The Demise of the Bulk Collection of Data

fbi_wiretapRarely do I heap any praise on a politician. I always keep a skeptical eye toward them and am not afraid to call them out when necessary. But today, that praise is necessary. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky (and also a 2016 presidential candidate) was a wrecking ball in the past couple of weeks when it came to allowing certain provisions in the Patriot Act to expire.

The Patriot Act was passed by Congress out of fear in the days after the 9/11 attacks. The way it had been interpreted by the National Security Agency (NSA) was that it legally allowed them to spy on everyday Americans. Most of the time it was without a warrant, but if one was needed, it had created a secret FISA court that basically granted one each time (only 11 times was one rejected) as it only heard the government’s side.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes the government to collect “any tangible things” that the government proves are “relevant to” an investigation into suspected terrorists.

A lot of what the NSA was doing was brought to light when Edward Snowden blew the whistle about the operation. I don’t consider Snowden to be a patriot or a traitor. I consider him to be an American who saw the federal government overstepping its authority and letting the public know what was happening.

So if the law states the government can collect the data then what’s the problem? The problem is that it violates your right to privacy which is guaranteed under the Constitution. Law enforcement must request a specific warrant, not a blanket warrant that encompasses everyone, from an actual court… not some secret court that the public knows nothing about nor has any defense in. If Congress really wants to do this then they need to go about the proper way of amending the Constitution to allow it.

Republicans are tearing him apart for allowing the Patriot Act to expire. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has gone so far as to claim that it was a publicity stunt since Senator Paul is running for president. I can’t say whether that is true or not, but it has been one of his biggest issues since he entered the Senate back in 2011.

Senator Paul may also have something else to back him up. In early May, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the NSA’s bulk, warrantless collection of Americans’ phone records was illegal though stopping short of deciding its constitutionality. This came almost a year after a lower court ruled the program “almost-Orwellian.”

“Because we find that the program exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized, we vacate the decision below dismissing the complaint without reaching appellants’ constitutional arguments.”
Judge Gerald Lynch

The public has been undecided on what should be done. On the one hand they don’t want the government overstepping their constitutional authority and violating our right to privacy. However, on the other hand they want to feel protected from terrorists as it was born out of the fear from that. In the past several weeks, national security analysts have been hitting the media airwaves stating that the bulk collection of data has been worthless and has had no result on anything.

So what should be the path forward? In the past month the House of Representatives passed the USA Freedom Act. Is it perfect? No. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be added to the debate on how we proceed forward. POLITICO posted an article recently that reported how this new piece of legislation would “reform” the Patriot Act.

However Congress chooses to proceed forward in the days and weeks ahead, they should be mindful of our constitutional rights when deciding on national security. Though we take national security very seriously, we will not allow our rights to be disregarded.

“Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
Benjamin Franklin

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Analysis of Immigration Executive Order

Illegal immigration has once again been thrust into the spotlight by President Obama’s speech to the nation about his Executive Order on the subject. It had mostly taken a backseat during the election as neither side really wanted to talk about any issue facing the nation.

This post is not to say whether the Executive Order is good or bad… or even legal.  The pundits are already out spinning the story as are Republican lawmakers in Congress. So let’s look at what is being done by this executive order.

  • Increased border security which has been increased throughout the Obama presidency
  • Increases the number of work visas for skilled workers so that more may apply and come to work here
  • It allows certain illegal immigrants a temporary reprieve from being deported but only specific categories

 

Temporary Reprieve, Not Amnesty

I will start with the last point since it will be the one with the most criticism.  The Executive Order is not amnesty. It does not grant citizenship or even permanent residency.  It is a temporary reprieve from being deported and gives the people an attempt to get their immigration status corrected.  It only applies to a specific group of people.

  • A child born in the US to an illegal immigrant
  • The illegal mother and/or father of that child that is born in the US
  • DREAMers — children born outside the US but brought to the country illegally by their parents

All of them must be in good standing with the law.  No criminal records or ties to terrorism.  None will have access to social welfare or any other form of government assistance.

 

Border Security

And speaking of links to terrorism, let’s dispel another Republican talking point.  According to the Department of Homeland Security, in an article for POLITICO, there have been no terrorists captured coming across the Mexican border.  However, two were captured trying to cross the Canadian border into the US.

