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by danps

Yes, Congress and the President are responsible for the surveillance state

2:55 am in Uncategorized by danps

surveillance

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

There is an emerging theme on the left that the true blame for our metastasized domestic spying programs lies with the American people. John Cole put it bluntly (via): “No, you want to see the villain, look in the mirror.” Charles Pierce was a little more diplomatic:

You can argue — and I have — that we all tacitly consented to this kind of thing when we allowed our legislators to pass the Patriot Act without facing any substantial pushback at the polls, and that we all continued to consent to it by not making it a bigger issue in our politics than we have.

This is an unusual framing, something we don’t use in just about any other context. Do we say to the long term unemployed: You tacitly consented to your unemployable state by allowing legislators to pursue contractionary policies?

After the Citizens United ruling did anyone say: The American people are responsible for the campaign finance mess, because they voted for the representatives who nominated the judges who etc? How about the abuse of the filibuster in the Senate? Blaming citizens for gradually developing systemic problems in Washington that only reveal themselves over time is absurd. It seems to me the primary responsibility lies with those who are creating and supporting these problems.

The electorate does have a role to play, but its ability to force changes is time- and process-constrained, at least on the big issues. For instance, the most effective citizen response to Citizens United would be a Constitutional amendment declaring that corporations are not people. Such an effort doesn’t happen overnight though; it takes a lot of people working over a long period of time.

The same is true with domestic spying. Citizens are just now learning the roughest contours of it. Like Citizens United it hints at a deep rot, something that will require a remedy on the order of a Constitutional amendment. Saying in the wake of the first emerging details that it’s citizens’ fault for not fixing institution-spanning corruption is crazy.

Another silly aspect of this critique is its over-simplification of electoral politics. Candidates run for office on platforms – whole bundles of positions. Voters don’t get to pick and choose elements of different platforms and construct their ideal candidate. They choose who aligns best with their beliefs, and that can mean voting for someone with objectionable positions on certain issues.

Sometimes none of the candidates will have a palatable stance on an issue. If you think Wall Street has not been properly investigated for the financial meltdown of 2008, who do you vote for? In, say, last November’s presidential election, which candidate was promising to crack down hard on Wall Street? If that was your most important issue, who should you have voted for? Yet presumably greedy and sociopathic bank executives, captured regulators and timid politicians are not the problem. Look in the mirror, right?

Civil liberties will never have a critical mass of popular support; they will always need principled support inside government. Someone who has been out of work for six months or can’t afford to have that worsening ache checked by a doctor is not going to prioritize the Fourth Amendment. The need for enlightened support is, again, not controversial in other areas.

A year after the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision, roughly three fourths of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. The idea that a policy that polls well must be continued is strange. (Though Nate Silver wonders just how substantial that support is given that the public is mostly in the dark on the details.)

The blame, long term, over decades, does indeed lie with the populace. But short and medium term, it belongs to those implementing the policy. That means George Bush and Barack Obama, as well as the Congresses that have so readily acquiesced to executive branch power grabs. In fact, Congress should probably get the biggest share of the blame for the current mess.

We seem to have stumbled upon an Achilles heel in our system of checks and balances. A branch of government will not jealously guard that power which there is no political benefit in exercising, and will give away those powers whose exercise is politically detrimental. Congress may theoretically have oversight of the surveillance state, but only bad things can come from exercising that oversight. How should we expect that to turn out? About the way it has: With stupidly named Gangs that are constrained to the point of uselessness, and an institutional aversion to doing anything hard.

That last point is not just true of intelligence oversight. In his new book Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill quotes (extended excerpt here) Colonel Douglas Macgregor about Congress’ meekness toward the Cheney/Rumsfeld-era Department of defense: “We have no interest in the Senate, in holding anyone accountable and enforcing the laws.” Taking positions that are widely unpopular or that create friction with one’s acquaintances takes a certain amount of spine. Any system that requires courage might be fatally flawed. But the lion’s share of responsibility for abuses still goes to those who abdicate or unjustly seize power.

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by danps

Tracking the New Financial WMDs

3:06 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Blogger George Washington (emph. in orig.):

Remember, credit default swaps didn’t bring down the economy because they are toxic while all other financial vehicles are pure as the driven snow. CDS brought down the economy because they were the choice du jour of the looters.

If we outlaw CDS (which I have argued for in the past), then the looters would create some other instrument for looting.

Given the absence of moral hazard on Wall Street, and the consequent perverse incentives to gamble, it should not be provocative to write that we are most likely just between financial meltdowns. The US government has formalized what was long merely assumed: that the biggest financial institutions are too big to fail. The big boys know that when it comes time to pay off losing bets they will be covered by OPM, baby – Other People’s Money.

