Quantum Meruit

As much information as you deserve

Month: October, 2013

A Year of Surveillance Change-Up

Thanks to Edward Snowden, the NSA has consistently had to walk back statements that turned out later to be outright lies. It makes you wonder why anyone would trust anything the government says about surveillance.

First: there’s tons of oversight, so don’t worry. But it turns out that Congress isn’t even being told what’s going on. And the FISA Court is not equipped to scrutinize the NSA’s claims.

Second: the NSA isn’t conducting bulk surveillance on millions of Americans. Whoops, turns out they are. And when NSA Director James Clapper said it wasn’t, well, that was sort of … not true. But it was the “least untrue” thing to say.

Third: it’s just metadata, kids. We’re not actually getting the content of the communications. Oops, actually we are. Lots of it.

Fourth: don’t worry, this is all authorized by law. Except when it’s not. Oh, and also not when it’s done outside the law through brute-force hacking.

Canard Watch: ‘Neighborhood Housing’

If you watch broadcast television in the Bay Area, you’ve no doubt seen Lieutenant Governor (and former Mayor of the City and County of San Francisco) Gavin Newsom, along with current Mayor Ed Lee touting Proposition B. “C’mon, man, don’t you like green spaces? Don’t you like parks?” they urge.

I mean, what kind of Nazi fascist doesn’t like parks? But more importantly, what the heck is Proposition B?

The City and County of San Francisco has a height limit of 84 feet for waterfront property. A property developer, with the support of Newsom and Lee (who are nothing if not friends of property developers) wants to build a luxury condo high-rise at 8 Washington Street that would rise 136 feet. The issue is being put to voters to grant the building an exemption. Apparently some of the extant tenants on Washington Street don’t want their view obstructed by someone else, which is sort of the point of the height restrictions.

Newsom and Lee’s propaganda in favor of the project insist that they’re just building “neighborhood housing,” but as SF Weekly observed this week, when people think of “neighborhood housing,” $5 million luxury condos isn’t exactly what comes to mind. Even supporters of 8 Washington think the phrase is misleading:

No, you wouldn’t normally use “neighborhood housing” to describe a project like 8 Washington — flummoxing even the development’s ardent backers. “It would apply to something like lowering the height. Cheapening the construction. Fewer amenities,” says Housing Action Coalition Executive Director Tim Colen when asked to define “neighborhood housing.” When told this term was attached to 8 Washington — which he emphatically supports, and which does the opposite of these things — he gasps. “That’s a stretch! It is really high-end.”

In a city where affordable housing is quickly evaporating (and by “affordable,” I don’t even mean “poor people” affordable; I mean “middle class people with decent jobs” affordable), such a project is a big slap in the face. This shouldn’t be surprising; Newsom and Lee (and their silent partner, Willie Brown) are friends of landlords, developers, and big business.

But to specifically address Newsom and Lee, there’s already a park across the street from 8 Washington. And the neighborhood already has plenty of high-rises. And no, there won’t be a “neighborhood” any more than there is one now (which is to say, not much). The area is—and would remain, even with 8 Washington—mostly commercial with residential high-rises. We’re not talking brownstones and kids playing ball in the street.

Creativity as Consensus

In this excellent article called “Ted Talks Are Lying to You,” Thomas Frank describes the ways in which books that talk about how people can be creative as “superstition,” because there’s no formula for creativity. He ultimately concludes that ground-breaking ideas are only ground-breaking once everyone else agrees they are:

A final clue came from “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” (1996), in which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that, far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus. Using Vincent van Gogh as an example, the author declares that the artist’s “creativity came into being when a sufficient number of art experts felt that his paintings had something important to contribute to the domain of art.” Innovation, that is, exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does. And “without such a response,” the author continues, “van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.” What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise.

This makes sense. How many times do we say of authors, artists, and other “creative” types that they weren’t appreciated in their time? It seems like we say it a lot. And we probably say it a lot because creative people are not appreciated in their time because their creativity is too weird for the time in which they live. This happens with science all the time (cf. Galileo, Darwin), but because science is explicitly based on consensus and reproduceability, the process of going from crazy, out-there idea to accepted standard is transparent. Not so in art.

Or in industry. One need only look at the original iMac. USB? No floppy drive? Ethernet? “Give me a break!” Contemporary commentators thought Apple had gone to Crazytown. And yet those are all things we take for granted today. “Look how forward-thinking Steve was!” we say, many years later.

Do You Get It This Time?

In the second of (so far) two Republican attempts to hold the economy hostage to extract concessions, they have agreed to a deal that would extend the debt limit through February and fund the government through January.

The prior attempt at brinksmanship resulted in Standard & Poor’s downgrading America’s credit rating—not because (as Fox News has opined) America has too much debt (though that was one factor), but because the uncertainty that attended whether America would default on its obligations, which the result of using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip, spooked the international economy:

More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.

Since then, we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government’s debt dynamics any time soon.

In fact, just yesterday the credit rating agency Fitch warned that it might also downgrade America’s credit rating. Again, not because there is too much debt, but because America might not be able to pay on its debt due to the debt ceiling not being raised:

When John Boehener and other Republicans began this government shutdown sojourn in September, they likely assumed that the force of public opinion would be with them (due to the Republicans’ knack for messaging) and that the Obama administration would have to cave.

Boy, were they wrong. Despite Fox News’ attempt at parroting the GOP talking point that the government shutdown was somehow the Democrats’ fault, Americans didn’t buy it. They blamed Republicans:

By a 22-point margin (53-31 percent), the public blames the Republican Party more for the shutdown than President Barack Obama, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. That’s a wider margin of blame for the GOP than the party received during the last shutdown in 1995-96.

Poll numbers show that approval for Republicans in Congress is at an all-time low, with the Republicans falling to the lowest approval rating in Gallup poll history.

So the question is: do they get it this time? Do they understand that their hostage-taking tactic (which, despite protestations to the contrary, is properly characterized as taking a hostage) didn’t work?

‘Welcome to Night Vale’ Is the Best Podcast You’re Not Listening To

Night Vale is a sleepy desert town like many small American towns. It has a library, finicky parents at PTA meetings, a high school football team, a forbidden, unknowable dog park, black hooded figures, an apocryphal city council with supernatural powers, and the occasional roving unspeakable terror. They also really don’t like the nearby town of Desert Bluffs.

Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast styled as a local community radio program consisting of news, traffic, and weather (though the “weather” is a musical selection from a great band you’ve never heard of, which changes each episode). The show is equal parts weird and humorous. Many others have likened it to Twin Peaks, if the town of Twin Peaks had a community radio station.

A Brief Summary of Indefensible Twitter Reactions to Bob Costas

Tonight during halftime on Sunday Night Football, commentator Bob Costas delivered an essay on the propriety of the Washington Redskins name. TL; DR: He said it should be changed:

Still, the NFL franchise that represents the nation’s capital has maintained its name. But think for a moment about the term “Redskins,” and how it truly differs from all the others. Ask yourself what the equivalent would be, if directed toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, or members of any other ethnic group.

When considered that way, “Redskins” can’t possibly honor a heritage, or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term. It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent. It is fair to say that for a long time now, and certainly in 2013, no offense has been intended. But, if you take a step back, isn’t it clear to see how offense “might” legitimately be taken?

The backlash on Twitter has been resoundingly anti-Costas, from the standard “liberal idiot” comments that we know and love:

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To those who attempt to use data to bolster the contention that “Redskins” is not offensive:

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To the idea that there is an equivalence between using a slur for an historically oppressed ethnic group—where that slur was invented and used by their oppressors—as a team name and using any other monicker (offensive or not) for another group (historically oppressed or not) where that monicker was not invented and used by their oppressors (when there are oppressors):

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To those calling for Costas to be injured or killed because he publicly delivered an opinion people disagree with:

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But what’s most curious is that so many people have suddenly developed an affinity for animals such that they believe animals have the same level of dignity as human beings:

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Of course, it’s difficult for anti-Costas folks to address one of Costas’ arguments; namely, how would you feel if the nickname were a nickname that was resoundingly (instead of somewhat) socially unacceptable?

