30 November 2010

The "whole" truth

[Readers arriving from the Alternet article from April 28th, 2011 linking to this post may also be interested in reading my response.]

Today I got a call from a reporter asking about a blog post that I had written on November 1st. I was a bit taken aback. I thought that the time for my story had come and gone, and at first I didn't realize what she was talking about. After we hung up, I remembered that about two weeks prior to my encounter with the TSA at the San Diego airport, I wrote a blog entry about the TSA. Don't bother looking for it because I deleted it prior to posting my recollection of the events and the accompanying video. I don't have any copies of it, either. In it, though, I was especially critical of the TSA's new body scanners and pat down procedures. I had been reading about them in the news and wanted to include my two cents for the few people that actually followed my blog but weren't necessarily aware of them (the scanners and procedures). I don't recall exactly what I wrote, but I'm sure that substance of the post will turn up soon enough.

Near the end of the post, I noted that I had an upcoming trip in which I would be flying. Knowing also that I had about 12 readers, at the time, I jokingly asked how I should handle myself if I was selected for a secondary screening. I listed a number of options including "enjoying" the pat down, claiming a sexual assault, stuffing my pants with extra tissue paper prior to entering the screening area, etc. All of this, I thought, was moot at the time, though, because as I have repeatedly said, I was under the impression that neither San Diego nor Rapid City had the body scanners. When I posted my account and video of my encounter at San Diego, I also deleted the post in question. I thought that no one would believe that my encounter was not a set up if they knew that I had been critical of the TSA scanners and procedures in the past and written, even jokingly, about how to handle an encounter with them. Silly me for thinking that anything on the Internet, no matter how obscure, could ever actually be removed.

So, all of you who believed that this was planned, here is your "proof". For the umpteenth time, however, I did not script, plan, or stage what happened. I was, I have admitted repeatedly, prepared for such a situation by virtue of having read accounts of people like Steve Bierfeldt, Michael Roberts, and Meg McLain in addition to commentary about both these events and the scanners from numerous sources; but I did not plan it. To be honest, part of me wishes that I had because it would be much easier for me to tell my story, but the fact is that I didn't.

To those of you who feel duped, I apologize. There is no reason to feel that way, though. I stand by my assertion that the encounter was not planned or staged. I stand by my account of the events that occurred at San Diego airport. And I stand by everything that I have said and written since the event. I stood up to what I saw as an affront to everyone's 4th amendment protections and dignity, and that has started a real conversation about how much liberty we're willing to give up in the name of feeling safe. Let's not lose sight of what's really important, here.

And when I say that I stand by everything I've written, that includes what I wrote in my last post about being glad that my time in the spotlight had come to an end. I hope that the "revelation" that I had written about how to handle an encounter with the TSA and deleted said writing doesn't thrust me back into that spotlight, and in the event that it does, I hope that this post will answer any questions people may have about it because I truly don't want the publicity.

24 November 2010

On hiatus

It would appear that my "15 minutes" has just about come to an end, and I couldn't be happier about it. When I stood up to the TSA two weeks ago, I had no idea that the story would become national news and that people would call me a "hero" because of what I had done. I am simply a guy who reads way too much news, likes to ride his bike, and generally tries to maintain a low profile.

For many of you, the statement that I try to maintain a low profile probably flies in the face of my having posted about my ordeal on the Internet. I've explained already why I filmed it. The reason I posted it, though, as I've explained in a few interviews, was to try to generate a stir, locally, in the hopes of dissuading the government from suing me and levying the fine with which I was threatened. I did not ask for the celebrity that this has brought me nor am I particularly enamored of it. I will admit that it has been a real honor and privilege for me to speak with people that I consider celebrities including local radio personalities and even national bloggers. I also appreciate the thousands of people who have written to express support and thank me for what I did.

I also appreciate the people who took the time to calmly and rationally write to me expressing disagreement with my views and what I did. I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who are able to disagree without being disagreeable, and I am sorry that I have not had more opportunity to correspond with them. They are the very reason that I started writing this blog in the first place. I wanted to generate discussion so that I could be better informed, so that I could learn about how other people think about issues, so that I might have my mind changed when I am wrong.

Doing what I did though has also elicited some of the most vitriolic responses that I've ever witnessed, let alone been the target of. Someone even took the time to find my home address and send me a piece of hate mail (anonymously, of course). It's one thing for people to hurl insults at me over the Internet. It hurts, to be sure, but I realize that the "cost" of doing so electronically is low, so I can dismiss it to a certain extent. To actually receive something in the mail, however, is unnerving. So, to all of you who have called me a loser, a moron, who have questioned my patriotism, the size of my genitalia, and who have called me an attention-seeking whore: you win.

I believe that standing up for the rights protected by our constitution, in particular those protected by the 4th amendment, and for my dignity was the right thing to do, and for that reason, I would do it again. Was it worth it? Up until now, I've been somewhat evasive in answering that question. What I did has ignited a real debate about how much liberty we are willing to give up in exchange for (perceived) security, and that is definitely a good thing in my mind. On the other hand, what I did has brought me a lot of attention, which I would rather do without. In the end, though, I have to answer to myself for what I've done, and on that front, I have to answer: yes, it was worth it. I'm proud of what I did, and I hope it inspires others who also believe that the government's primary and overriding responsibility is to protect liberty and freedom to do the same.

And with that, I'm officially on hiatus from writing. For those of you who couldn't wait for my "15 minutes" to be over, cross your fingers that this is it. For those of you who are interested in or wish to have a discussion about what I have to say, stick around, and I'll probably return to writing in a few weeks when I am no longer in the spotlight. Comments are disabled for the time being, but I will do my best to respond to respectful inquiries about my story, thoughts, and/or opinions.

21 November 2010

Nothing to fear (but fear and maybe the TSA)

TSA administrator John Pistole appeared in a senate oversight hearing this past week. It had already been planned, but he was questioned about my actions at the San Diego airport a few days before and about TSA procedures in general. Here is some of what he said:
As we've heard the various plots outlined here this afternoon, it is clear that we have to be one step ahead of the terrorists. And it's obvious that we are not always in that situation, as evidenced by the last three plots that would--could have been successful.
Mr. Pistole referred again and again to terrorist threats as driving the need for the procedures they use to "secure" airports and planes. And we're afraid of that perceived threat. Why is that though? In this article from Reason, back in 2006 (before the scanners and pat downs were in place), the author lays out the odds of dying by various everyday occurrences (on a yearly basis) and compares them to terrorism on a plane:
  • Car crash: 1 in 6,500
  • Murder: 1 in 16,500
  • Crossing the street: 1 in 48,500
  • Drowning: 1 in 88,000
  • Airplane crash: 1 in 400,000
According to the article, if a plane was hijacked and crashed once per week, one's odds of dying would be 1 in 135,000. One would be almost three times as likely to be killed crossing the street, eight times as likely to be murdered, and over twenty times as likely to be killed in a car crash. Really think about that for a second. If a plane was hijacked and crashed once per week, you would still be more likely to be killed driving to the airport to get on that plane. The takeaway from this should be that terrorism (in the air) just isn't that common. However, it has certainly achieved its intended end, to terrorize.

One could certainly make the argument that it is the government's taking of over of airline security that has kept Americans safe. This doesn't really wash, either, though. There have been three major attempts to hijack and destroy airplanes since 2001: the shoe bomb attempt, the liquid bomb (out of the U.K.) attempt, and the underwear bombing attempt. The TSA didn't even have a chance to catch these plots because all of these flights originated outside of the U.S where the TSA doesn't control security. The TSA can't take any credit for stopping any of these plots. The passengers, themselves, stopped two of them, and good intelligence work stopped the other.

