Kevin Drum

Judge Strikes Down Pennsylvania Voter ID Law

| Fri Jan. 17, 2014 2:03 PM EST

In a victory for access to the polls, a state judge struck down Pennsylvania's voter ID law today. Rick Hasen tells us what it means:

This is a clear victory for opponents of voter id laws, with a finding that:

  • the implementation of the voter id law violated the law’s own promise of liberal access to voter id
  • the implementation exceeded the agency’s authority to administer the program
  • the voter education efforts were woefully inadequate
  • as a whole the Pa. voter id program violated the Pa. constitutional’s fundamental right to vote.

In this regard, it is important to note that the court rejected Pa’s argument that the law was aimed at preventing voter fraud. The judge found that the state presented no evidence the law was necessary either to prevent fraud or to keep public confidence in the fairness of the election process.

(Reformatting mine.) You should read the whole thing, including Hasen's big caveat: the judge didn't rule that voter ID was a violation of equal protection and did rule that the law wasn't motivated by an attempt to disenfranchise minorities or Democratic voters. Because of this, it's not clear if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will affirm this decision.

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President Obama Finally Releases His Surveillance Reform Plan, and It's Pretty Weak Tea

| Fri Jan. 17, 2014 1:10 PM EST

President Obama gave his big surveillance speech today, and it was pretty limited. Aside from some fairly vague promises about new oversight and greater transparency, here were his most important concrete proposals:

  1. The Director of National Intelligence will conduct an annual review of FISA court opinions with the aim of declassifying opinions that have "broad privacy concerns."
  2. Obama will ask Congress to create a "panel of advocates" that will represent the public's privacy interests in FISA cases.
  3. New restrictions will be placed on the use of "incidental" collection of surveillance of US persons in criminal cases.
  4. National Security Letters will remain secret, but secrecy won't be indefinite unless the government demonstrates a "real need" to a judge. Companies receiving NSLs will be allowed to release broad reports about the number of requests they get.
  5. Bulk telephone records will continue to be collected. However, in the future the database can be queried only after getting FISA approval. The NSA will be allowed to perform only 2-hop chaining rather than the current 3-hop standard. A new group will investigate alternative approaches to the government itself holding the telephone database.
  6. Within some unspecified limits, there will be no more bugging of foreign leaders.

This is fairly weak tea. Nonetheless, I'm pretty certain that we wouldn't have gotten even this much if it weren't for Edward Snowden. This is why I support Snowden's disclosures despite the fact that I'm not happy about every last thing he's disclosed. Obama's attempt to suggest that he would have done all this stuff even without Snowden's disclosures strikes me as laughable.

You can read a full copy of the presidential directive accompanying Obama's speech here.

UPDATE: I should be a little clearer about why I think this is weak tea. Of these items, only the first five concern domestic surveillance. #1 and #2 are pretty hazy, with the DNI apparently having full control over this new declassification regime and the public being represented in FISA cases only by a "panel of advocates," a phrase that somehow strikes me as a bit weaselly. But we'll see.

#3 is very important if the new restrictions are pretty tight. But that's not clear yet.

#4 is nice, but doesn't go very far. At a minimum, I'd like to see much tighter standards for issuing secret NSLs in the first place.

#5, if it's implemented well, could be a genuine improvement. Records retention per se is something the government often mandates, and as long as the records are truly kept away from the intelligence community, accessible only via court order with an advocate aggressively arguing the public's case, this is a useful reform.

Julian Sanchez tweets: "Initial verdict: A decent start, better than I expected, but we really need legislation to cement this, & the details will matter a lot." That's a little more optimistic than my initial verdict, but it's probably fair. We really won't be able to fully evaluate all this until we see what the detailed rules look like. Good intentions aren't enough.

Hey, Maybe Bank Regulation Is Working After All

| Fri Jan. 17, 2014 11:37 AM EST

Ben White wrote a piece in Politico yesterday suggesting that bank regulation has been more successful than most of us give it credit for. Goldman Sachs, he said, is a "shell of its former self," and other big Wall Street banks have been hemmed in by Dodd-Frank and other new trading rules too.

I was skeptical. Still, as I've said in the past, the real test is bank profitability. If it goes down, it means the new regulations are doing their job. And it's going down:

Wall Street’s earnings season has dashed hopes the sector would bounce back from its post-crisis doldrums, with Goldman Sachs posting weak results in fixed income trading and Citigroup missing analysts’ forecasts for the second consecutive quarter.

