Kevin Drum

Security Theater

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 1:16 PM EST

Bruce Schneier on security theater vs. real security in an age of terrorism:

Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No-one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards.

....Security is both a feeling and a reality. The propensity for security theater comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders. When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn't truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn't make any sense.

....Unfortunately for politicians, the security measures that work are largely invisible. Such measures include enhancing the intelligence-gathering abilities of the secret services, hiring cultural experts and Arabic translators, building bridges with Islamic communities both nationally and internationally, funding police capabilities — both investigative arms to prevent terrorist attacks, and emergency communications systems for after attacks occur — and arresting terrorist plotters without media fanfare. They do not include expansive new police or spying laws. Our police don't need any new laws to deal with terrorism; rather, they need apolitical funding. These security measures don't make good television, and they don't help, come re-election time. But they work, addressing the reality of security instead of the feeling.

The arrest of the "liquid bombers" in London is an example: they were caught through old-fashioned intelligence and police work. Their choice of target (airplanes) and tactic (liquid explosives) didn't matter; they would have been arrested regardless.

The whole thing is worth a read, and I'm glad Bruce included the last two paragraphs in the excerpt above.  A common problem with essays and articles about security is that they spend mountains of time criticizing pretty much everything the government has done in the years since 9/11, but precious little time explaining what should be done.  Even in this essay, Bruce only spends a few sentences on concrete suggestions.  But we really need more of that.  Like it or not, the public is always going to demand a response to terrorist events, and politicians being what they are, they're going to provide one.  It's up to security experts to figure out a way to make effective responses compelling enough that they become serious alternatives to security theater.

In fact, I'd like to see an entire long essay on exactly that point.  Bruce has made a pretty good start with this one.

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Must See TV

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 12:50 PM EST

The Onion's AV Club rates the 30 best TV series of the decade here.  Looking through it, what struck me is that I've seen almost none of them.  Three, to be exact: Lost, The Office (UK version), and Firefly — the latter two solely on DVD.

I blame blogging.  Seriously.  I've never watched a ton of TV, but ever since I took up blogging I've watched even less.  The problem is that blogging requires at least a couple of hours at the computer every evening.  I don't multitask well enough to blog and watch TV at the same time, so that means I can't afford to watch more than one show per night at most.  The solution, obviously, is a DVR, but I'm still holding out on that front.  If Cox allowed multiple DVRs in the house for one low price, I think they would have snagged my business last month when I upgraded our service, but they don't, and they didn't.  Maybe someday.

The Debit Card Hustle

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 12:25 PM EST

While I was out yesterday, there was big news on debit card fees.  Here's how the LA Times headlined it:

Fed Reserve bans most bank overdraft fees

This caused some editorial gnashing of teeth at MoJo world headquarters, since a big chunk of my upcoming piece on the finance lobby is built around the failure of authorities to do anything about overdraft fees.  In the end though, it turned out we didn't have to do very much aside from changing "the Fed has never done anything" to — well, I don't want to give anything away just yet.  Let's just say the change wasn't a big one.

You see, the Fed didn't ban most overdraft fees, regardless of what the Times copy desk might think.  All they did was tell banks that they have to give customers the option of whether they want overdraft protection in the first place.  If they don't, they'll be allowed to opt out and purchases that run your account down past zero will simply be rejected.

This is, without question, a good thing.  The fact that banks not only made billions of dollars by charging outrageous overdraft fees, but insisted that customers had to accept overdraft protection even if they didn't want it (a policy put in place a few years ago as a deliberate way to make more money from their most vulnerable customers), made it almost a poster child for abusive practices.  So three cheers that it's gone.

But look: most people want overdraft protection.  Banks are right about that.  Unlike checkbooks of old, debit cards are marketed as routine payment devices, and since debit cards don't have built-in check registers that warn you when your account is getting low, it's all too easy to inadvertantly run up big overdraft charges.  But the new Fed regulations do nothing about that.  Under industry pressure, they ruled in 2004 that overdraft fees weren't loans, and they still aren't.  So a $35 fee on a $17 overdraft that's paid off in five days —and yes, this is the industry average — amounts to an APR of over 10,000%.  Except it's not an APR because it's not a loan.  It's a "fee."

Hogwash.  It's a small, short-term loan, just like a credit card charge.  The APR should be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-30%, like a credit card, with perhaps a small processing fee added to that.  And since we live in an electronic era, that processing fee is small: maybe 50 cents or so.  A dollar max.

