Kevin Drum - October 2013

NSA Collects Millions of Address Books, Buddy Lists

| Tue Oct. 15, 2013 12:28 AM EDT

Yes, the NSA is collecting your address books and buddy lists too:

During a single day last year, the NSA’s Special Source Operations branch collected 444,743 e-mail address books from Yahoo, 105,068 from Hotmail, 82,857 from Facebook, 33,697 from Gmail and 22,881 from unspecified other providers, according to an internal NSA PowerPoint presentation. Those figures, described as a typical daily intake in the document, correspond to a rate of more than 250 million a year.

Each day, the presentation said, the NSA collects contacts from an estimated 500,000 buddy lists on live-chat services as well as from the inbox displays of Web-based e-mail accounts....Although the collection takes place overseas, two senior U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged that it sweeps in the contacts of many Americans. They declined to offer an estimate but did not dispute that the number is likely to be in the millions or tens of millions.

....Because of the method employed, the agency is not legally required or technically able to restrict its intake to contact lists belonging to specified foreign intelligence targets, he said. When information passes through “the overseas collection apparatus,” the official added, “the assumption is you’re not a U.S. person.”

....A senior U.S. intelligence official said the privacy of Americans is protected, despite mass collection, because “we have checks and balances built into our tools.”

The NSA's collection of bulk phone records and bulk online records is overseen by the FISA court. That may not be much, but in theory anyway, at least it's something. But the NSA's collection of address books is done solely under presidential order and has no oversight at all. They can collect anything they want and use it any way they want.

Luckily for us, the NSA has "checks and balances" built into their tools, so you have nothing to worry about.

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A Budget Deal Finally Starts to Take Shape

| Mon Oct. 14, 2013 11:30 PM EDT

I've deliberately avoided posting about all the dueling proposals and counterproposals in the Great Budget Showdown of 2013 because (a) it's too damn depressing, and (b) you all know where to find Politico if you want to. However, it now appears that we're getting close to a deal that might actually make it through the Senate:

The latest proposal would reopen the government at current spending levels until Jan. 15 and extend the federal borrowing limit until early February, according to aides familiar with the talks. Lawmakers also would begin longer-term negotiations on the budget, with the task of reaching an agreement by Dec. 13.

....The proposed agreement's framework included no major alterations to the 2010 health-care law that Mr. Obama championed and congressional Republicans have tried to curtail.

However, lawmakers appeared to be weighing some minor changes, including new procedures to verify the incomes of some people receiving government subsidies for health-insurance costs. Lawmakers also appeared to be considering delaying for a year a fee of $63 per insured person levied on those who offer policies, including employers, unions and insurance carriers.

The way this fig leaf seems to work is that Republicans get the income verification provision and Democrats get a delay of the "belly button tax." Since this is a genuine deal, not a demand for Democratic concessions in return for nothing, we can all pretend that it's a completely independent barnacle that just happens to be attached to the rest of the deal. This means that President Obama can sign it while sticking to his promise not to negotiate anything in return for a debt ceiling increase. Everyone wins!

There are, of course, several reasons to remain cautious:

  • Ted Cruz might decide to filibuster the deal. The odds are probably against it, but you never know.
  • The House might refuse to vote on it.
  • Even if it passes, all it does it set everyone up for (appropriately) a Groundhog Day rerun of the whole mess next year. But then again, maybe not. The evidence this time around has been pretty resounding that the public isn't on the GOP's side in this fight, and that might convince a lot of Republican fence-sitters to nip things in the bud if the tea partiers try to start another hopeless war in February. Right now, public irritation with the budget fight probably hasn't had any real effect on next year's midterm elections, but if Republicans do it again and again, it might.

So....that's where we are. Stay tuned.

