The Senate over the weekend let lapse some of the most controversial portions of the Patriot Act, including a provision that had been used by the National Security Agency to justify collecting American citizens' phone records en masse. Every day, the NSA receives from US phone companies metadata on billions of domestic calls, including the time the call was placed, its duration, and the originating and receiving numbers (but not the contents of the conversations). Privacy advocates have criticized the program as one of the worst examples of the Patriot Act's overreach, allowing access to potentially revealing information on basically any American citizen.
Although it remains unclear how the lapse of the law might actually play out, the effect of suspending the data collection for even a single day is gigantic in terms of the amount of information at stake. By Monday at midnight, 24 hours after the bulk data provision expired, the NSA would have normally collected metadata on 3 billion phone calls, according to a 2013 estimate by former NSA employees. Consider what would happen if each call log was put into its own line on an Excel spreadsheet:
Entering all of the data would take a single human typist at least 460 years.
Printing out the data would require a 24,000-foot stack of letter-sized paper—the height of 13 World Trade Centers.
The paper would weigh 740,000 pounds, or as much as could be carried by 17 big rigs.
And yet that's just a drop in the bucket compared to the NSA's overall capabilities. The agency can still wiretap overseas communications, not to mention view any domestic internet and call logs that are at least "three hops" from a suspected international terrorist. "You could call the same pizza delivery place as a terrorist and you are only two hops away," explains Ars Technica's Sean Gallagher.
A proposed Patriot Act reform bill now under consideration in Congress, the USA Freedom Act, would retain a "two hops" rule and require the data to be stored by phone companies instead of by the US government. But that may not represent such a major change. "They are going to still be able to go to phone companies and request that data," Gallagher points out. "And they won't necessarily need a warrant to get it."
Last summer, one of my neighbors in Oakland, California, anonymously reported me to the East Bay Municipal Utility District for wasting water. I'd been dousing my front yard once or twice a week with arcing sprays from three huge Rain Bird sprinklers. Upon receiving written notice of the complaint, I called the utility and learned that I wasn't actually violating water use rules, but the incident got me thinking. My ample vegetable garden was certainly green. Other yards the neighborhood were going brown. Did my neighbors think I was a water hog?
Drought shaming isn't just for celebrities or the rich. Smartphone apps such as Vizsafe, H20 Tracker, and DroughtShame allow users to snap and post geotagged photos of alleged water abuse. In Los Angeles, the infamous "water crusader" Tony Corcoran, a.k.a. YouTube's Western Water Luv, bicycles around town videotaping homeowners with modestly sized green lawns who dare venture outside with a hose in hand:
Few water scolds take such a confrontational approach. Most don't have the time to hunt down gushing sprinklers or the inclination to anger their neighbors. More common is the mild, polite sort of water shaming that a next-door neighbor directed at me last week, suggesting that I cover my garden in a layer of moisture-retaining bark mulch. I'd already felt pangs of guilt watching her irrigate her ragged flowers with a watering can filled with leftover dishwater.
With many California cities facing mandatory water cutbacks of 25 percent or more, it's probably for the best that keeping up with the Joneses sometimes means not keeping up your yard. After all, most utility districts lack the will to cut off people's water or the manpower to send out a fleet of water cops. And tiered water rates aren't a silver bullet, either; they face new legal challenges and aren't really steep enough to be all that effective. Ultimately, peer pressure is pretty much all we've got.
But here's the problem: Even as progressive urbanites police each other's water consumption, many California communities continue to treat water as a bottomless resource. In hose-happy suburbs such as Palm Desert, you're still more likely to be treated as a pariah if you let your lawn die. Even in my own water district, some neighborhoods over the hills stubbornly cling to the East-Coast ideal of glistening Kentucky bluegrass and fluffy hydrangeas.
A tech startup has figured out how to bring a measure of constructive drought shaming to communities that were once impervious to it. San-Francisco-based WaterSmart sends out individualized reports that show water users how they stack up against their neighbors. Using insights gleaned from behavioral science, the reports essentially traffic in the same kind of peer pressure one might get from living in, say, a Berkeley enclave of graywater guerillas. The result is an average water savings of 5 percent—a big deal at a time when every drop counts.
The goal, says WaterSmart marketing director Jeff Lipton, is to coax out the feelings of tribal affinity that drive human behavior. "As we evolved, humans turned to the tribe and the behavior that was normal in that group as a survival mechanism," he says. "There is sort of an existential threat of not fitting in. So it's not shame and it's not competition; I think it is a little more abstract than that." And a lot more wonky: WaterSmart has a 19-page paper on this stuff, including the science of "goal setting," "feedback," and "injunctive norms."
