Kevin Drum

Yes, the CIA Spied on the Senate

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 1:43 PM EDT

Earlier this year, CIA Director John Brennan accused staffers from the Senate Intelligence Committee of removing classified material from the CIA office where they were researching a report on the agency's use of torture during the Bush administration. This turned out to be very poor tradecraft on Brennan's part, since it implicitly revealed the fact that the CIA was spying on Senate staffers even though it wasn't supposed to. Brennan tried to mount a suitably aggressive counterattack to Senate outrage over this, but today it all came crashing down:

CIA employees improperly accessed computers used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to compile a report on the agency’s now defunct detention and interrogation program, an internal CIA investigation has determined.

....The statement represented an admission to charges by the panel’s chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that the CIA intruded into the computers her staff used to compile the soon-to-be released report on the agency’s use of harsh interrogation methods on suspected terrorists in secret overseas prisons during the Bush administration.

CIA Director John Brennan briefed Feinstein and the committee’s vice chairman, Saxby Chambliss, R-GA, on the CIA inspector general’s findings and apologized to them during a meeting on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Boyd said.

I find that my reaction remains one of schadenfreude. Dianne Feinstein and the rest of the Intelligence Committee seem to be mostly unconcerned with the omnipresent surveillance apparatus constructed by the US intelligence community, so it's hard to feel very sorry for them when they learn that this apparatus is also sometimes directed at Senate staffers. If this affair had persuaded a few senators that maybe our intelligence chiefs are less than totally honest about what they do, it might have done some good. But it doesn't seem to have done that. With only a few exceptions, they're outraged when the CIA spies on them, but that's about it.

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Why American Politics Is Broken In One Sentence

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 12:06 PM EDT

Dave Weigel explains modern politics in a single sentence:

Voters are aware of a border crisis, they are aware that Barack Obama is president—they blame him for nothing getting done.

Yep. Republicans can basically do anything they want and never get blamed for it. Most voters don't even know who's in control of Congress anyway. When something goes wrong, all they know is (a) something went wrong, and (b) Barack Obama is the president and he should have done something about it.

That being the case, what incentive do Republicans have for making things go right? Pretty much none. This is, roughly speaking, a fairly new insight, and it explains most of what you need to know about American politics in the Obama era.

This Is the Lamest Defense of GMO Foods Ever

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 11:47 AM EDT

Over on our environment blog, Chris Mooney posts an excerpt from an interview in which Neil deGrasse Tyson defends GMO foods:

"Practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food," asserts Tyson. "There are no wild, seedless watermelons. There's no wild cows...You list all the fruit, and all the vegetables, and ask yourself, is there a wild counterpart to this? If there is, it's not as large, it's not as sweet, it's not as juicy, and it has way more seeds in it. We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables and animals that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It's called artificial selection."

This is a very common defense of GMO foods, but I've always found it to be the weakest, least compelling argument possible. It's so weak, in fact, that I always wonder if people who make it are even operating in good faith.

It's true that we've been breeding new and better strains of plants and animals forever. But this isn't a defense of GMO. On the contrary, it's precisely the point that GMO critics make. We have about 10,000 years of evidence that traditional breeding methods are basically safe. That's why anyone can do it and it remains virtually unregulated. We have no such guarantee with artificial methods of recombinant DNA. Both the technique itself and its possible risks are completely different, and Tyson surely knows this. If he truly believed what he said, he'd be in favor of removing all regulation of GMO foods and allowing anyone to experiment with it. Why not, after all, if it's really as safe as Gregor Mendel cross-breeding pea plants?

As it happens, I mostly agree with Tyson's main point. Although I have issues surrounding the way GMO seeds are distributed and legally protected, the question of whether GMO foods are safe for human consumption seems reasonably well settled. The technology is new enough, and our testing is still short-term enough, that I would continue to err on the side of caution when it comes to approving GMO foods. Still, GMO breeds created under our current regulatory regime are basically safe to eat, and I think that lefty critics of GMO foods should stop cherry picking the evidence to scare people into thinking otherwise.

(Please send all hate mail to Tom Philpott. He can select just the juiciest ones to send along to me.)

But even with that said, we shouldn't pretend that millennia of creating enhanced and hybrid breeds tells us anything very useful about the safety of cutting-edge laboratory DNA splicing techniques. It really doesn't.

