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Fixing the problem of NSA spying

There’s been lots of talk about the problem of NSA spying the last few days, and some partisan braying about it.  But the real question is: what do we do now?  The reality is that the majority of Congress stands overwhelmingly in favor of these programs, and Presidents of both parties have supported these programs, which makes it highly unlikely that they’re going to be stopped completely.  What are practical things that can be done to ensure that the privacy impacts of these programs are limited while still giving the government the data it needs to investigate potential terrorist plots?

Realistic policy options fall into two categories:  1.) reduce what data can be collected and 2.) improve transparency.

Reducing the data the NSA can collect

Changing the data the NSA can collect would require Congressional action to modify the relevant statutes in place (principally Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act), and three primary ideas for accomplishing this have come forward:

  1. Allow the data collection to continue but require a warrant based on probable cause to access any of the records for a U.S. citizen.  This approach was introduced as legislation by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), and would raise the legal standard for accessing the collected data.
  2. Limit data collection to eliminate purely domestic calls.  Raised as an alternative to the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, this would limit the collection of data to calls where at least one of the callers was foreign, except in cases where a definitive connection to terrorist activity could result in a warrant to acquire that data.
  3. Limit data collection to a suspicion-based standard.  Instead of doing a dragnet of all calls made, data collection could only occur records based on a reasonable suspicion of terrorist activity — of someone suspected of being a terrorist or spy, someone called by a terrorist suspect, or potentially somewhat broader searches, such as calls made from a building where terrorist activity is suspected of taking place.

Improve transparency of current programs

If none of the options above are taken to limit the data collected, perhaps the least we could expect is a better understanding of what sort of data collection is being done in our name.  Here are some of the options available to accomplish this:

  1. Declassify Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) decisions interpreting Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.  Introduced today as a bill in the Senate by a bipartisan group of eight Senators, including Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, this bill would compel the release of these decisions, so the legal logic could be evaluated and debated.  President Obama could also choose to do this via executive order.
  2. Release more details about how these programs work.  Can the NSA listen in on calls?  If so, when and why?  What is the standard for accessing the collected call metadata?  How long is the data stored?  Has the data ever been accessed for “routine” police work, or is it access limited to solely terrorism/national security related issues?  How are the programs audited for potential abuse?
  3. Permit court challenges towards these programs to move forward.  Multiple lawsuits have been filed against the government over warrantless wiretapping and data collection, but all have failed to reach the trial phase.  This is because the government (under both the Bush and Obama Administrations) have fought these cases on a standing issue.  What this means is that the government has alleged that the persons bringing the lawsuit can’t prove that their data was collected or their calls listened to, so they can’t prove they were harmed by the activity.  With no harm, they don’t have standing to sue in court.  The Verizon allegations — which cover millions of Americans — may make it impossible for the Department of Justice to continue these sorts of claims going forward.  If the Administration feels they are on solid legal ground with these programs, they should allow these cases to go to trial and win them definitively.

None of these six ideas provide a definitive firewall between government and your personal data, but they are practical approaches that could work incrementally to improve the current situation.  Getting them accomplished, though, will require application of political pressure on politicians in both parties.  Calls and e-mails to your Senators and Representatives will help keep the ball moving forward.

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Watching the Watchmen: the bipartisan failure on privacy

The revelations about the NSA spying program have set off a firestorm of partisan finger-pointing (such as this from late last week).  The reality, though, isn’t terribly complex.  Both parties are responsible for selling your privacy down the river with these sorts of programs.  There have been five key votes since 2001 that have been responsible for these programs.

The pattern shows that it doesn’t matter who’s in charge of the Presidency or Congress.  Washington D.C. will vote to take away your privacy, while fighting to make more and more of their actions secret.  The solution to this issue can’t be solved by switching which party is in charge — but rather by a sustained effort to keep pressure on both parties to do the right thing.  We must remain vigilant.

