Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Silence = Death

Thirty years ago, on April 23rd, 1984, the word went forth that AIDS had a viral cause and we knew what it was. What had once been called GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) had spiraled out of control in America since it first surfaced in 1981. Three years later, as Dr. James O. Mason of the C.D.C. announced the identity of the viral agent, more than 4,000 people carried it within their bodies or had already left their bodies at its direction. In those three years, over 1,800 Americans were destroyed by AIDS. Their President would publicly speak the name of their killer only in 1985 and would not hold a press conference on the issue until 1987.

Silence in the face of HIV is not a uniquely American phenomenon, but it was Americans who helped shatter that silence and inspire others to do so around the world. The excellent 2012 documentary, How to Survive a Plague, follows ACT UP and TAG as they found their voice in a world that wanted to ignore the suffering of so-called deviants--gay men and IV drug users--while the rest of America still felt safe. While not all the movement's voices rang in chorus at all times, their cry for help, for respect, for action resounded beyond protest sites and into the world's most powerful halls.

Others survived the epidemic as the world fell away around them--neighborhoods lost as neighbors collapsed into wheelchairs and caskets. We Were Here, a 2013 Emmy nominee, connects with five witnesses to the horror of the Castro's disintegration in San Francisco and shares their memories of the communities and friends that were lost in the desperate years before the miraculous triple cocktail. Nurses, flower sellers, and political organizers all shared a nightmare that most turned away from in disgust or despair.

Of course, HIV and AIDS didn't start or stop in the United States. Frontline created a record of the pandemic for the 25th anniversary of the disease that enveloped the world and traces its path from the Congo to the Castro and beyond. The Age of AIDS is no less virulent for the passing of a few years. It starkly yet sympathetically examines the responses to the crisis at home and abroad that all too often fell short but occasionally inspire tears of pride for the courage of leaders in office and out.

61,816 people reportedly died of AIDS in the year of my birth, 1988. By then, the syndrome had become the third-leading cause of death for American men between 25 and 44 years of age. Today, more than 35 million people around the world live with the virus, almost as many as the 36 million who are estimated to have died from AIDS-related causes.

On that day in 1984, H.H.S. Secretary Margaret Heckler declared that a vaccine was expected within two years. We have yet to find a cure, in spite of all the protests, the declarations, the speeches. That said, silence was worse. Far worse.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

For the Fulbright, For the Future

I received a Fulbright to study public nutrition in Germany in 2011. That experience allowed me to learn another language, explore another culture, and share my slice of America with another continent. I was one of roughly 1,600 American scholars who receive funding each year.

I know several friends in other countries who hope to receive Fulbright grants to study in the US and join 4,000 students from around the world who aspire to benefit from our universities and develop skills that can support their homelands and enrich the United States as well.

Foreign aid and diplomatic outreach are among the most effective and worthy projects undertaken by our national government. It’s easy to cut a bridge that doesn’t land in a constituent’s back yard, but those bridges are what ennoble America and tie it to the aspirations of people around the world.

If we become a guns and butter country, unwilling to lift people towards their dreams because they weren’t born American, then we will have failed the vision that we hold dear. Our city on a hill will loom, not welcome; fester, not flourish.

We owe it to future generations to support a positive American presence in the world. 8,000 people each year are brighter, wiser, and stronger thanks to the support of the American government and a world’s worth of partners.

The world isn’t ready for our light to go softly behind walls of ignorance and insouciance. In this age of doubt, distrust, and despair, connections made between different peoples are among the beacons of light that keep our world aglow in possibilities for a better tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Secrecy and Trust in Surveilled Times

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, former Secretary of State, Henry Stimson declared "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail," when asked about his decision to close the State Department's code-breaking office in 1929. The US was at peace until 1941, but active intelligence gathering before that December 7th might have thwarted Japan's infamous surprise attack.

Espionage is a preventative measure, seeking to catch those who would do us harm before triggers are pulled and civilians or their nation's interests are hurt. As such, spying should remain secret so as to make it effective. Snowden, whatever his intent, is exposing and wounding the very agencies that seek out threats from those who target our embassies overseas and our public spaces at home.

We live in a Republic governed by a constitution written to preserve essential liberties, such as freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. We are still discovering how that 18th century language applies to 21st century methods and the unprecedented surveillance made possible by modern technology. Our Republic places that exploration in the hands of our elected representatives, the courts, and the bureaucracy of the executive branch.

Abuses of power, corruption, individual or systemic abuses deserve to be exposed, but it should be done in a manner to minimize the damage to legitimate practices—approved by Congress, overseen by courts, and carefully calibrated by cadres of intelligent intelligence lawyers. I don't think Snowden’s leaks meet that standard—for all the good that some of his revelations may do.

We as citizens shouldn’t expect or hope to know all that is done in our name. Some element of trust is involved in governance, and when that trust is violated through illegal behavior it needs to be curtailed and the government must hold itself and its agents accountable. In turn, voters in a functioning republic hold their representatives accountable for impropriety or failure. The United States doesn’t use public referenda and breaking-news popular opinion to run its intelligence agencies—one hopes.

