Kevin Drum - March 2013

Barrett Brown and the FBI

| Thu Mar. 21, 2013 12:53 PM EDT

Glenn Greenwald tells us the story today of Barrett Brown, a young journalist who relentlessly followed up on documents leaked by Anonymous, was targeted for this by the FBI, and who was eventually harassed enough that he cracked—which took the unfortunate form of recording a YouTube rant promising to "destroy" one of his tormentors. He now faces multiple felony charges that could put him in prison for decades:

So here we have the US government targeting someone they clearly loathe because of the work he is doing against their actions. Then — using the most dubious legal theories, exploiting vague and broad criminal statutes, and driving him to ill-advised behavior with deliberately vindictive harassment (including aimed at his mother) — they transform what is at worst very trivial offenses into a multi-count felony indictment that has already resulted in his imprisonment for six months and threatens to imprison him for many years more

....Brown may not be as cuddly as [Aaron] Swartz, and certainly does not have the same roster of influential friends. Nor can it be categorically argued that Brown did nothing wrong (just as many of Swartz's most ardent defenders acknowledged about him): that YouTube video, made when he was admittedly struggling with impaired judgment, was certainly ill-advised.

But none of that should matter. The claim with prosecutorial abuse is never that the person targeted is a perfect being or even that he never did anything wrong. The issue with prosecutorial abuse is that the punishments being meted out are wildly disproportionate to the alleged acts when the trivial harms of the acts are considered and/or that the prosecution is being pursued for improper purposes.

This is the first I've read about this, and I can't pretend to know that Glenn's account is fair on all counts. But read the whole thing anyway. More here.

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The Problem With Google -- and The Cloud

| Thu Mar. 21, 2013 12:07 PM EDT

Those of us who love Google Reader are, naturally, upset by Google's decision to kill it. But it's not a hard decision to understand. Google gave away Reader for free and doesn't make any money from it. Anytime you use a product like that, there's a risk it will go away. But what about more important products? Those are safe, aren't they? Ezra Klein isn't so sure:

In fact, I'm starting to worry a bit about Gmail, which is at the core of pretty much my entire life. I know, I know — Gmail is safe. The data it feeds into the Google mainframe is extremely valuable to the search giant. They won't let anything happen to it.

But I'm a heavy user of Gmail. And so I've been buying more space on Google's servers. Recently, I hit 30 gigs — and learned Google won't let me purchase any more room. The service which once swore I'd never have to delete a message now tells me my only option is to delete gigabyte after gigabyte of past e-mails.

Actually, I think the problem lies elsewhere. Ever since the birth of the PC, you've taken a risk when you buy a new product. If it succeeds, it'll be around for a long time. If it doesn't, it will die. Google isn't breaking any new ground here.

What's different is that Google's products are all cloud-based. When Google Reader goes away on July 1, that's it. It's gone. If it were an ordinary bit of software that I'd installed on my PC, this wouldn't be a problem. It would keep on working for years even if it never got another update. I'd need to replace it eventually—because of an OS upgrade or a desire for new features that finally got too strong—but I'd probably have years to work that out.

Ditto for my email program, which is client-based. It will never run out of space, because I can always buy a bigger hard drive if I want to. If it goes away, I'll need to find a new email program, but I'll have plenty of time to do it.

Of course, there's a price to be paid for this: I don't have access to my email archive everywhere I go. If I traveled a lot, that would be a huge drawback.

My preferred solution is to use old-school client-based software, but to store all data (or perhaps mirror all data) in the cloud. Sure, my storage provider might go out of business, but that's an annoyance, not a crisis. I just have to find a new cloud storage provider and move my data.

This problem is that this still isn't as easy as it should be, and anyway, for lots of applications the cloud application model provides some compelling advantages. But I'm leery of it. I don't like being forced to upgrade whenever Google decides I should. (When they release a new version, that's what you get the next time you start up your browser. If you don't like it, tough.) I don't like having my software go away completely if Google tires of it. I don't like wondering if Google will put limits on how much data I'm allowed to keep. I don't really even like Google having access to all my data in the first place. One way or another, I figure they're going to use it for marketing purposes, no matter how loudly they swear they never will.

The cloud is not your friend. Or maybe it is, but at best it's a fair-weather friend. We've been seduced by free, and seduced by the cloud. We should probably all step back from the brink.

