Monthly Archives: December 2005

worst and best of America

There’s a “challenge to the blogosphere” that’s getting a lot of attention: bloggers have been asked to list the Ten Worst Americans of the last 230 years. I find that I am not good at this, partly because I simply don’t know as much American history as I should, and partly because I don’t pay attention to names and biographies as much as to big social trends and institutions. Thus, for example, I had no idea that Harry Ansliger was the “father” of the War on Drugs, although I recognize that policy as a major part of our past and present. So here is a list of Big Bad Things that Americans have done; each one could have a representative individual’s name attached:

1. The Atlantic slave trade and slavery itself

2. The slaughter of Native Americans and the seizure of their land

3. Jim Crow

4. Seccession and the bloody Civil War that followed

5. The Mexican-American War. (I’m very glad that the Southwest is part of the USA, but the conquest was surely immoral.)

6. Occasional waves of political repression, contrary to the Bill of Rights, such as the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), the Red Scare (1917-1920), the Nisei Interment (1942-5), and the McCarthy Era (1949-54)

7. Self-interested and harmful interventions in weak countries such as Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Angola

8. Massive underinvestment in public spaces and services

9. The flattening of vibrant urban neighborhoods and their replacement with dehumazing modernist designs. (Robert Moses should make the top-ten list.)

10. A coarse popular culture (“popular” around the globe) that glorifies violence

It would be terribly one-sided to list the bad without the good. To balance the above list, here’s a Positive Top Ten:

1. The Madisonian system of republican government with ordered liberty that has worked on a large scale for more than two centuries and proved that such a regime is possible

2. A democratic culture in which people are rough social equals, and status (especially inherited status) is relatively unimportant

3. Sustained prosperity born of freedom to innovate, optimism, and public investment in human beings

4. The absorption of waves of “huddled masses,” who have not been forced to renounce their diversity

5. The defeat of Nazism

6. Jazz

7. The Civil Rights Movement as a model for nonviolent social change in a modern society

8. The New Deal, especially as embodied in the great mid-twentieth century American cities with their solid systems of health, education, housing, transportation, and recreation

9. Restraint in war and international affairs, especially after the US became a nuclear-armed superpower

10. New York City as the world’s cultural capital, especially ca. 1930-1960 as modernism peaked and shifted to post-modernism

The last item is eccentric (although I happen to believe it). There would be excellent reasons for including the Bill of Rights, the Abolition Movement, the Morrill Act, the GI Bill, and the Marshall Plan on the positive top ten.

the youth vote and the cut in federal student aid

In 2004, about 11.6 million Americans under the age of 25 voted, an increase of about three million compared to the previous election (pdf). Although they broke for John Kerry at the end, young voters were up for grabs, divided about equally among Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Kerry and Bush traded the lead among young voters at least twice during the campaign (pdf, p. 2)

Despite the emergence of this large, energized swing vote, when Congress cut almost $40 billion from the federal budget, $12.7 billion came out of student loans. There are far better ways to cut just as much money from the federal budget, without touching education at all.

So what were the Congressional Republicans thinking? That the youth vote still isn’t all that big, compared to the boomers and the retirees? That young people turned out in ’04 but will stay home in the congressional elections of ’06? That most young voters won’t notice the cuts or know whom to blame for them? That college students are really a Democratic constituency? (Note that 41% of college students chose Bush: pdf.) These assumptions are not crazy, but they pose risks for Republicans, who may be applying outdated ideas. In the 1990s, young people were a relatively small group; they tended not to vote; and those college students who did turn out were heavily Democratic. None of this is true anymore. The Millennial Generation forms a large demographic group, seemingly more engaged in politics, and up for grabs. Those are three reasons for incumbent politicians to pay them a little more respect.

youth-led research after Katrina

My organization, CIRCLE, has made grants to teams of young people who design and conduct community research projects. We are able to make these grants thanks to funding from the Cricket Island Foundation. We also provide the youth teams with some guidance.