....There is still little confidence that trading revenues will return to previous levels. To try to prop up return on equity, a favourite gauge of profitability in the sector, banks are cutting bonuses. Goldman reduced its ratio of pay to revenue to 36.9 per cent, a percentage point lower than last year.

Returns are being limited by regulatory action, particularly new requirements to hold more capital. In the latest move, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency said on Thursday it was raising the standards it expected for risk management at the largest banks.

It's still early days, so take this as tentative evidence only. The real evidence that bank regulation has been effective will be longer-term signs that we're truly seeing a de-financialization of the economy, with the finance industry making up a smaller share of GDP than it has in the past. We'll only know if that's happening once all the new regs have been in place for a while and the banks have had a good chance to figure out if they can game them. If they can't, and finance becomes permanently a smaller share of the economy, we'll be able to say that Dodd-Frank and Basel III were relatively successful. Until then, we'll have to wait and see.

Everywhere in the World, Governments Heavily Regulate the Home Mortgage Business

| Fri Jan. 17, 2014 2:35 AM EST

Yesterday I wrote about problems with the mortgage finance market, which are mostly due to the fact that private lenders aren't interested in funding 30-year fixed-rate mortgages on their own. There's just too much risk. This means that if we want the mortgage market to revive, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need to start guaranteeing these mortgages again in the same volumes they used to.

One obvious response to this is that the 30-year fixed mortgage wasn't handed down on stone tablets from Mt. Sinai. It was an invention of the New Deal. Other countries get by just fine without them, and so can we. We should just get the government out of the mortgage market entirely and let banks make whatever kinds of loans they want.

We could do that. But it's well to keep in mind that although other countries might not have outfits like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they do have plenty of government regulation of the mortgage loan market. If you're curious about how mortgages work outside the US, Michael Hiltzik provides a useful rundown of Canada here. Other countries work differently, but the principle is the same: there's always supervision of some kind. Getting rid of Fannie and Freddie is a defensible option, but that doesn't mean you're getting rid of government regulation. You'll just end up with different government regulation.

This Holiday Season, Brick-and-Mortar Stores Had Fewer Customers But Bigger Sales

| Fri Jan. 17, 2014 1:03 AM EST

The Wall Street Journal reports that foot traffic in retail outlets plummeted this holiday season:

A long-term change in shopper habits has reduced store traffic—perhaps permanently—and shifted pricing power away from malls and big-box retailers.

....Traffic to U.S. retailers was hurt during the financial crisis and recession, when job losses soared and shoppers kept a tight grip on their dollars. But nearly five years into the recovery, it appears many of those shoppers may never be coming back....Shoppers don't seem to be using physical stores to browse as much, either. Instead, they seem to be figuring out what they want online then making targeted trips to pick it up from retailers that offer the best price.

This is actually not quite the tale of woe that it sounds like. It's more interesting than that. In the past, brick-and-mortar outlets complained about shoppers coming to stores to check out the merchandise but then buying online. Now the tables have turned: shoppers are going online to check out prices and products, and then making a quick trip to pick up their goods instead of driving around town to a bunch of stores to do comparison shopping.

The result is that foot traffic is down, but sales are up: holiday spending increased 2.7 percent in 2013 compared to 2012. That's not a great number, and obviously profits have taken a big hit as stores try to compete with low internet prices. Still, if sales are up 2.7 percent and foot traffic is down 14 percent, that means your staffing cost per dollar of sales is down. This is not unalloyed bad news for physical stores.

I'm not trying to be Pollyanna-ish here. Obviously brick-and-mortar stores have big challenges. Still, they might be able to thrive if they can learn to adapt to an environment in which there's less casual browsing and more serious, targeted shopping. Anybody who's worked in retail knows that you treat these kinds of shoppers differently, and perhaps the brick-and-mortar world needs to transition to a model in which they treat their customers by default as targeted shoppers. After all, there are still plenty of us who don't believe everything we read online and still want to see things with our own eyes before we buy them.

Mother Jones Goes Old School. Really Old School.

| Thu Jan. 16, 2014 7:57 PM EST

And now for something completely different. A friend of mine has taken up stained glass as a hobby (you can see more here), and he recently made me a stained glass version of the banner at the top of my blog. It arrived yesterday, and it's now hanging above my desk. Are you jealous yet? He even got a discount on the raw glass when the folks in the store found out what it was for. Turns out they're fans of Mother Jones. All I need now to go along with it is an illuminated manuscript version of the blog itself.

