Paul Waldman

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 : A world wide web for robots to learn from each other and share information is being shown off for the first time. Scientists behind...

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...

The Scandalous Lack of Obama Administration Scandals

I f 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...

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 reason is that as much as Republicans would like to appeal to a younger, more diverse electorate, in the general election the candidates will be working to win the hearts of activist Republican voters. That means an electorate that is older, whiter, more...

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. Briefly, the principle of net neutrality says that everyone providing content on the Internet should be treated the same,...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

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...

The Answers to Two Big Questions about the Christie Bridge Scandal

Flickr/DonkeyHotey
Since there are probably only so many posts you want to click on about Chris Christie's Bridgeghazi (or Bridgegate or Bridgeica Bridgewinsky or whatever you want to call it—the scandal is not yet big enough to get its own name, at least one that doesn't reference another scandal), this post actually concerns two separate issues. If you're only interested in the question of why this is getting so much media attention, go ahead and scroll down. But first… Yesterday, in writing about this issue, I suggested that it was entirely possible that Governor Christie knew nothing about the intentionally created traffic tie-ups, since whatever else you think of him, "he isn't an idiot, and only an idiot would think screwing over a small-town mayor in so public a fashion, just before an election you're going to win in a walk, would be a good idea." Since then, a number of colleagues and friends have suggested that this is pretty tenuous logic, and I have to admit that they have a point, so I...

The GOP's Poverty Problem

Poverty is all the rage among conservatives this week, and will be for, oh, another few days at least. My guess is that this is happening largely because Democrats have made clear that income inequality is the issue they'll be pressing from now until the November midterm elections, and Republicans are concerned that it might work. So they're going to head it off by showing voters that they care about people who are struggling, too. The question is, how do you do that when you're fighting against extending unemployment benefits, trying to cut food stamps, preventing poor people from getting health insurance through Medicaid, and arguing against increasing the minimum wage? The answer, it seems, it to make public statements in which the word "poverty" appears. Marco Rubio and Eric Cantor gave speeches on it, Paul Ryan will be doing interviews on it, and you'll probably be hearing more from Republicans on the topic. Mixed in will be some advocacy for policies they've pushed for a long...

A Scandal We Can Sink Our Teeth Into

The scene of the crime. (Flickr/Shinya Suzuki)
During the Lewinsky scandal, our nation's brave pundits spent a good amount of time fluttering their hands in front of their faces and expressing dismay that they had to spend so much time talking about something so lurid. The truth was that they loved it like a labrador loves liverwurst, but some scandals are just more fun than others. Does it concern a lot of dull policy arcana, or something a little more human? Is there room for lots of speculation about people's motivations? Are there interesting characters—your Gordon Liddys, your Linda Tripps—to liven up the proceedings? These are the things that make a scandal. We haven't yet met the people at the heart of the Chris Christie George Washington Bridge scandal, but since they're people in New Jersey politics, I'm guessing that if we ever get them in front of the cameras, a new media star or two would be born. And what I find glorious about this story is that the action in question had no practical purpose whatsoever. It didn't...

The Doomed Wars

White House photo by Pete Souza.
Washington loves few things more than a tell-all memoir. Even if a memoir doesn't tell very much, the media will do their best to characterize it as scandalous and shocking. So it is with the book by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates which will soon be appearing in airport bookstores everywhere. From the excerpts that have been released, it sounds like Gates has plenty of praise for President Obama, and some criticisms that are not particularly biting. Sure, there's plenty of bureaucratic sniping and the settling of a few scores, but his criticisms (the Obama White House is too controlling, politics sometimes intrudes on national security) sound familiar. Gates' thoughts on Afghanistan, however, do offer us an opportunity to reflect on where we've come in that long war. The quote from his book that has been repeated the most concerns a meeting in March 2011 in which Obama expressed his frustration with how things were going in Afghanistan. "As I sat there," Gates writes, "I...

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