Kevin Drum

Chris Giles Challenges Thomas Piketty's Data Analysis

| Fri May 23, 2014 2:54 PM EDT

Chris Giles of the Financial Times has been diving into the source data that underlies Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, and he says he's found some problems. The details are here. Piketty's response is here.

Is Giles right? Experts will have to weigh in on this. But Giles' objections are mostly to the data regarding increases in wealth inequality over the past few decades, and the funny thing is that even Piketty never claims that this has changed dramatically. The end result of Giles' re-analysis of Piketty's data is on the right, with Piketty in blue and Giles in red. As you can see, Piketty estimates a very small increase since 1970.

Now, if Giles is right, and there's been no increase at all, that's important. But it's still a surprisingly small correction. The fundamental problem here is that the difficulties of measuring wealth are profound enough that it's always going to be possible to deploy different statistical treatments to come to slightly different conclusions. There's just too much noise in the data.

In any case, I'm not taking any sides on this. The data analysis is too arcane for a layman to assess. But it's worth keeping an eye on.

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Amazon's War Against Book Publishers Goes Into Nuclear Territory

| Fri May 23, 2014 1:54 PM EDT, the company run by the psychopathically competitive Jeff Bezos, is apparently upping the ante into nuclear territory in its contractual dispute with book publisher Hachette:

The retailer began refusing orders late Thursday for coming Hachette books, including J.K. Rowling’s new novel. The paperback edition of Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” — a book Amazon disliked so much it denounced it — is suddenly listed as “unavailable.”

In some cases, even the pages promoting the books have disappeared. Anne Rivers Siddons’s new novel, “The Girls of August,” coming in July, no longer has a page for the physical book or even the Kindle edition. Only the audio edition is still being sold (for more than $60). Otherwise it is as if it did not exist.

Well, at least this is a war between equals. That makes it a little easier to stomach than Amazon's routine attempts to strong-arm boutique publishers after sweet talking them into making Amazon such a big part of their business that they can no longer survive without them.

But it's also why I'm so unhappy over the inevitable demise of Barnes & Noble. It seems inevitable, anyway, and when it happens Amazon will be essentially the only source left for e-books. At that point, Amazon will no longer have any real incentive to improve its crappy e-reader, but we'll all be stuck with it anyway. Yuck. I don't have a ton of choices even now, but at least I have some.

I dunno. Is there some way for the Justice Department to demand that Amazon figure out a way to make its DRM accessible by third parties so that we can have a thriving market in e-readers? I don't really understand the tech well enough to know whether that's possible. But Amazon already has near-monopoly control of the e-book market, and if B&N does eventually die, Amazon will basically have total control. Isn't that supposed to be a bad thing?

Law Enforcement vs. the Hippies

| Fri May 23, 2014 12:13 PM EDT

Paul Waldman writes today about how lefty protest groups get treated differently from right-wing protest groups:

The latest, from the New York Times, describes how law enforcement officials around the country went on high alert when the Occupy protests began in 2011, passing information between agencies with an urgency suggesting that at least some people thought that people gathering to oppose Wall Street were about to try to overthrow the U.S. government. And we remember how many of those protests ended, with police moving in with force.

....If you can't recall any Tea Party protests in 2009 and 2010 being broken up by baton-wielding, pepper-spraying cops in riot gear, that's because it didn't happen. Just like the anti-war protesters of the Bush years, the Tea Partiers were unhappy with the government, and saying so loudly. But for some reason, law enforcement didn't view them as a threat.

Maybe this is because lefties don't complain enough. You may remember the hissy fit thrown by Fox News when the Department of Homeland Security issued a report suggesting that the election of a black president might spur recruitment among right-wing extremist groups and "even result in confrontations between such groups and government authorities similar to those in the past." As it turns out, that was a good call. But the specter of jack-booted Obama thugs smashing down the doors of earnest, heartland Republicans dominated the news cycle long enough for DHS to repudiate the report under pressure and eventually dissolve the team that had produced it.

And the similar report about left-wing extremism that DHS had produced a few months earlier? You don't remember that? I don't suppose you would. That's because it was barely noticed, let alone an object of complaint. And even if lefties had complained, I doubt that anyone would have taken it seriously. There's just no equivalent of Fox News on the left when it comes to turning partisan grievances into mainstream news.