Below is a chart that shows the bipartisan failure on this issue, including votes by Minnesota’s Congressional delegation.  Click on the chart to see a larger version.

bipartisanfailure

Data sourced from THOMAS.gov

Ortman back from War College: firing wildly and with shiny tap-dance shoes

As we mentioned earlier in the week, State Senator (and possible U.S. Senate candidate) Julianne Ortman spent the week at the Army War College’s National Security Seminar.   Part of a new Army recruit’s basic training regimen includes learning how to shine shoes.  Well, it seems Ortman may have taken a lesson or two while there because she came back ready to attack and with shined-up and ready-to-go tap dancing shoes.

Earlier today, Ortman fired off several rounds of criticism at U.S. Senator Al Franken on Twitter, which was countered by myself and a few others — not to defend Franken (because he and the rest of Congress have a lot to answer for), but rather to ask Ortman what she would have done instead.  After all, it’s easy to criticize, but harder to advocate alternatives.   We saw this in effect during this legislative session’s budget battle, where Republicans never articulated an alternative budget.

Did Franken “hide” his knowledge of the NSA program?

Ortman’s initial attack against Franken called out the Senator for “hiding” the NSA program.  As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Franken had been briefed on the program to some level of detail.  Well, it is certainly true that Franken did not comment publicly on this topic until yesterday.  Why is that?  Because it was illegal for Franken to discuss it publicly. 

Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act modifies Section 501 (d) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as to say:

“No person shall disclose to any other person (other than those persons necessary to produce the tangible things under this section) that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has sought or obtained tangible things under this section.”

Even worse, the briefings that lawmakers received on such programs were subject to unusually stringent security.  Lawmakers were not allowed to take notes, staffers were not allowed to attend, and per the provisions of the law stated above, the lawmakers were prohibited from talking about the programs.

So did Franken “hide” his knowledge of the programs?  No.  Did he do enough to push back?  The record on that is unclear.  Two Democratic Senators, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, have been pushing the limits on these programs, obliquely hinting that there was something afoot.

Ortman seems to be suggesting that Franken should have done more.  Perhaps that’s true.  But one can only imagine if Franken had violated the law and revealed details of a classified national security program.  I sincerely doubt that Ortman would be saluting his whistleblowing — rather, she’d be crying about Franken putting our national security at risk.

Ortman goes on to make an additional charge:  namely, that the PATRIOT Act didn’t authorize such programs.  Unfortunately, Ortman provides no basis to back up her claims that have any merit.  And, sadly, she tap-dances around any of the direct questions asked of her — would she have voted for the PATRIOT Act and FISA modifications?  What is her argument for why these programs were prohibited?  Where was her outrage when these programs were authorized under a Republican administration? Does she think Franken should have broken the law and spread details of these programs?

While I haven’t attended the National Security Seminar, I can only imagine such brazenly partisan behavior probably isn’t considered in our nation’s best interest.  Let’s hope that if Ortman does run against Franken that she finds some lines of attack that aren’t based in distortions and falsehoods.

Here’s the entire exchange, so you can judge for yourself:

It’s totally not about that

State Senator Julianne Ortman held a press conference today to try and finger U.S. Senator Al Franken for playing a role in the current controversy over the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) giving unwarranted scrutiny to certain conservative 501(c)(4) groups.

In 2012, Franken and a group of other Democratic Senators sent two letters to the IRS, requesting that they give added scrutiny to 501(c)(4) groups.  Both progressive and conservative organizations had been setting such groups up because they are tax-exempt and not subject to campaign finance disclosures.

You can see the letters at the links below:

February 2012 letter

March 2012 letter

In each, the Senators in question ask the IRS to scrutinize all 501(c)(4)s.  Ideology doesn’t come up in either letter.

So, let’s sum up the argument here.  Ortman is asking us to believe that the letters from 2012 which called for additional scrutiny to be applied to all 501(c)(4)s are significantly responsible for IRS misbehavior that began in 2010 and was actually uncovered and stopped after the letter was sent.  Not even the reliable conservatives at Powerline are buying that one.

Why, then, would Ortman go to the trouble of calling a press conference to highlight this non-news with no real relation to her role as a State Senator?  Oh, yeah:

When asked about such a thing, Ortman played the “who me?” card.

Uh-huh.  It’s totally not about that.