Yet Another Grim Poll for Republicans

| Mon Oct. 14, 2013 2:59 PM EDT

Another poll, another disaster for the GOP. According to the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, the approval rating of the Republican Party has cratered ever since the budget showdown started. The gap between approval and disapproval has dropped by 16 points for the Republican Party in just two weeks. The change for Democrats has been only 6 points, and for President Obama there's barely been any change at all:

For the first time this week numerically fewer than half of Republicans — 49 percent — approve of the way their party’s representatives in Congress are handling the budget talks.

Obama, by contrast, gets 71 percent approval in his own party. Further, while 58 percent of political independents disapprove of Obama’s work on the issue, that soars to 76 percent disapproval for the GOP’s approach. In terms of ideology, 59 percent of conservatives disapprove of how the Republicans in Congress are handling the issue, despite their generally closer alignment with GOP policies. Obama’s disapproval among liberals is far lower — 32 percent. And moderates roughly divide on Obama’s approach (49 percent disapprove), while broadly criticizing the Republicans, with 80 percent disapproval.

It's just dismal news for Republicans across the board. The full poll is here.

Can America Survive Parliamentary Norms in a Presidential System?

| Mon Oct. 14, 2013 1:47 PM EDT

I've written before that America is in danger of adopting de facto parliamentary rule, but within a presidential system that never developed the parliamentary norms to make this work. A regular reader emailed this weekend to ask a very basic question: what does this mean? How does a parliamentary system work, anyway?

I'm reluctant to take this on, because there are lots of different kinds of parliamentary systems and lots of subtleties about how they work. Still, at the risk of being inundated with comments about all the stuff I'm leaving out, maybe it's worth providing a really simple primer about this.

Roughly speaking, in a parliamentary system there's only a single house of the legislature. (If there are two, the upper house usually has very limited powers these days.) As a voter, the only thing you do in an election is vote for a member of parliament for your district. Whichever party wins the most seats is the winner of the election.

There's no president in this system.1 The leader of the winning party becomes prime minister and forms a government. Party discipline, in most cases, is absolute. The party leadership submits legislation to implement its campaign platform, and every member of the party is expected to vote for it. Thus, the kind of gridlock we suffer from is very rare: the prime minister and his or her cabinet always have a majority of the votes in parliament, so they can be assured that their platform will be implemented exactly as they want it to be. Only in rare cases will members of the majority party decline to support the leadership on an important vote. When this happens, it's taken as a vote of "no confidence" in the government and a new election is held.

The advantage of a parliamentary system is accountability: the parties run on their platforms, and the winning party always has the authority to implement its platform. If the voters don't like it, they can throw the bums out at the next election. The biggest drawback, probably, is the difficulty of forming a government if no single party wins a majority. In this case, the party that won the most seats typically tries to form a coalition with other likeminded parties. As you can imagine, coalitions can be fairly fragile, and if they fall apart too often you can end up with frequent elections and pretty chaotic governance.

That's the nickel explanation. So what's this business about "de facto parliamentary rule" in the United States? The key issue here is party discipline. In the past, the Republican and Democratic parties had fairly weak discipline. It was common for Republicans and Democrats to defect to the other side on particular votes, and this kind of horse-trading allowed us to muddle along fairly well even when Congress and the president were of different parties.

Today, that's changed. Like a parliamentary system, we have pretty tight party discipline with virtually no defections. That works fine if you actually have a parliamentary system, where the majority party always has the power to pass laws and implement its platform. And the existence of no-confidence votes provides an escape valve that allows early elections if the government fails in some spectacular way or public opinion changes dramatically.

But strict party discipline doesn't work so well in a presidential system like ours. There's no formal mechanism to force agreement between a Congress and a president of opposite parties, so when traditional horse-trading disappears you have a recipe for gridlock. Nor is there an equivalent of a no-confidence vote. If the government is gridlocked, you're out of luck until the next scheduled election.

Parliamentary systems with strict party discipline work fine because the rules are set up to accommodate that. Presidential systems with weak party discipline can also work fine because informal horse-trading between the parties usually allows everyone to cobble together a working compromise of some kind. But a presidential system with parliamentary-style strict party discipline? Not so good. This is why it's rare for presidential systems to endure.

