Common Sense & An Open Mind

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    "You must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision." T. Jefferson

Archive for January, 2012

The Power of the People

Posted by Free to Think on January 23, 2012

Typically my blog posts are full of doom and gloom, but this week I’m happy to comment on good news: the American public stood up for their rights and actually won.

The Senate’s Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) were introduced as a way to thwart intellectual property theft and sales of counterfeit products online. But opposition from Internet-based companies and their users argued that the bill would lead to over-regulation and censorship. An excellent short video describing how these laws could curtail freedom can be seen here.

On January 18th, 13 million of us took the time to tell Congress that we wanted to protect free speech rights on the Internet. In fact, so many voters bombarded their senators and congressmen with so many protest messages that it temporarily knocked out some representatives websites.  Petition drives abounded, such as the one by Google which attracted more than 7 million participants.

The power of the Internet has given us opportunities to rally together like we never have before. And finally, Americans seized the chance. On Friday the bills, which were being fast-tracked through Congress, were indefinitely shelved.

The bills had been backed by the entertainment industry and also initially by Congress. Only 5 senators opposed the bill the week it was introduced. Then the protests began. Within a week 35 senators publicly opposed PIPA.

Ron Paul denounced SOPA from its inception, the first Republican congressman to oppose it. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were silent on the issue until after the massive public protests. Rick Santorum remained the only Republican presidential candidate to defend some form of the bills during Thursday night’s Republican debate in South Carolina.

Last week, incensed Hollywood executives cancelled Obama fundraisers when the President also sided against the legislation.

Former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd is now Chairman of MPAA, the movie studio lobby that crafted these bills. He told the New York Times that passage of PIPA and SOPA had been “considered to be a slam-dunk.” The bills were backed by over 350 large, powerful corporations and organizations. Comparing the protests to the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising, Mr. Dodd said he was humbled to learn that “no Washington player can safely assume that a well-wired, heavily financed legislative program is safe from a sudden burst of Web-driven populism.”

I must admit that when I went to Wikipedia last Thursday only to find it blacked out in protest, it was quite a powerful statement. A sampling of some of the best website protests can be seen here.

“It is clear that we need to revisit the approach on how best to address the problem of foreign thieves that steal and sell American inventions and products,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman and SOPA sponsor Rep. Lamar Smith.

Hurray, the people made their wishes known! Yes Mr. Chairman, we’d like the government to address the problem of piracy without claiming the right to completely choke off the traffic, free speech and revenue of entire web sites without ever having to try or convict its owners of any crime. Even without these expanded powers, sites have already been wrongfully shuttered by the government.

Copyright owners do need to be able to go after piracy sites, and they already have some mechanisms at their disposal. But these industries have concocted some truly absurd statistics purporting apocalyptic damages that require draconian measures, while in fact these businesses remain very healthy.

SOPA and PIPA will likely return in some form, as the bills were not killed, just postponed.

The SOPA/ PIPA protest was one of the biggest populist movements in America since the Vietnam War, engaging millions of Americans to rally against governmental policy that could substantially change the way we live. Yet there was relatively scant coverage of the movement in the major mass media. Last week, news organizations seemed to find the Italian cruise ship disaster, which killed 12 people on the other side of the globe, much more newsworthy. It should be noted that these media outlets are owned by the same corporations that sponsored these bills.

Americans have proven that the right to gather information and communicate on the web freely is very important to us. Now if only the public would get equally up in arms about the national debt and government detention laws!

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Posted in constitutional rights, Detrimental policies, Freedom of Speech, Intrusive government, Media bias, obama, Politics, Ron Paul | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Tolls or hidden taxes?

Posted by Free to Think on January 18, 2012

Yet another example of government using underhanded methods to ‘tax’ us without raising taxes:  the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority now faces default after the state passed legislation to divert $450 million of toll revenue a year to non-Turnpike purposes.

In an effort to find yet another way to fund its burgeoning government, in 2007 Pennsylvania passed Act 44, which turns toll charges from a user fee into another general tax.

The money is being siphoned from the PA Turnpike despite the fact that the Turnpike Authority is currently losing $170 million a year before making their Act 44 payouts. The Turnpike, which collects about $900 million in annual revenue, is obligated to make payments for 46 more years.

Act 44 is just one reason why Turnpike Authority debt was increased from $2.9 billion to $7.3 billion, a near-triple increase over the past four years. Interest on escalating debt has shot up from $70 million a year in 2007 to $290 million a year in 2011.

“I don’t think it can continue for six more years,” said PA Auditor General Jack Wagner of the turnpike’s ability to continue covering the financial burden. “The statistics show clearly that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is drowning in debt due to burdens placed on it by Act 44.”

“The turnpike is not facing any immediate financial crisis,” insists Turnpike commission CEO Roger Nutt, although he says he agrees with the auditor general that, “Act 44 funding may have a negative effect on turnpike traffic, toll rates, customer service and other traveler benefits sometime in the future,” and that toll increases would be necessary to meet obligations to pay the state.

Just so we’re clear, Nutt believes that it’s no problem for PA Turnpike drivers to settle for reduced customer service and benefits while being laden with a hidden tax to help pay for unrelated commitments that the state is straining to meet. All while Turnpike commissioners dismiss concerns about their own growing debt.

Similarly, in neighboring New York a steep toll increase on the bridges and tunnels that cross the Hudson River and increases in single-fare rides on PATH trains have been imposed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, in part to subsidize non-transportation projects such as the World Trade Center project.

But now, the New York and northern New Jersey chapters of the AAA automobile club have filed a lawsuit challenging the toll increases, contending that the increases are “illegal and void.” The suit seeks to forbid the authority to set future tolls that include the cost of the World Trade Center redevelopment.

