Kevin Drum

House Votes to End NSA Backdoor Searches

| Fri Jun. 20, 2014 12:29 AM EDT

In theory, the NSA is not supposed to spy on Americans without a warrant. However, if they claim that they're really spying on a foreigner who just happens to be talking to an American, they can collect both sides of the conversation and put all the information in one of their giant databases. And once the American information is in their database, they can search for it because, technically, they're not collecting anything they aren't allowed to. They're just searching for stuff they've already "inadvertently" collected.

To you and me, this is laughable sophistry. To the NSA, it's just another day at the office. Today, however, the House voted to end these "backdoor" searches:

The House, by a 293-123 vote late Thursday, approved a bipartisan proposal to limit the NSA’s surveillance programs by requiring the agency to get a court-ordered warrant to search U.S. records in its possession.

....The FISA Amendments Act authorizes overseas surveillance of online and telephone communications and prohibits the agency from intentionally targeting U.S. residents. But the law does not prohibit the agency from querying U.S. communications inadvertently collected under the foreign surveillance program.

Intelligence officials have acknowledged in recent months they do conduct warrantless searches of U.S. records under the program, leading to protests from civil rights and privacy groups.

This hasn't made it into law yet, and I'm sure we can expect the usual process of watering down as the Senate gets involved and tricky little words get inserted here and there. But it's a start.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Supreme Court Narrows Scope of Software Patents. Slightly.

| Thu Jun. 19, 2014 1:29 PM EDT

The Supreme Court unanimously tossed out an egregiously vague software patent today, and that's good news. Unfortunately, it was a fairly narrow ruling that didn't provide much guidance about which software patents are and aren't valid. Tim Lee explains:

The patent claimed a method of hedging against counter-party risk, which is a fancy word for the risk that you make a deal with someone and later he doesn't uphold his end of the bargain. The Supreme Court unanimously held that you can't patent an abstract concept like this merely by stating that the hedging should be done on a computer.

....[But] the Supreme Court rejects Alice's patent because "each step does no more than require a generic computer to perform generic computer functions." But many computer programmers would point out that this describes all software.

Software is nothing more than a long list of conventional mathematical operations. If you think a list of conventional operations isn't patent-eligible, that implies that any "invention" you can implement by loading software on a generic computer isn't patent-eligible. The problem is that judges lose sight of this fact as software gets more complex, leading to a de facto rule that only complicated computer programs can be patented.

This problem is hardly unique to software. An ordinary physical invention, after all, is usually just a collection of previously known parts put together in an innovative way. So when do you decide that the invention, taken as a whole, is truly innovative? It's a judgment call.

Now, I happen to think that this judgment is harder in the software realm than elsewhere, and that patent offices are inherently less competent to judge software implementations than other inventions. The algorithms themselves are typically impenetrable, and deducing prior art is all but impossible. At a guess—and that's all I can do since there's really no data available—I'd say that hardly any software inventions are truly innovative. They're simply solutions to problems that are put in front of a coding team. For the vast bulk of them, any other coding team given the same problem would probably come up with a pretty similar solution.

Unfortunately, it's essentially unknowable whether I'm right or wrong about that. What's not unknowable, however, is what the world would be like without software patents. That's because we used to live in such a world, and guess what? Software development thrived. So it's hard to see what benefits we get from all this. It's great for patent trolls, and I suppose it works OK for giant corporations that use their patent portfolios as bargaining tools with other giant corporations, but that's about it. So why bother?

About Half of Obamacare Exchange Enrollees Were Previously Uninsured

| Thu Jun. 19, 2014 11:40 AM EDT

A new Kaiser survey shows that 57 percent of those who bought health insurance on Obamacare exchanges were previously uninsured. That's about 4.5 million people who gained private insurance via the exchanges, and the vast majority of them say they would have remained uninsured if not for Obamacare. If this number is correct, it suggests that the number of newly insured by the end of the year will be a little higher than I've projected before—perhaps around 11-13 million.

But is it correct? Sarah Kliff provides the chart on the right showing the wildly different estimates from different sources, and explains that much of the divergence is due to different organizations asking different questions:

McKinsey asked people to identify the insurance they had "most of the year" in 2013....The RAND estimate relies on the research firm's ongoing American Life Panel....It found that, when it reached out to them mostly in early March, that 36 percent of those who had exchange coverage were, in earlier surveys, uninsured.

