Archive for the ‘US government’ Category


Curiouser and curiouser

October 7, 2016

Here’s interesting news from CNN about hacked voting systems, publishing hacked DNC documents, and the coming election.

US accuses Russia of trying to interfere with 2016 election
US officially blames Russia for political hacks

Washington (CNN)The Obama administration said Friday it was “confident” that Russia was behind recent hackings of emails about upcoming US elections in an attempt to interfere with the process.

The announcement marks the first time the US administration has officially accused Russia of hacking into US political systems. Earlier in the week, the two countries broke off formal talks about a ceasefire in Syria.

“We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities,” the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a joint statement.

“The recent disclosures of alleged hacked emails on sites like and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts,” the statement added. “These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process. Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there.”

The announcement was referring to the breach of Democratic National Committee emails and the sites of other Democratic Party-linked organizations disclosed over the summer. […]

I’m not sure what to make of this report. Taking it at face value leaves me wondering what the Russian intent is. Do they want to discredit the Democrats (and thus Clinton) by releasing hacked documents and so sway voters to elect Trump? Would Putin prefer Trump as his counterpart? That seems the obvious conclusion – if the Russian Federation really is behind the hacking.

Or maybe the situation’s like a spy novel and there are wheels within wheels here. Is the Obama administration making this announcement with the hope that people will reach the conclusion above? Does the White House want to make sure people think that Russia favors Trump and so sway voters to Clinton? President Obama has endorsed Clinton after all.

That seems a bit of a stretch, since it’s sure to cause another kerfuffle with the Russians – at a time when relations are already a bit sour over Syria.

It all leaves me wondering who’s playing whom here. And I suppose that’s a third point: that I’m not confident I can trust this administration to play "straight baseball".

After all, it wouldn’t be the first time the President’s administration gamed the American public.

Update: Wow, this was quick. The WSJ reports this evening (~10 PM EST):

WikiLeaks Stirs Up Trouble for Hillary Clinton
Email correspondence is said to show excerpts of paid speeches before her presidential bid

The organization WikiLeaks on Friday released what it claimed to be Clinton campaign email correspondence revealing excerpts from paid speeches that Hillary Clinton gave in recent years, before her presidential bid.

A Clinton campaign spokesman declined to verify whether the documents are authentic.

The emails appear to show Mrs. Clinton taking a tone in private that is more favorable to free trade and to banks than she has often taken on the campaign trail. The emails also suggest she was aware of security concerns regarding electronic devices, which could feed into criticism that Mrs. Clinton was careless with national secrets when she was secretary of state.

The release marks the latest time WikiLeaks has inserted itself into this year’s presidential campaign, and it came the same day the U.S. intelligence community accused the Russian government of trying to interfere in the U.S. elections by purposefully leaking emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and other entities. The intelligence agencies alleged the hacks were directed by the most senior officials in the Russian government, with WikiLeaks one of the entities whose methods are consistent with those of a Russia-directed effort.

“Earlier today the U.S. government removed any reasonable doubt that the Kremlin has weaponized WikiLeaks to meddle in our election and benefit Donald Trump’s candidacy,” said Clinton spokesman Glen Caplin in a statement. “We are not going to confirm the authenticity of stolen documents released by [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange who has made no secret of his desire to damage Hillary Clinton.”

Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, whose emails were WikiLeaks’s primary target, sent several tweets on the subject late Friday.

“I’m not happy about being hacked by the Russians in their quest to throw the election to Donald Trump,” he wrote. “Don’t have time to figure out which docs are real and which are faked.” […]

Obviously, the Democrats want us to think that Wikileaks is trying to get Trump elected. I think it’s a safe guess that the president agrees with that. So the question left is whether the Russians are coordinating and/or controlling what Wikileaks is doing as the administration claims.


The time and place for paper records

October 3, 2016

From MIT Technology Review. RTWT.

The Internet Is No Place for Elections

Despite what your local election officials may tell you, you can’t trust the Internet with your vote.

