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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"DON'T ASK DON'T TELL": SYMBOLISM OR SUBSTANCE?

The serious issues facing the nation and requiring difficult responses by the U.S. Congress are well known. Unemployment figures approaching double digits, a lingering housing bubble and foreclosure disaster, federal budget deficits well over one trillion dollars and a rapidly increasing federal debt of 14 trillion dollars, unabated international terrorism, two on-going wars and enormous trade deficits. There are other problems, social, economic, structural but the news media seems to be focused once again on the ideological: the so called "Bush tax cuts and gays in the military. The tax cuts which are set to expire in January will be extended in the lower brackets (below $250,000 per year) and will probably be temporarily extended in the upper brackets. But Liberal Democrats and liberal editorial boards are demanding that the upcoming "lame duck" Congress that sits until the recently elected one convenes in January, spend valuable time and incur additional partisan rancor over an issue that is far more symbolic than substantive in terms of it's affect on the economic or security welfare of all American citizens. The issue, "gays in the military" and the current federal law called "Don't Ask Don't Tell" is already in the federal court system and if the Congress does not act to change the law, it will wind its way ultimately to the Supreme Court where it will be finally decided. Current “conventional wisdom” is that because of Republican opposition, DADT will not be taken up or if it is, will not pass in the Senate in the “lame duck session“. It has already passed in the House. It would have a much more difficult time in the new Congress in January because of the take over of the House by the Republican party and enhanced Republican membership in the Senate.

Ultimately the Supreme Court will make a decision based on Constitutional interpretation; essentially does every citizen of the United States have an equal right to apply for and serve in the U.S. military and does the exclusion of definable groups represent unconstitutional discrimination.

Some issues that are likely to be raised in defense of DADT are that the courts have long acknowledged that because of the military's unique mission and structure, some constitutionally protected rights in the civilian realm are not applicable in the military. Members of the military do not have the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech or assembly nor can they expect a right to privacy which Court majorities have found by interpretation. In addition, the military has always set it's own standards for admission. It routinely excludes individuals for being too short, too tall, too fat, too thin, too stupid, too young, too old, having a history of health issues, a history of psychological problems, or criminal records. In short, the military has had the right to assign and change according to need, its standards for admission.

A recent survey of active duty military personnel seems to indicate more of a level of indifference to the issue since less than a majority returned the survey and although results are unofficial, leaks indicate approximately 70% of responders said that revoking DATD would have "positive", "mixed" or "non-existent effects on the military. Since no definition of "mixed" or the percentage of responders that took this position is available, significant questions about the military's actual position remain. Apparently, the simple question, "Should homosexuals be allowed to serve openly in the military?" was never asked. Also, the survey did not categorize the respondents by gender or job description. Presumably female respondents would be more amenable to changing the law since they are a minority in the military and almost all serve in non-combat support jobs. It is also likely that sailors serving in the confines of submarines or Marines serving in small unit combat would be more opposed than Air Force technicians serving in Omaha. Also, the issue is not as simple as it is made out to be.

Advocates of change who argue that the inevitable tensions and hostility that will result will be temporary or can be handled with “zero tolerance” policies or vigorous “leadership” regarding sexual harassment need to take notice of a recent survey of Air Force Academy cadets. Women were first admitted to the service academies in 1976 and after numerous scandals and thirty-four years of “sensitivity training” the current survey shows that:

“Gender is the primary reason that cadets and permanent party personnel responded they have experienced or witnessed harassment or discrimination .... Women said they experienced (39 percent) and/or witnessed (75 percent) discrimination or harassment due to their gender. While men experienced (4 percent) and/or witnessed (10 percent) discrimination or harassment at a lower rate, it is still an issue, Colonel Therianos said.

Both men and women responded that women are generally less accepted in the Cadet Wing, but the acceptance rate has improved since 2007. Acceptance trends are generally positive in other areas as well, with the exception of sexual preference: 17 percent of cadets who responded said they have become less accepting of gays and lesbians since coming to the Air Force Academy.”


