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The Nutcase Right

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 1:26 PM EDT

Responding to a David Frum column about the recent outbreak of freak-show hysteria among conservatives, Matt Yglesias says:

Now to be fair, during the Bush years more than one person passed me this “14 Characteristics of Fascism” document in order to prove that under George W. Bush the United States had become a fascist regime. Overreaction to policies you don’t like is a pretty understandable human impulse. The difference is that mainstream, prominent outlets usually try to restrain that kind of impulse. But this sort of over-the-top rhetoric isn’t burbling from the grassroots up, it’s being driven the very most prominent figures in conservative media and also by a large number of members of congress.

Never were truer words spoken.  I was never a fan of the whole "Bush is a fascist" line, and over six years of blogging I was able to ignore it almost completely because it never broke out of its niche among the activist left.  You may or may not approve of that, but the simple reality is that aside from occasionally covering lefty protests and marches, mainstream pundits and politicians never took up this theme.  On the contrary, most of them ridiculed it if they ever noticed it at all.

But today's wingers, after Obama has been in office a grand total of 12 weeks, have already decided that we aren't merely on the road to serfdom, we're on the road to confiscation, tyranny, domestic gulags, and jackbooted thugs coming to take their guns away.  This time, though, it's not just fringe nutbaggery.  There's a whole brigade of right-wing pundits and politicians who are not only taking up the theme, but leading the charge.  They've gone completely crackers.

I still can't decide whether this makes the right more dangerous or less.  After all, if they go too far overboard, their crackpotism becomes so apparent that the whole movement becomes a joke.  On the other hand, if they aren't a joke yet, what's it going to take?

Besides, maybe they have a point.  Don't let this get around, but did you know that Barack Obama's Secretary of Defense has taken to quoting Joseph Stalin approvingly?  True story!  Click the link if you don't believe me.  And don't say that Glenn Beck didn't warn us about this.

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Is "ObamaRail" Coming to Your State?

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 1:09 PM EDT

President Obama and Vice President Biden unveiled their plans for nationwide high-speed rail today, explaining how they will spend the $13 billion earmarked in the stimulus and the President's budget for the construction of super sweet new trains. (Lots and lots of details for train geeks here.) Obama had this to say on the occasion:

What we're talking about is a vision for high-speed rail in America.  Imagine boarding a train in the center of a city.  No racing to an airport and across a terminal, no delays, no sitting on the tarmac, no lost luggage, no taking off your shoes.  (Laughter.)  Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination.  Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America.

Now, all of you know this is not some fanciful, pie-in-the-sky vision of the future.  It is now.  It is happening right now.  It's been happening for decades.  The problem is it's been happening elsewhere, not here. 

In France, high-speed rail has pulled regions from isolation, ignited growth, remade quiet towns into thriving tourist destinations.  In Spain, a high-speed line between Madrid and Seville is so successful that more people travel between those cities by rail than by car and airplane combined.  China, where service began just two years ago, may have more miles of high-speed rail service than any other country just five years from now.  And Japan, the nation that unveiled the first high-speed rail system, is already at work building the next:  a line that will connect Tokyo with Osaka at speeds of over 300 miles per hour.  So it's being done; it's just not being done here.

Consider me on board. Get it? Anyway, my favorite part of the whole rollout is this cool little map, which tells you exactly where these 100 mph trains are going to take you when they are completed in 2020 or whenever.

Hope you don't live in the Great Plains! No trains for you!

Tick Tick Tick

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 12:47 PM EDT

Obama sure is taking his sweet time deciding whether to release those Bush-era OLC memos authorizing various torture techniques, isn't he?  Is he planning to wait until 11:59 pm, or what?

In the meantime, what's your guess?  (a) No release, (b) limited release with lots of redactions, or (c) pretty close to full release with only a few redactions?  Vote in comments.

Cutting Back

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 12:09 PM EDT

Yesterday, as I was talking to an economist about something, he explained that some research he had done had demonstrated a particular small effect.  "It really only affected things at the margin," he said.

"OK," I asked, "But doesn't everything work at the margin?"  He sort of laughed.  "Are you an economist?  That's how economists talk."

Nope, not me.  I just quote 'em on my blog.  Still, that seems to be the best explanation for this story in the Washington Post today:

Denise Kimberlin and her husband, Craig, of Woodbridge are government contractors who make nice livings. They recently got raises. They don't fear losing their jobs.

