February 04, 2010

Obama, Barack Obama: Shaken, Not Stirred

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair testifying to Congress on Wednesday:

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said in each case a decision to use lethal force against a U.S. Citizen must get special permission...He also said there are criteria that must be met to authorize the killing of a U.S. citizen that include "whether that person is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American is a threat to other Americans. Those are the factors involved."

The special permission must come from the President or someone like that, which is definitely reassuring. It's not from a court, however, which makes it less so. There's that whole Due Process Clause, after all. No one shall be denied life, liberty or property without...hey, it's the very first one. It seems that President Obama has been given a License to Kill, which previously had been granted, other than in a time of declared war, only to agents with a Double O rating. Now the Obama Administration has decided the 9/11 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force) is good enough. Man, that piece of paper has been given a workout. Anyway, here's some mood music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ii1tc493bZM. If you open that in a separate window, you can listen along while you're reading.

Well, now that I see how things are, let me make a couple of things clear. I'm NOT a member of al-Qaeda, never have been. I don't like the guys. Hate 'em. Wish I could put that in a meta-tag, so the NSA would be sure to find it. I used to know how to do some basic HTML, but I can't remember, for the life of me, how to do it now. An unfortunate turn of phrase, I guess.

Look, President O(O), I get a little grumpy, but it's only because I'm disappointed, you know? I lo-o-o-ve this country, love it, love it, love it. I'm definitely no threat at all, not to Americans most of all. And a member of an organized group? I'm a Democrat! So that deals with that.

Just for a couple of points of clarification: when Mr. Blair talks about Americans trying to "attack" "us," I'm going to assume that the attack part refers to physical attack. Am I right? And the "us," he means the whole of America, right, and not some, you know, particular ideological group or in-crowd or power elite or nothin' like that? I'm sure that's what he means. See, because once you go outside the Constitutional framework of the 5th and 14th Amendments (that Due Process thing - but look who I'm talking to! A Con law prof!), and start making up rules based on language that clearly is not in that 9/11 AUMF, and not in any federal statute, and not in the Constitution, and further, the rule you're making up is that you can gun down an American based on the suspicion (and it's only that, because there's certainly been no trial, hearing, nothing) the American is part of a group that threatens America ---

Okay, just for a moment here I'm feeling a little like Captain Mandrake when he realizes why the world has to end, after all. Back to what I was trying to say: I'm sure you'll do fine with this new power, right, license, whatever it is. I'm glad it's you, if it has to be somebody. (It has to be somebody, right? Okay.) I admit I didn't see this one coming, and I'm a little surprised no one in Congress really said anything. Is this Standard Operating Procedure now? We wake up one day and discover the President has the right to put out a hit on an American citizen anywhere in the world (or shoot the guy himself, which would be cooler, more Bondian - you look great in a tux, by the way, Prez! Is the music still running?) and no one says a thing? So the whole rigmarole the Bush Administration went through with Padilla -- you've got a more efficient way to deal with that now?

Look, I'm just trying to understand. I don't have a problem with it, obviously, given my extreme patriotic nature. Count me in as one of "us," you know? Oh, and one olive or two?

Congressional Clown College, Cont.

To amend and extend my remarks: actually (and I of all people should remember this, since I acted as counsel for Friends of the Earth on more than one occasion) Congress did pass the Clean Air and Water Acts and the Endangered Species Act in the early 1970's, and created the Environmental Protection Agency to oversee it all. Those statutory enactments had actual, tangible results that are still everywhere around us, the completely degraded state of our environment notwithstanding. I mean, it's all relative, and you have to put up with minor inconveniences like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that roiling gyre of plastic soup just west of here (twice the size of Texas, in fact). And the impending demise of life on Earth because of climate change, which Congress cannot get it together to deal with. Stuff happens.

You might also include the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, although that was remedial, simply designed to stop thugs like Nixon from spying on the American people without a warrant, which Bush II resumed doing anyway, and now Congress has given the whole Fourth Amendment repeal its imprimatur. Telecom immunity, as you'll recall, and the assorted crap that came with it, which Barack Obama was against before he became a Republican (no doubt to balance Arlen Specter's move the other way) and is now all for. Well, things change. Certainly no one can accuse our President of a mind hobgoblined by a foolish inconsistency. There is, indeed, no consistency whatsoever, other than consistently being all things to all people and hoping no one notices. (Nota bene, Prez: they have.)

Anyway, so I think Alan Brinkley has it right after all: Congress put the alarm clock on snooze somewhere there in the 1970's and the buzzer simply never went off again. With the advent of the Reagan Regency, Congress began the systematic process of bankrupting the country which has been ongoing ever since. They "fixed" Social Security by raising FICA taxes in the early 1980's to create a "surplus," which they then appropriated for war & materiel, year after year, in a clever scheme to bankrupt the Soviets by daring them to imitate our folly. We can say with confidence that we forced the Soviets to dissolve first; having succeeded in that epic struggle, we decided it was so much fun to go bust we simply kept it up, long past the point where there was any credible threat, spending almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. The Social Security "surplus," meanwhile, is about $2.5 trillion now, but unfortunately it is part of the national debt, the ceiling for which was just raised by Congress to $14 trillion. Now that the Social Security system is beginning to crack, it would be nice to tap into that rainy day fund, but it's already been dispensed to Boeing and Northrop and Martin Marietta and Halliburton and our brigades of mercenaries, all representing Congressional appropriations down through the years. But if we hadn't gone bankrupt, think how safe we'd be! Other than having the southern part of our largest city knocked down by 19 guys armed with Exact-O knives and our own airplanes.