Claims by advocates of change that the military needs the services of this currently excluded group are also greatly exaggerated. All the services are currently meeting recruiting goals and the simple fact is that while 13,000 gays and lesbians have been dismissed from the service since the law was passed, that is over a time period of seventeen years, or on average, only 765 per year. In 2009, the number was down to 428. In addition, all three services and their reserve components met 100% of their recruiting goals for 2009 and 2010.

Simply revoking DADT to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military opens the door to a number of other issues. Currently five states and the District of Columbia allow same sex marriage. If DADT is revoked, the federal government i.e. the Defense Dept. will not be able to recognize any such marriages occurring between service members because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act signed by President Clinton in 1996. Issues of dependent privileges i.e. housing, travel, medical, etc. will generate more lawsuits. A federal judge in July of 2010 has already ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional so the issue of gay military dependents will at least be delayed until that issue also is decided by the Supreme Court.

In the end, the federal judges and Supreme Ct. justices, none of whom have served in the military, who have or will make these important decisions will not concern themselves with the practical effects of the law but will in all probability take a more narrow academic approach and the U.S. will, for better or worse follow the lead of its Canadian and European allies. This is not an automatic recommendation for any military policy however. The Canadian armed forces are tiny and in spite of a token presence in the middle east conflicts and a history of UN peacekeeping missions, has a very limited role in international security. German soldiers in Afghanistan were limited by policy to mostly non-combat activities and were forbidden to fight at night. The Netherlands and Belgium, both NATO members, allow their militaries to be unionized, thus encouraging collective bargaining with regard to pay and working conditions. America's unique role as the major player in international security should afford the application of its own standards.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"JUNK TOUCHING" AND AIRLINE SAFETY

OK, so San Diego based would be traveler John Tynor doesn’t want his “junk” touched and thus has become the latest anti-government folk hero via the internet and media. Anyone who has been through an airport lately can attest to the fact that things have gotten progressively more inconvenient as failed terrorist attacks on aircraft have occurred. Since the post 9/11 attempts by the “shoe bomber” and then the “underwear bomber” failed, perhaps the flying public has gotten complacent or perhaps it’s the schooling principal employed by fish i.e. if you are in a big enough group your individual chances of becoming a victim of some predator are greatly reduced. Whatever the underlying motive, for some people inconvenience is not to be tolerated. For others it presents yet another opportunity to get ideological.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to suspend the latest technology in airport scanners. There claim: such scanning is “unlawful”, “invasive” and “ineffective” and the Transportation Security Administration has violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

That should just about cover it. Of course lawyers are happy but they might have a difficult time overcoming the obvious flaws in this shotgun type of accusation.

The Privacy Act of 1974 specifically governs “the personally identifiable information about individuals that is maintained in systems of records by federal agencies.” But the pictures (records) produced by airport scanners are neither personally identifiable nor kept as records. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act seeks to protect the “free exercise” of religion from government regulation but it contains two exceptions: if the “burden” on religious exercise is necessary in the “furtherance of a compelling national interest and that the rule must be the “ least restrictive” way to further the government interest.”

It will be hard to argue that preventing the terrorist bombing of a commercial airliner filled with civilians is not a “compelling national interest.” Since the “junk touching” episode has become the center of the airport screening controversy it seems clear that the much less invasive and less time consuming procedure of electronic scanning is indeed the “least restrictive”. TSA officials have thus said that making a religious argument against scanning or pat downs won’t be recognized. The government of Abu Dhabi disagrees. It has said it won’t employ these procedures because they are “unIslamic”. What better recommendation for their use could there be? The Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure is specifically connected to law enforcement arrest procedures. Scanning and patting down in airports are both voluntary conditions of air travel under the regulations of the FAA and TSA which travelers agree to when they purchase a ticket.

Unfortunately, the issue has become just more grist for the sensationalism seeking cable media and factually challenged internet users. The underlying issue with electronic scanning is safety. Opponents claim it is not safe but provide little if any scientific data to support that claim. The closest they come are opinions by a scattering of individual scientists whose opinions are littered with words such as “possible and potential”.