As Washington writes, it is just a matter of seeing what the next game is. We may be in the middle of one right now with the foreclosure mess (Foreclosure Fraud has done an amazing job documenting and analyzing it). There are too many stories to keep track of – people without mortgages being foreclosed on, houses getting sold multiple times, people being thrown out of their homes multiple times, it just seems to go on and on.

The best measure of just how much trouble the banks are in may be the tale of H.R. 3808, the Interstate Recognition of Notarizations Act of 2010. Consider its blink-and-you-missed-it trip through the Senate. The Senate: the same body that has bottled up 420 (and counting) bills passed by the House, is crippling the judiciary by refusing to confirm judges, and is deliberately, actively harming America’s national security by working for months in bad faith on a new arms treaty with Russia – only to sabotage it when it was ready to be ratified. Read how H.R. 3808 was treated by that Senate:

After languishing for months in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill passed the Senate with lightning speed and with hardly any public awareness of the bill’s existence on September 27, the day before the Senate recessed for midterm election campaign.

The bill’s approval involved invocation of a special procedure. Democratic Senator Robert Casey, shepherding last-minute legislation on behalf of the Senate leadership, had the bill taken away from the Senate Judiciary committee, which hadn’t acted on it.

The full Senate then immediately passed the bill without debate, by unanimous consent.

If that does not convince you the fix is in, nothing will. When they need to straighten up and fly right they do so very prettily, no?

All of this is mostly about trying to once again dump losses on taxpayers, though. It is post-speculation cleanup. What about the next bubble; where will it come from? Commenter gizzardboy very helpfully pointed me to a series of recent articles on exchange traded funds (ETFs). These are mutual funds based on a basket of stocks in an exchange. So, for example, you could buy a single “share” in the S&P 500 – something that reflects the value and movement of all 500 stocks – by purchasing it from an S&P 500 ETF.

In an ETF analysis a couple of months ago, Bogan Associates considered the possibility of collapse. The paper argues that since many ETFs have a great deal more outstanding shares than the underlying value of the funds themselves, a run on one of them would cause it to collapse. And of course, if that causes other ETFs to take on the stink of death it could spark a chain reaction that would indiscriminately take down whole chunks of the industry – healthy and unhealthy alike.

The paper was noted by Herb Greenberg, which prompted Michael Johnston to jump in to defend them. He does so with a tone of haughty disdain (people linked to Greenberg “apparently without doing much research,” he sniffs) and it actually works against him: Snorting dismissal is the first refuge of unsupported privilege.

He does a good job sketching out the basics of how ETFs operate, but as gizzardboy emailed there is not much discussion of naked short selling. (Here is a fairly anodyne description of naked shorting; here is a less sanguine take.) Essentially, ETFs are subject to the same manipulation and speculation as any other financial instrument. Is it their turn as choice du jour? We are assured by people in the industry like Johnston that they are solid, safe investments, but such assurances have shaky records of late. And as Congress has shown, it is more than willing to put taxpayers on the hook for the next bailout before the public even knows it’s up for a vote.

by danps

The Ongoing Relevance of the White House Email Fiasco

3:47 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

On Monday Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released a detailed report (pdf) on the Bush administration’s loss of millions of emails. They inherited a system called ARMS (Automatic Records Managements System) that met the requirements of the Presidential Records Act (PRA), but tried to move to a manual system. That alone seems like a willful violation of the PRA’s spirit. Anyone who manages a lot of files on a large hard drive or a big mailbox will sooner or later bump up against the concept of functionally lost: You know it’s in there somewhere but you either can’t find it or can’t get to it.

These are ordinary considerations for even relatively inexperienced IT professionals. So is the concept of testing, but the new system began being used without it. Standard practice is to set up a parallel environment, have a QA team try it out as a simple proof of concept, work out the kinks, have a handful of "real" users take it out for a spin, and manage the rollout in a way that no one starts using the production system until the test system has proved its reliability. This is elementary project management.

The post-ARMS system required manually backing up each user’s mailbox data, which Microsoft Outlook stores in what is called a PST file. The pitfalls of this are obvious: If Johnny backs up everyone’s PST files tonight they might go to one location, and if Jenny backs them up tomorrow another. One set of possibilities for each operator initiating the backup. That is just for one night’s backups, too.

