Tag Archives: Obama

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.

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Retreat on Filibuster Reform Helps Fundraising

Majority Leader Harry Reid and conservative Democratic Senators decided not to change the Senate’s filibuster rules when the new Senate met in January – the result is a disaster.

Tired of deadlock in the Senate? Blame the Democrats.

Sure, it is the Neanderthals running the Republican Party in the Senate who filibuster every possible improvement in American life, but the Democrats designed the rules that let them do it. Harry Reid may bluster and complain when a Republican filibuster blocks a nomination or stymies a bill, but every other January since 2007 he and a handful of Democratic conservatives prevent Senate liberals from changing the rules to break the power of the filibuster.

Unlike Roberts Rules of Order, which are based upon the principal of majority rule, the procedures adopted by the Senate in the 18th Century allow Senators to frustrate majority rule by talking without interruption – thus blocking any vote. Senate rules say that only a super majority – it was 66 Senators until the 1970s, now it is 60 Senators – can cut off debate and force a vote.

The filibuster is obnoxious in and of itself because, until the 1990s, the filibuster or the threat of a filibuster was used primarily by southern Senators to block civil rights legislation. As a result, none of the many civil rights bills approved by the House of Representatives between 1869 and 1957 – including voting rights acts, anti-lynching laws, and fair employment laws – passed the U.S. Senate. Only under the pressure of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s were laws finally passed to outlaw discrimination and restrictions on voting rights.

Now the Republican Party has used the filibuster 380 times since Democrats re-took control of the Senate after the 2006 Congressional elections. Here are examples of legislation passed by the House during the 111th Congress (2009 and 2010) that received more than 50 votes in the Senate, but were blocked by a Republican filibuster – The DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants; the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow employees to create a legal union by collecting signatures rather than participating in a company-dominated election; a Public Option provision in the ObamaCare Act; and the Buffet Rule, which would have created a 30% minimum tax for individuals with incomes over $1 million.

There was a strong movement among newer Democratic Senators to change the filibuster rule when the 113th Congress started, but in the end Harry Reid, Diane Feinstein, Carl Levin and other conservative Democrats, apparently without any complaint from the White House, settled for a few minor reforms. The impact has been painful. Under the threat of a filibuster, the Democratic leadership has dropped provisions banning assault weapons and large magazine clips from the Senate gun control bill. In March, the President had to withdraw his nomination of Caitlin Halligan, a liberal lawyer who pursued law suits against gun manufacturers, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit – a training ground for future Supreme Court justices because of the prominence of the cases brought in Washington.

This frustrating state of affairs allows the Democratic Party leadership to have it both ways – trumpeting its progressive positions during elections – but collecting campaign cash from rich donors who understand that results are what count.  You have to think about how their main constituents are the people that donate millions of dollars for their campaigns – people who are not excited about economic change.

Not Really a Progressive

I went to hear George Packer, of The New Yorker fame, speak this week and was struck by his references to the Progressives; the real ones in 1905, not the vague term that people use today.  Mr. Packer said President Obama is like the Progressives in his passion for clean, open government; he deeply values a political system where issues are discussed in a spirit of good faith, where leaders struggle to work out what actions are in the best interest of the country.  This progressive, good government impulse is deeply embedded in the president’s “come, let us reason together” personality and is the source of his persistent attempts at bi-partisanship.

Mr. Packer also said that Obama, like the Progressives, believes in expertise and group discussion in order to reach the right policy prescriptions.  Once he reached the White House, Obama moved away from his campaign “man of the people” persona and adopted a more deliberative, expert-oriented, decision-making process.  While this was most evident during the three month process that preceded his decision to drastically increase military activity in Afghanistan, the same process was also used for major issues like saving the financial system, pushing for health care reform, and addressing climate change.

Unfortunately, the mere listing of those last three issues, banks-health care-climate change, highlights the dramatic way in which President Obama is not at all like the Progressives of the early 20th century.  Those reformers were passionately opposed to the abuses of large corporations and banks.  The “Robber Barons” were not loved by most Americans and numerous movements rose up to challenge their ability to exploit workers and consumers.  In fact, by the 1912 presidential campaign between Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Howard Taft, there was a fierce debate over whether big companies should be dismantled through anti-trust court action (Taft), closely managed through a system of powerful federal regulatory agencies (TR), or some combination of the two (Wilson).

Needless to say, Mr. Obama has never considered any of those alternatives.  Instead, following the advice of his experts, he, and the Democratic leadership in Congress, have attempted to purchase good behavior through open-ended bail-outs of financial firms, concessions that preserve the profits of drug and insurance companies, and subsidies and exemptions for dirty energy providers and users in the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House last summer.

