Free Speech in Korea

The South Korean government has filed fraud charges against some bloggers who inflated visitor counts for the websites:

In a statement released Thursday, Seoul police said the phony clicks could "lead to a distortion of public opinion on the Internet."

....The government has sought to outlaw what it calls Internet rumor-mongering and may seek legislation that would require online posters to use their real names.

Last month, the South Korean Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that fined a man $2,300 for manipulating the number of clicks on a company's website. The move was allegedly a scheme to lift its popularity ranking among domestic Internet portals.

Some of the bloggers allegedly used "sophisticated viral programs" to boost their traffic rating, which I suppose is at least colorably illegal.  At least one, though, is accused of the nefarious crime of placing a coin on the refresh key so it continued to repeat hits on his posting.  Off with his head!

Oh — and one more thing: all four of the arrested bloggers were anti-government activists "who had criticized the South Korean government and advocated protests after demonstrations last May against U.S.-imported beef."  Is anyone surprised?

Sarah Palin stood firm against wasteful government spending today, rejecting $28.6 million dollars in stimulus funds. "Alaskans and our communities have a long history of independence and opposing many mandates from Washington, D.C, " she proclaimed. Well, Alaska has already accepted about $930 million in other stimulus money, so what was the program that Palin found so pernicious?  It turns out that this money would have gone to energy efficiency—weatherizing homes against the bitter cold, that kind of thing.

Alaska, of course, is quite a chilly place, and its inhabitants pay the highest energy costs in the nation. The money will now probably flow to other states instead— Palin was the only governor in the country to reject energy efficiency funds. But as shivering Alaskans worry about their electricity bills this winter, they can at least take comfort in the fact that Palin is keeping her relationship with the GOP base toasty warm.   

Quote of the Day

From radio host Mark Levin, screaming at a caller who pointed out that Barack Obama had recently transferred a prisoner from Guantanamo to U.S. soil:

"I SAID WHY DO YOU HATE MY COUNTRY! WHY DO YOU HATE MY CONSTITUTION? WHY DO YOU HATE MY DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE?"

Believe it or not, it gets worse from there.  And this is a man who conservatives have propelled to the top of the bestseller list.

"It was the best deal since Manhattan was sold for beads." That's what Indiana's Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, told Barron's recently, referring to the privatization of the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road—a deal that netted the state $3.8 billion. Back when Jim Ridgeway and I wrote about this deal, and the larger infrastructure privatization trend that was being pushed along by the Bush administration and Wall Street (Goldman Sachs in particular), there was some question as to whether Hoosiers were getting a good deal. One local economist had estimated that the value of the road, under the terms of the state's 75-year lease agreement with the Spanish construction firm Cintra and Australia-based Macquarie Infrastructure Group, could be as much as $11 billion. Surely he didn't anticiapte a major spike in gas prices and an economic meltdown, factors that took a serious toll on toll revenues.

According to Barron's, which declared the infrastructure privatization boom all but dead, the MIG-Cintra investment is not panning out so well.

Indiana is looking particularly smart because toll-road revenue now seems less dependable than it appeared to be just a few years ago. "Toll-road traffic declines in this recession have been more severe than in any other post-war recession," says Peter Samuel, editor of TollRoadNews, an online transportation Website. He says toll-road traffic is down 6% this year and revenue has been hit by recession-reduced usage by trucks, which often account for 50% or more of tolls.

BankUnited Collapses

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that BankUnited in Florida has finally been taken into receivership.  No surprise there, but the price tag might be: apparently the FDIC estimates the takeover will ultimately cost taxpayers a cool $4.9 billion — and that's for a bank with less than $15 billion in assets.  I don't think even IndyMac was quite that bad.

Quote of the Day

From Conor Clarke, writing about taxes on booze and soda:

"I am all for taxing unhealthy foods, but I still agree with the old Kevin Drum suggestion of taxing the sweeteners, not the beverage."

That was all of nine days ago!  What would we call a suggestion made in the dark ages of April?

And speaking of old (smooth segue, no?), I tried out the WolframAlpha search engine today for the first time.  It's been getting generally panned, but it sure did an impressively good job on my test drive query.  Check it out:

Obama and Cheney

The media framing of today's national security speeches by Barack Obama and Dick Cheney as a sort of "showdown at noon" has struck me as pretty bizarre.  And yet....I just read both speeches and I have to admit that it's really not so bizarre after all: they could hardly form a starker contrast if they tried.  Obama's speech is all about the rule of law, honoring American values, creating policies that look beyond just today and tomorrow, and trying to figure out how to gain genuine security in a dangerous and complicated world.  Conservatives are going to absolutely howl over it.

And then there's Cheney: no regrets, no second thoughts, not even an admission that any kind of balance should be entertained ("In the fight against terrorism...half-measures keep you half exposed").  It's a pure, white hot defense of an absolutist military approach to every aspect of national security.  Among liberals, Cheney's reputation as a panic-stricken Buck Turgidson will be confirmed beyond doubt.