And let’s not forget that Ortman has never exactly been shy about sending letters of her own demanding action by other parts of government.  Earlier this session, she asked Attorney General Lori Swanson to break from usual practice and preemptively give a ruling on whether legislation was constitutional or not.  Last session, Ortman demanded that the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court investigate the handling of family cases in the First District.

So it seems that Ortman’s outrage over legislative letter-writing is rather subjective.  Just remember, though, about those 2014 rumors:  it’s totally not about that.

Senate passes marriage equality; Ortman votes no

The Minnesota State Senate today passed the marriage equality bill by a vote of 37-30, following four hours of debate.  State Senator Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) voted no on the issue.  Only one Republican, Senator Brandon Petersen, voted in favor of the bill, while three DFL Senators voted no (Dan Sparks, Leroy Stumpf, and Lyle Koenen).

senatemarriage

Governor Mark Dayton has indicated he will sign the bill, and a signing ceremony is planned for 5 p.m. Tuesday afternoon on the South Side Capitol Steps.  Minnesota will be the 12th state to institute marriage equality.

Rumors were swirling before the vote that Ortman, who had been consistently opposed to marriage equality in recent sessions, may be reconsidering her position.  At times during the debate, she was spotted conferring with Senator Scott Dibble, the bill’s author.  Hanging over Ortman’s vote was the notion that she might be a candidate for higher office in 2014.  Recent speculation has indicated that she may be looking at the race for U.S. Senate against Al Franken.

 

The Republican base is strongly opposed to marriage equality.  Polling from January shows 79% disapproval among Republicans, which likely makes the path to endorsement difficult for a marriage equality supporter.

Shooting Ourselves In The Foot: Breaking Down The Sequester

Barring a last-minute deal between President Barack Obama and Republican Congressional leaders, it appears that the sequester — $85.3 billion in spending cuts for this fiscal year (and a total of $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade) — will be implemented beginning March 1.

What will the sequester mean?  Let’s take a look.

Details of the cuts

$85.3 billion represents about 2.4% of total government spending.  But the impacts of the sequester will be far more impactful than that, because of the programs that are exempted from the spending cuts.  Additionally, five months of the federal fiscal year has already passed, meaning that the full year value of the cuts have to be taken in a seven-month timeframe.

Half of the spending cuts will come out defense.  $42.7 billion represents 7.8 percent of the defense budget on an annual basis, but compressing those cuts into seven months will result in a 13% cut in defense spending the rest of the year.  There are no significant exceptions to the defense spending cuts, meaning that essentially all items in the defense budget will get an across-the-board cut.  This includes operations in Afghanistan and military aid for Hurricane Sandy relief.  Additionally, President Obama has indicated he will protect soldiers from receiving pay cuts, which means all other programs will see yet larger cuts to make up the difference.  Finally, restrictions in the sequester language mean that the Administration is prohibited from cutting the pay of civilian defense employees and must instead reduce headcount.

The other half of the spending comes out of three categories:  domestic discretionary spending, domestic mandatory spending, and Medicare.  Together, these categories make up the remaining $42.7 billion.  Let’s talk about what is excluded from these three categories first — the list is long and includes Social Security, non-administrative expenses in the Veterans Administration, refundable tax credits (like the Earned Income Tax Credit), Children’s Health Insurance Program, standard unemployment benefits, Medicaid, and most other programs supporting low-income families.  These programs represent over $2 trillion in annual government spending, meaning that all of the cuts are being taken against spending that represents about 40% of the federal budget.

Domestic discretionary spending cuts will total $26.4 billion, representing a 5.2% cut on an annual basis and an 8% cut over the next seven months.  These cuts will hit areas of the budget including education funding for programs like Head Start, will require closing the air traffic control towers at several state airports, federal funding for “Meals on Wheels” programs, and grants for environmental projects.

Domestic mandatory spending will be cut by $5.1 billion, also representing a 5.2% cut on an annual basis and an 8% cut over the next seven months.  These cuts will impact farm subsidies, extended unemployment benefits, and some federal health care programs, such as the Indian Health Care program.

