Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

Daily Meme: Spy Games

Cold War nostalgia is hot these days. Everyone who's anyone is watching The Americans , FX's taut drama about Soviet sleeper cell spies living in the the suburbs of Washington, D.C., during the 1980s, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their kids by day and carrying out hits by night. Vladimir Putin got geopolitcally retro with his annexation of Crimea recently. And today we learn that there is some good old-fashioned spy bargaining afoot! The New York Times reports that in a bid to ensure that the Israeli-Palestinean peace talks stay alive through 2015, the U.S. and Israel are negotiating the release of Jonathan Pollard, a former American Naval intelligence analyst who was convicted of giving secrets to the Israeli government. Which got us thinking about our favorite spy stories through the years ... Since we've been watcing the aforementioned The Americans , we'll kick off with the Russian agents. There's of course The Rosenbergs—Ethel and Julius —who were executed for...

The CIA and the Moral Sunk Costs of the Torture Program

This morning, The Washington Post has a blockbuster story about that 6,300-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's torture program. The part that will likely get the most attention is the conclusion that torture produced little if any useful intelligence, which is extremely important. But even more damning is the picture the committee paints of a CIA that all along was trying to convince everyone that what they were doing was effective, even as it failed to produce results. I have a post on this over at the Post this morning, but I want to elaborate on this aspect of the story. This is a tale of moral sunk costs, and how people react when they've sold their souls and realize that they won't even get paid what they bargained for. In case you're unfamiliar with the economic idea of sunk costs ( here's a nice summary ), it's basically the idea of throwing good money after bad: once you've gone down a particular path, what you've already invested (money, time, effort) acts...

Soldiering on an Empty Stomach

AP Images/Keith Srakocic
S ince the start of the Recession, the dollar amount of food stamps used at military commissaries, special stores that can be used by active-duty, retired, and some veterans of the armed forces has quadrupled, hitting $103 million last year. Food banks around the country have also reported a rise in the number of military families they serve, numbers that swelled during the Recession and haven’t, or have barely, abated. About 2,000 food-stamp recipients listed their occupations as active-duty military in 2012, according to the most recent data from the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food-stamp program. It’s a tiny fraction of the 47 million Americans who receive food stamps on an average month. The military also has its own program designed to provide families with additional money for food so that they don’t qualify for food stamps. Uptake is low—only 427 families used it. Those who work on anti-hunger issues worry that there are more complicated reasons...

Daily Meme: Obamacare's Computer Problems

By today's Obamacare deadline, 7 million Americans will have signed up for health-care insurance through one of the Obama administration's online exchanges—despite continuing technical difficulties that have plagued HealthCare.gov since its launch. Shortly after midnight last night, site operators discovered a bug in the system that required them to take the site offline. Things were up and running by 9 a.m. but around noon , the tens of thousands of people rushing to sign up got a free ticket back to the days of dial-up . Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Joanne Peters said that 1.2 million people visited the site during the rush —three times as many as on its previous busiest day. (For a dose of "it could be worse" reassurance, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius could give a call to Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, whose state is scrapping its exchange and starting anew . ) Those stats, Republicans say, are as real as global warming . In...

Jeb Fever Sweeps GOP; Symptoms Likely to Be Mild, Temporary

Flickr/World Affairs Council of Philadelphia
In the first of what will surely be a long string of genuflections, abnegations, and abasements, potential Republican presidential candidates journeyed to the sands of Las Vegas last weekend to speak to the Republican Jewish Coalition, though everyone there seemed to agree that there was really an audience of one: Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire who flushed nearly $100 million of his money down the drain in the 2012 presidential campaign. Among those arriving on bended knee was one politician who has been out of office for seven years, and was never knows as a darling of the Republican base. But as Philip Rucker and Robert Costa reported in The Washington Post , large portions of the GOP establishment look toward 2016 and feel a stirring deep within their hearts, a hope and a dream that goes by the name of … Jeb. That's right, Jeb Bush, who you may recall is the brother of one George W. Bush, whose time in office did not go particularly well. Rationally speaking, there's no...

