Rule #1: Do not get caught

NSA HQ

In his farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a famous speech that over the years has proved eerily prophetic. Introducing the concept known as the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower warned of the dangers of how the military was evolving:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial [sic] complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

— Dwight D. Eisenhower
January 17, 1961

Today, this unfortunately describes not only our military, but our intelligence community as well. Recent revelations first reported by The Guardian have revealed that the NSA have been storing records of our phone calls and possibly our e-mails and other Internet movements for at least several years. It’s true that the source in the story, whistleblower Edward Snowden, is (was) a contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton, and it’s easy to make the connection to Eisenhower’s address and see that we’re exactly where he warned we shouldn’t be. But it’s worse than that: the intelligence community itself is running like an industry, and since our government is in the market for intelligence, the industry is booming and expanding rapidly.

Reboot

The state of the 2012 campaigns

With Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, all parties are present and the 2012 Presidential campaign is in the home stretch.

It’s interesting to me that exactly one year ago today, Michelle Bachmann, while far from a shoo-in, looked a lot closer to the White House than Mitt Romney. On August 13, 2011, Congresswoman Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll, an unofficial kickoff to the primary season and an interesting look at what Republicans think of the field.

Needless to say, times changed. Michelle Bachmann barely made it past the Iowa caucus, as she suspended her campaign the day after a disappointing finish there. Other candidates like Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum had their time in the drivers seat, but eventually faded. Whether or not the Republican primary was a war of attrition probably depends on who you ask. But whatever it was, Mitt Romney endured and at the end of this month, will become the Republican nominee for President.

On Saturday, Romney announced that Paul Ryan would be his running mate, which ended a bad week on an extreme upswing. Many analysts have stated, and I agree with them, that Ryan’s entry represents a fresh start to the campaign for Romney, and should really reboot the campaign as a whole.

Spiking the football

The now famous picture of the Obama administration waiting for news on Operation Geronimo.

One year ago today, under the cover of darkness, a Navy SEAL team stormed a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, with intelligence that the man responsible for the September 11th attacks was inside. Less than an hour later, their mission was accomplished: Osama bin Laden was dead. In the days and weeks after, it was revealed that the operation wasn’t an easy one; in fact, there was great risk. As more and more details revealed the mission was more and more treacherous, Americans everywhere expressed gratitude and admiration primarily towards the SEALs who carried out the mission.

President Obama also got some of the credit and some of the gratitude, in the form of an approval ratings boost and a solid (to say the least) foreign policy credential to use in his reelection campaign. But even though the killing of Osama bin Laden was easily his best political victory in over a year, President Obama made sure to raise his voice over the celebrating crowds to caution that “we don’t need to spike the football.”

Which is why I was surprised to find him doing just that for cheap political points.

Freedom means love without condition

On September 11, 2001, four airliners crashed into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a rural field in Pennsylvania. The coordinated terrorist attack resulted in the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, irreparably changing the skyline of New York and the world forever. Within hours of the attack, Muslim extremists were suspected, and by less than a month later, the FBI released the names and photos of the attackers: Muslim extremists, working for Osama bin Laden.

The sky isn’t falling… don’t worry, I checked.

President Obama reacts to the passage of the health care bill in the House.

On July 4, 1776, 56 British rebels signed the most important document in American history: the Declaration of Independence. As we all know, the Founding Fathers documented many of the injustices that the tyrant King George III had imposed on the American colonies, and concluded that (National Treasure reference coming up here) not only was it their right to seek out a new government, it was their duty. And before we all look back on this moment through rose-colored glasses, let’s not forget that at the time, rebelling against the British was not only unpopular amongst the colonists, it was an act of treason against the British crown.

The newly formed United States won the Revolutionary War, and signed the Treaty of Paris on November 25, 1783. At the time, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation, a highly decentralized and federated government system created by new Americans who were understandably weary of a strong federal government.

But in the early years of the Confederacy, problems arose. The lack of a federal currency led to an economic depression, and events like Shays’ Rebellion and the increasing fear of a British counterattack made it clear that the American government was too weak to survive.