Though the WaterSmart interface seems simple, the calculations behind it are not. Two households of the same size can't be expected to use the same amount of water if one has townhouse without a yard and the other a suburban spread on half an acre. That's why WaterSmart combines utility data with property records to control for variables such as lot size, house size, microclimates, and the likely age of a home's appliances. Users can further tweak their homes' specs. If you have a large yard, WaterSmart will suggest installing drip irrigation and drought-tolerant plants. If you live in an old apartment building, it may prompt you to install a low-flow toilet or shower head.
Founded in 2009 by Peter Yolles, the director of water resource protection for The Nature Conservancy, WaterSmart grew slowly for several years, hindered, in part, by the low cost of water across the United States. Then came the drought. Last year, it tripled its customer base to 40 utilities in six states that represent 2 percent of all residential water meters in the country. It's expecting a similar rate of growth this year. "I think we are at the very early stages of a transformation of the industry," Lipton says.
WaterSmart still faces obstacles. Only about 20 percent of municipal utility districts employ advanced meters that can transmit residential usage in close to real-time, making it possible to frequently update customers on their water use. And glaring inefficiencies in agriculture, which uses 80 percent of California's water, provide a convenient scapegoat for homeowners who'd prefer to keep running their taps.
Some users may interpret their favorable WaterSmart reports as an excuse to use more water. I asked the company to crunch the numbers for my house. Comparable dwellings, I learned, use an average of 336 gallons per day during the summer. In the summer of 2013, my house used 156 gallons per day. Behavioral scientists call the impulse that I might feel to use more water "the boomerang effect." WaterSmart expects that it can keep the boomerangers in line with the virtual equivalent of a scowling neighbor, a frowning emoji.
Of course, the true dynamics of social pressure can be much more complicated. Last summer, my house used a whopping 591 gallons of water a day. I feel bad about this, but not that bad; most of the water went toward irrigating plugs of festuca rubra, a native grass that doesn't need any summer water once it's established. Now that it has taken root and I've mostly stopped watering it, I expect to easily best my neighbors' water savings this year and still have an attractive lawn. Other than my fescue, the greenest thing in the neighborhood will be all the envy.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti after announcing his support for a $15 minimum wage.
On Tuesday, Los Angeles became the third major West Coast city to pass a $15 minimum wage ordinance. Though the law won't fully go into effect until 2020, it's a huge deal. LA is larger than San Francisco and Seattle, the two other $15-an-hour cities, combined. It also has a much larger contingent of low-wage workers. The ordinance will give a raise to an estimated 750,000 Angelenos, or about 46 percent of the city's workforce.
LA's wage hike points to the potential for a major minimum wage boost to sweep the country. Although experts disagreeabout the LA measure's impact on growth and employment, the City Council passed it by a 14-to-1 margin. The $15 wage polls well in LA and nationally, despite a dearth of national politicians pushing for such a large increase. If organizers play their cards right, this suggests a $15 wage could gain traction in other cities.
"The facts and campaign brought to bear in LA were in many ways only a next step in the move to address income inequality."
So how did it happen? The original proposal, after all, was a more modest one. The measure's backers attribute their success to a combination of grassroots and national organizing. The umbrella group leading the push, the Raise the Wage Coalition, includes more than 260 local organizations from labor, business, entertainment, and the civil rights movement. It marshaled economic studies to justify a $15 wage and delivered more than 100,000 petition signatures in favor. But it also benefited from what organizers call "air support"—the national campaign to pressure Walmart and McDonald's into implementing a $15-an-hour base wage.
"It created a narrative that made it really hard for council members to simply look past the realities of what hard-working people are experiencing," says Rusty Hicks, executive secretary treasurer of the LA County Federation of Labor. "The facts and campaign brought to bear in LA were in many ways only a next step in the move to address income inequality."
The organizers are already eyeing other SoCal cities. "It is not our intention to just stop in LA," says Laphonza Butler, president of the Service Employees International Union in California and co-organizer, with Hicks, of Raise the Wage Coalition. "We need to raise the wage all across the region."
The group's next most likely contenders are Pasadena and West Hollywood.
Sister Megan Rice, the 85-year-old activist nun who two years ago humiliated government officials by penetrating and vandalizing a supposedly ultra-high-security uranium storage facility, has finally been released from prison. A federal appeals court on Friday overturned the 2013 sabotage convictions of Rice and two fellow anti-nuclear activists, Michael Walli, 66, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 59, ruling that that their actions—breaking into Tennessee's Y-12 National Security Complex and spreading blood on a uranium storage bunker—did not harm national security.
