Edward Snowden, Hero or Traitor?

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An edited copy of this piece was published in the June 24 edition of the Shenzhen Daily.

By now most everyone is familiar with the name Edward Snowden. He is the U.S. government employee who spilled the beans about secret government surveillance programs to a British newspaper then fled to Hong Kong.

There two basic parts of the spying. One is the National Security Agency’s (NSA) programs to monitor virtually all electronic communications in America.

The second part is of the spying is aimed at overseas communications, including Hong Kong and China. The entire spy network goes under the acronym PRISM.

According to Snowden Chinese military, businesses, and universities were targeted.

The NSA spying grew out of the Patriot Act which was passed after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Supposedly it was to be used to prevent a similar attack. Since there  hasn’t been another major event, it is possible it has been successful. But since everything is done is secret, the public will never know.

Predictably those on the left who hated the Patriot Act while Bush was president, now find it more acceptable under Obama, even though Obama’s reauthorization of the Act in 2011 strengthened its spying mandate.

The U.S. has often claimed that Chinese hackers are attacking U.S. institutions. China has always denied it, but recently an exact building was identified as a source of much hacking.

It seems the eavesdropping scandal grows every day. A few days ago it was revealed the  recent G8 meeting was spied on by the British government.

Then Snowden revealed that NSA retained its captured communications much longer than it claimed. Every day brings new revelations about the number of servers involved, and the types of data being collected grows larger.

The legality of PRISM is in dispute. The government says it is legal. Everyone involved,  including Obama, are absolutely unrepentant for  it. It looks like it will be with us forever.

The U.S. constitution barely mentions the bureaucracy, and NSA is a bureaucracy. It was created by the government and follows the dictates of the government. It’s easy enough to follow the letter of the law when you’re the one writing it.

However legality does not translate into morality.

Secretly listening to the conversation of others or reading their mail is universally considered immoral. PRISM is the government version of reading the mail of others.

Many of us can not imagine the government spying on its own people. We were brought up believing things like that only went on in totalitarian countries like the USSR or East Germany.

The NSA programs were carried out in secret. The citizens who are being monitored had no say-so about it. There was no public debate.

America is supposed to be the land of freedom. Leaks of classified information happen often. Usually there are no consequences for the leaker. For some reason Snowden felt the need to flee the country after his leaks were made public. This says much about the state of freedom in America today.

One must question the value of the NSA data mining. We are told it was to help protect us from terrorism. Yet they failed to detect the Boston bombers. They were fairly open about their radicalization, and the Russian government fingered them. Still nothing was done. The massive date grab wasn’t used to monitor them.

Just as important, now that other countries have discovered the U.S. is monitoring their communications it may have an adverse reaction in diplomacy, mutual cooperation, and trade.

Most people agree that there are certain things that a government must keep secret, including spying activities on other countries. This has a legitimate national security value.

But spying on its citizens emails, credit card transactions, phone calls, and even photographs is not a legitimate government function. The argument is made that if one has nothing to hide, there should be no reason to oppose it. This of course is specious. A citizen has the right and expectation of privacy.

Many of Snowden’s  detractors have taken to attacking him personally, knowing that the spying doesn’t sit well with most Americans. They have attacked his education and motives for releasing he information. Some have even implied he is in the employ of China.

So is Snowden a hero or a traitor? The answer is as complicated as the facts that are involved. He shouldn’t have released info about government spying techniques. It compromised our national security and damaged relations between countries. That was traitorous.

But his release of information on NSA spying on all electronic communications by all Americans was something we should know about. For making that known Snowden is a hero.

Living in China. Sunlight Is the Best Disinfectant

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NOTE: An edited version of this piece appeared in the Shenzhen Daily.

As every person in Shenzhen who has a balcony knows, sunlight is a great disinfectant. If you place a pair of smelly sneakers in the bright light of the sun for a few hours they will be good as new. The same principle applies to much of life, both public and private.