There's probably more to it, though. Mainstream lefties just don't identify with the far left as a key part of their tribe. They'll get a certain amount of support, sure, but they'll also get plenty of mockery and derision, as the Occupy protesters did. On the right, though, extremists are all members of the tribe in good standing as long as they stop short of, say, murdering people. They only have to stop barely short, though. Waving guns around and threatening to kill people is A-OK, as Cliven Bundy and his merry band of armed tax resistors showed.

So when DHS produces a report suggesting that right-wing extremism might turn out to be a growth industry in the Obama era, the ranks of the conservative movement close. An attack on one is an attack on all, and Fox News stands ready and willing to turn the outrage meter to 11. Rinse and repeat.

It's Time to Stop the Immigration Reform Charade

| Fri May 23, 2014 10:45 AM EDT

John Boehner says he'd really, really love to pass immigration reform, but darn it, President Obama's arbitrary and lawless regulatory changes to Obamacare make that impossible. Republicans no longer trust Obama to enforce whatever law they pass, so they're stuck.

This is a contrivance so obvious that I think most five-year-olds could see through it, but that's Boehner's story and he's sticking to it. So Harry Reid has now made official what used to be merely idle chatter:

“Let’s pass immigration reform today. Make it take effect in 2017. Republicans don’t trust President Obama,” Reid said. “Let’s give them a chance to approve the bill under President Rand Paul or President Theodore Cruz. To be clear, delaying implementation of immigration reform is not my preference. But I feel so strongly that this bill needs to get done, I’m willing to show flexibility.”

....“If they don’t take our offer, then we’re going to have to go to the second step, which is not my preference,” Reid said. “Administrative rules cannot trump legislation but we’re going to have to do what we have to do as we proved with DACA,” he said, referring to Obama’s program to grant deportation relief and work permits to young illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children.

Look: immigration reform is dead. Republicans just aren't willing to cross their base and pass something. The lawlessness story has never been anything more than a pretense, so Reid's offer won't change anything on that front. As for the executive action threat, Democrats have already tried that once before, when they were attempting to pass a cap-and-trade bill. If the bill didn't pass, they said at the time, Obama would be forced to curb carbon emissions using executive actions. And he's doing it! So it's not as if Republicans figure he won't call their bluff. They know he will. But that's still not enough.

Nothing would be enough. The tea party has won. They don't want immigration reform in any guise, and they control the Republican Party these days. That's the reality, and I think by now everyone knows it. It's time to stop the charade and move on.

Retired Army General Explains Why We Lost in Afghanistan and Iraq

| Fri May 23, 2014 12:57 AM EDT

Army lieutenant general Daniel Bolger, who recently retired from the service after multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has written a book called Why We Lost. Long story short, he says we never had a chance:

“By next Memorial Day, who’s going to say that we won these two wars?” Bolger said in an interview Thursday. “We committed ourselves to counterinsurgency without having a real discussion between the military and civilian leadership, and the American population —‘Hey, are you good with this? Do you want to stay here for 30 or 40 years like the Korean peninsula, or are you going to run out of energy?’ It’s obvious: we ran out of energy.”

....“We’ve basically installed authoritarian dictators.” The U.S. wanted to keep about 10,000 troops in Iraq post-2011...and a similar sized force is being debated for Afghanistan once the U.S. combat role formally ends at the end of 2014. “You could have gone to that plan in 2002 in Afghanistan, and 2003 or ’04 in Iraq, and you wouldn’t have had an outcome much worse than what we’ve had,” Bolger says.

“They should have been limited incursions and [then] pull out — basically like Desert Storm,” he adds, referring to the 1991 Gulf War that forced Saddam Hussein’s forces out of neighboring Kuwait after an air campaign and 100-hour ground war. The U.S. wasn’t up to perpetual war, even post-9/11. “This enemy wasn’t amenable to the type of war we’re good at fighting, which is a Desert Storm or a Kosovo.”

Hmmm. It seems to me that we had endless discussions about the difficulties of counterinsurgency and the fact that the United States is really bad at it. Books were published, reports were written, and David Petraeus became famous as the guy who finally got it on the counterinsurgency front. For several years it was the hottest topic in military circles, bar none.