Backups happen each night. As weeks and months go by workers leave for new jobs and new ones come on board. Pretty soon it is impossible to know where, say, Lewis Libby’s PST file from October 6, 2003 might be. It’s on ONE of these tapes, in ONE of these directories (functionally lost). At another point the administration stopped backing them up because of a legal ambiguity, so the files never got cleaned out and just kept getting larger. Eventually they were too big for the system to process and no one could read them. It’s in the file SOMEWHERE but it’s too big to restore and look through (functionally lost).

Managing the PST files turned into a circus. Trying to make sense of it allowed a menagerie of hapless contractors and ripoff artists to dive into the money pit and emerge with ever more complex and arcane non-solutions aimed only at further extending the Rube Goldberg contraption. The PST files were a kludge, and these opportunists were not trying to get onto a proper system but just offering kludge wrappers.

Familiar names in the defense industry like Booz Allen and Northrop Grumman got into the act, as did a whole host of IT vendors both small and large. By the time InfoReliance comes on the scene with its PST Inventory Verification and Investigation Tool it seemed like Washington contractors had figured out some modern version of hobo signs to let everyone know where a free lunch was available.

This is not just a reheated helping of the toxic stew of incompetence and criminality from the previous administration, either. If nothing else fidelity to the historical record ought to make finding and restoring as much data as possible a top priority. However, even for those in the "keep looking so resolutely forward we do not learn from the past" camp there are reasons to acknowledge it.

For example, Congress could extend the PRA to include standards for data and application migrations. Federal offices all the way through the White House should have automated record preservation systems in place, and should be enjoined from moving a new system into production until it has been satisfactorily demonstrated in a test environment.

Also, the Keystone Kops efforts to restore data would not have happened if proper disaster recovery procedures were in place. Twice a year (minimum) all high level IT departments should engage in a full offsite disaster recovery exercise. Assume a tornado went through the data center; how do you get everyone back up and running? Doing that would have identified the hazards of PST purgatory relatively early, and given them a chance to correct it.

Those are just two quick examples. The IT environment revealed in the CREW report was unworthy of a boiler room, much less the highest governmental offices in the country. Simply correcting the problems of the Bush administration is inadequate. New policies need to be drawn up and procedures implemented. The entire operation needs to be systematized and formalized. The alternative is to leave yet another part of the government shielded from sunlight.

by danps

Raise Their Pay and Make Them Stay

2:31 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Congressional sessions have been in the news twice this week, and in both cases Republicans were opposed. Tuesday’s special session and the prospective lame duck session were both the object of bitter complaints. Neither was surprising: conservatives have a long running hostility towards the very idea of governing – along with a romanticized, sepia-toned vision of a golden era of citizen legislators. There is a corresponding impatience now, an irritation with the stubborn refusal of the country to run on auto pilot.

Lamar Alexander gave the most punchy expression of this idea in a 1994 speech titled "Cut Their Pay and Send Them Home" (the Heritage site notes with sublime understatement: "Archived document, may contain errors"). As he envisions it:

Congress could: Convene on January 3rd, just as it now doe s, pass the authorization bills to help the government run, and go home early in the baseball season. V Come back Labor Day, pass the appropriations bins and any other urgent legislation, and be home by Thanksgiving. Cut the pay of Members in half and mWa l the rules that keep them from holding real jobs and leading normal lives in their home towns.

He further notes, in words that I believe all schoolchildren should be forced to memorize, "Tim notion is that a part time Congress of community leaders makes a be= government than a ftdl-bm Congress of cum politicians." More seriously, he quotes Kay Bailey Hutchison’s endorsement: "It’s a great idea. We should cut our pay and send ourselves home. It is the kind of Congress the framers imagined."

The idea that being a legislator is not a real job, and that those engaged in lawmaking do not lead normal lives, is a powerful bit of right wing iconography. They prefer to think of lawmaking as something a level headed, common sense ordinary working American could do in his spare time. Anything that adds complexity or draws the process out is the product of greedy, underhanded special interests. There is a deep reluctance to acknowledge, for instance, that rival power centers that may require a more active government than the one envisioned in the founders’ agrarian world.

Characterizing it that way also constructs a tightly circular logic that justifies their failed laissez-faire approach: Private industry can regulate itself, so no intervention is required. Because government is kept away, it does not have the knowledge to effectively address any problems that arise. When the financial system melted down we were told that the fools and thieves who wrecked the economy in the first place had to be in charge of fixing it because it was incomprehensible to everyone else. When BP unleashed a volcanic eruption of oil in the Gulf we were told only they had the technology to address it.