Our focus tends to always be the Mexican border when this issue also applies to the country that we share the largest border with… Canada.  This also concerns with people from Asia that stowaway on cargo ships, and even those that come up from Caribbean islands though Cubans have a special category all their own. (Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot)

But what about overall border security along the border?  President Obama claims that he has more border patrol agents on the ground than any previous administration. (Politifact)  There has been an increase in border patrol agents throughout his administration, but it’s a result of a 2007 bill passed by a Democratic-controlled Congress during the Bush administration.  (Washington Post)  The President can take full credit though for having deported more illegal immigrants than any previous administration. (Pew Research)

 

Skilled Workers

According to the State Department, every fiscal year the US government issues a total of 140,000 work visas (before Obama’s executive order).  This number is usually maxed out fairly quickly each year.  Companies like Microsoft, Google, Apple, etc. have been trying to get the number raised for years as they have job openings here in the US that cannot be filled by enough American workers as there are just not enough in the computer sciences.  These companies have also threatened to take the jobs elsewhere if they cannot be filled here thus further depleting a tax base.  These are people wanting to come to the US legally to work and pay taxes.

 

Senate Democrats passed a comprehensive immigration bill during the last session.  House Republicans passed their own version of immigration reform bills.  Neither chamber took up the legislation of the other and there was no conference committee to resolve the differences.  The issue is now in play.  Maybe the new Congress can actually pass immigration reform and send it to the President.  Any new legislation would override the Executive Order.

Executive Orders aren’t defined in the Constitution though the Supreme Court has ruled that they are legal so long as they are used to enforce the laws passed by Congress.  I would encourage the administration to inform us which laws they are enforcing with this Executive Order on immigration.  As for the rest of the partisan rhetoric, I think we’ve dealt with it.

To Get Our Financial House In Order

Long Term Reform Instead Of “Kicking The Can”

Out of Washington, we tend to hear the same old stories.  Republicans want to cut spending and not raise taxes.  Democrats want to tax the rich and not let Republicans touch the entitlement programs.  Tea Party Republicans just want to defund the Affordable Care Act.  In a divided government, it has managed to get us into one stalemate after another.  This last time, it finally shut down the government and nearly brought us to the brink of defaulting on our debt.  Obviously, there are some common sense things that can be done to help move our government from the way it currently governs.  Instead of just “kicking the can” on each fiscal/economic crisis, it can easily put this together so we aren’t constantly facing the same problems.

The first thing our politicians must do is talk to each other especially people from the other side of the proverbial aisle.  This is a must.  We have a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a Democratic-controlled Senate and President.  This means that everyone must work together.  It shouldn’t be about scoring political points or who’s right or “who’s winning.”  It’s about doing the work of the nation, and doing what the people need you to do.  Will there be times that we disagree on things?  Of course, but we can still be civil with our disagreements and work our way around them.  It all begins with respect and dialogue and knowing that neither side is going to get everything that it wants.  It’s called compromise, and it’s not a dirty word.  It is how this nation was founded.  The Constitution is one big compromise.  We should not lose sight of that fact.  We should respect it in our history and in the present.  Is it perfect?  No.  The Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 only delayed the start of the Civil War.  Compromising on the issue of slavery was just not going to work, but the effort was given.  When talking about our fiscal problems, compromise can work though much like the compromises that forged the very document upon which our government was formed.

new-congressSo now that we have the politicians talking to each other, what should they be talking about?  One word: budget.  The House of Representatives is correct in that it has passed a budget every year since Republicans took control in 2011.  The Senate has killed those budgets every time.  For the 2013-14 budget, the House stuck an amendment onto it that forced the Senate to pass a budget or not get paid.  Technically, that amendment would have been unconstitutional via the 27th Amendment.  However, it did get the Senate to pass a budget which the House then passed over.  Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) then declared there would be no conference and the rest, we now know, is part of history.  Being controlled by different political parties, the two chambers are bound to come up with different budgets based on their party’s political views; however, they must remember the other side is controlled by the other party.  If all one side does is pass a budget that they know the other side won’t agree to then we aren’t getting anywhere.  Both chambers need to pass a budget that the other side will start working on with them.  This particularly goes to the House since all appropriation bills must start in that chamber via the US Constitution.

