Kevin Drum - August 2013

Ubiquitous Surveillance, Police Edition

| Thu Aug. 22, 2013 10:48 AM EDT

In the city of Rialto, about 50 miles from where I live, every police officer is now equipped with full-time videotape capability. The New York Times reports:

It is a warning that is transforming many encounters between residents and police in this sunbaked Southern California city: “You’re being videotaped.”....In the first year after the cameras were introduced here in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period.

....“When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better,” Chief Farrar said. “And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”

....William J. Bratton, who has led the police departments in New York and Los Angeles, said that if he were still a police chief, he would want cameras on his officers. “So much of what goes on in the field is ‘he-said-she-said,’ and the camera offers an objective perspective,” Mr. Bratton said. “Officers not familiar with the technology may see it as something harmful. But the irony is, officers actually tend to benefit. Very often, the officer’s version of events is the accurate version.”

I imagine that in the fairly near future, convictions will be all but impossible without videotape evidence. Likewise, complaints of police brutality will become almost prima facia credible if videotape of the incident mysteriously goes "missing." All in all, this is probably a good thing. But I wonder if courts will eventually rule that all police videotape, like all 911 calls, are public record?

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Court Slams NSA for "Third Instance in Less Than Three Years" of Substantial Misrepresentation

| Wed Aug. 21, 2013 9:52 PM EDT

I'm still plowing my way through the declassified FISA court ruling from 2011 that found one of the NSA's surveillance programs unconstitutional. However, the gist of the opinion is that NSA had misled the court about whether U.S. persons could be caught up in the program's dragnet, and the court was not happy about it. According to a footnote, it represented "the third instance in less than three years" in which a program had been misrepresented to the court. One of the other two instances is described below. The third one is redacted.

President Obama says he's eager to have a national conversation about the NSA's surveillance programs. I assume, then, that he'll order the declassification of the other two FISA court opinions which found "substantial misrepresentations" by the NSA.

Chart of the Day: We're Now Well Into Our Second Decade of Stagnant Incomes

| Wed Aug. 21, 2013 6:57 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that household income is still in the doldrums:

Median household income has begun to recover over the last two years, but households still have not come close to regaining the purchasing power they had before the financial crisis began, a new study says. The study, issued on Wednesday by two former Census Bureau officials, suggests why many people remain glum even though the economy is growing and unemployment has declined.

In fact, it's worse than that. The study in question comes from Sentier Research, which calculates a Household Income Index going back to January 2000. As you can see below, incomes were pretty stagnant during the entire aughts, which means that median household income today isn't just below the level of 2007, it's below the level of 2000. If you add in health benefits, the picture is brighter, but only modestly: Total household compensation today is still below its level in 2000 even when you count healthcare premiums. We are now well into our second decade of flat incomes for the non-rich.

Declassified Court Document Describes Unconstitutional NSA Surveillance Program

| Wed Aug. 21, 2013 3:23 PM EDT

In 2011, the FISA court ruled that an NSA surveillance program was unconstitutional. The court's opinion has now been declassified, and the Washington Post describes the program:

Under the program, the NSA diverted large volumes of international data passing through fiber-optic cables in the United States into a repository where the material could be stored temporarily for processing and for the selection of foreign communications, rather than domestic ones. But in practice the NSA was unable to filter out the communications between Americans.

A month after the FISA court learned of the program in 2011 and ruled it unconstitutional, the NSA revised its collection procedures to segregate the transactions most likely to contain the communications of Americans. In 2012, the agency also purged the domestic communications that it had collected.

More later after I've had a chance to read the opinion itself.

Maureen Dowd Twists Yet Another Quote Just Because She Feels Like It

| Wed Aug. 21, 2013 1:34 PM EDT

Maureen Dowd has been an embarrassment for a long time. Today, though, she raised her personal bar even further. Here's a quote in today's column from an interview she conducted with Chirlane McCray, wife of New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. McCray is talking about one of de Blasio's rivals, Christine Quinn:

She's not the kind of person I feel I can go up to and talk to about issues like taking care of children at a young age and paid sick leave.

