Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

Dear 2016 Democratic Upstart

AP Images/Charles Dharapak
To: 2016 White House Candidates (Democrats Only) Subject: How to Break with President Obama S ince you have time to read an unsolicited memo with such a provocative subject line, it is safe to assume that your name is not Hillary or Joe. That’s good because I am not writing for the establishment types—Clinton and Biden—who are convinced that the nomination is rightfully theirs if only they choose to run. Instead, this advice is aimed at the long shots, the crazed gamblers, and the hell-with-the-odds dreamers. You are the ones who fantasize about becoming the Gene McCarthy, the Gary Hart, the Howard Dean, and the Barack Obama of 2016. Let me start with the year 1960. Do you know its significance beyond the Kennedy-Nixon debates? It was the last time that any presidential candidate (incumbent presidents aside) was handed the nomination rather than having to fight for it. And even in 1960 Richard Nixon had to bow and scrape before Nelson Rockefeller to head off a primary challenge. What...

Ringside Seat: Obama's Plan B on Plan B

Although one can argue that the American culture war dates all the way back to the days before we were even our own country, these days we can trace most of our hot-button issues to the 1960s, when the hippies and the squares faced off. Eventually, most of the particular issues about which people argued were resolved, and in the liberals' favor. The occasional dissenter not withstanding, there's a broad agreement that the South was wrong about civil rights, the Vietnam War was a bad idea, and women deserve the same rights as men. But the cultural resentments still burn, and they can still be expressed in our policies, not only by Republicans but by Democrats afraid of Republicans. Consider, for instance, the Obama administration's position on whether Plan B, the "morning after" contraceptive pill, should be sold over the counter to any woman or girl who needs it. Today, the administration announced that after suffering multiple defeats in the courts, it is finally dropping its effort...

President Obama. Stop Talking. You're Not Helping.

pamhule/Flickr
You can attribute some of the success of the current immigration bill to President Obama’s absence from the debate. A large number of Republicans are simply unable or unwilling to support a proposal that has Obama’s name attached. By stepping away from the process and leaving it to Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the Senate, Obama set the stage for cooperation and allowed a chance for success—a permission structure, as it were. Yes, there have been hiccups and obstacles—in particular, Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s occasional threats to abandon the bill—but the general view is that, for the first time since 2007, comprehensive immigration reform has a real chance at passing. Which is why it was a bad move for President Obama to reinsert himself into the process with a speech this morning. There was nothing interesting or remarkable about the president’s address—it was one in a long list of immigration speeches that focused on a particular category of immigrants (the DREAMers, in...

Follow the Leaker

I don't know about you, but I don't feel like I'll truly understand the citizen's relationship to government in an age of sweeping electronic surveillance until I read Edward Snowden's girlfriend's blog. And this morning, Fox & Friends answered the question everyone in America was surely asking: Does Lou Ferrigno think Snowden is a traitor? (For the record, Ferrigno's response was nuanced, but leaned toward "yes.") But let's say you're glad you found out what The Hulk thinks, but you're still asking yourself, "Has Rob Schneider weighed in on this yet?" Politico has you covered . We all know that the news runs on personalities; a "story" without protagonists and antagonists isn't a story at all, it's just an "issue," and that's dullsville. But I'm sure the White House couldn't be happier that the NSA story is quickly becoming dominated by a discussion of Edward Snowden himself, which naturally crowds out discussion of the substance of his leak and whether we want to make...

Why the Public Doesn't Care about Surveillance

Pew Research Center
If there’s a major political problem faced by civil libertarians—on both sides of the aisle—it’s that there isn’t a large constituency for civil libertarian ideas. It’s not hard to see why. We have concrete examples of what happens when the federal government doesn’t make anti-terrorism a priority. The United States isn’t a stranger to civil liberties violations, but overwhelmingly, they’ve targeted the more marginal members of our society: Political dissidents, and racial and religious minorities. For the large majority of Americans, the surveillance state is an abstraction, and insofar that it would lead to abuses, they don’t perceive themselves as a target. And, in general, it’s hard to get people motivated when there isn’t a threat. Which is why it’s not a surprise to find that most Americans support the National Security Agency’s program of mass data collection. According to the latest survey from the Pew Research Center, a majority (56 percent to 41 percent) say it’s acceptable...