Political Science Meets Politics, Gets Butt Kicked

| Thu Mar. 21, 2013 10:52 AM EDT

Yesterday, the Senate passed an amendment that eliminates the NSF's $13 million budget for political science research. That's "13," as in thirteen, and million with an "M."

Why? Who knows. Sen. Tom Coburn has been on an anti-political science kick for years for no real discernible reason. "Theories on political behavior," he said a few years ago, "are best left to CNN, pollsters, pundits, historians, candidates, political parties, and the voters, rather than being funded out of taxpayers' wallets." That makes no sense, but that's his reason, and it's no surprise that he's continued his jihad. What is a surprise is that he managed to get a bunch of Democrats to tag along with him on this go-around.

I don't get it. What's their motivation? The amount of money is trivial even by demagogue standards ("That's four cents each and every year from every man, woman, and child in the country!"), and Democrats don't share Coburn's generalized know-nothing opposition to expanding the frontiers of human knowledge. So why did they go along? Some kind of logrolling deal? Fear of constituent wrath over continued funding of election surveys? What's the deal? I thought everyone had pretty much agreed to vote down all the amendments to the continuing resolution and get on with other business.

Politico has nothing on this. I'm disappointed. I want the dirt. There's got to be a story here of some kind.

Are Republicans Finally Ready to Regulate Wall Street?

| Thu Mar. 21, 2013 10:12 AM EDT

There aren't many people who believe that Dodd-Frank really and truly solved our financial system problems. But it doesn't matter. Exhaustion has taken over, and there's essentially no energy to take another run at the problem. For better or worse, bank regulation is finished for the time being.

Or is it? Today, David Dayen reports that there's a growing movement to address the problem of Too Big To Fail banks once and for all. Surprisingly, it's coming not just from firebrands on the left, but from tea party types on the right, who are convinced that government rules are rigged to subsidize and protect gigantic Wall Street banks:

The new surge of interest in ending Too Big to Fail on the right has converged with an existing effort on the left, and it’s translating into legislative action. Sherrod Brown, the populist progressive senator who just won re-election in Ohio, has been discussing solutions to the mega-bank problem with up to ten Republican senators. Against all expectations, his main partner is David Vitter, a Republican and fellow member of the Senate Banking Committee. “I looked across the committee room one day, he was questioning [Treasury Secretary] Ben Bernanke,” said Brown in an interview about his Republican colleague. “He was really tough on higher capital standards. I figured he could be an ally, he did have a concern that banks were too big, too economically powerful and too politically powerful.”

The unlikely duo began working several months ago. They started by urging the Federal Reserve and other regulators to use their power to increase capital standards on the largest banks, which typically deal in riskier activities and therefore require more of a backstop.

....At the end of February, Brown and Vitter announced they would work on legislation to incorporate much of the thinking about how to deal with runaway banks. Brown tried this once with an amendment to Dodd-Frank with Senator Ted Kaufman that would have capped mega-bank assets to a percentage of GDP. It received 33 votes in 2010, with only 3 Republicans supporting. Brown’s discussions with colleagues leave him thinking Brown-Kaufman could get at least 50 votes today, and the bipartisan nature of the Brown-Vitter effort could mean that whatever results will have an even better chance at broad support. In a floor speech announcing their joint effort, Vitter said, “I don’t know if we quite define the political spectrum of the United States Senate, but we come pretty darned close. And yet, we absolutely agree about this threat.”

Oddly enough, I'm probably more in sync with the conservative Vitter than the liberal Brown. I favor breaking up big banks, but despite this supposedly newfound fervor on the right, I doubt that it has any chance of happening. It's just too big a task. But I've long been a supporter of significantly higher capital standards, something that's easier to enforce and, perhaps, slightly more likely to pass Congress. It wouldn't solve every problem that breaking up banks would, but on the other hand, it might do more to make them stable. Big capital cushions are, by a mile, the cleanest, simplest, most reliable way of (a) keeping banks safe and (b) making sure they can survive on their own if they do fail.

Either way, though, this is good news. I've always figured that Dodd-Frank and Basel III were basically our only shots at fixing the financial system, and once they were done, they were done. There was just no appetite to revisit them. That's still the smart way to bet, but there may be a slighly brighter ray of hope on this front than I thought.