But the Fed did nothing about that.  Or about the number of fees banks can charge per day.  Or about re-ordering of fees to run up total charges.  Overdraft protection really is a convenience in a world where banks are doing everything they can to encourage their use even for tiny transactions, and consumers shouldn't be required to accept usurious loan rates and sleazy hidden hustles in order to get it.  Wake me up when the Fed gets around to that.

Obama and the Deficit

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 11:39 AM EST

Politico reports that the White House plans to change direction next year:

President Barack Obama plans to announce in next year's State of the Union address that he wants to focus extensively on cutting the federal deficit in 2010 — and will downplay other new domestic spending beyond jobs programs, according to top aides involved in the planning.

....“Democrats have to reassure voters we are not being reckless,” said a Democratic official involved in the planning. “The White House knows this and that's why we'll be hearing a lot about reducing the deficit early next year. Democrats owned this issue for the past four years and cannot afford to cede it to Republicans now."

I think I'm more sympathetic toward this approach than most liberals.  Part of the reason is practical: although it would probably be wise to focus more on job creation right now than we are, that's just not in the cards.  There aren't the votes for it, and there's not much point in endlessly tilting at windmills.

But on a policy basis I think this might be a good idea too.  It's unlikely that Obama will try to do anything to cut spending in 2010 itself (or 2011 for that matter), but some initiatives that credibly promise to reduce the deficit in 2012 and beyond would be smart both politically and economically.  Politically because a guy who's approved a trillion dollar stimulus package, a trillion dollar healthcare bill, a trillion dollar energy bill, and (possibly) a substantial increase in Afghanistan spending, needs some credibility on the spending front.  It's also smart politically because it puts Republicans in a tough spot: they've been screaming for months about fiscal rectitude, and this forces them to put their money where their mouths are.  That has the potential to hurt them at the polls whether they go along or not.

But it's smart economically too, because we really do have a long-term deficit problem.  I'm not the biggest deficit hawk in the world or anything, but if it starts to look like we can't ever get our deficits under control, we run the risk of blowing up another bubble, getting further in hock to the Chinese, losing the trust of the international financial community, and more.  Obama was smart to try and accomplish as much as he could as soon as he took office, but he'd also be smart to make some serious gestures toward long-term stability once he's passed all his big bills.  More here from CBPP if you want a smart, reliably progressive take on the issue.

HSR Tradeoffs

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 12:17 AM EST

The latest rail news from California:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger quietly spiked an effort last month to win $1.1 billion in federal high-speed rail stimulus funds for 29 projects to improve the safety, speed and capacity of heavily traveled commuter corridors through Southern California. Instead, he ordered state officials to seek money for only one project — the proposed bullet train between San Francisco and San Diego.

....The action has sparked debate among rail advocates about whether too high a priority is being placed on the high-speed train project at the expense of the second-busiest rail corridor in the nation, where budget-strapped commuter services have been trying to improve safety, add track and cut travel times from San Diego to Santa Barbara.

Not to beat a dead horse, but this is the kind of thing I was afraid of when we approved the LA-SF high-speed line last year.  There's a limited amount of money available for transit projects statewide, so as we spend more on HSR, there's less available for other projects.  It's not a firm 1:1 tradeoff, and certainly politicians have the option to try and increase the total size of the transit pie, but in general there's a pretty strong tendency for budget decisions to work like this.

My doubts aside, hopefully the LA-SF line will be great when it's finally up and running.  But there's definitely a cost involved to other transit projects in the meantime.

Housekeeping Note

| Thu Nov. 12, 2009 12:01 PM EST

I'm a little under the weather this morning.  Blogging will probably be pretty light today.  Back this afternoon or tomorrow, I hope.

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Embassy Revolt in Kabul

| Thu Nov. 12, 2009 1:55 AM EST

Karl Eikenberry, our man in Afghanistan, has apparently decided to drop a last-minute bombshell on the White House:

The U.S. ambassador in Kabul sent two classified cables to Washington in the past week expressing deep concerns about sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan until President Hamid Karzai's government demonstrates that it is willing to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that has fueled the Taliban's rise, senior U.S. officials said.

....Eikenberry's last-minute interventions have highlighted the nagging undercurrent of the policy discussion: the U.S. dependence on a partnership with a Karzai government whose incompetence and corruption is a universal concern within the administration. After months of political upheaval, in the wake of widespread fraud during the August presidential election, Karzai was installed last week for a second five-year term.

