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Thursday, June 6, 2013

The U.S. Government Spying on Americans: Is It Ethical?

In early June, 2013, Americans learned of the U.S. Government’s domestic surveillance program, under which the Verizon Business Network Services subsidiary had been turning over call logs “on an ongoing daily basis” to the National Security Agency[1] The order, signed by a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in April of that year, “is lawful,” U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein contended[2]The program analyzes time and number logs that do not include the calls’ content. According to U.S. Senator Chambliss, “All of these numbers are basically ferreted out by a computer, but if there’s a number that matches a [suspicious] number that has been dialed . . . , then that may be flagged. And they may or may not seek a court order to go further on that particular instance. But that’s the only time that this information is ever used in any kind of substantive way.”[3] Harry Reid, Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate, added that the phone-data program had “worked to prevent” terrorist attacks.[4] Does it make any difference that the program had helped stop a domestic attack?
 
Shortly after The Guardian broke the story on Verizon’s subsidiary serving corporate customers, The Wall Street Journal reported that “the initiative also encompasses phone-call data” from AT&T and Sprint, as well as from Verizon itself (i.e., beyond its business subsidiary).[5] Does this revelation make any difference ethically?
 
Not surprisingly, privacy advocates were alarmed at the sheer scope of the program. Kate Martin of the Center for National Security Studies, a civil liberties advocacy group, said that “absent some explanation I haven’t thought of, this looks like the largest assault on privacy since the N.S.A. wiretapped Americans in clear violation of the law” under the Bush administration.[6] Her statement raises the question of whether the fact that the Obama administration had confined itself to court orders makes the program ethical.
 
Whereas the content of the phone conversations, including the parties’ names, are reportedly not included in the trove of data turned over to the government, internet companies have been providing the contents of emails, online chats, Facebook accounts, Skype video calls, and web searches to the government as per court orders (i.e., not through direct access).[7] Does the inclusion of content in this program make any difference, ethically speaking? Applying a few ethical theories may get us closer to some answers on this and the other questions above. This is not to say that a definitive answer exists; in addition to there being several ethical theories, ethicists do not all include identical factors or weigh them consistently. Even so, thinking the issue over through a number of different theories can contribute to a person’s judgment more generally. With this is mind, I provide an analysis here.





1. Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt, “U.S. Is Secretly Collecting Records of Verizon Calls,” The New York Times, June 5, 2013.
2. Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt, “U.S. Maintains Vast Database of Phone Calls, Lawmakers Say,” The New York Times, June 5, 2013.
3. Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt, “U.S. Maintains Vast Database of Phone Calls, Lawmakers Say,” The New York Times, June 5, 2013.
4. Siobhan Gorman, Evan Perez, and Janet Hook, “U.S. Collects Vast Data Trove,” The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2013.
5. Siobhan Gorman, Evan Perez, and Janet Hook, “U.S. Collects Vast Data Trove,” The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2013.
6. Charlie Savage and Edward Wyatt, “U.S. Is Secretly Collecting Records of Verizon Calls,” The New York Times, June 5, 2013.
7. Siobhan Gorman, Evan Perez, and Janet Hook, “U.S. Collects Vast Data Trove,” The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2013.
 
 

 

Congress: Hitched to the Status Quo

To lead is to be out in front, pointing the jet’s nose one way rather than another. Leadership is not that which causes drag at the back of the plane. Leadership is not that which holds a society in place or protects the vested interests. Whether envisioning something new or a return to a better time, a leader is not oriented to the status quo. It is significant, therefore, that the Minority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, one of the two chambers in the American Congress, has stated publicly that the Congress is rigged to advantage the status quo. The stunning implication is that members of Congress are actually anti-leaders.

 In an interview, Nancy Pelosi admitted, “This is an environment that is almost rigged, intentionally or not, wittingly or not, rigged so that the status quo just goes on.”[1] This amazing line can be read as confirmation that the fears of some of the American Founders has come true—namely, that the U.S. House would itself become an aristocratic body rivaling the U.S. Senate. With just 435 representatives for over 310 million people, George Washington’s plea on the last day of the Constitutional Convention that a minimum of 30,000 rather than 20,000 in a district would not be sufficiently democratic sounds trite, even antiquarian. With so few representatives relative to the total population, the U.S. House could not help but be aristocratic, each member being like a magnet to huge “gifts” from vested interests.

