Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, November 27, 2013 5:11 pm

Happy Thanksgiving, coming Chinese crash edition

Filed under: I want my country back.,We're so screwed — Lex @ 5:11 pm
Tags: ,

Hooboy:

China’s shadow banking system is out of control and under mounting stress as borrowers struggle to roll over short-term debts, Fitch Ratings has warned.

The agency said the scale of credit was so extreme that the country would find it very hard to grow its way out of the excesses as in past episodes, implying tougher times ahead.

“The credit-driven growth model is clearly falling apart. This could feed into a massive over-capacity problem, and potentially into a Japanese-style deflation,” said Charlene Chu, the agency’s senior director in Beijing.

“There is no transparency in the shadow banking system, and systemic risk is rising. We have no idea who the borrowers are, who the lenders are, and what the quality of assets is, and this undermines signalling,” she told The Daily Telegraph.

While the non-performing loan rate of the banks may look benign at just 1pc, this has become irrelevant as trusts, wealth-management funds, offshore vehicles and other forms of irregular lending make up over half of all new credit. “It means nothing if you can off-load any bad asset you want. A lot of the banking exposure to property is not booked as property,” she said.

Concerns are rising after a string of upsets in Quingdao, Ordos, Jilin and elsewhere, in so-called trust products, a $1.4 trillion (£0.9 trillion) segment of the shadow banking system. …

Fitch warned that wealth products worth $2 trillion of lending are in reality a “hidden second balance sheet” for banks, allowing them to circumvent loan curbs and dodge efforts by regulators to halt the excesses. …

Overall credit has jumped from $9 trillion to $23 trillion since the Lehman crisis. “They have replicated the entire US commercial banking system in five years,” she said.

The ratio of credit to GDP has jumped by 75 percentage points to 200pc of GDP, compared to roughly 40 points in the US over five years leading up to the subprime bubble, or in Japan before the Nikkei bubble burst in 1990. “This is beyond anything we have ever seen before in a large economy. We don’t know how this will play out. The next six months will be crucial,” she said.

This makes a systemic Chinese crash on the order of what we had here in 2008-09 look likely. What the effects will be on the global economy I can’t say, but I imagine it can’t be good.

And this, folks, is why we need a transparent, well-regulated banking and investment system. Yet “too big to fail” and a huge, unregulated segment of the financial markets are still standard policy here in the U.S. If the system breaks again, the hyperrich won’t suffer, but you and I will. Big time.

Happy Thanksgiving.

(h/t: Fec)

 

 

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Monday, November 25, 2013 7:33 pm

I love it when they eat their own

The Heritage Foundation used to be a reliably conservative, respectable Washington think tank, one with which one could disagree without necessarily believing it to be in any way insane. It has become, instead, a parliament of hacks. It would be easy to blame former U.S. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who became the foundation’s chief in April, for this problem. And there would be an element of truth in that; DeMint is crazier than a bag of bugs. But the real problem began before DeMint, with an offshoot of the foundation called Heritage Action, and its CEO, a wealthy young ideologue named Michael Needham:

Needham is the 31-year-old CEO of Heritage Action, the relatively new activist branch of the Heritage Foundation, the storied Washington think tank that was one of the leaders of the conservative war of ideas ever since it provided the blueprint for Ronald Reagan’s first term. Although DeMint is Heritage’s president, it was Needham who had designed much of the defund Obamacare strategy. Beginning in 2010, when Heritage Action was founded, Needham pushed the GOP to use Congress’s power of the purse to eviscerate the Affordable Care Act. He formed a grassroots army, which he used to keep congressional Republicans in line. “They make six hundred phone calls and have a member of Congress in the fetal position,” says one GOP congressional staffer.

After months of furious lobbying, Needham sold, at most, 20 members of the House on his plan of attack. In the end, this was enough to cement the party line—and lead the GOP to a spectacular, deafening loss.

Sorting through the wreckage, Washington conservatives can barely contain their anger at Needham for his ideological inflexibility and aggressive, zero-sum tactics. “Their strategic sense isn’t very strong,” griped a prominent Republican lobbyist. “They’ve repeatedly been wrong about how to handle this.” Says a senior House Republican aide, “Mike Needham played a large role in defeating ideas that would have worked out better.”

But the wrath is not solely reserved for Needham; his employer now inspires plenty of disgust among conservatives, too. Increasingly in Washington, “Heritage” has come to denote not the foundation or the think tank, but Heritage Action, Needham’s sharp-elbowed operation. Instead of fleshing out conservative positions, says one Republican Senate staffer, “now they’re running around trying to get Republicans voted out of office. It’s a purely ideological crusade that’s utterly divorced from the research side.” (“If Nancy Pelosi could write an anonymous check to Heritage Action,” adds the House aide bitterly, “she would.”)

As a result, the Heritage Foundation has gone from august conservative think tank revered by Washington’s Republicans to the party’s loathed ideological commissar. “It’s sad, actually,” says one Republican strategist. “Everybody forgets that Heritage was always considered the gold standard of conservative, forward-looking thought. The emergence of Heritage Action has really transformed the brand into a more political organization.”

