Kevin Drum - April 2010

Assassinating Americans

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 1:01 PM EDT

As we've suspected for a while, the United States government is now officially in the business of assassinating United States citizens it suspects of terrorist activities:

After concluding that he has taken on an operational role in attempted terrorist attacks, the Obama administration has authorized the capture or killing of a U.S.-born Muslim cleric who is believed to be in Yemen, U.S. officials said. Anwar Awlaki, 38, who was born in New Mexico, recently was added to the CIA target list after a special government review of his activities, prompted by his status as a U.S. citizen, one of the officials said.

Andy McCarthy says this is "obviously the right call," so I'll leave it to fellow conservative Kevin Williamson to talk a little sense:

I hate to play the squish, but am I the only one who is just a little bit queasy over the fact that the president of the United States is authorizing the assassination of American citizens?....Surely there has to be some operational constraint on the executive when it comes to the killing of U.S. citizens. It is not impossible to imagine a president who, for instance, sincerely believes that Andy McCarthy is undermining the Justice Department's ability to prosecute the war on terror on the legal front. A government that can kill its citizens can shut them up, no? I ask this not as a legal question, but as a moral and political question: How is it that a government that can assassinate Citizen Awlaki is unable to censor Citizen McCarthy, or drop him in an oubliette? Practically every journalist of any consequence in Washington has illegally handled a piece of classified information. Can the president have them assassinated in the name of national security? Under the Awlaki standard, why not?

As it happens, this might be the right call. CAP's Ken Gude thinks it is, for example. On the other hand, Glenn Greenwald thinks it isn't. But yes: even if you think this is the right decision, it ought to make you feel a little bit queasy.

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Civil Asset Forfeiture

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 12:37 PM EDT

Today I hold out the olive branch of comity to my libertarian friends. The Institute for Justice has just released a lengthy report on "civil asset forfeiture," the ability of state and federal agencies to seize property used in the commission of a crime even if no one has actually been convicted of a crime, and I recommend reading it. The practice is appalling all by itself, but it's even worse than it sounds:

In most states and under federal law, law enforcement can keep some or all of the proceeds from civil forfeitures. This incentive has led to concern that civil forfeiture encourages policing for profit, as agencies pursue forfeitures to boost their budgets at the expense of other policing priorities.

These concerns are exacerbated by legal procedures that make civil forfeiture relatively easy for the government and hard for property owners to fight. For example, once law enforcement seizes property, the government must prove it was involved in criminal activity to forfeit or permanently keep it. But in nearly all states and at the federal level, the legal standard of proof the government must meet for civil forfeiture is lower than the strict standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” required for criminal convictions.

Likewise, many jurisdictions provide an “innocent-owner” defense that allows owners to get their property back if they had no idea it was involved in a crime. However, in most places, owners bear the burden of establishing their innocence. In other words, with civil forfeiture, property owners are effectively guilty until proven innocent.

Guilty until proven innocent! It's the American way.

Of course, there are a few states — not many, but a few — that have decent laws on the books that limit civil asset forfeiture. But it turns out that really doesn't provide much protection: law enforcement in states with inconvenient rules simply turn over seized assets to the feds and then take advantage of "equitable sharing." This is a win for everyone: not only are looser federal rules in effect, but the money shared back to the states can only be used to fund law enforcement activities. What local police agency wouldn't be thrilled? And as the chart on the right shows, the amount of money shared back to state law enforcement has skyrocketed over the past decade. The incentive for abuse is pretty obvious. The full report is here.

Quote of the Day: Caving in to Terrorists

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 11:56 AM EDT

From Max Boot, on terrorist claims that suicide bombings will bring the West to its knees:

Some Western analysts have added to the hype by arguing, in essence, that suicide attacks are a "poor man's smart bomb" and a tactic against which democratic states have only one recourse: giving in to the bombers' demands.

Why do conservative writers insist on tossing in little stinkbombs like this when they write op-eds? Obviously, "in essence" is Boot's way of wriggling out of this if anyone calls him on it, but why bother in the first place? Sure, there's bound to be someone, somewhere, who vaguely counts as an "analyst" and has said "in essence" that we should cave in to suicide bombers, but you'd have to dig pretty hard to find him. Not giving in to terrorist demands is the closest thing the world has to a consensus view on how to deal with them.

What makes it even weirder is that the rest of the op-ed is pretty reasonable. Boot argues that, in fact, suicide bombing has a lousy record of accomplishing anything, and that's a good point. "The futility of suicide attacks should not be surprising given that they are the last resort of the weak and desperate," he says, and he's right. Why not just stick to that?

