Thursday, September 30, 2010

Yes: "Let's Repeal Congress' Blank Check" (for war)

Barbara Lee of Oakland, California is my Congress Critter, an archtype in most ways of the California left-liberal Democrat  -- so naturally, she and I have little in common ideologically.

But as a Libertarian, I was delighted at her editorial today in Sept 30, 2010 San Francisco Chronicle, headlined "Let's repeal Congress' blank check"  -- referring to the "Authorization for the Use of Military Force," passed in 2001 in the heat of the 9/11 attacks, which is the basis for the past nine years of war around the world..

I am happy she is pressing to end the several wars we are currently engaged in -- but more delightful is a particular insight she gives:

"I was the only member of Congress who voted against [the bill] because I knew some would use it as a blank check to wage war anywhere in the world."

Well, looks like she called that one right, doesn't it?

What's wonderful about this is not just the amazing bravery she showed in voting against "broadly authorizing the president to use 'all necessary and appropriate force' " immediately after these acts of terror. That's no way to get the pundits on your side.

It's her critically important insight into how government works. Her paying attention to the long-term effects of such grants of power is in full agreement with Libertarian thinking -- and even more so with the thinking of the Founders.

Back in the 1960s, as the Vietnam problem was enticing the US into deeper involvement, a confused report of North Vietnamese ships firing on US ships "observing" in international waters just off the coast of North Vietnam was used to create an uproar, in the midst of which President Lyndon Johnson (a Democrat this time) submitted a request, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, similar to the more recent one mentioned above, to give the president authority to pursue the malfactors of North Vietnam with all necessary and proper force. This bill passed in the Senate 99 to 1 (who was the sole holdout, anybody remember?). This bill, now law, was used as the primary justification for everything that followed in our undeclared war in Vietnam. Just as the current authorization justifies our undeclared wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and if we choose, future wars in Iran and Somalia (and anywhere else we claim to think is influenced by al-Qaida).

The historical parallel with Barbara Lee's statement above: Years later, when enthusiasm for the war faltered, Senator Fulbright, a staunch Democrat kingmaker, said that he regretted voting for that authorization, in hindsight. His comment, approximately, was: I forgot that I was voting this power not just to this President for this moment, but to any President at any time.

Each grant of power must be viewed in this light: Laws are rarely if ever written very narrowly, but tend to be written to grant sweeping authority to act with considerable discretion -- we tend to empower the authorities to "do what's right." Mainly because "our guy" is in power and knows what we mean by "what's right."

And then one day power changes hands and the other guy is holding the reins of power -- and, dammit, he's using that power to do what *he* thinks is right. How dare he! This is what happened when Reagan became president and tried to use the power Democrats had given Democratic presidents to Do Good, except he was doing *his* idea of good -- and of course that infuriated the liberals. Who hadn't thought that far ahead.

But politicians never think that far ahead. They think about now, and about how they can manipulate now to aggrandize their power, and their likelihood of getting reelected. And, like Scarlett O'Hara, they brush aside worries about what might happen in the future: "I shall worry about that tomorrow." 

Good luck with that.

Except for Barbara Lee -- or rather, of course, except for Barbara Lee in this instance and with this issue. Her left-wing ideology starts her on the road to resisting calls for war -- though she, unlike her many left-liberal colleagues in the House and Senate at that time, actually went down that road to its logical conclusion.

I congratulate Barbara Lee for vision -- I wish she were able to see how other grants and grabs of governmental power likewise lead to greater and lesser tyrannies over time -- and for her courage in defying hysteria the first time. Rare to see that kind of guts in national politics.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

How to Decide the Powers You Should Grant a Government....

'What I have always found most extraordinary about the Constitution is that a bunch of powerful and ambitious politicians wrote a document to restrain people just like themselves. Instead of thinking, "What powers do I want when I'm in charge?", they thought, "What powers do I want that low-down skunk of an opponent of mine to have when he is in charge?" '
   --Comment posted by "bampbs" in response to a Economist article "Worshipping the Constitution." 

One of our many vices as a political, factional people is to judge something on its momentary advantage, and not think of what one's enemy might do with such power when their turn comes. It is a fatal flaw.