Our liberty continues to erode here at home, in the name of safety, though, while the threat of someone coming in from overseas continues. Well why not institute the same policies here as overseas? Here is another quote from Mr. Pistole during his hearing:
That being the case, I think everybody who gets on a flight wants to ensure and be assured that everybody else around them has been properly screened and, oh, by the way, everybody else on that flight wants to make sure that I have been properly screened or you have been properly screened.
What does "properly screened" really mean? For instance, while I was waiting to speak with a supervisor at the San Diego airport this last week, I observed approximately 80% of travelers being sped through the metal detectors without any kind of secondary screening (i.e. a pat down). I even observed a man set off the metal detector, be sent back, allowed to walk through again and then continue on his way after failing to alarm the metal detector a second time. People need to take a good hard look at airport security as managed by the TSA. It is a lot of show and not a lot of security. The fact that 80% of people are allowed to pass unmolested (pardon the use of the word) through the metal detector means that there is a 4 in 5 chance that someone like the shoe or underwear bombers would be able to get on a plane. What is the conclusion that should be drawn here? Again, terrorism isn't that common, just terrorizing.

Understand that I am not advocating removing all security from an airport. We need to realize that once a plot has advanced to getting whatever dangerous weapon is being used onto the plane, it's already too late, though. If would-be terrorists are able to evade the FBI, CIA, etc. why does anyone think that the TSA is going to catch them? And even if the TSA does catch them, why wouldn't they just set off their device in the airport, itself. Doing so would achieve the exact same effect. Our efforts need to be focused on good detective work before plots advance to this stage.

19 November 2010

Flying is a "privilege"

I've gotten a lot of feedback from people about my interaction with the TSA last week stating that flying is a privilege, not a right. It is a privilege granted to me in consideration of payment of a fee to the carrier and comes with terms defined by a contract that I agree to when I purchase a ticket. The arguments along these lines fall generally into one of two categories: 1.) the purchase of the ticket implies agreement with the conditions of the contract and, thus, there is no right to complain about or opt out of the security procedures, or 2.) if one doesn't like the security procedures, one doesn't have to or shouldn't fly.

The first argument has simply to do with contract "law". (I admit, right here at the beginning, that I am not a lawyer of any kind, so don't misconstrue any of what you are about to read as legal advice.) A contract is essentially an agreement between two or more parties in which they define the terms of their interaction. In this case, I (actually, my father-in-law, but I'll pretend it was me) gave money to the airline. In exchange, they agreed to fly me to my destination subject to a number of conditions, the most important of which (for this discussion) were those pertaining to the security screening to which I would be subject. At the time of purchase and up until I arrived at the airport, it was my understanding that this screening involved passing through a metal detector, not an AIT machine. This was based on information on the TSA's own website. So, at this point in time, I have paid for a ticket and have agreed to be screened via metal detector and perhaps a "wanding" and pat down of a specific area, if necessary.

Upon arriving at the airport, I found that AIT machines were in use. From my perspective, this would put the airline in breach of contract. That is, the terms to which I agreed, that I would be subject to a metal detector, had been unilaterally altered. However, the metal detectors were still in use. There was a possibility that the contract, as understood at the time of creation, could still be carried out by the original terms. When I was selected for the AIT machine, though, this became an extremely remote possibility. (Since the TSA agents never allowed me to use the metal detector, the contract had at this point been breached.) I opted out of the machine, as TSA procedures allow. Still, I believed there was a possibility that I would receive a "standard" pat down as opposed to the one described in the video documenting my experience. I was willing to continue to try to keep the contract from being broken. Once the pat down procedure was described, however, there was no continuing. I would not subject myself to the described procedure, and now both parties were in breach of contract.

There are two ways to deal with this situation. The first is to enforce the contract. This means that I could require that the airline, via the TSA, live up to the terms as understood at the time of the creation of the contract. Alternatively, the airline, via the TSA, could require that I submit to the new screening methods. We both suggested these alternatives during the course of the discussion, but neither was mutually agreeable. Since neither party, at the time, seemed given to coercion, we had to turn to the second option. This second option is to void the contract. In this scenario, one or both (or all) parties determine that the contract is no longer in their best interest(s), and they agree to void the contract. Here, they all agree to return things to the state at which they were prior to entering the contract, possibly subject to some damages for duties performed under the contract that cannot be undone. I agreed not to fly; the airline refunded my money. Actually, the airline could have had a strong argument that they could not reasonably expect to resell the seat that I gave up and should be able to keep some or all of the money paid to them. In this case, they were gracious enough to refund the full fare. My contract with the airline was now over.

The interesting thing about this is that after the agreement had been terminated, the TSA continued to try to enforce the terms of the contract by asking me to return to the screening area. Not only that, but the TSA was employing coercive means (the threat of a fine) to enforce a non-existent contract. This is where the second argument, that if I don't like it, I shouldn't fly comes into play. This argument is not as black and white as it would seem on the surface. If the airlines were responsible for security, the "if you don't like it, you don't fly" argument would be a valid one, and this final interaction with the TSA would not have occurred. Once the government becomes involved, however, it is a party unto itself. By that, I mean that it creates rules that to which one can "agree" via entering into contract with the airline but from which, it contends, one cannot escape. Given that the TSA, over the years, has employed rules, policies, and procedures that have been kept secret from the flying public, there is no way that anyone can legitimately claim that a passenger has knowingly agreed to all of them. In spite of that, as a government agency, the TSA believes that it has the authority to use coercion to enforce contracts that cannot possibly be fully understood and, in my case, no longer exist.

The problem is bigger than that, though. The government, via the TSA, is saying that travelers can opt out of the protections afforded them by the U.S. Constitution. The problem with this is that there is no comparable alternative to flying for travel over long distances. By federalizing the security of all air travel, the government has severely limited (note that I do not say "removed") people's ability to move freely about the country by making them choose between air travel and their 4th amendment protections. Taken as a whole, the government is effectively removing the restrictions placed on it by the constitution by making it seem as though the people are willingly accepting the change:
  1. The government finds an activity in which a great many people engage and which is difficult for them to avoid.
  2. The government then begins to regulate said activity with disregard for whether or not the authority to regulate said activity or the manner in which it regulates is constitutional.
  3. The government then uses people's continued participation in said activity and acquiescence to the regulation as an indication that its regulation is not only legal, but desired.
At this point, the government is free to operate outside of its own laws because it has forced the people to accept its actions because the alternative would be financially ruinous or prohibitively time consuming.

17 November 2010

What will I say?

[In various places, I've heard responses like this to what I did, but very few people have taken the time to ask their questions respectfully and without name calling. I received this message early this morning and am going to take the author's measured tone as an indication that he really does want a response and does not simply want to excoriate me. I am publishing this response as a way to answer everyone who may have similar questions about what I did.]
May I ask: So if next time a terrorist successfully hides "devices" to kill Americans on a plane, because you seem to think TSA or airport security is over-excessive...What will you say?
First of all, I am not advocating that we drop all security at our airports. What I oppose are the intrusive (and arguably unconstitutional) use of body scanning (or AIT) machines that can literally take a picture of one's naked body and/or the use of the new pat down procedures in which TSA officers are not necessarily instructed to "touch your junk" but come so close that many have and/or do. I find this level of scrutiny to be invasive and offensive.

What do we do instead? As I said, I am not saying that we should simply allow anyone and everyone to get on a plane simply because they have a ticket. (I should add that I would not oppose an airline that wanted to board planes with zero security. I don't think they would get much business, but it is within their right to do so.) What I am saying is that there are alternative methods of screening passengers that are far less invasive than what we do now and could actually make us more secure. That is, we wouldn't have to rely on machines that would not detect a "device" hidden inside of a would-be attacker.

For example, I drove across the U.S./Canada border about 5 years back. When I reached the border, an agent stopped me and asked why I was entering Canada. I explained that my wife and I had been driving/sightseeing in the northeastern area and wanted to go to Niagara Falls. When he looked at my ID, he noticed that I had a California driver's license but was driving a car with Virginia plates. He asked about this. I told him that the car was rented. He then asked how I got to the East coast in the first place... There is a bit more to this story; he asked me a few more questions. My point is, though, that if someone is lying, their story usually begins to fall apart around the third question or so. We should be employing a screening more along these lines.