This election year we’ve seen foreign hackers infiltrate the Democratic National Committee’s e-mail system as well as voter databases in Arizona and Illinois. These attacks have reinforced what political scientists and technical experts alike have been saying for more than a decade: public elections should stay offline. It’s not yet feasible to build a secure and truly democratic Internet-connected voting system. […]

Nevertheless, 32 states and the District of Columbia allow at least some absentee voters (in most cases just voters who live overseas or serve in the military) to return their completed ballots using poorly secured e-mail, Internet-connected fax machines, or websites. In the most extreme example, all voters in Alaska are allowed to return their completed ballots over a supposedly secure website. And there is a danger that Internet voting could expand. Vendors like the Spanish company Scytl, which supplied Alaska’s system, and Southern California-based Everyone Counts keep marketing these systems to election boards against the advice of security experts. And they haven’t opened their systems to public security testing. […]

Even if the risk of cybercrime could be mitigated, building an online voting system that preserves the core components we expect from democratic elections would be technically complex. Today’s commercial systems do not achieve this; most of the states that offer ballot return via the Internet ask that voters first waive their right to a secret ballot. The key challenge is building an online system that generates some sort of credible evidence that proves the outcome “is what you say it is” during an audit, while maintaining voter privacy and the secret ballot, says Rivest. […]

In the 90s, when my business partner and I were trying to solve problems with telephone automation*, we kicked around the idea of voting by phone. After several goes at that idea, we concluded there was no practical way to (a) make it secure and (b) keep it secret. Not much as changed in the interval, despite different technologies.

*For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three.


A few interesting essays

August 8, 2016

I found all three of these to be pretty interesting reads. They’re loosely related. Since they’re too long to excerpt in a way that does them justice, I suppose you’ll have to take on faith my recommendation that your read them. (Then again, you can stop reading at any time, right?)

From The Breakthrough, a forecast for world population:

The Politics and Ecology of Zero Population Growth

Having calmed down from the overblown twentieth-century fears of overpopulation, the world has yet to grapple with the end of population growth–and even de-population–that will occur this century. As Paul Robbins observes, global population growth rates peaked in the 1970s, and if current trends continue, some countries could see their citizenries substantially depleted in the coming decades. As native populations in Germany and the United Kingdom dwindle, replaced by immigrants from rapidly growing countries in Africa and Asia, a surge in nationalism and cultural upheaval is already apparent. What comes next depends on how governments and civil society this radical new order of things. […]

At The American Interest, Jonathon Haidt writes about nationalist movements. It reminded me a little of what Matt Taibbi said about Brexit: “The reaction to Brexit is the reason Brexit happened.”

When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism
And how moral psychology can help explain and reduce tensions between the two.

What on earth is going on in the Western democracies? From the rise of Donald Trump in the United States and an assortment of right-wing parties across Europe through the June 23 Brexit vote, many on the Left have the sense that something dangerous and ugly is spreading: right-wing populism, seen as the Zika virus of politics. Something has gotten into “those people” that makes them vote in ways that seem—to their critics—likely to harm their own material interests, at least if their leaders follow through in implementing isolationist policies that slow economic growth. […]

Finally, Jonathon Rauch writes at The Atlantic:

How American Politics Went Insane
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.

It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.

On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.

As the presidential primaries unfold, Kanye West is leading a fractured field of Democrats. The Republican front-runner is Phil Robertson, of Duck Dynasty fame. Elected governor of Louisiana only a few months ago, he is promising to defy the Washington establishment by never trimming his beard. Party elders have given up all pretense of being more than spectators, and most of the candidates have given up all pretense of party loyalty. On the debate stages, and everywhere else, anything goes. […]


Here’s a good question

July 11, 2016

…in case you’ve been thinking "police state" is just a figure of speech.

Jeff sends a link to this op-ed from the Wall Street Journal. (My emphasis.)

Why Does the IRS Need Guns?

