Addiction to flawed systems outside of Washington

 Sam Smith

A day after I wrote about Obama’s hat trick of failures – Obamacare, NSA and Common Core – I went to vote in my Maine town of 7,000 on, among other things, a couple of bond issues affecting our school system.

It was the second time this year we had to vote on the matter. Because of the anger over the defeat of the first vote, the original issue had been divided in two – general expansion of school facilities and a proposed new track and field. The first one won narrowly this week and the second was defeated. Our town supported both, the other two villages opposed both.

Which wouldn’t be all that surprising were it not for the fact that the winning bond may never be activated because in December we have to go back to the polls to decide whether we want to stay in a “regional school unit” with two adjoining towns. If the answer is no, then the expansion will be dead because there will be less students.

If I have you a bit confused, join the club.

Regional school units were created in 2008 by the administration of a Democratic state government under Governor Baldacci. The deal was you either went along or you lost a lot of state money. Like the Obama administration, the Maine government thought it knew what was best for the schools. And if you didn’t agree, you paid a penalty.

But at the local level, the math didn’t always work out right. As Wikipedia reports, the town of Brewer “faced an annual loss of $244,000 in state subsidies for rejecting the consolidation plan, but potentially a loss of $2.74 million in increased salaries over the first 3 years if it had been approved.”

Still, 74 RSU plans were approved including in my town, which thus became the high school host for the other two villages. These villages, with more poverty than our town, did not like the new track or even an expansion that was truly necessary because of the students they had added.

As with Obamacare and Common Core, such issues were not considered in the master plan.

Governor Baldacci is long gone and come December I’ve got to figure out how to vote on this mess. And just this week five other towns voted to pull out of their RSUs.

Another collapse of abstract systems we were told would save our specific butts.

The problem with such systems is that they are a paper versions of reality that ignore various varieties of the latter until it’s too late. They tend to ignore true economics, variations in culture, local politics and anything that can’t be measured.

Which is why things like history, civics, music – just to name a few – are disappearing from the public school system. No corporation has come up with a standardized test for them.

I actually saw this coming a long time ago. Before they had RSUs, they created School Administrative Districts. I would watch school buses go by with signs on them like “SAD 25” and ask myself, what decent teacher would want their kids riding on a bus labeled “SAD.”

And now it really is sad.

Whistleblowing in the winds of Washington

Sam Smith

For more than twenty years I’ve been a board member of the Fund for Constitutional Government which, among its activities, has assisted in funding several groups deeply involved in helping whistleblowers.

So the Edward Snowden story is anything but a new one to me. In fact, one of the funded groups – the Government Accountability Project – aided a couple of whistleblowers now being widely quoted in the Snowden case. Thomas Drake, and Bill Binney were clients of GAP. And both had worked for the NSA.

As a whistleblower site explains it: “In September 2002, three retired NSA employees and a retired congressional staffer filed a complaint accusing the NSA of massive fraud, waste and mismanagement. . .Drake did not sign the complaint because, still working at NSA, he feared retaliation. However, Drake became a critical material witness, fully cooperating with the investigation and using proper channels to provide investigators with thousands of documents – classified and unclassified.”

And, reports Wikipedia, “In 2010 the government alleged that Drake ‘mishandled’ documents, one of the few such Espionage Act cases in U.S. history. Drake’s defenders claim that he was instead being persecuted for challenging the Trailblazer Project. On June 9, 2011, all 10 original charges against him were dropped. Drake rejected several deals because he refused to “plea bargain with the truth”. He eventually pled to one misdemeanor count for exceeding authorized use of a computer; Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who helped represent him, called it an act of ‘civil disobedience.’”

I remember sadly Drake’s visit to a FCG board meeting, realizing that this man, who had shown integrity so rare in the capital, was no longer a senior official of NSA but working at an Apple store.

And the secrets don’t have to be even classified.

Wikipedia records people like James E Hansen, a top NASA scientist, who got into trouble as late as 2005 for revealing data that showed 2005 was the warmest year in a century. “Restrictions were placed on his ability to speak publicly about climate change research, including a requirement that public affairs staff review his lectures, papers, and web postings before releasing them. News media were repeatedly denied interviews with Hansen by his supervisors, and drafts of his reports are severely edited before publication”

About the same time Rick Piltz of the US Climate Change Science Progress obtained documents that “showed that a White House official with no scientific training was editing climate change science program reports in an attempt to confuse and obscure the perceived human impact on global warming. That official, previously a lead lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, was hired by Exxon Mobil mere days after leaving the White House (on the heels of the story).’

