Kevin Drum

In Defense of Optics

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 5:57 PM EDT

Here's a Twitter conversation this afternoon between Jamison Foser and me:

Foser: Dumbest words in politics: “Optics,” “Gaffe,” “Hypocrisy.” (That latter one is a real thing, but misused to the point of meaninglessness.)

Drum: But “optics” is just short for “how this will look to others.” Nothing really wrong with that.

Foser: “Optics” = “I cannot articulate a substantive problem with this, so I’ll just suggest others won’t like it.” It’s a house of cards.

Drum: But don't politicians routinely consider the optics of their actions? I mean really, genuinely, think about it. It's a real thing.

Foser: Not sure why that means anyone should care, or how that validates 99% of use of word by reporters/operatives/pundits....And I’ve really, genuinely thought about it for a couple decades.

Drum: What word would you suggest instead? The concept itself is pretty ordinary.

Foser: I don’t think we need a word for “people might not like the Congressman’s cheesesteak order.” I think we need to shut up about it.

Drum: Hmmm. It's a slow day. Maybe I'll blog about this since I think my disagreement is more than 140 characters long.

Foser: Then here’s another angle: To the extent “optics” claims are about “analyzing” rather than sneakily influencing reactions, I find that pointless as well. “Here’s what I think people will think” is generally dull & unimportant.

Here's the thing: like most anything, there are good uses of the word optics and dumb uses of the word optics. To the extent that it becomes an excuse for fatuous preoccupations with Al Gore's earth tones or Hillary Clinton's speaking fees, then yes, it's dumb. The world would be a better place if campaign beat reporters spent a lot less time on this kind of soul-crushing imbecility.

But that's not the only use of the word. As I mentioned in my first tweet—though see the note below for more about this—it's also used as a shortcut for a specifically political meaning of "how something will look to other people." And if you object to that, then you're just railing against human nature. Unless you're clinically autistic, obsessing with how our actions will appear to others is fundamental to the human condition. Ditto for obsessing with other people's appearances.

That's especially true for anyone in the sales and marketing business, where appearances are literally what the job is all about. And who's more in the sales and marketing business than a politician? Sure, they have actual products—universal pre-K, cutting tax rates, whatever—but most people don't buy their products based on a Brookings white paper outlining the pros and cons. They buy it based on how it fits into their worldview, and that in turn owes more to how it's sold than to what's actually being sold.

So when you try to figure out why, say, Marco Rubio's immigration reform plan crashed and burned, you're missing half the story if you only look at the details of his plan. If you're covering a campaign, you're missing half the story if you don't report about how the campaign is trying to mold public perceptions. If you're writing a history of the Iraq War, you're missing half the story if you don't spend time explaining the marketing campaign behind the whole thing. For better or worse, politicians spend a lot of time thinking about how various audiences—supporters, opponents, undecideds, pundits, members of Congress, the media—will react to their proposals, and they shape their messages accordingly. If you're reporting on politics, you have to include that as part of the story, and optics is as good a word as any to describe it.

That said, we'd be better off if there were fewer dumb appeals to optics. If you're going to talk about optics, it should be based on either (a) ground-level reporting about what someone's political operation is actually doing, or (b) empirical data like poll numbers about how people react to things. If all you're doing is inventing stuff that no one on the planet would have noticed if you hadn't been hard up for column material, then you're responsible for making us collectively stupider and giving optics a bad name. Knock it off.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I've defended the word optics against critics before, which suggests that in my mind I really do think it's OK to use it:

When someone says "optics," for example, I know that they're talking not just about general appearances, but about how something plays in the media and how it plays with public opinion. Using the word optics also suggests that you're referring to a highly-planned operation managed by media pros, not just some random event on the street.

On the other hand, I don't actually use the word very much myself, which suggests that in my heart I agree with Foser more than I'm letting on.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

John Boehner May Plan to Sue Obama Over Immigration

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 1:44 PM EDT

Fine. Washington is consumed with trivia. So let's talk trivia. A couple of weeks ago, when John Boehner announced he would sue President Obama over his refusal to "faithfully execute the laws of our country," he listed several issues of particular concern:

On matters ranging from health care and energy to foreign policy and education, President Obama has repeatedly run an end-around on the American people and their elected legislators, straining the boundaries of the solemn oath he took on Inauguration Day. 

