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The Obama Presidency

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The New Gilded Age.

“[This] is, as I hope I’ve made clear, an awesome work. At a time when the concentration of wealth and income in the hands of a few has resurfaced as a central political issue, Piketty doesn’t just offer invaluable documentation of what is happening, with unmatched historical depth. He also offers what amounts to a unified field theory of inequality, one that integrates economic growth, the distribution of income between capital and labor, and the distribution of wealth and income among individuals into a single frame.”

In the NYRB, and in very related news, Paul Krugman sings the praises of Thomas Piketty’s new magnum opus, Capital in the 21st Century. “This is a book that will change both the way we think about society and the way we do economics…Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.”

As a counterpoint of sorts, CEPR’s Dean Baker — neither a Pollyanna nor a conservative — argues Piketty has picked up some of Marx’s bad habits, and finds the book too deterministic and despairing by far:

“[T]here are serious grounds for challenging Piketty’s vision of the future…the book [suffers from a] lack of attentiveness to institutional detail…In the past, progressive change advanced by getting some segment of capitalists to side with progressives against retrograde sectors. In the current context this likely means getting large segments of the business community to beat up on financial capital…[T]he point is that capitalism is far more dynamic and flexible than the way Piketty presents it in this book. Given that we will likely be stuck with it long into the future, that is good news.”

Update: Galbraith weighs in. “[This] is a weighty book, replete with good information on the flows of income, transfers of wealth, and the distribution of financial resources in some of the world’s wealthiest countries…Yet he does not provide a very sound guide to policy. And despite its great ambitions, his book is not the accomplished work of high theory that its title, length, and reception (so far) suggest.”

Feingold Follows Fossey.

“Feingold has undertaken a dizzying round of talks in at least eight different African capitals, cajoling leaders face to face, negotiating with skittish rebels late into the night and strategizing with fellow diplomats, all in a very uphill effort to stop a long-running conflict in a region littered with failed peace deals. ‘Without a doubt,’ he said over coffee a few hours after the gorilla trek, ‘this is one of the favorite things I’ve ever done in my life.’

Stuart Reid checks in with former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold at his current job as John Kerry’s special envoy to the Great Lakes region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “‘I really wanted him here at the State Department because I saw him operate on the Foreign Relations Committee,’ Kerry told me. ‘He was the Senate’s expert, bar none, on Africa. He knows the region and the players.’”

A Wagonful of Crooks.

“Attorneys, forensic accountants and consumer advocates have long suspected that banks were systematically creating improper documents to prove ownership of loans. Foreclosure defense lawyers use the term ‘ta-da’ endorsement to describe situations in which they say a document appears, as if by magic, in the bank’s possession as needed in a foreclosure case…The manual…appears to provide step-by-step instructions for a Wells Fargo Home Mortgage ‘Default Docs Team’ and foreclosure attorneys if a blank endorsement is in a file and the attorney wants that note executed.”

In another example of banksters taking notes on a criminal f**king conspiracy, the NY Post get their hands on Wells Fargo’s How-To-Manual for ginning up fraudulent foreclosure documents. “Foreclosure experts called these procedures shocking. ‘It’s an explosive document,’ said forensic accountant Jay Patterson.” Hey, can somebody go to jail now?

Update: Nope, doesn’t look like it. “Four years after President Obama promised to crack down on mortgage fraud, his administration has quietly made the crime its lowest priority and has closed hundreds of cases after little or no investigation, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog said on Thursday.”

But We Didn’t.

“Barack Obama has now been in power for longer than Johnson was, and the question remains: ‘What the hell’s his presidency for?’ His second term has been characterised by a profound sense of drift in principle and policy. While posing as the ally of the immigrant he is deporting people at a faster clip than any of his predecessors; while claiming to be a supporter of labour he’s championing trade deals that will undercut American jobs and wages. In December, even as he pursued one whistleblower, Edward Snowden and kept another, Chelsea Manning, incarcerated, he told the crowd at Nelson Mandela’s funeral: ‘There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.’”

In The Guardian, Gary Younge laments anew the missed opportunities of Barack Obama’s presidency. “If there was a plot, he’s lost it. If there was a point, few can remember it. If he had a big idea, he shrank it. If there’s a moral compass powerful enough to guide such contradictions to more consistent waters, it is in urgent need of being reset.”

Sigh. If anything, this was all true of the first term too. As John Maynard Keynes said of another ostensibly progressive president a century ago, “[t]he disillusion was so complete that some of those who had trusted most hardly dared speak of it.”

Rolling in the Deep.

“The Deep State is the big story of our time. It is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure and political dysfunction. Washington is the headquarters of the Deep State, and its time in the sun as a rival to Rome, Constantinople or London may be term-limited by its overweening sense of self-importance and its habit, as Winwood Reade said of Rome, to ‘live upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face.’ ‘Living upon its principal,’ in this case, means that the Deep State has been extracting value from the American people in vampire-like fashion.”

In very related news, and in a somewhat overwritten but otherwise worthy piece, former GOP Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren summarizes the problem of America’s Deep State (a term Lofgren did not coin, borrowed from Turkey.) Think the military-industrial complex, now infused with financial sector/Pete Peterson-style rent-seeking. “[This] is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day.”

Room in DC.

“Emblematic examples of his work, the two paintings…capture the strong sense of atmosphere and light as well as the empty stillness that characterize much of Hopper’s imagery. They also demonstrate Hopper’s fascination with the various forms of this country’s vernacular architecture — a subject he would return to again and again, resulting in some of the most enduring images of American art.”

By way of a friend, the Oval Office gets some Hoppers on loan (apparently to replace a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which needs to get out of the light for awhile.) “Cobb’s Barns, South Truro, and Burly Cobb’s House, South Truro — oil on canvas works painted in 1930-33 on Cape Cod — have been lent by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the world’s largest repository of Hopper’s works.”

