Big Brother is getting bigger

Americans are forever debating the best boundary between the domain of government authority and our personal authority. It is an important discussion, which should continue forever. Many but not all of the issues discussed have to do with the balance between security (protecting us from attack, disease, hunger, etc.) and liberty (leaving us free to hold our own religious and political beliefs, and set our own personal goals, make our own decisions, etc.). Many of the considerations in these discussions revolve around the relative advantage and efficiency of the government, or entrepreneurs, or ourselves —which can do something better (set standards, build bridges, build rockets, develop and implement more efficient sources of energy, cure cancer, develop better telephones, put on a play, etc). An important class of considerations concerns the risks of granting the government powers that can potentially be abused. Edward Snowden has certainly made us think about some of these risks. I urge you to reread my earlier blog on this subject: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/protecting-our-civil-liberties/.

Four recent examples of the government’s abuse of power suggest that it is sliding into increasingly dangerous habits. I optimistically count on the good sense of you all to push the pendulum in the other direction.

The Common Core. The effectiveness of any undertaking should be measured by its output – its result. In the critically important area of education, data on what we spend on education tells us nothing about whether the money was well spent. Expenditures measure inputs not outputs. In order to determine whether children have learned what we think they should have learned, we test them. Some tests are better than others, of course, but there is value (at the very least to parents trying to decide where to live) in being able to measure the quality of teaching in one area with that in another, and common, standard tests are one of the ways of doing so. Different localities may have different ideas about what they want their kids to learn, but otherwise it is helpful to be able to compare how much kids learn on average in different schools, communities, and states. It would also be of concern if the skills and knowledge one area aims for are very different from those sought in another area of the same country, as there are a core of values and shared knowledge necessary to preserving a peaceful, flourishing society within a nation, to preserving a shared sense of nationhood. For an immigrant nation like the United States, this is especially important.

These are the considerations that led Bill Gates to finance the development of the common core of knowledge expected for each grade level and the standard examinations to test their achievement. I strongly support the desirability and value of this goal. But what is the role and scope for experimentation in approaches to effectively teaching what we think our kids need to learn? Though it is a little disturbing to use our kids as guinea pigs, it is better to do so one school or school district at a time rather than experiment with the entire nation (which eliminates the possibility of comparisons between approaches). Many educational fads have proven to be misguided and have done great damage (look-see reading methods, the elimination of groups of different ability within one class, etc.) More over, it is essential that parents have a choice of what school and approach to send their kids to. Such School Choice and the variety of approaches offered allow limited experimentation while preserving social peace (each family is free to make their own choices) at the same time. Still, there is a minimum standard core of values and knowledge we rightly expect every child (our future citizens and voters) to have if we are to preserve the values on which the country was founded and has so successfully operated for over two hundred years.

These somewhat conflicting objectives cannot be resolved easily. There is a balance between individual choices and the minimum common values needed to live peacefully together. The search for the best balance is facilitated by keeping most education decisions local and close to the families for which it is most important. We are suffering from Ronald Reagan’s failure to deliver on his promise to abolish the Department of Education (a department of the federal government, which has no constitutional role in education). I think that a Common Core of educational achievements is desirable but that they must be voluntarily adopted by each school district and state. The process of discussion between districts and states will improve the standards that most choose to adopt.

If you think that the federal government leaves this choice to the states (where it has constitutionally been placed), think again. The federal government both penalizes and rewards (subsidizes) states in order to pressure them into adopting the standards promoted by the federal government. It should not.

Lois Lerner’s missing emails

It is not surprising that government officials and bureaucrats sometimes let their own political, religious, or cultural views influence their performance of their official duties. After all, they are human like the rest of us. Thus where we have given a responsibility to government, and collecting taxes is a proper and necessary function of government, it is important to impose strong checks and balances against the abuse of such powers. The misuse of the IRS to punish political enemies is a disturbing abuse of government power, reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s enemies list. But such things happen from time to time under every administration. What is much more disturbing is the failure of this administration to take all reasonable measures to punish those responsible. The missing IRS emails subpoenaed by Congress (like all government agencies, the IRS had contracted a company to back up its emails) are reminiscent of the missing 18 minutes of Nixon’s White House tapes. Ms. Lerner and others involved should be in jail.