We are making progress.  Now they are talking to each other about the budget.  But now what is in that budget?  (Quick note: Some of these are just ideas and mentioning them does not mean ‘yes’ or ‘no.’)  The budget needs to start backing us away from the debt ceiling or it will need to be raised continuously and doesn’t solve the problem.  The debt ceiling must be raised each time because we have an obligation to pay for the things that Congress and the President spend money for.  But with the right budget, the nation can begin to back off the debt ceiling.  If Congress cannot work together to pass a budget through both chambers each year, then they should not be paid for that year as passing spending resolutions is one of their key tasks. (Note: This last part would only take effect after an election per the 27th Amendment.)

Let’s start with funding the various government departments.  The sequester cuts must remain in place though each department should be allowed where to make those cuts.  In addition, it wouldn’t hurt to at least take another 5% from each department.  There is plenty of waste in each department to do this. (click here)  With the new funding levels, departments will still lose money, misappropriate funds, or just waste it away.  When this becomes known, then that particular department would lose that specific amount of funding for the next budget year in order to repay the taxpayers and would lose any chance of an increase in their budget (minus returning to their previous level once that year is complete) for the next five years.  No department likes to lose money, so hopefully this will make them become more aware of how it is spent.  Automatic budget increases must be stopped.  Increases in funding should be determined by the economy, income, and how each department manages its current funding.  This would apply to all departments including defense (which could probably withstand an additional 10% cut instead of the 5% mentioned above).

tax-pressuresThe government is funded through various taxes… one of which is the income tax.  (Before income tax was made legal, the government was mainly funded from a sales tax on alcohol.)  Our tax code is a disjointed mess to say the least.  There needs to be tax reform both income and corporate.  This means that some will be paying less and some will be paying more.  In regards to income taxes, leave them at the levels they are currently with the exception of the top 1%.  As part of the sequester deal, the very, very top of the 1% saw an income tax increase but not the rest of the 1%.  Bring the rest of them into the fold.  Next are corporate taxes.  The US does have one of the highest rates in corporate taxes.  This should be brought down to a respectable level to make corporations headquartered here to be competitive internationally and also attract those foreign companies to locate jobs here.  Our politicians should also be open to finding new sources of revenue.  These sources could come in the form of legalizing medical marijuana and taxing it accordingly or leasing out certain federal lands  for renewable energy such as solar and wind.  Maybe they could sell of some of their property they are underutilizing, and maybe even sell some land back to the states.  There are plenty of ideas that can fit into this and should be independently explored openly.

Notice that I didn’t discuss individual departments.  That’s mostly because this would have gotten rather lengthy, even if there had only been a few examples.  This was a blueprint in order to get the two sides talking about some common sense ideas.  It’s not about political points or who’s winning.  It’s about doing their jobs and doing what the nation needs them to do.  We have to get our financial house in order; otherwise, we are going to continue to go around in the same circle that we have been for the past few years.  The latest government shutdown and nearly defaulting on our debt once again should teach us this lesson.  Our politicians need to wake up and take care of business.

The Cost of Education

Will It Be The Next Bubble To Burst?

It’s basic economics.  The economy is like a rollercoaster.  There are periods when the market goes up and periods when the market goes down.  This is something that anyone that understands only the very simplest part of economics knows.  We’ve watched this several times happen in the past couple of decades even.  The economy was growing by leaps and bounds during the 1990s as a result of start-up internet companies.  But the “dot-com” bubble got too big and burst around 2000-2002 leaving only the strongest (and those with a good business model) to survive.  From 2002-2008, the economy began a slow rebounding process.  During the “dot-com” recession, the housing market had stayed in good shape and it helped fuel part of the recovery.  But in 2008, the housing market, which had seen prices rise at a faster rate than inflation, finally burst.  And with it, the banks went as well.  This started what we know as The Great Recession.  Though economists will tell you that The Great Recession is now behind us as the economy is improving and the stock market is getting higher, unemployment still remains at an all time high.  And though the economy might be improving, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that is already in the works to derail it once again.  As things grow too big, there has to be an adjustment.  Airlines will probably face this at some point as airfare continues to increase, and they will soon overprice themselves.  However, the bigger threat to the economy will be the education bubble.

