Government

If Pot Becomes Legal

What will become of its secretive California hometown?

AP Photo
AP Photo/Ben Margot Humboldt Cannabis Center horticulturist Steve Tuck gestures beside both mature and baby marijuana plants he is growing for medical users of the drug. A t one point in Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier , Emily Brady’s account of her year in a remote Northern California county where pot is the cash crop that drives the local economy, one of the book’s subjects—a native of the area named Emma Worldpeace—talks to a new friend about the pictures of deceased classmates that hang on tackboard on Emma’s dorm room wall. “Did you know all these people who died?” she asked. “Yeah, I grew up with all of them,” Emma replied. “Oh my god, that seems so tragic.” The kicker was that Emma’s friend was the one who came from a “rough part of the Bay Area.” “Well sure, maybe every year someone from my school died,” her friend said. “But I went to high school with five or six thousand people.” In a large city, the fallout from youth violence represents an awful loss. In...

Ringside Seat: Another Day, Another SCOTUS Decision

The story of voting rights in recent years has been largely about conservatives and legislators in Republican states working hard to restrict them, and progressives trying to counter those moves with legal challenges and organizing drives. The most prominent fights have been over voter ID laws, which are supposed to address the "problem" of voter impersonation, something that occurs about as often as two-headed sharks . Unfortunately, the Supreme Court upheld voter ID laws in 2008. But today saw an unexpected defeat for those who would like to make voting as difficult as possible, when the Court struck down an Arizona law requiring voters to prove their citizenship. Just as millions of American citizens lack photo IDs, millions don't have the ability to provide proof of their citizenship. The Court held that federal law—in this case, the "motor voter" law requiring only that voters swear under penalty of perjury that they are citizens—trumped the Arizona law. So for now anyway, it won...

Nothing to Hide, Much to Fear

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
I n reviewing the public’s ambivalent reaction to the disclosures of NSA data mining , I find that some people conclude that it’s no big deal, while others are uneasy but can’t quite explain why. It’s just a modest generic invasion of privacy that is not even activated in most cases. Presumably, this is a weapon that the authorities need to keep us safe. After closed-door hearings yesterday, some skeptics on Capitol Hill were somewhat reassured that safeguards are adequate. If you are in this camp, here are three good reasons to reconsider. First, the history of such surveillance is that it tends to be abused. As heedless of civil liberties as Attorney General Eric Holder has been, he is surely better than whoever the next Republican Attorney General might be. Remember Alberto Gonzalez? Secondly, the authorities tend to define terrorism down. After the Patriot Act was passed, Attorney General Gonzalez kept assuring the Congress and the American public that its sweeping powers would...

Why Did the Government Pay Edward Snowden $122,000?

(Flickr/Michael_Chavarria)
Is the National Security Agency wasting tax dollars by paying Booz Allen to handle routine intelligence tasks, such as the systems administration work that 29-year old Edward Snowden was doing for $122,000 a year? It sure seems that way. A stack of studies has documented the apparent high cost of using private contractors compared to federal employees. In September 2011, the Project on Government Oversight—a Beltway watchdog group—released a reported entitled Bad Business: Billions of Taxpayer Dollars Wasted on Hiring Contractors . POGO analyzed compensation paid to federal and private sector workers and billing rates for contractor employees across 35 occupations covering more than 550 service areas.The study found: the government pays billions of dollars more annually to hire contractors than it would cost to hire federal employees to perform comparable services. Specifically, the federal government approves service contract billing rates—deemed fair and reasonable—that pay...

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...

The Verizon Data Order and Why It Matters

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G lenn Greenwald of The Guardian had a major scoop yesterday, revealing a court order requiring the communications giant Verizon to hand over information about all the calls in its system, domestic or international. As Greenwald explains, this means "the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing." This is a major story that reveals glaring flaws in the current rules governing surveillance and national security—p articularly since, as Atlantic Wire 's Elspeth Reeve points out , it's unlikely that Verizon is the only company being required to turn over records of the calls made by its customers, or that this is the only type of information being sought by the government To be clear, the potential legal and policy problems of this policy are not the same as those of the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping, which went ahead without the approval of the special...