Greenspan: Don't Blame Me

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 11:12 AM EDT

The other day I mentioned that interest rates weren't the only tool the Fed could have used to put a damper on the housing bubble. Today, former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan acknowledged this but then immediately discarded the idea:

In his testimony, Mr. Greenspan again defended the Federal Reserve against criticism that it failed to crack down on subprime mortgages during his lengthy tenure, pointing out that the Fed warned about subprime lending and low-down-payment mortgages in 1999, and again in 2001. He also said the Fed warned about unfair or deceptive practices by state-chartered banks in 2004.

....Mr. Greenspan also said that while Congress gave the Fed the authority in 1994 to prohibit unfair, deceptive and abusive lending practices, lawmakers left those definitions murky. There was no “prevailing sentiment within the Federal Reserve — and it was certainly not my view — that entire categories of loan products should be prohibited as ‘unfair’ or ‘abusive,’ ” he said.

So there you have it. Interest rates? Not the Fed's fault. Deceptive lending practices? Not the Fed's fault. Amazingly, the Fed was apparently completely powerless to do anything.

To make a long story short, this is why I was so unhappy about the reappointment of Ben Bernanke to the Fed. He may be a smart guy, but as near as I can tell he has nearly the same views as Greenspan. He just doesn't believe that the Fed really ought to regulate any of this stuff. It's also why putting the Consumer Finance Protection Agency inside the Fed is a bad idea. If your job is to regulate abusive lending practices, you really shouldn't be housed within an agency that pretty obviously doesn't care about that mission in the first place.

In a related vein, as Andy Kroll reports, Greenspan is (belatedly) a big believer in reducing leverage in the financial system "In a sense," he said today, "[capital requirements] solve every problem." And he wants capital requirements to "kick in automatically, without relying on the ability of a fallible human regulator to predict a coming crisis."

Finally! Something that should make Kevin happy, right? Well, sort of. I certainly believe that stronger capital requirements and less regulator discretion are important, but it would be a mistake to think, as Greenspan apparently does, that we can just leave it at that. If Greenspan were genuinely in favor of substantially higher capital requirements (he declined to say just how high he thought they should be); genuinely in favor of narrower definitions of capital; genuinely in favor of applying this broadly to all sectors of the financial industry; and genuinely in favor of matching regulations to make this effective — then I'd say three cheers for Greenspan. As it is, though, he gets one cheer. A vague call for higher capital requirements is a step in the right direction, but it's only a step.

Rush vs. NPR

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 9:07 PM EDT

Via John Sides, here's a piece from Fast Company a year ago about the spectacular growth of NPR over the past decade:

In one of the great under-told media success stories of the past decade, NPR has emerged not as the bespectacled schoolmarm of our imagination but as a massive news machine poised for what Dick Meyer, editorial director for digital media, half-jokingly calls "world domination." NPR's listenership has nearly doubled since 1999, even as newspaper circulation dropped off a cliff. Its programming now reaches 26.4 million listeners weekly — far more than USA Today's 2.3 million daily circ or Fox News' 2.8 million prime-time audience. When newspapers were closing bureaus, NPR was opening them, and now runs 38 around the world, better than CNN. It has 860 member stations — "boots on the ground in every town" that no newspaper or TV network can claim.

A common question on the left is, "Why is there no liberal talk radio?" That is, no wildly popular liberal version of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Laura Schlesinger. And the answer is: there is. It's called NPR. When lefties listen to the radio, that's what they listen to.

Now, NPR is obviously not any kind of direct analog to Rush. It's not a one-man talk show. It has a generally liberal worldview, but it doesn't traffic in the kind of in-your-face partisanship that Rush does. It has an eclectic variety of shows. And its audience comes from all over the ideological spectrum.

Still: when people wonder why lefties won't listen to talk radio, they're wondering the wrong thing. Lefties do listen to the radio, they just prefer listening to a different kind of radio than conservatives. But why? I'm thinking about a piece for the magazine right now that hasn't really taken form yet, but as I noodle about it this is one of the questions that I keep coming back to: when it comes to radio listening, why do conservatives prefer the style of Rush/Sean/Laura/etc. while liberals tend to prefer the style of NPR? Is it just a historical accident or is there something more to it? Leave your guesses in comments.

Chutzpah Award of the Week

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 7:42 PM EDT

In a column today declaring that "global warming is dead," Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens marshals this as part of his evidence:

In Britain, environmentalist patron saint James Lovelock now tells the BBC he suspects climate scientists have "[fudged] the data" and that if the planet is going to be saved, "it will save itself, as it always has done."

This takes herculean chutzpah. It's true that Lovelock thinks that climate scientists at East Anglia might have fudged some data, but here's what he has to say to BBC interviewer John Humphrys about climate change more generally:

Humphrys: You say "if" global warming happens. You believe it both is and will get a lot worse?

