very sporting. Boxing Day has nothing to do with the sport. As fans of Downton Abbey know, it’s a holiday traditionally celebrated the day following Christmas Day, when servants and tradespeople would receive gifts, known as a "Christmas box", from their bosses or employers. It’s usually a European celebration that is a vestige from a time where there were “Upstairs” and “Downstairs” classes. President Obama made it American this week when he signed an executive order giving every federal worker the day off this year.

Friday December 26, 2014 is now a Federal holiday – meaning that all Federal employees do not have to report to work and will be paid for it. Since Christmas falls on a Thursday this year, that gesture makes for a nice four-day weekend. And, really, who am I to be Scrooge about people getting a day off that would likely be one of the least productive of the year?

Federal employees get a pretty nice benefit package – 36 days off, or 14% of the year out of the gate:
  • ·        10 paid holidays (and Inauguration Day every 4 years)
  • ·        13 days of vacation for the first three years service, 20 days of vacation with three to 15 years of service, and 26 days after 15 years.
  • ·        13 sick days are accrued each year regardless of length of service and employees can carry over any sick leave accumulation to the next year. (It can be converted to cash upon leaving.)

Other benefits include medical plans and multiple retirement plans. You’d think that Federal Employees would just get Social Security, but in addition the government also kicks in an equal amount (up to 5%) to 401K accounts along with pensions and an array of other programs that require a full website to detail.

Popular thinking has been that in exchange for lower pay government workers receive job security, a generous benefits package and the opportunity to serve. According to a study using information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Government workers cost 45% more than an equivalent worker in the private sector. A 2012 non-partisan Congressional Budget Office study compared wages and benefits of private sector workers to public sector workers and found that pay and benefit variances – with federal workers having overall more compensation than their contemporaries.

The total number of Government workers is up under the Obama Administration thought it is down significantly from the Reagan era.

It is estimated that each Federal Holiday costs the American taxpayer somewhere around $500 million dollars.  Half a billion dollars.  In a $3.5 trillion dollar budget it’s not actually a significant number, but it’s still a lot.

If Federal employees want to take off Boxing Day – let them! No Scrooge here. That’s what a benefit package is provided is for – so that people can take time off with pay. It’d be a different situation if there was no paid time off, but there’s plenty of buckets for government workers to choose from. It’s the American taxpayer who has been sucker punched by the President in his half-a-billion dollar give away.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Robbing Consumers

I was robbed this week. I was stupid and left my iPhone in the car ("hidden" in the center console, but I left the charger connected) so it was obvious to a passerby that there was something there. Aside from the hassle of having the car window replaced and the sense of intrusion caused by my own mistake, I spent the bulk of the day without a smart phone. My first instinct when I got into the car and noticed all of the broken glass was: I must take a photo of this for the police, insurance (and potentially Facebook). Oops, can’t do that, no phone. Then I went to contact the police but couldn’t because, well, no phone. As the day went by all of the little things that I use the miniature computer for became apparent: figuring out where the nearest phone store was, how to get there, having music on the way, etc. Every element of how I navigate day-to-day activities now seems reliant on the Internet through the palm of my hand.

President Obama last month endorsed Net Neutrality. Wikipedia defines this as “the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differently by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.”

From the time Al Gore 'invented the Internet,' it has become perhaps the most revolutionary tool in disseminating information. Regardless of class, race or any other of the usual variables – once somebody connects to the World Wide Web, the information is there for the asking. Time Magazine in 1982 made The Computer its “Person of the Year” and Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos received the honor in 1999, symbolic of the importance of the Internet and commerce. In 2006 “You” (the reader) was the selection to represent the “individual content creator on the World Wide Web.”

In the President’s web/video announcement, he cited a section of the Federal Communications Code that he wanted utilized to protect the principle of Net Neutrality. (He has to use the FCC rules and process because the other attempts by his Administration to govern the Internet have failed in court case after court case.) The  code cited means that the Government would regulate the Internet as a utility. That request underlines the importance that the Net has in everyday life (like lights, water, telephony). My own experience for just an afternoon (before resurrecting a 4 year old model which I will use for several more weeks) validates the President's idea that connectivity is very much part of how life is lived today. Regulating the Net as a utility though portends huge potential problems and it’s easy to see how many started frothing at the very idea. 

