Kevin Drum - September 2013

Go Kiwis!

| Wed Sep. 11, 2013 2:41 PM EDT

This sentence about Team America's crushing loss in the fifth America's Cup race yesterday made me happy:

Team New Zealand leads 4 to minus-1 and needs five more wins to claim the oldest trophy in international sports.

That's not a score you see very often, is it? Other things being equal, I'd normally root for the American team in any international sporting competition. But things are so very not equal right now, and I would really love to see Larry Ellison get ground into dust in this race. It's true that he's arguably not the person who originally turned the America's Cup into a farce—one that's now more a legal marathon and a loophole competition than an actual sporting event—but he's sure done his bit to make sure it stays that way. Go New Zealand!

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NSA Shares Raw Surveillance Data With Israel

| Wed Sep. 11, 2013 2:14 PM EDT

Another day, another Snowden document released by the Guardian. But this one involves Israeli intelligence, which should guarantee an extra frisson of outrage, especially given the context: starting in 2009, the NSA began to routinely hand over raw data—some of which includes surveillance of U.S. citizens—to the Israeli SIGINT National Unit (INSU).

The memo that confirmed this arrangement is crystal clear that Israeli use of NSA data must be "consistent with the requirements placed upon NSA by U.S. law and Executive Order to establish safeguards protecting the rights of U.S. persons under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution." There follow numerous paragraphs setting out the rules of the road, which basically say that Israel isn't permitted to use this data to target U.S. persons in any way. Whether this comforts you probably depends on whether you think Israel takes these rules seriously, or whether it was strictly a wink-wink-nudge-nudge sort of arrangement, where everyone knows perfectly well that once it has its hands on this stuff the Israelis will use it any way they please. It's not as if they're famous for their reluctance to spy on Americans, after all. In fact, another document seen by the Guardian noted that "A NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] ranked them as the third most aggressive intelligence service against the US."

As for me, I'm just going to straight-up admit that this stuff is coming too fast and furious for me to truly digest it all. On the one hand, it's not as if it comes as any surprise that we share intelligence with friendly countries. On the other hand, raw, unminimized intelligence? With a country whose previous efforts to spy on America are pretty well known? I honestly have no idea how seriously to take the promises in this memo that NSA's raw data will never, ever be used to target Americans, cross our hearts and hope to die. I wonder if NSA deliberately inserts test cases in the data they hand over just to find out if INSU reports them back, as they're supposed to?

For now, then, I'll just highlight the part of the memo below. Note that Israel is allowed to hold files that contain the identities of U.S. persons for a year. But files that contain the identities of government officials? Incinerate on contact and salt the earth behind them. Priorities, priorities.

Colorado Shows Why Liberals Need to Get Better at Insurgent Politics

| Wed Sep. 11, 2013 12:53 PM EDT

Alec MacGillis has a good rundown of yesterday's recall election in Colorado, in which a couple of legislators who supported a new gun control law were ousted by the NRA and its fellow travelers. MacGillis points out that although the gun control side had more money and organization than usual in these fights, the NRA was nonetheless working on pretty favorable terrain. Ed Kilgore uses this as an illustration of one of his favorite hobbyhorses:

In stressing the circumstances that made the landscape difficult in Colorado, I'm not making excuses; au contraire, I simply want to draw attention to the fact that progressives chronically have a hard time winning ballot tests in competitive territory in anything other than presidential elections. Much of that has to do with the eternal reluctance to participate in midterm or offyear or special elections by the younger and minority voters who are disproportionately represented in the Democratic Party and progressive causes. That's the practical reason (added to the moral reasons) why fights over voting procedures are extremely important, and why old-school and new-school voter mobilization techniques are more crucial for the Left than for the Right.

Generally speaking, the right has long been better at building up from the grass roots than the left. My hometown of Orange County is a pretty good example: starting with friendly territory in the early 60s, conservatives made it into a right-wing powerhouse by starting with the school boards, then the city councils, and eventually helping elect Ronald Reagan governor. We all know how that worked out.

This is basically an insurgent strategy, and like all insurgent strategies it was adopted from a position of weakness. If you have a big army, you want a straight-on battle. If you don't, you adopt the tactics of George Washington. Likewise, if the broad public is on your side, you want to focus on big national elections. If it isn't, you need to do the hard work of changing things from the bottom up.

In other words, it's not as though the insurgent strategy is inherently superior. It's hard work, and it can get washed away in an instant by a big national tide—as it did in 2006 and 2008. In one sense, then, it's wise not to get too worked up about local losses like the one in Colorado. Those kinds of things happen all the time. At the same time, Ed is right: liberals really do need to figure out a way to get their core supporters to turn out for more than just big presidential elections. The insurgent strategy gave conservatives control of most state legislatures in 2010, which in turn paved the way for unprecedented levels of gerrymandering and a wave of voter suppression laws that threaten to cripple liberals not just locally, but nationally as well for years to come.