Once Upon a Time, There Was a President ...

flickr/United States Government Work
AP Photo L ast week I wrote about why the myth of the magical hero-king — what others call the "Green Lantern" presidency—just won’t die. The reason? Because it seems the myth is in the interest of the presidents themselves! In some ways, however, this particular myth is only one of the many ideas of the presidency that were essential in the institution’s development. Many of the things that presidents do, after all, aren’t explicitly in the Constitution, and many of the things we associate with the presidency weren’t done for years and years after the Constitution was adopted. A president just set a precedent, and it stuck. For a minor example, there’s the president’s Saturday radio address, invented by Ronald Reagan and then copied by everyone since, although Barack Obama added a twist with YouTube versions. There’s more: Everything from cabinet meetings to press conferences to “pardoning” Thanksgiving turkeys is part of the slowly built-up White House job requirements. Congress, on...

Let's Talk about Tax Reform

Flickr/tolworthy
A few Republicans out there, struggling to put the IRS scandalette in a larger context, are now saying it shows we need tax reform. It doesn't really, unless their argument is that we've been letting shamelessly political 501(c)(4) organizations get away with a scam and we ought to clarify the law on what such organizations can do. But that's not what they're saying. What they're saying is that the IRS matter shows we need to change the tax code to reflect the same policies they've advocated forever. It wasn't as though this particular scandal arose because filing your personal income taxes is too complicated or because the corporate tax system is riddled with loopholes. It was something very specific, the law regarding how certain kinds of non profit organizations are allowed to operate. Frankly, there's no part of the tax code conservatives care less about. What they're interested in is changing personal and corporate taxes. Ted Cruz, for instance, says, "We ought to abolish the IRS...

Turkey's George W. Bush?

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reacting to his country's massive protests much like our 43rd  president did in the face of Iraq War dissent. 

AP Images/Gerald Herbert
AP Images/Gerald Herbert In February 2003, massive rallies were held worldwide— including one of some 200,000 people in Washington, DC—to protest the impending invasion of Iraq by a United States-led coalition. President George W. Bush’s response when asked whether the protests had influenced his thinking at all was to scoff at them, saying “It's like deciding, well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group.” It was standard Bush. The decider had decided. And he had his political mandate: Polls consistently showed that a majority of Americans supported the war . The views of the minority could therefore be dismissed. I was reminded of Bush’s dismissal of protesters’ opinions this weekend, when I read of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s remarks on the protests that have engulfed his country over the past several days. Dismissing the protesters as “a bunch of looters” without a coherent message, Erdogan declared, “We will build a mosque in Taksim and we do not...

A Shredded Safety Net

“I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.” —Mitt Romney, February 1, 2012 I n 1996, the year that Congress passed and Bill Clinton signed welfare reform, fulfilling his campaign pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” there were 14.5 million poor children in the United States; 8.5 million children were in families that received cash assistance from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), or welfare. Even then, nearly half of poor children were not in families that received welfare. Following welfare reform, the number of families receiving assistance declined dramatically. Buoyed by the strong economy and the expansion of other key work supports, including child-care subsidies, public health insurance under Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, the number of single mothers in the workforce increased and child poverty declined. However, starting in the early 2000s, progress stalled and poverty rates...

A German Tea Party?

What the popular rise of a new anti-euro political party says about fraying nerves in Europe's economic powerhouse. 