In addition, technology (both advanced and not-so-advanced) allows for the detection of very small amounts of explosive material. One of these is the swab that you've seen TSA take of your bags and then run through a machine. They also have employed full body sized machines that simply blow a puff of air over you and analyze the result. Finally, a lower-tech solution of using bomb sniffing dogs is a possibility. Any of these would be as equally effective in ferreting out would-be terrorists and do not require anyone to virtually take off their clothes or have their junk touched.
I'll tell you one thing that WILL happen. We service members will fight a war again, just for you, because you complained of security being unnecessary.... The terrorists are waiting for us to put our guard down again. Think about that for a bit.....
Thank you for your service. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the men and women in our military. I know that they all enter the service willing to die to protect the liberty and freedom upon which this country was founded, especially because I'm not sure that I would be able to make the same sacrifice. I would certainly like to think that I would, but I can't say for certain that that is true.

I agree with you that in the event of another terrorist attack, you will likely be called upon to go overseas and fight another war in the name of freedom. You should ask your commanding officers, and ultimately, the president, however, if your fighting in those wars makes us safer. Terrorist attacks do not take place in a vacuum. The Times Square bomber viewed himself as defending his "lands" against foreign occupation. The underwear bomber acted in retaliation for "American-backed airstrikes [...] in Yemen." Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda group attacked us on September 11th because of our interventionist foreign policies and our presence in Saudi Arabia. Don't forget that we actually backed Osama bin Laden in the 80's in his fight against the Soviet Union.

It goes on and on, and don't get me wrong. I fully support a strong national defense. What I oppose is a strong national offense that imposes U.S. will on other peoples. Despite the rhetoric, terrorists don't hate our freedoms. They just want us to leave them alone.
John Tyner, I UNDERSTAND what all is implied and I respect whatever you want to call this. Unfortunately you have forgotten why things are the way they are. How are you a "Hero". Tell ME that. Honestly brother, a person who self-consciously video records prior going through security had the attention to overembellish the true intent for TSA Security - FOR SAFETY and TO PREVENT PEOPLE FROM GETTING KILLED.

"Never Forget" (looks like you all forgot)
Here's a video to jock your memory.
I have not forgotten September 11th. I am reminded of September 11th every time I enter an airport, every time a "suspicious package" is found at a public building, every time a U.S. soldier like yourself is killed fighting in the name of that terrible event. It truly is tragic.

I am not a hero. I know that people have come to regard me as such, but I have explicitly disclaimed that title. I'm simply someone who stood up for what he believed to be right: that the government does not have the authority to view me naked or pat me down to the extent that they would have without some kind of reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

I have explained repeatedly the reason for my recording of my interaction with the TSA. I am not trying to over-embellish anything. In fact, the recording prevents me from doing exactly that. I don't doubt that TSA is trying to provide security for air travelers. So far though, they have done a poor job of it. Attacks on our airplanes since September 11th have been stopped by the passengers, not the TSA. It's time we started treating our passengers like the first (and arguably last) responders to a possible attack. We need to start treating them with dignity and respect and not like the very terrorists of whom we have now become so afraid.

14 November 2010

Motivation of my filming of my TSA encounter

A lot of commenters are saying that they agree with my position on the whole issue of TSA overreach, but many of them (and also those who disagree) are asking why I filmed the entire incident. Many are suggesting that my starting the recorder is evidence of an intention to pick a fight with the TSA. As I've stated repeatedly, I checked to see if SAN had AIT machines before flying. I tried to avoid the machine once I arrived at the airport. I did everything I could to avoid a confrontation with the TSA. I'll admit that "if you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested" was not the most artful response, but I was trying to add some levity to a situation that I knew could escalate very quickly. The reason I started the recorder before placing it in the bin, though, is because of stories like this:

Detained by TSA
In praise of Michael Roberts

After reading stories about what the TSA had been doing, I wanted to avoid them, but I also wanted to be prepared should I be unable avoid them. That recording was to protect my rights and theirs. At no point have I bashed the TSA agents or their handling of the situation. They were all professional, if a bit standoffish, but the standoffishness is not to be unexpected. I'm sure they deal with people far more unruly than me every day. The only time I lost my cool was at the very end when the TSA representative tried to force me back into the screening area instead of simply allowing me to be on my way. The entire incident should be judged on its merits (as demonstrated by the recording), not by whether I tried to bait them (which I did not).

So, the next question is obviously, "what do I expect to get out of this?" I don't want to be a hero; I simply want to draw attention to what is going on and give people a sense that they're not alone in the fight against the ever expanding erosion of liberty. I had this to say in response to another commenter about what had transpired:
Every attempt to blow up a plane since 9/11 has been stopped by passengers after the government failed to provide protection for them. Every incident, however, has been met by throwing more money and less sensibility at the problem. Aside from securing the cockpit doors and the realization by passengers that they must fend for themselves because they're more likely to be killed by a hijacker than flown safely to their destination where the hijacker's demands can be met, security is largely the same as it was before 9/11.

The only thing changing is the amount of money being spent on the problem and the constant erosion of liberty, and all I did was draw attention to this. If you want to argue that the airlines are private, you're preaching to the choir. I refused the x-ray machine, and then I refused a groping by a government official. I mildly protested, and when they told me that I could submit to the screening or leave the airport, I left peacefully. The only time I got angry during the entire encounter was when I was unlawfully detained and threatened with a lawsuit and a fine.

If you think the government is protecting you, ask yourself this: If the official at the end of the video thought I had an incendiary device, why would he want me to go *back* into a small area crowded with hundreds of people instead of leaving the airport as quickly as possible?
Obviously the issue of the private airline industry mingling with the government handling of security is more complex than that. For example, with private handling of security, the screener may choose to overlook victimless crimes like drug possession or possession of sexually explicit (but otherwise legal) materials or paraphernalia during a search for dangerous items (i.e. those that could be used to commit acts of terrorism). The government, on the other hand, has, does, and will use the search for dangerous items as a pretext to arrest you for anything else they may find.

13 November 2010

More about my TSA encounter at SAN

I've been keeping up with all of the comments, but today has been kind of hectic as you can imagine, and I don't have time to reply to them. Thank you all so much for the encouraging words and offers to help in my legal defense (should it become necessary). I'm starting to see people ask questions about my motives and some of the particulars if the incident. My original post was meant only to serve as an account of what happened should I eventually be sued. Here are some more of the particulars:

Ticket Purchase

I mentioned in my blog post that my father-in-law had purchased my ticket for travel. One commenter called me a spoiled brat for costing him so much money. If you listen to the video, you'll hear that I offered a number of times to "eat the cost" of the ticket and pay him back. In the end, American Airlines stepped up to the plate and made things right on this front.

Treatment of TSA

Some have criticized my treatment of the TSA officer who was going to be performing the pat down. I admit that the language used was not exactly what most would consider "highbrow"; however, it was not intended to be insulting to the officer. I used the word "junk" partly because I was uncomfortable using a more technical term and also as an attempt to introduce some levity to what I knew was about to become a fairly tense situation. I was actually trying to smile almost the entire time, trying to keep the situation from escalating.

"Professional courtesy"

One commenter called out my father-in-law for asking for some professional courtesy from the TSA agents. My father-in-law is one of the most stand-up guys I know. I realize that some (including myself) find it disgusting when LEO's "abuse" their power in this way, and I don't want to excuse it here. But I want to stand up for my father-in-law and say that he is a good, honest man. (I truly considered not posting this video at all because I didn't want him to be viewed in a negative light.) His goal was to get us out of there and off to visit the family and do some hunting. Once he arrived at the final destination, he called to tell me that he was proud that I stood up for what I believed to be right.

Was this a set up?

