Monday, April 25, 2011


No amount of balloting can obviate the need of creating an issue, be it a measure or a candidate, on which the voters can say Yes, or No. ... The Many can elect after the Few have nominated.

-- Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1920)

In this week's Sift:

  • Hit the Ceiling or Raise the Roof? It's hard to predict exactly what will happen if Congress doesn't raise the government's debt ceiling, because then the administration will have a lot of choices to make. Unfortunately, all the options will be bad.
  • The Sifted Bookshelf: So Damn Much Money by Robert Kaiser. Democracy requires a lot of work. And when honest people won't do it, it still has to get done.
  • Short Notes. Answering birthers. ElBaradei imagines a Bush war-crimes trial. Senate recalls in Wisconsin. Peer-to-peer lending. Anxious teen girls. Roe v Wade in limbo. And more.
  • This Week's Challenge. If we don't want to put the essential work of democracy in the hands of special interests, how do we want to get it done?

Hit the Ceiling or Raise the Roof?

It's been hard to get a clear story about what will happen if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling. Michelle Bachman says things will be just hunky-dory:

If we fail to pass increasing the debt ceiling, it isn’t that the federal government shuts down … It isn’t that revenues wouldn’t come into the government, they would. It’s just that we’d have to prioritize our spending. ... It almost acts like a balanced budget amendment in a way because it says you can’t keep spending money you don’t have. That’s a good thing!

But back in January, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner made the possibility sound apocalyptic:

The Treasury would be forced to default on legal obligations of the United States, causing catastrophic damage to the economy, potentially much more harmful than the effects of the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

And Fed chief Ben Bernanke recently warned:

Beyond a certain point ... the United States would be forced into a position of defaulting on its debt. And the implications of that on our financial system, our fiscal policy and our economy would be catastrophic.

Let's see if I can unravel this. Much as I usually hate the analogy between the federal budget and a family budget (for reasons Matt Yglesias explains), in this case it lends some insight. Suppose your family is spending more than it takes in, running up a little more debt every month. Then your credit maxes out. What happens?

Well, you very suddenly start living within your income -- prioritizing your spending, as Bachmann says. But it's hard to make more specific predictions until we know what those priorities will be. Maybe you'll default on your mortgage, as Bernanke imagines, or maybe you'll cut back somewhere else so that you don't.

Whether "that's a good thing" or not depends on what somewhere-elses are available. Maybe you're outspending your income because you're an alcoholic, and you'll have to clean up your act now that the liquor store won't take your plastic. Or maybe you're running in the red because your daughter needs surgery and you have no medical insurance.

It makes a difference, doesn't it?

Bachmann wants us to believe that the federal budget is full of money spent at the corner tavern, buying rounds for the house. If that were true, she'd be right. Shutting off the government's credit would be good.

But she knows it's not true. Whenever the Right has to produce an actual budget -- or anything beyond a "cut spending" slogan -- they don't find significant amounts of waste to eliminate. Instead, they cut Medicaid, which is literally surgeries for uninsured little girls. (It's not as bad as it sounds. The girls are poor, many are black or Hispanic, and putting them on TV depresses the ratings. So you probably won't see them.)

The federal budget simply does not have the kind of huge waste the Tea Party imagines. When the government credit card maxes out, are we going to tell our soldiers in Afghanistan to shoot less? Ask seniors to eat cat food and stop taking pills until we get things sorted out? Close the courts? Stop inspecting food or nuclear power plants? Furlough FBI agents and hope Al Qaeda doesn't notice? Open the federal prisons so the inmates can start supporting themselves? Close the CDC and hope no major plagues erupt before we get it open again? Take our chances on hurricanes and earthquakes without FEMA?

No? Well what, then?

I can't pick any one of those things and say, "This will happen", because we could imagine making that particular thing the first priority. (And if it does happen, we could blame President Obama for not making it the first priority -- a position Senator Pat Toomey is already staking out.) Similarly, the maxed-out family could make the mortgage the top priority and hope that their daughter gets better on her own. If she dies or never walks again, you can blame them for that. Or if they pay for her treatment first and lose the house, you can blame them for that instead.

But even if we can't say exactly what it will be, we can be sure that some desperately vital thing will go unfunded if the debt ceiling isn't raised, because there just aren't enough non-desperately-vital things to make up the difference.

Anybody who thinks differently, I believe, has an obligation to tell us specifically what those non-vital things are. They owe us a line-by-line spending plan, one that stays within the debt ceiling without killing anybody -- or at the very least, estimates the body count.

Slate's Annie Lowry imagines how a treasury default hits the trading markets, and believes (as I do) that Republicans in Congress will quickly get in line once the markets start crashing. A better question is whether anything resolves the situation before that, which I am coming to doubt.

Salon's Andrew Leonard makes an obvious point that for some reason isn't getting any attention: Suppose the government avoids defaulting on its bonds by making debt payments its first priority, and instead defaults on other legal obligations like Social Security. Are the markets going to be reassured by that? Or will investors look at the video of homeless old people and conclude that this country is hopelessly broken?

Do a small-business analogy this time: Suppose I'm a banker who has money in a restaurant. They're up-to-date on the loan, but I hear they've stopped paying their other creditors. Shouldn't I call that loan in as fast as I can?

Monday, Standard & Poor's announced a "negative outlook" for the AAA rating on U.S. government debt, citing not the economy, but the political gridlock that might produce trillion-dollar deficits far into the future.

House Republican leader Eric Cantor jumped on this as a "wake-up call" to cut spending, a talking point widely repeated on the Right. But S&P's warning is about the deficit, not just spending, and Cantor's refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy is as much a part of the gridlock as Obama's unwillingness to cut Medicaid. Each is looking out for his supporters -- Obama for the poor, Cantor for the rich.

One measure of how far to the right the conversation has drifted is that the middle position is represented by David Stockman, who was Ronald Reagan's controversial young budget director 30 years ago. Remarkably for a conservative, he quotes statistics about how wealth has concentrated since 1979, and then analyzes:

The culprit here was the combination of ultralow rates of interest at the Federal Reserve and ultralow rates of taxation on capital gains. The former destroyed the nation’s capital markets, fueling huge growth in household and business debt, serial asset bubbles and endless leveraged speculation in equities, commodities, currencies and other assets.
At the same time, the nearly untaxed windfall gains accrued to pure financial speculators, not the backyard inventors envisioned by the Republican-inspired capital-gains tax revolution of 1978. And they happened in an environment of essentially zero inflation, the opposite of the double-digit inflation that justified a lower tax rate on capital gains back then — but which is now simply an obsolete tax subsidy to the rich

The Sifted Bookshelf: So Damn Much Money by Robert Kaiser

Everybody, it seems, hates lobbyists. And every now and then a bipartisan consensus in Congress passes new rules that are supposed to toughen restrictions on lobbyists and clean up the process.

And yet lobbying is a perennial growth industry in Washington. What auto factories used to be to Detroit and steel mills to Pittsburgh, lobbying firms are to D.C. The local economy revolves around them. They may not employ many working-class Washingtonians directly, but how would the city's bars and restaurants survive without them? Who would build office buildings in Tyson Corners or McMansions in McLean? And what would happen to the metro area's landscapers and pool-cleaners?

It's a mystery. Why is it so hard to get a handle on lobbying? How can it be so unpopular and yet so hard to shut down?

This month I got around to reading a great book on lobbying from 2007: So Damn Much Money by Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post. It doesn't answer those questions directly, but provides a lot of useful insight.