The now infamous case of Yang Dacai, a government official in Shaanxi Province, smiling at the scene of a deadly traffic accident while wearing a very expensive watch led to netcitizens publishing even more pictures of Yang wearing some 11 different expensive watches. This led to Yang’s dismissal, but the matter didn’t end there. A college student from Hubei Province filed suit to have Yang’s salary disclosed. Ultimately it is the people who pay the salaries of government officials. The people should have a right to know how their money is being used.

Recently the U.S. government tried to deflect blame from its mistakes in Libya where 4 citizens including the ambassador were murdered. The government first said it was the result of a spontaneous demonstration against a short film that insulted Mohammed, and couldn’t have been foreseen. That was a lie, and the lie was quickly exposed by people on the ground in Libya who posted pictures of armed militia members at the embassy on the internet. Armed militia don’t go to a peaceful unorganized demonstration carrying RPGs. The rest of the media quickly began investigating, and within a few few weeks the U.S. government admitted the attack was well a planned terrorist assault and the embassy should have been better prepared. The movie had nothing to do with it.

Cai Bin, a member of the Guangzhou government has been exposed on the internet for owing 21 real estate properties worth 40 million yuan (6.3 million USD) Many are registered to his wife and other family members. When asked about it Cai refused to give complete answers. His salary is officially secret, but it is estimated to be about 10,000 yuan/month ($1,600 USD). The existence of these properties was uncovered by private citizens who posted the information on the internet. The postings led to official investigations.

Li Dejin, an official in the Communications Department, of Fujian Provence came under fire recently when he replaced a story that was to be published describing his expensive clothing and watch with an advertisement. The author vented his anger on his Weibo page.

Every few weeks a story similar to those above appears online or in the newspapers. There are more than 660,000 government employees who have been investigated for various violations in the past five years. Some of the most flagrant violations make the papers or the web. There are surely many more, and just a small number are caught.

If the government becomes more open about its officials’ salaries, responsibilities, and financial affairs, it won’t end corruption, but it may slow it down. Instead of buying expensive watches, clothing or cigarettes, corrupt officials will figure out ways to hide their ill gotten gains. The State Council has asked government workers to follow a frugal life style. In other words, don’t show off your wealth. Hide it.

In the October 22 issue of the Global Times it was reported that the Ministry of Railways (MOR) was stonewalling request to disclosed the bidding process for it online ticketing system. There is no reason these details should be suppressed. That is that something was not quite right about how the MOR went about the procurement process. Sunlight from the beginning to the end would have prevented public suspicion of how the public’s money was spent.

Shenzhen Railway Station

In the bad old days these exposes might have been squashed and the reporters sent to labor camps. In today’s world, thanks to the internet, it is hard to suppress the scandals. Still, the government needs to be more transparent. The government needs to let the sunshine in.

The inner workings of Chinese businesses also need to be exposed to sunlight. Just recently the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) ruled against allowing the mergers of seven companies because of irregularities in the market value reports. The CSRC will announce new regulations on transparency soon, as well as making public the results of its examinations.

The problem with the lack of transparency in businesses is it allows companies to list their shares based on unrealistic valuations. This raises nice sums of money for the companies, but it unfair to those who purchase the shares.

There are several Chinese companies listed on American stock exchanges which are under investigation for inflating their values using shady accounting tricks.

Netcitizens, cell phones, and general public awareness are not enough to end corruption. In both business and government, sunlight is the best disinfectant. While transparency in what is going on will not end all corruption, but it will certainly help.

Who Has Done More to Better the Human Condition, Obama or Gates?

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In the political world of the U.S. there are almost daily calls for the evil rich to pay more taxes to support the government. Barack Obama is fond of saying the millionaires and billionaires do not pay their “fair share, ” while refusing to precisely define what is their fair share.

What must be concluded is by fair share Obama and the other politicians mean they want substantially more money, maybe an unlimited amount. According to the Wall Street Journal, in the 2000s, the top 5% of wage earners averaged paying 28.4% of their income in taxes and paid 40.3% of all income taxes collected. According to Obama, they still do not pay their fair share.

obama

Obama also rails against corporations and their tax breaks which he calls “subsidies.” He said these tax breaks should be ended, calling them corporate welfare. He also criticizes companies for opening facilities overseas, thus depriving Americans of employment opportunities on American soil. Meanwhile his policies make it more and more expensive to hire American workers, thus encouraging corporations to look overseas.