Some people have questioned whether I entered into this situation intending to set up the TSA. Let me state unequivocally that it was not my intention to set up the TSA. Remember that I checked the TSA's website prior to my departure and confirmed that SAN was not using AIT machines. When I arrived at the screening area and saw that they were using those machines, I recalled various news articles and blog posts advocating that people record these situations so that they are not taken advantage of or have their rights (further) abused. As I stated, I tried to avoid the AIT scanner machine by getting in the metal detector line. I was actually relieved when the person in front of me was pulled out of line. I would have been just fine to walk through the metal detector, delete the video, and be on my way.


Finally, local news has been alerted. I had one interview already, and another one is scheduled shortly. One local news outlet refused to cover the story. I got the impression from talking to the man on the phone that he thought I was some kind of right-wing or tea party nut job. He sounded a bit apologetic, but I told him, no big deal. Do the story; don't do the story. My feelings aren't hurt either way. I just want the message to get out.

Thank you all again for ALL of the support! I'll keep you posted.

TSA encounter at SAN

[These events took place roughly between 5:30 and 6:30 AM, November 13th in Terminal 2 of the San Diego International Airport. I'm writing this approximately 2 1/2 hours after the events transpired, and they are correct to the best of my recollection. I will admit to being particularly fuzzy on the exact order of events when dealing with the agents after getting my ticket refunded; however, all of the events described did occur.

I had my phone recording audio and video of much of these events. It can be viewed below.

Please spread this story as far and wide as possible. I will make no claims to copyright or otherwise.]

This morning, I tried to fly out of San Diego International Airport but was refused by the TSA. I had been somewhat prepared for this eventuality. I have been reading about the millimeter wave and backscatter x-ray machines and the possible harm to health as well as the vivid pictures they create of people's naked bodies. Not wanting to go through them, I had done my  research on the TSA's website prior to traveling to see if SAN had them. From all indications, they did not. When I arrived at the security line, I found that the TSA's website was out of date. SAN does in fact utilize backscatter x-ray machines.

I made my way through the line toward the first line of "defense": the TSA ID checker. This agent looked over my boarding pass, looked over my ID, looked at me and then back at my ID. After that, he waved me through. SAN is still operating metal detectors, so I walked over to one of the lines for them. After removing my shoes and making my way toward the metal detector, the person in front of me in line was pulled out to go through the backscatter machine. After asking what it was and being told, he opted out. This left the machine free, and before I could go through the metal detector, I was pulled out of line to go through the backscatter machine. When asked, I half-chuckled and said, "I don't think so." At this point, I was informed that I would be subject to a pat down, and I waited for another agent.

A male agent (it was a female who had directed me to the backscatter machine in the first place), came and waited for me to get my bags and then directed me over to the far corner of the area for screening. After setting my things on a table, he turned to me and began to explain that he was going to do a "standard" pat down. (I thought to myself, "great, not one of those gropings like I've been reading about".) After he described, the pat down, I realized that he intended to touch my groin. After he finished his description but before he started the pat down, I looked him straight in the eye and said, "if you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested." He, a bit taken aback, informed me that he would have to involve his supervisor because of my comment.

We both stood there for no more than probably two minutes before a female TSA agent (apparently, the supervisor) arrived. She described to me that because I had opted out of the backscatter screening, I would now be patted down, and that involved running hands up the inside of my legs until they felt my groin. I stated that I would not allow myself to be subject to a molestation as a condition of getting on my flight. The supervisor informed me that it was a standard administrative security check and that they were authorized to do it. I repeated that I felt what they were doing was a sexual assault, and that if they were anyone but the government, the act would be illegal. I believe that I was then informed that if I did not submit to the inspection, I would not be getting on my flight. I again stated that I thought the search was illegal. I told her that I would be willing to submit to a walk through the metal detector as over 80% of the rest of the people were doing, but I would not be groped. The supervisor, then offered to go get her supervisor.

I took a seat in a tiny metal chair next to the table with my belongings and waited. While waiting, I asked the original agent (who was supposed to do the pat down) if he had many people opt out to which he replied, none (or almost none, I don't remember exactly). He said that I gave up a lot of rights when I bought my ticket. I replied that the government took them away after September 11th. There was silence until the next supervisor arrived. A few minutes later, the female agent/supervisor arrived with a man in a suit (not a uniform). He gave me a business card identifying him as David Silva, Transportation Security Manager, San Diego International Airport. At this point, more TSA agents as well as what I assume was a local police officer arrived on the scene and surrounded the area where I was being detained. The female supervisor explained the situation to Mr. Silva. After some quick back and forth (that I didn't understand/hear), I could overhear Mr. Silva say something to the effect of, "then escort him from the airport." I again offered to submit to the metal detector, and my father-in-law, who was near by also tried to plead for some reasonableness on the TSA's part.

The female supervisor took my ID at this point and began taking some kind of report with which I cooperated. Once she had finished, I asked if I could put my shoes back on. I was allowed to put my shoes back on and gather my belongs. I asked, "are we done here" (it was clear at this point that I was going to be escorted out), and the local police officer said, "follow me". I followed him around the side of the screening area and back out to the ticketing area. I said apologized to him for the hassle, to which he replied that it was not a problem.

I made my way over to the American Airlines counter, explained the situation, and asked if my ticket could be refunded. The woman behind the counter furiously typed away for about 30 seconds before letting me know that she would need a supervisor. She went to the other end of the counter. When she returned, she informed me that the ticket was non-refundable, but that she was still trying to find a supervisor. After a few more minutes, she was able to refund my ticket. I told her that I had previously had a bad experience with American Airlines and had sworn never to fly with them again (I rationalized this trip since my father-in-law had paid for the ticket), but that after her helpfulness, I would once again be willing to use their carrier again.

At this point, I thought it was all over. I began to make my way to the stairs to exit the airport, when I was approached by another man in slacks and a sport coat. He was accompanied by the officer that had escorted me to the ticketing area and Mr. Silva. He informed me that I could not leave the airport. He said that once I start the screening in the secure area, I could not leave until it was completed. Having left the area, he stated, I would be subject to a civil suit and a $10,000 fine. I asked him if he was also going to fine the 6 TSA agents and the local police officer who escorted me from the secure area. After all, I did exactly what I was told. He said that they didn't know the rules, and that he would deal with them later. They would not be subject to civil penalties. I then pointed to Mr. Silva and asked if he would be subject to any penalties. He is the agents' supervisor, and he directed them to escort me out. The man informed me that Mr. Silva was new and he would not be subject to penalties, either. He again asserted the necessity that I return to the screening area. When I asked why, he explained that I may have an incendiary device and whether or not that was true needed to be determined. I told him that I would submit to a walk through the metal detector, but that was it; I would not be groped. He told me that their procedures are on their website, and therefore, I was fully informed before I entered the airport; I had implicitly agreed to whatever screening they deemed appropriate. I told him that San Diego was not listed on the TSA's website as an airport using Advanced Imaging Technology, and I believed that I would only be subject to the metal detector. He replied that he was not a webmaster, and I asked then why he was referring me to the TSA's website if he didn't know anything about it. I again refused to re-enter the screening area.

The man asked me to stay put while he walked off to confer with the officer and Mr. Silva. They went about 20 feet away and began talking amongst themselves while I waited. I couldn't over hear anything, but I got the impression that the police officer was recounting his version of the events that had transpired in the screening area (my initial refusal to be patted down). After a few minutes, I asked loudly across the distance if I was free to leave. The man dismissively held up a finger and said, "hold on". I waited. After another minute or so, he returned and asked for my name. I asked why he needed it, and reminded him that the female supervisor/agent had already taken a report. He said that he was trying to be friendly and help me out. I asked to what end. He reminded me that I could be sued civilly and face a $10,000 fine and that my cooperation could help mitigate the penalties I was facing. I replied that he already had my information in the report that was taken and I asked if I was free to leave. I reminded him that he was now illegally detaining me and that I would not be subject to screening as a condition of leaving the airport. He told me that he was only trying to help (I should note that his demeanor never suggested that he was trying to help. I was clearly being interrogated.), and that no one was forcing me to stay. I asked if tried to leave if he would have the officer arrest me. He again said that no one was forcing me to stay. I looked him in the eye, and said, "then I'm leaving". He replied, "then we'll bring a civil suit against you", to which I said, "you bring that suit" and walked out of the airport.

