Meanwhile, Congress Extended Warrantless Surveillance and Rolled Back Dodd-Frank…

For all the back-and-forth that made headlines leading up to and during the government shutdown, it’s when Democrats, Republicans, and even Trump have agreed in recent times that inspires a feeling of dread. (Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As I have emphasized on this blog and as numerous other concerned members of the Resistance would offer, when something crazy is going on in national news and politics—which these days unfortunately seems to disproportionately involve President Donald Trump and his embarrassing conduct—it merits watching what is going on when Congress actually gets around to advancing and/or passing legislation through the House and Senate. To be sure, there have been a fair amount of distractions recently that have dominated headlines and have made this task more difficult. Probably the biggest topic on everybody’s minds was the President’s alleged use of the word “shithole” in describing countries like El Salvador, Haiti, and various African countries that are less savory as sources of immigrants than, say, Norway. I say “alleged” because several Republican lawmakers present for the meeting and DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen have denied that he used that word. But come on—you know they’re full of shit. Even with a distraction like this, there’s another layer of distraction built in. Yes, Trump used a bad word, but the more important notion is Trump insinuated that it would be better if we accepted people from a country where white people are the majority as opposed to countries where black or brown people are the majority. Never mind that Americans are more likely to immigrate to Norway than the other way around because people who live there enjoy a high standard of living, universal health care, and generally are among the happiest individuals on Earth. The implication was clear to those who understand Trump has basically been a white supremacist’s wet dream since he started running for office.

Otherwise, there were more salacious accounts involving Trump’s personal life, specifically that he was having an affair with then-porn star Stormy Daniels while he was married to Melania back in 2006, and that, so as to not undermine his political chances or damage his brand or what-have-you, his lawyer formed a shell company in 2016 to negotiate the payment of $130,000 so that she would not disclose details about their relationship. Even though Daniels apparently did tell a number of details about it back in 2011 when interviewed by In Touch Weekly magazine—including the revelation that Trump is obsessed with sharks and hates their shark-y guts. Not a particularly damning revelation, mind you, but just entertaining. Why we haven’t heard or likely won’t hear more about it is perhaps puzzling—Chris Cillizza of CNN surmises it is likely because Trump’s camp has denied any connection between Trump and Daniels, people don’t want to be involved with anything even tangentially related to porn (at least where prying eyes might see), that we’ve heard it all about Trump already, or all of the above—but regardless of the profile of this story, it seems like pretty reprehensible behavior on Trump’s part from a moral standpoint, and pretty ethically inexplicable from a legal standpoint if there wasn’t any legitimate reason for Daniels to be getting $130K (and why wasn’t it $150K—that’s a much nicer “round” number than $130K, no?).

On top of this, there was the drama involving the government shutdown, which wasn’t so much of a “distraction” given that there were real consequences for this happening, but the partisan squabbling it encouraged was realistically more theatrical than anything. Democrats expressed their concerns about the level of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and for the level of protection for “Dreamers” under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Republicans were outright blaming the Democrats for this mess and used military pay as a bargaining chip, alleging that the Dems held these all-important monies for our uniformed men and women hostage. Donald Trump kept insisting that someone needs to pay for a border wall. All the while, fingers were being pointed in every direction—with most Americans pointing back at Congress for not being able to strike a deal or by tying the DACA issue to the budget resolution issue, even if Democratic, Republican, and independent voters alike broadly support an extension of DACA. In short, and after the fact, no one looks good as a result of this, and for all his past criticisms of President Obama in presiding over shutdowns, it looks especially bad for Trump now that he has encountered one in just a year or so since he began his tenure—and with both the House and Senate under GOP control, no less.