What changed. Kaiser recognizes that American politics has never been clean. But his book's main point is that both politics and government have changed for the worse since the 1970s, and the growth of lobbying is both a cause and a symptom.

In addition to lobbying, the key elements are:

  • cost of campaigns. The first election I followed closely was 1968, when Hubert Humphrey spent something on the order of $7 million and Richard Nixon overwhelmed him with a then-unheard-of $20 million. For 2012, President Obama is planning to raise $1 billion. At all levels, costs have gone up accordingly. As a result, congresspeople spend about half their working days on the phone raising money.
  • the "permanent campaign". Old-time campaigns took up maybe half of the last year of a congressman's term. Then the signs and slogans went into the closet for a while. But in the current era of 24/7 media and instant polling, the campaign never stops. And so politicians of both parties stay on message, parroting focus-group-tested talking points at all times.
  • the end of the independent legislator. This is a perverse result of good intentions: doing away with the seniority system in Congress in the 1970s. Pre-reform, a long-serving representative or senator would become a powerful committee chair. Owing this position to no one but his constituents, he could take independent positions -- as when Democratic Senator Fulbright turned against President Johnson's Vietnam War. Today, all institutional power in Congress comes by way of the party leadership, which explains why we see so many party-line votes.
  • avoiding Washington. Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 by running against Washington. Speaker Gingrich pressured all incoming Republican congresspeople not to move their families to D.C., and he shortened the congressional workweek to allow commuting back to the home districts. Democrats similarly kept their families home and commuted to avoid being labeled "creatures of Washington". Symbolically, this has kept Congress in touch with the people, but it also has the perverse effect that members of Congress don't know each other. They don't socialize, their spouses and kids don't hang out together, and they have no reason to trust each other.
  • the "farm league for K Street". In the old days, the point of running for Congress was to be in Congress. Defeated congressmen sometimes became lobbyists, but that was a pathetic story, not something to emulate. Today, Congress and congressional staffs are like college basketball teams -- places to get your ticket punched so that you can turn pro and make real money later. In 2007, Senator Lott resigned with five years left in his term, because otherwise new restrictions would have delayed the start of his lobbying career. According to Kaiser: "In a matter of six weeks, Trent Lott abruptly wound up a thirty-five-year career in Congress, abandoned his constituents in Mississippi, and opened a business that Washington rivals estimated would soon be earning millions of dollars a year." It's hard to maintain your independence as a legislator when you're already auditioning for your next job.

The Founders envisioned Congress as a deliberative body. Voters would send their representatives to the capital, where they would debate and compromise and try to arrive at a common purpose for the nation (much like the Constitutional Convention itself).

That simply can't happen any more. There's no time for it, and even if you change a congressperson's mind, s/he may not have the independence to vote differently. Instead, we have what Eric Alterman calls "kabuki democracy" -- a show of deliberation in which senators address the camera, not other senators.

Personalizing the problem. Kaiser has a good trick for knitting an unwieldy mass of information into a readable story: He follows the career of Gerry Cassidy, a lawyer who came to Washington in the late 1960s as a poorly-paid staffer to Senator McGovern, then started a lobbying firm whose early clients were universities, and over the decades has accumulated a fortune of $100 million.

Cassidy is a great choice, because he is not a pure villain. In many ways he resembles Robert Penn Warren's Willie Stark -- a young man of considerable gifts who simultaneously dreams of being important and of doing good, but who ends up just being important. Where exactly he goes wrong is hard to pinpoint. Cassidy seems to ride the wave of political change rather than steer it, but when you analyze the wave, it seems to be made of nothing more than people like Cassidy.

And that's a phenomenon we all need to understand if we're ever going to change things.

Privatizing democracy. Here's what I conclude after reading Kaiser: Democracy is a much more expensive and effort-consuming process than most of us imagine. Because we aren't willing to recognize or fund that work, it gets done privately. And the private funders take advantage of their role to steer our government for their own benefit.

Let me unpack that. Naively, democracy works through elected representatives doing the people's will. But, as Lippmann pointed out in the opening quote, "the people's will" doesn't become actionable (and may not even exist) until after somebody does a lot of work. Who?

The people, for example, may broadly want access to health care. But how does that shared desire turn into a plan of action? And how does that plan then become an Affordable Care Act that a person can be for or against? (I didn't work on it. Did you?) Once the ACA exists, who educates the public about what's in it, so that they can approve or disapprove? Who measures the resulting public opinion and organizes it into pressure that a legislator can feel, or into support s/he can ride to re-election?

In simpler times, legislators did much of this work themselves. With the help of a small staff, they studied issues, intuited public opinion, wrote legislation, rounded up colleagues to support it, and wrote speeches and newsletters to promote or denounce the outcome.

There's no time for that any more. The issues have gotten more complex and the science of manipulating public opinion more resource-consuming. Staffs have grown, but not nearly enough to keep pace. Legislators have their hands full reciting talking points on TV and raising money for the next election.

Who fills the vacuum? Not corporate-funded journalists, who have become another part of the problem. (But that's a subject for another week.) So: lobbyists, privately funded think tanks, high-priced pollsters and political consultants. They write the legislation, convene the focus groups, and produce the talking points. They organize the demonstrations and make sure the TV cameras are pointed in the right direction. And ultimately, they fund and produce the election campaigns.

In short, the work democracy requires -- the enormous effort needed to turn vague popular desires into programs and laws that can pass through Congress -- is being done by privately funded groups. Some of them, on some issues, promote the public interest. But most are working in the interest of their funders. Why wouldn't they?

And that explains why we haven't been able to get rid of them: They are corruptly doing work that ought to be done honestly, but which in any case needs to get done somehow. Until we figure out how to get that work done without them, they'll always sneak back into the process.

Short Notes

If friends or relatives keep forwarding you stuff about where President Obama was born, send them here.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who headed the International Atomic Energy Agency during the run-up to the Iraq War (and who more recently played a role in the Egyptian uprising) just wrote a book. ElBaradei had to deal with countries like North Korea, but he saves some of his harshest words for the Bush administration:

"I was aghast at what I was witnessing," ElBaradei writes of the official U.S. attitude before the March 2003 invasion, which he calls "aggression where there was no imminent threat," a war in which he accepts estimates that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed.

In such a case, he suggests, the World Court should be asked to rule on whether the war was illegal. And, if so, "should not the International Criminal Court investigate whether this constitutes a `war crime' and determine who is accountable?"

Wisconsin update: Recall petitions have been filed on five Republican and three Democratic state senators. The signatures are being validated, but if they hold up, new elections will be held in these eight districts. Democrats need to pick up three seats to gain control.

Slate's Farhad Manjoo explains, where strangers lend each other money over the internet. My first reaction was "That's crazy." But maybe not.

Somebody close to you has been keeping a secret file of all the places you go together. It's your iPhone.

At age 11, boys and girls are equally likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders. At age 15, girls are six times more likely. The different explanations of this phenomenon are a Rorschach test on attitudes about gender: Female hormones. Society's impossible demands on adolescent girls. Or a lack of empathy for teen-age boys turns their anxiety disorders into anger-management problems.

Slate's Dahlia LIthwick says that for practical purposes, Roe v Wade isn't the law any more. State legislatures are boldly passing laws that violate it, and pro-choice organizations are afraid to take these cases to the Supreme Court.

