Tag Archives: Bill Clinton

Congress, take back the wheel: NSA collection of phone numbers isn’t new

The news headlines are all aflutter this morning about the Guardian UK’s publication of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order requiring Verizon to turn over on an ongoing basis the metadata (phone numbers, time and length of calls, location, etc. — but no subscriber information) of all calls where at least one party was in the United States.

The practical impact of such a request is that the federal government has a record of every phone call made on the Verizon network, with enough information to identify who the caller is in at least 95% of the cases.  (Based on the metadata, it’s rather easy to figure out the identity of the caller.)

The court order in this case was signed by U.S. District Court Judge Roger Vinson, a Reagan appointee.

The sad reality, though, is that these programs that collect huge amounts of data aren’t new. They’ve just been largely ignored by the media — in both the Bush and Obama Administrations.  We know, for instance, that the federal government began similar activities shortly after 9/11 and the program in its current form has been ongoing since 2006.  The government’s ongoing efforts to keep such programs as secret as possible have thwarted attempts by the media and civil liberties groups to get to the bottom of the story.

What we see today is the result of a sad bipartisan abdication of responsibility by the United States Congress.  In the wake of 9/11, they passed the PATRIOT Act, which gave the executive branch broad powers to conduct such surveillance.  The PATRIOT Act passed Congress with broad bipartisan support in 2001 (Senate vote was 98-1, House vote was 357-66.), and was reauthorized in 2005, 2009, and 2011.

(As an aside, the powers in the PATRIOT Act were far broader than those requested by President Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.  Congressional Republicans were nearly universally opposed to Clinton’s plan and never let it out of committee.  Six years later, Republicans represented just two of the 67 Congressional “no” votes for the PATRIOT Act.)

Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act gives the federal government broad powers to ask for such information.  Unlike a traditional warrant where the standard is probable cause that the target was involved in a crime, the government only needs to show “reasonable grounds” that the requested information was “relevant to an authorized investigation . . . to obtain foreign intelligence information. . . or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”

Once the 2006 revelations of the first iteration of this data collection program came out, Congress did take action:  to make it perfectly clear that they saw the program as fully legal.  In 2007 and 2008, Congress passed bills that placed the program under the supervision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, expanded its reach to cover purely domestic calls, and gave telecom companies retroactive immunity from damages resulting from the breach of privacy.  Reauthorized in 2011, these powers are now scheduled to sunset in 2017 if no Congressional action was taken.

After 9/11, a terrorism act of unprecedented boldness and effectiveness, it may have made some sense to give the executive branch the expansive powers of the PATRIOT Act to collect information to adequately respond to the Al-Qaeda threat.  Nearly 12 years later, though, we have a clearer picture of the threats we face and the tools we need to respond to them.  We also have gained perspective on what we may be giving up in order to secure the notion of security.

It’s time for Congress — politicians on both sides of the aisle need to work together on this one — to take back the wheel from the executive branch on these sorts of issues and craft some reasonable limits that prevent wholesale collection of data from individuals of the nature seen in this example.  This is Congress’s job, and we should expect them to get it done.

And while we’re at it, let’s not also forget who else has this data in question:  Verizon.  Now, there’s little we can do to prevent them from collecting said information other than not use their service or talk to someone who does, but what we can do is make sure that they — and other telecom companies — have to follow strict standards about how it is used.  Companies are using this information already, selling it to other companies and using it to market their own products to you.  Congress should be vigilant to make sure your data is not abused and your privacy not encroached upon.

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Income inequality is bad for everybody

It’s not exactly a newsflash at this point to mention that income inequality in the United States is increasing, has been increasing noticeably for the last 30 years, and the trend shows no sign of moderating.

Even conservatives don’t dispute it anymore, merely asserting that it’s the result of people who don’t work hard.

The real questions that we need to face as a society are as follows:  what does it mean to our society, and what should we do about it (if anything)?

There are some who think that income inequality doesn’t really have an impact on our society.  They believe that in a capitalist society, it’s OK for there to be sharp divisions between winners and losers — and even more to the point, that the “winners” should be given preferential treatment for they are the ones responsible for the prosperity of the others.

