“PRIVACY IS FOR PAEDOS”

Testifying before Parliament today, Paul McMullan, a former deputy features editor at Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World tabloid, admitted that he and his colleagues hacked into people’s phones, paid police officers for tips, conducted surveillance operations in unmarked vans outside people’s homes, stole confidential documents, rifled through celebrity garbage cans and posed as “Brad the teenage rent boy” in propositioning a priest. “Phone hacking was a `school yard trick,” he absolved himself. “In 21 years of invading people’s privacy I’ve never actually come across anyone who’s been doing any good. Privacy is the space bad people need to do bad things in. Privacy is for paedos; fundamentally nobody else needs it.”

This, of course, is the same excuse law enforcement officials have used for 24-hour CCTV coverage, national identity cards, DNA data bases, and other forms of surveillance: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” But we do all have things to hide, and not all of them rise to level of criminality. Burping, farting, scratching our nether regions, picking our noses, pleasuring ourselves, making rude remarks, cracking thoughtless jokes, drinking milk straight out the carton–well, that would be an inventory of my morning that I wouldn’t care to see immortalized on the world wide web. And there are other activities–lighting up a doobie, stepping out on the missus–that may be immoral or illegal, but really aren’t any business of the public. It’s not the kind of information that the authorities should be accumulating, and it certainly isn’t what journalists should be gathering either.

I’m not about to go all Columbia School of Journalism all over McMullan, but as someone who, as an editor of Spy was party to going through the trash cans of celebrities, and to playing pranks on the rich and powerful that involved identity misrepresentation, I think I’m in a pretty good position to tell McMullan where to get off. Privacy is not the space bad people need to do bad things. Privacy is the space people need to avoid judgmentalism, and it is not up to us who needs it and why. Pedophiles are not entitled to privacy for the obvious reason that they are perpetrating a crime; privacy is a non-factor once another party has been injured. McMullan, of course, and his ilk do not spend very much of their time capturing pedophiles, and spend a far greater portion tracking philandering footballers and amorous starlets and kinky executives. When Lindsay Lohan and Mel Gibson sprawl their problems on the sidewalk, it seems to me that they are fair game for journalists. But journalists are not the Mutaween, self-appointed enforcers of morality and the law. We don’t get to pursue and harass, and we certainly don’t get to lap the police in being able to probable without probable cause and warrants. That’s just not our job; it’s just not the way we do things. It’s kind of refreshing that McMullan spoke up for himself so unapologetically before the lawmakers, but I am happy to say that if he ever came into any of the publications where I worked and proposed using his usual news gathering techniques , I’m certain we would have unapologetically kicked his ass into the street.

HIGH ON THE HIGH LINE

Yesterday I finally took myself out of the running to become the last person in the greater metropolitan area to visit the High Line, the terrific elevated urban park built on the elevated rail bed that runs through Chelsea on Manhattan’s far west side. I will now add my puny voice to the great chorus singing the park’s praise–it’s terrific! Fun, stimulating, perspetive-shaking–I can’t wait to go back.

BRING ON THE REPUBLICAN OVERREACH!

Writing in The Atlantic last week, James Kwak had the best analysis of the failure of the ludicrously-named Supercommittee: the committee may have failed, but the Republicans won. Indeed, as Kwak says, they had already won.

“In 1994, Newt Gingrich — the man who is now the frontrunner in the Anyone-But-Mitt race — led the conservative bloc to a sweeping electoral victory, definitively wrenching the party out of the grasp of “moderates” like George H.W. Bush. At the time, the top income tax rate was 43.7 percent and the top capital gains tax rate was 29.2 percent, set by the Tax Reform Act signed by President Reagan in 1986.” Obama wants to make the top tax rate on capital gains and dividends permanent at 18.8 % (15% set by the 2003 tax cut, plus 3.8% for Medicare payroll tax); to keep the estate tax exemption at $3.5 million, not $1 million as it was before 2001; and to kill permanently the Pease and PEP (personal exemption phaseout) provisions that were suspended by the 2001 tax cut, would be killed permanently.

To pay for these cuts on the wealthiest Americans, Obama will cut government programs–cut Medicare, cut defense, postpone retirement, on and on. “In short,” says Kwak, “if Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and Grover Norquist had a master plan to turn the United States into a low-tax, small-government society back in 1994, it’s safe to say they are ahead of schedule.”

And even so, they are not content. Pressed by the Tea Party insurgents on their right, they are now demanding that that tax rates on the rich go down to 28%. Is this what Americans really want–low taxes on John Paulson and the Koch Brothers in excahnge for shitty schools? I don’t think so.