All this, and we haven’t even gotten to the #ReleaseTheMemo business that conservatives have had on the tip of their tongue of late! Congressional Republicans have been alluding to a memo in Devin Nunes’ possession that outlines Obama-era abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by the FBI and Department of Justice, specifically as it regards investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election. Worse than Watergate, they claim! It is with this final distraction that I’ll bring in a recent piece by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone for an excellent contextualization—as he is wont to provide—of this particular instance of click-bait news. Taibbi starts by saying what most reasonable observers have put forth: that if the memo is really as jaw-dropping as outspoken Republicans have made it out to be, then by all means, it should be released. At the same time, though, as Taibbi argues, if this material truly exonerates Donald Trump of any wrongdoing re Russia, why hasn’t the man himself released it? After all, Trump, um, is characteristically not afraid to share. From the article:

By all means, if the memo is important (although I doubt it) let’s let the public see it. But followers of this story should also remember that if this or any classified document somehow exculpates Donald Trump on any front, he’s had the power all along to declassify such information. Why Trump hasn’t done so on a number of these occasions has been one of the enduring mysteries of this affair. It’s given pause to even the most hardened Russiagate skeptics.

This includes people like former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy of the National Review. McCarthy has been highly critical of the Robert Mueller investigation, but has also repeatedly wondered why Trump is not lifting the veil on some of these documents. One of the few figures in the media to explore holes in Russiagate theories propagated by both sides, McCarthy had this to say in August:

“I can’t get past a nagging question: Why must we speculate about whether the Obama administration abusively exploited its foreign-intelligence-collection powers in order to spy on Donald Trump’s political campaign? After all, Trump is president now. If he was victimized, he’s in a position to tell us all about it.”

At the very least, it’s food for thought, and prompts Matt Taibbi to label the #ReleaseTheMemo fervor “curious and disingenuous at best.” (Also not helping this case: that this hashtag has been linked to Russian bots that have helped to get it trending on Twitter.) At the same time, Taibbi indicates that it’s not like individuals on both sides of the political aisle haven’t been working to obscure what the sources of their information on Russia may be. Already, given its history of attention-grabbing details like lurid tales of Russian prostitutes and “golden showers,” and the subsequent backlash it received for having the likes of Buzzfeed break the news unconfirmed, the Steele dossier, for one, has not necessarily been something the mainstream media wants to acknowledge as informative of the investigation into Trump’s affairs. In other words, there’s much confusion and misdirection about what people know and how they know it re Russia, and thus far, it has mostly amounted to nothing more than additional confusion and tedious back-and-forth accusation, as it did with the shutdown.

The main thrust of Taibbi’s article, meanwhile, and getting back to the notion of these events as distraction and theater, is that while all this political brinksmanship was going on, important legislation with serious implications was being passed, aided by Democrats crossing that proverbial aisle. The first, coincidentally, involves FISA. Specifically, the House and Senate passed an extension of Section 702 of the Act, which lets the U.S. government obtain the communications of foreign nationals outside the United States without a warrant. Per the language of the law, intelligence agencies are not permitted to target U.S. citizens or nationals, or to use the power of Section 702 to surveil individuals on American soil. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties-minded organizations, however, have expressed doubts about how this program may be used and abused. The ACLU, in particular, enumerates these charges concerning the deleterious effects of Sec. 702:

  1. Section 702 allows warrantless surveillance of people inside and outside the U.S.
  2. Despite the fact that the law is not supposed to be used to target Americans, the government has been doing just that for years.
  3. Information collected under Section 702 could be used against you, and you likely wouldn’t know.
  4. Section 702 is used to examine communications flowing in and out of the U.S. in bulk.
  5. Surveillance programs have been abused by the intelligence agencies.
  6. There is little that prevents Section 702 from being used against critics, activists, religious minorities, or communities of color.
  7. The program is not subject to any meaningful judicial oversight.
  8. The government has deliberately chosen to hide the impact of the program from the public.
  9. Section 702 surveillance chills freedom of speech and association.

