Monday, April 26, 2010

Bilking People

Unless your business model depends on bilking people, there is little to fear from these new rules. 
-- President Barack Obama, 
In this week's Sift:
  • Glenn Beck is Conspiring with God. I was debating whether to go public with my hunch that Fox News is turning into a cult. And then Glenn Beck announced: "God is giving a plan to me."
  • Arizona's Occupied Territories. The new immigration law is going to isolate police, not illegal immigrants.
  • The Creativity of Goldman Sachs. It no longer goes without saying that business creativity is a good thing.
  • Short Notes. Anderson Cooper discovers the existence of facts. Jon Stewart's feud with Fox goes gospel. White privilege and the Tea Party. Why Lindsey Graham must be gay. And more.

Glenn Beck is Conspiring With God
When I wrote that piece about Fox News last week (The Doublethink Network), I thought about writing a longer piece where that incident was just one example of a larger shift at Fox: They used to be a propaganda network, but recently they've been acting more like a cult. I decided that thesis was too speculative and too based on my own subjective impressions, so it didn't make the cut. But Tuesday brought an even better example, so I'm going to run with it.

Here's the distinction I had in mind: Propaganda is about winning arguments in the larger community, while cultism is about walling yourself off from the larger community. Propaganda is designed to compete with other news sources, but cults aim for a controlled environment where the world is shut out and the audience will only hear one voice.

As a result, propagandists are careful with their lies. When I was a student, I used to practice my German by occasionally picking up the East German paper Neues Deutschland, which the university bookstore carried for some reason. I never caught them in a lie (not that I tried very hard). Instead, they created their illusions through selection and omission. 

ND's stories about the United States, for example, were all true: They wrote about serial killers, inner-city neighborhoods being destroyed by drugs, hungry children in poor rural areas, political corruption scandals, and so on. They made the U.S. sound like a hell-hole, but they did it by carefully spooning out the truth. (This is one of the most misunderstood features of the Big Lie technique. The Big Lie is not just audacious, it's conceptually big, like the idea that America is a hell-hole or that the Jews betrayed Germany in World War I. No single fact can refute it. The smaller and more observable the fact, the more truthful the propagandist needs to be. So you can get away with calling Obama a Communist, but you can't get away with calling him fat.)

Now, I doubt there was ever a period where Fox was quite that circumspect; they've always lied to a certain extent. But the main thrust of their propaganda has been selection and omission. They took quotes out of context. They emphasized stories that supported their worldview and minimized stories that didn't. They provided an uncritical platform for other people to lie. But the lies Fox told directly were usually at a higher level: Through selection and omission, they assembled baseless and fanciful stories.

A propagandist behaves that way because an observable lie creates a vulnerability. The propagandist has competition, and he'll lose to that competition if they can expose him telling clear lies.

When a propagandist does get caught in a lie, he wants the story to go away and be forgotten. So the #1 defense is just to go on: Find another bright and shiny story for your audience to jump to. If you can't get away that, you fog the story up: Roll your eyes and imply that your critics are lying without accusing them of anything specific. ("That liberal media, what else can you expect?") Or you can exaggerate and distort the accusations made against you, expand the target, and then be outraged by the distortions you just projected onto your critics. ("How dare they compare our troops to the Nazis!") If you think you can't even get away with that, your last resort is to admit the error, but deny any bad intent. (When Sean Hannity was caught switching tapes to exaggerate the size of a health care protest rally, he said it was "an inadvertent mistake".)

What you don't do is bring the issue to a sharper point, implicitly admit that what you're accused of saying was  a lie, and claim that you never said it even though it's on tape and your audience probably remembers you saying it anyway. That's the behavior I was describing last week in Bill O'Reilly. (Commenter DavidWinSF expands the point to the larger conservative movement, pointing to John McCain saying "I never considered myself a maverick.")

That's cult behavior -- a bald reality-is-what-I-say-it-is claim.

Subjectively, I think I've been seeing more of it than I used to. If I had to put a beginning date on it, two events stand out: Obama's election and the rise of Glenn Beck over the earlier Fox stars like O'Reilly and Hannity. I think they're related: The failure of Bush and Obama's election created the conditions for Beck to come into his own. 

Pre-Beck, Hannity and O'Reilly were propagandists. They were charismatic (Hannity) and avuncular (O'Reilly) proponents of a pre-existing conservatism. There is no unique Hannity worldview or O'Reilly worldview. They got their talking points from elsewhere, and they ran with them.

Beck is different. What Beck offers is not conservative spin, but occult knowledge. There is a hidden order to the world, one that only Glenn Beck has been able to figure out. Often his reasoning sounds more like The DaVinci Code than like the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation. He interprets symbols no one else is paying attention to (Beck here, rational response here), finds a sinister conspiracy in a public alliance of labor and environmental groups to promote green jobs, and even reads significance into random assemblages of letters. (South Park parody here.)

That's on TV. His radio show (Premiere, not Fox) is even wiggier. And that brings me to the example that convinced me to go ahead and write this. Tuesday (audiopartial transcript) Beck started talking about a caller who asked him to just put out his "plan". He says he's working on it. But then he says something more: He's not working on it, he's getting it from God.
The problem, I think, is that God is giving a plan to me that is not really a plan. ... The problem is that I think the plan that the Lord would have us follow is hard for people to understand. ... Because of my track record with you, I beg of you to help me get this message out, and I beg of you to pray for clarity on my part. The plan that He would have me articulate, I think, to you is “Get behind me.” And I don’t mean me, I mean Him. “Get behind Me. Stand behind Me.”
Beck goes on to talk about the Founders. His impression of them is that they knew God was acting through them and so they just got out of the way and let Him work. (I wonder what Beck's supposed hero Thomas Paine -- author of the skeptical classic The Age of Reason -- would think about that.)
They just stood where they were supposed to stand and they said the things that they were supposed to say as He directed. ... But that’s what He’s asking us to do is to stand peacefully, quietly, with anger, quiet with anger, loudly with truth. 

Faith is the answer. Get on your knees, don’t let it take a September 11th, get on your knees, please, I don’t care what church you go to, no church at all, I don’t care. Turn to Him.
This is the most popular guy on Fox, the one the others are starting to imitate. He is the biggest single influence on the Tea Party crowd, the biggest difference between them and Americans who are otherwise demographically identical.

And he's not a propagandist. He's a cult leader.
An earlier version of this article drew some comment on Daily Kos.

Arizona's Occupied Territories
Our news media serves us worst when emotions are running high. This week I saw a lot of coverage of Arizona's harsh new law targeting illegal immigrants, both before and after Governor Brewer signed it Friday. But coverage focused mostly on fear: Hispanics' fear of a Gestapo-type regime where legitimate citizens and legal aliens will have to carry documentation at all times, and white Arizonans' fear about violent crime near the border.

So while it was easy to find discussion of the bill, it was comparatively hard to figure out what it would actually do, and what Arizona law has been like up until now. Wikipedia does a good job here, and the Christian Science Monitor notes
Currently, officers can inquire about a person’s immigration status only if that person is a suspect in another crime.
The text of the law expands this to require an immigration status inquiry during "any lawful contact" with a police officer if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the United States illegally. Guidelines for "reasonable suspicion" haven't been issued yet. Governor Brewer says "racial profiling is illegal." But whether they call it racial profiling or not, no one doubts that this law will result in Hispanic citizens being hassled in situations where whites would be left alone.  

Brewer refused to get pinned down about what would raise police suspicion, saying "I do not know what an illegal immigrant looks like." But the bill's main sponsor admits that appearance "certainly may be a factor." And another supporting legislator told Chris Matthews that police 
will look at the kind of dress you wear, there’s different type of attire, there’s different type of—right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes.
Translation: Professional-class Hispanics who keep their appearance up to snuff don't have to worry (unless they run into cops who just want to hassle them -- which happens). But if you're brown-skinned and like to wander around in jeans and t-shirts, then you'd better carry documentation.