It matters little that the others have provided great productivity gains since WW2, but have not received a correpsonding share of income over that time (graph from Urbanomics).

In fact, over recent years, all of the gains in the economy have gone to those at the top of the scale, while the bottom 90% have seen their share of the pie decrease.

The problem with income inequality, though, can’t be resolved or ignored by having the wealthy retreat into gated communities and leaving the poor to fend for themselves.  Increasingly, there’s data that shows that income inequality — even in a country like the United States where our poor are better off than most citizens in other parts of the world — causes massive disruption and problems that you wouldn’t expect, such as lower health and increased crime.

Of particular note are studies by Kate Pickett of the University of York in the United Kingdom released in 2009.  The United States leads the world in income per capita, and among developed countries also has the largest income disparity.

But we also have the worst cumulative results across an idenx of social indicators, including life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, and mental illness.

While wealthy Americans have longer life expectancy than poorer Americans, they have life expectancy equal to (or frequently worse) than the average citizen of other developed countries.  Why is that?  Researchers have found that Americans (and citizens of other unequal societies) tend to feel less valued, feel less “in control” of their work and home lives, and tend to have lower levels of civic engagement.

We can see the symptoms of these conditions in our political system today.  The Tea Party movement, the dismally low levels of approval for Congress, and low voter turnouts are indications that as a society great chunks of our population are feeling disconnected from what’s going on around them.  Increased corporate involvement in our political process (thanks to the Citizens United decision) additionally makes the voice of the individual harder to hear in the current political environment.

On critical economic issues, both parties have largely turned their back on middle class citizens. Democrats promised robust initiatives to boost the nation’s economy following the 2008 elections, but followed it up with tepid measures that only served to mildly soften the economy’s landing from the recession.  Republicans elected in 2010 have failed – in Washington and in St. Paul — to deliver on their campaign jobs agenda.

And most people don’t understand how severe the inequality issue has become.  A 2010 Harvard University study shows that most Americans dramatically underestimate how much wealth has become concentrated in the hands of the wealthy.  84% of the country’s wealth is actually controlled by the top 20% of income earners — but Americans thought the number was only 59%.  And, when asked what their ideal distribution of wealth for the top 20% would be, the average figure was 32%.

The relatively modest steps that have been proposed by Democratic politicians to protect priorities like education, health care, and infrastructure wouldn’t turn any of these trends on their ears.  Even under the higher tax rates of the Clinton era, wealthy people did better than everyone else — it’s just that everyone else also saw some real improvement in their situation as opposed to watching all the profit from their hard work go to someone else.

Under Mark Dayton’s proposed plan to increase taxes on the wealthiest Minnesotans, the top 10% of income earners would still have paid the lowest aggregate tax rate of any group of Minnesota citizens.  These proposals won’t suddenly change the U.S. income distribution into that of Japan or Finland.

What these proposal would do, though, is protect vital priorities that give people at the bottom of the scale a chance to climb the ladder.  It’s instructive to note that many Congressional Republicans were ready to bail on the debt ceiling deal over Pell Grant funding — a program vital to giving low-income students the opportunity to go to college.  The Republican budget here in Minnesota takes higher education funding back to 1990s levels.  These policies are like pulling up the ladder once you’ve safely climbed to higher ground.

We need a truly balanced approach to rebuilding our nation’s economy and our state’s economy.  It’s not too much to ask that the wealthy — who have benefited the most from the economic policies and tax cuts of the last decade — to chip in a little bit so that society can meet its obligations.  Continued growth in inequality threatens the fabric of our society and calls the values that we hold dear into question.  Former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough calls a spade a spade:

Since 1970, executive pay has increased 430 percent while workers’ wages have crept up at a pace that barely kept up with inflation. The average executive’s pay has jumped over that time period to 158 times that of the average worker’s pay in those companies. It’s no wonder that the top 0.1 percent of income earners get richer by the day while millions of Americans are seeing their situations get worse.

This is not John Wayne’s America. This is Gordon Gekko’s America.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that if the Duke faced one of these CEOs in a John Ford film, he’d kick some ass and force the leech to start treating his workers fair.

Who’s going to stand up and fight for the working families of our country?  If we want our economy to reach its full potential, we need to start valuing the middle class ahead of the elites.


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