Perhaps if Congress would not voluntarily hobble itself that argument would be a little harder to make. If representatives had to be in the capitol from Monday through Friday fifty weeks a year (oh heck, let’s be generous employers and make it forty eight) maybe they would put the extra time to good use. Sure, they might just spend more time on frivolous or counterproductive measures. There is, though, a possibility that they would spend some time becoming knowledgeable on important issues before they develop into crises.

Three day work weeks only provide more time to raise money from lobbyists. Recesses are increasingly used for virtual town halls or highly scripted encounters in which impromptu interaction is almost entirely ruled out. The former could just as easily be done from the capitol, the latter by a capitol office coordinating with a well trained local staff. Maybe if enough staff were forced on them – and in some cases "forced" is probably the right word – they would become more engaged in wide ranging issues of governance.

In addition to beefing up staffs and extending their hours, we could emphasize a renewed commitment to professional legislators by substantially bumping House and Senate salaries. Reducing the gap between legislators and lobbyists would also make the revolving door a little less lucrative. Yes, it would be wonderful for the pure spirit of public service to motivate them, but their pay should be commensurate with the importance of their work.

It also would announce a new anticipation of seriousness. If they are in session much more often, and paid very well for it, then it will be harder to justify having lobbyists write legislation or declare an issue too complex. For over a generation the mantra has been to expect less; it’s time to change that, and to tangibly signal it. Pay them better, and make it clear that representing their constituents is their real job.

by danps

Memo to Congress: Unemployment Trumps Everything

2:32 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Several months out from election day the Democrats’ prospects are not encouraging. If nothing else, history is against them since midterm elections usually go poorly for the president’s party. Theoretically their base should be fired up. Health insurance reform, the stimulus and revamping the student loan system (possibly the most undiluted win for progressives) are all items they can point to. Financial reform looks like it may go through, though even that modest and much reduced package is causing a mass freak out among the Masters of the Universe. Immigration reform has a shot, so does climate change. All in all, lots to celebrate, right?

As it happens, though, Republicans are considerably more energized; noting the "enthusiasm gap" Steve Benen warned: "The awakening next January will likely be a rude one — intractable gridlock, endless and pointless investigations, and a progressive policy agenda brought to an immediate halt. Hell, presidential impeachment might even find itself on the table." Such dire warnings seem to be part of the messaging about what might happen if the GOP gets control of the House or the Senate. The problem is, "be afraid, be very very afraid" is not terribly motivating. Republicans spent two election cycles warning voters about Nancy Pelosi bringing her San Francisco values to the heartland, and it did not work out too well for them.

More importantly, it ignores the elephant in the room. Unemployment is stuck near ten percent, and that will sink the Democrats in Congress if it does not come down. The only possible exception would be if they put forth another big stimulus bill and forced Republicans to spend a long, hot summer blocking it in the most high profile way possible – with an actual filibuster. The various procedural maneuvers Republicans have used to bring the Senate to a crawl do not really register outside the Beltway. In a way that makes sense; Democrats have the majority, and if they cannot implement their policies with it they deserve to be judged on that. Voters do not, and should not, care about why things are not getting done, they just care that they are not.

Getting millions of people back to work will brighten the perception of this Congress more than everything else it has done so far. If Congress cannot improve the jobs situation then any losses in the midterms will be deserved. It will not be because a complacent or apathetic base took them for granted, nor that voters do not truly appreciate all the hard work it has done, nor that the rise of the mighty teabagger movement has ushered in a new era of conservative ascendance. It will be because there have been massive job losses and our leaders have looked on passively, month after month, as it festered.

One other point that Congressional leaders do not seem to appreciate (publicly, anyway): The president is not on the ballot this year. He can afford to say the unemployment rate is unacceptable but leave it at that. In fact, it might actually help him if the economy stalls and control of the legislature flips. The GOP would probably do all the stupid, counterproductive things folks like Benen are warning about, but from a political standpoint how would that be a disadvantage? Every president loves a good foil, and Barack Obama would have an easier time running against a do nothing Republican Congress than a hobbled Democratic one. Being able to claim he was all that stood between citizens and a full fledged Depression would be extremely useful during his re-election campaign.

In other words, the leadership of the Democratic party may be at cross purposes. For Congress it is vital that they be seen as taking drastic steps immediately to prime the pump, kick start the economy’s engine and generally pull the bleak jobs market out of its tailspin (pick your metaphor). Tell voters you want to get Americans back to work and let the GOP invoke vague, and largely imaginary, threats like deficits (via) and inflation. Voters are not as terrified of the bond market as conventional wisdom thinks.