And that's where I lose the drift. If the bill has any justification at all, it's one of those difficult trade-offs between liberty and safety -- complicated by the fact that the people who are hoping for more safety (whites) are different from the people being asked to accept less liberty (Hispanics). But if the problem is Mexican drug violence crossing the border, I don't see how this helps. I'm sure cartel hitmen can afford to dress well.

Let's back up and look at the immigration problem a little more abstractly. In general, law is strongest when both morality and community are on its side. Murder laws, for example, are uncontroversial because people generally agree that murder is wrong and that murderers have gone beyond the pale. We're happy to have the law stand between us and the murderers.

But law is weakest when morality and community pull against it. If people like me are being arrested for things that don't seem wrong to me, then I'm going to cooperate with police as little as I can. Maybe I'd turn in my brother if he were a murderer (like David Kaczynski turned in his brother when he realized that Ted was the Unabomber), but if all he did was come to America looking to work hard and make a better life for himself and his family ... well, that's a little different. If the law forces me to choose, it may not like the choice I make.

That's why so many local police (with a few exceptions) have been content to let immigration be a federal problem. They want the Hispanic community to see them as protectors, not as enemies. They want the community's cooperation in solving murders, thefts, and other unambiguous crimes -- precisely the sort of crimes that Arizona's white community claims to be up in arms about.

But that's not an option any more in Arizona if this law get enforced (which is doubtful). "Any lawful contact" means not just with suspects, but with victims and witnesses as well. So if a murderer walks into your bar and you call the police, then every poorly dressed Hispanic in the room is going to have his immigration status checked. Maybe it's not worth it.

In poor Hispanic neighborhoods, the likely result is that police will be isolated, not illegal immigrants. These neighborhoods may come to resemble occupied territories like the West Bank or the Sunni Triangle before the Surge. The police will be a (largely) white occupation army, enforcing white law on a community of locals who are automatically suspected of being in league with the bad guys. In such an environment the real bad guys -- soldiers of the Mexican drug cartels -- will hide more easily.
Policing an occupied territory is expensive, and the bill does not give local police any new funding. Like most states, Arizona is looking at a serious budget deficit.

That deficit will get worse if there is an economic boycott of Arizona. (I know I've vacationed in Sedona in the past, but Santa Fe is a nice place too.) The most interesting boycott question concerns Major League Baseball, where about 1/3 of the players are Hispanic and about half the teams have spring-training camps in Arizona. The 2011 All Star Game is currently slated for Phoenix. Will Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols be there? With documentation?
Stephen Colbert:
It's like they're saying that harassing Latinos with racial profiling is an inevitable side-effect of this law. It's not. It's the entire point of this law.

The Creativity of Goldman Sachs
I assume you have heard that the government is suing Goldman Sachs for fraud. The gist of the case is this: A hedge fund manager wanted to bet against the housing bubble, so he helped Goldman pull mortgages likely to fail into one big security (a CDO) which he could then sell short. Goldman then marketed the security without telling investors that it had been designed to fail by someone betting against it. (If it helps, the story has been set to music.)

Securities law is complicated enough that Goldman could get off, even if it did everything the SEC claims. But the case both cause and symbol of a deeper change in the public discussion. Until very recently (even after the 2008 financial meltdown) the conventional wisdom has stuck by the idea that regulation is a drag on economic growth because it "stifles business creativity" or some such thing. If government regulation caused bank profits to go down, that would be the expected bad result.

Lately, though, it has become OK to say in public that the financial sector is parasitic, and that a decline in financial-sector profits might be a good thing. That may seem obvious, but the idea seldom appeared in mainstream publications until about a year ago when The Atlantic published "The Quiet Coup": an IMF economist putting forward the thesis that "recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform." In his recent book Freefall, Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz writes:
An outsized financial sector's profits may come at the expense of the prosperity and efficiency of the rest of the economy.
And Paul Krugman added a week ago:
the fact is that much of the financial industry has become a racket — a game in which a handful of people are lavishly paid to mislead and exploit consumers and investors. And if we don’t lower the boom on these practices, the racket will just go on.
Increasingly, it looks like financial products became complicated not to meet the demands of a complex world, but because complicated products create more opportunities for fraud and various legal forms of bamboozlement. The government should encourage engineers and artists to be creative, but it should discourage the creativity of con-men. Financial creativity can go either way, which is why it needs regulation.

What's remarkable isn't the opinion, but that respectable people will say it out loud now.

Short Notes
This was a great week for political humor and satire. One of the week's funniest clips was intended to be serious: Anderson Cooper interviewed Arizona state legislator Cecil Ash who pushed the so-called "birther amendment" demanding that future presidential candidates produce a birth certificate before getting on the ballot. Cooper scorches Ash, to the point that the whole interview is LOL funny. When Ash claims "nobody can deny that there's been a controversy" about President Obama's birth and citizenship, Cooper responds: "There's a controversy about everything ... but there are things called facts."

Jon Stewart's feud with Fox News is getting hilariously out of hand. It started on Tax Day, when Stewart began by agreeing with Fox talking heads' assessment that the media was stereotyping the Tea Party, but then switched to a series of clips of the same talking heads stereotyping liberals. That led up to Jon's conclusion: "Go f**k yourselves."

Well, Bernie Goldberg counter-attacked on Bill O'Reilly's show.
If you want to be a good [social commentator], you'd better find some guts. ... You're not nearly as edgy as you think you are. You're just a safe Jay Leno with a much smaller audience. 
Stewart's answer Tuesday culminated with an appearance of the Go F**k Yourself Gospel Choir.

If you've had trouble explaining (or understanding) the concept of white privilege, a good place to start is Tim Wise's article "Imagine if the Tea Party Was Black."
Imagine that hundreds of black protesters were to descend upon Washington DC and Northern Virginia, just a few miles from the Capitol and White House, armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns, and ammunition. And imagine that some of these protesters —the black protesters — spoke of the need for political revolution, and possibly even armed conflict in the event that laws they didn’t like were enforced by the government? Would these protesters — these black protesters with guns — be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic? 
For that matter, imagine hundreds of armed HIspanics marching on Phoenix threatening revolution if the new Arizonan immigration law is enforced. Are they patriotic Americans defending their rights against a rapacious government, or something less savory?
To ask any of these questions is to answer them. Protest is only seen as fundamentally American when those who have long had the luxury of seeing themselves as prototypically American engage in it. When the dangerous and dark “other” does so, however, it isn’t viewed as normal or natural, let alone patriotic. ... And this, my friends, is what white privilege is all about. The ability to threaten others, to engage in violent and incendiary rhetoric without consequence, to be viewed as patriotic and normal no matter what you do, and never to be feared and despised as people of color would be, if they tried to get away with half the shit we do on a daily basis.

An anti-immigration activist knows why Lindsey Graham doesn't side with him: The Left must be blackmailing Graham by threatening to out him as gay. And Stephen Colbert responds: "If Lindsey Graham found men sexually attractive, why would he hang out with Joe Lieberman?"
Here's a legal fine point the Christian Legal Society is trying to sell the Supreme Court: It's wrong to discriminate against blacks or women because you're bigoted against them, but if you just honestly believe they're inferior, that's different.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Taking Sides

They say in Harlan County
there are no neutrals there.
You'll either be a union man
or a thug for J. H. Blair.
Which side are you on, boys?
Which side are you on?
-- Florence Reece, Which Side Are You On?, 1931
In this week's Sift:
  • Connecting the Dots: Economy, Anger, Racism, Policy. A labor leader's speech at Harvard does a rare job of pulling it all together.
  • The Sift Bookshelf: Two Books on Social Justice. Unjust Deserts explains what's wrong with the it's-my-money argument against taxation. The Moral Underground reveals how middle-class people subvert the system when they see the reality of life among the working poor.
  • Thanks, Everybody. My April 15 message about how I benefit personally from tax-supported programs. Probably you do too.
  • The Doublethink Network. Learn from Bill O'Reilly: If people catch you making up facts, make up some more facts to prove them wrong.
  • Short Notes. Why airliners avoid ash clouds. The short supply of first-rate sociopaths. Who covers rural stories? Confederate History Month. Could Protestants be locked out of the Supreme Court? And more. 

