Ah crap. A couple of months ago, President Obama caved in to the hawks and announced $127 million in "nonlethal" aid to the Syrian rebels. Today he caved in again and trotted out Ben Rhodes to announce a further escalation. We'll now be sending some decidedly lethal aid to the rebels:

The United States has concluded that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in its fight against opposition forces, and President Obama has authorized direct U.S. military support to the rebels, the White House said Thursday…Rhodes did not detail what he called the expanded military support, but it is expected initially to consist of light arms and ammunition. He said the shipments would be "responsive to the needs" expressed by the rebel command.

The next step, of course, is to cave in to the hawks and send the rebels the antitank and antiaircraft weaponry they want. I figure, what? Another couple of months before Obama decides to do that? Then the no-fly zone. Then…something else.

The official justification for the new arms shipments is verification of some "small scale" use of sarin gas by the Assad regime. However, the real justification seems to be this:

After weeks of efforts to organize a conference at which the Assad government and the opposition were to negotiate a political transition, the administration is now slowing down that effort, fearful that if it were held now, Mr. Assad would be in too strong a position to make any concessions…Now, an administration official said, the focus will switch from setting a date to fortifying the rebels before they sit across the table from the government.

Great. So now we're committed to continuing escalation until Assad cries uncle and agrees to come to the table. That strategy doesn't have a sterling track record.

This seems like a good time to embed this video of Fareed Zakaria explaining why it's such a bad idea to intervene in Syria. This isn't just the usual anti-intervention shtick, either. It's a broad overview of who's who and why Syria's civil war is likely to last a very long time indeed. It's well worth five minutes of your time.

Responding to a CAP report about how to grow the economy, Josh Barro pushes back on the contention that we have a serious infrastructure problem. Setting that aside for the moment, his follow-up comment is worth addressing:

The real U.S. infrastructure gap is a cost gap: Big public construction projects cost way more here than they do in other countries. Why would we make a major new financial commitment to infrastructure before fixing the problem that we pay way too much for what we do build?

Is this true? I don't doubt that it costs more to build public infrastructure in America than it does in, say, China or Mexico. But is it more expensive than in Spain or Germany or Denmark? If so, why?

As I said, this is worth addressing. Unfortunately, I can't find anything very authoritative on this subject. Does anybody know of anything? Even given the obvious problems of construction in an already-built environment, the cost of building infrastructure in America, as well as the time it takes to complete anything, has always struck me as puzzling. If this problem really is worse here than it is even in other densely built, advanced economies, I'd sure like to know why.

UPDATE: Alon Levy has some raw numbers for rail projects here and subway projects here. His figures suggest that average U.S. costs per mile are considerably higher than in Europe. Stephen Smith takes a crack at explaining why here. (If it sounds familiar, it's because I linked to Smith's column last year.)

Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that a number of people are pushing back against Glenn Greenwald's insistence that the PRISM program allows "direct access" to servers from Google, Microsoft and other tech companies. I'm glad to hear that, because it raises some questions that deserve answers.

As regular readers know, the "direct access" claim puzzled me from the start. Even with my modest technical background, I understood immediately that it didn't make sense. Sure enough, the Washington Post walked back the claim a bit the next day, the New York Times walked it back further the day after that, and even the Guardian has now finally agreed that it's wrong—though they buried the admission in the 18th paragraph of a story published a week after the original report.

There are various reasons this is important. The number one reason, obviously, is that we need to understand what's really happening. There's a huge difference between (a) Google giving NSA unfettered access to all of its user data whenever NSA feels like looking at something, and (b) Google agreeing to set up a secure method of transferring data that NSA has obtained a court order for. It's night and day.

But there's another reason: I want to know how far I can trust Edward Snowden. He's supposed to be a technical guru of some sort, but apparently he didn't understand this. Or, if he did, he didn't bother clearing it up for either Glenn Greenwald or Bart Gellman, who both went with the "direct access" phrase in their initial stories. If it's the former, I wonder just how much he actually knows about NSA's capabilities. If it's the latter, I wonder about his motivations.

I'd also like to know just what PRISM is. Is it really an NSA codeword for a data collection program? Or is it merely the name of the unclassified software they use to provide access and project management capabilities for the data they already collect? Does Snowden know? If not, why not?

Snowden has made several other dubious statements, including the suggestion that he could order a wiretap on anyone he wanted, and that he had access to any CIA station. Put this all together, and I think it's reasonable to ask just how much we can trust what Snowden is saying. He's done a public service by shining the spotlight on NSA's activities, but that doesn't mean he gets a pass on tough questioning. I'd like to hear some answers about this stuff.

