Kevin Drum

AT&T Is the NSA's Best Friend

| Sat Aug. 15, 2015 2:35 PM EDT

New Snowden documents indicate that AT&T has been the biggest and most cooperative supplier of internet and phone data to the NSA:

AT&T has given the N.S.A. access, through several methods covered under different legal rules, to billions of emails as they have flowed across its domestic networks. It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a customer of AT&T.

....In September 2003, according to the previously undisclosed N.S.A. documents, AT&T was the first partner to turn on a new collection capability that the N.S.A. said amounted to a “ ‘live’ presence on the global net.” In one of its first months of operation, the Fairview program forwarded to the agency 400 billion Internet metadata records — which include who contacted whom and other details, but not what they said — and was “forwarding more than one million emails a day to the keyword selection system” at the agency’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Md.

....In 2011, AT&T began handing over 1.1 billion domestic cellphone calling records a day to the N.S.A. after “a push to get this flow operational prior to the 10th anniversary of 9/11,” according to an internal agency newsletter. This revelation is striking because after Mr. Snowden disclosed the program of collecting the records of Americans’ phone calls, intelligence officials told reporters that, for technical reasons, it consisted mostly of landline phone records.

US spying on the UN was stopped in 2013 after it was first reported, but it was never clear just exactly how much spying had gone on in the first place. We still don't know, but one of the documents in this new collection says the NSA was authorized to conduct "full-take access," and that the amount of data was so large that it flooded the NSA's technical capability unless a "robust filtering mechanism" was put in place. Sounds like a lot of spying.

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Friday Cat Blogging - 14 August 2015

| Fri Aug. 14, 2015 2:50 PM EDT

This is Hopper doing her best impression of the Queen of Sheba. She doesn't deign to stand up when she hydrates herself, but instead lounges idly on the floor while delicately lapping up her water. Soon she'll probably start demanding that I drop individual bits of kibble into her mouth while she reclines on my lap. I'd probably do it, too. And make sure to get some pictures.

Jeb Bush Will Do Fine Defending His Brother's War

| Fri Aug. 14, 2015 2:09 PM EDT

Jeb Bush just can't stop talking about Iraq:

"In 2009, Iraq was fragile but secure. It was mission was accomplished in the way that there was security there and it was because of the heroic efforts of the men and women in the Untied States military that it was so."

In a question and answer session hosted by Americans for Peace, Prosperity and Security held on a college campus here, the Republican presidential hopeful said the removal of Saddam Hussein from power "turned out to be a pretty good deal," and he praised the 2007 troop surge his brother pushed as "an extraordinarily effective" strategy.

On the debate over interrogation techniques, another issue that dogged his brother, Bush would not say for certain whether he would preserve the executive order President Obama signed banning enhanced interrogation. "I do think in general that torture is not appropriate," he said.

Obviously I think Bush is wrong about all the Iraq stuff, and I'd certainly like to hear a more robust denunciation of torture than calling it "not appropriate." Still, I guess he deserves some credit on the torture score since the rest of the Republican field mostly seems to think the only problem with George Bush's torture policy is that he didn't do enough of it.

But the merits of the Iraq war aside, here's what I'm curious about: is this a winning position with the Republican base? I've been reading a lot of comments about how extraordinary it is that in only a few short years, Republicans have abandoned their Iraq skepticism and become full-bore defenders of the war again. How could it happen so quickly?

But conservative Republicans never abandoned their support for the Iraq war in the first place, did they? Sure, there were times when support dipped a bit in national polls, but conservatives supported the surge from the start; they've always canonized the surge as the point where the war was finally won; they've long excoriated Obama for pulling out troops; and they've been hawkish on ISIS from the beginning. As near as I can tell, conservative Republicans have never really questioned the value of the Iraq war. Nor have they lost their taste for having lots of ground troops there.

So Jeb should do fine by defending his brother's war. Plenty of Beltway types will mock him, but the Republican base has never lost the faith. As far as they're concerned, Iraq was a righteous venture that was ruined only by the gutlessness of President Obama and his cabal of apology tour aides. We coulda won if only we'd just kept at it.

Feinstein: No Classified Info in Hillary Clinton Emails

| Fri Aug. 14, 2015 11:35 AM EDT

I'm pretty sure this has already been widely reported, but today Dianne Feinstein confirmed what we know about those four emails on Hillary Clinton's server that contain sensitive information:

“None of the emails alleged to contain classified information were written by Secretary Clinton,” Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement. “The questions are whether she received emails with classified information in them, and if so, whether information in those emails should have been classified in the first place. Those questions have yet to be answered.”

Mrs. Feinstein also said, “None of the emails alleged to contain classified information include any markings that indicate classified content.”

Should they have been classified at the time? Who knows. That's a spat between State and the CIA, and a fairly uninteresting one. For now, anyway, our national security seems to have survived the Clinton era at the State Department unscathed.

