Saturday, July 20, 2013

New Digs

Caption: For future reference, this is not my happy face.

The old backup Slobber and Spittle site at is no longer the backup site. There's an explanation there for anyone who is interested, but the short version is that it's pretty clear that Google/Blogspot wants my data more than it wants me to use this site.

When that changes, perhaps I'll be back. Meanwhile, just remove the blogspot from this blog's URL, and substitute wordpress. See how easy that is?

UPDATE: Corrected the link to "an explanation".

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day

It's Independence Day in America. Like Joyce Arnold, I can't think of a better way to celebrate it than showing this video of Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen singing the full version of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is My Land":

Then maybe we can celebrate the anniversary of one of the most radical declarations of human rights ever written to ask ourselves what kind of country spies on its own citizens and requires its employees to report politically incorrect thoughts to their superiors.

The answer isn't "the land of the free", that's for sure. Maybe, like those wild-eyed radicals 237 years ago, we should do something about ending it, like realizing that freedom is safer than not being able to discuss the truth.

Happy Fourth.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sunday Twitter Sermon

Since it's Sunday, here are some of Richard Dawkins' Twitter musings on religion:

I've said most of these things at times to people I know, to little or no effect, of course. Partly as a consequence of that "to little or no effect" part, I'm still feeling lazy, and I wanted to try out the new Twitter method for embedding its message, so here we are.

I like this new Twitter message API, by the way. It works in Blogger, which the old one never did, at least for me. Thanks to Lambert Strether for pointing out how to use it.

UPDATE: Just saw this one on Dawkins' Twitter stream, and I really like it:

I'm not all that bright, at least not by the standards of a lot of folks who write opinions worth reading. As I've written a time or two, folks like Glenn Greenwald and Marcy Wheeler make me feel like a moron in comparison. One advantage I've had over a lot of people, though, is that I've never developed the habit of assuming that because I wanted something to be true meant that it was. I realized that there was no reason to assume the Christian god existed not long after I finally figured out that Santa Claus didn't. While I wasn't especially prodigious in figuring out about Santa Claus, I was way ahead of some very smart folks on atheism. That I learned early on that wanting something to be true didn't make it true was an advantage any time I needed to figure out what the truth was. It's one less way to lie to yourself.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Twitter Message(s) Of The Day

Trevor Timm, perhaps best known as one of the founders of the Freedom Of The Press Foundation, on the decidedly contradictory messages we are hearing from our government regarding domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA):

Twitter message by @trevortimm June 26, 2013

As is her wont, Marcy Wheeler provided a pointed follow-up:

Twitter message by @emptywheel, June 26, 2013

In arguing with some morons about this issue over the last few days, it's gradually occurred to me that people don't have a clue what the NSA and the government have been up to all these years. Anyone who has read James Bamford's The Puzzle Palace, his expose of the NSA's activities during the Cold War, would not be terribly surprised at the latest revelations. The NSA has always been stretching both the limits of technology and legality in order to listen in on foreign governments' conversations.

Maybe the best example of this is the Rhyolite satellite program. As Wikipedia describes it:

Caption: Microwave relay interception. A Rhyolite satellite located at the right position in space can pick up stray signals from a ground microwave link.

A major purpose of the Rhyolite satellites was reportedly the interception of Soviet and Chinese microwave relay signals traffic. During the 1960s-70s, much of the long distance telephone and data traffic in both the US and Eastern Europe was carried by terrestrial microwave relay links, each consisting of a dish antenna on a microwave tower that transmitted a narrow beam of microwaves to a receiving dish in a nearby city. A good deal of the microwave beam would miss the receiving dish and, because of the curvature of the Earth, radiate out into space. By placing a satellite in a geosynchronous orbit at a position in the sky where it could intercept the beam, the US government was able to listen in on Soviet telephone calls and telex cables during the Cold War.[1]

Wikipedia: Aquacade (satellite)

This program began in the late 1960s, if you work back from the first reported launch date (January, 1970). Recall that the first communications satellites were launched only a decade or so earlier. The sheer audacity of this program, both from a technological perspective and an international relations point of view, is breathtaking. To spend the 1960s equivalent of billions of dollars to launch satellites into orbit to listen in on faint signals that were never intended to go anywhere near that far (geosynchronous orbit is 22,000 miles (35,000 km) above the Earth) would be a significant achievement by any standards. To keep it secret for so long (it wasn't revealed until the trial of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Lee for espionage in the mid-1970s), shows an amazing ability to keep secrets, even when a large number of people were clearly involved in the effort.

This is what the NSA does. It's what the NSA has always done, and continues to do. Anyone who can't imagine that this could be a problem if the NSA's gaze ever turned inward has no idea what it does, or has done, or is incapable of imagining things in any useful way.

UPDATE: I've fixed all the broken links I know about.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Ms. Davis Goes To Austin

Caption: I wonder if the Texas state house looks like this.

Image credit: public domain/Wikimedia

Yes, believe it or not, there's a Democratic senator filibustering a bill that would restrict her constituents' rights. Of course, that Democratic senator is not a U.S. Senator, she's Wendy Davis, a Texas state senator:

What Will happen in Texas today after Rep. Jodie Laubenberg caused huge protests and squeals of outrage over her outlandish statement directed at victims of rape [in support of Texas Senate Bill 5]? Texas legislators have until midnight tonight to pass an anti-abortion bill that will make it basically impossible to get a legal procedure of abortion in West, Texas.

That’s why we’re rooting for Senator Wendy David and Democrats, who are planning a marathon filibuster against the anti-abortion bill, hoping to stop the vote, which must be held today due to rules of the Legislature.

Texas Sen. Wendy Davis Planning Marathon Filibuster

What's more, as the Guardian reports, things are a bit tougher in the Texas senate:

Image credit: Wendy Davis

A Texas senator, Wendy Davis, has launched a marathon filibuster of an abortion bill that would severely restrict abortion access in the state.

If she is to be successful, Davis must talk for 13 hours, during which she will not be allowed to sit, lean or take any breaks to go to the bathroom or eat. She is only allowed to stop speaking when listening to questions.

Texas senator Wendy Davis stages marathon filibuster against abortion bill

To make things even stranger from a progressive perspective, she's not doing this alone:

[T]he bill's bogging down began with Gov. Rick Perry, who summoned lawmakers back to work immediately after the regular legislative session ended May 27, but didn't add abortion to the special session to-do list until late in the process. The Legislature can only take up issues at the governor's direction during the extra session.

Then, House Democrats succeeded in stalling nearly all night Sunday, keeping the bill from reaching the Senate until 11 a.m. Monday.

The measure only passed the lower chamber after a raucous debate that saw more than 800 women's rights activists pack the public gallery and surrounding Capitol, imploring lawmakers not to approve it.

Texas Senate set for filibuster finale on abortion

So, the Democratic legislative leadership cooperated with activists, instead of screwing them, and did their part to keep a really lousy bill from passing.

According to Progress Texas's filibuster countdown, the goal of the filibuster is to run out the clock on a special session of the Texas legislature.