Construction Employment Followup: Luring Workers Back is Now Our Big Problem

| Thu Mar. 21, 2013 12:26 AM EDT

Yesterday I wondered how long it would take for employment to rebound in the construction industry now that housing is once again in demand. The New York Times suggests it might still be a while:

In many areas, builders are scrambling to ramp up production but face delays because of the difficulty of finding construction workers and in obtaining permits from suddenly overwhelmed local authorities.

....Many workers in the immigrant-heavy industry have left the area, returning to Mexico and other points south. Others pursued work in Texas’s energy boom, where both drilling and construction jobs have become more plentiful....Some, like the 38-year-old electrician Gideon Jacks, are gingerly returning to construction work after taking a hiatus (in Mr. Jacks’s case, the hiatus was in several low-paying jobs at restaurants), but others remain reluctant to return to the hard physical labor and unstable job prospects.

“They say, ‘That’s the last time I’m riding that roller coaster,’ ” said Rick Wylie, president of the Beutler Corporation, a Sacramento air-conditioning and plumbing company. In 2005 he employed 2,100 workers, but by 2009 Beutler had only 270 employees. Mr. Wylie, who currently employs about 550, is now having trouble luring back many workers he let go.

“I don’t mean to complain,” he said. “This is a good problem to have, a world-class problem, to not be able to find workers to do all the work you’re getting.”

I don't know quite how seriously to take this kind of anecdotal evidence, but figured I'd pass it along. If you're a glass-half-full kind of person, this is good news because it means lots of jobs are opening up. If you're a glass-half-empty kind of person, it's discouraging news because it means structural problems are getting in the way of recovery. For now, I'll vote for the former. I imagine that in this case, all it takes is a little bit of extra money to hire enough workers to get all those houses built. As long as the demand is there, supply will follow.

How Dare You Ask Me About My Own Words!

| Wed Mar. 20, 2013 7:23 PM EDT

So Michele Bachmann (R–Crazytown) gave a speech at CPAC this weekend in which she (a) slammed President Obama over his scandalous mishandling of Benghazi, and (b) slammed him again for his lavish White House lifestyle, including his use of a full-time dog walker. CNN's Dana Bash trekked over to the Capitol to get a comment. Here's how it went:

Bash: You talked about the excesses that he's engaged in, the fact that he has a dog walker, which is not true.

Bachmann: The big point of my speech was about Benghazi....

[Crosstalk plus some outraged histrionics about Obama's bungled response to Benghazi.]

Bash: But if you want to focus on that, why bring up the other things?

Bachmann, in indignant tones:  You want to talk about dog handlers and there's four Americans that were killed?

Bash: But congresswoman, you're the one who brought it up!

Isn't that great? How dare you ask me about stuff that I myself brought up in the first place? That's our Michele!

For what it's worth, Glenn Kessler gave Bachmann a grand total of eight Pinocchios for her CPAC address, which was only 16 minutes long. That's because (a) he only examined two of her claims, and (b) four Pinocchios is the most he's allowed to hand out. "There really aren't enough Pinocchios for such misleading use of statistics in a major speech," he sighed about her food stamp whopper.

STANDARD REMINDER: Bachmann was briefly considered a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Just in case anyone has forgotten that.

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Here's the Best Argument Against a Grand Bargain

| Wed Mar. 20, 2013 5:12 PM EDT

Greg Sargent says Republicans look likely to try to ride out the sequester even if their supporters start to squawk. I agree. He also thinks that President Obama will keep pushing for a replacement that includes both tax hikes and entitlement cuts. I agree with that too. And finally, he believes that a progressive alternative—a deal that combines new revenues with spending cuts that don't hit entitlements—isn't going to happen. I agree again. So what comes next?

That means that at some point, liberals may well be faced with a choice — should they accept the grand bargain that includes Chained CPI and Medicare cuts, and join the push for that, or essentially declare the sequester a less awful alternative, and instead insist that we live with that?

....Senator Bernie Sanders and Dem Rep. Keith Ellison, staunch foes of a grand bargain that cuts entitlement benefits, [believe] that it’s premature to get drawn into this choice. And I hope they’re right that it needn’t come down to that choice. It seems to me, though, that progressives who oppose such a grand bargain might at least start marshaling a policy argument for why the sequester is a preferable — or at least a less horrible — alternative.