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We're About to Find Out If the Senate Is Working Again

| Thu Jan. 16, 2014 6:55 PM EST

Now that Democrats have done away with the filibuster for nominations, how are we doing on getting vacancies filled? Jonathan Bernstein is tentatively optimistic:

There's some movement on judges today, with the Senate Judiciary Committee sending 29 nominations, including five appeals court picks, to the full Senate....We’ll see, when the Senate returns in February, just how committed Republicans are to delaying and obstructing these future judges....Cloture procedures, which can eat up plenty of Senate floor time, are still in place for both judicial and the even more numerous executive-branch nominations.

Republicans are not “shutting down” the Senate; for example, they aren’t insisting that bills be read aloud. They did, however, drag out nominations back in December after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid went nuclear, which meant that while Democrats were able to power through high-profile positions, lower-priority ones were held over to this year. It’s still not clear to what extent Republicans will continue to obstruct; as Twitter-based nominations maven @Mansfield2016 points out, we’ll know more after Reid tries to confirm some low-level executive-branch nominations through unanimous consent later today.

If Republicans insist on cloture for every nominee, it will tie the Senate in knots since it eats up a few days of time to work through each cloture vote. Democrats will win them eventually now that it only takes 51 votes, but they can't afford to spend two months of floor time in order to confirm 29 nominees. So if Republicans play hardball, they could still block most of Obama's nominees.

It only takes one senator to demand cloture, so who knows what will happen? But my guess is that Republicans will let most of the nominations through. If they demand cloture votes, all that will happen is that Democrats will go ahead and confirm the nominees that conservatives hate the worst and let the others slide. That's a net loss. Besides, a Republican will be president someday. At this point, with the initial outrage over the rules change mostly spent, they might prefer to just go along with the new precedent. We'll see.

You Are Less Industrious Than You Think

| Thu Jan. 16, 2014 4:15 PM EST

Catherine Rampell reports today that we work less than we think we do and sleep more than we think we do.  She has a few guesses about why this might be, along with the possibility that it's merely a statistical aberration. But my guess is that she's right when she suggests that "people just systematically exaggerate their industriousness." For some reason, we all like the idea that we are uniquely besieged with too much work and too little sleep and yet somehow manage to perform our jobs awesomely anyway. It's just one of the little fairy tales we tell to keep ourselves plugging along.

The 2014 Spending Bill is Infested With Right-Wing Pet Rocks

| Thu Jan. 16, 2014 2:46 PM EST

I see via Steve Benen that one of the dumbest bits of tea party hysteria in a long time has ended up as a rider to the new spending bill:

The bill bans the construction of a new embassy in London and bars the State Department from closing the chancery at the U.S. Embassy in the Holy See and merging it with the one at the U.S. Embassy in Rome for security reasons, a project first pushed by George W. Bush's administration.

This one was so dumb I never even bothered writing a post about it back when it first became yet another right-wing pet rock. Long story short, the Vatican requires countries to have separate embassies in Rome for Italy and the Vatican. They don't want to be just an office in a country's Italian embassy. But the United States has an entire compound in Rome, and after 9/11 security obviously became a big issue for American embassies. So the Bush administration came up with a plan to move the Vatican embassy inside the compound, where it would have its own building and its own street entrance and save money in the bargain. The Vatican went along with the plan, and for years no one cared until the plan was officially signed off last year. Of course, Barack Obama was president by that time, but I'm sure that had nothing to do with all the outrage about downgrading Vatican relations or being a slap in the face to every Roman Catholic in America. Nothing at all.

Anyway, apparently it's back. The 2014 spending bill is chock full of conservative pet rocks, presumably designed to mollify all the tea partiers who are unhappy at the passage of a spending bill in the first place. It probably won't work, and in the meantime it bollixes up US governance for no serious reason. As Benen says, "Good ideas fail because of right-wing paranoia that congressional Republicans take seriously, and bad ideas advance because of right-wing paranoia that congressional Republicans take seriously. We can no longer focus on what is true; we must also consider what far-right media perceives as possibly true."

Chart of the Day: Hispanics Got Hurt the Worst By the Housing Bubble

| Thu Jan. 16, 2014 1:04 PM EST

Via Lydia DePillis, this chart comes from a new report by Zillow and the Urban Institute. It shows that housing in Hispanic communities rose more during the housing bubble and crashed farther than housing in white, black, or Asian communities. Why? The report makes a brief nod toward the varying geographical locations of these communities, and maybe that's the answer. But it sure seems like that doesn't quite explain things, and I have no idea what might be behind it. Anyone have any guesses?