Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 6 March 2015

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 3:40 PM EST

Today's catblogging is special. As usual, the lighting in our living room is pretty bad, but nonetheless, this is your first glimpse of the commenter known as Inkblot's Aunt—aka my sister Karen. She's been wonderful about helping us out as Marian and I both recover from our various medical problems, and on Wednesday she came over and stayed with me all evening when I was feeling especially bad. You can see her reward in the photo: Hilbert finally decided she was part of the family and plonked down in her arms for a nice hour-long snooze.

By the way, when I head off to stage 2 of my chemotherapy, Karen will be catsitting for several weeks. This means she'll be responsible for using her iPad to capture catblogging photos each week. Depending on how I feel during stage 2, I'll post them as I get them. In any case, be nice to her in comments. Sometime in the next month or two, catblogging will depend on her.

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A Zombie From the 90s Makes the Case For Demanding Strong Encryption

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 2:19 PM EST

Companies like Apple and Google have announced recently that they will start providing their customers with encryption that even Apple and Google don't have the keys for. This means that even if law enforcement officers get a subpoena for data held by the companies, it won't do any good. They couldn't turn over decrypted data even if they wanted to.

This has led to calls from the FBI and elsewhere to provide "backdoors" of some kind for use by law enforcement. This would be a kind of master key available only under court order. But security experts argue that this makes encryption fundamentally useless. If you deliberately build in a weakness, you simply can never guarantee that it won't be exploited by hackers. Encryption is either secure or it's not, full stop.

Over at The Switch, Craig Timberg provides an interesting recent example of this. Back in the 90s, we were fighting this same fight, and one temporary result was the government's mandate that only a weak form of encryption could be exported outside the U.S. This mandate didn't last long, but it lasted long enough to get incorporated into quite a few products. Still, that was 20 years ago. What harm could it be doing today?

The weaker encryption got baked into widely used software that proliferated around the world and back into the United States, apparently unnoticed until this year.

Researchers discovered in recent weeks that they could force browsers to use the old export-grade encryption then crack it over the course of just a few hours. Once cracked, hackers could steal passwords and other personal information and potentially launch a broader attack on the Web sites themselves by taking over elements on a page, such as a Facebook “Like” button.

....The existence of the problem with export-grade encryption amazed the researchers, who have dubbed the flaw “FREAK” for Factoring attack on RSA-EXPORT Keys....Nadia Heninger, a University of Pennsylvania cryptographer, said, “This is basically a zombie from the ‘90s… I don’t think anybody really realized anybody was still supporting these export suites.”

For vulnerable sites, Heninger found that she could crack the export-grade encryption key in about seven hours, using computers on Amazon Web services....More than one third of encrypted Web sites — including those bearing the “lock” icon that signifies a connection secured by SSL technology — proved vulnerable to attack in recent tests conducted by University of Michigan researchers J. Alex Halderman and Zakir Durumeric. The list includes news organizations, retailers and financial services sites such as americanexpress.com. Of the 14 million Web sites worldwide that offer encryption, more than 5 million remained vulnerable as of Tuesday morning, Halderman said.

This is an object lesson in deliberately building vulnerabilities into encryption technology. Maybe you think you've done it perfectly. Maybe you think nobody but the proper authorities can ever exploit the vulnerability. But the chances are good that you're wrong. In the case of FREAK, we were wrong for nearly 20 years before we figured out what was going on. There's no telling how long we might be wrong if we deliberately do this again.

Yet Another Health Update

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 12:40 PM EST

I promised another health update last night, so here it is. I know that some of you are interested in this, while others find it tedious, so I'll put it all below the fold. Here's the nickel summary: There's a good chance I'm going to continue feeling lousy for a couple of weeks or so, but I should start to improve after that.

Republicans Are Already Prepping for Possible Government Shutdown in the Fall

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 12:01 PM EST

The Supreme Court will rule later this year on the question of whether Obamacare subsidies should be repealed in states that don't run their own insurance exchanges. That would gut a major portion of the law, and Jonathan Weisman reports today that because of this, "the search for a replacement by Republican lawmakers is finally gaining momentum."

I'm not quite sure how he could write that with a straight face, since I think we all know just how serious Republicans are about passing health care reform of their own. In any case, I think the real news comes a few paragraphs down:

Aides to senior House Republicans said Thursday that committee chairmen were meeting now to decide whether a budget plan — due out the week of March 16 — will include parliamentary language, known as reconciliation instructions, that would allow much of a Republican health care plan to pass the filibuster-prone Senate with a simple majority.

