Rushing debate on NSA warrantless spying

As I write, the Senate is gathering in an unusual special session to debate the reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act, which I discussed in a recent Cato podcast. Unfortunately, as Sen. Ron Wyden pointed out in opening the discussion, this sparsely-attended holiday session is likely to be the only full floor debate on sweeping surveillance legislation that has been in force for four years already (during which we know it has already been used unconstitutionally), and is all but certain to be renewed for another five. That’s especially disturbing given that, when the House debated the law back in September, its strongest supporters revealed themselves to be profoundly confused about what the law does, and just how much warrantless spying on the communications of American citizens it permits, despite being nominally restricted to “foreign targets.”

Our friends at the Heritage Foundation have a post up sounding the Klaxon to warn of dire consequences if the Senate fails to renew the law without substantial changes. Hearteningly, even Heritage seems to be comfortable with proposed reforms requiring the secret FISA Court to publish declassified versions of substantial interpretations of the statute, so we are not effectively living under a body of secret law.  But their vague claim that some amendments would “substantially change the nature of the legislation” doesn’t really hold up.

Here’s a rundown of amendments that will be proposed. With the exception of a genuinely radical one offered by Sen. Rand Paul—proposing that the Fourth Amendment applies to our digital records and communications even when they’re stored by an Internet company—they’re all very mild, utterly common sense tweaks. One offered by Sen. Pat Leahy would extend the FAA for three years rather than five, in hopes that we might actually have a more substantial debate about this incredible spying power soon. Sen. Jeff Merkley is offering the one mentioned above, ensuring that we’re not living under secret law.

Finally, Sen. Wyden has two important amendments. One would require the NSA to produce a rough estimate of how many Americans’ communications are intercepted under the sweeping “vacuum cleaner” style programs authorized by FAA, which they have thus far refused to do, probably in part because the number would be distressingly high.  A second would prohibit “backdoor searches” targeting Americans.  The idea here is that precisely because warrantless FISA surveillance is so sweeping, and large numbers of Americans’ communications are likely to end up in the NSA database even if foreign groups are in theory the “target” of surveillance—as we know has already happened on a large scale—it becomes possible to effectively “target” Americans simply by entering their names or other identifying information in searches of the database.  That’s obviously a way of circumventing the law’s ban on “reverse targeting” that is really meant to spy on Americans under authority nominally aimed at foreigners. Wyden’s amendment would simply require an individualized FISA warrant when agents want to search their vast communications database for a particular American’s information. The NSA has objected to the term “backdoor searches” and the characterization of this process as a “loophole” in the law—but they certainly haven’t denied that the law as written allows them to do this, and have resisted this effort to prohibit it. Yet if, as supporters insist, this is really a law aimed at foreigners rather than Americans, surely such a requirement should be a no-brainer.

Amendments aside, it’s worth noting that nothing dire would happen if the law expired for a while. Programmatic surveillance authorizations under the law—covering entire “categories” of surveillance targets rather than particular people—last for a year, and would continue unmolested if the law lapsed. As we now know, claims made in 2008 about immediate problems arising from the expiration of the predecessor to the FAA were highly misleading, and one suspects deliberately so. We also know that the hyperbolic claims about the value of the initial, extralegal warrantless wiretap program didn’t hold up to scrutiny once the Inspectors General got around to auditing the program. There’s no realistic chance the Senate is going to let this legislation expire but, Mayan calendar notwithstanding, the world would not end if it did.

Given that this law is going to be renewed, ask yourself: Aren’t the checks discussed above just common sense? Shouldn’t we know what the laws we live under actually mean, as interpreted by the courts?  Shouldn’t we know approximately how many Americans are being secretly spied on by the government? If a surveillance program is, in principle, supposed to be exclusively aimed at foreigners, then shouldn’t a warrant be required before  that program can be explicitly and deliberately used to read the e-mails of Americans? It is hard to imagine how anyone could oppose any of these principles, whether or not they approve of the FISA Amendments Act as a whole. If our friends at Heritage—or more to the point, members of the Senate—do oppose any of these, we should at least ask for a convincing explanation of why, not a vague suggestion that we’re all in danger unless we shut up and embrace the status quo.

Originally published at http://www.cato.org/blog/senates-rushed-debate-nsa-spying-powers.

2012 brings big debt and fewer liberties to Americans

rules_1668_1668The year 2012 saw tremendous encroachments into the freedoms and liberties of the American people, and few of our Congressional representatives stood in the way of such abuses of power.  From taxing internet purchases to allowing the government to throw people in jail based on “secret” evidence of terrorism, this year marks another elimination of freedoms and liberties in the United States.