Rice's case has become the subject of intense media scrutiny, including a recent New Yorker profile by Eric Schlosser, whose latest book exposed gaping flaws in America's nuclear weapons program. The activists now await re-sentencing on a lesser charge of damaging federal property. The punishment is expected to be less than the two years they've already spent in federal prison.
Speaking with Rice over the phone this afternoon, I asked her how it feels to be free. "Not that much different, because none of us is free," she said, "and it looks like we are going to go on being un-free for as long as there is a nuclear weapon waiting."
Asked on Democracy Now this morning about her experience in federal prison, Rice gave a response worthy of Sister Jane Ingalls, a character from the Netflix prison drama Orange Is the New Black, who was clearly inspired by Rice. "They are the ones who are the wisest in this country," she said of her fellow inmates. "They know what is really happening. They are the fallout of nuclear weapons production."
Skip to the 33-minute mark to watch the interview:
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described socialist, is an extremely long shot to defeat Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. Does that mean his views on key political issues are too radical for America's voters? Not necessarily. Here's how his policy positions actually fare in the polls:
Sanders: Describes himself as a democratic socialist.
His fellow Americans: While only 31 percent of Americans react positively to the word "socialism," just 50 percent view "capitalism" in favorable terms, according to a recent Pew survey. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, nearly half had a positive view of "socialism," while only 47 percent viewed "capitalism" favorably.
Sanders: Famously filibustered the 2010 extension of Bush tax cuts for wealthy Americans.
His fellow Americans: In a February poll, 68 percent of likely voters said wealthy households pay too little in federal taxes.
Sanders: Introduced the Responsible Estate Tax Act last year. If passed, it would raise top estate tax rates and expand the tax to include estates worth more than $3.5 million. (It currently only applies to those worth more than $5.4 million, which covers only 0.2 percent of American estates.)
His fellow Americans: Results vary, but Kevin Drum notes that the estate tax (conservatives call it the "death tax") is generally unpopular.
Offshore tax havens
Sanders: Introduced legislation that would crack down on offshore tax havens by requiring American companies to pay the top corporate tax rate on profits held abroad.
His fellow Americans:Eighty-five percent of small business owners favor closing overseas tax loopholes entirely, while 68 percent of Americans believe "we should close tax loopholes for large corporations that ship jobs offshore."
His fellow Americans: Most Americans believe that corporations should have at least some limited right to make political donations. Even so, in a 2013 Gallup poll, half of the respondents said they would personally vote for banning all political donations from individuals and private groups and shifting to a government-funded campaign finance system. Only 44 percent would oppose such a law.
Sanders: Cosponsored the 2013 Climate Protection Act, which would tax carbon and methane emissions and rebate three-fifths of the revenue to citizens.
His fellow Americans: Sixty-four percent of Americans strongly or somewhat favor regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, factories and cars, and requiring utilities to generate more power from low-carbon sources. However, only 34 percent of Americans support a carbon tax with a $500 rebate.
Sanders: Advocates for a single-payer health care system.
His fellow Americans: A January 2015 poll found that just over 50 percent of likely voters support single-payer.
regulating wall street
Sanders: The big banks "are too powerful to be reformed," Sanders says on his website. "They must be broken up."
His fellow Americans: A recent poll by the Progressive Change Institute found that 58 percent of likely voters support "breaking up big banks like Citigroup."
Sanders: Introduced legislation this month to make public college tuition free in the United States.
His fellow Americans:Sixty-three percent of likely voters support President Obama's proposal to offer qualifying students two free years of community college. No recent polls have tested support for offering free tuition at four-year colleges and universities.
Sanders: Opposes the Trans Pacific Partnership and similar trade deals.
His fellow Americans:Sixty-two percent of voters oppose fast-track authority for the TPP trade deal, but fewer Americans oppose the agreement itself. A 2014 Pew poll put support for the TPP among Americans at 55 percent.
Pay equity for women
Sanders: Supports a federal law mandating equal pay for equal work.
His fellow Americans: Most Americans agree that women face pay discrimination, but only about one-third favor addressing the problem via legislation.
His fellow Americans: Sixty-three percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2020.
Sanders: Supports legislation allowing workers to form a union by signing pledge cards.
His fellow Americans: A Gallup poll conducted in 2009, when card check legislation was being debated in Congress, found that 53 percent of Americans "favor a new law that would make it easier for labor unions to organize workers."
Sanders: "Instead of cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and nutrition programs," Sanders writes on his website, "we should be expanding these programs."
His fellow Americans:Somepolls have found that majorities of voters want to expand Social Security. A poll conducted last year showed that even voters in red states want to expand Medicaid.