All I can say is, good luck, and I wish we had more legislators like this elsewhere in America.

Afterword: For the latest on this, check the Progress Texas site, Texas activist Joyce Arnold's latest article (with a live feed video embedded), or the Texas Tribune live blog.

UPDATE/Correction: The countdown clock is apparently by a group called Progress Texas, not the Texas ACLU. The Twitter message referring to it was from the ACLU. I've corrected those references in the article.

UPDATE 2: At least for the moment, on this computer, image uploads are working again. I added the images you now see.

UPDATE 3: Joyce Arnold reports that the Republicans who control the Texas senate are trying to get Ms. Davis disqualified from continuing her filibuster. As the Texas Tribune noted:

7:27 p.m. [CDT] by Becca Aaronson If state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, is charged with one more violation of the filibuster rules, her attempt to talk Senate Bill 5 to death could be over.

Davis received her second warning when the Senate voted 17 to 11 to sustain a point of order called by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, on Davis for receiving assistance to put on a back brace.

Liveblog: Dems Approach Abortion Victory as Special Session Wanes

A back brace? Most people don't have one of those unless they have a back problem. Heck, I don't have a back problem, but after I stand for several hours straight I feel like I need some aspirin.

Don't let the pretty face fool you - the lady's tough as nails.

UPDATE 4 (10:30 PDT): I didn't tune in just before midnight CDT like I'd planned, but it looks like what happened is that the Republican leadership in the Texas senate first managed to lodge enough "decorum" complaints against Wendy Davis that she had to yield the floor. Enough disturbances and questions about procedure (the latter by senate Democrats, mostly) that the vote was not taken until after midnight. The Republicans are claiming the bill passed.

Here's a quote from the Texas Tribune's live blog of the session:

12:31 a.m. by Becca Aaronson

It's still unclear the exact time that the Senate voted and approved Senate Bill 5 — and whether that vote is valid.

"There will be people who see things as they see them...I think its fair to say this is not the way the Senate should do its business," state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, told the press. He blamed the outburst in the gallery for disrupting the Senate's processes. "The people can't come and create so much of a ruckus that we can't do our job," he said.

Standing next to Patrick, state Sen. Juan 'Chuy' Hinojosa, D-McAllen, agreed that this is not the way the Senate should conduct its business. But he said the Senate should not be allowed to approve a bill during a special session past the midnight deadline, at which point, the session should be concluded.

Liveblog: Dems Approach Abortion Victory as Special Session Wanes

Most likely, this will end up in court.

As I've observed here a few times before, what the law actually means doesn't matter much anymore to those in power. The party that controls the legislature says they passed a bill, and if the governor signs it, they'll start to enforce it.

If I were a member of the Texas senate's GOP caucus right now, I'd be ashamed of myself. Sen. Davis was maneuvered out of the way by three pissy complaints, including one about someone helping her to adjust her back brace after she'd been standing in place for hours. Then they ignored their own rules to pass the bill.

If you want to see what a pissant looks like, I'd say you should go to the Texas legislature's GOP caucus and have a look around.

UPDATE 5: Well, maybe they reconsidered. Here's what the Texas Tribune live blog had to say:

3:13 a.m. by Brandi Grissom Without recognizing Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, for a motion to adjourn Sine Die, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst stepped down from the dais after ruling that time had expired on SB 5, telling the senators, "It's been fun, but, um, see ya soon."

He then told reporters that "An unruly mob using Occupy Wall Street tactics" derailed legislation that was designed to protect women and babies.

He said he was "very frustrated."

"I didn't lose control of what we were doing," he told reporters. "We had an unruly mob."

Liveblog: Dems Approach Abortion Victory as Special Session Wanes

Nice that the rules still matter for everyone, at least when enough folks are paying attention.

And congratulations to Wendy Davis and the Texas senate Democrats. I suspect there are a lot of people in Texas who are grateful for this effort.

UPDATE 6 (and last, I hope): Just noticed I had two "UPDATE 3"s, and mis-typed Sen. Davis's name at least once. Hopefully, everything is now fixed...

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Quote Of The Day

Referring to Edward Snowden's run to daylight, Atrios writes at Eschaton:
Apparently we are at war with Russia, China, Venezuela, and Ecuador and not a single journalist David Gregory knows in Washington has ever published classified information.

While I Was Sleeping

If you have any mind left at all, you can't help but wonder what Snowden's actions will ultimately mean to our freedom. The specious claims, sadly many by progressives, that what he has done has somehow hurt the United States make it pretty clear that there is a vast difference between the people who run things and the rest of us. My guess is that whatever happens here, it will be something that escapes the notice of most Americans. They clearly don't value freedom, even for the chance it gives us to make ourselves safer. Of course, what they see on television and in the press certainly doesn't make that concern any greater.

Taylor Marsh put that thought pretty well today:

Too many elite media types make light of just how important what’s happened in our country during the Bush-Obama era is ... What’s been instituted, funded by millions of dollars and government partnerships since 9/11 cannot possibly be mitigated in the few weeks that the Edward Snowden story has been ricocheting through the country and around the world.

Media Frenzy as Snowden Skips Hong Kong for Russia (& Beyond)

What people ought to be asking themselves, among other things, is why Ecuador, which hasn't ever had any real beefs with the US that most Latin American countries haven't, is looking to harbor its second asylum seeker from the US. Could it be that maybe we're the ones who don't understand what the rule of law means anymore?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Twitter Message(s) Of The Day

Update/correction June 24

Marcy Wheeler, AKA emptywheel, nails it:

emptywheel ‏@emptywheel

The Admin that did not prosecute anyone for illegally wiretapping Americans is lecturing Hong Kong about rule of law.

emptywheel ‏@emptywheel

The Admin that didn't prosecute any torturers is lecturing Hong Kong about rule of law. Expand

emptywheel ‏@emptywheel

The Admin that has not prosecuted a single major bankster is lecturing Hong Kong about the rule of law.

emptywheel emptywheel ‏@emptywheel

The Administration that won't prosecute James Clapper for lying to Congress is lecturing Hong Kong about the rule of law.

[Apologies. Blogger dysfunction once again prevents me from uploading images, so the text is the best I can do at the moment.]

She's referring, of course, to the Obama Administration lecturing Hong Kong because Hong Kong apparently intends to go through its normal legal procedure to decide whether to grant extradition of Edward Snowden. Reportedly, that could take years to run its course.

Still, the irony of this, and what it shows about our government's priorities, is certainly profound.

Afterword/UPDATE: When we're discussing irony, let's not forget President Obama's nominee for FBI Director:

At the close of his speech, [former Bush Administration Deputy Attorney General James] Comey—much like he did when approving the torture techniques used by the Bush administration—justified rights violations. He said that because of Padilla's military detention and interrogation, "what we have learned confirms that the president of the United States made the right call and that that call saved lives."

James Comey's Indefensible Defense of Indefinite Detention

So, add "nominates a man to be Attorney General FBI Director who is OK with torture and detention without trial" to the list.

