Monthly Archives: June 2013

Time for a National Voting Rights Law

The Supreme Court is right, voting rights are threatened throughout the country and national standards are needed for any election involving federal lawmakers.  Voting rights abuses in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and other states reveal widespread attempts to deprive people of the vote.

Voting rights are too important to leave to the whim of state and local governments.

Most commentaries about the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 focus on its impact in the southern states most directly affected by its provisions.  This tendency will be accelerated by the way Texas, in keeping with their cowboy reputation, is rushing ahead to implement a discriminatory voter ID law that will affect thousands of poor people in that state.  (Mississippi is doing the same thing.)

This, of course, is rank discrimination and must not be allowed to succeed.  The NAACP estimates that one-quarter of African-Americans and 16% of Latinos of voting age do not have a government-issued photo ID.

However, we need to keep in mind that there were widespread attempt to limit access to voting in a number of states during the 2012 election season.  In Florida, Republican officials attempted to shorten the popular early voting period, making it harder for people to chose to vote on the weekend and avoid the burdensome task of waiting in line for many hours on Election Day.  Reportedly, the Republicans were disturbed when they discovered that more than four million people voted before election day in that swing state.

In Ohio, Republican officials tried to get rid of the rules instituted in 2008 that allowed people to vote early by absentee ballot and to vote on the Saturday and Sunday before the traditional Tuesday election day.  When they saw that the new rules encouraged minority and working class voters to show up, their earlier enthusiasm for the reform disappeared.

“It just so happened that this was the first time that early voting had been used in large numbers to mobilize African American and Latino voters,” said Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.”

In Pennsylvania, the Republican legislature passed a strict Voter ID law.  However, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state did not do an adequate job of providing voters with an opportunity to acquire state-issued IDs and prevented the law from going into effect in 2012.  The ID law is operational this year and inspiring protests even as I write this posting.

Thus, voting restrictions are not monopolized by backwoods legislatures in Dixie, but are a national issue that requires national solutions.  The President should step forward and propose a national election law that would require fair standards in every election where a federal office is part of the ballot.

Why should Pennsylvania be allowed to require voter IDs and Texas be prohibited?  Voting in every state is a right, not a privilege, and citizens should be encouraged to participate in the political life of the country, not be excluded by discriminatory laws.

NSA Surveillance is an Ineffective Invasion of Privacy

General Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency, told the House Intelligence Committee on June 18th that American surveillance had helped prevent “more than 50 terrorist events” since 9/11 including 10 “homeland-based threats.”  However, when Deputy Director Sean Joyce of the FBI told the committee about two of the cases, the first was of a Kansas City man who contacted an extremist in Yeman who was already being watched by U.S. agencies, and the second was a man from San Diego who wanted to send money to a terrorist group in Somalia who was identified through the use of the NSA database. 

 In other words, two of the ten “homeland-based threats” were really the results of surveillance of known terrorist groups overseas, rather than plots by people in the U.S. who were not already being watched.  The article goes on:

 “In a rare note of skepticism, Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat, pressed Alexander about why the FBI could not use subpoenas to get the necessary domestic phone logs surrounding a suspicious number without the government’s obtaining logs of everyone’s calls. Alexander said he was open to discussion, but added, “The concern is speed in a crisis.”

 Note that the speed in a crisis excuse here is a re-run of the Bush administration’s justification for the use of torture – the bomb is ticking so we need to use water-boarding.  However, the police work necessary to prevent terror plots seldom involves the kind of Jack Bauer “24” style drama.  Even the cases cited by Deputy Director Joyce were initial conversations, not bomb ticking crisis.

 Big Data vs. Real Police Work

 In short, anti-terrorism work is police work, it is detective work, it is connecting evidence and figuring things out work.  NSA is unable to publically disclose even one case where big data was the principle means by which the agency deterred a real terrorist plot in the United States.  If there was such a case, it would be easy for General Alexander to release general details – for example, three men from Ohio were arrested for suspicious activities – without compromising agency methods.

 In fact, I believe the scale of the NSA data program (there are numerous stories about thousands of employees and billions of dollars spent on software and giant computer facilities) makes it less effective right now at tracking people who are possible terrorists.  That is, having billions of pieces of data and millions of people on watch lists, with more added daily, results in a process too vast to be used by people – the use of intuition and flashes of insight which are important in detective work is removed. 

We in Boston are especially sensitive to this issue.  The oldest Boston Marathon bomber, targeted for NSA and the FBI by his native Russian government, was not monitored closely enough to prevent his lethal attack.  Even more stunning are the hostile Twitter posts of his younger brother.  Why were these not flagged?  As least part of the answer is the agencies were busy siphoning up billions of pieces of data instead of carefully examining the ones that really mattered.  The fascination with technology is pushing aside more tradition and more effective methods of police work.

Now is the Time for Limits

The nature and scale of this surveillance program will only grow larger if we don’t create limits and safeguards while we are in this moment of national debate.  Already, there are more than 1,000 government security agencies and over 1,000 private companies invested in surveillance and data management.  More than one million people in these agencies and companies have top-secret security clearances.  As James Carroll pointed out:

“Such massive bureaucracy, staffed by un-named millions but commanded by no one, generates an impersonal dynamic of its own…Moral responsibility is diffuse.  Such a massive institution gathers its own momentum, and neither laws nor the Constitution nor oath-bound authorities may be able to channel it or stop it.”

Remember, this is only a point in time; the expansion of the power to watch you and track your movements is an on-going process.  If nothing is done now, I believe the next phase will be a greatly expanded use of surveillance drones, justified as fighting crime.