Special agents at the IRS equipped with AR-15 military-style rifles? Health and Human Services “Special Office of Inspector General Agents” being trained by the Army’s Special Forces contractors? The Department of Veterans Affairs arming 3,700 employees?

The number of non-Defense Department federal officers authorized to make arrests and carry firearms (200,000) now exceeds the number of U.S. Marines (182,000). In its escalating arms and ammo stockpiling, this federal arms race is unlike anything in history. Over the last 20 years, the number of these federal officers with arrest-and-firearm authority has nearly tripled to over 200,000 today, from 74,500 in 1996.

What exactly is the Obama administration up to?

On Friday, June 17, our organization, American Transparency, is releasing its oversight report on the militarization of America. The report catalogs federal purchases of guns, ammunition and military-style equipment by seemingly bureaucratic federal agencies. During a nine-year period through 2014, we found, 67 agencies unaffiliated with the Department of Defense spent $1.48 billion on guns and ammo. Of that total, $335.1 million was spent by agencies traditionally viewed as regulatory or administrative, such as the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Mint.

Some examples of spending from 2005 through 2014 raise the question: Who are they preparing to battle? […]


Cognitive dissonance strikes again

April 9, 2016

I’ve had my share of minimum-wage or low wage jobs; I’ve even held more than one at a time, years ago. I’ve been nickle & dimed, as Barbara Ehrenreich would call it.

So I’m all for people who work low-skill jobs getting all the pay they can. (For that matter, I’m all for people working any type of job to get all the pay they can.)

But letting the government set minimum wages is effectively saying that those people have no flexibility – they can’t bargain about wages because it becomes unlawful. That’s a nasty handicap if you’re new to the job market, or you’re new to a line of business, or you’re new to a particular area (see below).

I’ve mentioned before that Mark Twain claimed the best way to get the job you want is to go to work for free. When your value becomes apparent, the pay will follow. If it doesn’t become apparent, you’ve learned a lesson. That’s not possible when the law makes such a bargain illegal.

When did the U.S. repeal the law of supply and demand?

Back in October, The New York Times reported that the law of supply and demand still works. “Yes, Soda Taxes Seem to Cut Soda Drinking,” the newspaper told its readers, relating the results of Mexico’s new tax on sugary beverages. Mexico’s measure imposed a 10 percent tax on soft drinks, and so far has cut consumption from 6 percent to as much as 17 percent among the poorest Mexicans.

The efficacy of the soda tax comes as no great surprise. After all, as the news story noted, “the idea for the soda tax is in some ways modeled on . . . tobacco taxes. . . . A robust literature now exists showing that the resulting higher prices really did push down cigarette sales, particularly among young people.”

The paper’s editorial page soon came out in full cry demanding higher soda taxes for Americans, too. Noting that “a big tax on sugary drinks in Mexico appears to be driving down sales of soda,” the editors urged “lawmakers in the United States to consider comparably stiff taxes.”

Some already have. Soda taxes have become a chic cause in progressive enclaves, from Berkeley and San Francisco to Philadelphia and New York.

But if you want to make liberal heads in those same enclaves explode, dare to suggest that raising the minimum wage might reduce employment.

Thanks to legislation their governors signed Monday, California and New York are hiking their minimums to $15, the target hourly rate of a national campaign by labor activists. Earlier this year The Times encouraged Hillary Clinton to join Bernie Sanders in demanding a $15 minimum for the entire country. “Mrs. Clinton has argued that $15 might be too high for employers in low-wage states, causing them to lay off workers or make fewer hires,” the paper noted, but then argued: “There is no proof for or against that position.”

Sure there isn’t — not if you don’t remember the argument for soda taxes, anyway. […]

In San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., employment growth has been cut in half. In Seattle, job growth has plunged from 4.6 percent to 1.8 percent — even while restaurant hiring rose more than 6 percent for the rest of Washington State.
Sure, you can find studies that purport to show small hikes in the minimum wage don’t hurt jobs. You can find a lot more that say they do. But the more honest advocates for a higher minimum wage acknowledge that it will cost some people their jobs. But some argue that’s no big deal and might even be a feature, not a bug: “What’s so bad about getting rid of crappy jobs?” asks public-policy professor David Howell.

