Monday, January 17, 2011


The money that we possess is the instrument of liberty, that which we lack and strive to obtain is the instrument of slavery.

-- J. J. Rousseau, Confessions (1770)

In this week's Sift:

  • Storming Sacramento, Austin, Albany ... The same anti-government spending rhetoric that sent Tea Partiers marching against Washington also has them revolting against the "wasteful" spending of their state governments. But will the public see through the rhetoric when schools and libraries close -- not just in blue California but in red Texas as well?
  • Sarah Palin's Persecution Fantasy. With references to "blood libel" and "pogroms", conservatives paint themselves as victims of persecution comparable to Jews under the Czar. Maybe they've pushed it too far this time. Meanwhile, potential victims of media-inspired violence have developed a term to describe the threat they face: stochastic terrorism.
  • Short Notes. Your church contributions may not make it to God. McCain states have more gun violence than Obama states. More on Second Amendment solutions. Sean Hannity claims Kuwait's oil. An El Paso "traditional family values" organization learns the importance of legal expertise. Illegal foreclosures. And the difficult conundrums of superhero law.

Storming Sacramento, Austin, Albany ...

Recessions hit the states with a double whammy: Just as the number of people in need of state services goes up, revenues go down. And unlike the federal government, most states have legal restrictions on deficit spending. Last year, one-time-only accounting tricks (Arizona did a $735 million sale-and-leaseback agreement with its real estate, including the state capitol) and the federal stimulus (which included $165 billion in aid to the states) masked the problem. Basically, the federal government ran the deficit the states weren't allowed to run.

Now, as the stimulus money runs out, the economy is showing a few signs of bouncing back, but mostly for the relatively well-to-do. Even as the stock market rises into territory it hasn't seen for years, the unemployment and poverty rates -- and the consequent need for state programs -- remain high.

So budget problems are hitting the states hard now. The easy cuts have already been made, but huge deficits remain. And (despite Republican rhetoric favoring the states over the federal government), the Republican victory in November means that new aid to the states isn't going to come from Washington.

Within the states, the Tea Party denunciations of Washington have been reworded to attack Sacramento, Albany, Austin, and all the other state capitals. In state after state, a game of chicken is going on: How many of the poor and helpless have to suffer and even die, how far are we willing to cut education, how close does the state have to come to declaring bankruptcy, before new taxes can be approved?

(This game may go further than I thought. Saturday, conservative pundits Dick Morris and Eileen McGann posted a column proposing a state bankruptcy process that would allow states to break their union contracts the way that bankrupt corporations do. It's interesting how the Right regards contracts as sacred -- unless the contracts protect workers.)

Texas. Everybody talks about the budget problems in liberal states like California and New York, but things are just as bad in conservative strongholds like Texas, Nevada, Arizona, and Mississippi. Business Insider notes the Texas-sized hole in Texas' finances -- they're looking at a $25 billion deficit in a $95 billion two-year budget -- and then comments:

So why haven't we heard more about Texas, one of the most important economies in America? Well, it's because it doesn't fit the script. It's a pro-business, lean-spending, no-union state. You can't fit it into a nice storyline, so it's ignored.

Illinois. Friday Illinois managed to raise taxes in response to the current crisis. The income tax rate went up from 3% to 5%. Prior to the increase, Illinois was looking at a $15 billion deficit. Democratic state rep Michael Zalewski justified the tax increase like this:

Since I’ve been elected in 2008, I have voted for every cut, every reform bill and the fact is there is no more money left and we can’t pay the people we owe money to.

California. California is facing the biggest deficit, in the $20-25 billion range. New Governor Jerry Brown has put forward a budget in which

the state's welfare program is cut in half, $1 billion is trimmed from its universities, and tens of thousands of elderly and disabled residents lose access to care at home.

On the revenue side, he wants the voters to approve the extension of temporary taxes otherwise due to expire.