Maybe We'll Have a Trump-Sanders Unity Ticket in 2016?

| Fri Aug. 14, 2015 11:20 AM EDT

Kathleen Hennessey of the LA Times on what Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common:

Both Trump, the real estate tycoon, and Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, are tapping into anti-establishment, pro-outsider sentiment that is emerging as a potent force early in the campaign cycle. Years of dissatisfaction with Washington leaders, along with a thirst for authenticity in politics, is leading voters to at least contemplate something different this year — dramatically different.

I guess I'm going to have to keep count of how many reporters write this exact same story. At least there's no mention in this one of the evergreen voter "anger" that we hear about every four years. I'll take my victories where I can get them.

The Strong Dollar Is Keeping America Down

| Fri Aug. 14, 2015 10:44 AM EDT

Ana Swanson writes today that China's devaluation of the yuan is hardly unique. Everyone is devaluing these days:

Since hitting a low point in mid-2011, the U.S. dollar has risen by about a third against a basket of global currencies; in just the last year, it is up 20 percent. Patrick Chovanec, chief strategist at Silvercrest Asset Management, says the dollar’s strength already shaved around two percentage points off U.S. economic growth in the first quarter of this year.

The dollar is up against both the euro and the yen thanks to our relatively strong economy. "Relatively" is the key word here: the American economy may be doing better than a lot of others, but it's still growing at the fairly unimpressive rate of 2-3 percent annually.

This highlights a problem for the next president that won't be solved by bluster: there's a limit to how much our economy can grow if the rest of the world is mired in a slump. This is one of the reasons the Fed should stay cautious about raising interest rates. It's not just that the recovery remains fragile; the entire global economy remains fragile. This is not a good time for experiments just to appease inflation hawks.

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Does Donald Trump Have ADHD?

| Thu Aug. 13, 2015 6:32 PM EDT

Ah, what the hell. The second half of Sean Hannity's interview with Donald Trump is up, and it's....hard to describe. But the ADHD is on full display. Here is Hannity asking him about his tax plan. After being taken aback that Trump doesn't favor a flat tax, Hannity wants to know how high Trump would set the top rate:

TRUMP: I actually believe that people, as they make more and more money, can pay a higher percentage, OK?

HANNITY: How high?....What's the cap?

TRUMP: We will set the cap. I want to have a cap so we have a lot of business, a lot more activity. I want to get rid of all this deficit.  We'll make it — we're losing $600 billion, $700 billion! We're going to be losing. And by the way, when ObamaCare kicks in, we're going to be losing a $1.3 trillion, $1.4 trillion a year. We can't do that. We're going to be a Greece on steroids!

Here's what I want to do. I want to simplify the tax cut. I want to cut taxes. But I want to simplify the tax code. I want to make it great for the middle class. The middle class is being killed.

I want to put H&R Block — it's an ambition of mine to put H&R Block out of business. When a person has a simple tax return, they have a job, and they can't even figure out when they look at this complicated form — they can't figure out what to pay.

And you know what? I have guys that are friends of mine, they make a fortune. They're hedge fund guys. They move around — paper. Look, at least I build things. I put people to — these guys move around paper. And half the time, it's luck more than talent, OK?

They pay peanuts, OK? I want to make it so the middle class — I want to lower taxes, but I want to make it so the middle class benefits.

And there you have it: Donald Trump talking policy. Hannity has a simple question: what should be the highest tax rate? 23 percent? 28 percent? 35 percent? Trump just bulldozes by and starts free associating about the deficit and the middle class and simplified returns and hedge fund guys and—something else. I'm not sure who the "They pay peanuts" comment is aimed at. Hedge fund managers? By the time he's done flitting around, even Hannity, one of our nation's foremost blowhards, just gives up and moves on to something else.

I'm not just cherry picking, either. The entire interview is like this. The conversation about Iran is, if anything, even more surreal. Hannity actually tried asking about the nuclear deal multiple times instead of just giving up, and as near as I can tell Trump knows only two things about the agreement: (a) Iran will get $150 billion1 and (b) something about 24 days for inspections. That's it.

I know I said this already, but I'm honestly not sure Trump is deliberately evading questions. Maybe he is. It's certainly the case that he hasn't bothered to learn even the first thing about either tax policy or the Iran deal. At the same time, he genuinely sounds like an ADHD kid whose mind is in such chaos that he simply can't string together more than two coherent sentences at a time. And yet, as he keeps reminding us, he is really rich. Can someone with the attention span of a kitten on crack get that rich?

1Just for the record, the net value of the impounded money that Iran would get access to is somewhere between $30 and $150 billion. Nobody really knows the exact figure.

Obamacare: Still Working, Still a Pretty Good Bargain

| Thu Aug. 13, 2015 3:19 PM EDT

This week the CDC confirmed what we already knew: the rate of uninsurance has dropped dramatically since Obamacare started up. It's gone from about 20 percent in 2013 to 13 percent in the first quarter of this year (chart at top right). This matches the Gallup data that we get quarterly, which shows a drop from about 18 percent to 12 percent (chart at bottom right). Note that the Gallup numbers are about 2 points lower across the board because Gallup surveys everyone over 18, including seniors on Medicare, who are 100 percent covered. The CDC counts only adults aged 18-64.