UPDATE: Several commenters have pointed out that NSA's own PowerPoint presentation claims that PRISM provides data "directly from the servers" of Microsoft etc. That's true, and it's precisely the problem: Greenwald and Gellman apparently read that and simply passed it along without understanding what it implied. That can lead you badly astray, as it seems to have done here.

This is not a pedantic point. It's absolutely critical. "Direct access" implies that NSA can just root around in Google's servers whenever they want. That's big news. Conversely, a story about how companies transfer information to NSA after they get a court order is a complete nothing. Who cares what technical means are used to transfer data to NSA? What we care about is what kind of information NSA is getting, and nothing in the PRISM story has given us any insight into that.

If Snowden really has the technical chops he claims to have, he should have cleared this up. But Greenwald and Gellman apparently didn't ask about it, and Snowden apparently didn't volunteer anything. (I say "apparently" because I don't know for sure who said what to whom.) This suggests either that Snowden didn't know what this phrase meant or else chose not to explain it properly. Either one raises some red flags.

I guess this comes as no surprise:

Former National Security Agency contract employee Edward Snowden used a computer thumb drive to smuggle highly classified documents out of an NSA facility in Hawaii, using a portable digital device supposedly barred inside the cyber spying agency, U.S. officials said.

....“Of course, there are always exceptions” to the thumb drive ban, a former NSA official said, particularly for network administrators. “There are people who need to use a thumb drive and they have special permission. But when you use one, people always look at you funny.

Hmmm. "Looking at you funny" doesn't really seem like high-grade security, does it?

On the other hand, what's the answer? Thumb drives these days can be as small as a fingernail, so it's hard to know what kind of measures can keep them out of secure sites completely. And yes, network admins probably do need to use them sometimes. Ironically, this means that the kind of people who probably pose the greatest security threat are also the kind of people who are least invested in NSA's actual mission.

I suppose the answer here is going to be yet another crackdown on thumb drives, as well as a more general crackdown on security in general. This will throw plenty of sand in the gears at NSA, but I have a feeling Snowden might not have a problem with that.

Ramesh Ponnuru argues today that Republicans are foolish for hanging their hats on the likelihood that Obamacare will die a fiery death in 2014, sweeping them into control of Congress and then, two years later, into the presidency. That won't happen, he says. Instead, Obamacare will die a slow, painful, lingering death, and Republicans need to get busy now coming up with a replacement healthcare plan for when that happens. But what should it be?

Congressional Republicans have not reached agreement on what should replace Obamacare, let alone a strategy for enacting that replacement. The best option for replacing Obamacare would be a plan that made it possible for almost everyone in the country to purchase catastrophic insurance (and possible for most people to buy insurance that goes beyond catastrophic coverage) by removing the obstacles that government policy puts in the way of that goal.

A plan to do that would involve six key steps....

I'll spare you the six steps. It's all the usual stuff—catastrophic coverage, high-risk pools, tax reform, etc.—and I think Paul Waldman's response pretty much says what needs to be said:

The biggest problem with this kind of appeal is that he will never, ever get anything beyond a tiny number of Republicans to invest any effort in coming up with a health-care plan. That would involve understanding a complex topic, weighing competing values and considerations against one another, and eventually getting behind something that will be something of a compromise. And let me say it again: They. Just. Don't. Care.

I don't blame Ponnuru and others for trying to get conservatives to embrace some kind of healthcare plan. I think they're kind of crazy to think their proposed plan would (a) work, (b) be politically attractive, or (c) be popular, but maybe that's just my liberal bias talking. What's not my liberal bias talking, however, is the plain fact that conservatives don't care about expanding access to healthcare. As Waldman says, the evidence on this score is overwhelming. They opposed Medicare. They opposed CHIP. They've opposed every expansion of Medicaid ever. Only brutal strongarm tactics got them to support their own president's prescription drug plan, despite the sure knowledge that killing it would likely lose them the White House the following year. And of course, they've opposed every Democratic attempt to pass universal healthcare legislation in the last century.

During that same period, Republicans have never shown any interest in a plan of their own. They periodically put on a show whenever Democrats propose something that looks like it might have legs, but it's purely defensive. When the threat goes away, so does the show. This has happened like clockwork for decades.

