Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 7:58 pm

A scandal? No. But not an unreasonable question, either.

Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic, whom I seldom have much use for, actually makes himself useful here:

Did the Obama Administration ever spy on Mitt Romney during the recent presidential contest? Alex Tabarrok, who raised the question at the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution, acknowledges that it is provocative. Until recently, he would’ve regarded it as a “loony” question, he writes, and he doesn’t think that President Obama ordered the NSA to spy on Romney for political gain.

Let’s be clear: I don’t think so either. In every way, I regard Obama as our legitimate head of state, full stop. But I agree with Tabarrok that today, “the only loonies are those who think the question unreasonable.” * Most Americans have a strong intuition that spying and electoral manipulation of that kind could never happen here. I share that intuition, but I know it’s nonsense: the Nixon Administration did spy on its opponents for political gain. Why do I worry that an unreformed surveillance state could put us in even greater jeopardy of such shenanigans?

Charlie Pierce, even less of a fan of Friedersdorf than I am, also thinks Friedersdorf has a point — not about Obama, but about the larger issue of unchecked national-security power in a constitutional republic:

I don’t think the Obama people bugged the Romney people either, but Barack Obama’s only going to be president until 2016. The NSA is forever. This should concern us all.

True, and, as Friedersdorf points out, it isn’t just the guys at the top, like NSA director Keith Alexander [no relation that I know of], who pose the threat. Sure, Alexander or a successor might be sorely tempted to impede the progress of any political candidate who they knew intended to rein in the NSA. But that’s not the only scenario that leads to trouble:

Forget about Alexander. Let’s think about someone much lower in the surveillance state hierarchy: Edward Snowden. As we know, Snowden broke protocol and violated his promise to keep classified information secret because his conscience demanded it: He believed that he was acting for the greater good; his critics have called him a narcissist for taking it upon himself to violate rules and laws he’d agreed to obey.

It isn’t hard to imagine an alternative world in which the man in Snowden’s position was bent not on reforming the NSA, but on thwarting its reformers—that he was willing to break the law in service of the surveillance state, fully believing that he was acting in the best interests of the American people.

A conscience could lead a man that way too.

This Bizarro Edward Snowden wouldn’t have to abscond to a foreign country with thousands of highly sensitive documents. He wouldn’t have to risk his freedom. Affecting a U.S. presidential election would be as easy as quietly querying Rand Paul, or Ron Wyden, or one of their close associates, finding some piece of damaging information, figuring out how someone outside the surveillance state could plausibly happen upon that information, and then passing it off anonymously or with a pseudonym to Politico, or The New York Times, or Molly Ball. Raise your hand if you think that Snowden could’ve pulled that off.

And if you were running for president, or senator, even today, might you think twice about mentioning even an opinion as establishment friendly as, “Hey, I’m all for NSA surveillance, but I don’t trust a private contractor like Booz Allen Hamilton to do it”? Maybe safeguards put in place since the first Snowden leak would prevent a Bizarro Edward Snowden with strong Booz loyalties from targeting you.

Maybe. Why risk it?

In yet another scenario, the NSA wouldn’t go so far as to use information obtained through surveillance to affect an election. But they’d use it to their advantage to thwart the reform agenda of the candidate they didn’t like if he or she won.

And maybe the NSA would be as horrified by this sort of thing as I am. But maybe one of their contractors is on the payroll of a foreign government, andthat person wants to affect a presidential election by exploiting the unprecedented amounts of data that the surveillance state has collected and stored on almost everyone.

American democracy could be subverted in all sorts of hypothetical ways. Why worry about this one in particular? Here’s the general standard I’d submit as the one that should govern our thinking: If a powerful institutional actor within government has a strong incentive to do something bad, the means to do it, and a high likelihood of being able to do it without getting caught, it will be done eventually.

The NSA has the incentive. At least as recently as the Snowden leaks, an unknown number of its employees or contractors had the means. And many informed observers believe abuse undetected by overseers could be easily accomplished.

We need to pull back hard on the reins of the NSA now, and to the greatest extent possible we need to get private, for-profit corporations out of the national-security business. And we need to start today because it’s only going to get harder the longer we wait.

Thursday, October 17, 2013 8:39 pm

The center cannot hold because there isn’t one

A poll conducted by Esquire magazine and NBC purports to identify and take the measure of what it calls “The New American Center” among American voters.