Our Bodies, Their Cells?

AP Images/Axel Heimkin
AP Images/Axel Heimkin Editor's note: On June 13, 2013, the Supreme Court, delivered its long-anticipated ruling in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. In a victory for the American Civil Liberties Union, the Court ruled that genes cannot be patented. The ruling invalidated Myriad’s key ownership claims over BRCA1 and BRCA2, two of the most important (and often deadly) players in hereditary breast cancer, and effectively overturned 30 years of patent practice. “A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in the unanimous decision. “It is undisputed that Myriad did not create or alter any of the genetic information encoded in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes." L ately I have been thinking a lot about breasts. Well, not exactly breasts, but about two of the handful of genes that influence whether breasts develop cancer. These genes are called BRCA1 and BRCA2, and among...

George Packer's U.S.A.

AP Images/David Samson
In the quest to understand what has happened to the U.S. economy since the 2008 meltdown and the recession that followed, the challenge has been figuring out how far back to pull the lens. Early books on the crisis zoomed in on airless rooms occupied by panicked CEOs and government officials during the pathetic last few months of the Bush administration and the beginning of this one. More expansively reported accounts looked at lower-level traders and fly-by-night firms, expanding the scope to recognize a decade of mortgage fraud and exploitation of would-be homeowners and investors, along with the Washington corruption that allowed the profiteers to thrive unpunished. As time passed, it became clearer that this was not a story that began in 2008 or just a story of the Bush years. It was the inevitable last act of the period since the late 1970s, when the nation became dramatically wealthier but median wages stagnated, economic insecurity worsened, and debt became a means to paper...

When the Bushies Return

Remember this guy? (Department of Defense/Denny Cantrell
Last week I noted that most people are being pretty consistent in how they're reacting to the revelations about NSA spying on your phone records, your Internet surfing, your toenail hygiene practices, and whatever else we're going to learn they've been up to (Glenn Greenwald is promising more revelations). There are some liberals defending it and some conservatives criticizing it, but most people seem to be holding to roughly the same positions they held when George W. Bush initiated these kinds of practices. Having said that, it's far from black and white. There's a very strong temptation when a controversy like this arises to just step in with your party's official position, but in this case neither party has an official position. Most liberals look to be at odds with a Democratic president, and there is some disagreement on the right between the neo-cons and libertarians despite their mutual dislike of Barack Obama, as Michael Tomasky discusses . Nevertheless, if this were a...

Justice after the Fact

WIkiMedia Commons
Although the Supreme Court is expected to wrap up its term at the end of the month, on Monday the Court declined to hand down any of the blockbuster civil-rights rulings still pending. It did, however, rule in Peugh v. United States , an important opinion that protected a vital democratic value: the prohibition against retroactive punishments. The key question in Peugh involves the application of Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which mandates that "No ... ex post facto Law shall be passed." This prohibition reflects longstanding common-law principles central to the rule of law. For a punishment to be lawful rather than arbitrary, it must be clear that the action for which one is being punished was illegal at the time of the offense. Permitting retroactive punishments would give the state the unlimited right to take the life, liberty, and/or property of any person state actors don't like. The ban on retroactively criminalizing criminal activity applies to sentencing as well...

Ringside Seat: USA Patriot Capitalists

If you read the 2012 annual report from Booz Allen Hamilton, the company that used to employ Edward Snowden, now the world's most famous leaker, you'll see that good news abounds. The company made $240 million in profits on a healthy $5.86 billion in revenue last year. Though "[t]he United States federal government is in a period of significant uncertainty, characterized by funding challenges and budget cuts," rest assured, investors, because "demand remains high for Booz Allen's capabilities and expertise across our diverse portfolio of clients." Granted, "diverse" may be a bit of an overstatement, since a reported 98 percent of the company's revenue comes from federal-government contracts. Booz Allen is just part of a huge and enormously profitable industry that has grown up in the last decade or so, a period that saw the passage of the USA Patriot Act, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the expansion of the National Security Agency's powers, and a move to...