There is no way—repeat: no way—to broaden access to healthcare without spending more money. That's something Republicans have never been willing to do, and they're less willing now than ever. Nor is there any way to tap dance around this. You can try, but you'll get caught pretty quickly. There's just no way to square this circle.

What happens to women who want abortions but can't get them? Abortion clinics all have "gestational deadlines" and will turn away women who are further into pregnancy than their rules allow, and this gave Diane Greene Foster, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UC San Francisco, an idea for a study. Instead of comparing women who have abortions to women who elect to carry their pregnancy to term, she compared a group of women who all wanted to have an abortion but didn't all get one:

By choosing the right comparison groups — women who obtain abortions just before the gestational deadline versus women who miss that deadline and are turned away — Foster hoped to paint a more accurate picture. Do the physical, psychological and socioeconomic outcomes for these two groups of women differ? Which is safer for them, abortion or childbirth? Which causes more depression and anxiety?

That's from Joshua Lang in the New York Times today, who explains what Foster found:

When she looked at more objective measures of mental health over time — rates of depression and anxiety — she also found no correlation between having an abortion and increased symptoms....Turnaways did [] suffer from higher levels of anxiety, but six months out, there were no appreciable differences between the two groups.

Where the turnaways had more significant negative outcomes was in their physical health and economic stability....Women in the turnaway group suffered more ill effects, including higher rates of hypertension and chronic pelvic pain....Even “later abortions are significantly safer than childbirth,” she says.

....Economically, the results are even more striking. Adjusting for any previous differences between the two groups, women denied abortion were three times as likely to end up below the federal poverty line two years later. Having a child is expensive, and many mothers have trouble holding down a job while caring for an infant. Had the turnaways not had access to public assistance for women with newborns, Foster says, they would have experienced greater hardship.

The whole story is worth a read. In the long run, women who want abortions but don't get them adjust to their new lives. They aren't unhappy at becoming mothers. But there's not much question that their lives suffer, and as more and more states put more and more roadblocks in the way of abortion providers, that suffering will increase—with no mitigation from increased social services, since the red states that oppose abortion also generally don't think highly of providing much in the way of services to mothers in poverty.

Some quick good news this morning:

The Supreme Court says companies cannot patent human genes, a decision that could profoundly affect the medical and biotechnology industries. In a unanimous decision, the court struck down patents held by Myriad Genetics Inc. on two genes linked to increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

This is a victory for common sense. The fact that it was unanimous suggests a ray of hope for patent law in the future.

From Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, on its phone surveillance program:

We aren't trying to hide it.

Really? You sure could have fooled me. In other NSA-related news, we learned a few new things today:

  • From Sen. Dianne Feinstein: "The vast majority of the records in the database are never accessed and are deleted after a period of five years. To look at or use the content of a call, a court warrant must be obtained."
  • Gen. Alexander claimed in his testimony that the phone surveillance program had been instrumental in preventing "dozens" of terrorist attacks: "In particular, he cited the cases of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan American who pleaded guilty to planning suicide attacks in New York, and Pakistani American David C. Headley, who was arrested in 2009 for his role in a terrorist attack the year before in Mumbai, and who was plotting to attack a Danish newspaper that published a satirical cartoon of the prophet Muhammad."
  • After a briefing, Rep. Loretta Sanchez said she was astounded: "What we learned in there is significantly more than what is out in the media today....I don't know if there are other leaks, if there's more information somewhere, if somebody else is going to step up, but I will tell you that I believe it's the tip of the iceberg."
  • Whistleblower Edward Snowden told the South China Morning Post that the U.S. is heavily involved in cyber warfare: "Snowden believed there had been more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, with hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the mainland. 'We hack network backbones — like huge internet routers, basically — that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,' he said."

Aside from a bit of trash talking between Glenn Greenwald and Rep. Peter King, I think those are the main new nuggets of Big Brotherism in the news today.

Matt Yglesias is traveling in Europe right now, so naturally he's complaining about America's continued reliance on absurdly outdated magnetic stripe technology for its credit cards. Chip-and-PIN smart cards are used almost everywhere in Europe, which means that old style American cards often won't work—sometimes because automated kiosks won't accept them and sometimes because befuddled clerks have never seen one before and don't know what to do about them. As you may recall, I whined about this last year before my family trip to Denmark and Italy.