This Week's Challenge

Publicly funded campaigns are part of the solution for fixing Congress, but that's not all the work that needs to get done. And public funding to do the rest of it -- like organize and develop public opinion, or educate the public about proposed legislation -- could rapidly turn into 1984's Ministry of Truth. Brainstorm some alternatives. How does the work of democracy get done in a way that is independent of both the incumbent government and the special interests?

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Getting Richer

Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress.

-- President Andrew Jackson, vetoing reincorporation of the Second Bank of the United States (1832)

In this week's Sift:

  • The Return of Candidate Obama. If you've been wondering what happened to the guy America voted for, he came back Wednesday to give a speech about the deficit.
  • Corporations Can Pay Taxes. Conservatives often claim that corporate taxes are an illusion: Any tax on corporations just gets passed on to the consumers who buy their products. But that simplistic view of the market contradicts other conservative rhetoric, not to mention common sense.
  • Why Bradley Manning Matters. Just as the Jose Padilla case summed up the Bush administration's contempt for human rights, the Bradley Manning case sums up how little has changed under the Obama administration.
  • Short Notes. Quid pro quo in Wisconsin. Fair and balanced coverage quantified. Trump's rise is good for Obama. Incorporating your uterus. Rapping knuckles at Goldman Sachs. Green sex toys. A suspiciously amusing dispatch from the Shady Pines Home for the Violently Senile. And more.
  • This Week's Challenge. Freeing Bradley Manning seems to me like too much to ask for. But can we at least let some neutral observers in to inspect his treatment? Here's the petition to sign.

The Return of Candidate Obama

If you haven't watched to or read the speech President Obama gave Wednesday on the deficit, you should. It's a reminder that on occasion our political leaders can be factual and sensible. I had the same reaction as Salon's Joan Walsh: "That's the president I voted for."

Obama defended a lot of basic American values that conservatives often attack and liberals often leave undefended:

  • the public sector. In addition to individualism and suspicion of government, "there’s always been another thread running through our history -– a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. … And so we’ve built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We’ve laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We’ve supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire new industries."
  • entitlements. "Part of this American belief that we’re all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security and dignity. … We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us.  'There but for the grace of God go I,' we say to ourselves." And so: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, Medicaid. "We would not be a great country without those commitments."
  • progressive taxation. "This is not because we begrudge those who’ve done well -– we rightly celebrate their success. Instead, it’s a basic reflection of our belief that those who’ve benefited most from our way of life can afford to give back a little bit more."

He told the often-forgotten story of how the deficit got this big: "America’s finances were in great shape by the year 2000.  … But after Democrats and Republicans committed to fiscal discipline during the 1990s, we lost our way in the decade that followed. We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program -– but we didn’t pay for any of this new spending. Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts. … When I took office, our projected deficit, annually, was more than $1 trillion. On top of that, we faced a terrible financial crisis and a recession that, like most recessions, led us to temporarily borrow even more."

He faced facts about the budget: "Around two-thirds of our budget -- two-thirds -- is spent on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and national security. Two-thirds. Programs like unemployment insurance, student loans, veterans’ benefits, and tax credits for working families take up another 20 percent. What’s left, after interest on the debt, is just 12 percent for everything else … education, clean energy, medical research, transportation, our national parks, food safety, keeping our air and water clean."

He nailed the Ryan deficit plan: "I believe it paints a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic. It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them. …  [I]f that [Medicare] voucher isn’t worth enough to buy the insurance that’s available in the open marketplace, well, tough luck -– you’re on your own. … It’s a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit." (Hunter elaborates on this "staggeringly bleak vision".)

And he tells us who many of those 50 Medicaid recipients are (Ezra Klein illustrates): old people in nursing homes, poor children, children with autism or Downs syndrome or other disabilities that may require constant care. "These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves."

And thank God somebody finally rejected -- on moral grounds! -- the idea that the rich need more tax cuts: "In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. That’s who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs. That’s not right." (Cartoonist Clay Bennett doesn't think so either.)

Finally, we get the President's deficit plan. It's typical Obama. No magic bullets, we have to do a little bit of everything: cut the kinds of discretionary spending we've already been cutting, but also let the Bush tax cuts expire for the wealthy, cut defense, reduce health care spending by raising the efficiency of care rather than by making the old and poor do without, and limit tax deductions for both individuals and corporations.

He claims that adds up to $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 12 years. I'm sure somebody reputable will check those calculations, and when I find that analysis, I'll link to it.

Usually the if-we-do-nothing scenario is a horror show that is supposed to goad us into action. But if we do nothing, it turns out that the deficit pretty much gets under control: The Bush tax cuts go away, Obamacare starts to control health-care costs, and so on.

Jargon watch: Conservatives have begun referring to entitlements as "welfare". Examples: Paul Ryan has equated Medicaid reform with welfare reform. (Matt Yglesias debunks this.) And David Brooks starts out talking about a European-style "welfare state", but then shortens it to just "welfare", as in "Obama, meanwhile, does not believe the current welfare arrangements are structurally unsustainable." and "Every few years, Republicans try to reform the welfare delivery systems to make them more marketlike." In both of these lines, "welfare" means entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.

So the millions of Social Security beneficiaries are "on welfare". This narrative has been building at least since August, when Alan Simpson referred to Social Security as "a milk cow with 310 million teats."

Paul Ryan isn't lying when he says his plan doesn't change Medicare for those over 55, but you need to think another step ahead: After Ryan's plan passes, the generational warfare can start. Conservatives will tell young people that they pay crushing taxes to support welfare-queen baby-boom seniors. How long can that last?

About that theory that Keynes was wrong and the government should cut spending before the job market is back to normal: The United Kingdom is already trying it, and it's not working. Cutting government spending lowers demand, which kills jobs -- just like Keynes said it would

The Willamette Week reveals 9 Things the Rich Don't Want You to Know About Taxes. And Nicholas Kristof adds this bit of common sense:

it’s worth remembering that the last time our budget was in the black was in the Clinton administration. That’s a broad hint that one sensible way to overcome our difficulties would be to revert to tax rates more or less as they were under President Clinton.

Corporations Can Pay Taxes

A week and a half ago, Rep. Bill Posey (R-Florida) mocked the people who think oil companies should pay higher taxes. It's pointless, he argued, to tax corporations:

Let’s say we tax those evil oil companies another dollar a gallon. They’re not going to write the check. We know what’s going to happen; they’re going to raise the price a dollar a gallon. Or, given the corporate greed we sometimes see, round it off to two dollars. Corporations don’t pay taxes. Corporations collect taxes. They collect taxes from consumers who ultimately pay the tax.

This is an example of the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose logic I called out two weeks ago. In any other context, conservatives tell us how competitive and efficient the free market is. But now, when it's convenient, the price of gas is not bound by the market and can be whatever the oil companies want it to be. So we'd better not make them mad by asking them to pay taxes.

Suppose Exxon really could respond to a higher corporate income tax (it paid no U.S. corporate income tax in 2009) by raising its price to make up the lost profit. Then someone needs to explain this: Why isn't Exxon already charging the higher price?

Corporations are (as I have explained before) sociopaths. They are not interested in charging a fair price and making a fair profit, because the whole concept of fairness does not register with them. So at all times -- tax or no tax -- they are trying to charge the highest price the market will bear and make as much money as they can.

In short: Exxon is already charging the highest price the market will bear. That price will go up or down in response to changes in the market, but subtracting an income tax from their maximized profit doesn't change the calculation. Corporations can pay taxes if politicians have the courage to tax them.