Representative Tom Price of Georgia, the House Budget Committee chairman, said that reconciliation language would be kept broad enough to allow Republican leaders to use it later in the year however they see fit, whether that is passing health care legislation over a Senate filibuster or focusing on taxes or other matters.

If this is true, it means that Republicans are prepping for yet another government shutdown over Obamacare. Any budget that tried to essentially repeal Obamacare in favor of a Republican "replacement" would obviously be met with a swift veto, and that would lead inevitably to the usual dreary standoff that we've seen so often over the past few years.

Of course, this will all be moot if the Supreme Court upholds Obamacare in the way common sense dictates. Still, it's something of a sign of things to come. Shutdown politics is pretty clearly still alive and well in the GOP ranks.

The Hack Gap Lives!

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 11:33 AM EST

I've been following the news a little vaguely over the past few days, but I noticed an interesting confirmation of the hack gap in the treatment of Hillary Clinton's email affair. Perhaps you noticed too? There was, obviously, a difference in the way liberals and conservatives treated the news that Hillary had used a private email address for all her correspondence while she was Secretary of State. But it was a matter of degree, not attitude.

On the liberal side, I saw a lots of people seriously questioning what had happened. And not just here in the pages of MoJo. I saw it on MSNBC. I saw it in newspaper columns. I saw it in blog posts. Lots of liberals treated this as a legitimate issue and suggested that Hillary had some serious questions to answer. This didn't just come from a few iconoclasts, either. It came from all over the place, and was generally viewed, at the least, as an example of questionable judgment, if not proof that Hillary is the antichrist we've always known she was.

I know the counterfactual game can get a little tiresome sometimes, but still: it's hard to imagine the same thing happening if a heavy Republican frontrunner had done something like this. The hack gap lives.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in February

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 11:16 AM EST

The American economy added 295,000 new jobs last month, 90,000 of which were needed to keep up with population growth. This means that net job growth clocked in at 205,000 jobs, which is quite a bit better than January and represents a nice confirmation that the labor market has picked up over the past four months. Virtually all of the growth was in the private sector.

The headline unemployment rate went down to 5.5 percent, but this was due to a combination of more people getting jobs and more people dropping out of the labor force and no longer being counted in the unemployment numbers. So this is a fairly mixed report. Unsurprisingly, since it doesn't represent a huge growth in the actual number of people employed, wages remained sluggish. Average hourly earning went up three cents, or 0.12 percent. Moody's Mark Zandi tried to put a positive spin on this: he told the New York Times that "current wage growth data appeared gloomier than the underlying reality, in part because of demographic factors. As well-paid baby boomers enter retirement, to be replaced by younger workers starting out at lower salaries, he said, the overall wage pattern has tilted slightly lower. Also, people who have been out of work for long stretches are starting to come back into the labor force and accepting lower wages."

So....not bad. But not quite as good as the top line number suggests. We're still motoring along, but we're still in second gear. We still haven't really seen a sharp shift upward.

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Health Note Placeholder

| Fri Mar. 6, 2015 1:36 AM EST

So where was I all day Thursday? It's getting a little late and I'm tired, but I promise to regale you with the whole story sometime Friday. It wasn't quite what I was expecting, but in the end things probably turned out OK. More in the morning.

Health Note

| Wed Mar. 4, 2015 9:32 PM EST

I suppose the lack of content makes it obvious, but today has been a very bad day. I haven't been able to sleep more than a few hours for the past few days, despite plenty of sleep meds. I'm completely exhausted, and not just because of the lack of sleep. That's just making things worse. I can walk about 50 feet before I need to rest. My big accomplishment of the day was to turn on the TV around noon.

I assume this is all just part of the chemo withdrawal symptoms, but I don't really know. Tomorrow I have an appointment with an oncology nurse, so perhaps I'll learn more then.

If there's a silver lining to this, I suppose it's the possibility that this is the bottom of the post-chemo symptoms, and now I'll start getting better. We'll see.

Tea Party Loses Big in Today's Vote on Clean DHS Funding Bill

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 4:00 PM EST

It looks like the conventional wisdom was correct:

The House will vote as soon as Tuesday afternoon on a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security for the rest of the fiscal year. The measure will not target President Obama's executive actions on immigration, giving Democrats what they have long demanded and potentially enraging conservatives bent on fighting the president on immigration.

