Tag Archives: Andrew Sullivan

Mr. Sulzberger, Tear Down This Wall

Jeremy W. Peters at NYT:

The New York Times rolled out a plan on Thursday to begin charging the most frequent users of its Web site $15 for a four-week subscription in a bet that readers will pay for news they have grown accustomed to getting free.

Beginning March 28, visitors to NYTimes.com will be able to read 20 articles a month without paying, a limit that company executives said was intended to draw in subscription revenue from the most loyal readers while not driving away the casual visitors who make up a vast majority of the site’s traffic.

Once readers click on their 21st article, they will have the option of buying one of three digital news packages — $15 every four weeks for access to the Web site and a mobile phone app, $20 for Web access and an iPad app or $35 for an all-access plan.

All subscribers who receive the paper through home delivery will have free and unlimited access across all Times digital platforms except, for now, e-readers like the AmazonKindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook. Subscribers to The International Herald Tribune, which is The Times’s global edition, will also have free digital access.

“A few years ago it was almost an article of faith that people would not pay for the content they accessed via the Web,” Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of The New York Times Company, said in his annual State of The Times remarks, which were delivered to employees Thursday morning.

Felix Salmon:

Rather than take full advantage of their ability to change the numbers over time, the NYT seems to have decided they’re going to launch at the kind of levels they want to see over the long term. Which is a bit weird. Instead, the NYT has sent out an email to its “loyal readers” that they’ll get “a special offer to save on our new digital subscriptions” come March 28. This seems upside-down to me: it’s the loyal readers who are most likely to pay premium rates for digital subscriptions, while everybody else is going to need a special offer to chivvy them along.

This paywall is anything but simple, with dozens of different variables for consumers to try to understand. Start with the price: the website is free, so long as you read fewer than 20 items per month, and so are the apps, so long as you confine yourself to the “Top News” section. You can also read articles for free by going in through a side door. Following links from Twitter or Facebook or Reuters.com should never be a problem, unless and until you try to navigate away from the item that was linked to.

Beyond that, $15 per four-week period gives you access to the website and also its smartphone app, while $20 gives you access to the website also its iPad app. But if you want to read the NYT on both your smartphone and your iPad, you’ll need to buy both digital subscriptions separately, and pay an eye-popping $35 every four weeks. That’s $455 a year.

The message being sent here is weird: that access to the website is worth nothing. Mathematically, if A+B=$15, A+C=$20, and A+B+C=$35, then A=$0.

Andrew Sullivan:

We remain parasitic on the NYT and other news sites; and I should add I regard the NYT website as the best news site in the world; without it, we would be lost. But like most parasites, we also perform a service for our hosts. We direct readers to content we think matters. So we add to the NYT’s traffic and readership.

But what makes this exception even more interesting is that, if I read it correctly, it almost privileges links from blogs and social media against more direct access. Which makes it a gift to the blogosphere. Anyway, that’s my first take: and it’s one of great relief. We all want to keep the NYT in business (well, almost all of us). But we also don’t want to see it disappear behind some Great NewsCorp-Style Paywall. It looks to me as if they have gotten the balance just about right.

MG Siegler at Tech Crunch:

There are a lot of interesting angles to the news this morning about The New York Times’ new paywall. Top news will remain free, a set number of articles for all users will remain free, there will be different pricing tiers for different devices, NYT is fine with giving Apple a 30 percent cut, etc, etc. But to me, the most interesting aspect is only mentioned briefly about halfway down the NYT announcement article: all those who come to the New York Times via Facebook or Twitter will be allowed to read for free. There will be no limit to this.

Up until now, we’ve seen paywall enthusiasts like The Wall Street Journal offer such loopholes. But they’ve done so via Google. It’s a trick that most web-savvy news consumers know. Is a WSJ article behind a paywall? Just Google the title of it. Click on the resulting link and boom, free access to the entire thing. No questions asked. This new NYT model is taking that idea and flipping it.

The Google loophole will still be in play — but only for five articles a day. It’s not clear how they’re going to monitor this (cookies? logins?), but let’s assume for now that somehow they’ll be able to in an effective way. For most readers, the five article limit will likely be more than enough. But that’s not the important thing. What’s interesting is that the NYT appears to be saying two things. First, this action says that spreading virally on social networks like Twitter and Facebook is more important to them than the resulting traffic from Google. And second, this is a strategic bet that they likely believe will result in the most vocal people on the web being less pissed off.

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing:

Here are some predictions about the #nytpaywall:

1. No one will be able to figure out how it works. Quick: How many links did you follow to the NYT last month? I’ll bet you a testicle* that you can’t remember. And even if you could remember, could you tell me what proportion of them originated as a social media or search-engine link?

2. Further to that, people frequently visit the NYT without meaning to, just by following a shortened link. Oftentimes, these links go to stories you’ve already read (after all, you’ve already found someone else’s description of the story interesting enough to warrant a click, so odds are high that a second or even a third ambiguous description of the same piece might attract your click), but which may or may not be “billed” to your 20-freebies limit for the month

3. And this means that lots of people are going to greet the NYT paywall with eye-rolling and frustration: You stupid piece of technology, what do you mean I’ve seen 20 stories this month? This is exactly the wrong frame of mind to be in when confronted with a signup page (the correct frame of mind to be in on that page is, Huh, wow, I got tons of value from the Times this month. Of course I’m going to sign up!)

4. Which means that lots of people will take countermeasures to beat the #nytpaywall. The easiest of these, of course, will be to turn off cookies so that the Times’s site has no way to know how many pages you’ve seen this month

5. Of course, the NYT might respond by planting secret permacookies, using Flash cookies, browser detection, third-party beacons, or secret ex-Soviet vat-grown remote-sensing psychics. At the very minimum, the FTC will probably be unamused to learn that the Grey Lady is actively exploiting browser vulnerabilities (or, as the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse statute puts it, “exceeding authorized access” on a remote system — which carries a 20 year prison sentence, incidentally)

6. Even if some miracle of regulatory capture and courtroom ninjarey puts them beyond legal repercussions for this, the major browser vendors will eventually patch these vulnerabilities

7. And even if that doesn’t work, someone clever will release one or more of: a browser redirection service that pipes links to nytimes.com through auto-generated tweets, creating valid Twitter referrers to Times stories that aren’t blocked by the paywall; or write a browser extension that sets “referer=twitter.com/$VALID_TWEET_GUID”, or some other clever measure that has probably already been posted to the comments below

8. The Times isn’t stupid. They’ll build all kinds of countermeasures to detect and thwart cookie-blocking, referer spoofing, and suchlike. These countermeasures will either be designed to err on the side of caution (in which case they will be easy to circumvent) or to err on the side of strictness — in which case they will dump an increasing number of innocent civilians into the “You’re a freeloader, pay up now” page, which is no way to convert a reader to a customer

Yes, I was going to hate this paywall no matter what the NYT did. News is a commodity: as a prolific linker, I have lots of choice about where I link to my news and the site that make my readers shout at me about a nondeterministic paywall that unpredictably swats them away isn’t going to get those links. Leave out the hard news and you’ve got opinion, and there’s no shortage of free opinion online. Some of it is pretty good (and some of what the Times publishes as opinion is pretty bad).

Peter Kafka at All Things Digital:

The Times will put up its paywall in 11 days, on March 28th. It promises to comply with Apple’s subscription terms by making “1-click purchase available in the App Store by June 30 to ensure that readers can continue to access Times apps on Apple devices.”

And as previously announced, this isn’t a formal payall. Or, at least, it’s a porous one.

Anyone can use the Times’ Web site to read up to 20 articles a month for free. And if you’ve surpassed your monthly limit, you’ll still be able to read Times articles if you’ve been sent there from referring sites like Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else on the Web. The Times says it will place a five-article-per-day limit on Google referrals, however; it’s currently the only search engine with that limit, Murphy says.