This video starts with my bag and belongings going through the x-ray machine.They're kind of long, and they don't show much, but the audio is really good.

I was in the middle of telling someone that if I was going to be felt up, I wanted it done in public so that everyone could see what it is that the TSA does. Here is the rest of that video.

After I was escorted out to the ticketing area, I went to have my ticket refunded. I didn't have the opportunity or the presence of mind to turn the camera back on until everyone walked away from me.

Related articles:

More about my TSA encounter at SAN
Motivation of my filming of my TSA encounter
What will I say?

11 November 2010

It's legal because we say so

Former President Bush is making the rounds on television promoting his new book. In an interview, he defended his view that waterboarding is legal because his lawyers told him that it is. (The quote is at about 0:30.)

This argument is a form of legal positivism which basically says that something is legal or illegal because the law says (or doesn't say) that it is. It ignores any kind of moral connection with the law and whether or not the law is "just". It also implies that juries do not have the power to judge the law as well as the case being tried, something that the founding fathers explicitly envisioned that our system of justice would contain. This argument, in my opinion, is dangerous. It supposes that the government is right because it says that it is right. The idea is anathema to the very basis of the U.S. Constitution.

In spite of the legal "go-ahead" Bush received, though, torture is still a legally tenuous undertaking. The memo authorizing torture written by John Yoo and Jay Bybee was declared legally defective by Bybee's successor, Jack Goldsmith, in 2003. When Goldsmith was forced from office by the administration in late 2004, his successor re-declared torture to be legal. After Bush left office, the Department of Justice again declared 18 USC 2340-2340A to be in effect and torture to be illegal. Note that during the entire Bush administration, that portion of the code was in full force. Bush simply had legal opinions stating that what he was doing was not torture. I think any honest person has to admit that waterboarding plainly falls within the definition(s) of torture contained within 2340. It's telling that only the Bush administration has attempted to get around those sections in U.S. law and even then, it could not agree completely on the legality of doing so. It's also worth noting that the Supreme Court, in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, ruled that enemy combatants were subject to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. It would appear that the legality of torture is not tenuous after all; it's plainly illegal.

Here are some things that I think should be considered by anyone defending the use of torture: Is torture effective? If it is, why isn't it used more often or domestically? Does torture put more people in danger (via the creation of new enemies) than it protects? If so, isn't torture bad economic policy as well since it further drains resources (via the military efforts in furthering the "war on terror") that could be used for more productive means?

Finally, I'm willing to accept the possibility that one can find the use of torture morally justified in the perceived protection of others. If torture is moral and right, however, why won't those engaging in its use stand up and declare that what they did was right and allow themselves to be judged by those in whose names they supposedly acted?

08 November 2010

"Saving" capitalism

[I wrote the following in response to a friend who posted this article on his Facebook page. I apologize for the lack of annotated links in this post.]

The article starts by blaming Bush for a declining market. That's not really fair. Obama is doing exactly what Bush was doing when he left office (stimulus/bailouts). That is, if Bush had been President for two more years, the economy would likely be in the exact same place it is today. 9/11, coupled with the bursting tech bubble, is what originally sank the economy. Greenspan then held interest rates down, and the Dow Jones was back up to around 14,000 in late 2007. (How's that for one-sided reporting on the author's part... only pointing to the Dow at 8,500 on Bush's last day.) Greenspan's plan backfired, though. The low interest rates created a bubble in the housing market leading to all kinds of crazy gimmicks on the banks' parts. These fell apart in late 2007, and the market tanked again.

In response, the government began bailing out banks, the auto industry, anyone who could get get their hands into the proverbial cookie jar. Bush and Obama both did it, and it was a bad idea both times. Neither of them "saved" capitalism. The problem is that neither of them (or anyone in the government) has the backbone to let capitalism do its job. Capitalism means failure for those who can't compete and for those who do it fraudulently. The bailed out auto companies fall into the first category; the banks and insurance companies subsidizing their schemes fall into the second. Of course GM and Chrysler are making cars again! The government gave them the money to do it, and the government did it because it was politically better to try to save jobs (or at least that was the thinking at the time). Nothing about that investment other than the perceived political upside was a good thing at the time. To argue now that the fact that the government made (or possibly will make) money means the investment was a good one is to argue that the ends justify the means. That is the last argument anyone should apply to the state in any of its dealings.

The problem with the economy now is that Bernanke is making the same mistake(s) that Greenspan made. He's holding interest rates down at zero. (Remember the housing bubble? Why does no one see that Bernanke's cure is actually more of the poison?) Bernanke's got huge problem, though. The low interest rates aren't working. Banks are hoarding the cash because they still have more toxic assets on their books. What's his solution? He's turned on the printing presses and is using the new money to buy U.S. Treasuries in the hopes of bringing down long term interest rates. He claims he can do this because inflation is tame. That's because banks are hording the cash he's printing. Gold is continuing to rise in price, though; the market knows what is going on. Look also at other commodities like cotton, oil, etc. They're fairly stable now, but that's because producers hedge their bets by buying futures. Come Spring/Summer of next year, prices of those items are going to skyrocket (the same effect could probably be achieved by banks finally beginning to lend again all at once), and Bernanke won't be able to stop it. He can't raise interest rates like Volcker did, because unemployment is already high. (Volcker had the luxury of being able to drive unemployment up with interest rates so he could tame inflation.) The other alternative is that China stops buying up U.S. Treasuries (it's already making noises about doing that very thing) or the entire market just loses faith in the entire system (i.e. the government's ability or intention to repay its debt). When, not if, one of those things happens, the economy is going to collapse, not just tank. Think hyperinflation like in Chile in the 70's.

Yes, it would have been bad if the government had not intervened in the economy, but the government's "saving" of capitalism makes each attempt by the market to flush out the bad stuff even worse than the previous one because it (the government) won't actually let the bad stuff be flushed out. The government isn't saving capitalism. It is destroying it by making everyone think that what we have is capitalism.

[Here are some other witticisms that I sprinkled later on in the thread.]

In response to a comment that Democrats lost the midterms because Obama/they failed to get the message out:
Getting the message out is not leadership. It's politics. And we don't need either.
And in response to a comment that Americans "got it right" in this most recent election:
Americans never get it right in any election. The government keeps getting elected.

29 October 2010

News roundup

I haven't posted much this week, but I've been saving a number of news stories throughout the week that I found interesting. Without further ado, here they are:

Fear of Government

Reason posts excerpts from a couple of authors about this chart. One says that not everybody is afraid of the government as the general feeling seems to be; it's only Republicans. The other argues that Democrats are equally susceptible to this fear when their party is out of power. I didn't find this chart so interesting, as what it shows is fairly obvious. What it did for me though, was highlight exactly how blind (read: partisan) Democrats and Republicans are when their party is in power. If one could take a step back and see the forest for the trees, as it were, one would find that the government acts pretty much the same way no matter which party is in power. They just focus their attention slightly differently.

Flag Burning

Talk about statist. The flag deserves respect? It's an inanimate object, for crying out loud. Justice Stevens thinks that the "U.S. flag and the symbol of liberty it represents" are too important to allow it to be burned in protest. Alright, you bring back the liberty, and I won't burn the flag.

We suck... less!

Pajamas Media explains why the Republicans are going to make big gains in the midterm elections. The story's byline says it all.
Because in the Democratic land of epic, mega, ultra, apocalyptic levels of sucking, those who kinda suck are king.
TSA scanners

The TSA was in the news quite a bit this week after an airline pilot last week decided to stand up to a TSA officer and refuse a pat down after refusing to allow them to look at his naked body with their AIT scanners. The first link there is to a CNN story which talks about how the TSA is planning to institute full body pat downs across the country. The woman who wrote the article was reduced to tears after being groped, and she is a regular traveler.