Senator Fulbright complained in the midst of the Vietnam War that in voting power to President Johnson war powers based on the Gulf of Tonkin incident, he had considered only what he thought this President would do with the power being granted, instead of considering what any President might do with such power. (He complained when Nixon, a Republican, became president after Johnson, a Democrat.)

I remembered this when Reagan was elected, and Democrats went into shock when it became clear that the powers they were eager to grant the Democratic president -- basically the power to "do good," the most common excuse -- was about to be exercised, not by an enlightened, liberal Democrat with values and views consonant with their own, but by a Republican with entirely different ideas of what "the good" was. (The Republicans make the same lament when the shoe is on the other foot, of course.)

Why the Constitution Is That Way
It was precisely this paradox that drove the Founders to consider and reject various schemes for ensuring that government power would be exercised wisely and properly, by the right sort of people. In the end they concluded that you simply can't ensure this, not in the long run. In the long run, somebody whose ideas you hate will seize the reins of power and proceed to 'misuse' the power you grant so eagerly to government authority when it was your people in power. 

So the Founders came to the entirely reasonable conclusion that, since power will always be abused and liberty will always be at risk, the only sensible thing to do -- the only way to ensure the liberties of the people over the long term -- was to limit the power the government could have. 

To limit it severely, in fact, and to forbid the government from taking more power (without a Constitutional amendment, made consciously hard to create). 

They were willing to sacrifice the convenience of the ruler to secure the freedoms of the people.

Our (Overly) Optimistic Founders
Sadly, they were overly optimistic; they thought that the phrase "Congress shall make no laws" could not be loosely interpreted; that a structure plainly granting specific powers could not be misunderstood as granting specific liberties -- and just to make sure, they added the 9th and 10th Amendments, hah hah. Two centuries of relentless work by those who see governmental power as a wonderful opportunity for self aggrandizement -- whether to solve problems their way, or to enrich themselves, or to impede competition, or to punish the recalcitrant, or to 'solve' urgent moral problems -- have managed to turn their whole plan upside down. And the Founders also didn't seem to realize that, in time, the people would no longer understand why the Founders had fought so hard to limit government power.

All of the arguments as to why Constitutional limits on government power should be eased, lifted, bypassed, ignored as inconvenient to the modern world are arguments against the fundamental insight of the Founders that power will always be misused. The insight, in fact, in the opening quote of this post. In effect, modern commentators want, ultimately, to brush aside the Constitution -- not amend it, not debate it, not rework it. They insist on finding arguments that will justify ignoring the inconvenience of the Constitution's impediments to their strongly felt desire to use power to do things they think they should be done. 

It's depressing. The Constitution isn't 'modern?' It allowed slavery (back when it was incapable of stopping it)? It didn't give the vote to women (in 1780)? It didn't take into account the really, really important problems we *uniquely* have today that can only be addressed by exercise of government power and authority forbidden by the Constitution because the Founders didn't realize how things have changed?

Oh please. If there is one thing the Founders *would* recognize if thy returned to modern-day Washington, it's the very familiar grasping for power -- not just by politicians, but by every rent-seeking American.

What Would You Do?
So we are left with one remaining argument to fight back: If you believe the Constitution is obsolete, that its strictures on government power should have no force, that this is a Constitutiuon of enumerated rights and not one of enumerated powers -- answer this vital question: How would you rewrite the Constitution? How would you ensure that it does not enable future tyranny? Or do you in fact not believe in the risk of tyranical exercises of power?

Or do you think only your people will ever after hold the reins of power?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Is US Aggressive Foreign Policy Forcing Nations Like China to Gear Up for War?

David Gewurtz writes, "The Chinese government is now advocating for carrier-killing missiles (and we're the only logical target). What does it mean?" He argues the case for China preparing for war, presumably with the United States.

But Roger A. Maduro below argues the case for viewing world geopolitics in this generation as one where sensible nations consider the necessity and wisdom of preparing to defend themselves against aggressive U.S. foreign policy evident in recent decades....

"Is China Gearing Up to Start a War -- or to Fight A War?

