Kevin Drum - August 2013

U.S. Intelligence Spending Now Higher Than During the Cold War

| Thu Aug. 29, 2013 11:07 AM PDT

Barton Gellman and Greg Miller have just released yet another document from the Snowden cache: a classified breakdown of U.S. intelligence spending.

The $52.6 billion “black budget” for fiscal 2013, obtained by The Washington Post from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, maps a bureaucratic and operational landscape that has never been subject to public scrutiny. Although the government has annually released its overall level of intelligence spending since 2007, it has not divulged how it uses those funds or how it performs against the goals set by the president and Congress.

Huh. I wonder how long the Post has been holding onto this? In any case, here's the basic breakdown of the $52 billion we're spending this year:

Unsurprisingly, the CIA, NSA, and reconnaissance satellites collectively account for nearly 80 percent of our total civilian-ish intelligence spending. Another $23 billion goes to "intelligence programs that more directly support the U.S. military." That's a total of $75 billion. Adjusted for inflation, Gellman and Miller say this exceeds our peak spending during the Cold War. Here are a few of their main takeaways:

  • Spending by the CIA has surged past that of every other spy agency, with $14.7 billion in requested funding for 2013. The figure vastly exceeds outside estimates and is nearly 50 percent above that of the National Security Agency, which conducts eavesdropping operations and has long been considered the behemoth of the community. Here are four of the main takeaways:
  • The CIA and NSA have launched aggressive new efforts to hack into foreign computer networks to steal information or sabotage enemy systems, embracing what the budget refers to as “offensive cyber operations.”
  • In words, deeds and dollars, intelligence agencies remain fixed on terrorism as the gravest threat to national security, which is listed first among five “mission objectives.” Counterterrorism programs employ one in four members of the intelligence workforce and account for one-third of all spending.
  • The governments of Iran, China and Russia are difficult to penetrate, but North Korea’s may be the most opaque. There are five “critical” gaps in U.S. intelligence about Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, and analysts know virtually nothing about the intentions of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

More at the link, including a few pages from the document itself. As for the rest, "Sensitive details are so pervasive in the documents that The Post is publishing only summary tables and charts online."

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How the Rest of the World Views the American Military

| Thu Aug. 29, 2013 10:29 AM PDT

Paul Waldman lays out a list of significant US military actions over the past 50 years, and it adds up to 15 separate episodes, ranging from full-scale wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan) to smaller incursions (Grenada, Haiti, Panama). For those of you who are math challenged, this means we've launched a significant overseas assault every 40 months since 1963. Waldman explains what this means:

Some of these operations worked out very well, others didn't. And just to be clear, this history doesn't tell us whether bombing Syria is a good idea or a bad idea. But if you're wondering why people all over the world view the United States as an arrogant bully, reserving for itself the right to rain down death from above on anyone it pleases whenever it pleases, well there you go. It doesn't matter whether you think some or even all of those actions were completely justified and morally defensible. From here, we tend to look at each of these engagements in isolation, asking whether there are good reasons to go in and whether we can accomplish important goals for ourselves and others. But when when a new American military campaign begins, people in the rest of the world see it in this broader historical context.

This is a perspective that's sorely missing from most mainstream discourse. Too many Americans have a seriously blinkered view of our interventions overseas, viewing them as one-offs to be evaluated on their individual merits. But when these things happen once every three years, against a backdrop of almost continuous smaller-scale military action (drone attacks, the odd cruise missile here and there, sending "advisers" over to help an ally, etc.), the rest of the world just doesn't see it that way. They don't see a peaceful country that struggles mightily with its conscience and only occasionally makes a decision to drop a bunch of bombs. They see a country that views dropping bombs as its primary means of dealing with any country weaker than we are.

Quote of the Day: Republicans Are No-Shows at Civil Rights Anniversary

| Thu Aug. 29, 2013 8:31 AM PDT

From civil rights leader Julian Bond, on why there were no Republicans at yesterday's 50th anniversary of the March on Washington:

"They asked a long list of Republicans to come, and to a man and woman they said no."....Bond did credit Cantor for trying hard to find a replacement speaker, but, ultimately, the leader was unable to find a single Republican to attend the event.

That last sentence is maybe the saddest of all. It's not just that Republicans didn't come. It's worse than that. Even with Eric Cantor twisting arms he couldn't find a single Republican willing to attend. I guess they were all afraid that Fox News would televise it and some of their constituents might find out they were there.

Second Quarter GDP Revised Way Up

| Thu Aug. 29, 2013 7:50 AM PDT

Here is today's good economic news:

Real gross domestic product — the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the United States — increased at an annual rate of 2.5 percent in the second quarter of 2013....The GDP estimate released today is based on more complete source data than were available for the "advance" estimate issued last month. In the advance estimate, the increase in real GDP was 1.7 percent.

That's quite a revision. GDP growth was actually half again as large as the BEA originally estimated, which is about as big a relative revision as I can remember. It still doesn't show the economy roaring ahead or anything, but it certainly shows a good deal more strength than we thought.

