Kevin Drum - August 2013

The Great Emo-Prog vs. O-Bot Debate

| Mon Aug. 19, 2013 8:31 AM PDT

Atrios today:

I try to avoid the emoprog-obot debates. I don't really get them really. It's just posing. I never claim to have the ultimate authority over things but, honestly, I'm really not posing. That I imagine I call-em like I see-em doesn't mean I think I'm always right, it just mean that I'm mostly not being a hack. Tell me I'm wrong when I am! I listen.

The surveillance state is obviously out of hand, super expensive, and quite likely totally pointless (for its expressed purpose) and incompetent. I don't even consider this to be a comment on Obama, except to the extent that he is dishonest/supports dishonesty on this issue.

Translation: If you express anything short of absolute condemnation of everything the NSA has done, your Twitter feed quickly fills up with hysterical proclamations from the emo-progs that you're a right-wing shill, a government lackey, a useful idiot for the slave state, and an obvious fool. Conversely, if you criticize the NSA's surveillance programs, your Twitter feed quickly fills up with equally hysterical proclamations from the O-Bots that you hate Obama, you've always hated Obama, and you're probably a racist swine who's been waiting ever since 2009 for a chance to take down the nation's first black president.

This happens with other subjects too, of course, but the Snowden files have brought it out more than usual. I'll confess that although the leftier-than-thou types have always been around, I've long been skeptical of the idea that Obama has a core group of supporters from 2008 who really do consider him The One, a shining beacon of light who can do no wrong. But I'm the one who was wrong. I don't know how many there are, but they're definitely out there.

UPDATE: Atrios adds a bit more here. "It's not that I think everyone to 'the left' of me is a posing emo-prog and everyone to 'the right' of me is a posing o-bot. There are people genuinely to the left and to the right of me on policy....But there are also people who seem to enjoy judging your worth by how righteously you dislike or like the Obama administration. It's annoying." Yep. We're talking about two particular subsets of the left here, not everyone who happens to disagree with us.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The NSA Makes 600,000-Plus Database Queries Every Single Day

| Sun Aug. 18, 2013 10:06 PM PDT

On Thursday, after reading that the NSA violated its surveillance rules 865 times in the first quarter of 2013, I wondered how big a percentage that was. On Friday, they provided an answer:

The official, John DeLong, the N.S.A. director of compliance, said that the number of mistakes by the agency was extremely low compared with its overall activities. The report showed about 100 errors by analysts in making queries of databases of already-collected communications data; by comparison, he said, the agency performs about 20 million such queries each month.

Holy crap. They perform 20 million surveillance queries per month? On the bright side, if you assume that their internal auditing really does catch every "incident," it means they have a violation rate of about 0.001 percent. On the less bright side, they perform 20 million surveillance queries per month.

That's genuinely hard to fathom. Is some of that automated? Or is that truly 600,000-plus human queries each and every day? The mind boggles.

British Security Authorities Detain Glenn Greenwald's Partner for 9 Hours at Heathrow Airport

| Sun Aug. 18, 2013 2:43 PM PDT

Earlier today British security officials at Heathrow Airport detained Glenn Greenwald's partner, a Brazilian citizen, under the authority of schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act of 2000. David Miranda was transiting through Heathrow on his way home after a trip to Berlin, where he had visited Laura Poitras, Greenwald's partner in exposing the NSA's surveillance programs. British authorities ended up holding Miranda for nine hours, the maximum allowed, and then confiscated his cell phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs, and game console before finally releasing him.

This is more than just shocking. It's stupid. Criminally, insanely stupid. I can hardly think of a better way of convincing skeptics that security authorities can't be trusted with the power we've given them.

British citizens want to know if any government ministers were involved in this. As an American citizen, I'd like to know if any American officials were involved in this.

The Creepy Cult of Secrecy at Amazon and Apple

| Sun Aug. 18, 2013 9:38 AM PDT

Steve Kovach directs our attention to this excerpt from a New York Times story about Amazon and Jeff Bezos:

He gives interviews only when he has something to promote, and always stays on message....Even a number as basic, and presumably impressive, as how many Kindle e-readers the company sells is never released....There are fewer leaks out of Amazon than the National Security Agency.

....“Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,’ “ Mr. Marcus said.

Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment.

I am reminded of this parting shot from Ed Bott after writing a long rant about Apple's "mind-bogglingly greedy and evil" end user license agreement for its ebook authoring program:

Oh, and let’s just stipulate that I could send an e-mail to Apple asking for comment, or I could hand-write my request on a sheet of paper and then put it in a shredder. Both actions would produce the same response from Cupertino. But if anyone from Apple would care to comment, you know where to find me.

I don't really have anything insightful to say about this, aside from the fact that I tend not to trust people or institutions who are obsessive about secrecy. Keeping the media at arm's length is fine, but there's a point at which it starts to seem creepy and sociopathic. And at least to my taste, Apple and Amazon long ago passed that point.