Needham’s strategy has also sparked a war inside the halls of the foundation itself, where many feel duped by the stealthy yet brutal way the Heritage Action takeover went down. Some now wonder whether the foundation can ever recover its reputation as a font of ideas. “I don’t think any thoughtful person is going to take the Heritage Foundation very seriously, because they’ll say, How is this any different from the Tea Party?” says Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman and a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation. Looking at the organization he helped to create, Edwards finds it unrecognizable. “Going out there and trying to defeat people who don’t agree with us never occurred to us,” said Edwards. “It’s alien.”

So how did someone so young get into such a position of responsibility?

Like all good revolutionaries, Michael Needham had a sterling upbringing, the kind that allows a young man to pursue ideological purity free from worry about consequence or reality. Needham’s mother is a former Saks Fifth Avenue executive; his father runs a boutique investment bank. The future Tea Party rabble-rouser grew up on the Upper East Side. He attended Collegiate, a prestigious New York prep school, then Williams. As a political science major and, eventually, the editor of the college newspaper, Needham loved to provoke his liberal classmates, arguing that Social Security was unnecessary and that the minimum wage hurt the working poor. “It’s amazing how little reflection he’s given to his privilege,” says a classmate. “It was all kind of a game to him. It was an experiment in winning.”

After Needham graduated from Williams in 2004, Bill Simon Jr., a former California Republican gubernatorial candidate and fellow Williams alum, helped Needham secure the introductions that got him a job at the foundation. Ambitious and hard-working, he was promoted, in six months, to be [now-retired Heritage co-founder Edwin] Feulner’s chief of staff. According to a former veteran Heritage staffer, Needham is intelligent but “very aggressive”: “He is the bull in the china closet, and he feels very comfortable doing that.” (“I consider him a friend,” says the college classmate, “but he’s a huge [expletive].”) In 2007, Needham, whose father has given generous donations to both Rudy Giuliani and the Heritage Foundation, went to work for Giuliani’s presidential campaign. When the campaign folded, Needham followed his father’s footsteps to Stanford Business School and then came back, at Feulner’s bequest, to run Heritage Action.

Needham, who in his time at Heritage, had been a proponent of ramping up the foundation’s lobbying efforts, was also given a lieutenant. He wasn’t the seasoned lobbyist who might be expected to keep tabs on his young boss, but a 31-year-old evangelical named Tim Chapman who had a few years experience working on the Hill. Heritage elders viewed Chapman, a boyish young man with freckles and strawberry blond hair, as the golden retriever to Needham’s pitbull. The two were installed in a townhouse down the street from Heritage headquarters, which soon came to be known, dismissively, as “the Frat House.” A young staff of about a dozen people worked there, hanging around in easy chairs, tossing a football around. The foundation scholar recalls stopping by and noting that the conversations at the Frat House sounded “more the way you’d expect a bunch of interns sitting around to sound, talking politics, trying to figure things out.”

That’s right, kids: The Republican Party, which likes to market itself as the grownups in the room, is letting both its political efforts and the keystone of its policy-development infrastructure be destroyed by a spoiled child. And we wonder why they can’t govern.

Saturday, November 23, 2013 9:30 pm

What you don’t know can make you grow a third eye

Filed under: Evil — Lex @ 9:30 pm
Tags:

Economist Dean Baker on fracking companies’ arguments that they must not be forced to disclose to state governments or public-health officials the mix of chemicals they use in their processes:

This is precisely the reason that we have patents. If a company has an especially innovative mix of chemicals they would be able to get it patented and prevent their competitors from using it for 20 years. The fact that companies can obtain patent protection makes it implausible that protecting [trade] secrets is the real motive for their refusal to disclose the chemicals they are using.

“Trust me”? I effing well think not.

 

 

Friday, November 22, 2013 6:34 pm

Wingnut legal wankery, cont.

Earlier this week, in a case called Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court in effect upheld Texas’s draconian new restrictions on abortion — a law that effectively outlaws abortions in a huge swath of west Texas. In so doing, it upheld a 5th Circuit court ruling “staying” — preventing from taking effect — a District Court ruling that parts of the law were unconstitutional.

Now, to stay the District Court ruling, the appeals court had to find that allowing that ruling to stand pending appeal would constitute “irreparable harm” to the state of Texas. It also had to find that the stay “”substantially injure the other parties interested in the proceeding” — i.e., pregnant women in Texas.

The appeals-court judge who wrote that court’s ruling, Priscilla Owen, really did find, against both facts and common sense, that the state of Texas would be irreparably harmed if the District Court ruling were allowed to stand while it was being appealed AND that no other parties interested in the proceeding would be substantially injured. Yes, she did. Lawyer/blogger Scott Lemieux comments:

What makes Owen’s opinion remarkable, however, is her justification for the conclusion that temporarily preventing the law from going into effect would constitute “irreparable harm” to the state of Texas. Circuit Court judges are bound by Supreme Court precedent; they cannot create new legal standards on their own. But as one lawblogger notes, the basis for Owen’s conclusion would be embarrassingly feeble if there was any evidence that she was capable of embarrassment. The following is a comprehensive list of the precedents cited by Owen to justify her conclusion:

  • A bare assertion from a 1977 solo opinion—not speaking for the court—by then-Associate Justice Rehnquist that “[i]t also seems to me that any time a State is enjoined by a court from effectuating statutes enacted by representatives of its people, it suffers a form of irreparable injury.” (“It seems”—well, I’m convinced!)
  • A solo opinion—again, not speaking for the Court—by Chief Justice Roberts citing the Rehnquist opinion without any further defense.
  • That’s it.

