Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Bradley Manning Legacy

When you join the armed forces, are you accepting on that day to turn a blind eye to any war crimes that you may witness in service to your country?

This is the ultimate question that Private First Class Bradley Manning answered when he leaked documentation nearly three years ago. Tuesday, a military judge acquitted Bradley Manning on the charge of aiding the enemy. The worst account he faced as a result of answering the above question with a defiant 'No!'. He was convicted of multiple counts of violating the Espionage Act. The verdict marks the end of this three-year-long chapter that began with Manning's arrest in Iraq and subsequent detainment in Kuwait and Quantico, Virginia.

The military typically needs to be held to a higher standard when it comes to it's information and intelligence, but this time feels very different from the 'loose lips sink ships' mentality that the Espionage act seems to be born of. We are not in any true fear of loosing the ground war. I'd bet against any group of Taliban or insurgents trying to take out a well manned military post in Afghanistan or Iraq any day, that war was won, resoundingly, but the threat that Bradley Manning is not a threat to that war, he is a threat to the War for Peace.

When is it OK for member of the military, or any government organization for that matter, to shed light on atrocities knowing that you are defying the law? In 2008, then presidential candidate Barack Obama ran on a platform that praised whistle blowing as an act of courage and patriotism. It said it was one of the last resorts of catching a runaway government that would abuse it's power. This platform has been comprehensively betrayed. His campaign document described whistle blowers as watchdogs when government abuses its authority. It was removed from Obama's old campaign site last week.

Obama, or perhaps more accurately the Office of the President, may feel a need to protect this information, this is where the argument gets a little hazy though, because throughout the proceedings there has been a conspicuous absence: the absence of a victim. The prosecution did not present evidence that, or even claim that, a single person came to harm as a result of Bradley Manning’s disclosures. The government never claimed PFC Manning was working for a foreign power. The only ’victim’ was the US government’s pride, but the prosecution of this young man was never the way to restore it. Rather, the abuse of Bradley Manning has left the world with a sense of disgust at how low the Obama administration has fallen. It is not a sign of strength, but of weakness.

What Bradley Manning showed the world, knowing full well he would have to suffer the consequences of his actions, was that the US was not only loosing the War for Peace around the world, it had almost no authentic interest in winning it. That we fight battles with little regard for anything other then perception. The ability to claim a big name kill, while sweeping the faces of dozens of innocent bystanders under the rug. Was anyone surprised to know that these atrocities occurred? No, but the ability to claim moral superiority in our cause was hampered, if not outright destroyed. Not because we had it and now lost it, but because the truth is now exposed. This is the legacy of Bradley Manning. To this end we now find ourselves well past the point of pursuing justice for attacks of 9/11, or even seeking peace for this volatile region.

The true issue we now face is that having poked the bear, kicked the bee hive, and awaken this dragon, how do we declare some form of victory? We find ourselves in a seemingly never ending cycle of retaliation from retaliations. To stop is to open oneself up to attack, to attack is to open oneself up to retaliation. We might no longer be in a position where we can truly win.

Bradley Manning did not do this, he merely warned the world of the way things are.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Sports and Politics: A Lucrative Partnership

“Action expresses priorities.” 
― Mahatma Gandhi

When Detroit filed for what is the largest municipal bankruptcy in United States history last week, one of the items that immediately garnered public attention was the potential for pensions for current retirees who had worked for the city. A pension shortfall accounts for $3.5 billion of the city's $18 billion in debt, and the city's emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, has called for "significant" pension cuts.

But even with pensions possibly getting the axe, along with who knows what else in terms of services for the already downtrodden city, or even masterpieces at the Detroit Institute of Art, Detroit still seems ready to shell out more dollars then Detorit rapper Eminem has F-bombs in his music to help pay for a new arena for the National Hockey League's Detroit Red Wings. Detroit's Downtown Development Authority intends to use $284.5 million in property taxes captured within its 615-acre downtown district to pay off the bonds issued by the state to build the 18,000-seat arena.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), said the plan as an investment in Detroit's future, saying a new arena "should increase the tax base of the city longer term, and should increase the employment opportunities for Detroiters." But if that's what Detroit and Michigan lawmakers are banking on, they are setting themselves up to be sorely disappointed.