There are more detailed explanations for each of these items on the ACLU page linked to above, but suffice it to say, there are legitimate concerns about how broadly Section 702 may be used to capture information that is relevant to “foreign intelligence”—a distinction that is subjective and seemingly intentionally vague—how this sensitive information may be stored in databases for undetermined lengths of time, how political or even personal enemies may be targeted by intelligence community members as an abuse of their privilege, how legal procedure may be circumvented in the name of “anti-terrorism” efforts, and how so few data have been made clear to interested parties regarding the surveillance of Americans and the usage of their online communications. Liberal or conservative, it creates trepidation on the part of the average telephone/mobile/Internet user-consumer, and perhaps worst of all, it feeds the narrative of the “deep state” on the right that undermines even the best-intentioned government actions. But, by all means, let’s have more conspiracy theories!

As Matt Taibbi submits, too, it may be patently self-defeating to reauthorize the “virtually limitless surveillance powers of this president” when many suspect him to be aided or compromised by Russia. Which makes it all the more frustrating—at least to me—that Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff would vote for an extension of Section 702 of FISA when they have publicly expressed their doubts about Trump. Taibbi explains what is likely behind this “yes” vote from key House Dems:

This is a classic example of something that’s been axiomatic in Washington for ages: that both parties tend always to be interested in expanding executive power, no matter who’s in office or what the political situation. In this case, the principle of expanding presidential authority outweighed even concerns of abuses by the likes of Donald Trump.

Or, perhaps to put this another way, yes, let’s give the executive more power so we can exploit it when our party is in the White House. As tends to be the case in the world of politics, moral objections are relative to how many seats you control and whether or not your side is in the Oval Office.

The other piece of legislation which stands to get through the Senate, notably with the help of several Democrats, and which is equally if not more concerning, is the rolling-back of regulations provided for by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, already criticized for not going far enough to do either of its stated objectives. The list of Democratic co-sponsors to the so-called Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, which was released on December 5 of last year, reads like a who’s who of irritatingly moderate Democrats. Michael Bennet. Joe Donnelly. Heidi Heitkamp. Tim Kaine. Angus King, who technically is an independent, but let’s give him, ahem, credit where credit is due. Joe Manchin. Claire McCaskill. Gary Peters. Jon Tester. Mark Warner. These are self-professed Dems from states like Colorado, Montana, Virginia, and West Virginia in which being a centrist on matters of regulation of business appears to be a self-preservation move more than anything. Unless, as Taibbi suggests, they were either tricked or wooed by lobbyists for the banks. Here’s what he had to say on the matter:

In another bizarre episode, at least ten Senate Democrats recently crossed the aisle to support a rollback of key provisions of the Dodd-Frank banking reform bill, the killing of which of course has long been a major policy goal of Trump’s. The Dodd-Frank bill story is particularly disturbing, because it signals a rare potential area of consensus amid the otherwise reassuringly dysfunctional three-headed monster that is the lunatic Trump, establishment Republicans, and Democrats.

The bill has been pitched as aid and regulatory relief to small banks and credit unions. Such groups are the widows and orphans of financial reform: nobody’s ever against helping them, which is why even giveaways to Wall Street behemoths are often dressed up as aid to regional bankers. The Dems who crossed the aisle to support the Dodd-Frank rollback bought into the lobbyist-flogged idea that Too-Big-To-Fail banks have too many punitive regulatory requirements, and moreover that “smaller” companies (i.e. firms with less than $10 billion in assets) should be exempt from the already watered-down Volcker rule, which prevents depository banks from gambling for their own accounts.

One of the main ideas behind the proposed bill, which passed the banking committee 16 to 7, is changing the definition of a “Too Big to Fail” institution from having $50 billion in assets to having $250 billion in assets. This quintupling of the size limit would mean a number of huge companies would now enjoy relaxed capital requirements and other benefits. Only about 10 companies would be left to face the more stringent rules.

Why is this a concern? Only because it would increase the risk of another financial meltdown like we had ten years ago. As Taibbi and others argue, de-concentrating financial power by breaking up the big banks and by forcing them to separate banking and investing (read: sanctioned gambling) activities helps to mitigate this risk. Besides, if you’ll recall, it was taxpayers who bore the brunt of the last recession, but absent more stringent rules to keep Wall Street and the financial industry in check, there’s no guarantee another crisis won’t manifest. And once more, we would be the ones called on to bail out the big companies who played fast and loose with our money—not the other way around.