I wouldn't blame Hong Kong citizens for chuckling over this one.

For a rundown of what Comey did during the Bush Administration, the ACLU has compiled a list.

UPDATE (Jun. 24): Just noticed an editing issue in the afterword. James Comey has been nominated to be the director of the FBI, not Attorney General. I got that right once, but not the second time. ;) Hopefully, all I've done is confuse people a little, rather than spreading misinformation.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Slippery Slope

Caption: A protest against the Vietnam War in Washington, DC, April 24, 1971.

Image credit: Leena Krohn/Wikimedia

In a guest editorial for Florida Today, former Army officer Peter Stitt wrote about his experiences while assigned to the unit that spied on anti-war groups during the Vietnam War. Chris Pyle, the officer who blew the whistle on this illegal surveillance, described his introduction to the program this way on Democracy Now:

I received a briefing at the U.S. Army Intelligence Command that showed me the extent of the surveillance system. There were about 1,500 Army agents in plain clothes watching every demonstration in the United States of 20 people or more. There was also a records system in a giant warehouse on about six million people. I disclosed the existence of that surveillance and then recruited 125 of the Army’s counterintelligence agents to tell what they knew about the spying to Congress, the courts and the press. As a result of those disclosures and the congressional hearings, the entire U.S. Army Intelligence Command was abolished.

Chris Pyle, Whistleblower on Domestic Spying in 70s, Says Be Wary of Attacks on NSA’s Critics

Peter Stitt describes how things went while he was a part of the Army Intelligence Command unit:

I did not know the work was illegal. That would be revealed by another intelligence captain [Chris Pyle] who turned whistle-blower. Until the news media confronted our government and citizen outrage forced change, we amassed data on countless, improperly targeted U.S. citizens.


The initial rationale for Army Intelligence spying on civilians seemed noble enough. The occasional need for military troops to deal with domestic disturbances puts solders in harm’s way. Ergo commanders should keep track of violent people. Call them dissidents. Spy and report on these evil doers.

Once spying began, other organizers became suspects, then the frequent companions of these organizers. First civil disobedience and then peaceful protest became suspect. The dissident became defined by his or her state of mind, not actions. Eventually, we found our towns and campuses and churches were full of so-called dissidents. And we went to those places and spied on innocent people.

Snooping on citizens

Soldiers are supposed to not obey illegal orders, but there are lots of reasons why it's often unrealistic to expect that they will. Stitt's recollection shows one of the reasons - most Americans are not lawyers, and many are ignorant of what the Constitution and federal law say.

Plus, as he notes, it's easy for a program like this, conducted in secret with rather nebulous goals to begin with, to morph into something else. When that program has something to do with investigating peoples' loyalties or politics, that effort can quickly turn into a witch hunt. As Stitt concludes:

Please believe me: I have watched this inexorable progression in the intelligence community. No gaggle of oversight committees can alter this phenomenon. And later, when we hear from the next whistle-blower, we will be told this has been going on for years, gosh even in prior administrations. So everything is OK, folks. Move along, nothing to see here.

Eventually your right to privacy will be a token idea. Are we so terrorized that we willingly give away precious freedoms? This NSA overreach must not continue.

Snooping on citizens

Pyle's whistle blowing led to the Church Committee Hearings, which in turn created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. That act was recently amended, and I would say weakened, toward the end of the Bush Administration. It didn't take us long to forget the lesson Pyle and Stitt are trying to remind us about.

The NSA's current surveillance programs that have been disclosed in the last week or so are similar enough to the Army's dissident surveillance program of the 1970s that it should stand as a warning that such programs carry too great a risk. Just like the Vietnam-era surveillance, the NSA's is essentially an open-ended mission. However incidentally, it targets citizens of this country, which makes it potentially a means of government control of its citizens. It is carried on in secret, with no oversight worth mentioning. That it will get out of control is a foregone conclusion, assuming it hasn't already.

As Mark Twain once observed, history doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme. The means of surveillance are different, as is the perceived threat. Still, this is another lesson that we should have learned from Vietnam: that ultimately, we can't trust our government if it's not doing what it's doing right in front of our eyes. The slippery slope of NSA surveillance will lead us to the same place that we were headed in the 1970s, before principled individuals prevailed.

There's no guarantee they'll win this time.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

In Which I Try To School Dr. Skeptic

Dr. Michael Shermer has done some great work in the realm of debunking nonsensical claims about paranormal activity, and describing the difference between science and pseudo-science. His books Why People Believe Weird Things and Borderlands are fundamental reading if you want to understand the difference between science and belief. Unfortunately, he seems to not be as skeptical as he should be about what he reads in the New York Times. Here's an example of what I mean in a long Twitter monologue regarding this NYT article:

Twitter Message by @michaelshermer w/ replies by @Cujo359, June 12, 2013

Go to the byline link to see the entire conversation.

We all have our blind spots, but the points I make seem so obvious that I can hardly believe I have to make them. I guess it's true - you should never meet your heroes, even online.

Claims made on the basis of secret information are usually classified as claims of special knowledge, and are dismissed as nonsense. When Madam Cleo claims she can talk to the dead, reasonable people recognize this as absurd. When the government does it, though, claiming they have "intelligence" that proves their point but they can't tell us what it is, generally sensible people lap this up as their god's truth. I don't get that, but maybe that's because spending a couple of decades in the defense industry gives you a jaded perspective.

Afterword: Here are the links embedded in those Twitter messages:

UPDATE: Added that bit of exposition about special knowledge and Madam Cleo.

UPDATE 2: This is precious. Not completely related to this particular subject, but it does challenge people's credulity when it comes to their trust in certain parts of our government. Click. Read. Enjoy.

Collateral Damage

There's another problem with a government agency conducting surveillance when it won't reveal either the targets of its surveillance, the procedures used, nor the methods, as Democracy Now notes:
Key tech giants implicated in the recent NSA surveillance revelations have asked the U.S. government for permission to prove they haven’t enabled wholesale spying. On Tuesday, Google, Facebook and Microsoft said they want to release info on how they respond to classified surveillance requests in response to the fallout over the surveillance program PRISM. According to leaked documents, the National Security Agency uses PRISM to gather data on foreign Internet users directly from the servers of nine major firms. It’s unlikely the government will grant the request. A former Justice Department prosecutor, Larry Klayman, says he plans to file a class action lawsuit today against all nine companies named in the leaked documents as PRISM participants.

Tech Giants Seek Gov’t Permission to Disclose FISA Orders

Those Internet companies, to say the least, have an image problem right now. Given the secrecy surrounding what they have or haven't done, and the amazingly similar way they all disavowed having done, well, something, it should be no surprise that people have assumed the worst.

It's not just Americans making those assumptions, either:

The European Union's chief justice official has written to the U.S. attorney general demanding an explanation for the collection of foreign nationals' data following disclosures about the "PRISM" spy program.