This precedential basis would need a lot more heft to merit being called “threadbare.” And it’s even worse than it appears at first glance. First of all, Rehnquist’s opinion applied to a case where at least the statute had already gone into effect, making the argument of “irreparable harm” to the state even weaker as applied to the Texas abortion case, where it had not. And second, there’s a reason that this dictum has never appeared in an actual Supreme Court majority opinion—it doesn’t make any sense. If this “principle” were taken seriously, states would have an unlimited right to enforce unconstitutional laws for as long as the legal challenges take to wend their way through the courts, irrespective of the harm caused to those who rights were violated. This simply cannot be right.

How does Scalia’s counter to Breyer—typically long on belligerence and short on logic—reply to these obvious objections? Why, by merely citing the Rehnquist and Roberts opinions again. So now, the next time a hack Republican judge wants to make a politically expedient decision to deny or vacate an injunction preventing the enforcement of potentially unconstitutional legislation, he or she can now cite four precedents endorsing the same erroneous tautology without any attempt to defend it. It’s a nice con if you can pull it off.

“Because Rehnquist said so.” “Because Roberts said Rehnquist said so.” “Because Scalia said Roberts said Rehnquist said so.” Seriously, that’s an actual sitting appeals-court judge’s idea of how precedent works. IANAL, but I’ve examined enough SCOTUS cases to know that that isn’t law, that’s wanking: The string may get longer, but because no case majority opinion is ever cited, the amount of actual legal value therein starts at zero and stays there.

So much for the rule of law. And I disagree with Lemieux that this is merely a con. I think it’s straight-up dictatorship: These people have decided that they’re going to overturn Roe v. Wade  by hook or by crook and meddle deeply into the medical affairs of women without legal or constitutional justification for doing so, and that’s that. If you were kidding yourself about that before, please stop.

Saturday, November 16, 2013 11:24 pm

Deficit hawks caught astroturfing. Color me surprised.

Their ideas aren’t gaining favor on the merits (nor should they) — about 90 percent of Americans think Social Security should be preserved or even expanded, not cut — so they resort to paying people to lie, and they’re real sloppy about it:

Our friend Jon Romano, press secretary for the inside-the-beltway PR campaign “Fix the Debt” and its pet youth group, The Can Kicks Back, have been caught writing op-eds for college students and placing the identical op-eds in papers across the country.

This is the latest slip-up in Fix the Debt’s efforts to portray itself as representing America’s youth. Previously, they were caught paying dancers to participate in a pro-austerity flash mob and paying Change.org to gather online petition signers for them.

The newspapers involved in the scam were not amused.

Gainesville Sun to Fix the Debt: “Lay Off the Astroturf and Outright Plagiarism”

The identical op-eds were discovered by Florida’s Gainesville Sun. The paper’s scathing editorial on the topic makes for an entertaining read.

If you liked University of Florida student Brandon Scott’s column last Sunday about the national debt, you also should enjoy columns by Dartmouth College student Thomas Wang and University of Wisconsin student Jennifer Pavelec on the issue.

After all, they’re the same columns.

The identical columns ran last weekend in newspapers in New Hampshire and Wisconsin. They each included the same first-person passage describing the student’s work with the Campaign to Fix the Debt and its “millennial arm,” The Can Kicks Back.

After I was told last week about the column appearing under the byline of different writers in other publications, it was removed from The Sun’s website. Staff with the Campaign to Fix the Debt, who sent out the columns, said they were templates that were supposed to be personalized or otherwise reworded.

The campaign’s vice president of communications, John Romano, said Scott -— an intern with the group — was not at fault.

“This was an inadvertent mistake and the campaign takes full responsibility for it,” he said.

Ooopsie.

Ooopsie, indeed.

Folks, Fix the Debt is not a grassroots thing. It is not a lot of college kids writing letters to the editor. It is a network of PR agencies led by billionaire Pete Peterson. Peterson, because he is stupid, because he would personally profit, or both, wants draconian spending cuts — along the lines of Simpson-Bowles or worse. There are many problems with that, but the most important one, as the linked article points out, is that such cuts would eliminate 4 million jobs at a time when America needs many more jobs, not fewer. As for the deficit? Well, hey, let’s just ask our good friends at Fox News, who actually provide accurate information this time although they take a little too much time explaining what the numbers mean:

The U.S. government started the first month of the 2014 budget year with a $91.6 billion deficit, signaling further improvement in the nation’s finances at a time when lawmakers are wrestling to reach a deal that would keep the government open past January.

The Treasury Department said Wednesday that the deficit in October fell 24 percent compared with the $120 billion imbalance recorded in October 2012. The deficit is the gap between the government’s tax revenue and spending.

Across-the-board spending cuts and the partial government shutdown helped lowered expenditures in the first month of the new budget year. Higher taxes and an improved economy also boosted revenue.

The October decline comes after the government ran an annual deficit in 2013 of $680 billion, the lowest in five years and the first in that period below $1 trillion. Shrinking deficits could take some pressures off of lawmakers, who are facing a Dec. 13 deal to fund the government and avoid another shutdown.