People are speaking up, pointing out that when the Detroit Tigers received a new stadium in 2000, the resulting boom was so good, by which of course I mean that bad, that when the City issued $80 million in 30 year bonds to pay for part of the $300 million to construct Comerica Park, they would spend the first 12 years only knocking out about $15 million of their debt. Even after a refinance job, they City is still on the hook for over $60 million dollars.

"Sports stadiums typically aren't a good tool for economic development," Victor Matheson, an economist at Holy Cross and an expert in sports economics, told Travis Waldron and me last year. As Matheson wrote in a study with economist Robert Baade, "Researchers who have gone back and looked at economic data for localities that have hosted mega-events, attracted new franchises, or built new sports facilities have almost invariably found little or no economic benefits from spectator sports." This is particularly true of a hockey arena, because it's hockey... The only thing I could picture being worse is if the city vested a quarter of a billion dollars in constructing a WWE arena.

Is there a common thread here? In fact there is, both the Tigers and the Red Wings are owned by Mike Ilitch (pictured above) who founded the Little Caesar's pizza chain and whose family have a net worth of $2.7 billion, according to Forbes. The Red Wings are the sixth most valuable NHL franchise. Yet public money is being ponied up to give them a new home. Wouldn't a person who believed in their product be willing to pony up their own capital to invest in their team(s). Being a Cubs fan, I present you with my case and point in the form of the Ricketts family, who are spending $500 million on their own money to renovate historic Wrigley field and create a new retail center in Chicago (That's not to say they didn't try to get some public money first).

This certainly isn't a problem that is unique to Detroit. The city of Glendale, Ariz., recently decided to give a huge package of subsidies to the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes, despite the fact that no one goes to see the team and the city is slashing public services.

And don't think that it is just Major League teams that have it's priorities disproportionately tied to sports. In March 2007, the Solon, IA High School Football/Track Complex committee presented the concept to their Board of Education, and the Board gave approval to initiate fund raising activities for the project, a new football and track field, complete with new locker rooms, press boxes, and a weight room. The estimated cost for this project was at about $4.5 million dollars, largely from private donations. But with over $800,000 coming from school funding. In the 2007-08 school year, massive state budget cuts hit Solon along with many other school that created projections of hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

But Detroit's decision is even more ridiculous given its pending bankruptcy. On one hand are pensioners making tens of thousands per year for their work for the city; on the other is a billionaire who owns an immensely successful restaurant franchise and two professional sports team. Thus far, the city appears to have prioritized taking care of the latter.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Urgent! Fight to Defund NSA Data Mining has Begun!

The National Security Agency called for a "top secret" meeting with members of the House today to lobby against Rep. Justin Amish's (R-MI) amendment to challenge the agency's authority to cull broad swaths of communications data. And to curtail article 215 of the Patriot act so it would only be applicable to those under investigation or with known ties to terrorist organizations. 

What a Crazy Idea
The bill was cosponsored by former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and liberal Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers. The House ruled the amendment in order on Monday, and it is expected to get a vote sometime this week.

NSA head Gen. Keith Alexander scheduled the last-minute, members-only briefing in response to the amendment, according to an invitation distributed to members of Congress this morning and forwarded to HuffPost. "In advance of anticipated action on amendments to the DoD Appropriations bill, Ranking Member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of the House Intelligence Committee invites your Member to attend a question and answer session with General Keith B. Alexander of the National Security Agency," reads the invitation.

The invitation warned members that they could not share what they learned with their constituents or others. "The briefing will be held at the Top Secret/SCI level and will be strictly Members-Only," reads the invite.

The section of the Patriot Act that Amash is targeting was the subject of the first piece that the British news outlet The Guardian broke from the NSA leaker Edward Snowden's collection. A secret intelligence court has secretly interpreted the law to allow the NSA to secretly collect hundreds of millions of records on every American phone call under the theory that such records might be useful in future terrorism investigations. The President has called this program 'transparent', and the intelligence community has claimed that the law is useful in thwarting potential terrorist incidents.