It is clear that the NSA stretched its authority, made errors, and didn’t always appropriately manage the power that it accrued. Questions must be asked: about NSA’s relationship with the FISA court, about the merits and value of metadata collection, about the security clearance system and contractors’ participation in our intelligence bureaucracy, about Director of National Intelligence  James Clapper’s congressional testimony (his general counsel’s perspective illustrates how context matters in considering allegations). The investigations to answer these questions don’t require or excuse the exposure of the methods and sources of our intelligence successes.

We don’t live in a world of gentlemen, and Snowden’s leaks don’t show America at its purest. But his disclosures haven’t revealed the kind of lawbreaking uncovered in Hoover’s FBI; they haven’t matched the illegal executive actions of Iran-Contra; they haven’t threatened President Obama with impeachment or the courts with a constitutional crisis. Unless or until abuses of that caliber emerge from Snowden’s well-stocked laptops, our government should focus on cleaning up intelligence practices to protect against breaches of conduct where they exist and begin restoring secrecy to our nation’s antennae.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Guns Among Us

A friend of mine recently shared an opinion piece that lambasted a New York website for posting an  interactive map that plots the holders of handgun permits. I gave him a considered response and wanted to pass along the articles and studies that inform my thinking on this perilous issue. I begin by responding to his question:

"Aren't you concerned that this makes it easier for criminals who want to steal firearms to use in violent crime to know which houses to watch?"

I agree that burglars have a penchant for stealing firearms. However, they don't need a map to do so. A 2003 study from the Brookings Institution found "no support for a net deterrent effect from widespread gun ownership," and concluded that, "residential burglary rates tend to increase with community gun prevalence, while the [occupied dwelling] proportion of these burglaries is unaffected."

Does this make it easier for a criminal to find a home with a handgun permit? Yes it does. However, the map's information doesn't specify whether a gun is at the residence in question, how many weapons might be there, or what its condition is. The map is far more useful to parents who might want to understand what risks their children may face at a friend's home.

As a potential parent, I would not want my child to play in an environment where a gun is present until I was assured that the firearm was secured in a manner that prevented an accidental discharge. I don't want to claim that the map in question is a journalistic breakthrough, but I would appreciate it as a tool to understand my safety and the safety of my loved ones.

Firearms at home are more likely to wound or kill their owner (accident or suicide), the owner's family members (domestic violence, homicide  accident, suicide), or a person known to the owner (dispute, accident, homicide) than an intruder--besides, even trained professionals (like the armed police officer at Columbine High School) can make mistakes in a crisis, let alone a sleep-addled civilian without rigorous training and regular practice. Ideally, firearms at home are locked within gun safes, which would present burglars with a challenge and/or fitted with a trigger lock to reduce the risk of an accidental discharge.

Indeed, higher firearm ownership, and shall-carry laws in particular, does not reduce crime in a way that is statistically significant. To the contrary, it is more likely that increased firearms in a community will increase crime or behave heterogeneously, depending upon local and county characteristics.

I'd be interested to learn what articles have shaped your thinking on firearms, their role in our society, and how to move forward in the wake of the mass killings in Connecticut, Colorado, and Arizona of recent years.

Here's my top reading list on this issue:
1. Nick Kristof offers hard statistics and a public-health approach

2. The deleterious effect of an armed populace on civic society

3. Gail Collins examines the politics of guns with a biting sense of humor

4. Nick Kristof responds to reader comments from gun enthusiasts

5. Something way out of the mainstream--interesting but not politically practical

Monday, October 22, 2012

Who's Got the Backs and the Backing of the Bankers?

A shout out to a book I loved and was once
described by a Senate aide as, "too big to read"
It's useful to look at numbers when considering the rhetoric of political candidates. Specifically, campaign contributions give us an insight into the expectations that individuals and industries have for one party or another, one candidate vs. the alternatives. When it comes to Wall Street, Romney has frequently cast the Obama-backed Dodd-Frank financial reform as a gift to big banks. For instance, in the October 16th presidential debate, Mitt Romney stated:
Dodd-Frank was passed. And it includes within it a number of provisions that I think has some unintended consequences that are harmful to the economy. One is it designates a number of banks as too big to fail, and they're effectively guaranteed by the federal government. This is the biggest kiss that's been given to -- to New York banks I've ever seen. This is an enormous boon for them.
Debate Transcript:

Now, Dodd-Frank wasn't perfect. Much of the law has yet to be implemented, and it left a lot up to the discretion of regulators who'd performed poorly in the run up to the financial crisis of 2008. That said, Wall Street institutions and their employees certainly appear reluctant to thank Obama for this "kiss". While Goldman Sachs employees were, notoriously in some circles, among Obama's top contributors in 2008, they certainly have fallen for the other guy this time around. I won't say that financier contributors detract from a politician's character; I would argue that their preference for Romney indicates whom they feel will provide the best deal for them and their industry.

Top Campaign Contributors (The organizations themselves did not donate , rather the money came from the organizations' PACs, their individual members or employees or owners, and those individuals' immediate families.)

