2014 - %3, June

Number of Backdoor Searches of NSA Data Too High to Keep Track Of

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 8:15 PM EDT

A few days ago I mentioned that the House had voted to end "backdoor" searches. These are queries of the NSA's surveillance database that are targeted at American citizens who were "inadvertently" spied on during surveillance of foreigners, and the NSA would like you to know that these queries are totally legal; not based on any loopholes; and very definitely not "backdoor."

Be that as it may, Sen. Ron Wyden still wanted to know just how many of these queries take place. In the case of the NSA and the CIA, backdoor queries are allowed only if the goal is related to foreign intelligence gathering. The FBI, however, has no such restriction. They can query all those inadvertent US persons for pretty much any reason at all related to a suspected crime. So how many queries of the NSA database have they made?

There you have it. The FBI has no idea how many time it's queried the NSA database, though it's "substantial." In fact, those records are automatically included every single time the FBI's database is queried. Nonetheless, nobody should be alarmed because the FBI receives only a "small percentage" of the NSA's trillions of records, which means they've probably received no more than a few billion records.

Nothing to see here, folks. You may go about your business.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Hobby Lobby Wasn't About Religious Freedom. It Was About Abortion.

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 2:00 PM EDT

Elsewhere at Mother Jones, Dana Liebelson collects the eight best lines from Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent in the Hobby Lobby case. Here's what I consider the most telling passage from Samuel Alito's majority opinion:

Kinda reminds you of Bush v. Gore, doesn't it? Alito takes pains to make it clear that his opinion shouldn't be considered precedent for anything except the narrowly specific issue at hand: whether contraceptives that some people consider abortifacients can be excluded from health plans.

I think it's important to recognize what Alito is saying here. Basically, he's making the case that abortion is unique as a religious issue. If you object to anything else on a religious basis, you're probably out of luck. But if you object to abortion on religious grounds, you will be given every possible consideration. Even if your objection is only related to abortion in the most tenuous imaginable way—as it is here, where IUDs are considered to be abortifacients for highly idiosyncratic doctrinal reasons—it will be treated with the utmost deference.

This is not a ruling that upholds religious liberty. It is a ruling that specifically enshrines opposition to abortion as the most important religious liberty in America.

Nature Is Magical—and These 10 Stunning Photos Prove It. Happy Birthday, Yosemite!

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 1:52 PM EDT

On this day 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant Act to protect Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove in California. It was the first time the US had set aside wilderness, in this case roughly the size of Rhode Island, especially for preservation. These days, 4 million people enjoy the park every year to marvel at its famous soaring granite peaks and waterfalls, and enjoy a rare serenity. Here are photos of Yosemite's epic landscapes, past and present, to celebrate the its sesquicentennial year. Happy Birthday, Yosemite!

The Three Brothers rise above a mirror-like stream in Yosemite. This photo was taken in the 1860s by Carleton E. Watkins, one of California's early commercial photographers. He took some of the first photographs of the Yosemite region. ​Carleton E. Watkins/Library of Congress

President John F. Kennedy's helicopter is seen here dwarfed by the epic grandeur of Yosemite Falls in August 1962. Kennedy was in Yosemite for an overnight stay before going to Los Angeles, where he attended ground-breaking ceremonies for the San Luis Dam project. Anonymous/AP Photo

Queen Elizabeth II is shown the sites during her visit to the park in March 1983. Walt Zeboski/AP Photo

The sun sets across Yosemite in this photo from 2006. Nagaraju Hanchanahal/Flickr

In this photo of the night sky above Yosemite valley, the peaks of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks can be seen on the the left and right, respectively. Joe Parks/Flickr

This photo shows the first visitors in three weeks to visit Yosemite Valley, on January 6, 1996, after a budget crisis shut down the federal government, and thus the park. Earlier that day, President Bill Clinton signed Republican-crafted legislation to restore wages to federal government workers while budget negotiations continued, reopening the park to the public. Thor Swift/AP Photo.