A couple things did increase, though: our national debt and the number of well-paid federal government workers.

The NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) not only gave the government the authority to continue expensive and never-ending wars overseas, but it also gives Washington far reaching powers to imprison American citizens for the mere suspicion of terrorism.

“This bill takes away [the right to a trial] and says that if someone thinks you’re dangerous, we will hold you without a trial. It’s an abomination,” remarked Kentucky Senator Rand Paul who argued fiercely against the inclusion of the indefinite detention provision within the NDAA.  Paul cited Japanese internment camps as historical evidence that government cannot be trusted with powers that rely on behind-closed-doors “secret” evidence against the American people.

The United States’ punitive system of taxation is forcing companies to funnel millions of dollars to overseas bank accounts.  Facebook, in fact, has funneled nearly a half billion to Cayman Island banks.  The U.S. government’s continued insistence to punish success in the United States has once again prompted companies in 2012 to take their financial business elsewhere.

At the state level, an estimated 225,000 wealthy residents have fled California to escape its tax structure.  This year, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown successfully pushed through tax increases that make Californians the highest taxed citizens in the country as the state’s deficits skyrocket to nearly $30 billion.  Taxing the rich never works, and as reported on the Small Government Times before, ends up sending your wealthier taxpayers running for the hills.

How about that U.S. Postal Service?  This year marked the first year that the government distribution service defaulted as the organization continues to leak money.  Daily, the Postal Service is losing about $25 million.  The financial hemorrhaging is preventing the service from paying current and future retiree benefits, roughly $5.5 billion in 2011 and 2012.

The number of federal workers, along with their salaries, have seen dramatic increases in the last several years.  According to public record, over 500,000 federal government workers earn more than $100,000 a year (an increase of 10% since 2006) and average nearly twice the private sector in annual salaries.  In fact, 77,000 federal workers make more than state governors.  Despite economic uncertainty for the majority of the American people, more than half of those in Congress are millionaires.  Several calculate their wealth easily in the hundreds of millions.

More than 40,000 state laws took effect this year, ranging from a higher minimum wage for several states, fining bus and truck drivers for talking on their cell phones while driving and a variety of regulations on concussions suffered while playing sports.  Some states made it a requirement that larger businesses use the E-Verify system to confirm the legality of its workers.  California gave illegals brought to the United States as infants access to the same statewide scholarships that legal students enjoy.  Other states are requiring school and city coaches to bench younger players when they are believed to have suffered a concussion.  Seat belts laws, inclusion of gay and lesbian studies in school curriculum and requiring state licensing to perform abortions all helped to increase the number of laws and regulations offered in this country.

The U.S.’s national debt has skyrocketed passed $16 trillion, an increase of a whopping $5 trillion since Barack Obama took office.

Elections have consequences, ladies and gentlemen.  Stay vigilant.

Being thankful for American freedoms and self government

Not long ago a journalist asked me what freedoms we take for granted in America. Now, I spend most of my time sounding the alarm about the freedoms we’re losing. But this was a good opportunity to step back and consider how America is different from much of world history — and why immigrants still flock here.

If we ask how life in the United States is different from life in most of the history of the world — and still  different from much of the world — a few key elements come to mind.

Rule of law. Perhaps the greatest achievement in history is the subordination of power to law. That is, in modern America we have created structures that limit and control the arbitrary power of government. No longer can one man — a king, a priest, a communist party boss — take another person’s life or property at the ruler’s whim. Citizens can go about their business, generally confident that they won’t be dragged off the streets to disappear forever, and confident that their hard-earned property won’t be confiscated without warning. We may take the rule of law for granted, but immigrants from China, Haiti, Syria, and other parts of the world know how rare it is.

Equality. For most of history people were firmly assigned to a particular status — clergy, nobility, and peasants. Kings and lords and serfs. Brahmans, other castes, and untouchables in India. If your father was a noble or a peasant, so would you be. The American Revolution swept away such distinctions. In America all men were created equal. Thomas Jefferson declared “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” In America some people may be smarter, richer, stronger, or more beautiful than others, but “I’m as good as you” is our national creed. We are all citizens, equal before the law, free to rise as far as our talents will take us.

Equality for women. Throughout much of history women were the property of their fathers or their husbands. They were often barred from owning property, testifying in court, signing contracts, or participating in government. Equality for women took longer than equality for men, but today in America and other civilized parts of the world women have the same legal rights as men.

