Kevin Drum - February 2010

The American Internet

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 3:31 PM EST

Nancy Scola uses Iran's recent ban on Gmail as an occasion to say this:

I've been squawking recently about the rising time of anti-Internet rhetoric that is at its core anti-American Internet rhetoric, and how that's something that those of us who love the Internet should perpare ourselves to deal with. We saw it with China, when they responded to a possible Google pullout by complaining that the World Wide Web is hopelessly flooded with American content, and we see it again and again in Cuba, where the Castro regime argues that the content on the Web is so skewed toward American interests that they just don't want it for their people. From the perspective of Beijing or Havana, it's as if you turned on a TV in New York City and 470 of 500 channels were running Latin American telenovelas. More local, non-English content would be good for everyone involved.

Maybe this is a nit, but I'd say it's more "anti-American internet rhetoric" than "anti-American internet rhetoric." After all, the internet isn't like turning on a TV in New York and getting mostly non-English channels. My bookmark bar includes the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and McClatchy because I chose them. And I chose them because I'm an American who wants English-language news. They aren't forced on me. If I were Chinese and wanted Chinese-language content, I'd go out and find it, and that's what my browser would be filled with.

Likewise, taking the Cuban government at face value when they say the Web is skewed is pernicious. Their problem isn't that there's no Cuban content on the internet, their problem is that given a choice, Cubans apparently like American content better than that of the Castro brothers. But that's a problem with the Castros, not the internet. Ditto for Iran. Gmail doesn't have an American viewpoint. It's an email service. Its content is only American if you use it to send email to Americans.

Scola's concern is real: more local content is good, and complaints about how the internet is run have to be taken seriously. But a lot of it is just posturing by authoritarian regimes. As Scola says, "This can't be just about Google, and the hope is that a defense of the global web will emerge as a core value held by freedom-loving people everywhere, that OneWebDay, will emerge as the same sort of global celebration as EarthDay has become. The battle lines are pretty quickly being drawn."

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Dumping Medina

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 2:36 PM EST

Dave Weigel tweets:

May I just say that Beck and the conservative blogosphere are doing themselves proud by dumping Medina.

Ah, the soft bigotry of low expectations. Debra Medina has flirted with 9/11 trutherism, apparently thinks there's Soviet brainwashing afoot in the Texas police, believes Texas should be nullifying more federal laws, has been forced to deny that she's a Bilderberger, and has been disowned as a nutjob by Glenn Beck. Glenn Beck! And of course she's an unknown candidate running for governor against two longtime conservative stalwarts, so dropping her like a hot potato is pretty much cost-free. If you can't dump someone like that, who can you dump?

On a more serious note, Dave looks at the bigger picture:

I think because the mainstream media were slow to cover the Tea Parties as anything but a ridiculous joke, there’s been a lot of overcompensating that imbues these activists with fresh, bold, out-of-nowhere political tactics. But that the fact is that some people on the political fringes have made lateral moves from Alex Jones-listening or Obama birth certificate-sleuthing or Bilderberg-obsessing into the Tea Party Movement. And if Glenn Beck hadn’t decided to see how far Medina wanted to go with this, she’d be on track to get into a gubernatorial run-off.

FWIW, I don't think the tea party movement has any more chance of a long political life than Sarah Palin. Of course, for those of you who think I'm dismissing Palin too cavalierly, that might be bad news.

Calling the Tea Partiers' Bluff

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 1:43 PM EST

Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan — which guts Medicare, slashes Social Security payments, taxes health insurance, and makes deep cuts in every other area of the federal budget except for national defense — is, as Bruce Bartlett says, "politically ludicrous." But he still thinks it's a useful proposal since it forces conservatives to put their money where their mouths are. Literally:

According to the CBO, under the Ryan plan federal debt as a share of the gross domestic product (GDP) would rise from 61% this year to 100% in the year 2045 before falling to zero in 2080....Ryan achieves this result without any tax increase at all — 100% of the debt reduction comes from lower spending. It is, in short, the budgetary Holy Grail for the tea party crowd.

....In my opinion, support for the Ryan plan must be the minimum requirement for anyone who considers themselves members of the tea party brigade and any politician seeking its endorsement. If those like former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the current darling of the tea party crowd, are unwilling to immediately and unequivocally endorse the Ryan plan or put forward something equally serious and comprehensive, then in my opinion they have no credibility on the budget and no right to oppose the sorts of tax increases that I believe are unavoidable.