“We have to kick open the door and make our own environment” in the Congress, Pelosi urged, “reduce the role of money [in campaigns], insist on the civility of debates, and bring more women here, and that’s a better reflection of our country.” In painting this picture for us, the Minority Leader was indeed leading, for she was intrepidly venturing out beyond the status quo. Nevertheless, the thrust of leadership is not always enough to counter the gravity of the vested interests grounded in the status quo.

For example, as long as so few representatives hold such power, the money of the vested interests will inevitably find its way to the campaigns and the Congressional bills will continue to be written by the vested interests themselves. In approaching this problem systemically, more is needed. One possibility is to sift the E.U.’s lower legislative chamber for possible solutions. 

     The U.S. House of Representatives (top) and the European Parliament (bottom). That the E.U. Parliament is viable in operation as a legislative chamber suggests that the U.S. House could be enlarged to reduce the population per district.  Source: commons.wikimedia.org

At the beginning of 2012, European Parliament had a maximum of 751 representatives to cover a population of about 504 million, which works out to an average of 671,105 people in a district. Meanwhile, the U.S. House had 435 representatives to cover a population of about 313 million, which corresponds to an average of 719,540 people in a district. The difference is 48,435 people per district. To get down to 671,105 people per district, the U.S. House would need to add 31 seats. Were the House to have 751 representatives, the average number of people in a district would be 416,777. While more democratic than districts with an average population of 719,540, neither figure comes close to satisfying George Washington’s objection that 30,000 people in a given district is not sufficiently democratic (i.e., too many constituents for a given representative).

Therefore, in addition to increasing the number of seats—with the knowledge that 751 in a chamber can work—further reduction in the centralized power would be needed to reduce the money magnet’s power. One option would be returning more domestic policy areas to the state legislatures. At the time of Pelosi’s statement, the U.S. states had 7,382 state legislators altogether.[2] Spreading around additional powers, taken from the Congress, to so many more representatives would not only make American federalism more democratic, but also open up possibilities for real change beyond the grasp of the status quo. As a few examples even without the additional power, some states had legalized gay marriage, two had legalized pot, and one had achieved universal health-insurance. Admittedly, the status quo has a greater grip in some states (e.g., Kansas) than others (e.g., California). However, spreading out governmental power could perhaps be sufficient to give leadership a chance to outpace the moneyed interests in the status quo.   



[1] Laura Bassett, “Nancy Pelosi: Congress Is ‘Rigged’ to Maintain the Status Quo,” The Huffington Post, June 5, 2013.
[2] National Conference of State Legislatures, “Sizes of Legislatures,” 2013.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Starbucks Takes a Hit for Supporting Gay Marriage


In January 2012, Starbucks joined Microsoft and Nike in publicly supporting the same-sex marriage bill in the U.S. state of Washington. Two months later, the National Organization for Marriage began a “Dump Starbucks” boycott as a result of Starbucks' support of gay marriage. David Barton, whose sermon on May 19, 2013 on “pious caffeine consumption” was posted on the internet, said, “The question is, ‘Can a Christian give money to a group he knows will use it to attack what God supports?’ . . . You can’t drink Starbucks and be Biblically correct on this thing. It’s just a real simple principle.”[1] Barton had earlier likened being gay to smoking and gay marriage to dogs marrying horses. In spite of these rather extreme claims, the boycott gained some traction. At the next Starbucks’ stockholder meeting in March 2013, Tom Stauber, a stockholder, suggested that the company’s sales and earnings were a “bit disappointing” in the quarter after the boycott had begun precisely because of the issue. Whereas the stock and dividends had risen 38% from October 2011 to September 2012, the rise was only 7.6% from March 2012 to March 2013.[2]  If indeed the causal attribution is correct, then it can be asked whether the management (and/or board) of a company taking a political stand on a controversial societal issue that is not expected to save the company money and in fact could result in lost revenue breaches the fiduciary duty to the stockholders unless a majority of shares are voted in support of the position.



Starbucks typically relies on young adults to both work in and manage the stores. Even an excellent vetting process in hiring does not mean that effort is not needed to fortify the mechanism of accountabilitySource: wikimedia.  

The full essay is at "Starbucks: A Shaky Management Wades into Social Issues."