The second link is to a story written by a woman who thinks that the best way to fight for our civil rights (with respect to illegal searches by the TSA) is to begin writing letters to corporations whose businesses will be hurt if people refuse to be groped and stop flying, altogether. At first, I didn't think this approach had any merit, but after seeing the TSA steel their resolve in the face of that pilot standing up to them, I think the corporations who control the government might be our only chance.

Economic destruction

I have written a little bit about inflation and hyperinflation. Well, this article says that it (hyperinflation) is already taking hold and will be in full swing by spring of next year. The author makes a pretty compelling argument. I'm of the mind that collapse of the U.S. currency and economy are a matter of when, not if, and I suspect sooner rather than later. I don't know if it's going to happen as the author suggests, but I'm also not going to argue that it's not.

26 October 2010

What's wrong with this picture

Yesterday, I received my Social Security statement in the mail. It looks something like this. I just assume that the country will be bankrupt by the time I reach retirement age, so I don't pay much attention to these things. I did notice a sort of Frequently Asked Questions insert that came with the statement, though. I was especially intrigued and infuriated by the question in the green box in the middle of the page. It asks the hypothetical question of whether or not Social Security will still be around when I retire. It then answers the question by saying that even though the whole enterprise will be insolvent, the current estimate is that Social Security will pay 76 cents on the dollar of promised benefits. (The website is apparently out of date.)

Let's put some real numbers behind this. Let's say Mr. Smith, a 30 year old man, makes $100,000 per year, or rather, let's say that his salary over the time for which we works, averages to $100,00 per year. Let's further assume that Social Security taxes stand at 7.65%, which is where they currently stand. They tend to increase over time, but let's try to keep this simple. Finally, let's assume Mr. Smith starts working out of college, at age 22, and works to his full Social Security retirement at 67. In this example, Mr. Smith will have worked for 45 years, earned $4.5 million and paid $688,500 (with his employer's matching contribution) into the Social Security "trust fund". Assuming that the entire $4.5 million is taxable for Social Security purposes, Mr. Smith is entitled to $2,659 per month. At this rate Mr. Smith could live for almost 22 years (to age 87) before he would exhaust the money he paid into the system.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's also look at the case of Mr. Jones, also aged 30 years. He makes closer to the median of $50,000 per year. At retirement, Mr. Jones will have earned $2.25 million and paid $344,250 in Social Security taxes. In retirement, using the same parameters as above, Social Security estimates that it will pay him $2,015 per month. Mr. Jones could live for 14 more years (to age 81) before his money would be exhausted.

What's wrong with this picture? In spite of the common arguments that people are living longer and fewer people are paying into the system than are drawing upon it, the government should be running a huge surplus given that the average life expectancy in the U.S. is currently 78 years. This is what truly makes this a Ponzi-scheme. People aren't even living long enough to exhaust their own benefits, and Social Security is still insolvent. This is almost certainly due to inflation, and Social Security benefits with it, rising faster than wages. I touch on the inflation and benefits portion of the problem later. First, let's look at the money that is paid into the system.

Social Security trust fund

You may have heard of the so-called Social Security Trust Fund. The idea most people have is that the money that is paid into Social Security by workers and employers is socked away somewhere in a bank quietly earning interest. Instead, the money paid into Social Security is invested in U.S. government treasury bonds. The actual money is then spent by the government to pay for other things (perhaps even existing retirees). In fact, there is no trust fund. What actually exists is $2.5 trillion of debt that the government owes to itself, plus interest. The money that the fictional Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones paid into Social Security has already been spent. Their retirement money rests solely on the government's ability (or possibly even willingness to) pay its debts.


Inflation is defined as "a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time." Let me make a distinction, though. When corn prices rise because farmers had a bad season, that is not inflation. Instead when I say inflation, I'm referring to the existence of an excess amount of money in the economy contributing to the devaluing of all money. To demonstrate this phenomenon, though, here are a few charts:

This first chart is of the "consumer price index". The CPI refers to the price of a group of common goods bought by consumers. The dark line shows the relative price of those goods over time. The red line shows the year over year change in the price of those goods. Since the red line is almost always in positive territory, over time the darker line has to go up.

This chart is another way of conceptualizing what is shown in the CPI chart. Relative to the value of the goods that one would purchase with a dollar, the value of that dollar is falling. Stated differently, today's dollar is capable of purchasing 1/20th (or less) of a good that it was capable of purchasing one of in 1913.

This chart should drive home the point about excess money in the economy. You can see that things really went awry (in all three charts) around 1970, which coincidentally is when the U.S. finally severed all ties to a gold standard.

What does this have to do with Social Security? The federal government has two options with regard to Social Security: default or pay. I don't believe that there is the political willpower to default, which means that the government will attempt repayment (assuming the economy lasts long enough). The government can only raise money via taxes or inflation, and raising taxes is going to be politically difficult for the foreseeable future. That leaves inflation. The point of all of these charts then is to demonstrate that by creating inflation, the government will necessarily have to destroy the dollar. The worst part is that inflation begets inflation. In order to protect those on Social Security, the government raises their benefits through COLA. In order to raise their benefits, it has to print more money. By printing more money, it creates more inflation. Creating inflation is a very dangerous game, though. It can very quickly lead to hyperinflation, which some argue is not far away; and even if hyperinflation never occurs, the inflation tax is still levied on everyone.

What's wrong with this picture, indeed

I mentioned earlier that I was infuriated by the question in the insert with my Social Security statement. What infuriated me so much is that I was enrolled into the Social Security program without my consent and given no way in which to opt out of it. Assume that I got over that, though. Great, so I pay into a system that promises to pay me X amount at retirement (ignoring for a second whether or not I get the full benefit of the amount that I paid in). Suddenly, I get word that the rules have changed. I continue to pay in the same amount, but now I receive reduced benefits. If anyone but the government did this, it would be illegal. I believe the technical term is fraud.

Here's my favorite part, though. John Boehner has suggested that those with "substantial non-Social Security income" when retired should receive reduced or no benefits at all. From each according to his ability (via the progressive tax regime), to each according to his need (no benefits for those who don't need it). Who's the Socialist now, Mr. Boehner? Who would put their money into a system that guarantees a 100% loss before the first dollar is even invested? Nobody, that is, except by the coercion of law.

My solution

Here's is what I propose: If the government will release me from the Social Security system, now, I will forgive the money I've already paid into it and promise not to attempt to draw on it later. Sound fair?

22 October 2010

Just... hold on a second

I came across a number of weird/wacky news stories this morning, and since I didn't really feel like writing very much, I was going to just post a few links with some commentary to accompany them. Then a friend of mine posted a link to an opinion piece entitled "Just Stop" over on the Mesa Democratic Club's website. Well, I loves me some politics, so I went over to read it. The article started out well enough (read: I agreed with it), but then it lost me. Since this friend of mine and I have agreed not to discuss politics over our social network of choice, I decided to write this post.

The article starts out pointing out that Sarah Palin is not a "political outsider", that the Tea Party is not an independent group, and that John McCain no longer has any discernible political positions outside of whatever it takes to get elected. These are all excellent points with which I could not agree more. It's at this point that our respective positions diverge.
Stop pretending that the deficit we’re all facing is the fault of President Obama and the Democratic Congress. During the Bush administration, we went from a surplus to a massive deficit, largely thanks to two wars that were never (until Obama) added to the federal budget—wars, in other words, fought entirely on credit. We compounded the problem with tax cuts that largely benefited the wealthy, and a huge Medicare increase, and all those were also on credit. When the economy tanked in fall 2008, Bush quickly pushed through the TARP bailout, adding to the deficit (but pulling the economy back from the cliff).
President Obama is not entirely responsible for the deficit. He is quickly adding to it, though. Yes, Obama added the wars to the federal budget, but that does not change the fact that they (along with the much of the rest of the budget) are still paid for on credit. And while Bush may have pulled the economy back from the cliff, he did not change it's direction; it is still headed that way under Obama.
Stop pretending that the near-ruinous economic crash that we’re still reeling from was Obama’s fault, too. The root causes stretch back decades, to a continued process of deregulating financial institutions, allowing them ever more leeway to prey on the vulnerable, to sell mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them, and to manipulate financial products that were ultimately guaranteed to fall apart.

