State of Nature or Nanny State

It looks like the oversight-resistant CIA went a little rogue. What’s new? The agency has repeatedly been found to have exceeded its legally permitted bounds, in part becausesecret agents are good at keeping their actions secret. Hoover’s FBI, the NSA.

But this is a law of nature. Small children, teenagers, spooks and hedge funds will try anything, push the limits to the limit — especially if there aren’t any limits in the first place. Obviously parents have to lay down the law because without any rules “chaos is come again.”

It isn’t just the young of the species and secret agencies that tend to run off the rails. All human nature aspires to total freedom, no restraints, let ‘er rip. Americans may be especially resistant to restraint because of the myths of our pioneer history. We habitually deemphasize how cooperative an endeavor building this country was. Instead we have been brought up with a fictionalized, exaggerated, forgetful version of that history in which rugged individualists made their way alone and unafraid. In this vision, a lack of restraints is an unambiguously good thing. But it isn’t. Lawless, predatory ranchers crushing their sodbuster neighbors weren’t a myth, but they weren’t restrained by the lone, noble man of nature with a gun, the Shane or The Man with No Name, but by the rule of law.

The robber barons of yesteryear and today’s contemporary version want all power in their hands and no cop on the beat — except to protect their rights at the expense of everyone else’s. But after enough strikers were shot down and shirtwaist factories burned, the Progressive Era was ushered in to redress the balance, a development libertarians still regard as the beginning of the end of Eden, but the rest of us have reason to be grateful for.

Similarly, those who mock the nanny state and want to live free and die seem to forget what the world looks like without any rules of the road, though there are plenty of examples historically or around the globe at present. Consider what a child looks like without a nanny or a mother or father. It looks and acts feral.

Government haters are right, of course, that government too must have limits or you get Mao, Pol Pot, Putin, or a theocracy of the Ayatollahs and Taliban. The trick is enough regulation to keep the strong from preying on the weak and not so much that rights are stifled. But those are two sides of the same coin. Some person, faction, religion, class, regulator is always trying to get the upper hand and make all others dance to its tune.

Conservative propaganda notwithstanding, the risk in American history as more often been a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all, than 1984. Those who reflexively oppose any attempt to make people color within the lines or live within legal plimits ought to recall what liberty unrestrained looks like. It looks like liberty for the powerful and oppression for the rest. A slave economy, the killing fields, the Inquisition, the Cultural Revolution, Social Darwinism, barons and serfs.

Law and restraint are the real conservative doctrine, and not law only for those who can afford to buy it. As Madison said: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But they aren’t. Men are really smart, really selfish, really vicious animals who may not need to be caged but sure can’t be allowed to roam around without a leash.

Fees for All, or Join the Club

My parents were young during the Depression and learned frugality thy hard way. Their monthly bills were paid – mortgage, car, phone, gas, electric, water and sewer. And that was about it. The rest of the money was kept in cash in budget envelopes. So much for food and other actual necessities, so much for a rainy day, and what was left – not much – for frivolities.

How times have changed. Affluence, even when you have to borrow to imitate it, requires an expanding universe of monthly payments. Every business is out to sell you add-ons and upgrades or better yet to get you to subscribe. You aren’t a onetime customer. You are a revenue stream in waiting.

Banks, while never a day at the beach, at least used to pay you a small interest rate for keeping some savings on deposit so they could charge gigantic interest rates for lending it back to you. Now, in a zero interest rate environment, that game doesn’t work. Instead, they charge you fees for everything under the sun – late payments, checks, safety deposit boxes, for initiating loans or paying them off, for transfers, travelers checks or using their ATM.

But banks are hopelessly backward in not offering you anything but varying degrees of pain. Elsewhere, the merchant is your pal until they bankrupt you. They begin by bribing you to come back often. This isn’t entirely new. The corner grocer used to have loyalty programs in the form of green stamps or a piece of dishware a week until you’d accumulated a set, but that was trivial compared to today’s clubs, platinum memberships, prime memberships.

Endless gimmicks seek to bind customers to the seller with “hoops of steel.’ Now you can’t even get in a Costco or Sam’s Club without joining the club and coughing up the annual fee. Just like the country club, without the golf, the 19th hole or the high net worth.

Often these programs promise you treasure that never materializes. How many zealously accumulated frequent flyer miles have crashed and burned when an expiration date in fine print arrived or the airline itself was consumed by another with no interest in honoring your loyalty with a bit of their own.

Or consider the internet. Like Radio and TV, it was briefly the home of free info and entertainment. But cable turned TV viewers into monthly cash cows. Now Sirius, Pandora, Spotify, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix and you-name it seek to get you to pay monthly, daily, on demand, per view, per song, streaming. Ka-ching!

The Internet is now a shooting gallery with you as the target in which monetizing every page view, click and relationship is the road to riches. Newspapers and magazines may be on the way to extinction, but the internet has adopted their subscription model with enthusiasm. It is said that Amazon’s Prime Subscription is the difference between their being in the red and in the black, and the annual fee just went up.