The deficit is a manageable problem, and we’re managing it — almost in spite of ourselves, what with sequestration, but we’re managing it nonetheless. We do not need dramatic new government spending cuts, unless maybe they’re in defense. (By the way, everything else being equal, a dollar spent on defense benefits the economy substantially less than a dollar spent on something civilianish.) What we need, desperately, is J-O-B-S.

Thursday, November 14, 2013 7:52 pm

Senate Republicans continue to abuse the filibuster

Senate Republicans have filibustered three of President Obama’s nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court. (There are three vacancies on an eight-judge panel.) The GOP has accused Obama of 1) “court-packing” and 2) appointing “radicals” to those seats.

“Court packing,” like so many words Republicans like to toss around, has an actual meaning. Also, like so many of the words Republicans toss around, it does not mean what they think it means. It stems from the 1930s, when FDR became so frustrated at opposition in the federal courts to some of his New Deal measures that he contemplated increasing the number of seats on the Supreme Court and elsewhere in the federal judiciary to create room for majorities who would uphold his policies. (That didn’t happen, by the way; natural turnover solved some of his problem over time.) But today’s GOP calls filling existing vacancies “court packing.” Uh, no.

Now, then, as for the radicals: The most liberal of the three D.C. Circuit nominees is probably Cornelia “Nina” Pillard. And how radical is she?

Well …

Pillard’s nomination was easily the most controversial for conservatives in the Senate, who voiced concerns over her “radical” views connecting reproductive rights to gender equality as well as her history working on significant cases such as United States v. Virginia, which opened the Virginia Military Institute to women, and Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, which successfully defended the Family and Medical Leave Act against a constitutional challenge.

Gee. That sounds bad. But was it?

It’s hard to imagine evidence of “radicalism” being much more feeble. You don’t exactly have to be Catharine MacKinnon to believe that states denying women the same educational opportunities as men violates the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Indeed, Pillard’s position won at the Supreme Court 7-1. Similarly, arguing that the FMLA—which passed the Senate 71-27—was applicable against state employers is not exactly revolutionary. The Supreme Court agreed in a 6-3 opinion authored by noted left-wing fanatic William Rehnquist (who also voted with the majority in the VMI case.)

Sooooo … the cases about which Pillard is getting the most grief are cases in which she 1) prevailed, and not narrowly, at the Supreme Court, with 2) William Rehnquist, one of the most conservative justices to sit on the high court in the past 75 years, agreeing with her.

In related news, the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt (with whom I have my own problems, but that’s a story for another time) to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency also was filibustered. That marked the first time a sitting member of Congress had been denied an up-or-down vote on a presidential appointment since 1843. No, that’s not a typo.

It’s almost as if Senate Republicans aren’t actually concerned about nominees’ competence, character, or even politics. It’s almost as if they’re concerned about … well, something else. But I can’t quite put my finger on it. I wonder what it might be?

The Washington Effing Post Needs to Fire Richard Effing Cohen. Today.

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns! — Lex @ 7:21 pm

As you might be aware, so-called liberal Richard Cohen published a column in the Post a few days ago that, to anyone with half a brain, demonstrated that he is an unreconstructed racist. It included such gems as:

Today’s GOP is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the tea party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.

So, people who gag at the thought of “a white man married to a black woman with two biracial children” are just “people with conventional views” and not, you know, effing racists. And it’s not that so-called cultural conservatives are racist, heavens, no. It’s just that the sight of a white man married to a black woman with two biracial children “doesn’t look like their country at all.”

Which is, I am sure, exactly how Thomas Jefferson felt.

(And don’t even get me started on “used to be a lesbian.” Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot. Interrobang.)

Not only did Richard Cohen write this column, but presumably, no one at the Post even blinked during the editing process. Still, it is Cohen’s work, and it is a work of thermonuclear hate and stupidity so vile and staggering that the only decent, humane response from the standpoint of, you know, readers is to terminate him with extreme prejudice, or at least dump him and his desk out a second-floor window and plow the floor of his former office with salt so that nothing that stupid can ever grow there again.

(Ta’Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic offers a slightly more nuanced response.)

But there’s a bigger problem than Cohen. And that problem is that liberals, because they are so damn decent and forgiving, are willing, at the worst, to just shrug and say, “Well, that’s Cohen. Let’s move on.” Just like liberals said impeachment of Bush 43 for torture and other crimes against humanity was “off the table” once Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006. Just like at least some liberals think there might actually be some virtue in cuts, however minor, to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as part of a “Grand Bargain” to “fix the deficit.”

Aw, hell, no. On this one, I’m with John Cole:

This is not the [expletive] time to say “Can we all just agree that Richard Cohen is an [expletive] and move on?”Haven’t y’all been doing that for several decades (I’m kinda new to the cause, having converted late)? How has that worked out? Moving on and not talking about him has meant several more decades of talking about him. How about we once and for all do something about it?

This is what shocks me over and over and over again. Wingnuts, at any perceived slight, go for the throat — and more often than not they get the head. Don’t believe me? Ask Phil Donahue and Ashleigh Banfield and Dan Rather and David Schuster and on and on and on. And those are just media folks — you could start with Shirley Sherrod and work your way through public servants all the way through academia down to the smallest most insignificant guy working for ACORN. They go for the kill.

