Archive for November, 2012

A Waste of Everything

Finally! Other people are starting to say what has only been whispered up to now: airport security is a giant boondoggle and a waste of, well, everything connected with it – most prominently tax dollars and traveler time.  It is a waste because it is vastly out of proportion to the problem it is allegedly solving – the danger of death from terrorism when flying.

This point is made and thoroughly documented in an article titled “Airport Security Is Killing Us” in the latest issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.  Yes, I said “Bloomberg Businessweek”.  This is not a small nor a fringe publication, certainly not radically right or left, although some at those extremes might disagree.  As yet, this article does not appear to be online, so if you want to read it, buy the magazine: November 26 – December 2 edition with a flaming Jack Welch on the cover.  If and when it appears online, I’ll post a comment.  Meanwhile, here are some points to whet your appetite.

What it costs: the TSA annual budget: 8 billion dollars.  Number of employees: 50,000, up from 16,000 in 2002.  Indirectly, the spending on homeland security from 2002-2011 is estimated at $580 billion.  As Senator Everett Dirksen said a couple generations ago, “that adds up to real money.” Think how much squawking there was about far smaller amounts of government spending during the last campaign and over the past few years. Did anyone question what we are actually getting from that $580 billion?  If so, I didn’t hear it.

So what are we getting?  Supposedly, protection from the risk of being killed by a terrorist attack while on an airline flight.  Alright, so what is that risk, and how does it compare to the risk of other ways of dying?  Here are a few examples, again courtesy of the article: chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident, 1 in 98; dying by drowning, 1 in 1103; dying from contact with hornets, wasps, bees, 1 in 79,842; dying from being hit by lightning, 1 in 134,906; dying in terrorist attack aboard a US commercial airliner, 1 in 25,000,000.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll take my chances on the airliner, so long as they don’t let any bees on board.

I suppose some would say that those statistics shows what a good job TSA is doing – making flying 180 times less risky than being hit by lightning!   Wow.  And for only $8 billion a year.  I am reminded of the story I heard as a kid: I see this guy walking around, snapping his fingers and chanting “hooba hooba”.  I say to him, “why are you doing that?”  He says, “to keep the elephants away!”  I say, “but there aren’t any elephants within 6000 miles of here!”  He says, “works good, don’t it.”

It is, quite simply, time we stop being stupid about airline security and homeland security.  In the wake of 9/11/2001, we were in fear and paranoia.  The politicians rushed to provide all kinds of ‘protection’ to allay our fears.  Unfortunately, neither the politicians nor the people stopped to ask what it cost and what we get for the cost.  For a few years there, any such questions were derided as being “soft on terrorism” or worse.  Over the years, I got really tired of hearing people say, “better safe than sorry” as if that were the actual choice.  Nobody stopped to ask if we what were really getting was “safe and sorry” – sorry for the delays, personal intrusions, and huge expenditures that didn’t make us any safer – and whether just plain “safe” wasn’t the real alternative. No.  “Better safe than sorry” was simply a surrender to unquestionable government control.

OK, so there may still be some who believe we are safer.  In effect, they say, “what if there were no TSA? We would have had more events like 9/11/01”.  Of course, we can never know for sure “what if”, but I say there is ample cause to believe that more changed on 9/11 than putting the TSA in motion. I wrote years ago, including here on 9/11/2006, that we the people learned enough on 9/11/2001 to be sure it would not happen again.  Specifically, we learned the answer to the question:

“How the hell could several hundred people have been controlled and killed by 3-4 guys with nothing more than BOX CUTTERS???”

We learned the inconvenient truth that we were terrorized by a few guys with box cutters because:

“…that’s what we were taught and told to do before 9/11!  Go along, don’t fight back, try to negotiate, stall for time, leave it to the authorities. Well, that doesn’t work when your adversary is unequivocally intending your death or their own or both.”

This was proved on that same day – 9/11/01:

“We didn’t need Afghanistan, or Iraq, or the 5 years of shit that’s been done in the name of homeland security since then. How do I know? Because the 4th airliner never reached its target. Because enough extra minutes had elapsed that the passengers on that 4th airliner found out through use of their cell phones what had happened in NY and DC, and they did rise up and they brought that fucking plane DOWN — sacrificing themselves rather than let the bastards fly it into another target.”

It was proved again a couple years later in the infamous “shoe bomber” incident.  Remember, the TSA had nothing do to with it.  The guy was on the plane, and when nearby passengers saw what he was doing, they wrestled him to the floor.

Ever since then, we have had to remove our shoes and put them through the x-ray, but no claim has been made that that procedures has detected a single terrorist attempt.  Not one.  Zero.

Sure, the TSA can report some discoveries.  Per the Bloomberg article, “The TSA’s ‘top good catches’ of 2011′ did include 1,200 firearms and – their top find – a single batch of C4 explosives (though that payload was discovered only on the return flight.)”  The report doesn’t say it, but obviously, none of those things were found in somebody’s crotch. And by the way, the TSA didn’t spot a single terrorist trying to board an airline in the US.