By Roger A. Maduro

is China getting ready to START WWW III of to FIGHT a war? Big difference between "gearing up to START" a war and "gearing up to FIGHT" a war. There is no reason why China would want to start a war, but to the Chinese and the Russians, and many other countries, there is every reason to believe that they may be forced to fight a war.

I would suggest switching hats for a minute and looking at the world from the perspective of the Chinese, the Russians, and other countries that are not members of NATO.

So wearing a different hat, the question is which is the country in the world waging wars all over the place? Well, that's the United States. The U.S. has invaded Iraq to "prevent it from using weapons of mass destruction" which it turns out didn't exist. 

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan and now has some 150,000 troops deployed there. To sustain the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan the U.S. now has major military bases in former Soviet republics that border both China and Russia (how would you feel if the Chinese and the Russians were to build military bases in Mexico?). 

The drums are rolling in Washington for an expected attack in Iran to supposedly stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb. To accomplish this will require a massive bombing campaign of Iran. Well, Iran turns out to be a strategic and economic ally of both China and Russia. One of the immediate consequences of this attack will the closing of the Straights of Hormuz. Guess how much oil consumed by China goes through the Straights every day?

After bombing Iran, who's next?

The U.S. is staging very aggressive and provocative military maneuvers a stone's throw from North Korea and major Chinese military installations and ports. Will North Korea be the next target? If the Chinese were to stage live-fire naval military exercises a few miles of the coast of San Diego would you not be a bit upset?

So, keeping your Chinese or Russian hat on, what would you conclude from all this military activity on the part of the US and NATO? Wouldn't the sensible thing to do is to be ready to DEFEND yourself?

The latest issue of Military History magazine <> has a very well written and researched cover story on how close the US and Russia came to war during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Using newly declassified documents and interviews the article documents how we where just a hair away from full nuclear war then. And the war was almost set off several times by stupid, unpredictable human mistakes. 

It's really worth reading that cover story to understand how dangerous our world today is. But always keep in mind which is the country that is waging wars all over the planet today.

As for the carrier-sinking missile, yet this is a HUGE development and can change the balance of power in the world when it's operational sometime next year.

--Roger A. Maduro is a founder and managing director of Linux Infrastructure, LLC (LxIS), a company founded to help small and mid-sized businesses implement open source/Linux information technology solutions that meet the full range of their business requirements with more robust, reliable and secure solutions than the Microsoft-based solutions that have been available until now. He can be reached at

Friday, September 17, 2010

"How To Slash Government Before IT Slashes You" (in 3D no less!)

Coming Soon: Reason Magazine In 3D

In a couple of weeks, the November issue of Reason magazine will be hitting mailboxes and newsstands with a 3D cover and charts that show "How to Slash Government Before it Slashes You"and offering up a series of specific spending cuts.  

You'll also get 3D glasses to view special videos on the growing cost of government and what to do about it.

You can subscribe to Reason here

The October Issue of Reason Is Online Now

Why Focus on the Bush "Tax Cuts" Over the Bush "Spending Increases"?

From this article:

"So if the feds were generally pulling in more bucks each year [during the 2000s] - even with those tax cuts that so decimated federal revenue - where did the deficits come from? 

Oh, that's right: From massively expanded spending that happened both under a lying GOP Congress and a feckless Democratic majority. 

The story of the Bush years isn't to be found on the revenue side of the ledger, but on the spending side [see charts in article]. This talk about whether tax cuts are irresponsible given the fiscal pickle we're in is nothing more than a way of diverting attention from what Milton Friedman identified years ago as the true cost of government: how much the government shells out in a given year. We're on the hook for it, either through higher taxes now or higher taxes later. 

We're in a lousy economy and most folks would agree that it's not a great idea to hike taxes or create huge new entitlements and regulations that will take years to figure out. That sort of action creates exactly the sort of uncertainty that freezes people. So do desperate attempts to keep house prices from falling, zombified banks and car companies from going belly up, etc. 

The one thing the federal government could conceivably do is bring some commitment to freezing or rolling back spending and intervention to some baseline. The first rule when you find yourself in a deep hole? Bitch and moan that it's the other guy's fault. The second rule? Stop digging. Yes, I know, it's unlikely but not impossible that the feds would actually stop spending (go check Clinton's first four years). 

