Category Archives: Vanishing Liberties

Plastic Bags

A while back, I was at the Trader Joe’s, buying groceries.  I had brought a reusable bag.

“Oh, aren’t you saving the planet!” the cashier said.

No, I’m just trying not to be wasteful.

She enthusiastically told me that the store had stopped providing plastic bags, and that it was wonderful ‘for the planet.’  The store now had only paper bags for carrying things home, unless you wanted to buy a reusable bag.

I’m skeptical:

  • Paper bags are bigger and heavier, and require more energy (i.e. fossil fuels) to produce and transport than plastic bags.
  • Plastic bags are more readily reusable.  They come in handy anytime one has extra items to carry.  Paper bags are good for covering school textbooks, but my need for that went away quite some time ago.
  • Paper bags can be a home for bugs.  When I moved out to my first apartment, I had a bug problem.  I sprayed under the kitchen sink, but the bugs migrated to the stack of paper bags I stuck between the wall and the refrigerator.

Beyond that, plastic bags don’t get soggy in the rain.  The one real environmental downside to plastic bags that I’m aware of is that if they are not disposed of properly or recycled, they can become litter and foul waterways.

But it really isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a big deal.  I’m not going to stop shopping in a store, or go out of my way to visit a store, because of bags.  If a store wants to provide only paper bags, or indeed only plastic bags, that should be their choice.

Alas, not anymore, not in New York.

Starting next March, it will be illegal for stores to pass out single-use plastic bags for carrying things home.  Smaller bags for meat or deli items will still be legal.  It will also be legal for restaurants to use plastic bags for takeout items.  As for paper bags, each county has the option of applying a five-cent fee for each bag, the proceeds to go to a state environmental fund.

Better living through government, I guess.  Thank you, Emperor Cuomo.

We’ll still go to the Trader Joe’s: they have good stuff at reasonable prices.  But my wife is on the lookout for plastic bags from stores that still have them.

When the ban goes into effect next year, I’ll still be able to get bags from the Chinese takeout.  But while I do enjoy Chinese takeout, I don’t enjoy it that much.

What about a lifetime buy?  How many bags would my wife and I need for the rest of our lives?  If I posit 200 bags a year for 40 years (I’ll be 97 then, and probably beyond caring about bags), that’s 8,000 bags.  Amazon sells a case of 1,000 bags for under $20.  For under $200, I could buy myself peace of mind on the plastic bag front.

In fairness, that’s still a bit silly, as buying bags in bulk will still be legal: how would the Chinese takeout get their bags?  Then again, I’m sure that this year’s initiative is just a start, and Emperor Cuomo or his successors will come up with cleverer ideas.

To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Illness/Shooting/Rights

It’s the first honest-to-God weekend that I’ve had in a while.  I had work through the weekend over most of January and February, and before that was sick with what felt like the flu.

I woke up New Year’s Day with a mystery rash, on top of otherwise feeling rotten.  (No, not drunk.  I had gone to bed around 8 p.m., and woke up briefly around midnight to watch the ball drop on television.)  Feeling a little panicked, I went to the hospital.

Did you have chicken pox?” the doctor asked.

“Yeah… when I was six,” I answered.

The rash was apparently shingles, left over from 50 years ago.  The doctor prescribed some pills that, as far as I could tell, did exactly nothing.  The rash faded, very slowly, and I got better under my own power, drinking lots of orange juice, and tea instead of coffee.

Six weeks later, I got a note from my insurance company: the hospital had charged about $3000 for my little jaunt, of which I will have to pay $1000.

*          *          *

More recently, a troubled young man shot up a high school in Florida, killing 17.  Another nut with a gun: it’s the kind of event that seems to be happening more frequently, and the usual response from the media and politicians is for more gun control.

I have to disagree.

I’ll grant that, among the things that government can do, gun control is relatively simple.  But what about controlling the nut: the troubled young man behind the trigger?

School shootings appear to be almost exclusively limited to the United States, in the past 20 years or so.  Somehow, other places in the world seem to do an adequate job of nut control.  We did, too, in the past.  What changed?

To be sure, nut control, unlike gun control, can’t be done by fiat. It’s the responsibility of parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and anyone encountering a troubled young person in need of help.

But there’s more than that.  I’m coming to believe that something—likely more than one something—in our way of bringing up young people is causing young men to become nihilist exterminators.

Why not young women?  (All the school shootings I’m aware of have been perpetrated by males.)

That may be a clue.

