2010 - %3, November

The WikiLeaks Charade

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 12:33 PM EST

Republicans have made their stand on WikiLeaks clear: the Obama administration needs to destroy both the organization itself and its founder, Julian Assange. "Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al Qaeda and Taliban leaders?" demands Sarah Palin. "Is there no way to counter-attack against the attackers?" asks Bill Kristol. The Obama administration's response, writes Jonah Goldberg, has been pitiful, little more than a "tersely worded cease-and-desist letter to Assange, asking him to pretty please stop publishing thousands of state secrets." WikiLeaks should be designated a terrorist group, thunders Rep. Peter King (R–NY).

I don't know how much of this is pure politics and how much is just ignorance, but surely all these people know that WikiLeaks itself isn't the problem. It's the people who supply WikiLeaks with their leaks who are the problem. Even if the U.S. government somehow magically shut down WikiLeaks all over the world and tossed Julian Assange into a Supermax cell, there's nothing they can do to keep someone else from doing the exact same thing. It's just too easy to do. All it takes is access to the internet from some friendly country, and there's simply no way to shut down every possible entry to the internet. Like it or not, that's the era we live in.

In any case, I doubt the United States has any legal recourse against Assange or WikiLeaks. Assange is an Australian national not living in the U.S. and WikiLeaks is a distributed site not dependent on any single country's goodwill. What's more, despite some huffing and puffing to the contrary, I find it extremely unlikely that Assange has actually broken any existing laws. Perhaps new laws could be written, but it's hard for me to conceive of a law prohibiting actions like this that was both (a) effective and (b) not so broad that even Bill Kristol would oppose it. The United States has considerable control over actions by its own citizens on its own territory, but not over noncitizens who reside overseas and work primarily in cyberspace.

But then, I suspect most of the bloviators know this. WikiLeaks is, for most of them, just a good opportunity to bash the Obama administration (as if George Bush would have been able to act any differently) without having to actually offer any concrete solutions. And what makes this especially great for Obama's critics is that there's not really a lot Obama can do about it, aside from bloviating a bit in return.

Bloviating aside, though, we should be focused not on Julian Assange, but on figuring out how to keep anyone from providing this kind of information to him in the first place. That's more boring, but much more effective.

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Bipartisanship at Last

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 11:36 AM EST

There's something odd about this:

The Senate on Tuesday approved the biggest overhaul to the nation's food safety laws since the 1930s, voting 73 to 25 to give vast new authorities to the Food and Drug Administration; place new responsibilities on farmers and food companies to prevent contamination; and — for the first time — set safety standards for imported foods, a growing part of the American diet.

....Despite strong bipartisan support and backing from a diverse coalition of major business and consumer groups, the bill was been buffeted by politics in recent weeks. It drew fire from some tea party activists, who see it as government overreach. On his television program this month, talkshow host Glenn Beck suggested that the measure was a government ruse to raise the price of meat and convert more consumers to vegetarianism.

If there's one thing that Republicans have been plain about, it's their opposition to the Democratic agenda of big government and job-killing regulations. Thus you have the tea party and Glenn Beck hostility to this bill. And yet it passed 73-25. A massive overhaul of the FDA's regulatory authority got not just one or two Republican votes, but 15. In fact, according to the New York Times, this bill was the first one in two years that managed to produce a bit of bipartisan comity: "Some Republican and Democratic Senate staff members — who in previous terms would have seen each other routinely — met for the first time during the food negotiations. The group bonded over snacks: specifically, Starburst candies from a staff member of Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, and jelly beans from a staff member of Senator Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat."

I don't get it. In normal times, I'd expect that a slew of high-profile food poisoning incidents would produce bipartisan consensus in favor of a food safety bill. But then, I'd expect the same of a huge recession and an epic financial failure, and there was certainly no cooperation on fiscal stimulus or financial reform. So what happened? Is food safety genuinely different? Or did big ag fail to cough up enough dough this year during election season?

Sen. John McCain Pays Homage to Russ Feingold

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 11:22 AM EST

This morning, the Senate was mostly consumed with various votes on a landmark food safety bill, dealing with amendments banning earmarks and other efforts by Republican Tom Coburn to scuttle the bill. But after all the partisan squabbling over the bill, and a long speech by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) cheering its passage, former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain took to the floor. And rather than bemoan the new costly bill and its pile of regulations, McCain instead took a very different tone. He spent the next few minutes paying tribute to outgoing Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.), who was defeated in the recent election in his bid for another term.