The School-to-Prison Pipeline Works!

Google
Criminal justice reform activists have long argued that the “school-to-prison” pipeline—the process that places children in the criminal-justice system for misbehavior in school—has a destructive effect on future outcomes. A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research gives a sense of just how destructive. According to economists Anna Aizer and Joseph Doyle Jr., juvenile incarceration—one result of getting caught in the pipeline—drastically reduces the probability of completing high school, and substantially increases the odds of adult incarceration. From the paper: We find that juvenile incarceration reduces the probability of high school completion and increases the probability of incarceration later in life. While some of this relationship reflects omitted variables, even when we control for potential omitted variables using IV techniques, the relationships remain strong. In OLS regressions with minimal controls, those incarcerated as a juvenile are 39...

What's Next for Immigration Reform?

pamhule/Flickr
Jens Schott Knudsen / Flickr For the first time since 2007—and arguably, for the first time in decades—a comprehensive immigration-reform bill stands a good chance of passing the Senate. Built over the last seven months by a bipartisan group of senators (the “Gang of Eight”), the 867-page proposal comes to the floor of the Senate this week, where lawmakers will debate its provisions, and Republicans will have to decide if passing reform is more important than avoiding the political consequences of working with President Obama (and thus becoming a target for conservative activists). In the Senate, we’re almost there. On Saturday , New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte—a conservative favorite—announced her support for the bill, praising its pathway to citizenship as “tough but fair,” saying that immigrants would “go to the back of the line, pay taxes, pass a criminal background check, learn English.” “Our immigration system is completely broken,” she said on CBS’s Face the Nation , “This...

I Would Desire That You Pay the Ladies

AP Images/Susan Walsh
AP Images/Susan Walsh Fifty years ago today, in 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act. The idea was simple: Men and women doing the same work should earn the same pay. Straightforward enough, right? Change the law, change the world, be home by lunchtime. Well, maybe not by lunchtime . After all, back then the law still accepted the idea that men and women were born for different jobs. Newspapers like The Washington Post still had separate classified ad sections for “men’s” jobs and “women’s” jobs. Female law school graduates had trouble even getting interviews. The pre-1963 world being what it was–sexist, in a word—you’d figure activists might well have estimated that the culture would need at least a decade to catch up and treat women fairly on the job. “When I first came to the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, which is now the National Partnership for Women & Families (NPWF), in 1974, it was very fashionable to walk around with those big buttons that had “59¢” with the...

Ringside Seat: In the Name of Terror

Imagine that the government said the following: There is a terrible threat to Americans' lives that we need to address, and though in the past we've tried, we haven't done enough. This scourge has killed nearly 400,000 Americans over the last decade, and the government wouldn't be doing its job in keeping us safe if it didn't take some extraordinary measures to deal with it. This threat is known as the automobile, and to confront it, we're instituting a new system to keep it from killing so many of us. What we need is information, to understand who has accidents and under what circumstances they occur. To that end, we'd be told, the Department of Transportation will over the next few months be installing a small, unobtrusive tracking device on every American's car. This device will enable the government to see where you've driven, at what times, and at what speeds. With this information, we hope to stop accidents before they happen. And to those who might be uncomfortable with the...

How All Three Branches Conspired to Threaten Your Privacy

WikiMedia Commons
The recent revelations about the court order issued to Verizon asking them to hand over data about the calls made by millions of customers were chilling not so much for the specific information the government was asking for, but for what the order likely portended. Given its massive scope, the potential for spying into electronic communications made much more disturbing revelations inevitable. It didn't take long for the other shoe to drop. In a blockbuster story , Barton Gellman and Laura Poitras of The Washington Post have revealed the existence of a more comprehensive spying program with the code name PRISM involving the National Security Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as at least nine telecommunications giants. It's a classic case of how checks and balances have not worked in the way the framers envisioned. Far from checking executive overreach, Congress has authorized dangerous expansions of power while various levels of the judiciary break out their rubber...

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