To spell that out: If you want to game the Times’ paywall, just use Microsoft’s Bing. For now, at least.

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They Said One Thing, They Did Another

Photo via Sully

Gwen Florio in the Missoulian:

Federal raids hit medical marijuana shops from Columbia Falls to Billings on Monday, spreading “a horrible mixture of fear and rage” through a community already roiled by high-profile attempts to regulate it.

“The reckless and cruel disregard for the patients that count on these shops is going to cause a lot of heartache,” said John Masterson of Missoula, who heads Montana NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), which live-blogged information about the raids throughout the day Monday.

Advocates for medical marijuana noted that federal agents executed their search warrants even as a Montana Senate panel collected testimony on a bill to repeal the state’s 2004 voter initiative legalizing medicinal use of marijuana. (See related story.)

“It sure feels like a blatant, obvious, calculated, bullying interference by the federal government in Montana decision-making,” said Tom Daubert, a leading medical marijuana advocate, who was in the committee hearing Monday morning when he heard about the raids.

Andrew Sullivan:

A reader flags the troubling news, adding, “The Feds have not stopped cracking down on medical marijuana even though Obama said they would.”

Jacob Sullum at Reason:

Wait. Didn’t Barack Obama repeatedly promise to call off the DEA’s medical marijuana raids when he was running for president, and didn’t his attorney general instruct federal prosecutors to leave patients and providers alone as long as they are complying with state law? Sort of. Under a policy change announced by the Justice Department in October 2009, U.S. attorneys were told that, “as a general matter,” they “should not focus federal resources” on “individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.” In practice, this policy means the feds reserve the right to interpret state law and decide whether patients and providers are following it, as illustrated by continued raids in California, Colorado, and Michigan.

Montana, like California and Michigan, allows “caregivers” as well as patients to grow marijuana. Montana’s Medical Marijuana Act (PDF) defines a caregiver as an individual “who has agreed to undertake responsibility for managing the well-being of a person with respect to the medical use of marijuana.” A patient with a doctor’s recommendation may grow up to six plants and possess up to one ounce of usable marijuana for his own consumption, or he can designate a caregiver, who may grow up to six plants on his behalf. Are patients or caregivers allowed to form “cooperatives,” as they do in California, and grow marijuana together? According to the state Department of Public Health & Human Services, which keeps track of registered patients and their caregivers, “the law is silent on this issue.” And although the law specifies that “a qualifying patient may have only one caregiver at any one time,” it does not seem to address the question of whether a caregiver may grow marijuana for more than one patient.

The upshot is that the DEA can always argue that any individual or group of people with more than six plants (or more than one ounce of usable marijuana) in one place is not “in clear and unambiguous compliance” with Montana law. That would be the case even if state courts explicitly approved grow operations and dispensaries operated by patients or caregivers. Federal raids have continued in California even though the state attorney general (now the governor) said dispensaries are permitted.

Jeralyn at Talk Left:

Medical marijuana has been legal in Montana since 2004. Efforts are underway in the legislature to repeal it.

On Monday in the state Legislature, a committee deadlocked on a bill that would repeal the state’s medical marijuana law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-6 on House Speaker Mike Milburn’s House Bill 161, which would repeal the law passed by voters in 2004. Unless the deadlock is broken, the bill is dead.

Among the federal agencies involved in the raids:

[The]Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

It sure sounds like the raids were timed to coincide with the consideration of the repeal bill. These raids occurred all over the state, including: Belgrade, Big Sky, Billings, Bozeman, Columbia Falls, Dillon, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell, Miles City, Missoula, Olney and Whitefish.

Montana patients are not staying silent:

[T]he patient community has quickly responded by planning coordinated vigils at various city halls across the state at 5pm on Wednesday. Tomorrow’s vigils are being organized by Americans for Safe Access and sponsored by Patients and Families United and Montana Medical Growers Association, which are both statewide medical marijuana groups.

Americans for Safe Access is distributing this Raid Emergency Response Plan for businesses who fear being raided.

Jason Sullem at Reason has more on Montana’s medical marijuana muddle. The problem is that Obama and AG Eric Holder’s positions are vague and arbitrarily enforced, as evident from the October, 2009 memo.

The Obama Administration is not committed to allowing medical marijuana in states with laws that allow it. As I wrote here,

[T]he Holder statements and Ogden Memo are not enough protection. Short of legalization, Congress at least needs to pass a law disallowing prosecution of medical marijuana patients and providers who are in compliance with state law — or at a minimum, a law that expressly allows patients, caregivers and providers to raise compliance with state law as an affirmative defense to a federal prosecution.

Congressman Jared Polis is seeking decriminalization at the federal level. He’s even appearing at industry events. I have doubts it will happen at the federal level while Obama is President. The next best thing is protection from federal prosecution. (More on Polis’ efforts here.)

Caitlin Dickson at The Atlantic:

The raids raise questions about the legitimacy of state marijuana laws in the face of a federal government that considers any production and sale of the substance to be illegal. They also highlight two particular areas where the difference between federal and state marijuana laws collide.

Drug trafficking: Possession was not the issue in Monday’s Montana raids nor Tuesday’s in California. Rather, agents targeted marijuana providers. These raids have elicited outrage from those who recall President Obama’s promise that the Justice Department would be more “hands off” with regard to prosecuting marijuana users and distributors in states that have legalized the medical use of pot. Just last month, AOL News’ Jacob Sullum analyzed the instructions U.S. attorney’s received in November to apply said lenience only to “individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws.” He notes that states like California may allow patients or their “caregivers” to grow their pot collectively and sell it to other patients at dispensaries, but to U.S. attorneys or the DEA, dispensaries themselves “are completely illegal” regardless of the state’s law, “because they exchange pot for money.”
Tax evasion: The raided growers and dispensaries is Montana and California are all being charged with tax evasion. In states that have legalized medical marijuana use, medical marijuana dispensaries should be considered legal businesses. But, according to the I.R.S., “no deductable credit shall be allowed for any amount paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business if such trade or business…consists of trafficking in controlled substances…which is prohibited by Federal Law or the law of any State in which such trade or business is conducted.” That would, of course, pose quite a problem for filing taxes.

Ed Morrissey:

It’s possible in these two raids that there were other crimes suspected of the operators than just the sale of pot. Until the courts unseal the records, we won’t know the answer to that, as apparently no one in the DoJ wants to talk about it at the moment. If not, though, one can certainly argue that the statements of Obama and Holder about leaving state-licensed vendors alone amount to a moral case of entrapment, if not a legal case.

What is the actual Obama administration policy on licensed marijuana vendors in states like California? Shouldn’t they make that clear so that the operators of these clinics have a chance to adapt to a clear legal environment?

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Numbers For The “Sage Of Wasilla”

Chris Cillizza and Jon Cohen at WaPo:

Sarah Palin’s ratings within the Republican Party are slumping, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, a potentially troubling sign for the former Alaska governor as she weighs whether to enter the 2012 presidential race.

For the first time in Post-ABC News polling, fewer than six in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents see Palin in a favorable light, down from a stratospheric 88 percent in the days after the 2008 Republican National Convention and 70 percent as recently as October.

In one sense, the poll still finds Palin near the top of a list of eight potential contenders for the GOP nomination. The former vice presidential candidate scores a 58 percent favorable rating, close to the 61 percent for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and 60 percent for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and better than the 55 percent that onetime House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) received.

But Palin’s unfavorable numbers are significantly higher than they are for any of these possible competitors. Fully 37 percent of all Republicans and GOP-leaning independents now hold a negative view of her, a new high.

In another first, fewer than 50 percent of Republican-leaning independents — 47 percent — hold favorable views of Palin.