Dr. David Brenner, Chief of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University says “individual risk is very low” but if 800 million airline passengers are screened, it “might imply” a “potential” public health or societal risk. That’s not too threatening.

University of California biochemist David Agard says scanners have “the potential” to induce chromosome damage and that can lead to cancer. But he doesn’t talk about dosages.

The British Civil Aviation Authority says 5000 scans per person annually can be conducted safely. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that:

“General-use x-ray security screening systems deliver an extremely low dose of ionizing radiation to the person being screened. The radiation dose is so low that there is no need to limit the number of individuals screened or, in most cases, the number of screenings an individual can have in a year.” And that : “In 42 minutes of ordinary living, a person receives more radiation from naturally occurring sources than from screening with any general-use x-ray security system.”

“Millimeter wave security systems which comply with the limits set in the applicable national non-ionizing radiation safety standard cause no known adverse health effects.”

Of course some people will never accept scientific data provided by the government that disproves their preferred conspiracy theory notions. It is all reminiscent of the 1950’s claim by some that fluoridation of drinking water to prevent tooth decay was a communist plot to brainwash the citizenry with a mind bending drug.

Shepard Smith of Fox News offers this bit of illogic. The screening/pat down system has never turned up any explosives so it isn’t needed. The simple concept of deterrence seems to have escaped the usually astute Shepard. That is, the existence of the screening procedures is responsible for the lack of attempts by would be terrorists to board planes with explosives. (The “shoe bomber” boarded before shoes were routinely examined and the “underwear bomber’s flight originated in Europe and before the latest scanners were in place.)

Blogger Margery Eagan typifies the rhetorical overreach:

“So here are your airport choices: submit to sexual molestation or spread your legs, hands over head, and get radiated while some TSA guys down the hall check out your naked body.”

“Sexual molestation”? A pat down while your fully dressed, in private if you wish, by a person of you own sex wearing surgical gloves? Eagan may inadvertently be disclosing some of her private fantasies here.

“get radiated”? Sure at about the same level as your last visit to the dentist.

“TSA guys down the hall check out your naked body.”? The scans are quickly reviewed by an individual member of your own sex, then permanently deleted. Besides, if anyone thinks that the ghost like, hairless, faceless and nameless images produced by these scanning machines are sexually exciting they are in serious need of several sessions with Dr. Ruth. Eagan may think her electronic image is center fold quality but . . .

Like all government programs this one needs to be modified by the application of some common sense. The TSA really doesn’t need to confiscate your tooth paste and it makes no sense at all for pilots to be subjected to repetitive screening for explosives. Why would they go the trouble and risk of attempting to bring these items on board when they are just minutes away from being in control of the airplane. A suicidal pilot can simply dive the plane into the ground. Even if the other pilot is not ready for permanent membership in the Big Admirals Club in the sky, a fight in a locked cockpit would usually provide the same result. Some kind of tamper proof ID should be enough.

Much of the problem could be relieved by another common sense regime of profiling which would seek to identify potential terrorists rather than just the terrorist’s tools; or even reverse profiling that would exempt obviously low risk travelers such as the elderly, children (already children under 12 are exempt), and pregnant females. The opposition to "profiling" of any type is ironic since it is the position of the same liberal “privacy at any cost” groups like the ACLU that are opposed to scanning and pat downs. The idea that millions of travelers have to be inconvenienced and possibly put at risk in order not to slightly offend members of a group which includes the perpetrators of almost all international terrorism defies common sense. People of Middle Eastern descent should accept the reality of the situation since presumably they are hoping to arrive at their destination safely like everyone else

John Tynor, Shepard Smith and Margery Eagan may prefer to just give the TSA a wave and a smile as they board their next plane. The question remains if they would feel the same way about the guy in the turban standing behind them with a one way ticket.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