But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee with access to classified details about the program, said there is no evidence that the data collection had been directly responsible for stopping any single plot. Civil libertarians, meanwhile, are aghast at the NSA's broad interpretation of the law, and even the bill's author said he was surprised at how it is being used.

This is aiming to be an epic showdown. The shouts of the people versus the quite whispers of a government that rules and legislates behind closed doors and under the rubber stamp of 'Top Secret'. The debate is about to take place and now is the time to make your voice heard. Below are sites you can lend your support to and links that say how to contact your congressmen. You will notice the mix of right and left leaning groups that are all crying out in support of this amendment. If ever there was a time to be heard on this issue is now!

Demand Progress Website

Freedom Works Letter - Call to Action

Electronic Frontier Foundation Website

Monday, July 22, 2013

Obviously! (An update to 'Seriously?')

Almost one year ago to date, I created a blog post on the disappointments that I've come across in my days. Some might refer to issues ranging from unstuffed cheese sticks and yielding to paraplegics as first world problems, to which I quickly retort, "Yeah, you're probably right.". The first photo of my collection was of a Taco Bell taco that was severely lacking in the 'everything' category.

Today, however, I post bearing good news, treating myself to a rare trip through the Taco Bell drive up lane I once again decided that a Doritos Locos Taco sounded good. I proceeded to over-enunciate my order (dor-REE-toes), paid, received and enjoyed a nice 'full' taco.

When I was done enjoying my junk food inspired, sodium ridden, largely, mostly, a slim majority, some beef included meal, I began discarding the wrappers and containers, but paused when tossing my receipt upon noticing the 'NEW iPad!' print on the back side that peaked my interest to read more. The concept was straightforward enough; take a short survey, win an iPad, 'eh why not?

My experience was overall pretty good, and I started to fill out the survey as such, but did a double take when I came across the question "Was your Taco visually full?"

I've done it! Obviously, my subtle and condescending outcry a year ago has forced the hand of the taco titan to change it's ways, and it was just waiting for me to give them another chance to fulfill its mission to satisfy my desire for 'visually full' tacos. Upon hitting the 'Yes' option, I can only assume that a board of shadowy figures burst out in jubilation and back patting.

Well done Taco Bell, in the universe of winning my over my own little consumer report, you have upgraded your status to a solid 'C+' wedging you between second hand ladder shops and gardening centers owned by people named 'Doug'. And, should this ringing endorsement move you to reimburse my good will towards you, you already know how to get a hold of me.

Friday, July 19, 2013

"This Law is so good...."

"...That I'm delaying even more parts, that I'm sure you'll love, until after the election."

Now that the fourth 'Recovery Summer' is drawing to an end. The White House was supposed to take time to reintroduce the public to the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, and to teach the public how to sign up for benefits this fall, which is critical to the success of the law. If the young and healthy don't sign up, well, it is the difference between rates falling and rates rising for the elderly and sick, the persons Obamacare is suppose to help. In a nutshell, Obama needs the youth vote to save his legacy yet again.

The White House has had little time to focus on the fight to get young people signed up. Instead, this month kicked off with the Obama administration deciding to offer personal tours of the White House as a cheap alternative to the sequester cuts. Just kidding, yeah, he used the frequented God provision in Obamacare to delay a key piece of the law. The requirement imposed on larger employers of 50 or more people to provide coverage or risk fines. This is making many pundits cry foul because this leaves the individual mandate, and it's newly Supreme Court minted taxes, in place. The same individual mandate that is supposed to help force the young and healthy to go out and buy insurance. Take away the mandate, and premiums for Obamacare will, in most places, skyrocket.

Seeing a structural weakness in the law and a logical argument to hammer it with, the Republican-led House this week voted to delay the individual mandate for a year to match with the other decree. It was the 39th such vote trying to defund, delay, or outright dismiss the law. This has forced the White House to change their marketing from a sales pitch to sign up back to promoting the law itself. One can't help to chuckle a little at the idea that one man can declare a delay for one part of the law, but largest single body of elected officials in Washington is rendered mute when they try and do the same.