College tuition is rising at a faster rate than inflation much the same way the housing market did before its crash.  Cash-strapped states cannot afford to pay public universities the money they are owed.  The federal government isn’t in any better situation.  It has a huge debt and most Republicans on Capitol Hill are against any budget increases without their being an offset somewhere else.  Combine that with the sequestration cuts, which affected every department of government, and there is again no money for public universities.  So what is a university to do?  They turn to those who want to attend their institutions and increase their tuition.  Some might only raise out-of-state tuition.  Some might only raise in-state tuition.  And some might raise both.  It all depends on who that particular university is attempting to attract and where there current tuition rates stand.

Source: Bloomberg, Federal Reserve Bank of New York Through Q1 2012

Source: Bloomberg, Federal Reserve Bank of New York – Through Q1 2012

But that basic problem still persists.  In order to attend a college or university, students are having to take out more and more loans, and when they finally graduate they are in debt thousands of dollars (if not tens-of-thousands of dollars).  The economy has been slow in adding good-paying jobs, so they either have to settle for less-paying jobs at which they can’t afford to live and pay back their loans, or continue to go to school and collecting more college debt in the hope that by the time they get that degree that things will be better.  Regardless, this is a major problem for our economy.  Since we base our economy on how much the consumer spends, one must assume that someone with a mountain of college debt won’t be spending a lot of money on things since they have to repay their massive loans instead.  And that’s even if they can afford to pay back those loans to begin with.  It gets harder for an economy, based as ours is, to grow when so many people are kept out from the very beginning because of the debt over their heads.  Currently, the overall student debt stands at $1.2-trillion and is increasing.

Some could argue that students should just get jobs to help pay for their college tuition, and many do just that.  However, there is a fine line between working and over-working to help make ends meet.  It’s one thing to have a job when in college to help pay for things… school supplies, etc.  It’s another though to be working so many hours between several jobs to the point that one wouldn’t have time to study and grades slip as a result.  What is the point of being in college at that point?  We value education.  Education is important for any country to succeed.  And yet, we have watched the US be passed up by any other industrialized nations over the past several decades.  And instead of making the big decisions and making the big changes to bring us up to par, we seem to half-ass the entire thing and move our education system continually in the opposite direction.

100-dollars7427Recently, we watched Congress come up with a bipartisan solution to college loan interest loan rates (H.R. 1911).  This was after they let the low interest rates expire at the beginning of July.  It sounds like a fairly good thing that they were actually able to work together to lower the interest rates again.  But it’s nothing more than a scam that kicks the can farther down the road.  It looks good on paper, but in the real world where the rest of us live, it can actually do more harm.  The legislation tied the interest rates on federal student loans to the yields of the 10-year Treasuries.  So while that will work in favor of the students taking out loans now, as the economy improves and the market goes up, the interest rates will also increase.  Thus putting us back in our original problem in just a couple of years (minus a complete economic meltdown again).  And with the increase, the federal government stands to make a profit.  You read that correctly.  The federal government will cause students to go into more debt  just so they can make a profit… a profit of approximately $184.7-billion according to the Department of Education, Congressional Budget Office, White House Office of Management and Budget, etc.

Still sound like it was a good deal?  Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) didn’t think so.  She actually voted against the legislation (Senate Roll Call) because she saw it for the scam that it really is and how it would not help the growing student loan debt (Sen. Warren’s Official Statement).  Senator Warren often spoke about the student loan debt both leading up to the July 1st deadline and after.  Businesses currently get super low interest rates on loans from the government (Federal Reserve).  Students actually pay a higher interest rate on their loans than businesses.  With the new legislation, interest rates on student loans will drop to 3.9% (Federal Student Aid).  Senator Warren proposed that the interest rates on student loans be as low as the interest rates that businesses receive from the federal government.

Some would even argue that since education is the foundation of all that student loans should have a 0% interest rate, but even banks wouldn’t give out loans at 0%.  Like anything else, it’s a business and there needs to be some profit involved… even if it’s smaller.  I haven’t written this column to come up with some big solution.  It’s mostly been to bring the attention to the larger situation that is taking place.  By kicking the can down the road yet again, we will only continue to face this problem in the next several years.  And if we continue to ignore it altogether, it does have the possibility to collapsing our economy and sending us into another recession when the bubble finally bursts.  In a letter to George Wythe on August 13, 1786, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness…Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”

SIDENOTE:
At the time of this writing, the Federal Student Aid website still had the interest rate for Direct Subsidized Loans at 6.8%.  This is because the President has not yet signed H.R. 1911 though he has indicated he will be signing it.

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