California's problems have been due as much to politics as economics. In previous years, the legislature had to pass its budget with a 2/3 supermajority, which gave the Republican minority the ability to block attempts to raise revenue, even when the Republican governor (Schwarzenegger) asked them to. Brown is aided by a newly-passed ballot initiative that lets a mere majority pass a budget.

Local governments. The clearest evidence of the depths of the education-funding problem comes from Detroit. Last Monday, the Detroit Public Schools filed a plan to close half of their schools in two years, and increase the average high school class size to 62 from 35 now. Middle school class size would increase from 35 to 47. Matt Yglesias comments:

obviously this is death spiral stuff—the more the city pares back, the more the people with means and opportunity will leave and the worse things will become.

In all these state and local governments, the debate resembles the national debate: Conservative rhetoric says that the budget is full of wasteful spending, but is careful not to identify anything specific. When cuts arrive, they are not "waste" by any means. Real services to real people are eliminated or cut back.

It will be interesting to see if people catch on when the cuts are closer to home. On the national level, keeping taxes low for the wealthy means we have the abstract problem of a budget deficit. But on the state and local level, low taxes may mean closing the local library, sending your child to an over-crowded and poorly maintained school, driving over potholes, or even watching people die for lack of medical care.

I think they will catch on. Like the children of misers, at some point Americans will start to resent living as if our country were poor, when in fact it is rich. Unlike Botswana or Bangladesh, America can afford to have smooth roads and good schools. We can afford to take care of our sick and give pensions to our elders. We can afford to have safe communities and clean, reliable transportation systems. And we can afford to pay a living wage to the public employees who provide these services. The only question is whether we can raise enough faith in ourselves and our democracy to do so.

Sarah Palin's Persecution Fantasy

Like most reasonable people, I was taken aback that Sarah Palin would use the term blood libel to describe the claim that heated political rhetoric from people like her makes political shootings more likely. How ridiculous, I thought, to compare criticism of Palin's rhetoric to the outlandish claims that led to pogroms against Jews in Europe. (The Washington Times, by contrast, felt that Palin was "well within her rights to feel persecuted" and called the incident "the latest round of an ongoing pogrom against conservative thinkers." It is, I think, a very strange kind of persecution that gives you your own TV show, pays you millions of dollars, and requires only that you submit to some toothless criticism in the media. It's a far cry from the Jewish experience in 19th century Ukraine, or even Fiddler on the Roof.)

Having watched the video and read the text of Palin's statement, though, I found it more boring than incendiary, so I wound up concluding that she just didn't know what blood libel means. It's ignorance, not bomb-throwing. Probably she used the term because it had been ricocheting around in conservative circles for several days.

Another bizarre notion in Palin's statement (which also is widespread in conservative circles) is the idea that individual and social responsibility are mutually exclusive:

President Reagan said, “We must reject the idea that every time a law’s broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreaker. It is time to restore the American precept that each individual is accountable for his actions.”

It didn't make any sense when Reagan said it, and it still doesn't. If violent rhetoric or the prevalence of guns raises the likelihood of events like the Tucson shooting, how does that let Loughner off the hook? The Right understands this perfectly well in regard to terrorism: They can denounce the rhetoric of radical imams without letting suicide bombers off the hook. Individual and social responsibility are two different dimensions of an event, not an either-or choice.

And Palin herself says that the "blood libel" put forward by her critics "serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn." So Palin understands how the words of her critics can cause violence, but not how hers can.

The technical term for this mindset -- that the world works differently for you than for everybody else -- is narcissism, but that's too academic for the average person. If only there were a non-sexist way to say "drama queen".

Slate's William Saletan spins the tea-party/Muslim analogy in a different direction:

That's what Palin believes. Each person is solely accountable for his actions. Acts of monstrous criminality "begin and end with the criminals who commit them." It's wrong to hold others of the same nationality, ethnicity, or religion "collectively" responsible for mass murders.