And here, we have an allegedly well-meaning guy who just wants to translate to the 75% of unenlightend Americans why interracial marriage is unconventional dead to rights, and folks wanna say “Let’s just move on.”

No. I’m not ready to move on. Moving on means moving forward, and moving forward means rejecting the status quo and working towards something better. And we can’t move forward until folks like Richard Cohen and his ilk are put out to pasture. If you want to change [expletive], do it one [expletive]head at a time. I’m tired of waiting for David Broder to die* while Fox News elevates Karl Rove.

Because I’m beyond sick and tired of putting up with this crap, and I’m done moving on.

*Yes, I know Broder is already dead. Cole knows it, too; I think he meant this in the sense of “Broder-style thinking.”

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 7:01 pm

“He had our back every day.”

Filed under: Sad — Lex @ 7:01 pm
Tags:

The celebration of my cousin Geoff Ecker’s life, held Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, in Government Camp, Oregon. Hundreds of family and friends in a little town set on rugged terrain an hour and a half from the nearest airport. Laughter and tears, speeches, poetry, reminiscences, good music and, well, Whitesnake lyrics. (And Geoff’s dog, who now has a new home.) I wish I could have been there.

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.

Facts matter, so does context, ACA Part CCXXII!Q*%.

It is factually accurate to state that Obama’s claim that “most people” would be able to keep their existing health insurance coverage under Obamacare was inaccurate if you’re looking at people with individual policies. (Most people insured through their employers will, in fact, continue to be.) It is even factually accurate to say that Obama kept claiming that even after he should have known better — i.e., he lied on that point, at least for a while.

But economist Dean Baker adds some relevant context that, while not getting Obama off the hook for saying stuff he should have known to be false, also makes clear that insurers also played a role and that policy holders shouldn’t have been totally surprised:

[The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” columnist, Glenn Kessler] presents evidence showing that 48.2 percent of individual plans are in effect less than 6 months and 64.5 percent are in effect less than year. Extrapolating from this evidence on the rate at which individuals leave plans, Kessler calculates that less than 4.8 percent of the people in the individual market have a plan that would be protected by this grandfather provision. …

… while Kessler is correct that the grandfathering protects relatively few people because policies tend to be short-lived, this data also raises an issue about the pain caused by earlier than expected cancellations. Kessler’s data show that almost half of the plans will be held by people for less than six months and almost two-thirds will be held for less than a year. This means that most of the people being told that their plans are being cancelled probably would have left their plans in the first half of 2014 anyhow. While no one wants to buy insurance more than necessary, it hardly seems like a calamity if someone expected to leave their policy in March and will now have to arrange insurance through the exchange for two months.

Furthermore one has to ask about the role of insurers in this process. Kessler’s data imply that more than three quarters of the people in the individual market signed up for their policies for the first time in the last year. Didn’t insurers tell people at the time they sold the policies that these plans would only be in effect through the end of December because they did not comply with provisions in the ACA? If the insurers did inform their clients at the time they purchased their policies then they would not be surprised to find out now that they will need new insurance. If the insurance companies did not inform clients that their plans would soon be terminated then it seems that the insurers are the main culprits in this story, not the Obama administration.

UPDATE, 11/13/13: Just a thought: Insurance companies have known for three years what the standards for policies would be under the ACA. They had plenty of time to prepare. In many cases, however, they chose to screw consumers and blame it on Obama.

Monday, November 11, 2013 10:56 pm

For no good reason …

Filed under: Weird — Lex @ 10:56 pm
Tags: ,

… Here’s the Red Army Chorus singing Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

Sunday, November 10, 2013 10:43 am

Stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this, “Fallen Madonna” edition

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 10:43 am
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So: There once was this British TV comedy called “Allo, Allo.” It was about people in a town in occupied France during World War II. (Yes, I said “comedy.” Apparently it was a much better execution of the “Hogan’s Heroes” concept.) The show’s run ended in 1992 (although I hear you might be able to find it on Netflix), so it’s not of recent vintage. The characters included a French cafe owner, a German general and his gay adjutant, a Gestapo officer and a couple of other folks. And one of the recurring plotlines had to do with a painting that Hitler desperately wanted to own that the Resistance was trying hard to keep from him. The painting, which was never actually shown on the show except from behind, was by an artist named Van Klomp. It was officially called “The Fallen Madonna” and known to those who had actually seen it as “The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies.”

Now, speaking of Nazis and art, this week we learned this:

A cache of 1,500 works of art — including masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall — confiscated by the Nazis and missing for more than 70 years has been found in Germany, according to German media reports.

The huge haul of paintings, estimated to be worth more than $1 billion, was discovered in an apartment in Munich in the spring of 2011 during a raid by Bavarian tax authorities, but its existence has only just come to light with an article in the German news magazine Focus.

The collection is said to include works by Modernist masters Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Marc, Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, many of which had been believed destroyed during World War II.

That’s the CNN version of the story, and obviously this was big news in Germany, but it was big news in England as well — not least because the topic of art purloined from other cultures is still a live and touchy subject there. So we have reports from the Telegraph

FallenMadonnaTelegraph

… and from the Guardian:

FallenMadonnaGuardian

There’ll always be an England.

Saturday, November 9, 2013 10:25 pm

Willfully and intentionally stick the wrong man in prison for 25 years? Meh. We’ll give you 10 days in jail.

