Liberty: An Unmourned Casualty of the War on Terror

Since 9/11, America’s War on Terror has resulted in the deaths of more than 6,600 American service members and more than 100,000 Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemenis and others.  That non-American tally, according to leaked Pentagon documents, includes more than 60,000 civilians in Iraq alone.  Far, far more have been injured, many of them dreadfully so.  Positively dwarfing the terrible carnage of September 11, these numbers suggest an alternate meaning for the term “asymmetric warfare.”

Regrettably, war casualties now garner scant attention from a U.S. populace grown numb and a media complex increasingly fueled by celebrity news and shallow Red vs Blue political commentary.  And yet, there is another casualty of the War on Terror that receives even less attention:  the devastating damage to American civil liberties.

A Multi-Front Assault

Like the War on Terror, the assault on civil liberties has been waged across many fronts, some of them less known than others.  Conducted in the name of safeguarding citizens from harm, key elements of this onslaught have included:

  • The USA PATRIOT Act.  Hurriedly passed by Congress and signed into law by George Bush just weeks after 9/11, the Patriot Act undermined Americans’ 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.  Among other things, it empowers the government to demand financial records and telephone, internet and other communication data without court approval, lets the government obtain “John Doe wiretap” authorizations that fail to specify either the person or place to be surveilled, and—in Orwellian fashion—even infringes on the free speech rights of individuals only tangentially tied to federal investigations. 
  • The National Defense Authorization Act.  Dodging public notice as best he could, Barack Obama quietly signed the NDAA into law last New Years Eve in the quiet of a vacation home in Hawaii.  The trouble lies in Title X, which codifies broad executive claims of the power to militarily detain, without trial and without a time limit, anyone suspected of being a member of Al Qaeda or the Taliban or—vaguely—“associated forces,” whether overseas or on American soil.  The vague language also snares those who are considered to “substantially support” them.  Ominously, there is no exception for American citizens.  And remember, none of these determinations is subject to court scrutiny, and those who are detained have no right to contest their confinement or, as South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham grotesquely celebrated–a right to speak to an attorney.
  • Executive Branch Executions.   Is there any greater example of tyranny than a president who has the unilateral and unchecked authority to execute anyone anywhere in the world, including his own citizens?  As first documented by The New York Times, President Obama, restrained only by his conscience, conducts secret meetings (with participants that disturbingly include political advisors), pores over secret evidence, and then orders secret killings—all beyond the scrutiny of the courts or anyone else.  His Majesty’s fatal touch has already extended to at least two U.S. citizens, one of them just 16 years old.  Most of these executions are carried out by drone strike, sometimes—borrowing from tactics associated with terrorists—followed by strikes on rescuers and funerals.
  • Mass NSA Surveillance.  According to whistleblowers who formerly worked at the National Security Agency, a sinister transition took place after 9/11, in which the NSA, originally created to collect and analyze foreign communications, turned its vast spying capabilities on the American public.  They claim the NSA has gone beyond merely eavesdropping on individual citizens without warrants and has embarked upon a massive program, called “Stellar Wind,” that collects and then stores every email, internet visit and financial transaction of most everyone living in the United States.   (Sound far-fetched? Watch this short video at the New York Times.)

Who Are the “Bad Guys”?

Confronted with these developments, Americans tend to fall into one of two camps: Those who are alarmed by the destruction of vital Constitutional safeguards, and those who feel safer knowing terrorists have no place to run.  The latter invariably declare, “I haven’t done anything wrong: Only the bad guys need to worry about this.”

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Marylan...

NSA Headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland.

There’s the rub:  While these law-abiding citizens may understand “bad guys” to mean terrorists, their definition is utterly irrelevant.  Without due process and legislative and judicial checks and balances, the American people have no say in determining who the bad guys are.  In this dangerous new era, that decision is solely left to the President and his executive branch appointees.

Further, when it comes to entrusting the federal government with dangerous and unprecedented powers, we must look well beyond the current office-holders and candidates.  That’s precisely what Mitt Romney failed to do when he justified his support of the NDAA’s indefinite detention provisions with this flawed rationale:  “I don’t think (President Obama)’s going to abuse this power, and I know if I were president I would not abuse this power.”

Putting aside the fact that unconstitutional and covertly-executed powers leave Americans with no recourse in the event of their abuse, this isn’t about trusting Obama or Romney or any one individual—Constitutional safeguards exist because we don’t know who will hold power one, 10 or 100 years from now.  That’s precisely why Thomas Jefferson, who had witnessed tyranny first-hand and appreciated how quickly it could emerge, urged, “Let no more be said about the confidence of men, but bind them down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution.”

The erosion of civil liberties has gone largely unnoticed by Americans, thanks to a mainstream media that has largely abandoned its duty to keep a watchful eye on the nation’s institutions.  That’s why it’s incumbent on each of us to enlighten our fellow citizens, dissuading them from trading liberty for a false sense of security in the midst of a vague and endless War on Terror.  