Anyhow, I strongly you recommend you read this article, however you can find it.  And after you do, see if you don’t agree with me that there has been, and continues to be, a  cost of all this beyond the tax dollars and the delays and the personal intrusions.  The cost I have in mind is our loss of freedom.  The loss that occurs when we surrender our judgement and physical being to the power of government.  When we stop owning the right to ask questions and instead place near-absolute power in government authority, we become just one more populace at risk of succumbing to totalitarianism.  We are actually practicing for the role.

Fortunately, we have drawn back somewhat from the specter of martial law or the like.  But just because we have, don’t imagine that we are blessed or somehow immune.  Never say, “it can’t happen here.”  It can’t happen here only if a substantial number of us speak out and call out the fear mongering and appeals to paranoia used by politicians to advance their own power.  It can’t happen here only if a substantial number of us resist “group think” and are willing to question “better safe than sorry”, head-in-the-sand thinking.

We have a good opportunity right now to reverse the mistakes of the past decade.  To stand up say we do not want the delusion of security created by inconvenience, personal intrusion, and the massive expenditure of money.  To stand up and say we expect and demand concrete justification for the money we spend, and evaluation of the money we have spent.  To really understand that dying in a car crash is 100,000 times more likely than dying from a terrorist attack on an airliner, and start acting accordingly.

Is there hope for the Republican Party?

And why would I care?  Well, despite the fact that my posts have favored Democrat candidates and office holders for some years, it is not because I am a card-carrying ideologically pure Democrat.  There have been, and continue to be, some very decent, competent and level-headed Republicans whose presence in a Presidential or other campaign for high office would likely result in a much more substantive dialog.  Imagine, for example, if John Huntsman had been the Republican nominee this year.  He was the lone voice of reason and practicality early in the primary season, and of course, he was quickly eliminated in the frantic race to the right by the field of Republican candidates.

At present, it is hard to imagine what such a campaign would have been like because, with his early departure, you may have very little sense of John Huntsman, and even more because the idea of a thoughtful Republican candidate seems so incongruous in today’s Republican Party.  It was not always so.  It used to be that there were “moderate” Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower and, ironically, George Romney, who didn’t run a campaign based on religious right hot buttons (gay rights, abortion, and, this year, even birth control) or on coded appeals to racial and ethnic prejudices.

A better campaign isn’t the reason, of course, rather it is that I believe that a healthy two-party system results in better government.  The Republican party has, over the past few decades, drifted further and further away from the role of a principled competitor and player in the sphere of democratic representative government. Specifically, it has become increasingly focused on tactics to win elections and maintain political power rather than on governing well and remaining viable for that reason.  It has been well documented how the divisive “southern strategy” was developed under Richard Nixon based on thinly-disguised appeals to white voters nervous about the growing number of African-American voters enfranchised under the advances of the 1960s.

The past four years have given us the nadir of this course, with major Republican leaders declaring from the moment of Obama’s election that their “most important” priority was that he not be reelected. In saying this, they effectively rejected the voice of the voters as expressed by a substantial margin, and subsequently gave the impression of opposing anything that would make Obama look good, even if it were also good for the country. This arrogance among Republican leaders in believing that they know better than the voters has happened before.  In the unraveling of the Watergate scandal under Richard Nixon, John Mitchell, the Attorney General who was convicted of deep involvement in the coverup, said, “This election was too important. We couldn’t risk the possibility of the wrong outcome.” In other words, we can’t just leave it up to the people.

So is there hope for the Republican Party?  Despite this long history, there were moments during election night and since that suggest some awareness has been raised.  As often as not however, it came out as a lament or complaint: “This isn’t the traditional America anymore!” – presumably referring to the “Father Knows Best” picture of all-white suburbs and stay-at-home moms, where minorities, if they dared even vote or speak in public, would dutifully follow the example of the wiser white men who were entitled to lead society.  Those of us in the “reality-based community” know that that America never actually existed. That so many Republicans seem to believe it did is an example of the fundamental thing that must change if there is to be any chance of a viable Republican Party.

That “thing” is the right-wing’s nearly complete rejection of “reality” as represented by scientific theories, logic as it has been understood since the time of the ancient Greeks, ‘facts’ as distinct from ‘beliefs’ and ‘opinions’, and even basic arithmetic.  The examples of this over the past campaign year are countless and mind-boggling, and they are well-documented in numerous articles such as this one by Frank Rich.