Self-government. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that “governments are instituted” to secure the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that those governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Early governments were often formed in the conquest of one people by another, and the right of the rulers to rule was attributed to God’s will and passed along from father to son. In a few places — Athens, Rome, medieval Germany — there were fitful attempts to create a democratic government. Now, after America’s example, we take it for granted in civilized countries that governments stand or fall on popular consent.

Freedom of speech. In a world of Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, and cable pornography, it’s hard to imagine just how new and how rare free speech is. Lots of people died for the right to say what they believed. In China and Africa and the Arab world, they still do. Fortunately, we’ve realized that while free speech may irritate each of us at some point, we’re all better off for it.

Freedom of religion. Church and state have been bound together since time immemorial. The state claimed divine sanction, the church got money and power, the combination left little room for freedom. As late as the 17th century, Europe was wracked by religious wars. England, Sweden, and other countries still have an established church, though their citizens are free to worship elsewhere. Many people used to think that a country could only survive if everyone worshipped the one true God in the one true way. The American Founders established religious freedom.

Property and contract. We owe our unprecedented standard of living to the capitalist freedoms of private property and free markets. When people are able to own property and make contracts, they create wealth. Free markets and the legal institutions to enforce contracts make possible vast economic undertakings — from the design and construction of airplanes to worldwide computer networks and ATM systems. But to appreciate the benefits of free markets, we don’t have to marvel at skyscrapers while listening to MP3 players. We can just give thanks for enough food to live on, and central heating, and the medical care that has lowered the infant mortality rate from about 20 percent to less than 1 percent.

A Kenyan boy who managed to get to the United States told a reporter for Woman’s Worldmagazine that America is “heaven.” Compared to countries that lack the rule of law, equality, property rights, free markets, and freedom of speech and worship, it certainly is. A good point to keep in mind this Thanksgiving Day.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times in 2004 and was included in David Boaz’s book The Politics of Freedom.

Two seconds is too much freedom

don't tread on meTwo seconds isn’t a lot of time, but those two seconds are an intense focal point of the gun control movement: magazine capacity. The folks over at Demand A Plan (www.demandaplan.com) have gotten some big name actors to, naturally, demand a plan from Congress. Their gun control agenda is the same tired one that’s been kicked around for years and the focus on high capacity magazines seems to be more intense than ever.

The assumption holds that if you somehow limit the carrying capacity of magazines, it will prevent crazed mass-murdering shooters from racking up double or triple digit body counts. The reasoning behind this?  The shooter will have to constantly reload, of course. But how does that actually affect the shooter? Let’s consider a few things.

1) Do the rounds in 6 different magazines weigh more than rounds in 3 magazines?

2) How much does the reloading delay effect the shooter and his or her capability to kill?

3) Is it easier to obtain a dozen low capacity magazines or a few, specialty high capacity magazines without raising much suspicion?

Now, the answers to 1 and 3 are pretty self-evident, but what about point number 2? The idea is that if you delay a shooter to make them reload, you will save countless potential lives.

Well, the average reload time for a Glock or an AR-15 (both used in the Sandy Hook killings) is around two seconds. Two seconds. Most shootings last for several minutes, sometimes quite a bit longer. Two seconds is enough for the shooter to pause and re-aim at another target . The cold truth is that most shooters walk from area to area and carry multiple guns — two seconds is nothing to them and they will continue to swap guns and reload as they go about their brutal agenda of evil. The videos below further illustrate the hilarity that reloading slows down an active shooter with no opposition; if you are particularly practiced, you can cut it down to under one:

[embedplusvideo height="200" width="290" standard="http://www.youtube.com/v/yHYARkMZiig?fs=1&start=15&hd=1" vars="ytid=yHYARkMZiig&width=450&height=365&start=15&stop=&rs=w&hd=1&autoplay=0&react=0&chapters=&notes=" id="ep5371" /] [embedplusvideo height="200" width="290" standard="http://www.youtube.com/v/EjHjur-_dho?fs=1&start=13" vars="ytid=EjHjur-_dho&width=450&height=365&start=13&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=" id="ep7791" /] [embedplusvideo height="200" width="290" standard="http://www.youtube.com/v/_IVeFmHNzVk?fs=1&start=59" vars="ytid=_IVeFmHNzVk&width=450&height=281&start=59&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=1&chapters=&notes=" id="ep9596" /]

Banning high capacity magazines does nothing positive and removes freedom

So, what does this ban give us? Nothing. What does it take from us? Liberty. It may not seem like much.  After all, it is just a frivolous ban on something most of us don’t use or care about.  But, it is very important. It’s always important to protect your freedom – even if it’s one that you don’t use, especially when there’s no sound evidence or science to support an outrageous claim because of emotional grief.

