Open Thread: Info Wants to Be Free, But How Expensive Is Collecting It?

nsa terrornomic rall
(Ted Rall’s blog)

Gail Collins, at the NYTimes:

Does the N.S.A. really need all the stuff it’s collecting? Ever since the attack on the World Trade Center, the agency has been exploding. It has an enormous operation outside of Washington, and it is building another million-square-foot complex in the Utah desert. It collects an estimated 1.7 billion pieces of communication a day.

“When you have the ability to get more and more data, the natural inclination is to get as much as possible,” said Representative Henry Waxman, the former chairman of the House oversight committee.

Those of us who have seen the show “Hoarders” know that more is not always better, and “as much as possible” is sometimes covering up a pile of dead cats. After all, the government didn’t fail to stop the attack on the World Trade Center because of a lack of data. It had lots of information about Al Qaeda and its plan to stage an attack on America. The problem was with follow-up.

And the N.S.A. has been known to go overboard. During the administration of George W. Bush, it decided to drop a modest in-house plan for data analysis in favor of a gargantuan program called Trailblazer, which funneled more than $1 billion to private consultants and turned out to have the additional liability of not working. The official who fought most vigorously against it was rewarded in 2010 by being charged with violating the Espionage Act when he released information to a reporter.

That was only one incident, but we do seem to have an ominous combination: an agency with a bad record on thriftiness, and practically everything it spends money on is secret. “It’s a tough balancing act,” an Obama administration official told me. “It’s incumbent on us and Congress to do the job of scrutinizing the budget, both in terms of cost and efficacy.”…

Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, what’s on the agenda for another Saturday night?



Open Thread: Here They Come Again

Willard Romney & Sons, GOP multi-taskers! Jason Horowitz, in the Washington Post:

PARK CITY, Utah — John Schoenfeld came to an exclusive resort here to do business with Mitt Romney. But he stayed for the politics.

Schoenfeld spent most of Wednesday in a downstairs conference room of the Stein Eriksen Lodge assessing the investments of Solamere Capital, the firm co-founded by Romney’s son Tagg and increasingly managed by Romney himself. Then he learned that several potential GOP presidential candidates would be attending a separate Romney conference at the same exclusive lodge.

“I’m going to stretch my clothes another day,” the Chicago-based lawyer said after moving upstairs to join hundreds of Romney’s top donors to kick off the former Republican presidential nominee’s Experts and Enthusiasts 2013 conference. Schoenfeld said he became enthusiastic about the prospect of spending Friday morning driving golf balls with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), breaking bread with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or shooting skeet with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Romney’s running mate in 2012. “That looked like fun.”…

The former Romney campaign aides who haunted the old alpine hotel played down the overlap between the two conferences, arguing that they had planned the ideas conference for the following weekend but moved it up for logistical reasons.

Romney himself made no mention of Solamere as he spoke onstage about “great challenges for America.” Former adviser Ron Kaufman shrugged about Solamere’s sponsorship of the event: “Someone has to pay for it.”

Instead they characterized the three-day event as Romney’s own Aspen Ideas Festival, a significant step in his return to public relevance and proof of his political clout. But the retreat also highlights the enduring flaws that helped sink Romney’s candidacy.

His ideas conference, much like his campaign, had no specific agenda and would define itself over time, aides said. The off-the-record sessions, the cigar rooms and the vanilla homogeneity of the exclusive event evoked the elitism of his disastrous speech to donors about the “47 percent.”…

The Experts and Enthusiasts (E2) event featured serious policy chats about education, the economy, disease and foreign policy. It also included a horseback riding session with Romney and a hike early Thursday morning with Hewlett Packard CEO, failed gubernatorial candidate and Solamere investor Meg Whitman. (“I got a tear in my muscle but I still hiked the mountain,” Ann Romney announced as she limped down some stairs.)

In addition to panel discussions Friday with the Republican hopefuls for 2016, there were other featured speakers, including former Clinton administration insider Erskine Bowles, longtime Obama adviser David Axelrod and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Organizers said they had also reached out to potential Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Andrew Cuomo, though spokesmen for both said they had no knowledge of an invitation.

On Wednesday afternoon, fleets of black Mercedes sedans and luxury SUVs dropped off men in suits in front of the lodge’s facsimile of the Olympic flame. Blond ushers directed them to either turn left at the stone fireplace for the “Solamere Capital Founders Fund Update,” or to hang a right and register for the “E2 summit.” The blue canvas E2 swag bags came with Solamere-branded jackets, shirts and hats.

Attendees mingled on a veranda overlooking ski slopes spotted with patches of snow, and said things to each other like, “Why are you protecting your downside? This is a billion-dollar opportunity.”…



Open Thread: New Candidate for ‘Worst Person in the World’

Mark Bittman, in the NYTimes, highlights a rising star:

The current versions of the Farm Bill in the Senate (as usual, not as horrible as the House) and the House (as usual, terrifying) could hardly be more frustrating. The House is proposing $20 billion in cuts to SNAP — equivalent, says Beckmann, to “almost half of all the charitable food assistance that food banks and food charities provide to people in need.”

Deficit reduction is the sacred excuse for such cruelty, but the first could be achieved without the second. Two of the most expensive programs are food stamps, the cost of which has justifiably soared since the beginning of the Great Recession, and direct subsidy payments.

This pits the ability of poor people to eat — not well, but sort of enough — against the production of agricultural commodities. That would be a difficult choice if the subsidies were going to farmers who could be crushed by failure, but in reality most direct payments go to those who need them least.

