Paul Waldman

Defense Spending Is the Most Expensive Way to Create Jobs

Th F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin).

When you're a defense contractor beginning a big new program, one of your key challenges once you've gotten the contract is to make sure the contract never goes away. One way to do that is to bring in the weapons system on time and under budget and win the thanks of a grateful nation. But since big weapons systems almost always come in late and over budget—and being over budget means more profits—the better way is to make sure a critical mass of congresspeople have a particular interest in keeping the taxpayer money flowing to your weapon.

The GOP, Guardians of Health Security

Mitch McConnell chats with some folks about health care 'n stuff.

This morning, Greg Sargent calls our attention to this new ad for Mitch McConnell, in which a man who got cancer from his job at a uranium enrichment plant in Paducah. The man testifies that it was McConnell, fierce advocate of worker safety and health security, who made sure that workers got cancer screening and compensation.

That'll never work, a liberal might say. McConnell is not only one of the nation's foremost opponents of any and all regulations to protect worker safety, but he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would take away the health coverage tens of thousands of Kentuckians just got. As you may know, Kentucky has been more aggressive in taking advantage of the ACA than probably any other conservative state. They set up their own exchange, and it has proven to be one of the best in the country; they also accepted the Medicaid expansion (these developments can be attributed mostly to the fact that the governor is a Democrat). According to this site tracking signups under the ACA, in Kentucky, nearly 40,000 people have signed up for private insurance via the exchange, and another 100,000 have enrolled in Medicaid. All of those people would be tossed off their coverage if McConnell got his way. So surely no one will believe this ad, right?

Breaking: All Politicians Are Ambitious

Flickr/Mark Skrobola

Imagine you were on a corporate board, interviewing candidates for the vacant CEO position, and you asked one, "Why do you want to run this company?" He replies, "It isn't so much that I want to run the company; I have no feelings about actually doing the job. You should hire me because I alone can save you from disaster. It's really almost an act of charity on my part." You'd probably think, "What an arrogant jerk. Next?"

Yet that's how just about everyone who runs for president is supposed to describe their desire for the job. They have to profess to having no personal ambition whatsoever, and say they hadn't really thought about the presidency until they realized that either 1) things in America had gotten so bad that they had to step in and save her; or 2) even though things are going OK now, the challenges the country faces in the future are so profound that they simply had to serve.

The Examined Life of the Digital Age

AP Images/Jose Luis Magana

You've seen it on CSI and other police procedurals a hundred times: the detectives take a surveillance photo and watch as their computer cycles through a zillion photos of perps and crooks until it blinks with a match, telling them who their suspect is. You may have known enough to realize that they can't actually do that—computerized face recognition isn't capable of taking a grainy, shadowed photo and identifying it positively as a particular person. Or at least they couldn't until recently. But the technology has been advancing rapidly, and now some law enforcement agencies are using powerful new software that can do just that, at least sometimes. It has a ways to go yet, but the question is when, not if, computers will be able to take the video that was shot of you as you walked down the sidewalk or browsed in a store and know exactly who you are.

Today's Robot Threat

Sure, he looks friendly now... (Photo from RoboEarth)

Today is the last day at the Prospect for our brilliant associate editor Jaime Fuller, who is cruelly abandoning me, much like Shane walked away from that little boy crying for him to come back. We've had a running joke for a while, wherein on many Fridays I write a post about robots, Jaime mutters, "Sheesh, another post about robots? Give it up Waldman, this is a magazine about politics, remember?" and I say "Yer damn right it's another post about robots! You'll thank me when they take over!" (This conversation actually takes place in my head; in fact, Jaime has been unfailingly tolerant of my odd Friday topic choices.)

Anyhow, I couldn't let the day end without some alarming robot news in Jaime's honor. It comes in the form of a threat from across the ocean: a robot gap! Are we going to let the Europeans move ahead of us? This is from the BBC:

The Surveillance State of Tomorrow

Flickr/Bryan Chan

By the time you read this, President Obama will probably have finished his speech outlining some changes to the NSA's global information vacuum. According to early reports, he'll propose creating an independent body to hold the phone metadata that the NSA gathers, and forcing the agency to get some kind of approval (presumably from the FISA court) before accessing it. Which is all fine and good. But the real question is whether we set up procedures and systems that constrain the NSA from doing not just what we already know about, but the things we haven't yet heard of, and even more importantly, the kinds of surveillance that will become possible in the future.

Just today, we learned from the Guardian that "The National Security Agency has collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks and credit card details, according to top-secret documents." I can't imagine that will be the last revelation from the documents obtained by Edward Snowden. Do you find that disturbing? If not, imagine what it's going to look like ten or twenty years from now.

The Scandalous Lack of Obama Administration Scandals

If you ask many Republicans, they'll tell you that Barack Obama himself and the administration he leads are deeply, profoundly, fundamentally corrupt. It isn't just that they have the wrong values or the wrong policy priorities, but rather that they are practically a band of criminals bent on destroying America and unconcerned about what violations of law and morality they commit as they cut a swath of misery and destruction across our nation.

For some on the right—the cynical politician, the carnival-barking radio host—these ideas are a tool to use in a partisan game. They understand that the picture is an absurd one, but they also know it's useful in keeping the rabble roused. But for many others, from ordinary voters to Republican lawmakers, it's something they sincerely believe. So five years into this presidency, where do we stand with the scandals that were supposed to lead to Barack Obama's downfall? The truth—no doubt a painful one for Republicans—is that there's almost no there there. Or more precisely, what we have are a number of disconnected screw-ups and errors in judgment, most of which are not even worthy of the name "scandal." Given the last few decades of history, and given the size and scope of the federal government, that's actually quite an achievement.

So let's take a look back and see what happened to all these affairs that never turned out to be the scandals conservatives hoped they would be.

Marijuana Legalization Will Be the Gay Marriage of the 2016 Presidential Election

A Democratic primary voter. (Flickr/Jonathan Piccolo)

In Politico, Reid Cherlin has an article about the "Pot Primary" in which he makes the rather odd assertion that while the next Democratic president is likely to put him/herself where President Obama is on the issue, "Less predictable is what would happen under a Republican—or how the issue might play out in a volatile Republican primary. No one expects marijuana to be the deciding issue, but then again, it might well be a helpful way for the contenders to highlight their differences."

Yeah, no. Apart from the possibility of some talk about not sentencing people to overly long prison terms for possession, there isn't going to be a debate amongst 2016 GOP candidates on this issue. The debate will all be on the Democratic side.

The Internet Service Providers' Triumph

Her joy will soon turn to despair. (Flickr/collegedegrees360)

Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down the Federal Communication Commission's "net neutrality" rules, probably opening the door for Internet service providers (ISPs) to start charging different customers different rates to send their web terrificness to your computer. I say "probably" because there's a good amount of uncertainty over what is going to happen now, which I'll get to in a moment. Chances are you're only marginally interested in the details, and it can get pretty arcane rather quickly, but I do want to point out the absurdity of the arguments the big ISPs like Verizon and Comcast make about net neutrality. This was a very big win for some of the most unpopular companies in America, but how soon they're going to try to destroy everything you love about the Web is hard to determine. There are some reasons to be worried, though.

Honor Lincoln and MLK by Getting Yourself an AR-15

This is what Martin Luther King's dream was really about, right? (Flickr/Mitch Barrie)

Let's say you're a local Republican party organization in a Democratic state, and you want to think creatively about how to get media attention. You could put up a "Kiss a Capitalist" booth at the county fair, or hire a local graffiti artist to spray-paint portraits of Ronald Reagan on the homes of poor people in order to inspire them to take a firm hold of those bootstraps and pull. Or, in honor of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, two liberals who got assassinated with guns, you could raffle off an AR-15. That's what the Multnomah county GOP is doing, and you have to give them credit: people are noticing! Here's part of their press release:

Multnomah County Republicans recognize the incredible time of year we are in. In successive months to start the year, we celebrate the legacy of two great Republicans who demonstrated leadership and courage that all of us still lean on today: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. In celebrating these two men, and the denial of the rights they fought so hard against, the Multnomah County Republican Party announces that we have started our third raffle for an AR-15 rifle (or handgun of the winner’s choice).

When "Not Exactly Corrupt" Isn't Good Enough

Just hangin' out on the beach, talkin' bout Jersey.

When I was a kid growing up in the Garden State, there were ads promoting New Jersey tourism on TV featuring the governor, Tom Kean. Everyone laughed about the way Kean would say, in his inexplicable accent, "New Juhsey and you: puhfect togethuh" (I've put the ad at the bottom of this post). The idea of people coming to vacation in New Jersey seemed kind of ridiculous even to those of us who were perfectly happy living there, but why it would be more persuasive coming from the inferno of charisma that was Tom Kean was even more puzzling.