Hansen and Piltz were GAP clients.

Another group FCG helps fund is the sainted Project on Government Oversight, which has pursued matters from the profoundly corrupt to correcting a ridiculously naïve reflection of how the nature of our government has come to be misunderstood even on Capitol Hill, i.e. explaining to new staffers why members of Congress don’t have to file Freedom of Information requests to get information from the executive branch.

And, “in 2004, POGO filed a lawsuit against then-Attorney General John Ashcroft for illegally retroactively classifying documents critical of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The classification came to light after Sibel Edmonds, an FBI translator, discovered that intercepted memos relevant to the September 11 terrorist attacks had been ignored due to poor translation. POGO ultimately won the lawsuit.”

Then there was our long time board member, Ernie Fitzgerald who revealed the $2.3 billion cost overrun of a Pentagon airplane project. Richard Nixon fired him for that and only after extensive litigation was he restored to his post, where he didn’t give up, discovering in the 1980s that his agency was spending $600 a piece on some toilet seats and $400 apiece for some hammers.

After you listen to this stuff for a couple of decades something like the Snowden story is not all that surprising. And you learn that whistleblowers and their protectors are among the most valuable souls in the capital. Most people, though, aren’t that fortunate. The Washington establishment and its embedded media don’t want these stories remembered. And so premeditated amnesia accomplishes what improper secret classification couldn’t.

Further, after listening to this stuff of a couple of decades you also realize that whistleblowers fail to fulfill the fantasies of either their fans or their attackers. For one thing, there is no college that offers a course in whistleblowing. All whistleblowers are amateurs and that can be dangerous, confusing and depressing. Fortunately, the staff at groups like POGO and GAP not only know how to help on legal, public relations and political aspects of the problem, they also are good therapists, which is immensely valuable since telling the truth in Washington is one of the most dangerous things to do in town.

One learns from these folks that whistleblowers are ordinary people who find themselves in an extraordinary situation and – for reasons ranging from passion for the decent to a simple habit of honesty – react in a way that gets them on the front page of newspapers and the front row of a courtroom.

Yet, as Jack Shafer of Reuters put it:

Leakers like Snowden, Manning and Ellsberg don’t merely risk being called narcissists, traitors or mental cases for having liberated state secrets for public scrutiny. They absolutely guarantee it. In the last two days, the New York Times’s David Brooks, Politico’s Roger Simon, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen and others have vilified Snowden for revealing the government’s aggressive spying on its own citizens, calling him self-indulgent, a loser and a narcissist.

And we forget that:

Secrets are sacrosanct in Washington until officials find political expediency in either declassifying them or leaking them selectively. It doesn’t really matter which modern presidential administration you decide to scrutinize for this behavior, as all of them are guilty. For instance, President George W. Bush’s administration declassified or leaked whole barrels of intelligence, raw and otherwise, to convince the public and Congress making war on Iraq was a good idea. Bush himself ordered the release of classified prewar intelligence about Iraq through Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby to New York Times reporter Judith Miller in July 2003.

Finally, as Christopher Pyle wrote in Consortium News:

Why can’t these politicians respect Mr. Snowden for what he is: an ordinary young man who does not claim to be a hero, but is willing to go to jail, if necessary, to start a debate over what our bloated intelligence community and do-nothing Congress are doing to our liberties?

Part of the answer is that the politicians don’t want to admit that Congress (and the courts) have failed to exercise adequate oversight over a giant network of secret agencies and corporations that is wasting billions of dollars on worthless surveillance and, in the process, invading the privacy of millions of Americans and endangering the capacity of reporters, leakers, and crusading members of Congress to check the secret abuses of secret government.

You ain’t nothing but a market in the making

Sam Smith – The commerce clause of the Constitution – which has been steadily replacing the Bill of Rights in the minds of the faux intellectuals of America – could easily mean absolutely anything after the Supreme Court decides the Obamacare case.