Connecting the Dots: Economy, Anger, Racism, Policy
Two Wednesdays ago, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave a speech at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He put his finger on our economic problem in one sentence:
[F]or a generation we have built our economy on a lie -- that we can have a low-wage, high-consumption society and paper over the contradiction with cheap credit funded by our foreign trading partners and financial sector profits made by taking a cut of the flow of cheap credit.
Naturally, he says, people are angry about the results of this misguided policy -- lack of jobs, stagnant wages, unpayable debts, lack of opportunity for hard-working people. For similar reasons people were angry during the Depression, both here and in Germany. The question then was how that anger would be expressed: in violence against each other, or in united action to fix problems through the democratic process. 
Why did our democracy endure through the Great Depression? Because working people discovered it was possible to elect leaders who would fight for them and not for the financial barons who had brought on the catastrophe. Because our politics offered a real choice besides greed and hatred. Because our leaders inspired the confidence to reject hate and charted a path to higher ground through broadly shared prosperity.

This is a similar moment. Our politics have been dominated by greed and the forces of money for a generation. Now, amid the wreckage that came from that experiment, we hear the voices of hatred, of racism and homophobia.
In a good speech, you identify a problem and describe what people-in-general have to do to solve it. In a great speech, you bring it home. You look your audience in the eye and tell them what they have to do. You don't want people walking up the aisles in clumps saying, "What a good speech!" You want individuals staring at the carpet silently, thinking "What am I doing?"

So Trumka could just wring his hands about those know-nothing demagogues on cable TV and talk radio, and the policy wonks at the Kennedy School would eat it up. He could settle for denouncing racism, homophobia, nativism, and all the other distractions and conspiracy theories that the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaughs throw in our way -- and probably get himself a standing ovation. 

That's not what he does. He brings it home:
At this moment of economic pain and anger, political intellectuals face a great choice -- whether to be servants or critics of economic privilege. And I think this is an important point to make here at Harvard. The economic elites at JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and the other big Wall Street banks are happy to hire intellectual servants wherever they can find them. But the stronger the alliance between intellectuals and economic elites, the more the forces of hatred -- of anti-intellectualism -- will grow. If you want to fight the forces of hatred, you have to help empower the forces of righteous anger.

And at this moment, the labor movement is working to give voice to the justified anger of the American people. We need help. We need public intellectuals who will help design the policies that will replace the bubble economy with a real, sustainable economy that works for all of us.

... Let me be clear: There is no excuse for racism and hatred. All Americans need to unite against it. The labor movement must be a powerful voice against it. But you cannot fight hatred with greed. Working people are angry -- and we are right to be angry at the betrayal of our economic future. Help us turn that anger into the energy to win a better country and a better world.
Which side are you on, Harvard? Are you going to keep churning out those talking heads who explain why working people have to tighten their belts and produce more for less money, and why it's right and just for all the economic growth to go to the top 1%? Or are you going to help envision an economy that works for everybody, and find the practical steps that will get us there?

And if you side with Wall Street, Harvard, don't get all huffy when ordinary people line up behind yahoos and hooligans. Don't wag your finger about how they just don't understand history or Econ 101. What other choice did you give them?

The Sift Bookshelf: Two Books on Social Justice
Put together, two well-written recent books tell a powerful story: 
  • Our economic system is unjust. What individuals receive has very little to do with what they earn as individuals
  • The injustice becomes undeniable when you look at the lives of the working poor. 
  • When middle class people have to deal with the working poor, many of them start subverting the system to mitigate that injustice.
The books are Unjust Deserts by Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly and The Moral Underground by Lisa Dodson. Each is about 200 pages and easy to read, but both have deep roots in academic research.

Unjust Deserts splits neatly into two halves. The first half is economic and explains the primary illusion of our market economy: Even though we get paid as individuals, most of the value in our paychecks comes from our participation in a system that we did not build ourselves, based on know-how largely inherited from past generations. 

We don't work harder or have more talent than Americans did in 1800, so that can't possibly be the basis for our much higher standard of living. And we didn't inherit this know-how as individuals, from the ancestors in our particular family trees. The knowledge base that has increased our productivity is primarily social. Our generation as a whole inherited it from previous generations.

And that raises the moral and political question discussed in the second half of Unjust Deserts: If this productive economic system is our common inheritance, what justifies extreme inequalities of wealth? Yes, people deserve to receive the value they personally create through their work and talent, but why should a few people also get the lion's share of the common inheritance?

Unjust Deserts argues that they shouldn't. Progressive taxation and social spending aren't some kind of theft, they're a (fairly feeble) attempt to restore the usurped inheritance. (I made this case independently last year -- after Unjust Deserts was published but before I had heard of it.)

The Moral Underground picks the story up from there. The poor are often portrayed as lazy welfare collectors, but a lot of them are in fact working much harder than the rest of us. They are stuck in low-wage jobs with little flexibility and no future, and they have to juggle that small amount of money and limited free time to take care of their children.

The dirty secret of our moral vision is that it has a class bias. Solid upstanding reliable citizens are supposed to maintain certain standards: They fulfill their commitments. They show up where they're supposed to be, ready to do what they've committed to do. People who can't or won't do that are judged to be deficient morally, not economically.

But all that showing-up-well-prepared requires a support system. You need reliable transportation. You need people to watch your kids when you have to be on the job. And most of all you need someone to cover for you during those small emergencies that happen to everybody: You get sick; your kid gets sick; the baby-sitter doesn't show up; there's a problem at school -- and so on.

Many of the working poor don't have that support system, so they're forced into choices that wealthier people in more flexible work environments don't have to make: Do you send a sick kid to school, leave her at home by herself, or stay home with her and get fired? Do you cut out on work early to make the bus, or rely on your 9-year-old to take care of the toddler until you can get home some other way? Do you bring the kids with you to your night job and hope that you can keep them safely out of sight while you fulfill your duties? No matter what you choose, you are immoral from somebody's point of view. You're a bad worker, a bad parent, or both.

When middle-class people are forced to confront the realities rather than the stereotypes of minimum-wage life, they are often shocked into subverting the system -- breaking company rules and sometimes breaking the law so that hard-working people are not punished for the impossible choices they are forced to make.

Lisa Dodson is a social scientist who researches that rule-breaking and tries to identify the unstated moral code that pushes otherwise law-abiding people to commit fraud, theft, and other crimes rather than participate in what they perceive as a greater injustice. Her book focuses focuses on three types of middle-class people who see the reality of life among the working poor: managers of low-paid workers, teachers, and health-care providers.

The Moral Underground's nitty-gritty stories humanize the theory in Unjust Desserts. What, for example, should teachers and principals do when a high-school student's performance suddenly collapses because her mother has gone back to Haiti to care for a dying grandmother, leaving the 16-year-old to manage three younger children? Should a doctor prescribe an unneeded drug to a Medicare-covered mother if that's the only way to get it to the uninsured daugher who does need it? Should a store manager fake his employee's time card rather than fire him for going to a meeting demanded by his son's teacher?

The working poor should be heirs to the vast social inheritance of America, but they are not. They deserve not handouts and charity -- which they usually don't get either -- but a fair social contract: In exchange for your hard work, you can not only survive, but thrive. You can raise children and give them a chance to thrive as well.

