Free Enterprise My Ass
The true free enterprise economic system has been moribund in the US for decades. When so much of the economy is tied up in the anti-competitive government-managed military-industrial-financial complex, then "free enterprise" becomes no longer a part of reality, simply a useful rhetorical tool. This has been going on since before World War Two. But we may soon have a real date to hang on to as the "Death of Free Enterprise Day".
Within the next week or so, we expect the Bush Administration to enact regulations that will fix (i.e., mandate) low interest rates for those house buyers who are classed as sub-prime even when their contractual obligations call for those interest rates to rise steeply in the next months. In other words, house buyers in the US are being told that it doesn't matter that they purchased a house they could not afford; someone else will come along and help them pay the bill. No worries. Of course, for those tax-payers (and their grandchildren) who will be told to pay these bills there might be some worries.
The Democrats are pushing much the same interest-rate freeze proposals. Hillary Clinton, for example, came out with hers this morning.
Both the Democrats and Bush will say they are doing this to help the poor Americans who dug this hole for themselves, to help save them from inevitable foreclosure. They will say it is the duty of hardworking American taxpayers to pay up to help this unfortunate group save their homes. Such bullshit this all is. Both plans in reality seek to save the grasping financial markets from meltdown.
Both the Democrats and the administration know that the real losers in any genuine sub-prime meltdown are not the new homeowners (who will simply return to their lives in low-rent apartments) but the finance companies who will never be able to sell the repossessed houses at the prices the companies paid for them. It is the finance companies the American taxpayers will be bailing out -- again!
The Normalization of Totalitarianism
Do you ever watch "Without A Trace"? Every week, Anthony LaPaglia (Agent Jack Malone) and his crack crew of FBI investigators track down people who have been reported missing by relatives or friends, solving mysteries and crimes as they go.
In other words, an adult American crime-free citizen decides to go silent for a while. By having someone report them as "missing", this apparently gives the FBI the right to tear that missing person's life apart: tracking bank accounts, credit cards, travel records, phone lists, interrogating friends and colleagues, interviewing doctors and psychiatrists. And we cheer on their successes .
By what law can they do this? Is a judge supervising them? Isn't this the basest form of warrantless surveillance?
We applaud Jack Bauer in "24", as he uses whatever form of interrogation technique (i.e., torture) that he feels is required to obtain the information he thinks he needs. The last Bourne movie was about nothing but the government's abilities to track individuals anywhere in the world. Wherever we turn, there are attractive images of lawmen breaking the rules to ensure that "justice" wins in the end.
As Chomsky and Herman's "Propaganda Model" of media shows, this is the normalization of totalitarianism. If we accept -- neh, applaud -- these illegal actions on entertainment TV, we are more inclined to accept them in real life. This is a not an accident. This is what they want to see happen. This is what they need to happen if their plans for control are to be accomplished.
We need to fight back. Write to each network and studio and ask them to explain how the law enforcement officers in their series and movies can operate so wildly outside the laws required for you and me. Write, and write again. It is the least we can do, to show that we care about our loss of freedoms.
From the people who brought you fully-armed wannabe cops to wander the aisles of public transit, now comes the idea of filming everything that goes on in the bus. According to a staff report quoted in the Georgia Straight:
"The purpose of the video system is to deter ... on-board security incidents, improve the safety of bus operators and passengers, and provide evidence for investigation of incident claims." A later section of the report notes that it is to deal with "vandalism, absenteeism, assaults-related costs and insurance claims and premiums."
There is opposition, of course. Andrew Pask, coordinator of the Vancouver Public Space Network, told the Straight that he's concerned about the installation of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras on buses. "People should be able to use public spaces without having to be recorded, without having their movement tracked, their conversations taped, their actions videoed," he said. "People should have that right. When you start infringing on it, you start inching ever closer to a police state."
What planet does this naive guy live on? Cameras follow us in taxis, on SkyTrain stations, in every supermarket and corner store, in most parking lots and most building lobbies and elevators. I don't believe that adding buses to the list substantially reduces the freedoms we have already squandered.
However, according to the figures quoted by the Straight, the plan doesn't make any economic sense. The annual cost for the system is said to be $470,000 in order to generate savings of just $140,000. And how exactly will this system deal with "absenteeism", I wonder? Has the bus drivers' union considered what the cameras may really be for?
Jackboots On The Bus
I was going to wait until I'd seen the BC Transit Police in action on my regular bus routes before commenting. However, they haven't shown their faces yet -- and the bastards their bosses raised the fares! So I'll say my piece now.
As of last Monday, Translink -- our local transit, ferries and roads operator -- has declared all buses to be officially "Fare Paid Zones". That means it is an offense to be on a bus without proof of purchase of a ticket or ticket-equivalent such as a bus pass. It's been that way forever on Sky Train and the Sea Bus, but they are aware the rate of fare avoidance is infinitely higher on the bus system; and so, the new policy may meet stronger resistance.
To cope with anticipated problems, the onus of refusing or sanctioning non-paying passengers has been taken off the shoulders of the already-stressed-by-traffic bus drivers. Instead, the newly beefed-up BC Transit Police will enforce the rules. Just what we need on our streets -- a posse of wannabe failed cops with guns. Yes, guns! Christ, anyone would think we were Detroit or Atlanta or Camden, New Jersey.