In addition to placing the Karzai problem prominently on the table, the cables from Eikenberry, a retired four-star general who in 2006-2007 commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan, have rankled his former colleagues in the Pentagon — as well as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, defense officials said. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has stated that without the deployment of an additional tens of thousands of troops within the next year, the mission there "will likely result in failure."

According to an unnamed official, after reading Eikenberry's cable Obama "wants to know where the off-ramps are." So would a lot of the rest of us.

Common Sense

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 10:52 PM EST

Here is National Review's Rich Lowry on the constant chatter in the media about post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of the Ft. Hood massacre:

The obsession with PTSD serves two purposes. First, it fits the media’s favorite narrative of soldiers as victims. Here was poor Hasan, brought low like so many others by the unbearable burden of Iraq and Afghanistan. Never mind that PTSD usually results in sleeplessness, flashbacks, and — in the extreme — suicide. Hasan is the first victim of PTSD known to jump on a table and allegedly yell “Allahu Akbar” while slaughtering his fellow troops.

Actually, I sort of share Lowry's annoyance on the PTSD front.  It's belaboring the obvious to say that of course PTSD is a serious problem, one that the military should (and, I think, does) take seriously.  But intentionally or not, hauling it out after every meltdown by a service member serves largely to tar them all in the public mind as unstable misfits who could blow up at any second.  That's both unfair and lazy.

But Lowry then goes on to insist that we should obsess over the fact that Nidal Malik Hasan was a Muslim who was apparently motivated by religious fervor.  His colleague Andy McCarthy puts it even more bluntly, claiming that the same beliefs that animated Hasan are widely accepted by Muslims in the United States:

The rote government response is to point out, mulishly, that there are many Muslims honorably serving in the U.S. armed forces. This is absolutely true but utterly beside the point....The honorable service of many Muslims does not alter the reality that there is enormous pressure on Muslim soldiers, from their religious authorities, to sabotage American military operations. Hasan's massacre of his fellow soldiers is the worst incident we've seen, but it's hardly an isolated incident.

I wonder if they even see the contradiction here?  When it comes to PTSD, every soldier is an individual and it's insulting to see it lying in wait everywhere.  But when it comes to extremist beliefs, well, Muslims are all under extreme pressure and we'd be fools not to see it lying in wait everywhere.

I prefer door #1: soldiers aren't all time bombs waiting to go off, and Muslims aren't all Manchurian candidates waiting to turn on their fellow Americans.  Just because they're different problems doesn't mean we can't address them both with equal doses of common sense.

No More Lou (On TV, Anyway)

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 8:13 PM EST

Today's big media news:

Lou Dobbs, the longtime CNN anchor whose anti-immigration views have made him a TV lightning rod, said Wednesday that he is leaving the cable news channel effective immediately.

“Some leaders in the media, politics and business have been urging me to go beyond my role here at CNN and engage in constructive problem-solving,” Mr. Dobbs said just after 7 p.m., suggesting that he would remain involved in the civic discourse, but perhaps not on television.

Hey, maybe he's going to run for office!  Wouldn't that be fun?  Maybe mayor of some border city to start.  I'm thinking El Paso.  Then, after Sarah Palin wins the presidency in 2012, she could appoint him to head up Homeland Security. From there, the sky's the limit.

For more on Dobbs, here is Sridhar Pappu's profile from our January 2007 issue.  Enjoy!

Quote of the Day

| Wed Nov. 11, 2009 5:58 PM EST

From Charles Johnson, founder of Little Green Footballs and onetime leader of the post-9/11 warbloggers, on why he's given up on his fellow travelers:

The main reason I can’t march along with the right wing blogosphere any more, not to put too fine a point on it, is that most of them have succumbed to Obama Derangement Syndrome. One “nontroversy” after another, followed by the outrage of the day, followed by conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, all delivered in breathless, angry prose that’s just wearying and depressing to read.

It’s not just the economic issues either. I’ve never been on board with the anti-science, anti-Enlightenment radical religious right. Once I began making my opinions known on issues like creationism and abortion, I realized that there just wasn’t very much in common with many of the bloggers on the right. And then, when most of them decided to fall in and support a blogger like Robert Stacy McCain, who has neo-Nazi friends, has written articles for the openly white supremacist website American Renaissance, and has made numerous openly racist statements on the record ... well, I was extremely disappointed to see it, but unfortunately not surprised.

There's was never any reason for surprise, of course.  2009 = 1993 all over again.