Which is easy to say if the job being gotten rid of isn’t yours.

Now here’s the interesting part. Gov. Jerry Brown says (my emphasis):

Brown, traveling to the state’s largest media market to sign the landmark bill, remained hesitant about the economic effect of raising the minimum wage, saying, “Economically, minimum wages may not make sense.”

But he said work is “not just an economic equation,” calling labor “part of living in a moral community.”

“Morally and socially and politically, they (minimum wages) make every sense because it binds the community together and makes sure that parents can take care of their kids in a much more satisfactory way,” Brown said.

In this same vein, here’s an account by Mitch Hall about his job search in Seattle (which I assume happened late last year).

70 Tries After Seattle Raised Its Minimum Wage, I Still Can’t Find A Job
States nationwide are beginning to join the ‘Fight for $15.’ My job experience in Seattle, Washington helps illustrate why that’s a bad idea.

Over the weekend, lawmakers and labor unions in California, the nation’s most populous state, reached a tentative agreement to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the course of the next several years. […]

Twenty-nine states have minimum wages that exceed the federally mandated $7.25 per hour. Heading into the 2016 election, the issue remains hotly contested and politically potent, with Republican presidential candidates in fierce opposition to, and Democratic candidates in strong support of, a dramatic increase in the federal minimum wage. […]

My opposition to minimum wage increases comes as a direct result of my own experience searching for jobs as a new resident of Seattle, Washington, a city that currently has one of the highest minimum wages in the nation. In June 2014, the Seattle City Council, composed of just nine members, unanimously voted to increase the city’s base pay to a whopping $15 an hour, to be gradually implemented over the course of several years.

I’ve spent the majority of the last two months stalking online job sites and entire days traversing the various neighborhoods of Seattle.

On January 1, 2016, the newly mandated minimum wage rose to $13 for larger companies (those that have more than 500 employees in the United States), and $10.50 for smaller employers (those with fewer than 500 employees in the United States). On top of this, Washington state law now requires businesses to adhere to this minimum even for tipped workers, a rule that only six other states have on the books.

In December, I found myself needing a break from college, for a variety of reasons. So at the close of last semester, I decided (rather impulsively, as young people are wont to do) to take my spring semester off from the College of William and Mary and move out west to try my luck in Seattle, a place I had only visited once before. […]

Having a combined two years of serving experience and close to five years of total experience in the customer and food services industries (which is literally as much as you can ask for from a 20-year-old college student), I assumed I’d be able to find a restaurant gig in no time. So, after reassuring my parents all would be well in the financial department, I boarded a plane in Philly a few weeks later and made the move.

Yet seven weeks and more than 70 job applications later, I still have yet to land a part-time, minimum wage job. I’ve spent the majority of the last two months stalking online job sites and entire days traversing the various neighborhoods of Seattle, filling out applications and inquiring about job opportunities at any restaurant, coffee shop, retail store, or other service-oriented establishment I can find. […]

At first, I was utterly dumbfounded by my lack of success, and figured only bad luck was to blame. After all, I had been hired at every single one of my past serving jobs within only a day or two of searching and applying. I’d have to find something in Seattle eventually, I thought; I’m young, competent, and college-educated, and serving is by no means a highly skilled occupation that requires degrees or extensive training. I know how to make a good impression with prospective employers, and I already have years of experience in the food services industry. What more could these people want?

Employers, especially in the restaurant and food services industries, are far less willing to take chances on who they hire with so much money on the line.

But soon enough it became clear, through talking with potential employers and local college students also trying to find work, that my failure to land a job was likely due, at least in large part, to Seattle’s absurdly high minimum wage. […]

I think the real problem here is what to do about those who are seemingly stuck in low-skill jobs. I don’t think they’re the majority of people in those jobs, but they’re the chronic cases that seem to motivate the urge to raise minimum wages.

Here’s a graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Dept. of Labor). It’s titled: Minimum wage workers account for 4.7 percent of hourly paid workers in 2012.


This report (at the Heritage Foundation) says the same thing: Who Earns the Minimum Wage? Suburban Teenagers, Not Single Parents.

Just eyeballing that graph above, my guess is that maybe a third of the people making minimum wage are heads of households. If I’m right, that’s 33% of 4.7% or 1.6% of the total labor force.

A better approach would be to address directly the needs of the adults stuck in those jobs rather than raising the bar for everyone, children included. Don Boudreaux and Nick Gillespie touch on these points in this interview.

Taking a cue from Governor Brown, is it "moral" to inflict hardships on a large class in order to relieve a small number of those people from other hardships? I’d disagree. I’d say that’s an immoral action by a government based on purely utilitarian grounds (greatest good for the greatest number).

Bear in mind that it’s a different case if particular individuals step up and volunteer for hardships in order to spare their peers or fellow citizens – in that case, the action may be admirable and moral. But when it’s legally compulsory, it’s just so much bullying by legislators.

Update: Now this I can believe. Based on what I read, I think that unions are trying to regain the political power they once exercised; so this explanation seems possible. But dang… it’s gotta sting to be a union member who’s making less than the minimum wage championed by your union. Where’s the brotherhood?

The Minimum Wage Con

If you thought that the union-backed #FightFor15 movement was really about making sure that all workers earned a living wage—rather than about using the government to enrich progressive interest groups—think again. The Guardian:

Los Angeles city council will hear a proposal on Tuesday to exempt union members from a $15 an hour minimum wage that the unions themselves have spent years fighting for.

The proposal for the exemption was first introduced last year, after the Los Angeles city council passed a bill that would see the city’s minimum wage increase to $15 by 2020. After drawing criticism last year, the proposed amendment was put on hold but is now up for consideration once again.

As it turns out, this practice is not uncommon. The WSJ reported last year that at least six municipalities have created special minimum wage carveouts for unions. The logic is straightforward: Kill non-unionized jobs, add more workers to the union rolls, and extract higher fees for union bosses. It’s not a minimum wage hike the labor movement is after, exactly: It’s a penalty on non-union employers, and a payout for modern-day Jimmy Hoffas. Expect unions in California and New York, which recently enacted statewide $15 minimums, to start lobbying legislators for their own sweetheart deals in the near future. […]

Update 2:
Here’s an interesting graph from Business Insider. It explains to some extent how California can get away with its hike in the minimum wage: it’s easy when you have one of the lowest minimum-wage work forces in the country.



Let me tell you how it will be

April 9, 2016

Here’s a prediction from the Tax Foundation.

Tax Freedom Day 2016 is April 24

Key Findings

  • This year, Tax Freedom Day falls on April 24, or 114 days into the year (excluding Leap Day).
  • Americans will pay $3.3 trillion in federal taxes and $1.6 trillion in state and local taxes, for a total bill of almost $5.0 trillion, or 31 percent of the nation’s income.
  • Tax Freedom Day is one day earlier than last year, due to slightly lower federal tax collections as a proportion of the economy.
  • Americans will collectively spend more on taxes in 2016 than they will on food, clothing, and housing combined.
  • If you include annual federal borrowing, which represents future taxes owed, Tax Freedom Day would occur 16 days later, on May 10.
  • Tax Freedom Day is a significant date for taxpayers and lawmakers because it represents how long Americans as a whole have to work in order to pay the nation’s tax burden.

What Is Tax Freedom Day?