In a letter seen by Reuters, the European commissioner for justice and fundamental rights, Viviane Reding, said she had serious concerns about the possibility that U.S. authorities had accessed European citizens' data on a vast scale.


Companies considering adopting cloud technology still cite security as their biggest concern and European officials say they are aware that Europe's cloud market hinges on privacy.

"The storage of the data in the foreign servers and related legal uncertainty constitutes a real impediment," a second Commission official said.

EU justice chief seeks answers on U.S. data spying

[italic emphasis added]

Which means that US-based Internet companies may end up as collateral damage in this foolish invasion of privacy.

Quote(s) Of The Day

A couple of quotes regarding the ongoing NSA surveillance scandal that are worth considering. What makes these quotes interesting to me is the expertise of the people quoted.

The first is from Susan Landau, a computer engineer formerly with Sun Microsystems, on how intrusive government possession of phone meta-data can be:

[F]or example, if you call from the hospital when you’re getting a mammogram, and then later in the day your doctor calls you, and then you call the surgeon, and then when you’re at the surgeon’s office you call your family, it’s pretty clear, just looking at that pattern of calls, that there’s been some bad news. If there’s a tight vote in Congress, and somebody who’s wavering on the edge, you discover that they’re talking to the opposition, you know which way they’re vote is going.

One of my favorite examples is, when Sun Microsystems was bought by Oracle, there were a number of calls that weekend before. One can imagine just the trail of calls. First the CEO of Sun and the CEO of Oracle talk to each other. Then probably they both talk to their chief counsels. Then maybe they talk to each other again, then to other people in charge. And the calls go back and forth very quickly, very tightly. You know what’s going to happen. You know what the announcement is going to be on Monday morning, even tho

More Intrusive Than Eavesdropping? NSA Collection of Metadata Hands Gov’t Sweeping Personal Info

I could think of a couple of alternative hypotheses in both of those cases, but a little digging, particularly in the second case, would reveal pretty clearly that Ms. Landau's company was about to be bought out. Meta-data may not mean much on its own, but combined with other information it can be very revealing.

She also notes in that Democracy Now interview that cell phone calls can be used to find out where you are, or have been.

The other quote is from Richard Clarke, former terrorism advisor to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush:

I am troubled by the precedent of stretching a law on domestic surveillance almost to the breaking point. On issues so fundamental to our civil liberties, elected leaders should not be so needlessly secretive.

The argument that this sweeping search must be kept secret from the terrorists is laughable. Terrorists already assume this sort of thing is being done. Only law-abiding American citizens were blissfully ignorant of what their government was doing.

Secondly, we should worry about this program because government agencies, particularly the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have a well-established track record of overreaching, exceeding their authority and abusing the law. The FBI has used provisions of the Patriot Act, intended to combat terrorism, for purposes that greatly exceed congressional intent.

Why you should worry about the NSA

With all the references to it in popular entertainment that originates in the US, it's hard to believe that international terrorists don't assume this already. They certainly remember that the Bush Administration did similar things after 9/11. If they don't realize this by now, they're probably not that much of a danger.

Afterword: As this article notes, back in 2006 then-Senator Joe Biden knew how sensitive telephone meta-data could be.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Cenk Uygur On Domestic Surveillance

In plain language and a loud voice, Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks explains what's wrong with letting the NSA collect whatever it wants without any meaningful checks:

The video is reduced in size here to fit into this blog's page format. Go to the YouTube page for more viewing options.

What he says about the relative ease of finding information after the fact versus predicting and preventing acts of terrorism is absolutely true. I had a similar job once upon a time - figuring out how network performance can be improved by recording all the data sent over it and categorizing it in various ways. Specific questions about things that were wrong were usually easy to answer. Predicting bottlenecks, slowdowns, or malfunctions was nearly impossible.

There is no need, and no justification, for the sort of surveillance that we are currently being subjected to. As for the concern about us eavesdropping on the rest of the world, I think that as long as only the US has that information, it shouldn't be a big problem for those peoples' freedoms. We do share that information, though, and there should be serious restrictions placed on how and when that is done, as well.

Afterword: While we're embedding videos, here's The Daily Show, on substitute anchor John Oliver's inaugural show, making some excellent points on the surveillance issue:

Yes, it's basically a coin toss whether the NSA will consider your information to be of foreign origin or not. Officially, at least - who knows what they're actually doing?

(h/t Taylor Marsh)

UPDATE: When you're done watching, go read Tom's Dispatch.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Illusion Of Safety

Due to commitments I made a long time ago, I've been largely unable to discuss much about the ongoing NSA surveillance revelations. Basically, when I see something that says "Top Secret/NOFORN" or the like on something, I'm not allowed to discuss it. I signed up for that, and I don't mind that much. What I mind is the people who abuse that system, who are the folks in the Obama Administration and Congress who are talking about how "gut-wrenching" it is that some of those slides were released to the public. I don't have grief with the whistle blower who released this stuff. He clearly didn't do this for personal profit. At worst, he mishandled classified data, which is a serious offense. I think it's more accurate to say he did this country a big favor. My beef is with the folks who created a system of surveillance that has no meaningful oversight or control, and who make it their priority to punish anyone who reveals anything about it - other than them, of course.

So, I can't discuss the details much, which is too bad. The details are pretty fascinating. I can, however, offer some observations about the public's reaction to this news. I'll start with my favorite Abe Lincoln quote:

“All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, … with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

He spoke those words in 1838, regarding the lynching of a black man. He worried that if we lost our respect for law that we would quickly lose our freedom as well. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and it quite clearly says that among other things, we should be secure from government in our persons, our papers, and effects. If we ignore that principle in the interest of “defending ourselves” from some crackpots halfway around the world, we have truly become a pathetic shadow of a free nation.

Those who maintain that somehow all this intrusiveness and secrecy is necessary to keep us “safe” have clearly never considered what it’s like to not be safe from your own government. They haven’t considered what the cost is of corruption that can’t be punished because it can’t be revealed, or how many lives bad policy and bad government can cost. If they had, they’d know that what they were saying is utterly foolish. We lose more people every month for lack of health care, and for letting people who shouldn’t be near them have guns. We lost more people in Iraq and Afghanistan than we did to terrorism. We lost way more in Vietnam. All that death is due, at least in part, to foolish government policy. While we spend vast sums of money on surveillance equipment that may not even work, we don't educate our young well enough to operate all those whiz-bang weapons we always seem to have money to build.

Nearly everything our government does affects lives and livelihoods. Not being able to discuss that, because we know that if we do the government will use the data it collects against us, will be the price we pay for these absurd priorities. If you think otherwise, ask yourself who watches the watchers? Who makes sure those people are doing what they’re supposed to, and is there anyone outside of government who can make sure that watching process, in fact, is happening as it’s supposed to? The answers, in order, are "who knows?" and "nobody".

And if you think that the only people who have something to fear are those who have nothing to hide, think again. Or maybe I should just say “think”.