*          *          *

My son, who has a more liberal outlook than I do, was mumbling something the other day about the National Rifle Association (NRA).  In the wake of the Florida shooting, the NRA has been denounced as an agent of the gun manufacturers, who are simply interested in selling more product.

Perhaps they are.  They are certainly lobbyists, seeking to influence the government to advance their agenda.

But their agenda is the Second Amendment, which states plainly, ‘the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.’  The Founders included the Second Amendment for some very good reasons, and it’s not something to cast aside lightly.

I live in New York City and I don’t own a gun: I don’t feel a practical need for one, and it’s too much trouble (so much for ‘shall not be infringed’) to acquire and keep a gun in my home.  But I reserve the right to arm myself, should I find it necessary, and if I can’t do so legally, I’ll move.

For that reason, I’m considering joining the NRA, even though I normally don’t think much of lobbyists.  The next time my son mumbles something about the NRA, I could show him my membership card and say, “Do you mean… me?”

And as far as the Second Amendment, I’d rather see an honest debate about repealing it than yet another measure nibbling around the edges.  If you believe that guns are a public health menace and should be banned on those grounds, and that the Second Amendment’s time has passed, stand up and say so.

The Power Beyond

One of last week’s crises was resolved this week, as the Republican Congress passed a ‘clean’ funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security and President Obama signed it, funding its operations for the remainder of the fiscal year, including Obama’s executive action to legalize some five million illegal immigrants.

In other words, the Republicans caved.

As I understand the logic behind the decision, since a Federal judge ruled against Obama’s executive action policies, the Republicans need do nothing further to stop the policies, as they can let the matter play out in the courts.

Well, maybe.

To my view, if Congress passes a bill allocating funding to an executive agency, knowing damn right well what they’re going to do with it, then they have effectively authorized the agency’s actions.   And I’m sure the Administration will make that point.

So why did the Republicans give up so easily?  And why has it been, throughout the Obama administration, that the Republicans have never been able to make headway while President Obama and his crew have been blundering about, making up rules as they go along, and taking a Roger Rabbit approach to the Constitution?

The Democrats have demonized House Speaker John Boehner as the locus of the opposition, but everything I’ve seen suggests that he is just another politician, whose high-sounding principles vanish the instant they become inconvenient.

My unfortunate hypothesis is that there is a Power Beyond Congress and the President, and that this Power Beyond is OK with open borders and OK with our blundering administration.

There are any number of conspiracy theories about the Council on Foreign Relations or the Bilderburg group or Skull and Bones or whomever.  They may be right that one or more of these may be the identity of the Power Beyond.  At this point, I don’t know.  But I’m pretty sure is isn’t God, and it isn’t the people (i.e. the government deriving its power from the consent of the governed).

The Power Beyond manifests itself in other ways besides government policy: it’s also why the mainstream media, now organized into six giant corporations, won’t actually tell us anything that we’d really need to know.  It manifests itself in our non-educating educational system, where young people learn… I’m still not sure myself.  It manifests itself in our fluoridated water, originally promoted as combating tooth decay, but having no practical positive effect, and yet we continue to do it.

There have always been people for whom the world has been a plaything.  The Russian revolutionaries who organized what became the USSR would not have been able to do so without financing from the capitalist West.  Perhaps the capitalists thought it a nifty experiment at the time.  And perhaps, for these people, the United States was fun while it lasted, and now it’s tired and broken-down, and it’s time to move on.

Notre Président n’est pas Charlie

Last Sunday, three million people marched in the streets of Paris to stand up for the principle of free speech and a free press, after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo the week before.  Over 40 world leaders (including the Israeli Prime Minister and the President of the Palestinian Authority) showed up…

…but President Obama was conspicuous by  his absence.  Our leadership also did not see fit to send the Vice President, the Secretary of State, or even the Attorney General, who happened to be in Paris at the time.

Our leadership complained that they couldn’t have arranged security on such short notice.  But that’s, in a word, bullshit.

Let’s face it: behind the bluster, the real reason that the leadership of the United States, the alleged beacon of freedom for the entire world, didn’t believe this event was worthy of their presence is because they don’t believe in liberty, or free speech, anymore.

Our President said it himself:

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.

(OK, I pointed out this in my last post on the subject.  It’s almost as bad as when Bush 41 told us ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.’  But unlike Bush, who had to shamefully walk back his remarks–to the extent that it may have cost him re-election–Obama still stands by his words.)

Meanwhile, our leadership is also considering new legislation that would afford ‘freedom of the press’ protections only to professional journalists.  But most of them work for the six big media companies, and are already muzzled by their bosses.