At the time, I wrote that I was surprised Boehner didn't include immigration in this list, since this is one of the tea party's biggest hot buttons. Was this just an oversight, or was it deliberate? Well, on Sunday, Boehner wrote an op-ed for CNN that said this:

The President's habit of ignoring the law as written hurts our economy and jobs even more. Washington taxes and regulations always make it harder for private sector employers to meet payrolls, invest in new initiatives and create jobs — but how can those employers plan, invest and grow when the laws are changing on the President's whim at any moment?

I don't take the House legal action against the President lightly. We've passed legislation to address this problem (twice), but Senate Democrats, characteristically, have ignored it.

Wait a second. Which problem? What is Boehner talking about here? Brian Beutler, who apparently reads tea leaves better than I do, suspected Boehner may have been signaling an interest in immigration, so he called Boehner's office to ask about that:

Boehner didn't name the two bills in the article. But his staff confirms that they are the ENFORCE the Law Act and the Faithful Execution of the Law Act, both of which were drafted with an eye toward reversing DACA. The former would expedite House and Senate lawsuits against the executive branch for failing to enforce the law. The latter would compel government officials to justify instances of non-enforcement.

DACA is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals directive, which Obama signed in 2012. It instructs immigration officials to stop trying to deport children who arrived in the United States at an early age and are still undocumented.

This is potentially interesting. If you'd asked me, I would have said that Boehner's best bet for the first couple of lawsuits would be Obama's unilateral extension of both the employer mandate and the individual mandate in Obamacare. Politically it's a winner because it's Obamacare, and the tea party hates Obamacare. Legally, it's a winner because Boehner has a pretty good case that Obama overstepped his authority.

But if Beutler is right, he may instead be targeting DACA, the so-called mini-DREAM Act. This is peculiar. True, the tea party hates it, so it has that going for it. However, it was a very popular action with the rest of the country. It was also, needless to say, very popular with Hispanics, a demographic group that Republicans covet. And legally, this puts Boehner on tricky ground too. Presidents have pretty broad authority to decide federal law-enforcement and prosecutorial priorities, so Obama will be able to make a pretty good case for himself. It's not a slam-dunk case, and it's certainly possible he could lose. But he sure seems to be on more solid ground than with the Obamacare mandate delays.

We'll see. ENFORCE and FELA both cover more ground than just DACA, so we're still in the dark about what exactly Boehner plans to sue Obama over. Mini-DREAM sure seems like a loser to me, though. Do Republicans really want to put a final nail in the coffin of their efforts to expand their reach in the Hispanic community? This would do it.

Will TSA Soon Have Bins Full of Dead Smartphones?

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 11:56 AM EDT

Security screening at airports for certain flights to the United States is about to get even more annoying:

As the traveling public knows, all electronic devices are screened by security officers. During the security examination, officers may also ask that owners power up some devices, including cell phones. Powerless devices will not be permitted onboard the aircraft. The traveler may also undergo additional screening.

Two comments. First: this is new? I remember being asked to turn on laptops and such before business flights in 2002-03. In fact, I distinctly remember one flight where some poor guy was running around in a panic asking everyone if they had a charger for an IBM Thinkpad because TSA wanted him to power it up. I happened to be using a Thinkpad in those days and came to his rescue. But I haven't traveled on business for a long time, so maybe TSA gave up on this years ago.

Second: lots of us have had the experience of having to toss out a bottle of liquid or a pocket knife at a TSA checkpoint. But a cell phone? That's a whole different animal. If TSA starts forcing people to toss their $500 smartphones into a bin, never to be seen again, there's going to be some serious public outrage. Is that really going to start happening?

All That's Left Are Fights Over Trivia

| Mon Jul. 7, 2014 11:25 AM EDT

Here's the latest political news:

Political Battle Over Export Bank Heats Up

Lawmakers at a recent House hearing on the future of the Export-Import Bank were given an extra piece of reading material: a personalized index card laying out exactly which companies in their districts benefit from the financing agency and how many people they employ.

The cards, which supporters of the bank plan to give to every member of Congress in coming weeks, are part of a lobbying push by corporations such as Boeing Co. and General Electric Co., and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers. Their goal is to combat the most serious threat yet to the survival of the agency, which is under assault by new House leadership and conservative groups that say it amounts to corporate welfare.