Still, late to the party or not, Bolger's conclusions are welcome. America's modern track record in counterinsurgencies is terrible. The track record of every developed country in counterinsurgencies is terrible. I don't know if anyone will remember this the next time we're thinking about fighting another one, but the more experienced voices we have reminding us of this, the better.

Give Thanks Today That You Aren't Mike Hudack

| Thu May 22, 2014 5:02 PM EDT

Today you should give thanks that you are not Mike Hudack. Early this morning he decided to deliver an epic rant on his Facebook page:

It's well known that CNN has gone from the network of Bernie Shaw, John Holliman, and Peter Arnett reporting live from Baghdad in 1991 to the network of kidnapped white girls....Evening newscasts are jokes, and copycat television newsmagazines have turned into tabloids....Meet the Press has become a joke since David Gregory took over. We'll probably never get another Tim Russert.

And so we turn to the Internet for our salvation. We could have gotten it in The Huffington Post but we didn't. We could have gotten it in BuzzFeed, but it turns out that BuzzFeed's homepage is like CNN's but only more so....And we come to Ezra Klein. The great Ezra Klein of Wapo and msnbc....Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism....Instead they write stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them. To be fair their top headline right now is "How a bill made it through the worst Congress ever." Which is better than "you can't clean your jeans by freezing them."

....It's hard to tell who's to blame. But someone should fix this shit.

This would be of little note except that Mike Hudack is director of product management at Facebook. For that reason I take this kind of personally. You see, I used to be a director of product management, and I would have fired a product manager working for me who unloaded 500 words of bellyaching about why BuzzFeed does what it does with apparently no clue that the reason is his own product. Facebook. Stupid click-baity headlines rule the internet largely because Facebook's promotion algorithm chooses them for internet fame.1 Conversely, 10,000-word deep dives into the need for better regulation of the shadow banking system are hastily shoved down Facebook's memory hole. As Alexis Madrigal says:

We would love to talk with Facebook about how we can do more substantive stuff and be rewarded. We really would. It's all we ever talk about when we get together for beers and to complain about our industry and careers.

The irony of Hudack's clueless rant is pretty obvious, and so far about a million people have probably pointed this out to him. I doubt that most of them were as polite as Madrigal. So be glad today that you aren't Mike Hudack.

1In fairness, it's ultimately because this is the kind of thing most people want to read, which isn't Facebook's fault. It's been true for millennia. But Facebook does a pretty good job of aiding and abetting this particular failing of human nature, and surely this is something Hudack is aware of. I hope.

And as long as I'm delivering asides, somebody should also tell Hudack that Tim Russert is no hero of great journalism. By my reckoning, he played a large role in ruining Beltway journalism. So be careful what you wish for.

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An Inside Look at the People's Republic of Donetsk

| Thu May 22, 2014 1:50 PM EDT

In today's adventure, Julia Ioffe visits the People's Republic of Donetsk, aka an 11-story concrete building that used to house the Donetsk city administration:

In the press center, we found four gray, doughy men in post-Soviet polyester and a mint-green leather sectional, but no Claudia. In a minute, she blew in, lanyard with propusk around her neck, juggling cell phones and a note book, and looking every bit the busy, important press secretary of a busy and important country.  

“Sergei will do it,” she said and whirled out the door.

Sergei, a 28-year-old itinerant IT worker with bare feet, looked at Max’s Russian press card and my business card. The latter he found puzzling.

“Where’s the stamp?” he asked, turning it over.

I explained there’s no stamp.

Read the rest if you feel in the need for a bit of comic relief in an otherwise bleak situation.

House Ends Bulk Collection of Phone Records, But Keeps Door Open to "Bulky" Collection

| Thu May 22, 2014 12:14 PM EDT

Justin Amash, one of the original sponsors of the House bill that would eliminate the NSA's bulk collection of phone records, voted against the amended version of the act that passed the House today:

Amash said that the bill, which was originally drafted by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., was “so weakened” by behind-the-scenes negotiations that it allows the government to order large swaths of American phone records “without probable cause.” For example, the government could order AT&T to turn over all phone records for a particular area code or for “phone calls made east of the Mississippi,” according to Amash.