Why Bradley Manning Matters

In the Bush years, the individual civil-liberties case that summed everything up was Jose Padilla: an American citizen arrested in Chicago and held in a military brig for 3 1/2 years without charges or trial, in abusive conditions that ultimately destroyed him as a person. (Padilla was eventually convicted on a vague conspiracy charge unrelated to what he was originally suspected of. During his trial Padilla appeared to root for the government and against his own defense.)

President Obama was supposed to change all that. But though he has softened the Bush regime a little, overall not much is different. The Bush administration's interpretation of the Constitution could have gone on to justify more-or-less any abuse a president could imagine -- a John Yoo memo from 2001 claimed that the President's role as commander-in-chief allows him "to take whatever actions he deems appropriate" to fight terrorism -- so we're well rid of those guys. But most of the actual civil-liberties abuses under Bush continue and are being defended by the Obama administration.

The individual case that sums it all up now is Bradley Manning. Manning is widely believed to be the source of a vast trove of documents that have been made public by WikiLeaks. So he's either the greatest whistle-blower since Daniel Ellsberg (as Ellsberg himself believes) or a traitor to the United States or both.

But (like Padilla during the worst of his ordeal) Manning is still just a suspect, not a convict. And yet he is being held in conditions that constitute punishment, not detention. He sees no other prisoners and very few visitors. (Ellsberg, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture have all been refused permission to see him.) He is allowed to pace in a large room for an hour a day, but otherwise does not leave his cell. At times his clothes have been taken away, Abu-Ghraib-style. He is allowed to have one book at a time.

Individually, all these conditions are allowed in military brigs for short time periods in response to specific risks like escape or suicide. None of this applies to Manning; he is simply being punished for what he is suspected to have done. In the long term, this level of isolation is known to be debilitating, as it was to Padilla. Nearly 300 legal scholars -- including Obama's teacher Lawrence Tribe -- have signed a letter charging that this is cruel and unusual punishment banned by the Eighth Amendment.

In short, our government is literally driving a man insane -- an American citizen who has been convicted of nothing, and who some Americans consider to be a hero.

If you find it curious that anyone could make a hero of Manning, look at what Marcy Wheeler learned from the WikiLeaks cables: the extent to which our foreign policy is shaped by Monsanto. As in the Pentagon Papers, many of the secrets in the WikiLeaks cables are not being kept from foreign governments, they're being kept from the American people.

And if you're wondering how a low-ranking enlisted man was able to get his hands on that much sensitive information, Marcy is on that question too.

Short Notes

What do the Koch brothers get in exchange for funding the campaigns of Wisconsin Governor Walker and Supreme Court Justice Prosser? Their company gets to keep dumping phosphorus into Wisconsin rivers. Not a bad return on investment.

The NYT points out that this is a theme among the new Tea Party governors: "cut budgets and personnel at regulatory agencies, prevent the issuing of new regulations, roll back land conservation and, if possible, eliminate planning boards that monitor, restrict or permit building development."

Whether these environment-bashing policies create any jobs (other than in cancer care 20 years from now) is debatable, but they definitely create profits for the Tea Party's financial backers.

Fox News scorecard: Pumping up the phony New-Black-Panther-Party scandal: 95 segments lasting 8 hours. Covering the Justice Department OPR report debunking it: two segments lasting 88 seconds.

The rise of Donald Trump in Republican presidential polls is great news for President Obama. All the Republican front-runners are damaged in one way or another, so the party's only real chance in 2012 is for a presidential-stature candidate to come out of nowhere. Dark horses like Tim Pawlenty or Mitch Daniels hope to be that guy, but the more oxygen Trump sucks out of the room, the fainter their voices get.

Are you a woman who worries that corporate rights keep growing while women's rights keep shrinking? The ACLU of Florida has the solution: incorporate your uterus.

Arizona's anti-immigrant law is working its way up the court system. An appeals court just backed up the district court's injunction against enforcing the law, on the grounds that the federal government seems likely to win its claim. The opinion is boring and technical, but boils down to this: Federal law takes precedence over state law, especially on issues that the Constitution explicitly assigns to the feds.

You can quote Catholic League President Bill Donohue, but you can't parody him. Consider last Monday's full-page ad Straight Talk About the Catholic Church in the Boston Globe.

What did he "talk straight" about? How overblown the whole priest-sexual-abuse thing is. After a bunch of whining and excuse-making -- "rape" is an exaggeration; most victims were just molested -- Donohue's punch line explains why priests are "singled out" even though all kinds of people abuse children:

Let’s face it: if [the Catholic Church's] teachings were pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage and pro-women clergy, the dogs would have been called off years ago.

OK, I'm not president of the Catholic League, but I think I have a better explanation: Maybe the furor has more to do with the claiming-to-represent-God-on-Earth thing. For some weird reason, that always makes people judge you by a higher standard.

Equal time for Catholics who pay attention to the teachings of Jesus: Franciscan nuns are going to the Goldman Sachs annual meeting to protest the sinful level of executive compensation. I hope they bring their rulers.

Heads I win, tales you lose: Planned Parenthood has to be defunded because money is fungible; no matter what accounting controls exist, any money the government gives them might get spent on abortions. But public money given to faith-based groups is not fungible; we can be sure -- somehow -- that the government isn't unconstitutionally funding religious proselytization.

Probably the Left will have this kind of fund-raiser to itself for a while: Buy your green sex toys at Babeland and the environmental news site Grist gets 10%. What makes a sex toy "green"? Babeland explains: rechargeable batteries, non-toxic materials, and so on. (Probably no animal testing either, though I'm trying not to picture that.)

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has the charts: Taxes are low in the United States, both compared to other countries and compared to U.S. taxes in the past. The Republican talking point says: "We don't have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem." But in the real world, we have a revenue problem.

Matt Yglesias imagines how income tax could work: The IRS could sum up all the income reported to it, compare to your personal information from last year, and send you a bill. If you had additional information to offer or claims to make, you could file a return. Otherwise, just send a check or claim your refund.

Downside? H. R. Block's lobbyists would hate it, and conservatives want you to find taxes annoying.

Yglesias also calls BS on the claim that a flat tax would be simpler. If you do your own taxes, you understand why: "What’s complicated is the definition of taxable income", not the tax rates. The only thing a flat tax simplifies (by a line or two) is the computer program that produces the tax tables.

Flat-taxers argue that they also want to do away with deductions, which would simplify things. But we could eliminate deductions and still tax the rich at a higher rate than the poor. The two ideas are unrelated.

Having hit my 20-article monthly limit, I bit the bullet and got a digital subscription to the New York Times. The Times is far from perfect, but it does journalism that nobody else is doing. Good reporting doesn't happen by magic; somebody has to pay for it. If not the readers, then who?

I have no idea whether anything written on the Sarah, Proud and Tall blog is true or not. (You have to wonder about "Dispatches from the Shady Pines Home for the Violently Senile.") Sarah Howard claims to be 92 years old and tells a lot of unverifiable (and perhaps unlikely) stories about famous people. This one is about Ayn Rand, and if isn't true, it ought to be.

This Week's Challenge

There's an online petition to free Bradley Manning, which I haven't signed because I think it goes a little too far. Civil disobedience ought to have a price. But FireDogLake has a petition asking the government to stop restricting official visits to Manning. That seems like the least we can do. Take a look and see if you can sign it in good conscience.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

Monday, April 11, 2011


There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.

-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

In this week's Sift:

  • How Money Talks. Sure, we all know the rich get what they want from government. But how does that work exactly? Here's what I learned from Lawrence Lessig at the National Conference on Media Reform.
  • The Ryan Medical Plan. Paul Ryan's Medicare and Medicaid reform plan doesn't even ask how the old and poor will pay for medical care. It just limits how much help they'll get from the government.
  • Short Notes. This week's notes slant towards comedy: Elon James White, Erin Gibson, Second City, Katie Goodman, Jon Stewart. Plus a few serious notes about debt ceilings, tax cuts, and growing up Objectivist. And how would 21st-century tech change the Exodus story?
  • This Week's Challenge. What perfectly fine policy alternatives never make it into the debate?

How Money Talks

Americans are bipolar about the power of the rich. On the one hand, if you tsay, "The rich are really, really rich and their voices count for more than yours", people will roll their eyes at you in a do-you-think-I'm-stupid sort of way. Of course politicians pay more attention to David Koch and George Soros than they do to you. Of course AT&T and Exxon are getting something for all the money their lobbyists spread around. Everybody knows that.

On the other hand, when somebody quantifies just how rich and how powerful the rich and powerful are, most of us are appalled. We knew, but we didn't know. We thought it was bad, but not bad like that.

Two Harvard researchers recently measured this gap between the actual concentration of wealth and what most Americans think it is. And in 2004 (studying data mostly from the 1990s), Princeton Professor Martin Gilens wrote a paper correlating the preferences of Americans of differing incomes with actual policy changes. He concluded:

Most Americans think that public officials don't care much about the preferences of "people like me." Sadly, the results presented above suggest they may be right. Whether or not elected officials and other decision makers "care" about middle-class Americans, influence over actual policy outcomes appears to be reserved almost exclusively for those at the top of the income distribution.

It's not hard to think of examples: In poll after poll, Americans say the rich should pay higher taxes, and that creating jobs is a higher priority than reducing the deficit. And yet, the budget talks that just narrowly averted a government shutdown were entirely focused on cutting spending (including job-creating public works projects) while increasing taxes on the rich or ending tax breaks for corporations were off the table.

So let's start there: Money talks. It talks a lot louder than most of us want to admit. And it gets results even when most of the rest of us disagree with it.

So how does that work?

NCMR. I spent Friday and Saturday at the National Conference for Media Reform in Boston. In one way or another, just about every session was focused on the way that money talks and how its volume could be turned down (or the volume of ordinary people turned up).

The conference wasn't designed to have a uniform message, but I kept hearing this theme: Neither blatant quid-pro-quo corruption nor overt censorship is the real problem. That kind of control is for amateurs. It happens, but if you stopped it you wouldn't have solved anything important.

Instead, the real problem is in the way the system is structured. Again and again, on many levels, the interests of both decision-makers and opinion-makers are aligned with private interests rather than the public interest.

These were the kinds of issues people talked about:

  • net neutrality. Only government regulation can keep the small number of companies who own the delivery infrastructure of the Internet (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, etc.) from either favoring their preferred content or extorting tariffs on web sites to get their message delivered. This was once a bipartisan issue, but after $100 million of industry spending on PR and lobbying, Republicans have defected and it has become a liberal issue.
  • media concentration. How do you expose the undo influence of big corporations when you work for a big corporation and depend on its approval to keep your microphone turned on?
  • source capture. Reporters need access to sources in positions of power. If they offend those sources, their access dries up.
  • regulatory capture. Several times I heard this fact referenced: Michael Powell, the FCC head under President Bush, just took a high-paying job as the top lobbyist for the cable industry. (Lawrence Lessig quoted $2.3 million as a salary estimate, but I haven't been able to verify that.) You don't need to assume any back-room deals to learn this lesson: If you're nice to the people you regulate, you've got a bright future after you leave government.
  • non-advocacy. The traditional journalistic value of objectivity -- going where the facts lead rather than pushing the story where you want it to go -- has gotten distorted into a practice of only reporting the points-of-view that are already influential. Corporations have the wherewithal to put their ideas on the public agenda that the mainstream media reports. But how do the views of ordinary people break into that league?
  • astro-turf. If you've got money, you can form "grass-root" organizations, create events for them, and get them on the news. Compare the relatively equal coverage of a Tea Party rally of a few hundred at the Capitol and a pro-union rally of 100,000 in Madison. A few hundred union supporters might not even make the local news, not to mention Politico or CNN.
  • campaign finance. Every year it costs more to run for office. President Obama is planning to raise an unprecedented $1 billion for 2012. He can't possibly raise that as 50 million contributions of $20 each. But he'll need every penny when the Chamber of Commerce and their allies start spending against him. Corporations and billionaires have become the only conceivable source for the quantities of money needed to seek major offices.

Lawrence Lessig. The talk that pulled it all together was by one of my long-time heroes, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig. The 25-minute presentation is already online. It focuses on clever graphics rather than Lessig as a talking head, so it works as well online as it did live at the conference. I recommend watching it.

Lessig's career as an activist started with his opposition to the 1998 law granting a 20-year extension of existing copyrights. The motivation for that law was simple: Mickey Mouse was about to enter the public domain, soon to be followed by Superman and Batman.

Obviously, this mattered to Disney and Time-Warner. Just as obviously, extending the copyrights did nothing at all for the public. Copyrights are temporary government-granted monopolies that are supposed to encourage the production of creative works. But as Lessig puts it "Incentives are prospective. No matter what the U. S. Congress does, they cannot get George Gershwin to create anything more." Extending copyright also has increased the number of orphan works that are unavailable because they are neither in commercial distribution nor in the public domain.

In spite of the extension's net negative impact on the public good, Congress passed itunanimously.

Lessig connected this experience to what we've seen recently in Wall Street reform. After putting hundreds of billions into bailouts, the tax-payers have gotten no reform that will prevent similar disasters from happening again. The too-big-to-fail banks are bigger than ever, and still only minimally regulated.

Ditto global warming. Big democratic majorities and a president supposedly committed to action produced nothing in the face of huge corporate spending. Ditto health-care reform, which had to placate insurance and drug-company interests, but not the large majorities of the public that favored a public option.

Every single issue you and I care about -- and not just you and I, people on the right too -- every single issue we care about is blocked by the same fundamental rot. … We won't get anything real from our government until we change this.

The fundamental problem, as Lessig describes it, is that Congress was designed to be dependent on the People, but instead it has become dependent on the Funders. But "the Funders are not the People." (It needs to be said.) Rather than quid-pro-quo corruption, members of Congress

develop a sixth sense as they increasingly begin to recognize how every single thing they do might or might not affect their ability to raise money, and they adjust themselves to make sure they don't reduce their ability to raise money.

This explains the kind of agenda-manipulation we see every day. Politicians don't often change their positions in exchange for campaign contributions. It's more subtle than that. They adjust the agenda so that questions that pit them against their potential funders never come up. Or, if they must come up, they appear as parts of large, seemingly inevitable compromises. So, for example, no one had to take a position on single-payer health care. There was no show-down vote on preserving the Bush tax cuts.

Similar processes are at work inside the corporate media. Overt censorship -- drop that story or be fired -- is very rare. But reporters know what will raise flak and what won't. They know what their editors will and won't support, what will and won't keep their sources happy, what paragraphs are likely to get cut and what stories are likely to make page 1. Like leaping dolphins, they very quickly get trained to produce what the system rewards rather than burn their energy working against it.