Still, no other nation would dare invade us with a real army. Not that they were going to do that anyway. The countries that might be interested in doing that are too busy building the things we used to build, selling them to us and using our money to develop their own countries.

It's becoming apparent that Washington's chronic indolence and short-sightedness are exacting a very high price. The unemployment funds of half the states are now bankrupt (with 18 more soon to follow) and reliant upon the Feds to simply ship back money they received from the citizens of the same states in the first place (those states now in penury). Not on a dollar for dollar basis, of course; Washington has expenses which must be deducted as part of the laundering process, and without the federal system, how would any of us ever feel safe? I mean, we're constantly reminded now that we're not really safe, and that's with the full panoply of nuclear and conventional weapons and the largest defense establishment in the world, all kept afloat by the contributions of those same (largely unemployed) citizens of the several states (well, half of it, anyway - the other half is borrowed or conjured out of thin air). The pension funds in many states are also reeling, of course, with massive losses in the equities and real estate markets, a lot of it caused by investments in the crooked scams of Wall Street enabled by Congress's refusal to regulate derivatives and its repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. So I guess it's not quite fair to call it a "do-nothing" Congress. They do stuff, it's just mostly idiotic and destructive.

I think we're up to date now. Credit where credit is due. Congress had a pretty good run between 1789 and 1978, almost two hundred years of occasionally brilliant legislation and accomplishment, mixed in with periodic lapses such as the House Un-American Activities Committee, which, in retrospect, seems actually pretty tame.

February 02, 2010

The Comatose Congress

Frank Rich mentions Alan Brinkley briefly en passant in Rich's Sunday column to the effect that Brinkley has written that Congress is now “entering its fourth decade” of failing to deal with any pressing national problem. A while back, I read Brinkley's The Unfinished Nation, and that is certainly one of the themes of this “liberal” history professor at Columbia. (I think it's kind of telling that we categorize historians according to political ideology, as if admitting the truth of the old bromide that history is simply the polemics of the victor.) The fiasco of “health care reform” over the last year can be added to Congress's Marx Brothers approach to national priorities. Brinkley dates things from the beginning of the Reagan Administration (I guess that's why he's “liberal”), but I'm trying to remember anything which happened in the 1970's which might be characterized as a Congressional breakthrough.

I think we need to go back to the Great Society, and the institution of Medicare to find anything definite which was passed by Congress specifically to assist the American populace. That can be added to Social Security, a Depression-era program, and you've got the main components of the “Entitlements.” The 60's also saw the triumph of Civil Rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act, which eliminated onerous obstructions of the exercise of the franchise by African-Americans (there's a nice museum in Selma, Alabama, devoted to this landmark breakthrough, worth seeing, just over the river past the “Bloody Sunday” bridge).

I think Brinkley's on to something, which brings up a profound question: what the hell has Congress been doing for the last forty-five years? Really, nothing much at all, which is why I guess I never expected much from this latest effort. If we wanted to generalize broadly (and what else is a blog for?), I guess one could say the goal has been, certainly since the Reagan years, to minimize the role of the federal government except in its one dominant sphere of influence, the maintenance of a big military apparatus and the prosecution of wars of dubious utility. Beginning with the amateurization of air traffic control (what a great idea, Gipper!), government has mainly been about getting out of the way. Out of the way of regulating banks or financial markets, out of taxing the populace (except on a regressive basis, with marginal rates declining), out of protecting American jobs by facilitating the transfer of jobs overseas with the tax code and with numerous free trade agreements designed to encourage offshoring and importation. The relentlessness of Congress's anti-American bias (Big Business excepted, which can leverage the globalization paradigm to its great benefit), has resulted in the clear hollowing-out of America's middle class, the concentration of wealth at the top to an extreme degree, the destruction of the tax basis (aided and abetted in particular by W's mindless tax cuts), soaring deficits, an epidemic of foreclosures, and looming national bankruptcy.

Quite a resumé. Somewhere in there Congressional politics became about one thing and one thing only, the pandering to the public on “social issues,” and, of course, the dire state of our national security. I mean, we're just never going to be safe enough, are we? Since Congress's main donors (Big Business and their brigades of lobbyists) don't really care about any of these issues other than the military-industrial complex, the financial, pharmaceutical, insurance and banking sectors are perfectly content with whatever arrangements Congress works out on the Yahoo Agenda. Sure, gay marriage, no gay marriage, abortion, no abortion: whatever, dudes. Just don't regulate, don't tax, and keep fighting all these pointless wars, because that's how we can tap into the tax revenue on a sustained basis (when you're not bailing us out).

Am I counseling despair? Well, yeah. What do you think? Congress has been asleep for forty-five years, longer than Rip Van Winkle. The tax receipts are down to $2 trillion, against a budget that will surely come in at $4 trillion, as soon as it is Christmas-Treed. The Federal Reserve is playing shell games to create the appearance of money where none exists. Our foreign creditors are looking elsewhere for places to invest. And we still can't cut a dime from military spending; on the contrary, it keeps going up.

Comes a time, you see, when all this neglect begins to exact a terrible price. Not necessarily in a “linear way,” either. As Mike said in The Sun Also Rises, answering a question about how he went bankrupt: “Gradually, and then all at once.”