As it happens, I'm not necessarily a staunch foe of every possible grand bargain. I can imagine some deals I'd support. However, I'll concede that at the moment it looks likely that any plausible deal is one that I'd oppose. So what's the argument against it, assuming it happens?

I'm not sure. But here's my take: we don't really need to worry about it. Partly this is because I don't think pressure on House Republicans will ever get strong enough that they feel like they have to make a deal that includes significant revenue increases. But it's also because, at a minimum, a deal will either need lots of Democratic support in the Senate plus a bit of Republican support, or it will need unanimous Republican support plus about 15 Democratic votes. I just can't conceive of any truly horrible deal that crosses that threshold. Could you get four or five centrist Dems to sign onto a horrible deal? Sure. But 15 or more? I don't see it. They don't call Social Security and Medicare the third rails of American politics for nothing.

Plus there's this: if it really does come down to a fight, policy arguments won't matter. Democrats already know the policy, because the policy is pretty simple: cutting money for the old and the sick is bad. The only thing that will matter is plain and simple pressure from interest groups that Democrats care about. And the argument is, "If you vote for this, you will never get another dollar from us." If Democrats are convinced this is a serious threat, they'll back off.

Our Poor Bloggers Are Being Worked to the Bone

| Wed Mar. 20, 2013 4:24 PM EDT

The Washington Post is looking for a new Style blogger and says the winning candidate should expect to write a dozen posts a day. That's led to a few raised eyebrows out in the blogosphere, but Ed Kilgore at Political Animal is just amused:

I can't help but laugh—or maybe shudder—since 12 posts is the daily target at PA....But if this pace is now in danger of becoming the Gold Standard, even for "arts and living" bloggers, you know whom to blame: Brother Steve Benen, who started this madness and continues it to this day with consistent excellence. Anyone who thinks this level of volume necessarily produces a lot of inaccurate, superficial or sloppy content really hasn't been paying attention to the Maddowblog, or to PA.

I feel like I have special standing to comment on this since I started Political Animal in 2004 and played a role in recruiting Steve Benen to replace me when I left. Steve, as we all know, is indeed a superhuman iron man who cranks out a dozen or more detailed political posts a day, a pace that's apparently now the standard there.

I think it's crazy. Steve managed to do it via heroic levels of diligence and self discipline, but also because he mostly does pure political blogging without too much in the way of policy analysis. But I think it's a mistake to expect this from everyone. Even if you assume a longish workday, this pace still requires you to write a post every 45 minutes or so, and no matter how superhuman you are, there's just no way to read widely, think carefully, do even minimal supplementary research, and then craft the necessary words in 45 minutes. Not a dozen times a day, anyway.

But then again, maybe I'm just an old fogey. The four-minute mile used to be considered laughably out of reach, but today there are probably hundreds of elite runners who can do it. Even granting that, though, I know that I'm still considered tolerably prolific, and I can't do more than six to eight posts a day. It's just impossible for most of us to really think when you're writing any faster than that.

There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but I still say: slow down. Spending an hour or a little more on a small piece of policy analysis spiced up with a bit of snark is about the bare minimum we should expect. Any faster and the ratio of mistakes and dumb comments just gets too high. Enough's enough.

It's the Demographics, Stupid

| Wed Mar. 20, 2013 2:19 PM EDT

Ezra Klein makes a point today that's worth making over and over again: it's the demographics, stupid.

Today, there are 45 million Americans age 65 or over. By 2035, the Census Bureau estimates this will rise to 77 million. This means that even if healthcare costs were reined in completely, we'd still expect Medicare expenditures to rise by about 70 percent over that period. So why don't we hear more about this? Ezra gets it right:

There's a reason that policymakers prefer to talk about health-care costs than old people. If the problem is just rising costs, then perhaps there's some cost control "silver buller" — maybe premium support, or paying for quality rather than service — that will cut costs without hurting anyone. But if the problem is more people, then the answer, really, is higher taxes, lower benefits, more debt or some combination of the three.

Our population is aging, and there's nothing to be done about that. As it ages, it's going to need the same level of healthcare we provide for today's seniors. Unless you're a sociopath, there's nothing to be done about that either. As a result, Medicare spending is going to rise. This isn't because government is spiraling out of control or because liberals just can't say no to new spending. It's because we're getting older, and one way or another, we have to pay the bill for that.