Among them is Congressman Stephen Fincher, Republican of Tennessee, who justifies SNAP cuts by quoting 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” …

This would be just another amusing/depressing example of an elected official ignoring a huge part of his constituency (about one in seven Americans rely on food stamps, though it’s one in five in Tennessee, the second highest rate in the South), were not Fincher himself a hypocrite.

For the God-fearing Fincher is one of the largest recipients of U.S.D.A. farm subsidies in Tennessee history; he raked in $3.48 million in taxpayer cash from 1999 to 2012, $70,574 last year alone. The average SNAP recipient in Tennessee gets $132.20 in food aid a month; Fincher received $193 a day. (You can eat pretty well on that.)

Fincher is not alone in disgrace, even among his Congressional colleagues, but he makes a lovely poster boy for a policy that steals taxpayer money from the poor and so-called middle class to pay the rich, while propping up a form of agriculture that’s unsustainable and poisonous….

As a person of faith, this is why I pray to the Trickster God that every “pious” person gets the religious desserts of the creed they profess in life. Because, from my readings, I think that Jesus guy would most certainly have some creative rebuttal waiting when Rep. Fincher shows up at those pearly gates — say, for instance, requiring Fincher to pack every cent of that three-point-five-mil, in Sacajawea dollars, into the bodily orifice of his choice.



Monday Morning Open Thread

gop demolition co sargent
(Ben Sargent via GoComics.com)

Be of good cheer! The Great & Glorious Krug-thulu reassures us that “The Geezers Are All Right“:

Last month the Congressional Budget Office released its much-anticipated projections for debt and deficits, and there were cries of lamentation from the deficit scolds who have had so much influence on our policy discourse. The problem, you see, was that the budget office numbers looked, well, O.K.: deficits are falling fast, and the ratio of debt to gross domestic product is projected to remain roughly stable over the next decade. Obviously it would be nice, eventually, to actually reduce debt. But if you’ve built your career around proclamations of imminent fiscal doom, this definitely wasn’t the report you wanted to see.

Still, we can always count on the baby boomers to deliver disaster, can’t we? Doesn’t the rising tide of retirees mean that Social Security and Medicare are doomed unless we radically change those programs now now now?

Maybe not…

… The latest projections show the combined cost of Social Security and Medicare rising by a bit more than 3 percent of G.D.P. between now and 2035, and that number could easily come down with more effort on the health care front. Now, 3 percent of G.D.P. is a big number, but it’s not an economy-crushing number. The United States could, for example, close that gap entirely through tax increases, with no reduction in benefits at all, and still have one of the lowest overall tax rates in the advanced world.

But haven’t all the great and the good been telling us that Social Security and Medicare as we know them are unsustainable, that they must be totally revamped — and made much less generous? Why yes, they have; they’ve also been telling us that we must slash spending right away or we’ll face a Greek-style fiscal crisis. They were wrong about that, and they’re wrong about the longer run, too.

The truth is that the long-term outlook for Social Security and Medicare, while not great, actually isn’t all that bad. It’s time to stop obsessing about how we’ll pay benefits to retirees in 2035 and focus instead on how we’re going to provide jobs to unemployed Americans in the here and now.

What’s on the agenda for the start of another work week?



Long Read: The Gun Safety Lobby Turns Mean

EvenTheLibertarian New Republic‘s Alex MacGillis says “This Is How the NRA Ends“:

… As New York Times columnist Tom Edsall has pointed out, political science research shows that politicians consistently overestimate the conservatism of their constituents. But in this case, there was something more debilitating at work. The political class often lets old assumptions blind it to shifting realities. And the absolute power of the NRA is one of the oldest and least-tested assumptions in Washington…

And yet for some time now, the NRA’s power has been more a matter of entrenched wisdom than actual fact. Gun ownership is declining—from half of households in the 1970s to a third today. A slew of senators and governors have won campaigns in red or purple states despite NRA F ratings, including Tim Kaine (Virginia), Kay Hagan (North Carolina), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), and Bill Nelson (Florida), who has campaigned on gun control but has won majorities even in deeply conservative Panhandle counties. Senator Chris Murphy, a rookie Connecticut Democrat who has taken a lead on the issue since the Newtown massacre, points out that, of the 16 Senate races the NRA participated in last year, 13 of its candidates lost. “The NRA is just all mythology,” he says. “The NRA does not win elections anymore.”

The reason for the gap between perception and reality is that, for many years, the NRA has had no real opposition. This has given the debate a strange quality: For gun-control advocates, the recent challenge has been less about persuading politicians on policy grounds and more about trying to convince them that the conventional wisdom about gun politics is wrong.

And then came Newtown. We are so resigned to seeing mass shootings come and go without any attempt to fix gun laws, but after Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook, something really did change. At long last and against all expectations, a viable movement for gun regulation is emerging. It is a development that not only bodes ill for the gun lobby and its Republican patrons, but will also complicate matters for elements of the Democratic Party who have been content to accede to the status quo. The narrow defeat of the background-check bill, it turns out, was not the end of hopes for gun reform, but the beginning….

What Bloomberg has embarked upon now is nothing less than the construction of a mirror image to the NRA…he plans to spend very heavily against the Democrats up for reelection who voted against the bill—Alaska’s Mark Begich and Arkansas’s Mark Pryor…

Does our battered republic actually need “a mirror image to the NRA”? Well, now that he’s given up on further improving the civic health of NYC, Mayor Mike has a billion greenback reasons looking for a new crusade. And if this article is any indication, gun safety may even become a proxy for taking “the center” back from the GOP oligarchs and their media enablers… but as in any war, there are liable to be some collateral (Democratic) casualties along the way.