75% of the traffic on the Internet is attributable to streaming – whether it be Netflix, YouTube or another similar service. 

Internet Service Providers (Comcast, AT&T, Charter, etc.) have had to upgrade their equipment to manage this explosion in traffic and data. U.S. is 9th out of 243 countries in broadband speed, not bad overall but pretty lame for a "first world" country. Per the Huffington Post, Verizon charges $310/mo for 500 Mbps while in Seoul the same speed costs $30/mo. Most people don’t have anything near that speed, though.

To manage the explosion in traffic and data consumption, ISP’s want to charge fees to businesses – essentially penalizing successful companies that have people using large portions of data. Some mobile companies “throttle” the data after a certain threshold is met. 

The failed legislation and various FCC rule recommendations are designed to keep access open – neutral – regardless of the usage by user or content creator. Capitalists worry that having the Internet regulated means that innovation will suffer and the speed with which they can adapt to a changing marketplace will be dramatically impacted. It takes several years now for rates to be adjusted to market conditions for other utilities - that would kill the essence of the Net.

The internet’s very success – and its very ethos – is that it isn’t regulated. The web is just that – a network of computers throughout the globe that have a common protocol allowing access. It operates without a central governing body. This must continue.

It doesn’t make sense to have the government regulate the ISP’s like they do electric and water companies. It also doesn’t make sense to allow ISP’s the ability to restrict at will which content their customers have access to based on their own criteria. The solution is to keep the Internet free and open, and move the financial model to one of usage. If you want to access the internet and only need to check email, that’s one access price for using a relatively small about of data. If you want 24-7 streaming at the fastest possible connectivity, that’d be a different price...and different by provider. Let the consumer decide. Don’t rob consumers of choice.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

50 Shades of ... Me

I hit the mid-century mark this week. I’m at the tail end of the “Baby Boom” generation – which started in 1946 and ended in 1964. I made it by a month and am considered a “Late Boomer” or “Trailing Edge Boomer” according to Wikipedia.  The celebrations were bi-coastal with my enjoying good friends and family on both coasts on the same weekend, topped off by the Facebook frenzy of greetings from near and far. Hitting the big five-oh has not (so far) been one of those deep emotional psychological moments – that happened for me at 35 and again at 40. According to Social Security’s Life Expectancy Calculator I’ve got 32.3 years left.

Based on family history I thought I had about 25 years left – so I figured I was two-thirds through the journey. It’s fantastic that the U.S. Government provides life expectancy estimates through the Social Security website … because it’s not like they’ve ever been wrong or miscalculated anything before.

I’ve got the same human affliction of looking back and self-analysis that we all do. For this milestone, however, I am focused on the future. Perhaps it’s the earthquake that became of my life during "The Great Recession" - right now I'm fortunate to be able to focus on what’s next. Having lost nearly everything of material value, I need not worry about retirement...I'll just work 'til I drop. I don’t have a bucket list. Yet. Sure there's the usual list of "wouldn't it be nice..." things, but I'm not particularly passionate about them. While I’m not too interested in looking back on my own history, it is fascinating to see what happened fifty years back.

1964 was a good year. According to a wonderful DVD of the year I received as a gift – it’s not only the year that I arrived, but so did Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin. General Douglas MacArthur, Ian Flemming, Cole Porter and President Hoover died during the year. The Beatle’s landed in the U.S. for the first time in 64. Leonid Brezhnev took over the Soviet Union from Nikita Khruschev and presided over the country until he died in 1982. President Johnson was elected by a “landslide.” The Civil Rights Act became law and Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Actor.

What’s happened in the past fifty years has been remarkable in human history, just like the fifty before were and the next fifty will be. Whether I’m around for all of them or a portion of them, I’m sure it'll be quite the journey.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Civil Shopping

I’m not much of a shopper – I’m more of a buyer. The hunting and pecking for items bores me to no end. When I find something I like and it’s in the price range that works, I buy it. This is true for big and small purchases. My Realtor was annoyed because I could walk through houses and in moments know if it would work for me or not. So he stopped coming along. 10 minutes after my first walk-thru of the one I knew would work I put an offer in. The sale closed 3 weeks later which felt like an eternity. As we move into the lucrative holiday shopping season, people are making their lists and checking them twice. It’s all part of the ritual of the season. So much so that local government have shopping lists too - of your stuff.