So in 1787, the Second Continental Congress met to recreate a government that wasn’t even 10 years old. Economist and federalist Alexander Hamilton led the charge for a stronger federal government while Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and George Washington contributed to the Constitution, the backbone of our government that has only been amended 27 times in over 200 years.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last couple days, you’ve heard the news that the House of Representatives passed the health care bill originally drafted by the Senate, making it all but inevitable that Barack Obama’s sweeping healthcare reform will become law. My feelings on the bill itself were documented last summer, before Scott Brown was elected and changed the entire nature of the debate, and before the bill was modified and culled to the point where it’d be passed.

Maybe, given that, you were expecting this post to be something more along these lines:

(I’d include a selection of Facebook and Twitter postings to further illustrate this point, but I’ll trust you too have a multitude of friends with similar feelings, so you know what those look like.)

Ultimately, I’m still not a huge fan of this health care bill. I’m not a huge fan of the way it was passed. But I think everyone, no matter your party, position or stature, agrees that this bill isn’t perfect. I think everyone, no matter your party, position or stature, agrees that the health care industry ranges from “fatally flawed” to “could use some improvement”.

That being said, did you wake up today and do anything different? Did you not wake up, shower, drive to work, work, eat some lunch, work some more, and come home? Was today radically different than last Friday? I know this legislation will eventually make some pretty dramatic changes, but for the most part (in general), your day-to-day life won’t change.

Here’s the thing: if cancer is cured in the next couple of years, or if diabetes is cured, or something changes in the healthcare environment, the laws will change. If it’s found that people still can’t pay for healthcare, or that parents still aren’t able to take care of their sick kids, the laws will change. It’s unfortunate that sometimes there’s no better way to institute change than trying something and seeing how it works, but that’s how it is, and it’s the beauty of democracy that it’s easy to change.

So what’s my point? If you’re conservative, maybe you didn’t get everything you wanted in this healthcare bill. But instead of planning your exodus, remember that you live in the greatest country in the world where the will of the people is always the rule of the day. This country isn’t dying; far from it, and the fact that one of our biggest national problems is how to deal modern nationwide healthcare coverage, while other countries are decimated by diseases that are a century obsolete here, is a sobering reminder that things could be far worse.

Kill all the f*gs that don’t agree

President Obama delivers his first State of the Union speech.

This may be a slightly controversial post (heck, it’s already a slightly controversial title – my first censor!), but I feel there are some things that need to be said. Last week, in his first State of the Union address, President Obama promised a resolution to a somewhat old, somewhat under-the-radar issue:

This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It’s the right thing to do.

With the economy in the tank, the healthcare bill on life support and his approval numbers free-falling, what Obama did here was clearly distraction politics, getting Americans focused on something where Obama was not at a low point.

But that said, the issue was brought up, and immediately was picked up by the Democratic majority looking for a win (with a major Colin Powell endorsement today), so it’ll be an issue at least for the foreseeable future.

Make no mistake: it’s an important issue. The number of public (that is, “outed”) homosexuals in the United States is estimated as high as 22% and growing, due to homosexuality’s increased (although incomplete) acceptance into the social norm.

For a long time, gay people have wanted to serve their country in the armed forces, an admirable desire to be sure. For decades, gay people had faced persecution, hatred and witch hunts when serving in the military. On July 20, 1993, Bill Clinton reached what he called a compromise, allowing gay people to serve in the military, provided they…you know, didn’t do “gay things”. Clinton said he wasn’t happy with it, but some level of change was necessary and the Joint Chiefs would not budge further than they did. The executive order allowed gay people to serve in the military legally, albeit secretly, and would end the investigations that cost millions of taxpayer dollars.

Why was the compromise necessary? Clinton justified it as “protecting the morale” of the heterosexual troops.

I’ll say that again: “Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” was originally ordered to “protect” the heterosexual bigots who had a problem serving with gays in the military. This is rather like opening a school that’s only open to white people, to protect them from the other races.

As I think about it, it’s amazing to me that such discrimination was (and is) considered tolerable for so long. But whereas racism had it’s “Rosa Parks moment” (with the actual Rosa Parks moment itself), homophobia has never had such a story. Seemingly no one wants to talk about homosexuality – maybe it’s harder to understand than race, maybe it’s just a more delicate subject (you can really only be openly black, for example; there is no “in the closet” for being black).

In any case, President Obama is right: it’s time to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Until it is scientifically proven that a gay person can’t shoot a gun as accurately as a straight person, until it’s proven that a gay person is less patriotic than a straight person, until it’s proven that a straight person can actually get AIDS just by being in the same foxhole as a gay person, there should be no difference in how gay people are treated vs. how straight people are treated in the United States military.