The Redskin’s name

I am not a Native American and thus have no idea why some of them consider the name of our football team, “The Washington Redskins”, offensive. Negro’s (aka African-Americans) are regularly referred to as “blacks” without apparent offense. In my opinion, ethnic groups should be free to inform the rest of us what they prefer to be called, and out of respect I am happy to oblige (though it is a bit annoying when they change their preferred designation every decade or so). But this should be none of the government’s business. Social conventions of good manners should be communicated to the government, not the other way around. But our government seems to be imposing its views on such private matters more and more these days. Upon visiting ground zero (the monuments constructed where the Twin Towers used to stand in New York City) a few weeks ago, I was very offended by a sign with a details list of how to behave while in the area. I didn’t object to the substance of the behavior demanded, but to the presumption of the government of the need to do so.

Last week the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Washington Redskins’ trademark on the grounds that federal trademark law does not permit registration of trademarks that “may disparage” individuals or groups. In its announcement the Office stated: “that these registrations must be canceled because they were disparaging to Native Americans.” We will need to pay more attention in the future to the social/religious views of those we elect to office in the expectation that they will be increasingly imposing those views on society. This is not where we should want to go. “The-patent-office-goes-out-of-bounds-in-redskins-trademark-case”

Operation Choke Point

Imposing the government’s views on how we should behave takes a frightening leap forward with Operation Choke Point. As reported in The Economist: “a scathing report released on May 29th by a congressional committee… claims the operation was designed to strangle legitimate businesses that the government objects to for ideological reasons, such as payday lenders or gun dealers. The method is to deny them access to banks and payment systems, by prosecuting payment firms that abet suspect transactions…. The congressional report raises an even more vexing question: whether Operation Choke Point ‘inappropriately demands that bankers act as the moral arbiters and policemen of the commercial world’. The banks’ own legal travails suggest they are not obvious candidates for the job.” “Anti-fraud push accused of turning bankers into unaccountable cops”

I find this totally unjustified intrusion into private affairs deeply disturbing. We should push back hard. I would not be surprised, and would be quite pleased to see the rest of the world push back against similar U.S. bullying of foreign banks via its Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and long running Anti Money Laundering (AML) campaign. Via FATCA and in total disregard for the laws of other countries, the U.S. is extorting foreign banks to share private depositor information and undertake costly vetting not only of their customers but of their customers’ customers. “Big-banks-are-cutting-customers-and-retreating-markets” This is imposing large costs on banks, which are increasingly refusing to deal with American customers rather than incur those costs. To the extent this concerns compliance with tax obligations, the United States needs to fix its impossible and dysfunctional income tax codes (individual and corporate) rather than bully the rest of the world. “The principles of tax reform” This is not a promising trend.

Protecting our Civil Liberties

Richard Nixon reminded us of the great dangers to our cherished liberties inflicted by the powers available to our government. Remember his “enemies list.” Or if you are too young to remember it real-time, hopefully you have read about it (Watergate!! Remember?). Nixon was forced to resign because of it.  It was a victory of our free press.

Or if you want something more recent, what about “Filegate.” According to Wikipedia: “The White House FBI files controversy of the Clinton Administration, often referred to as Filegate, arose in June 1996 around improper access in 1993 and 1994 to Federal Bureau of Investigation security-clearance documents. Craig Livingstone, director of the White House‘s Office of Personnel Security, improperly requested, and received from the FBI, background reports concerning several hundred individuals without asking permission. The revelations provoked a strong political and press reaction because many of the files covered White House employees from previous Republican administrations, including top presidential advisors. Under criticism, Livingstone resigned from his position. Allegations were made that senior White House figures, including First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, may have requested and read the files for political purposes, and that the First Lady had authorized the hiring of the underqualified Livingstone.”