As Taibbi frames this, this is Congress in a nutshell: they fight publicly over something that’s “irrelevant, inaccurate, or far from a resolution,” only to have a consensus group advance a bill that is highly important/relevant, but “unsexy” and unlikely to garner the same attention, or even the kind of attention it merits. For the liberal progressives among us, this is a decidedly poor modus operandi.

Even as distraction, the three-day “kerfuffle,” as Matt Taibbi called it, over the shutdown was particularly galling to many on the left because the Democrats made a deal without any real assurances from Republicans that voting on a new DREAM Act would be taken up in the near future. Oh, sure, Mitch McConnell swore there would be, but trusting Mitch McConnell is like the fabled frog trusting the scorpion not to sting it as they cross the river—the scorpion will sting because that’s its nature, and McConnell will back out of his promise because he, like our President, is a lying sack of shit. Of course, Chuck Schumer didn’t waste much time backing out of certain terms either—after initially indicating prior to the end of the shutdown that a border wall would be on the table as part of forthcoming negotiations, he apparently pulled a 180 and made it clear the wall was no longer on the table. Psych! Regardless, after Donald Trump and congressional Republicans were done lambasting the Democrats for causing the whole government shutdown, the relatively short duration of the shutdown dovetailed ever nicely into jabs from conservatives that the Dems “caved” on the issues at hand. Name-calling though it might be, it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. The fate of Dreamers and the wall are still sticking points, and once more, the can has merely been kicked down the road noting that this resolution is merely a temporary budget fix.

Not that this necessarily means a huge deal, but if Americans are disappointed and embarrassed by this particular episode in U.S. politics, you can just imagine what the world thinks of us—distractions and all. Zack Beauchamp, writing for Vox, researched this very topic, and was struck by one prevailing theme which emerged from the responses he received from international observers: that there is something profoundly wrong with the American political system. For those looking on in Canada, France, and even the United Kingdom, with whom there yet remains some sympathy for our backward ways, there is cause for both concern and vague deprecation. For less understanding authoritarian regimes and otherwise tightly-run states, there is outright glee that America’s government can descend into chaos so easily, and unfounded as the claims may be, the shutdown makes us look weak, suggesting to some that Western democracy is fundamentally flawed (hello, Chinese propaganda!) or that the shutdown is pure theater to distract from the Democrats’ conspiracy theories about Trump’s ties to Russia (hello, Russian propaganda!). All these reactions without having to mention golden showers, shitholes, or Stormy Daniels. Jeez—has it only been a year so far? It feels more like ten with all the nonsense that’s gone on heretofore.

To reiterate, though, this goes back to the notion of distraction. For all the blaming and finger-pointing that went on this past week, where consensus has been achieved, yet worse consequences stand to be realized. The extension of Section 702 of FISA, as noted, is concerning to liberals and libertarians alike, and the continued collective kowtowing of Congress to “Too Big to Fail” institutions and Wall Street alumni is seeming proof that both parties work first for their benefit, and get to our concerns if and when they have the time and wherewithal. If you think a three-day shutdown is bad, just wait until the next economic nosedive, something that arguably is less a question of if and more a question of when.

Stop Harshing My Poké-Mellow

Pokemon Go has been called a waste of time and battery, a threat to privacy and dangerous, among other things. But it’s also fun and possible to play responsibly. (Image Credit: The Pokemon Company)

It’s official. “Poké-mania” has hit.

Since Pokémon Go‘s release, as reported by Brett Molina for USA Today, according to estimates from research firm SensorTower, the game has topped 15 million downloads through Apple’s App Store and Google Play, and based on usage statistics, players have spent more time, on average, per day on Pokémon Go (33 min.) than Facebook (22 min.) or Snapchat (18 min.) That’s no small potatoes. Anecdotally, I have seen my fair share of chatter about Pokémon Go on social media, and our human resources director uttered this phrase I never thought I would hear her speak in passing: “I just want to catch a Pikachu.” Accessible as a free app, the game has brought a wave of new fans into the fray, and has forced news organizations commenting on the craze to try to grasp what the heck Pokémon Go is, how you play, and why exactly it’s so popular. Despite the fact Pokémon, in its various iterations, has been around for 20 years worldwide, and should be fairly common knowledge to reporters who have small children or know a millennial. You find Pokémon. You catch Pokémon. You raise Pokémon. You battle with Pokémon. You consequently love everything about Pokémon! It’s pretty simple.