Since Quinn is openly gay, this seemed like an obviously insensitive slam, an interpretation that Dowd encouraged by spending the next several paragraphs talking about McCray's and Quinn's sexual orientation. But here's what McCray actually said after being specifically asked why Quinn wasn't catching on among women:

Well, I am a woman, and she is not speaking to the issues I care about, and I think a lot of women feel the same way. I don't see her speaking to the concerns of women who have to take care of children at a young age or send them to school and after school, paid sick days, workplace; she is not speaking to any of those issues. What can I say? And she's not accessible, she's not the kind of person that, I feel, that you can go up and talk to and have a conversation with about those things. And I suspect that other women feel the same thing I'm feeling.

Dowd seems to think she's the cleverest writer on the planet, but this doesn't give her a license to twist quotes and elide context to serve her own purposes. Enough is enough. This isn't the first time Dowd has done this, and the Times needs to put a stop to it.

On Believing 2 Things at Once About Edward Snowden

| Wed Aug. 21, 2013 12:42 PM EDT

Jeffrey Toobin is not a fan of Edward Snowden:

The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy led directly to the passage of a historic law, the Gun Control Act of 1968. Does that change your view of the assassinations? Should we be grateful for the deaths of these two men?

Of course not. That’s lunatic logic. But the same reasoning is now being applied to the actions of Edward Snowden. Yes, the thinking goes, Snowden may have violated the law, but the outcome has been so worthwhile. According to Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who was one of the primary vehicles for Snowden’s disclosures, Snowden “is very pleased with the debate that is arising in many countries around the world on Internet privacy and U.S. spying. It is exactly the debate he wanted to inform.”

The rest of Toobin's piece is surprisingly unpersuasive, but the question he asks above is a worthwhile one. Leaving aside the obvious provocation of his assassination analogy, he's asking whether any of us think that we should actively approve of what Snowden did just because we like the results. And if we do, does that mean we think that anyone working in the intelligence community who dislikes America's surveillance policies should feel free to disclose whatever information they feel like?

For anyone who's not already a full-blown Snowden hater or defender, this may seem like a troubling question. But it shouldn't be. You might not know this if you subsist on a diet of cable news shouting matches, but it really is possible to believe two things at once:

  • Intelligence agencies are a necessary fact of life and governments have a legitimate interest in keeping their operations secret. Anyone who works in the intelligence community knows this, and knows that security breaches are a serious business that will lead to prosecution.
  • Americans have recently learned a lot about how pervasive our surveillance operations are, and it's laughable to think we would have learned any of it if Snowden hadn't done what he did. In the end, even if he's made some mistakes along the way, he's done a public service.

I believe both these things. I believe that 30-year-old contractors shouldn't be the ones who decide which secrets to keep and which ones to reveal. I also believe that, overall, Snowden has been fairly careful about what he's disclosed and has prompted a valuable public conversation.

So how do you prevent an epidemic of Snowdens while still allowing the salubrious sunlight of the occasional Snowden? The answer to the former is that intelligence workers need to be afraid of prosecution if they reveal classified documents. It can't be a casual act, but a deeply considered one that's worth going to prison for. The answer to the latter is that prosecution needs to be judicious. There's no question in my mind that Snowden should be prosecuted for what he did. That's the price of his actions. But he shouldn't be facing a lifetime in a Supermax cell. The charge against him shouldn't be espionage, it should be misappropriation of government property or something similar. Something that's likely to net him a year or three in a medium-security penitentiary.

In other words, I don't think Toobin's implied question is as hard as he thinks it is, especially since the rest of his piece is remarkably unconvincing about the possible damage done by Snowden. The bottom line is that I'd like to see Snowden come back to America and make a public case by standing for trial. It would be a sign of how strongly he believes that he was right to do what he did. But I can hardly expect that under the current circumstances. The wild overreaction of my own government to the notion of allowing the public even the slightest knowledge of what it's up to has made it impossible.

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America's Elderly Really Love the '50s

| Wed Aug. 21, 2013 11:19 AM EDT

The Economist asked people, "Which decade would you like to go back to?" and Matt Yglesias chides respondents for preferring the 40s (big war! carpet bombing! nukes!) to the 90s (great economy! jobs for all!). But there's no surprise about this. Why would you want to go back to a decade that you've not only already experienced, but experienced recently? There's not even nostalgia to draw you back.

What's more interesting, I think, is looking at the poll by age. The most popular choice of seniors by far was the 1950s. In fact, if you discount the '20s, which probably just seem like an interesting, faraway decade, the most popular choice of nearly every age group is a decade of their youth. millennials like the '90s, when they were growing up. My generation likes the '80s, when we were just out of college. Only the thirtysomethings seem not to care, showing no particular preference for any decade between the '50s and '90s.