I want to read both of the speeches before I say any more.  But really, the contrast is truly spectacular.  It's worth your time to read them if you haven't already.

UPDATE: David Corn has a good summary here.   Jacob Heilbrunn has a good take here.

In a novel advertising move, Walmart has partnered with hit lolcat site I Can Haz Cheezburger? (ICHC). Walmart and ICHC have an addictive online game called NOM NOM NOM 4 FUD! in which players direct a rotund marmalade tabby around a house. Players get points for making the cat "nom" Iams brand cat food, cheezburgers, and balls of yarn. The more Iams kitty eats, the faster it runs around the house. This, as anyone who has a cat knows (cough! Kevin Drum!), is totally bogus. After eating, my cats promptly retreat to the nearest soft surface and fall blissfully unconscious.

Real-life cat behavior aside, Walmart's corporate sponsorship of ICHC looks like a canny move: the site has a 60% female demographic, and gets up to 50 million page views per month. Likely, many users are pet-owners. However, the partnership may not be as good for the lolcat site. Some commenters have asked ICHC to not associate themselves with a company that has a history of abusing employees (Walmart) or a corporation that tests on animals (Iams). I doubt there will be any concerted boycott of the site, but this may not be the last time you see Walmart blogvertising.

The Credit Economy

Megan McArdle shares a horror story of her own about a mistaken tax lien that attached itself to her credit report for years like a barnacle from hell, but then adds a comment:

It is terrifying the power that these bureaus have assumed over us — when my bank made an error on my car loan, my first worry wasn't that they'd upped my payment by $60, but that the subsequent late charge for an undersized loan payment might show up on my credit report.  This was only slightly less panic-inducing than thinking that it might show up as a shadow on a chest x-ray.  The bank fixed its error immediately and cheerfully.  (And may I commend the Navy Federal Credit Union to all who are eligible for membership).  I doubt Experian would have been so accomodating.

But maybe it's worth remembering that the tyranny that credit scores exercise over our imagination have everything to do with the fact that we've built a society so utterly dependent on credit.  If you didn't need a credit card, an auto loan, and probably a mortgage to be considered middle class in this society, these opaque and unresponsive bureaus wouldn't be the most important source of information about us.

It is terrifying that these bureaus have such fantastic power to go around saying anything they want about us with virtually no oversight.  But I'd take issue with the closing paragraph here.  I don't know quite how Megan intended it, but I'd argue that there's nothing per se wrong with the fact that modern economies are so dependent on credit.  Widespread use of credit really does make life more convenient, really does make banking more efficient, really does enable useful advances like online shopping, and really does allow easier access to goods and services that would otherwise be difficult to get hold of.  Used in moderation, it's good stuff.  I sure don't want to return to the days of hauling around travelers checks whenever I fly off to Europe.

Speaking for myself, my jeremiads against the credit-industrial complex have never been meant as an attack on widespread access to credit itself.  Used reasonably, credit cards are a boon and credit reporting is a necessary part of providing credit responsibly in a big, complex world.  That said, credit is critically important to everyday living now, and that means that it needs to handled fairly and transparently.  And that's all I want from these folks: if you make a mistake, you clean it up.  If you can gather negative information automatically, you can also gather positive information automatically.  If you offer a loan at a given rate, then that's the rate.  If you charge fees and penalties, they should be at least vaguely related to the actual cost of the service, not made into a profit center designed to squeeze an endless income stream from the very customers most vulnerable to fine print and slick marketing.

That's all I want.  It's not so much, is it?

The four men arrested in the Bronx Wednesday night "wanted to commit jihad," New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters. Certainly that appears to be the case. The unarmed men, taken into custody after a dramatic scene during which police blocked their escape with a 18-wheeler and smashed the windows of their SUV, stand accused of plotting to blow up two religious centers and using stinger missiles to down US military aircraft at an Air National Guard base. The arrests came after the would-be terrorists placed what they believed to be 37 pounds of C4 in the trunk of a car outside Riverdale Temple and planting two other bombs at the Riverdale Jewish Center. But as it turns out, the bombs were fakes, given to the plotters by an FBI informant, as were the stinger missiles they obtained from the same source.

The case calls to mind earlier foiled plots. Remember the Lackawanna Six? The Fort Dix Six? In both instances, as in many others, the men arrested appear to have been lured in by FBI informants feigning outrage at the US foreign policy and offering to obtain weapons for terror attacks on American soil. In all cases, there's little question that those arrested ultimately plotted (however ineffectively) to commit acts of terrorism. But would they have done so without encouragement from FBI informants? In other words, is this an instance of effective policing? Or maybe entrapment by an imaginative, but overzealous FBI? Too little is known about Wednesday's arrests to say one way or the other. But it may be worth your while to read a Eric Urmansky's February 2008 piece in Mother Jones, in which he explores the concept of "material support" for terrorism, and wonders if we are in effect criminalizing thought by leading disaffected young men along a path they might not otherwise have chosen.