Sunday, June 16, 2013

Is President Obama the Worst Ever on Civil Liberties?, The Demise of Blue America is Overblown

Liberals Should Stop Defending This Awful Record
I guess that I shouldn't be surprised at some level of reflex partisan defense of the Obama administration.  After all, a big part of politics is supporting your team and liberal Democrats, particularly for Senators from blue states and Representatives from heavily-Democratic areas such as urban centers.

But any basic level of intellectual honesty or ideological consistency should prohibit the defense of President Obama surrounding the combined revelations over the past month that: a. The IRS targeted Tea-Party affiliated groups for extra scrutiny relative to tax-exempt status, b. The Justice Department has been snooping very broadly around the records of journalists relative to investigations surrounding leaks and c. That the NSA has been reviewing phone records of just about every American (as well as possibly search engine results and other meta-data) as part of terrorism investigations.

Taken on their own, there are arguments that could be made for each individual action.  Tea Party groups ARE more likely to be political in nature than, say, a charity aimed at helping homeless children and perhaps deserves more individual scrutiny as to whether they are truly political organizations (which would not be tax exempt) or civic and charitable organizations (which would be.)  Leaks surrounding national security ARE a crime and the Justice department had warrants for all of the records it examined.  The government (supposedly) looked only at phone records not phone calls themselves and had warrants to do so - and by the way that program was started during the Bush administration.

But taken collectively, they paint a chilling picture of an administration with no respect for individual liberties.  The past almost 12 years since the awful events of 9/11 have been a scary one for civil libertarians like myself.  The flag-waving banner of "national security" has been used to trump all kinds of basic American rights in the name of security.  This has led to an erosion of basic search and seizure rights, rights that should be every bit as sacred to us as the other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

"I don't have anything to hide, why should I care" said a friend of mine at dinner the other day, a common sentiment among those defending the government.  And if you assume that the government is acting nobly in the interest of national security and will always do so, perhaps you would be fine with that.  I am not a terrorist, have no terrorist ties and would never be flagged in a terrorism investigation, right?

But what if, today, 5 years from now, 10 years from now, the governments intentions were less benevolent?   Do you want the government to know that a cheating spouse has been calling his lover and be able to use that information for blackmail?  Do you want the government to know that you are looking for a new job on and be able to tell your present employer?  How would you like your mother to know about the porn site that you accessed a year ago?

Maybe other people are saints and would be fine with every American knowing everything that they had done.  Maybe they've never cheated on their spouse, looked at porn, looked for another job or any of the many other legal activities that people don't necessarily want publicized.  I'm personally not at all comfortable with the government knowing my every action and having that kind of power over me.

Ben Franklin once famously said, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Could Ben Franklin have anticipated Al Qaeda terrorists?  Of course not.  But he lived in a pretty dangerous time too.  And he understood a little bit about doing things that you don't necessarily want to make public.

So President Obama, who ran on a pro-civil liberties platform, has been an utter disappointment in both continuing and expanding the reach of government into people's private lives.  Is the worst ever on civil liberties?  Probably not.  Pro-slavery President's such as Washington and Jefferson would have to rank lower (actually enslaving people is a lot worse than looking at their phone records.)  FDR and Truman would have to rank below too (internment camps are a lot more intrusive than snooping.)  But certainly W. and Obama rank near the bottom in the modern era.

What a shame.  And a shame that liberals should start speaking up against.

Some of My Exes Live in New York
A popular view among economic conservatives of late has been that blue America is collapsing.  Old liberal states and cities (those in the mid-west, Northeast and west coast, essentially) are failing, with population fleeing the crushing burden of taxes, regulation and runaway pension costs to seek greener pastures in the new powerhouses of red America (basically the Southeast and Texas.)

While it is an undeniable fact that no state has grown as fast as Texas in the past decade, I wanted to examine the premise that the old cities and states are dying.

Let's look at the facts.

First, my tip of the hat to conservatives...recent population growth has definitely been weighted towards bluer areas.  Here are the top 10 states by population growth, along with their political alliances, over the past couple of years:
(1) North Dakota (red state)
(2) Texas (red state)
(3) Utah (red state)
(4) Colorado (swing state)
(5) Alaska (red state)
(6) Florida (swing state)

(7) Washington (blue state)
(8) Virginia (swing state)
(9) Georgia (red state)
(10) South Dakota (red state)

So, of the top 10, only 1 blue state makes the list and 3 swing states with 6 red states being among the fastest growing.