With Friends Like These.

“If the reporter’s own mother was losing $90 of foods a month out of an already-meager allotment, or the reporter’s son or daughter, I very much doubt that reporter would describe that loss as merely symbolic. I don’t know that reporter thinks their own breakfast, their own lunch, or their own dinner is merely symbolic. This is real money coming out of the grocery carts of real families.”

In Salon, former USDA official Joel Berg reads the riot act to lazy journalists and spineless Dems over the soon-to-pass Farm Bill, which cuts Food Stamps for the poor while expanding crop insurance subsidies for wealthy farms. “It infuriates me, that we live in a country with tens of thousands of actual loopholes that benefit the ultra-rich, [whereas] this is a provision authorized by law, perfectly legal, perfectly sensible, that governors of both parties have utilized…[Calling Food Stamp cuts "closing a loophole" is] basically a fabricated excuse. And it’s a smokescreen to obfuscate the fact that they’re taking food away from hungry families.”

Berg goes on: “George W. Bush proposed a billion dollars in cuts to SNAP, and virtually all these people were aghast at how horrible it is. For them to then turn around and justify cuts that are [eight] times as large as what George W. Bush proposed is a little hard to swallow. I do think our political system is basically evil versus spineless now.”

This. It’s the same dynamic you see on the NSA, on the Grand Bargain, and on countless other issues. And this is why I hard to find it to take so many Dems seriously anymore. Here’s the bill passage pablum from Senate Ag Chair Debbie Stabenow: “Congress is on the verge of taking bipartisan action that will create jobs and help reduce the deficit. This is not your father’s Farm Bill. It implements major reforms and ends unnecessary subsidies…Congress can pass a bipartisan bill that helps take us into the future and beyond the policies of the past.” And here’s the missing subtext: “Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has received more contributions from the crop production industry than any other senator.”

Ain’t no use jiving, ain’t no use joking. Everything is broken, and we need to stop enabling it or it will never, ever get better.

Not Too Distant Mirror.

“The ritual, by now, is well-established. President Barack Obama will travel to the lower house of the national legislature from the executive mansion, and…give a long speech extolling the nation’s virtues and present circumstances — the state of the union is invariably described as ‘strong’ — and laying out the regime’s priorities.”

A day before the big show, Joshua Keating’s consistently funny If It Happened There column at Slate looked at the State of the Union. “Members of the opposition typically do not applaud, though they occasionally join in with approval of paeans to the nation’s powerful military, the leaders of which typically sit stone-faced in front of the gallery.”

Which, of course, is exactly what happened. There are innumerable things Congress could be doing right now to create jobs, spur opportunity, expand the frontiers of knowledge, and generally make life better for families in America. Some of them — raising the minimum wage, ensuring equal pay for women, investing in infrastructure and early childhood education, admitting climate change is happening and proceeding accordingly — were even mentioned in Obama’s remarks, not that we can expect much in Year Six of this presidency (and an election year to boot.)

But with all due respect to Sgt. Remsburg’s sacrifice, when the only thing all of our nation’s legislators can get effusive about is venerating Americans wounded in battle, the republic is in a bad way indeed. As James Fallows put it: “[W]hile that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg…I don’t think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014…the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.” That it should – The last refuge of scoundrels and all that.

“This Sunday, the eyes of millions of Americans will turn to a fetid marsh in the industrial hinterlands of New York City for the country’s most important sporting event — and some would say the key to understanding its proud but violent culture.”

ICYMI, If It Happened There has aptly covered the Superbowl also. “The ethics of such an event can be hard for outsiders to understand. Fans, who regularly watch players being carted off the field with crippling injuries, are unbothered by reports of the game’s lasting medical impact on its players. Nevertheless, fans and the national media can become extremely indignant if players are excessively boastful at the game’s conclusion.”

Speaking of the handegg finals — as usual, also not lacking for tawdry paeans to militarismcongrats to the Seahawks on a convincing Superbowl XLVIII win. As I said on Twitter, I had no real dog in this fight – I was just happy to see the two states with sane marijuana laws karmically rewarded for their forward thinking.

Wilentz Remains a Hack. | Snowden’s Body.

“Long time readers of Sean Wilentz will remember him for greatest hits like his notorious piece on…[Obama in 2008 being] ‘the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since the Willie Horton ad campaign in 1988‘…[This article,] perhaps the purest exercise in even-the-liberal-New Republic-ism that the magazine has published since its change in ownership…[is] so obviously intellectually shoddy and incoherently argued that you’d have thought that any half-way competent editor would have decided that no amount of contrarianism was worth the damage to the magazine’s brand.”

Doing the world a great service, Crooked Timber thoroughly and quite rightly eviscerates historian Sean Wilentzbeing hackish again — for his comically terrible TNR expose of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Glenn Greenwald, as if their opinions on other matters, or Greenwald’s propensity for scorched-earth arguing, had anything to do with the legality, constitutionality, or desirability of the surveillance state.

“This paragraph is the cornerstone of the big, teetering edifice that Wilentz is trying to construct. And it’s made out of straw and horseshit…It’s shoddy hackwork, a kind of underpants gnome reasoning…It’s sad to see someone who considers himself (and is considered by many of his colleagues) to be a serious historian shoveling this kind of tripe in public; it’s the sort of thing that gives public intellectualism a bad name.” (Photo via here.)

Along similar lines, also worth noting in this arena is the recent anonymously-sourced statements of senior defense officials about Edward Snowden. “I would love to put a bullet in his head,” one Pentagon official, a former special forces officer said bluntly…’[H]e is single-handedly the greatest traitor in American history.’…’His name is cursed every day over here,’ a defense contractor told BuzzFeed, speaking from an overseas intelligence collections base. ‘Most everyone I talk to says he needs to be tried and hung, forget the trial and just hang him.’” And that sort of semi-official fantasizing about murder by DoD brass is exactly why these assholes have to be reined in.