That one man, President Obama surrounded himself with smiling beneficiaries of the parts of the Affordable Care Act already in effect yesterday. Among those singled out: those who have been on the receiving end of a somewhat obscure provision requiring insurance companies to pay rebates to policyholders if the companies spend too much on administrative costs rather than medical expenses.

"Dan Hart, who's here, from Chicago, had read these rebates were happening, but he didn't think anything of it until he got a check in the mail for 136 bucks." -President Obama 7/16/13

Of course if Mr. Hart is a healthy 25 year old non-smoker who had individual insurance, then the 136 bucks for last year would cover only about 10% of his rate increase for this year, but I digress.

This year an estimated 8.5 million checks mailed out thanks to the law's "medical loss ratio" rules. That's actually down from the 13 million from last year and is expected to keep falling as companies adjust their business models to fit the new law. Also, since corporations aren't people and the majority of those checks are going to businesses, the number here is greatly inflated. And, while the President is talking about a few million people getting refunds of $100 or $200, Republicans have been talking in much more expansive terms.

Despite recent CBO projections that keep estimating a reduced number of people enrolling in the exchanges, based on numbers that are well under predictions, and fewer tax credits being handed out as a result in these lower enrollments, the net cost projections over ten years has been increasing every year and now sits in the net range of $1.3 to $1.4 Trillion dollars, net. I give a window since these estimates are constantly changing, usually for the worst. The February to May estimates resulted in a net cost increase of $40 billion.

Not enough people signing up mixed with ever increasing costs. I'd say that this is a disaster, but once again, I mention that this is what the bill is supposed to do. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next year, but several years down the road, there will be only one fiscally responsible route to take, that is to force everyone into the healthcare exchanges. Once that is completed the rules of the exchanges will become so tightened as force most of the healthcare providers out of the game. Once selection drops to a point, the only morally responsible thing left for the government to do is take control of all the insurance plans, standardize them, and convert our country into a single payer system.

Support it or fight it, I just wish for everyone to know where this battle is ultimately heading.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Another Scandal, Did Anyone Notice?

While the nation continues its non-discussion discussion about the Zimmerman trial, congress continues to be hard at work proving that Washington is dysfunctional and untrustworthy. I suppose you have to un-hide some dirty laundry before you have a chance to clean it, but something tells me that these revelations will go right back into the hamper before you know it.

Today's big secret was the response that my Senator Chuck Grassley received from the Treasury Department, in response to a written request for information, the Treasury department has admitted for the first time that since 2006, confidential tax records of several political candidates and campaign donors were improperly scrutinized by government officials.

Finding some space in his calendar between not voting on any white house appointees and not disclosing his own financial records for the sake of public information, Senator Grassley wrote another letter to Eric Holder, asking to explain why the Justice Department chose not to prosecute any of the cases. The Iowa Republican told The Washington Times that the IRS “is required to act with neutrality and professionalism, not political bias.” 

The good Senator has given Mr. Holder and the Justice Department until July 26th to respond to his call for legal action against those who, you know, broke the law. Of course well have to wait and see if this Justice Department raises a finger to uphold said laws, or if they will simply decree that this is a political attack and ignore it.

If I sound just a little jaded about the entire system, it's because I'm very jaded and can't compose myself in the manner that I would like to anymore. Everything is politically motivated. Senator Grassley even said in his letter that he would like to know what group(s) the 4th individual was associated with so the American people can determine if this was politically motivated or not. Nothing like accusing the other side of political motivations to place a haze over your own political motivations.

When you get to the point where it is proven that your government is gathering data on you, building profiles about you based on your behavior, can kill American citizens without any due process, uses almost every branch of government as a political tool, and then we, as a populace do not hold them accountable. I refer you back to our last attempt to through a congress with a 21% approval rating at the time of the election. We re-elected over 90% of them.