Michael F. Fitzgerald, a lawyer for the auto club, said that such actions violated federal law and the commerce clause of the Constitution by requiring drivers to subsidize a project from which they would not benefit.

Lawyers for the Port Authority said that the club had no standing to sue the agency. Port Authority officials have refined their position, saying all the added toll revenue would go toward transportation.

The New York Port Authority, where toll collectors often make more than $80,000 a year, is no stranger to bungling mismanagement. One toll taker, Warren Stevens, made over $102,000 in 2011 — $40,614 of it in overtime. At least 11 Port Authority gardeners also made over $80,000 last year.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey have called for an audit of the Port Authority.

Posted in Debt, Detrimental policies, Ground Zero, Politics | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Who can authorize a citizen to die?

Posted by Free to Think on January 10, 2012

How would you answer the following: “Under what circumstances, if any, would the Constitution permit the president to authorize the targeted killing of a United States citizen who has not been sentenced to death by a court?”

The New York Times submitted this question to each of the major presidential candidates.

The discussion here is not about imprisonment—we’re talking about death. Without due process. In other words, without the ability to defend oneself.

The question posed by The New York Times even specifically asked when “the Constitution would permit” the president to authorize the killing of an American citizen without trial.

Newt Gingrich answered, “Under wartime circumstances.” Well, since the U.S. is officially engaged in an indefinite War on Terror, that isn’t very limiting. “If such an individual is engaged on a battlefield it would be irresponsible not to kill him,” says John Huntsman. This wouldn’t restrict President Huntsman from killing someone anywhere in the United States, since the new National Defense Authorization Act deems the U.S. homeland part of the “battlefield” of the War on Terror.

Rick Perry says, “The Constitution clearly vests in the President…an absolute duty, to protect the nation when vital American security interests are at stake. The President would be so authorized…where a citizen has joined or is associated with a nation or group engaged in hostilities against the United States.”  Opines Mitt Romney, “Due process permits the use of deadly force against all enemy combatants, including citizens, who engage in acts of war against the United States on behalf of an enemy of the United States. U.S. citizens have no right to affiliate themselves with al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups plotting attacks against our country.”

This language is frighteningly vague. Vague terms are dangerous because they leave open-ended opportunities for misuse. What’s the definition of a “vital American security interest?” Is it possible that “a citizen associated with a nation or group engaged in hostilities against the United States” is a phrase that could be abused?

What specifically is an “act of war” that would deem assassination?

Can any of these terms be found in the Constitution, or is there any other language referring to the president’s authority to kill American citizens?

Ron Paul had the most clear and concise answer as to what kind of circumstance would permit the president to order the death of an American: “None.” In no way does the Constitution indicate that the president can ever authorize the targeted killing of a United States citizen who has not been sentenced to death by a court.

President Obama did not submit an answer.

Here are their answers in full.

Posted in constitutional rights, Freedom of Speech, Intrusive government, obama, Politics, Ron Paul | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The National Defense Authorization Act: Who’s laughing now?

Posted by Free to Think on January 2, 2012

Once again I must defer to Jon Stewart’s biting humor as he illustrates the outrageous absurdity of the pending national defense bill.  With tongue in cheek, Stewart states that he see why 7 of the senators were a bit leery to pass a bill that would nullify the fourth amendment and allow for the indefinite detainment of Americans without trial. But what about those other 93 senators who voted for the bill?

At least our level-headed President had threatened a veto. But wait a minute: it was the Obama administration that requested the indefinite detentions in the first place.

The only reason Obama has ever given for wanting to veto the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 was a fear that the measure might infringe on his own executive branch powers.

In another segment, Jon Stewart drolly illustrates the about-face Obama has done since he reached Executive Office. Stewart offers a clip of a 2007 speech by presidential candidate Obama, rebuking the Bush administration’s policy of detaining foreigners at Guantanamo without due cause. He juxtaposes it with President Obama’s 2011 desire for “infinite power” to detain anyone, including American citizens.

Unfortunately for the American public, adjustments made by a House-Senate conference committee have sufficiently addressed White House concerns that the bill could infringe on presidential powers. In his last official act of business in 2011, last weekend President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law.

Human Rights Watch said of our Noble Peace Prize-winning leader, “By signing this defense spending bill, President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in U.S. law.”

Another political humorist, funnyman Andy Borowitz, satirically tells us that most voters “no longer believe that the 2008 Obama and the current Obama are the same person.”

Jon Stewart and Andy Borowitz make me laugh about the things I want to cry about. I wish I were witty enough to make this situation sound humorous. But to me there’s nothing funny going on here. What’s happening is terrifying.

“This should be the biggest news going on right now — literally legalizing martial law,” says Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul.

“The founders wanted to set a high bar for the government to overcome in order to deprive an individual of life or liberty,” said Paul this week. “When the bar is low enough to include political enemies, our descent into totalitarianism is virtually assured. The Patriot Act, as bad as its violations against the Fourth Amendment were, was just one step down the slippery slope. The recently passed National Defense Authorization Act continues that slip into tyranny, and in fact, accelerates it significantly.”

“The danger of the NDAA is its alarmingly vague,” Paul continued, “with undefined criteria for who can be indefinitely detained by the U.S. government without trial.”

As I will discuss in my next article, no other presidential candidate has a problem with this expansion of legislative and executive power.

As Jon Stewart advises us, we needn’t worry about losing our due process to defend ourselves all that much. “In the event that you find yourself suddenly and perhaps capaciously imprisoned under this bill” they can’t detained you forever, Stewart explains. Once the War on Terror is over “and terror surrenders, and is no longer available as a human emotion, you’ll be free to go.”

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Posted in constitutional rights, Detrimental policies, Freedom of Speech, Intrusive government, National Defense Authorization Act, Politics, Ron Paul | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »