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“The Naivety Of An Ideologue”: Leaker Or Leader? Edward Snowden Claims Victory

In an interview last week with NBC’s Brian Williams, NSA secret-leaker Edward Snowden set himself a low bar and claimed success: His leaks, he said, have gotten us talking about these important issues. Mission accomplished? Let’s think about that…

While Snowden has in fact displayed several admirable leadership qualities – like taking bold action, operating in integrity with his stated beliefs, and communicating (to Brian Williams, anyway) with gravitas – he, like many would-be-good leaders, has fallen short in the results department.

Good leadership takes balancing cost versus benefit to achieve something. The measure of such a costly breach of national security as Snowden committed, then, should be significant positive change, rather than fresh fodder for our hapless Congress and paying NBC’s bills for a few news cycles.

For example, could there follow from all of this, say, a thorough and unbiased audit of our intelligence services showing specifically if, and in what ways, the US Government discarded its checks and balances and/or hindered our constitutionally-guaranteed protections and freedoms? Such an audit could then result in positive reforms.

Similarly, for the US Government to be the leader here, it would need to show, rather than simply assert, that Snowden’s admittedly criminal actions have created harm, and also show that it has used its powers in strictly constitutional ways.

Neither will happen. Instead, Snowden’s sensational actions reflect the naivety of an ideologue: Someone intensely devoted to a cause, yet guided more by the image of perfection than by the real world. This “national conversation” is more likely to fester and fizzle than to lead to policy reform — after all, that’s the status quo state of the union these days.

Whether he was a patriot or a traitor in leaking NSA secrets is a dumb question being asked by smart people in the media who know better, but need to sell cars and paper towels. Patriot or traitor? He is, as are those in government guilty of “overreach,” both and neither. The two sides here are more alike than not.

I’m not suggesting that whiste-blowing isn’t important to our democracy — it is. Nor am I saying it’s Edward Snowden’s responsibility to make any needed changes. Yet if something productive beyond dialogue is to come of this, then we’ll need actual leadership.

That’s the challenge when it comes to the dark arts of intelligence. We can’t and shouldn’t ever know what great leadership looks like when it comes to the content of collecting and analyzing intelligence to prevent violence and terrorism. Yet if Snowden’s actions are to be seen as good leadership, then bring it on, Snowden: Let’s see the benefits that more than cover the costs of what you have done.


By: David Peck, Politics Blog, The Huffington Post, June 1, 2014

June 2, 2014 Posted by | Edward Snowden, Ideologues, National Security Agency | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“On Inequality Denial”: Good Ideas Don’t Need To Be Sold On False Pretenses

A while back I published an article titled “The Rich, the Right, and the Facts,” in which I described politically motivated efforts to deny the obvious — the sharp rise in U.S. inequality, especially at the very top of the income scale. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I found a lot of statistical malpractice in high places.

Nor will it surprise you to learn that nothing much has changed. Not only do the usual suspects continue to deny the obvious, but they keep rolling out the same discredited arguments: Inequality isn’t really rising; O.K., it’s rising, but it doesn’t matter because we have so much social mobility; anyway, it’s a good thing, and anyone who suggests that it’s a problem is a Marxist.

What may surprise you is the year in which I published that article: 1992.

Which brings me to the latest intellectual scuffle, set off by an article by Chris Giles, the economics editor of The Financial Times, attacking the credibility of Thomas Piketty’s best-selling “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Mr. Giles claimed that Mr. Piketty’s work made “a series of errors that skew his findings,” and that there is in fact no clear evidence of rising concentration of wealth. And like just about everyone who has followed such controversies over the years, I thought, “Here we go again.”

Sure enough, the subsequent discussion has not gone well for Mr. Giles. The alleged errors were actually the kinds of data adjustments that are normal in any research that relies on a variety of sources. And the crucial assertion that there is no clear trend toward increased concentration of wealth rested on a known fallacy, an apples-to-oranges comparison that experts have long warned about — and that I identified in that 1992 article.

At the risk of giving too much information, here’s the issue. We have two sources of evidence on both income and wealth: surveys, in which people are asked about their finances, and tax data. Survey data, while useful for tracking the poor and the middle class, notoriously understate top incomes and wealth — loosely speaking, because it’s hard to interview enough billionaires. So studies of the 1 percent, the 0.1 percent, and so on rely mainly on tax data. The Financial Times critique, however, compared older estimates of wealth concentration based on tax data with more recent estimates based on surveys; this produced an automatic bias against finding an upward trend.

In short, this latest attempt to debunk the notion that we’ve become a vastly more unequal society has itself been debunked. And you should have expected that. There are so many independent indicators pointing to sharply rising inequality, from the soaring prices of high-end real estate to the booming markets for luxury goods, that any claim that inequality isn’t rising almost has to be based on faulty data analysis.