Yes, any mass murder is terrible and school shootings are especially heart-breaking, but selling out your liberty for the idea of safety is what the United States did after September 11th and why we have the Patriot Act and the TSA.

Are we really any safer? Or did we permanently trade away our liberties for more government control without gaining any real safety? If you want government-controlled safety, if you want a society where no one harms or even insults another, if you want a society where the government ordains a preset destiny for you to follow your life by — then clearly you do not belong in the United States of America as the founding fathers would have intended it to be.

With liberty comes excess. With liberty comes pain. With liberty comes chaos. It is a natural order and while these cold, idealistic words offer no comfort to those who have lost loved ones in senseless acts of evil — it is these ideals that many have fought and died for through our existence as a nation.

The victims of Sandy Hook died for the same reason that those in 9/11 did — for our freedom. Not all enemies of the US are foreign, not all target soldiers, and not all try to gain from it. Some are just evil who want to hurt us, and the way they hurt us is to use our own liberty against us and terrorize us into a state of perpetual fear.

Those twenty young kids who were brutally murdered in the coldest of blood were not killed by some high capacity magazines - they were killed because they were Americans with freedom and an evil, deranged lunatic took advantage of the freedoms we are given to wound us so deeply.

If we lived in a closed, 1984-esque society, then we are no longer the United States of America, where our freedoms are cherished and our liberties held dear. 

It’s easy to talk about freedom on a warm sunny evening waiting for the 4th of July fireworks to start. It becomes a bit tougher to do when a soldier dies in the line of duty. This time it was 20 young children and talking about freedom becomes a great deal harder when you are looking at a hysterical mother beating on the casket of her 7 year old son…but he is no less heroic than the soldier and these terrible sacrifices need to never go in vain. You owe it to the victims of Sandy Hook and every American before them to defend liberty at all costs.

Those two seconds of freedom has an ugly, terrible price. Let us never forget that.

Marriage is a state issue, not a matter of federal law

Of course gay marriage should be left to the states. Indeed, all marriage should be left to.  the states. Search the U.S. Constitution from start to finish, and you will find no reference whatsoever to marriage. You will, however, find the 10th Amendment, which reads as follows: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Marriage is not commerce, war, or taxation. It is unrelated to money, the post office, the patent system, or any of the other enumerated powers of the federal government. Its regulation is neither necessary nor proper in pursuit of those powers.

At the drafting of the Constitution, the states all had marriage laws of one kind or another. There were wide disparities among them, both then and now, and such disparities have existed at all times in between.

The founders had no desire to settle such matters, and they did not wish a future Congress to do so either. The Constitution they wrote left only two choices: Either allow the states to regulate marriage (with, perhaps, federal consequences to follow) — or else return marriage to the people, to individuals, families, churches, and communities. Either approach would be consistent with the Constitution. The Defense of Marriage Act, however, is not.

Speaking personally for a moment, I am in a same-sex marriage. Some states recognize it, including my home state of Maryland. I am happy that they do, and I wish more of them would. But just as Congress can’t prohibit same sex marriage, I must conclude that Congress can’t establish it, either.

Whether the states must all recognize same sex marriages as a matter of civil rights law, unrelated to the 10th Amendment, is a question the Supreme Court may soon address. But I find it implausible that the Court would do so now. The Prop. 8 case by no means requires it. And it’s still less plausible that the Court would make the sweeping judgment required to say yes. In the meantime, I am content both to support same sex marriage and to advocate for it on the state level, where public opinion is rapidly shifting in its favor, and where the good fight is still to be fought.

Article originally published at the Cato Institute: http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/marriage-should-not-be-regulated-federal-government

Gun opens fire in Chicago convenience store, charged with murder

Gun1In another senseless act of premeditated violence, a gun walked into a convenience store on the south side of Chicago in the early hours of Thursday morning and opened fire on the store’s clerk and several customers, killing one and severely injuring three others.  As of the time of this writing, the gun is showing no remorse.  The gun’s motive remains unclear.

Authorities say the gun was most likely acting out frustration with society.  Records show the gun was unemployed for the last 3 years, prompting what many believe to be the gun’s way of rebelling against its own boring and unfulfilled life.

The gun is described by friends as being highly intelligent, yet reclusive in nature.  Often spending hours – sometimes days – in its carrying case, the gun would often disappear into its own little world and quietly contemplate its own suffering from societal abandonment and insensitivity.

The gun’s manufacturers saw signs of antisocial behavior, but never believed the gun was capable of such a brutal and senseless act.  Telephone calls to the manufacturers requesting a more extensive interview have not been returned.

