Bern’in for Hillary

DemDebateLast night’s Democratic candidate debate was far and away the most debate-y event held to date on either side. It was substantive and informative while remaining cordial and not devolving into an ad-hominem slug-fest. Moreover, it drew a delightfully bright line between Clinton and Sanders that even the candidates don’t disagree with.

Bernie Sanders is the ideological heir to Obama’s 2008 candidacy. He’s inspirational. He’s all about hope and dreams of a better tomorrow. His vision is transformational.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is practical, prepared, and ready to get down to business. She’s all about the art of the possible. She is the heir to Obama’s Presidency.

Obama campaigned as a visionary. But when faced with the realities of Washington and the lack of a similarly visioned Congress, he pivoted to governing as a moderate. He focused on figuring out what bits he could get done. His vision remained intact, but his aspirations were tempered with reality. Most importantly, rather than wallowing in the disillusion of his inability to transform Washington, he opted for tactical, directional, and practicable progress.

While I like much of Sanders’ vision, his ability to execute on it is, by his own admission, predicated on the political revolution he’s trying to foment. He may well rally a swell of people behind him, but there is no complementary group of Democratic Socialist Senate and House candidates running who could sweep in with him to affect the transformation he envisions. He’s a one man show. And Sanders’ career indicates he’s a determined ideologue. He’s unlikely to compromise his dream and pivot to practical matters. I fear that at best, he spends four years inspiring future Congressional candidates who would be elected in 2018 or 2020. But by then, the Bern Legacy will have worn off. His accomplishments will be non-existent. His movement will be considered a failure. And we’ll move on to something else. After all, Americans are not known for their patience and willingness to endure a long slow slog toward an aspirational goal. “Squirrel.”

OTOH, Hillary. She’s competent, capable, and better vetted than possibly any other candidate in history. But she’s not exciting. She’s frankly not even too likable. Sure, she’ll keep the lights on. She’ll get done what needs doing. Yet she’s unlikely to take us anywhere too far off our current trajectory. She’s like our safety candidate.

And then there’s the practical matter of the general election. Sanders is likely to draw more people to the polls, which helps the Democrats up and down the ticket. Will people come out to vote for Clinton? Probably not. About the only thing she truly inspires is enmity from the right.

In many ways, Hillary and Bernie are like Obama was a victim of some Star Trek transporter malfunction that split Barack into Candidate Obama and President Obama. And in many ways, what I pine for is Scotty to make an 11th hour appearance and put Clinton and Sanders back together again. That’s a candidate I could get behind.

Of Pots & Kettles

pot-kettle-blackI spent way too much time last evening in a running Facebook thread that started with a question of how Muslims could use their religion to justify hatred of others.

While not the originator of the question, one commenter was particularly adamant about his views.

“The false god Muslims worship is a demon. Their god is a god of hate and destruction and death. Their god calls for the death of America.”

He went on to offer other gems within the thread, including:

  • “Pluralism is a plague in America.”

  • “…college campuses across the country are home to professors and students who hate America.”

  • “Obama is wicked…  His abortion support. his same-sex “marriage ” support. His abuse of his authority by changing laws after their enactment. His war on Christianity in the military. etc etc.”

  • “I am not a Muslim hater. I am an Islam hater.”

  • “Islam is a pathological religion that turns people into monsters.”

  • “If one does an honest study they will realize the truth claims of Jesus are in fact the truth and the truth claims of others are lies.”

Here was a man with a self-avowed abiding faith in Jesus—a man who viewed himself as a good Christian… and yet a man who was filled with hate. Moreover, his hatred was somehow rooted in his faith—a faith he himself characterized as one of peace and harmony.

“An honest study leads to the conclusion that violence done in the name of Christianity is contrary to its tenets.”

On the one hand, I shudder at the level of cognitive dissonance required to use the message of Jesus to justify this much animosity. And rationalizing that hatred as being focused on the religion and the culture but not the people is a sophistry. “I don’t hate you, just everything you believe in and stand for,” was not quite the point of the Good News. Not to mention the mental gymnastics required to use this sort of argument to defend an abhorrence to college professors, students, liberals, and Obama who largely share Christian culture and religion.

Yet I think the best part is the delicious irony that this screed was motivated by this person’s horror that a group of Muslims could use their faith to motivate hatred.  Yes Virginia, religions have been used since the dawn of time to justify the behaviors of groups and individuals. They are a lens that focuses and magnifies the culture and values of the people who practice them. Religions are not inherently good or evil, but the people involved in them or leading them may be.  And the cold reality is that Christianity gets no magic pass here.

