Kevin Drum - March 2013

National Security Letters Have Their Day in Court -- And Lose

| Sat Mar. 16, 2013 9:47 PM EDT

You remember National Security Letters, don't you? Those of us who are a first name basis just call them NSLs. They've been around for a while, but they only became famous after the PATRIOT Act vastly expanded their scope, with the FBI now issuing upwards of 25,000 NSLs a year. The key thing to know about NSLs is that (a) they don't require a judge to sign off on them, any old FBI supervisor will do; and (b) you are forbidden to tell anyone that you have received an NSL. In 2007, the Justice Department's inspector general found widespread abuse of the NSL process—hardly a surprise when there's no oversight—but the number of NSLs issued has continued its steady upward rise regardless.

Yesterday, a judge finally put her foot down:

On Friday, a federal judge in San Francisco declared the letters unconstitutional, saying the secretive demands for customer data violate the First Amendment.

The government has failed to show that the letters and the blanket non-disclosure policy "serve the compelling need of national security," and the gag order creates "too large a danger that speech is being unnecessarily restricted," U.S. District Judge Susan Illston wrote.

She ordered the FBI to stop issuing the letters, but put that order on hold for 90 days so the U.S. Department of Justice can pursue an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

This is almost certainly only temporary good news. DOJ will appeal, and I suspect it's unlikely that Illston's order will be allowed to stand. Still, it's nice to see a bit of common sense over these things, even if it's ultimately only symbolic.

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The NFL Hits Yet Another Roadblock in LA

| Sat Mar. 16, 2013 9:15 PM EDT

Phil Anschutz, the billionaire owner of AEG, recently announced that he had decided not to sell his company after all and instead planned to take back control into his own hands. This matters in Los Angeles because Anschutz has always been sort of lukewarm about the idea of AEG building a downtown stadium to lure an NFL team, and he's now signaling that he may have had enough. Michael Hiltzik hopes that he really has:

Anschutz has spent, by his accounting, between $45 million and $55 million of his own money to push the downtown project along. City officials have been herded, like cattle to the abattoir, into pledging to do everything in their power to get the stadium built — though not with a dime of taxpayer funds, wink wink.

One would think that in exchange for these bennies the league would have been moved to deal with Los Angeles, its business community and its residents with good faith and transparency. Instead, it has offered the same unceasing tergiversations, with nary a clue about what would constitute a suitable deal. Well, not entirely no clue: Plainly the NFL wants a deal in which the taxpayers put up all the money for a stadium, and the league's billionaires take all the profits.

The willingness of local communities to subsidize billionaire football team owners with truly astronomical sums never ceases to astonish me. Los Angeles has actually been pretty good about telling the NFL that maybe a bunch of titans of free enterprise shouldn't expect taxpayer help for what is, after all, an extremely lucrative private enterprise, and I can only hope that they stick to their guns. As Hiltzik says, city leaders have already caved a little bit by allowing a stadium deal to bypass the usual regulatory hurdles, but that didn't bother me too much since I figured it was the bare minimum that any big stadium project gets in a big city. So far they haven't gone any further, and that's why there's still no NFL team in Los Angeles. No huge taxpayer subsidies, no football.

Which is fine with me. Let other cities play the sucker. I'm not sure why so many civic leaders are so eager to get bullied and bamboozled by the NFL, but LA is doing the country a favor by setting a good example. They should keep it up.

The Slow Death of the Driver's License

| Sat Mar. 16, 2013 11:36 AM EDT

It's pretty common knowledge by now that teenagers don't drive cars nearly as much as they did back when I was growing up. Partly that's because getting a license is more onerous, partly it's because parents are more willing to be chauffeurs, and partly it's because social media has made it more attractive to spend time at home.

But I was a little surprised to read in the LA Times this morning that this has already had a significant downstream effect. Even among 30-year-olds, the number of people with driver's licenses is down from 96 percent to 89 percent. That's a surprisingly large drop. I suppose part of this could be explained by the increasing population of large metro areas with decent transit, but I'm not sure that fits the facts. The population of rural areas has shrunk over the past few decades, but I think most of the corresponding population growth has been in small cities and suburbs, which are tough to get around in without a car.