Andrew Sullivan:

But look behind the headlines and you find something more interesting:

“Strong” favorability matters in primaries, where motivation to turn out is an important factor. Among strong Tea Party supporters, strongly favorable views of Huckabee and Palin are highest, at 45 and 42 percent, respectively; strongly favorable views of Gingrich and Romney drop off in this group to 35 and 31 percent, respectively.

There’s a similar pattern in a related group, leaned Republicans who say they are “very” conservative. Palin and Huckabee (at 45 and 44 percent) again attract much higher strongly favorable ratings among strong conservatives than do Gingrich and Romney (30 and 28 percent).

In primaries, enthusiasm matters. And if Huckabee doesn’t run …

Jonathan Bernstein:

In response to the latest polling on the Sage of Wasilla, which show her continuing to lose support even among Republicans, I went looking through my old posts on her to see if I could claim a little told-you-so — if I had clearly said that if she continued to snub party leaders they would eventually turn against her, and if that happened (as it has) then the rank-and-file, or at least many of them, would follow, regardless of how popular she was with them back then. Yup! Hey, I’m wrong sometimes (and I’ll try to ‘fess up when I am), but I think I nailed this one.

I bring that up because I still don’t think it’s too late for Sarah Palin to turn it around, at least in large part, if she suddenly decided to play by the rules that normal candidates follow. Policy expertise can be bought and faked; party leaders, whether they’re national columnists, interest group leaders, or locals in Iowa and New Hampshire, can be schmoozed. It increasingly appears that either she is constitutionally incapable of doing those things or just has no interest in it, and even if she does them there’s no guarantee she would be nominated…but it is clear now, as it has been from the start, that the normal rules of politics apply to her regardless of what she or anyone else thinks.

One other thing that I did come across from last summer which still seems relevant now is the question of whether Republicans will campaign with Sarah Palin. I said then that given how few people, especially swing voters, are Palin fans — but also how many Republicans remain strong supporters — that it would make sense for Democrats to press their GOP opponents over whether they would campaign with her or not. Of course, skilled politicians know how to duck questions for which there are no good answers, but it can’t hurt to ask those questions.

Jamelle Bouie at Tapped:

The obvious question is why? Chris Cillizza suggests Palin’s tendency to polarize, but I’m skeptical. For starters, she continues to score a high favorability rating among Republicans: 58 percent, compared to 60 percent for Mitt Romney and 55 percent for Newt Gingrich. Moreover, her views are within the mainstream of the GOP; on every issue, Sarah Palin is an orthodox Republican.

As far as I can tell, Palin’s fall from grace has less to do with ideology or popularity and more to do with her obvious disdain for Republican elites. Since 2008, she has been on a one-pol crusade against the activists and donors who represent important interests and elites within the GOP coalition. This was tolerable last year, when she was something of an electoral asset, but with the upcoming presidential election — and her stark unpopularity among everyone else — it’s less than acceptable. Conservative elites are gradually distancing themselves from Palin, and in all likelihood, this has trickled down to the grassroots.

This isn’t to say that Palin has lost her influence among conservatives — she continues to enjoy a devoted following — but it does put a damper on her presidential ambitions, if she ever had them (I’m doubtful).

Steve Benen:

It may be counterintuitive, but I actually think this is good news for Palin. She’s done nothing but bring shame and embarrassment to herself on a nearly daily basis for years, and she’s likely dropped about as far as she can with the GOP. And at this point, she still enjoys favorable ratings from a clear majority of Republican voters.

James Joyner:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: By presidential candidate standards, Sarah Palin is an ignoramus. That is, she’s “utterly lacking in knowledge or training about matters of public policy, law, or international affairs” one expects of someone contending for the presidency. That was my assessment more than two years ago and it has only been buttressed with the passage of time.

But the fact that she’s not particularly studious or intellectually curious doesn’t mean she’s unintelligent. I’m guessing she’s within swinging distance in terms of raw IQ to George W. Bush or, certainly, Mike Huckabee. And she’s enormously charming and good in front of a friendly crowd.

Bush the Younger was thought by many to be a lightweight at this point in the 2000 presidential cycle. Granted, he’d finished his term as Texas governor and was into his second by this time in 1999. And he had his MBA from Harvard, so people presumed he had at least passing knowledge with business and economic affairs. But, aside from perhaps Mexico, there was little evidence that Bush had any particular interest in foreign policy.

But Bush surrounded himself with smart people and studied. Recall the great “Saturday Night Live” sketch about the second debate with Al Gore, in which he gratuitously cited the names of various obscure world leaders in an attempt to shake off a weak performance in the first debate. It worked.

When this debate last mattered, during the 2008 general election campaign, Republicans who disagreed with me on Palin rightly pointed out that her resume favorably compared with then-candidate Barack Obama’s. Even Democrats who ultimately supported Obama, like our own Dave Schuler, were concerned about his lack of experience. But, by the time the debates rolled around, Obama had mastered the playbooks and could intelligently debate matters of domestic and foreign policymaking. Yes, there were some early stumbles. But few thought he was stupid or ill informed by the time it mattered.

Palin has the inherent talent to apply herself and win over skeptical Republicans and centrists. Many people really want to like her. But Bernstein is right: There’s no evidence thus far that she’s willing to do what it takes.

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Disaster In Japan

Andrew Sullivan with a round-up of live blogs

Naked Capitalism:

When a smaller earthquake struck near Tokyo a couple of days ago, I wondered if worse was on the way soon.

Japan has been overdue for a major earthquake, given their historical frequency. Perversely, there was much more worry about the impact of a major quake on Japan when it was an economic force to be reckoned with (perhaps a subconscious wish to cut the seemingly unbeatable Japanese down to size?). While the horrific death count that resulted from the last great quake in 1923, led the Japanese to impose vastly tougher building codes and continue to improve upon earthquake-related technology, events like this too often have a nasty way of defeating careful planning. But this tremblor, which registered a formidable magnitude 8.8, was off the northern coast, but still has produced serious disruptions in Tokyo. There are no good reports of the damage yet.

Choire Sicha at The Awl:

Livestream news from Hawaii seem to show non-devastating waves and pullbacks as the tsunami spreads out from its source in Japan, but at “fairly significant numbers,” according to the islands’ tsunami guy. Japan is still reporting a shockingly low death toll from such a significant event; but that toll is expected to rise. In Hawaii, people seem nervous but assured: “I’ve cut my feet on this reef a few times but nothing like this,” said the KHNL newscaster a few minutes ago, looking at the exposed Diamondhead reef, which is now getting some water again. So far they’ve seen surge of about six feet; it’s now expected to top out at 8 or 9 feet. In the 1946 tsunami, waves lasted all day; this is not expected to be as severe, but you’ll see “odd behavior” all day around Hawaii. After 7 a.m., foot-size waves are expected to reach California.

Michelle Malkin:

Keep the people of Japan in your prayers. The earthquake and tsunami that hit the northern part of the country has caused devastating loss of life and destruction. Readers in Hawaii e-mail that they have prepared for coastal flooding as well. Be safe, friends.

Ed Morrissey:

I lived most of my life in Southern California, where natives take a blasé attitude towards most quakes, but a few of them are memorable.  My first day running an alarm center in Southern California was the day of the Northridge quake seventeen years ago, which only hit 6.7 on the Richter scale and killed 33 people, destroyed a freeway overpass, and did major damage.  The Richter scale is logarithmic, which means that an 8.8 quake released more than 1000 times the energy of a 6.7.

Jack Spencer at Heritage:

Reports coming from Japan say the quake caused millions of people to evacuate buildings, and the government ordered people near several of the country’s nuclear power plants to leave. Concerns about a radiation leak at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi No. 1 reactor, one of Japan’s 11 nuclear reactors, led to the precautionary evacuation. The biggest concern is that the electricity shortage at the plant is making it difficult for crews to operate the plant’s reactor cooling system quickly.