Microsoft, Quicken and their ilk began by selling you perfectly adequate software, seemingly a onetime purchase. Then they began to make it obsolete by issuing new versions with improvements that you didn’t want or that actually made life worse. Even if you didn’t want them, the company made the upgrade mandatory by phasing out the old. Or they make you pony up over and over to keep a function to which you’ve become addicted functioning. Want to use Quicken to download financial data? Once every few years you have to buy a new version. Buy a video game for big bucks? You aren’t done, there’s a quarterly fee to get on the internet and play with others.

Perhaps the greatest example of the utility that ate your wallet is the phone. It used to hang on the kitchen wall and occasionally Aunt Martha would call. Maybe once a year something would be sufficiently important to justify pricey long distance. Usually a death in the family. Now the device is welded to the ear, in terrifying use while driving, in bed, in your sleep. Not just to converse but to text, tweet, game, watch cat videos. And the meter is constantly running on your mega-giga voice and data plan. Today the average phone bill exceeds my parents’ mortgage payment. Money, money, money, money.

There’s no end to it. If I can’t motivate myself to walk around the block, I can join a gym and be a member. If I don’t want to bother, I can jump around in front of my TV by subscribing to streaming video trainers or monitor my vital functions by connecting them to the internet for a fee. The gas company offers to insure my gas line from leak for a monthly fee. I can join a wine of the month club, an olive oil club, subscribe to fruit from Harry and David.

I suppose there’s even a membership program for frequent bankrupts who can’t say no to any club, upgrade or add-on. But don’t join. Just say no. Consider adopting Socrates rather than the Unreal Housewives of Rodeo Drive as your role model.

One fine day, contemplating the good life, he looked around the bustling Agora of Athens, a kind of Hellenic Mall of America, and said in amazement a sentence we should all practice daily.

“So many things I don’t want.”

Spooky: Congress and the CIA Get Crosswise

During the Bush “War on Terror” the CIA under George Tenet was completely in the bag for the Cheney war hawks. Evidence of WMDs was trumped up and, as Darth Cheney said, “the dark side” was embraced including Rendition, Detention and Interrogation. In plain language, kidnapping, concentration camps and torture.

“For desperate ills, desperate remedies” is the excuse for this kind of behavior. But as heads cooled, some stomachs turned. It became clear that the program had gone to extremes and had been extremely badly managed including a substantial number of non-terrorists treated as if they were. Not to mention the dubious legality of aspects of the mess.

On taking office, Obama had no enthusiasm for raking over Bush-era excesses and also appears to have been kidnapped himself by John Brennan, first up to his eyeballs in the Bush black arts, then an Obama campaign adviser and now head of the CIA, a classic Washington survivor. Meet the new spook, same as the old spook.

Some Democrats, libertarians and fans of the Constitution always questioned the program and for years there have been attempts by some in Congress to practice actual oversight of the CIA which habitually tries to repel all boarders, stonewalls, and obstructs. Some of that may seem justified in a town that spews leaks, but it leaves the people and their representatives with nothing but an unsatisfactory,” Don’t worry your pretty little heads. Trust me.” Who will watch the watchers, indeed.

Now Sen. Diane Feinstein, who angered a considerable number of her left-leaning constituents by backing the CIA to the hilt, has accused the agency of cyber-spying on the computers of staffers at her Intelligence oversight committee who were tasked with investigating the disputed programs. Her very tough speech on the Senate floor talked of CIA betrayal of constitutional separation of powers, but it was easy to see she was also feeling personally betrayed since she had long fallen for CIA assurances that she was getting the straight story.

Turns out an investigation launched by former CIA chief Leon Panetta was compromised from the outset since some of the supposedly objective truth-seekers were actually deeply involved in conducting the very acts under investigation – a clear conflict. The CIA now claims the report was not really meant to get to the bottom of any policy errors (aka crimes) or make recommendations but just gather data. And interestingly, the entire investigation was scrapped when the Justice Department began trying to determine if laws had been broken. The abrupt halt to internal scrutiny looks a lot like a circling of the wagons and the beginning of a renewed cover-up. If so, the spying on the Senate committee would have been an attempt to find out how much they knew and try to sweep the dark matter back under the rug.

Of course, the CIA says it wasn’t spying but plugging leaks and has accused staffers of being in illegal possession of classified material. But what else would the CIA do if caught spying? Blame the victim and deny they are spies. “Who, us?” It’s easy to predict a period of heat without light, partisan grandstanding, finger pointing and then the short attention span of Washington and the news media will turn to the latest bread and circuses.

It is hard to believe the truth will ever come out voluntarily or that sensible reforms will be undertaken. It has been a truism ever since Watergate that it isn’t the crime but the cover-up that kills you. But Brennan still has Obama’s ear and, with their cloak of national security to hide behind, nobody covers up better than the CIA. Unless some inside whistleblower emerges, we’ll never know what really happened and the CIA will never change.

Postscript: If this turns out to be my final blog post, someone at Langley didn’t like the tenor of my remarks.