Barack Obama
University of California $927,568
Microsoft Corp $680,769
Google Inc $661,996
Harvard University $535,405
US Government $528,603

Mitt Romney

Goldman Sachs $965,140
Bank of America $844,734
Morgan Stanley $768,216
JPMorgan Chase & Co $749,918
Credit Suisse Group $588,841

For good measure, Sheila Bair, the former Chairwoman of the FDIC--you know, the regulator responsible for selling off failed banks and protecting depositors--has a decidedly different take on Dodd-Frank than Romney and its commitments to "too-big-to-fail" banks.

Dodd-Frank, the financial reform law enacted in 2010, bans future bailouts of failing financial behemoths and requires instead that they be put into either bankruptcy or a government-run liquidation process. Dodd-Frank also requires big financial institutions to demonstrate that they can fail in bankruptcy without causing widespread damage to our financial system. If they cannot make this demonstration, the law authorizes, indeed requires the regulators and Secretary of the Treasury, to restructure them or break them up. Will you appoint leaders at the Treasury Department and financial regulatory agencies who are publicly committed to ending bailouts and who are prepared to fulfill their legal mandate to break up Too Big to Fail institutions?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Poverty in Brief (with links)

Poverty goes beyond lack of resources. It extends to the trap of exploitation that plagues places synonymous
with privation. Where there are underprivileged people, there will be a web of malicious service providers eager to profit from the necessarily short-term priorities of those living paycheck to paycheck. In the end, some of the most powerful assistance that can be contributed to communities in crisis is an alternative ladder--of housing, banking, health care, child care, and more--built with love not money in mind. This can be constructed by public programs, non-profit partners, and the unflagging support of faith-based bodies, as well as the sweat equity of individual citizens. In the end, poverty anywhere limits prosperity everywhere. It's when local leaders grasp this challenge that incredible things can happen for those who may have lost hope.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Heavily Armed and Adrift

Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

In Drift, Rachel Maddow challenges her readers to an entertaining examination of recent American defense policy. The early chapters, filled with examples of Reagan-era skullduggery and executive overreach, make for easy reading from a liberal's point of view. Tougher chapters for the left cover Clinton's and Obama's tenures in the Oval Office. For example, Maddow tracks the rise in contracted-out conflict to Clinton's engagement in the Balkans, where US military casualties were to be avoided at all costs, and a stew of think tankers, indulged by a Democratic White House, who had interests in defense companies and/or a devotion to private-sector-is-always-better dogma.

Drift leaps over many of the well-covered 2nd Bush administration's aggressive defense policies, and the book is better for it. By then, Maddow has already indicted the extreme wing of presidential-prerogative philosophy in her chapters on Reagan and the 1st Bush administration. She turns instead to the still relatively undisturbed and yet highly disturbing acceleration of unmanned war in the age of Obama. Maddow rightly questions  the scope and constitutionality of our ongoing drone strikes, carried out by secretive commands with little debate and insufficient oversight, often in territories that aren't technically at war with us.

Maddow takes particular aim at the authorities under which such strikes are executed. She doesn't particularly focus on the arguments that might be made to justify a capacity to destroy targets of opportunity (such as Osama bin Laden). Drift centers on the question of congressional responsibility for oversight, and reminds her readers, if not explicitly, that the tolerated actions of a preferred President often turn into the outrageous abuses of a chief executive from an opposing party--see conservatives' denunciation of Obama in Libya and their past support for the far-less-justified assault on Grenada under Reagan (which was denounced at the time by every other member of the UN Security Council, not just Russia and China).

Maddow's arguments don't stop at war's edge. David Petreaus's Counterinsurgency Doctrine catches flack as over-ambitious and quixotic. For all the heat that "COIN" is taking these days, it's still difficult to find an alternative short of ending an engagement as happened in Vietnam. Wisely, Maddow doesn't spend time suggesting alternative strategies, but she also doesn't confront the consequences to innocents in a world without American-led intervention--Libya doesn't make the book, possibly Drift had already gone to print.

At it's core, Drift argues that any war worth fighting should be fought with the approval of Congress, concurrent funding through bonds or taxes, and the legitimate investment of the American people--not just the one percent who have served in the armed forces in recent decades and their families. These are all worthy goals, but few Presidents will take accept their costs voluntarily if less strenuous, however dubious, alternatives are available.

Drift isn't dry, far from it. A host of compelling and often entertaining quotes and historical anecdotes carry Maddow's argument farther than a straight-up polemic ever could. A prime example is a letter from John Wayne, which accused Reagan of either “misinforming people” or being “damned obtuse when it comes to reading the English language," as Reagan harangued audiences about the betrayal entailed in returning the Panama Canal to Panama.

From citing well-founded fears of the founding fathers to a devastating critique of America's nuclear arsenal and black-box campaigns, Rachel Maddow offers every American good reasons to request a return to a reigned in armed forces and a strictly supervised Commander in Chief. “America’s structural disinclination to declare war is not a sign that something’s gone wrong,” she writes. “It’s not a bug in the system. It is the system.” It's up to us to ask how that system can be repaired and elect the men and women who are willing to do so.