Pope and Change.

“It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new…In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

In his recent major encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis calls out the obvious shenanigans that is trickle-down economics, and has some choice words for the financial sector:

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” “This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation…To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

I already sung the praises of this Pope a few months ago, but it can’t be said enough: this Holy Father is such a breath of fresh air. His recent courage in this regard even encouraged our President to make his own quite-good speech about income inequality last week: “So let me repeat: The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.”

Unfortunately — like Obama’s Osowatomie speech in 2011 and his election night speech in 2012 — this seems to be just another example of Obama’s rhetorical tourism on the progressive front. He’s talked a good game — on the occasions when he’s not hippie-punching or parroting Third Way — for close to five years now. But where’s the action to back this rhetoric up? After years of his touting grand bargains and deficit hysteria and allowing sequestration, and looking at the emerging budget deal, I’m not holding my breath. Whatever happens the next three years, it’s already past clear that the tremendous, once-in-a-generation opportunity granted to Obama in 2008 to effect real and positive change has, unfortunately, been wasted.

Update: Pope Francis is TIME’s Person of the Year. A worthy choice, though I would’ve probably have gone with Edward Snowden.

Got to Have Kaya Now.

“Support for legalization has jumped 10 percentage points since last November and the legal momentum shows no sign of abating. Last week, California’s second-highest elected official, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, said that pot should be legal in the Golden State, and advocates of legalization are poised to introduce a statewide referendum in 2014 to legalize the drug.”

As a follow-up to this post, Gallup finds that support for legalizing marijuana has shot up to 58%, following a similar pattern as gay marriage in recent years. Again, if they want to mitigate the usual midterm electorate problem, Dems should follow the Rove playbook on this, and get weed on the 2014 ballots ASAP.

The End of Easy Hypocrisy?

“The deeper threat that leakers such as Manning and Snowden pose is more subtle than a direct assault on U.S. national security: they undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it. Their danger lies not in the new information that they reveal but in the documented confirmation they provide of what the United States is actually doing and why. When these deeds turn out to clash with the government’s public rhetoric, as they so often do, it becomes harder for U.S. allies to overlook Washington’s covert behavior and easier for U.S. adversaries to justify their own.”

In Foreign Affairs, Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argue that, as a result of whistleblowing, the US is “no longer able to rely on easy hypocrisy in our foreign policy. “Secrecy can be defended as a policy in a democracy. Blatant hypocrisy is a tougher sell. Voters accept that they cannot know everything that their government does, but they do not like being lied to.”

Note: The link is behind a paywall, but Digby has an excerpt and thoughts up, as does Farrell in the Washington Post. This also reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s Neo-Victorians in The Diamond Age, which I presume is the tack a defender of our obvious diplomatic double-standards would take: “That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code…does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”

The Neverending Shutdown.

“[W]ith recovery still perilously weak in 2010, the obvious response would have been a second dose of stimulus spending. But the political world was already moving in the opposite direction…In the end, for reasons both political and ideological, Obama decided that he needed to demonstrate that he took the deficit seriously, and in his 2010 State of the Union address he did just that…The Beltway establishment may have applauded Obama’s pivot to the deficit, but much of the economic community saw it as nothing short of a debacle.”

It’s the Austerity, Stupid: In Mother Jones, Kevin Drum surveys the rise of deficit hysteria in the Beltway over the past several years, with particular attention paid to the Reinhart-Rogoff debacle. “It’s not as if we needed the skills of Nostradamus to predict the consequences of austerity. It’s pretty much textbook economics.” (Rhino via here.)

“It was an awful time. Federal employees had to take unpaid furlough days. Beneficiaries were thrown off of federal programs. Courthouses had to be sold. Federal agencies like the FBI, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health strained to meet commitments, leading to more crime, more outbreaks of disease and less basic research, among other horrors. This may sound like a description of the recent government shutdown, which ended October 16. But this describes the fallout from sequestration, the across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending that took effect March 1—arbitrary reductions that closely parallel the effects of the shutdown.”

Meanwhile, as David Dayen recently noted in The New Republic, the deficit witchhunt is continuing to wreak havoc across America, in the form of the sequestration budget. “Sequestration and artificial spending caps have become the new normal, and it’s redefining the role of government, rolling back the ambitions of the past, and constraining needed investments in the future. So let’s call it what it is: a government shutdown that’s infinitely worse than the one that just ended.”

Nihilists, Dude.

“‘It’s imperative to act now, Cruz warns, before the full benefits of Obamacare kick in and Americans get “hooked on the sugar, hooked on the subsidies.’ His plan: Yoke the defunding of Obamacare to the must-pass budget bill the House will take up in September. The endgame? To force a government shutdown so painful and protracted that Barack Obama would have no choice but to surrender the crown jewel of his presidency. ‘As scary as a shutdown fight is,’ Cruz insists, ‘if we don’t stand and defund Obamacare now, we never will.’”

Another dispatch from the madhouse: In a fine piece of reporting, Rolling Stone‘s Tim Dickinson delves inside the Republican suicide machine. “Having backed the GOP into a shutdown fight that congressional leaders never wanted, the insurgents are winning, and establishment leaders are running scared. America is now careening toward a catastrophic voluntary default on our debt because no one in the Republican Party with the authority to put on the brakes has the guts to apply them, for fear of being toppled from power.”

An important point Dickinson makes here that cannot be emphasized enough: We didn’t just stumble into this crisis: Taking the government and the debt ceiling hostage was the strategy all long, and the right-wing insurgents have been planning for this for months. “They’d drawn a dangerous lesson from the previous battle: Brinksmanship works…In February, the House temporarily suspended the debt ceiling — intending to give the president’s poll numbers three months to come back to earth.”