Quote of the Day: Vulture Fund Suing Argentina Is Just a Lonely Defender of the Free Market

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 10:24 AM EDT

Here is fellow hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb defending Paul Singer, the billionaire owner of the vulture fund that successfully forced Argentina into default because it was insisting on full payment for old Argentine bonds:

He doesn’t get into fights for the sake of fighting. He believes deeply in the rule of law and that free markets and free societies depend on enforcing it.

You betcha. Anytime a Wall Street tycoon is supposedly fighting for deep principles, hold onto your wallet. They don't become billionaires because of their deep commitment to fair play and the unfettered operation of capital markets. However, there's also this:

The big question, however, is whether Argentina will ever pay Elliott what it wants. If the firm fails to collect, that would underscore the limits of its legal strategy. There is no international bankruptcy court for sovereign debt that can help resolve the matter. Argentina may use the next few months to try to devise ways to evade the New York court. Debt market experts, however, do not see how any such schemes could avoid using global firms that would not want to fall afoul of Judge Griesa’s ruling.

This is an interesting point. Normally, Argentina would just continue to pay the holders of its "exchange" bonds and refuse to pay the vulture funds that refused to go along with the terms of its bankruptcy and restructuring a decade ago. Elliott and the other vultures would be out of luck. The problem is that Argentina's payments are funneled through a US bank, and the judge in the case has forced US banks to halt payments.

But in all the articles I've read about this, I've never really seen an adequate explanation of why it's so impossible to avoid funneling payments through the US. I get that Argentina can no longer use an American US bank. Also, I assume, they can't use a big global bank that does business in the US. But surely there are mid-size banks that do no business in the US that could act as payment agents? If dollars were the issue, they could pay off in euros instead. I don't know what it would take legally for Argentina to switch either payment agents or the denominations of its bonds, but it doesn't sound impossible. And yet apparently it is. Why?

Republicans About to Blow Up Emergency Border Crisis Funding

| Thu Jul. 31, 2014 1:07 AM EDT

The Obama administration is—once again—being forced to go into crisis mode to keep the government functioning because Republicans refuse to do their most basic job: appropriating money to deal with emergencies. This time it's for the refugee disaster on the border:

Border agencies say their existing budgets — sapped by added costs from overtime, detention and transportation for the children, more than 57,000 of whom have arrived since October — will start running dry before lawmakers get back in September.

Administration officials warn that the price of congressional inaction will be steep, estimating the cost of caring for each immigrant youth runs between $250 and $1,000 a day.

"Scary," Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, said about the agencies' budget outlook.

On Wednesday, officials at the Office of Management and Budget were putting together plans to scrounge up funds. But without congressional approval, President Obama is limited to moving around money only in small amounts. That probably means the redistribution will touch many different programs — a distressing prospect for officials in vulnerable agencies.

So why is it that Republicans can't agree on even a minimal stopgap funding bill? Because Ted Cruz is grandstanding again:

“The Obama White House should put Ted Cruz on the payroll,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a vocal Cruz opponent. “We have a chance to pass a good bill, not a perfect bill. Boehner is working hard to get to 218 votes and yet there is Ted Cruz, telling us to do nothing. If he wants to come over and run for speaker, that’s fine, but otherwise he should stay over there in the Senate.”

....At a conference meeting Tuesday, Boehner announced that he would pare down his initial framework after hearing numerous complaints about its size and scope....But Steve King, Gohmert and Salmon — along with Cruz and others — want House Republicans to defund Obama’s Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program, which has granted temporary relief for some children of illegal immigrants and is set for renewal this fall. Boehner has resisted the idea. But late Wednesday, GOP aides said that leaders were likely to allow a vote on a standalone bill that would defund DACA before voting to approve the border spending measure. If the bill to defund DACA were to pass, it wasn’t clear exactly how House leaders would merge the two proposals and send them to the Senate.

Basically, Cruz is trying to rally House conservatives to vote against Boehner's stopgap bill unless it also kills DACA, the so-called mini-DREAM executive action that halts deportations of children who have been in the country for many years. If he succeeds, then no funding bill will pass before Congress goes on vacation. That's why the Obama folks are in crisis mode. We can't just starve the kids who have come across the border, after all, and that means Obama is once again forced to be the grown-up in the room.