OBAMA'S WORLD TOUR

You can hardly blame President Obama for wanting to get out of town after last week's political tsunami. Encircled by criticism from his own Left, the Independent middle and the Republican Right, he has been greeted by more friendly crowds so far in India and Indonesia. Of course, he has a good excuse for his travels since he will be attending the Group of Twenty (G-20) economic forum in S. Korea and then the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting (APEC) in Japan. These meetings and his first stop in India were billed as efforts to enhance economic cooperation. The agenda in India was informal and more of a public relations effort since trade agreements are hammered out separately from presidential visits by the U.S. Trade Representative. Still, public relations doesn't hurt when you are talking about a capitalist economy with 1.3 billion consumers. Unfortunately, U.S. relations with India can not escape the dark shadow of the decades old Indian-Pakistan conflict over the disputed territory of Kashmir. The U.S. has tried to walk a dangerous line between a strong relationship with India which includes military sales and "peaceful" nuclear technology, and a political and military relationship with Pakistan that is vital to the prosecution of the war in neighboring Afghanistan and anti-terrorism efforts. The hostility between these two U.S. "allies" is further complicated by the fact that both are nuclear armed powers and Pakistan, as a Muslim country is trying to fend off it's own radical Muslim movement.


The Indian government seemed enthusiastic about a ramp up of the U.S./Indian relationship: “This is the time to be ambitious about this relationship”. It is telling however that this comment was not made by an Indian economic or trade official but by India's National Security Adviser. This further illustrates the conundrum of trying to be an economic partner and strategic ally with two nations who are long time enemies. Obama avoided discussion of the India/Pakistan conflict during his visit but the issue and the Afghan war loomed over the visit like the proverbial "elephant in the room" and local media suggested that a new and more robust bi-lateral relationship is still in the nascent stages, implying that a strategic tilt towards India is required. Thus, Obama's visit was more of an exercise in what seems to be his foreign policy specialty, a "feel good moment". Along this line, he made a totally symbolic assertion that the U.S. stood behind a move to grant India a permanent seat on the UN's Security Council. While it makes sense in terms of the relative importance of India in today's world, such a promise is nothing more than a pat on the head since such a change to the Security Council would require a Charter amendment subject to a two thirds vote in the General Assembly plus the unanimous consent of the current veto wielding Permanent Security Council members, a group that includes rival China and Russia who is ever wary about any dilution of it's international influence. This would also open the door to similar claims by other industrialized and regional powers (Japan, Brazil, South Africa). Making the Security Council bigger than it's current fifteen members would also make it even more unwieldy and add to the growing irrelevance of both it and the United Nations as a whole in terms of international security.

Obama's second stop was his visit to Indonesia, a nation that we are constantly reminded is the largest Muslim nation in the world. And indeed, aside from affording Obama an opportunity to retrace some of his boyhood years, the visit was described by White House officials as being part of his "continuing outreach to the Muslim world." This effort began with much fanfare with Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt. While it received a positive, though muted, response in some of the Muslim world, much of the enthusiasm generated has dissipated. In the volatile Middle East, favorable views of the U.S. hover around 17% (Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey), a decline in Egypt during the two years of the Obama Administration where the “outreach” began of 10% . The political wisdom of labeling visits to Muslim nations as an “outreach” is itself questionable given both its statistical failure and the current belief of 20% of U.S. citizens that Obama is himself a Muslim.

Nonetheless, in Indonesia where he is considered something akin to an expatriate, Obama is more popular than in the United States and is still able to generate warm and fuzzy feelings by doing native dances with costume clad five year olds. The next two stops at economic forums in Korea and Japan should be more serious challenges, as the world’s economic powers try and agree on strategies to deal with the continuing world recession. Obama is likely to seek support for pressuring China to allow its currency to rise, thus making American exports less expensive. So far the Chinese have been unresponsive and Obama will probably have to deal with similar arguments in the face of exporting countries concerns about the recently announced U.S. Federal Reserve anti-recession move to purchase $600 billion worth of U.S. Treasury bonds. This staged purchase is intended to drive down long term interest rates but some nations fear that it will also devalue the U.S. dollar making their export goods to U.S. markets more expensive.

In any case, the only sure outcome of Obama’s latest “world tour” is that he will have to eventually return home and face a far tougher negotiating partner where native dancing won’t help, the Republicans in Congress.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

IT'S OVER; NOW WHAT?