It is important to remember that the evacuation efforts are cautionary measures rather than indicative of any certain danger posed by the nuclear reactors. Japan’s nuclear power plants, like our own, are built to withstand earthquakes. Plants are engineered to shut down the moment an earthquake hits. Beyond that, each nuclear power plant is fitted with numerous and layered safety mechanisms to ensure the integrity of the facility.

Indeed, even if all of those systems fail, which has not been the case in Japan based on current information, the physics of light water reactors (the type operated in both Japan and the U.S.) make them inherently safe. The same water used to cool the reactor is also necessary to sustain the nuclear reaction. Should the ability to cool the reactor be lost because of an inability to pump coolant to the core, as is the case with the one Japanese reactor, the nuclear reaction will cease. However, it is much too early to even assume that has happened.

Digby:

I was watching the live coverage of the tsunami in Japan last night and could not believe what I was seeing. It was something out of a movie — a movie that I would have thought was somewhat ridiculous until I saw this surge from the birds eye view. Unbelievable.

I’m sitting here now, six blocks from the beach in California, waiting for the wave to hit the west coast. Luckily it doesn’t appear to be dangerous to us at this point.

The good news is that if the Republicans have their way, when one of these things does hit us in this earthquake zone, we won’t have warning:

Thursday night’s massive earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami warnings that have alarmed U.S. coasts, seem likely to ignite a debate over a previously little-discussed subsection of the spending bills currently being debated in Congress.

Tucked into the House Republican continuing resolution are provisions cutting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including the National Weather Service, as well as humanitarian and foreign aid.

Presented as part of a larger deficit reduction package, each cut could be pitched as tough-choice, belt-tightening on behalf of the GOP. But advocates for protecting those funds pointed to the crisis in Japan as evidence that without the money, disaster preparedness and relief would suffer.

“These are very closely related,” National Weather Service Employees Organization President Dan Sobien told The Huffington Post with respect to the budget cuts and the tsunami. “The National Weather Service has the responsibility of warning about tsunami’s also. It is true that there is no plan to not fund the tsunami buoys. Everyone knows you just can’t do that. Still if those [House] cuts go through there will be furloughs at both of the tsunami warning centers that protect the whole country and, in fact, the whole world.”

The House full-year continuing resolution, which has not passed the Senate, would indeed make steep cuts to several programs and functions that would serve in a response to natural disasters (not just tsunamis) home and abroad. According to Sobien, the bill cuts $126 million from the budget of the NWS. Since, however, the cuts are being enacted over a six-month period (the length of the continuing resolution) as opposed to over the course of a full year, the effect would be roughly double.

I realize that the productive wealthy can’t be taxed but I hope they’re all thinking ahead and employing their own natural disaster experts or they might suffer right along with the rest of us.

Noah Kristula-Green at FrumForum:

I grew up in Japan from Kindergarten through high school, so when I learned about the earthquake that struck the country this morning, I immediately had flashbacks to the many disaster preparedness drills I had gone through growing up. The images on the television of the aftermath of the earthquake are undoubtedly extreme and the level of damage from this natural disaster is more than any that I can remember from my lifetime. In addition to the news on television, a glance at facebook shows that many of my friends from Japan are scared as well. It seems that many phone lines are not working and I am sure the mobile phone networks are over-saturated as well. I’m also learning interesting pieces of news, apparently the roof of an ice skating rink my friends and I used to go to as a kid has collapsed.

However, only Japan could be hit with an 8.9 scale quake and come out of it with only hundreds dead. Similarly large earthquakes in less prepared countries have killed tens of thousands almost instantly. (A 7.5 earthquake in Bangladesh killed 90,000 people within minutes in 2010).

When it comes to earthquake preparedness, Japan does set the gold standard. In addition to strict building codes, a concerted effort is made to train and drill the entire population. Schools regularly practice evacuation routes, classrooms keep enough helmets in stock for all students, and reminders about where the safest place to be during a quake (under tables or in doorways) are constantly reiterated. I have vivid memories of an earthquake simulation truck that would travel around to educate people about what a large quake would feel like. The truck would be cut open to reveal a diorama of a living room. A series of springs would be activated to shake the diorama at levels up to and beyond the scale of quakes that Japan would normally be hit by.

Just as important as the civil preparedness, the security of Japan’s infrastructure is also a high priority. Its nuclear power plants have managed to be controlled despite initial concerns of a cooling problem.

Earthquakes are also excellent times to remember that Japan’s architects and construction companies are some of the best and most thorough in the world. Web video is already circulating of Japanese skyscrapers swaying dramatically.  This video may look shocking to the uninitiated, but it is actually a very good thing: it is much better for a building to move and sway with the earthquake as opposed to resisting it.

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Filed under Foreign Affairs, Natural Disasters

It Is Ezra Klein Week Here At Around The Sphere

Ezra Klein:

There’s lots of interesting stuff in Ed Glaeser’s new book, “The Triumph of the City.” One of Glaeser’s themes, for instance, is the apparent paradox of cities becoming more expensive and more crowded even as the cost of communicating over great distances has fallen dramatically. New York is a good example of this, but Silicon Valley is a better one

[…]

The overarching theme of Glaeser’s book is that cities make us smarter, more productive and more innovative. To put it plainly, they make us richer. And the evidence in favor of this point is very, very strong. But it would of course be political suicide for President Obama to say that part of winning the future is ending the raft of subsidies we devote to sustaining rural living. And the U.S. Senate is literally set up to ensure that such a policy never becomes politically plausible.

Klein again:

Yesterday afternoon, I got an e-mail from a “usda.gov” address. “Secretary Vilsack read your blog post ‘Why we still need cities’ over the weekend, and he has some thoughts and reflections, particularly about the importance of rural America,” it said. A call was set for a little later in the day. I think it’s safe to say Vilsack didn’t like the post. A lightly edited transcript of our discussion about rural America, subsidies and values follows.

Ezra Klein: Let’s talk about the post.

Tom Vilsack: I took it as a slam on rural America. Rural America is a unique and interesting place that I don’t think a lot of folks fully appreciate and understand. They don’t understand that that while it represents 16 percent of America’s population, 44 percent of the military comes from rural America. It’s the source of our food, fiber and feed, and 88 percent of our renewable water resources. One of every 12 jobs in the American economy is connected in some way to what happens in rural America. It’s one of the few parts of our economy that still has a trade surplus. And sometimes people don’t realize that 90 percent of the persistent poverty counties are located in rural America.

EK: Let me stop you there for a moment. Are 90 percent of the people in persistent poverty in rural America? Or just 90 percent of the counties?

TV: Well, I’m sure that more people live in cities who are below the poverty level. In terms of abject poverty and significant poverty, there’s a lot of it in rural America.

The other thing is that people don’t understand is how difficult farming is. There are really three different kinds of farmers. Of the 2.1 million people who counted as farmers, about 1.3 million of them live in a farmstead in rural America. They don’t really make any money from their operation. Then there are 600,000 people who, if you ask them what they do for a living, they’re farmers. They produce more than $10,000 but less than $250,000 in sales. Those folks are good people, they populate rural communities and support good schools and serve important functions. And those are the folks for whom I’m trying to figure out how to diversify income opportunities, help them spread out into renewable fuel sources. And then the balance of farmers, roughly 200,000 to 300,000, are commercial operations, and they do pretty well, particularly when commodity prices are high. But they have a tremendous amount of capital at risk. And they’re aging at a rapid rate, with 37 percent over 65. Who’s going to replace those folks?

EK: You keep saying that rural Americans are good and decent people, that they work hard and participate in their communities. But no one is questioning that. The issue is that people who live in cities are also good people. People who live in exurbs work hard and mow their lawns. So what does the character of rural America have to do with subsidies for rural America?

TV: It is an argument. There is a value system that’s important to support. If there’s not economic opportunity, we can’t utilize the resources of rural America. I think it’s a complicated discussion and it does start with the fact that these are good, hardworking people who feel underappreciated. When you spend 6 or 7 percent of your paycheck for groceries and people in other countries spend 20 percent, that’s partly because of these farmers.