[1] Meredith Bennett-Smith, “Christians Can’t Drink Starbucks Because Company Supports Gay Marriage, Evangelical Says,” The Huffington Post, June 3, 2013.
[2]Aaron Smith, “Starbucks CEO Holds His Ground on Gay Marriage,” CNN Money, March 28, 2013.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Erdogan Renovating Istanbul: Turkish Prime Minister or Mayor?

Istanbul is the historical seat of three empires, the last of which being the Ottoman Empire. Following World War I, which ended that Empire, the Republic of Turkey was officially established in 1923. In terms of the previous empires, that which would be Turkey can be said to have been the host kingdom, or state, rather than an empire in itself. This distinction can add insight into the protests in 2013 against Recep Erdogen, the Prime Minister of Turkey. Before going on to accurately relate the prime minister to Istanbul, it is important to know what sparked the public unrest against him. 


                     Astonishingly, this protest in Istanbul began against the loss of a city park. In actuality, the protest was against the sitting prime minister.    Source: NYT


 According to CNN, “(t)he protests began with plans to raze Gezi Park, the last green space in central Istanbul.”[1] The Turkish government had been planning to replace the park with a replica of 19th-century Ottoman barracks, which would include a shopping mall. The New York Times describes the park as “a place of public gathering.” The government had recently ordered the city’s oldest movie theater to be demolished so another mall could be built. Meanwhile, in ghettos across the city, the poor were being paid to give up their homes so that “contractors—many with ties to government officials—can build gated communities.”[2] The presence of cozy corruption aside, the very involvement of Turkey’s prime minister in matters that are municipal in nature was also a matter of controversy. While it would admittedly be strange to find the government of an empire occupied with municipal functions of even a major city in one of the constituent kingdoms or states, such involvement of a government of a republic on the scale of a U.S. or E.U. state is neither improper nor unusual. Conflating a kingdom, republic or state with an empire or union of such polities led to erroneous conclusions regarding the upheaval in Turkey.
 
Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for Milliyet Newspaper, chided the Turkish prime minister for being too paternalistic in deciding “on the park, the bridge, the city and the constitution.”[3] In effect, Aydintasbas was claiming that Erdogan had been micromanaging in getting involved even on a city park and a bridge. On CNN on June 3, 2013, a commentator likened Erdogan turning the park into a mall to Obama getting involved in renovating Times Square in New York City. The commentator, an American, was conflating a union of states with a republic on the scale of one of those states.  In other words, the commentator was ignoring the vital difference in scale and operations between an empire and a kingdom or simple republic that could fit into an empire. 

Because U.S. President Obama has responsibilities spanning fifty republics, spending his time on a municipal project in a major city of one of those republics would not be an effective use of his time, given the other demands spanning fifty republics on his time. Of course, if a particular urban project has significance spanning the Union, it would not be improper for the government of that Union to get involved. The site of the World Trade Center, for instance, has such significance because the U.S. rather than merely New York had been attacked on September 11, 2001. 

The government of a simple republic or state, like Turkey and New York, can properly get involved in particular urban projects because the government is not so far removed from its cities. In the U.S., city governments are state subjurisdictions, so a state government can even take back the delegated authority, as the Michigan Government has done in the case of bankrupt Detroit. It is therefore not strange for a state legislature or executive to take interest in a particular municipal project.
  
Therefore, the prime minister of Turkey getting involved in a city park project in Istanbul is like the governor of New York getting involved in a public land project in New York City. Thus re-calibrated, Erdogan’s direct involvement on particular large projects in Istanbul is not so astonishing. This is not to say that there are no other possible valid reasons to protest against the prime minister. My sole point here is that Turkey is not a United States of Asia. Rather, the republic would be a state in such a union. To ignore this distinction simply because both empires and states are countries is extremely reductionist and apt to result in erroneous comparisons and prescriptions for policy.


[1] Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz, “Turkey Protests Show No Sign of Letdown,” CNN, June 3, 2013.
[2] Tim Arango, “Protests in Turkey Reveal a Larger Fight Over Identity,” The New York Times, June 2, 2013.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Genetically-Modified Foods: Health in the E.U. and Rights in the U.S.

With regard to genetically-modified (GM) foodstuffs, an interesting cultural difference between Americans and Europeans surfaces. Even though both peoples are fully capable of over-reacting to a presumed danger, what they select and how they react differently can be instructive, culturally speaking.

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.