The Murder Rate Is Down 40% in Jamaica

| Sat Aug. 17, 2013 9:37 PM PDT

Matt Yglesias tweets tonight: "Hoping @kdrum will write something about the lead situation in Jamaica after reading this." Here's what "this" is:

Gunshots every night, burned-down businesses and corpses — up to a half-dozen a day — used to define the neighborhood of Mountain View on the eastern hillsides of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. But not anymore.

Now, the nights are filled with barefoot soccer matches under streetlights or block parties that bring together former rivals from local gangs. No one has been murdered in Mountain View for three years....After more than a decade fighting lawlessness, with limited success, this small island with a reputation for both carefree living and bloodshed has begun to see results. Jamaica’s murder rate, while still high, has fallen by 40 percent since 2009, and a respected study recently reported that “Jamaica has fallen from one of the more corrupt countries in the Americas to one of the least.”

First things first: I don't have any rigorous data on either Jamaica's use of leaded gasoline or on Jamaica's crime rate. And obviously there are more factors involved in a sudden decline in violence than just lead. The Times story above, for example, is all about the drug trade in the Caribbean.

Still, I was kind of curious. So I did a bit of quick googling, which informed me that Jamaica started replacing leaded gasoline with unleaded in 1990 and banned leaded gasoline completely in 2000. That's a pretty steep drop (it took the United States a full two decades to go from introduction to complete ban). So what you'd expect is a fairly steep drop in violent crime with a lag of 20 years—i.e., starting around 2010. What we got was a 40% drop in murder between 2009 and 2013.

Pretty remarkable, no? It fits the lead hypothesis like a glove.

Again: this is just murder, not violent crime in general. And all I have here is a horseback estimate of how quickly leaded gasoline was phased out in Jamaica. What I don't have is a time series of blood lead levels in small children going back to 1990. So don't take this too seriously. But don't dismiss it either. It's yet another data point that suggests leaded gasoline really does have a significant impact on violent crime.

Judge Puts Another Roadblock in Front of California Bullet Train

| Sat Aug. 17, 2013 11:08 AM PDT

Sacramento Superior Court judge Michael Kenny has delivered another blow to California's bullet train:

Kenny ruled that the state failed to identify where it would get all of the money required to complete an initial $31-billion operating segment between Merced and the San Fernando Valley. The state has also failed to obtain environmental clearances for the entire segment, the judge found.

In addition to $9 billion from state bonds, the rail agency has $3.2 billion in federal funds, leaving it about $19 billion short. It has not completed any of the four massive environmental reviews that would be necessary to build the line along that route, as required by the 2008 ballot measure, Proposition 1A.

The measure "required the Authority to identify sources of funds that were more than merely theoretically possible, but instead were reasonably expected to be actually available when needed," Kenny said in his 15-page ruling. The state's business plan identifies only potential funding, without commitments, agreements or authorizations, he said.

This has the potential to be a major setback. California's HSR authority has been desperately trying to break ground on something, in the hopes that once some land has been acquired and a few miles of track have been laid, it will be impossible to stop. This "camel's nose" approach is fairly common in large public works projects, and opponents are therefore equally desperate to keep those first few miles from being built.

So far, Kenny hasn't actually halted construction work, and the rail authority says it's moving full speed ahead regardless. But there will be further hearings, and it's possible that Kenny or another judge could eventually prohibit any groundbreaking until all the environmental reviews are done and funding is fully in place. That could easily be a death knell for the entire project, since funding right now is a mirage. It's plainly not going to come from the feds; private funding is highly unlikely; and state legislators have been steadily losing their initial enthusiasm for the project. It's not game-over yet, not even close. But this is a big deal.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Friday Cat Blogging - 16 August 2013

| Fri Aug. 16, 2013 12:09 PM PDT

Obviously this has been a trying week for humans here at the Drum household, what with all our elbow and ankle injuries. But there are silver linings. Back when I was almost totally immobilized, Marian brought down a huge collection of pillows to prop me up in various spots. Then I got better and didn't need the pillows, so they got piled up on the sofa. That turned out to be a boon for Domino, who very much enjoyed playing princess-and-the-pea with the big stack of downy softness that we had obviously laid down just for her.

Sadly, the pillows have now been moved to their usual resting spot upstairs, so once again Domino has to make do with ordinary cushions, carpets, and sunny spots on the floor. Sic transit etc.

The Latest One-Upmanship on the Lunatic Right

| Fri Aug. 16, 2013 12:01 PM PDT

It's hard to keep up with the latest in right-wing looniness. But Andrew Sullivan helps out by highlighting American Betrayal, a loopy new book that updates and then turbocharges the whole Yalta-treason-conspiracy-so-vast fever swamp of the late 40s and 50s:

Take a new book by Diana West about how the Soviet Union “occupied” America under FDR and dictated foreign policy to serve communist interests....And then you begin to inquire further and your eyes widen a little. A few paragraphs into reading the debate, you realize that all of this is connected with the claim of a current huge conspiracy lying in plain sight — the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on the White House. Obama is a closet Islamist, just as FDR was a closet Stalinist. It all makes sense now!

....So do yourself a favor and get a glimpse of the insanity now dominating what was once a vibrant intellectual culture by reading Ron Radosh’s devastating review of the book. (David Horowitz gives his side of the kerfuffle here.) Front Page offered West equal space to respond but she wisely refused (see her position here). After reading Radosh, you realize why. She’s got nothing. But she still has much of the movement right on her side.