Perhaps most quantifiable is the curious fact that all of the Republican polls that Romney was seeing (and that were endlessly repeated on Fox News and other right-wing media) predicted Romney winning the election, including every one of the swing states, all of which were finally won by Obama – NH, Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Colorado.  One has to wonder how polls, supposedly run by professionals, could be so consistently skewed and all in the same direction.  Perhaps the clearest reason is revealed in the widespread disparagement heaped on Nate Silver, the statistician writing for the NY Times who correctly predicted all 50 states. Of course, as his predictions indicated an Obama win, they accused him of being politically biased – a typical expression of their belief that not to accept the ‘facts’ according to right-wing orthodoxy is to prove that one is politically motivated.  As Frank Rich says, this is also one of many obvious cases of ‘projection’ by Republicans – they believe everyone else is doing what they know, at least somewhere in their subconscious, that they themselves are doing.

A few cracks appeared in the stone wall on election night when the Fox news pundits finally had to confront a series of facts that they could not ignore or negate – the election results rolling in from state after state that culminated in the inescapable fact of an overwhelming Obama electoral college victory, one that even Fox News joined in calling before midnight.  That call produced an iconic moment in the much reported meltdown of Karl Rove, disputing Fox’s own statisticians call of Ohio for Obama and leading Fox News anchor Megan Kelly to challenged him, saying “is this Republican arithmetic that you do to make yourself feel better, or is this real?”

Hence, the most obvious explanation of the consistently wrong prediction by Republican pollsters boils down to: (1) results showing Obama winning would brand you as a liberal defector, and (2) “Republican arithmetic” can be used to produce the expected result.

Equally obvious, “Republican arithmetic” is one of the things that Republicans will need to give up if there is to be hope of regaining the role of a credible party.  Republicans have been using that kind of arithmetic in connection with issues such as global warming, evolution, and budget proposals.  As we said above, this is one piece of a widespread rejection of science and logic, as if the very country that they hope to lead wasn’t in fact made great by the logic and wisdom of its founders and the regular application of science from Ben Franklin to the present day.

To again be a party with a decent respect for science and fact-based reality, the Republican party will need to do another thing: divorce its unholy alliance with Rush Limbaugh and all the rest of the flaming right-wing talk show entertainers.  As I said in that previous piece, these people will go on making up their own facts, spinning conspiracies of foreign-born Presidents, and lamenting the destruction of “traditional America” as long as they have an audience.  That is their job, but it is not the job of elected office holders.   The Republicans must realize and accept that the “ditto-heads” and such are a small and shrinking audience, that you can’t win elections with just that audience, and that the rants of these people are a serious turn-off for an increasingly large majority of the voting population. Regardless of the source, Republicans should take President Obama’s wise observation, “It is always a good idea to ignore Donald Trump” and apply it to a few others as well.

We can hope that, in the long run, the Republicans will adopt a number of basic positions because they are the right thing and consistent with American ideals of personal and religious freedom: (1) accepting and welcoming people of all colors and ethnicities as full and deserving members of society; (2) accepting that freedom of religion means any religion or none, not just Christian, and includes not presuming to impose by law the tenants of one religion on all others with regard to matters like same-sex marriage; (3) taking seriously, with a healthy degree of study and questioning when needed, the general body of modern scientific knowledge, not rejecting it or equating it with religious beliefs.

In the short run, Republicans will need to move toward these positions in order to retain any chance of winning elections, and a few may be confronting that reality now.  Whether it will take hold remains to be seen.  The talk show rants won’t let up, and they’ll probably double down on their doom and gloom scenarios and conspiracy theories, such as massive election fraud as why Obama actually won. Many Republican politicians will find it too scary to put some distance between themselves and the narrow social agenda of the religious right, as well as the divisive rants of the talk shows.  The wiser ones will recognize that most ordinary Republican voters are not ideologically tied to Rush Limbaugh or the religious right, and even those who are won’t be voting for Democrats in any event.

The wiser ones will also realize that there are valid and important questions and issues that remain and are appropriate to be dealt with in the job of governing: the size of government, how to make social program work more effectively; how to balance the competing needs for government action, deficit reduction, tax reform, and economic growth; immigration; energy and environment; how to change voting practices, not to discourage minority and elderly voters, but rather to make fully enfranchised and accurate voting the norm; and so on.  These issues must be approached with the understanding that they are complex and require the use of real arithmetic, not Republican or Democrat arithmetic, real facts and statistics, real economic expertise, etc.   In other words, there will remain plenty of areas and issues where principled positions can differ, and Republicans must choose to spend their energy on those kind of issues, not on social/religious issues, and not on trying to tilt or rig the country so that an appeal to any narrow demographic again becomes a way to win elections.

Republicans also need to accept a bit more diversity within their own party and not consider any deviation from orthodoxy as akin to treason.  They need to accept that it is OK to be seen working with Democrats in office and coming up with solutions that may differ from the demands of the extremes of either party.  Governor Chris Christy demonstrated this in connection with the President’s visit to areas devastated by Hurricane Sandy.  Some Republicans have criticized him for this.  They, at least, have not yet learned that it is more important to do the right thing than to test every action and statement only for perceived partisan advantage.