....The next time I see pictures of a tea party crowd I will be looking carefully for signs that say "Abolish Medicare," "Raise the Retirement Age" and "Support the Ryan Plan!" I won't hold my breath waiting.

Bruce is right. If Axiom I is "Taxes must not go up" and Axiom II is "The budget must be balanced," then Ryan's plan is pretty much unavoidable. For a long time conservatives have accepted Axiom I but not Axiom II, and this has been a huge electoral winner for them. But now they all say they accept Axiom II too. Paul Ryan is calling their bluff.

Quote of the Day: Health Insurance

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 1:17 PM EST

From Austin Frakt, a health economist at Boston University:

The evidence that insurance and the access to care it facilitates improves health, particularly for vulnerable populations (due to age or chronic illness, or both) is as close to an incontrovertible truth as one can find in social science.

No argument from me. Routine access to medical care is cheaper than emergency room visits, promotes preventive medicine, reduces pain, increases mobility and employability, lowers stress, prevents medical bankruptcies, and — unless none of this stuff matters at all — almost certainly lengthens lives.

Betting on Brad

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 12:30 PM EST

A while back I made a joke about cities financing themselves via collateralized parking meter obligations. Just a joke, guys! But today, in the art-imitates-art category, Nick Baumann reports that Cantor Fitzgerald, a Wall Street investment firm, is planning to start selling a way to bet on the success or failure of Hollywood films:

"This is such a bad idea on so many levels," says Lynn Stout, a law professor at UCLA and an expert in derivatives, the category of financial instruments that includes Cantor's proposed box office futures. "What they want to do is basically open up a casino for people who want to make money for predicting the next blockbuster."

....Let’s say you were responsible for Gigli, and you realized during filming that it was shaping up to be one of the worst movies ever made. Instead of writing off the $54 million you’d shelled out to make the film, you could simply buy up a stack of futures contracts priced on the assumption that the movie would tank. Then, to nudge that failure along, you could slash the marketing budget, or decide to add 30 more dreadful minutes to the final cut. Played correctly, a studio could inflict a movie like Gigli on the world and still turn a profit. If box office futures trading happens, being a Hollywood insider would take on a whole new meaning.

This sounds like a great way to finally destroy one of America's few remaining big export industries. Lenin said once that capitalists would sell communists the rope to hang them with, but he was wrong. The communists are gone, so we're selling it to each other, and even a world historical economic meltdown won't convince us to stop. It's like watching a coke addict knocking over the bystanders as he barrels out of rehab to track down his old crack dealer.

It's Time

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 2:53 AM EST

According to the Washington Post, 75% of Americans think gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military. That's enough even to meet the modern Republican standard for consensus. It's time for Congress to let it happen.

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Republicans and the Criminal Courts

| Fri Feb. 12, 2010 2:40 AM EST

The case of Aafia Siddiqui has always been a strange one. But strange or not, the Bush administration believed that she had connections to al-Qaeda, and after a long manhunt they took her into custody in 2008. The next day she tried to kill several U.S. soldiers and FBI agents who had come to question her. Shortly after that she was transported to the U.S., arraigned in New York, and put on trial. Marc Ambinder continues the story:

What makes Siddiqui's conviction relevant for the current debate is that she was captured, on a recognized battlefield — Afghanistan — and tried to kill FBI agents and American soldiers who had come to question her. Siddiqui, 40, could easily have been designated as an enemy combatant. But the Bush administration determined instead that she be tried in federal court. She was read her Miranda rights, and given access to a lawyer.

....The police found documents on her possession that led them to believe that she was part of a plan to cause a mass casaulty incident in the United States. Specific locations listed on the documents included the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building. Notes on one document referred to the components of a dirty bomb. They found various sealed canisters of chemicals and gells.

....Siddiqui's conviction on February 3, 2010 was noted in a press release by the Justice Department. So far as I can tell, Republicans on Capitol Hill did not utter a peep of protest.

I'm willing to bet they didn't utter a peep of protest when she was brought to New York in 2008, either. Funny that. (Via Steve Benen.)