Peter, Paul, and Mary had it nailed in 1967:

But if I really say it, the radio won't play it unless I lay it between the lines

Root-striking. Lessig is pushing a campaign called Root Strikers. The initial purpose is simply to educate people to connect the dots, reframing every issue in terms of how it is changed by the influence of money on Congress. The ultimate plan, I'm told, involves a constitutional convention.

I have no idea whether this will turn into something or not. I'll let you know.

At the conference I kept running into issues that used to be bipartisan, but have become partisan: net neutrality, global warming, campaign finance reform. In all of them, Republican support has vanished as industry deployed its resources.

Friday, after massive lobbying and other political expenses by telephone companies like AT&T, the House voted to invalidate the FCC's already-watered-down protection of net neutrality on party lines: Republicans 234-2 against neutrality rules and Democrats 177-6 supporting them.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz (also at NCMR) has a current Vanity Fair article about the concentration of wealth and power.

It should not make jaws drop that a tax bill cannot emerge from Congress unless big tax cuts are put in place for the wealthy. Given the power of the top 1 percent, this is the way you would expect the system to work.

The Ryan Medical Plan

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan put out his long-term budget plan Tuesday, spelling out some of the ideas he's been suggesting in other forms for the last couple years. There's been a lot of extreme rhetoric for and against it, and particularly about what it does to Medicare and Medicaid. It's an extreme proposal, and at some point extreme rhetoric will be the appropriate response. But first let's try to understand the Ryan Plan calmly.

An analogy helps: Suppose I have a niece. (I don't.) Let's call her Jenny, and let's assume she has a serious health problem that her unemployed parents can't possibly pay for. Not wanting to see her die, I've been footing the bills for Jenny's treatment. I'm starting to go deeply into debt, and yet her treatments just get more and more expensive every year. Clearly, I'm headed towards bankruptcy.

I go to financial counselor Paul Ryan, who comes up with this plan: We figure out how much I can afford to spend on Jenny without going bankrupt, and we budget that I'm going to send her parents that much money each year, so that they can use it to pay for her treatments. Problem solved; I'm not going bankrupt any more.

I'm sure you see the difficulty: My potential bankruptcy is only one effect of the underlying problem, which we haven't solved at all. Jenny is still sick, the doctors still aren't going to treat her for free, and the cost of her treatment is still going up at the same rate. All I've done is detach my finances from that problem.

Now let's come out of the analogy and look at the country's health care system. The underlying problem is not fundamentally about government programs or taxes. It's about the cost of medical care. For a long time, the cost of medical care has been going up faster than anything else -- faster than inflation, faster than GDP, faster than government revenue.

By now, medical care is a huge expense for our economy. But the real problem is in the future: What if costs keep rising at this rate? Exponential growth will work its evil magic, and no matter how important you think medical care is, and no matter whether you imagine care being paid for by individuals, by private insurance, or by the government, at some point the money runs out. People will die even though we know how to save them, or they'll limp through life with disabilities that we know how to fix.

Up until now, government programs have been shielding individuals from the worst effects of that trend. We have Medicare for the old and Medicaid for the poor. When those programs are properly funded and working well, no one has to die just for lack of money. But as we look forward and imagine a continuing exponential growth in medical costs, at some point it overwhelms any tax rate and government bankruptcy looms.

So budget chair Ryan gives the government the same advice that financial counselor Ryan gives me in the analogy: Detach your finances from the increasing costs. Rather than pay for treatment, provide a fixed amount of money as a voucher to help people pay for private health insurance. Let that amount go up at a rate you find sustainable.

If you think the government deficit is the only problem here, then this is a great solution. But if you think the problem is that people are sick and we don't know how to pay for their treatment, that problem is untouched. The weight of it has just been shifted from the government to the individual.

The conservative response to this criticism is that medical inflation will abate when government money is no longer fueling it. Or, saying the same thing another way, when people become desperate enough for cheap medical care, the market will provide it.

This strikes me as magical thinking: I want it to be true, therefore it is true. If you poke the idea even slightly, it has no depth. Market incentives for cheap medical care already exist. (Insurance companies could make lots of money if they could provide quality care more cheaply. Employers could cut costs by forcing their employees into those insurance programs.) So far, those incentives haven't produced results, and no one has put forward any economic model that shows how the lower costs would come about.

And if they don't come about, people are going to die for lack of money. Parts of the Affordable Care Act begin to deal with that problem, but even these minimal efforts to reduce medical inflation are what raised the rhetoric about rationing and death panels. Ryan supports defunding them.

On privatizing Medicare and Medicaid,  Matt Yglesias asks the right question: "Why would introducing a new layer of rent-seeking special interests reduce health care spending?"

Because it has economies of scale, is non-profit, and doesn't need to advertise or pay million-dollar executive salaries, Medicare has low overhead and spends a higher proportion of its money on care than any private insurance plan. Replacing it dollar-for-dollar with a voucher would mean significant cuts in care.

Short Notes

The most fun presentations at NCMR conference by comedians. I've linked to Elon James White's This Week in Blackness series several times over the last couple years. But Erin Gibson and her Current TV series Infomania were new to me. Ditto Matthew Filipowicz, who has a great motive for starting his new talk show: "I know a lot of people who are smarter than I am, and I wanted to have a reason to talk to them."

While we're doing progressive comedy, sing along with Katie Goodman in "I Didn't F*ck It Up".

Glenn Beck is crawling back under the talk-radio rock that he wriggled out from. So I need to start drawing down my supply of Beck-skewering bookmarks: Mother Jones diagrams Glenn's brain. And Katie Goodman sings "Glenn Beck is Batshit Crazy". Jon Stewart also sees the end coming for his Beck impersonations. And Digby can't resist dancing on Beck's grave.

Republicans plan to seek new spending cuts next month when the national debt ceiling needs to be raised. But Matt Yglesias points out something significant: Threatening not to raise the debt ceiling (and send the U.S. government into default) is pure hostage-taking, not an alternate policy view.

If there’s some large block of members of congress who genuinely believe that failing to raise the debt ceiling is superior to raising the debt ceiling, then obviously it would make sense to negotiate with those people. But I don’t believe that there are any such people.

The effort to defund Planned Parenthood produced a lot of great responses: Erin Gibson's and Second City Network's were my favorites.

An Atlanta business owner repeats something New Hampshire businesspeople have told one of my friends:

Tax Cuts do not create jobs. Tax cuts adds profits into business owners pockets. If I get another 10% Tax cut, as the republicans are planning to push, lets say it moves and wins. If my current staff is can handle the volume, there is no incentive for me to hire new employees. That is the way it works.

As a former teen Objectivist myself, I understand that Randist philosophy is more than just an excuse to be a jerk. But if by coincidence you happen to be a jerk, it's awfully convenient. Alyssa Bereznak illustrates in How Ayn Rand Ruined My Childhood.

In honor of Passover (coming up later this month), consider how Exodus would play out in the age of social media.

This Week's Challenge

As you listen to TV talking heads debate politics this week, remember to take a step back occasionally and ask yourself: What completely different solution would work well for ordinary people, but is off the table because everybody knows it's politically impractical? I'll start the bidding with single-payer health care. Any others?

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

Monday, April 4, 2011

No Chance

"Is this a game of chance?"

"Not the way I play it."