Yet, something is driving them to change their spending habits. They have cut back by at least $250 a week on clothes, dinners out and other discretionary spending.

....Economists say many still-flush consumers are handcuffed by psychological traps that cause them to tighten their purse strings even though economic hardship is not their reality....Psychologists explain that people fall prey to what is known as social proof. The most famous study pointing at the effect was done in the 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram. He had one or two people stand on a busy city block in New York and stare up at a sixth-floor building window. Most pedestrians ignored them. But when he had 15 people stand and stare at the window, nearly everyone walking down the street looked up at it, too.

I guess that might be the explanation.  But here's another one: when there's massive, objective evidence of a huge recession and rising unemployment, even people with good jobs act to cut their spending on the margin.  Why?  Because they also fear bad news on the margin.  The Kimberlins might not be afraid of losing their jobs, but I wouldn't be surprised if they're, maybe, 1% afraid of losing their jobs.  Or 5% afraid of getting a pay cut.  Or 10% afraid that their bank will raise the rate on their credit card debt.  Or 90% afraid that they can't use their home as an ATM machine anymore.  So they're cutting back spending a little bit, right in line with that limited amount of fear.  Social cues might have something to do with this, but surely a rational response to tangible, predictible outside events has even more to do with it?

No More King

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 11:42 AM EDT

California may be a big state, but we still only get two statues in the Capitol building's Statuary Hall.  And now one of them is being swapped out:

After 78 years of standing in the Capitol, Thomas Starr King is about to be ousted by a better known Californian — Ronald Reagan.

...."Those of who us who love Thomas Starr King and know about his life are really sorry to see him go," said the Rev. Roger Fritts, senior minister of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Md.

....Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) launched a campaign nearly five years ago, shortly after Reagan's death, to replace the statue of King, described as "the orator who saved the nation," with one of "The Great Communicator."

Well.  My mother attended Thomas Starr King Middle School in Los Angeles, so we take this personally around here.  I guess Unitarians just don't have the clout they used to.

The Case of the Denied NSA Wiretap: The System Worked?

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 11:15 AM EDT

Maybe the system worked.

On Thursday, The New York Times broke the news that the National Security Agency went too far in spying on the emails and phone calls of Americans in recent months. The piece did not make clear what this entailed, and it quoted one official claiming the "overcollection" was an accident. (Blame the computers!) But the piece contained an interesting nugget that caught the eye of Kevin Drum:

And in one previously undisclosed episode, the N.S.A. tried to wiretap a member of Congress without a warrant, an intelligence official with direct knowledge of the matter said.
The agency believed that the congressman, whose identity could not be determined, was in contact — as part of a Congressional delegation to the Middle East in 2005 or 2006 — with an extremist who had possible terrorist ties and was already under surveillance, the official said. The agency then sought to eavesdrop on the congressman’s conversations, the official said.
The official said the plan was ultimately blocked because of concerns from some intelligence officials about using the N.S.A., without court oversight, to spy on a member of Congress.

Kevin notes that this is a big deal and should have set off "alarm bells at every possible level at NSA." But perhaps there is another way of looking at the episode. It could well have been that some overeager NSA snoops were keen to eavesdrop on a member of Congress because they believed that could produce intelligence on an extremist target. They made the case for doing so without getting a warrant. They failed to win permission to do so. Superiors told them, no warrant, no wiretap--at least when it comes to a member of Congress. No harm, no foul?

Call me jaundiced, but this does not strike me as a cause for much worry. The intelligence agencies contain operatives who do at times do look to push the envelope, to skirt restrictions or, in some cases, dodge the law. In this instance, hot-to-eavesdrop NSA employees made a case for using a warrantless wiretap to listen in on a lawmaker. Maybe they had good reason to be interested in his/her conversations, maybe not. But they didn't go ahead and intercept on their own. They sought the authority to spy on the legislator and were ultimately turned down. Perhaps alarm bells did sound. But whether or not there was any ringing, the appropriate decision appears to have been made. This is a far cry from most intelligence scandals--when the abuse actually occurs. It could be seen as an indication that all the protests about the NSA's warantless wiretapping--the blogging, the op-eds, the lawsuits--has increased sensitivity within the intelligence community. Yes, it might be a sign of progress.

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Obama Shuts Down DOD Propaganda Office

| Thu Apr. 16, 2009 9:45 AM EDT

The New York Times announces the shuttering:

A Pentagon office responsible for coordinating Defense Department information campaigns overseas has been abolished...

