Kevin Drum - June 2013

Lies Your Government Tells You

| Sun Jun. 30, 2013 10:08 PM EDT

This might be the least surprising statement of the year:

Details that have emerged from the exposure of hundreds of pages of previously classified NSA documents indicate that public assertions about these programs by senior U.S. officials have [] often been misleading, erroneous or simply false....An examination of public statements over a period of years suggests that officials have often relied on legalistic parsing and carefully hedged characterizations in discussing the NSA’s collection of communications.

Read the whole thing.

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Google Reader Now Has One Day Left to Live

| Sat Jun. 29, 2013 6:02 PM EDT

I've been playing around a bit more with RSS readers over the past week. Here's a very brief update on the three I've spent the most time with:

I'm using NewsBlur as my default reader, with The Old Reader bookmarked for occasions when I need to search my feeds. I'd switch to TOR if it retrieved full text from partial RSS feeds, but it doesn't. (And no, I've found that most of the full-text retrieval utilities don't work reliably. The one built into NewsBlur is great.)

Obviously, the feature set you care about might vary from mine, but these are the things that matter to me. Just thought I'd pass it along.

Snowden Update: Father Trying to Broker Deal to Return to US

| Sat Jun. 29, 2013 11:01 AM EDT

The latest on Edward Snowden:

He is a hero on Russian television programs, "which were almost certainly produced under Kremlin orders and have a powerful effect on public opinion."

Ecuador is in a tizzy. They don't want to be seen as knuckling under to the United States, but they also don't want to be seen as a pawn of Julian Assange, who has championed Snowden's case:

Mr. Assange's role has raised hackles among Ecuadorean officials. In one of the internal correspondences, Ecuador's ambassador to the U.S., Nathalie Cely, appeared to tell presidential spokesman Fernando Alvarado that communications should be handled better. "I suggest talking to Assange to better control the communications," read a note addressed from Ms. Cely. "From outside…[Assange] appears to be 'running the show.' "

Snowden's father is trying to broker a deal to bring him back to the United States:

In a letter to the Justice Department, Lonnie Snowden said through his attorney that his son wanted "ironclad assurances" he would not be held in jail before trial or subjected to a gag order, and would be allowed to choose where he would be tried on federal espionage charges...."We believe you share our objective of securing Edward's voluntary return to the United States to face trial," Washington attorney Bruce Fein wrote to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. on behalf of Snowden's father.

Stay tuned. I'm off to get my weekly dose of exercise.

The No-Fly List: Orwellian or Kafkaesque?

| Sat Jun. 29, 2013 10:45 AM EDT

A few weeks ago, Rehan Motiwala tried to board a flight home to Los Angeles. Here's what happened when he changed planes in Bangkok:

Airline staff in Bangkok refused to issue him a boarding pass for his connecting flight. U.S. and Thai officials told him that he could not travel but offered no explanation, leading him to believe he'd been placed on the U.S. government's secret no-fly list.

After dozing on benches and wandering the airport terminal for four nights, Motiwala was told that a Justice Department official had arrived from the United States to question him. When he declined to answer questions without a lawyer present, U.S. officials left him in the custody of Thai authorities, who tossed him into a detention center in the bowels of Suvarnabhumi Airport.

....Motiwala, whose parents are of Pakistani origin, was not told why he might be on the list. A likely possibility, however, is his contact with Tablighi Jamaat, a conservative Muslim missionary movement based in South Asia.

Obviously Motiwala wasn't on the no-fly list when he left the country last year, and obviously he was on the list when he tried to return. The lesson is pretty clear: be careful who you talk to, citizen. You really don't want to get on our list, do you?

The basic outrage here is obvious: in a liberal democracy, no citizen should be subjected to this kind of treatment without due process. And the no-fly list not only doesn't incorporate due process, it goes out of its way to be the most Orwellian possible denial of due process imaginable. You are on a list. Maybe. But we won't tell you. How can I get off the list? Well, who says you're on a list in the first place? But I can't fly. Sorry, we can't comment on that. Rinse and repeat.

And here's what I don't get: If authorities wanted to question Motiwala, they obviously knew where he was. All they had to do was wait for him to disembark at LAX and take him into custody. So what's the point? I guess the LAX option doesn't give them the leverage of throwing him into a rat-infested hellhole if he doesn't cooperate. Welcome to America.

Murder Rate Down Significantly In New York City

| Sat Jun. 29, 2013 10:26 AM EDT

Here's the latest crime news from New York:

The number of homicides on record in New York City has dropped significantly during the first half of the year — to 154 from 202 in the same period last year — surprising even police officials who have long been accustomed to trumpeting declining crime rates in the city.

....Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly attributed much of the drop to a new antigang strategy meant to suppress retaliatory violence among neighborhood gangs. Police officials also credited their efforts at identifying and monitoring abusive husbands whose behavior seemed poised to turn lethal.