I am not a polling expert, but I have enough polling experience and experience in both quantitative and qualitative research to grasp that this conceit is crap. (Thus no link.)

Americans are more culturally divided than they have been since the eve of the Civil War, and there’s a wealth of more rigorous polling at PollingReport.com to substantiate that claim. Moreover, rigorous polling on policy ideas that simply presents the ideas in context without labeling them as conservative or liberal, Republican or Democratic, shows that Americans actually prefer liberal policies in general, not moderate or conservative ones. They want to soak hell out of the rich, just for starters.

Since this garbage first appeared on Esquire’s politics blog, I’ve been awaiting the input of that blog’s primary writer, Charlie Pierce. I hoped that he wouldn’t be muzzled on this subject. And it seems, to my delight, either that he hasn’t been or that he doesn’t care:

There are three kinds of people who claim to be centrists in this country today. There are embarrassed Republicans. There are lazy people. And there are liars. There is no fourth alternative. We have seen vividly the intellectual exhaustion of self-proclaimed centrists in the laughable attempts to blame both sides for the reign of the morons. We have seen vividly the intellectual dishonesty of self-proclaimed centrists demonstrated by the No Labels and Fix The Debt scams, both of which involve little more than selling out the social safety-net. We even seen the intellectual vacuity of self-proclaimed centrists in the results of this poll, in which we see some vague mumbling about the deficit that will eat us in our beds, but a strong desire to raise taxes on the very wealthiest among us, which I guarantee you none of the people who proclaim their centrism the loudest believes is a centrist position.

So to the list of yellow lines and dead armadillos that you can find in the middle of the road, you may add embarrassed Republicans, lazy people and liars. That’s it, although I might soften Charlie’s position a bit and rephrase “lazy” as “low-information” people in some cases, because it takes time and effort to get informed. Some people don’t bother, and “lazy” fits them. But plenty of others are working multiple jobs, raising kids and just trying to get by and can’t get informed. Them, I don’t blame so much.

But I sure as hell blame the mainstream media that too often are their only sources of information. And while Esquire’s political reporting generally has been far better than this, NBC, perhaps with the exception of Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, has been as egregious an offender as exists out there. I’m sure David Gregory considers himself a centrist. He’s not. He’s a conservative moron.

Read more: Response To New American Center – I Hate Centrism – Esquire
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Visit us at Esquire.com

Monday, October 29, 2012 7:12 pm

Pierce on Sandy and who we are as a nation

As I write, I imagine that all kinds of hell is breaking loose in the Northeast, the kinds of hell that, among other things, make it difficult to report in real time on what kinds of hell are breaking loose. I’ve covered hurricanes before, and believe me when I tell you that it is No Damn Fun, from getting sandblasted by what used to be that dune over there to living on Lance Toastchees and bottled water from your trunk for four days while wearing the same clothes and being unable to bathe to trying to navigate a car that don’t float when half or more of the bridges are underwater. People, including myself, joke about the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore as the Angel of Death, but I’ve done Cantore’s job (albeit for a different news outlet), and I would have to think very, very hard before doing it again, for love or money.

It’s bad enough in any one location. But when all hell breaks loose in a huge region, and when that region is the most heavily populated of its size in the country … well, we have no precedent for this. And when it happens a week before a presidential election, the potential for feces to hit the fan is shattering the glass on every meter in the boiler room.

And yet there also is likely to be an enormous point of clarity coming out of this event, as Charlie Pierce explains:

However, as to the campaign itself, and taking as axiomatic that almost anything can “impact” an election as close as this one apparently is shaping up to be, there’s absolutely no telling what the effect of massive four-day weather event in the middle of this week will have on the events of the middle of next week. Certainly, in situations like this, the president has several trump cards he can play simply by virtue of being the incumbent. He can act as president. He can engage FEMA and the rest of the federal disaster apparatus to help those governors, Republican and Democratic, who are in the path of the storm. (He just might be in more pictures with Chris Christie over the next week than with Joe Biden.) He can demonstrate, top to bottom, by example, why “leaving it to the states” and, worse, “the private sector can do it better” are empty platitudes. The storm is hitting 12 states. This is something we need to do as one country. …

The problem, of course, is that a good piece of the political opposition doesn’t recognize this president as president when the sun’s shining. The people who will tell you that disaster relief is best left to the states, or to the private sector, are going be howling at the White House if some cat isn’t brought down from a tree in Cape May in less than five minutes. There are a thousand things that can go unavoidably wrong in a situation like this. It is the most fertile environment imaginable for unpredictability. The good news for the president is that he’s in charge. The bad news for the president is that he’s in charge, and the opposition is still truthless, and demented.

