Kevin Drum

How Many Countries Have Direct Access to All Phone Calls?

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 2:33 PM EDT

Vodafone is one of the largest telecom companies in the world, with a strong presence in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Here's what they told us today:

Vodafone said that it had received thousands of requests from 29 countries in the 12 months through March 31. But the report also said that governments in certain countries had direct access to its networks without having to use legal warrants.

In a “small number” of countries, Vodafone said in the report, the company “will not receive any form of demand for communications data access as the relevant agencies and authorities already have permanent access to customer communications via their own direct link.

Vodafone wouldn't say which countries have this kind of unrestricted access, but the Guardian takes a guess here.

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Like it or Not, Guantanamo Is Here to Stay

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 1:34 PM EDT

Praise the Lord. Max Fisher has taken on the thankless task of explaining to both left and right why the Taliban prisoner exchange isn't either of the following:

  • The first step in a secret plan from the lawless despot Obama to close Guantanamo.
  • Proof that Obama could have closed Guantanamo all along and that he now has no excuse not to.

Obama is not going to close Guantanamo. The legal loophole he used in the Bergdahl prisoner exchange—no matter what you think of it—flatly wouldn't apply to shutting down the entire prison. Plus there's the fact that Congress would go ballistic if he tried—including plenty of Democrats. Impeachment would go from a fever dream of the tea-party right to a very realistic bipartisan possibility. Finally, there's frankly never been much evidence that Obama cares all that much. He'd obviously like to shut down Guantanamo, but he just doesn't feel that strongly about it.

So give it up. Guantanamo will be here through the end of Obama's presidency, and quite possibly until its last prisoner dies. It's fanciful to think anything else.

Here's One Big Reason the Economy Is Still Treading Water

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 12:22 PM EDT

David Leonhardt passes along this chart today, and it's one of the most important ones you'll see. It was my candidate for chart of the year in 2013.

What it shows is unprecedented: government employment fell during an economic recovery. This has never happened before in recent history. Employment rose during the Reagan recovery. It rose during the Clinton recovery. It rose during the Bush recovery. And that's one of the reasons those recoveries were fairly strong.

Only during the Obama recovery did austerity fever force government employment to fall. It's not the only reason this recovery has been so weak, but it's certainly one of the leading causes. More here.

When Will Fury Start to Grow Over Growing Fury?

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 12:01 PM EDT

The White House, says the LA Times for the third straight day, is facing "growing fury" over L'Affaire Bergdahl. How many times have I read a headline like this over the past few years. Dozens? Hundreds?

Hard to say. But it sure seems to be the defining quality of American politics these days. We just bounce from one outrage to the next, mostly ginned up by the right, but sometimes by the left too. It's a wonder that America hasn't dropped dead of a collective heart attack yet.

Has it always been this way? Maybe. It's not as if we lacked for partisan outrages in the 50s and 60s. But I'd sure like to hear from folks who have a good memory for those years. Was the procession of outrages really as nonstop as it is today? Did we at least take a break between outrages back then? Or has nothing changed except our exposure to this stuff thanks to Twitter and 24-hour cable news?

In any case, I think this is the fundamental reason that I continue to sympathize so much with President Obama, regardless of whether he's pursuing policies I happen to like. I exchanged some emails with a friend about Obama's seemingly tone deaf handling of the Bergdahl case, and one of the things he said is this: "My read is he is getting bored and detached after being so boxed in and hammered. He sounds like he is starting to check out. I think the staff is getting demoralized and are just not caring too much since they know it's going to get hit one way or the other."

Obama has always had a certain amount of contempt for the modern media and its endless Politico-style pursuit of shiny objects designed to "win the morning." Ditto for the parochial nature of congressional politics and the insane tea-party style of no-compromise governing adopted by the modern Republican Party. Because of that, he's often a lousy politician. He's not willing to pander to the requirements of fake, outrage-of-the-day PR, nor does he even really want to engage in the normal sort of horse-trading that's always been a part of politics. Aside from pure personal preference, I suppose his excuse on the latter is that there's no point: Republicans are no longer willing to horse-trade, so why bother playing the game?

Instead, he wants to take the long view and ignore all the childish nonsense. Logic tells me that's probably dumb, but in my heart I find it almost impossible to blame him. I keep thinking that if someone acts like an adult—or at least a little more like an adult—maybe eventually the media and the public will get a little chagrined and start ignoring the shiny objects. I know it's not going to happen, but I still can't bring myself to rebuke Obama for holding out hope. I think that's why I often cut him so much slack.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in May

| Fri Jun. 6, 2014 10:34 AM EDT

The American economy added 217,000 new jobs in March, but about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth clocked in at 127,000. The headline unemployment rate stayed steady at 6.3 percent.

As near as I can tell, there are no serious gotchas in this month's report. The labor participation rate was stable, and the unemployment rate didn't stay where it is because lots of people exited the labor force. This is a straightforward, decent-but-not-great jobs report, and it's sure starting to look like this is where we're going to be stuck for a while.

Bowe Bergdahl, Then and Now

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 2:30 PM EDT

Speaking of Bowe Bergdahl, Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt have a fascinating piece in the New York Times that just went up. They got hold of a detailed report that was written two months after Bergdahl walked off, and what makes it interesting is that it's based on extensive contemporaneous interviews. This allows us to compare what people are saying now with what they were saying back then. For example, there's this:

A classified military report detailing the Army’s investigation into the disappearance of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in June 2009 says that he had wandered away from assigned areas before — both at a training range in California and at his remote outpost in Afghanistan — and then returned, according to people briefed on it.

....Whether Sergeant Bergdahl was a deserter who never intended to come back, or simply slipped away for a short adventure amid an environment of lax security and discipline and then was captured is one of many unanswered questions about his disappearance. The issue is murky, the report said, in light of Sergeant Bergdahl’s previous episodes of walking off.