....Health and Human Services has estimated 87 percent of certain Obamacare enrollees lacked coverage when they signed up. This figure comes from a question on Healthcare.gov....The Kaiser Family Foundation report....asked survey respondents this question: "Before you began coverage under your current health insurance plan, were you covered by a different plan you purchased yourself, were you covered by an employer, by COBRA, did you have Medicaid or other public coverage, or were you uninsured?"

To a certain extent, there is no right answer. The basic problem is that the pool of uninsured has a lot of churn: people are covered for a while, then lose their jobs, then get another job, etc. So if you had insurance last August, but lost your job and signed up for Obamacare in November, do you count as previously uninsured? According to McKinsey, no. According to Kaiser, yes.

My own guess is that the Kaiser methodology is probably the closest of the four to what we'd normally think of as "uninsured," and its sample size is big enough to be reliable. In any case, when you combine these surveys with the Gallup results, the most likely number seems to be somewhere around 50 percent. Given the inherent subjectivity of the topic, that's probably about as good an estimate as we can get. There's just no reliable way to get precision any higher.

Obama: Ask First, Shoot Later

| Thu Jun. 19, 2014 10:23 AM EDT

Congratulations to the LA Times copy desk for the brilliant front-page headline on the right (print edition only). In the obligatory bland tones of a straight news piece, it perfectly captures both President Obama's approach to military intervention as well as the approach of the war-is-always-the-answer faction of the Republican Party. And the accompanying story isn't bad either:

Last fall, as President Obama weighed airstrikes against Syria, deliberations followed a clear pattern: The president solicited scores of options, planners returned with possibilities, and, according to people involved, Obama would reply with the same question: And then what?

Over the last several days, with Obama mulling involvement in another Middle East conflict, this time in Iraq, that dynamic has held.

....Obama's approach — the persistent "and then what?" question — reflects his deep skepticism about the ability of military intervention to fix entrenched problems, a suspicion that some note has grown, or at least solidified, during his tenure.

....That view won support Wednesday from the general who was the architect of the so-called troop surge under George W. Bush. The U.S. should reengage militarily in Iraq only if the country's sectarian communities reach a political agreement, retired Gen. David Petraeus said at a conference in London. "This cannot be the United States being the air force for Shia militias, or a Shia on Sunni Arab fight," he said.

At least there are a few people still left in Washington who understand this. Now we just need a few more.

Low Inflation Continues to Disappoint Inflation Hawks

| Wed Jun. 18, 2014 3:16 PM EDT

Perhaps you've read that inflation is up recently. Last night, for example, NBC News breathlessly told me that the price of eggs had gone up 13 cents over the past year. Does this mean that the inflation worries we've been hearing about continuously for the past four years are finally coming true?

I'd be happy if they were, since I think higher inflation would do the economy some good. Sadly, though, inflation remains well anchored. Despite the higher numbers of the past two months, the Fed's latest projections have increased by....one tenth of a percentage point. Or, if you take the average of their range, by one twentieth of a percentage point, from 1.55 percent to 1.6 percent.

And how about 2015? They're projecting 1.75 percent. And 2016? A whopping 1.8 percent. In other words, they believe that we'll continue to undershoot our inflation target for at least the next three years.

At the same time, their projection of GDP growth has plummeted from 2.9 percent to 2.2 percent. And their projections for 2015 and 2016 continue to hover around an anemic 3 percent.

So: we have low growth, low price inflation, low wage inflation, and unemployment is still high. This is really not an environment in which spending cuts and lower deficits are the answer. More here from Mark Thoma.

It's Time to Acknowledge Reality: Obamacare is Working Pretty Well

| Wed Jun. 18, 2014 1:00 PM EDT

A new paper concludes that "rate shock" under Obamacare has been generally more modest than we thought:

Using data from the Current Population Survey, we find that the average prices increased by 14 to 28 percent, with similar changes in California and the federal exchange states; we attribute the increase primarily to higher premiums in exchanges associated with insurer expectations of a higher risk population being enrolled.

This doesn't take into account federal subsidies, which would lower this number even further. What's more, rates most likely would have gone up about 10 percent even if Obamacare had never existed. Taken together, this suggests that the average premium increase thanks to Obamacare has been very small. And of course, that small increase buys you a policy that in most cases is considerably more robust than older policies.

