Discussing Surveillance with the Kids:  What If It’s Not McGee?

My biggest job as a father is to help raise the kids to take their place as moral and productive adults in society, not necessarily a simple job in today’s America.  Doing that requires, amongst many other things, an awareness of the issues that face Americans with an emphasis on those that will particularly affect them as they proceed along in life.  One of the issues that most concerns me for the kids is that of the presence of government surveillance, particularly the pervasive electronic programs fostered by the NSA. 

The issue is troubling for many reasons but there are two points that particularly bother me in regards to the kids.  The first is that they are so massively tied in to the ether via the internet and increasingly through the newly termed “Sensornet”, the increasing number of interconnected devices.  An entity with the resources – and boy howdy, the NSA has those in terabytes – can carefully craft together an accurate picture of an individual’s beliefs, likes, dislikes and opinions for the highest bidder; in the aspect of a free society, it can also be used to apply pressure to silence an uncomfortable opinion.  The second point is that the news-media is largely now controlled by no more than a half-dozen corporate entities and with the rise of corporate fascism within the past two decades or so, there are fewer and fewer places for these youngsters to go for truly independent news.  While it’s impossible to eliminate full bias from any news source, there are now far greater and lucrative reasons to assert control over the news flow and corporations are generally not run by people who are willing to place their companies and paychecks at risk.  The rise of the terrorist threat – whether it’s that everpresent or just another straw bogeyman to be conveniently exploited – means that there’s a plethora of opportunities for the media to push a specific message, which is about the need for security and increasing vigilance that begins to conflict with our most core freedoms.

So if it’s my job to prepare the kids and make them aware, I have to look for any opportunity to create a teachable moment.  Such was the moment some months ago after we spent a Tuesday evening watching NCIS.  It was another of those episodes in which Gibbs’ team is against the wall trying to defuse a potential terrorist plot and McGee realizes that he can surreptiously crack some firewalls and obtain crucial data that makes the plot stoppable.  There’s the nod to legal process with the warning that this could be a problem without warrant, but Gibbs and/or Vance will quietly nod and then make a cryptic remark that is in itself an approval of the measure.  My full disclosure is that I like NCIS and have watched it for years, developing an affection for the characters, most particularly the wiseass DiNozzo.  But after that episode, I engaged Youngest in a conversation after he’d gone online at the family computer. 

The brief talk – and it can’t take huge amounts of time – centered on what the team did to crack the case.  Here’s my problem with it, I said.  Did they crack the case?  Youngest responded that they had, to which I asked what if that wasn’t McGee at the terminal?  What if that was someone else, someone that you didn’t necessarily know and trust?  Would that make what they did the right thing to do? Youngest – now in seventh grade – has had enough conversations to understand the notion of legal process and could see that the process had been upended in the interest of public safety.  But my subsequent conversation with him went to the need for the process in the first place.  I pointed out the recent issues with the IRS, specifically in regards to using it as a political tool against libertarians and conservatives, as well as the Obama Administration’s vicious war against whistleblowers, who often were moral people who were trying to shed light on abuses within the system and not incompetents or malcontents.  It might seem heady stuff for a middle-schooler, but the reality is that the kids are generally capable of understanding topics if you’ve raised them to “play up” in conversations and have tried to make them as understandable and matter-of-fact as possible.  There have been times with my own kids when they’ve asked questions on the spur and I’ve told them that I’ll come back to them after having a chance to think about it.  It isn’t that I don’t know the facts or have an opinion on it, but that I need a little time to think through how to present an answer that’s understandable for the age level; that said, there have been a few instances where I’ve gone back to fact-check myself so I don’t come off sounding like a moron (not a hard thing to do sometimes).  One or two days later, I’ve come back with Remember that question you had about…?

The point to the conversation was to at least give Youngest a glimpse into the issue of government surveillance, that there was more there than just a friendly fictional scout-leading character on a popular television show who could be upending the process.  It was also to give him a sense that the legal processes are there for solid reasons and that the technology can be a double-edged sword, to protect the common person from the vagaries and senses of the poltical operatives and hacks that populate the upper levels of the various bureaucracies, willing and able to abuse the system for the ends of themselves or the hands that feed them. 

There have been other situations that have arisen since then that have led to further conversations on the question of privacy and surveillance and both my wife and I have pointed them out to one or more of the kids as they’ve been around.  The point is to make yourself aware of the issues in our society and whenever possible, find a way to present them to the kids so that they have a grounding as they grow.  These are the years that will allow them to begin developing the habits that protect them when they’re finally adults and my expectation is that America is going to have a moment of truth about how far the security apparatus should go in the pursuit of security.