This is what halted the Republicans in 1994: they didn’t know when to stop. Afflicted by overreach, they shut down the government. In doing so, they saved Bill Clinton‘s presidency. Mark my words: they’re going to save Barack Obama‘s as well.

TOM WICKER, RIP

The great reporter and columnist Tom Wicker of The New York Times, died on Friday at the age of 85. In a long and distinguished career, he stood out for his clear thinking, probity, and ethical courage. The defining moment of his career was his performance covering the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which was described beautifully by Gay Talese in The Kingdom and The Power, his amazing book about The New York Times. On the scene in Dallas, Wicker “scribbled his observations and facts across the back of a mimeographed itinerary of Kennedy’s two-day tour of Texas,” wrote Talese. “It was a remarkable achievement in reporting and writing, in collecting facts out of confusion, in reconstructing the most deranged day in his life, the despair and bitterness and disbelief, and then getting on a telephone to New York and dictating the story in a voice that only rarely cracked with emotion.” To read Wicker’s report, click here. Talk about grace under pressure.

THE BROKEN CONTRACT


With the premiere of Iron Lady approaching at the end of December, we are certain to be treated to a heavy dose of Margaret Thatcher‘s greatest hits. None will be more pertinent to the issues of this moment that the point she made in her final Question session as prime minister in 1990, shown in the clip above. In the merry, feisty exchange, a Labor MP respectfully asks her if she regrets that disparity between rich and poor widened during her tenure. Thatcher denied the relevance of such statistics, and instead argued that people of all classes had benefited during under her administration. And that, she said, was the difference between her and her opponents in a nutshell: “He would rather the poor were poorer as long as the rich were less rich.”

Well of course this is a false choice: the poor could certainly be less poor without the rich becoming richer, but that is neither here nor there. Thatcher came up with a phrase that has served as the underpinning for at least fifty years of American policy. Ever since that old sailor John F. Kennedy pointed out that a rising tide floats all boats, it has been widely accepted by nearly all Americans that as long as everyone is improving, we can accept wide discrepancies in wealth. As even the great American mafioso Barzini acknowledged in The Godfather, “After all, we are not communists.” Our social contract accepts the reality of the rich, as long as things overall are improving for everyone.

But as Paul Krugman once again points out today in the Times, things really aren’t improving for anyone. He cites a Congressional Budget Office report that showed that between 1979 and 2005, “the inflation-adjusted, after-tax income of Americans in the middle of the income distribution rose 21 percent. The equivalent number for the richest 0.1 percent rose 400 percent. For the most part, these huge gains reflected a dramatic rise in the super-elite’s share of pretax income. But there were also large tax cuts favoring the wealthy. In particular, taxes on capital gains are much lower than they were in 1979 — and the richest one-thousandth of Americans account for half of all income from capital gains.”

In other words, the rising tide has been channeled into the Yacht Club’s marina. The super rich have been getting richer, while almost no one else has enjoyed very much of a gain at all. And much of what the super rich have gained has come through government tax-cutting, which has exacerbated the deficit, which hurts everyone. Far from Thatcher’s trade-off, the rich have grown richer precisely at the expense of the poor and middle classes.

I wonder what the Iron Lady would say about that?

END THE TYRANNY OF RULE 22

In Slate, Michael Moran argues that much of America’s economic difficulties has nothing to do with actual economic problems, and everything to do with the paralysis of the American political system. “Only about 30 percent of the trouble facing the U.S. today is economic,” he writes. “The U.S. economy, compared with all the other developed economies, is in the best structural and demographic shape to weather this storm and ultimately regain its health. But a cancer does exist: The real problem America faces is political, and once again today, it is on stark display.” Moran blames this problem on Americans who don’t vote in primary elections; by leaving the choice of candidates to the partisans of both parties who tend to favor more extreme standard-bearers. “The result: an American economic crisis that is eminently solvable has been trusted to the hands of political hacks representing fringe minority factions within each political parties whose primary incentive is to avoid providing ammunition to the other side. Thus has our political system turned a simple question of accounting into an economic version of the Arab-Israeli conflict – a conflict for which the solution has been clear for 40 years if only either side were willing to deal with reality.”

Well, sure, but blaming 120 million people is the same as blaming no one. I would point the finger at something simpler: the Senate rule that requires 60 votes to cut off debate on a bill. This is usually incorrectly referred to as the number of votes needed to cut off a filibuster, which often leads people to wonder why a majority party doesn’t challenge the minority party to mount an old-fashioned, stand-on-their-feet, gum-up-the-works, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-type babblethon. In fact, the super majority is what is needed to stop senators from adding amendments to the bill, which can be inconsequential and paralytic.