Not only is it time we stop censoring gays in the military, but it’s time we stop protecting bigots in the military. I don’t think the problem is as widespread as some would have you believe, but the fact is that some straight people (in all circles, not just the military) are homophobic and this leads to acts based in fear, discomfort or anger. These acts should be punished in the military just as they are in normal society: nothing but respect should be tolerated in the military.

And conversely, while gay people should be allowed to openly serve in the military, they should do so with professionalism. Being in the military is a job, in fact it’s the most important job there is, and it should be treated with the same professionalism that one would treat a corporate job with an HR department and performance reviews.

So there it is. For those of you who know me, this post may come as a surprise to you since I’m not siding with Republicans (or most conservatives) on this matter. But honestly, the more I thought about this issue the more I came to realize that one’s sexual preference should not take precedence over one’s desire to serve. That doesn’t mean “Don’t ask, don’t tell”; it means diversity should be embraced and celebrated (to use the Office cliché), while discrimination and homophobia (or xenophobia, or whatever) should be discouraged and punished.


Note: A couple times while writing this article I made a typo and typed “Don’t ask, don’t Dell”. I think Apple should use this as their marketing slogan and I’m willing to talk price whenever.

Another note: The title, like many of my blog posts, is a lyric from a song I enjoy, “Holiday”, by Green Day. Take nothing more from it than that.

The space that’s in between insane and insecure

One thing I’ve noticed about all politicians: all of them are pro-education. Honestly, how could you not be? Do you really want to be that guy who campaigns with the message: “we’re investing too much in our future, let’s cut back spending a bit”? What about “let’s privatize K-12 education! We’ll let Microsoft do it!” (actually I say that as a joke, but Bill Gates donates a ton of money to education every year. So we’ll say Steve Ballmer.) Since public education started, there’s always been room for improvement, and I think it’s gotten worse as the kids of the eighties start to have kids and send them to school. In essence, the government can spend all the money it wants, but the most productive and important learning happens at home. If parents aren’t teaching kids, kids aren’t learning.

What brings this up is President Obama’s planned speech to children all across the United States next week. I’ll say this: it’s a radical idea. I don’t mean that in a completely bad way – clearly, the system is broke. However, the article linked above mentions vehement opposition by some parents to having their kids watch the speech.

At first, I dismissed this as just more knee-jerk “whatever Obama does, I don’t like” reaction. You can’t please everyone. Then I thought about it for a moment and remembered a court case I learned about in school: Engel v. Vitale, the court case that banned prayer in schools.

A couple things here. First, while my blog tends to be somewhat secular, I am a Christian. I don’t consider myself a nut; that is, I like to think I understand the ways of the world well enough to see both sides of this issue. That said, I believe that while mandated prayer is unconstitutional, banning prayer in schools is also unconstitutional. That is, if you’re a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, whatever, it shouldn’t be wrong for you to pray in school, provided you don’t disturb others; if you’re atheist, you shouldn’t have to participate in prayer as long as you’re respectful.

So here’s the thing: if it’s unconstitutional to mandate prayer in schools, why is it constitutional to mandate that students not have the choice to not watch a speech? It’s largely the same principle. Like believing in God, a lot of US citizens (a majority, last I heard) believe President Obama is doing the right things for our country, and a lot don’t. Like belief in the afterlife (eternal life, as we Christians call it), the only way to know for sure that President Obama’s ideas will work is to simply wait for history to decide. Additionally, opponents of prayer in schools claim that kids can pray before or after school at home; opponents of Obama’s speech claim that kids can DVR it or watch it online later on.

To someone outside the Obama hype looking in, the debate is largely the same in both cases. One apparent difference is that as far as we know, President Obama’s speech is a one-time occurrence, where prayer was a daily occurrence. In essence, this speech is no different (and actually, less frequent) than “See You At The Pole”, a popular prayer event at high schools around this time every year. However, events such as See You At The Pole are not mandatory and are opt-in, meaning that students don’t need to excuse themselves from the meeting, they need to take initiative to attend.

So with all that, where do you go from there? If it were up to me, it’d be up to the students to watch the speech, and more importantly, it’d be an opt-in thing. That is, schools should set up their auditoriums with the speech and all students who want to watch the speech should leave class and attend. Students who don’t watch the speech could use the time however they wish, provided that it’s respectful, and students who do watch couldn’t be penalized in any way for choosing to attend. Finally, it would be up to the parents to guide their children how to choose, but ultimately, it would be up to the children.