And stop pretending that Obama and the current Congress should have been able to fix the two above problems in 18 months, when it took eight years to create the first one and literally decades of foxes guarding financial henhouses to create the second.
Again, the author is correct that the economic crash was not caused by Obama, and that it is unrealistic to think that the government would be able to fix it (I would argue, in any amount of time). The author implicitly places the blame on the private sector, however, when he talks about mortgages and financial products. Those mortgages that people couldn't afford were promoted and backed by the government in the form of Fannie and Freddie and FHA and VA loans. Obama has continued this process with the homebuyer tax credit and the HAFA and HAMP programs. For non-mortgage related financial instruments, look no further than the Federal Reserve serving as the "lender of last resort". Even though the Fed is nominally a private entity, it's ludicrous to think that they really are, and when banks get into trouble, the Fed bails them out via the power of "printing" money, a power that Congress abdicated to it long ago.
Stop pretending that saying “No” is the same as governing. We pay our legislators good money to go to Washington and make difficult decisions that keep the country moving. By voting “No” on every bill, by refusing to negotiate in good faith, by deciding that short-term political advantage was more important than the everyday lives of Americans, the Republicans set back our recovery, made needed reforms fall short, and put our lives and our economy at unnecessary risk.
I hate the idea that governing means "doing something". Saying "no" is a legitimate act, one in which all politicians engage because nobody can agree on the exact role of government. In this way, saying "no" is doing something. That is not to say that Republicans are not being obstructionist for political gains; however, the author would be better advised to point out Republican hypocrisy on things like expanding Medicare under Bush but railing against the PPACA, now.
Stop pretending that the economy is magic. You can’t continue to give millionaires and billionaires huge tax cuts, make tiny, cosmetic cuts at the margins of things, and still reduce the deficit. You can’t create jobs without spending money. Tax cuts for millionaires and up are not stimulative because those people don’t spend the money from the cut—it’s not like you’re giving them a wad of cash and sending them to the store. When you put an unemployed person to work or give a tax cut to a poor or middle class family, that’s exactly what it’s like—they go buy things they need and those dollars flow through the economy, creating jobs and wealth everywhere they go.
I'm not sure anyone is pretending that the economy is magic; however it is far more complex than most imagine. Not only that, but the government via regulation or the Fed often arbitrarily moves the market in ways that could only be predicted by magic. The author is correct that tax cuts (to anyone) won't balance the budget. He is mistaken, though, if he thinks that tax increases will do the job, either. Federal spending is out of control, and the only way to save this country's economy, over the long term, is to start cutting Social Security, Medicare, the military, everything.

And stop talking about stimulus. It's too bad that people believe that Keynesian economics preaches deficit spending. Keynes, mistaken as I believe his theories to be, spoke of stimulative spending out of savings. Yes, it takes money to create jobs, but it also takes money to keep those jobs. To think that the government (or anyone) can throw a one-time bucket of cash at the economy to "unstick" it is ridiculous. It will only lead to the government having to throw ever increasing amounts of money at the economy. It's amazing to me that most people agree that easy credit was the proximate cause of the economic conditions in which we all now live and at the same time believe that if the government just borrows more from China that that will fix the problem. We will end up back in this very situation again, only it will be much, much worse.
The things that Pelosi and Reid have supported these past 18 months have been programs that will help America move into the 21st century. Health care reform, in spite of great efforts at pretending, is not a “government takeover” of health care—it institutionalizes, in law, the presence of the health insurance industry, and gives that industry millions of new clients.
Whoa! Stop right there! Did you catch that? The government, under Democratic control, via the coercion of law, just delivered millions of customers to the health insurance industry. It's not just the Republicans that are in bed with big business.
It will, in the long run, reduce the deficit and create a healthier nation, by allowing more people to get preventive care and long-term care and keeping the sick and impoverished from turning to emergency rooms when there’s a crisis.
This entire problem was created by the government in the first place, though.
Stop pretending that “lifelong politician” is some kind of curse. Most people who hold public office do so because they genuinely want to help people, they genuinely want to make government responsive to the needs of their fellow Americans, and they’re willing to put themselves on the line every few years to get the chance to do so.
Here's a thought experiment: If "most" people who hold public office genuinely want to help people and make government better, why hasn't it happened?
Stop pretending that “big government” is the problem. When’s the last time you were seriously inconvenienced or injured by something that big government did?
Gay rights, TSA body scanners, highway checkpoints, the PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretaps, extra-judicial assassinations, indefinite detentions, inflation, etc. Don't tell me that (some of) these don't affect me. When one person's rights are trampled, everybody's are, and that's just at the federal level. Not only that, but all of this ignores the fact that every year I have to fill out a number of forms figuring out, on the government's behalf, how much money they want from me, and then send them that amount under the threat of force if I either figure wrong or don't send the right amount.
Stop pretending that anybody’s going to come and take your guns away. [...] There’s no truth to it, there’s never been any truth to it, and if you actually believe it, you just might be so simple-minded that you shouldn’t be trusted with a firearm.
They may not be trying to take them away, per se, but the laws (at least in CA) are clearly not conducive to gun purchases or ownership. One must wait 10 days to purchase any gun, even if one already owns one or one hundred of them. AB962, once in effect, will make the mail-ordering of handgun ammunition illegal and require fingerprints be taken of law-abiding citizens when they do purchase ammunition. It is illegal to actually carry one's gun in a manner that would actually allow it to be used effectively in self-defense, and many counties around the state deny CCW applications to all but the wealthy and connected.

Perhaps the author can explain to me why the BATFE and the state of CA keep records of gun sales if not to retain the possibility of rounding up guns in the future. I realize that that has a bit of a "tin foil hat" sound to it, but it is a legitimate question.

The author goes off the rails at this point with a lot of name calling. He tries to bring it home at the end, though.
Finally, stop pretending that voting doesn’t matter, and don’t let the 2010 Class of Crazy take office and convince you otherwise.
A variation on the previous thought experiment I proposed is apropos here: If voting mattered, why is government the way that it is? Perhaps it's because we've gotten the very government for which we voted. Voting doesn't matter and arguably does more harm than good. A voter is statistically more likely to be killed going to or coming from his/her polling place than to cast the deciding vote in an election. I refer the reader my previous posts on voting and the nature of government.

21 October 2010

Free speech, alive and well

I noticed the 'crawl' along the bottom of the TV screen this morning mention that NPR had fired Juan Williams over some comments that he had made. When I was able to get to a computer, I found a link to this story in my RSS reader. I thought it was fitting that the story came from Fox News since Mr. Williams is a regular contributor to Fox and his fateful comments were made on a Fox program. The linked story cites this quote as the reason for the firing:
I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.
Mr. Williams's first mistake was prefacing his comments with "I'm not a bigot." Whenever someone prefaces a comment with, "I'm not X", at best, it means that he/she fears that his/her comments will be interpreted so as to paint him/her as X and, at worst, that that person really is X. It's sort of the same way that the phrase "with all due respect" is interpreted as "I have no respect for you".

I have to admit, though, that I don't really see what the uproar about this particular comment is all about. The September 11th attacks were carried out by Al-Qaeda, a militant Islamic group. The Christmas Day bomber and the Times Square bomber both cited their religion as reasons for their actions. The U.S. continues to agitate Muslims around the world with its continued presence in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan in addition to indefinitely detaining and torturing people without charges when it is not just killing them both on and off the battlefield. In light of those actions, it seems reasonable to expect further violence to be attempted, if not perpetrated, against the U.S. by the very recipients of this U.S.-style democracy. I'm not sure that being nervous about flying with a Muslim is entirely irrational.