In related news, HHS reports that people who qualify for tax credits are paying an average of $82 per month for their policies. This is roughly a fourth of what they'd pay without subsidies. The chart on the right shows how this breaks down: more than two-thirds of those who qualify for subsidies are paying less than $100 per month. Fewer than 20 percent are paying more than $150. In a nutshell, then, we now know that (a) the system works, (b) enrollment targets were largely met, and (c) health insurance under Obamacare is pretty affordable. Matt Yglesias explains what this means:

[These] three factors together should end the phony war over Obamacare and let the real debate begin — not the debate over whether the program "works" but the debate over whether economic resources should be devoted to providing health insurance to people at the bottom of the income distribution or to providing tax cuts to people at the top.

....[Obamacare] is a large-scale effort to improve living standards for people in the bottom half of the income distribution by giving them additional economic resources. One of America's political parties doesn't like that idea in any non-health context and they don't like it for health care either. They think the money it costs to provide those subsidies should be taken away, and it should be given to high-income households in the form of tax cuts.

This is an excellent and important policy debate to have. One of the great ideological issues not just of our time and place, but of democratic politics across eras and countries. Should economic resources be distributed more equally or less equally?

Yep. It's time to stop arguing over minutiae. Fundamentally, Obamacare "works." It's not perfect, but after nine months we can now say that it does indeed provide health coverage to the poor and the working-class in a reasonably efficient manner, and it does this largely by a combination of taxing and/or reducing payments to the relatively well off.

I think this is a good idea. Republicans don't. But this, rather than the cacophony of nonsense we've been subjected to over the past several years, is what we should be arguing about.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Has Hillary Clinton Evolved on Foreign Policy?

| Wed Jun. 18, 2014 11:43 AM EDT

In Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton says she disagreed with President Obama about the drawdown in Afghanistan; about arming Syrian rebels; and about getting tougher with Vladimir Putin. (She also thought we should have supported Hosni Mubarak more consistently and should have taken a softer line with the Israelis.)

At the same time, she also acknowledges that she made the wrong call on Iraq. This prompts an obvious question: Has the disaster in Iraq changed her approach to foreign policy at all? Presumably the answer is yes. At least, I hope it is. If the Iraq debacle doesn't change your mind, what would?

And this prompts a second question: Are there any concrete cases from the past few years in which her approach was less hawkish than it would have been a decade ago? Can she name one example where the Hillary of 2002 would have recommended intervention but the Hillary of 2009-12 recommended caution?

Maybe I'm wrong, but it strikes me that the answer is no. This is one of the reasons that Democrats need more primary choices in 2016. I've never really had anything against Hillary Clinton, but I'm hesitant about nominating someone who, as near as I can tell, acknowledges poor judgment on Iraq but hasn't let that actually change her views on much of anything. Maybe at her next town hall meeting, we could skip the endless nonsense about Benghazi, "dead broke," evolution on gay marriage, and so forth, and instead ask whether her foreign policy views have changed at all since 9/11. I'm not a huge fan of all of Barack Obama's foreign policy choices, but the more I hear from everyone else—including Hillary Clinton—the more I appreciate even the modest restraint that he's demonstrated. It's apparently a rare thing.

So the Benghazi Attacks Were Motivated by the Video After All?

| Wed Jun. 18, 2014 10:53 AM EDT

From a New York Times article today about the capture of Ahmed Abu Khattala, believed to be one of the leaders of the Benghazi attacks:

On the day of the attack, Islamists in Cairo had staged a demonstration outside the United States Embassy there to protest an American-made online video mocking Islam, and the protest culminated in a breach of the embassy’s walls — images that flashed through news coverage around the Arab world.

As the attack in Benghazi was unfolding a few hours later, Mr. Abu Khattala told fellow Islamist fighters and others that the assault was retaliation for the same insulting video, according to people who heard him.

I'm a little puzzled. The story is by David Kirkpatrick, with additional reporting from Suliman Ali Zway in Tripoli. Kirkpatrick has written extensively about Benghazi, and he has suggested before that the "Innocence of Muslims" video did indeed motivate some of the attackers. But as far as I know, he's never reported that Abu Khattala explicitly said that the video was his motivation. That makes this new and important reporting, but it's casually buried in the 18th paragraph of today's story—as if it's old news that's merely being repeated for this profile of Abu Khattala.