Your love or your hatred of your fellow man may be motivated by your faith, but you still have to own the result. In the end, you are responsible for your actions—good, bad, or indifferent. Only a coward hides behind their religion as an excuse.

Did Snowden Execute the NSA’s Corbomite Maneuver?

Star Trek’s episode “The Corbomite Maneuver” teaches the value of a high stakes bluff.

The NSA debacle gets more weird by the minute. First, the NSA get “outed” for doing what pretty much everyone thought they were doing anyway. Government officials promptly and predictably lose their collective shit, because apparently they were the only ones in the dark.

Then the whistleblower/traitor outs himself as the highly skilled tech with the keys to the information kingdom who couldn’t live with his conscience any longer. Sounds noble. But he’s quickly unmasked as a man who by all accounts was dramatically unqualified for the position he apparently held. Okay, maybe he’s a tech savant of sorts. At this point I was still trying to give him the benefit of the doubt.

However, Snowden then starts giving interviews claiming the NSA has lots of capabilities, that to many of us in the technical community, just seem damned unlikely. Are they collecting data? Sure. Are they trying to analyze and mine it? Sure. But reconciling and normalizing zetabytes of heterogeneous data is damned hard, and most often yields digital gludge. Their data repository is likely way more plentiful than their information repository. Then along come companies like Google to start piling on, indicating how the NSA Prism program really works with them. And frankly, Google’s story is far more technically plausible than Snowden’s.

For added measure, Snowden’s latest interview asserts that the NSA isn’t just snooping on US citizens, but is actively hacking China’s networks as well. Ummm… duh. Does anybody really hope that’s not happening? Especially since they’re beating on our firewalls every day like a jockey on an indolent donkey? But what has this got to do with Fourth Amendment rights, the privacy of American citizens, or the overreach of government? Did he not understand the mission of the NSA when he took the job?

And finally, the boy genius is hiding out in Hong Kong, a place with an extradition policy so friendly to the U.S. that jaywalkers are frequently remanded to the States for unpaid tickets.  This dude is no rocket surgeon.

So what gives? Why is this guy talking? And why is anyone listening?

Fair warning: what follows is pure unadulterated speculation. But someday I aspire to become a pundit on a network news channel, so I need the practice.

I think Snowden is the key operative in the NSA’s version of “The Corbomite Maneuver”. As you may recall, Corbomite was the substance Capt. Kirk claimed the enterprise was coated in. Kirk claimed Corbomite reflected any attack back on the attacker, and thus bluffed Balok into backing off despite his superior power.

I think Snowden is touting the powers of the NSA’s Corbomite. He’s a patsy—promoted beyond his capability, given access to staged capability, and indirectly urged to “blow the whistle”. He’s disclosing the capability the NSA wishes it had. Capability that would send our enemies into a technical paranoid frenzy. The goal? Forcing Al Qaeda to resort to old school postal mail and coded classified ads to communicate. Starting a cyber cold war with China by convincing them there would be technological Mutually Assured Destruction. This is a game of hacker-poker, and we just raised.

Either that, or Snowden’s an ego fueled blowhard. It’s hard to tell.

You Can’t Get There From Here

Tight BudgetKudos to David Brooks for writing a second column on the Sequester, and opening with a sincere apology for the first one. Brooks initially and erroneously claimed that Obama had no plan on the table to avoid the imminent Sequester, but then corrected himself to admit that, rather, he simply didn’t like the plan Obama had. That’s never an easy haul for anyone.

But then he goes on to lay out his 3-point plan that he would like to see Obama push to resolve the current impasse.

  1. Take entitlement spending that currently goes to the affluent elderly and redirect it to invest in the young and the struggling.
  2. Enact a value-added tax, use money from that tax to finance an income tax exemption.
  3. Talk obsessively about family structure and social repair to restitch the social fabric.

None of these are bad ideas, but none of them remotely address the current threat of Sequestration. Number 1 simply redirects funds, and so has a net neutral budget impact. Number 2 is not only budget-neutral, but requires a substantial retooling of the tax code. The details of this sort of reform take years to work out. There’s no way this would have any impact on the budget crisis du jour. And number 3 has no direct budget impact at all.

This also doesn’t address the unfortunate reality that the GOP base simply isn’t interested in solving this problem.  As Ezra Klien points out, the available deal is a far bigger gain for the Republican agenda than Sequestration. The White House is willing to cut the deficit, cut entitlements, protect defense spending, and eliminate tax loopholes as part of a settlement plan. While this does nothing to lower tax rates, it still rings the bell on 4 of the 5 major budget policy objectives on the right.