And just think: If it weren't for this year's round of austerity, growth might have been just a few ticks below 4 percent. That would have been a genuinely positive number. It's too bad we've chosen instead to deliberately sabotage the economy.

Are Charter Schools Successful Because They Make Teachers Work Long Hours?

| Wed Aug. 28, 2013 2:39 PM PDT

Motoko Rich writes in the New York Times that charter school teachers tend to turn over pretty quickly. The average charter teacher has only a few years of experience, compared to 14 in traditional public schools. However, even though everyone agrees that teachers with five-plus years of experience are better than those with only three or four years, charter school outcomes are pretty similar to those of public schools. Matt Yglesias wonders what's going on:

Given that these charters are really held back by having such a large share of first- and second-year teachers, how is it that they're able to produce decent educational results? The evidence isn't airtight, but the natural inference to make from the turnover data is that the experience-adjusted quality of the charter school teachers is substantially higher than of the traditional public school teachers.

....If kids in charter schools were on average clearly learning less than kids in traditional public schools, then it'd be easy to finger the teacher turnover issue as the culprit. But they're not doing worse, despite charter schools' problems with hanging on to teachers for more than a few years. The interesting question is what accounts for that.

I have a different guess. Charter school teachers might very well be the cream of the crop, but I suspect the real key to their success is long working hours. This is also what accounts for the turnover. Charter schools tend to demand that their teachers work very long hours and remain on call for students during the evening. That's grueling stuff, and very few people are willing to do it for long. If you're young, idealistic, unmarried, and have no kids, it might be rewarding for a while. After a while, though, it just gets to be a grind.

Even though I basically support experimenting with charters, this is the single biggest reason I'm skeptical of the charter model. Obviously some of them do very well, but if expanding the model nationwide requires an army of high-quality teachers willing to work long hours for modest pay, where are they going to come from? This is why I'd really like to see more examples of the charter model working with teachers—either young or old—who put in normal hours. That's a scalable model and might give us some insight into what it takes to improve our schools. Conversely, if the answer turns out to be "bright young kids willing to work long hours for lousy pay," we haven't really learned much. I don't doubt that it can work, but I do doubt that it can work for more than a small fraction of our children.

Nearly 100 Representatives Now Asking Obama to Consult With Congress Over Syria

| Wed Aug. 28, 2013 11:52 AM PDT

Rep. Scott Rigell (R–Virginia) reports that as of a few minutes ago his letter urging President Obama to consult Congress before launching an attack on Syria is "Inching...toward...100... 81 Republicans and 16 Democrats have signed on to our letter so far..." That's good. But I sure wish more Democrats were willing to get on board.

There are legitimate issues surrounding the powers of the president and the extent to which Congress can micromanage military attacks. But this is something that Congress should actually spend some time debating, instead of just folding up and letting the president do whatever he wants with nothing more than a bit of muttering about separation of powers. The president may be commander-in-chief, but that doesn't mean the U.S. military is his personal plaything. It's past time to make that clear.

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Which Economic Models Are Más Macho?

| Wed Aug. 28, 2013 10:00 AM PDT

A few days ago Alex Rosenberg and Tyler Curtain wrote an op-ed titled "What Is Economics Good For?" In a nutshell, their answer was "not much." Paul Krugman begs to disagree:

Rosenberg and Curtain completely misunderstand what’s been going on at the Fed. They also misunderstand the nature of economists’ predictive failures. It’s true that few economists predicted the onset of crisis. Once crisis struck, however, basic macroeconomic models did a very good job in key respects — in particular, they did much better than people who relied on their intuitive feelings....Wonks who relied on suitably interpreted IS-LM confidently declared that all this intuition, based on experiences in a different environment, would prove wrong — and they were right. From my point of view, these past 5 years have been a triumph for and vindication of economic modeling.

Something about this passage has been niggling at me since I read it yesterday, and I just now figured out what it is. Krugman has been banging this drum for quite a while, and regular readers know that I'm basically on his side. Basic Keynesian macro has done a pretty good predictive job in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and it's fair to wonder why skeptics continue to be skeptics even after years of solid results from textbook macro.

But here's the thing: I'm on Krugman's side in hindsight. A better question is whether it was obvious in 2008 that "suitably interpreted IS-LM" was likely to be the best model for dealing with the post-crisis recovery. Maybe it was. Krugman makes the case, for example, that RBC models should have been abandoned decades ago for not fitting the data. But conservative economists would argue that Keynesian macro was quite justifiably thrown out even earlier for failing during the 70s. That's obviously a matter of contention, but it's certainly the case that the Keynesianism of the 70s has since been retooled into the New Keynesianism of the 90s and beyond. But that makes it a fairly new theory. So again: how obvious was it before the fact that Krugman's preferred models were likely to be the best ones for 2008-13?