Military and civilian critics said the office, the Defense Department office for support to public diplomacy, overstepped its mandate during the final years of the Bush administration by trying to organize information operations that violated Pentagon guidelines for accuracy and transparency.

I'm guessing we won't be planting stories in the Iraqi media while simultaneously claiming we're fostering a free press, either.

Susan Boyle About to Blow Up Internet

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 10:02 PM EDT

Monday afternoon: I see the video (which they won't let you embed, dang it, so watch it here) on Towleroad of frizzy-haired “spinster” Susan Boyle stunning the judges of "Britain’s Got Talent" with an emotional rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." It’s, you know, a cute little internet video.

Monday evening: I hear the very same audio coming out of the laptop of German DJs who are staying at my house for the weekend. They were using my neighbor’s wi-fi to catch up on German news, and the video was the first thing they saw.

Tuesday evening: Charlie Gibson covers the story on the ABC Evening News.

Tuesday night: The Boston Globe reports the clip has been watched over 2.7 million times since it was uploaded on April 11.

Wednesday afternoon: It's the top story on npr.org. They report the clip has been watched 7 million times.

Wednesday evening: A quick YouTube search shows multiple copies of the same clip making the rounds, but an unscientific sum of all their view counts puts the number at approximately 13 million.

Thursday (prediction): Susan Boyle surpasses Barack Obama as the most popular human being on the planet.

Listening in on Congress

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 9:49 PM EDT

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau report in the New York Times today that the NSA may have exceeded the wiretapping authority it was given by Congress in 2008.  The whole story is pretty vague, and introduces the unknown-to-me euphemism "over-collection," which apparently means that technical problems led NSA to " 'target' groups of Americans and collect their domestic communications without proper court authority."

But then there's this buried in the middle of the story, which isn't vague at all:

New details are also emerging about earlier domestic surveillance activities, including the agency’s attempt to wiretap a congressman without court approval on an overseas trip, according to interviews with current and former intelligence officials.

....The agency believed that the congressman, whose identity could not be determined, was in contact as part of a congressional delegation to the Middle East in 2005 or 2006 with an extremist who had possible terrorist ties and was already under surveillance, the official said. The agency then sought to eavesdrop on the congressman’s conversations to gather more intelligence, the official said.

The official said the plan was ultimately blocked because of concerns from some officials in the intelligence community about the idea of using the N.S.A., without court oversight, to spy on a member of Congress.

Jesus.  If a member of Congress isn't a "United States person" protected from warrantless surveillance by every version of FISA that's ever been on the books, who is?  Shouldn't this have set off alarm bells at every possible level at NSA, rather than merely being "ultimately blocked" because "some" officials had "concerns" about it?

SILVER LINING UPDATE: Looking on the bright side, maybe this will finally motivate Congress to take NSA surveillance more seriously.  Having one of their own members come within a hair's breadth of being an NSA target ought to concentrate their minds wonderfully, if anything will.

Kick The Sick Habit: Bay Versus Bag

| Wed Apr. 15, 2009 7:50 PM EDT

Nice video from Save The Bay. It's the latest in their campaign to reduce plastic bag pollution in San Francisco Bay Area. You know, the endless crap that traps wildlife and never biodegrades and breeds like rabbits because we insist on accepting a new one of the evil airborne, waterborne immortals every time we buy any little thing.

Did you know the average plastic bag has a use-time of 12 minutes?

California taxpayers spend approximately $25 million every year to collect and landfill plastic bags. San Jose City staff estimates that it costs at least $3 million annually to clean plastic bags from creeks and clogged storm drains. Single-use bag production depletes resources and contributes to carbon emissions and global warming. We consume 14 million trees  and 12 million barrels of oil to produce the billions of plastic and paper bags we throw away in the United States every year. 

Save The Bay is trying to get Bay Area cities to charge 25 cents on paper and plastic bags from all retailers. Hopefully that'll encourage more people to use less plastic and pony up for durable reusables.

Accompanying the video, a few busted myths:

Myth: Recycling plastic bags is the best solution to the litter problem
Fact: Plastic bag recycling is expensive and doesn’t work

Despite a 15-year effort in California, recycling plastic bags has failed. Less than 5 percent of all single-use plastic bags are actually recycled. Plastic bags cost municipal recycling programs millions each year because bags jam sorting equipment. The frak ups cost San Jose about $1 million a year. Failed recycling means billions of plastic bags are thrown away to blow onto streets and float into waterways.