The president has no such urgency, and it may actually help him to get some anti-Democrat backlash sooner rather than later. If the House and Senate are content to let him continue to set the pace they can reasonably expect big losses in November. If they want to show some instinct for self preservation, though, they might want to highlight GOP obstructionism right away – and maybe send some bills to the president’s desk that he may not be ready for just yet.

by danps

The Midterms Are All About the ‘Stills’

4:01 am in 2010 election, Elections, Government, Legislature by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

It was probably inevitable that the Tuesday election post mortems would focus on process and conventional wisdom. An outfit like Politico can pump out a feature length article on it almost by rote: There is a great deal of populist anger out there, from tea parties on the right to the netroots on the left; incumbents are the targets and cannot take anything for granted; new forms of organizing and fundraising are changing the possibilities for candidates; Democrats once again had a better ground game and better strategy.

There is something to each of those points: A good part of the electorate is angry. Calling it "populist" gives it a vaguely irrational and menacing subtext, but sometimes anger is legitimate, and sometimes it is channelled in productive ways (like, for instance, in a primary challenge).

It is also true that some of the new actors on the scene are subverting old structures. A site like Daily Kos lets partisans bypass a traditional media that may ignore or be hostile to issues important to liberals. Act Blue can make candidates easily available to small donors across the country and has somewhat improved candidates’ ability to succeed without lots of large contributors or institutional support.

And yes, party machinery plays a role. The DCCC has a nice little winning streak going, and maybe it has some kind of advantage in election day "get out the vote" operations. There certainly seems to be some kind of structural advantage in that regard.

Even granting all of that, the analysis looks skewed because it misses the big picture. Like the fact that we are still waging two wars nearly four years after voters flipped control of Congress largely out of deep unhappiness with Iraq. Maybe voters are angry because the thankfully soon to be retired David Obey said the following in 2007:

As chairman of the appropriations committee, I have no intention of reporting out of committee any time in this session of Congress any such (war funding) request that simply serves to continue the status quo.

Yet somehow, three years later, we are still there. Obey is hardly the only one guilty of this, either.

Maybe the fact that the Afghanistan war has become deeply unpopular but still endlessly grinds on has people a little upset. Maybe the ramped up program of remote murder has people thinking that perhaps we are doing more harm than good there, and maybe any vital national interest there (if it exists) could be achieved at a less fearsome cost. Maybe the fact that tens of billions more dollars will soon be approved for our wars is making folks not feel very kindly inclined towards incumbents. Maybe the fact that the money will come from the same off-the-books deception that George Bush was such a fan of doesn’t strike people as very responsible (or mature). Maybe they remember Barack Obama congratulating himself that he had foresworn emergency supplementals in favor of a budget that "accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules."

The unemployment rate lingers near double digits; what has Congress done to address it? All of Washington seems to just be waiting for the economy to correct itself. Perhaps those outside the Beltway do not view the situation with the same equanimity.

I know I tend to have a bee in my bonnet over civil liberties, but maybe there is a broader discomfort over the ongoing efforts to weaken Constitutional protections. Or the fact that the same scumbags who wrecked the economy not only escaped entirely unscathed from their crimes, but came out of it with a system rigged to guarantee their further enrichment. Or that the company that just unleashed (via) the biggest environmental catastrophe since Chernobyl is dictating terms to the government.

To spare a few thoughts for conservatives, most of them were never particularly thrilled with the bailout, and it has come to take on iconic status for the Republican base. Being associated with it is by itself discrediting, much like the Iraq war vote has been for liberals. From Florida to Texas to Utah, those who can stick that label onto their opponents are doing so, and winning.

In short, Washington has for several years now been fully committed to disastrous policies. Citizens are responding by getting rid of those responsible in the hopes that the policies will change. It is not the result of some rabid, irrational rage but an emphatic vote of no confidence in the things they are doing. Getting all wrapped up in the weather in Pennsylvania obscures the fact that on almost the full range of issues people care most about, America’s leaders are doing things that voters really, really hate.

by danps

Peter G. Peterson Foundation: What About Military Bases?

3:25 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

On Wednesday the Peter G. Peterson Foundation held a conference to "bring together hundreds of stakeholders from across the political spectrum with diverse ideas on how to address critical fiscal issues while continuing to meet the priorities of the American people." They apparently did not consider $1.7 trillion in tax cuts to be a critical fiscal issue, nor spending a trillion dollars off the books for the military, nor the general mismanagement that caused the surpluses bequeathed by Democrats to Republicans to become huge deficits, but never mind. I am sure they were greatly alarmed in their own quiet way by these developments.