Is this true? It's surprisingly hard to get a good read on it. Marcy Wheeler has written about this several times, and if I'm reading her correctly (not always a good assumption) her objection is based on a two-step interpretation.

First, the amended bill says that records to be collected must be identified by a "specific selection term," which is defined as "a term used to uniquely describe a person, entity, or account." The problem here is with the word entity, which can be defined pretty broadly. What's worse, a later amendment broadened the definition even further to mean "a discrete term, such as a term specifically identifying a person, entity, account, address, or device."

Second, specific selection terms are "to be used as the basis for selecting the telephone line or other facility." The combination of entity and as the basis for could provide a legal basis for very wide record collection. It wouldn't allow collection of every record, as now allowed, but it could be pretty broad-based.

This is very hard for a layman to parse. It's enough for the EFF to call the bill "gutted," while the ACLU—though opposed to the wording changes—continues to support it. But just barely: "Any time they introduce ambiguity, which is what these changes do, that is a very worrying thing for us, because that is what got us here in the first place," said Patrick Toomey of the ACLU. "Without there being a more precise definition, it seems like they're opening the door to very bulky collection."

So perhaps that's where we are. Our shiny new bill prohibits bulk collection, but keeps the door open for bulky collection. But just how bulky? Unless another Edward Snowden comes along a few years from now, we may never know.

Will Everyone Please Quit Bitching About Passwords?

| Thu May 22, 2014 11:09 AM EDT

The Wall Street Journal has yet another article today telling us how terrible it is that we're all still using passwords:

"Passwords are awful and need to be shot," says Jeremy Grant, head of the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, a task force created by President Barack Obama in 2011 to bolster online security.

Despite all their flaws, passwords are so ubiquitous, cheap to use and entrenched in the architecture of websites and the rhythm of human behavior that efforts to supplant them have barely budged. "It's the only piece of technology from 50 years ago we're still using today," says Brett McDowell, a senior Internet security adviser at eBay's PayPal unit.

First things first: McDowell is wrong. We still use keyboards. We use monitors. We use hard drives. We use integrated circuits. Now, you might argue that we use way better versions of those things (except for keyboards, which inexplicably keep getting worse), whereas passwords are mostly just as primitive as they were in 1964. But that's as far as you can plausibly go.

Anyway. Why do we still use passwords? Answer: for the same reason front doors still use simple locks. They may provide weak security, but they do provide some security, and they're the only solution that's both cheap and universal. So if you think it's scandalous that we're still using passwords 50 years after they were invented, then prepare to be even more scandalized by front-door locks. That technology is centuries old!

And then prepare to be even more scandalized, because none of the proposed replacements for passwords (fingerprint scanners, gesture identification, face detection, etc.) are either cheap or ubiquitous, and they're not going to be anytime soon. No matter what your preferred solution is, it needs to become a standard and then get rolled out on every computer in existence. Please note: Not every PC. Every computer. Not every American computer. Every computer in the world.

So quit moaning about all this ancient technology. Passwords are going to be around for a while, no matter what the security gods of Silicon Valley would prefer. In the meantime, if you're a user, use strong passwords. If you're a corporation, encrypt your hash databases. If you're a technology guru, put away the retinal scanners and alpha wave detectors and figure out a clever way to make passwords more secure. Passwords may be here to stay for a while, but they don't have to be the Achilles' heel of the entire internet.

Democrats Won't Boycott the Benghazi Committee

| Thu May 22, 2014 9:42 AM EDT

Will Democrats boycott the Benghazi committee? Nope. Yesterday Nancy Pelosi announced the five Democratic members of the committee:

  • Elijah Cummings of Maryland
  • Tammy Duckworth of Illinois
  • Linda Sánchez of California
  • Adam Schiff of California
  • Adam Smith of Washington

This ends days of speculation about a possible boycott, and will probably disappoint a lot of people who didn't want to provide Republicans with a veneer of respectability for their Benghazi witch hunt. But longtime political leaders rarely withdraw from the political process in order to make a point, so this decision isn't surprising. The fireworks should begin shortly.