Lawyers take oaths to serve as officers of the court, meaning, basically, that they swear to follow the law and to do everything they can to ensure that the court system of which they are a part does the same. As part and parcel of this system, prosecutors are bound by oath to disclose to the defense, before trial, or as soon as they obtain or learn of it if a trial already has started, all the evidence they have, including evidence that might tend to prove that the defendant is not, in fact, guilty — “exculpatory” evidence, the lawyers call it.

That’s the way the system is supposed to work, and the consequences of failure are immense: Not only does an innocent person go to prison or worse, but the guilty person also goes free, perhaps to victimize others.

We have no idea how often prosecutors violate this obligation, but cases come to light with enough regularity that we must assume it’s fairly common. And most of the time, the worst thing that happens to a prosecutor as a result is a reprimand, nearly as I can tell (real lawyers are welcome to jump in here and correct me). Frequently, nothing at all happens.

(Indeed, the only time I can recall a prosecutor getting seriously disciplined for a mistake was a rookie assistant DA in Iredell County in the mid-1980s who failed to elicit from a state trooper on the stand the crucial fact that the defendant had been the person the trooper had found behind the wheel in a wreck involving a school bus or school children, I forget which. The defense attorney quite properly moved for a “directed verdict” — an immediate ruling from the judge — for acquittal, and the judge quite properly granted it. The rookie prosecutor was fired. The DA at the time went on to serve as a Superior Court judge himself.)

In fact, in 35 years, much of it professional, of watching the courts, this is the first time I can recall a prosecutor actually going to jail for withholding exculpatory evidence:

Former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson did not disclose evidence to the defense in a case 27 years ago, and will spend 10 days in a county jail.

As a consequence of that misconduct, though, Michael Morton spent 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife Christine, a crime he did not commit, for which he was exonerated by DNA evidence last year.

Christine Morton’s actual killer, Mark Alan Norwood, was convicted of her murder earlier this year, and is now indicted for killing another woman in Austin two and a half years after Christine’s death. …

Anderson refused to disclose that the lead police investigator had learned that Morton’s 3-year-old son witnessed the crime and told his grandmother that Morton wasn’t the perpetrator, that Anderson had learned that a neighbor had reported seeing someone staking out the house, and that someone had tried to use the victim’s credit card in San Antonio after the murder.

Anderson had been facing up to 10 years in prison on a felony and misdemeanor charges of tampering with evidence, which were dropped according to the Austin American Statesman. Anderson will be disbarred for at least five years as well, pending final review by the Texas Supreme Court.

So a guy who knowingly, willfully and intentionally 1) put an innocent man behind bars for 25 years and 2) let a guilty man go free, allegedly to kill again, is going to 1) serve 10 days in jail and 2) maybe lose his law license for five years, after which he’ll be legally entitled to practice law again and at least hypothetically able to imprison more innocent people.

Three words: Aw, hell, no.

For starters, this guy should be disbarred for life.

And then? He ought to serve a day in prison for every day that Anderson served.

And that, right there, ought to be the standard: If you, as a prosecutor, knowingly, willfully, and intentionally withhold exculpatory evidence and an innocent person is convicted as a result, you ought to get the same sentence the defendant did. And, hell, yes, if you send the wrong guy to Death Row and he gets executed, then you should be, too.

I have no reason to think many Americans, or even many lawyers (no matter what type of law they practice) are serious about solving this problem. But if we are serious about solving this problem, this approach will solve it. Indeed, I would argue that this might even be the one instance in which the death penalty really would as a deterrent.

Friday, November 8, 2013 7:24 pm

Rand Paul is a thief and a petulant, whining baby.

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns! — Lex @ 7:24 pm
Tags: ,

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has been caught plagiarizing. Repeatedly. Serially. He plagiarized Wikipedia entries for his speeches. He plagiarized another columnist’s work for his column for The Washington Times, for which the Times fired him. (Can you imagine how bad you have to be to get fired from an op-ed gig at the Washington Times?) And he has refused to accept responsibility for any of this.

The editorial page of the Lexington Herald-Leader draws him up short and sharp on this. Among my favorite passages:

Paul said he accepted responsibility and then went on quickly to slough it off, laying it on his rapid ascent to national prominence, which he sought relentlessly, on his staff, whom he hired, and finally, of course, on “the haters” who just want to bring the great man down.

Paul appears to believe profoundly in his own exceptionalism, including that the rules don’t apply to him. Even worse, he now wants to rewrite the rules. …

Trying to put this behind him, Paul said that he and his staff will attribute sources “if it will make people leave me the hell alone.” A curious remark for someone who has sought attention at every turn, grandstanding at Senate hearings, touring television talk shows, accepting speaking invitations in states critical to a presidential bid.

For a guy who wants to be president, he certainly has some curious ideas about the amount of scrutiny he should be expected to undergo. And, Rand, buddy, if you think being outed as a serial plagiarist is, in any way, going to make people leave you the hell alone, let me give you some bad news: To the contrary, it’s going to make bloggers, if not the sorry-ass mainstream media, ride you like a beast across the plains of Mongolia. You’re not going to be able to take a DUMP for the next two years without it showing up on the Internet. If you’re not ready for your close-up now, and I don’t think you are, then, buddy, you never will be.