However, if I look at longer-term trends, the picture is less clear.  Looking at the era since the current modern political divide basically started, basically since Reagan-Republicanism dawned, we can look at the long term trends.  Using census data from 1970 to 2010, we can examine how electoral votes (which relate to proportion of population) have shifted.

From the 1970 census, the largest states and their share of the electoral vote were as follows:
(1) California - 45 votes
(2) New York - 41 votes
(3) Pennsylvania - 27 votes
(4/5) Illinois - 26 votes
     Texas - 26 votes

Regionalizing things more, votes broke down like this:
New England (CT, RI, NH, VT, ME, MA) - 37 votes
Northeast Corridor (MD, PA, MD, NJ, NY, DE, DC) - 101 votes
Southeast (VA, WV, NC, SC, GA, TN, KY, FL) - 87 votes
Deep South (AL, MS, AR, LA, OK) - 40 votes
Mid-West (OH, MI, IL, IN, MO, WI, MN, IA) - 126 votes
Southwest (TX, AZ, NM, CO, UT, NV) - 50 votes
"Flyover" States (ND, SD, MT, WY, KS, NE, ID) - 30 votes
West Coast (WA, OR, CA) - 60 votes
Non-continental states (AK, HI) - 7 votes

In the 2010 census, 40 years later, here are the largest states:
(1) California - 55 votes
(2) Texas - 39 votes
(3) Florida - 29 votes
     New York - 29 votes
(5) Pennsylvania - 20 votes
     Illinois - 20 votes

The same regionalization produces the following split:
New England - 33 votes
Northeast Corridor - 79 votes
Southeast - 106 votes
Deep South - 36 votes
Mid-West - 101 votes
Southwest - 75 votes
"Flyover" States - 27 votes
West Coast - 74 votes
Non-continental states - 7 votes

The big gainers over that 40 year period were the Southeast (increasing from 87 to 106 votes), the Southwest (increasing from 50 to 75 electoral votes) and the West Coast (increasing from 60 to 74 votes), whereas the biggest losers were the Mid-west (from 126 to 101 votes) and the Northeast (from 101 to 79 votes.)

In aggregate, this would at least partially bear out the Republican theory of shift to more conservative states.  But if that is the case, why did the most liberal region of the country actual rank among the biggest gainers, driven by California?  Why did the deep south, the most conservative area, actually lose ground?  And why did the Southwest post gains across the board, with more liberal states like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, gaining as much as conservative places like Utah and Texas?

The answer is that demographics shifts are more complex to explain than basic political theory would explain.

Texas has grown for a couple of basic reasons - the oil boom in Texas has created economic growth and a huge influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico has driven up its population.  In fact, the illegal immigrant driver is primary in the population growth of most of the southwestern and west coast states. Texas and California share nothing in common politically or economically, except for a large influx of Mexican immigrants.  Similarly, immigration from Cuba (legal in this case), is the primary driver of Florida's massive rise in population.

Other state's growth is more driven by local immigration, that is, people moving from other states.  The Dakotas have been beneficiaries to the fracking boom and have drawn large populations from the rest of the country (well, large, compared to the base population for the Dakotas.)

While the Northeast and Mid-west have seen their populations rise in every census (Michigan being the exception, largely because of the fading jobs from the auto industry in Detroit), they have not been rising as fast as these other states because there has been no industry or immigration catalyst in these states (they don't share a border and their economies are more developed already and their cities more populated already.)

So while it is true that places outside of the Northeast and Mid-west are growing faster than those areas, their demise is highly overrated.  New York is still the financial center of the world, home to the world's largest companies and far and away the largest city in the US.

One final point on those hoping for a political sea-change based on population growth - as populations in these states are growing, they are becoming more liberal.  Virginia is now a swing-state, as are North Carolina and Florida.  Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico appear to be largely in Democratic hands now.  And I firmly believe that Texas will become a swing state in our lifetimes, unless Republicans massively shift their appeal to the immigrant population there.

