Kevin Drum

Obama and WikiLeaks

| Thu Jul. 29, 2010 10:24 AM EDT

Doyle McManus on the WikiLeaks affair:

The most surprising thing about WikiLeaks' released trove of officially secret documents is how few surprises it contains.

That's largely because of a little-noticed, little-credited change in important parts of the U.S. military establishment over the last five years: a conscious decision to deploy the unconventional weapons of honesty and candor about the conduct of the war.

Mired in two wars that have been longer and more difficult than initially advertised, U.S. commanders have adopted an audacious but sensible strategy in describing facts on the ground: No more sugarcoating.

Why? Because one of the lessons of Vietnam was relearned in Iraq: When Americans believe they are being lied to about military operations, they stop supporting them.

Well, if this is true then the White House owes Julian Assange a debt of gratitude, doesn't it? After all, until now we couldn't really be sure they were telling us the truth about the war. Now, apparently, we can. That should be nothing but good news for the war effort. Maybe Obama should send Assange a thank you note.

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Even Yet More Warrantless Searches

| Wed Jul. 28, 2010 11:31 PM EDT

This is just excellent news:

The Obama administration is seeking to make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual's Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation.

The administration wants to add just four words — "electronic communication transactional records" — to a list of items that the law says the FBI may demand without a judge's approval. Government lawyers say this category of information includes the addresses to which an Internet user sends e-mail; the times and dates e-mail was sent and received; and possibly a user's browser history. It does not include, the lawyers hasten to point out, the "content" of e-mail or other Internet communication.

I forget. How many NSLs do the FBI and other federal agencies already send out every year? 30,000? 50,000? What's it up to now? Whatever it is, I guess it's still not enough. That business of getting approval from a judge is just so annoying, after all.

You know, if I'd wanted Dick Cheney as president I would have just voted for him.

Housekeeping Note

| Wed Jul. 28, 2010 7:50 PM EDT

hello, world.

Ah, excellent. Everything seems to be working. Sorry for the radio silence today. Last week Southern California Edison informed us that we might suffer a planned power outage today, and I foolishly assumed this meant the lights might go out for half an hour at some point during the morning. Nope. The lights went out at 8:30 am, a whole bunch of big trucks with gigantic reels of thick cable pulled up, workers did mysterious things all day, and at 5:30 pm the lights came back on.

So....did anything interesting happen while I was gone?

No-Growth Economics and You

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 7:35 PM EDT

Clive Thompson investigates the renewed interest in "no-growth economics" — that is, economics that assumes the total output of the world stops growing and just stays the same. Peter Victor and Herman Daly have tried to model what such a world would look like:

Some of their conclusions are surprisingly pleasant. For example, to move away from growth, we'll all have to work a lot less....Handled correctly, this could bring about an explosion of free time that could utterly transform the way we live, no-growth economists say. It could lead to a renaissance in the arts and sciences, as well as a reconnection with the natural world. Parents with lighter workloads could home-school their children if they liked, or look after sick relatives....Viewed this way, a nongrowing economy could have broad political appeal, ushering in the sort of togetherness and family values that social conservatives celebrate. Liberals might appreciate the concept of work sharing, which could help narrow the income gap between rich and poor.

....The hard part is that we would be consuming less — probably far less. What does that mean, exactly? Daly has suggested that Americans would need to scale back our energy consumption to 1960s levels....Western consumption rates would need to shrink disproportionately so that citizens of countries like India and El Salvador could enjoy a lifestyle upgrade. Why? The no-growthers argue that a world with fewer yawning inequities between the rich and poor would be more stable; but quite apart from that, their models require stabilizing world population, and raising the economic lot of the poor is a proven way to do that.

Given the shift in wealth needed to accomplish this, Americans would need to turn back the clock to well before 1983; in fact, we'd be pretty lucky even to find ourselves where we were in 1960....People might need to develop a renewed appreciation for durable goods that require lots of labor to make but ultimately use fewer resources than their throwaway counterparts.

This is....a wee bit rosy. If we all worked two days a week, I suspect the real result would be more time spent playing video games and drinking beer, not a renaissance in the arts and sciences. And more time to look after sick relatives? I'm not sure everyone would consider this a boon.

And that's the surprisingly pleasant part! Let's put a few numbers to the less pleasant part. Right now, per capita GDP for the entire world is about $10,000. If the plan is to stop growing, but redistribute global wealth so that we're all equally well off, that means America would need to cut back its per capita GDP to the global average. A per capita GDP of $10,000 implies a median income of about $7,000 or so, which basically means that well over half the country would be living at what's now considered poverty level. In other words, not only wouldn't we get a renaissance in the arts and sciences, we probably couldn't afford video games or beer either.