Hey, speaking of polling numbers coming back to Earth

In any case, see also the NYT on this: “To many Americans, the shutdown came out of nowhere. But interviews with a wide array of conservatives show that the confrontation that precipitated the crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law, the Affordable Care Act, since its passage in 2010 — waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics and interconnections than is commonly known.”

So we’re not in this hostage crisis by accident. The GOP even changed the House rules so they could maximize this confrontation. Republicans saw Obama fold in December 2010 on the Bush tax cuts and in August 2011 on the last debt ceiling hike. They think they can make him fold again here, and on every subsequent debt ceiling hike, and sadly, history is on their side on this. As Ted Cruz put it a few months ago: “If you have an impasse, you know — one side or the other has to blink. How do we win this fight? Don’t blink.”

Another small digression: If, like Ralph Nader this morning, you’re wondering why the right-wing of the GOP always seems to pull these sorts of stunts off while the left-wing of the Dems are usually completely marginalized, two quick answers: 1) The lefties don’t have billionaires backing their plays, and 2) we’re the People’s Front of Judea. They’re the right, they’re inherently better at the goose-stepping.

That being said, this whole episode also illustrates why it’s useless for Democrats to try to meet these fools halfway on policy: Republicans have now spent almost three years voting constantly to end the Affordable Care Act. To break a health care law originally penned by the Heritage Foundation and enacted by Mitt Romney, they have shut down the government and sent us to the brink of an economic default. So, how, exactly, would things be different if we had just passed Medicare for all, and/or a public option? They were going to lose their shit regardless, just like they did on Social Security, on Medicare, and any other progressive issue you can think of. There’s no point in trying to placate people who aren’t bargaining in good faith.

Anyway, as it happens, and as Andrew Sullivan recently pointed out, we’ve seen a minority party in America rejected at the polls try to take the entire nation hostage before. Here’s Abe Lincoln in 1861:

“What is our present condition? We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.”

So too here: This time the scalp the GOP wants is the Affordable Care Act, or the Ryan budget, or social insurance cuts, or Malia Obama. “‘The girl. Bring us the girl,’ said Congressman Steve King (R-IA)..’The bill may pass, but the firstborn shall be ours.’” It’ll be something else the next time and the time after that.

That’s why John Judis is calling this “one of the worst crises in American history“, and why Jon Chait wrote that “Allowing Republicans to default on the debt now is better than trading something that allows them to threaten it later.” Because if Obama buckles this time — and, let’s remember, we already gave the GOP their sequester-funding-levels — the Republicans will just keep taking the American government and economy hostage to get whatever they want. And quicker than you can say he-said, she-said, the rest of the lazy Beltway media will come to treat this sort of hostage-taking as politics as usual. It has to end here, or it never will.

Dispatches from the Madhouse.

“There have been lazier Congresses, more vicious Congresses, and Congresses less capable of seeing forests for trees. But there has never been in a single Congress — or, more precisely, in a single House of the Congress — a more lethal combination of political ambition, political stupidity, and political vainglory than exists in this one…We have elected an ungovernable collection of snake-handlers, Bible-bangers, ignorami, bagmen and outright frauds, a collection so ungovernable that it insists the nation be ungovernable, too. We have elected people to govern us who do not believe in government.”

In other words, the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Or put another way: “It’s a Madhouse…a Madhouse!” So, yeah, this is my day job, and, sad to say, it’s mostly been like this since 2010: Two-to-three days out of the week, the House votes to repeal, defund, delay, or otherwise hamstring the Affordable Care Act. On the off day, it usually pays homage to some other deeply stupid and destructive Republican shibboleth, like, say, scrapping literacy programs, gutting the EPA, or kicking four million poor people off of Food Stamps.

That’s business as usual ’round these parts, and this idiotic, self-inflicted shutdown is just the apotheosis of the creeping crazy that has afflicted the House over the past three years. On the off-chance that people just might get better access to affordable health insurance — from a free-market-based plan originally conceived and enacted by Republicans, mind you — the GOP have now completely shut down the federal government. And since it’s looking like America just isn’t backing their play on this, the GOP already have their eye set on a bigger hostage: the nation’s credit rating. Here’s Clownshoes Ryan on this: “I think it will fold into the debt-ceiling fight. I think that’s inevitable, and preferable in my opinion…I like combining all of our leverage, which is sequester and the debt limit.”

That Ryan quote brings up an important and often-overlooked point about this current madness: There is a method to it, and for the GOP — however bad the headlines — this is mostly going according to plan. For, absent all the Sturm und Drang surrounding the Affordable Care Act, when it comes to the actual budget situation: The Democrats have (once again) already caved, and the Republicans will almost assuredly be getting the Austerity Economy they so desire. To wit:

Dave Dayen: “The new fiscal year, which begins October 1, is the natural moment to assess the harm sequestration has wrought, and fix it to prevent more damage. But the extreme nature of the House Republican demands has made a ‘clean’ budget resolution with spending cuts intact the compromise position in the debate.”

Digby: “The Democrats already folded. Sequestration is now the ongoing law of the land and Paul Ryan’s budget wet dream is considered the ‘clean’ continuing resolution…the Democrats have been losing on policy every step of the way since these budget battles began, even as they seem to be winning the politics. What could be more telling than the fact that the numbers in Paul Ryan’s budget are now considered the starting point in any new negotiations to end the shutdown?”

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA): “It’s baffling to me that the Republicans aren’t claiming victory. I’ve talked to a lot of them, privately, and a lot of them say, ‘Yeah, this is what we want. We should call it a day.’”