While New Deal 2.0 offered an entire counter conference, I would like to offer my own one paragraph plan: A 70% marginal income tax for the ultra rich (say $5 million per year) along with Pete DeFazio’s quarter cent stock transaction tax, which we can only hope will do as its critics claim and "Destroy High-Frequency Trading [HFT] and Liquidity." There has been no demonstrated value to HFT and in this context the opposite of liquidity is friction, which would be a brake on speculative excess. It is a win-win, buffering the market from extreme volatility and easing the deficit at the same time.

If Peterson still is looking for ways to get our finances back in order, here is another win-win: Aggressively shuttering our foreign military bases. Chalmers Johnson examined the issue closely in chapters 4 and 5 of his book Nemesis, and has included much of that research in various online posts as well. The fiscal argument for closing them is that they cost us over $100 billion per year, which incidentally is more than the new health care law.

While there is certainly room for debate on how much Americans’ health care will improve based on what was essentially health insurance reform, I have not seen any arguments that the new law is actually worse than the status quo. While one person’s half a loaf may be another’s hyper-incrementalist bullshit, everyone seems to agree that there will be some tangible benefit to ordinary Americans for the money spent. Can the same be said of our bases?

Their benefits are dubious and vague at best. They give the US a presence abroad, which may serve as a reminder – potentially comforting or menacing – that Uncle Sam is nearby. Any upside to that is almost impossible to quantify; while it almost surely has deterred aggression from enemies at times in the past, specific examples are unknowable.

Drawbacks can also be hard to measure; how do you quantify the local level of unease with a quasi-imperial ("America’s version of the colony is the military base") presence? Sometimes the disadvantages are unmistakable though. Johnson’s article here – see his "The Three Rapes" section in particular – illustrates the problems we have had in Okinawa trying to reconcile two different legal systems, and sets of expectations, by a Status of Forces Agreement.

A review of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma there is underway now, and local residents want it off the island entirely. Unsurprisingly, no other islands in Japan have volunteered to host it. The US wants to move Futenma to a new part of Okinawa, where our history is ambivalent at best (pdf). One proposal is to build a new one on a landfill, but Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama objected it "would defile nature." (This is hardly the best time to brag on our offshore structures, either.) Futenma is so unpopular it may bring down Hatoyama’s government. What exactly is the benefit to the American taxpayer?

Futenma is in the news (the Japanese news, anyway) at the moment because of its status, not because some incident made it a flash point. Now is the perfect time to ask some fundamental questions. Sure, there are possible drawbacks to leaving. It could lead to military tensions with China. In a worst case scenario we could see nuclear proliferation and a "mutual assured destruction" security model. There are plenty of other scary possibilities.

What is the price we are paying now, though? We ought to assume our presence in a foreign country is unpopular by default, and only believe otherwise in the face of substantial evidence. In Japan the opposite is clearly true – citizens are marching in the streets to get us out of there. Couldn’t regional peace and stability be largely achieved with robust diplomacy, and wouldn’t that be a much less objectionable way to exert our influence? And as for Peterson and our other newly minted paragons of fiscal probity, wouldn’t that also be an enormous cost savings in the years and decades to come?

by danps

Where is the Debate on Obama’s Assassination Program?

2:49 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

The revelation last week that the president authorized the assassination of a US citizen created a surprisingly small splash. I try not to engage in speculative "imagine if" games, but if the president had done such a thing in 2005 it is hard to think there would not have been near apoplexy on the left. It is a nakedly thuggish act, and I can easily envision pictures like this with the faces of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Gonzales superimposed on them. It would have raised an enormous outcry.

Writing on the relative quiet from liberals Avedon Carol wrote "early on when people asked, ‘Would you rather McCain had won?’ someone said, ‘At least then you’d know you were in a fight.’" Do progressives truly care that the president has made such an expansive claim? Do they realize that their silence does not just make them look hypocritical, but will completely cripple any argument they make against a future Republican president who does anything even remotely that provocative? Conservatives are already happily batting around the idea and soberly debating the pluses and minuses of executive hit squads. Some on the right are already gleefully noting the apparent abandonment of principle among Democrats and their supporters.

The response from the right has been largely muted, though. In a way it makes sense that all sides would rather the issue go away, because it does not run on established political fault lines. Democrats do not want to take a hard line against a Democratic president; they already have enough of a self-destruct narrative to want to avoid high level internecine conflict.

Republicans, meanwhile, would have an equally hard time coming out forcefully against the president. Aside from the fact that Obama’s actions are very much in the strong, decisive and brutal approach towards foreign enemies that they seem to gravitate to naturally, they have to know any investigation would likely reach back into the Bush years very quickly, a chapter in their history they would just as soon not revisit.