Unless, of course, you're talking about Muslims. In that case, Palin is fine with collective blame.

How else can we account for her opposition to the Ground Zero Mosque?

"Blood libel," as defined by The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, is historically targeted not at a country but at a religion. Palin's campaign against any Muslim house of worship near Ground Zero, based on group blame for terrorism, fits that definition more closely than does any current accusation against the Tea Party.

There's now a term to describe those who use the media to stir up crazy people to do their dirty work for them: stochastic terrorism. Daily Kos' G2geek defines:

Stochastic terrorism is the use of mass communications to stir up random lone wolves to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.

Palin's crosshair graphic is not actually a good example of this (the Palin-Loughner connection is too tenuous), but Glenn Beck's crusade against the Tides Foundation is. Hardly anyone had heard of the Tides Foundation when Beck started slandering it in May 2009. Media Matters found 29 separate shows between then and July 14, 2010 where Beck attacked Tides, demonizing it as part of some imaginary George-Soros-funded effort to take over America.

On July 18, 2010 Byron Williams was pulled over by police and opened fire on them. He was heavily armed and said he wanted to "to start a revolution by traveling to San Francisco and killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation." Only his inability to drive there without drawing police attention prevented him from having a body count like Jared Loughner's.

As a follow-up to last week's article on political correctness, let's consider the would-be defenders of the white race who want you to boycott Marvel's upcoming Thor movie because the Norse god Heimdall is being played by a black actor, the excellent Idris Elba (recently seen as the star of BBC's "Luther").

Where to start with these people? Did you thinkMarvel's Thor comics had given an accurate account of Norse mythology up to now? Does a pop-culture misrepresentation of a second-tier god like Heimdall cramp your style religiously? When was the last time you worshipped Heimdall, anyway?

Fundamentally, this is another attempt to equate slights against whites with superficially similar slights against other races, and so support the idea that whites suffer persecution too. But there is no comparison. No anti-white stereotype is being supported or reinforced. No whites will be discriminated against because of some unconscious social conviction that divinity must be black. The persecution occurs entirely in fantasy.

Short Notes

Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander ran the numbers on shooting deaths and found no positive correlation with the number of drug users, illegal immigrants, or a lot of other alleged explanations. But they did find this:

Taking the voting patterns from the 2008 presidential election, we found a striking pattern: Firearm-related deaths were positively associated with states that voted for McCain (.66) and negatively associated with states that voted for Obama (-.66). Though this association is likely to infuriate many people, the statistics are unmistakable. Partisan affiliations alone cannot explain them; most likely they stem from two broader, underlying factors - the economic and employment makeup of the states and their policies toward guns and gun ownership.

As I've explained many times in the Sift, correlation is not the same as cause-and-effect. So it would be irrational to jump to the conclusion that we could save lives by getting more states to vote Democratic in 2012. It seems worth a try, though.

The new head of the Republican National Committee is Reince Priebus. I just heard someone describe him as "a name straight out of Hogwarts". As Sharoney observed, the consonants in his name spell out RNC PR BS.

As she so often does, Digby avoids the distractions and gets to the important point:

The real problem, in my view, is that there is a subset of Americans who believe that government is illegitimate if their chosen leaders aren't elected. They simply don't believe in democracy.

That's what I see in all this talk about "Second Amendment solutions". Yes, at least some of the Founders did want the people to retain the means of revolution if democracy failed. But the failing they had in mind is what you see in faux-democratic countries like Egypt or Iran, where the government can close opposition newspapers, arrest opposition candidates, and stuff the ballot box when things get tense for them.

But Tea Party folks started talking about assassination and armed insurrection just because Republicans lost and Democrats started implementing the platform they ran on. The electoral system was working fine, it just got the "wrong" answer. Resorting to guns in that situation is the exact opposite of what the Founders had in mind.

Shepard Fairey's "Second Amendment Solutions" poster says: "It's not the bullet with my name on it that worries me. It's the one that says 'to whom it may concern'."