Ours is the exception, having endured for over two centuries. But the development of strict party discipline over the past couple of decades has put us in a dangerous position. One way or another, governments have to work. Right now, ours doesn't, and something has to give. But what?

1Actually, there is, sometimes. But it's usually a fairly minor post with mostly ceremonial powers.

A "Clarifying Moment" on the Debt Ceiling?

| Mon Oct. 14, 2013 11:49 AM EDT

Back in 2011, during our first debt ceiling crisis, Mitch McConnell proposed a solution: the president would be given authority to increase the debt ceiling on his own, and Congress could only block the increase via a veto-proof super majority. The idea was to defuse the immediate crisis, but force Obama to take sole responsibility for raising the debt ceiling over the next two years until his authority ran out.

Greg Sargent thinks Democrats should propose making this arrangement permanent in exchange for accepting sequester levels of spending into early next year. But not because Republicans are likely to accept the deal:

If Republicans refuse this request, it will be a clarifying moment: It will confirm Republicans are fully intent to use the threat of default as leverage to get what they want in later showdowns. And the refusal to renounce this tactic will become what kills any hopes of a compromise. “If a deal fails on that basis, it becomes clear that Republicans are intent on using this as a weapon of extortion over and over again,” [Norm] Ornstein tells me. “It changes the agenda in terms of why a deal failed.” Make Republicans defend this position.

Unfortunately, I don't think Republicans would have any trouble defending this position. They've said repeatedly that they think the debt ceiling is a useful—and traditional—deadline that forces Washington to confront its overspending ways. Whether they truly believe that or not is hard to say, since they've raised the ceiling plenty of times without fuss during Republican presidencies, but that's their story. They may not like the word "hostage," but they've never made any bones about using the debt ceiling as a hostage in order to force spending cuts out of Democrats.

So I don't think this really changes the agenda much. It just confirms what we already know and what Republicans have repeatedly acknowledged in the past. The big question is how the American public reacts to it as the deadline draws closer and the hostage scenario starts to become more than academic. We're going to find out about that over the next few days.

China Calls for "De-Americanized" World

| Mon Oct. 14, 2013 9:47 AM EDT

Here is today's shutdown news:

Upset that the fiscal stalemate in Washington is threatening the global economy, China called for the U.S. dollar to be replaced as the international reserve currency as well as for broader steps to create a "de-Americanized world."

China also called for an end to the "pernicious impasse" in the U.S. over the raising the debt limit and ending the partial government shutdown, saying the world needed another reserve currency so nations could protect themselves "from the spillover of the intensifying domestic political turmoil in the United States."

China has been saying stuff like this for a long time, so in a sense this isn't a big deal. But as the mess in Washington drags on, more and more countries are going to be taking this idea more seriously. I'm generally bullish on America's future relative to other areas of the world, but that could change if dysfunctional governance forces the rest of the world to essentially gang up against us for their own safety. Thanks, Republicans!

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Where's Kevin?

| Sat Oct. 12, 2013 7:32 PM EDT

Can you figure out where I spent the day today? Here are three clues:

Friday Cat Blogging 11 October 2013

| Fri Oct. 11, 2013 1:50 PM EDT

This is one of the first quilts Marian ever made. The pattern is called Nine-Patch, and it's machine pieced and hand quilted.

It occurs to me that all the non-quilters out there, which is most of you, might appreciate a terminology primer. There are three basic steps to making a quilt. First you cut out the pieces as specified by the design you're making. This step, oddly enough, doesn't really have a name. Second, you sew the pieces together, either by hand or machine. This is called piecing. Third, once you have the quilt top sewn together, you place it against the backing with batting in between. Then you sew the top and the backing to each other using fancy stitching patterns. This can be done either by hand or machine, and it's called quilting. So there you have it.

Yet Another Front in the War to Make the Web (Almost) Unusable

| Fri Oct. 11, 2013 1:02 PM EDT

Sign me up for this Felix Salmon rant:

It might have been the Slate redesign which pushed me over the edge, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just PTSD from Reuters Next. But at this point I will seriously donate a substantial amount of money to anybody who can build a browser plugin which automatically kills all persistent navbars, or “sticky navs”, as they’re also known.