Anyway, this got me curious: how are things going on the chip-and-PIN front? So I did a bit of googling and at first the news seemed good: a growing number of American card companies offer smart cards, some with no/low annual fees and no foreign transaction fees. Hooray! But as I continued looking into this, it turned out that virtually none of them were truly chip-and-PIN cards. American banks have instead decided to invent a whole new technology called chip-and-signature. WTF? Is this actually any more likely to work in Europe than an old school mag stripe card?

Most of the articles I read were frustratingly vague on this point, but this one from John Kiernan seems pretty authoritative and boils down to: no. Contrary to the happy talk from U.S. card flacks, "practical experience and consumer feedback indicate that you can still use magnetic stripe credit cards pretty much anywhere that will accept a chip-and-signature card. And the few places where magstripe cards don’t work (i.e. certain unattended kiosks), chip-and-signature cards don’t tend to work either."

OK then. It's basically a marketing scam. But we're still left with a question: why don't U.S. banks just offer real chip-and-PIN cards? They aren't expensive, and the technology is well understood since every bank in Europe does it. What's more, chip-and-PIN cards all have mag stripes on the back, so they'll work fine in U.S. machines too. What's the deal?

According to Kiernan, banks just don't feel like it because they don't have any incentive to do it at the moment. Plus this:

In addition, there are certain transitional, regulatory and logistical issues for banks that explain why they have not simply adopted chip-and-PIN credit cards.

Well, now he's just playing mind games with me. What regulatory and logistical issues? Tell me, tell me, tell me!

In any case, the bottom line seems to be that things are now worse than ever. If you sign up for a "smart card" from a U.S. bank, you'll feel more secure before you travel to Europe, but in fact you'll be every bit as vulnerable as you were before. It's the kind of unconscionable bamboozlement I've come to expect from the American banking industry. My advice for European travelers: hope for the best, but always carry a fair amount of cash with you just in case.

And what if you want a real chip-and-PIN card? Well, apparently the State Department Federal Credit Union, which anyone can join through its partnership with the American Consumer Council, offers one. So there's that. And USAA has a genuine chip-and-PIN card for its members. Aside from that, your only real option is to wait until 2015, when chip-and-PIN is allegedly going to get rolled out in the United States. Yeesh.

In my previous post I wrote about the disclosure that, for a price, investors can get access to the University of Michigan consumer confidence index a few minutes before the usual 10 am release time. In fact, high-speed traders pay to get access just two seconds earlier than everyone else. I concluded that instead of having to work harder or risk breaking the law to get early information, as in the past, "now you just have to pay a fee in order to guarantee that you can take all the ordinary schlubs to the cleaners." Felix Salmon, ever the contrarian when it comes to little guys getting screwed by Wall Street, tweeted back:

Dear @kdrum, how exactly are ordinary schlubs being taken to the cleaners here?

Well, here's my case, in convenient list form:

  1. Wall Street traders are paying for this early information.
  2. They aren't idiots. They'd only do this if they could make trading profits based on their insider knowledge.
  3. No new money is created by making this information available to a few well-heeled traders a few minutes before everyone else. It's a zero-sum game.
  4. Thus, someone is getting the short end of these trades.
  5. That someone must be the people who aren't paying for early access. There's no one else these traders could be taking advantage of.
  6. And who are these folks? I don't know. But almost by definition, once the snowball rolls all the way downhill the answer has to be people who aren't plugged in and don't have the money to buy early access. In other words, ordinary schlubs.

I'll grant that this argument isn't 100% watertight. It's possible that the early-access crowd all spend a few minutes fighting with each other, and by the time 10 am rolls around the market is exactly where it would have been otherwise. It's also possible that Wall Street's sharpest traders pay for this information in order to get better returns for the widows and orphans funds they run. But I don't believe in the tooth fairy and I don't believe in either of these things either.

Bottom line: the release of financial information moves markets. If you have early access to this information, it means you have privileged insight into how the market is going to move five minutes from now. That's a moneymaker, and the money is made from all the people who trade with you during the period when you know more than they do.

Wall Street pros, of course, have always known more than most of us. They work harder, they have more training, they have Bloomberg terminals, etc. That's produced a skyrocketing amount of unproductive financial activity over the past few decades, but usually in ways that are at least marginally defensible. This latest disclosure, however, is almost a parody of unproductive financial activity. Not only is it obviously socially useless, but there's just something a lot rawer about providing an early release of supposedly public financial information to a chosen few who are willing to fork over a bit of squeeze. Welcome to the schlubocracy.

UPDATE: Karl Smith provides a more macro version of this argument here. It's worth a read.