So it wasn’t a mistake that nobody in our leadership was walking in Paris last Sunday.  It wasn’t a problem arranging security; it wasn’t a schedule conflict; it wasn’t an oversight.

Our leadership does not believe in our First Amendment freedoms anymore.

And they didn’t feel the need to fake it, either.

Sad Decisions

I used to enjoy baseball games.

In the 1990s, when life was calmer, I went to perhaps a half-dozen Mets games a year.  (Not the Yankees: rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for Apple.)  One year, I had bought a Sunday ticket package, and went to see a World Series game.

For all its shortcomings, I remember Shea Stadium fondly.  More recently, I went to Citi Field, and was not impressed.  OK: the seats were nicer, and I had maybe an inch more legroom.  But it’s still a baseball game.

Alas, this may be my last year.

Major League Baseball has determined that, effective 2015, all attendees at baseball games will have to submit to metal detector screening.  I’ve put up with the bag checks that started after 2001, but one can avoid those by simply not carrying a bag.  I’m also OK with getting frisked: it takes only a few seconds, and I don’t have to empty my pockets.

But I draw the line at the full airport treatment to watch a baseball game.  I accept it at airports because there are many things that one might carry on an airplane that can  be dangerous: the practical need for airport security is broader than just looking out for terrorists.  And I don’t just jump on a plane and fly somewhere without a good reason.

But baseball is supposed to be an entertainment.  It’s supposed to be fun.  It’s supposed to be a respite from many of the other annoyances of life.  It’s not supposed to be an empty-your-pockets moment (except perhaps at the concession stand).

For much the same reason, I’ve given up on the Monday night summer movies at Bryant Park.  They don’t have metal detectors, but your bags are subject to inspection.  The inspection seems pointless: the mind boggles at the things that I could stuff into my briefcase and sneak through.

But a real inspection isn’t the point: it’s to cover the organizers of the event if anything goes wrong.  Beyond that, it’s yet another instance of security theatre so that we all get accustomed to having our stuff searched.

*          *          *

Next week, I’ll have been married for 13 years.  My wife is not a citizen, but has been a permanent resident for most of that time, and would be eligible to be a citizen now if we filed the papers.

The subject came up at lunch today.

If we had met each other, say, ten years earlier, it wouldn’t have gotten a second thought: of course she would become a citizen.  And if she felt strongly about it now, and wanted to become a citizen, I wouldn’t be writing about it now: it would simply get done.

But, now, neither of us can see any point in it.

I used to be proud of my country.  But now, I’m just waiting for the hammer to drop.

Sharing is Scary

Edward Snowden, the man who made public and overt what we long tacitly understood about the government’s surveillance activities, issued a video last Christmas in which he remarked:

A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves — an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought. And that’s a problem, because privacy matters. Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be.

That’s perhaps a slight exaggeration, but only a very little one.  What’s worse is that we seem to be willing to do it for ourselves.

The other day, I noticed that a small Facebook logo had appeared on an update to the media player on my tablet.  I selected it to find a control to publish what I was currently listening to on my Facebook account.

I hit ‘cancel’ and shuddered:  I was glad, in that moment, that I do not have a Facebook account.  The thought of someone, outside my home, tracking my personal choices in music, gave me the creeps.  (Not that it might not happen anyway, given the state of government surveillance, but why would I volunteer what is intensely private for me?)

But there are doubtless people who are happy to post their current selections to the world.

The latest trend in managing education seems to be to give ‘high-stakes’ tests to children as young as 5.  I’m not sure of the wisdom of giving standardized tests to kindergarteners, but I had them from about the second grade, and nobody thought they were anything other than a part of the school experience.  (I actually liked test day better than the regular school day, as it was quiet and I could focus.)

But some of the reports of teachers who have to administer standardized tests to young children are telling: this is apparently the first time the children are asked to perform as individuals, and for the children, it’s not a comfortable experience.  Some of them, brought up with the notion that ‘sharing is caring,’ tried to help their classmates; some of them, realizing that they would have to work alone, got physically ill.

When I was a kid in school, there were things that we did collectively, and things we did as individuals, and that seemed the natural order of things.  There were things to share, and things not to share.  But now, the individual doesn’t matter, it seems.  Everything is to be shared.  The trend was there when I was growing up: the school’s biggest complaint about me as a youngster was that I ‘didn’t get along with the group.’  But the notion has apparently come to full fruition now.

To be sure, indiscriminate, overreaching government surveillance is evil.  But if the young are brought up to believe that the collective is everything, and their individuality is only relevant as it relates to the collective, then it doesn’t matter what the government does.

We will have surrendered our privacy ourselves, as much as the government took it from us.