Yet inequality denial persists, for pretty much the same reasons that climate change denial persists: there are powerful groups with a strong interest in rejecting the facts, or at least creating a fog of doubt. Indeed, you can be sure that the claim “The Piketty numbers are all wrong” will be endlessly repeated even though that claim quickly collapsed under scrutiny.

By the way, I’m not accusing Mr. Giles of being a hired gun for the plutocracy, although there are some self-proclaimed experts who fit that description. And nobody’s work should be considered above criticism. But on politically charged issues, critics of the consensus need to be self-aware; they need to ask whether they’re really seeking intellectual honesty, or are effectively acting as concern trolls, professional debunkers of liberal pieties. (Strange to say, there are no trolls on the right debunking conservative pieties. Funny how that works.)

So here’s what you need to know: Yes, the concentration of both income and wealth in the hands of a few people has increased greatly over the past few decades. No, the people receiving that income and owning that wealth aren’t an ever-shifting group: People move fairly often from the bottom of the 1 percent to the top of the next percentile and vice versa, but both rags to riches and riches to rags stories are rare — inequality in average incomes over multiple years isn’t much less than inequality in a given year. No, taxes and benefits don’t greatly change the picture — in fact, since the 1970s big tax cuts at the top have caused after-tax inequality to rise faster than inequality before taxes.

This picture makes some people uncomfortable, because it plays into populist demands for higher taxes on the rich. But good ideas don’t need to be sold on false pretenses. If the argument against populism rests on bogus claims about inequality, you should consider the possibility that the populists are right.


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 1, 2014

June 2, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Populism | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Will Congress Be As Brave As Shinseki?”: Will The Honorable Politicians Please Stand Up?

If you want a prime example of what’s wrong with our politics, study the response to the veterans’ health-care scandal. You would think from the coverage that the only issue that mattered to politicians was whether Gen. Eric Shinseki should be fired.

Shinseki is a true patriot, and his resignation as Veterans Affairs secretary on Friday calls Congress’s bluff. He played his part in a Washington sacrificial ritual. Will the politicians now be honorable enough to account for their own mistakes?

Thanks to Shinseki’s latest selfless act for his country, you can at least hope that we will move on to the underlying questions here, to wit: Why was the shortage of primary care doctors in the VA system not highlighted much earlier? Why did it take a scandal to make us face up to the vast increase in the number of veterans who need medical attention? And why don’t we think enough about how abstract budget numbers connect to the missions we’re asking government agencies to carry out?

It’s an election year, so it’s not surprising that the Republicans are using the scandal against President Obama and the Democrats, though there is a certain shamelessness about the ads they’ve been running, given the failures of the previous administration.

Shinseki and Obama might have averted this by pushing Congress much harder, much earlier to give the agency the tools it needed to do right by vets. And as a general matter, I wish Obama spent more time than he has on fixing government and improving administration. Progressives rightly assert that active, competent government can make things better — which means they need to place a high priority on making it work better. This would include, as The Post editorialized, a serious engagement with civil service reform.

It’s also fair to ask why Shinseki did not move faster elsewhere, notably on what the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America called the department’s “egregious failure to process the claims of our veterans” in a timely and effective way. (For what it’s worth, I raised this concern in a column in November 2012.)

But this is where the story gets more complicated. Shinseki eventually made real progress on the claims issue and other inherited messes. He got little public credit, though many friends of veterans saw him as a reformer and refused to join the resignation chorus. Both House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi deserve praise for insisting to the end that Shinseki’s departure wouldn’t solve the system’s problems.

The most important of these is not that VA employees falsified data about the excessive waiting times for veterans seeking appointments with doctors, as outrageous as this was. It is, as the New York Times reported last week, “an acute shortage of doctors, particularly primary care ones, to handle a patient population swelled both by aging veterans from the Vietnam War and younger ones who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Dealing with this isn’t sexy, just essential.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee who wanted Shinseki to stay, is trying to push the discussion in the right direction. A Sanders bill to expand VA funding across a wide range of areas went down in a Republican filibuster in February. The new bill he hopes will come up for a vote this week focuses specifically on the health system.

It would authorize private care for veterans facing emergencies, which is similar to a House Republican idea. But Sanders would also broaden veterans’ access to other forms of government health care, fund 27 new VA facilities, and use scholarships or loan forgiveness to entice medical students to serve in the VA program.

Shinseki himself proposed other reforms in a speech he gave just before he quit, among them an end to incentives that have encouraged agency supervisors to produce fake information on waiting times.

If there is any cause that should be bipartisan, it’s care for our veterans. But too often, what passes for bipartisanship is the cheap and easy stuff. It tells you how political this process has been so far that so many of the Democrats who joined Republicans in asking for Shinseki to go are in tough election races this fall.

Now that Shinseki is gone, there are no excuses for avoiding the administrative challenges that Obama needs to confront and the policy errors for which Congress must also take responsibility.


By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, June 1, 2014

June 2, 2014 Posted by | Congress, Politics, Veterans Administration | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The $6 Trillion Dollar Mistake”: The Iraq War, An Immoral Waste

A new study says the Iraq War has cost the United States $2 trillion. By the time all the veterans’ bills are paid, it will likely cost us up to $6 trillion.