The point being, and with the caveat that a crisis situation has its own dangerously combustive logic — who knows what happens once ambitious, patently amoral dudebros like Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan call the shots? — the ACA fight is mostly a big shiny object to keep the fringiest of the right-wing loons happy and everyone else distracted. However much further down the rabbit hole the Republicans intend to take us — and it seems like they now want this to bleed right into the debt ceiling fight for maximum destructiveness — they’ve already got what they wanted in many of the ways that matter. They’re happier than a pig in slop whenever government seems broken. They rejoice every time lazy Beltway media pundits shrug and publish he-said, she-said stories about DC dysfunction. And they for all intent and purposes won their Austerity budget the moment Senate Democrats sent back and began pushing a “clean”-CR — meaning a government funded at sequester levels — as the compromise solution.

So, yeah, it’s a demoralizing time in Washington and no mistake — especially since, if anything, we’ll be lucky if the White House doesn’t try to step into the breach with another social-insurance-slashing Grand Bargain at some point. Hope and Change! But ah well, at least they keep making movies.

Party Like It’s 1928.

“Most of the coverage has focused on the rate of change for incomes of the top 1 percent, particularly the fact that the top 1 percent have enjoyed 95 percent of all income growth from 2009 to 2012. But I want to focus on levels. I’m going to modify one of Saez’s charts to show something I don’t think has been pointed out.”

Per Mike Konczal of Rortybomb, writing over at Next New Deal: In 2012, the Top 1% (notwithstanding capital gains, which only slightly changes the picture) took home the largest share of the national income since 1928. Socialism!

The Black Budget, Revealed.

“The summary provides a detailed look at how the U.S. intelligence community has been reconfigured by the massive infusion of resources that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. The United States has spent more than $500 billion on intelligence during that period…The result is an espionage empire with resources and reach beyond those of any adversary, sustained even now by spending that rivals or exceeds the levels reached at the height of the Cold War.”

Thanks to info provided by Edward Snowden, the WaPo builds on their earlier Top Secret America coverage with a first-ever detailed summary of the “Black Budget.” “The document describes a constellation of spy agencies that track millions of individual surveillance targets and carry out operations that include hundreds of lethal strikes.”

Among the revelations here: “Spending by the CIA has surged past that of every other spy agency, with $14.7 billion in requested funding for 2013. The figure vastly exceeds outside estimates and is nearly 50 percent above that of the National Security Agency, which…has long been considered the behemoth of the community…The CIA’s dominant position will likely stun outside experts.”

Also of note: This multi-billion-dollar, post-9/11 technological terror we’ve constructed “remain[s] unable to provide critical information to the president on a range of national security threats..A chart outlining efforts to address key questions on biological and chemical weapons is particularly bleak…The intelligence community seems particularly daunted by the emergence of ‘home grown’ terrorists who plan attacks in the United States without direct support or instruction from abroad.”

In other words, what we have here is a resource-swallowing, clandestine intelligence-industrial bureaucracy that’s nonetheless incapable of actually doing what it’s ostensibly being funded to do. You can see why they’d want to keep this sort of thing secret.

Update: “Since 2007, we’ve known how much the total Black Budget is (before that, with some years excepted, we didn’t even know that), but not how much is spent on specific things. Now we know that too.” Eleven budget charts to help make sense of it all.

The Guns of August.

“The direction of events in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran should keep us awake at night. History is taking a dangerous turn…The region certainly cannot sustain two wars — Syria’s bloody insurgency and a near-civil war in Egypt — without wrecking established peace treaties and the normal mechanisms for defusing conflict.”

As armed US intervention in Syria seemingly passes the point of fait accompli — despite the fact that, as usual, any desirable outcome is unlikely, and blowback almost inevitable, from such a campaign — veteran Mideast correspondent Roger Boyes voices his concerns about the imploding Middle East. (Paywall-free summary here.) “In August 1914 there was a lot of grouse shooting going on. In August 2013, politicians prefer to read doorstopper biographies in Tuscany and Cornwall. Yet the spreading Middle East crisis, its multiple flashpoints, is every bit as ominous as the prelude to war in 1914.”

Strange Voices Are Saying…

“I don’t think there’s much hope at this point in blocking the nomination from the outside; apparently a chief executive can make terrible choices for dodgy reasons whenever he wants, as we’ve learned time and again…It’s good to be the king, especially when the court is so cowed (and by court I mean the professional DC liberal class).”

As rumors fly that — despite the obvious terribleness of the pick — Obama has virtually settled on Larry Summers as Fed Chair, David Dayen wonders aloud if this is all part of a Grand Bargain redux:

“You’re a President with a very tough set of fiscal fights coming up. You’ve wanted entitlement reforms for five years, but cannot get it worked out. You’ve been playing footsie with the Senate Republican caucus all year. Now you’re in a situation where you need Republican votes…I mean, any rational human would have given up on grand bargaineering by now…[but now] the White House can argue that they simply had to go along with, I don’t know, the chained CPI measure they put in their own budget, because it was a way to ‘get’ Larry Summers, among other things.” Frighteningly plausible.

Welcome to the Machine.

“We end up with a question of just how long the slow decay of existing systems (many of them admittedly dysfunctional) will go on without anyone, technocrat or otherwise, having to deal with the fact that the needs that created those systems remain as acute as ever while the ability of our society to satisfy those needs is more and more deficient…Defund the schools in Philadelphia and the children of Philadelphia who can’t flee to private institutions or move with families to the suburbs are still there. Incentives can only push so much dust under the rug before the rug itself is mounded high to the ceiling of the room.”

In a less-than-positive review of the administration’s recently-proposed higher education reforms — in short, Race to the Bottom for colleges — Tim Burke attempts to explain the madness behind Obama’s technocratic method. “Technocrats live in the wonderland of the question marks in the Underpants Gnomes business model, endlessly fussing over the exact terms of Point #1 and certain that the Profit! of #3 will follow.”

Also, I said this in the Virtually Speaking chat the other day, but we’ve tried this sort of business-minded technocratic leadership before in America — It didn’t pan out. (Burke post by way of Tropics of Meta.)