McCain, who recently pledged not to work with any Democrats on immigration reform, choked up as he said, "Without intending it as a commentary on his successor, I have to confess I think the Senate will be a much poorer place without Russ Feingold in it." He went on to talk about his work with Feingold on trying to reform the campaign finance system, and he credited the Wisconsin senator for being true to his beliefs about the evils of soft money, even when his job was on the line:

We don’t often hear anymore about members of Congress who distinguish themselves by having the courage of their convictions; who risk their personal interests for what they believe is in the public interest. I’ve seen many examples of it here, but the cynicism of our times – among the political class and the media and the voters tends to miss examples of political courage or dismiss them as probable frauds or, at best, exceptions that prove the rule. In his time in the Senate, Russ Feingold, every day and in every way, had the courage of his convictions. And though I am quite a few years older than Russ, and have served in this body longer than he has, I confess I have always felt he was my superior in that cardinal virtue.

McCain, who has lost much of his "maverick" status in the Senate since running for president, seemed heartfelt in his tribute and his sadness at Feingold's departure also seemed genuine. He concluded by saying:

I can’t do justice in these remarks to all of Russ’ many qualities or express completely how much I think this institution benefited from his service here and how much I benefited from knowing him. I lack the eloquence. I don’t think he is replaceable. We would all do well to keep his example in our minds as we serve our constituents and country and convictions. We couldn’t have a better role model.

 

I have every expectation we will remain good friends long after we have both ended our Senate careers. But I will miss him here. Every day. And I will try harder to become half the public servant he is. Because his friendship is an honor, and honors come with responsibilities.

 

McCain's speech was a rather sad reminder about the sorry state of the nation's campaign finance rules. Not only is one of the crafters of major campaign finance reform legislation leaving the Senate, but his legacy has been all but demolished by the Supreme Court in recent years, most notably with its Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate money in elections. But McCain's tribute to Feingold also served as a reminder of happier days in the Senate when Democrats and Republicans actually did work together once in a while to tackle the hard work of solving some of the nation's more pressing problems. When McCain said he was going to miss Feingold, it was clear that he misses those days, too.

DC Ticker on ABC News: Hillary Clinton, sell; Patty Murray, buy.

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 10:30 AM EST

I've previously explained the DC Ticker I compile most days, which is now being featured weekly on ABC News' website show, Political Punch, hosted by Jake Tapper. Here are the picks featured on the latest PP:

* Hillary Clinton, sell. How would you like to explain to allies (and the public) that the US spied on the UN leadership, turned a blind eye to an Afghan vice president caught with $52 million in cash in his possession, and conspired with the Yemen government to cover up secret US bombing in that country? Thanks, WikiLeaks.

* Daniel Ellsberg, buy. Whenever there's a big leak, the O.L. (Original Leaker) reappears.

* Sen. Patty Murray, buy. After winning a reelection nail-biter, Murray's been courted by Democratic leaders to head up its 2012 Senate campaign. This boosts her profile, but that job will be tough, given that Democratic prospects look worse in 2012 than they did this year.

* Reynaldo Decerega, buy. One way to get noticed in Washington: pop the president in the mouth with your elbow during a friendly basketball game. After doing so this past weekend, the little-known director of programs for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute became a Google search term.

You can receive the almost-daily DC Ticker report by following my Twitter feed. (#DCticker is the Twitter hashtag.) Please feel free to argue with my selections—though all decisions of the judges are final. And please feel free to make suggestions for buy or sell orders in the comments below or on Twitter (by replying to @DavidCornDC).

DC Ticker is merely an advisory service. It and its author cannot be held liable for any investments made in politicians, policy wonks, or government officials on the basis of the information presented. Invest in politics at your own risk.

Bogus Attacks On the CFPB

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 9:24 AM EST

First it was Republicans like Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), the likely chair of the House financial services committee in the 112th Congress, who took aim at the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Now, a high-ranking member of the Federal Reserve system, the agency that will eventually house the CFPB, is taking a cue from the US Chamber of Commerce's playbook and trying to chip away at the bureau's funding and clout.