Sources say the gun attempted to end its own life before police arrived, but was unable to summon the flexibility and bravery to pull the trigger a final time.  The gun is in a Chicago jail and is awaiting trial.

Please note: since guns do not kill people, PEOPLE DO, the preceding is entirely satirical.

A nation of taxation: How to socially engineer a population

When you think about taxation in the United States of America, you typically will think about the government taking money from its citizens to fund expenses that the government incurs. Nowadays, we argue a lot about how much we are taxes and in what ways government taxes us — but have you considered the question of why we are taxed?

Even Dictionary.com’s definition of a ‘tax’ adheres to the common denotation of fund raising:

Tax: a sum of money demanded by a government for its support or for specific facilities or services, levied upon incomes, property, sales, etc.

But the truth is that not all taxes are levied on the citizenry for the purposes of raising funds to pay for its expenses. In fact, many taxes are designed to, in some fashion, modify the collective behavior of the citizens.

These are typically ‘excise’ taxes, and their cost is hidden from the end consumer at the time of purchase. A common excise tax we routinely pay is in gasoline; the federal tax currently is 18.4 cents per gallon, and states will attach their own taxes on top of it (i.e.: New York’s is 51.3 cents per gallon). You don’t know it’s there, but next time you think gas is expensive at the pump — just remember that up to 70 cents of that is in taxes alone, and your gas could be $2.30 a gallon instead of $3+. But, there’s a more sinister question at hand: why is gas taxed? You already pay income tax, sales tax, property tax, etc. as previously discussed in the first part of this taxation series. Do we really need to raise more money?

The answer is, unsurprisingly, no. In fact, in 2010 the federal fuel excise tax amounted to $38 billion dollars — hardly a drop in the bucket given our trillion dollar budget. The original intent of this tax was to have people who drive more pay more for road maintenance and those who didn’t drive as much/drive lighter vehicles paid less. This tax is to modify behavior by encouraging you through financial penalty to drive more fuel efficient vehicles and/or drive less. By raising the cost of driving, the government is incentivizing you to modify your behavior by artificially inflating the true cost.

It doesn’t just stop at gasoline, either. There’s an alcohol and tobacco excise tax that you pay that’s hidden into the cost of those products – upwards of a dollar for a single pack of cigarettes at the federal level and usually more at the state. This is to discourage people from using alcohol and tobacco for ‘the greater good’ of society. This is an example of when the government attempts to play parent and deprive individuals of their cognitive liberty. The government is altering the conditions of common situations because it believes it is smarter than you and knows how you should live your life.

Taxes, by in large, aren’t always about the amount the money, but government sure will use the concept of money against you. Just as you are penalized for the actions the government doesn’t want you to take, it subsidizes you through tax breaks and credits in order to encourage you to do something.  The income tax code encourages people to get married by taxing you less, it encourages you to buy a house (tax free mortgage interest), it gives you credits for going to school (college tax breaks), and it even gives credits for buying hybrid cars that would otherwise be an unwise economic choice. These taxation policies, while seemingly innocuous, are designed to strip away decision-making capabilities and substitute the government’s judgement for your own — and they do it using other people’s money, to boot.

Anything you do with taxes, other than to raise funds, is a corruption of taxation and a gross abuse of freedom. Without your financial liberty, your freedom of speech is greatly hampered, and by making it so the people are dependent on these credits and to avoid penalties, you will behave the way the government wants you to behave in order to maintain your standard of living. These actions taken against the single individual might not seem like much, but when considered at the aggregate scale of the entire population of the  United States, they make tremendous impacts on our society.

How can you truly claim to be free when so many Americans are unaware of how the everyday choices they make (spending hard earned money) are being manipulated by the tax code? And it doesn’t just stop with you, the citizen; the government also subsidizes industries (farming) and penalizes others (tobacco) so you are never truly sure of anything.

cigarettes.  Cost of a bad habit.

If you needed further proof that our taxes have gone completely insane, you need look no further than the soft drink tax/bans. The government taxes you to raise money to subsidize corn farming dramatically, which leads to the cheap production of high-fructose corn syrup as a low-cost replacement for sugar in soft drinks — now, the government is attempting to enact taxes and bans (http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/13/health/new-york-soda-ban/index.html) on the very drinks it is already taxing you on to produce cheaply.  That is right, the government is taxing you in order to tax you again.  All this to ‘improve health’ and ‘deter soft drink habits’.

What more can be said about a tax code designed to modify the behavior of the population? This corruption of taxation has occurred, and worsened, with both Democrats and Republicans in full control of the congress and presidency.

There is no ‘lesser’ evil.