It's possible that things will come to that if we destroy the planet. But it sure isn't going to happen short of that. I mean, we just saw a climate bill go down to crushing defeat because it would have raised the average energy bill of the average American by a hundred bucks or so. So count me as skeptical that no-growth economics is really gaining much of a following.

A Second Look at WikiLeaks

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 1:49 PM EDT

The most common reaction to the WikiLeaks release of 92,000 classified cables and other documents from Afghanistan has been a collective yawn: they don't really tell us anything new, so it's not much of a story. Glenn Greenwald, among others, has been pushing back against this. Here's a sampling of his recent Twitter posts:

So this is all boring old news that tells us nothing - or WikiLeaks has Endangered Us All & the source should be killed. Can someone choose

These are the kinds of stories the WikiLeaks documents enable - decide for yourself if they're worthwhile: http://is.gd/dLcp5

James Fallows on the "nothing-new-here" dismissals of WikiLeaks from war supporters: http://is.gd/dMn1I

Old news - nothing new - boring, yawn, move along: http://is.gd/dMHIt

When I first read the Guardian and New York Times writeups about the WikiLeaks release, I mostly yawned too. But I pretty quickly felt kind of guilty about that. Not because I was wrong in a technical sense — most of the WikiLeaks stuff really has been common knowledge for a long time — but because everyone was saying it. And as my colleague David Corn points out, that really doesn't seem right. Even if the news is old, the leaked documents do provide a different look at familiar events and are likely to capture public attention in a way that the original news reports didn't. That's pretty worthwhile. Plus, as Glenn points out in the fourth tweet above, some of the leaked documents really do seem to be newsworthy in their own right:

Buried among the 92,000 classified documents released Sunday by WikiLeaks is some intriguing evidence that the U.S. military in Afghanistan has adopted a PR strategy that got it into trouble in Iraq: paying local media outlets to run friendly stories.

....In one of the WikiLeaks documents, a PRT [provincial reconstruction team] member reports delivering "12 hours of PSYOP Radio Content Programming" to two radio stations in the province of Ghazni in 2008, and paying one of them "$3,900 for Radio Content Programming air time for the month of October"....Two other messages seem to show U.S. soldiers referring to local Afghan media as extensions of their own units rather than independent reporters.

I don't have a lot more to add to this. I guess this is just sort of a weasely semi-apology for semi-dismissing the WikiLeaks documents. I really hate the idea of enabling a conventional wisdom that suggests there's nothing to worry our little heads over here. The WikiLeaks dump isn't Pentagon Papers II because it doesn't show the same level of official lying that the original Pentagon Papers did, but it's still important because it helps focus our attention on something worth focusing on. And God knows that after two weeks of the New Black Panthers and Shirley Sherrod and the Ground Zero mosque, we could stand to shift our attention to something a wee bit more worthwhile.

Are the Bankers Winning Again?

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 12:31 PM EDT

Here is Barbara Matthews, managing director of BCM International Regulatory Analytics LLC in Washington, on the latest draft of the Basel III accords for bank safety:

Even though we see a lot of concessions, there are also limits to the concessions. So this isn’t fully caving in.

Whew! I was worried there for a minute. But at least we're not fully caving in.

Early reports suggest that the final draft accord — agreed to by everyone except Germany so far — largely caved in on its definition of capital, which will allow banks a lot more leeway to skirt the new rules. It also, as expected, allows a long transition period before the new rules take effect. In return, it mandates a minimum leverage ratio. This would be great news except that the new minimum is 3%, or 33:1, and as the New York Times reports, "the requirement is expected to have little effect on U.S. institutions, which already meet the 3 percent standard easily." And remember that this was Tim Geithner's reason for opposing leverage ratios in the financial reform bill: he thought it was better handled by the Basel process. That's not looking like such a great bet right now.

And how about the "net stable funding ratio," which you recall has to do with preventing bank runs in the shadow sector. Basically, it would require financial institutions to rely less on overnight and other short-term funding, which can dry up quickly when markets panic, and more on longer term funding. It's a great idea, but the draft agreement punts: "The Committee remains committed to the introduction of the NSFR as a longer term structural complement to the LCR. Nevertheless, the initial NSFR calibration as set out in the December 2009 proposal needs to be modified....A number of adjustments are under consideration." I think we can safely expect this entire subject to be slowly forgotten.

Basel III appears to be better than Basel II and better than the status quo. But not by much. Here's most of what you need to know: Bloomberg reports that Frederick Cannon, chief equity strategist at New York-based Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, thinks the latest changes should please banks. And the New York Times confirms this: "The announcement helped banking shares move higher in Europe on Tuesday. Analysts said there was relief that the measures were not as punishing as they might have been." And if banks are happy, that's really not good news.