Giving our rights over to our own government isn't safety. At best, it's the illusion of safety. there is no such thing as perfect safety. There is only the hope that we can make things safer, through informed debate and the actions of citizens who feel empowered to make change. Neither will happen if the government can collect whatever information it wants, and use it with no oversight or accountability.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Quote Of The Day

PZ Myers reviews a movie:

I went in with low expectations: I’d heard it was just a fun action movie, mere mindless entertainment. The reviews underestimated the movie; it wasn’t just mindless, it was in a vegetative state. This movie was so stupid it was stillborn with acephaly. This movie sucked so bad it was a miracle that the Hawking radiation didn’t kill the audience.

Star Trek: Into Darkness

What makes the quote for me is he's a biologist who thought of using Hawking radiation as part of a black hole metaphor.

I don't share the world's fetish for J.J. Abrams. Something about incoherent story lines that never quite end just doesn't appeal to me. So it's unlikely I'll be subjecting myself to whatever bad radiates out of this one. If I just stick to reading the reviews, I suspect I'll find that at least as entertaining.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

From The E-Mail Inbox

Image credit: National Cancer Institute/Wikimedia

This little gem arrived this morning:

From: Democrats 2014
To: Abfxvrhxdue
Subject: this is CRAZY
Date: May 29, 2013 9:14 AM

BREAKING NEWS: Michele Bachmann Quits!

Friends --

Late last night, Michele Bachmann released a crazy web video announcing that she's leaving Congress next year.

THIS IS HUGE! Now that the Tea Party's ringleader has called it quits, Boehner has to be wondering who's next to go. If we can sweep up 17 Republican seats, we can take Boehner's Speaker's gavel and win a Democratic House for President Obama!

In 48 hours, our FEC fundraising deadline hits and we'll report how many supporters we have standing behind us. Will you help us reach 500,000 strong standing behind our campaign to kick out the Tea Party House?

Name: Not Confirmed Abfxvrhxdue
Supporter record: XXXXXXXXX
Suggested Support: $8.00

As you can see, they've modestly suggested I send them $8.00 to help celebrate Ms. Bachmann's departure from the House of Representatives. They haven't picked a better pseudonym for me than "Abfxvrhxdue", but they think I should send them $8.00. I think there's a better way to celebrate, which is to give them no money at all.

After all, what does it matter to me if the Democrats are the ones who cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid? What's more, why would I pay them to screw me and every other working class American? Supreme Court Justices? Are you kidding me? As Robert Reich noted today:

Now the President is nominating judges to fill all three of these crucial D.C. court of appeals vacancies at once. He’s also looking ahead at the strong probability that at least one Supreme Court justice, most likely Ruth Bader Ginsburg, will retire within the next two years, and he’ll need to get a replacement through the Senate.

Senate Republicans under the cynical direction of Mitch McConnell have abused the filibuster system, preventing votes on almost everything the President has wanted.

A Time for Harry Reid’s Backbone

Once again, as that title implies, Dr. Reich has given us the wrong diagnosis. Harry Reid's title isn't Majority Leader For Life. It's just Majority Leader. That's a post he could be voted out of. Yet even after failing to deal with the filibuster issue for three Senate terms, he still has his job.

It's pretty clear that he's doing his job well enough to satisfy Senate Democrats.

Ironically, if there's one thing that Michelle Bachmann was good at, it was at least attempting to do what her supporters wanted. Granted, what they want her to do is insane, but they insist on it, and Bachmann's work is, at least in part, a product of that insistence. I respect her more than I do the average congressional Democrat these days, despite her bigotry and bone-headed rhetoric (see NOTE 1). At least she had enough integrity to not take a dump on her supporters every chance she could.

This is yet another reason I'm going to make support for any political party contingent on its actually exercising the power we've given them on our behalf. The Democrats haven't done that. In fact, they seem to have gone out of their way to be useless. When we reward failure, all we will get is more failure.

Maybe when we progressives find our backbones, Harry Reid will remember he has one, too.

NOTE 1 In keeping with modern website design methods, users of Javascript filters like NoScript won't be able to see the photos on this page until they allow the and domains to execute Javascript.

If I find a better collection of Bachmannisms that doesn't require this nonsense, I'll change the link. Lousy website design shouldn't be rewarded, either.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Quote Of The Day

Juan Cole discusses the relative threat of Islam versus the West:

Listening to Newt Gingrich, the great bloviator, go on this morning on the alleged Muslim threat, set me off. Gingrich did his dissertation on Belgian educational policy in the Congo, where he managed to miss the genocide perpetrated by the Europeans. Gingrich knows better, he is just hate-mongering. But since he brought it up, it is Westerners like Gingrich (who supported illegally invading and occupying Iraq, which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths) of whom one might justifiably be a little afraid…

Who’s the Threat? Western Powers have invaded and Killed Millions of Muslims

He then presents a short table showing a rundown of who has invaded or attacked whom since the end of the 18th Century. Let's just say it doesn't look good for our side, unless you think that killing more people is winning. I can't think of any Muslim invasions to add to that list, that's for sure.

Islam, as a religion with some incredibly intolerant adherents and leaders, is certainly a source of evil in the world. But when I'm almost simultaneously presented with a Foreign Policy article extolling the virtues of signature strikes, and Secretary of State John Kerry lying his ass off about how America isn't bombing targets where civilians are present (see NOTE 1), I have to say that Muslims aren't the only ones who can go to extraordinary lengths to avoid admitting the human costs of what they're doing.

NOTE 1 Since when have we refused to bomb valid targets that don't happen to have civilians in the area? In World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, our clear policy was that, while we might try to minimize civilian casualties, that wouldn't stop us from destroying something we thought was important enough to send planes to bomb.

And for those not familiar, please note, I've defended some of those bombings in the past. I just recognize those statements of Kerry's as the utter horse shit that they are.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Twitter Message Of The Day

What more needs to be said?

Twitter Message by @TheTweetOfGod: May 21, 2013

When you accept the ideas that there is an entity who is all powerful, and that human beings are made in this entity's image, there's really no room to argue with this one.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Progressive Idiocy: Missing The Obvious

Updated May 15, with new observations by Marcy Wheeler. Scroll to bottom of article to see.

The recently revealed targeting of Associated Press phone records by the Justice Department, which appears to have been both far reaching, unexplained, and possibly contrary to DoJ policy, is becoming yet another chance to see which liberal and progressive commentators have been asleep at the wheel these past few years.

First up is Steve Clemons, who wrote this in a Twitter message today:

Twitter message by @SCClemons

What's sad about this is that I've always thought of Clemons as being an astute observer of what's going on in DC. Yet here he is, basically without a clue as to what the Obama Administration have been up to these last five years regarding leak investigations and other actions against whistle blowers. Glenn Greenwald attempted to set him and others with this point of view straight today:

The key point is that all of this takes place in the ongoing War on Whistleblowers waged by the Obama administration. If you talk to any real investigative journalist, they will tell you that an unprecedented climate of fear has emerged in which their sources are petrified to talk to them. That the Obama administration has prosecuted double the number of whistleblowers under espionage statutes as all previous administrations combined has already severely chilled the news gathering process. Imagine what message this latest behavior sends to journalists and their sources: that at any moment, the phone records of even the nation's most establishment journalists can be secretly obtained by the DOJ, which has no compunction about doing so even in the most extreme and invasive manner.