-- W. C. Fields, "My Little Chickadee" (1940)

In this week's Sift:

  • Heads They Win, Tales You Lose. The conservative movement trumpets its principles. But those principles are easily reversed when they disadvantage the rich or benefit Democrats.
  • Betting on Bachmann. For months I've been looking at the Republican 2012 field and saying that none of them can possibly win the nomination. Now I've spotted the first candidate who can, and she's not who you think.
  • Short Notes. Wish I could tell you something about the possibility of a government shutdown. Budget ignorance. Defending regulation. Walker wriggles, then finally decides to obey a court order. Wisconsin votes tomorrow, and may vote again when all the recall petitions are validated. Jon Stewart identifies what kind of people corporations are. Save the tree octopus! Televising Katie Couric's colonoscopy. A radiation chart. A Fox News confession. And Corning's cool-but-creepy vision of the future.
  • This Week's Challenge. Here's wishing a unchallenging week to all of us.

Heads They Win, Tales You Lose

There are some honest and principled differences in American politics. Some people really believe that a newly fertilized ovum has the same moral value as a baby. Some people believe less government is always better. Some believe that America has both the ability and the moral responsibility to install democracies in troubled countries. Some believe that an unfettered free market system would be so productive as to make up for its other failings.

I don't believe any of those things. But I know people who do, and they seem to be sincere about it.

Those aren't the people I want to talk about right now. Instead, I want to focus on all the situations where a principle is held sacred when it benefits the right people, and yet is easily reversed when it benefits the wrong people.

Small government. Rachel Maddow has been beating this drum for some while now, but she really pulled it all together on Tuesday night's show (video, transcript). Conservative rhetoric is all about small government. But in practice conservatives love big government when they can use it to force their values on others or hassle people they don't like.

The issue where Rachel usually makes this point is abortion, where legislators who supposedly favor small government have no trouble forcing women to attend anti-abortion counseling sessions or to view an ultrasound of their fetus. But Tuesday she showed how the same phenomenon plays out in many other issues.

So: Florida Governor Rick Scott has just signed an order mandating quarterly drug tests for state workers. This will cost the state a lot of money (much of which will go to a company Scott's wife owns, which does drug tests), is not based on any state-worker drug scandal, and is unconstitutional as well -- but it's anti-drug and hassles state workers, so it's all good.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is another big-government conservative:

If the Snyder administration so declares, if they declare a financial emergency in your town, a financial emergency czar will be appointed, not elected by you, but appointed, sent to your town, given the power to abolish your town. The town can be dissolved on the say so of the governor‘s financial emergency person. Anyone you elected locally to represent you can be dismissed. All contracts, all unions, all rights of people who worked for that town can be dissolved on one person‘s say so if Governor Rick Snyder gives the nod. He is taking that much power.

Rachel then moved to the Republican effort to get access to the emails of Wisconsin history Professor William Cronon:

taking a law designed to make law transparent to the public and instead using it to force into the public e-mails written by a university professor whose academic writings put him on the wrong side of the Republican Party on an issue they feel quite sensitive about.

You speak out, the government will use all the leverage it can muster over you to pry open your life.

This isn't a one-of-a-kind thing:

in Virginia, it has been Governor McDonnell‘s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, who has demanded to search e-mails of a Virginia science professor, a professor whose research on climate issues apparently did not meet with government approval.

And back in Michigan:

The labor studies faculty at the University of Michigan, at Wayne State University, and at Michigan State have all just had their e-mails demanded by a right wing think tank, specifically demanding to see any e-mail from any professor at the labor faculty at any of these schools, any e-mail that includes the words: Scott Walker, Wisconsin, Madison, or Maddow.

Yep, mention Rachel in an email, and you're on the target list. About all this, she asks:

Is that small, leave-me-alone government, or is that big, intrusive government?

Money in politics. In the Citizens United decision of 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money campaigning for or against political candidates. The logic behind the decision was basically that free speech is good, and more money in a campaign means more speech. By limiting what corporations could spend, laws like McCain-Feingold were restricting how much free speech voters could hear.

Now, there are a lot of ways to argue against this point of view. (I'm reminded of the Anatole France quote I have used to lead off the Sift before: "The law in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." Well, the Supreme Court demonstrates its even-handedness by allowing the poor as well as the rich to spend unlimited amounts of money on politics.) But you could at least imagine that someone might hold it honestly.

Now we get to McCommish v Bennett, which the Supremes are mulling over now. The gist of this case is Arizona's law providing public financing for campaigns for state offices. Arizona has had a long history of political scandals, and the public-financing law (passed by voter referendum) was seen as a way to create the possibility for a candidate to get elected without taking vast sums from special interests.

The system works like this: A candidate for a contested office gets a fixed amount of public money in exchange for promising not to raise and spend additional money. Candidates who opt out of the system remain free to raise and spend as much as they want. But if they do spend more than the amount allowed to their publicly financed rivals, the amount of public funding goes up.

The idea here was that the public-funding system would not be attractive if it were essentially a strait-jacket that forced a candidate to spend less than his privately financed rivals. So as the amount of private spending goes up, the amount of public spending goes up.

So: Everyone is still free to buy as much free speech as he or she can afford. The only thing you can't do is swamp your publicly financed rivals with private money. The public is just adding money to the campaign, and more money equals more speech. So the courts should be happy. The 9th Court of Appeals, whose ruling is being appealed to the Supremes, is happy:

there is no First Amendment right to make one's opponent speak less, nor is there a First Amendment right to prohibit the government from subsidizing one's opponent, especially when the same subsidy is available to the challenger if the challenger accepts the same terms as his opponent.

In particular the five conservative judges who wrote the Citizens United decision should be happy. But it looks like they're not.

Nothing has been decided so far, but in the questions they have raised during public hearings, the five conservative justices seem to be positioning themselves to overturn the appeals-court decision and declare Arizona's system unconstitutional.

The problem? While rich people can spend as much as they want, the fact that their spending could trigger more funding for a candidate they hate might inhibit them. The whole point of spending vast amounts is to swamp your poorer opponent, and if the law takes that option away, why would a rich person spend? So Justice Kennedy (usually the swing vote on the Court) asked: "Do you think it would be a fair characterization of this law to say that its purpose and its effect are to produce less speech in political campaigns?"

Slate's Richard Hasen comments:

If you are looking for a common thread between the "more speech is better" theory underlying Citizens United and an expected "more speech is unfair" ruling for the challengers in McComish, it is this: Five conservatives justices on the Supreme Court appear to have no problem with the wealthy using their resources to win elections—even if doing so raises the danger of increased corruption of the political system.

Property Rights. Matt Yglesias nailed this one:

If I walked over to David Koch’s lawn and tore up all the grass, he’d probably feel that the basic principles of a free market society require me to be punished. After all, that’s his property. ... And yet somehow the coalition merchants of the contemporary right, financed by the Kochs and other industrialists, have constructed a conception of free markets and property rights such that trying to stop them from wrecking Ouachita River constitutes a defense of those things.

Their property rights allow them to defend their property, but if they use their property to harm the public's property, property rights protect them then too.

Taxes and health care. Again and again in discussions of the budget deficit, conservatives have argued that tax cuts don't have to be offset. In other words, deficits are only bad when they are caused by spending. When a deficit is caused by tax cuts, that's fine.

That's very close to a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose argument right there, but it gets worse. There are a number of taxes included in the Affordable Care Act. There is general agreement that some of them were poorly designed and should be changed or even eliminated. But Republicans are adamant that any lost revenue needs to be made up. So: tax cuts don't have to be offset with spending cuts, unless we're talking about cutting spending on health care.