With the Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives and with a firm hold on the minimum of 41 votes needed to stop legislation in the Senate with a filibuster, there is plenty of speculation about what the next two years in Congress will look like.
The scenarios include a total gridlock with a small Democrat majority in the Senate blocking any and all Republican initiatives coming from their majority in the House and the threat of an Obama veto backing them up. The reverse also lends credibility to this forecast, with Republicans in the House blocking bills originated by Senate Democrats and the Obama Administration.

Another possibility cited, is that Obama will move towards the political center and attempt to work with Republicans in the House to make progress on the most important though less ideologically sensitive issues.

A more robust reaction on the part of the President and Congressional Democrats has also been proposed. This would have the President and the Democrat Senate leadership move forward with their legislative agenda and then aggressively “campaign” against Republican “obstructionism”.

The reality will certainly be a mix of the possible scenarios. The Republicans will not “shut down” the government as they did once with highly adverse political consequences during the Clinton administration. The President still must send an annual budget to Congress and Congress must continue to pass a budget, although not the President’s. Budget priorities will certainly reflect the new Republican aversion to large or less important spending measures but it is much more difficult to undo existing spending programs than to initiate them given the political pressure that would be mounted by the affected groups. Still, there is some talk about reversing spending levels to those of 2008, although no specifics as yet have been identified.

Expecting Obama to make a significant move to the “center”, a term defined very differently by the two parties, is probable more “hope” than “change”. Obama, while not rigidly “progressive”, as his willingness to abandon the "public option" in the health care bill shows, is still a big government liberal with a collectivist mentality. He is also already in trouble with the "progressive" (far Left) base over that concession, his inability to close the Guantanamo prison, his continued pursuit of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, his lack of alacrity in revoking the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy rejecting openly homosexual members, and his apparent lack of enthusiasm for major environmental legislation.

This year’s mid-term elections are going to create a general context for the presidential election of 2012. Obama will have to read the “tea leaves” and decide if his reelection prospects are best served by acknowledging a move to the Right amongst moderate and independent voters or regaining the loyalty and enthusiasm of his 2008 Democrat majority i.e. ideological liberals, unions, the young, women and minorities. Since solidifying one's base first, is the conventional wisdom of presidential politics and with only two years to go, it will be difficult for Obama to make too much of a move to the center, which would be defined as the "Right" by the party’s liberals. Post mid-term election musings in some liberal circles about the possibility of a Democrat primary challenge to Obama in 2012 have already reached the media. Such a tactic, if true, is probably calculated to pressure Obama to hold the line against conservative/Republican initiatives in the new Congress. An actual challenge would be a disaster for both Obama and any challenger as it would split the party between blacks and whites, and liberals and moderates and almost certainly have the same result as Ted Kennedy's primary challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980, a bad loss.

All this does not mean that there is no room for cooperation on some issues. Barring outright ideological warfare, common ground might be found on such issues as trade.
Currently there are three “free trade agreements” which have been negotiated and are waiting for congressional approval. The most significant in terms of economic impact is the Korea-United States agreement which was completed in 2007. Bilateral trade with Korea was $84.7 billion in 2008, and although sharply reduced in 2009 by the world wide recession, the prospect for a rebound and significant trade growth is good. There are still some issues that need to renegotiated but a successful treaty would have genuine benefits for U.S. agriculture, especially beef producers and also the newly restructured American automobile industry.

Free trade agreements with Panama and Columbia are also pending. Obama has voiced support for all these agreements and with the “free trade philosophy” in general, and in the past, Republicans have also supported such agreements so this is an area of possible cooperation. Obama will, however, have to overcome the usual opposition of organized labor to free trade agreements which they see as taking jobs away from American workers and facilitating the moving of jobs overseas by domestic manufacturers. In a jobs sensitive political environment, these agreements may have to wait for the political intensity of the election to subside.

Although strong disagreements exist over their nature, cooperation on tax policies might also be possible. The so called “Bush tax cuts” expire in January and both Obama and the Republicans want to extend them in some fashion. The basic difference is that Obama wants to let tax cuts for couples making over $250,000 a year expire while retaining them for everyone else. Republicans want to retain them for all tax brackets. Since there is agreement on the need to keep the reduced tax rates for most tax payers, it would seem that some form of compromise could be negotiated.