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Would the ADA Pass Today?

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 11:45 AM EDT

A few days ago I expressed some doubts that the Truth in Lending Act, which passed easily in 1968, could pass today. Sure, it was the right thing to do, but it also imposed a bunch of regulations on businesses that cost them money. Today, that cost would probably be viewed as far more important than the benefits to consumers, and a bill like TLA would either be watered down into mush or never seriously taken up in the first place. We just don't believe in regulating businesses any longer solely because we think we have the right to tell them how consumers ought to be treated. Even lots of liberals — including me, some of the time — have succumbed to this attitude.

Paul Tomasky, on the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, listens to Rand Paul fulminating against the ADA because it's not "fair to the business owner" and wonders if the ADA could pass either:

Paul is more extreme than your average Republican, but it does make one wonder whether today's Republican Party would have supported the ADA. In 1990, it passed the Senate 76-8 and passed the House by unanimous voice vote. I think we can say with great confidence that those particular outcomes would never have happened today, and we'd have seen far more caterwauling about the impositions placed on business and so on.

I will grant that the ADA has cost businesses some money, and that there surely have been some nuisance lawsuits. But it's made the US a better place. In 1990, the GOP saw this. Today's GOP would never accept such regulatory "impositions" on the private sector. You might get eight or 10 of them to vote for such a bill, because they would make the decision as a party that overall they didn't want to be seen as picking on people in wheelchairs, but the distance from only a handful of Republicans opposing that bill to Rand Paul's comments in May is one marker of how extreme the GOP has become.

Has this change in priorities over the past few decades made America a better place? For some, yes. For most, no. Jon Cohn has more.

Watching the Economy

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 11:15 AM EDT

Stuart Staniford takes a look at global oil production figures as a proxy for economic growth and comes away unhappy:

In the short term, global oil production is a sensitive indicator of the state of the global economy, and I'm not aware of any other publicly available proxies for the overall state of the world's economy that are as timely.

In this case, given that prices are falling rather than rising, and that OPEC undoubtedly has some spare capacity, the question becomes one not about whether supply is struggling to rise, but rather about whether demand is faltering or even declining.

Whether this presages a renewed contraction in the global economy, a stagnation, or just a transient hiccup in the ongoing recovery, I'm not certain of yet. But certainly each passing month of lower oil production will add to the concern.

Are there any economic indicators that look healthy right now? Not that I can think of. Corporate profits are up, of course, as are Wall Street salaries, but that's small comfort to those of us in the non-millionaire class. Most core indicators are, at best, stagnant, while others are downright gloomy. This one is in the latter category.

The Great Interchange Fee Scam

| Tue Jul. 27, 2010 10:35 AM EDT

Adam Ozimek is obviously trying to make my head explode this morning. Today he points to a new paper from the Boston Fed that investigates the consequences of credit card interchange fees. The basic background is this: (1) card companies charge merchants a 1-2% interchange fee on all credit card purchases, (2) merchants raise the prices of all their products slightly in order to cover this cost, and (3) because most merchants charge everyone the same price, regardless of whether they use cash or credit, cash users end up paying a little more than they should while card users pay a bit less than the actual cost of the interchange fee they incur. So what does it all mean?

On average, each cash-using household pays $151 to card-using households and each card-using household receives $1,482 from cash users every year. Because credit card spending and rewards are positively correlated with household income, the payment instrument transfer also induces a regressive transfer from low-income to high-income households in general. On average, and after accounting for rewards paid to households by banks, the lowest-income household ($20,000 or less annually) pays $23 and the highest-income household ($150,000 or more annually) receives $756 every year.

Isn't that peachy? This is the result of allowing an effective monopoly in the card business, thus giving network providers the power to force merchants to keep interchange fees hidden instead of charging them directly to card users. Vast masses of poor and middle income families end up paying a few dollars into the system every year while a small number of upper income families reap the benefits.

This is why I don't like hidden fees: there's rarely much point in keeping something hidden if it's fair and equitable. You only do that if someone is getting screwed. And guess who gets the shaft more often than not?

Quote of the Day: Political Footballs in Congress

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 11:34 PM EDT

From Sen. Kay Hagan (D–NC), bemoaning the Judiciary Committee's inaction on a measure congratulating Jimmie Johnson for winning the 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup:

I hope we can overcome the stalemate on sports resolutions, so that we can again congratulate great athletes in North Carolina and across the country.

Preach it, senator. You speak for millions of patriotic Americans who are furious at Congress's refusal to honor the University of South Carolina baseball team, the University of Alabama football team, the LSU baseball team, Duke University's basketball team, and U.S. Open golf champion Lucas Glover. Maybe if you ask the White House, Obama will honor these fine athletic heroes via a recess proclamation.