Finally, Medicare will see $11.2 billion in cuts, representing a 2% cut.  Medicare cuts will not impact beneficiaries of the program, but rather reflect a cut in provider and Medicare Advantage reimbursement rates.

What Will Happen?

The budget cuts in the sequester are really just about the worst kind of cuts that could be made.  First off, they are arbitrary and across-the-board.  The President has no discretion on how to distribute the cuts, meaning that effective programs are cut at the same rates as programs that have less impact.  Second, there are too many exceptions.  The cuts, as noted above, represent a small portion of the total budget, but since a majority of the budget is excluded from the cuts, the programs that are hit are hit hard.

These cuts are also going to have major negative impacts on employment and economic growth.  The Bipartisan Policy Center projects a loss of 1 million jobs and 0.5% of gross domestic product.  Other estimates claim job losses in excess of 700,000.  Implementing the sequester is going to seriously damage a still fragile recovery and sluggish labor markets.

Worst of all, the combined effect of all of these impacts mean that we are unlikely to get any meaningful deficit reduction as a result of the sequester.  Slower economic growth means that the economy will produce less tax revenue, making the deficit situation worse than before.  As evidence of how this is possible, one need only look at what is occurring in Europe.  Following rounds of budget cuts, the United Kingdom (which is on the verge of a triple-dip recession), France, and Spain have all missed their deficit reduction targets.  Fed chairman Ben Bernanke warned of the same possibility before the House Financial Services Committee today.

Additionally, the fact that health care and entitlement programs are essentially left off the chopping block means that these cuts do practically nothing to change the long-term debt picture, because that is where the majority of spending (and spending growth) will happen over the coming decades.

The upshot here is that the failure of our political system to take the right path regarding our financial future has us on the verge of a serious self-inflicted blow to our economy.  One might think that the risks here would be enough to get folks looking beyond their own narrow political interest.  But apparently not.  There’s a reasoned approach to be had here, maintaining levels of spending today to preserve the economic recovery while instituting reforms in the medium- to long-term in order to bring debt levels down to a sustainable level.  Who’s going to set aside their party’s political interests to protect the jobs of hundreds of thousands of Americans?

General Sources:

Bipartisan Policy Center (explainer)

Washington Post (state-by-state impacts)

It’s All About the Narrative: Lance Armstrong, the Fake Dead Girlfriend, and our toxic politics

Much of the air in our 24-hour news cycle the last couple of days has been sucked up by a couple of stories of deception from the sports world.  Wednesday afternoon, Deadspin released a well-reported story that showed that the dead girlfriend of Notre Dame standout linebacker Manti Te’o was a hoax.  Not only did Lennay Kekua not die a day after Te’o’s grandmother (and just days before a critical game with Michigan State), she never even existed.

Concurrently, we’ve all heard far too much about Lance Armstrong finally confessing to what had become crystal-clear months ago:  that he had engaged in years of blood doping and use of performance-enhancing drugs in order to win his seven consecutive Tour de France titles.

Both these stories were propelled, amplified, and sold by the media.  Why?  Because they had compelling narratives.  Te’o wasn’t just a great football player, but one overcoming great personal tragedy.  The story of the player who doesn’t stop to grieve but keeps playing — and playing well — is one of the most cherished in all of sports.  And it wasn’t happening at some backwater college — it was happening at Notre Dame.  The home of George Gipp.  And Rudy.  The legend of Te’o, the leader of a fearsome Fighting Irish defense that led the team to an undefeated regular season and an unlikely appearance in the national championship game grew and grew and grew as a result.

Armstrong’s story fit one of our time-honored narratives  as well — the story of the athlete who overcomes injury or illness to reach greater heights.  (Like this one.)  We all knew that cycling was a cesspool of doping and performance-enhancing drugs.  We saw literally dozens of riders per year get kicked out of the Tour de France for violations of rules.  Credible sources were saying Armstrong was violating the rules as early as 2001, but there was always just enough plausible deniability to keep the Armstrong legend alive — he “never failed” a drug test, or the people making the accusations were flawed.