(Pardon this interruption from your host for this illustration of just how demented that opposition is:)

(We now return you to Pierce:)

Here’s the last thing that I’d like to throw out there before we all go 1856 all over for a while. This entire campaign has been fought out over the issue of whether or not we are all members of a viable political commonwealth with implicit mutual obligations to act through our government — a self-government that is, or ought to be, the purest creative project of that commonwealth — for the common good, or whether that government is some sort of alien entity repressing our fundamental entrepreneurial energy. Over the next few days, I believe, we are going to see that argument brought to the sharpest point possible. If you want to see how this event will “impact the election,” look to what answer to that question emerges from the storm. It will tell us a lot about the election, and about ourselves.

When the Framers put the phrase “general welfare” into the preamble to the Constitution, things like Sandy were what they had in mind. And whether we remember that fact over the next week and more will determine whether we keep, and whether we deserve to keep, the “Republic, if you can keep it” that Benjamin Franklin and his compatriots bestowed upon us when that document was signed.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 7:07 pm

Anyone who argues differently is not trying to sell you something, he’s trying to steal what little you have left.

Facts and logic having failed to persuade anyone to do the right thing with respect to the economy, I decide instead to try a good rant, outsourced to Charlie Pierce:

Austerity has murdered any hope of recovery in the UK. It seems to have done the same thing in Italy. And, in Greece, the citizens of democracy’s birthplace seem to be taking offense at the notion that their first obligation is to punish themselves to make a lot of international bankers whole again, and to cement Angela Merkel’s place in European history, which will be further propped up in Germany by an economy that depends on strong labor unions, a thriving government safety net, and the world’s oldest universal health-care system, to which Germans are entitled, but to which Brits, Italians, Greeks and, if you believe David Gregory, Americans, are not. Make no mistake about it. “Austerity” is a theological construct. It is about punishing the alleged sins of sloth and gluttony. It is about purging through pain. It is about enshrining into law every misbegotten slander about the poor and struggling that’s been floating around the political dialogue for generations. And it doesn’t work.

The deficit is not our biggest immediate economic problem. Joblessness is. Questions? See post title.

 

Sunday, November 13, 2011 9:42 pm

All you need to know about Saturday’s GOP presidential debate …

… is that Texas Gov. Rick Perry said, “Waterboarding is not torture … and I’ll be for it until the day I die.”

To which Charles Pierce responds, “This is precisely, and in every respect, the position taken by several Japanese military officers in 1945. They felt exactly the same way, which is why we [expletive] executed them.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011 7:57 pm

Quote of the Day

Ladies and gentlemen, Charles Pierce on your liberal media:

Some day, volumes will be written about how Gingrich managed to get everyone in the Washington smart set to believe he is a public intellectual with actual ideas, and not just the guy at the club whose life gets changed for him every time he reads a new book.

My god, Caligula died centuries too soon. Today, if he’d brought his horse into the Senate, some careerist Beltway journo would find that the horse had whinnied some “interesting new approaches” to our “entitlement crisis.” The horse would be on Meet the Press the following Sunday with David Gregory, who would ignore the fact that there is a fking horse sitting across the table from him and concentrate instead on something the horse had whinnied five years ago that seems to have been contradicted by something the horse whinnied the day before. And then Tom Brokaw would come on to mumble something about how horses were more politically savvy back in his day.

 

Thursday, November 3, 2011 11:26 pm

Quote of the day

Filed under: Quote Of The Day — Lex @ 11:26 pm
Tags: ,

The Boston Globe effed up and got rid of Charles Pierce, so Esquire snapped him up and set him to political blogging. Everybody wins:

“… with all due respect to E. J. Dionne, the only difference between the ‘old’ South Carolina conservatives and the ‘new’ South Carolina conservatives is that Jim DeMint isn’t knocking up black women the way that Strom Thurmond used to.

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