 We suffered grievously when we pushed aside fighting terrorism with police work in favor of using military power to invade and crush our enemies.  Let’s not make another terrible error by using computer technology to invade and crush our freedoms.

Big Data is Watching You

NSA surveillance methods can spin webs of guilt-by-association around any American who uses a telephone or the Internet. The end result will be unreasonable invasions of privacy and a big chill on political dissent.

Are you willing to give up your relationships with anyone who doesn’t toe the line?

I was watching the President’s press conference about NSA spying last week in the locker room of my local gym. The guy next to me was adamant that there is no problem. “They aren’t listening to your phone calls,” he insisted. I would not be surprised if this is a common reaction to the new revelations – I don’t talk about terrorism or subversion on the phone or the Internet, so I am free from suspicion.

As I thought about his words while finishing my shower, the flaw in his logic suddenly dawned on me. This kind of spying, using computers to track tremendous amounts of data, relies on the logic of guilt by association. There is no personal connection, no delving into the essence of who you are, no evaluation of you and your motives. This is “watching the tar baby” surveillance. The NSA collects the names and phone numbers and email addresses of tar babies and then records whoever gets touched by them.

The tar babies are anyone the NSA and its fellow spy agencies have decided are possible suspects. Here are a number of people whose names are almost certainly on their lists – Muslims who live in the U.S., people who participated in the Occupy Movement in any way, people who have friends or contacts in countries that are deemed influenced by terrorists, and people who participated in Tea Party rallies. There must be more because there are approximately one million people on Department of Homeland Security watch lists. And the lists are getting bigger. Wired.com revealed last year that NSA is building a $2 billion facility in Utah with enormous computers able to manipulate and track “yottabytes” (10 to the 24th bytes) of data from telephones and the Internet.

What is NSA looking for? First, it wants to identify people like you who might have contacts with one or more of the people on the watch list. Then, you go on the list, too, and the agency computers bring all of your digital information – phone numbers, number of times called, length of call, email destinations, Google searches, etc. – together in your file. The computers then go over your data to see if there are any suspicious patterns. If not, they keep collecting data and adding it to your file until your actions or contacts change, or future political leaders decide something should be done with or to people on the watch list.

Sadly, while all of this might be a bad idea, it is perfectly legal. In 2008, the U.S. Congress, including then Senator Obama, amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to give the executive branch powers to conduct surveillance without an individual warrant. The Supreme Court, in several 5 – 4 decisions has refused to review the revised law.

Thus, my fellow exercise adherent is not immune from being swept into the NSA big data net and now faces a choice – just like the rest of us. Either carefully monitor everyone you communicate with and rapidly cut ties with anyone you suspect might be placed on the NSA watch list, or reject the creeping surveillance state that, in the name of security, is threatening our age-old civil liberties.

Don’t Buy at the Top of the Stock Market

The Stock Market is reaching the end of a long rise in values, so heed the yellow caution signs. There are many indications that when the downturn comes, investors who brought their money late to the party will end up taking a financial bath.

It is not time to run, but it is time to put your cash in a safe place.

Our modern Stock Market is not deeply tied to the fate of the real economy; with hedge funds, e-trading, derivatives, and “shorting,” the markets have plenty of things to do with their cash without worrying about messy things like investing, manufacturing, and selling. However, there is one thing that gets everyone’s attention – the candy machine known as QE 3, the U.S. Federal Reserve program that injects $85 billion into the financial markets every month, providing cheap money for banks to use as they please.

The key is to remember that the third round of Quantitative Easing since 2010 (thus QE 3) does not consist of the Fed buying government bonds, which would facilitate deficit spending and stimulate the entire economy. Instead, QE 3 consists of the Fed buying housing bonds from banks and other bundlers of mortgage bonds, thus giving money to these financial firms to spend on stock market purchases, commodity speculation, and maybe a few bank loans. It is the trickle-down theory in a financial management disguise. Give money to the rich and let them do things that will get the economy moving.

In practice QE 3 has two results: (a) mortgage rates are very low, so if you have a good, steady job you can get a cheap mortgage and, (b) financial firms have a lot of money to invest in stocks. Thus, the stock market has steadily risen during QE 3.

So, when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told a Congressional Committee on May 22 that the Fed might decide to reduce the number of housing bonds it purchases at one of the “next few meetings” the stock market trembled. Then, the minutes of the April Fed meeting were released later that afternoon and people discovered that “a number” of officials wanted to begin reducing the program in June. Investors panicked. The Dow lost more than 80 points in two hours and other indexes fell, too. With wild rumors about the Fed’s intentions still flying about, the Dow lost 138 points on Wednesday the 29th and 240 points on Friday, May 31st.

These events essentially confirm what many people suspected; the vigorous rise in the stock market since last fall is primarily a function of the Federal Reserves’ stimulation policy. It must be, because the real world economy is in decline:

The Eurozone, the world’s largest economic unit, is trapped in its 7th consecutive quarter of declining growth;
China’s growth is slowing to less than 7% a year (the smallest rate since 1990);
Cuts in federal spending will reduce U.S. economic growth in the second part of the year; and
The gradually falling U.S. unemployment rate is largely a product of 6.5 million people leaving the workforce.

In this environment, stocks will continue to rise only as long as the Federal Reserve keeps pumping $85 billion dollars into the financial markets each month. A major cut-back in that subsidy is likely to lead to a drop of 10% to 20% in stock prices. That means that if you put money in the market when the Dow is at 15,200 and it rises to 15,500 and falls 20%, then it goes back to 13,000 or less and you lose a good chunk of your investment. Wait and buy at the next market bottom, when you see Washington and the Fed stimulating the real economy.