2013...mewhat-popular - %2

The 9 Most Important Recommendations From the President's NSA Surveillance Panel

| Wed Dec. 18, 2013 6:04 PM EST

The report of the president's NSA review panel is out. It has a grand total of 46 recommendations. Here are the most interesting ones: 

  1. Phone records should be stored privately, not by the government. If the NSA needs phone records, it should get a warrant for them. Like a subpoena, the warrant should be "reasonable in focus, scope, and breadth."
  2. More broadly: "As a general rule and without senior policy review, the government should not be permitted to collect and store mass, undigested, non-public personal information about US persons for the purpose of enabling future queries and data-mining for foreign intelligence purposes."
  3. The FBI should no longer be allowed to issue National Security Letters on its own. NSLs should be issued only if a warrant is approved. Nondisclosure orders should be more restricted; should last no more than 180 days; and should not prevent the target of the NSL from challenging its legality in court.
  4. Generally speaking, companies that are ordered to produce information should be allowed to "disclose on a periodic basis general information about the number of such orders they have received, the number they have complied with, the general categories of information they have produced, and the number of users whose information they have produced in each category."
  5. Surveillance of non-US persons "must be directed exclusively at protecting national security interests....[and] must not be directed at illicit or illegitimate ends, such as the theft of trade secrets or obtaining commercial gain for domestic industries."
  6. If a US person is inadvertently surveilled, that information cannot be used as evidence in any court proceeding.
  7. The NSA should be headed by a civilian. Leadership of the NSA should be separated from leadership of the military's Cyber Command.
  8. "Congress should create the position of Public Interest Advocate to represent the interests of privacy and civil liberties before the FISC." In addition, more FISC decisions should be declassified.
  9. The government should commit itself to stop trying to undermine public encryption standards.

These are useful recommendations, especially 1, 2, 3, 6, and 8. Recommendation 7 is already a dead letter, since President Obama has said he plans to keep dual-hatted leadership for the NSA and Cyber Command.

How much of this will survive the president and Congress? I'd like to say I'm optimistic, but I'm not, really. These recommendations are useful but modest, and I suspect that Congress will whittle them down even more. Stay tuned.

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David O. Russell: Political Corruption in "American Hustle" Is Nothing Compared to Citizens United

| Wed Dec. 18, 2013 4:56 PM EST

On Tuesday, the famously mercurial writer/director David O. Russell was in Washington, DC, for a special screening and Q&A session for his critically acclaimed, award-winning new film American Hustle. MSNBC host Chris Matthews moderated the Q&A, and Chris Dodd (the former Democratic senator and current chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, the de facto censorship board for cinema in the United States) introduced Russell.

American Hustle—starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jennifer Lawrence—is loosely based on events surrounding Abscam, a sting operation the FBI launched in the late '70s to target trafficking in stolen property. The bureau recruited con artist Melvin Weinberg to help craft and execute the operation, which involved setting up Abdul Enterprises, a fake company funded by fictitious Arab sheiks who offered to bribe people to pave the way for a new casino in Atlantic City. The operation morphed into an investigation of political corruption when politicians started approaching Abdul Enterprises for money. By the early '80s, Abscam had led to the conviction of one senator and six congressmen, among other political figures and officials. (The late Democratic congressman and Vietnam War vet John Murtha was also embroiled in the scandal, but escaped indictment and prosecution.)

Charts: Catholic Hospitals Don't Do Much for the Poor

| Wed Dec. 18, 2013 4:48 PM EST

Catholic hospitals have been on a merger spree over the last few years, as Mother Jones reported earlier this year. Ever-expanding swaths of the country are now served only by a Catholic hospital, where patients have no choice but to receive care dictated by Catholic bishops whose religious edicts don't always align with what's best for a patient. Catholic hospitals generally follow the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care, which restrict abortion even in cases where a fetus isn't viable, for instance, a practice that has resulted in hospitals denying proper care for women suffering from miscarriages. The ACLU recently filed suit against the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of a Michigan woman who was suffering a second-trimester miscarriage and was sent home twice by a Catholic hospital, developing a serious infection because the hospital refused to even talk to her about the possibility of an abortion. Her baby died two hours after she miscarried.

Despite this heavy mixing of theology and health care, Catholic hospitals in 2011 received $27 billion—nearly half of their revenues—from public sources, according to a new report put out today by the American Civil Liberties Union and MergerWatch, a reproductive rights advocacy group. And that figure doesn't even include other tax subsidies the hospitals receive thanks to their nonprofit status.