Now, I now what you're thinking: it's not the antigang program, it's the lead! And I like the fact that you're thinking that way. But no: lead is probably responsible for the long-term drop in violent crime in New York City, but it's not the kind of thing that produces a sharp drop in a single year. That's either a statistical blip or else the result of something else. The antigang program is one possibility.

At the same time, the background of falling crime is certainly what makes a sharp drop from new police programs possible in the first place. If crime were still at 1990 levels, Kelly's antigang program would just be a drop in the ocean. It wouldn't have even a chance of succeeding. So in that sense, lead abatement almost certainly played a role in the 2013 drop in the murder rate. The lower overall rate of violent behavior makes the antigang program more effective because (a) there are now more murders that can be stopped with just a small nudge, and (b) it frees up police resources to work on the program.

Not that New York residents are likely to hear about this. It's a funny thing: when my lead piece for Mother Jones hit the newsstands, we offered to write an op-ed length version of the story for the New York Times. They turned us down instantly. Ditto for the LA Times. These are the two biggest cities in America; the cities that suffered the highest violent crime rates in the early 90s; the cities with the steepest decline in crime rates since then; and almost certainly the two biggest beneficiaries of the decline in lead exposure among young children. But although both newspapers relentlessly promote the latest stories from their mayors and police chiefs about the decline in crime, they apparently have no interest whatsoever in the lead hypothesis. It's a little hard to fathom.

Friday Cat Blogging - 28 June 2013

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 2:07 PM EDT

Nothing special this week. It's just Domino rolling around on the carpet and wondering what's going on in the kitchen. Note the shoes in the background for scale. Domino is bigger than a pair of shoes.

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The Supreme Court's Ruling on Prop. 8 Is a Problem, But Probably Not That Big a Problem

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 2:04 PM EDT

The LA Times writes today that a lot of people share my concern about the Supreme Court ruling that allowed California's Proposition 8 to be overturned. The problem is that the court didn't rule on the merits of the case. They simply decided that after the governor declined to defend Prop. 8, no one else had standing to do so. This means that the district court order overturning Prop. 8 was allowed to stand by default:

Many in the state, regardless of their views on same-sex unions, shared Kennedy's sentiment, fearing that elected officials now have permission to scuttle initiatives they dislike by simply deciding not to defend them in federal court.

"The initiative process, by its nature, is designed to bypass elected officials," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., a group named for the man who transformed California government in 1978 with Proposition 13, a ballot initiative that reined in property taxes. "Anything that vests power in those elected officials over the initiative process is a dangerous move," Coupal said.

Even Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, an early supporter of same-sex marriage when he was San Francisco's mayor and an opponent of Proposition 8, expressed such reservations. "I couldn't be more excited about" the victory for gay marriage, he said. But the justices' action raises "legitimate questions on all sides about the power of elected officials to…trump and deny the will of the voters."

I think these concerns are valid. One way or another, if the people of a state approve a ballot initiative, then they ought to be allowed to defend that initiative all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. That's just basic judicial fairness.

That said, I do think it's worth pointing out that, in practice, this probably isn't a big issue. The problem with Prop. 8, which banned same-sex marriage, is that it was easy for gay couples challenging the law to show that they were harmed by it. This gave them standing to sue. But the defenders of the law couldn't show that they had been harmed in any concrete way by allowing gay marriage, so they didn't have standing. Thus the ruling.

In real life, this isn't likely to happen very often. Suppose this were a case about an initiative that weakened smog regulations for power plants, and the governor declined to defend the initiative because he didn't want to see those regulations weakened. It would be pretty easy to find a power plant owner to defend the initiative, and it would be pretty easy for the owner to show that overturning the law would cause him harm. In other words, it would be pretty easy to show standing.

This is most often the case. Prop. 8 really was fairly unique in this regard. Normally, someone is helped by a law and other people are hurt. It's only in a case where no one can demonstrate they've been harmed that standing becomes an issue, and that's not likely to happen very often.

I still think this is an issue that California and other states ought to address, though. Erwin Chemerinsky has some ideas here.

Student Test Scores Continue to Rise, Just As They Have For the Past 40 Years

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 12:22 PM EDT

Bob Somerby is excited. In the Washington Post this morning, Lyndsey Layton reports on the results of the latest NAEP test scores, and she forthrightly says that they "paint a picture of steady student achievement that contradicts the popular notion that U.S. educational progress has stalled." Bob comments:

In the highlighted passages, the Washington Post has finally confessed. At long last, it is reporting the basic story that it has obscured for so long:

The nation’s students are doing better in reading and math! NAEP data “paint a picture of steady student achievement that contradicts the popular notion that U.S. educational progress has stalled.”

Let’s say that again: The actual data contradict the popular notion that educational progress has stalled.

Yep. Test scores haven't been declining. Our international rankings haven't been dropping. They just haven't. They've been rising. Rising for whites, rising for blacks, and rising for Latinos. Just plain rising. 