On Monday, James Bullard, the president of the Fed's St. Louis branch, questioned the amount of money coming out of the Fed's budget to fund the new consumer bureau. Although housed within and funded by the Fed, the bureau, which is being launched by Harvard law professor and former bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren, is an independent organization. It takes orders from no one but its presidentially-appointed chief. But the Fed's Bullard said the bureau's funding—about 10 percent of the Federal Reserve System's spending in 2011, 11 percent the year after, and 12 percent in 2013—"is not based on any careful assessment of what the needs of the bureau will be as it attempts to fulfill the mandate of the Congress with regard to consumer protection." He added, "I am concerned about this method of funding for the bureau."

Here's what the math looks like: The Fed system budgeted for $4.4 billion in spending in 2010, which means the CFPB could have its disposal about $440 million in its first year (though that's unlikely as the bureau is still staffing up and not yet at full capacity). But figure the bureau's budget will fall in the $400 to $500 million range with a staff that could reach around 2,200, as experts like Tim Duncan, chairman of American Business Leaders for Financial Reform, have suggested.

Now, let's put that number into some context. By comparison, in 2009, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the nation's top financial regulator, had just over 4,000 employees and a budget of $913 million. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates the derivatives markets, clocks in at around 580 staffers on a $216 million budget, according to its most recent appropriations request. Then there's the Fed system itself, which has 20,000 employees and $4.4 billion in expenses.

When you compare the CFPB to other regulators, you'll see that its funding isn't at all out of whack or arbitrary. Indeed, the CFPB is on par with every other major financial regulator in the US.

A few more important points from Georgetown University law professor and financial expert Adam Levitin:

1. CFPB is not mandated to spend all that money. If CFPB doesn't spend its entire budget, that money goes back to Treasury. Therefore, it's really not a big deal if CFPB is overbudgeted.

2. Recall that a major reason we needed a CFPB was that consumer financial protection was severely compromised by housing it in bank regulators who got their funding from banks, not through the appropriations process.

So it's hard to see where Bullard is coming from here. Maybe he's just pissed that the CFPB is peeling off some of the Fed's money. Then again, given the Fed system's utter failure to protect consumers, choosing to sit on its hands for years in the face of mounting evidence of subprime mortgage abuses and rampant fraud, perhaps Bullard is lucky Congress didn't divert more of the Fed's cash to CFPB.

Black Harvard-Yale Alums = Gangbangers?

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Racial profiling has hit the Ivy League. Again. A party for black Harvard and Yale alums at a Boston club was shut down last weekend because the club owner was afraid that a long line of black people outside could "attract the attention of local gangbangers."

It all started when a group of recent graduates sold advance tickets for a party at a new Boston club, Cure Lounge. When the night of the party came, club management claimed some of the folks waiting in line were "local gang bangers," despite the organizers' strict guest list. Management then demanded that every guest show student ID, which the organizers argued was impossible since alums usually don't carry their old student IDs around. Eventually, on the basis that a line of black people would attract the "wrong crowd" (no joke), the owners shut the entire club down. Michael Beal, one of the organizers of the party, wrote in an email apology to the guests that "regardless of our crowd representing the pinnacle of academic achievement as Harvard and Yale College alumni, Law, Medical, Business and PhD students, we were perceived as a threat because of our skin color." Sounds right on. (You can read Beal's email in its entirety here.)

Writing about all this over at the Grio, blogger Lori Adelman makes a great point:

This incident is more than about entrance to a party, or how infuriating it is for black ivy league alumni to be perceived as a "local gang-banger," or discriminated against by way of "visual affiliation" (see: skin color). In fact, it should serve as an opportunity for us to examine the ways in which we as a black community can and must view our struggles as more connected across lines of class and education, now more than ever before.

Agreed. Obviously racism is class- and education-blind, as last year's arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was just trying to get into his own house, confirmed. It's not just Gates: Ex-Harvard (and current Princeton) Prof. Cornel West has spoken to Tavis Smiley about being stopped and questioned by Harvard police while on his way to lectures, and black Harvard student groups picnicking on campus were recently questioned by campus police about their presence at the college. But as the Grio's Adelman points out:

Perhaps we might focus less on the offenders' inability to distinguish who deserves to be treated with dignity and fairness, and more on why there are criteria for such treatment in the first place.

Based on Cure Lounge's depreciating Yelp score and the calls from the blogosphere to boycott the place, it won't get away from the scandal unscathed. Too bad the same can't be said for racist institutions that target black folks who don't have degrees or money.