If your intuition tells you there's something fundamentally unfair about our economic system, Unjust Deserts explains why you're right. And if you feel driven to subvert that unjust system in your everyday life, The Moral Underground tells you that you're not alone.
J. K. Rowling is a billionaire now, but she can't vote Tory because she remembers belonging to the working poor:
Nobody who has ever experienced the reality of poverty could say “it’s not the money, it’s the message”. When your flat has been broken into, and you cannot afford a locksmith, it is the money. When you are two pence short of a tin of baked beans, and your child is hungry, it is the money. When you find yourself contemplating shoplifting to get nappies, it is the money.

Thanks, Everybody
Thursday was April 15, so I assume that Sift readers have either filed their tax returns or asked for an extension. Every year around this time the newspapers are full of columns about the evils of our tax system and how the government wastes our hard-earned money. So I thought I'd say something different.

Thank you, taxpayers.

I grew up hearing the story of how my grandfather stalled his Depression-era creditors long enough for Roosevelt's federal farm loan program to take effect. So our 160-acre farm didn't get foreclosed, my father farmed it all through my childhood, and my parents still own it today. Thank you.

I went to a public high school and a state university. My graduate education was paid for by a National Science Foundation fellowship. Thanks.

I've lived with the benefit of government regulation all my life. My food has been inspected. My drugs have been tested. The SEC has kept an eye on the people who sell me investments. The FDIC has kept my bank accounts secure. God knows how many unsafe or fraudulent products were taken off the shelves before I could make the mistake of buying them. Thanks.

My wife has had cancer twice and survived both times. I've never traced the history of the drugs and procedures that saved her life, but I'll bet there's a lot of federally-funded basic research involved. Thanks.

The air I breathe and the water I drink are cleaner than when I was in grade school -- I was 12 the last time the Cuyahoga River caught fire -- because laws to clean them up were passed and enforced. Thanks.

I drive on interstate highways in cars that are safe because government regulators forced the car companies (kicking and screaming, usually) to make them safe. I ride in airplanes guided by federal air traffic controllers, often flown by pilots who learned their trade in the Air Force. And those planes probably wouldn't exist at all without research paid for by the Pentagon. Thanks.

My parents are in their upper 80s and failing. I live a thousand miles away, my sister only a little closer. I don't know how we'd manage without Social Security and Medicare. This past year several of my friends have been out of work. I'd have been seriously worried about them if not for unemployment insurance. Thanks.

Thanks for the Internet, which started out as a federal program. Thanks for taking care of the poor, so that I don't have to live in a place where people drop dead in the streets. Thanks for FEMA, which I haven't needed yet, but you never know. Thanks to the CDC for all those infections that I haven't been exposed to. Thanks for the National Weather Service. Thanks for the national parks. 

I'm sure I left some stuff out, but you get the idea. Thank you for paying your taxes. Thank you for participating in this society where we take care of each other, and where we buy stuff collectively that none of us could buy as individuals. (The free market can give us Disneyworld, but it takes a government to give us Yellowstone or Yosemite.)

Every day, I read about a government that gives us nothing and steals our money, money that we earned by our own individual hard work, without any help at all. Maybe someday NASA will discover the planet those writers live on. When it does, let's not go there.

The Doublethink Network
When somebody nails you for making facts up, don't apologize. That's wimpy. This is your fantasy world and you can't let people push you around in it. Go make up some new facts to bash the person who nailed you.

Learn from the master, Bill O'Reilly. When Republican Senator Tom Coburn reassured a constituent that she wouldn't go to jail if she didn't buy health insurance, he strongly implied she must have gotten that false information from Fox News. That ticked O'Reilly off. Nobody at Fox, O'Reilly told Coburn, had ever said people would go to jail if they didn't have health insurance.
It doesn't happen [on this show], and we researched to find out if anybody on Fox News had ever said you're going to jail if you don't buy health insurance. Nobody's ever said it.
Nobody. Well, TPM's researchers must be more thorough than O'Reilly's, because they put together more than three minutes worth of clips in which one Fox talking head after another -- including Glenn Beck being interviewed by O'Reilly himself -- says that people will go to jail if they don't buy health insurance.

I'm wondering how the doublethink works. How long does it take Fox viewers to go from "You can go to jail -- I heard it on Fox" to "Where does that Tom Coburn get off? Nobody at Fox ever said you could go to jail!"? Is it instantaneous or is some kind of process required? And is the jail meme dead now or just inactive? Could O'Reilly go back to claiming the health care bill puts people in jail and have his fans make the switch with him? How quickly?

Short Notes
Cocktail Party Physics explains why airliners can't fly through volcanic ash clouds: A jet engine's combustion chamber melts the ash particles, which then stick to its turbine blades. Eventually the engine stops. (In addition to an ash cloud, the Iceland eruption is producing some great pictures.)
KFC's new Double Down -- two chicken patties surrounding cheese and bacon -- sounds like the unhealthiest sandwich ever, but it can't hold a fat-dripping candle to Wendy's Triple Baconator.

A former CEO passes on this interesting theory of why CEOs make so much money. It really is supply and demand, but not the way some economists would have you believe:
the CEOs of the world largest corporations daily make decisions that destroy the lives of many other human beings. Only about 1 to 3 percent of [people] are sociopaths-- people who don't have normal human feelings and can easily go to sleep at night after having done horrific things. 
The other skills a CEO needs are rare enough, but when you add in sociopathy it becomes a hard slot to fill.

I just ran across The Rural Blog, based at the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Issues and Community Journalism. It's mostly an aggregator rather than a source of original stories, but it aggregates stuff that you can miss if you just read big-city papers. Want to know the connection between union-busting and mine safety? The investigative journalism that won a Pulitzer for the tiny Bristol Herald Courier? What Obama's education people don't get about rural schools? What actual Kentuckians think of FX's new Harlan-County-based series Justified? Rural Blog's got it covered.

I had to smile at the implied smugness of Rural Blog's recent coverage of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. It's as if they're saying "You city folks just noticed this guy, did you?" Yes, RB, I did just notice him.

Yet another panel says Climategate amounted to nothing: "We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit."  
Stephen Colbert and Ta-Nehisi Coates comment on Confederate History Month.

Rick Perlstein's piece on the Tea Party is worth a read. This "spontaneous grass-roots anger" shows up like clockwork every time a Democratic administration takes office.
John Paul Stevens is the only Protestant on the Supreme Court, serving with six Catholics and two Jews.
The death toll at Big Branch Mine is only twice the daily national average of workplace deaths.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Without Angels

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
-- James Madison, The Federalist #51

In this week's Sift:
  • Executive Power I: Assassinations. There's a target list at the CIA. If your name were on it, people would come to kill you. That should bother you, even if you're pretty sure your name isn't on the list. Can we get this changed before the Palin administration takes office?
  • Executive Power II: Domestic Spying. On Inauguration Day, President Obama was well positioned to make a clean break with his predecessor's legal justifications of warrantless wiretapping. He didn't.
  • The Mine Disaster. It's another example, if you needed one, that corporations value profit more than their workers' lives.
  • Taxes, Terrorism, and the Washington Times. WT columnist Richard Rahn explains why the IRS is like the SS, why violence against civil servants is a justifiable response, and why IRS employees shouldn't try to get away with a Nuremberg defense. I have a different diagnosis of tax-day anger, and make a modest proposal for re-directing it.
  • Short Notes. I review The Family. Paul Krugman explains climate-change economics. John McCain was never a maverick. When the newspapers are gone, what will crazy people hoard? Jon Stewart covers Fox News' coverage of the nuclear treaty. Christie Wilcox breaks up with the Discovery Networks because of their relationship with that other woman. Newswipe presents the generic news report. And more.

Executive Power I: Assassinations
When I voted for Barack Obama, one of the major issues on my mind was executive power. In my pre-election Sift, two aspects of the Bush administration I wanted to bury were that it "asserts that it can imprison its own citizens indefinitely without trials" and it "spies on its own citizens without warrants".

