President Obama finds himself under fire on two disparate fronts these days, both for the botched rollout of his signature health care program and for the secret spying on allied heads of state.
– Peter Baker, The New York Times
It’s one of those elegant solutions to a mix of problems where you wonder why no one thought of it before.
President Obama is under assault for two very tricky problems. The first is the so-far ineffective communication program for the Affordable Care Act, a key component to the administration’s goal to improve the delivery of health care to all Americans.
The second problem is that the National Security Agency has been listening very aggressively (and very competently) to the cell phone calls and emails of people like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The NSA has been doing this to Merkel for the past 11 years, which includes the entire five years of the Obama presidency. Ms Merkel and others are now quite exercised and perturbed.
Thanks to the talented Edward Snowden we now know how effective the NSA has been in figuring out how to track and listen in on the phone calls and emails of world leaders, as well as ordinary Americans. Of course, we’re told, the NSA only monitors US citizen calls if we dial a potential foreign al Qaeda agent. The NSA’s credibility is such that the reaction to that has been a resounding: “Yeh, sure!” Still, you have to admit, it’s pretty incredible what they are able to do. Personally, I’m still awed by landline telephones and that our voices somehow travel with hundreds of other voices over wire or clear cable as laser light. But even that’s like two Campbell soup cans and a wire when it comes to the marvels of the 21st century technological communication skills harnessed by the NSA.
The Obama administration and the NSA are now acting like kids pointing their stubby little fingers at each other. “Gee, I didn’t know that was going on,” the president said. “Oh yeh? Well, we told your people what we were doing. If they didn’t tell you, that’s your problem,” the nation’s spy chiefs replied.
Top spy James E. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, conceded the President of the United States could not know everything, although reports on the NSA would suggest General Clapper was trying to reach that goal himself. It’s important to understand that the 66-year-old leviathan Clapper oversees does not shift with the political winds every four or eight years. The leadership of the NSA (and the CIA and the Pentagon, for that matter) does not have to kiss American voter ass to get re-elected. They operate on an inexorably rising through-line that began with the super confidence of the immediate post-World War Two moment and the Cold War infused fear of losing that dominant top-dog feeling. Accordingly, our intelligence matrix has been able to grow steadily, mostly in secret, since the current National Security State was officially enacted in 1947 and the NSA was added to the intelligence-gathering mix in 1952.
“We’re talking about a huge enterprise here,” Clapper recently told a congressional hearing. Spy chiefs, of course, are notorious masters of understatement, and what he rules is actually much larger than “huge.” It’s mind-boggling. We poor citizen schmucks have only the minutest hint of what the hell it does — for us and to us.
So what to do about these problems?
The answer to both these problems — how to effectively disseminate health care information and how to check arrogant, excessive intelligence gathering — is actually hiding in plain sight. As my mom used to say: “If it was a bear it woulda bit ya.”
1) We need to order a moratorium on the use of the NSA’s impressive telephone, email and social-media snooping by its vast talent pool of 19-year-old nerd hackers. And …
2) Since these empowered nerd spies already have our numbers (so to speak) we need to legislate that they re-focus their talents to the Affordable Care Act’s communications program. Since these national security nerds have the can-do knowledge lacking in the Obamacare website, they should be utilized to link each and every American with the who, what, when, where and how of the various health care levels and programs that fit their specific needs.
The larger question hovering over this modest proposal is this: Why in America are we so amazingly effective in the GUNS department and so damn helpless when it comes to BUTTER?
I know. I know. I can hear all the complaints now. What about the Bill Of Rights? What about the spread of Sharia Law? What about the Magna Carta? Of course Sean Hannity and Senator Ted Cruz will see this as a nefarious conspiracy to undermine the fabric of America. And maybe they’re right.
We always need to recognize the lunatic fringe, something a better health care system can only help. But maybe they’re right and the symbolic fabric of America is worn and fraying at the edges. I would submit that maybe the world outcry we’re hearing against obsessive NSA surveillance suggests we’re afraid of losing something. Maybe we feel a need to keep all those other people in the world beyond the NSA security bubble off balance in order to preserve our glorious and great exceptional wonderfulness. Maybe we need an affordable shrink for this pre-existing condition of ours.
Maybe, just maybe, the time is ripe to change our worn old fabrics and drop them off at the thrift shop. Think about it. We could buy a whole new wardrobe and use our incredible resources (before they all end up in the private coffers of the Koch Brothers) to no longer, out of fear, snoop on other people but, out of the sense of a social contract, to improve the lives of ordinary working Americans in the primal area of health care. Right now we’re number 34 — right behind Cuba — in infant mortality. All developed nations in Europe are way ahead of us in this vital social contract.
While we’re at it, we also need to improve the education of young Americans so they are able to read and do math as well as the kids in China or India, two growing capitalist giants ready to eat our lunch. We could even improve our currently aging and crumbling infrastructure; and if improving it is too much to ask, we could simply agree to repair and maintain it before it collapses.
To echo FDR, all it takes is less fear itself. The point is to shift the system away from the fear of its own citizens and make it so those same citizens feel part of the system. That is, take the “huge” energy, talent and resources Clapper cited that permeates the National Security Agency and re-channel it to re-build a devastated middle class of citizens so people once again feel part of the economic engine of America. Where we seem to be headed is toward a culture based more and more on inheritance, luck and the most favored get-ahead tools in America, cheating and lying.
Instead of wasting so much of our time and resources on a massive, high-tech bureaucracy of underwear-sniffing J. Edgar Hoovers, we need a fresh approach.
But just wait a minute! Isn’t all this stuff pretty radical?
Of course it’s radical. It has to be, since the problem is so deeply entrenched the only way to solve it is with a radical shifting of priorities. But it’s wrong to see “radical” as necessarily unreasonable. It means paying attention and being serious for a change.
Actually, what I’m talking about would be patriotic. Those of us on the left would once again be able to proudly identify with the flag of the United States of America. Disgruntled nay-sayers would no longer have a leg to stand on. It would be hugs for America all around.
OK. OK. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There will be glitches. There’s always glitches. But the goal is to ironically ju-jitsu the NSA’s proven competence working the dark side into a constructive matrix in which citizens are able to work together for a change to overcome all the glitches — and not to exacerbate them. As the Cable Guy says: “Get ‘er done!”
Pundits like Bill O’Reilly, who likes to emphasize that he’s “a simple man,” will no doubt see this in apocalyptic terms, and O’Reilly will probably write a bestselling book called Killing Mister Potato Head.
But life in America will go on. And it will get better.
In closing, please send this modest chain letter to ten friends and five enemies. Tell them to put the NSA’s incredible talents to work for better Health Care in America. Your grandchildren will thank you.