Justice Department's pursuit of AP's phone records is both extreme and dangerous

[link from original article]

Even more sadly, Clemons is one of the smarter liberal pundits on this issue. At least he recognizes it as a problem. For an example of a journalist who doesn't seem to understand the problem, there's inveterate Obama-explainer Josh Marshall. After publishing an anonymous e-mail defending the DoJ's actions (which, as several of those links have said, the DoJ refuses to explain), he wrote:

I think there’s still a very live question of whether this was a prudent action on the part of the DOJ, as maximal restraint should always be used when subpoenaing journalistic records. But I do think he’s at least on to something that such an article would definitely have included more and different context if AP weren’t the party at issue and the ‘secretly’ phrasing does perhaps knowingly mislead.

A Conflict of Interest?

When a government agency retains records it obtained without notifying the target of those records long after its own guidelines say it should have, then that is as "secret" as I ever want to see it get. The DoJ is still refusing to purge or return those records, too. What does that tell you, Josh? Let's just say I find that article title more than a little ironic.

This is just the latest in a rather disturbing pattern of trying to control leaks that it doesn't want through any means at its disposal while freely making use of leaks it wants by the Obama Administration. As Greenwald points out, the Obama Administration has attempted to use the Espionage Act against whistle blowers more than all other presidential administrations combined. That such a longstanding and obvious policy could be such a surprise to people engaged in the profession of journalism is astounding. At least, it would be if I had been in a coma for the last few years. As it is, this is really just another example of the ability of progressives to not see what they don't want to see.

UPDATE: Kevin Gosztola notes that the AP may not have been the only news organization targeted:

“The Justice Department did not respond to a question about whether a similar step was taken in the other major government leak investigation Mr. Holder announced last June,” according to [New York] Times reporter Charlie Savage. So, it is unknown if the Times has been subjected to a similar fishing expedition. Regardless, the Justice Department engaged in this unprecedented act because people like Feinstein declared, “The leak really did endanger sources and methods,” and, “The leak, I think has to be prosecuted.”

No justification for Obama’s war on First Amendment

Like most of the links in this article's first paragraph, Gosztola's article is a good one for background on this issue.

UPDATE 2 (May 15): Marcy Wheeler makes an interesting point and a compelling one at her blog Emptywheel. First, the interesting one, concerning the subpoena the DoJ used to grab the AP's phone records:

[A]s this great piece by the New Yorker’s counsel, Lynn Oberlander on the issue notes, one of the worst parts of the way DOJ seized the AP records is that it prevented the AP from challenging the subpoena — and the details that are now being disputed — in court.
The cowardly move by the Justice Department to subpoena two months of the A.P.’s phone records, both of its office lines and of the home phones of individual reporters, is potentially a breach of the Justice Department’s own guidelines. Even more important, it prevented the A.P. from seeking a judicial review of the action. Some months ago, apparently, the government sent a subpoena (or subpoenas) for the records to the phone companies that serve those offices and individuals, and the companies provided the records without any notice to the A.P. If subpoenas had been served directly on the A.P. or its individual reporters, they would have had an opportunity to go to court to file a motion to quash the subpoenas. What would have happened in court is anybody’s guess—there is no federal shield law that would protect reporters from having to testify before a criminal grand jury—but the Justice Department avoided the issue altogether by not notifying the A.P. that it even wanted this information. Even beyond the outrageous and overreaching action against the journalists, this is a blatant attempt to avoid the oversight function of the courts.
I obviously don’t know better than Oberlander what would have happened. But I do suspect the subpoena would have been — at a minimum –sharply curtailed so as to shield the records of the 94 journalists whose contacts got sucked up along with the 6 journalists who worked on the story. Moreover, I think these underlying disputed facts — as well as the evidence that the gripe about the AP story (as opposed to the later stories that exposed MI5′s role in the plot) has everything to do with the AP scooping the White House — may well have led a judge to throw out the entire subpoena.

There’s a Place for Resolving Disputes, and the Administration Chose Not To Use It

So, the DoJ was trying to get around having to prove its case in court, which it quite probably would have lost. That brings us to emptywheel's compelling point, which should have been obvious to the Obama apologists in the press. That point is embodied in the article's title - there's a place to resolve such issues, and it's the courts. The Obama Administration simply went around that process and did what it wanted.

We're becoming more removed every day from being a government of laws.

IRS Scandal: Some Answers

Caption: The IRS building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. Evildoers or overworked public servants?

Image credit: U.S. Treasury/Wikimedia

More information has come to light concerning how the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) dealt with the rising tide of supposed "social welfare" organizations that were actually political front groups applying for 501(c)4 tax-exempt status. The first bit is from Dave Levinthal of Public Integrity:

Amid withering accusations the Internal Revenue Service targeted tea party and other conservative groups with enhanced scrutiny, the agency faces another problem: it’s drowning in paperwork.

The IRS’ Exempt Organizations Division, which finds itself at the scandal’s epicenter, processed significantly more tax exemption applications in fiscal year 2012 by so-called 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations — 2,774 — than it has since at least the late 1990s, according to an analysis of IRS records by the Center for Public Integrity.

Compare that to 1,777 applications in 2011 and 1,741 in 2010, federal records show. Not since 2002, when officials processed 2,402 applications, have so many been received.

Meanwhile, Exempt Organizations Division staffing slid from 910 employees during fiscal year 2009 to 876 during fiscal year 2012, agency personnel documents indicate.

IRS nonprofit division overloaded, understaffed

Levinthal goes on to add:

During the 2012 election cycle, however, numerous 501(c)(4) organizations — most of them conservative, a few left-leaning and all endowed with new spending powers thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision — together spent tens of millions of dollars overtly advocating for or against political candidates.

IRS nonprofit division overloaded, understaffed

When the vast majority of organizations that are misusing this tax-exempt status are of one political persuasion, it stands to reason that most of the organizations investigated will also be of that persuasion.

Chris Hayes provides some historical perspective about how this scandal came about. As he put it, there are two scandals really, the scandal involving the IRS targeting groups who used particular key words, like "Tea Party" in their applications, and the scandal that brought that one on - the flood of applications by clearly political groups for 501(c)4 status:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

As Hayes mentions, this scandal arose because the IRS has been put in the position of having to arbitrarily decide what constitutes an organization that is "primarily political". It has done it in a way that is, at best, somewhat ham-fisted, in that keywords belonging to one particular ideology were identified as flags for further investigation. Was any thought given to what might be similar keywords coming from libertarian, liberal, socialist, or green organizations? That's a question we should be asking as this is investigated. Even though most of the organizations applying were conservative, that's no reason to assume they'd be the only ones abusing the system. As Hayes also mentions, at least one such organization is a progressive one.