Worse than Enron? Shrug.

“Look at the numbers. Of the $410 million, $125 million represents the disgorgement of illicit profits from Morgan’s scheme — money the bank wouldn’t have collected at all if it operated within the law. (The sum is supposed to be returned to ratepayers.) So that doesn’t count. The real punishment is the balance of $285 million. How badly will that hurt JPMorgan Chase? Well, the big bank collected $97 billion in net revenue last year, so it represents a little more than a single day of intake.

Ask yourself: If you could steal $125 million, with the only downside being that if you got caught you might have to give the money back and lose a single day’s income, would you give it a go? Me too.”

On the announcement that J.P. Morgan will be paying a pittance for engaging in massive Enron-style energy fraud, the L.A. Times‘ Michael Hiltzik calls out the regulatory sham for what it is. “Our top regulators actually think they’ve gotten the better of a huge illegal enterprise, which is a good sign that they’re delusional. They didn’t even get Morgan to admit that it had done anything wrong.”

It’s tempting to hate on FERC for agreeing to this sucker’s deal, but let’s face it, this type of wink-and-a-nod, Potemkin oversight is endemic across our supposed regulatory agencies. (See also: the (lack of) fallout from JP Morgan’s Whale Trade.)

It used to be, not even all that long ago, people and companies who engaged in systemic energy and financial fraud went to prison. Now…not so much. Today, they not only continue to be treated as esteemed citizens by the highest levels of government — They even have the temerity to complain they’re being over regulated.

Meanwhile, our ostensibly progressive administration spends much of its days trying to prosecute whistleblowers and poor people to the fullest extent of the law. Some system. Honestly, if you’re not disgusted at this point, you’re not paying attention.

Manning Down.

“The ‘aiding the enemy; charge was so preposterous on its face, and so evil in its intent, that it tended to obscure how contrary to acceptable American jurisprudence the entire situation — from his detention to his trial — regarding Bradley Manning was. But it was in that charge that this administration — this Democratic administration, headed by a former professor of constitutional law — demonstrated its willingness, if not its eagerness — to elevate information into a tin god to whom we are all suppliants, and against whom we have no civil rights worthy of the name.”

As the Bradley Manning trial moves to sentencing — I wrote about the case here in March — Esquire’s Charlie Pierce wonders again how we got so far down the rabbit hole. Honestly, we should have a pretty good sense, at this late date, that prosecuting anyone under the godforsaken Espionage Act is generally a terrible idea.

Referring to the most venomous of the charges, which Manning thankfully escaped — that he was willfully “aiding the Enemy” by blowing the whistle on Army misdeeds — Pierce writes: “That anyone in this government thought this is a good idea is something worth studying. Manning’s going to go to jail from now until Christ alone knows when. The people who thought this up are still going to have good government jobs. Something’s not right with that.” Amen.

The Arctic Depression.

“The release of methane from thawing permafrost beneath the East Siberian Sea, off northern Russia, alone comes with an average global price tag of $60 trillion in the absence of mitigating action — a figure comparable to the size of the world economy in 2012 (about $70 trillion). The total cost of Arctic change will be much higher.”

A new scientific analysis estimates the global cost of the melting Arctic, and it’s extremely terribad — $60 TRILLION bad. “Many experts now say that if recent trends continue and Arctic sea ice continues its ‘death spiral,’ we will see a ‘near ice-free Arctic in summer’ within a decade. That may well usher in a permanent change toward extreme, prolonged weather events ‘such as drought, flooding, cold spells and heat waves.’” So, hey, instead of working to address this multi-trillion dollar crisis before it hits, let’s just spend years and years and years sweating the deficit. Now, that’s leadership.

Update Per Mother Jones, the potentiality of such a methane bomb is in some dispute: “Bear in mind that there are many good reasons to be skeptical of a methane disaster — it is hardly a matter of scientific consensus that this is a real concern. And that stands in stark contrast to the issue of climate change in general, an issue on which scientists are overwhelmingly aligned (and where the solution remains incredibly obvious: cutting carbon emissions).”

Orange is the Same Old Black.

“Last month, President Obama quietly did something that should shake every American to the core. Seeking to enforce federal crack cocaine laws that have since been repealed, the Obama administration asked a federal appeals court to ensure that thousands of human beings, mostly poor and mostly black, remain locked in prison – even though everyone agrees that there is no justification for them to be there.”

Yet another for the Hope-and-Change file: Obama’s DOJ urges the Courts to keep prisoners convicted under outdated sentencing requirements in jail, because…because…well, it’s hard to fathom, really. “For several years, federal judges have done nothing to remedy this injustice; one famously concluded that the prisoners sentenced under the old law had simply ‘lost on a temporal roll of the cosmic dice”. So, there are American citizens serving tens of thousands of years in prison because, according to all three branches of government, it’s just their tough luck?”

If you’re keeping score at home, folks, Obama’s Department of Justice has basically said at this point that whistleblowers and non-violent drug offenders should get the book thrown at them, but economy-toppling banksters and torturers should walk free. Yessir, they’re really speaking truth-to-power over at DOJ these days. What a courageous bunch.

The Minimum is Not Enough.


“As of today, it’s been four years since the last increase in the federal minimum wage, to $7.25 per hour, or $15,000 per year for full-time work…[T]he current level, by all measures, is just too low…[I]f it had kept up with inflation since its peak in 1968, the federal minimum wage would now be $10.75 an hour. And if the minimum wage had grown along with workers’ productivity, it would be as high as $17.19 today.”