More Klein here and here

Will Wilkinson at DiA at The Economist:

IN THIS chat with Ezra Klein, Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, offers a pandering defence of agricultural subsidies so thoroughly bereft of substance I began to fear that Mr Vilsack would be sucked into the vacuum of his mouth and disappear.When Mr Klein first raises the subject of subsidies for sugar and corn, Mr Vilsack admirably says, “I admit and acknowledge that over a period of time, those subsidies need to be phased out.” But not yet! Vilsack immediately thereafter scrambles to defend the injurious practice. Ethanol subsidies help to wean us off foreign fuels and dampen price volatility when there is no peace is the Middle East, Mr Vilsack contends. Anyway, he continues, undoing the economic dislocation created by decades of corporate welfare for the likes of ADM and Cargill will create economic dislocation. Neither of these points is entirely lacking in merit, but they at best argue for phasing out subsidies slowly starting now.

Mr Vilsack should have stopped here, since this is as strong as his case is ever going to be, but instead he goes on to argue that these subsidies sustain rural culture, which is a patriotic culture that honours and encourages vital military service:

[S]mall-town folks in rural America don’t feel appreciated. They feel they do a great service for America. They send their children to the military not just because it’s an opportunity, but because they have a value system from the farm: They have to give something back to the land that sustains them.

Mr Klein follows up sanely:

It sounds to me like the policy you’re suggesting here is to subsidize the military by subsidizing rural America. Why not just increase military pay? Do you believe that if there was a substantial shift in geography over the next 15 years, that we wouldn’t be able to furnish a military?

To which Mr Vilsack says:

I think we would have fewer people. There’s a value system there. Service is important for rural folks. Country is important, patriotism is important. And people grow up with that. I wish I could give you all the examples over the last two years as secretary of agriculture, where I hear people in rural America constantly being criticized, without any expression of appreciation for what they do do.

In the end, Mr Vilsack’s argument comes down to the notion that the people of rural America feel that they have lost social status, and that subsidies amount to a form of just compensation for this injury. I don’t think Mr Vilsack really believes that in the absence of welfare for farmers, the armed services would be hard-pressed to find young men and women willing to make war for the American state. He’s using willingness-to-volunteer as proof of superior patriotism, and superior patriotism is the one claim to status left to those who have no other.

Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:

I’ll add a few comments. First, it may be that the economists who understand the economic virtues of city life aren’t doing a sufficiently good job explaining that it’s not the people in cities that contribute the extra economic punch; it’s the cities or, more exactly, the interactions between the people cities facilitate. It’s fine to love the peace of rural life. Just understand that the price of peace is isolation, which reduces productivity.

Second, the idea that economically virtuous actors deserve to be rewarded not simply with economic success but with subsidies is remarkably common in America (and elsewhere) and is not by any means a characteristic limited to rural people. I also find it strange how upset Mr Vilsack is by the fact that he “ha[s] a hard time finding journalists who will speak for them”. Agricultural interests are represented by some of the most effective lobbyists in the country, but their feelings are hurt by the fact that journalists aren’t saying how great they are? This reminds me of the argument that business leaders aren’t investing because they’re put off by the president’s populist rhetoric. When did people become so sensitive? When did hurt feelings become a sufficient justification for untold government subsidies?

Finally, what Mr Klein doesn’t mention is that rural voters are purchasing respect or dignity at the price of livelihoods in much poorer places. If Americans truly cared for the values of an urban life and truly wished to address rural poverty, they’d get rid of agricultural policies that primarily punish farmers in developing economies.

Andrew Sullivan

Arnold Kling:

Ezra Klein sounds like my clone when arguing with the Secretary of Agriculture.

James Joyner:

Essentially, Vilsack justifies subsiding farmers on the basis that rural America is the storehouse of our values, for which he has no evidence. And he’s befuddled when confronted with someone who doesn’t take his homilies as obvious facts.

Nobody argues that America’s farmers aren’t a vital part of our economy or denies that rural areas provide a disproportionate number of our soldiers. But the notion that country folks are somehow better people or even better Americans has no basis in reality.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

Why is it so common to praise the character of rural America? Part of it is doubtless that rural life represents the past, and we think of the past as a simpler and more honest time. But surely another element is simply that rural America is overwhelmingly white and Protestant. And completely aside from the policy ramifications, the deep-seated veneration of rural America reflects, at bottom, a prejudice few would be willing to openly spell out.

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Filed under Economics, Food, Go Meta, New Media

Updates On The Cheeseheads

Andrew Sullivan rounds up reacts

Christian Schneider at The Corner:

On Wednesday night, Wisconsin Senate Republicans did what most people thought impossible — they passed Governor Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill virtually intact, without having to split out controversial provisions that limited the ability for government employees to collectively bargain.

A letter Democrat Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller sent the governor today, indicating Miller’s unwillingness to further negotiate any details of the bill, was what prompted the GOP’s decision to take the bill to the floor.

“It was like, ‘I’m in the minority, and I’m going to dictate to you what your options are,’” said one GOP source about Miller’s letter. It was just three days ago that Miller had sent Fitzgerald a letter urging more negotiations, despite the fact that Governor Walker had been negotiating with at least two Democrat senators for nearly a week. “With his recent letter, it became clear that all he wanted to do was stall,” said the GOP source.

Another action that provoked the GOP senators to act was Democrat Senator Lena Taylor’s very public decision to have a spring election absentee ballot sent to her in Illinois. The spring election is scheduled for April 5th, which indicated Taylor’s desire to stay out of the state for another month. “That sure didn’t help,” said one GOP source.

The Wisconsin Constitution requires a quorum of three-fifths of the Senate in order to pass a bill that “imposes, continues or renews a tax, or creates a debt or charge, or makes, continues or renews an appropriation of public or trust money, or releases, discharges or commutes a claim or demand of the state.” For weeks, it had been known that Republican senators could separate the fiscal provisions of the bill from the proposed collective-bargaining changes, which were seen as non-fiscal. However, there was speculation that, if a bill was brought to the Senate floor that contained only the collective bargaining changes, it might not have the votes to pass.

On Wednesday night, the bill passed with a number of provisions that could be considered “fiscal,” such as the requirement that many government employees contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to their pensions and pay 12.6 percent towards their health-insurance premiums.

Conn Carroll at Heritage:

The courage of the Wisconsin Senate conservatives cannot be understated. Before the vote, lawmakers were threatened with death and physical violence. After the vote, thousands of protestersstormed into the capitol building, ignoring announcements from police that the building was closed. Once inside, and at great risk to the public welfare, activists handcuffed some doors to the capitol shut. When security escorted the Senators to another building, a Democrat tipped off the mob, which then surrounded their cars and tried to break their windows as Senators returned home.

Senate Democrats, who are still hiding in Illinois, are now claiming that the majority’s committee meeting that broke up the budget-repair bill violated Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law. But the Open Meeting Compliance Guide clearly states that when there is “good cause,” only two hours’ notice is required. The Senate majority did provide the two hours’ notice. If the Senate Democrats’ 19-day refusal to show up for work wasn’t “good cause” enough, certainly minimizing the opportunity for union mob violence is.

The passion coming from liberal activists is understandable only if one believes in their apocalyptic rhetoric. Democratic Senator Timothy Cullen said the bill will “destroy public unions.” And Senator Chris Larson has said, “collective bargaining is a civil right” that if removed will “kill the middle class.” This is all false. First of all, since unions care more about seniority than good government, public-sector unions kill middle-class jobs; they do not protect them. Second, collective bargaining is not a right. And finally, Walker’s bill will in no way “destroy public unions.” Government unions are still perfectly free to practice their First Amendment rights to freedom of association, and in fact still retain more bargaining power than all unionized federal employees. They only difference is that now they will have to actively recruit members instead of forcing government employees to join them, and they will have to collect their own dues instead of getting the state government to take them directly out of workers’ paychecks. And there are many more benefits as well. Governor Walker writes in today’s Wall Street Journal:

When Gov. Mitch Daniels repealed collective bargaining in Indiana six years ago, it helped government become more efficient and responsive. The average pay for Indiana state employees has actually increased, and high-performing employees are rewarded with pay increases or bonuses when they do something exceptional.