But the super majority is just a rule of the Senate, as changeable as any. Prior to 1975, Rule 22 of the Senate said that it took two-thirds of the Senate to invoke cloture and end a filibuster; in 1975, that number fell to 60. Thirty-five years later, we can see that 60 is still way too high. I understand that the Senate prides itself on its role as the more deliberative of the two houses, the one less reactionary to tides and trends. But as we see, sixty votes doesn’t protect deliberation; it empowers obstruct. It doesn’t protect minorities; it neuters the will of voters.

Just to be clear, protecting the filibuster may be a long-honored custom, but it ain’t the law of the land. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution says “Each house may determine the rule of its proceedings.” For the first 15 or 20 years of the Senate, there was no right to unlimited debate. After that, the right to filibuster was enacted. By 1917, after a long era of Senatorial obstructionism, the two-thirds threshold was established. The Founding Fathers almost certainly did not envision the establishment of any kind of a super majority, because the gave the Vice President the right to break deadlocks in the Senate when the body was “evenly divided.” Now the body can be deadlocked when the vote stands at 59 to 41, a state of affairs that clearly disenfranchises the Vice President. Although I bet most people don’t care about that.

Let’s start a campaign: Bring Democracy to the US Senate. In January 2013, when a new Senate convenes as part of the 113th Congress, it will have to adopt the rules that will govern its proceedings. Those rules will be adopted by a simple majority vote. We must begin a campaign to persuade the Senate to change Rule 22. to either get rid of the super majority, or at very worst, lower the threshold to 55 votes. Since pledge-signing seems all the vogue these days, let’s get the people who are going to run for the Senate in 2012, incumbents and challengers alike, to pledge that they will end the tyranny of Rule 22.

MAG-NIFICENT!

Thanks to the Millennium Art Academy High School in the Bronx for inviting me to speak at the Career Day event on Wednesday. My co=presenter Kathleen Cushman spoke about being a writer. Thanks very much to my old friends and new friends of friends who donated magazines to be distributed to the students attending the session: Bob Love of The Week; Belinda Luscombe of Time; Jess Cagle of Entertainment Weekly; Matt DeMazza and Ken Derry of Yankees Magazine; Ryan D’Agostino and Lauren Drucker of Hearst magazines; and Frank Rich and Lauren Starke of New York magazine.

“PUT YOUR BACKS INTO IT, YOU LITTLE URCHINS!”

Following Saturday’s “Take a bath and get a job” slam on Occupy Wall Street, Grumpy Old Man Newt Gingrich continued his “Hey You Kids, Get Off My Lawn!” campaign for the presidency yesterday by advocating an end of Child Labor laws. Proving that there is truly nothing sacred in the right’s efforts to roll back the accomplishments of decades of progressive government, Gingrich said to an audience at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government “It is tragic what we do in the poorest neighborhoods, entrapping children in, first of all, child laws, which are truly stupid. Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”

First question: Has Gingrich ever seen how kids clean?

Second question: Do we really want 14 year old kids cleaning toilets?

Third question: When Gingrich talks about the tragic things we do in the poorest neighborhoods, do “truly stupid” Child Labor laws really top the list of the policies and programs we have promulgated? Are they really ahead of negligence, indifference, hostility and racism?

Fourth question: What’s next–restoration of the work houses?

“You’re going to see from me extraordinarily radical proposals to fundamentally change the culture of poverty in America,” Gingrich added. How much more extraordinary radicalism can we stand? Poor school districts across the country are cutting teachers, cutting labs, cutting books, cutting after-school study sessions, and cutting extra-curricular activities. I guess this radical rollback isn’t enough; this radical disinvestment in the future isn’t enough. Let’s pass out the Lysol. I’m all in favor of young people having jobs, and learning discipline and responsibility, but this proposal is squarely in mold of those middle-class destroying policies that lay off older workers in favor of cheaper youngsters, and lay off American workers in favor of cheaper workers abroad. It’s hard to send janitor jobs off-shore, so let’s end Child Labor regulations, and get minimum-wage teens to haul garbage instead of unionized workers.

Gingrich’s brainstorm is just a new rendition of the same GOP theme: the maximization of profit and its retention by the ownership class, at all costs, is the only thing it stands for.

“THEY’RE COMING FOR YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY MONEY”


Today in New Hampshire, presidential candidate, corporate consultant, and Tiffany’s Customer of the Year Newt Gingrich told a group of college students that he would change the social security system to allow them to opt out of the current system, in favor of putting the money into private retirement accounts. Seven years ago, in what may have been the most prescient three minutes of his life, the peerless George Carlin warned us this was coming.