Betting on Bachmann

This week I had a strong temptation to open an account on InTrade, the predictive-market exchange that lets you bet on all kinds of political developments. The reason? Earlier this week, shares that would pay $10 if Michelle Bachmann gets the 2012 Republican nomination were going for 50 cents.

But the mainstream media discovered the Bachmann candidacy this week, so this morning her shares were up to 70 cents. But they've got a lot further to run.

I'm not saying I'm sure she's going to win the nomination. But I will predict this much:

  • Mitt Romney will not be nominated. Yes, his campaign will have plenty of money, he looks like central-casting's idea of a president, and Republicans have a history of nominating the person who finished second last time around. But it's not going to happen. From the beginning, the religious right has had trouble trusting a Mormon, and he isn't going to be able to explain the difference between ObamaCare and RomneyCare (because there isn't one). His rivals can attack Romney and Obama in the same sentence, and that's going to be deadly when the campaign starts in earnest.
  • Sarah Palin will not run. I've been saying this for months. Campaigning is hard work, and you spend money rather than make it. Then if you get elected, you have to work even harder at governing (unless you quit). But being a Fox News pundit from your home studio, letting somebody else ghost-write your books, and tossing off an occasional tweet while you watch the money roll in ... that's more Sarah's style.
  • Bachmann will win the Iowa caucuses. The same stuff that works on Republicans in Minnesota works in Iowa. Her only competition for the religious-right vote is Huckabee, and easy-going Huck can't channel the mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-any-more wave as well as Bachmann can.
  • At some point it's going to come down to Bachmann against one or two other Republican candidates. She wins Iowa, somebody else upsets Romney in New Hampshire, and maybe there's a third candidate who finished close enough in both to keep going.

Put all that together, and I'd be amazed if those Bachmann shares didn't make it to at least $3 at some point.

Now, I know some of you will think this is a crazy idea. Michelle Bachmann is one of the outright loons in the Republican Party. She is only slightly more knowledgable than Palin, and occasionally gets this wild-eyed look that should scare the pants off any sane voter.

But if you think that eliminates her from consideration for high office, you haven't been paying attention. Bachmann is a level-headed genius compared to Christine O'Donnell, who beat a sensible Republican in the Delaware senate primary. From my perspective, Bachmann is the only Republican candidate so far who doesn't immediately bring to mind some reason he or she can't win the nomination.

The religious right and the rank-and-file Tea Partiers (mostly the same people, in spite of the media coverage saying otherwise) are looking for a candidate with authenticity. They have a semi-justified/semi-paranoid fear that candidates are saying things they don't really believe just to woo them. So they are looking for conviction, and they are looking for details in a candidate's biography that show seriousness about religious-right issues. Newt Gingrich can talk about defending marriage, but he's on his third wife. Romney is a Mormon who supported socialized medicine. Even Huckabee looks like somebody who would play nice with the Marxist-atheist Democrats in Congress.

If you believe all the crazy stuff religious-right Tea-Party people believe, and you want somebody who says that stuff proudly in public, someone who will stand up against the reality-based folks who say you're crazy -- then you want Bachmann. What looks like craziness to liberals is actually just shamelessness; Bachmann will state as fact whatever she wants to be true. That's a virtue on the right these days.

Meanwhile, she doesn't offend the other power bases in the Republican Party. Corporatists like the Koch brothers have always been suspicious of Huckabee. (What if he really means all that Christian-compassion stuff?) But Bachmann makes the big-bucks crowd comfortable. (That's how she manages to raise so much money). And the neocons don't have anything against her either.

The only Republicans who would mount a defend-the-Alamo campaign against Bachmann are the sane ones -- the ones who want to appeal to the center and beat Obama. But in a Republican primary, they're nowhere near a majority any more.

Short Notes

Will Congress make a deal to avoid a government shutdown next week? This is important enough to deserve an article, but I have no idea.

The whole budget issue would be much easier to handle if the American people had any idea what the government really spends money on.

First-time poster ramblinman explains The Case for Regulation on Daily Kos. This is the kind of common-sense justification liberals need to do more often:

The simple contradiction, my conservative friend, is this: You can not make the selfish man the paradigm of your economic theory and then expect that same selfish man to self regulate.

He makes the analogy to sports: It's only a fair competition if there are rules and an impartial referee.

So don’t tell me about watering the tree of liberty and a tossed salad of incompatible isms. Just tell me if you accept my sports analogy, and if not, what is it about economic competition that makes it so fundamentally different from sport competition that no rules are required.

In a comment I pushed his analogy a little further:

The rulebook of football is huge and complicated. It has to be, because a lot of very competitive people are doing whatever they can to get an advantage. Why would anyone think that the rules of economic competition could be simpler?

To the surprise of no one, Judge Maryann Sumi was not pleased that the Walker administration in Wisconsin started implementing its new union-killing bill in spite of her restraining order. The Wisconsin State Journal reports:

"Apparently that language was either misunderstood or ignored, but what I said was, ‘the further implementation of 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 is enjoined,' " Sumi said. "That's what I now want to make crystal clear. … Now that I've made my earlier order as clear as it possibly can be, I must state that those who act in open and willful defiance of the court order place not only themselves at peril of sanctions, they also jeopardize the financial and the governmental stability of the state of Wisconsin."

spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Justice said, "Whether the Department of Administration or other state officers choose to comply with any direction issued by Judge Sumi is up to them." But Walker has since backed down from a direct clash with the judiciary.

Meanwhile, the voters are getting a chance to weigh in. Tomorrow Wisconsin elects a Supreme Court justice, and the main issue is that the incumbent, David Prosser, is a Walker partisan. The dispute over the union-busting law is going to make it to the state Supreme Court soon, so the race is nearly a referendum on it.

Another vote to watch tomorrow is the election for Walker's old job: Milwaukee County executive. The Democrat was a sizable underdog until he started linking his opponent to Walker. Now, who knows?

The effort to recall Republican state senators has had its first success: A petition calling for a recall of La Crosse Senator Dan Kapanke was filed Friday, apparently with enough signatures to trigger a recall election. It won't be the last.

Jon Stewart responds to the idea that corporations -- 2/3rds of whom pay nothing in corporate income taxes already -- need a tax break, or they'll ship jobs overseas even faster than they already are.

I know the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are people, but what I didn't realize is that those people are assholes.

But if Jon read the Sift, he would have known since December that Corporations are Sociopaths.

The University of Connecticut studied internet gullibility by assigning students to write a report about the endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus -- which has never existed. (You can't get more endangered than that.) Researching the topic was easy, because the UConn researchers had also put up a web site to publicize the plight of the tree octopus. Students easily Googled up the fake site and wrote their report about "this intelligent and inquisitive cephalopod", with most having no idea they had been scammed. (The tree octopus gift shop was a nice touch.)

Katie Couric combines serious with hilarious when she brings a camera crew along for her colonoscopy.

xkcd produces a chart to help us keep our radiation dangers in perspective.

A Fox News executive admits to saying things on camera that he didn't really believe during the 2008 campaign. He's not sorry; he's just letting his fellow conservatives in on the joke.

Corning's vision of the near future: A Day Made of Glass. Sort of cool, sort of creepy. Do you really want email showing up on the bathroom mirror while you brush your teeth?

This Week's Challenge

I'm hoping for an unchallenging week myself, so I'll wish one to everybody else.

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