To me, the picture that is emerging here is of a government agency that was snowed under by a sudden and poorly-defined workload, which it then made mis-steps in addressing. That doesn't mean it's not the only possible explanation, of course. It's the one that rings truest with me, though, particularly since I spent much of my career working for one government agency or another.

We should also bear in mind that one of the reasons we're hearing about all this is that these organizations are trying to create more wiggle room so their applications won't be scrutinized so carefully. This is a rather obvious point, but one that we should keep in mind when listening to the expressions of outrage from various and sundry politicians and political operatives like Karl Rove. Still, there is a clear possibility for abuse here, and no one in his right mind could simply assume that such abuse is not happening here.

UPDATE: Thanks to a question by a reader, I tracked down the source of that assertion about most of the 501(c)4 applicants being from conservative groups. It's a paragraph about three-quarters of the way down at that link.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What If It Was Terrorism?

Image credit: Aaron Tang/Flickr

A few weeks ago, I'd written about the misuse of the word "terrorism":

In the context of the bombing in Boston last Monday, whether or not it's terrorism depends on the motivations of the bombers, not on whether or not people were frightened by it. That is why I've avoided using the term, and will continue to until such time as the people responsible have been found and tried for what they've done, or until they admit what they've done and explain why in some other circumstance that doesn't involve duress.

Any opinions expressed using the word "terrorism" should, I think, be viewed in that context. Words mean particular things. When people use those words in other ways, then their opinions should be viewed more skeptically.

Word Use: Terrorism

[unless otherwise noted, all links are from original articles]

Today, Gawker's Hamilton Nolan looked at how we view terrorism from a different angle. Suppose the Tsarnaev brothers' actions actually were terrorism, in the proper meaning of that term. What does that say about our reaction to it, relative to Sunday's shooting in New Orleans?

The shooting of nineteen innocent people, including two children, at a Mother's Day celebration in New Orleans yesterday was an act of violence only gaudy enough to hold the nation's attention momentarily. Shortly after the bodies were cleared, the FBI said they "have no indication the shooting was an act of terrorism. 'It’s strictly an act of street violence in New Orleans.'" At that, we were free to let our attention drift. In America, all villainy is not created equal.

Terrorism and the Public Imagination

All too true, I'm afraid. For instance, how many people are up in arms about the mayhem occurring in some of our major cities, that often involves victims who are children under the age of 19? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) noted back in 2009:

Gang homicide victims were significantly younger than nongang homicide victims in all five cities [that were included in this report] (Table 1). Whereas 27%–42% of the gang homicide victims were aged 15–19 years, only 9%–14% of the nongang homicide victims were in this age group. Approximately 80% of all homicide victims were male in each city; however, Los Angeles, Newark, and Oklahoma City still reported significantly higher proportions of male victims in gang homicide incidents compared with nongang homicide incidents. In Los Angeles and Oakland, a significantly higher proportion of gang victims were Hispanic and, in Oklahoma City, a significantly higher proportion of gang victims were non-Hispanic black compared with nongang victims. In at least three of the five cities, gang homicides were significantly more likely than nongang homicides to occur on a street and involve a firearm (Table 2). More than 90% of gang homicide incidents involved firearms in each city. For nongang homicides, firearms were involved in 57%–86% of the incidents. Gang homicides also were most likely to occur in afternoon/evening hours in the majority of the five cities; however, comparisons were not examined because the data were missing for 23% of nongang homicide incidents. In Los Angeles, Oakland, and Oklahoma City, gang homicides occurred significantly more frequently on weekends than did nongang homicides.

Morbidity and Mortality: Gang Homicides — Five U.S. Cities, 2003–2008

While this information is five years old, I doubt it's gotten that much better since then. Besides, does anyone remember seeing live television feeds all across the country of police shutting down Los Angeles to hunt suspects in a drive-by shooting? Me neither.

I've excerpted the stats from the CDC report's Table 1 below for Los Angeles:

Age group (yrs)No.(%)

Morbidity and Mortality: Gang Homicides — Five U.S. Cities, 2003–2008 (Table 1)

In one major U.S. city alone, almost 400 young people under the age of 25 were killed due to gang-related violence. Of course, L.A.'s gang problem is among the worst, but once again, we see no huge outcry about this. Why is that? Part of the reason is undoubtedly that the victims are mostly poor and non-white, but partly it just seems to be what we expect in some parts of America. Yet it kills far more children than terrorism has in the last decade.

Now that I think of it, there was a much greater stink about the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, wasn't there? In L.A. alone, the equivalent of one Newtown happens every three years or so due to gang-related violence, if we just look at the first line of that table. If all other forms of homicide whose victims that age are included, there's one a year there.

To me, this seems utterly irrational - obsessing about something that has proven to be pretty harmless in comparison to the things that are really killing us, and ignoring or downplaying the things that do, but could be prevented. It's the state of American political discourse these days.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Wallpaper Of The Day

Still busier than a one-armed paper hanger, so there's no Sunday Photo yet again. Still, you can go to today's APOD offering for some lovely wallpaper. It's one of those photos you could wait your whole life to be able to take.


Friday, May 10, 2013

Just What Should We Expect?

Caption: The IRS building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. What evil are they up to now? Image credit: U.S. Treasury/Wikimedia

It's a day of the week ending in 'y', so it should be no surprise that someone thinks the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is up to no good:

Let’s be very clear: because the Internal Revenue Service holds so much private data, and because it can make people’s lives absolutely miserable, it is of paramount importance in our political system that it both is, and is perceived as, an apolitical entity. If it discriminated against tea party groups that attempted to register as 501(c)4 social welfare organizations, then that’s a grave offense, and it needs to be investigated thoroughly and dealt with severely.

The IRS was wrong to target the tea party. They should’ve gone after all 501(c)4s

Face it, anyone who has ever had to fill out a tax form, and perhaps gotten advice from the IRS that it is in no way to be held responsible for, is going to want to give the IRS the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, that's not a valid reason for assuming it's wrong.

Most of the folks I've seen criticizing this on Twitter, at least, haven't bothered to find out what is actually the norm here. To tell you the truth, I haven't either, but the difference between me and them is this:

I don't assume I know what's going on.

Let's try a thought experiment - suppose you have what you think is a winning strategy for picking lottery numbers, yet you don't ever win the lottery. Is the lottery commission conspiring against you? Of course not. The reality is that the numbers are chosen at random, so even if you understand how those numbers were chosen, the small sample size of winning numbers just about guarantees that you aren't going to win any particular lottery. Any honest mathematician would tell you that.

What we expect isn't necessarily the truth, even when we use logic and reason to arrive at that expectation. In order to understand what you should be expecting, you have to understand what's normal, and how the system works, and what's possible. How the system works in this case is that the IRS is expected to investigate claims for non-profit applications. If, as is the case with the Tea Party, there's a lot of money behind that applicant, then there's probably more reason to investigate.

