Maybe the guy in the tin foil hat was right

We should all be in line to take a whack at the idiots responsible for these completely avoidable exercises in governmental overreach and hubris.  All together now: what the hell were they thinking?  I can’t decide which is more disturbing: the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten law-abiding citizens based on a perception of their political views, or the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten journalists in the pursuit of their constitutionally-recognized role as government watchdog.  Both are abuses of government power that fly in the face of what this country is meant to stand for.

Today the attorney general ordered the FBI to investigate the Internal Revenue Service for apparently singling out for enhanced scrutiny the applications for tax-exempt status from what were perceived to be conservative political groups.  Yep, it looks like the party in power has been using the authority of the taxman to reward those with whom it agrees and punish those with whom it does not.  Is there any more textbook definition of abuse of power than that?

I’m not saying that the IRS shouldn’t be thorough in reviewing applications for tax-exempt status; the IRS should be exceedingly thorough in investigating such requests.  Wouldn’t we all be willing to believe there are those among us who would do whatever they could to reduce their tax bills, even lie about the true purpose of their organization?  There are entire political movements built on the effort to reduce taxes, but that doesn’t mean they deserve extra scrutiny.  Whatever’s determined to be the proper amount of review for gaining tax-exempt status should the bar for everyone to pass, and it’s just flat wrong for an arm of the government to single out persons or groups for extra scrutiny based on their actual or perceived political views, including their views about taxes!  (Is this a great country or what?)  The whole idea has conjured up in my imagination that happy visage of Richard Nixon and enemies lists.

It’s just as wrong, and just as dangerous to our liberty, for the Justice Department to seize phone records of journalists.  The DOJ notified The Associated Press last week that at some point earlier this year, and clearly without prior notice, it had seized records for 20 phone lines belonging to AP offices and journalists, including home phones and cell phones.  It did not state a reason why these records were seized; it’s believed to be in relation to an investigation into leaks about how the CIA disrupted a terrorist plot to bomb an airliner.

Our system envisions a strong press as a watchdog on government at all levels, acting as a representative of the people seeking out information that the government wants kept quiet…the stuff that the politicians and the bureaucrats don’t want you to know, that they’ve kept from you out of embarrassment or guilt.  There have been people in the government from the beginning who understood the importance of that role to the overall functioning of society, and who’ve provided sensitive information to reporters despite being told not to do so.  Today we call those people whistleblowers.  When that whistle gets blown the government’s first response is often to decide who will take the blame, and they devote a terrific amount of energy to learning who told the truth.  In some cases they ask a court to order the journalists who ran the story to tell where they got their information; in others, like this one, they just take private information without the knowledge of its owner in the hopes that they’ll be able to deduce who ratted them out.

We used to talk about the “chilling effect” that a variety of government actions would have on the newsgathering process, on the minds of the reporters who might think twice—or more than that—about pursuing a story when faced with the possibility, or the likelihood, that the government was going to fight back.  And this is that.

It’s inconceivable to me that all the people involved in these two growing scandals are merely misunderstood or made poor decisions about how to achieve a legitimate objective, but I don’t think the blame goes all the way to the top.  This president is neither that paranoid nor that stupid…although you’d think that a professor of constitutional law might have impressed on his subordinates some of his relevant thoughts about the proper use of governmental power.  If this news had come out while the last man was president, I would have accepted it as prima facie evidence of the evilness of his administration and its soulless pursuit of instituting theocratic capitalism as our new form of government.  I would have been wrong, but I admit I would have thought it.

When the government spies on reporters and appears to punish political enemies, it gives the tin foil hat crowd encouragement: “The government is spying on you—it’s keeping track of who you call and who calls you, it’s watching what you do and where you go and who you meet, it’s keeping information on your income and your taxes and your friends and who you associate with, and it’s using that information against you.”  Today that sounds a little less ridiculous that it did last week.

Unassigned additional reading:

This is how nothing gets done

OK…finally, I’m going to write; I don’t even know what’s been so important for the past week that I couldn’t find time to write, or even to start to write.  But today is different: as soon as I let the dogs out I’ll be nailed to the keyboard—about time I wrote about this amazing revolution in Egypt and linked to those articles backgrounding the Muslim Brotherhood before Mubarak flees and a new government is already in power.

That was weird: a broken fence slat.  Looks like something on the other side of the fence, where they’re building the new road, slammed into the middle of that fence slat and broke it in two; hell, the big piece was knocked out into the garden.  I’ll just get a hammer from the garage and nail it back in, and then hit the blog—maybe something about the deafening cognitive dissonance of all the talk about “high taxes” while today’s news reports that our tax burden is lower than it’s been since 1950!

You’d think a grown man would be smart enough to, first, change out of his dress shoes before stepping into the garden, and second, be careful enough to avoid the dog poop obstacle course between the back door and the back fence.  After I clean off my shoes and walk around to check out the other side of the fence, I’m back at the blog—gotta check on the reaction to the story that new government spending under Obama has been less than the tax cuts under Obama!

Wow; I learned more about the neighbors in the last 20 minutes than I have in the whole nine years we’ve lived here.  Dude just kept talking, changing from one subject to another, with no apparent destination in mind.  I like the guy, but it was too cold for just standing there for a chat.  Now, just let me get this mess on the desk cleared off and I’ll get to work…I should riff on David Frum’s post about how the crazy talk on the talk shows is getting even crazier as the ratings start to slide.

I had a nagging feeling I’d forgotten something: well, now’s a good time to get that stack of papers off of the kitchen counter.  Some think getting a  new job is a pain in the neck, but I have a much lower opinion of it.  Forms for new health insurance, and receipts, and registration info for the new 401(k).  At least I can do that quickly on line, and then start writing…what’d I do with that article about the brain being wired to resist new science?  That can mesh with the story about the people who insisted on believing—despite the absence of any evidence—that a terrorist attack was being plotted in a Port Arthur Ramada Inn conference room…15 years ago!

OK then, I’m going to start with—was that the dryer?