…The decision marks a big win for Democrats, who have long demanded that Congress pass a "clean" bill to fund DHS free of any immigration riders. For weeks, Boehner and his top deputies have refused to take up such a bill, as conservatives have demanded using the DHS debate to take on Obama's directives, which include action to prevent the deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants.

I thought the most likely course was a brief DHS shutdown (a week or two) just to save face, followed by a pretty clean funding bill. But I was too pessimistic. Apparently the House leadership wasn't willing to take the PR hit that would inevitably involve.

I wonder if Republicans could have gotten a better deal if the tea party faction had been less bullheaded? Last week's debacle, where they torpedoed even a three-week funding extension, surely demonstrated to Boehner that he had no choice but to ignore the tea partiers entirely. They simply were never going to support anything except a full repeal of Obama's immigration actions, and that was never a remotely realistic option. The subsequent one-week extension passed only thanks to Democratic votes, and that made it clear that working with Democrats was Boehner's only real choice. And that in turn meant a clean funding bill.

But what if the tea partiers had signaled some willingness to compromise? Could they have passed a bill that repealed some small part of Obama's program—and that could have passed the Senate? Maybe. Instead they got nothing. I guess maybe they'd rather stick to their guns than accomplish something small but useful. That sends a signal to their base, but unfortunately for them, it also sends a signal to Boehner. And increasingly, that signal is that he has no choice but to stop paying attention to their demands. There's nothing in it for Boehner, is there?

Summers: Yes, the Robots Are Coming to Take Our Jobs

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 1:58 PM EST

Jim Tankersley called up Larry Summers to ask him to clarify his views on whether automation is hurting middle-class job prospects. Despite reports that he no longer supports this view, apparently he does:

Tankersley: How do you think about the effects of technology and automation on workers today, particularly those in the middle class?

Summers: No one should speak with certainty about these matters, because there are challenges in the statistics, and there are conflicts in the data. But it seems to me that there is a wave of what certainly appears to be labor-substitutive innovation. And that probably, we are only in the early innings of such a wave.

I think this is precisely right. I suspect that:

  • Automation began having an effect on jobs around the year 2000.
  • The effect is very small so far.
  • So small, in fact, that it probably can't be measured reliably. There's too much noise from other sources.
  • And I might be wrong about this.

In any case, this is at least the right argument to be having. There's been a sort of straw-man argument making the rounds recently that automation has had a big impact on jobs since 2010 and is responsible for the weak recovery from the Great Recession. I suppose there are some people who believe this, but I really don't think it's the consensus view of people (like me) who believe that automation is a small problem today that's going to grow in the future. My guess is that when economists look back a couple of decades from now, they're going to to date the automation revolution from about the year 2000—but that since its effects are exponential, we barely noticed it for the first decade. We'll notice it more this decade; a lot more in the 2020s; and by the 2030s it will be inarguably the biggest economic challenge we face.

Summers also gets it right on the value of education. He believes it's important, but he doesn't think it will do anything to address skyrocketing income inequality:

It is not likely, in my view, that any feasible program of improving education will have a large impact on inequality in any relevant horizon.

First, almost two-thirds of the labor force in 2030 is already out of school today. Second, most of the inequality we observe is within education group — within high school graduates or within college graduates, rather than between high school graduates and college graduates. Third, inequality within college graduates is actually somewhat greater than inequality within high school graduates. Fourth, changing patterns of education is unlikely to have much to do with a rising share of the top 1 percent, which is probably the most important inequality phenomenon. So I am all for improving education. But to suggest that improving education is the solution to inequality is, I think, an evasion.

Also read Kevin's #longread all about this stuff: Welcome, Robot Overlords. Please Don't Fire Us?

This is the key fact. Rising inequality is almost all due to the immense rise in the incomes of the top 1 percent. But no one argues that the top 1 percent are better educated than, say, the top 10 percent. As Summers says, if we improve our educational outcomes, that will have a broad positive effect on the economy. But it very plainly won't have any effect on the dynamics that have shoveled so much of our economic gains to the very wealthy.

The rest is worth a read (it's a fairly short interview). Summers isn't saying anything that lots of other people haven't said before, but he's an influential guy. The fact that he's saying it too means this is well on its way to becoming conventional wisdom.