A view of Half Dome Rock from Glacier Point. mlhradio/Flickr

The Rim Fire in 2013 was one of the largest wildfires in recent California history and burned parts of Yosemite National Park. The steep, remote topography of western Yosemite made it especially difficult for firefighters to get the blaze. Elias Funez/Modesto Bee/ZUMA

Yosemite Valley in Winter, taken from Tunnel View nrg_crisis/Flickr

The Three Brothers rock formation Mark Brodkin/Solent News/REX/AP Photo

Hobby Lobby Case Adds Yet Another Log to the "War on Women" Bonfire

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 12:27 PM EDT

Steve Benen thinks the Hobby Lobby case may be an electoral problem for Republicans this November:

GOP lawmakers and their allies are clearly delighted today, basking in the glow of victory....The trouble is, the American mainstream and GOP policymakers really aren’t on the same page. The latest national polling reinforces the fact that most of the country wanted today’s ruling to go the other way.

....Watching Republican-appointed justices to limit contraception access, while Republican lawmakers cheer them on, may be just what Democratic campaign officials needed.

This is based on the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, which does indeed show a majority of Americans opposed to the prospect of employers deciding which contraceptives their health plan covers:

Unfortunately, I don't think this poll demonstrates much immediate danger for Republicans. Sure, the liberal position has majority approval, but 53-35 percent isn't a huge margin in these kinds of polls. You really need to see upwards of a 70 percent consensus before the danger lights start to flash, and in some cases (such as gun control) even that's not enough. What's more, there's also the question of intensity. The Reuters poll doesn't get at this (polls rarely do), but if I had to guess, I'd say the 53 percent who take the liberal position don't feel all that strongly about it. Their votes won't swing based on this issue, whereas many of the 35 percent who take the conservative position will indeed vote based on it.

Still, although this specific case may not really pose much of an electoral threat to Republicans, it does add another log to the "war on women" bonfire. Conservatives are desperate to argue that this is a myth; that it doesn't matter; that it's really liberals who hate women; etc. etc. But I think the evidence is pretty strong that, in fact, this really is a growing problem for Republicans. At the moment, it's more a national problem than a local one, but that could change as the bonfire grows. And the Hobby Lobby case will add some fuel to the fire.

Kansas Disproves Supply-Side Magic Yet Again

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 11:41 AM EDT

Paul Krugman writes today about what's the matter with Kansas:

Two years ago Kansas embarked on a remarkable fiscal experiment: It sharply slashed income taxes without any clear idea of what would replace the lost revenue. Sam Brownback, the governor, proposed the legislation — in percentage terms, the largest tax cut in one year any state has ever enacted — in close consultation with the economist Arthur Laffer. And Mr. Brownback predicted that the cuts would jump-start an economic boom — “Look out, Texas,” he proclaimed.

But Kansas isn’t booming — in fact, its economy is lagging both neighboring states and America as a whole. Meanwhile, the state’s budget has plunged deep into deficit, provoking a Moody’s downgrade of its debt.

There’s an important lesson here — but it’s not what you think.

As Krugman goes on to say, the lesson is not that supply-side tax cuts don't supercharge the economy. We already knew that. The lesson is that this was never really about supply-side theories in the first place: "Faith in tax-cut magic isn’t about evidence; it’s about finding reasons to give powerful interests what they want."

This is true. Corporations and rich people want low taxes, but even in post-Reagan America they're a bit reluctant to just come out and say that the reason they want lower taxes is because they want to keep more of their money. As near as I can tell, they aren't reticent about this because it embarrasses them, they're reticent because they understand that it's wildly unpersuasive to anyone who's not rich. So they need some plausibly altruistic excuse for supporting tax cuts on themselves. Enter supply-side economics.

Still, we're all capable of astonishing feats of convincing ourselves of things that we want to believe. So here's what I wonder: do today's rich really believe this stuff anymore? The fact is that it really was a plausible theory in the early 80s, when it was being applied to income tax rates of 70 percent. Today, when it's being applied to federal rates of under 40 percent and state rates of well under 10 percent, there's not even the slightest hint of plausibility. It's as close to a completely bankrupt theory as it's possible to have in a field like economics.

And yet, most of them must still believe it, right? The alternative is that we have a large class of people who are consciously lying about all this and don't feel a twinge of remorse. It's nice to think about your ideological opponents that way, but aside from the occasional sociopath here and there, that's really not the way most people operate. That want lower taxes, and they also want to believe that they themselves are good people. So they continue to believe in a theory that's been about as conclusively disproven as phlogiston.