What does this say about us?  As near as I can tell, this is the most important domestic political battle in the country right now. That's right: reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank. Can you think of anything more trivial? This is a government agency that costs taxpayers nothing—in fact, it's recorded a profit over the past decade—and, at worst, will cost us no more than a tiny amount in the future. On the flip side, although reliable figures are hard to come by, its impact on our export business is probably pretty minuscule.

So it costs nothing and has a tiny impact on the economy. And that's what we're fighting over this month. Why? Because there's not much point in fighting over anything that's actually important. Welcome to America in 2014.

The NSA Said Edward Snowden Had No Access to Surveillance Intercepts. They Lied.

| Sun Jul. 6, 2014 12:45 AM EDT

For more than a year, NSA officials have insisted that although Edward Snowden had access to reports about NSA surveillance, he didn't have access to the actual surveillance intercepts themselves. It turns out they were lying.1 In fact, he provided the Washington Post with a cache of 22,000 intercept reports containing 160,000 individual intercepts. The Post has spent months reviewing these files and estimates that 11 percent of the intercepted accounts belonged to NSA targets and the remaining 89 percent were "incidental" collections from bystanders.

So was all of this worth it? The Post's review illustrates just how hard it is to make that judgment:

Among the most valuable contents—which The Post will not describe in detail, to avoid interfering with ongoing operations—are fresh revelations about a secret overseas nuclear project, double-dealing by an ostensible ally, a military calamity that befell an unfriendly power, and the identities of aggressive intruders into U.S. computer networks.

Months of tracking communications across more than 50 alias accounts, the files show, led directly to the 2011 capture in Abbottabad of Muhammad Tahir Shahzad, a Pakistan-based bomb builder, and Umar Patek, a suspect in a 2002 terrorist bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali. At the request of CIA officials, The Post is withholding other examples that officials said would compromise ongoing operations.

Many other files, described as useless by the analysts but nonetheless retained, have a startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic quality. They tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes. The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded nevertheless.

…If Snowden's sample is representative, the population under scrutiny in the PRISM and Upstream programs is far larger than the government has suggested. In a June 26 "transparency report,” the Office of the Director of National Intelligence disclosed that 89,138 people were targets of last year's collection under FISA Section 702. At the 9-to-1 ratio of incidental collection in Snowden's sample, the office's figure would correspond to nearly 900,000 accounts, targeted or not, under surveillance.

The whole story is worth a read in order to get a more detailed description of what these intercepts looked like and who they ended up targeting. In some ways, the Snowden intercepts show that the NSA is fairly fastidious about minimizing data on US persons. In other ways, however, the NSA plainly stretches to the limit—and probably beyond—the rules for defining who is and isn't a US person. Click the link for more.

1Naturally, the NSA has an explanation:

Robert S. Litt, the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in a prepared statement that Alexander and other officials were speaking only about "raw" intelligence, the term for intercepted content that has not yet been evaluated, stamped with classification markings or minimized to mask U.S. identities.

"We have talked about the very strict controls on raw traffic…" Litt said. "Nothing that you have given us indicates that Snowden was able to circumvent that in any way.”

Silly intelligence committee members. They should have specifically asked about access to processed content.

Jesus. If someone in Congress isn't seriously pissed off about this obvious evasion, they might as well just hang up their oversight spurs and disband.

Here's What Happens When You Challenge the CIA Through "Proper Channels"

| Sat Jul. 5, 2014 12:14 PM EDT

One of the standard criticisms of Edward Snowden is that he should have tried harder to air his concerns via proper channels. This is fairly laughable on its face, since even now the NSA insists that all its programs were legal and it continues to fight efforts to change them or release any information about them. Still, maybe Snowden should have tried. What harm could it have done?

Today, Greg Miller of the Washington Post tells us the story of Jeffrey Scudder, who worked in the CIA’s Historical Collections Division. This is a division explicitly set up to look for old documents that can be safely released to the public. Scudder discovered thousands of documents he thought should be released, and he worked diligently through channels to make this happen. When that ran into repeated roadblocks, he eventually decided to try to force the CIA's hand—legally, openly—by filing requests under the Freedom of Information Act:

Scudder’s FOIA submissions fell into two categories: one seeking new digital copies of articles already designated for release and another aimed at articles yet to be cleared. He made spreadsheets that listed the titles of all 1,987 articles he wanted, he said, then had them scanned for classified content and got permission to take them home so he could assemble his FOIA request on personal time.