I'll confess that since I have no real experience with this kind of thing, it all puzzles me. Why don't young and minority voters tend to turn out except in presidential elections? I'm aware that they don't, and that Democrats have spent plenty of time trying to figure out how to change that, but it's still something of a mystery.

Bloomberg is Dead! Long Live Bloomberg!

| Wed Sep. 11, 2013 12:10 PM EDT

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg has been mayor of New York City for 12 years. As a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent, he's long gotten a lot of love from centrist pundits who believe that Americans are tired of partisan wrangling and are eager to unite behind a guy whose sole dedication is to Getting Things Done™. Yesterday, however, his hand-picked successor suffered a big primary loss and his hand-picked issue of gun control led to a recall of two legislators in Colorado. Dave Weigel pronounces this the death of Bloombergism:

The New York election was a repudiation of Mayor Bloomberg. The Colorado election is worse—a defeat for Bloomberg the Icon. For half a decade or more, a certain sort of liberal, usually well-off, has convinced himself that the country he dreams of is possible, if only Bloomberg wills it. Bloomberg seemed to believe this too; his guru Kevin Sheekey interpreted polls about how many voters said the country was “off track” and demanded a third-party candidate to right it. After a bad Acela ride in 2012, Thomas Friedman asked Bloomberg to run for president and “challenge, and maybe even improve, both major-party presidential candidates by speaking honestly about what is needed to restore the foundations of America’s global leadership before we implode.”

The people who believed that on Monday probably still believe it. A couple of election losses aside, in a few months Bloomberg will be a private citizen with billions to spend on his political causes. That’s enough time to rethink this theory that you can ignore all critics, drop money from a helicopter, and expect to be forever proven right.

I wish I were so optimistic, but in the minds of the self-professed post-partisan Beltway chatterers, I suspect that Bloombergism can never fail, it can only be failed. They seem to be endlessly unable to figure out that when people say they're tired of partisan wrangling, what they mean is that they want the other guys to stop being so damn unreasonable. When you dig an inch below the surface, it's actually a desire for more partisanship, not less.

My great grandfather started life running a small-town Republican newspaper. Then he switched to being a Democrat, and then finally to being an independent so he could harass both parties equally. But he still died broke. Maybe someday Americans will decide to do without their parties, but that day is not today.

Housekeeping Note

| Wed Sep. 11, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

On Thursday we'll be upgrading our Disqus commenting system. I think someone here at MoJo will shortly be writing a post explaining how this will improve all our lives, but while we're waiting for that they've asked me to pass along an additional housekeeping note.

Here it is: The new commenting system will no longer support old Drupal logins.1 As near as we can tell, there are actually very few of you who still use these old logins, but there might be a few. Basically, if you log in to motherjones.com to comment, you'll need to switch to some other form of sign-in. You can set up a Disqus account or you can sign in using your Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Yahoo, or OpenID account. It's all good.

And what happens to all your old comments when you switch to a new sign-in? Apparently they go into limbo and no one will ever know you were the author. But all is not lost. If you want to "claim" all your existing comments when you make the switch to Disqus, go here and follow the instructions.

1Why? It turns out there are thousands of malicious Drupal accounts out there, which has turned it into a serious security vulnerability. So we're nuking it.

Cory Booker Hasn't Had Much Effect on Crime in Newark

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 9:17 PM EDT

In the current issue of the New Republic (not yet online) Noam Scheiber writes that Newark mayor Cory Booker's commitment to alleviating poverty is probably quite genuine. Then this:

On top of which, Booker has been a pretty good mayor. Violent crime in Newark, while still a scourge, has declined on his watch, notwithstanding a brutal recession.

You already know what's coming next, don't you? Here's violent crime in Newark:

I don't have an axe to grind either for or against Booker, but it sure doesn't look to me like violent crime has declined on his watch. It declined from 1995 through 2007, most likely thanks to the phaseout of leaded gasoline. Also: it's a bit of an urban myth that crime increases during recessions. There's actually not much of a correlation.

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FISA Judge Reggie Walton Is Skeptical that NSA's Phone Record Program Has Much Value

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 7:57 PM EDT

As we all know, the NSA collects records of every telephone call made in the United States. Even if the rules governing the use of this information are highly restrictive, this still represents an enormous intrusion on the privacy rights of American citizens—something that FISA judge Reggie Walton acknowledged in a court opinion written in 2009. No court would ordinarily allow such bulk collection, he wrote, but the program had nonetheless been authorized due to the government's insistence that it was "vital to the security of the United States."

But is it? Plenty of people have wondered about this, especially since the NSA has never provided any public confirmation of a terrorism case in which the call record database played a key role. In fact, in a statement earlier this year, NSA director Keith Alexander was only willing to say that NSA's surveillance programs had made a "contribution" to "our understanding" of 50 terrorist plots over the past dozen years. That's pretty cagey, and it's cagier still when you realize that he's referring to multiple programs. He didn't address the value of the phone record program by itself at all.