Glenn Greenwald takes up the case against Juan Williams this morning. In his article, some more context is provided for Mr. Williams's comments. Immediately prior to the earlier quote, Mr. Williams said this:
Well, actually, I hate to say this to you because I don't want to get your ego going. But I think you're right. I think, look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality.
This was said in response to Bill O'Reilly's "Talking Points Memo" which had aired just previous to Mr. Williams's comments in which Mr. O'Reilly had said:
The world is on edge because millions of Muslims accept violence and enable jihad. In order to correct the economy and the terrorist threat, those [referring also to the fact that private businesses are not hiring] things must be understood and stated.
These two statements properly deserve all of the outrage, in my opinion. Millions of Muslims do not accept violence and enable jihad. The U.S. government, itself, says that there are probably less than 100 Al-Qaeda members fighting in Afghanistan. It admits that many are probably hiding in Pakistan, but even being generous would probably place the total number under 1,000. Muslims make up almost a quarter of the world's population. If they all really supported violence and jihad, even if merely millions of them supported it, they would have destroyed the U.S., whose military only numbers about 1.4 million, quite decisively a long time ago. In fact, most (the percentage of "radical" Muslims is almost infinitesimal, but still prevents one from saying "all") Muslims are peaceful, preach peace, and abhor the violence perpetrated in their religion's name.

I'm not really sure how I feel about Juan Williams being fired by NPR. To be honest, I don't care enough to try and decide. He may have been a good reporter, but I never cared too much for his opinion pieces on various Fox shows. What is interesting to me is the outcry from the political right that his free speech rights are being violated because NPR gets a significant portion of its funding from the federal government. (Funny, that in this instance, they are, all of a sudden, civil libertarians.) Eugene Volokh contends that acceptance of government funds does not, on its face, make one a government actor and therefore obligate one to protect the free speech of others. I tend to agree. To argue the opposite is to open up a Pandora's box of (further) government intrusion into private affairs. As Mr. Volokh reasons, there is nothing preventing Congress from attaching strings to funds that it allocates (which it has not done in this case), but I would argue that Congress shouldn't be allocating funds to private businesses in the first place.

20 October 2010

The first amendment says what?

I usually try to stay away from the low hanging fruit of the day in and day out political machinations and mud slinging that make up the U.S. electoral system, but I just can't resist Christine O'Donnell's appearance in a radio debate yesterday against her opponent Chris Coons. Here is a video of the event so that you can see for yourself. The fun starts around the 5 minute mark.

There is a lot of talk about the fact that the Constitution does not actually contain the phrase "separation of church and state" and that that is the point that Ms. O'Donnell was making. The fact that that phrase is not in the Constitution is not in dispute by anyone who can read. However, it is clear to me that the idea is embodied within the first amendment despite the absence of the phrase. I think Ms. O'Donnell either had some prepared talking points related to the separation of church and state and she used them at an inopportune time (i.e. the debate didn't correctly line up with what it is she wanted or had prepared to say) or she truly doesn't believe that the government and religion should be separate. The Wall Street Journal blog, linked above, addresses that debate, and I'd rather stay out of it.

I am more interested in a blog entry over on LewRockwell.com about Ms. O'Donnell's remarks. In it, the author derides the "left" for their mocking of Ms. O'Donnel's position saying that the "gaffe" label is applied when someone tells an "unwelcome truth". He then continues:
"Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?,"  O’Donnell asks. The answer? It ain’t there. The First Amendment, passed after the Constitution was adopted by a Congress elected under that ratified Constitution, reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The author goes on to note that many religions were "established" in the several states around the time of the Constitution's adoption and that even John Jay supported a New York law prohibiting Catholics from holding office. "In no way does the Constitution or the Bill of Rights establish a 'wall of separation' between church and state," he writes.

The amendment

Are we reading the same words? Let me start by saying that I am not a Constitutional scholar. With that out of the way, I'm willing to concede that the first part of the amendment, quoted above, means that Congress is forbidden from establishing a national religion and not necessarily from passing a law or laws that comport with a particular religious view or views. The second part seems pretty self explanatory to me, and that is that Congress may not pass a law that interferes with a person's practice of their religion, in any way.

So Congress can pass a law (subject to the rest of the Constitution, obviously) that follows or arises from a particular religious view so long as that law does not establish a "national" religion nor interfere with the free exercise of any other religion. The reason I wanted to go down this road is to show that the separation (as contained in the first amendment) is not explicit, but the idea that the federal government cannot impose religion on anyone nor prevent religious freedom is clear.

For the sake of clarity, I would go so far as to say that the federal government is not explicitly barred from supporting a religion (monetarily or otherwise) so long as it does not do so to the exclusion of others. That said, I think that government support of any religion is an extremely unwise policy.

State infringement

I'm not going to do any research into the author's claims about the several states establishing or prohibiting religions. The reason is that the Constitution of the United States did not, at the time, prevent them from doing so. The Constitution, as adopted, only restrained the federal government. The several states were free to violate the people's "rights" as defined by the first 10 amendments to the Constitution to their hearts' content.

It was not until the adoption of the 14th amendment, specifically section 1, in 1868 that this changed. Technically, that isn't even true, as the protections afforded by the 14th amendment (as viewed by most legal scholars) was gutted by the Slaughterhouse cases (this view is in dispute) in 1873. It is only via incorporation that individual amendments to the Constitution have been applied against the states. (The 2nd amendment was just applied this year!) The fact that the states, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, were interfering with religion has no bearing on whether or not a separation existed at the federal level.

Government bailout turns a profit

According to Bloomberg news:
The U.S. government’s bailout of financial firms through the Troubled Asset Relief Program provided taxpayers with higher returns than they could have made buying 30-year Treasury bonds
I'll be honest; my first reaction to this was, "Oh no, I'm going to be forced to admit that the government did something right". Indeed, according to the article, the government invested $309 billion in Wall Street bailouts via the so-called TARP program, of which, about $200 billion has been repaid. Not only that, though. The government has also earned $25 billion on its investment. What's not to like?

How about the fact that the bailouts didn't actually work? Unemployment actually skyrocketed while the government was supposedly making this profit. These unemployment numbers are "official" ones, by the way. "Real" unemployment is actually nearly twice as high, and even that number doesn't paint a totally accurate picture of the economy. It fails to account for falling wages, part time workers who had and/or want full time work, and those who simply are no longer looking.

Here's the real reason to be upset about the bailout, though, and Bloomberg, to its credit, points it out.
One of those subsidies [to the banks] is the $350 billion that savers forgo each year because the Fed keeps interest rates near zero, according to Petzel’s calculations. While banks can borrow at close to zero from the Fed, they lend to consumers and corporations at almost 5 percent, or to the Treasury at 2.5 percent, and they get to keep the difference.
Take a second to do the math. The American taxpayers have given up over $700 billion (so far). That is more than double what the government originally invested and gained via that investment. So, we have the taxpayers, the government, and the banks. Government comes out $25 billion ahead. Banks come out $700 billion ahead. (This is debatable since the banks also took losses. However, those losses are mitigated by this $700 billion). Taxpayers come out $700 billion behind plus the wrecked economy.

It doesn't end there, though.
According to Prins’s tally, the money plowed into the financial system to prop it up peaked at $19.4 trillion. Banks have benefited from that cash, which helped keep prices of mortgage securities, house prices and other assets overvalued, Prins said in an interview. Even though some of the support has been withdrawn, part of it will likely be lost, such as the hundreds of billions of dollars put into Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, she said.

"These are all indirect subsidies the banks got," Prins said. "So the TARP gains touted by the Treasury are only true if you ignore all the other costs."
Keep these other costs in mind the next time someone tries to tell you that the bailouts worked or that the government (and supposedly, by extension, the taxpayers) actually made money on the deal.