Paul’s sense of self-grandeur is so great that, like a pouting child, he threatened to leave politics altogether if everyone keeps being mean to him. “People can think what they want. I can go back to being a doctor any time,” he said.

And longtime readers here know exactly what my two-syllable, basic-Anglo-Saxon response will be: “Door. Ass.”

So the GOP has decided it can win the 2014 midterms by impeaching Eric Holder over “Fast & Furious.” Really.

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns! — Lex @ 7:11 pm
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I agree with Steve M. at No More Mr. Nice Blog: This ought to be really entertaining:

Please do this. Please do this. John Boehner, please add this to your list of things you allow the teabagger crazies to do so they won’t be mean to you. Heritage Action? Please bankroll a large number of House and Senate candidates who vow to make this their #1 priority (after repealing Obamacare, of course).

There’s a simple reason that people who watch TV channels other than Fox News haven’t become outraged at what happened in Fast and Furious. No, they don’t think it was a good idea. No, they’re not callous about the deaths of law enforcement personnel.

The reason non-Fox-obsessed Americans have shrugged this off is that we do all sorts of things in this country to fight crime, some of them reckless and foolhardy and ill-conceived. We do stop-and-frisks and high-speed chases and SWAT raids on homes that aren’t always the intended targets. We form drug squads that sometimes get bad guys off the streets and sometimes turn cops into dealers’ accomplices. Some people get hurt who shouldn’t, and some even die; some guilty people emerge unscathed.

But we tend to define the misdeeds as crimes only when we think there was actual malice. Impeaching Holder over Fast and Furious would be, for most people, an attempt to criminalize misjudgments. People who aren’t knee-jerk wingnuts don’t want to do that.

I know: Much of the right believes that Fast and Furious was a massive conspiracy to drum up support for gun control. Yes, House Republicans, please try to sell that line to the American public. The murders of twenty schoolchildren in Connecticut didn’t lead to new gun legislation at the federal level; how the hell was this supposed to accomplish that goal?

The right’s Fast and Furious obsession exposes two aspects of wingnut insanity: conspiracy-mindedness (Obama and Holder got law enforcement personnel killed as part of a devious scheme to take away citizens’ guns!) as well as delusions of grandeur (only outrage at Fast and Furious on the part of true conservative patriots prevented this massive gun grab!).

Please try to sell that narrative to the American public next year, right-wingers. While most Americans continue to struggle in a sluggish economy, please spend weeks if not months with Eric Holder in the dock. Oh, sure, you’ll motivate your own voter base — but that will just mean that gunnier-than-thou candidates will win GOP primaries and, in some cases, lose general elections. Meanwhile, the rest of the country will see what the Republican Party’s true priorities are.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Holder has been a generally awful attorney general. But he has mainly been awful because he has been a do-nothing (those huge numbers of convicted banksters not withstanding — wait, what?), and he has been a do-nothing because that’s what his boss has wanted him to be. Blaming Holder like that is to make the same mistake as blaming James Watt, back in the day, for what were really Ronald W. Reagan’s extract-it-all-the-environment-be-damned policies. Fast & Furious was a bonehead play, but it was 1) a bonehead play that originated during the Bush administration, and 2) although a mistake, was in no way intended to lead to confiscating the guns of law-abiding Americans, for crying out loud.

If the right wing really wants to make this their 2014 centerpiece, I predict that it will make ignoring Katrina and shutting down the government look like electrifying works of staggering genius.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 7:06 pm

When you create a monster, you can’t act surprised when it behaves monstrously

Filed under: America. It was a really good idea — Lex @ 7:06 pm
Tags: ,

Esquire’s Charlie Pierce was, as it happens, in Terminal 7 at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday when a guy came in and shot a TSA agent, although that incident happened four terminals down from his.

His reflection on the event, written while he was still stuck in Terminal 7 awaiting a flight, bears repeating:

There already is some talk about this event being a “random” one. But it is not. These things are becoming as regular as rain, as predictable as the summer heat. The only thing “random” about it is the shooter. He could be anyone, and that’s the point. There are people who spend money making sure that he could be anyone, and there’s nothing “random” about how they do that. There is nothing “random” about this country’s ludicrous disinclination to regulate its firearms. There is nothing “random” about the millions of dollars that the NRA spends to convince people that they should have the right to carry their assault weapon anywhere they want to carry it, including into an airport terminal, if they so desire. There is nothing “random” about the politicians who truckle and bow to this lucrative monetization of bloody mayhem. These are all deliberate acts with predictable consequences. There is nothing “random” about how we have armed ourselves, and there is nothing “random” about the filigree of high-flown rhetoric with which we justify arming ourselves, and there is nothing “random” about how we learn nothing every time someone who could be anyone decides to exercise his Second Amendment rights by opening fire. There is nothing random about how we got where we are today, here in Terminal 7, where people have sought refuge from the bloodshed, four terminals over. There is nothing “random” at all. We have chosen insanity over reason. We have done it with our eyes open.

To this I would add that there is nothing random about making government, all government, out to be the enemy. As history has shown time and time again, when you scapegoat someone or something long and loudly enough, either a group or a free agent gets exercised sufficiently to act, usually illegally, against that someone or something. And so it has come to pass:

The 23-year-old man who allegedly killed a TSA official at Los Angeles International Airport yesterday was carrying a one-page “manifesto” that included references to the “New World Order,” the Federal Reserve and “fiat currency,” according to a knowledgeable source with ranking law enforcement contacts.