Maybe I just missed it before. But if this is truly new reporting, I'd sure be interested in knowing who the sources are and why they've never told us this before.

UPDATE: It turns out that Kirkpatrick has indeed reported this before. On October 18, 2012—five weeks after the Benghazi attacks—he wrote a profile of Abu Khattala that included this:

Mr. Abu Khattala, 41, wearing a red fez and sandals, added his own spin. Contradicting the accounts of many witnesses and the most recent account of the Obama administration, he contended that the attack had grown out of a peaceful protest against a video made in the United States that mocked the Prophet Muhammad and Islam.

This seems to have escaped everyone's attention, including mine, but apparently it's nothing new. Abu Khattala has claimed all along that the video was one of the motivations for the attacks.

A Few Wee Soccer Queries

| Tue Jun. 17, 2014 4:13 PM EDT

Okay, I've got a few questions for all you soccer folks:

  1. Outside the penalty area there's a hemisphere about 20 yards wide. I can't recall ever seeing it used for anything. What's it for?
  2. On several occasions, I've noticed that if the ball goes out of bounds at the end of stoppage time, the referee doesn't whistle the match over. Instead, he waits for the throw-in, and then immediately whistles the match over. What's the point of this?
  3. Speaking of stoppage time, how has it managed to last through the years? I know, I know: tradition. But seriously. Having a timekeeper who stops the clock for goals, free kicks, etc. has lots of upside and no downside. Right? It wouldn't change the game in any way, it would just make timekeeping more accurate, more consistent, and more transparent for the fans and players. Why keep up the current pretense?
  4. What's the best way to get a better sense of what's a foul and what's a legal tackle? Obviously you can't tell from the players' reactions, since they all writhe around like landed fish if they so much as trip over their own shoelaces. Reading the rules provides the basics, but doesn't really help a newbie very much. Maybe a video that shows a lot of different tackles and explains why each one is legal, not legal, bookable, etc.?

Thanks! This will be a big help for all of us who are pretending to understand what's going on in Brazil this month.

UPDATE: Best answers so far:

  1. It's only used for penalty kicks. Players have to be outside the penalty area and at least 10 yards away from the kicker. The circle marks 10 yards from the penalty kick spot.
  2. Apparently a match can end only when play is in progress. I guess this makes sense, in a way.
  3. No good answers here. The most common response is that it prevents time-wasting from the players, but I really don't see that. The referee can keep things moving, just as he does now. The second most popular response is that it's more exciting not knowing quite how much time is left. But that seems wrong on two levels. First, it's not more exciting, as virtually every other sport shows. Second, players do know how much time is left, because they announce it at the end of regulation time. My point, really, is that the clock is already stopped under the current system, but the stoppage is hidden for some reason. Why not simply make the stoppage more transparent?
  4. This video from FIFA is helpful, though note that the phrase "careless and reckless" is used a lot. This obviously leaves room for a good bit of subjectivity, which is fine, really. That's true of fouls in most sports. Still, it would be nice to see a video that actually contrasted legal and illegal behavior, even with the understanding that not everyone will agree in every instance.

Yet More Benghazi Conspiracy Theories Are Only a Day Away

| Tue Jun. 17, 2014 2:08 PM EDT

After a year of planning, US commandos have captured one of the militia leaders thought to be a ringleader in the Benghazi attacks. For political junkies, however, it was the 17th paragraph of the Times story that drew the most attention:

Mr. Obama’s Republican critics, who have sought to portray the Benghazi attack as an administration cover-up and efforts to prosecute those responsible as weak, were cautious in their initial response to news of Mr. Abu Khattala’s capture.

Indeed. I wonder just how long that caution will last? I'd give it no more than 24 hours. More than likely, it's just a publicity stunt meant to draw attention away from the IRS/EPA/ISIS/Iran. Amirite? In turn, all of those things are publicity stunts meant to draw attention away from Benghazi. It's like a finely tuned Swiss watch, isn't it?

By the way: does anyone know why this guy is referred to as Mr. Abu Khattala on all references in most news stories? It's never shortened. I've never noticed that with any other Arabic name.

UPDATE: Sorry about that. I thought I had seen "Mr. Abu Khattala" used repeatedly elsewhere too, but apparently not. Only in the New York Times, where it's house style.