Obama claims to be the champion of the little people, the poor, the downtrodden, the shrinking middle class. He promises them cash and prizes extracted from the evil rich and corporations. Well and good, but how has he actually preformed?

The centerpiece of his first term in office was the Affordable Healthcare Act. It was supposed to cut healthcare costs for everyone using a Byzantine system that so far has resulted in more than 14,000 pages of new rules and regulations. The truth is neither Obama nor a single member of congress had even read the bill before they passed it. Result: Last year health care premiums went up 14%.

Obama also promised to lower unemployment significantly, and has spent some 4 trillion USD to stimulate the economy. Result: The rate of unemployment has stayed around 8% for the last 4 years, while 8.5 million gave up looking for work and dropped out of the labor force. If these 8.5 million were included, the unemployment rate would be more than 14%.

This led me to thinking about Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft. Who has benefited humanity more, the president of the most successful country in the world, or the Chairman of one of the most successful corporations in the world? Obama or Gates?

Both Obama and Gates were born in 1961. That’s where the similarity ends.

Gates dropped out of college and founded Microsoft. He took a chance with his life, and ended up being wildly successful. Obama took the safe path of working for others, most particularly government, the safest of employers. Though he was very successful within the welcoming arms of the government.

Obama is a cog in the machinery of government. Maybe a very important cog, but a cog nonetheless. Gates is a very successful stand alone entrepreneur, and arguably the most important single businessman in the last 100 years.

gates

Microsoft’s products have enabled many to start successful businesses of their own, save money by being able to shop and plan more efficiently, enjoy their free time, communicate, make money by developing and selling software applications, and generally work smarter and more efficiently. Obama’s government impedes these things by adding rules, restrictions, taxes and fees to nearly every aspect of business and life.

Windows based, or Windows compatible products, have been partially responsible for enabling communications that led to the ousting of dictators and despots all over the world. Obama leads from behind the French

Microsoft employs nearly 100,000 people, more than half in the U.S. with the rest spread out all over the world. The work they do creates wealth. Obama’s government employs many more people, but as government employees, they create no wealth. They only consume the wealth created by others.

Microsoft made millionaires of many of its employees, and billionaires of a few as it created capital with the production and sale of its products. Obama and his government have not created a single cent of new capital, but to be fair, they have made a few people wealthy with their crony capitalism schemes.

Obama forcibly takes money from certain citizens to redistribute to others. Gates started a charitable foundation to voluntarily give his wealth away in ways he decides will help the most. Leading by example, Gates has successfully convinced Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and maybe others to join him.

Obama gave the world the Chevy Volt and Solyndra. Gates gave the world Windows.

Microsoft stock is trading around $27. per share. If a person had bought the stock when initially offered, it would have cost about .09 per share after figuring in splits and inflation. Thousands (millions?) of people have bettered their lives by investing in Microsoft. If someone had bought government bonds at the same time as the Microsoft IPO, after taxes and inflation, the value of their holdings today would be lower than the initial investment. Not all Obama’s fault, but he did nothing to correct things.

Obama is quick to step in front of TV cameras to take credit for this or that, no matter how tangentially was his actual involvement. The killing of Osama bin Laden is a good example. Gates works largely unheralded and purposely unnoticed as has gives away his fortune. Ronald Reagan once said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Obama does not agree.

So who has done more to improve the lot of humanity? Despite his grandiose claims and endless self puffery, Obama has done little. Gates wins hands down.

The State of the Union Speech

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The United States constitution says “(The President) shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” That has turned into the State of the Union speech which is usually delivered in January or February each year.

While the subject of the speech is not specified, it usually involves statements about the condition of the country and the president’s legislative outline for the year to come. This year’s address followed that pattern.