Fourth of July… meh

It’s 0815 on the Fourth of July, and I’m riding the subway, headed in to the office.

July 4 was always my least favorite holiday.  As a kid, its specialness was lost on me, because I was already on summer vacation.  When I moved into my own place, I was bothered by the firecrackers adding pointless noise to a stuffy, sultry night.  When I got divorced, I surprised both my own and my wife’s lawyer by proposing that we would share Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and Labor Day (which is very close to our son’s birthday), but that I wanted the other winter holidays (Martin Luther King Day and Presidents’ Day), while she could have the summer holidays (Memorial Day and July 4).  (She agreed, and everything worked out reasonably well thereafter.)

Today, I’m heading into the office because I’m overstuffed with things to do.  I was teaching a class last week, which left very little time to keep up with the other deliverables.  Once upon a time, things actually slowed down during the summer; not anymore.

But the other reason that I’m down on July 4 this year is what has happened to our country.  We’re broke; we’ve turned into a police state; we’re involved in pointless wars and pointless policies at home.  I was never much for thumping my chest and being proud of being an American.  I was proud, once, of what we did and what we stood for.  But much of that is gone now.

And the next stop on the train is my office, so that will be it for now.

But You Can’t Say That Out Loud….

When Obama was running for President in 2008, I signed up for the campaign e-mail list, an act that I’ve now come to regret.  I believe that I’ve received more e-mail this year from Obama’s ‘Organizing for Action’ group than I did when he was running for re-election.  He can’t run for a third term–right?–so why is he hitting me up for money?

And why am I told that I should ‘have the President’s back’?  Isn’t that what the Secret Service is for?

I received a missive today in this vein in which Joe Biden, the Vice President, remarks about the Republican opposition:

When I asked several Republican senators after they voted against background checks [for gun purchasers], not one offered an explanation on the merits of why they couldn’t vote for them. But almost to a person, they said, “I don’t want to take on Ted Cruz. I don’t want to take on Rand Paul. They’ll be in my district.”

I’ll be clear: I do not own a gun.  I don’t have a burning need to run out and get one.  While it would be cool to learn to shoot, I don’t have the time or energy to invest in it.  But I believe that the Second Amendment underpins our other freedoms in that an armed citizenry represents the ultimate defense against government overreach.  And if the circumstances of my life or my environment changed, of course I would arm myself.

And there is a simple explanation on the merits as to why universal background checks are a bad idea.  Presumably, one ‘passes’ or ‘fails’ a background check, and is either granted or denied the right to purchase a firearm.  But who determines the criteria for passing the background check?  And what’s to prevent the criteria from being manipulated for partisan political purposes, or to effectively deny what is still a Constitutional right?

But I guess that a Republican Senator can’t say that out loud.  As a present-day politician, he cannot vocalize the notion of our Founding Fathers that government is inherently untrustworthy and its reach needs to be constrained.

So instead, he blames Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

And comes across as either spineless or stupid.

An Open Secret

I enjoy Michael Moore movies.  I don’t always agree with his politics, and some of the things he does make me cringe in embarrassment, but he puts on a good show, and illuminates a genuine problem.

But one of his works was weaker than the others: Fahrenheit 9/11.  I found it disappointing, because many of the ‘revelations’ in the movie were things that I already knew from reading the newspapers.

And so it is with the revelations of NSA spying.  We’ve known about it for a long time:

  • In 2003, there was a government program called Total Information Awareness, which proposed widespread snooping of Americans.  It was defunded after public protest, but we can surmise that things like this never really die.
  • From roughly ten years ago, we knew that the NSA was building rooms in the installations of the telephone and Internet providers, who were granted immunity under Federal law from liability.  What were these rooms for?  A place for NSA agents to play backgammon?
  • For a couple of years now, we’ve known about the Utah Data Center, an NSA computer installation with a storage capacity of billions of terabytes.  I know that elaborate simulations of weather, or atomic explosions, can use vast quantities of computer resources, but that isn’t really the mission of the NSA, is it?

Edward Snowden’s revelations of NSA spying programs aren’t really revelations.  They’re simply confirming what we already knew, if we cared to look.  In another time, we had real journalists looking around and reporting things like this.  Alas, not anymore.

We’re told that all of this is necessary to protect against terrorists.  But if the terrorists are half the intelligent, dangerous enemy we surmise them to be, they already know.