....Six months after submitting his request, Scudder was summoned to a meeting with Counterintelligence Center investigators and asked to surrender his personal computer. He was placed on administrative leave, instructed not to travel overseas and questioned by the FBI.

....On Nov. 27, 2012, a stream of black cars pulled up in front of Scudder’s home in Ashburn, Va., at 6 a.m. FBI agents seized every computer in the house, including a laptop his daughter had brought home from college for Thanksgiving. They took cellphones, storage devices, DVDs, a Nintendo Game Boy and a journal kept by his wife, a physical therapist in the Loudoun County Schools.

The search lasted nearly four hours, Scudder said. FBI agents followed his wife and daughters into their bedrooms as they got dressed, asking probing questions. “It was classic elicitation,” Scudder said. “How has Jeff been? Have you noticed any unexplained income? Cash? Mood changes?”

....Last summer, the board recommended that Scudder be fired. Around the same time, he was shown a spreadsheet outlining his possible pension packages with two figures — one large and one small — underlined. He agreed to retire.

So, um, yeah. Snowden should have tried harder to work through proper channels. What harm could it have done?

At this point, of course, I have to add the usual caveat that we have only Scudder's side of this story. The CIA naturally declines to comment. This means it's possible that Scudder really did do something wrong, but spun a self-serving version of his story for Miller's benefit. We'll never know for sure. Nonetheless, I think it's safe to say that this isn't exactly a testimonial for aggressively trying to work through the proper channels, even if your goal is the relatively harmless one of releasing historical documents that pose no threats to operational security at all. By comparison, it's pretty obvious that having his pension reduced would have been the least of Snowden's worries.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Friday Cat Blogging - 4 July 2014

| Fri Jul. 4, 2014 12:13 PM EDT

I think it's time to stop pretending there's going to be anything to blog about this morning, and just get straight to catblogging. I was hoping for something patriotically themed, but that was a no-go. Domino is just not a dress-up kind of cat. So then I thought I'd get her to lounge in front of all the various goodies for tonight's picnic. She wasn't having any of that either. The best I could do was this tableau, which lasted about a second or two before Domino scampered away as if the Peeps were going to leap up and attack her. It's just hard to get her in the proper spirit.

For the rest of you, though, have a lovely 238th birthday party.

The Surly Bonds of Earth

| Fri Jul. 4, 2014 9:44 AM EDT

This is hardly the biggest problem American Apparel has right now, but:

American Apparel issued a public apology Thursday after the company posted a stylized picture to its Tumblr page of the space shuttle Challenger disaster thinking it was fireworks.

The company was immediately hammered with negative feedback.

In its apology, the company said it was an honest mistake by the social media manager, who was born after the 1986 explosion that killed all seven crew members, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

In related news, I would like to apologize on behalf of my entire generation for using that picture of a dirigible on fire earlier this week. I thought it was a still from the latest Transformers movie.

Supreme Court Now Playing Cute PR Games With Hobby Lobby Decision

| Thu Jul. 3, 2014 7:23 PM EDT

In Monday's Hobby Lobby ruling, Justice Samuel Alito struck down a government requirement that employer-provided health insurance cover access to contraceptives. Among other things, Alito wrote that any requirement must be the "least restrictive" means for the government to achieve its goals, and the health insurance mandate clearly wasn't:

HHS itself has demonstrated that it has at its disposal an approach that is less restrictive than requiring employers to fund contraceptive methods that violate their religious beliefs. As we explained above, HHS has already established an accommodation for nonprofit organizations with religious objections. Under that accommodation, the organization can self-certify that it opposes providing coverage for particular contraceptive services. If the organization makes such a certification, the organization’s insurance issuer or third-party administrator must “[e]xpressly exclude contraceptive coverage from the group health insurance coverage provided in connection with the group health plan” and “[p]rovide separate payments for any contraceptive services required to be covered” without imposing “any cost-sharing requirements . . . on the eligible organization, the group health plan, or plan participants or beneficiaries.”