What separates Pokémon Go—aside from the purely battle-oriented format of yesteryear—from its predecessors is the mobile component of the game. Using a mix of GPS technology and your phone’s camera, you encounter Pokémon in your daily waking life, an example of what is termed augmented reality. As Wikipedia defines the term, augmented reality “is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.” In the context of Pokémon Go, this means your dreary, dull existence devoid of Pokémon is now replete with a host of colorful, catchable characters which you actually have to explore your physical world to try add to your collection. In other words, your reality is enhanced, much as implants might enhance women’s breasts.

Truth be told, I don’t really think breast “augmentation” is much of an enhancement for most women. Especially when these so-called “boob jobs” make a woman’s chest so disproportionately large compared to the rest of her body or are so obviously fake that the very unnatural appearance of the female individual causes me distress. Similarly, or as best as I can make an analogy between fake tits and a game played primarily by children, some would insist that Pokémon Go isn’t much an augmentation of reality. In saying this, I speak of more than mere technical issues; critics generally have responded very well to the DIY, go-and-catch-’em-all gameplay of Pokémon Godespite some glitches and bugs.

No, I’m talking about other reservations about the Pokémon phenomenon—and from people outside the purview of those paid (or otherwise compensated) to play and review video games. The ensuing is a partial list of these concerns, and my attempt to address them and make sense of them, where applicable:

1. “It’s a waste of time.”

Sigh—this sounds like my father. OK, so this isn’t a referendum on Pokémon Go as much as video games in general, but since the game has helped revive this classic conversation, I thought I’d address it at the start. I get it—Pokémon Go will not bring you any money, and if played too much, can cause you to be unproductive and generally negligent of higher priorities. This doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable or fun. Besides, the whole point of the game is to move around and interact with your environment, so the game is potentially both physically and socially stimulating, at least for an activity that usually requires no more exertion beyond pressing buttons with one’s thumbs and no interpersonal communication more than the absorption of programmed in-game dialogue. It also is fun for all ages and irrespective of gender; i.e. you don’t play football or shoot everything in sight.

Furthermore, where some would see a lack of financial profit as a reason to bypass this activity altogether, that a monetary reward isn’t the end game—as it so often in the real world—should be, on some level, encouraging, especially for parents. People are doing it purely for the joy of playing, and assuming they are not neglecting chores or school, or are not sniffing glue while they chase down that Charmander, this is to be lauded, I feel. On top of all of the above, do a Google search on the relationship between playing video games and the development of positive traits, such as creativity and improved hand-eye coordination, and you’ll find umpteen number of news articles on the links between these variables. See, Dad—I mean—whoever you are? Pokémon Go is a good thing!

2. “It’s a waste of battery.”

Um, OK, you may have a point there. Seriously, though, what doesn’t drain your battery life these days? If nothing else, this will inspire you to show some hustle as you fill out your legion of Pokémon. Come on, now, put some pep in your step! That Rattata isn’t going to catch itself!

3. “It’s a threat to your privacy.”