Still, this is an election year, and even though their numbers look good right now that may just be a mirage. If they base their electoral strategy on reflexive obstructionism and pandering to the base (neither of which, you’ll note, has anything to do with addressing the problems facing America) it is hard to see how they sustain any kind of momentum through campaign season. They might get some traction running against health care, though, particularly if voters do not see enough meaningful, tangible benefits before election day.

(I cringe whenever I hear Democratic leaders talk about the need to educate voters on the new law; aside from the whiff of elitism it carries – which has been a useful club to beat them with in the past – it raises the question of why the huge reform they are touting cannot be directly felt. If it is so great, why does it have to be sold? Just step back and let people begin enjoying the wonderfulness!)

The GOP seems determined to not get any advantage whatsoever on financial reform, however. On what may the the biggest issue of all – unemployment – there is radio silence from the party. Presumably they just want for us to wait for the invisible hand to stop giving us the finger and start working its magic again. Democrats may not have a much greater sense of urgency than that, but the minority party needs to distinguish itself if it hopes to not remain the minority.

Executive power may not be a sexy peg for Republicans to hang their hats on, but since they are already ceding the most popular issues to the Democrats, they may as well make as much hay on this one as possible. The Democrats’ refusal to stand up to Obama is depressing but not really surprising. It would be nice to see them stand on principle and to put institutional obligations over party objectives. That most likely is not in the cards, though. The Republicans’ reluctance to make this an issue is a little more surprising. At least, it is surprising to the extent that I am still amazed to see a major political party continue to show no instinct for self-preservation.

What Obama has done is a dangerous and outrageous precedent. One of the reasons the GOP has been unable to sway the public for the past year is because it is clearly lying on big issues like health care and financial reform. If it directed that same energy and persistence in the service of truth it might start to bring the electorate along, provided it has retained some vestigial interest in such a thing.

by danps

Thomas Hoenig for Fed Chairman

2:41 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

At Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s reconfirmation hearing last week he offered this stirring defense of his tenure: "We did not – certainly not do a perfect job by any means. But I don’t think we stand out as having done a worse job than other regulators." Personally, I’d like the individual responsible for America’s monetary policy to aspire to more than not being the worst regulator alive, but maybe I am too demanding.

He was grilled in the Senate, where several Senators placed a hold on his nomination. Holds are one of those inscrutable parliamentary maneuvers that are nearly impossible to game from the outside. Harry Reid has ignored Democratic holds while being positively reverential of GOP ones; who knows what he will do with this one. The sponsors might just be posturing, too. It could be nothing more than the kind of institutional harrumphing the Senate seems to adore indulging in.

Still, the nomination could derail. He has presided over a disastrous economic period, does not know what the purpose of his job is, and has few defenders. But it would only cheer those who think he has done a terrible job until the next nominee was announced. Bernanke’s solicitousness of Wall Street is a feature, not a bug; the invisible hand of the financial industry would direct the process to another compliant nominee in short order. Reformers would need (among other things) an alternate candidate.

It would almost by definition have to be from outside the political and financial centers. While that would be no guarantee of independence it would be a hedge against it. Moreover, an outsider would more likely have been a dismayed observer of the meltdown instead of a participant in or enabler of it. S/he would need an unassailable résumé, though, because such a stranger would be eyed suspiciously as a potential cause of intolerable friction with the ruling class.

With that in mind I think Thomas Hoenig, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, would be a fine choice. He joined the Fed in 1973 and has been president at Kansas City since 1991. It is a plumb job: There are only twelve such banks in the country. Just like being a judge in a Court of Appeals is often a stepping stone to a Supreme Court nomination, the regional Federal Reserve banks seem a reasonable place to look for a new Fed chairman.

He might have broader political appeal than Bernanke. Right now the Senate seems at best resigned to the latter; no one seems to be coming out with full throated endorsements of him (including the man himself). A new face would have more credibility than someone associated with economic crisis. There is also a small chance Hoenig would attract at least some Republican support. If the nomination was sold as a breath of solid, responsible heartland values being transplanted to the polluted air of Washington it might not be easy for the GOP to rev up the opposition. If nothing else, Chuck Grassley might pause before trashing a native Iowan or Kit Bond a prominent Missourian. Stranger things have happened.