Your Republican Party at work, folks. George Washington would be proud.

Lucy and the Great 10% Myth

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 11:44 AM EDT

Andrew Sullivan reminds me of something I was curious about the other day. He quotes Jeffrey Kluger, who writes in Time that he's annoyed with the movie Lucy because it perpetuates the ridiculous myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains. I sympathize. I was sort of annoyed just by seeing that in the trailer. But it did make me wonder: where did this urban legend come from, anyway? Wikipedia to the rescue:

One possible origin is the reserve energy theories by Harvard psychologists William James and Boris Sidis...William James told audiences that people only meet a fraction of their full mental potential....In 1936, American writer Lowell Thomas summarized this idea...."Professor William James of Harvard used to say that the average man develops only ten percent of his latent mental ability."

In the 1970s, psychologist and educator Georgi Lozanov, proposed the teaching method of suggestopedia believing "that we might be using only five to ten percent of our mental capacity."....According to a related origin story, the 10% myth most likely arose from a misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of neurological research in the late 19th century or early 20th century. For example, the functions of many brain regions (especially in the cerebral cortex) are complex enough that the effects of damage are subtle, leading early neurologists to wonder what these regions did.

Huh. So we don't really know for sure. That's disappointing but not surprising. It's remarkable how often we don't know where stuff like this comes from.

As for its continuing popular resonance, I have a theory of my own. There are an awful lot of people out there with remarkable—and apparently innate—mental abilities. They can multiply enormous numbers in their heads. They can remember every day of their lives. That kind of thing. And yet, they operate normally in other regards. The fact that they've stored, say, distinct memories of the past 15,000 days of their lives doesn't seem to take up any cerebral space or energy that they needed for anything else. So surely all that storage and retrieval capacity is just sitting around unused in the rest of us?

No, it's not. But the idea resonates because freakish mental skills seem to be so much further out on the bell curve than freakish physical skills. It makes the whole 10 percent thing seem pretty plausible. And that's why it sticks around.

POSTSCRIPT: Or does it? I mean, has anyone tried to find out how many people still believe this myth? For all I know, everyone has long been aware that it's not true. We need a poll!

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An Awful Lot of People Think Obama Is Bored With Being President

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 11:05 AM EDT

You have to give the Fox News polling operation credit for mixing things up in an interesting way sometimes. At first glance, their latest poll is just a collection of all the usual leading questions about Obama busting up the Constitution, Obama being a loser compared to Vladimir Putin, Obama being incompetent, etc. etc. This is mostly yawn-worthy stuff intended as fodder for their anchors. All that's missing is a question about whether Obama plays too much golf. But then there's this:

Who else would think to ask a question like that? But it's kind of fascinating, really. And what's most fascinating is that it's barely partisan at all. In virtually every group, something like 40 percent of the respondents think Obama is bored with the whole presidenting thing. That goes for Democrats as well as Republicans; for blacks as well as whites; for the rich as well as the poor; and for liberals as well as conservatives. It's not quite a majority in any group—though it's pretty close among Hispanics and senior citizens—but an awful lot of people sure are convinced that Obama has already checked out of the Oval Office. He might want to do something about that.

GDP Increases At a Smart 4.0% Rate in Second Quarter

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 10:15 AM EDT

Here's something that counts as good news: GDP increased in the second quarter at an annual rate of 4.0 percent. At the same time, the first quarter numbers were revised to a slightly less horrible -2.1 percent growth rate. This means, roughly speaking, that the economy has grown about 1.9 percent over the first half of the year.

Now, this is obviously nothing to write home about. A growth rate of 1 percent per quarter is pretty anemic. Still, it's better than expectations after the terrible Q1 numbers, and the rebound in Q2 suggests there really was some make-up growth. A fair amount of this growth came from inventory build-up, which is normally a reason for caution, but after two previous quarters of inventory decline it's probably not the warning sign it might otherwise be.

All in all, this is decent news. It's still not possible to say that the economy is roaring along or anything, but the Q1 number now looks like it really was an anomaly. Slowly and sluggishly, the economy is continuing to recover for the ~95 percent of us who haven't been unemployed for months or who haven't given up and exited the labor force entirely. For those people, economic growth is still slow enough to leave them behind. One good quarter is nice, but we still have a lot of work to do.