The media was happy to lap up these stories because they fit the narrative and were easily sellable.  Sports Illustrated reporter Pete Thamel uncovered a number of red flags on the Te’o story.  He couldn’t find an obituary or funeral notice.  Searches on Kekua and her brother turned up nothing.  Calls to Stanford produced no record of her being a student.  No details were found on the supposed car crash that had put Kekua into a coma in April.  How was this handled?

You were able to write around it,” Thamel told radio host Dan Patrick.  ESPN made similar mistakes.

Meanwhile, Armstrong had a steady group of stenographers willing to sell his story.  The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins is at the top of that list, although even now, she still seems nonplussed by the whole scenario.  It helped that Armstrong was legitimately involved in doing good things for cancer research, treatment, and prevention.  Such things helped keep Armstrong’s image largely pristine even in the face of mounting evidence of doping and decisions in his personal life that would have otherwise been more heavily questioned (such a dumping his wife and father of his first three children — the one who stood by him through his cancer treatments — for a singer).  Narrative trumped reality.

So, it’s really no surprise that many in the media are puffing their chest and pointing their fingers at SI and ESPN for their egregious mistakes in fact-checking.  But, really, who are they to talk?  Seemingly everything these days is all about the narrative.  And they’ve been just as guilty of peddling narratives as everyone else.  Reporters swallowed the Republican narrative about Al Gore’s “lies” during the 2000 campaign.  The Republican primary campaign in 2012 was case study in media-driven narratives that came to overrule the news actually happening on the ground, as the media tried them all out on a one-by-one basis to see which one would become the anti-Mitt Romney candidate.

It’s gotten to the point where messaging — creating the narrative — is far more important to politicians than actually having ideas or getting things done.  Mitt Romney ran for President in 2012 with a “plan” that contained for tax cuts, tax reform, and spending cuts.  Yet he offered no details of what the tax reform or spending cuts would be. He chose to run on narrative instead of specifics.

One need only look at the fiscal cliff fiasco to see more evidence of that.  Politicians of both parties conspired to create a fake crisis that could be used to push their preferred narratives — all the way to the brink of putting the country’s economy at risk.  You can’t govern a country when your primary goal is selling narrative instead of doing stuff to make people’s lives better.  It’s toxic to getting the job done.

Listen, it’s certainly important for politicians to be able to articulate what their values and beliefs are.  But it’s far more important to have politicians who are able to get things done.  We need more politicians who are willing and able to bypass an open microphone in order to do the work we pay them to do.  We need more journalists willing to be skeptical and not just buy the narrative or report the “view from nowhere”.  And we need a public less willing to just accept what journalists are feeding to you every night.

10 Charts of 2012: Impact of Hours Worked on Wage Growth

Source: Economic Policy Institute

Source: Economic Policy Institute

We saw earlier that there has been some wage growth for lower income families in recent decades.  Today’s chart, again from the Economic Policy Institute’s State of Working America, shows that much of this income growth can be attributed to more hours being worked in the household as opposed to higher hourly wages.  This means fewer stay-at-home parents and more second and third jobs.

10 Charts of 2012: Distribution of Stock Market Wealth

Source: Economic Policy Institute

Source: Economic Policy Institute

Today’s chart, again from the Economic Policy Institute’s State of Working America, shows how the distribution of stock market wealth has changed since 1983.  This time period coincides with the start of the wholesale changeover of retirement savings from defined-benefit plans to defined-contribution plans.  These changes were supposed to “democratize” the stock market and give all Americans a stake in what happens.  Well, that hasn’t occurred.  In fact, the distribution of stock market wealth is largely unchanged over that time period.

10 Charts of 2012: Changes in Household Income by Income Group

Source: Economic Policy Institute

Source: Economic Policy Institute

Today’s chart, again from the Economic Policy Institute’s State of Working America, looks at the rates of change in household income by income group.  What you can see is that most of the income growth in the country is occurring at the top of the income scale.  Income is growing 24x faster for the top 1% versus the bottom 20%.  In the bonus chart below, we see that this trend is even worse for capital income (stocks, bonds, and housing).  Even before the housing market crash, lower income folks were actually seeing declining capital incomes.

Source: Economic Policy Institute

Source: Economic Policy Institute

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