If our generation acquiesces in the destruction of our Constitutional safeguards on the flimsy basis that we, as law-abiding individuals, have nothing to hide and everything but the government to fear, we’re condemning our children and theirs to a dismal fate.

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Obama’s Remedy for Rising Tuition: More of What’s Driving It Already

English: Barack Obama delivers a speech at the...

Image via Wikipedia

Following up on his State of the Union address, President Obama visited the University of Michigan on Friday to address the rising cost of education.  There, amidst a rapt crowd of collegians, he enthusiastically recommended a renewed commitment to the very policies that are driving those soaring prices in the first place.

Before examining Obama’s faulty solution to the still-expanding education bubble, however, it’s helpful to consider three key forces that contributed mightily to the real estate bubble that ruptured in 2007:

  • Easy credit. Progressively loose underwriting practices—encouraged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and even forced upon the mortgage industry by the Community Reinvestment Act—made loans available to legions of un-creditworthy applicants, fueling demand and driving prices higher.
  • Low interest rates.  Spurred by political pressures which included George W. Bush’s promotion of an “ownership society,” the Federal Reserve’s manipulation of rates lowered mortgage payments, giving borrowers the ability to take on larger debts and bid prices higher.
  • Taxpayer money. In addition to various income tax credits and deductions embraced by both parties, the federal government’s implicit backing of mortgage guarantees offered by Fannie and Freddie promoted riskier behavior which translated into more loans being made with dubious underwriting.  That implicit backing later turned all too explicit when Congress approved enormous taxpayer-funded bailouts of Fannie and Freddie that to this point exceed $186 billion.  While that price tag already makes it the most expensive of any financial crisis bailout, the Congressional Budget Office expects the taxpayers’ tab to race higher still.

With the real estate example in mind, let’s turn to higher education costs.  The relentless ascent of college tuition is no secret, but the specific math is jarring:   Over the decade culminating in the current school year, in-state tuition at four-year public universities increased at a rate of 5.6% per year above and beyond the general rate of inflation, according to the College Board.  Increases at private schools adhered somewhat closer to the broader inflation rate, but still exceeded it by a hefty 2.6%.

While other factors are surely contributing to this trend (colleges’ antiquated practice of awarding tenure comes to mind), the same trio of forces that helped inflate the price of housing—easy credit, low interest rates and taxpayer money—has been at work in the education market for decades.  Unfortunately, that didn’t stop Obama from offering this hair-of-the-dog prescription to the nation’s college cost malady:

  • Easy credit.  Obama touted federally-funded student loans, which are offered without any credit check whatsoever—and which, by their very nature as a deferred debt, make consumers of education less sensitive to price increases and more willing to pay the asked price.
  • Low interest rates.  The rate on taxpayer-subsidized student loans is set to rise from 3.4% to 6.8% in August—a substantial jump, but to a rate that’s still quite competitive with other loans that aren’t collateralized by a home or a car.  As Mandi Woodruff reports at Business Insider, a higher rate could help bring the forces of supply and demand to bear, spurring parents and students to more carefully weigh the value they’re getting for the price charged by a given institution and perhaps gravitate to less expensive alternatives.  However, rather than letting market interest rates heighten the cost-consciousness of consumers, Obama vowed to seek Congressional intervention to keep the rate artificially low.
  • Taxpayer money.  After lauding his administration for having already secured an increase in taxpayer-funded Pell Grants, Obama pressed for more ambitious transfers of taxpayer money—either directly or through students—into the coffers of education purveyors.   His proposals, elaborated upon in a White House fact sheet, ranged from a permanent extension of the American Opportunity Tax Credit to $55 million to help educators “develop and test the next breakthrough (education) strategy” to a $1 billion “investment” in an inter-collegiate competition focused on keeping prices down—a scheme incongruously-named “Race to the Top” (I suppose “Race to the Bottom” didn’t play as well with focus groups).

The parallels between the housing and education bubbles are clear.  Where the former saw builders offering status-conscious consumers ever-bigger homes,  the latter is accompanied by colleges competing to offer the most lavish amenities—like those ubiquitous climbing walls and even resort-like outdoor pools.

And, as with the real estate bubble, there lies beyond rising prices another unintended consequence:  millions of Americans saddled with debt—an average of $25,250 for 2010 grads.   The worst off?  Those who fail to complete their education and have little to show for their effort beyond a big taxpayer-backed liability on their balance sheets.

What presidents, legislators and consumers usually fail to grasp is that well-intentioned government intervention that seeks to help consumers afford higher prices of any product only serves to inflate those prices further.  

Doubling down on Uncle Sam’s counterproductive strategies will likely pay dividends in the voting booth, but—at a time when the federal government borrows 40 cents out of every dollar it spends—it’s unbearable to watch the government plunge deeper into debt to fund policies that yield results precisely the opposite of their intentions.  That it does so without any authority granted by the Constitution only makes it more excruciating.

Brian McGlinchey is principal at Liberty Messaging—a communications firm serving libertarian causes. He is the founder of 28Pages.org and a contributor at The Libertarian Institute.