Passing our budget-repair bill will help put similar reforms into place in Wisconsin. This will be good for the Badger State’s hard-working taxpayers. It will also be good for state and local government employees who overwhelmingly want to do their jobs well.

Even in good economic times, the case for government subsidies for radio stations, cowboy poetry, and union dues is very weak. But in a time of fiscal crisis, all of these subsidies are patently absurd. Taxpayers throughout the country should be inspired by Walker’s stand for common sense. We need more leadership like this in every state capitol and here in Washington.

E.D. Kain at Forbes:

And now conservatives have chosen public-sector workers and teachers as their hill to die on. They have followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and elected Scott Walker, Rick Scott, and various other Tea Party candidates. Heavily funded by big campaign donors like the Koch brothers and other corporate interests, the Republican party has made a concerted effort across the country to take on unions, public pensions, and social services for the poor.

Enabled by a strong school-reform movement within the Democratic party, emboldened Republicans have waged an all-out assault on teachers, public education, and public unions and masked it all in the language of school choice and accountability. And now, in Wisconsin, they have side-stepped the Democratic process and ended collective bargaining rights for public sector employees, even amidst huge protests and popular condemnation.

Republicans have a long history of union-busting and anti-labor rhetoric, but taking on teachers and cops is a big mistake. This blatant effort to weaken the Democratic party will have precisely the opposite effect.

The healthcare debate gave Republicans a chance to capture the narrative, spin the entire debate into one about fiscal ruin and deficits. Now Scott Walker has given progressives their chance. This is the Democrats chance to recapture that narrative, to turn the discussion back to the dignity of the middle class, to the importance of policies that do not simply push power and capital ever upward. This is the Republican’s Waterloo.

Nate Silver:

The quality of polling on the Wisconsin dispute has not been terrific. But there’s a general consensus — including in some polls sponsored by conservative groups — that the Republican position was unpopular, probably about as unpopular as the Democrats’ position on health care. And the most unpopular part of their position — limiting collective bargaining rights — was the one that Republicans passed last night.

Nor is the bill likely to become any more popular given the circumstances under which it passed. Yes, there’s some hypocrisy in claims by Democrats that the Wisconsin Republicans used trickery to pass the bill — they did, after all, approve it with an elected majority, just as Democrats did on the Affordable Care Act. Nevertheless, polling suggested that Wisconsinites, by a two to one majority, expected a compromise on the bill, which this decidedly was not.

One question is how much this might hurt Republicans at the state level. As David Dayen notes, Democrats will have opportunities to fight back almost immediately, including in an April 5 election that could swing the balance of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, as well as in efforts to recall Republican state senators. Essentially all of Wisconsin outside of the Madison and Milwaukee metropolitan areas is very evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, so there could be a multiplier on even relatively small shifts in turnout or public opinion.

Andrew Samwick:

I refer to the passage of this bill as the end of the beginning — the opening salvo was to write the bill and find a way to pass it.  The next phase is to see if it can withstand legal challenges and recall efforts to change the legislative balance.  There will be some drama in that phase, but that’s not what really interests me.  The real issue comes in the next phase, assuming the law survives.  There will be two important questions:First, what will the strike that follows the implementation of the law look like?  Narrow or general?  How much support will the public sector unions get from other unions and non-union workers?  Will the disruptions to commerce be enough to get taxpayers and their representatives to fold?  Now that’s drama.

Second, what will happen in specific cases of local public sector employers negotiating with a stronger position?  Governor Walker defends his efforts partly as follows:

Local governments can’t pass budgets on a hope and a prayer. Beyond balancing budgets, our reforms give schools—as well as state and local governments—the tools to reward productive workers and improve their operations. Most crucially, our reforms confront the barriers of collective bargaining that currently block innovation and reform.

Suppose his intentions are borne out — teachers regarded as ineffective are not renewed, teachers regarded as effective are rewarded, or some combination of higher quality and lower cost emerges for people to see.  I am a strong believer that in a well functioning market, workers are protected by their ability to take their talents to another employer (Free to Choose, Chapter 8).  The key question will be whether the markets for public services at the local level function well enough for this to happen.  For an economist, that’s even more dramatic.

mistermix:

If the Wisconsin Republicans’ plan was to jam through the defeat of collective bargaining with a sketchy parliamentary move, they should have done it the minute that Democrats vacated the state. If that had happened, the howls would have been loud but fairly short-lived, since it’s easier to energize people when they’re trying to prevent something from happening, rather than complaining after the fact.

Instead, we have today’s trainwreck. Walker got his number one item, but he paid a huge price. He’s almost certainly a one-term governor. There’s a dissenting Republican in the Senate, and presumably we’ll hear more from him. If there’s a general strike, the union’s side of the case is now clearly outlined in the public mind. If the unions don’t strike, they look like paragons of restraint. And what about the recalls? No matter the outcome, they’ll occupy the press and public attention for the next few months.

The Democrats and unions took a sad song and made it better, as far as I can tell. One of the side-effects of our distraction-oriented media and low-information voters is that only one issue can be front-and-center in the public debate. Unions haven’t had much attention recently, so the slippery lies that blame them for all of our many ills have gone unchallenged. In Wisconsin, that’s not going to be the case for the next year or so.

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Filed under Economics, Legislation Pending

The Continued Case Of Bradley Manning

Charlie Savage at NYT:

The Army announced 22 additional charges on Wednesday against Pfc. Bradley Manning, the military intelligence analyst who is accused of leaking a trove of government files to WikiLeaks a year ago.

The new charges included “aiding the enemy”; wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet, knowing that it was accessible to the enemy; multiple counts of theft of public records, transmitting defense information and computer fraud. If he is convicted, Private Manning could be sentenced to life in prison.

“The new charges more accurately reflect the broad scope of the crimes that Private First Class Manning is accused of committing,” said Capt. John Haberland, an Army spokesman.

The charges provide new details about when prosecutors believe that Private Manning downloaded copies of particular files from a classified computer system in Iraq. For example, the charges say he copied a database of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables between March 28 and May 4, 2010.

Glenn Greenwald:

Most of the charges add little to the ones already filed, but the most serious new charge is for “aiding the enemy,” a capital offense under Article 104 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Although military prosecutors stated that they intend to seek life imprisonment rather than the death penalty for this alleged crime, the military tribunal is still empowered to sentence Manning to death if convicted.

Article 104 — which, like all provisions of the UCMJ, applies only to members of the military — is incredibly broad. Under 104(b) — almost certainly the provision to be applied — a person is guilty if he “gives intelligence to or communicates or corresponds with or holds any intercourse with the enemy, either directly or indirectly” (emphasis added), and, if convicted, “shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct.” The charge sheet filed by the Army is quite vague and neither indicates what specifically Manning did to violate this provision nor the identity of the “enemy” to whom he is alleged to have given intelligence. There are, as international law professor Kevin Jon Heller notes, only two possibilities, and both are disturbing in their own way.