Musings on the NSA

  • Growing up in the US, I heard about how Russia and China were totalitarian states, with the government listening in on everyone and–this is the important part–taking action.  It wasn’t just that the state was listening in on your conversations, if you said the wrong thing, you really would get the dreaded midnight knock on the door.  For now, in the US, that isn’t happening… yet.  And that’s perhaps the most dangerous part.  Some time, probably not too far away, the government will start jumping on what people say.  And then it will be too late.
  • I have to admire Edward Snowden, the consultant who brought the secret of NSA snooping out on the world.  He has brought a world of hurt upon himself: I hope that I would be able to do the same if pressed with similar circumstances.  The New York Post suggested that he could face espionage charges if caught.  Yeah, right: we’ll hear all about it at trial.  If our leadership ever gets their hands on him, he’ll simply disappear.
  • OK, now that the cat is out of the bag, why don’t we simply stop it?  No, it isn’t that we’d leave ourselves open to the terrorists.  If someone is really a terrorist, the government can get a warrant like they’re supposed to.  The other problem, that nobody dares breathe a word about, is that there are billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs associated with this effort.  It drives research that maintains what’s left of our technological primacy.  Do we really want more unemployed hordes?
  • The presumption of privacy for a telephone call had its origin in another time, and the telephone networks were designed and built around that premise.  There is no presumption of privacy on the Internet: when you have an encrypted communication, perhaps to buy something or review your bank records, it’s the functional equivalent of having a conversation in a public park speaking, say, Inuit.  You’re relying on the premise that nobody else can understand your conversation, and you accept the risk that there just might be another Inuit speaker in the park with you.  (In fairness, with encryption you have a mathematical justification for your premise.  But the risk is still there.)  And even if the outsider cannot understand the content of the message, the fact that you’re meeting and the length of your conversation (the ‘metadata,’ to borrow a phrase) are still available for inspection.  Anyhow, the telephone networks of years ago are largely history: now most telephone calls travel, for some part of their route, over IP networks, if not the actual Internet.  And there isn’t any privacy over the Internet.

Snooping

For a while now, I’ve lived with the presumption that anything I transact over the Internet gets snorfed up in transit by the National Security Agency, for possible review/analysis/whatever.  This week, we learned that Verizon, the telephone company for many of us, has turned over records of all telephone calls made over its network in recent weeks to the government, and that the NSA has an ongoing program to collect data from major Web providers including Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.  Apple joined this group more recently, in 2012.  That this happened after Steve Jobs died may be telling.

We’re told that all of this is done strictly in the interest of catching terrorists, and that there are safeguards on the use of this information.  Somehow, I’m not convinced.  It’s probably still a bit of a stretch to sift through billions of telephone records to construct a chain of associations from a given person, but that will only become quicker and easier over time.  It seems inexorable that eventually the same process will be used against more ordinary crimes (after all, for every felony there is a related law against ‘conspiring to commit’), for sociological research, and for God knows what else.

I’m a law-abiding citizen, and as far as I’m aware, I’m not under investigation for any sort of crime.  But if the police wanted so send officers to track my movements, they could.  It would be legal, and Constitutional, because there is no presumption of privacy on a public street or, by extension, in a public conveyance.  But it would be preposterously expensive to send officers to follow everyone.  And so it always was… until now.

We’re reaching the point where it is becoming practical to perform surveillance on everyone, regardless of whether one has committed a crime or otherwise merits investigation.  I carry a cell phone, and I’ve always accepted that in order for it to function, the cell phone network must keep track of approximately where I am.  But I’m not comfortable with the notion that the phone could use GPS or other means to more accurately locate itself, and then report that information back to the network, which could then be reported to the government.  And I’m really uncomfortable with the notion that, under government order, the phone could be used as a listening device without my knowledge and consent.  (And I’m sure that such a feature has been included in our cell phones for years.)

And the telephone companies and Web providers are really big companies, and they know which side their bread is buttered on.  They all exist at the grace of the government, and wouldn’t want to get in trouble, lest it interrupt the revenue stream.

The Fourth Amendment says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

But who is to say what is ‘unreasonable’?  I’ve noted in these pages that a search of one’s possessions prior to boarding an aircraft is reasonable, for reasons that go beyond terrorism. (What’s reprehensible is the conduct of the people carrying out the search, but that’s a subject for another day.)  But this week, politicians and columnists have lined up to commend the government for its efforts to keep us safe: it’s only ‘metadata,’ people; nothing to worry about.  So I guess the current view is that trawling through everyones phone records is ‘reasonable.’  Ten years hence, when voice recognition is fast and really, really cheap, it will be ‘reasonable’ to trawl through the actual content of everyone’s voice conversations.

You don’t want the terrorists to win, right?

Or do you?