The country always changes.  In 1850, the largest US cities were New York, Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans.  These days, only New York and Philadelphia remain on that list, with Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas filling in the roster - Chicago a product of growth in the 1900s, Los Angeles a product of growth in the latter half of the 20th century and Dallas a product of growth over the past 20 years.  Where the largest cities in 2050 or 2100 will be is anyone's guess, but I wouldn't bet against New York being on that list.

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Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Incredible Shrinking Obama Presidency, How Illegal Immigrants Are Like Customers

It's Been a Bad, Bad Month for Obama
Republicans aren't stupid.  Well, most of the time, at least.  Have you noticed how the noise over Benghazi has quieted down?  Sure, there are still Republicans repeating the talking points, but they are by and large beginning to realize what I have been saying for weeks - there is no real scandal there and the American people don't particularly care.

On the IRS scandal, which I believe to be real, the President is looking more and more out-of-control.  He has claimed that he found out about the scandal from the press accounts, in spite of evidence that higher-ups in the Obama administration knew of the issue last year.  The untenable nature of the President's position on this issue is clear to me - my greatest fear is not that he is lying and knew about the issue - my greatest fear is that he is telling the truth and that he is not in control of his administration.  Either way, Democrats trying to defend the scandal as not that big a deal should exercise some caution - poo-pooing the use of the IRS to cause problems for political opponents is tantamount to walking away from being the party of civil liberties.

The most chilling issue of all, in my opinion, is the investigation of reporters over leaks of classified information.  While I call this an issue and not a scandal, as it does not appear that there were any laws broken and the investigations were all conducted within the bounds of the law as it is understood, applying legal pressure to reporters for doing nothing other than listening to sources and reporting what they say is chilling.  Let me be fair - there are definitely times where national security concerns compel the government to go after those who work in government and leak classified information.  That is fair game.  But investigating reporters and seizing their records and e-mail for doing nothing more than reporting what is leaked to them is essentially criminalizing journalism.  There is good reason that all of the press, liberal, conservative and moderate are united against the Obama administration is simple - regardless of your political persuasion, if you are reporter, you don't like to see Freedom of the Press trampled upon.

The common thread between the IRS and AP/Fox News events is a disrespect for constitutional liberties - Freedom of Speech in the first case and Freedom of the Press in the second.  President Obama has a horribly weak record on civil liberties - he has extended the Patriot Act, used drone strikes on US Citizens, kept GITMO open (in spite of his half-hearted protestations that Congress has stopped him from closing it, he hasn't even released prisoners that have been cleared) and now used the heavy hand of the government to attempt to intimidate political opponents and journalists.

The man who promised the most open, transparent administration ever and to change the way that Washington did business is a long way from living up to his promises.

On Immigration and Internet Taxes
Millions of people ignore a clearly written law in the United States.  Everyone is in alignment that there needs to be reform of the law, but some protest that those who broke the law in the past shouldn't be given a pass or rewarded for their illegal activities.

Am I talking about immigration reform?  No, I'm talking about order stuff from

Sales tax laws are clear in every state that has a sales tax (New Hampshire and Delaware residents, you are off the hook) - if you order from, you must submit the sales tax that is owed on the out of state purchase to your local state government.  You thought internet sales were tax-free?  Wrong.  The law only states that in states where it doesn't have a physical presence that Amazon itself does not have to collect the tax on behalf of the state government.  You still owe it.  So if you are among the millions who have ordered from Amazon and not sent in your tax payment, you are a criminal.  You broke the law.  Should we come and throw you in jail for your crimes?

I explain all of this to debunk the notion of illegal immigrants as criminals.  Yes, in the technical sense, that word is true - entering the US illegally is a crime and a criminal, by definition is someone who commits a crime.  But that definition applies equally well to customers.  In fact, the reasons for breaking immigration laws are typically a lot more noble than the reasons for breaking our tax laws.  In the case of immigration, most illegal immigrants are breaking the law to provide food and shelter for their families.  in the case of Amazon, most people are breaking the law because they are too lazy or too cheap to pay an extra 5 or 6% on their purchase.

So let's get over this righteous indignation about illegal immigration and work on solving the problem.  And the solution has to involve a legal, dignified path for the 11 million already here without their papers.  Let's hope that conservative leaders like Marco Rubio, who has seen the light on this issue can convince enough Republicans to join him to make this effort happen - an effort that has the support of not just liberals and Democrats but Republicans like George W. Bush and John McCain.

It is time to bring people out of the shadows.