The hospitals have long justified their tax status and restrictions on care by pointing to their religious mission of serving the poor and their delivery of charitable care. But the new ACLU/MergerWatch report suggests, and the chart below illustrates, Pope Francis might be on to something when he's said that the church needs to shift its priorities to focus less on abortion and more on the poor. MergerWatch data show that Catholic hospitals, where executives often earn multimillion-dollar salaries, aren't doing any better providing charity care than other religious non-profit hospitals that don't restrict care. They're barely any better than ordinary secular nonprofits.

ACLU/MergerWatch

The charitable care figures also don't give a complete picture of how well Catholic hospitals serve the poor and uninsured because it doesn't include patients who are covered by Medicaid, the government health care plan for the low-income and disabled. As it turns out, Catholic hospitals, which in 2011 had more than $200 billion in gross patient revenue, had the lowest percentage of revenue from Medicaid of any type of hospital. Even for-profit hospitals earned more revenue from Medicaid than Catholic hospitals.

ACLU/MergerWatch

All of these numbers suggest that as Catholic hospitals have merged and expanded into a multi-billion dollar enterprise, they've moved far beyond their religious mission and become like any other large corporation. Given those trends, and the hospitals' reliance on public funding, it's hard to see how they can continue to justify their mixing of Catholic doctrine with health care, especially when it disproportionately violates standards of care for women.

The ACLU/MergerWatch report calls on the US Department of Health and Human Services to crack down on Catholic hospitals and to insist that they follow federal law requiring all hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding to provide emergency treatment to any patient, even if that care requires an emergency abortion. Other advocacy groups have made similar requests in the past few years, but HHS thus far has refused to pick a fight with the Catholic Church, which has turned into one of the Obama administration's biggest foes thanks to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The church has proven to be a powerful enemy—a wealthy special interest in a holy war—and even the new Pope seems unlikely to persuade it to give up this particular fight.

Fed Announces Beginning of the End of QE3

| Wed Dec. 18, 2013 3:09 PM EST

It's official: we are tapering. The Fed announced today that it would reduce its QE3 bond-buying program from $85 billion per month to $75 billion per month.

So what does this mean? In a nutshell, markets will probably freak out temporarily. Econ pundits will write about a hundred thousand words today exploring every possible nuance of the decision. Ben Bernanke will tell everyone to calm down. In a day or two, there will be some news about the holiday buying season and the whole thing will be forgotten. Five years from now, there will be several doctoral dissertations about what it all really meant.

Substantively, though, this just isn't that big a deal. You may now return to your regularly scheduled Obamacare bashing and/or defending.

UPDATE AT 11:12 AM: Apparently the Dow is up 100 points on the taper news. So markets don't seem to be freaking out after all. If this holds, it will be the most quickly disproven prediction I've ever made, and yet another lesson that you should never make predictions. Will I ever learn?

Nuclear Talks With Iran Not Going Very Well

| Wed Dec. 18, 2013 2:26 PM EST

Paul Richter of the LA Times reports that talks with Iran aren't going very well:

Three weeks after President Obama hailed a landmark deal to suspend most of Iran's nuclear program for the next six months, the mood among U.S. officials about the next round of negotiations has shifted from elated to somber, even gloomy.

....Problems already have emerged. Technical talks in Vienna aimed at implementing the initial deal stopped Thursday when Iranian negotiators unexpectedly flew back to Tehran, reportedly in response to the Obama administration's decision to expand its blacklist of foreign companies and individuals who have done business with Iran in violation of sanctions.

....Even before Thursday's interruption, experts had struggled to determine how to sequence the complex next steps involved: neutralizing a stockpile of medium-enriched uranium and freezing most other enrichment operations in exchange for granting Iran access, in installments, to $4.2 billion of its own funds held in banks overseas and easing sanctions on petrochemical and auto exports.

None of this surprises me. Even with the incentive of shucking off the sanctions that have crippled their economy, the price the Western allies is asking might just be too high for Iran to accept. In the end, ensuring that Iran can't build a bomb requires dismantling nearly all of Iran's nuclear infrastructure and putting in place extremely intrusive monitoring of what's left. There are a hundred different ways this could run aground on both sides.

Hopefully, this is just the normal trough in negotiations after the initial bloom of goodwill from getting talks started. After all, both sides have good reason to want to make a deal. But if I had to guess, I'd put the odds of success at 50 percent or less.

If You Want Credit For an Improving Economy, You Have to Seize It

| Wed Dec. 18, 2013 1:31 PM EST

Paul Krugman channels Simon Wren-Lewis today to complain about the economic triumphalism of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been crowing that his austerity policies are finally paying off. In reality, both men say, Cameron implemented austerity policies in 2010 and 2011, but then eased up. And now that he's eased up, the economy is starting to improve. Austerity had nothing to do with it.