I feel bad using the above example after Bill Clinton’s wonderful article in today’s Washington Post calling for the repeal of DOMA, which he had signed into law in an earlier time.

Any power that government has can potentially be abused, so our Constitution strictly limited them and required checks and balances on their use. When I was in college – U of C Berkeley in the mid 1960s—George Orwell’s 1984 was still several decades in the distant future. Big Brother (an all-powerful government that looked after our safety and its own), with its ability to spy on our every activity to ensure that we behaved in the country’s (i.e. the government’s) interest, was a fictional nightmare that we couldn’t imagine happening in America.

Then came 9/11 and the Patriot Act. The American Civil Liberties Union flagged three powers in the Act, even after it was renewed in May 2011, that go too far:

“The three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act give the government sweeping authority to spy on individuals inside the United States, and in some cases, without any suspicion of wrongdoing. All three should be allowed to expire if they are not amended to include privacy protections to protect personal information from government overreach.

                  Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes the government to obtain “any tangible thing” relevant to a terrorism investigation, even if there is no showing that the “thing” pertains to suspected terrorists or terrorist activities. This provision is contrary to traditional notions of search and seizure, which require the government to show reasonable suspicion or probable cause before undertaking an investigation that infringes upon a person’s privacy. Congress must ensure that things collected with this power have a meaningful nexus to suspected terrorist activity or it should be allowed to expire.

                  Section 206 of the Patriot Act, also known as “roving John Doe wiretap” provision, permits the government to obtain intelligence surveillance orders that identify neither the person nor the facility to be tapped. This provision is contrary to traditional notions of search and seizure, which require government to state with particularity what it seeks to search or seize. Section 206 should be amended to mirror similar and longstanding criminal laws that permit roving wiretaps, but require the naming of a specific target. Otherwise, it should expire.

                        Section 6001 of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, or the so-called “Lone Wolf” provision, permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-US persons who are not affiliated with a foreign organization. Such an authorization, granted only in secret courts is subject to abuse and threatens our longtime understandings of the limits of the government’s investigatory powers within the borders of the United States. This provision has never been used and should be allowed to expire outright.”

Now our government has hinted that it might have the power to undertake extra judicial killing of Americans on American soil via drone attacks. I have been stunned in recent years at the relatively quiet acquiescence of many Americans to these dangerous extensions of unchecked or under-checked government powers. They happily send their neighbors’ sons and daughters to far off lands to fight “our” enemies and to sometimes die there, while not having the courage to tell our government here at home to back off.

Today’s “The New Yorker” headlined “The Borowitz Report” with: “Poll: Majority of Americans Opposed to being Killed by Drone.” This is meant to be satirical, of course. But until Rand Paul filibustered in the U.S. Senate against the confirmation of John Brennan unless the government would state clearly that it would not target Americans in the U.S. without due process, you might have thought that Americans didn’t care much. Earlier this week Attorney General Eric Holder “wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a drone strike against Americans on U.S. soil. But he said the administration wasn’t planning on such a strike and would use the option only under extreme circumstances.” (CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/07/us/drones-five-things/index.html)

Following Senator Paul’s filibuster the Attorney General sent a new letter to the Senator stating:

“It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: ‘Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’ ” Holder wrote. “The answer to that question is no.” (CNN)  This is a small but important victory for restraining Leviathan and protecting our liberties and it has taken a long time. I wrote on this same subject almost exactly one year ago: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2012/03/22/extra-judicial-killing/

Thank you Rand Paul.

I have spoken out in defense of our constitutional liberties on a number of occasions as well, including: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2012/09/15/further-thoughts-on-free-speech/,   https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2012/09/29/freedom-of-speech-final-thoughts-for-a-while-at-least/

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance”

Extra-judicial killing

We think of autocratic or despotic regimes as those operating above the law or unconstrained by the rule of law.  It does not surprise us when people like Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or Colonel Gaddafi order the death of those they think threaten their rule.  In civilized, democratic countries we have legal restraints on the use of such power by our leaders. Laws define the processes by which the lives and liberties of those living in our countries may be arrested and jailed—the nature of the evidence needed—the requirements of an independent judiciary system to judge that evident—the right of self-defense, etc.