According to Sean Hannity, Kuwait and Iraq should be paying us for their liberation by providing cheap energy. And if they don't see it that way,

We have every right to go in there and, frankly, take all their oil.

Apparently we just loaned these countries their freedom, and if they miss a payment we can foreclose.

Once in a while, the Religious Right gets burned by its disdain for intelligence and expertise. Take El Paso, for example. An anti-gay group called El Paso for Traditional Family Values wanted to make sure that same-sex partners of city employees couldn't get benefits, so they got voters to pass a ballot initiative saying so -- or so they thought. Local station KVIA reports:

The ordinance drafted by EPFTFV asked voters to ‘endorse traditional family values’ by extending health insurance only to city employees, their spouses and dependent children. That left out a lot of people the city already covered, including elected officials, retirees, grandchildren, and affiliated contractors – those are agencies formed by City Council, like the Public Service Board and the Transportation Board. ...
The city maintains it must implement the ordinance using its plain language, which excludes hundreds of people. City Rep. Steve Ortega and Mayor John Cook have said they told EPFTFV leaders to hire an attorney to draft the ordinance. The organization did not do that.


A federal judge has issued a temporary injunction that keeps the law from taking effect until he can rule on a suit challenging its constitutionality.  Among other things, plaintiffs are charging that the law is too vague to be enforceable:

The Judge asked all three lawyers to provide a legal definition of ‘traditional family values’ that could be found in state or federal law, statute or jurisprudence. None of them could.

Damn those meddling federal judges and their definitions and constitutions and other legalistic claptrap. Can't they just let the Holy Spirit speak through them?

TPM recalls some of the more egregious recent political rhetoric suggesting violence or using violent metaphors.

Salon's Glenn LaFantasie points out that, although we always treat political shootings as one-of-a-kind exceptions to our democratic process, in fact they are part of a longstanding pattern in our politics.

American political violence is a direct legacy of the American Revolution, for the patriots’ victory in that conflict proved to the American people that violence could achieve a positive end: independence and the creation of a new nation. It is a troubling, but inescapable, bequest that stems from the fact that our nation was born in violence, and it derives from the reality that violence has ever since become not only the device of criminals, but also of government and those who disagree with the government.

The NYT reports:

in the grand Venn diagram of life, there appears to be substantial overlap between lawyers and the people Mr. Daily lovingly refers to as “comic book nerds.”

The result is a blog. Law and the Multiverse: Superheroes, supervillains, and the law.

I mean, there are important issues to work out: How much responsibility do you have for the damage done by your super-powered minor child?What kind of retirement plan does an immortal need? Is there any way Bruce Wayne could openly fund Batman without becoming legally responsible for the damage he does? Is mind control a valid criminal defense?

Don't wait until a radioactive spider bites you and it's too late. Learn your rights now.

Tea Partiers aren't racists, of course. But when they get into office in places like Raleigh, North Carolina their first acts include undoing the longstanding school-desegregation plan, and replacing it with ... well, nothing really. Maybe separate-but-equal will work this time around.

It should be no great surprise that the same bankers who loaned money to people who had no hope of paying it back also failed to handle the mortgage paperwork correctly. The result is that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court now holds that huge numbers of foreclosures were illegal.

The Boston Globe's Paul McMorrow reports on the implications:

I took a random sample of 30 foreclosure deeds from Chelsea (one of the cities hit hardest by foreclosures) since the beginning of 2006. Of those 30 foreclosure cases, 10 had paperwork on file with the Registry of Deeds that raised the sort of chain-of-custody concerns at the heart of the Ibanez decision. In one case, no mortgage was on file with the registry. Another showed no paperwork assigning the note to a mortgage servicer. In other cases, mortgage originators didn’t sign off on documents transferring the notes into mortgage pools, or transfer paperwork was filed after a foreclosure occurred. All of the properties have since been re-sold.

What could possibly go wrong?

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