I want to use this as a springboard to make two random-but-connected points:

  • Politically, message consistency is key. Ronald Reagan never varied from his insistence that tax cuts would supercharge the economy, so when the economy finally did pick up in 1983, tax cuts got the credit even though they almost certainly played only a small role. Likewise, austerity is getting the credit in Britain because Cameron has never varied from his insistence that it would work. Liberals tend to be much worse at this kind of economic message discipline. When the economy improves, they get a lot less credit because they haven't relentlessly prepared the public with a very simple message about what they've been doing.
  • On a related note, Wren-Lewis points out that Britain's central government deficit in 2013 was 7.5 percent of GDP. Cameron touts this as evidence of his fiscal stinginess. In America, the federal deficit in 2013 was 4.1 percent of GDP. Conventional wisdom ignores this and continues to wail that we need ever more spending cuts in order to reduce our still-unconscionable deficits. One again, note the difference that message discipline makes.

My point is not that message discipline is everything. The real world matters more. But it does matter. If you want credit for good things, you have to make up a simple, plausible story about what you're doing and then stick to it like glue until things finally turn up. It worked for Reagan and it's working for Cameron. Obama, on the other hand, never had a consistent story, so he's not getting any credit as the economy improves.

POSTSCRIPT: Needless to say, Obama also had much less control over the economy than Cameron, who doesn't have to put up with a fractious Congress. So from a message point of view, maybe he was just screwed. Still, I suspect Obama could have done better than he did.

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2014 Could Be a Good Year For President Obama

| Wed Dec. 18, 2013 12:08 PM EST

A couple of days ago I wrote that 2013 had been a rough year for President Obama:

It started with the fiscal cliff showdown and then barreled straight into Scandalmania (Benghazi+IRS+AP subpoenas); Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks; the Syria U-turn; the government shutdown; and finally the Obamacare website debacle.

Steve Benen takes a look at these same events and pushes back:

Twice congressional Republicans threatened debt-ceiling default; twice Obama stood his ground....Congressional Republicans shut down the government to extract White House concessions. Obama and congressional Democrats stood firm and the GOP backed down....forged an international agreement to rid Syria of chemical weapons....The “scandals” the media hyped relentlessly in the spring proved to be largely meaningless.

Nice try! And there's something to this. Obama did manage to squeeze out "victories" in the fiscal cliff and government shutdown fights, Scandalmania mostly turned into a nothingburger, and Syria and Iran may yet turn out to be foreign policy wins.

But at best, that's for the future. For now, 2013 just looks a year that Obama barely survived, bruised and bloody. It's possible that the other guy looks even worse, of course, and after watching John Boehner's press conference a couple of days ago, I'd say it's fair to think so.

The good news, such as it is, is that all this stuff might set up Obama for a decent 2014. If Republicans realize it's pointless to pick more debt ceiling fights; if Obamacare starts working smoothly; if we strike a decent deal with Iran; and if the economy picks up—if all those things happen, then 2014 will look pretty good. It probably can't look much worse.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 18, 2013

Wed Dec. 18, 2013 11:03 AM EST

CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait – Pfc. Adrian Echeverria, indirect fire infantryman, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, prepares to load a 120mm mortar round during gunnery qualification at Udairi range near Camp Buehring, Kuwait, Nov. 12, 2013. “It’s hard to describe the feeling when you hang that round,” said Echeverria. “Your entire body shakes. It stops your brain for a quick second then you get back to the way you were trained and get the mission done.”

(U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Porch, 2nd ABCT, 4th Inf. Div.)

Global Warming As Haiku

| Wed Dec. 18, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Recently at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, a number of climate researchers and communications specialists sounded off about the problems involved in conveying climate science information to the public. Naomi Oreskes, the Harvard science historian, noted one of the many challenges: There's a huge gap between how grave the climate issue actually is, and how clinical and detached climate scientists seem to sound when they discuss it.

"Our tone doesn't match our words," Oreskes said. As a result, climate communications often lack emotional authenticity.

But not every scientist fails to communicate effectively (or, seems to emulate Spock when doing so). And now one climate expert, Gregory C. Johnson, has done something truly innovative when it comes to sharing global warming information in an understandable, and even moving, way.

Sightline.org has published 19 illustrated haiku by Johnson (see one example above) that attempt to distill the message of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recent Summary for Policymakers. The "SPM," as it's known, is a highly technical and difficult document; Johnson, as a lead author, understands it far better than most mortals. However, he has replaced its wonkery with a series of brief poems, each accompanied by a watercolor illustration.