PracticalDad Price Index – April 2015

The April 2015 PracticalDad Price Index was completed and compiled in the first days of April and the results show that – for now, at least – the collapse in the marketbasket prices from December 2014 through March 2015 have stabilized, increasing slightly from March.  April’s Total Index for the 47 item PracticalDad Marketbasket stabilized at 108.21 (November 2010 = 100), up from March 2015’s Total Index reading of 107.89.  The 37 foodstuff items that comprise the Food-Only Index in April stood at 110.20 (November 2010 = 100), up slightly from March’s reading of 109.50.  Note that especially regarding the 37 foodstuff items (for a complete list, see here), the drop over the four months from December 2014 through March 2015 accounted for fully 37% of the index rise over the previous four year period since the Index’s inception in November 2010.

What arrested the decline was the increase in the seven item Meats category, as four of the items rose at an average clip of 9.5% from the previous month.  Surprisingly, a pound of 80% ground beef remained stable at $4.32 while chicken, deli ham and hot dogs rose significantly.  When you remove these four increases, there was an equal number of price increases and decreases (6 each) amongst the remainder of the marketbasket items.  Given that the meat category is highly affected by the effects of supply issues, especially PED and the drought, a cursory removal of those supply issues would indicate that the remainder of the 47 item basket indicates that deflation continues to prevail in the economy.

Since deflation is precisely what the Federal Reserve is working to stop, it’s helpful to look at what the monthly pricing excursions and results are showing.  Understand that what scares businesses and the Federal Reserve so much about deflation is that it erodes and destroys a business’ ability to maintain and control its own pricing structure; money flows from the economy, leaving people with less and the consequent result is that businesses must continually cut their own prices to maintain sales.  Let’s take a look at the workings of the monthly pricing to gauge this.  I price at three separate and unrelated grocery stores: one owned by an international grocery corporation, another owned by a regional American chain and finally, a fully independent grocer.  Because one of the original tenets of the index is that the cost-conscious buyer will purchase store-brands whenever possible, a significant portion of the marketbasket is composed of store-brand items.  As money continues to flow out of the Main Street economy and the middle class is winnowed away, sales volume declines and prices decrease in order to maintain sales.  The news that for the first time, restaurant sales were larger than grocery sales nationally means that there is now additional pressure on grocers; forty years ago, they competed with one another and starting maybe a decade ago, they had to begin competing with Walmart as well.  Now they have to compete with restaurants as the younger generation shifts its spending back to inexpensive dining out instead of cooking.  Given that more and more of the Millenials are now having to live at home with the parents – a largely unwelcome event – they are gathering together to eat out instead of sitting in the old family kitchen spending even more time with the ‘rents.  The upshot is that while there are certainly situations which lead to price increases, such as the diminished supply of the national cattle herds, the composite activity indicates that overall, deflation is occurring.  Amongst the three sampled stores, the most substantial price decreases occur in the internationally owned store, followed by the independent grocer and then the regional chain bringing up the rear.  What does this suggest?  As with Walmart, the international chain is able to order and purchase in significant enough quantities that it can force producers to accept lower revenues.  Although the independent grocer is a small one-store operation, it is also affiliated with a national generic brand that supplies an untold number of independent stores across the country with a substantial purchasing power.  Because the regional chain simply doesn’t have enough stores, it is unable to command such and the result is that the store’s marketbasket prices are generally higher each month.  I can also attest from anecdotal evidence and observation – buttressed by a periodic review of the financial media, that this regional firm is suffering from greater financial difficulties than its two competitors. 

As a commenter from Calculated Risk once noted about deflation several years ago: In the early days of the Depression, a candy bar cost a nickel. By 1931, you could get three candy bars for a dime and by 1933, nobody had a dime.  So money is flowing away from the real economy as we speak and while some prices increase due to true demand and supply, prices are dropping on a composite basis.  We’ll have to see how long this can continue.


PracticalDad Price Index – April 2015
Month Total Index Food-Only Index Spread
11/14 111.15 113.87 2.72
12/14 111.18 115.13 3.95
1/15 111.32 114.00 2.68
2/15 109.42 112.08 2.66
3/15 107.89 109.50 1.61
4/15 108.21 110.20 1.99