The obvious implication here is that the court approves of this compromise rule. That is, requiring self-certification is a reasonable means of accomplishing the government's goal without requiring organizations to directly fund access to contraceptives. Today, however, the court pulled the rug out from under anyone who actually took them at their word:

In Thursday’s order, the court granted Wheaton College, an evangelical Protestant liberal arts school west of Chicago, a temporary injunction allowing it to continue to not comply with the compromise rule....College officials refused even to sign a government form noting their religious objection, saying that to do so would allow the school’s insurance carrier to provide the coverage on its own.

....The unsigned order prompted a sharply worded dissent from the court’s three female members, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.

“I disagree strongly with what the court has done,” Sotomayor wrote in a 16-page dissent. Noting that the court had praised the administration’s position on Monday but was allowing Wheaton to flout it on Thursday, she wrote, “those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word. Not so today.”

For the last few days, there's been a broad argument about whether the Hobby Lobby ruling was a narrow one—as Alito himself insisted it was—or was merely an opening volley that opened the door to much broader rulings in the future. After Tuesday's follow-up order—which expanded the original ruling to cover all contraceptives, not just those the plaintiffs considered abortifacients—and today's order—which rejected a compromise that the original ruling praised—it sure seems like this argument has been settled. This is just the opening volley. We can expect much more aggressive follow-ups from this court in the future.

POSTSCRIPT: It's worth noting that quite aside from whether you agree with the Hobby Lobby decision, this is shameful behavior from the conservatives on the court. As near as I can tell, they're now playing PR games worthy of a seasoned politico, deliberately releasing a seemingly narrow opinion in order to generate a certain kind of coverage, and then following it up later in the sure knowledge that its "revisions" won't get nearly as much attention.

Europe's Memory Hole Gets Ever Wider and Deeper

| Thu Jul. 3, 2014 2:06 PM EDT

Yesterday I passed along the news that a BBC article about Stan O'Neal, the former head of Merrill Lynch, had been removed from Google searches in Europe. Today the Guardian reports on several of its recent pieces that have been scrubbed from Google searches:

Three of the articles, dating from 2010, relate to a now-retired Scottish Premier League referee, Dougie McDonald, who was found to have lied about his reasons for granting a penalty in a Celtic v Dundee United match, the backlash to which prompted his resignation.

....The other disappeared articles — the Guardian isn't given any reason for the deletions — are a 2011 piece on French office workers making post-it art, a 2002 piece about a solicitor facing a fraud trial standing for a seat on the Law Society's ruling body and an index of an entire week of pieces by Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade.

The Guardian has no form of appeal against parts of its journalism being made all but impossible for most of Europe's 368 million to find.

It's a little hard to see how articles that are a mere three or four years old can be deemed "irrelevant," but in Europe, I guess that if you declare something about yourself to be irrelevant, then it is. Congratulations, EU Court of Justice!

UPDATE 1: Interestingly, it turns out that yesterday's removal of the BBC story wasn't initiated by Stan O'Neal. Apparently it was initiated by someone who left a comment on the original story. I'm actually not sure if this is better or worse.

UPDATE 2: Over at the Monkey Cage, Henry Farrell argues that it's not really the ECJ that's censoring content, it's Google. But even with the caveats he includes, I think Farrell is being far too kind to the ECJ, which issued an unforgivably fuzzy decision that basically puts Google in the impossible position of being forced to act as a privacy regulator with neither the tools nor the guidance it needs to do the job properly. However, he agrees with a suggestion I made yesterday that Google might be reading the ECJ's directive over-broadly in a deliberate attempt to get everyone in a tizzy over it:

Google may have incentives to accede to [the takedown] request without complaint — and to publicize that it is so doing — because it knows that this is likely to send journalists into a frenzy. Even if the ECJ can press Google into service as an unpaid regulator, it can’t force Google to regulate in the exact ways that it would like Google to. And Google, like the Good Soldier Svejk in Jan Hasek’s novel, can perhaps interpret the court’s mandate in ways that formally stick to the rules, but in practice actually undermine it. There are, of course, other possible explanations for Google’s actions — it may be that there are excellent private reasons why Google is acceding to this request. But for sure, the controversy surrounding the request helps Google to push back (as it wants to push back) against strong interpretations of European privacy standards.

Maybe so.