But this much is certain: To talk about how 'tax cuts' inexorably add to deficits ignores the amount of tribute that poured into D.C. throughout most of the '00s. It's a fundamentally faulty and fruitless discussion." 
- Editor Nick Gillespie 

Friday, September 10, 2010

My Profession--News--Embarrasses Me: The San Bruno Gas Pipeline Explosion

Once again I am puzzled over how news coverage works -- in the case of the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion yesterday (Sept 9), the coverage in all media continues to be, the next day, entirely focused on the fireballs, the burning/burnt houses, the victim stories. 

My early questions include: *What* high-pressure gas pipeline? What's that, and why is it running through the middle of our neighborhoods? Are there other like this? What's the story on 24-inch pipes of fuel being transported into our urban areas? There's got to be an interesting background story on that, at least. 

But no, apparently not. Or apparently it's so well hidden that our friends in the news media haven't been able to dig it out yet. (One reporter, at least, knew a little: He pointed out that the natural gas for our water heaters comes to California from Texas in pipelines like these. Wow, interesting - tell me more! Nope.)

And as we all know, if there is an obvious immediate question that arises during a news incident, and you, the reporter, don't have an answer yet, the SOP is to pretend there *is* no question -- to ignore it, not to mention that you are aware there is a question. Just in case the listeners/viewers/readers don't think of it - that way they won't think you're an idiot for not being able to answer the question. Apparently techniques like "Questions arise about these pipelines--what are they, how do they work, why are they under our streets?--and we're digging into those answers for you right now" are unknown to these reporters and news editors.

Except of course *everybody in your audience* wonders about the item in question, and thinks you're idiots for very obviously and publicly not thinking of such obvious questions!

It makes me crazy.

Sometime in the coming days we'll get in-depth reports on the pipelines -- done in the breathless alarmist style "Are we in constant danger from these pipelines which run EVERYWHERE!?!?! When will some politician or government agency do something to protect us?!?!"

It should be easy - I did see one snippet (three paragraphs) this morning in which they found a government agency 'in charge' of this stuff, who mentioned that dozens of pipelines like this break, catch fire, blow up, etc., and dozens of people die each year. Oh. We didn't know. Because it wasn't News yet.

So stand by for the second-order fallout from this story: For the next six to nine months, every time a pipeline breaks, catches fire, burns, and/or kills anyone, anywhere in the country -- it will be on the front page. It's been happening for years, you understand, without making the front page -- but now it will be top-of-the-news leaders. 

Making you think it's a brand-new, horrible, scary problem. Rather than the same old problem we've only now decided can generate headlines. 

And, as happened with the LA Freeway Shootings of the early 1980s -- remember those? -- after nine months or a year, when the novelty wears off and everyone gets bored with having Yet Another Pipeline Explosion story, it will fade from the front page to the back pages, and eventually back to non-coverage, where it has always been. 

This is what happened with the LA Freeway Shooting stories. After several months of hyper coverage of every freeway shooting, some reporter happen to look it up and find that there have been dozens of these things every year -- for decades. But they had never covered it before, and after a year or so, we all got bored so they stopped covering it again. The LA Freeway Shootings continue -- coverage doesn't -- we're tired of this story -- what else ya got? That's what will happen with this story.

The oil pipelines story might last a little longer than that because the politicians can more effectively jump on this with both feet -- by the end of the day today, I expect, at least one govt agency will announce hearings, and at least one pol will propose important new laws to Make Sure This Doesn't Happen Again. (And issue press releases pointing out that The Other Political Party Supports Exploding Pipelines.) And that government agency that's supposed to be in charge of these things but obviously failed to do its job? They'll get much-increased funding.

Sigh.... My profession (journalism) embarrasses me.

BTW Here are a few related links:

Snopes, on a gas pipeline explosion:
Wikipedia list of pipeline failures worldwide:
Detailed somewhat technical discussion of the national (US) network of gas transport pipelines:

Now you can be better informed -- or better informed than your local news reader, anyway...