But what's the norm? How often does the IRS investigate such claims? In a set of Twitter messages today, CNBC's John Harwood explained the IRS's position:

Twitter message(s) from @JohnJHarwood

I've combined the content of several messages into one screenshot graphic. As you can see, to some extent the IRS went beyond what it's expected to do, but there were a great many other organizations investigated for similar reasons.

Expecting the IRS to investigate all of these organizations, as Ezra Klein did in the article I quoted in that first block quote, may be somewhere between difficult and impossible. The IRS, too, will feel the sequestration crunch. Do we really expect them to investigate all organizations, whether they are known to have ties to big money or questionable people or organizations? My guess, and once again it's only a guess, is that we can't really. The number and type of such organizations is bound to increase, given that there is little legal framework for them at the moment. Plus, as we've seen recently, enforcing regulations and the law on those with power and money isn't a big government priority right now.

I can't say whether this is the norm or not at this point, but any serious investigation of this claimed discrimination needs to include a discussion of that point that involves actual evidence. That may take a while, which is probably beyond the attention span of the American public. Meanwhile, though, I'd say if there was any political organization in this country better able to take care of itself, it's probably one of the two major political parties. I suspect they'll soldier on somehow.

Meanwhile, what we should learn from all of this is to ask those basic questions with any story, both of ourselves and the press. What is normal? What is possible? How is the system supposed to work? Ask those questions, and at least you'll have some credible notion what the problem is.

The Free Market Fairy Strikes Again

Image credit: Still dunno source

Al Jazeera reports that Texas law enforcement may be looking into the causes of the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion:

Texas law enforcement officials are launching a criminal investigation into last month's deadly fertiliser plant explosion.

Investigators had largely treated the West Fertiliser Co blast that killed 14 people and injured about 200 others as an industrial accident in the northern rural town of Waco.

But the Texas Department of Public Safety said in a statement on Friday that the agency has instructed the Texas Rangers and the McLennan County Sheriff's Department to launch a criminal probe into the explosion.

Texas launches criminal probe into Waco blast

What could they be looking into? Common Dreams notes:

The fertilizer plant in West, Texas that exploded on Wednesday night killing 14 people was last inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1985, and had failed to disclose to the Department of Homeland Security that it was storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would bring oversight from that agency.

Little Oversight at Texas Fertilizer Plant That Exploded Killing 14

[I added that first link to replace a broken one at the original article]

Lack of inspections led to this situation, as reported by RT:

Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 pounds or more of ammonium nitrate due to its widespread use in the manufacture of bombs.

However, at the time of the blast, at least 540,000 pounds (270 tons) of ammonium nitrate was in a storage building, according to recent filings with both the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which were not passed on to the DHS. The plant was also holding anhydrous ammonia and several other agriculture chemicals.

Texas fertilizer plant flew under Dept. Homeland Security radar

Image credit: Mark M./Occupy Together

To some degree, this looks like the usual conservative agenda - make government so incompetent at enforcing regulations and laws on businesses that it might as well not even be there. As Texas Governor Rick Perry tried to explain away:

The deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West wouldn't have been prevented had the state earmarked more money for industry inspections, Gov. Rick Perry said Monday.

Perry told The Associated Press on Monday that he remains comfortable with the level of state oversight after last week's blast at West Fertilizer Co.

He said Texas residents have sent the same message through their elected officials.

Investigators say they have yet to determine what caused the explosion that killed 14 people and injured 200 others.

Perry: More Oversight Wouldn’t Have Prevented Deadly West Explosion

You need to have some kind of chutzpah to say something like that after such a colossal failure of government, but this is the state of governance in America these days. "What can we do? Our taxpayers don't want to pay taxes for things that make them safer", they seem to be saying, as if they have no responsibility to explain to the public what they're doing with our money.

Of course, the people who vote for these clowns, and the "progressives" who go along with this behavior so as not seem liberal (otherwise known as "being realistic"), are as much to blame. There's lots of waste in government, and more than a little abuse of power, but the answer isn't to stop governing. The answer is to fix the waste and prosecute the abuse of power, not to let the magic "free market" fairy take care of it for us.

That's because this is how the free market fairy takes care of things.

Whatever Texas law enforcement finds, and they're sure to find something if they bother to look, I'm pretty sure that neither the governor nor Texas voters generally will be among those blamed. That doesn't mean they are blameless, though.

Afterword: If you want to learn more about the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion, I'd suggest reading Joyce Arnold's analyses of the blast here, here, and here. She lives in the region, and understands the players pretty well. Those articles were the sources for several of the links you see here.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Robert Reich On Fiscal Folly

This interview from Monday between PBS host Tavis Smiley and Robert Reich is definitely worth watching:

Watch Former U.S. labor secretary Robert Reich on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

Reich explains clearly and understandably why the current budget priorities of our government are contrary to both good sense and America's self-interest. In particular, he notes:

Tavis: Why is this [current economic depression] so stubborn?

Reich: I think largely because America is suffering something that people don’t talk enough about in my view, and that is widening inequality. Most of the gains of economic growth – in fact, all of the gains of growth since the recession have gone to the top, the very top, the top 1 percent, the top 1/10th of 1 percent.

The middle class and everybody aspiring to join the middle class, it just doesn’t have the purchasing power to go and keep the economic going. You can’t have a strong economy without a strong and growing middle class.

Interview With Robert Reich: May 6, 2013: Transcript

This quote from Reich neatly nails the foolishness of our government's current fiscal policy:

Austerity is not the answer. In fact, austerity economics of the kind we’re practicing right now has shown to be a huge failure. If you look what’s happening in Europe, they are moving into – in fact, most European nations are already into recession because they decided that cutting their budget deficits was more important than creating jobs.

Now when you have a lot of unemployment, that’s the worst time to cut your budget deficit because the government has got to be the spender of last resort. This is something we understood and learned during the 1930s, 1940s. World War II actually got the economy back going.

I don’t want to suggest or have anybody read me as suggesting that we need another war, but that mobilization, that government spending on such a grand scale, got us out of the Depression and finally into prosperity.

Our budget deficit, in fact, our budget debt at the end of World War II as a percentage of the overall economy was much, much greater than it is now. But instead of hunkering down and cutting the budget, what we did in the 1950s was invest in our workforce, invest in college education, invest in retraining.

We created the interstate highway system. We invested in infrastructure. We built the middle class and helped poor people get into the middle class. That’s what we’re not doing now.

Interview With Robert Reich: May 6, 2013: Transcript

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the foolish notion it was war itself that finally got us out of the Great Depression. In fact, had we spent similar amounts of money on our own needs, we would have been at least as well off, and maybe could have avoided the recessions of the immediate post-war years. After all, when Japan surrendered, most of that war machinery we built became useless junk. It took us a few years to reorient our economy, but wise investments in education and infrastructure eventually paid off.

That's the lesson we seem to have forgotten in the years since. We've been telling ourselves all sorts of fantasies about how "free markets" work, but the reality is that free markets don't exist. What exists is a society and its commerce, and that can go better or worse depending how well it uses its opportunities. We're doing a really lousy job of that at the moment.