Regular Sift readers know that I continue to support President Obama, and that in general I'm happy with how this hopey-changey stuff is working out. But on executive power issues I'm not happy. Obama has tended to use his power with more restraint than Bush did, but for the most part he has defended the expansive view of presidential power that the Bush administration put forward.

And that's not good enough. When I discussed these issues with Republicans during the Bush years, I always argued that the presidency needs to be kept under control even if you trust the person who happens to be president. I asked them to imagine Hillary Clinton becoming president and wielding the same powers Bush had established -- because you can't grant powers to a president you like, but imagine that those powers will magically go away when a president you don't like takes office. It's that government-of-laws-not-men thing.

Well, turn that around: If you don't want President Palin (or whoever the next conservative president might be) exercising expansive, extra-constitutional powers, the time to get rid of those powers is now, when we can hope for cooperation from the Right.

During the Bush years, the case that crystalized everything for me was Jose Padilla. Padilla is an American citizen who was arrested in 2002 at O'Hare Airport. He was held in solitary confinement and sensory deprivation (the Christian Science Monitor characterized his treatment as a "mental twilight zone"), but wasn't charged with a crime until 2006. During that time, the only thing justifying his detainment was a memo signed by President Bush declaring Padilla an enemy combatant.

I never argued that Padilla was an innocent victim or a nice guy. Maybe he was even the terrorist plotter the administration said he was. What bothered me was that legally, there was no difference between Padilla and me or you. If it was your name on that memo, then you'd have been in the brig in South Carolina with a hood over your head.

A presidential signature, and your whole life goes away. That's not right. That's not how America is supposed to be.

As in the Padilla case, it's entirely possible that al-Awlaki is a bad guy. He's a "radical" Muslim imam who is thought to be hiding in Yemen. Anonymous government sources tell the NYT that he's an Al Qaeda operative and a recruiter for Al Qaeda. He had a connection with the Fort Hood shooter and the underpants bomber. And recently he is supposed to have crossed the line from justifying terrorism theoretically to actual participation in terrorist plots. So now he's on a CIA "target list" -- which means he can be assassinated.

Everything they say about al-Awlaki might be true. But as far as any legal process is concerned, he's no different from you and me. If your name were on the same presidentially approved list at the CIA, then you could be assassinated too.

During the Bush years, this kind of thing was justified by daisy-chaining several arguments that individually make a certain amount of sense.
  • As commander-in-chief, the President has the powers that any subordinate commander would have.
  • On the battlefield, a military commander has the power to identify and kill the enemy. As long as he's not willfully targeting non-combatants, the laws of war grant him considerable benefit of the doubt.
  • The struggle with Al Qaeda is a war.
  • The battlefield in the war against Al Qaeda could be anywhere. For example, no one thought that the World Trade Center was a battlefield until the planes hit it, or that Fort Hood was a battlefield until Major Nidal started shooting.
  • Defining the limits of the battlefield is a military judgment to be made by military commanders.

Each point sounds sort of reasonable in isolation. But if you put it all together, the President has the power of life-and-death anywhere he thinks he does. It's up to him to decide where the battlefield is, and on that battlefield he can identify and kill the enemy.

You can imagine -- I usually do imagine -- that President Obama is trying to use this power responsibly. So if he thinks that the part of Yemen where al-Awlaki is hiding is a battlefield in the War on Terror, well, maybe it is. And maybe al-Awlaki is operating on that battlefield as an enemy of the United States. Maybe shooting him there really would be an act of war that would save innocent lives here.

But the Bush administration never drew any boundaries around this logic, and as far as I know the Obama administration hasn't either. So I don't see what stops President Obama (or some future president with less reason to like me) from deciding that my apartment building is the battlefield and that I am the enemy.

If Obama's good character is the only thing keeping him from killing me, then we have a government of men and not of laws. And if we have a government of men today, someday we will have a government of bad men. We need to get back to a government of laws before that happens.
Other people have been all over this: Glenn Greenwald. Marcy Wheeler. Newsweek.

Executive Power II: Domestic Spying
In December, 2007, candidate Obama said:
No more illegal wiretapping of American citizens.
We should have gotten him to define illegal. Foolishly, most liberals thought Obama was referring to a plain reading of the Fourth Amendment:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
In other words, we assumed illegal meant (or at least included) "without a warrant". It's debatable whether the Founders would have recognized a warrant from a secret court like FISA, but at least a FISA warrant is some kind of check on the executive branch.

The Obama Justice Department inherited all the suits against the government that were still unresolved on Inauguration Day. That would have been the moment to start over, or at the very least to ask judges for time to write a new policy. Instead, the Obama lawyers have mostly stuck with the same arguments the Bush lawyers made.

The hardest thing about controlling warrantless wiretapping is finding a case that a court can rule on. A court can't just decide on its own that the government is doing something illegal; it needs a suit filed by an actual victim of the illegal activity. But if the wiretaps are secret, how do you establish your victimhood?

In general you can't, but a variety of screw-ups have made it obvious that the Al-Haramain Foundation (a Saudi charity suspected of being an Al Qaeda front) was wiretapped, and the government has refused to produce a warrant. The Bush administration introduced the Catch-22 defense that the wiretapping program itself is secret, so Al-Haramain's lawsuit should be quashed by the state secrets privilege. (In other words: The state secret is the fact that the state is breaking its own laws. And this continues to be a state secret even after the New York Times wins a Pulitzer for exposing it.) The Obama administration has taken up that defense as if it were their own.

At the end of March, a federal judge rejected that argument, saying:
Under defendants’ theory, executive branch officials may treat FISA as optional and freely employ the SSP to evade FISA, a statute enacted specifically to rein in and create a judicial check for executive-branch abuses of surveillance authority.
The judge issued a summary judgment against the government. (Text here.) The case may be headed for the Supreme Court, though Marcy Wheeler thinks there are some hidden nuggets here that the government might be inclined to accept.
If it does go to the Supremes, by then a new Obama appointee may have replaced Justice Stevens, one of the most stalwart voices against excessive executive power. Glenn Greenwald outlines the ways in which one of the front-runners, Elena Kagan, would have more sympathy for the executive than Stevens did.

The Mine Disaster
I assume you're getting your primary coverage of the West Virginia mine disaster somewhere else. So I'll just add a few supplementary thoughts:

1. This is the current level of corporate ethics: If they can make money by killing their workers or customers, they will. It's not just a few bad apples; it's standard operating procedure. (See my review of Doubt is Their Product.) That's why we need unions and governments: As individuals, we're not powerful enough to stop corporations from killing us.

2. Current law is more concerned with protecting the mine owners from frivolous claims than protecting the lives of miners. Supposedly regulations were strengthened in 2006, but the conservative theory of regulation still prevails: The government needs to have an airtight case before it acts, and the company gets access to a multi-level appeal process before it has to respond -- no matter how urgent the issue is. The WaPo reports:
When weighing whether to put a mine in the pattern-of-violation category, federal regulators cannot count any contested violation, and they may consider only violations that have occurred within the past 24 months. Yet cases at the commission are taking an average of 27 months to resolve
So even though the mine that exploded had 11 times the national rate of safety violations during the past year, those violations didn't count yet because Massey Energy was still contesting them.

3. Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is a piece of work. In general I don't like to demonize individuals, but I'll make an exception here: This is a bad man. See Digby and Chuckie Corra for a more detailed case, or just watch him pose as a friend of labor while wearing a flag shirt at a teabagger rally and saying this:
Washington and state politicians have no idea how to improve miner safety. The very idea that they care more about miner safety than we do is as silly as global warming.
Because he cared so much about safety, 29 miners are dead. He cares about water pollution too. And West Virginia's mountains.