Doing nothing only cuts the deficit, and then by not as much as Obama’s current proposal. It does nothing about entitlements, tax loopholes, or tax rates. Not to mention, it significantly cuts defense. So what does the GOP win by standing firm on their plan to sit idly by?

Obviously they don’t win on achieving their stated policy agenda. They don’t win on popularity either. A plurality (49%) of Americans say the Sequester will be Republicans’ fault if it happens, while only 31% will blame Obama.

The only possible win here is personal and political. Each of the obstinate Congressmen and Senators will be able to return home and claim they denied Obama everything he ever wanted, and refused to budge even an inch in compromise. And while I’m forced to accept that there exist districts where this message plays well, I worry about the state of our society that it does.

Nonetheless, it further dooms Brooks’ plan. As a pundit on the right, he surely must realize that getting the GOP base to support something, and having the President advocate for something, are pretty much mutually exclusive.

Two things are clear. First, the Sequester is exactly what the GOP base wants to happen. Second, no deal Obama could put on the table would change that. Food for thought as you decide who gets the blame. Yet small comfort as you settle in for the Sequester induced economic recession.

A Drone to a Kill

DroneStrikeThere’s been a lot of buzz lately about the Obama administration memo justifying the killing of pretty much anyone overseas who is plotting against us, including U.S. citizens.  And the new weapon of choice for carrying out such assassinations is the armed aerial drone.

This is creating conflicting feelings on the part of many. No one wants to let the bad guys carry out their nefarious plots, or put American lives at risk unnecessarily to keep them from doing so.  But it also conjures up images of a man in a darkened room adding names to his enemy kill list, and dispatching his robot minions to carryout his lethal whims.

I think it’s helpful to realize we are actually struggling with two different conundrums here. The ethics of covert government assassination, and the ethics of automated warfare. More importantly, neither of these are new. There’s lessons to be learned in the history, and maybe in that light, the seemingly intractable issues become a bit easier to chew.

Let’s start with automated warfare. Drones are not something new as much as they are the next step in a long line of military technical advances. When guns were first introduced, there was concern that you could now kill an enemy without looking him in the eye. Was their honor in that? Was it making it too easy to kill? The advent of tanks, artillery, aerial bombing runs, and missiles all heralded the same concerns about whether or not killing was becoming too easy and too impersonal. Drones are no different. The goal of warfare is simple. Inflict maximum damage on your enemy while incurring minimal damage to yourself. Weapons are developed with this in mind, and that trend is going to continue.

There’s really no point in worrying about drones per se, or even military applications of technology. As a society, we are not going to give up the benefits of technology, and as long as the need to wage war exists, technology will also be applied to that end. The key being the existence of the need to wage war.  But that issue is ageless, and the nature of man is such that it’s likely your great-grandchildren will still be struggling with it in the next century. There’s no reason it should be keeping you up tonight.

In a similar vein, covert assassinations have been going on since the dawn of governments. From the ancient halls of the Roman Senate to the castles of medieval royals, to the lairs of banana republic dictators, come shadowy tales of the handiwork of spies, assassins, and “special operations” units. Fictional tales of the exploits of Seal teams, Delta Force, MI6, the CIA, and other covert groups working for the good guys are wildly popular.  Think about it. Did your family ever follow-up a Saturday night viewing of Jim Phelps and his Impossible Missions team with a discussion of whether or not the mission was ethical?  Did the bad guy get due process?

All except the most ardent pacifist are pretty comfortable with the notion that the bad guys get what’s coming to them, and few lose any sleep over whether or not they were tried by a jury of their peers. Did you really have any angst that Osama bin Laden was shot rather than tried? The difference is that in bin Laden’s case, and in the case of most James Bond stories, you know to a certainty the bad guys had it coming.

In the real world, the lines are much greyer. When is a guy bad enough? When is a threat imminent enough?  And we are haunted by real world examples from the USSR, Cambodia, Germany, and other countries where state enemy lists were abused to as a way to control and oppress the populace.

The upshot on covert assassinations is that by and large we have no ethical issue with bad guys not getting due process. We have a trust issue with the people making decisions about who the bad guys are. And while there’s a new memo out indicating Obama’s lawyers may be doing some unprecedented legal butt covering, it’s naive to think Obama is the first President with the power to sanction a covert assassination. They all have had such power. Those self-destructing Mission Impossible tapes didn’t record themselves. So it all comes down to deciding if there’s something particularly untrustworthy about Obama or his administration that would make him more likely to abuse that power than his predecessors. That seems a more answerable question, or at least a less anxiety inducing one.