A Nasty Piece of Cornbread: Chait, Coates, and White Progressivism

This post originally appeared on the personal website of Tressie McMillan Cottom. I once set out to write a book of southern aphorisms. It was going to be a serious treatment of (mostly) black (uniquely) southern “mother wit” as philosophy. Then, grad school and so on and so on. If I were to undertake a project today I would start with a favorite handed down to me from my Aunt Jean who is fond of saying that someone is a “nasty piece of cornbread.” Cornbread, if made properly, is delicious. Even when it is made poorly it is hard to argue with the beautiful form and function of ground meal, fat, dairy and heat alchemy that sustains, fuels, and serves up sustenance as well as culture and community. Cornbread is, in hip-hop parlance, that good-good. So, when someone is being a nasty piece of cornbread they are combining the ingredients and process of a remarkable foodstuff in ways that poisons its inherent goodness. They are being nice-nasty. They are serving you cornbread that turns to...

Sunday Show Becomes 10 Percent Less Awful

Look! People who know what they're talking about!
A week and a half ago, I wrote a post over at the Plum Line with a couple of suggestions for how the Sunday shows could become less terrible. Some commenters pointed out that the real audience for these programs isn't actual people, but those within the Washington bubble for whom status and influence are everything. So my suggestion that the shows should never again interview a White House communication director or a "party strategist" of any kind—in other words, people who are there solely for the purpose of spinning—was unlikely to get much of a hearing. And my suggestion to drastically scale back on interviews with elected officials, who are also exceedingly unlikely to say anything interesting, would likewise fall on deaf ears. Which is perfectly true, and it hasn't stopped me from complaining about this topic before. But lo and behold, on yesterday's Meet the Press, something remarkable happened: They booked Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic and Avik Roy of Forbes to talk about...

Why "Noah" Shouldn’t Get a Happy Ending

O ver the past month, faced with a torrent of criticism from Christians in the U.S. and Muslims abroad who say his interpretation of the Bible as blasphemous, the director Darren Aronofsky has taken to calling his new movie, Noah , a midrash, after the stories that ancient Jewish sages told to bulk up sparse passages in the Hebrew Bible. It’s an apt descriptor for a film that turns a few hundred lines of scripture where the protagonist never speaks into a 140-minute meditation on the folly of humankind. In keeping with the Jewish tradition of layering commentary upon commentary, Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, scoured Jewish apocryphal texts and rabbinic midrashim for detail about Noah’s world. Often, these interpretations give snippets of backstory, making the Biblical patriarchs less mysterious and more human. One famous midrash explains why Moses—who tells God he is “slow of speech and of tongue”—was such a clumsy talker. (The answer: As part of an elaborate test from...

Federal Court Upholds Texas's War On Roe v. Wade

AP Images/RON T. ENNIS/Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Last year, as much of the nation is aware thanks to Wendy Davis , Texas passed a particularly draconian abortion law. Predictably, the law has already caused abortion clinics to close, and by the end of the year there are expected to be only 6 clinics remaining to serve the nation's second-largest state. Despite the huge burdens that the statute will undeniably place on the women of Texas and despite the fact that the laws aren't designed to accomplish anything but to make abortion less accessible, a 3-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the law . And, depressingly, the court's decision could well survive review by a Supreme Court that is almost as hostile to the reproductive rights of women. Under the Supreme Court's 1992 decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey , which at least formally upheld Roe v. Wade , pre-viability regulations of abortion are constitutional if they do not impose an "undue burden" on a woman's right to choose. One might think it obvious that...

More Than Corruption Threatens the Integrity of Our Democracy

AP Images/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
W hat does it mean to corrupt an elected official? A coal executive walks into a member of Congress’s office with a $100,000 check in hand and says, “I will hand you this check if, and only if, you vote against any fracking permits on federal land—it’s bad for the local water supply, and besides I don’t need the competition.” The Representative accepts the check and then votes “nay” when the time comes. Is that corrupt? Most people would say yes—it’s a paradigm case. After all, there is a quid pro quo exchange—you do this, I give you that. Does it make a difference if that check goes into the Congressman’s personal pocket, his campaign account, or to an allied Super PAC? Probably not to most people. The Congressman wants to be re-elected, probably more than he wants a Porsche, so either of the latter scenarios certainly provides a thing of value. Now what if an environmental group walks into the same Congressman’s office and says “We’re here to talk to you about the upcoming vote on...