Inheritance taxes are also set to go up dramatically in January, and again, both the Obama Administration and Republicans have indicated a willingness to come up with a new formula for exemptions, although the Democrats merely want to create new levels of exemptions and Republicans want to do away with inheritance taxes altogether. Still, since there was a discussion about the issue before the mid-term election season got going, there is some hope that progress can be made on this issue. The issue on taxes of any sort is complicated by ideological rigidity on both sides and the conundrum of reduced government revenue (deficit enlargement) versus economic simulation (job growth) that reduced taxes would produce. The so called “marriage penalty” which imposes higher taxes on married couples than single people living together, in the same tax bracket and the Alternative Minimum Tax which currently does not take inflation into account, are also areas in which Republicans and Democrats mostly agree have to be adjusted.

Thus while, some legislative cooperation is possible, there are a number of important issues which are more ideologically sensitive, and thus more controversial, that have little prospect for success given the hostility and polarization that characterized the mid-term elections. Little progress can be expected on so called “comprehensive immigration reform”. The two parties are just too far apart, with Republicans emphasizing border control as a first priority and Democrats more focused on “a path to citizenship” for the 12-14 million illegals already in the U.S. and an expanded “guest worker” program. The strict anti-illegal immigrant legislation passed by the state of Arizona and the Obama Administration’s lawsuit against Arizona, further poisons the atmosphere for Congressional action as it winds its way through the federal courts.

The Democrat’s major environmental bill, “cap and trade” which seeks to limit harmful industrial emissions by government regulation and create a “market” for allowable emissions, passed the House but not the Senate. Even though the Democrats still control the Senate by a slight majority, the House version is essentially “dead on arrival” in that body and Obama as much as said so in his post election news conference.

The Democrats will try to pass as much endangered legislation as possible in the “lame duck” session before the newly elected Congress takes over in January. The pro-union “card check” legislation which requires companies to allow unionization based on a majority of workers signing an approval card instead of a secret ballot is one of these.

Another is the Fair Pay Act which is has been around a few years but hasn’t generated sufficient support. If introduced, this act will be attacked by Republicans and the business community as a further example of “big government” interfering in the free market, and properly so. It would require some kind of determination of the “economic value” of each job to a company and prohibit differences in pay scales for different jobs with the same economic value. The purpose is to overcome by government directive and law suits, disparity in pay scales for jobs which are predominately held by females. The law would discard the role of the free market (supply and demand) in determining wage rates and effectively put government into a management position for all large businesses. However, with the loss of 60 House seats which many blame on the perception of “big government” excesses, their might be reluctance on the part of Democrat survivors to take on this issue. The economic environment and the emphasis on job creation makes this a bad time for more government meddling in the private sector. Also, a Republican filibuster effort could be expected. There is however, always the possibility that one or two of the more liberal Republicans could defect on social legislation of this sort and allow a vote. The two female Republican senators from Maine and the newest Republican in the Senate, Scott Brown from liberal Massachusetts could conceivably support this ridiculous legislation but it in all probability will never make it out of committee if it is introduced at all. A vote on the military's exclusion of homosexuals however may well be introduced in the more liberal "lame duck session".

The new Senate will be a more conservative body, not only because of the increased number of Republicans but because several of those individuals like Rand Paul (R-KT) and Toomey (R-PA) are so called "Tea Party conservatives" i.e. deficit hawks. It remains to be seen if the liberal Democrats up for reelection in 2012 will take heed of the nation's swing to the right and vote accordingly or dig their heels in rely on the hope of previously reliable liberal constituencies to preserve their seats.

Another important result of this election has been the significant increase in governorships and state legislatures held by Republicans. This will have a significant impact on the upcoming decennial congressional redistricting process as well as the politics of the 2012 presidential race. Things are looking up for the Republicans in this respect and the field of prospective candidates is growing. But that is another story which the media and the pundits will shortly commence. For now most people are just glad it’s over.