Data Mining and You

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 10:46 PM EST

The Declan McCullagh piece on cell phone tracking that I posted about below also contains this interesting tidbit:

Two years ago, when the FBI was stymied by a band of armed robbers known as the "Scarecrow Bandits" that had robbed more than 20 Texas banks, it came up with a novel method of locating the thieves.

FBI agents obtained logs from mobile phone companies corresponding to what their cellular towers had recorded at the time of a dozen different bank robberies in the Dallas area. The voluminous records showed that two phones had made calls around the time of all 12 heists, and that those phones belonged to men named Tony Hewitt and Corey Duffey. A jury eventually convicted the duo of multiple bank robbery and weapons charges.

....Update 10:37 a.m. PT: A source inside the U.S. Attorney's Office for the northern district of Texas, which prosecuted the Scarecrow Bandits mentioned in the above article, tells me that this was the first and the only time that the FBI has used the location-data-mining technique to nab bank robbers. It's also worth noting that the leader of this gang, Corey Duffey, was sentenced last month to 354 years (not months, but years) in prison. Another member is facing 140 years in prison.

I'm only linking to this because it's a pretty good guess that this is similar to the kind of data mining that the NSA is doing as part of its warrantless wiretapping program. (See here and here.) Poring through huge databases might provide clues based on patterns of when calls were made or who they were made to that allow authorities to backtrack to somebody they're looking for.

In other words, it's potentially genuinely useful, and this is a real-life example of how it can work. Whether or not it should be allowed without a search warrant, however, is a whole different question.

What Part of "Search Warrant" Don't You Understand?

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 10:14 PM EST

Should the government be allowed to track your location via cell phone without getting a search warrant? The Obama administration thinks it should:

In the case that's before the Third Circuit on Friday, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, said it needed historical (meaning stored, not future) phone location information because a set of suspects "use their wireless telephones to arrange meetings and transactions in furtherance of their drug trafficking activities."

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa Lenihan in Pennsylvania denied the Justice Department's attempt to obtain stored location data without a search warrant....Lenihan's opinion (PDF) — which, in an unusual show of solidarity, was signed by four other magistrate judges — noted that location information can reveal sensitive information such as health treatments, financial difficulties, marital counseling, and extra-marital affairs.

In its appeal to the Third Circuit, the Justice Department claims that Lenihan's opinion "contains, and relies upon, numerous errors" and should be overruled. In addition to a search warrant not being necessary, prosecutors said, because location "records provide only a very general indication of a user's whereabouts at certain times in the past, the requested cell-site records do not implicate a Fourth Amendment privacy interest."

Honest to God, what do these people have against search warrants? Practically everybody carries a cell phone today, so the DOJ position is tantamount to saying that the government has the right to track anybody in the country everywhere and at all times whenever it feels like it. You don't have to be a lawyer to know that unlike, say, tailing a suspect, this is so cheap and attractive that it practically begs for abuse. It violates every instinct we have about what the government should and shouldn't be allowed to do.

If you have evidence of a crime, get a search warrant. Then track away. How hard is that to understand?

Public: Government Waste Tops $1.8 Trillion

| Thu Feb. 11, 2010 5:36 PM EST

Here's a fascinating little chart. The question is, "Out of every dollar the federal government collects in taxes, how many cents do you think are wasted?" The average answer, in the latest Washington Post poll, is 53 cents. A few comments:

  • Clearly, Republicans are winning the PR battle on this score. The idea that 53 cents of every dollar is wasted is obviously ridiculous even for the most ardent tea partier, but I don't suppose this ought to be taken especially seriously as an actual response. Rather, it's sort of crude proxy measure of dissatisfaction with gummint spending. And it's been going up steadily for 25 years.
     
  • If the average was 53 cents, that means lots of people must have said 60 or 70 or 80 cents. Even more fascinating! I'd love to see the distribution on this answer.
     
  • Although there's a secular rise over time, specific dips and spikes seem unrelated to the party in power or to economic conditions. Maybe this is just statistical noise, though the drop from 1998 to 2000 was pretty substantial.
     
  • At this rate, by the year 2135 the average voter will think the entire federal budget is pure waste.

I wonder how people in other countries would respond to a question like this? And what does it all mean? Ponder away in comments.