Stupid Congress: 20 years of GOP war on congressional competence


Ever since Newt Gingrich consolidated power in 1995, purging any Congressional technical experts who might question his judgment, the GOP has waged war on intelligence in the halls of Congress, leaving an expertise void that has been filled by lobbyists, especially the Heritage Foundation, and an oversight void that hasn't been filled at all.

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Rich get richer, faster

A research report from business school professors at Imperial College, Columbia and U of Maryland found that wealthy investors get returns on bonds and stocks that are "up to 70 per cent times greater returns on their investments than those with modest wealth." This is a point that Piketty makes strongly, backing it up by analyzing data from the Harvard endowment, which gets 10% returns on its ~$80B nest-egg, while the rest of us barely clear inflation with our savings.

SWAT teams claim to be private mercenaries, immune to open records laws


The ACLU reports [PDF] that when it made Freedom of Information requests for Massachusetts SWAT team records, the SWATs claimed that because they were organized as "law enforcement councils" (jointly owned by many police departments, with additional federal funding) that they were not government agencies at all, but rather private corporations, and not subject to open records laws.

SWATs are the white-hot center of the increasingly brutal and militarized response of US police forces, which have outfitted themselves with ex-Afghanistan/Iraq military materiel and have deployed it in an escalating violent series of attacks, largely as part of the war on drugs. As Radley Balko writes in the Washington Post, the SWATs' claim to be private companies doesn't pass the giggle test: they are funded by the government, pay government employees, and do the government's business.

The argument boils down to this: we are not the police, we are private mercenaries armed with automatic weapons and military-grade vehicles and equipment, and when we attack and kill in the streets of American cities, we do so as private soldiers who happen to be funded by the police departments' budgets.

The ACLU is suing the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council to challenge this ruse, but even if they win, this should be setting off alarm bells for anyone who believes in good government and responsible policing. The cornerstone of democratic legitimacy is a duty to the public, with all the transparency and respect that implies. When police forces up and down the state structure themselves to create and exploit a loophole that lets them obscure the details of their most violent, most spectacular screw-ups -- which generally result in gruesome injuries and deaths to innocent members of the public -- there is no way they can claim to be acting in the public interest.

The fact that the city governments that oversee these departments and the federal agencies that fund the LECs have been complicit in this suggests that this isn't a matter of police overreach, but rather is a policy that goes literally all the way to the top of the policing regulatory structure in America.

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Lurking inside Obama's secret drone law: another secret drone law


Remember the secret memo explaining the legal justification for assassinating Americans with drones that the ACLU forced the Obama administration to release? Turns out that that memo relies on another secret memo that the Obama administration is also relying on. Obama is a no-fooling Constitutional scholar; you'd think that he'd be wise to the idea that secret law is not law at all.

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US inches towards decriminalizing phone unlocking


America's legal prohibition on phone unlocking has inched almost imperceptibly closer to reform, as a watered-down House bill approaches some kind of Senate compromise, that might, in a couple years, decriminalize changing the configuration of a pocket-computer that you own.

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How accounting forced transparency on the aristocracy and changed the world


In the 16th century, celebrated Dutch painters did a brisk trade in heroic portraits of accountants and their ledgers. That's because accounting transformed the lowlands, literally bringing accountability to the aristocracy by forcing them to keep track of, and report on, their wealth. As Jacob Soll (author of The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations) writes in the Boston Globe, from the 14th century invention of double-entry bookkeeping until the 19th century -- when accounting became a separate profession instead of something that every educated person was expected to practice -- accountancy upended the social order, elevating financial transparency to a primary virtue.

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Illinois State Cops blew $250K on "terrorist-catching" Stingray surveillance gadgets


Michael says, "New documents released on MuckRock show the Illinois State Police crying "Terrorist" in order to get funding and approval for a $250,000 Stingray cell snooping system, even though, as Mike Masnick at Techdirt notes, the technology is being used to fight regular crime. The terms of service on the device actually prevent officers from seeking a warrant to use it. MuckRock currently has a crowdfunding campaign to fund similar requests across the country."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt wants YOU to support Mayday.US and fight Congressional corruption

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has recorded this video message endorsing the Mayday.US super PAC, through which Lawrence Lessig and supporters are raising $5 million in small-money donations to elect lawmakers who will promise meaningful reforms of campaign finance law to curtail the undue influence of money on politics. The cynics say that lawmakers like getting bribes in exchange for bad policy, but the reality is that lawmakers are locked in an awful, brutal arms-race to raise funds for the next election cycle, and devote most of their days in office to sucking up to plutocrats to raise money that they don't get to keep, but will have to blow on ever-more-lavish political campaigns. Limits on campaign spending will force politicians to focus on winning votes by introducing popular, sound policies, not by being puppets of the American plutocracy.

I'm not entitled to contribute to Mayday.US (I'm a foreigner), but if you are, I would consider it a personal favor if you'd kick in a couple extra bucks for those of us who worry about American politics but don't get a direct say.

