Kevin Drum

Number of Backdoor Searches of NSA Data Too High to Keep Track Of

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 9:15 PM EDT

A few days ago I mentioned that the House had voted to end "backdoor" searches. These are queries of the NSA's surveillance database that are targeted at American citizens who were "inadvertently" spied on during surveillance of foreigners, and the NSA would like you to know that these queries are totally legal; not based on any loopholes; and very definitely not "backdoor."

Be that as it may, Sen. Ron Wyden still wanted to know just how many of these queries take place. In the case of the NSA and the CIA, backdoor queries are allowed only if the goal is related to foreign intelligence gathering. The FBI, however, has no such restriction. They can query all those inadvertent US persons for pretty much any reason at all related to a suspected crime. So how many queries of the NSA database have they made?

There you have it. The FBI has no idea how many time it's queried the NSA database, though it's "substantial." In fact, those records are automatically included every single time the FBI's database is queried. Nonetheless, nobody should be alarmed because the FBI receives only a "small percentage" of the NSA's trillions of records, which means they've probably received no more than a few billion records.

Nothing to see here, folks. You may go about your business.

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Hobby Lobby Wasn't About Religious Freedom. It Was About Abortion.

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 3:00 PM EDT

Elsewhere at Mother Jones, Dana Liebelson collects the eight best lines from Ruth Bader Ginsburg's dissent in the Hobby Lobby case. Here's what I consider the most telling passage from Samuel Alito's majority opinion:

Kinda reminds you of Bush v. Gore, doesn't it? Alito takes pains to make it clear that his opinion shouldn't be considered precedent for anything except the narrowly specific issue at hand: whether contraceptives that some people consider abortifacients can be excluded from health plans.

I think it's important to recognize what Alito is saying here. Basically, he's making the case that abortion is unique as a religious issue. If you object to anything else on a religious basis, you're probably out of luck. But if you object to abortion on religious grounds, you will be given every possible consideration. Even if your objection is only related to abortion in the most tenuous imaginable way—as it is here, where IUDs are considered to be abortifacients for highly idiosyncratic doctrinal reasons—it will be treated with the utmost deference.

This is not a ruling that upholds religious liberty. It is a ruling that specifically enshrines opposition to abortion as the most important religious liberty in America.

Hobby Lobby Case Adds Yet Another Log to the "War on Women" Bonfire

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 1:27 PM EDT

Steve Benen thinks the Hobby Lobby case may be an electoral problem for Republicans this November:

GOP lawmakers and their allies are clearly delighted today, basking in the glow of victory....The trouble is, the American mainstream and GOP policymakers really aren’t on the same page. The latest national polling reinforces the fact that most of the country wanted today’s ruling to go the other way.

....Watching Republican-appointed justices to limit contraception access, while Republican lawmakers cheer them on, may be just what Democratic campaign officials needed.

This is based on the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, which does indeed show a majority of Americans opposed to the prospect of employers deciding which contraceptives their health plan covers:

Unfortunately, I don't think this poll demonstrates much immediate danger for Republicans. Sure, the liberal position has majority approval, but 53-35 percent isn't a huge margin in these kinds of polls. You really need to see upwards of a 70 percent consensus before the danger lights start to flash, and in some cases (such as gun control) even that's not enough. What's more, there's also the question of intensity. The Reuters poll doesn't get at this (polls rarely do), but if I had to guess, I'd say the 53 percent who take the liberal position don't feel all that strongly about it. Their votes won't swing based on this issue, whereas many of the 35 percent who take the conservative position will indeed vote based on it.

Still, although this specific case may not really pose much of an electoral threat to Republicans, it does add another log to the "war on women" bonfire. Conservatives are desperate to argue that this is a myth; that it doesn't matter; that it's really liberals who hate women; etc. etc. But I think the evidence is pretty strong that, in fact, this really is a growing problem for Republicans. At the moment, it's more a national problem than a local one, but that could change as the bonfire grows. And the Hobby Lobby case will add some fuel to the fire.

Kansas Disproves Supply-Side Magic Yet Again

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 12:41 PM EDT

Paul Krugman writes today about what's the matter with Kansas:

Two years ago Kansas embarked on a remarkable fiscal experiment: It sharply slashed income taxes without any clear idea of what would replace the lost revenue. Sam Brownback, the governor, proposed the legislation — in percentage terms, the largest tax cut in one year any state has ever enacted — in close consultation with the economist Arthur Laffer. And Mr. Brownback predicted that the cuts would jump-start an economic boom — “Look out, Texas,” he proclaimed.

But Kansas isn’t booming — in fact, its economy is lagging both neighboring states and America as a whole. Meanwhile, the state’s budget has plunged deep into deficit, provoking a Moody’s downgrade of its debt.

There’s an important lesson here — but it’s not what you think.