In light of the implicit allegation that Manning transmitted this material to WikiLeaks, it is quite possible that WikiLeaks is the “enemy” referenced by Article 104, i.e., that the U.S. military now openly decrees (as opposed to secretly declaring) that the whistle-blowing group is an “enemy” of the U.S. More likely, the Army will contend that by transmitting classified documents to WikiLeaks for intended publication, Manning “indirectly” furnished those documents to Al Qaeda and the Taliban by enabling those groups to learn their contents. That would mean that it is a capital offense not only to furnish intelligence specifically and intentionally to actual enemies — the way that, say, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen were convicted of passing intelligence to the Soviet Union — but also to act as a whistle-blower by leaking classified information to a newspaper with the intent that it be published to the world. Logically, if one can “aid the enemy” even by leaking to WikiLeaks, then one can also be guilty of this crime by leaking to The New York Times.

The dangers of such a theory are obvious. Indeed, even the military itself recognizes those dangers, as the Military Judges’ Handbook specifically requires that if this theory is used — that one has “aided the enemy” through “indirect” transmission via leaks to a newspaper — then it must be proven that the “communication was intended to reach the enemy.” None of the other ways of violating this provision contain an intent element; recognizing how extreme it is to prosecute someone for “aiding the enemy” who does nothing more than leak to a media outlet, this is the only means of violating Article 104 that imposes an intent requirement.

But does anyone actually believe that Manning’s intent was to ensure receipt of this material by the Taliban, as opposed to exposing for the public what he believed to be serious American wrongdoing and to trigger reforms?

Jazz Shaw:

The “aiding the enemy” charge should come as no surprise to anyone, and in fact we had predicted it would come down to treason last winter. Despite the poo-pooing and endless protestations of some of Manning’s most vocal and frequently comical defenders, there is one object lesson here which can not be repeated often enough: the U.S. Military has zero sense of humor when it comes to things like this.

Assuming for the moment that this winds up in a conviction – and the Army is certainly acting like they’re playing a pretty solid hand at this point – the situation only becomes more explosive and holds the potential to be a huge thorn in the side of the Obama administration for months or years to come. Aiding the enemy during a time of war is generally considered one of the surest paths to a firing squad for obvious reasons, but it will leave the President in a sticky position.

If the military decides to drag Manning out back and shoot him – a distinct possibility – a significant portion of Barack Obama’s base will be in an uproar. They tend to be opposed to the death penalty in general, for starters. But Manning has also become something of a folk hero on the Left, allegedly helping – albeit indirectly – Julian Assange to “stick it to the man” and expose the various perceived evils of the American government. Allowing him to be executed would be a huge black eye for Obama with his base.

But if he steps in and commutes the sentence – assuming there is a legal mechanism for him to do so – then he will be seen as undercutting his own military establishment and substituting his judgment for their established practices and discipline. (Not to mention earning the tag of “going soft on traitors,” always a sure winner in an election year.)

Of course, the Army could let Obama off the hook and simply send Manning to Leavenworth for the rest of his natural life, but that’s not a great option either in terms of the political optics. Manning’s cheerleaders are already complaining about the “horrific” conditions he’s being held under and it’s only going to get worse after his conviction. (He might even lose his cable TV, library and newspaper privileges and private exercise yard.)

If convicted on the Big Count, Manning will never, ever be able to be transferred into the general military prison population and will, in all likelihood, spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement. Of all the scoundrels in legal history, traitors are probably the most unpopular with the enlisted rank and file. Dumped into a large crowd, Manning’s safety would be virtually impossible to assure. And that would leave the President with a “folk hero” of the Left locked up under the same – or worse – conditions than he’s in now for the rest of his time in office. This would be a burr under Obama’s saddle which would never go away.

It’s been a long and winding road, but it looks like we may be coming to the end of it. The Army moves at their own pace, as they should, but if they’ve filed charges now they probably feel like their case is just about ripe for presentation. Look for a court martial date to be announced in the coming weeks or months.

Emptywheel at Firedoglake:

While we can’t be sure, I suspect the reference in Charge II, Specification 3 is to this information about the surveillance of Assange.

If I’m right about that, then it means the government is charging Manning with providing WikiLeaks with information about the surveillance being conducted, in real time, on WikiLeaks. And it would make it easy to prove both that “the enemy” got the information and that Manning intended the “enemy” to get it.

So if the government maintains that, by virtue of being an intelligence target, WikLeaks qualifies as an “enemy,” then they can also argue that Manning intentionally gave WikiLeaks information about how the government was targeting the organization. Which would make their aiding the enemy charge easy to prove.

But I also think that opens up the government to charges that it is criminalizing democracy.

As I noted above, the government’s own report on WikiLeaks describes its purpose to be increasing the accountability of democratic or corrupt governments. The government, by its own acknowledgment, knows that WikiLeaks’ intent is to support democracy. Furthermore, while the intelligence report reviews the debate about whether WikiLeaks constitutes protected free speech or criminal behavior (without taking a side in that debate), in a discussion of WikiLeaks’ efforts to verify an NGIC report on the battle of Fallujah, the report acknowledges that WikiLeaks did the kind of thing journalists do.

Wikileaks.org and some other news organizations did attempt to contact the NGIC personnel by e-mail or telephone to verify the information.

[snip]

Given the high visibility and publicity associated with publishing this classified report by Wikileaks.org, however, attempts to verify the information were prudent and show journalist responsibility to the newsworthiness or fair use of the classified document if they are investigated or challenged in court.

So while the military, according to its own report, describes WikiLeaks as a threat to the armed forces, it also acknowledges that WikiLeaks has behaved, at times, as a journalistic organization.

Mind you, all of this is simply a wildarsed guess about what the government may mean with its invocation of the “enemy.” But if I’m right, it would mean the government was threatening Manning with life in prison because he leaked information about the government’s surveillance of what it admits is an entity that engages in journalistic behavior.

Doug Mataconis:

Personally, though, I don’t think it would be that difficult a position for the President. The number of people complaining about Manning’s treatment can basically be whittled down to the Glenn Greenwald segment of the President’s progressive base, and many of them don’t seem to understand that Manning’s rights as a military prisoner being prosecuted under the Uniform Code Of Military Justice are distinctly different from the rights he would be entitled to as a civilian defendant in a civilian court. Additionally, many of them don’t seem to think that he did anything wrong even if the charges against him are true. I dare to say that they do not represent a majority of the Democratic Party, and certainly not a majority of the country. If Bradley Manning is convicted of aiding the enemy, then I doubt many Americans are going to care what happens to him.

There’s one fact buried in the new charges that I’ve only seen reported in the MSNBC story on them, though:

Pentagon and military officials also report that investigators have made no direct link between Manning and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

This has been the case for months, despite digging by federal investigators in all directions, and it makes the probability that any charges will ever be sustained against Wikileaks, Julian Assange, or any related individuals, seem very remote indeed.

Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake:

Bradley Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, writes about the true reason Bradley Manning is being stripped each night and forced to report naked each morning in the same way prisoners were tortured at Abu Graib:

On Wednesday March 2, 2011, PFC Manning was told that his Article 138 complaint requesting that he be removed from Maximum custody and Prevention of Injury (POI) Watch had been denied by the Quantico commander, Colonel Daniel J. Choike.  Understandably frustrated by this decision after enduring over seven months of unduly harsh confinement conditions, PFC Manning inquired of the Brig operations officer what he needed to do in order to be downgraded from Maximum custody and POI.  As even Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell has stated, PFC Manning has been nothing short of “exemplary” as a detainee.  Additionally, Brig forensic psychiatrists have consistently maintained that there is no mental health justification for the POI Watch imposed on PFC Manning.  In response to PFC Manning’s question, he was told that there was nothing he could do to downgrade his detainee status and that the Brig simply considered him a risk of self-harm.  PFC Manning then remarked that the POI restrictions were “absurd” and sarcastically stated that if he wanted to harm himself, he could conceivably do so with the elastic waistband of his underwear or with his flip-flops.