One of the president’s most ambitious proposals was to raise the minimum wage. He pointed out that a family of four can not live with one or both parents making the minimum wage. He failed to point out that even at his proposed new level, the family of four would still be living in poverty. He ignored the question of whether or not a family earning minimum wage should even have a family, and why it is society’s responsibility to save them from the consequences of their irresponsible behavior.

I’m sure the Obama apologists would say it’s for the innocent children. Everything is for the children. But Obama ignored the generous government aid already given this mythical family, such as food stamps, housing assistance, meals for the kids at their school, fuel assistance, WIC, and a legion of other programs.

Most people work minimum wage jobs when they are young and first enter the work force. Occasionally there may be other reasons for taking a low rung position, like being laid off. Unless they are lazy or incompetent, most people quickly pass on to higher paid positions. A person may start as a fry cook at minimum wage. If he doesn’t burn the fries, he will get wage increases and maybe a promotion to hamburger maker, then cashier, then assistant manager.

Right now there is 25% unemployment among young people. Making hiring them more costly will hardly bring that number down.

The Fix-It-First program was introduced. To illustrate his point about how badly the American infrastructure is in need of attention, the president cited the figure of 70,000 bridges needing repair. Fix-It-First would supposedly address this and many similar problems.

The 2008 trillion dollar stimulus was supposed to fix the infrastructure. But only only 10% ended up going to what are called “shovel ready” jobs like repairing bridges. And instead of being a one year injection into the economy, the stimulus has been built into the budget for the last 4 years. So the government has spent 4 trillion dollars and we still have 70,000 bridges that need attention? Does anyone other than the clapping seals that are congressional Democrats think throwing even more borrowed money at the problem will solve it?

Instead of cutting spending, Obama proposed new taxes and fees. The government’s work is too vital for it to have to tighten its belt like ordinary citizens must do in tough economic times. Taxing, borrowing money, printing money and spending money will cure everything. After four years of this, unemployment is higher than it was when Obama took office while the economy is growing at about 1%.

The president mentioned ending taxpayer subsidies for drug companies. Drug companies do not get subsidies. They get a tax break for research and development costs. A subsidy is what Obama gave Solyndra. Taking away r&d tax breaks would harm the development of new pharmaceutical products, but it plays well to his mindless constituents who are economically illiterate and hate capitalism.

Obama said his health care law was slowing the rise in health care costs. I Googled “health care costs” and didn’t find a single article or report that supports this contention.

Obama gave himself pats on the back for immigration reform, housing reform, gun control, and and he laid out a veritable grab bag of statist ideas, all of which would be made possible under his superb leadership at no cost to the taxpayers.

The most disturbing aspect of the speech was Obama’s vision of himself. One commentator noted he used the word ”I” 56 times. Clearly he thinks he has all answers to all problems. Obama has mentioned several times that if congress doesn’t give him what he wants, he’ll go around it. Besides being unconstitutional this is an indication of megalomania.

Obama painted a bleak vision of society and the future unless his plans are implemented. Under his guidance he promised the emergence of paradise. But in his utopia the individual suffers. In Obamaland the individual must be stripped of his individualism. A person’s loyalty must be to the state, not family, not self, or church.

Utopianism is irrational. It ignores human nature and human history. With utopianists like Obama the past is ignored. Instead everything starts today with a new program, a new prediction and new promises. Obama talks of little more substantial than hope.

The mastermind is ruled by delusional visions of his greatness. His own ambition is substituted for those of the masses. His governance is crafted from his own fantasies. In the short term some may benefit, but over time society corrodes.

There is a website called regulations.gov where proposed new regulations are posted for public comment. In the next three days 150 regulations are planned to be enacted. In the next 30 days there are 724. 1046 are scheduled for the next three months. Each of these rules takes away freedom and individualism. It is part of the process of subjugation.