Paul Anthony Ciancia, who allegedly wounded three other TSA workers before being shot and critically wounded himself, also expressed antagonism toward the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its chief until she resigned in August, Janet Napolitano, the source said. Ciancia’s note called former Secretary Napolitano a “bull dyke” and contained the phrase “FU Janet Napolitano,” the source said.

Ciancia’s language and references seemed to put him squarely in the conspiracy-minded world of the antigovernment “Patriot” movement. The New World Order refers to a longstanding conspiracy theory that today, in its most popular iteration, claims that global elites are plotting to form a socialistic “one-world government” that would crush American freedoms. Often, the root of the alleged conspiracy is traced to the 1913 creation of the Federal Reserve and the adoption of fiat currency — paper money that is not backed by gold, as it was once was in the U.S.

So-called Patriots also increasingly see the DHS, which produces intelligence assessments of extremists that are distributed to other law enforcement agencies, as an enemy and even a collaborator in the New World Order conspiracy. Many believe DHS has targeted their movement and is somehow connected to the alleged construction of concentration camps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The purported camps are thought to be meant for those Americans who resist a coming national seizure of all weapons from U.S. citizens.

Yes, the TSA was a horribly expensive overreaction to 9/11 in the first place, it has been too often staffed by morons, and its habit of confiscating our penknives and making us take off our shoes is annoying as all hell. But there are people in the world who actually need killin’, and to my knowledge, no one at the TSA is one of them.

Friday, November 1, 2013 7:55 pm

More like this, please

Six months ago, the Toronto Star published a story claiming that a video existed of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack. Ford not only denied it, he bitterly attacked the media, most especially the Toronto Star, which he tried to convince subscribers and advertisers to boycott.

Until Thursday, when Toronto’s police chief confirmed that the video exists.

To me, that’s not the news; to the extent I thought about it, I thought Ford was guilty as sin.

No, the news is this open letter from the Toronto Star’s publisher, John Cruickshank:

The truth finally found a few more friends in Toronto yesterday. It badly needed them.

For the past six months, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has waged a brilliantly cynical and manipulative campaign against the Toronto Star and any other media who dared to question him.

Exploiting character assassination, defamation and a numbing stream of self-serving lies, Ford obscured the truth and befouled the truth-tellers.

Until yesterday. …

Six months ago, Mr. Ford might have ’fessed up, done a stint in rehab and emerged to a chorus of congratulations. Everybody loves a redemption story around election time.

But the mayor did not own up to his behaviour. Instead, he turned on the messengers.

And in the success of his malign campaign, he proved how fragile the truth can be if our chosen leaders lead their followers astray.

Mr. Ford and his thuggish brother, Councillor Doug Ford, used their media access to label the news reporters of this city as pathological liars and anti-democratic maggots.

The Fords urged their loyalists to cancel their subscriptions to the Toronto Star and to pull their advertisements.

The Star’s owners and journalists were accused of pursuing an ideological vendetta against Ford. Star reporting was denounced as harassment. Called delusional.

Ford acolytes hauled the paper before the Ontario Press Council, charging that the Star’s use of unnamed sources was unethical and that the media’s focus on the issue was detrimental to the democratic life of the city.

Toronto’s divided and querulous council proved powerless to call the mayor to account or defend their own integrity.

Painful as it is, we must acknowledge as a community that the mayor has been startlingly successful in his deceit.

Many citizens, perhaps a majority, have gullibly given credence to Mayor Ford’s lies about his drug use and about the reporters and editors he vindictively targeted.

The public was persuaded to ignore his erratic behaviour and the intense secrecy he insisted on about the hours he kept and the people with whom he spent his time. Episodes of public intoxication were laughed off (though members of his inner circle conceded the mayor urgently needed intervention).

Latterly, we have heard a little bit about some of the potential harm that comes when a leading official surrounds himself with criminals. Letters of recommendation have gone out from the mayor’s office for a killer and a drug dealer.

We are likely to learn a good deal more about what has been at risk at city hall in the days ahead. …

This is work of a scale and seriousness that can only be undertaken successfully by what is now called “the mainstream media.” Others lack the resources, the experience and the credibility to call a senior official to account.

We feel tremendously proud today of our unwavering pursuit of a shocking story about a popular mayor.

It’s a good day for the city of Toronto despite this bitter period of deception we’ve been through.

And it’s a good day for journalism.

That letter 1) flips Ford and the paper’s critics the middle finger; 2) honors all the Star journalists who have worked on this and related stories; 3) re-emphasizes the value of quality investigative reporting from an outlet with enough financial and legal resources to do hard stories right and make them stand up.

Now, I don’t know Cruickshank from Adam’s housecat, and for all I know this is as much a personal vendetta for him as it is a journalistic endeavor. It would be a shame if that were so.

But I’m trying to come up with publishers in this area — hell, the state — who would have the stones to 1) pursue, publish and defend a similar story in the face of similar opposition; and 2) flip off in print the people who were wrong. I can think of maybe one, and I’m not even sure about him. That’s sad. To some reporters working on difficult and unpopular investigative stories, a big ol’ public “Get bent!” from the publisher to the paper’s critics might be even more valuable than a raise.

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