So....I'm not sure what's going on. Zipcar and similar services are nowhere near big enough to explain it. I suppose Google has the answers somewhere, but it's Saturday and I don't feel like spending the time to find out. I'm going to go toss some frisbees around instead.

Friday Cat Blogging - 15 March 2013

| Fri Mar. 15, 2013 3:00 PM EDT

Yesterday was both Pi Day and the 10th anniversary of Friday Catblogging. Today is both the Ides of March and the beginning of the next ten years of Friday Catblogging. As you can see, Domino could barely contain her excitement. In her defense, though, perhaps she really is celebrating in the best way possible.

Members of Congress With Daughters Vote Better on Women's Issues

| Fri Mar. 15, 2013 2:17 PM EDT

Responding to Rob Portman's change of heart on gay marriage after he learned his son is gay, Anil Dash tweets:

Eventually one of these Republican congressmen is going to find out his daughter is a woman, and then we're all set.

Actually, this does make a difference. Remember this chart, showing how members of Congress vote on women's issues?

Sure, the effect is small, but among both Democrats and Republicans, members of Congress tend to vote better on women's issues if they have more daughters. Along the same lines, it's instructive to look at which Republicans in the Senate voted for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Personal experience makes a difference even here.

The Latest News From Tiber Beat

| Fri Mar. 15, 2013 1:45 PM EDT

This might be my favorite sentence of the day:

The buzz around the Borgo Pio this afternoon was the pope taking the regular employee elevator today. There is an excitement here.

OMG! He took a regular elevator! He rode back to the Vatican in a bus instead of a limousine! He's not wearing the red shoes! This is becoming like Tiger Beat for the papal set.

I don't really begrudge Catholics their excitement over the selection of a new pope. But enough's enough. There's really no sign yet that Francis can—or even wants to—change the way the church is run in any significant way. Riding in an elevator sure isn't one. After all, Jimmy Carter wore cardigans, and how far did that get him?

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Gay Marriage Wins Another Convert

| Fri Mar. 15, 2013 12:25 PM EDT

Republican senator Rob Portman says he now supports same-sex marriage:

That isn’t how I’ve always felt. As a congressman, and more recently as a senator, I opposed marriage for same-sex couples. Then something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way.

Two years ago, my son Will, then a college freshman, told my wife, Jane, and me that he is gay. He said he’d known for some time, and that his sexual orientation wasn’t something he chose; it was simply a part of who he is. Jane and I were proud of him for his honesty and courage. We were surprised to learn he is gay but knew he was still the same person he’d always been. The only difference was that now we had a more complete picture of the son we love.

I admit that my first reaction to this was disgust: I'm tired of conservatives who suddenly decide that Medicaid should be more generous with stroke victims after they've had a stroke themselves, or who suddenly decide gay marriage is OK when someone in their family turns out to be gay. Is it too much to ask that they show a little empathy even for people and causes that don't directly affect their own lives?

But first reactions aren't always right. I do wish conservatives could demonstrate a little empathy even for people and causes that don't directly affect their own lives, but it's not as if this is an exclusively conservative thing. It's a human thing. Personal experience always touches us more deeply than facts and figures, and in the case of gay marriage we all knew this was how progress would be made. People would see gay characters on TV and shed a little bit of their discomfort. They'd learn that old friends are gay and decide they wanted to stay friends anyway. They'd learn their children are gay, and decide that they still wanted the best for them, even if that means supporting same-sex marriage.

We all knew this was how it would happen, slowly but steadily. We knew it. And now it's happened to Rob Portman. It's progress. It's human. And I should be less churlish about it.

It is Time to Face Up to Our Epidemic of Paring Knife Non-Injuries in Birthday Cakes

| Fri Mar. 15, 2013 11:27 AM EDT

Via Andrew Sprung, I learn that a couple of weeks ago a family in Maine bought a cake from Walmart and discovered that a paring knife had accidentally been baked into the bottom of the cake. No harm came of this, and apparently no one is really claiming that there was even any potential harm. But the cake buyers were extremely upset and say they might sue. Lenore Skenazy comments:

For its part, Walmart sounded almost sane and strong for a second, offering the family only its apologies and a replacement cake. Right on! But then a spokesman added that the chain was "now banning the use of pairing knives at its bakeries across the country."