(via Lessig)

Steve Wozniak wants you to support Mayday.US and get money out of politics

Apple co-founder, nerd legend, and all-round Good Guy Steve Wozniak has recorded an excellent video explaining why he's supporting Larry Lessig's Mayday.US super PAC, which is raising $5M to elect lawmakers who'll promise to vote to abolish super PACs and effect major campaign finance reform.

Wozniak draws the connection between big money in politics and the overall corruption that gave us SOPA, NSA surveillance, cable company fuckery, and other horribles that arise when the only way to get elected is by sucking up to a tiny elite of the zottarich.

I am not a US citizen and I can't contribute to Mayday. If you are, I hope you will consider giving to the campaign, and throw in a couple extra bucks for me.

Mayday.US

Greenhouse: browser plugin that automatically annotates politicians' names with their funders

Greenhouse is a browser plugin created by Nicholas Rubin, a 16-year-old programmer. It seeks out the names of elected US officials on any web-page you load in your browser and adds a pop-up link to their names listing the major donors to their campaigns. It uses 2012 election-cycle data drawn from Opensecrets's repository.

I've long suggested something like this as a way of improving political coverage. Indeed, you could imagine it going both ways -- any time the name of a company or individual who had made some big campaign contributions shows up in a webpage, you get a list of their political beneficiaries. Ideally, this would be an open framework to which data from any political race could be added.

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Public opinion of Congress reaches a new low

A new Gallup poll on Americans' attitudes towards their institutions finds the nation in a massive crisis of confidence, with low levels of confidence in many institutions. Congress's public perception continues to fall, reaching an all-time low of 7%.

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NSA helps foreign governments conduct mass surveillance at home


A new release of Snowden's leaked NSA docs detail RAMPART-A, through which the NSA gives foreign governments the ability to conduct mass surveillance against their own populations in exchange for NSA access to their communications. RAMPART-A, is spread across 13 sites, accesses three terabytes/second from 70 cables and networks. It cost US taxpayers $170M between 2011 and 2013, allocated through the NSA's "black budget."

The NSA makes its foreign partners promise not to spy on the USA using its equipment and in return, agrees not to spy on its partners' populations (with "exceptions"). However, as was documented in Glenn Greenwald's indispensable No Place to Hide, the NSA has a simple trick for circumventing any promises not to spy on its partners' populations.

"No Place to Hide" revealed a list of 33 "third party" countries that assist the NSA in conducting mass surveillance, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, Singapore, Ethiopia, and 15 EU member states. These countries do not allow the NSA to spy on their own countries, but the NSA exploits a loophole to conduct this surveillance anyway: it will strike an agreement with Country A, on one end of a high-speed cable not to spy on it population, and with Country B, on the other end of the cable, not to spy on its population, but will conduct mass surveillance of Country A's communications from Country B and vice-versa.

How Secret Partners Expand NSA’s Surveillance Dragnet [Ryan Gallagher/The Intercept]

Former FCC commissioner to Washington: "You should be ashamed of yourself"


Former FCC commissioner Michael Copps has publicly excoriated Congress and the FCC for the state of Internet access in America, which he called "insanity," saying that America's political class "should be ashamed of ourselves." Copps was speaking at a DC event examining the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which created the short-lived practice of requiring American telcoms operators to share their lines with new entrants, allowing many competing DSL providers to flourish. This practice ended in 2005, and led to today's situation in which most Americans have 0, 1 or 2 broadband options.

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Best-paid CEOs perform the worst


In Performance for Pay? The Relation Between CEO Incentive Compensation and Future Stock Price Performance , a paper from U of Utah business-school professors, the relationship between executive performance and executive pay is intensively investigated. The authors carefully document that the highest-paid executives in the 1,500 companies with the biggest market cops from 1994-2013 perform the worst, and that the higher a CEO's pay, the more likely it is that he'll perform worse than his low-paid colleagues. The effect was most pronounced in the 150 highest-paid CEOs.

The authors propose that sky-high pay leads CEOs to be overconfident -- after all, if they're getting $37M for a year's work, they must be pretty damned smart, so anyone who disagrees with them is clearly an idiot, after all, look at how little that critic is paid! The longer a CEO is in office, the worse his performance becomes, because he is able to pack the board with friendly cronies who keep hiking his pay and overlooking his underperformance. And CEOs suck at figuring out when to exercise their stock options, generally getting less money than they would by following conventional financial advice.

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After federal document-snatch, ACLU case over Florida cops' phone surveillance collapses

After US marshalls raided a Florida police department to seize documents about to be revealed in an ACLU case over "stingray" mobile phone surveillance, we knew that the case was endangered. Now the worst has happened: state circuit court judge Charles Williams has thrown out the case because he says his court has no jurisdiction over federal agents, so he can't order the critical documents to be returned, so there's no case.

The feds have offered a limited, sealed disclosure to the Florida court, and the ACLU has vowed to fight to unseal them and carry on with the case.

At issue is the widespread police use of "stingray" devices that spoof mobile phones, tricking them into revealing information about their owners' movements, communications, associations, and identity.

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