It's hardly the only time a state has produced ads for itself that also look kind of like ads for the governor (for instance, here's a California tourism ad featuring then-governor Arnold Schwarzenneger). But now people are talking about a series of commercials meant to lure people back to the Jersey shore in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which included Chris Christie and his family. This issue was controversial in New Jersey during last year's gubernatorial campaign, but since it's kind of open season on Christie, it has now returned. Which illustrates an important principle of scandal: when it rains, it pours. Once you have a genuine scandal like Bridgegate, people start poking around to see if there's anything else juicy they can find, even if it's a story that has been out there for a whle. And partisans begin to take whacks at the wounded figure to see if they can take him down.

Roger Ailes and the Politics of Resentment

Bill O'Reilly yells at a liberal.

When New York magazine writer Gabriel Sherman set out to write a biography of Fox News chief Roger Ailes, he knew that Fox's PR machine would do everything it could to discredit him. Sherman's answer, it seems (the book hasn't yet been released) was to be as thorough as he could (he conducted over 600 interviews) and hire fact-checkers to pore over the manuscript. Nevertheless, what's now beginning is essentially a political battle over the book, with Sherman on one side and Fox on the other. I would imagine that media outlets that report on it will do so in pretty much the same way they do any other political conflict. I'll surely have more to say once I get my hands on it, but for now I want to address one thing about Ailes and Fox

This morning, Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple takes Sherman to task for a portion of an interview he did with CBS This Morning in which Sherman failed to provide particularly good support for his contention that Ailes "divides the country." In fairness, it came right at the end, and Sherman doubtless had plenty more to say. I'm not sure what Sherman's answer is, but I'll tell you my answer. Before that, here's the portion of the interview:

Choosing the Right Filter for Presidential Image Making

This man was not actually a cowboy. (White House photo)

On Friday, Larry Speakes died. If you're under 35 or so the name probably doesn't mean that much to you, but for many people, he'll always be the symbol of a particular transformation in American politics. Whenever I think of Speakes, who served as White House spokesperson during the Reagan years, I think of a particular quote, one of those timeless utterances that sums up something fundamental about politics or a particular era. It came about because his boss, Ronald Reagan, liked to tell stories to make arguments about policy, or just to entertain people. The problem was that many of these stories were made up, and many others seemed to have come from movies he saw.

One of the latter was a story Reagan told in a speech to a group of Congressional Medal of Honor winners, about an old soldier in World War II who was in a plane that was on its way to crash after being damaged by antiaircraft fire. Everyone began bailing out, but one terrified young soldier was caught in the gun turret. "He took the boy's hand," Reagan said of the older man, "And said, 'Never mind, son, we'll ride it out together.' Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumously awarded." Though the story has been retold in many fictional contexts, it never actually happened. When columnist Lars-Erik Nelson asked Speakes about it, the spokesman said, "If you tell the same story five times, it's true." It would be hard to come up with a better motto for the entire Reagan presidency, and for its legacy to American politics.

The "Internet of Things," Still a Long Way Off

Behold the future of home refrigeration. (Flickr/David Berkowitz)

As you've heard a zillion times if you pay attention to this sort of thing, the hot technology trend of 2014 is "wearables," i.e., technology that you wear. I'm more than a little skeptical, the main reason being that wearables seem to be around five years away from not completely sucking. OK, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but at this stage, they're not transformative yet, unless you hear about a watch that monitors your heartbeat or a pair of $400 ski goggles with a heads-up display and say, "Oh my god, life as we know it will never be the same."

But the next hot technology trend, and one that has been the next trend for a while, is the "Internet of things," in which all our previously dumb and superficially mundane devices will become "smart" and connected to the web. Ask yourself: how amazing would it be if your refrigerator scanned its contents, realized you were low on milk and eggs, and placed an order to a store which delivered them, without you ever needing to be involved?

Once again, I have to say that the answer is, not really all that amazing.

Economic Outlook Remains Depressing

Every month at this time when the jobs report comes out, we get reminders not to put too much stock in any one month's numbers. This is wise counsel, first because there's some inherent volatility in month-to-month movements—for instance, December numbers may have been affected by bad weather—and second because these figures often get revised later as more data come in. So the pretty bleak numbers from December don't, in and of themselves, tell us much about how the recovery is going.

But those numbers are indeed pretty bleak. Only 74,000 new jobs were created in December, compared to a monthly average of 182,000 for the year. The unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent, but that's because so many people dropped out of the labor force. The labor force participation rate is now 62.8 percent, its lowest rate since 1978. Some of that is a long-term decline due to an aging population, but most of it comes from people deciding there's no point in looking for work.

So let's look at the big picture.