So this is my open letter to Senator Grassley and Eric Holder. Prove to me that you give a d@mn. Restore my faith in this country, cause right now it is waning. I find myself rooting for the Mannings and the Snowdens and rooting against the Grassleys and the Holders. I would start by not having so many laws on the books that are used to hide the secret laws on the books, to stop acting like a hero when you seek the truth and then seek out those who know the truth like they are villains. To be candid when the facts don't lead them to where you want them to go, and to admit it when you are wrong on premise, rather then defend yourselves by finding the insignificant loopholes. And lastly, to just be a little humble that 7 out of 8 Americans think you are bad at your job, yet you still have a job at all. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Finally, America is #2!

Short of taking the Onion Movie's concept of raising the definition of Obese from 55% to 90% body fat, the best news in America's fight against obesity has arrived.

The United States is no longer the fattest country in the world!

Ever since the United States fell from grace in areas like household income, math, literacy, and percentage of people who can find the US on a map, we've been waiting for some good news in the arena of world rankings. Well here it is people, Mexico is now the fattest country out there. That's right, we can omit the need for a 2000 mile fence and replace it with some well positioned advertisements for treadmills and gluten free pizza. The New York Daily News reports that widely available and cheaply priced junk food, in tandem with industrial agriculture have become the new norm south of the border.

Can we use this report as the basis for other methods of getting the United States ranking to rise in other categories as well? Rather then trying to change our habits for the better, we could just change other countries habits for the worse? It plays right into our wheelhouse of being stubborn and telling other people what to do. Let's stop throwing billions of dollars at our education problem and rather start airing episodes of Honey Boo Boo in Finland, stop trying to resuscitate our GDP per capita and give tax breaks for Solindra and Exxon to open up shop in Ireland.

But let us not take our eyes off the true prize, the single greatest achievement will be when we flood China with enough woman that you regret waking up to while nursing a hangover that we reclaim the title, of heaviest beer drinking nation in the world.

We can do this! God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Nobody Wants to Play With U.S.

Over the last week more documents and details have been fed to the populous from the Snowden collection of NSA secrets. The latest revelation is that the US of A has not only been spying on terrorist groups, China, and Russia, but also the leadership of the EU and other countries for the past 6 years.

This latest bit of embarrassing news has, understandably, outraged several ally nations which prompted a slew of questions and outright demands for explanations from around the EU directed at Washington.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have tried to play these new leaks down. Secretary Kerry stated, "Every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs of national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security and all kinds of information contributes to that," But these dismissive remarks appear to have only provoked further anger among some European leaders, who seem genuinely shocked and aghast at the scope of the NSA’s blatent disregard for the 1961 Vienna accord. Elsewhere, government officials in Luxemburg, Austria, Turkey, and Japan have demanded answers from the Obama administration about the NSA’s spying efforts. And U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon raising serious questions about the faithfulness of the United States diplomatic core.

There are two possible lines of logic that I can follow that could lead the government to take these extreme measures. The first being that we are truly scared of countries like France, Germany, Japan, and the UK. We fear that they may be helping terrorists enter this country under the guise of a diplomatic convoy and using these connections to get so close to our upper echelons of government that these terrorists would complain about the President's bad breath before exploding their suicide vests. Leaving us with little recourse but to pull a Jack Bauer try and get a step ahead of these groups to protect ourselves.

The other scenario that I see is that the United State's negotiating position has gotten as weak as a starving mans farts over the years, and we are so incapable in regaining a more persuasive position when going into something as mundane as trade talks, that we feel obligated to obtain an upper hand through these amoral methods.

Seeing the almost daily revelations that this administration (with an acknowledgement that a lot of this began prior to Obama's election) of diplomatic failures, be it the Ecuador trade agreement, the North Korean saber rattling, Iran still thumbing their nose at us, or dozens of failures in the middle east, a different explanation seems somewhat more likely;

This administration sucks at negotiating...

Sucks the big one, sucks like a leech on a blood bag, like a plunger on my toilet after mexican night, like a movie starring Nicholas Cage, well you get the idea. Be it a sanction against a country doing something wrong or trying to enforce a treaty for extraditing. This administration appears to have such a poor track record of using it's leverage, winning friends in the diplomatic arena, and rallying countries to the American view to the point that it has cheat and lie it's way into getting an upper hand at the negotiating table. The truly sad part is that this method still appears to leave the U.S. wondering what just happened on many occasions.