And this:

The report is said to contain no mention of Sergeant Bergdahl having left behind a letter in his tent that explicitly said he was deserting and explaining his disillusionment, as a retired senior military official briefed on the investigation at the time told The New York Times this week. Asked about what appeared to be a disconnect, the retired officer insisted that he remembered reading a field report discussing the existence of such a letter in the early days of the search and was unable to explain why it is not mentioned in the final investigative report.

And this:

Its portrayal of him as a soldier is said to be positive, with quotes from both commanders and squadmates — apparently including some of the men now criticizing him — describing him as punctual, always in the correct uniform and asking good questions. It quotes colleagues as saying that he expressed some boredom and frustration that they were not “kicking down doors” more to go after insurgents who were destroying schools.

And this:

The report is also said to contain no mention of any alleged intercepts of radio or cellphone traffic indicating that Sergeant Bergdahl was asking villagers if anyone spoke English and trying to get in touch with the Taliban, as two former squadmates told CNN this week in separate interviews that they remembered hearing about from a translator who received the report.

The moral of this story is simple: memories can change, and once you've taken sides you're likely to embellish things considerably. The stuff that Bergdahl's critics are saying today may be accurate, or it may be a product of anger growing out of control over the passage of time. We really need to wait before rushing to judgment.

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Five Quick Things to Know About Bowe Bergdahl

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 1:06 PM EDT

It's an open question whether the White House handled the recovery of Bowe Bergdahl well. Probably not, and it's a legitimate topic for speculation. But on the substantive question of the prisoner exchange itself, here are five things you should keep firmly in mind:

  1. We don't know if Bergdahl is a deserter. We'll only know that after the military legal process has run its course and rendered a verdict. Obviously nothing is going to shut up the hotheads and Fox News blowhards, but the rest of us on both left and right would be wise to reserve judgment until that happens.
  2. Either way, we still should have gotten Bergdahl back. We don't leave prisoners behind to face justice from the enemy. We dish it out ourselves.
  3. The evidence suggests that, in fact, probably nobody died searching for Bergdahl after he left the base.
  4. When wars end, you exchange prisoners. This is always distasteful and contentious: the issue of POWs was so fraught at the end of the Korean War that it actually extended the fighting for more than a year. But eventually you agree to an exchange, and the Afghanistan war is no different. Foreign policy hawks might not like it, but America's longest war is finally coming to an end, which means our Taliban prisoners would have been exchanged fairly soon no matter what. We didn't actually give up much in this deal.
  5. As Michael Hastings reported two years ago, Bergdahl didn't think much of his unit, and his unit didn't think much of him. Given the rancor between them, it's not surprising that his teammates have plenty of lurid things to say about him now. They never liked him much in the first place. For the time being, you should take everything they say with a big grain of salt.

Practically everything you're hearing right now about Bowe Bergdahl is being driven by extreme partisans with a huge ax to grind. You should view the entire feeding frenzy with intense skepticism until we learn more about what actually happened.

America Sucks at Eating Vegetables

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 11:34 AM EDT

Hold on a second. Kelsey McKinney draws my attention this morning to the latest USDA report on the kinds of foods we eat, and the chart on the right shows what it has to say about vegetables.

Is this for real? Since when are potatoes vegetables? I mean, I'm delighted by this news since it means my mother has been wrong all these years when she badgers me about not eating enough vegetables. Hell, it turns out that the bag of potato chips in my pantry apparently counts too. I'll be sure to have some with my lunch today.

Still, I suspect that mom is right, which makes this a pretty depressing chart. Regardless of how the USDA classifies them, I'll continue to put potatoes (and corn) into the starch food group. Aside from that, it appears that we eat plenty of salad (head lettuce, Romaine lettuce, tomatoes) but not much of anything else. All the things we traditionally think of as vegetables (broccoli, peas, beans, etc.) are consumed in such tiny quantities they don't even show up.

That's terrible. Eat your vegetables, America!

Latest Gallup Numbers Confirm 10-12 Million Newly Insured Under Obamacare

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 11:07 AM EDT

Gallup's latest poll number for the uninsured is out, and it's stabilized now that the open enrollment period for Obamacare has ended. It was 13.4 percent in April and it's 13.4 percent in May:

The fact that the rate stabilized provides some confidence in Gallup's polling, since that's what should have happened once open enrollment ended. This is a drop of about 4 percentage points from the 2011-12 baseline, and represents about 10 million newly insured—a figure that's been confirmed elsewhere and now seems like a pretty good estimate. Add to this the number of children and sub-26ers who are newly insured, and you're probably up to 12-13 million who are newly insured under Obamacare. Some of this comes from people buying insurance through the exchanges; some comes from Medicaid signups; and some comes from people signing up for insurance at work thanks to the individual mandate.

It's possible that other estimates will upend this number over the next few months, but I doubt it. This is probably about what we got from Obamacare. It's up to you to decide if you think it's worth the price.

It Turns Out That Lots of People Don't Like What Google Says About Them

| Thu Jun. 5, 2014 12:36 AM EDT

Today we learn the consequences of the recent European court ruling that people can petition Google to remove search results they don't happen to like:

Google Inc. said Tuesday that it had received 41,000 requests from people hoping to delete individual results that turn up for their name in the first four days after it posted a Web page to take the requests late last week....The figure suggests that while a wave of people looking to exercise their new right has crested since Friday, the flood is continuing. The number of requests works out to more than 10,000 a day through the end of day Monday, or roughly 7 a minute, compared with 20 requests a minute in the initial hours after Google posted the web form.

I wonder if this will prompt the morons at the European Court of Justice to reconsider their ruling? Probably not, I suppose.