None of this is to say that rising healthcare costs aren't a problem. They are, and despite some recent good news suggesting that medical inflation is slowing down, this is a problem that we need to keep attacking. As the chart below shows, medical inflation (aka, "excess cost growth) is still likely to play a role in the growth of Medicare spending over the next few decades.

Nonetheless, the primary reason that Medicare (and Social Security) expenditures are rising over the next 30 years is simply because we're going to have more old people. There are no magic bullets, either from Paul Ryan or anyone else, that will change this. This means that, like it or not, higher taxes are in our future. A couple of decades from now, we're going to be spending something like 23-24 percent of GDP on the federal government, not the historical average of about 19 percent. No amount of screeching will change that.

Why? Because we're getting older. It's the demographics, stupid.

Keeping in Touch With the Right-Wing Id

| Wed Mar. 20, 2013 12:04 PM EDT

A couple of days ago a friend of mine and I were emailing about Michael Walsh of National Review. I didn't really start noticing him until a year ago, but he's become a favorite read since then because of his periodic forays into—these are my friend's words here—"high grade rant that's just pure right-wing id." That's about right. Walsh's latest is called "Fight On," and starts off with this Churchillian call to action for Republicans: "Fight them on every front, fight them in every state, fight them on television and in print and on the airwaves." Here's the best line:

Force the Democrats to defend their unmanly culture of dependency, and mock their misuse of the word “compassion.” 

I suppose that might work, at least among the demographic that already reliably votes for Republicans. I'm not sure about the rest of the country. But as I kept reading, this is the part that actually got my attention:

You just know that if the money grab in Cyprus succeeds, it’s only a matter of time before the Democrats try it here, in the Marxist name of “fairness” and “income equality,” so beat them to the punch. Why not, as Glenn Reynolds suggests, introduce a bill to prevent just such a thing, and dare them to vote against it?

Wait. What? Introduce a bill to prevent which "thing"? So I clicked the link. Here's Reynolds:

INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY: First, They Came For The Cypriots... Like I said, an enterprising GOP member of the House or Senate would introduce a bill immediately to make such shenanigans illegal — and dare the Dems to oppose it.

Naturally, I clicked the link again. Here's what I got from IBD:

The expropriation of the tiny country's savings may have seemed like an easy test case for the EU because the population is small and some of the depositors are rich and unsympathetic, but the blowback will hit savings and investment — and future economic growth — all over Europe.

Worse still, it could catch on here.

Already Congressional Democrats are plotting the expropriation of Americans' private 401(k) and IRA retirement savings accounts in favor of "a guaranteed income." If bank accounts can be casually expropriated in Cyprus to pay for big-spending governments and bailouts, there is no reason a nice slice of the $19 trillion in retirement accounts can't get the same treatment.

So is this now a thing on the right? That because the EU and the IMF cooked up a scheme to bail out Cyprus's banking system by taxing bank accounts, Democrats might do the same thing here? And the bill these guys have in mind would prevent what? Expropriation of pension funds, something that's already illegal? New taxes of any kind? What?

In any case, since the Cyprus bank tax appears to be dead at this point, I suppose this won't have time to develop into a full-blown tea party conspiracy theory. Too bad. It coulda been fun.

UPDATE: A different friend emails with more detail about the pension fund thing:

This has been around right-wing circles for several years, at least. I first heard it on Fox Biz somewhere maybe two years ago, can't remember whether it was Lou Dobbs or somebody else.

Since it's often amusing to track back these crazy right-wing stories, when I first heard it on Fox Biz, I did a bunch of Googling and got to some think tank type report on the hugeness of the debt, maybe Heritage but I don't remember, which mentioned 401(k)s and IRAs and etc. as about the only large untapped potential source of funds to pay off the national debt-- which is of course idiotic.

The subsequent game of right-wing "Telephone" quickly morphed this into "The Democrats are coming for your 401(k)s!!!!" based on exactly nothing, but it's now become an article of faith. All this without the Democrats having to do a thing!

How about that. For more, here's a piece from a few months ago by none other than Jerome Corsi. It's called "Now Obama wants your 401(k)," and I guess that headline is pretty self-explanatory, isn't it?