The Week summarized an in-depth The New York Times  article: “Civil asset forfeiture is a little-known practice that allows police or other government agencies to confiscate citizens' money or property without charging them with any crime. Because it is technically the seized asset — not the person who owned it — which is under suspicion, it is typically extremely difficult for people to get their stuff back.”

  • In Philadelphia a family had their home taken away because their son sold $40 of drugs from the front porch. (According to the CNN story, in Philadelphia alone more than 1,000 homes have been seized, 3,300 vehicles and $44 million in cash have been grabbed in the past decade.)
  • Individuals who have been stopped for suspicion of drunk driving have had the cars they were driving seized and kept by authorities even though the individual didn’t own the car may have just borrowed it (in many cases without permission). Women have been stopped, warned by the cops - not charged - and left standing at the side of the road as officer then drive off in their car.

Innocent victims whose property is confiscated because of an alleged crime somebody else commits can try and get it back. They have to go to court, pay court costs upfront and hire an attorney to advocate for them. Per the Times report: “Prosecutors estimated that between 50 to 80 percent of the cars seized were driven by someone other than the owner, which sometimes means a parent or grandparent loses their car.”

Let’s reiterate: the property is taken BEFORE there’s an arrest, and BEFORE there’s a conviction. This isn’t a drug kingpin living high on the hog who’s been sentenced and is having their toys taken away which was the original origin and intent of the law. Victims are every day people who have not committed any crime, have not been accused of any crime who lose huge amounts of their own property...often in disproportion to the value of the crime. (A six-figure house is taken over a $40 drug sale.)

The Times article continues: “Mr. McMurtry (chief of the forfeiture unit in the Mercer County, N.J) said his handling of a case is sometimes determined by department wish lists. 'If you want the car, and you really want to put it in your fleet, let me know — I’ll fight for it,' Mr. McMurtry said, addressing law enforcement officials on the video. 'If you don’t let me know that, I’ll try and resolve it real quick through a settlement and get cash for the car, get the tow fee paid off, get some money for it.'”

Somebody accused of drunk driving could lose a Ferrari while somebody else could lose a Yugo. It’s all at the discretion of the officers…and what car the local officials may be in the market for. So much for the punishment fitting the (alleged) crime.

A founding principle of the United States was the presumption of innocence and the right of the accused to due process. Civil forfeiture laws – which accounted for $4.2 billion in seized assets in 2012 – have gutted this presumption and thousands of innocent people are hugely impacted. The outrage is that it's not accidental or happenstance. Seminars and trainings are held for law enforcement to show them how to target particular items, which assets yield the best results and provide step by step instructions for dealing with “outraged innocents.” Local agencies seek out certain items (flat screens, vehicles, houses) and avoid others (jewelry and furniture).

This gift giving season be careful what you wish for. Uncle Sam, his cousins and their offspring may want it too. And they can just take it. Civil Forfeiture is really Civil Shopping. And it's wrong.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

No Signal

In my personal life I’m pretty lame at reading signals…especially in the romance department. I remember once I was sitting in a car with a potential mate and we spent over an hour talking...the kiss that happened totally surprised me...though it was the natural evolution in the mating ritual. There’s some sort of obtuseness around me in that arena that keeps my therapist on her toes. As much as there’s an opportunity for improvement personally, in work situations it’s nearly the opposite – I’m pretty astute in reading the signals and maneuvering the nuances of various situations. I wish that our political leaders could say the same.

The 2014 mid-term elections have provided plenty of fodder for the simple conclusions that most pundits provide these days. “Crushing defeat,” and “Devastating loss” are how some of the headlines have read. Even the generally impartial Wikipedia describes the “sweeping gains” of the GOP. While some races are still being counted and runoffs are happening, as of 11/13/14 there was a net gain of 6 seats in the Senate (16% of the seats up for election, 6% of the total) and 13 seats in the House (3%). Most of the ‘contested’ races were close – all within 10% margin of victory. Crushing? Not quite.