And finally, if you made me choose between liking or disliking Obama’s approach here, I’d have to go dislike. The speech could be the same words at 8:00 PM, when the kids are home, and they can watch it with their parents if they and their parents so choose. Instead, it almost feels like Obama’s campaigning for the under-18 vote (or the “Mommy, Mommy, vote for Obama!” vote). I’ll be interested to see what he has to say, and how he says it to elementary, middle and high schoolers.

Everyone’s heart doesn’t beat the same

The political issue this summer has clearly been President Obama’s healthcare plan. I’ve written about it, along with many other dissenters, and really, that should be the end of it. Politicians will do what they’re going to do, everyone will talk about it for a while but then something else will happen and the issue will be forgotten by the American consciousness like most issues are.

What’s happening instead is quite different. As conservatives rush to get information out there, President Obama has already rushed out another web site that sets us all straight, and along with the liberal media, the Obama administration has begun reporting, lambasting and skewering all dissenters of the health care plan. Town halls are being held where some protesters are getting angry and perhaps over the top, but as this writer points out, maybe they have a right to be.

The issue is no longer health care – it’s free speech. My sister gets Brownie points from me this summer for not only making me brownies, but also introducing me to Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip. While the 2006 TV show is entertaining and lighthearted, it’s season-long story arc explores some very dark themes including the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks. The show is set in 2006, but there are many flashbacks to the post-9/11 days and weeks showing the main character (Matt Albie) remaining patriotic, but irreverent, as he tried to do his job as a comedy writer. It was after watching this that I wonder how many of us were on the other side of Matt Albie, criticizing all dissenters and claiming they were un-American. I like to think I keep a pretty open mind, but in the immediate days and weeks after those days I’m sure that while maybe I didn’t express that sentiment, I felt it.

The crisis with health care is similar. We’re in one of the largest recessions ever seen in modern times, and as people lose their jobs and companies cut back, people are losing their health care coverage or seeing it reduced before their very uninsured eyes, and they probably face similar emotions as the citizens of New York, Washington and really the entire U.S. faced in 2001. On the other side, people who still have jobs don’t want to give up more of their paychecks to taxes when it could go towards college, food or gasoline. It’s an emotional, personal issue for anyone who’s responsible for their own healthcare.

I’m going to bring up another issue that is periodically discussed which emotional for many people: flag burning. Let me get one thing out in the open: I am personally against flag burning. That is, if you were burning a flag (or attempting to do so) in front of me and I could do something about it, I’d either beat you up or go all Rick Monday up in here). However, it’s not up to the government to decide we can’t burn the flag. This isn’t a belief I’ve arrived at lightly, and I used to support a flag burning amendment. But since then I’ve realized it’s more important to allow some disrespectful dissenters than sacrifice freedoms that might be needed someday. There are certainly more respectful ways to protest, but it’s up to us as a society to keep it civil, not the government.

So in essence, maybe Republicans who don’t want universal health care are wrong. Maybe Democrats who do want it are wrong. But killing the debate is also wrong. It was wrong after September 11th (although, if I had to be honest, I’d say that there was much more universal support for the actions taken after September 11th), and it’s wrong now. It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with the issue – it’s less important than your freedom to defend it. That is, if you blindly support Obama on every issue, (or Bush, for that matter), remember Senator Amidala’s quote in Revenge of the Sith: “So this is how democracy dies…to thunderous applause.” Killing debate is tantamount to killing democracy.

P.S. There’s another great movie to watch that shows what could start by just surrendering the slightest bit of freedom: V for Vendetta.

So how high of a price will you pay?

One of the hallmarks of any liberal running for office is their stance on government-subsided health care insurance. Recently, President Obama has tried to push his universal health care plan as one that will create jobs, stimulate the economy but most importantly, give every eligible American government-provided healthcare. This is a touchy issue; not one Democrat, Republican or otherwise truly want to see a single person have medical conditions untreated. Clearly, it’s a tough problem to solve, but I don’t think the answer involves the government.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been very blessed in that throughout my life, I’ve had health care insurance through my parents or through my full-time employer. I’ve also been blessed in that I haven’t been sick or needed a doctor all that much, but when I did, I know I felt worried enough without worrying about how me or my parents were going to pay for it. In essence, I’ve never had to worry about when it was worth going to a doctor – when I felt like I need to, I could go. I’ll concede that while I do my best to understand both parts of this issue, I may never truly understand.