But how? It's easy: you just cherry pick your evidence. Look at Texas! Low taxes and great growth. Look at California! High taxes and lousy growth. (And pay no attention when those trends reverse course.) As for Kansas, eventually they'll slash spending on the poor enough to balance their budget, and eventually their economy will recover. Economies always do. And then, it will be: See? We told you that tax cuts would supercharge the economy!

The Good Guys Are 0-2 in Supreme Court Today

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 9:57 AM EDT

The Supreme Court could have obliterated public sector unions today by ruling that workers can't be required to pay representation fees if they disagree with the union's political stands. It's been longstanding practice that such workers don't have to pay full union dues—which include money used for political activity—but do have to pay fees that are used to support collective bargaining activities that benefit everyone.

But the court stepped back from the brink today, ruling in favor of workers who objected to the fees, but then saying their ruling was limited solely to home health care workers:

The ruling was limited to this particular segment of workers — not private sector unions — and it stopped short of overturning decades of practice that has generally allowed public sector unions to pass through their representation costs to nonmembers.

Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said home care workers are different from other types of government employees because they work primarily for their disabled or elderly customers and do not have most of the rights and benefits of state employees.

....The workers had urged the justices to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court decision which held that public employees who choose not to join a union can still be required to pay representation fees, as long as those fees don’t go toward political purposes. They say the union is not merely seeking higher wages, but making a political push for expansion of Medicaid payments.

Alito said the court was not overturning that case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. That case, he said, is confined “to full-fledged state employees.”

So public sector unions live to fight another day. At this point, the question is whether a majority on the court is truly unwilling to overturn Abood, or whether they want to do it slowly and today's case is just an opening volley.

In other news, the good guys lost in the Hobby Lobby case:

The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a setback to President Obama's healthcare law Monday and ruled that Christian business owners with religious objections to certain forms of birth control may refuse to provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraceptives.

In a major 5-4 ruling on religious freedom, the justices decided the religious rights of these company owners trump the rights of female employees to receive the full contraceptive coverage promised by the law.

Alito wrote the Hobby Lobby opinion too, and he was careful to say that this case doesn't apply to much of anything else that a religious employer might object to. Only things related to abortion, apparently. Because....um, that's plainly more important than any other religious objection on the planet. Or something.

In the end, I suppose that's good news. A narrow ruling is better than a broad one. Today's holding applies only to closely-held corporations (those in which a small number of people have majority control of the company), and Kennedy's concurrence apparently says the government can pay directly for contraception coverage if it want to. It could have been worse.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Here Is the Supreme Court's Decision in the Hobby Lobby Contraception Case

Mon Jun. 30, 2014 9:46 AM EDT

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a decision in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. The court ruled that most companies do not have to cover contraception for their employees if the company has a religious objection to doing so. Here is the decision:

 

Read the Supreme Court's Decision in The Blockbuster Labor Case Harris v. Quinn

Mon Jun. 30, 2014 9:13 AM EDT

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 30, 2014

Mon Jun. 30, 2014 8:31 AM EDT

US Marines rappel from a helicopter in a training exercise at sea. (US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Alisa Helin)

Mastodon's "Once More ‘Round the Sun" is as Exciting as Hard Rock Gets

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Mastodon
Once More ‘Round the Sun
Reprise

Mastodon Once More 'Rounds the SunHeavy metal is so prone to self-parody and general silliness that it's shocking to remember how powerful the music can be when done correctly. Current Exhibit A: the Atlanta quartet Mastodon, whose ear-shredding Once More ‘Round the Sun is as exciting as hard rock gets. Of course, they've never been a stereotypical knuckle-dragging crew, with earlier credits including a concept album inspired by Moby Dick (Leviathan) and a split seven-inch collaboration with folk-pop siren Feist, on which both parties covered one of the other’s tunes. Here, songs like "The Motherload" and "Aunt Lisa" are taut, soaring epics marked by piercing guitars, clattering drums and heroic vocals. There's plenty of spots on the album where Mastodon could be mistaken for a punk band, so don’t be afraid to shed those preconceptions and dive in for a righteously noisy experience.