Some analysts have stumbled upon the more important statistic: turnout. “Nationwide voter turnout was just 36.4%, down from 40.9% in the 2010 midterms and the lowest since the 1942 elections.” Turnout is calculated based on registered voters, not eligible. 30% of people eligible to vote are not even registered – that's 59,761,000 people.

Applying the eligible voter calculation against the actual turnout (i.e. reducing it by the 30% of the population who isn’t registered) 25.48% of the public voted in 2014. To win an election requires just a majority of votes, so just 13% of the eligible voters make the decision. Given that most of the contested races were within 10% of each other – the mandate is thanks to some 15% of the population. Not quite sweeping.

Both Republicans & Democrats look to the top line numbers, not the bottom line. They see more victors from one party than the other. In the thrill of victory House and Senate leaders renewed their commitment to repeal the Affordable Care Act – President Obama’s signature (and sole?) legislative accomplishment. He would no doubt veto any such legislation if it reached his desk. There aren't enough votes to override a veto. The President has indicated he will use Executive Action on immigration which promptly resulted in the GOP wagging their fingers and saying “don’t you dare!”

President Obama spoke to the nation on Nov. 5  saying "To those of you who voted, I hear you," Obama said in his first public remarks since the election. "To those who didn't vote, I hear you too."

In 1969 newly elected President Richard Nixon spoke to the nation regarding the War in Vietnam. He summed up his pitch: “And so tonight-to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans-I ask for your support.”

75% of American’s opted out of this election – despite (or perhaps because of) the $3.7 billion spent to “sway” them. It averages out to some $25 per vote. The President has determined that this means that folks are happy with him and his policies because they didn’t come out to vote for change. The GOP claims that people are so disgusted that they didn’t bother to come out. Somebody's not getting the signal: 92% disapprove of Congress and three-quarters of American’s opted out of the process. Something's gotta change.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


I work hard. Probably too hard. I average between 55 and 60 hours a week, with the busy season hitting it’s closer to 75 to 80. Earlier in my career I went seven years without a vacation. After flaming out I found a nice balance and actually took the time off I earned each year and ultimately was a happier and more productive person. All along it’s been my choice – while I can always come up with reasonable and strong justifications for my addictive habit, I have been fortunate in that the pressure to work and deliver results has been largely driven by me, making modifications somewhat easier. As somebody who is intimately familiar with the push and pull of “work” “life” balances, I’m particularly sensitized to others who claim to be burdened. I was amused by the recent study that members of Congress are considered workaholics as well, putting in 70 hours a week.

Roll Call reports that the average member of congress works 70 hours a week. The Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) report was compiled from 200 interviews of congress people and their senior staff. The claim isn’t based on hours that they’re awake – it is based on labor. One of the reports researchers made the understatement of the year: “Perceptions are very different.”

Just about a year ago, in Dec. 2013, an America’s Voice (AV) issued a study came showing that Congress worked only 942 hours all year.  The difference between working 3640 hours a year and 942 is not one of just perception, but of methodology. (The average worker on a 40 hours week works 2080 per year, right in between the two studies.)  The CMF report includes the hours that a congress person spends working on constituent affairs, fundraising and all the things to keep their office going. The AV report only looked at the hours that Congress was officially in session and assumes that member of Congress are working only when in session.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Members of Congress do have work to do to respond to constituent requests, study issues, fund raise, etc. Just showing up and voting is not the sum total of the job.

97% of Congress was re-elected this week. 10 seats changed from one party to the other in the House – 3%.  6 seats changed in the Senate, 6% of the total or 16% of the seats that were up open. The media and political elite are beside themselves that “control” of the Senate has switched from Democrats to Republicans. While it’s true that a narrow majority of Republicans will now mean that committees and procedures will be run by a different party – the reality is very little will change. The Republicans controlled the agenda for the past 6 years by voting “no” on everything – by using everything they could to block legislation, appointments, etc. 

The paralysis that has defined Washington politics for the past decade plus will continue, the leadership will just be slightly different. The various political analysts will bloviate and the ‘differences’ between the parties will be hyped as if it was something discernable. As the hamster-wheel of America’s political establishment spins away, it’s comforting to know that they’re all working as hard as I am.