President Obama’s plan, which recently stalled in the House, is a lot like most of his other plans because it involves taxing the well-off to help out the not well-off. It calls for a 5% tax on all private health care insurance and an additional trillion dollars over the next ten years. This doesn’t sound terrible, but again, like most of Obama’s plans, this plan hits the hardest at corporate America: regulations on insurance providers against pre-existing condition exclusion and mandating more health care coverage.

Before talking about this, I think it’s important to touch on the debate that has come up in the last few days regarding doctors and how much they’re worth. Let’s get one thing straight: doctors have every right to earn as much money as they want. Mike Huckabee puts it best in his recent blog, and they’re probably not even paid enough. No one (in Cleveland) cares that LeBron James makes as much money as he does; no one (in New York) cares that Derek Jeter makes as much as he does. And why is that? LeBron and Jeter are both products to sell: they’re world-class athletes who are entertaining to watch. LeBron has probably never thought this, but at some point he made a decision to say, “you know what, I can make a lot of money playing basketball because people will want to see me play.” It worked. Doctors do the same thing: at some point, they say, “you know what, I can provide for my family comfortably being a doctor because people want to be healthy.”

"The product that you’re selling is good health, it shouldn’t be a tough sell." -- Edward Vogler

"The product that you’re selling is good health, it shouldn’t be a tough sell." -- Edward Vogler

In essence, all you an accuse doctors of are being good businessmen. You might think this is a little bit like oil companies, who are the most hated corporations in the world because of how much they control our life. However, unlike doctors, there are no good oil companies vs. bad oil companies; when it boils down to it, gas is gas. Good doctors, though, are hard to come by. Doctors are more analogous to the computer industry: sure, that $300 computer from Wal-Mart will probably do the trick, but can’t you accomplish more with a $2300 MacBook Pro (this is not the place for a platform war, but I think we can all agree Apple makes excellent laptops, even if their software isn’t everyone’s…preference)?

So the good doctors have us right where they want us. The best thing to do is to regulate salaries that the hospitals corporations can pay them, so that lesser doctors make more and better doctors make less, right? Would you work hard and go the extra mile in a system that doesn’t recognize it? I think a lot of people would be inclined to selflessly say “of course,” but most doctors have families to provide for, houses to pay for, and student loans (a lot of them) to pay for.

Sure, some of them might take the cut in pay, but perhaps they’d be more on edge at work and miss something important. You see this in Silicon Valley from companies like Google and Facebook: comfortable, luxurious work environments so that employees are able to focus on the job at hand without any distractions. That same principle can’t be directly applied to the medical industry (doctors should really wear lab coats, unless of course they have a Vicodin addiction and walk with a cane), so the perks translate out of the office, where doctors can be allowed to relax as much and as comfortably as possible so they’re ready for work.

President Obama’s plan doesn’t necessarily call for cutting salaries of doctors, at least not directly. However, by regulating that insurance companies cover higher-risk patients, his plan raises the cost of providing health care. Since the health care industry will still have to provide health care (and to more people, now that the plan is universal), the cuts will come out of doctor’s salaries. In fact, maybe hospitals will have to lay off doctors and nurses, meaning lower-quality health care. The money has to come from somewhere.

As another analogy, say the Obama administration passed a universal MP3 player program, where everyone in the country would get an iPod Nano for only $75 each. That’s $75 that Apple is losing in profits per iPod sold. That extra $75 would have to come out of R&D (if everyone’s buying iPods anyway, why bother innovating?) and Apple would be forced to raise prices in the iTunes store to keep everyone at Apple employed. Since most music buyers spend more on music than they do on music players, eventually they would lose money. Under a universal health care system, hospitals would cut funding in R&D to pay the higher costs of running the hospital, higher-income doctors would not be paid as much, meaning the quality of care could suffer (why would a high-income doctor work here for less than he could overseas?).

Universal health care doesn’t work for the same reason communism doesn’t work: there needs to be a merit-based incentive system, otherwise there is never innovation or improvement. Let’s keep the system private and let the mechanics of capitalism figure out how to best reform the health care industry. The American health care industry is the finest in the world, thanks in large part to it being private. Let’s keep it that way.