Lovelock: Yes, I do believe it will get a lot worse. You can't put something like a trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without something nasty happening.

Humphrys: How many of us, in your view, will not survive in the process?

Lovelock: ....If it really does warm up as badly as I've said in [The Vanishing Face of Gaia], as it might well do, then we'll be lucky if there's a billion left.

Humphrys: So in other words, seven out of eight will die?

Lovelock: Well, something like that.

Humphrys: Do you believe the science has been misrepresented to us?

Lovelock: No, I just think there are too many people doing it.

The only reason Lovelock says the earth "will save itself, as it always has done" is because he thinks climate change is likely to be so catastrophic that there's nothing we can do about it anymore. And by "save itself," he means only that the globe will go on spinning but with about seven billion of us dead.

I think Lovelock is wrong about it being too late to affect climate change, but that's neither here nor there. Regardless of whether he's right about that, to quote him in support of the idea that climate change is a gigantic hoax simply takes titanic balls. Did Stephens really think that no one on this side of the Atlantic would bother to actually listen to the interview?

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Net Neutrality Returns

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 4:39 PM EDT

Net neutrality is back in the news. But not in a good way: an appellate court has ruled that the FCC has no authority to force cable companies to treat everyone's web traffic equally:

The decision, by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, specifically concerned the efforts of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, to slow down customers’ access to a service called BitTorrent, which is used to exchange large video files, most often pirated copies of movies.

After Comcast’s blocking was exposed, the F.C.C. told Comcast to stop discriminating against BitTorrent traffic and in 2008 issued broader rules for the industry regarding “net neutrality,” the principle that all Internet content should be treated equally by network providers. Comcast challenged the F.C.C.’s authority to issue such rules and argued that its throttling of BitTorrent was necessary to ensure that a few customers did not unfairly hog the capacity of the network, slowing down Internet access for all of its customers.

The BitTorrent issue is probably not the best way to understand the real problem here. After all, Comcast has a legitimate interest in making sure that traffic runs smoothly on its network, and throttling bandwidth hogs might be a reasonable way to do that. Rather, the problem is that once you lose the general principle, the next likely step is a lot less benign. Matt Steinglass of the Economist explains:

The writers at this blog don't really care about today's appeals court ruling, which concluded that the FCC lacks authority to regulate net neutrality. Why should we? The paper will pay whatever Comcast or any other connectivity provider charges to make sure our bytes get out to the masses at a reasonably high speed. At least, we think it will. Unless the Financial Times or Forbes offers more. Then the magazine will have to ante up, or face discriminatory second-class service. Perhaps Comcast will start demanding "ultra business elite" fares on our packets if we expect them to reach that last mile just as fast as those from the FT. Then, of course, they might offer the FT the Sapphire Express rate on their packets, with an absolute guarantee that packets will arrive faster than the competition.

As much as such services are worth to us, they'd obviously be worth vastly more to Bloomberg or Dow Jones. A guarantee that time-sensitive financial information will arrive milliseconds ahead of the competition can be worth billions when you're trying to move markets. How could a last-mile connectivity provider possibly explain to its shareholders a decision not to take advantage of this opportunity, to offer "priority packet service" to time-sensitive information companies and induce them to engage in a bidding war?

I've long thought that broadband suppliers have at least half a case to make against pure net neutrality. There really are certain services, such as on-demand video streaming, that require lots of bandwidth and extremely reliable delivery. Charging extra for that is pretty defensible.

But where do you draw the line? Historically, when common carriers are allowed to discriminate, the result is pretty disastrous for everyone except the folks who currently dominate their market. So if you have a startup search company that outperforms Google, but only if it's as fast as Google, well, what are the odds that Google won't pay to make sure that its service is always faster than yours? Sure, their motto is "Don't be evil," but who knows if they'll still consider that kind of thing evil when the crunch comes?

Not me. All I know is that a free and open internet has worked pretty well, and we abandon it at our peril. With any luck, then, today's court ruling will actually be good news because it will spur Congress to do something legislatively instead of simply relying on FCC rulemaking. Internet providers ought to have a procedure they can go through to petition for tiered service for specific applications, but equal access should always be the default. They should be allowed to diverge from that only occasionally, only under specific conditions, and only after plenty of public comment. Markey-Eshoo is probably a pretty good place to start.

The American Dream

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 12:53 PM EDT

Yesterday I linked to Mark Gimein's piece suggesting that recent stability in the housing market was a mirage and prices still have a ways to fall. Today, via Felix Salmon, a survey from Fannie Mae suggests that a surprising number of people don't believe this:

Hey, it's always a good time to buy a house! Now, in fairness, there may be parts of the country where housing prices have retreated to their long-term trend rates and it really is an OK time to buy a house. But I'm pretty sure it's not 64% of the country. Regardless, nearly three-quarters of the people in the survey thought that home prices were unlikely to fall over the next year.