Republicans Still Holding Up Virtually All Obama Appointments

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 1:52 AM EDT

Jonathan Bernstein notes today that although filibuster reform has technically given Democrats the ability to confirm any executive branch appointment, in practice Republicans can still tie up the Senate by insisting on lengthy parliamentary delays for every nominee. And that's what they're doing:

Senate Republicans continue to impose an across-the-board virtual hold on every executive branch nomination....Republican foot-dragging has created a backlog of more than 100 nominees, almost none of whom are controversial, and some of whom have been waiting since January for Senate floor action.

....I understand that Republicans are upset about the Democrats' filibuster reform. It has robbed them of leverage over nominations — even if it's entirely their own fault for having abused that leverage. But Republicans aren’t harming Senate majority leader Harry Reid by blocking nominations. They’re harming the functioning of the U.S. government. (Perhaps it might be nice to have ambassadors appointed in a few important nations?) And they are needlessly, cruelly, messing with people’s lives. On top of all that, they’re eliminating the leverage of individual Senators. As Ted Cruz (maybe) just learned, there’s no point putting an individual hold on a nomination that is already being held up by the entire Republican caucus.

And why? For the sake, as far as I can tell, of a tantrum.

Pretty much. But this is what they've been doing all along. The point of filibustering everything and everyone has never been just to prevent a few objectionable candidates from being confirmed. It's been to tie up Senate floor time and disrupt even the routine functioning of a federal government that's under Democratic control. Even with filibuster reform they can still do that, so why should they stop now? A broken government is nothing but good news for Republicans.

Bernstein says in another post today that he's tired of hearing about political polarization. It's not really anything new, after all. That's true enough, and this is a good example. It's not a case of polarization, it's just a straightforward case of assholery. There's no principle or ideology behind this, they're merely causing dysfunction for the sake of causing dysfunction. Welcome to the modern GOP.

My Ten-Dollar Offer to the Halbig Truthers

| Tue Jul. 29, 2014 8:31 PM EDT

There's no question that the statutory text of Obamacare contains a mistake. In one of its sections, it authorizes federal subsidies only for taxpayers who enroll through a state-based exchange, not for those who enroll through the federal exchange. But was it really a mistake? Brian Beutler comments:

Right-wing activists have spent the last several months fabricating a rival narrativea ludicrous theory of intent, in which leading Democrats meant to condition the subsidies, but decided to keep the inducement a secret from reporters, back bench members, governors, budget analysts, and health care reform advocates. This kind of deceptive argumentation is perhaps to be expected from activists. What's become incredibly frustrating to me about the Halbig brouhaha in the last few days is watching the conservative health care writers who were in the same trenches watching the same debate unfoldattempting, from a very skeptical vantage point, to explain the bill correctlysuddenly turn around and vouchsafe the Halbig Truthers.

That suggests something to me. As far as I know, not a single reporter who covered the Obamacare battle believes that Congress intended to restrict subsidies to state exchanges. As Beutler says, "To the extent that the question wasn’t probed widely, if at all, it's because that would've been almost like asking whether the subsidies were intended to be denominated in Rubles." Sarah Kliff agrees: "It was never a question, during the five years I've spent writing about Obamacare, whether this would be case." Nobody in Congress questioned the universality of subsidies. Nobody in the executive branch questioned it. No governors questioned it. None of the bureaucrats tasked with building the exchanges questioned it. And nobody in the press questioned it.

And that brings me to my suggestion: Is it really true that no one in the press questioned it? For the moment, let's forget about liberals. Hell, everyone knows we're in the bag for Obamacare, and by now we've probably scrubbed all our old posts of damning evidence. Ditto for the mainstream media. They're just shills for Obama anyway. But how about conservatives? They covered the Obamacare battle pretty obsessively too. Here's my guess: every single article written by conservatives between January 2009 and March 2010 (a) assumed that subsidies were universal and (b) never so much as mentioned the possibility that they weren't. In other words, they all believed in universal subsidies too because there was never any reason in their reporting to believe otherwise. Not one single reason.

But maybe I'm wrong! So here's my offer: I will send a crisp, new ten-dollar bill to anyone who can point out a conservative who so much as suspected that subsidies were limited to state exchanges prior to March 2010. Surely that's incentive enough? Let's start digging up evidence, people.