Wha!? Just because ONE person in ONE Walmart screwed up ONE time with a paring knife--not an AK47--now the chain is banning ALL paring knives at ALL times in ALL Walmart bakeries? Are apples going to peel themselves for the pies? Is the store going to ban cleavers from the meat department, too?

What's disturbing about Walmart's response is how quickly and cravenly the corporation was willing to pretend that the problem was X, and now it is solved forevermore, by X banishment.

This appears to be almost universal human nature. If something bad happens, the instantaneous response is to figure out the ultimate root cause, no matter how trivial, and put in place regulations to halt it. In this case, it's paring knives in bakeries, even though there's exactly zero evidence that paring knives in bakeries are, in fact, any kind of systematic problem. In fact, quite the contrary. If this is the first incident of its kind, it suggests that paring knives in bakeries are perhaps one of the least dangerous problems in American society today.

But it's a very visible one, and that makes all the difference. If only carbon dioxide were a nice visible gas, we might actually be able to get something done about climate change, too.

Americans Sure Do Yak a Lot While Driving

| Fri Mar. 15, 2013 10:44 AM EDT

This chart is making the rounds this morning. It's from the CDC, and it shows that out of eight countries studied, Americans talk on the phone while driving more than any other. British drivers talk the least. The authors provide no discussion of why this might be, so the subject is ripe for amateur national stereotyping and ethnography. Next up: who eats in their car the most? Who shaves in their car the most? Who reads the newspaper in their car the most? New studies await. In the meantime, the most amusing analysis in comments wins a prize.1

1No, not really. But you will win the admiration of your peers.

Paul Ryan's Middle-Class Tax Hike

| Thu Mar. 14, 2013 5:09 PM EDT

In Paul Ryan's budget roadmap, he lays out a "goal" of reducing the top tax rate from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. That's a big tax cut for the rich! Is it possible to do this while (a) keeping total tax revenue the same and (b) not raising taxes on the middle class to make up for it?

You may recall that we had this argument during the 2012 campaign, when Mitt Romney insisted he could do this by closing various loopholes but refused to say which loopholes he would close. That didn't stop America's tax analysts from digging into the numbers, though, and they concluded that his plan was impossible. The arithmetic just didn't work. And since Ryan's plan is even more aggressive than Romney's, there's really no chance it will work either. If Ryan really wants to cut the top rate to 25 percent, then one way or another, the middle class is going to pay more.

Greg Sargent says Democrats are salivating at this thought:

I’m told that national Democrats are planning to mount a major campaign to hammer Republican candidates — particularly ones in swing areas — over a specific aspect of the Paul Ryan budget: The possibility that it could result in middle class tax hikes.

....When Romney found himself caught in this trap, it was devastating for him, because it perfectly laid bare the core priorities animating the GOP. It showed that the party was so committed to reducing tax rates on the rich — already a deeply unpopular position — that it was willing to further burden the middle class if necessary to do so, which would have been even more unpopular.

....And so, Dems are hoping to use the Ryan budget to ensnare Republican candidates, particularly ones in marginal districts, in the same trap that tripped up Romney. Only this time it could potentially be worse. After all, last time Republicans had just routed Democrats in the 2010 elections, and could plausibly argue that core questions about tax fairness, the size of government, and who should pay for it hadn’t been settled by the electorate. But now Republicans have committed themselves to this same set of policies and priorities after running on them in a presidential race and multiple Senate and Congressional elections and losing decisively across the board.

Well, we'll see. It was never clear to me just how devastating this really was for Romney, though. The problem is that there's nothing concrete to point to. The "middle-class tax increase" is the result of a bunch of calculations in a white paper, and that's a little hard to get people riled up about. If it becomes an issue, Ryan will just do the same thing that Romney did: insist that the details will work out eventually, turning the whole thing into a tedious he-said-she-said spat between Democrats and Republicans. It will probably get tuned out pretty quickly.

So....I'm not sure about this. It might work, I guess. A juicy tax cut on the rich is never an easy thing to defend, regardless of how the numbers work out. I'm just not sure it's a killer attack.