It’s impossible to identify who started this trend, but it has become the single most annoying thing on the news web, recently overtaking even the much-loathed pagination for that title. If you’re reading a story on Pando Daily, then no matter what page you’re on, no matter where you are in the story, the top of your browser window always looks like this:

Click the link for examples if you're not sure what this is all about. But Felix is right: It's annoying. It's evil. It needs to stop. Felix explains why in his post, but what makes navbars even worse is that they're sometimes paired up with bizarro code that makes it difficult or impossible to cut and paste text using the normal tools that we've all used forever. Instead you have to go through the navbar in some weird way. There have been a few cases where I was so flummoxed by what they expected me to do that I finally just went into the page source and copied from there. So far, no one has figured out how to take over a text editor, so that still works.

(And while we're at it, why do so many sites make it so damn hard to embed their videos? They usually have an embed option, so obviously they want you to embed their videos. But the code they provide is all but impossible to vary in even the slightest way, like aligning it on the right instead of the center, or something like that. I just went through an experience this morning trying to embed a PolitiFact video that almost makes me believe in ghosts. Just stop it, folks.)

This is all part of an ongoing evolution of the web that seems to be based on a desire to make the browsing experience as annoying as possible without quite going over the edge where people just give up on your site. A site that's a micron short of that is ideal. You want your readers tearing their hair out, but not going ballistic enough to quit entirely. As more and more sites go down this road, it makes the web more a blood pressure raising machine than an information source. But it was nice while it lasted.

Can Methanol Save Us All?

| Fri Oct. 11, 2013 11:37 AM EDT

In the Wall Street Journal today, George Olah and Chris Cox suggest that instead of venting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it causes global warming, we should use it to create methanol:

Thanks to recent developments in chemistry, a new way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol—a simple alcohol now used primarily by industry but increasingly attracting attention as transportation fuel—can now make it profitable for America and the world to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.

At laboratories such as the University of Southern California's Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute (founded by George Olah, one of the authors here), researchers have discovered how to produce methanol at significantly lower cost than gasoline directly from carbon dioxide. So instead of capturing and "sequestering" carbon dioxide—the Obama administration's current plan is to bury it—this environmental pariah can be recycled into fuel for autos, trucks and ships.

....In Iceland, the George Olah Renewable Methanol Plant, opened last year by Carbon Recycling International, is converting carbon dioxide from geothermal sources into methanol, using cheap geothermal electrical energy. The plant has demonstrated that recycling carbon dioxide is not only possible but commercially feasible.

Olah has been writing about a "methanol economy" for a long time, and he skips over a few issues in this op-ed. One in particular is cost: it takes electricity to catalyze CO2 and hydrogen into methanol, and it's not clear how cheap it is to manufacture methanol in places that don't have abundant, cheap geothermal energy—in other words, most places that aren't Iceland. There are also some practical issues related to energy density and corrosiveness in existing engines and pipelines. Still, it's long been an intriguing idea, since in theory it would allow you to use renewable energy like wind or solar to power a facility that creates a liquid fuel that can be used for transportation. You still produce CO2 when you eventually burn that methanol in your car, of course, but the lifecycle production of CO2 would probably be less than it is with conventional fuels.

I haven't kept up with the details of this lately, so I don't know what Olah means when he talks about "recent developments" in chemistry. Does he mean stuff that's been in the pipeline over the past decade, or something that's genuinely new over the past year or two? I'm not sure. I'd be interested in reading a response from a neutral expert, though.

And why did this appear on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, not a place that's famous for its concern over climate change? Because Olah and Cox are arguing that for methanol to compete in the marketplace, we need to stop subsidizing ethanol unfairly. I'm all for that, and I guess the Journal is too. I'm also on the lookout for anything non-shutdown related to write about. Any port in a storm.