As Krugman goes on to say, the lesson is not that supply-side tax cuts don't supercharge the economy. We already knew that. The lesson is that this was never really about supply-side theories in the first place: "Faith in tax-cut magic isn’t about evidence; it’s about finding reasons to give powerful interests what they want."

This is true. Corporations and rich people want low taxes, but even in post-Reagan America they're a bit reluctant to just come out and say that the reason they want lower taxes is because they want to keep more of their money. As near as I can tell, they aren't reticent about this because it embarrasses them, they're reticent because they understand that it's wildly unpersuasive to anyone who's not rich. So they need some plausibly altruistic excuse for supporting tax cuts on themselves. Enter supply-side economics.

Still, we're all capable of astonishing feats of convincing ourselves of things that we want to believe. So here's what I wonder: do today's rich really believe this stuff anymore? The fact is that it really was a plausible theory in the early 80s, when it was being applied to income tax rates of 70 percent. Today, when it's being applied to federal rates of under 40 percent and state rates of well under 10 percent, there's not even the slightest hint of plausibility. It's as close to a completely bankrupt theory as it's possible to have in a field like economics.

And yet, most of them must still believe it, right? The alternative is that we have a large class of people who are consciously lying about all this and don't feel a twinge of remorse. It's nice to think about your ideological opponents that way, but aside from the occasional sociopath here and there, that's really not the way most people operate. That want lower taxes, and they also want to believe that they themselves are good people. So they continue to believe in a theory that's been about as conclusively disproven as phlogiston.

But how? It's easy: you just cherry pick your evidence. Look at Texas! Low taxes and great growth. Look at California! High taxes and lousy growth. (And pay no attention when those trends reverse course.) As for Kansas, eventually they'll slash spending on the poor enough to balance their budget, and eventually their economy will recover. Economies always do. And then, it will be: See? We told you that tax cuts would supercharge the economy!

The Good Guys Are 0-2 in Supreme Court Today

| Mon Jun. 30, 2014 10:57 AM EDT

The Supreme Court could have obliterated public sector unions today by ruling that workers can't be required to pay representation fees if they disagree with the union's political stands. It's been longstanding practice that such workers don't have to pay full union dues—which include money used for political activity—but do have to pay fees that are used to support collective bargaining activities that benefit everyone.

But the court stepped back from the brink today, ruling in favor of workers who objected to the fees, but then saying their ruling was limited solely to home health care workers:

The ruling was limited to this particular segment of workers — not private sector unions — and it stopped short of overturning decades of practice that has generally allowed public sector unions to pass through their representation costs to nonmembers.

Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said home care workers are different from other types of government employees because they work primarily for their disabled or elderly customers and do not have most of the rights and benefits of state employees.

....The workers had urged the justices to overturn a 1977 Supreme Court decision which held that public employees who choose not to join a union can still be required to pay representation fees, as long as those fees don’t go toward political purposes. They say the union is not merely seeking higher wages, but making a political push for expansion of Medicaid payments.

Alito said the court was not overturning that case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. That case, he said, is confined “to full-fledged state employees.”

So public sector unions live to fight another day. At this point, the question is whether a majority on the court is truly unwilling to overturn Abood, or whether they want to do it slowly and today's case is just an opening volley.

In other news, the good guys lost in the Hobby Lobby case:

The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a setback to President Obama's healthcare law Monday and ruled that Christian business owners with religious objections to certain forms of birth control may refuse to provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraceptives.

In a major 5-4 ruling on religious freedom, the justices decided the religious rights of these company owners trump the rights of female employees to receive the full contraceptive coverage promised by the law.

Alito wrote the Hobby Lobby opinion too, and he was careful to say that this case doesn't apply to much of anything else that a religious employer might object to. Only things related to abortion, apparently. Because....um, that's plainly more important than any other religious objection on the planet. Or something.

In the end, I suppose that's good news. A narrow ruling is better than a broad one. Today's holding applies only to closely-held corporations (those in which a small number of people have majority control of the company), and Kennedy's concurrence apparently says the government can pay directly for contraception coverage if it want to. It could have been worse.

Seriously, What Accounts for the Right-Wing Obsession With Military Tribunals?

| Sun Jun. 29, 2014 1:16 PM EDT

From the Guardian today:

Mike Rogers, the chair of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, told CNN Khattala had been “compliant but not cooperative” through 10 days of interrogation on a navy ship before being transferred to Washington for a civilian trial. Rogers said Khattala should be classified as an enemy combatant and held at Guantánamo Bay.

....“We have a military tribunal process and I do believe in it. We've used it in the past, in World War II and subsequent to that. We have a process where they get a trial and their guilt or innocence is established.

This has become such a knee-jerk reaction from right-wing politicos that I almost don't even notice it anymore. But seriously, what is it that accounts for the conservative obsession with military tribunals? Abu Khattala would get a taxpayer-paid defense attorney either way. He'll be held securely either way. He's got about the same chance of being convicted either way. And if he is convicted, he'll be shipped off to an appropriately grim prison cell either way.