This morning he added an update:

I was dismayed by how isolated the push-back against the book — by David Horowitz and Ron Radosh — seemed to be on the right. So it’s worth revisiting the debate after a few days to check in on developments. First up: some good news today. Conrad Black’s review in NRO surely counts as a serious public counter to the legitimization of this conspiracy theory, lumping West’s far right-paranoia in with Oliver Stone’s far-left version.

Sadly, Conrad Black hardly counts. Sure, he's a conservative, but he's also a biographer of FDR who adores his subject. The fact that he's defending Roosevelt doesn't actually say much about the right.

On the other hand, Horowitz and Radosh aren't exactly squishes on this stuff. If even they agree that West's book is nonsense, then you can be pretty sure that it must be pretty well marinated in the worst kind of Glenn Beck-style nutballism. And yet, great swathes of the right wing have embraced it eagerly. This is part of a peculiar trend on the right over the past few years, in which conservatives are no longer content to argue that liberalism and the New Deal were merely misguided policies. That's not enough. They're now returning to Bircher-esque narratives that were abandoned long ago, in which the history of America since the 30s is just one long story of treachery, corruption, economic decline, and deliberate appeasement.

What's the point of this game of one-upmanship? I'm not sure. But it's sort of like the history of Hollywood blockbusters: spectacular battle scenes that seemed awesome just a few years ago are now old hat. New movies have to up the ante, which makes them more and more ridiculous every year. Likewise, conservatives seem to feel that they have to continually up the historical ante. You can barely get any attention these days by writing merely that liberals are trying to turn America into a socialist hellhole. That's so 2009. Instead you have to argue that FDR was basically a Soviet mole. I'm not sure where it ends.

It Costs $350 to Make an Artificial Hip. But It Will Cost You $30,000 to Get One.

| Fri Aug. 16, 2013 10:27 AM PDT

For the last few months, Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times has been working on a series of stories about the high price of healthcare in America. In July she wrote about the high cost of childbirth, and earlier this month she wrote about the truly insane cost of hip replacements in America. But Bob Somerby has noted something interesting: nobody else in the media seems to care:

These articles deal with a very important topic—the massive looting of U.S. consumers which characterizes American health care. This looting helps explain a welter of major social and political problems—our nation’s growing income inequality; our stagnant wages; the failure to provide full medical coverage; the nation’s problems with federal deficits and debt.

But so what? Despite their high profile and apparent salience, Rosenthal’s reports have met with universal silence, except for last week’s Fresh Air....It’s going to win the Pulitzer Prize—and it’s going to do so in silence!

Despite the high profile afforded this series, the silence has been general all over the press, which seems paralyzed, dead in life. At the end of this report, we’ll offer our own speculations about the resounding silence.

Is this really true? Rosenthal's piece implied that artificial hips cost about $350 to manufacture, but sell to hospitals for upwards of $5,000 or more—and are then marked up further by the hospital before they end up in an OR getting installed. It's not clear if $350 is just the manufacturing cost, or if that's the all-in burdened cost of producing a hip, but it almost doesn't matter. Even if it's the former, it means the full cost is unlikely to be more than $1,000 or so. Nonetheless, in the case of one particular implant, Rosenthal reports that U.S. hospitals pay an average of $8,000 and that even Belgian hospitals, which benefit from government-controlled pricing, pay $4,000. So everyone is paying a pretty hefty markup. Americans are just paying a super-hefty one, made worse by the fact that hospitals then add their own markup, bringing the price of the implant up to $30,000 or more.

So that's at least a 30x markup to the end user just for the cost of the part. And that's despite the fact that the technology is mature, volumes are high and increasing, and there are five companies "competing" for business. So what's going on?

Rosenthal has some ideas, but in the end it remains unclear. Where are insurance companies? Where's Medicare? Why isn't anyone outraged by this? Is it just fatigue at the never-ending tsunami of stories about the lunatic cost of all the various bits and pieces of American healthcare? Bob is right: it's a mystery.

Today in Lunatic Hollywood Disputes

| Fri Aug. 16, 2013 9:02 AM PDT

"The Butler," a film about a man who served eight presidents in the White House, opens this weekend. But wait. That's not its full title. It's actually called "Lee Daniels' The Butler." Is Lee Daniels an insane egomaniac? Nope:

First a word about the title's clumsiness, and the story's provenance. The director, Lee Daniels, is no stranger to clumsy titles. Four years ago he was nominated for an Oscar for "Precious," a film whose contractual title was "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." His name appears in this contractual title because of a legal dispute over "The Butler," a silent comedy released by Warner Brothers 97 years ago.

I figured there must be some fascinating backstory here, but in the end, not really. Those of you who have followed this all along should feel free to add interesting tidbits in comments, but as near as I can tell this really is just a lunatic Hollywood dispute based on bad blood between a couple of moguls over some previous deals. In the end, though, they really did have to change the title because Warner Bros. claimed exclusive rights to it based on a short silent film released in 1916. Don't you just love Hollywood?