Armed police to make sure we all pay our two dollars and a quarter, or the hundred and seventy five buck fine if we don't. What a stupid and dangerous idea. And to make this week even more perfect, the Translink Board approved a twenty-five cent increase in fares!
My position has always been that transit should be free, so long as it is run by the government. There are so many reasons why, besides the fact that it is just the right thing to do. Economically, I bet it is easy to prove that the net revenue from fares after all costs of fare production, sale, enforcement and accounting have been removed, is minimal. Certainly less than the economic bounce the region would get from the additional discretionary spending of those who previously paid fares. Not to mention the political goodwill that would be generated.
It would encourage beneficial environmental changes by significantly reducing the number of private cars on the road (transit ridership would doubtless increase with a zero cost); and will reduce the cost of expensive medical care over time as the general health of the population improves with an increase in walking.
It would encourage Translink directors to focus on improving services instead of trying to manage an armed militia for the sake of a few bucks. With the elimination of the need for payment enforcement, the Transit Police can be shrunk to a reasonable size and the armed guards removed from the streets.
Its a win-all-around idea. And about time.
I'm probably going to draw a lot of venom from my liberal friends, but I find myself in full agreement with one -- just one -- of the US Supreme Court's rulings this week. In the majority decision on racial quotas for schools issued this morning, Chief Justice Roberts said:
"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."
I couldn't agree more. By this decision, the Court has forbidden school boards from trying to integrate schools by force of law. Even Justice Kennedy (who voted with the majority but with significant reservations) was obliged to acknowledge that quota systems and similar schemes:
"... threaten to reduce children to racial chits valued and traded according to one school's supply and another's demand."
And, unlike the over-reactions that have been published in the immediate aftermath of this decision (such as this, for example) I don't believe this comes close to overthrowing Brown v Board of Education. Brown did not require quotas, busing and all the other paraphernalia that was erected in an attempt to remedy the historical wrongs of racism. What Brown says is that school districts cannot discriminate on the basis of race, but for the last 40 plus years liberal society did exactly that, excusing itself because they were on the "good" side of the debate. Poppycock.
Discrimination on the basis of race is wrong, no matter who does it, and I am glad to see the Court end the bullshit.
Extremism In The Defence of Liberty blah blah blah
The NRA is forcefully opposed to a new piece of "gun control" legislation that attempts to make it impossible for terrorist suspects to obtain weapons. In defense of their anti-strict-constructionist reading of the Second Amendment they are happy to see violent extremists buy assault rifles over the counter. Sickos.
Titans of Incompetence
Reason #842 for not giving the government and corporations control over so much of our personal information is that they are not very good at keeping it safe or confidential. Take TJX Co., parent company of the TJMaxx retailers, for example.
TJX's database systems allowed a hacker access for six months in 2005. During that time, an estimated forty-five million (yes, 45,000,000) credit card and debit card records were accessed and stolen. The data included transactions at all of the company's operations: T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods, and A.J. Wright
stores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, Winners and HomeSense stores
in Canada and the company's computer systems in Watford, U.K., that
process and store information related to payment card transactions at
T.K. Maxx in the U.K. and Ireland. Some of the stolen data has already been implicated in millions of dollars of thefts in Florida.
This latest theft of 45m records follows the loss of 40m records at CardSystems, and 26m from the VA. I bet each and every one of those outfits assured their users that they had impeccable security and privacy systems in place. Yeah, right.
Yes, You Too!
For those of you who think I write too much about government intrusion, perhaps in the belief that if you have done nothing wrong then you have no need to worry about government surveillance, this one's for you, too!
The Washington Post today runs a story about how those watch lists (which we know are faulty, with a too low threshold for inclusion) are used by banks, mortgage companies and other lenders to turn away perfectly legitimate applicants.
"The Office of Foreign Asset Control's list of "specially designated nationals" has long been used by banks and other financial institutions to block financial transactions of drug dealers and other criminals. But an executive order issued by President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has expanded the list and its consequences in unforeseen ways. Businesses have used it to screen applicants for home and car loans, apartments and even exercise equipment, according to interviews and a report by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area to be issued today.
"The way in which the list is being used goes far beyond contexts in which it has a link to national security," said Shirin Sinnar, the report's author. "The government is effectively conscripting private businesses into the war on terrorism but doing so without making sure that businesses don't trample on individual rights."
Penalties for businesses NOT to use the watch lists can be huge fines and imprisonment.
"The law is ridiculous," said Tom Hudson, a lawyer in Hanover, Md., who advises car dealers to use the list to avoid penalties. "It prohibits anyone from doing business with anyone who's on the list. It does not have a minimum dollar amount . . . The local deli, if it sells a sandwich to someone whose name appears on the list, has violated the law."
Perhaps we need more of these stupid examples to filter out, to affect more and more of the general population. In that way, a groundswell of opposition may be developed that can at least slow down this steady advance toward government/corporate surveillance of individuals.