Some Notes on the Outrage Industrial Complex

The lead story today on Talking Points Memo.
In past years, I would marvel at the right wing's ability to take an obscure liberal from somewhere who had said something stupid and propel him to national prominence, through the use of Fox and talk radio. My favorite example was Ward Churchill, a professor in Colorado who became a celebrity after he made some comments of the "we had it coming" variety after September 11. During one stretch, there was some discussion of Churchill on every episode of The O'Reilly Factor save one for an entire month. The point behind Churchill and a hundred other such stories the right promoted wasn't just that their audiences should be angry at this one guy, but that liberals in general hate America and want to destroy it; the individual story is a stand-in for the larger group at whom they're trying to generate contempt. But more recently, liberals have gotten, dare I say, just as good at this as conservatives were, maybe better. And I think it deserves a moment of discussion. A week and a half ago...

Daily Meme: The Fog of Donald Rumsfeld

You may recall an infamous news conference in February 2002 — a year before the invasion of Iraq—when reporters packed the Pentagon Briefing Room, hoping to wring some answers about Saddam Hussein's shadowy weapons of mass destruction program from senior defense officials. Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, decided that the reporters did not deserve the benefit of the English language. "As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know," Rumsfeld said. "We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know." The remark was, at the time, widely mocked . But in time, it became so synonymous with Rumsfeld's tenure that he eventually used it to title his memoir . Now, Rumsfeld, years out of office, is the subject of a new documentary by Errol Morris , the filmmaker who captured another infamous defense secretary, Robert McNamara, expounding upon...

Is the "Mend It" Period of the Affordable Care Act's Evolution Beginning?

All of a sudden, people in Washington seem to want to fix the Affordable Care Act. And regardless of their motivations, that should be—well, maybe "celebrated" is too strong a word, but we can see it as a necessary and positive development. Is it possible that the arguments about whether the ACA was a good idea or should have been passed in the first place are actually going to fade away, and we can get down to the businesses of strengthening the parts of it that are working and fixing the parts that aren't? It might be so. Sure, cretinous congressional candidates will continue to display their seriousness by pumping paper copies of the law with bullets , probably for years to come. But with this year's open enrollment period coming to an end in a few days, a particular reality is starting to set in, namely that, however you feel about the law, millions of Americans have now gotten health insurance because of it. Repealing it would mean taking that insurance away. So let's look at...

George Takei, Living Long and Prospering from Social Media

AP Images/Wong Maye-E
O n March 20, in between jokes—“You can’t spell ‘diet’ without ‘die,’” and sharing a picture of a man dressed as a giant iron (Iron Man, get it?)—George Takei put up a serious post on his Facebook feed. Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, known for its vitriolic picketing at the funerals of soldiers and gay people, had just died. “He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many,” Takei wrote to his nearly 6.5 million followers. “Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.” To newcomers, the abrupt change of tone might sound odd. But Takei's followers weren’t likely surprised; in the midst of humor, they know, he often delivers wise and solemn messages to fans. For decades, Takei, who turns 77 in April, was most famous for his role as Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek series (catchphrase: “Oh my!”). But since he started his Facebook page in 2011, the actor has been a social-media whiz. He’s got more than a million Twitter...

Daily Meme: Points of Clarification

The modern world is so confusing. Fortunately, there are lots of people out there trying to clarify things for you, so in today's meme, we're seeking and finding clarity on what bedevils us. Are you a Supreme Court justice who doesn't quite understand how different birth control methods work, what with all those confusing ladyparts going on? Salon has a handy guide to help clear up your confusion. Benjy Sarlin has a great story on Georgia Senate candidate Paul Broun, who is a member of the House because he was personally called upon by God to run for Congress. So if you're wondering whom the Big Guy is supporting in that race, it's been clarified for you. Chris Christie has been totally vindicated by a report from a law firm examining the "Bridgegate" affair. We should clarify that the firm was hired by Christie. Nate Silver and Paul Krugman are apparently in an escalating battle over just how much data can clarify the great questions of the day. If Jeff Gillooly hits Krugman in the...

Pages