Obviously, President Obama has been confronted by over-the-top belligerence from the Republican Party, but the policy choices he has made in an attempt to moderate their opposition and get cooperation from our modern day Robber Barons have added up to a demoralizing failure to promote the national interest.  Millions of his strongest supporters have been reduced to stunned disbelief.  Perhaps what we are seeing is the exhaustion of modern liberalism; a philosophy that was once guided by the principle of using government resources to improve the well-being of the great majority of the population.  Now the party of liberalism seems to have no political strategy other than using tax money to bribe rogue corporations and banks in the vague hope of moderating their behavior.

On Our Own

The business pages of the Boston Globe seldom have deep stories analyzing economic trends.  The main healines are reserved for stories about the ups and downs of local and regional businesses and the people who manage them.  However, buried in smaller stories are bits and pieces of information that, when put together, give us clues to trends in our dismal economy.

For example, on January 29th, a small A.P. story noted that durable goods orders (things that last a while like refrigerators and televisions) rose only 0.3% in December, far less than the 2% rise predicted by professional economists.  Traditionally, when our economy rebounds from a recession, durable goods orders jump as consumers begin spending again.  The latest number was a huge disappointment, given that durable good orders fell 20% during 2009.  The same article points to the reason – 470,000 people filed claims for unemployment benefits the week before – that is, even as government statistics show the GDP going up, nearly half a million Americans got laid off.

On January 30th, a small A.P. story reported that even if you kept your job during 2009, things got worse.  Overall, wages rose an average of 1.5% in 2009, far below the official (doctored-down) inflation rate of 3%.  On February 1st, a tiny Bloomberg News article reported that Nouriel Roubini, the economics professor who predicted the financial crisis before most “experts” noticed there was a problem, said that unemployment will remain over 10% even if statistics show the GDP is growing.  He said, “It’s going to feel like a recession even if technically we’re not going to be in a recession.”

On January 28th, Michell Singletary wrote about President Obama’s “Middle Class Task Force,” which has, after a year of study, recommended that debts for the Federal college Loan Program be forgiven after the student pays 10% of his or her income for twenty years – a reduction from the current 25 year requirement.  This minor change comes from an administration that has fully cooperated with the Bush administration’s handout of more than $600 billion to banks and hedge funds with no requirements for increased business lending, no requirements for renegotiation of mortgages with individuals who are facing foreclosure, and no significant limitations on management bonuses.  Highlighting the contrast, an A.P. article on the same day noted that the Federal Reserve reported that lending is still contracting.

I could go on, I clipped out a week’s worth of stories with the same message – the aftermath of the great financial crash of 2008 is not going to be a return to normal.  While GDP “growth” might be trumpeted in the news, our friends, neighbors, and family are going to be unable to find jobs and the purchasing power of those who keep jobs will continue to decline.  Meanwhile, the Obama administration, moving in slow-motion as it follows the advice of its Wall Street born and bred economic advisors, will only propose tiny changes at the margins, while right-wing Republicans in the Senate will howl about government deficits and bloc even those reforms.  We are on our own.

Reversal of Fortune

The last post on this blog was in November of 2008.  In it, I compared Obama to Quinn the Eskimo in the famous Bob Dylan song.  At that time a giddy euphoria swept much of the country and there were pundits calling for President Bush to resign so that Obama could take office immediately.

At the time, I felt there was no longer a pressing need for a blog about the American empire; a systematic, historically-based criticism of the wars and hardships that accompany the country’s restless urge to control the earth’s resources and destiny.  Deep down, I had been rooting hard for Obama and, like many others, projected my hopes and dreams of reform onto his candidacy.  I also thought that he understood the urgent need for change and would be eager to seize the moment.

Most ironically, about the time of my last post it was becoming clear that Al Franken was going to eventually win the Senate seat in Minnesota, giving the Democrats 57 seats along with two Independents – even if one of them was that miserable tool Joe Lieberman.  With the help of the remaining moderate Republicans like Snow and Collins from Maine and the political weathervan Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania, a series of reforms would wash away eight years of awful rule by Dick Cheney and his amiable sidekick.

How misguided that whole mood seems today!  The 60-40 split in the Senate morphed with President Obama’s odd desire for bi-partisan legislation, giving enormous power to the most conservative Democrats in the Senate.  Combined with the “filibuster everything” strategy followed by all of the Republicans, the Senate has become a bastion of reaction.  Just as Cato and his faction in the Senate of the Roman Republic were willing to risk civil war in order to crush reform politicians, the hard-line conservatives who control the Republican Party and much of the media are will to bring Obama’s government to a halt.

Disheartening as these events were, the real shock was President Obama’s willingness to pump up the defense budget and expand the war in Afghanistan.  These actions confirm the thesis presented in my book – that the American empire is a deeply bi-partisan effort to dominate political and economic affairs in every part of the globe.  Thus, the blog is back and I hope that people of good-will all over the U.S. turn their efforts toward restoring the vitality of the American Republic before it is too late.