Some of The Mechanics of Control
Regular readers will know of my obsession with government intrusion into private lives, accelerated so dramatically by the inevitable response to 9/11. Earlier, I had declared that governments' increasing demands for personal data would be my focus for the year. I have been assiduously collecting articles and papers on the subject all year, but I've had no time to put them together into a coherent argument. I'll bget to that soon.
In the meanwhile, the Washington Post has published an article of interest to those who want to understand the mechanics and scope of government-corporate data collection (all the better to avoid them). Specifically, the article describes the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) system. TIDE has ballooned from about 100,000 files in 2003, to almost 500,000 today; and the increase shows no sign of slowing. The TIDE database is used to feed the various "watch lists" used by airlines, and border agencies. Moreover,
"... the bar for inclusion is low, and once on the list, it is virtually impossible to get off it."
As a sidebar, the Post also has an interesting graphic that displays the screening process that TIDE is said to be attached to.
They Are Already Here
While it is true I have not been posting much lately, I have been reading a great deal. Mostly about the seemingly inexorable drift toward total government control of information. I have written quite a bit about this before (see The American Taliban and everything under Government Intrusion), and I feel certain it will the major theme of 2007 for me. This post is about a few relevant stories I picked up over the first month of the year.
At the very beginning of the year, Secrecy News reported that a US Federal Court had ruled that
... the need to protect government secrets overrides all other considerations.
This was in a case where the widow of an agent, perhaps killed in the line of duty, was suing the CIA. The judge agreed with the Agency that some secrets are worth screwing people over for. The government trumps the people every time.
In 1984, Big Brother could always see everything you were doing. It was a primary element of control. Few today recognize how close to that vision we already are. According to an article in GovTech News:
Some estimates put around 30 million video surveillance cameras in the United States, shooting four billion hours of footage each week. The video surveillance industry has grown into a $160 billion global industry, especially after homeland security efforts after 9/11, where the federal government has poured money into video surveillance. Numerous cities have set up cameras in various locations many increasingly connected with wireless technologies, with traffic lights only the beginning. New York City, with the help from a Department of Homeland Security grant, has created a network of thousands of cameras throughout the city, including subway stations, traffic signals and private businesses. The New York City Police Department operates its own network of 3,000 cameras. Chicago has also received grant funds from the DHS and built a "Homeland Security Grid" of 2,250 cameras, with plans to add even more cameras in the coming years. Baltimore and New Orleans also have thousands of cameras throughout the cities.
Collecting all that data is one thing, analyzing it is quite another. The same article indicates how software can help:
Video Analytics is a software system at the forefront of security technology that is helping to minimize the need for human viewers to distinguish important events from video feeds. Video analytics software tracks live video monitor feeds and pinpoints video images that fit specified criteria. When the software identifies predetermined criteria, such as a person loitering, or a bag left at the airport, or a car in a restricted area, it will then set off appropriate alarms to security personnel. "Traditional video services are very reactive and you have to make sure to pay attention to cameras and try to make sense of what's going on, where with video analytics, the software uses mathematical algorithms that actually shift through all the videos and triggers alerts if something goes wrong," said Dilip Sarangan, research analyst for Frost and Sullivan.
Sounds great. But what it really means is that whoever programs the analysis gets to choose what is a suspicious activity. Not you and I, but some nameless them will decide what to investigate and, of course, being paid agents of the government, will decide in a way that meets government criteria.
In the middle of the month, more details of the very dangerous national security letters were reported on by AP.
The so-called national security letters permit the executive branch to seek records about people in terror and spy investigations without a judge's approval or grand jury subpoena. Government lawyers maintain the legal authority for such tactics is years old and was strengthened by the Patriot Act. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the lead agency on domestic counterterrorism and espionage, has issued thousands of national security letters since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
That much has been known for a while. Now we learn that these letters have been used to obtain banking and credit records without any other form of warrant. We are also becoming ever more aware that the CIA and military intelligence are using these same letters for domestic surveillance, an area they are supposedly barred from.
"There's a strong tradition of not using our military for domestic law enforcement," said Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, a former general counsel at both the National Security Agency and the CIA and dean at the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific told the Times. "They're moving into territory where historically they have not been authorized or presumed to be operating."
We can bemoan the growth of government intrusion but, as Shreema Mehta of the NewStandard notes, the government could not be prying into your bank records without the knowledge and assistance of the banks themselves.
Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told The NewStandard that banks took the easy way out and complied with the requests instead of challenging the government over the security of their customers’ data ... US law generally prohibits banks from disclosing data to the government, but it has several exceptions. For instance, banks must disclose data if served with a court order or if requested by the FBI for investigations related to national security. The Patriot Act also made amendments to the Bank Secrecy Act, allowing banks to report "suspicious" activities to intelligence agencies. It also frees banks from legal liability for disclosing those activities, or for failing to tell customers they did so.
For those who like more academic styles of discussion on this topic, I have to recommend two very interesting papers: Reviving The Nixon Doctrine: NSA Spying, The Commander-in-Chief and Executive Power In The War On Terror by David Cole, and Domestic Surveillance For International Terrorists: Presidential Power and Fourth Amendment Limits by Richard Henry Seamon.