But it's the nostalgia of seniors for the '50s that intrigues me the most. I'd love to see a demographic breakdown of that. I assume that nonwhites aren't pining away for that era, which means that white seniors must really be in love with it to produce such a high overall number. Likewise, I'd guess that women might not be too thrilled with it. If that's true, it means that white male seniors must be nostalgic for the '50s in fantastic numbers. In one sense that's easy to understand, but in another it's not. If it's just nostalgia for their youth, that's one thing. But what about older seniors? Are they really that eager to go back to the era of Joe McCarthy, suburban lawns, and duck-and-cover drills? Apparently so.

The Paranoia State Gets Cranked Up Another Notch

| Wed Aug. 21, 2013 12:34 AM EDT

In the wake of the Boston bombings, the NFL has cracked down on what fans can bring into stadiums:

Shoulder bags, backpacks, briefcases, fanny packs, camera and binocular cases and even diaper bags are now forbidden. Coolers, thermoses and seat cushions with zippers are also banned. Blankets are still allowed, as are gloves, hats and other items that can be stuffed in pockets or worn.

“We are looking at this as a progressive and reasonable step in light of current events,” said Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the N.F.L. “Most people aren’t affected, and there’s a lot of room for everyone with a bag.”

....“The N.F.L. is on the cutting edge, a leader in the sports industry in terms of looking at policies and procedures,” said Lou Marciani, the director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Southern Mississippi. “This way, for sure, you’re cutting down the risk and satisfying the demand of fans to get into the stadium faster.”

I'm not sure which is worse: the fact that our level of security paranoia gets cranked up a notch every time some lunatic kills a few people, or the smarmy Stepford Wives spin that everyone puts on it. "Progressive and reasonable." "Cutting edge." "Most people aren't affected."

I dunno. Is it reasonable? I react so viscerally to stuff like this that I feel like I've lost the ability to think rationally about it. Comments?

No, Health Care Premiums Are Not Soaring and Full-Time Jobs Are Not Disappearing

| Tue Aug. 20, 2013 9:31 PM EDT

John Boehner today, explaining the GOP's strategy on Obamacare:

[We're] looking at all options to reach our ultimate goal of repealing this law that is causing premiums to soar and full-time jobs to disappear.

Now let's leave fantasyland and see what's happening in the real world. Here is the Kaiser Family Foundation's latest data on premiums:

Health-insurance premiums to cover working Americans rose 4 percent this year, less than the previous two years in another sign that the cost of employee benefits for U.S. companies may be slowing.

And here's how full-time employment has fared in the three years since Obamacare was passed:

More here on the supposed implosion of full-time jobs thanks to Obamacare. As with the soaring premiums, it just hasn't happened. You probably won't hear about this on Fox News, though.

One Last Time: Here's the Real Reason the Pentagon is Facing $20 Billion in Extra Cuts Next Year

| Tue Aug. 20, 2013 5:58 PM EDT

Why is the Pentagon facing an "extra" $20 billion in cuts under sequestration next year? Yesterday I said that it was due to a redefinition of "security" in the budget language between 2013 and 2014. Today, CAP's Michael Linden tells me that although it's possible this played a role, the real answer lies elsewhere. What follows is fairly number-heavy, and if you don't want to read it, I don't blame you. But I'll try to keep it as simple as I can.

Here's the main issue: it turns out that under the Budget Control Act, the baseline budget for domestic spending goes up between 2013 and 2014. But it stays flat for defense spending. In addition, the amount of the sequester goes up because (a) it's for a full 12 months, and (b) the fiscal cliff deal reduced the 2013 sequester levels.

For 2014, the sequester amount is roughly $54 billion for both domestic and defense. However, about $17 billion of the domestic sequester is for mandatory spending (primarily in reduced Medicare reimbursements). Once that's all netted out, here are the numbers for domestic discretionary spending:

As you can see, the net spending level in 2014 is the same as 2013 because the budget baseline went up enough to make up for the increased sequester. But here are the numbers for defense discretionary spending:

The net effect of all this is that defense spending has to decrease by $20 billion compared to last year, while domestic spending stays at the same level. This is a one-time effect, since the baselines for both domestic and defense spending rise slightly each year in 2015 and beyond.

So that's the story. If you're sorry you asked, join the club.