This doesn't mean everything is peachy; it doesn't mean there aren't pockets of unconscionably poor achievement; and it doesn't mean we're spending our educational dollars wisely. We can still argue about all that stuff, just as we can argue about charter schools, direct instruction, concentrated poverty, and much more. But the backdrop for those arguments is simple: test scores have been going up for the past four decades, and that rise has continued over the past decade. Not always steadily, but nonetheless going in the right direction. I'll even add my usual caveat for the pessimists in the audience: test scores for 17-year-olds have been mostly flat, so we still need to figure out how to keep rising test scores from washing out in later years.

Still: test scores are up! They've been going up for a long time! The basic charts are below. If you want to play around with the data for yourself, just click here.

Hassan Rohani is the Iranian Barack Obama

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 11:43 AM EDT

Matt Duss and Lawrence Korb write today that we should be restrained about what the election of the "reformist" Hassan Rohani means for the future of U.S.-Iranian relations:

One shouldn’t have any illusions about what the election of Rohani represents. He is a dedicated member of the Iranian regime, and a strong supporter of Iran’s nuclear rights. Negotiations between the Iran and the P5+1 will not suddenly become easy. But the fact that the most moderate choice prevailed in Iran’s presidential election reveals that there is an important debate taking place amongst Iran’s ruling elite over the nature of Iran’s relations with the world. Given the level of distrust that still exists between the U.S. and Iran, there’s little the U.S. can do to empower its favored interlocutors. But, as the past has shown, there’s a lot the U.S. can do to empower those most opposed to conciliation and compromise. Given the high stakes, the U.S. should be as careful as possible to do no harm, as a heightened Congressional debate over the use of force against Iran would almost certainly do.

For obvious reasons, this inspired me to modify Duss and Korb's paragraph slightly:

One shouldn’t have any illusions about what the election of Barack Obama represents. He's a dedicated member of the bipartisan mainstream consensus on national security, and a strong supporter of America's intelligence community. Foreign military interventions will not suddenly be abandoned, nor will intrusive surveillance programs be shut down. But the fact that the most moderate choice prevailed in America’s presidential election reveals that there is an important debate taking place amongst the U.S. ruling elite over the nature of America's relations with the world.

Hassan Rohani is, more or less, the Barack Obama of Iranian politics: better than the alternatives, but not likely to represent any kind of sharp, fundamental change. Nor should that come as any suprise. People who truly represent sharp, fundamental change are very rarely elected national leaders. Not in America, and not in Iran.

We Don't Need More Capital. We Need More Labor Income.

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 11:12 AM EDT

Advanced economies need lots of capital to operate efficiently. But is more capital always better? Longtime readers know that I have my doubts: there are diminishing returns to everything, and there's a point at which access to capital is so widespread that making access easier doesn't do much good. In fact, it might even make things worse. If increased access to capital isn't matched by an increase in labor income, then there's a mismatch: lots of capital sloshing around, but not a lot of good opportunities to invest in real-world production of goods and services. The result is a financial bubble.

Today, Brad DeLong reviews the bidding and concludes that this is probably right:

Bruce Bartlett points to Greenwood and Scharfstein, to Cechetti and Kharoubi's suggestion that financial deepening is only useful in early stages of economic development, to Orhangazi's evidence on a negative correlation between financial deepening and real investment, and to Lord Adair Turner's doubts that the flowering of sophisticated finance over the past generation has aided either growth or stability.

Four years ago....[it] seemed to me then that in a world short of risk-bearing capacity with an outsized equity premium virtually anything that induced people to commit their money to long-term risky investments by creating either the reality or the illusion that finance could, in John Maynard Keynes's words, "defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelop our future".

....But the events and economic research of the past years have demonstrated three things. First, modern finance is simply too powerful in its lobbying before legislatures and regulators ....Second, the growth-financial deepening correlations on which I relied do indeed vanish when countries move beyond simple possession of a banking system, EFT, and a bond market....Third, the social returns to the U.S.'s and the North Atlantic's investment in finance as the industry of the future over the past generation has, largely, crapped out.

We still haven't come to grips with this. Dodd-Frank was a weak bill, and it's getting weaker by the day as finance lobbies scramble to gut its implementing regulations. Likewise, Basel III's capital requirements for banks are—probably—an improvement over Basel II, but they're still nowhere near adequate. At the same time, the bargaining power of labor, already weakened by deunionization, globalization, and skill biasing, is starting to be weakened even more by the slow but inexorable march of automation.

Until we deal seriously with this stuff, we're just setting ourselves up for more misery. It's practically an iron law of finance that when capital piles up because there are too few productive projects to invest in, eventually it gets stupid. The result is a frenzy of some kind or another, and then a bust. Eventually, even Wall Street and the Republican Party will have to face up to this.