Taxes, Terrorism, and the Washington Times
Washington Times columnist Richard Rahn unloads a big heap of crazy about the IRS, comparing it to the SS and the KGB, and doing his best to justify violence against the ordinary folks who work there.
According to news accounts, attacks and threats against IRS personnel are rising, and unfortunately, this trend is likely to continue until there is a fundamental change in our tax laws and collection methods. People who do not have access to the media and cannot afford expensive tax lawyers sometimes reach such a level of frustration with the IRS that they resort to violent or irrational behavior.
Here's an idea: Maybe there'd be less violent or irrational behavior if we had a fundamental change in the irresponsible rabble-rousing of terrorist sympathizers like Richard Rahn.

Violence against IRS employees is no joke. Joe Stack crashed his plane into an IRS office just two months ago, killing Vernon Hunter and causing Ken Hunter to observe, "My Dad wasn't responsible for [Stack's] tax problems." But Rahn has an answer for that:
IRS officials and workers will say the tax code is not their fault - it is the fault of Congress - and they are only doing their jobs. It is unambiguously true that the tax code and IRS are creatures of Congress, with all of its self-dealing, corruption, ignorance and incompetence. But it also is true, and was made explicit at the Nuremberg trials, that those who carry out orders that they know to be wrong or should know to be wrong are not absolved of personal responsibility.
Nuremberg? Yeah, ruling that somebody's spare bedroom isn't really a home office is exactly like gassing Jews. Totally the same thing.

For the record: Taxes are low here compared to other wealthy countries. And personally, I've managed to do my own taxes for decades now without an expensive lawyer and without killing anybody. Here's my secret: I assume that to the extent I made money, I owe tax. The tax laws for ordinary people make a lot of sense from that point of view.

On the other hand, if you start with the view that government is trying to steal your money, that it is your moral responsibility to do everything you can to stop them from doing it, and that a person as clever as yourself ought to be able to win this game and not owe any tax -- then the tax form will drive you nuts.

Here's my suggestion: If April 15 drives you to "resort to violent or irrational behavior" don't go after IRS employees, go after the people who put those crazy ideas in your head. (That, by the way, is a joke. I don't want to hear about some Sift reader crashing a plane into the Washington Times. As satisfying as it is to imagine Rahn spending one day dealing with the same kind of fear he's inspiring in civil servants, two wrongs don't make a right.)

Rahn misses what's actually immoral about our tax code: The kind of income that rich people make (dividends and capital gains) is taxed at a 15% rate, while wages can be taxed at rates as high as 35%. (See page 89 of the 1040 Instructions.) Wage-and-tip-earners start paying a marginal rate higher than 15% when their taxable income crosses $34,000 for single people and $64,000 for married couples. So a waitress serving martinis to a table of hedge-fund managers may well be paying a higher marginal tax rate than her customers.

Here's a principle that should make as much sense to honest conservatives as it does to liberals: Income is income. Taxing different kinds of income differently distorts the economy because then people do tricks to turn one kind of income into another. The reason corporations get so tricky about stock options, for example, is that CEOs pay less tax on stock-option capital gains than if they made the same amount of money in salary.

Dwight Eisenhower used to be considered a mainstream Republican. During his administration the top tax rate was over 90%.
Conservatives are all about catching and punishing law-breakers ... unless they're rich. Fox News' Megan Kelly interviewed Rep. Steve King about the IRS' new unit focused on wealthy tax cheats, and together they raised a lot of sympathy for those poor, poor tax-cheating billionaires. If we make the rich obey the law, Kelly and King claim, they'll take their magical job-creating abilities elsewhere. "No one ever got a job from a poor person," King says.

Violence against census workers is no joke either.

Short Notes
My review of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power ended up focusing more on religion than politics. So I moved it to my religion blog, Free and Responsible Search.
Paul Krugman's article about the economics of climate change (Building a Green Economy in the NYT magazine) is long but worth it.
[O]nce you filter out the noise generated by special-interest groups, you discover that there is widespread agreement among environmental economists that a market-based program to deal with the threat of climate change — one that limits carbon emissions by putting a price on them — can achieve large results at modest, though not trivial, cost.

In February, the conservative media was claiming that a snowstorm in D.C. disproved global warming. Back when I was declaring this to be a stupid story, I predicted:
Undoubtedly next summer there will be a heat wave somewhere, and I doubt that Fox News or the Washington Times will present it as evidence that Gore was right after all.
My time estimate was off. Wednesday it hit 90 degrees in Boston, breaking the old April 7 record by four degrees. This comes right after New England's wettest March ever caused floods. No second thoughts from Fox or the Times.

Still, it's important not to answer stupid with stupid: Weather -- hot or cold, wet or dry -- isn't climate. Only long-term weather patterns are relevant to the global-warming discussion. This study, for example, looks at 60 years worth of Northeastern weather and concludes that storms with heavy rainfall are happening more and more often.

Thinking ahead: A Texas man filed for a restraining order against the police who might try to prevent him from using deadly force at an abortion clinic. The court forwarded the request to the FBI, who arrested him.

Remember that stuff from 2008 about John McCain being a maverick? You must have misheard. "I never considered myself a maverick," he says now. Gail Collins replies:
if you are planning to deny that you ever thought of yourself as a maverick, it would be better not to have subtitled one of your memoirs “The Education of an American Maverick.”

What unhyped journalism looks like: Dow Jones Crosses Intrinsically Meaningless Milestone.
BBC-4's Newswipe explains why news reports all look the same.
An Onion News Network panel discusses: How will the end of print journalism affect old loons who hoard newspapers?
If you want to get actual facts about issues like the new nuclear agreement with Russia, you're better off listening to a comedian than to Fox News.
Even Senator Coburn realizes you can't take Fox seriously. BTW, as much as I disagree with almost everything else Coburn does, I have to give him credit for smoothing the waters here. A woman at a public meeting is worried that she'll be put in jail for refusing health insurance, and Coburn not only calms her down, but goes on to say that Nancy Pelosi is a nice person.
A gay-friendly Presbyterian church in Houston was burned by an arsonist Thursday. Member Kevin Murphy reports: "We lost everything: two buildings, all our furniture, books, hymnals, a new piano, a wall of crosses from around the world and so many other things."

The Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund has an online petition asking Discovery Communications to drop its plans to air a "Sarah Palin's Alaska" series. And Christie Wilcox writes Discovery a break-up letter:
How dare you be with her and try to tell me that you haven't changed, that you're the same science-loving, environment-protecting network I fell in love with?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Meanwhile, in the Real World

I reject your reality and substitute my own. 
-- Adam Savage, Mythbusters
In this week's Sift:
  • Propaganda Lesson: A Manufactured Scandal Evaporates. A conservative scholar tried to show us that the stimulus was a big Democratic slush fund. Instead, she demonstrated how corporate money turns into right-wing propaganda. Plus updates on other fake scandals: ACORN, Climategate, and the thousands of new IRS agents Obama's going to hire. It all leads up to a Rachel Maddow rant worth sending to your conservative friends.
  • Recovery, Sort Of. Technically, the recession has been over for months and the stock market turned around a long time ago. Now it looks like the economy has finally started creating jobs again -- but not many of them. 
  • Catching Up With Pope Benedict. Not being very pro- or anti-Catholic, I lost track of the Church's pedophilia scandal several years ago. But when I heard people calling for the Pope to resign, I figured I'd better catch up.
  • Short Notes.  A California high school greets a hate group with song and celebration. Palin's April Fools joke. First thoughts about the iPad. Studies of lesbian birds. National Review convenes a white panel to figure out what's wrong with blacks. And more.

Propaganda Lesson: A Manufactured Scandal Evaporates
It's good to have Nate Silver on the job. 