Perhaps. Upon its initial release on iOS, Pokémon Go caught some flak for requesting full access to people’s Google accounts, which reportedly will be fixed by an update offered by the game’s developer, Niantic. That said, there are still reservations about the game and its maker’s commitment to users’ privacy. Even Congress is involved now. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), for one, has expressed his concerns in a letter to Niantic’s CEO John Hanke, and is worried about how the company may be “unnecessarily collecting, using, and sharing a wide range of users’ personal information without their appropriate consent.” Franken asks specific questions of Hanke related to the types of data that are collected and how they are used. To enumerate them, in brief:

1) Is all the data Pokémon Go collects necessary for its operation, and what other purposes might this information be used for?
2) Why does the game need to access one’s contacts, control one’s phone’s vibration and prevent the phone from sleeping, among other features?
3) If some information is “unnecessary for the provision of services,” why can’t these services be opt-out instead of opt-in?
4) Who are these “third-party service providers” with whom Niantic shares users’ information?
5) Why specifically would the company need to share or sell “de-identified and aggregate data” with third parties?
6) How does Niantic let parents know about how their children’s info is collected?
7) Regarding the intended fix for requesting full access to one’s Google account, can the company verify it never collected or stored the information to which it initially had full access?

These are not unreasonable questions, and admittedly, the leading request for full access to one’s Google account does set a poor tone for respecting people’s privacy rights. My fervent hope is that John Hanke and Niantic address these inquiries forthwith (Franken has requested Pokémon Go‘s developer answer by August 12—a month from the issue of his letter), but until they do to a reasonable amount of satisfaction, it could be worth holding off on installing. Unless, that is, you’ve already installed the app. OH GOD, YOU’RE USING IT RIGHT NOW, AREN’T YOU?

4. “It’s dangerous.”

Seriously, though, what isn’t dangerous these days? Oh, so you say you’ve heard this kind of argument before. You’d like something more substantial this time around, you say. There are risks, to be sure, with playing Pokémon Go other than the real privacy concerns that surround a game with its breadth just after its releasebut from what I’ve heard, they are not unlike the kinds of issues that face cellphone and Internet users more generally. Users have apparently had to be advised not to bury their heads in their phones pursuing Pokémon while walking across the street, and have been cautioned to literally refrain from playing in traffic. Warnings have also been given, preemptively or not, against gamers driving and operating Pokémon Go at the same time, trespassing on private property while on the hunt, or even risking life and limb to reach their quarry (e.g. playing near high-voltage areas trying to nab an Electric Pokémon). The same could be said for texting, at least with respect to being a pedestrian, or you know, not killing them while behind the wheel. The other aspects? Common sense, really. Don’t trespass! Don’t play near live wires! If it seems dangerous, it probably is! I can understand if young kids don’t fully comprehend the dangers of what they are doing, but without wishing harm on anyone or wanting to sound cruel, maybe those individuals who don’t apply sound judgment should be arrested or electrocuted. Just saying.

The muggings are a bit of a different story. Numerous sources have reported instances of robbers using the geolocation feature of Pokémon Go and a function known as a Lure (used to attract Pokémon) to persuade their unwitting prey to wander alone into an ambush. Certainly, I don’t wish to blame victims for being taking advantage of in this way, but as with other forms of “online” communication, users should be careful about engaging in real life with people they don’t know, and should be aware of their surroundings. There are cautionary tales to be had in the early part of this craze (and reportedly, even one or more cases of someone happening upon a dead body), but this doesn’t mean the more social aspects of Pokémon Go are inherently bad. Be safe out there—and maybe travel with a Poké Posse for added security.

5. “People are playing at the Holocaust Museum.”

Come on—nobody’s playing at the Holocaust Museum! Wait, seriously? For crying out loud, people! You shouldn’t have to be told to put away your Poké Balls at f**king Auschwitz! People do some dumb things with smartphones, let me tell you.

The privacy concerns which accompany playing Pokémon Go are definitely not to be diminished, and potential dangers for bodily safety should be given their due weight. Nonetheless, as a fun game which encourages exercise and social interaction, and which appeals to a wide audience, Pokémon Go has a lot of merit—even if it eats away at our phone’s charge. To stress, effort should be made to be alert in one’s travels, and please, don’t wander into people’s yards or loiter outside their houses.

So, yeah, stop harshing my and other people’s Poké-mellow. The world, by and large, likes the game, and its success foreshadows a future expansion into augmented reality. And if that doesn’t convince you, maybe a Staryu could sweeten the deal?