As lawyers have taken over American politics, documents such as the Constitution are no longer considered moral and political declarations, but rather just another scroll down list of legal requirements for which your only right is to click, “I agree” in order to use America.

And because lawyers these days largely work for corporations, we no longer live in a democracy, a culture, a land, but in a market. Thus everything is decided relative to the market.

Hence this from the Wall Street Journal:

Justice Kennedy, however, later seemed to sympathize with the government’s argument that everyone is involved in health-care commerce because at any time they might need medical care. He said uninsured young people are “very close to affecting the rates of insurance and the costs of providing medical care,” suggesting they too are engaged in commerce.

So you no longer have to be participating in interstate commerce, you just have to might be at some point in order to be “very close to affecting” the market and thus covered by the commerce clause.

In other words, the government will be able to tell you how to have sex, because, after all, you might have to purchase a condom.

This is what happens when lawyers replace philosophers, priests, writers, teachers and politicians in the interstate commerce of thought and morality.

Data demons infiltrate the Coast Guard

Sam Smith

Having been a Coast Guard officer with a number of petty officers working for me, I was startled when another former Coastie sent me a copy of a five page Enlisted Employee Review Worksheet of the sort I would have to fill out numerous times if I were currently on the job.

As I recall, my employee reviews consisted of saying something to the captain like, “You know Bill’s fucking good and deserves a promotion.”

The reason I didn’t have to say much more than that was that both the captain and I knew that Bill was fucking good, having seen him doing his work day to day, or a hundred miles at sea during a heavy weather rescue, or watching him helping get a buoy on station. Our Coasties did real things with real results and you didn’t need a whole mess of adjectives and abstractions to judge them.

But now the data demons have taken over the Hooligan Navy along with just about everything else in America and so I would now be required to:

“After observing and gathering input on member’s performance and behavior, evaluate member’s performance against the written performance standards and place an “X” within the appropriate oval. Give form with recommended marks and written comments to the Marking Official within the time frames specified in the CG Personnel Manual.”

I would set about making carefully filled in marks (no partially filled circles)  next to such assessments as:

“Made good use of available personnel and their skills. Materials, budget, tools, equipment, and publications effectively used. Supported new approaches, methods, or technologies. Met all customer needs.”

[We didn’t have any customers when I was in the Coast Guard; we just had citizens]

“Used all personnel and their skills to capacity in a positive working environment. Sought out better ways to accomplish tasks. Developed new methods or approaches.”..

“Handled stressful situations well. Worked extra hours as required to get the job done. Productivity and safety were adequate.”

Five pages of this sort of crap can make you a bit dizzy and leave you feeling like you’re working for a insurance company or a chain store rather than the Coast Guard.

Worse – and this is true every place that demonic data collection is taking place – to process this junk you must waste money employing people who have no true useful skills to offer the organization and who take time and money away from those who do. The data demons don’t provide a positive working environment, they don’t find better ways to accomplish tasks, they don’t provide productive and safety. They just create piles of paper and hours of wasted time.

Lies of our times: You solve problems with new cabinet departments

Sam Smith

When national politicians get stuck, they create a new cabinet department. There is little evidence to suggest that this helps whatever it is the department is meant to be doing. It does, however, greatly increase the opportunities for waste and fraud. In the post-WWII era there have been a number of new cabinet departments such as:

– In 1949, a few years after victory in World War II, the Department of Defense was created. America never again won a major conflict. Instead it fought three wars – Korea, Vietnam and Gulf – to a stalemate and was reduced to bombing and invading tertiary countries such as Granada, Panama and Afghanistan.

– In 1965, LBJ created the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A few years later America’s cities were ravished by riots and went into a long decline. No new major housing programs on the scale, say, of the VA or FHA programs were ever created again. Further, HUD became a center of fiscal corruption second only to the Department of Defense.

– In 1979 the Department of Education was created, following which the quality of American public education has continued to decline to the point that it is now relies on George W. Bush for ideas.

The new Department of Homeland Security [sic] will undoubtedly follow in this pattern, especially given that it will even be stripped of civil service protections. You may fairly expect it to be inefficient in its tasks and wasteful in its spending, corrupt, anti-democratic, a honey pot of political patronage, and, as a consequence, an additional danger to the homeland security of the American people.