Obama instinctively knows if he is seen as infallible, people will be willing to follow him. He drones on about the mythical future, not reality. He talks of little more substantial than hope and change. He wants more taxes, and regulations. Less individualism. If he gets his way paradise will arrive. To get there he must strip the individual of uniqueness. So Obama assigns each citizen a group identity based on race, gender, religion, or income.

He divides the people and pits them against each other so they can be more easily manipulated. Obama has given us the “War on Women,” the evil rich meme, and he frequently attacks corporations. This is class warfare at its finest and most destructive.

If only I am allowed to force my vision on the country, Obama thinks, everything will be good. This ignores history where time after time similar schemes have failed miserably. But Obama is sure he is wiser than those who came before him. He believes he can do things right. In the USSR, Stalin said Lenin didn’t do things right, but promised he would, and 50 million starved. Then Khrushchev said the same thing about his predecessors. In the mean time the people suffered for 70 years while waiting for the promised bright future that never came.

Obama is bent on improving the lot of the malcontent, the miscreant, and the failure, while tearing down the successful and happy by imposing crushing regulation and heavy taxation on them. Equality in outcome equates to equality in misery. The general good is defined by the state, not by the individual. This is Obama’s hope for America. In his State of the Union speech he laid out part of the plan for his top down iron fisted system.

 

Living in China. Air Pollution and Measles.

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Many years ago my parents took the family on a car trip from Louisville to New York City. Our route took us through Pittsburgh. When we reached the outskirts of the city, the sky turned gray. Downtown it looked like it was dusk in mid-afternoon. The unusually colored air was a result of the air pollution from the many factories and steel mills in the area. My parents marveled at the prosperity that resulted from the busy economy that brought on the pollution.

A few years later I returned to Pittsburgh and the air was clear. The polluting industry had either been closed or they had installed pollution control equipment. There were many shiny new skyscrapers built downtown. The economy was rolling along splendidly, and the air was cleaner. Bad air was not necessary for the city’s prosperity.

Recently there has been an epidemic of foul air in China. There have been reports that some days the air was so thick in Beijing that flights in and out of the city were cancelled. Fortunately the air in Shenzhen seems no worse than usual.

The word smog is a combination of the words smoke and fog. In the old days the smoke came from burning coal for industry and heating homes. In less industrialized times, it was the kind of air pollution most often encountered. It eased as industry began eliminating burning coal, and with the advent of scrubbers on smoke stacks and other air cleaning devices.

In more recent years photochemical smog has been most often encountered. It is a mixture of ozone and various carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur compounds combining within the air. The chemicals are released primarily by modern industrial processes, automobiles, and many smaller sources, including natural.

Bad air has bad health effects. There have been cases where the dirty air killed people directly, like the Great Smog in London in 1952. Then some 4000 people were killed in the four days it lasted. 60 people died in a suburb of Pittsburgh in 1948 during an especially severe smog. There are all sorts of estimates about how many people develop long term respiratory and other health problems from breathing polluted air.

Most western governments have passed laws and regulations aimed at cleaning the air. While not perfect, the air is much cleaner than it was even a few years ago. Things continue to improve as environmental science and technology advances.

Pollution is a product of prosperity. It is a symptom of good economic times. There is little air pollution in primitive and backward areas of the world.

Currently China finds itself where the west was a few years ago. Its young economy is coming on strong. It is developing quickly. Coal fired power plants are being built to supply the energy needed for the economic renaissance. Cars crowd the roads as people go about their business.

As China’s economy has flowered, so has its bad air. Once viewed as an inevitable product of a brisk and growing economy, air pollution is now seen as an unnecessary burden on everyone it effects. The government is starting to enact emission controls on automobiles, and is closing some of the worst polluting factories. There are also fledgling efforts to clean the waters of China.

In many ways bad air is similar to the childhood disease of measles, or Rubella. Measles are spread from person to person by a virus. Often the high fever and respiratory problems brought on by the disease are severe, even permanently damaging. Fortunately, most people recover from the illness completely.

While sick, the body develops immune tools to fend off future attacks from the virus. People usually get measles while young. Most recover and live strong and healthy lives, immune from further bouts of the illness.