This is light years above my pay grade, so I'm throwing it out mostly in the hopes that some real economists will essay an answer. I'm not even sure I'm framing the question entirely properly. But the basic problem is that economists change their models the way most of us change our television viewing habits, and the best models often seem to be very dependent on a particular place and time. Wait a couple of decades, or examine a different kind of economy, and suddenly the old models don't work so well anymore. So how do we know in advance? Can Krugman legitimately say that his models have had a long track record of success in different environments, and therefore should have been the obvious incumbents when the economy went kablooey in 2008?

How a Giant Arrow Gets You to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables*

| Wed Aug. 28, 2013 9:23 AM PDT

From the things-I-did-not-know file:

“In retail, the customer tends to go to the right,” said Tim Taylor, the produce director for Lowe’s, Pay and Save, a regional grocery chain that let the scientists in to experiment with their arrows and mirrors. “But I watched when the arrows were down, pointing left, and that’s where people went: left, 9 out of 10.”

First things first: what's the name of this supermarket? Pay and Save? Or Lowe's? Good question! According to Wikipedia, Lowe's Market, founded in 1940 in Littlefield, Texas, operates grocery stores under the names Lowe's, Shop N Save, Food Jet, Super S, Big 8, Super Save, and Avanza. But not Pay and Save. Or do they? Comments from residents of El Paso, where this test store is located, are welcome on this score.

Now then. Do people really tend to go to the right in retail stores? How about in other settings? Do left-handed people tend to go to the left? What's going on here?

I'm a little less interested in the fact that if you lay giant arrows down on the floor, people follow them. We're all pretty used to following arrows, after all. Still, the upshot of all this is that a pair of enterprising researchers were able to get people to buy more fresh produce by putting arrows on floors, duct tape in baskets, and placards in shopping carts telling people that bananas are big sellers. But if they put arrows on the floor and placards in the shopping carts, it didn't work. Too pushy, apparently. People won't buy healthy food if they glom onto the fact that they're being badgered into doing it.

Personally, I'd like to see how this fares over a longer time scale. I have a feeling the effect might start to wear off. Plus there's the problem of persuading grocery stores to do any of this stuff in the first place. Having spent billions on figuring out how to market crap to us, why would they suddenly turn around and start trying to market fresh produce to us? The Times suggests that produce actually has higher margins than crap, which is another surprise. I didn't know that either. But if that's really true, I'm a little surprised that big chains haven't already spent billions trying to increase sales of apples and broccoli. Why are they relying on a couple of professors from New Mexico State University?

*Technically, the giant arrows only get you to buy more fruits and vegetables. Whether the guinea pigs in this experiment actually eat them is a whole different question.

Fidel Castro Says Edward Snowden is a Hero

| Wed Aug. 28, 2013 7:53 AM PDT

Some people like to gossip about Miley Cyrus. I prefer gossip about Fidel Castro. Today he responds to the suggestion that Cuba caved in to pressure from the U.S. and told Russia that it would refuse to let an Aeroflot flight land in Havana if Edward Snowden were onboard:

"It is obvious that the United States will always try to pressure Cuba ... but not for nothing has (Cuba) resisted and defended itself without a truce for 54 years and will continue to do so for as long as necessary," Castro wrote.

...."I admire the courageous and just declarations of Snowden," Castro wrote. "In my opinion, he has rendered a service to the world, having revealed the repugnantly dishonest policy of the powerful empire that is lying and deceiving the world," Castro continued.

....Castro did not speculate as to why Snowden skipped the Aeroflot flight.

OK then.

Chart of the Day: Which Countries Snoop on Facebook Users the Most?

| Tue Aug. 27, 2013 4:59 PM PDT

Today Facebook released its first Global Government Requests Report, which tells us how many requests for user data they received during the first six months of 2013. It's broken down by country, and you'll be unsurprised to learn that the United States earned the top spot: a total of about 11,000 requests covering 20,000 individual accounts.

But wait. The United States is a big country, so the fact that it made more requests than, say, Ireland, doesn't tell us much. A more useful metric would adjust for population, telling us how many requests were made per million Facebook users (data here). That's far from perfect, since data requests can cover users from any country, but I think it tells us a little more than just looking at the raw number of requests.

The chart below shows the top 20 among countries that made more than ten requests—which obviously doesn't include countries like China and Iran, where Facebook is banned. So who came in #1? The answer may surprise you:

Malta! I imagine that this is explained by Malta's status as a tax haven for Russian oligarchs, who are perhaps a little too eager to show off their riches on their Facebook pages. Or something.

The weirdness of Malta aside, the real takeaway from this chart is that the United States isn't really very unique in its desire to spy on people. When you adjust for their smaller size, Germany, France, Italy, and the UK are all in the same league. These countries may not intercept phone calls on the scale we do, but if Facebook nosiness is any clue, that's only because they don't have the technical capability, not because the idea outrages them.

In any case, you can draw your own conclusions from this. But I think it gives us a decent idea of which countries are the most active and dedicated when it comes to internet surveillance.