Either way, this comes to about 16 million adults who now have health insurance who were previously uncovered. And the number would be even higher if so many red states weren't refusing to expand Medicaid.

And the cost of all this? About $70 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That's roughly $4,000 per person. Not a bad deal.

Labor Shortage? Have You Tried Paying More?

| Thu Aug. 13, 2015 2:32 PM EDT

The Washington Post informs us today of yet another looming labor shortage:

There's a growing problem that chefs and restaurateurs are talking about more these days.

Good cooks are getting harder to come by. Not the head kitchen honchos, depicted in Food Network reality shows, who fine-tune menus, and orchestrate the dinner rush, but the men and women who are fresh out of culinary school and eager to earn their chops. The shortage of able kitchen hands is affecting chefs in Chicago....It's an issue in New York as well....And it extends to restaurants out West, where a similar pinch is being felt. Seattle is coping with the same dilemma. San Francisco, too.

....One of the clearest obstacles to hiring a good cook, let alone someone willing to work the kitchen these days, is that living in this country's biggest cities is increasingly unaffordable. In New York, for instance, where an average cook can expect to make somewhere between $10 and $12 per hour....

Let's just stop right there. We've seen this movie before. What's really happening, apparently, is that there's a shortage of skilled people willing to work lousy hours and face long commutes in return for $10 to $12 per hour.

Offer them, say, $15 per hour, and who knows? Maybe there are plenty of good entry-level cooks available. This would raise your total cost of running the restaurant by, oh, 2 percent or so,1 but it's not like restaurants are competing with China. They're competing with other restaurants nearby that have the same problem. If the price of a good cook is going up, it's going to affect everyone.

I tire of reading stories like this. Tell me what happens when employers offer more money. If they still can't find qualified workers, then maybe there's a real problem. If they haven't even tried it, then maybe the problem isn't quite as dire as they're making it out to be.

1Back-of-envelope guess based on kitchen labor cost of 15 percent and entry-level cooks making up maybe a third of that. If 5 percent of your cost base gets a 30-40 percent raise, that's about a 2 percent total increase.

Iran Deal: As Good as We Could Have Gotten Unless We Were Willing to Threaten Immediate War

| Thu Aug. 13, 2015 1:10 PM EDT

One of the big criticisms of President Obama's nuclear deal is that he could have done better. In this case, Donald Trump really does speak for the entire GOP when he says that Obama's team were all terrible negotiators who were too desperate for a deal and got suckered by shrewd Iranian horsetraders.

Is this true? Could we have gotten a substantially better deal if we had tightened the screws more? Gary Samore is the former president of United Against Nuclear Iran—"former" because he stepped down after he examined the deal and decided it was pretty good after all. Samore has decades of experience with Iran's nuclear program and is well respected in the arms control community. So does he think we could have gotten a better deal?

Max Fisher: Could we have gotten a better deal?

Gary Samore: It's very hard for me to answer that question. Unless you're actually sitting in the room, doing the back-and-forth, it's very, very difficult to say with any confidence that we could get a substantially better deal. When I say substantially better, I'm talking about much more dismantlement of Iran's enrichment program, unlimited duration or a longer duration, and more robust challenge inspections [of undeclared facilities].

I'm not talking about — I mean, the difference between 6,000 centrifuges and 5,000 centrifuges is trivial. Yes, you could probably get slightly different terms. We could have allowed them to keep a larger amount of low-enriched uranium, in exchange for having fewer centrifuges. There are all of these trade-offs embedded in the deal. But I don't consider these kinds of details significantly better.

Max Fisher: It sounds like what you're talking about, in terms of any different deal we could've gotten, is more about pushing around the numbers than getting a deal that looks fundamentally different.

Gary Samore: With the leverage that we have — which is economic sanctions and political pressure — I don't think we can achieve a dismantlement of their program, unlimited duration, "anytime, anywhere" inspections. I just don't think those are possible under current circumstances. Their economic situation would have to be much more dire, or we would have to be willing to use a military ultimatum to get those kinds of concessions from Iran.

Bottom line: Samore started out skeptical, but when he saw the actual text of the deal he was surprised at how good it was. Most importantly, he doubts that a substantially better deal would have been possible unless we had issued a military ultimatum.

So there's something here for everyone. For people like me, it's nice to hear that an expert came around when he took the time to look seriously at the deal's terms. But Samore also concedes that we might have done better if we had credibly threatened to bomb Iran—which is precisely what a lot of conservatives think we should have done.

This is, perhaps, the fundamental dividing line. If you think we should have set a date certain for the missiles to fly unless we got what we wanted, then the deal was a lousy one. We could have done better. If you think—as I do—that this is insane, then the deal looks pretty good. Opinions about the final agreement have less to do with the precise terms of the deal than it does with your willingness to threaten immediate war to get what you want.