So what about it? Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, who have seen classified briefings of all 50 plots, said in June that the call record program appeared to have "played little or no role" in most of these cases. Today, with the release of Judge Walton's 2009 opinion, we learn that he has plenty of doubts too:

This was written in 2009, and as of that point the government could point to virtually nothing positive that had come out of the phone record program. The best it could point to was three (!) preliminary (!) investigations opened by the FBI.

It's crazy that we permit this. The phone record program is (a) expensive, (b) prone to abuse, (3) a massive intrusion on privacy rights, and (d) not very successful. And that's not all. It's also the program that would be the easiest to shut down with virtually no ill effects. All we have to do is require phone companies to keep their call data for five years and require the NSA to get an individual warrant whenever they want to do a search of the database.

Would this be less convenient for the NSA? Sure. But for far less than we're spending on the current program, NSA and the phone companies could almost certainly put together procedures and staffing that would provide close to the same level of service NSA gets now. We'd once again have true oversight, and since FISA judges are available 24 hours a day, even in an emergency there would be little risk of losing time simply because a warrant is required.

It's a mystery to me why this hasn't at least gotten serious discussion. Of all the NSA programs at the heart of the current controversies, this seems like the easiest call to make.

In 2009, the FISA Court Shut Down an NSA Program for 6 Months Because It Had "Frequently and Systemically" Violated the Rules

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 7:15 PM EDT

Last month we learned that in 2011 a FISA judge slammed the NSA for "the third instance in less than three years" in which an NSA surveillance program had been misrepresented to the court. Today, the Obama administration released a set of documents that describes one of the previous instances. It involves the NSA's collection of phone records, which are supposed to be governed by strict minimization procedures that prevent analysts from illegally accessing the records of U.S. persons who are not reasonably suspected of terrorist ties. But it turned out that for three years, from 2006 to 2009, NSA had been routinely breaking its own rules; had been routinely providing false affirmations to the court; and apparently had no one on their staff who even understood how their own systems worked. Here is Judge Reggie Walton's conclusion:

The NSA's explanation for how these violations occurred "strained credulity," Walton wrote, and because of that he shut down the phone record program entirely until the government put in place safeguards against abuse that satisfied him. Six months later, he finally allowed the program to restart.

Josh Gerstein has more details here. The main takeaway, however, is the obvious one: no agency can perform oversight on itself. NSA was violating the court's rules for three years, and only discovered the problem because a spot check happened to turn up a violation, which in turn prompted them to do a broader investigation. That's no way to ensure compliance with legal and constitutional standards.

The Rich Just Keep Pulling Away From the Rest of Us

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 5:42 PM EDT

Via Matt Yglesias, I see that Emmanuel Saez released some new income inequality figures a few days ago, and the headline result is predictable: the super rich are doing really well! Since 2009, incomes of the top 1% have grown by 31 percent, while the incomes of the other 99% have been flat.

Now, I imagine that apologists for the rich are going to point out that their recent winnings still don't make up for their losses during the Great Recession. And that's true. As the annotated chart on the right shows, since the 2007 peak the rich have suffered an average income loss of 16.3 percent. The rest of us have done better: our incomes are down only 11.2 percent.

But this is meaningless. For starters, an 11.2 percent drop for someone making 15 bucks an hour is a helluva lot more painful than a 16.3 percent drop for a millionaire.

More importantly, economic expansions are always where the action is for the rich. When you combine their gains from expansions with their losses from the subsequent recessions, they always do better than the non-rich. They did 25 percentage points better during the Clinton era and 9 points better during the Bush era. When the next recession hits, their net gains will, once again, almost certainly be higher than the rest of us. If you look at complete economic cycles—as you should—the rich have pulled ahead in every single one since 1980. Right now, there's no reason to think that the next time will be any different.

Here's the Mean iPhone Post I Promised You

| Tue Sep. 10, 2013 2:50 PM EDT

So the new iPhone 5S comes in new colors; has a faster processor; and a slightly better camera; and a fingerprint sensor. Plus there's a motion sensor chip built in, which is supposed to be great for exercise apps. This is in addition to the lower-priced iPhone 5C, which is not just plastic, but "unapologetically plastic." This possibly sets a new world record for the most pretentiously Apple-ish thing ever said.

I know that everyone is going to immediately accuse me of hating Apple, despite the many Apple products I currently own,1 but this sure doesn't sound very revolutionary. In fact, it sounds tired. That's no big surprise, really, since the smartphone space is getting pretty mature. And maybe it doesn't matter. For now, at least, I imagine that gazillions of people will convince themselves that a silver faceplate and a fingerprint sensor are the coolest gizmos in the world if Apple says they are. And the cheaper 5C is certainly a perfectly good attempt to do a bit of old-school market segmentation.

As for me, my 4S continues to work fine. I sure don't see anything in today's announcement to make me rush out and want to replace it.

1In fact, I hate Apple because of the many Apple products I own. Their relentless desire to control what customers can and can't do with their products drives me up a wall.