As Felix says, the notion that "housing prices never go down" has a strong hold on the American imagination. If the last few years haven't taught people otherwise, I'm not sure what will.

Anyway, lots of good stuff in the survey, and Felix has loads of good comments too. It looks like owning your own home is still the American dream.

POSTSCRIPT: And speaking of that, it's an excuse to link to a part of my appearance on Bill Moyers' show in January that I'm surprisingly proud of. At the end of the main show, a producer suddenly told us that she wanted to tape us giving an answer to the question, "What's the future of the American dream?" I had about 10 seconds to think about this before there was a camera in my face, and yet I somehow managed to provide an almost sensible answer anyway. You try it! Ten seconds, starting now.

Unfortunately, my answer started with "I think probably the American Dream in the future is going to be maybe a little bit less about owning a home." It might have sounded sensible at the time, but I guess I was dead wrong.

Responding to Recession

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 12:08 PM EDT

Mark Thoma is really discouraged about our response, or lack thereof, to the Great Recession:

When the crisis hit, we needed fiscal policy right away. Given the lags between changes in policy and actual effects on the economy, which were known to be lengthy, and given that monetary policy was not going to be enough, there was no time to "wait and see" (as many people I respect were calling for). But the reality is that fiscal policy didn't get put into place until much, much later, far too late to stop the worst of the downturn (and it wasn't big enough anyway). The way too slow policy process, and the way too small policy that came out of it, was frustrating to watch.

....This crisis has taught me that policy of that magnitude is nearly impossible to put in place based upon what looks to be happening, i.e. before the recession actually occurs. There must be clear evidence that a severe recession is actually underway before policy will be considered. Unfortunately, by that time it's too late to prevent the worst part of the downturn.

I'd say Mark is being too optimistic here. Sure, massive stimulus programs are impossible to put in place before a recession occurs. That's really not surprising. But this time around we didn't respond forcefully enough even after there was abundantly clear evidence not just that a recession was underway, but that the mother of all recessions was underway. There was just too much political resistance from an implacable cabal of Republican ideologues, misguided deficit hawks, and weak-kneed Democrats. The lesson I've learned from all this is to be a little more sympathetic toward all those folks in the past (or in other countries) who we deride for not responding forcefully enough to an economic downturn on their watch. It's a lot easier now for me to understand what they were up against.

Privacy and Control

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 11:42 AM EDT

Bruce Schneier writes today about the meaning of privacy:

To the older generation, privacy is about secrecy. And, as the Supreme Court said, once something is no longer secret, it's no longer private. But that's not how privacy works, and it's not how the younger generation thinks about it. Privacy is about control. When your health records are sold to a pharmaceutical company without your permission; when a social networking site changes your privacy settings to make what used to be visible only to your friends visible to everyone; when the NSA eavesdrops on everyone's e-mail conversations — your loss of control over that information is the issue. We may not mind sharing our personal lives and thoughts, but we want to control how, where and with whom. A privacy failure is a control failure.

....You can see these forces in play with Google's launch of Buzz. Buzz is a Twitter-like chatting service, and when Google launched it in February, the defaults were set so people would follow the people they corresponded with frequently in Gmail, with the list publicly available. Yes, users could change these options, but — and Google knew this — changing options is hard and most people accept the defaults, especially when they're trying out something new. People were upset that their previously private e-mail contacts list was suddenly public. A Federal Trade Commission commissioner even threatened penalties. And though Google changed its defaults, resentment remained.

I agree, even though I suppose I qualify as part of the "older generation" these days. I remain cranky about loyalty card operations, for example, because I don't really want my grocery store selling detailed information about my buying habits to anyone willing to cough up a few pennies per name for a database rental. Likewise, it's why I still don't use Gmail, even though it would be pretty handy in a lot of ways. Every time I think about switching over to my Gmail account, I stop to wonder if I really want Google to have access to all that sweet, sweet information. Yes, I know: they'll never, ever use it for anything I don't want them to. Which might be true. Until, maybe, they get a new CEO who decides they've been operating in the dark ages, or they decide that what they really meant was that they'll never let anyone else use it. Or they decide it's OK to share it in aggregate as long as they're pretty sure there are no personally identifying traits in the data. Or something. And then I back off. Basically, I just don't trust them. That storehouse of email data is just too tempting a target, and I'm not 100% convinced that it will be as private tomorrow as it is today.

In other words, I'm a crank. Too late to change that now, though.