Canard Watch: ‘Exempting’ Congress from the Affordable Care Act

“Wait a minute,” I thought, listening to this Affordable Care Act talk on the radio this week, “What is the deal with this ‘exempting’ members of Congress from the law? Aren’t they already within the scope of the individual mandate?”

The Affordable Care Act requires Americans to have any health insurance, whether it’s from an employer, a spouse, or a parent. If a person doesn’t have health insurance, that’s what the new state exchanges are for: a place to go get health insurance. As federal employees, members of Congress and their staffers already have health insurance, so “exempting” them from the ACA requirements doesn’t make sense because there’s nothing to exempt them from.

It turns out that this “exemption” talk comes from a bad faith amendment to the Affordable Care Act, inserted by Republicans, that would have required members of Congress to obtain their health insurance from a state exchange. The amendment ended up being part of the law, but now that’s creating a problem:

Large employers — defined in the law as employers with more than 100 employees — aren’t allowed onto the insurance exchanges until 2017, and only then if a state makes an affirmative decision to let them in.

But the federal government is the largest employer in the country. So Grassley’s amendment means that the largest employer in the country is required to put some of its employees — the ones working for Congress — on the exchanges. But the exchanges don’t have any procedures for handling premium contributions for large employers.

That’s where the problem comes in. This was an offhand amendment that was supposed to be rejected. It’s not clear that the federal government has the authority to pay for congressional staffers on the exchanges, the way it pays for them now in the federal benefits program. That could lead to a lot of staffers quitting Congress because they can’t afford to shoulder 100 percent of their premiums. (There’s also a smaller issue related to how retiree benefits might be calculated. But I’m only willing to go so far into the weeds here.)

So, is Congress trying to “exempt” itself from the Affordable Care Act? No: Congress is trying to undo a bad faith amendment that will result in, at the least, confusion as to what health care members of Congress actually have, and at worst, make health insurance way more expensive than it has to be, all while failing to address the purpose of the law, which was to get everyone insured (which members of Congress already are, anyway).

The FactCheck.org article linked above notes that there is no special plan just for members of Congress; they have access to the same health insurance plans that all federal employees have. However, by virtue of their being members of Congress, they have—separate and apart from their health insurance plans—perks that other federal employees don’t (again, regardless of which insurance plan they choose):

In addition, members of Congress also qualify for some medical benefits that ordinary federal workers do not. They (but not their families) are eligible to receive limited medical services from the Office of the Attending Physician of the U.S. Capitol, after payment of an annual fee ($491 in 2007). But services don’t include surgery, dental care or eyeglasses, and any prescriptions must be filled at the member’s expense.

House and Senate members (but not their families) also are eligible to receive care at military hospitals. For outpatient care, there is no charge at the Washington, D.C., area hospitals (Walter Reed Army Medical Center and National Naval Medical Center). Inpatient care is billed at rates set by the Department of Defense.

So, no, Congress doesn’t have any special plan just for itself. And any perks that a member has come as a result of that person’s status as a member of Congress, not as a result of an insurance plan that person has chosen. No non-Congressman could have access to those perks under any insurance plan because only a member of Congress can have them.

The Problem with ‘Regular Order’

Why are House Republicans so reluctant to use the normal Congressional operating procedures to get what they want?

Answer: Because they wouldn’t get absolutely everything they want. For years, this has been what “compromise” means in Congress: Republicans get everything they want, while Democrats get a portion of what they want. When Democrats complain that Republicans are being intransigent because they (Republicans) refuse to give an inch while at the same time demanding that Democrats give a lot, it’s the Democrats who are refusing to come to the table and negotiate.

Get it?

Me either.

You Get Nothing. You Lose.

This really needs to be the response to House Republicans’ hostage-taking and disingenuous demand for a fictional “compromise”:

[H/T to The Daily Show.]