This administration, especially, has built it's reputation on it's ability to talk. Though it looks like every time someone talks back, it suffers from a lack of ability to justify itself, and lacks any true conviction or guiding principals in it's navigation and foreign policy.

America is now standing on an island. We have disenfranchised our friends, and forsaken our own populace. Either that or the new practice of diplomats just mumbling their demands in their embassies late at night and waiting for the US to respond on a card that is delivered via a secret code embedded in the monthly unemployment numbers. Ironically all this takes place while also we discuss building up a massive wall on our borders, because not having any country willingly talk to us is not sufficient, we don't want to look at them or smell them either. A very rude gesture since we come visit almost every country in the world in the form of setting up military bases all over the globe. We can't return the favor of being a good host?

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Reprobates of Good Intentions

Constantly, the question arises when critiquing benefits that are payed out to Americans and the costs that are passed on to the taxpayers, as well as the role and efficiency of the government to distribute those benefits. Questions like, "Are you against helping people that can't help themselves? What about people that are truly hurt? What about people that perhaps got hurt from serving this country?"

Rarely, is it a point of denying something to a person who truly earned it, it is rather a disgust at the behemoth system in which atrocities are not only a necessary evil, but rather a reoccurring norm.

Last week, an IRS contractor by the name Braulio Castillo was asked to testify to congress about the use of receiving preferential treatment to disabled veterans. Mr. Castillo is the President and CEO of Strong Castle Inc. A company who provides IT solutions to the IRS and well as other financial branches of the federal government. He's been so well renowned at his work that in 2012, under Braulio’s leadership, Strong Castle, Inc. (under former name Signet Computers, Inc.) received in the ballpark of $500 million in business contracts from the federal government and was named the IRS Office of IT and Treasury Departmental Offices (Main Treasury) Small Business of the Year, which in turn led to the nomination and subsequent award for overall Treasury Small Business of the Year. All while battling a foot injury that he received while serving his country almost 27 years ago. An injury that in the opinion of the VA, left him at 30% disability rating.

"Exactly!" You may say at this point. "These are the kind of heroes, and the kind of American dream stories that make all these programs worth it!"

I should probably take a moment to point out a little bit of information that I passed over, Mr. Castillo's injury that was suffered while actively serving was obtained by twisting his ankle at military prep school, over a decade before applying for Disabled status. He also went on to play college football as a quarterback. He never saw active combat. He also claimed his foot had been broken, but the Oversight Committee said x-rays taken at the time did not reflect a fracture. The VA did award him disability status and currently sends him a monthly check.

Where there any laws broken here? Probably not. He may truly be in pain in his ankle from time to time, I myself had a bought of tendinitis my ankle that was quite annoying, but as Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth pointed out during the hearing, the system is clogged up, we can not filter out the good, honest requests from people who may truly need a helping hand, from the opportunists who fit the letter of the law when it is passed. The best filter we currently have is the people themselves. We need them to be honest and forthright about the help that they need against the perks that they want.

It makes debating this issue so hard. If we clamp down on the requirements we risk leaving a true veteran out in the cold. If we add layers of scrutiny we prompt additional suffering and frustration to those who have already paid their dues, sometimes quite literally with a pound of flesh. I see the anger arise when you confront someone who has allowed their moral compass point them in the direction of easy money. In Mr. Castillo's case, he's also benefited from opening his business in Chinatown. A place designated by the government as a "Hubzone". Meaning that his geographical location also awarding him additional endorsements when bidding on government contracts for his tech company. 

I could be all wrong about Mr. Castillo, but watch the video, see how he defends himself with doctors notes, and bumbles when asked about his football playing days. Then ask yourself if you are still believe that government aid programs are beyond reproach. I applaud Rep. Duckworth for calling a spade a spade, and challenge her and her colleagues to continue to root out people that exploit the letter of the law at the expense of making people like myself jaded at the system.