The haiku are given simple titles that reflect parts of the report: "History, Water," "Models," "Change Drivers." Many of the haiku are, of course, about what will come: "The Future." Like this one:

Gregory C. Johnson/Sightline.org

You can see the entire set of Johnson's haiku on the Sightline Institute's blog. In light of the snafus and misinformation attending the rollout of the IPCC's Summary for Policymakers in September, as well as the long history of IPCC communications problems, they're quite a welcome change. To Dr. Johnson, then, we offer a haiku of our own:

Thank you, scientist:
Not for your facts or data
But for what they mean.

The 5 Biggest Meat Stories of 2013

| Wed Dec. 18, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Eugene Sergeev/Shutterstock

The food-politics beat took a carnivorous turn in 2013. It's not that all the year's biggest stories involved the meat industry, but most seemed to. Here they are, in no particular order.

We're emerging as the globe's factory farm.
First, Virginia-headquartered pork giant Smithfield Foods announced it was phasing out ractopamine, a growth-enhancing, stress-inducing drug banned in China, the European Union, and Russia. Then it shocked the world by announcing it had been bought out by Shuanghui International, a Chinese conglomerate. And then several huge beef processors announced they were dropping Zilmax, a ractopamine-like growth enhancer for cows, also banned in big foreign markets. Meanwhile, China's expanding industrial footprint is rapidly degrading its farmland even as its appetite for meat continues to grow. What do all these data points have in common? They signal a US meat industry increasingly looking to foreign markets for growth as America's meat appetite wanes. And that means that even as we eat less meat, American communities will have to deal with the consequences of ever-intensifying meat production: water pollution, hollowed-out local economies, "egregious" food safety violations, deplorable working conditions, and an ongoing explosive manure foam problem.

The USDA really, really wants to speed up poultry slaughterhouse kill lines while reducing its inspection responsibilities.
Shaking off fierce opposition from food safety and worker advocates and a scathing report from the Government Accountability Office, the Obama administration tenaciously clung to long-brewing plans to cut inspectors on poultry kill lines while simultaneously allowing those lines to speed up, a move that would save the poultry industry a cool quarter billion dollars per year. The gory details are here and here. Meanwhile, the Obama administration isn't alone in its eagerness for the change—this week, a bipartisan group of 13 US senators, mostly from chicken-heavy states like Arkansas, Missouri, and North Carolina, signed a letter to the USDA urging finalization of the speedup.

The FDA took tentative but important steps to curtail antibiotic abuse on meat farms. Finally. Sort of.
Way back in 1977, the Food and Drug Administration acknowledged the obvious: When you stuff animals together by the thousands and give them low daily doses of antibiotics, their bacteria will evolve to resist those drugs. Thirty-six years later—just this month—the administration finally did something about it. Kind of. True, most of the new rules curtailing antibiotics are voluntary. But as I noted, it rolled out a new proposal that would force meat producers to get a veterinarian's approval before treating animals with antibiotics that are commonly used to treat human infections—a potentially (depending on how it's enforced) significant reform.

Fast-food workers push back against low wages.
One major way Americans access the meat industry's product is through fast-food chains, those $200 billion a year emporia of burgers, chicken nuggets, and the like. The industry profit model hinges on selling high volumes of cheap food while clamping down on costs, including labor. The nation's 2.9 million fast-food workers make a median wage of $8.69 an hour, a level that has risen by (literally) just a dime in real terms since 1999. Contrary to the industry's reputation as a benign source of mad money for moonlighting high schoolers, 70 percent of fast-food workers are 20 and older, and more than a third are 25 and older. Adults can't support themselves, much less their families, on such stingy wages, so taxpayer-funded safety nets pick up the industry's slack—to the tune of $7 billion per year, according to a 2013 University of California-Berkeley study. And 2013 marked year two of a high profile pushback, coordinated by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and punctuated by a series of one-day walkouts. Maybe slaughterhouse workers—who make a median hourly wage of $12.03 in one of the nation's most hazardous jobs—will be next?

Europe says "no" to bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides.
What do pesticides have to do with meat? Well, US livestock farms rely heavily on abundant corn and soy crops for feed, and those crops in turn are largely grown from seeds treated with a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. A growing weight of science links widespread neonicotinoid use with the declining health of honeybees and other pollinators—and birds, too. In response, the European Union issued a two-year moratorium on the use of the chemicals, enraging their makers, European agrichemical giants Bayer and Syngenta. The US Environmental Protection Agency, for its part, has no plans of changing its laissez-faire position on neonics.