Some of our current grantees are a group of homeless youth from New Orleans, who were planning to study the police treatment of their peers (i.e., other homeless young people). Katrina made that research impossible by scattering them across the country. However, they have changed their project to investigate the Katrina experience and its aftermath.

Last week, the Chicago Tribune ran a helpful story on these young people’s work. The reporter, Dave Wishnowsky, kindly included some contact information for dispersed New Orleans youth to use if they wanted to be included in the research. The story is entitled “Collecting Katrina memories: Young evacuees plan to write book.” You have to register with the Tribune to read the whole story here; but I quote some portions below:

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privacy and domestic surveillance

Macon, GA: As I wrote recently, I think the biggest question raised by the warrantless surveillance of US citizens is whether the president knowingly authorized criminal acts under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). I don’t know for sure that the acts he authorized were illegal; Orin Kerr says “probably.” If they were, it is very disturbing. A criminal law should be a trip-wire that stops powerful people from doing what they want–or even what they think is best. Otherwise, there is no rule of law.

However, a second question is also interesting and important: Is the FISA a good law or not? Should the Act be changed so that the executive branch can conduct certain kinds of domestic surveillance without warrants?

It seems increasingly likely that the administration wanted to scoop up huge quantities of data in order to look for patterns. Perhaps the main goal was not to identify individuals for prosecution or for any other hostile action. Instead, the government may have wanted to draw statistical conclusions from masses of individual data, much as Amazon and Google learn about consumer tastes by aggregating their information about all our searches and purchases. So, for example, the government might be interested in the percentage of foreign calls placed to Afghanistan that are conducted in Arabic. They might want to know how many of those calls mention Osama bin Laden. They would hope to include calls originating from the USA in their statistics. Ultimately, this information might help to identify a terrorist who fit an emerging statistical profile. But it might also be useful for planning a propaganda campaign or a military strategy.

I suspect that the administration did not ask Congress to amend the FISA to permit domestic searches–nor did officials seek retroactive warrants from the FISA Court after they obtained data on US citizens–because the Constitution forbids the vacuuming up of citizens’ data without their consent. The Fourth Amendment says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

No searches or seizures without probable cause–but what probable cause exists when the government harvests masses of statistical data from private phone calls and emails?

Still, the Supreme Court might be persuaded to change its interpretation of the Fourth Amendment. It could say that international phone calls are not “papers or effects.” Or it could decide that security threats are so important as to compel some limitations on the Fourth Amendment. After all, “the Constitution is not a suicide pact“; the Bill of Rights cannot be allowed to cause our destruction.

Thus the question is not whether warrantless searches violate Supreme Court precedents, but whether the Court ought to allow them under certain circumstances.

On one hand, we might say that a person’s privacy rights are not compromised if the government scoops up vast quantities of data from huge numbers of people and uses the results for statistical research. Only once the government narrows its interest to an individual can there be any direct negative consequences from a search. Only at that point should a warrant be necessary. If the government wants to count the number of times that “Osama bin Laden” appears in my emails, I shouldn’t complain. No human being will actually read my mail or even know my name unless something about me triggers suspicion. Then a human being must decide whether to monitor me and should seek a warrant to do so. If my information is only used to develop a profile of “normal” behavior so that terrorists will stand out as abnormal, then I have no grounds to complain.

On the other hand, there are arguments for privacy that count against warrantless domestic surveillance. In a 2003 paper for the Journal of Accounting & Public Policy, I listed 10 reasons why we reasonably care about our own privacy. Some of these reasons apply only (or mainly) to commercial situations, when companies want to collect data about our private behavior for marketing purposes. Below I list the eight reasons that are most relevant to the NSA wiretaps.

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Today we are flying to Georgia for Christmas. I don’t expect to blog again until December 27 or 28. Until then, merry Christmas, happy Hanukah, have a great Kwanzaa, honor the Orthodox Feast of the Nativity, mark the death of the Prophet Zarathustra (December 26), look forward to Lohri, relish the solstice, celebrate Boxing Day, and generally enjoy any excuse for a break.