Tax Freedom Day® is the day when the nation as a whole has earned enough money to pay its total tax bill for the year. Tax Freedom Day takes all federal, state, and local taxes and divides them by the nation’s income. In 2016, Americans will pay $3.34 trillion in federal taxes and $1.64 trillion in state and local taxes, for a total tax bill of $4.99 trillion, or 31 percent of national income. This year, Tax Freedom Day falls on April 24th, or 114 days into the year (excluding Leap Day). […]

This interesting graph accompanies the article.

And don’t get me started on how all this money flowing into the capital still won’t reduce the national debt. They’re spending it as fast as they can print it, I think.

Here’s another graph that comes from a Mercatus Center post about the Congressional Budget Office’s projections for national debt as a percentage of GDP.


It’ll get worse before it gets better… assuming it ever gets better.


It’s no surprise at all

March 11, 2016

Last week I read Barr Eisler’s novel The God’s Eye View. It was a pretty good novel but I thought one of the best parts was Eisler’s closing notes where he talks about how there is, effectively, no longer much Congressional oversight over security agencies like the NSA.

The representatives and senators who oversee those agencies are often bound by secrecy agreements with those agencies to not discuss what they hear or learn even with other congressmen. In other words, the agencies demand secrecy in the name of national security even from those who should be controlling the agencies’ policies and procedures.

So when Paul sent a link to this column by Radley Balko, it really wasn’t much of a surprise. But, surprised or not, we should all be shocked at what’s happening.

Surprise! NSA data will soon routinely be used for domestic policing that has nothing to do with terrorism

A while back, we noted a report showing that the “sneak-and-peek” provision of the Patriot Act that was alleged to be used only in national security and terrorism investigations has overwhelmingly been used in narcotics cases. Now the New York Times reports that National Security Agency data will be shared with other intelligence agencies like the FBI without first applying any screens for privacy. The ACLU of Massachusetts blog Privacy SOS explains why this is important:

What does this rule change mean for you? In short, domestic law enforcement officials now have access to huge troves of American communications, obtained without warrants, that they can use to put people in cages. FBI agents don’t need to have any “national security” related reason to plug your name, email address, phone number, or other “selector” into the NSA’s gargantuan data trove. They can simply poke around in your private information in the course of totally routine investigations. And if they find something that suggests, say, involvement in illegal drug activity, they can send that information to local or state police. That means information the NSA collects for purposes of so-called “national security” will be used by police to lock up ordinary Americans for routine crimes. And we don’t have to guess who’s going to suffer this unconstitutional indignity the most brutally. It’ll be Black, Brown, poor, immigrant, Muslim, and dissident Americans: the same people who are always targeted by law enforcement for extra “special” attention.

This basically formalizes what was already happening under the radar. We’ve known for a couple of years now that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the IRS were getting information from the NSA. Because that information was obtained without a warrant, the agencies were instructed to engage in “parallel construction” when explaining to courts and defense attorneys how the information had been obtained. If you think parallel construction just sounds like a bureaucratically sterilized way of saying big stinking lie, well, you wouldn’t be alone. And it certainly isn’t the only time that that national security apparatus has let law enforcement agencies benefit from policies that are supposed to be reserved for terrorism investigations in order to get around the Fourth Amendment, then instructed those law enforcement agencies to misdirect, fudge and outright lie about how they obtained incriminating information — see the Stingray debacle. This isn’t just a few rogue agents. The lying has been a matter of policy. We’re now learning that the feds had these agreements with police agencies all over the country, affecting thousands of cases.

Somewhere I have a picture that I took in Amsterdam a long while back (late 80s or early 90s). It was a pic of a large sign on a canal bridge, reading: Abuse of power comes as no surprise.

So don’t be surprised. Be vigilant in defense of your rights instead.

Here’s Edward Snowden talking about the secrecy surrounding surveillance programs during a recent interview. Give it a listen from the 16:30 mark until the 19:05 mark.

How can the people have any voice in a process with the deck stacked like that? I have to conclude that we no longer have a voice in those decisions. It’s the Omniscient State, citizen: love it or leave it.

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