Obama the Eskimo

We are experiencing an extraordinary collective moment in American history.  The Bush economy is driving many people to despair and the stock market is matching that by exhibiting all the symptoms of a nervous breakdown.  After watching President Bush’s empty performance at the world economic summit last weekend, the market has plunged all week.  However, it turns out that hedge fund managers and IRA-owners alike are waiting to be saved by one man: President-elect Barack Obama.  Perhaps we should set it to music:

Everybody’s building the big ships and the boats — Some are building monuments –Others, jotting down notes — Everybody’s in despair — Every girl and boy — But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here — Everybody’s gonna jump for joy — Come all without, come all within — You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn!  (Bob Dylan, The Basement Tapes)

How is it that a dangerous socialist radical, a scary multi-racial man, an elite lawyer from Harvard, a first-term Senator, has suddenly become The Answer?  Who knows, but when word leaked that Obama was choosing Tim Geithner, currently head of the NY Federal Reserve, to be Secretary of the Treasury (not a very surprising choice) the stock market rose 500 points IN ONE HOUR.  Rarely has a new president been so eagerly awaited, never before have people wailed and moaned about the terribly long time between election day in November and inauguration day in January.  It seems to me that he is being given an extraordinary opportunity to propose bold new steps in both domestic and foreign policy – let’s hope he seizes this historic moment.

But when Obama the President gets here — Everybody’s gonna run to him — Come all without, come all within — You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Obama!

Obama’s Afghan Promise

While we often complain about candidates not keeping their campaign promises, when it comes to difficult, complex issues, a campaign promise can become a ball and chain around a new President’s neck.  This happened to Bill Clinton when he promised to immediately ban persecution of gays in the military during his 1992 campaign.  Instead of working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to introduce a suitable shift in military policy, Clinton issued an Executive Order on his first day in office, abolishing rules against gays serving in the military.  This placed him in a high-profile conflict with war hero and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell.  Clinton took an enormous amount of flack from right-wing and Congressional critics, Powell refused to buckle under Presidential pressure, and the public perceived Clinton as imposing an extreme “liberal” position on the highly praised military that had just won Gulf War I.  The new President was forced to accept a humiliating defeat, agreeing to the ridiculous “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy that actually made things worse for gay individuals in the service.

I bring up this sorry episode as a warning when we consider Obama’s repeated promises during the fall debates to hunt down Osama bin Ladin and kill him, with or without the help of the Pakistani government.  It is unclear to me how he can carry out this promise without continuing the new American policy of unannounced cruise missle strikes in the mountainous areas of western Pakistan, a policy cooked up by the Bush administration this summer.  Not surprisingly, these attacks on a sovereign country are destabilizing our relationship with the new Pakistani President and the country’s largest political party.  To frost the cake, Obama also explicitly and repeatedly said he would send more U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan in order to defeat the Taliban.  He has created very high expectations and will have a difficult time backing out of these commitments – commitments that could lead to the collapse of civilian rule in Pakistan and the creation of a new quagmire in the remote hills of Afghanistan.

Leaving aside the folly of adopting any policy created by the Bush Administration, I believe these Osama-Afghanistan promises are a classic example of how the Democrats have historically been drawn into defending the American empire.  In the heat of an election campaign, Obama felt he had to show how tough he is, how he would be a vigorous Commander-in-Chief.  Just like Kennedy and Johnson had to show how tough they were by keeping the commies out of Vietnam.  These military promises are powerful because they fit right into the imperial job description that so many military, journalistic, academic, and political leaders attach to the Presidency.  It is a job description that many Democratic and Republican voters believe in as well.  As such, they are the policy equivalent of painting yourself into a corner and then claiming you are free to go anywhere you want.  The appropriate response is – Yes, within your little box.

Of course, Obama is not as trigger-happy as McCain, but the criticism from Hillary Clinton this spring and then McCain and the media about his “credentials” to be Commander-in-Chief (see my posting in September) have forced him to become much more militaristic than he was when he started the campaign.  We are actually watching, in real time, how the dynamics and pressures of empire shape individuals who become leaders.  No matter what their pre-presidential ideas about foreign policy, the pressures of the political system puts them in a position where, in order to advance to the presidency, they must commit to defending the empire.  In Perils of Empire, I explain in detail how the dynamics of the Roman political system consistently generated leaders who sought war and expansion of territory – and the American political system has been doing a similar thing since at least the end of WWII.  Without a powerful peace movement that opposes wars and treaties the promote the empire, Democrats get pushed into the imperial system, even those who begin with good intentions.