Without consulting any Brig mental health provider, Chief Warrant Officer Denise Barnes used PFC’s Manning’s sarcastic quip as justification to increase the restrictions imposed upon him under the guise of being concerned that PFC Manning was a suicide risk.  PFC Manning was not, however, placed under the designation of Suicide Risk Watch.  This is because Suicide Risk Watch would have required a Brig mental health provider’s recommendation, which the Brig commander did not have.  In response to this specific incident, the Brig psychiatrist assessed PFC Manning as “low risk and requiring only routine outpatient followup [with] no need for … closer clinical observation.”  In particular, he indicated that PFC Manning’s statement about the waist band of his underwear was in no way prompted by “a psychiatric condition.”

While the commander needed the Brig psychiatrist’s recommendation to place PFC Manning on Suicide Risk Watch, no such recommendation was needed in order to increase his restrictions under POI Watch.  The conditions of POI Watch require only psychiatric input, but ultimately remain the decision of the commander.

Given these circumstances, the decision to strip PFC Manning of his clothing every night for an indefinite period of time is clearly punitive in nature.  There is no mental health justification for the decision. There is no basis in logic for this decision.  PFC Manning is under 24 hour surveillance, with guards never being more than a few feet away from his cell.  PFC Manning is permitted to have his underwear and clothing during the day, with no apparent concern that he will harm himself during this time period.  Moreover, if Brig officials were genuinely concerned about PFC Manning using either his underwear or flip-flops to harm himself (despite the recommendation of the Brig’s psychiatrist) they could undoubtedly provide him with clothing that would not, in their view, present a risk of self-harm.  Indeed, Brig officials have provided him other items such as tear-resistant blankets and a mattress with a built-in pillow due to their purported concerns.

This is just vile.  The former brig commander, James Averhart, violated military rules by putting Manning on suicide watch as punishment, and was subsequently replaced by Denise Barnes.  Now she’s stripping him naked to punish him for a sarcastic quip. Who is she, Nurse Ratched? Abusing someone’s mental health classification in order to subject them to torture “for their own good” is sick and sadistic, reminiscent of Soviet gulags.

Maybe she wants to become his “god.”

Alana Goodman at Commentary:

First, Lt. Brian Villiard, a Marine spokesman, confirmed that Manning’s clothes were taken from him, though he didn’t give many details of the incident, except to say that it wasn’t done for punitive reasons.

“It would be inappropriate for me to explain it,” Villiard told the New York Times. “I can confirm that it did happen, but I can’t explain it to you without violating the detainee’s privacy.”

This isn’t the first time that Manning’s lawyer has asserted that the private suffered abuse in prison, and it likely won’t be the last. It’s typical of attorneys to claim that their clients are mistreated in prison, and in a case like Manning’s, these types of allegations will be eaten up by his supporters.

But based on Villiard’s statement, and the timeline of the incident, it sounds like Manning’s clothes may have been taken from him owing to suicide concerns. The Army private was previously put on suicide watch in prison. His reaction to the new charges against him could have military officials apprehensive about his mental state.

Doug Mataconis:

As Glenn Greenwald notes, there really only seems to be one purpose behind what Manning is being subjected to:

Let’s review Manning’s detention over the last nine straight months: 23-hour/day solitary confinement; barred even from exercising in his cell; one hour total outside his cell per day where he’s allowed to walk around in circles in a room alone while shackled, and is returned to his cell the minute he stops walking; forced to respond to guards’ inquiries literally every 5 minutes, all day, everyday; and awakened at night each time he is curled up in the corner of his bed or otherwise outside the guards’ full view.  Is there anyone who doubts that these measures — and especially this prolonged forced nudity — are punitive and designed to further erode his mental health, physical health and will?  As The Guardian reported last year, forced nudity is almost certainly a breach of the Geneva Conventions; the Conventions do not technically apply to Manning, as he is not a prisoner of war, but they certainly establish the minimal protections to which all detainees — let alone citizens convicted of nothing — are entitled.

Moreover, Greenwald points out, correctly I think, the media seems to be giving the Obama Administration a pass here:

I’ll say this again:  just fathom the contrived, shrieking uproar from opportunistic Democratic politicians and their loyalists if it had been George Bush and Dick Cheney — on U.S. soil — subjecting a whistle-blowing member of the U.S. military to these repressive conditions without being convicted of anything, charging him with a capital offense that statutorily carries the death penalty, and then forcing him to remain nude every night and stand naked for inspection outside his cell.  Feigning concern over detainee abuse for partisan gain is only slightly less repellent than the treatment to which Manning is being subjected.

Indeed. It’s understandable, to be honest, why the right wouldn’t care all that much about how Private Manning is being treated. If this were happening under a Republican, though, the left would be united in outrage. Now, their silence is telling

Make no mistake about it. I do not consider Bradley Manning a hero in any sense of the word. Even if it were the case that much of the material that Manning stole from military computers should not have been classified, or really wasn’t all that important (and much of it wasn’t in the end), that isn’t a decision that a Private in the Army has a right to make. If the charges against him are true, he violated orders, accessed systems he had no right to access, and stole information that he had no right to take off base. If he’s convicted of these charges, he deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law. While he’s awaiting trial, though, and even after he’s convicted, he still must be treated humanely and, at present, Manning is receiving worse treatment than a Prisoner Of War would, and the only purpose behind it seems to be to break him psychologically. That’s simply unacceptable.

Jazz Shaw:

But can this treatment really be justified? There are two points to address on this front.

First and most simply put, Manning made the comment about being able to kill himself with his underwear, sarcastic or not. Can you imagine what would be said if the brig commander did nothing and then he actually did turn up dead in his cell by his own waistband? It would be a movable feast for the media and several careers would come to an abrupt end. How does the commander ignore something like that?

The second point is a bit more complicated and far less clear, and one that we’ve touched on here in the past. It boils down to some of the fundamental differences between civilian society and the military community. Just as civilians, used to all their freedoms of free speech, etc. don’t understand the restrictions on military personnel, those familiar with the civilian justice system are frequently shocked by many of the “unofficial” aspects of the U.C.M.J. Lots of things like this go on all the time in the military, or at least they used to back in the day. But normally you don’t have the civilian press watching and reporting on it.

Does that make it right? I leave that to the judgment of the reader.

Also, life in the military in general is just a bit more physical and harsh than in the civilian world. A lot of things happen which would probably shock many of you who have never served. In the Navy, for example, there is an old tradition of an initiation rite of passage the first time a sailor crosses the equator on a war ship. It is the time when you graduate from being a “pollywog” (or just “wog” for short) to being a “shellback.” Trust me, it’s an ordeal, usually lasting 24 hours or more.

The third time I made the passage, two enlisted men wound up in sick bay with broken arms. Everyone got to experience the joys of crawling through plastic chutes filled with garbage, rotting food and bilge water, all the while being “herded” by shellbacks wielding foot long lengths of fire hose, loving called, “shillelaghs.” (During my own initiation it took more than a week before the bruises finally faded.) And this is all for your friends who have done nothing wrong.

I’ll leave it for one of the veteran submarine sailors to tell you about the grand old tradition of having your dolphins “tacked on” if they wish to do so in comments.

So I suppose our final question is, does any of this make it acceptable for Manning to be treated in this fashion, either to cover the brig commander’s butt or for the sake of teaching a lesson to somebody mouthing off to their superiors? I really don’t know. Maybe we do need to shine a light on this and review military procedures, both official and “under the covers.” But I do know that life in the military community is a lot different than in the civilian world, and having lived it for a number of years myself, this story honestly didn’t shock me at all.

Andrew Sullivan:

There is only one word to describe the treatment of this model prisoner: sadism. Glenn Greenwald has been following the case closely and has two disturbing must-reads here and here. We all hoped that under Obama, brutal treatment of military prisoners and lies about it would end. In this case, they haven’t.

Megan McArdle:

I understand that Bradley Manning has probably done something very wrong, for which, if guilty, he deserves a hefty jail sentence and the contempt of his fellow citizens.  But this is not what a decent country does to its citizens.

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