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University recently published a study of how the stimulus funds were distributed. She noted that congressional districts represented by Democrats 
received 1.53 times the amount of awards that Republican[-represented district]s were granted
Blogging at National Review's The Corner, she was more direct:
Unemployment isn’t a factor, but politics is. Your stimulus dollars at work.
From there it was all over the conservative blogosphere. Allahpundit on Hot Air wrote sarcastically:
I’m sure everything’s kosher: Surely a president who showed such fierce resistance to special interests during the ObamaCare process wouldn’t let political considerations affect his stimulus awards.
Pretty damning, right? At water coolers around the country the message was getting out: The stimulus was just a big political slush fund.

But then Nate Silver looked at what was happening under the hood of de Rugy's study. The congressional districts that received the most stimulus funding -- they all contained capitals of large states: Sacramento, Albany, Austin, Tallahassee, and so on.
This, of course, makes perfect sense. A lot of stimulus funds are distributed to state agencies, which are then responsible for allocating and administering the funds to the presumed benefit of citizens throughout the state. These state agencies, of course, are usually located in or near the state capital. ... 

The other piece of the puzzle, of course, is that state capitals are much more likely to elect Democrats to Congress for a variety of reasons. They are, by definition, urban (although some smaller state capitals like Montpelier stretch the definition). They are, by definition, home to large numbers of governmental employees, who may be more sympathetic to bigger government. They tend to be highly educated and often are home to large state universities.
Duh. A lot of stimulus money headed for conservative Texas passed through its state capital Austin, a liberal university town represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett. Corruption? No, it's called federalism.

How could an academic researcher make such an obvious mistake? Well, who says it was a mistake? All in all, de Rugy's report is a pretty good example of how corporate money turns into made-to-order academic studies which turn into right-wing propaganda.

The Mercatus Center may have a university affiliation, but it was founded by Rich Fink (you gotta love that name), former president of the ultra-conservative Koch Family Foundations. Board members include Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese and billionaire Charles Koch. Funding largely comes from Koch Industries, a private energy company. (Coincidentally, Greenpeace recently published a report on Koch Industries and its funding of global-warming denial, a topic then picked up by Rachel Maddow.) 

Veronique de Rugy is a career conservative scholar. Prior to Mercatus, she was at the American Enterprise Institute (a Koch beneficiary, according to Greenpeace) and the Cato Institute (co-founded by Charles Koch). She looks like an academic, but her bread is buttered by how well she pleases people like Charles Koch, not by her reputation for unbiased research.

Remember Climategate? Hackers stole data from the Climate Research Unit of East Anglia University, so that global-warming deniers could publish pieces of climate scientists' emails out of context and create the appearance of some sinister conspiracy.

I've mentioned before that Penn State did an investigation of its climate scientist, Michael Mann, who was implicated in the "scandal". He was cleared of any dishonesty.

This week the Science and Technology Committee of Parliament chimed in with a report on its investigation
insofar as we have been able to consider accusations of dishonesty—for example, Professor [Phil] Jones’s alleged attempt to “hide the decline”—we consider that there is no case to answer. Within our limited inquiry and the evidence we took, the scientific reputation of Professor Jones and CRU remains intact.
Not that anybody is paying attention so long after the "scandal" made headlines. 

In both cases, a separate study is evaluating the scientific results themselves, and not just the researchers' honesty. (That's what "limited inquiry" means in the quote.) Those reports will appear later, when even fewer people are paying attention. When they report (as they will) that the case for global warming remains intact, even fewer people will notice.

So despite the eventual debunking, mission-accomplished for the propagandists: Several climate scientists have been smeared, the whole field has been put under a cloud, the victims have lost god-knows-how-many working hours responding to this distraction, and unknown numbers of scientists around the world have been intimidated into staying out of the public eye. All based on nothing. 

Good work, guys. I hear Koch Industries might be hiring.

Have you heard that the IRS will have to hire 16,500 new agents to enforce the health-care mandate? investigated and found that Republicans made that number up, based on more-or-less nothing. 

According to the USA Today, when the Massachusetts Department of Revenue began enforcing that state's similar mandate (conservative Republican RomneyCare being the model for radical socialist ObamaCare) "the state tax agency did not get extra staff or money for enforcement and has not had serious difficulties gathering the information".

Remember the tapes of ACORN giving advice to the guy posing as a pimp? By promising not to prosecute on privacy-invasion charges, California Attorney General Jerry Brown got to see the unedited video rather than the fabricated final product. We already knew that James O'Keefe went into ACORN offices wearing a tie rather than the outrageous pimp outfit he edited into his videos. But Brown's official report gives us a new detail:
In each of [the] ACORN offices they visited together, Giles posed as a prostitute fleeing an abusive pimp, and O’Keefe posed as her boyfriend, trying to help her

That changes the picture a little, doesn't it?

If you've got friends and relatives emailing you the latest laundry list of conservative fantasy, I recommend sending them a link to this video: Friday Rachel Maddow went on a righteous rant against made-up stories, beginning with the ACORN-pimp scandal and moving on to a litany of other current and recent nonsense. She concludes:
What we're dealing with here is the unmooring of politics from facts. ... It's the triumph of fake politics: advantage gleaned from stuff that's not real.  ... Let's have the great American debate about the role of government and the best policies for the country. It's fun! It's citizenship. It's activism. It makes the country better when we have those debates. And your country needs you; it needs all of us. But two things disqualify you from this process: You can't threaten to shoot people, and you have to stop making stuff up.

Recovery, Sort Of
The economy gained 162,000 jobs in March. For most of the last few decades that wouldn't be worth noting, because it takes about 100,000 new jobs a month just to stay even with population growth. But it was the biggest gain in three years.

GDP started upward again in the third quarter of 2009, nearly nine months ago, and the Dow Jones has crept up to a post-recession high just short of 11,000 -- still well below the 14,000 peak in 2007.

Don't expect a boom any time soon though. We're close enough to peak oil that production can't increase quickly. And while in the long term it should be possible to have economic growth without more oil, in the short term it isn't. So each jump in the world economy will increase oil demand. But supply won't increase (because it can't), causing a price spike that will dampen the economy again.

But we could have a bubble in something. With interest rates this low, everyone is tempted to find something to invest in. People are still scared, but they dearly want to believe they can do better than the 1/4 % their money market accounts are paying. It's only a matter of time before somebody cooks up a believable high-return-no-risk story, comparable to "real estate never goes down". And then there will be another bubble.

Catching Up With Pope Benedict
I've been slow to take an interest in the Catholic Church's latest round of troubles. Priests abusing kids, the hierarchy more interested in avoiding scandal than in protecting the innocent -- it's a lurid story, but we've heard it before. Since I was never Catholic and have little feeling one way or the other towards the Catholic Church, it took people calling for the Pope's resignation and the Vatican asserting his legal immunity to get my my attention.

If you're also a late-comer to the story, here's a timeline. The gist: Nobody has accused the Pope himself of abusing anybody. But in the last few months it has become increasingly apparent that he bears responsibility far beyond the vague he-was-in-charge kind. And he hasn't responded well.

The cases. Trouble for the Pope comes in three chunks, corresponding to three periods in his career. In Germany, where future pope Joseph Ratzinger was an archbishop from 1977 to 1982, Der Spiegel (literally "The Mirror", Germany's equivalent of Time) has been exposing a widespread clerical abuse problem. The most damning case for the Pope is Father Peter Hullermann, who Ratzinger allowed to transfer into his diocese in Munich after accusations of abuse in Essen. Hullermann's therapist warned Ratzinger's diocese that Hullermann should be kept away from children, but the warning was ignored and the abuse continued.

Next, Ratzinger became a cardinal and took a job in the Vatican as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the modern successor to the Inquisition, the office in charge of internal church discipline. Two cases that came under Ratzinger's pervue were Father Lawrence Murphy, who molested boys at a school for the deaf in Wisconsin, and Father Marcial Maciel of Mexico, founder of the Legion of Christ, who was accused of molesting more than 20 seminarians under his authority, as well as financial irregularities and fathering a secret family. Neither priest was ever defrocked. Both are dead now.