We would be shocked at the idea that the President of the United States could order the murder of an American citizen without any of the due process required by the law. Why then was there so little out cry when President Obama declared that he has the authority to order the murder (assassination) of American’s that he considers dangerous to our Republic. It is shocking and dangerous that this declaration did not bring millions of American’s into the streets in protest. The reason it did not, I believe, is not that 9/11 has turned us into cowards willing to give up important freedoms for more security. It is, rather, that our traditions of constitutional constraint on government, with its checks and balances and explicit protections of our private, individual rights, makes it difficult for us to imagine the serious abuse of power by our President and our government.

It is not that Presidents have not from time to time abused their power (see for example my review of Arthur Burns’ Secret Diary about Richard Nixon: http://www.compasscayman.com/cfr/2011/07/19/Inside-the-Nixon-Administration–The-Secret-Diary-of-Arthur-Burns,-1969-1974/). However, such abuses have never taken root and become acceptable. Therefore we don’t really take seriously that the President would abuse the new right he is claiming in the interests of our security. Today’s quiet acceptance of his declaration of the right to murder dangerous Americans is thus almost (almost) understandable. It is unimaginable that the President would use such power in any way other than its intended purpose.  But such faith is naive and dangerous. The relaxation of due process today, makes easier further erosion in the future. The weakening of our liberties, which reside in restraining our government as much as our neighbors, is a slippery slope. Presidents do not easily abuse powers they don’t have and can learn to abuse those they do have.

Attorney General Eric Holder attempted to justify these extraordinary powers in a speech at the Northwestern University law school earlier this month. As reported by Congressman Ron Paul:

“Attorney General Holder bluntly explained that this administration believes it has the authority to use lethal force against Americans if the President determines them to be a threat to the nation. He tells us that this is not a violation of the due process requirements of our Constitution because the President himself embodies ‘due process’ as he unilaterally determines who is to be targeted. As Holder said, ‘a careful and thorough executive branch review of the facts in a case amounts to ‘due process.’’ That means that the administration believes it is the President himself who is to be the judge, jury, and executioner.

“As George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley wrote of the Holder speech:

“’All the Administration has said is that they closely and faithfully follow their own guidelines — even if their decisions are not subject to judicial review. The fact that they say those guidelines are based on notions of due process is meaningless. They are not a constitutional process of review.’”

“It is particularly bizarre to hear the logic of the administration claiming the right to target its citizens according to some secret selection process, when we justified our attacks against Iraq and Libya because their leaders supposedly were targeting their own citizens! We also now plan a covert war against Syria for the same reason.

“I should make it perfectly clear that I believe any individual who is engaging in violence against this country or its citizens should be brought to justice. But as Attorney General Holder himself points out in the same speech, our civilian courts have a very good track record of trying and convicting individuals involved with terrorism against the United States. Our civilian court system, with the guarantee of real due process, judicial review, and a fair trial, is our strength, not a weakness. It is not an impediment to be sidestepped in the push for convictions or assassinations, but rather a process that guarantees that fundamental right to be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law….

“Sadly, many conservative leaders were silent when Republican President George W. Bush laid the groundwork for this administration’s lawlessness with the PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretapping, indefinite detention without trial, and other violations. Similarly, as Professor Turley points out, ‘Democrats previously demanded the ‘torture memos’ of the Bush administration that revealed poor legal analysis by Judge Jay Bybee and Professor John Yoo to justify torture. Now, however, Democrats are largely silent in the face of a president claiming the right to unilaterally kill citizens.’ The misuse of and disregard for our Constitution for partisan political gain is likely one reason the American public holds Congress in such low esteem. Now the stakes are much higher. Congress and the people should finally wake up!”