Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy Father's Day

My one and only child will soon turn nine, so this is my ninth Fathers' Day as an actual father and caretaker of another human being. And on this and on Mothers' Day, we as a society rightfully honor the parents and grandparents who have reared offspring in this crazy, mixed-up world. 

So fine, for the 9th year in a row, I'll enjoy my day, take my bow as being "World's Greatest Dad" (sorry Izzy Mandelbaum), consume my medium-rare steak dinner, and watch the final day of the U.S. Open. But really no bows are necessary. And as Chris Rock noted, certainly no cookie rewards are warranted for literally doing the least you could ask of a human being who brings children into the world.

See, in spite of the thousands of parenting advice books and blogs devoted to documenting every mundane and insignificant part of raising kids, being a half-decent parent is basically the easiest job in the world. Sure, Drew Magary wrote a great book and some humorous Dadspin posts on the subject of the trials of parenting. And being a "perfect" parent is certainly probably impossible. That's the point. But being a good parent basically just means you have to love your kids unconditionally and try as hard as you can. The End.

There are no perfect parents and no singly perfect parenting style, and there doesn't have to be. The beauty is your kid will likely still turn out just fine even if you are a far-from-perfect parent. Granted, our lack of government funding for programs to ease the costs and burdens of working parents, sometimes make it more challenging, but it's still a relatively easy job. And it actually gets easier once they get old enough to communicate clearly on their own. The importance of being a good parent in no way increases the degree of difficulty. It may put more pressure on you, especially later in your child's life, to keep them on the righteous path, but I don't think it makes the job any harder. 

Now the outrageously rising costs of child care and education are a completely different animal, but that's a different topic for a different day. Yes, earning and/or saving enough money to provide your child with the very best chance of success as an adult is very challenging and seemingly becoming less attainable for the average family every single year. But as long as you the build foundation with your child, he or she will still be fine, doing whatever it is they end up doing. And the foundation is the easy part. Being a passably good parent just requires love, empathy, minor sacrifices, and occasionally your undivided attention. And the more you give them, the more you will get back (whether you like or not :-) ).

Happy Fathers' Day!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Big Brother and the Data Holding Company

I just can't for the life of me work up any shock or outrage over the latest disclosures over PRISM and the NSA. I think we all had a reason to assume that this was being done since shortly after 9/11. And actually this 2006 report in USAToday pretty much confirmed it already. Obviously, the scope of the program has grown since then. But I have a problem with the government collecting more information to help "connect the dots." As Jeremy Bash, chief of staff to former C.I.A. director Leon Panetta put it. "If you’re looking for a needle in the haystack, you need a haystack." Or perhaps a whole barn full of haystacks.

There is always some potential for lower-level abuse in any data-mining endeavor or at any large government agency or corporation, for that matter. We've just spent four weeks talking about lower-rung employees at the IRS giving a little more attention to conservative-sounding political groups seeking tax-exempt status. And similarly your credit card number may get poached when you purchase things on-line. Several times a year a bank or another company ends up having to apologize for a security breach that results in thousands of credit card numbers being publicized. It's the electronic, on-demand world we live in and most people just shrug and assume the risks with everyone else.

But just as you wouldn't close down banks, the internet, or any government agency because of some minor abuses or privacy violations, neither should you shutdown the N.S.A. programs over the "potential" for abuse.

So it's extremely important that there be dogged oversight and transparency to provide some public assurance. Will Saletan of Slate made some great points in regards to this earlier in the week. However, since the information is classified, the public will have no choice but to trust that Congress will provide the necessary oversight. And that is hopefully what the Edward Snowden revelations facilitate.

The most surprising revelation for me from this entire story is that so many (roughly 500K) contractors have security clearances to access top secret information. Now of course there's access and there's "access", but still even if the real number is 100K, it's a little worrisome. Our government contracting out over 30% of this type of work is another issue for another day. Do we really want so many civilian contractors working with such sensitive data? In this instance it's about time to revisit the old Republican canard about the private sector always being better, more efficient, etc, than the public sector. That may not be the case when it comes to defense and intelligence. And when the private companies have mostly sweet no-bid deals with the government, then it leads to the same inefficiency we harp on about Big Government.

I'm generally pretty liberal on most issues. Crime (both the prevention of and prosecution of) and counter-terrorism are areas where I'm pretty authoritarian. I don't really support Stop-and-Frisk because it has proven to be ineffective. But if it worked, I'd be on board. Perhaps, due to living in several different neighborhoods in a big city like Philadelphia with more than its share of violent crime, these issues are never just abstract philosophical civil liberties debates for me. It's a real thing I need to think about literally every time I walk down a city street. People who grew up in similar environs have much more practical, real-world takes on gun-control as well. It's tough selling the libertarian "virtues" of less gun regulation and drug decriminalization in neighborhoods like, say, North Philly, which have been ravaged by guns and drugs, as opposed to, say, rural enclaves in central PA.

So my perspective on this issue is that crime or fear of crime eventually curtails liberty. So a reasonable sacrifice of a little privacy to help reduce or prevent crime and terrorism is the foundation that allows us to achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Michael Grunwald sums up this point of view in Time more eloquently here.

Most of the extreme slippery-slope arguments against any law tend to be presented in absence of more legitimate points that address here-and-now particulars. "This may make sense now or may prevent x, but in 40 years y could happen!" should not be taken seriously as an argument. The same lazy argument could be used against any law that's on the books.

The government won't be taking your guns if background-check laws are enacted. And the government will not be viewing your cell phone call logs unless you call someone, who called someone, who called someone, who called a suspected terrorist at some point in the last five years. It's a high-tech version of police detectives dropping by your house to "ask you a few questions" about a particular case if they believed you might be tangentially connected to one of the suspects.

Rightly or wrongly, the executive branch and the intelligence agencies are held accountable for any potential terrorist attack. The natural human response then is for people in those positions to do everything legally and technologically possible to prevent terrorist attacks. And the same "cover your ass" incentives line up politically for those people to keep their jobs, as it should be in a responsive, functioning democracy. It would be unrealistic for us to expect our leaders to not use every technological advantage at their disposal to prevent crime/terrorism and keep tabs on our enemies. The surveillance state will continue to get bigger, not smaller. This is the path our country has been on since the beginning of the Cold War and there's no turning back.