So what's the deal? Is this really just code for we should ship him to Gitmo and interrogate him in, um, an enhanced way? Is it code for Obama is doing this so we're against it? Or is there something more to it? There's a mountain of evidence suggesting that civilian courts are more effective at prosecuting terrorism than military tribunals, so that's not it. Unless torture and abusive treatment are their goals, it's a mystery why folks like Rogers keep banging away endlessly on their infatuation with military tribunals.

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Did the White House Create a Bunch of Fake Lois Lerner Emails?

| Sat Jun. 28, 2014 11:53 AM EDT

Howard Kurtz thinks Jon Stewart is going too damn easy on our current president:

When it comes to Obama, the humor is gentle. I do recall Stewart pummeling the president over the botched ObamaCare rollout. But on the IRS scandal this week, he mocked the tax agency for almost criminal stupidity in losing all those emails—but never questioned whether the Obama administration is engaged in a coverup.

Yes, Kurtz actually wrote that. He thinks Jon Stewart should have entertained the possibility that someone in the White House invented a time machine and wrote a bunch of emails in 2011 asking the IT department at the IRS to fix Lois Lerner's crashed hard drive. Maybe it was the same time machine that inserted Obama's birth record in the Honolulu Advertiser in 1961. Or, perhaps, Mission Impossible-like, a crack team of forgers ginned up a bunch of fake emails that just looked like they were from 2011.

Look, I'm not saying that's what's happened. I'm just asking the question. It's what any responsible journalist would do.

Friday Cat Blogging - 27 June 2014

| Fri Jun. 27, 2014 3:15 PM EDT

Here is Domino peeking out from under one of Marian's sweatshirts. I guess cats just like caves. It's not like it's been chilly around here these days.

And now, I'm off to the dentist to see if we can finally install a crown. The first two didn't fit properly, so we're hoping third time's the charm. It will be nice to be able to chew on both sides of my mouth again.

Are Tea Partiers Really Less Willing to Compromise Than Extreme Lefties?

| Fri Jun. 27, 2014 1:58 PM EDT

Ezra Klein writes today:

Hardcore conservatives agree with liberals on a lot. They just don’t want to compromise.

This is based on the Pew typology survey, which finds that "steadfast conservatives" oppose compromise by a 2:1 margin, while every other group favors compromise by at least a little bit. At the far left end of the spectrum, "solid liberals" favor compromise by 84-11 percent.

This is the same result that we've seen in lots of other surveys, and I sure wish someone would dig deeper into this. I can think of several questions:

  • Are folks on the far left really in favor of compromise? Or by "compromise" do they actually mean "the other side should back down in exchange for a few bones"?
  • Do extreme conservatives have good reason to be suspicious of compromise? A feeling of being sold out is a common trope on the right, but is it justified?
  • Are liberals in favor of compromise because they believe—correctly—that change is always incremental, which makes it sensible to accept an increment now in the sound belief that it will encourage a slippery slope toward further increments? (And likewise, are conservatives perfectly rational to oppose compromise for the same reason?)
  • In practice, when various real-world compromise positions are polled, are extreme liberals truly more willing to accept them than extreme conservatives?

You can probably guess that I'm a little skeptical of the entire notion that liberals are all sweetly willing to compromise. They certainly talk in a more conciliatory manner than tea partiers, and maybe in the end they really are more willing to swallow half a loaf. But I have my doubts. More research, please.

Most Americans Think Racial Discrimination Doesn't Matter Much Anymore

| Fri Jun. 27, 2014 12:40 PM EDT

On Thursday Pew released its latest "typology report," which breaks down Americans into seven different groups. I'm a little skeptical of these kinds of clustering exercises, but I suppose they have their place. And one result in particular has gotten a lot of play: the finding that more than 80 percent of conservatives believe that blacks who can't get ahead are responsible for their own condition.

But I think that misstates the real finding of Pew's survey: everyone thinks blacks who can't get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition. With the single exception of solid liberals, majorities in every other group believe this by a 2:1 margin or more. That's the takeaway here.

The other takeaway is that the news was a little different on the other questions Pew asked about race. The country is split about evenly on whether further racial progress is necessary, and large majorities in nearly every group continue to support affirmative action on college campuses. A sizeable majority of Americans may not believe that discrimination is the main reason blacks can't get ahead, but apparently they still believe it's enough of a problem to justify continuing efforts to help out.

Overall, though, this is not good news. It's obvious that most Americans don't really think discrimination is a continuing problem, and even their support for affirmative action is only on college campuses, where it doesn't really affect them. If that question were about affirmative action in their own workplaces, I suspect support would plummet.

I don't have any keen insights to offer about this. But like it or not, it's the base on which we all have to work. Further racial progress is going to be very slow and very hard unless and until these attitudes soften up.