After four years of inaction, CEPR examines the costs of a stagnant minimum wage. Conversely, raising the minimum to $10.10 an hour — as supported by 80% of Americans — would create an estimated 300,000 jobs and add $33 billion to the economy. So you’d think Congress would get on that, yes? Umm…

In very related news, a new AP poll finds that, as a result of stagnant wages, income inequality, and a deteriorating job market, fully 80% of Americans experience poverty, unemployment, and deprivation at some point in their lives. “By 2030, based on the current trend of widening income inequality, close to 85 percent of all working-age adults in the U.S. will experience bouts of economic insecurity.” The American Dream, now with Vegas casino odds.

The Eyes of the White Tower.

“Consider the basic premise of Tolkien’s trilogy: a small group of dedicated subversives willing to sacrifice their lives slips in under the surveillance system of a great power, blends in with an alien population, and delivers a devastating blow to the heart of its empire, leaving its security forces in disarray and its populace terrified. Even a tower or two crumbles to dust.”

You know of what I speak, Snowden…a Great Eye, lidless, wreathed in flame. From the bookmarks, academics David Rosen and Aaron Santesso employ Tolkien to explain the modern surveillance state. “[I]n Sauron, Tolkien is able to imagine a figure of godlike power and seemingly infinite resources, but crippling interpretive fallibility.”

A bit overwrought, perhaps, but food for thought. And they neglected to mention another telling similarity: The hearts of Men are easily corrupted.

Here is the House.

“Let’s see where she stands, OK? Yesterday, an amendment leaped over ‘a key hurdle’ in the Senate…The amendment in question mandates that we spend an absurd amount of money on ‘border security’ because we love to spend absurd amounts of money on anything that looks remotely military or remotely like law enforcement, and “border security” looks a lot like both. We will also spend an absurd amount of money on “border security” because that was the only way to bribe enough Republicans to vote in such a way as to allow the amendment to clear the ‘key hurdle.’ So what was the ‘key hurdle.’ Enough senators voted for the amendment to spend an absurd amount of money on ‘border security’ to allow the amendment itself to be voted on in the Senate.”

The indispensable Charles Pierce checks in on immigration reform in the Senate, and underlines anew one of the fundamental truths of our current politics. To wit:

In 2010, the American people elected what is possibly the worst national legislature in the history of the Republic. They also elected some of the worst state legislatures in the history of the Republic, too, which thereupon enacted redistricting and gerrymandering schemes guaranteeing that subsequent national legislatures elected wouldn’t be much better. In 2010, the country committed itself to decades of gridlock, mediocrity, and a perpetual state of hysterical paralysis in the national government. It would be nice if this were pointed out with somewhat more regularity.”

Update: Some telling stats by way of Dangerous Meta: “The much-criticized 112th Congress — from 2011 to 2012 — was the least productive and least popular Congress on record, according to the available statistics…only 15 legislative items have become law under the current Congress. That’s fewer than the 23 items that became law at this same point in the 112th Congress, which passed a historically low number of bills that were signed into law.”

Our Criminal Surveillance State.

“Leave aside the Patriot Act and FISA Amendments Act for a moment, and turn to the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment obliges the government to demonstrate probable cause before conducting invasive surveillance. There is simply no precedent under the Constitution for the government’s seizing such vast amounts of revealing data on innocent Americans’ communications.”

As scholars Jennifer Stisa Granick and Christopher Jon Sprigman remind us in the NYT, make no mistake: the NSA’s current surveillance regime is entirely illegal. “We may never know all the details of the mass surveillance programs, but we know this: The administration has justified them through abuse of language, intentional evasion of statutory protections, secret, unreviewable investigative procedures and constitutional arguments that make a mockery of the government’s professed concern with protecting Americans’ privacy. It’s time to call the N.S.A.’s mass surveillance programs what they are: criminal.”

As I said last time, this shouldn’t even be in dispute. But far too many ostensible Democrats seem to assume this culture of lawlessness is ok now that Obama’s at the helm. Once again, we have lost our way.

“If convicted on all three counts, the former N.S.A. contract-systems administrator could face thirty years in jail. On the Sunday-morning talk shows I watched, there weren’t many voices saying that would be an excessive punishment for someone who has performed an invaluable public service.” In related news, The New Yorker‘s John Cassidy laments the cowardice of today’s media with regards to the fate of Edward Snowden: “The Obama Administration doesn’t want him to come home and contribute to the national-security-versus-liberty debate that the President says is necessary. It wants to lock him up for a long time”

The mantra of good journalism should be to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, but, here again, our broken, trivia-obsessed, lapdog-riddled fourth estate has it exactly backward. It is infuriating to behold.

Still, at the very least, Frank Rich has ably summed up all you need to know about NBC’s David Gregory, who recently queried on-air whether Glenn Greenwald should be jailed for breaking the Snowden story:

“Is David Gregory a journalist? As a thought experiment, name one piece of news he has broken, one beat he’s covered with distinction, and any memorable interviews he’s conducted that were not with John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Dick Durbin, or Chuck Schumer…In any case, his charge is preposterous…I propose that Gregory be full-time on Today, where he can speak truth to power by grilling Paula Deen.”

Snowden’s Secret.

“‘I don’t see myself as a hero,’ he said, ‘because what I’m doing is self-interested: I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity.’”

Breaking everywhere the past week: 29-year-old former CIA IT guy and defense contractor Edward Snowden reveals to Glenn Greenwald that the NSA has been indiscriminately collecting everyone’s phone records and gouging into the data networks of Apple, Google, Facebook, and other mainstays of today’s social media. “The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.”

Sadly, this isn’t all that surprising. There have been intimations that the NSA has been up to no good — even beyond the warrantless wiretap fiasco under Dubya — since that weird visit to John Ashcroft’s hospital bed. Nor, sadly, is it all that surprising that — despite saying exactly the opposite in 2007 — our current President is both fine with these surveillance practices and authorizing them. (And at least from my perspective, the idea that getting the rubber stamp approval of a secret FISA court that never says no makes it all ok does not hold water.)