Air pollution is like measles. It has attacked the young Chinese economy. At the present time the attack is very severe, even debilitating. China is like the Pittsburgh of my childhood, prosperous but dirty.

But China is beginning to fight back, much like the human body fights the measles virus. Now it looks like pollution is winning the battle, but China continues to strengthen its regulations and enforcement efforts. Eventually it will win the battle. It will emerge from this sickness and its overall economic health will be greatly improved.

Living in China. In Praise of Ticket Scalping

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For some reason reselling, i.e. scalping, train tickets in China is illegal. The rationale behind this policy is somewhat unclear. According to CCTV, more than 600 people have been arrested for this illegal activity. It is considered a form of cheating or dishonesty. This is a mistaken belief.

If things like food or medical treatment were being scalped, there might be a rationale for not allowing the practice. A train ticket is hardly in the same class. In many ways it is a luxury, a frivolous item. If someone can’t get a train home during the holidays it may be inconvenient and disappointing, but hardly life shattering.

A few years ago I was in New York on business. I hoped to see Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, but it was sold out. I asked the hotel concierge for help. A few hours later he handed me an envelope with two tickets for Phantom in it. They were priced about 60% higher than the face price, but I was happy to pay it. I even tipped him for his trouble. Without the scalped tickets I would have returned home without seeing the play.

I have bought scalped tickets for concerts, ball games, and once a bull fight in Pamplona. In every case, no one forced to buy them. I had to choose to either pay the price, or miss the event. I was happy to pay the premium.

Recently a couple in Foshan was discovered purchasing train tickets for migrant workers, adding a small extra charge to the price, and reselling them. Since this is against the law, the couple was arrested. Most of the migrant workers interviewed in the newspapers expressed sympathy for the couple and were surprised they were arrested.

Many migrants have trouble purchasing train tickets during the always sold out Spring Festival and were happy to pay the couple for their help. Some were unable to navigate the new rules, others didn’t have internet access. Without the aid, they might have been unable to visit their families at home.

Hurricane Isabella hit my home in North Carolina in 2004. The storm knocked 13 trees down in my yard. Two hit my house, one fell on my neighbor’s house. The electricity was off more than a week, the internet and telephone service was gone for more than two weeks. Most roads were impassable from debris and high water. I couldn’t get my car out of the driveway.

Immediately after the storm people began flooding into the area. They came from as far away as Vermont, Louisiana, and Florida. They were selling goods and services, usually at inflated prices.

A tree trimmer from Georgia knocked on my door and offered to cut up and remove the fallen trees for about three times what the same work would have cost during normal times. I happily accepted the offer. Within two days my yard was clean. It would have been more than a month if I had decided to wait for the local tree service to get to me.

After the driveway was cleared I was able to drive to a store for food and water. The few places where bottled water was available, it was priced several times higher than usual. No problem. Most places went to incredible trouble to get the water to town. I could have driven 100 miles to search for less expensive water, but decided it was well worth the scalped price.

Meanwhile grandstanding politicians got on the radio and promised to go after anyone caught inflating prices (scalping) for goods and services. While I would have preferred to pay less for having the yard cleared, I understood it was an unusual time. Just as the migrants don’t mind paying a premium price for train tickets during Spring Festival, I didn’t mind a bit paying a high price for water after the hurricane.

Proponents of keeping scalping tickets illegal argue that private citizens do not have the right that venues have to sell tickets, and that they mark up the tickets to unreasonable prices, thus creating a system that benefits the wealthy. They also argue that scalpers are notoriously unreliable and often run scams.

Those who would like to make scalping a legal system argue that tickets are goods like any other, and should be allowed to be resold. They say that allowing venues to hold the only right to sell tickets is a kind of a monopoly, and that scalping allows for an open market. Scalpers deserve their profits in exchange for the service they provide, and the risks they take if they are unable to sell their product.

The fact is no one forces anyone to buy scalped tickets or anything else that is resold. It is a free market transaction entered into voluntarily. There is nothing dishonest about it. It should be completely legal.

 

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