AP Images/Roland Welhrauch
AP Photo/Franka Bruns A new anti-euro political party, AfD (Alternative for Germany) is gaining ground in the polls, threatening Angela Merkel’s ruling center-right coalition just as the campaign season heats up ahead of general elections in the fall. While the political establishment in Berlin is only beginning to take this new brand of conservative populism seriously, the rise of the AfD is sure to entrench austerity politics at a time when the opposite is needed. Germany just got its own Tea Party. At the AfD’s first party convention this past April, there was little of the pageantry we’ve come to associate with the Tea Party: no Colonial-era uniforms, no powdered wigs, no effigies of chancellor Merkel burning in the hotel foyer, only a few guys in T-shirts depicting the European Union as a Stalinist dictatorship (“(E)USSR”) and one gentlemen with a nationalist tricolor sash of gold, red, and black. Most of the 1,300 delegates, a vast sea of wizened, grey-haired men, looked...

Shorting the D.C. Circuit

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Flickr/Cliff At least since the Reagan administration, Republicans have taken judicial nominations, especially to the federal circuit courts , much more seriously than Democrats have. As a result, Republican presidents have gotten relatively more nominees confirmed, and their nominees have been younger and more ideologically consistent than their Democratic counterparts. Yesterday, however, there was a sign that this could be changing. As the Prospect 's Paul Waldman noted , Michael Shear of The New York Times reported that President Obama would be simultaneously nominating individuals for all three current vacancies on the D.C. Circuit. This move is clearly intended to make Republican obstructionism a major issue of Obama's second term. And while it's not clear how this bold advance will play out, under any scenario something good will come out of it. As Waldman notes, for now the central Republican argument against the nominations is that Obama is trying to "pack the court." As...

Children of the Great Collapse

AP Photo/Bloomsburg Press Enterprise, Bill Hughes
AP Photo/Kin Cheung Here’s a piece of good news of which you might not be aware: The U.S. safety net performed a lot better than you thought during the recent downturn, which was the deepest since the Depression. Thanks to expansions to the Child Tax Credit, the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, and unemployment insurance—all beefed up by the $840 billion Recovery Act—the safety net almost wholly mitigated the rise in child poverty. Even middle-income households saw most of their income losses substantially offset by tax and transfer policies that sharply ramped up to help them. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of the Recovery Act’s outlays have now been spent, and pressure to reduce deficits leaves other spending on children and families under assault. While the safety net performed well during the worst phase of the downturn, other trends have been troubling. Families lost trillions of dollars in home equity, the largest source of wealth for working- and middle-...

King Obama the Magical

AP Photo/John Bazemore
Brendan Nyhan’s “Green Lantern” theory of presidential politics—the (incorrect) belief that when things don’t turn out how a president wants it was because he didn’t want it deeply enough—has been all over the Internet lately. And, no matter how false that image of the presidency might be, it’s probably not going away. The idea of the president as a Magical King serves everyone’s interests—beginning with man in the Oval Office himself. Political scientists who study the presidency have long contended that the presidency is a relatively weak office : the presidency is the single most influential position in the political system, but the president cannot get very much done just by giving orders. Not only does he have to bargain with Congress—which means 535 individual politicians, all with their own constituencies and interests and preferences, and many of whom have strong partisan reasons for opposing whatever he wants—but he can’t even, in many cases, control the executive branch...

Ringside Seat: War Is Over?

To be honest, before President Obama delivered his speech today on the "war on terror," we weren't too optimistic about what new ground it might break. But it turned out to be quite significant—perhaps not completely revolutionary, but meaningful nonetheless. Even as he made a lengthy argument in defense of the use of drones, Obama acknowledged not only that we have killed American citizens in drone strikes, but that the strikes have also killed civilians. He made, as he hasn't in some time, a strong case to shut down the prison in Guantanamo, and also announced a lifting of the moratorium on sending prisoners who have been declared to not be a threat to the U.S. (because they weren't terrorists in the first place) back to Yemen. According to The New York Times, "Of the 86 detainees approved for transfer when 'security conditions' are met, 56 of them are from Yemen. In theory, this move could lead to a significant reduction in the prison population." Obama also called for repealing...

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