Let that sink in for a moment. Per National Priorities, here’s an estimate of how much money is allocated for various programs in President Obama’s 2015 federal fiscal year budget:

Education: ~ $70 billion
Health: ~ $58 billion
Unemployment and labor: ~ $58 billion
Energy and Environment: ~ $35 billion
International Affairs: ~ $35 billion
Science: ~ $35 billion
Transportation: ~ $23 billion
Food and Agriculture: ~$11 billion

Think about what we could have done with $6 trillion. With a “t”. As in, one thousand billions.

Almost eight years ago David Leonhardt wrote about what $1.2 trillion could have bought, which was the estimated cost of the Iraq War at the time:

For starters, $1.2 trillion would pay for an unprecedented public health campaign — a doubling of cancer research funding, treatment for every American whose diabetes or heart disease is now going unmanaged and a global immunization campaign to save millions of children’s lives.

Combined, the cost of running those programs for a decade wouldn’t use up even half our money pot. So we could then turn to poverty and education, starting with universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old child across the country. The city of New Orleans could also receive a huge increase in reconstruction funds.

Next time a politician or pundit tells you that we don’t have the money to pay for cancer research or climate change abatement or housing for the homeless or extended unemployment benefits, always remember that most of these Very Serious People gladly cheered on and still refuse to apologize for a $6 trillion pointless blunder.

And that doesn’t even get into the lives stupidly thrown into the fire on both sides, when that money could have been used saving lives instead. What an immoral waste.


By: David Atkins, Washington Monthly Political Animal, June 1, 2014

June 2, 2014 Posted by | Federal Budget, Iraq War | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ignoring The Bigger Picture”: Shinseki’s Resignation Doesn’t Change The VA’s Daunting Problems

The resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki was a foregone conclusion by the time it happened on Friday morning. After shocking problems at a VA hospital were revealed in an election year (in Arizona, no less, represented by Senator John McCain, one of the administration’s most powerful foils inside the Beltway) and the heavy suggestion that more mismanagement across the country will soon be made public, Democrats in what promise to be razor-thin House and Senate races had virtually no choice but to call for his resignation as a tide of desperate, angry veterans flooded cable news airwaves and local newspapers.

There was then no way Shinseki could have stayed on in the face of these calls from the very party to whom he owed his nomination; his resignation was the only way to simmer down the scandal that filled up most of the news hole over the past few weeks. (Note that the two most powerful people in Washington not calling on Shinseki to resign were John Boehner and Eric Cantor. They knew that every day he stayed was a good one for Republicans.)

It doesn’t mean his resignation was the right thing to do in practice—in fact, it very well may delay implementation of solutions and make the VA’s problems worse—but it was simply a fact of nature in the political ecosystem.

Now the VA will be set on a new course, and it’s crucial that attention is paid to the true scandal: the overwhelming medical and mental burden suffered by thousands of young men and women returning from largely elective wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our continuing inability to fully care for them.

Last year, the Institute of Medicine released a Congressionally-mandated 794-page study outlining the challenges facing these veterans. Though the findings didn’t result in the same media firestorm, they should have:

More than 16,000 troops were wounded in Afghanistan and 32,000 in Iraq.

In contrast with virtually every previous American conflict, “the all-volunteer military has experienced numerous deployments of individual service members; has seen increased deployments of women, parents of young children, and reserve and National Guard troops; and in some cases has been subject to longer deployments and shorter times at home between deployments.”

Scientific literature shows as many as 22.8 percent of these returning vets—nearly a quarter—suffer from mild traumatic brain injuries, while as many as 20 percent suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder. Up to 37 percent struggle with combat-related depression, and 39 percent for problematic alcohol use.

For many recent years, the unemployment rate for returning vets was nearly double that of the civilian population, which of course isn’t particularly low. (It has been coming down some recently).

As many as 45 percent of female troops experienced sexual trauma in the military, which is driving quite a bit of PTSD in those troops above and beyond what they would have experienced because of combat.

The unfolding VA scandal involves unacceptable cover-ups of coverage problems at VA hospitals, but that is not mutually exclusive with a system that is fundamentally unable to deal with the problems at hand. In fact, the latter may have fostered the former. We don’t fully know yet, and the upcoming investigations should shed light on these issues.

But over the coming weeks, the politicians that have been rushing to appear on camera along with the outlets eager to cover this story should focus on the bigger picture: the crisis facing returning veterans and the current inability of the federal government to help them. There are many reasons why this has happened. And at the heart of all this is yet another scandal, one that continues to echo through American politics over a decade after it began: the decision to commit, and keep, American troops involved in two messy ground wars with unclear goals and uncertain, at best, benefits.


By: George Zornick, The Nation, May 30, 2014

June 2, 2014 Posted by | Veterans, Veterans Administration | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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