Father Murphy never faced any formal discipline for his actions. Maciel, who was a favorite of the previous Pope despite accusations of abuse, is a mixed case. Pope Benedict removed him from active service in 2006, but took no further action. Maciel died in 2008 at the age of 87, and the Legion of Christ is only beginning to acknowledge his faults. Benedict's defenders argue that at least he did something about Maciel after he became Pope.

Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Last May the Irish government released the Ryan Report, the result of a 9-year investigation into the physical and sexual abuse of children in government-supported orphanages and reform schools, most of which were run by Catholic monastic orders, especially the Congregation of Christian Brothers. The report concluded that
Sexual abuse was endemic in boys’ institutions. ... Cases of sexual abuse were managed with a view to minimising the risk of public disclosure and consequent damage to the institution and the Congregation. This policy resulted in the protection of the perpetrator. ... When confronted with evidence of sexual abuse, the response of the religious authorities was to transfer the offender to another location where, in many instances, he was free to abuse again. ... The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the Congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools.
Benedict's reaction has been tepid. In a recent open letter to Irish Catholics, he sympathized but sounded distant, as if he wished the Irish well in dealing with a problem that has little to do with him:
Like yourselves, I have been deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable young people by members of the Church in Ireland, particularly by priests and religious. I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.
Responses. That letter prompted a public reply from the Irish singer Sinead O'Connor, who as a teen spent 18 months in a Dublin reform school. She wrote in the Washington Post:
To many people in my homeland, the pope's letter is an insult not only to our intelligence, but to our faith and to our country. To understand why, one must realize that we Irish endured a brutal brand of Catholicism that revolved around the humiliation of children. ...

Irish Catholics are in a dysfunctional relationship with an abusive organization. The pope must take responsibility for the actions of his subordinates. If Catholic priests are abusing children, it is Rome, not Dublin, that must answer for it with a full confession and in a criminal investigation. Until it does, all good Catholics -- even little old ladies who go to church every Sunday, not just protest singers like me whom the Vatican can easily ignore -- should avoid Mass. In Ireland, it is time we separated our God from our religion, and our faith from its alleged leaders.
Other Catholics have circled their wagons around the Pope. The Vatican has begun a blame-the-media campaign focused particularly on the New York Times. The Catholic League took out a full-page ad in the March 24 Times with this conclusion:
Here's what's really going on. The Times has teamed up with Jeffrey Anderson, a radical lawyer who has made millions suing the Church (and greasing professional victims' groups like SNAP) so they can weaken its moral authority. Why? Because of issues like gay marriage and women's ordination. That's what's really driving them mad, and that's why they are on the hunt. Those who doubt this to be true need to ask why the debt-ridden Times does not spend the same resources looking for dirt in other institutions that occurred a half-century ago.
No doubt Der Spiegel, Sinead O'Connor, the Irish government, and the Archbishop of Canterbury all have similarly nefarious reasons for pursuing the issue.

A view from the outside. if you believe, as I do, that priests are people and churches are bureaucracies, the tragedy of all this remains but the shock goes away. Whenever you give people unsupervised power, some of them will abuse it. And if you put a bunch of abusers together in an organization, the bureaucracy will try to cover for them. Nobody should be surprised.

That pattern isn't new and it isn't uniquely Catholic. The Founders understood it well. To them, unsupervised power was the central problem of designing a government; that's what motivated the whole checks-and-balances structure in the Constitution.

Clerical abuse isn't a new or uniquely Catholic problem either. A few years ago I was researching the history of my own Unitarian Universalist denomination, and learned about one of our famous writers, Horatio Alger, whose rags-to-riches stories made him one of the best-selling authors of the 19th century. Fiction, it turns out, was a second career for Alger; he started out in the Unitarian ministry. At his first parish he was accused of molesting two teen-age boys, and was allowed to leave town without scandal on the condition that he leave the ministry as well. (The hope that good deeds can make up for a clergyman's past wrong-doing is the subject of his poem Friar Anselmo's Sin.)

Alger's story points to what the uniquely Catholic problem is: the monolithic structure of the Church. Alger's parish was self-governing, so he was answerable to people, not just to a God that he himself could claim to speak for. So while Alger was never tried as a criminal, he wasn't allowed to make a career out of sexual abuse either.

The Catholic Church still hasn't grasped what the Founders knew in the 18th century: A system without checks and balances is not built for human beings. So unless God is ready to take a more hands-on approach to running the Catholic Church than He ever has in the past, some fundamental restructuring is in order. Until that happens, the lesson has not been learned.

Short Notes
If you're looking for something upbeat to watch, check out what happened when an anti-gay hate group picketed Gunn High School in Palo Alto.

April 1 premiere of Sarah Palin's "Real American Stories" on Fox News was an unintentional April Fools joke. The Fox web site said the guests would "speak to Palin", but it turns out the headliners never met Palin. She was just the studio host for canned interviews, some done years ago.

Hip-hop star LL Cool J was supposed to be on the guest list, but got pulled after he tweeted:
Fox lifted an old interview I gave in 2008 to someone else & are misrepresenting to the public in order to promote Sarah Palins Show. WOW.
Yeah, but controversy raises ratings, right? Not so much.

Here's a hint about which way the wind is blowing: Now that he has won the Republican Senate primary in Illinois, Mark Kirk won't repeat his pledge to repeal the health-care bill.

The iPad is out, and Huffington Post collects a bunch of rave reviews. But they miss the less enthusiastic WaPo review, in which a woman with small hands complains that she can't find a comfortable way to hold the iPad. PCWorld lists iPad alternatives.

I have mixed feelings. The this-changes-everything hype goes right past me, but if a tablet can replace the laptop I usually travel with, great. And a big iPod could replace my living-room computer, which is mostly a media machine anyway. But I think the iPad's weight, price, and battery life make it a poor substitute for a Kindle. And as an long-time rebel against the Microsoft monopoly, I dislike the idea that iTunes has to manage all my media and all my software has to come from the Apple App store.

When Canada denies freedom of speech to right-winger Ann Coulter, who comes to her defense? Left-winger Glenn Greenwald. I'm sure she'd return the favor, right?

The NYT magazine has an interesting if somewhat lengthy discussion of homosexuality in the animal world. The slide show that goes with it is hilariously titled The Love That Dare Not Squawk Its Name. (It's a play on the closing line of this poem.)

Paul Krugman explains financial reform, making one main point: Breaking up the big financial institutions shouldn't be the central goal, because that just puts us back in the situation during the Great Depression, when the problem was small banks falling like dominoes.

He wants to focus on regulation, and not letting banks of any size take big risks. Those regulations also need to be extended beyond traditional banks to "shadow banks" like Lehman Brothers. Anything that plays the role of a bank needs to be regulated like a bank.
A Florida urologist has posted a sign asking Obama voters to seek care elsewhere. The sign has no force -- he's not refusing care to people who come in anyway. But folks who advocate for those "freedom of conscience" provisions in health-care laws should take notice: This is where that stuff leads.

Conscience provisions that single out specific issues avoid this kind of trivialization, but at a different price: The government privileges some people's consciences over other people's. The Hyde Amendment, for example, bans federal funding of abortions because people who abhor abortion shouldn't have to pay for it through their taxes. However, death-penalty opponents still pay for executions, pacifists still pay for weapons, and vegetarians still pay for meat inspectors. What makes a pro-lifer's conscience special?

National Review convened a panel of six experts to puzzle out why recessions still hit black people harder than white people, even though we solved that pesky race-discrimination problem a long time ago. The experts -- all whites, for some reason -- couldn't agree on what blacks do to make themselves more vulnerable to a bad economy. It remains a mystery.