(h/t: Jezebel)

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Yes We Cancun?

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 6:00 AM EST

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting began in Cancun on Monday, providing another chance for world leaders to huddle on solutions to the problems posed by rising global greenhouse gas emissions. This year's Conference of the Parties—or COP, as it's known—is certainly kicking off to much less hype than last year's meeting in Copenhagen, when delegates were expecting a major breakthrough on negotiations. Expectations are much lower this year, but there's hope that progress might yet be possible.

You can check out my run down of what to expect over the next two weeks at Mother Jones HQ. I'll be reporting live from Mexico for the next two weeks, which you can catch on Blue Marble and Twitter. In the meantime, here are some headlines from the first day of the event:

EU warns that U.N. climate talks "risk losing relevance"

Time for compromise, troubled UN climate talks told

US sees progress easing climate rifts with China

Frustrations show as climate talks resume

Cancún climate talks: In search of the holy grail of climate change policy

 

Also, take a look at the massive art project 350.org pulled off on the eve of the Cancun talks. And here's a video of the opening ceremony on Monday.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 30, 2010

Tue Nov. 30, 2010 5:30 AM EST

 

 

Congressional Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore A. Giunta rings the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on November 22, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Hider/NYSE Euronext)

Image vs. Reality

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 1:43 AM EST

Compare and contrast. Here is the FT's Gillian Tett explaining some of the changes she had to make in her book Fool's Gold in order to appeal to both British and American audiences:

The real fun erupted when I wrote the preface. Initially I planned to start the book by admitting that I was not a true expert on high finance: instead I crashed into this world in 2005, after a background spent in journalism-cum-social anthropology — making me a well-intentioned amateur, but without complete knowledge.

My friends in the British publishing world loved that honesty; in the UK, self-deprecation sells, particularly for “well-meaning amateurs” such as the writer Bill Bryson. But my American friends hated it. In New York, I was sternly told, absolutely nobody wants to listen to self-doubt. If you are going to write a book — let alone stand on a political platform or run a company — you must act as if you are an expert, filled with complete conviction. For the US version, the preface was removed entirely.

And here is Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander admitting that reporters at the Post can't do basic arithmetic and pretty much don't seem to care about it:

A review of published corrections for the past three months shows that few days passed without a numbers error...."I think what's going on is that when journalists see a number, they take it at face value and don't question it," [Scott] Maier said. "With numbers, I think journalists tend to abdicate that scrutiny."

....Many newsrooms provide remedial math training, but that's not been done at The Post. It should be considered. And given the increasing usage of numbers in reporting and graphics, The Post should pay heightened attention to math and statistical literacy when evaluating prospective hires.

In America, no one wants to listen to self doubt. Also in America, our reporters don't have a working knowledge of arithmetic, which underlies practically every topic commonly reported on the front page or the evening news. Somehow, I suspect the latter makes the former a lot easier.

WikiLeaks and the Private Sector

| Mon Nov. 29, 2010 9:16 PM EST

Over at Forbes, Andy Greenberg interviews Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who tells him that they're planning a release early next year of a huge cache of internal documents from a big U.S. bank:

What do you want to be the result of this release?

[Pauses] I’m not sure. It will give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms, I presume.

Usually when you get leaks at this level, it’s about one particular case or one particular violation. For this, there’s only one similar example. It’s like the Enron emails. Why were these so valuable? When Enron collapsed, through court processes, thousands and thousands of emails came out that were internal, and it provided a window into how the whole company was managed. It was all the little decisions that supported the flagrant violations.

This will be like that. Yes, there will be some flagrant violations, unethical practices that will be revealed, but it will also be all the supporting decision-making structures and the internal executive ethos that cames out, and that’s tremendously valuable.

This gave me pause when I read it. As I said earlier, I'm on the fence a bit about whether an indiscriminate release of thousands of U.S. embassy cables is useful. After all, governments have a legitimate need for confidential diplomacy. But when I read about WikiLeaks' planned financial expose, I felt no such qualms. A huge release of internal documents from a big bank? Bring it on!

And yet, just like governments, big corporations have both a legitimate need for confidential deliberations as well as many of the same pathologies that secrecy breeds. It's not a perfect analogy, of course, on a variety of levels, but still: it's not all that different either. So why do I feel so differently about it? I'm not quite sure. But it suggests that my thinking about this is not as clear as it should be. I will continue to mull this over.