This is exactly what I was talking about last update. Obama acts tortured about continuing all of Dubya’s most terrible civil liberties violations, but then goes ahead and does them anyway. For Crom’s sake, he’s even picked James Comey, the guy who approved warrantless wiretaps back in 2006, to be the new FBI chief. And because this president and this administration is so brazenly two-faced about their anti-terror policies, you end up with disturbing polls like this:

Speaking of which, at the very least these revelations of blatant NSA overreach have had the healthy effect of exposing which alleged lefties out there walk the walk.

For example, in the Senate: On one hand, we have Ron Wyden, Mo Udall, and Jeff Merkley calling out Obama for continuing with this extra-legal, ginormous-net approach to surveillance. “‘As far as we can see, all of the useful information that it has provided appears to have also been available through other collection methods that do not violate the privacy of law-abiding Americans in the way that the Patriot Act collection does,’ Udall and Wyden said.”

On the other hand, here’s ostensibly Democrat Dianne Feinstein yesterday going full Body Snatcher about Snowden: “‘I don’t look at this as being a whistle-blower,’ Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calf.) said. ‘I think it’s an act of treason.‘” (FWIW, John Boehner and Lindsey Graham were right there with her.) Of course, it’s never “treason” when Feinstein continually does it, and, in any case, this wasn’t breaking news either: The senior Senator from California has long been a quintessential “symbol of the worthless Beltway Democrat.”

This revealing breeze stirred by the NSA revelations is coursing through media outlets too. On one hand, Slate‘s Fred Kaplan has — quite correctly — called for James Clapper’s resignation, given that he flat-out lied to Congress: “We as a nation are being asked to let the National Security Agency continue doing the intrusive things it’s been doing on the premise that congressional oversight will rein in abuses. But it’s hard to have meaningful oversight when an official in charge of the program lies so blatantly in one of the rare open hearings on the subject.” Spot on.

Meanwhile, TPM’s Josh Marshall, who likes to pretend his blog is a font of independent thinking, hems and haws about it all in classic pusillanimous Village-think fashion, all the while making sure never to say anything that might harm his establishment respectability. “I’ve made clear that I don’t see Manning as a hero or a whistleblower or really anything positive at all…Pretty early I realized that to his supporters Manning was a whistleblower who was being persecuted by the government, almost like a political prisoner or prisoner of conscience.” No, Josh, it doesn’t “seem” that way “to his supporters” — That is in fact what is %#%@ happening.

In any case, so as not to fall into the same trap, I’ll just say it outright: First, if Snowden and Manning are traitors, then so is Daniel Ellsberg and so, for that matter, is Dianne Feinstein and any other politician or government official who leaks when it’s convenient. (Also, sorry, folks. there is no substantive difference between revealing secrets to the criminal Julian Assange or to the venerable Bob Woodward. But please do let me know when Richard Armitage is put in a sweatbox for 23 hours a day.)

Second, this vast surveillance apparatus NSA has been constructing is both obviously overkill and clearly legally and constitutionally repugnant, and if this president lived up to even half the rhetoric he continually espoused before he was elected, he would have ended it years ago. Quite frankly, the doubletalk from him, and from so many other Democrats about these revelations so far, is both inexcusable and out-and-out pathetic.

More than Words.

“And yet, as our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.”

Didn’t get to this before heading out for a Memorial Day weekend camping trip: As y’all know by now, President Obama delivered a much-hailed State of the War on Terror address at the National Defense University, during which he called for the eventual repeal of AUMF, tighter oversight of drone strikes, and the closing of the Gitmo Gulag at last. “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

Sounds great! When’s it happening? Er…well, that’s that trick, isn’t it? When it comes to the first promise — the repeal of AUMF — as Brooking’s Benjamin Witte noted: “Obama does not need Congress to narrow or repeal the AUMF or to get off of a war footing. He can do it himself, declaring hostilities over in whole or in part. And Obama, needless to say, did not do anything like that.”

Ok, what about drone strikes? As Fred Kaplan and others — including the heckler at the speech — have pointed out, President Obama did not promise to transfer drone strike authority from the CIA (where they remain covert) to the military (where there’s more possibility of oversight.) Nor did he pledge to end “signature strikes,” meaning the current practice of unleashing fiery death upon unknown parties because they seem to be acting shady. This “supposedly new, restrictive policy on drone strikes,writes Kaplan, “was neither new nor restrictive…In short, the speech heralded nothing new when it comes to drone strikes.”

Instead, Obama defended his drone policy as legal and effective. At one point, he asserted “for the record, I do not believe it would be constitutional for the government to target and kill any U.S. citizen — with a drone, or with a shotgun — without due process.” And then, in the very next paragraph, he asserts that particular executive prerogative in the matter of Anwar Awlaki — assassinated without due process. (FWIW, Obama is clearly using the Colbert reasoning here: “Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock, paper scissors, who cares? Due process just means that there is a process that you do. The current process is apparently, first the president meets with his advisers and decides who he can kill. Then he kills them.”)

As for Gitmo…well, we have been here before, so fool me once and all that. “‘The speech was deeply disappointing,’ says David Remes, a lawyer who has represented a number of Yemenis held at Guantanamo – adding that Obama only ‘created the illusion of forward momentum.’…The president has the power to issue national security waivers and direct the Secretary of Defense to certify detainee transfer if they are deemed not a national security threat – something human rights groups have been advocating. Didn’t hear much about that in the president’s address.

Yes, the paragraphs I quoted from the speech above at the onset are laudable, and yes, I suppose some people might find it vaguely comforting to know that the force of these issues weigh on the presidential mind in a way they didn’t between 2001 and 2008. But let’s be honest. It has been a troubling tendency of this administration — and by troubling tendency I mean signature pattern — to follow up lofty, progressive-minded rhetoric with absolutely no action of consequence. We need more than words from this president.

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