Much more importantly, Hoenig appears to be less than impressed with officials’ response to the meltdown. Back in March he gave a speech titled "Too Big Has Failed" sharply criticizing the bailouts (more speeches are published here). While some details have changed since then, the overall picture has not. And while much of it seems unexceptional, it would sound downright revolutionary in the capitol, e.g.:

  • Shareholders would be forced to bear the full risk of the positions they have taken and suffer the resulting losses.
  • financial crises continue to occur for the same reasons as always – overoptimism, excessive debt and leverage ratios, and misguided incentives and perspectives – and our solutions must continue to address these basic problems.
  • One other point in resolving "too big to fail" institutions is that public authorities should take care not to worsen our exposure to such institutions going forward. In fact, for failed institutions that have proven to be too big or too complex to manage well, steps must be taken to break up their operations and sell them off in more manageable pieces.

This might be academic since the odds favor Bernanke’s reconfirmation. Still, activists have targeted him and there is always a chance that they will succeed. If so it would be helpful to have a nominee in mind immediately. It does not have to be Hoenig, but it would be nice to see some names start bouncing around right now. If an opportunity presents itself it will probably only do so for a short time.

by danps

America’s Metastasizing Intelligence Apparatus

2:31 am in Uncategorized by danps

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Barack Obama’s reversal on the Patriot Act was in the news again this week courtesy of Elizabeth Gorman’s reporting (via). It is not cynical or misanthropic to say the reversal is not surprising. He ended up supporting the FISA Amendments Act last year, and that should have reasonably set any observer’s expectations for him on civil liberties. Sure, he initially announced his opposition and pledged to stand with Chris Dodd, but when it came time for a decision he voted to pass it. So when Gorman highlights Obama’s prior statements opposing the Patriot Act it just seems to be of a piece with his, shall we say, evolving position on the issue.

Moreover, he is president now and that fact largely trumps other factors. Whatever his prior statements or native inclinations, he has a job that comes with powers he will not voluntarily give up. That is simply human nature. Anyone who receives new authority will want to use it or at a minimum hold it in reserve. Few will lightly relinquish it.

The rising tension Gorman details between the president and Congressional Democrats – particularly in the House – might provoke a confrontation for political reasons. His loudest ally there on the Patriot Act is Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, while Democrats John Conyers and Jane Harman are leading the pushback. Similarly, his newly announced position on Afghanistan is receiving at least tempered approval from both former and current Republicans, while Democrats are considerably more tepid. Health care reform now seems focused on courting conservative Democrats and GOP Senator Olympia Snowe. Financial reform is facing hurdles from a disgruntled Congressional Black Caucus.

It all adds up to an increasingly disaffected majority. The prospect of going into an election year with a president siding with the right on major issues and an absence of significant policy achievements for liberals could easily add up to big losses on the left. Those who feel they are facing a disaster at the ballot box in eleven months might not be so sanguine about waiting for some master plan to come together in time for Election Day 2012.

Concerns about political mortality aside, there is an even better reason for Congress to begin confronting the president: a series of separate articles that highlight just how ignorant Congress has become on intelligence collection and surveillance. First was the report that Sprint Nextel provided customer location data over eight million times in the last year. Even taking into account the important caveats raised by Kim Zetter, there clearly is a great deal of data being accessed with no oversight by or reporting to Congress. As seems usual in these cases, we have only the earnest assurances of those involved as guarantee that abuses are not happening.

The source for Zetter’s reporting was Indiana University graduate student Christopher Soghoian, which was also true for another of her posts Tuesday (via), this one on the difficulty of finding out what kind of transactions are going on between the Department of Justice and internet companies. Based on the reluctance of Verizon and Yahoo to comply with FOIA requests it seems there is at least the possibility of objectionable (or illegal) activity going on.

Meanwhile, the story of the CIA’s destruction of videotaped torture sessions was added to by the news that the agency destroyed the tapes after receiving a letter from Harman advising it not to destroy them. While this scandal is from the Bush administration, it nicely illustrates the contempt intelligence agencies seem to have for Congress. Considering the current administration’s relationship with the CIA it does not seem that any probing (even into activities that predate it) would be very welcome.

Finally, there is the Electronic Frontiers Foundation’s lawsuit over executive branch ("encompasses the Central Intelligence Agency, Departments of Justice, Defense and Homeland Security, the Treasury and Director of National Intelligence") collection of data from social networking sites. Yes, users voluntarily join such sites and can use privacy controls, but that does not mean the government has the right to indiscriminately scour such sites for user information. (Does it?)

Taken together, these stories draw a picture of aggrandized intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies very quietly getting their hooks into more and more data streams with minimal accountability. Congressional Democrats have good reasons to flout the president’s wishes on some policy issues, but the body as a whole would seem to have an interest in coming to grips with surveillance activities that are happening increasingly out of its sight. Institutional prerogatives would seem to trump ideology or party affiliation in these matters. It certainly has at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.