Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"Hear that, Fido?"

The Weekly Sift has moved to weeklysift.com.
You should adjust your bookmarks and RSS subscriptions accordingly.
In the meantime, I'll continue posting weekly summaries here that will link to the new blog.

We did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption.
-- George Creel, How We Advertised America (1920)
In this week's Sift:
  • The Dog Whistle Defined. How Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry send messages to the Religious Right that they don't want you to hear.
  • Digging Into the Deficit. When you gather together the rights charts and graphs, the deficit isn't that complicated: We cut taxes too far, and healthcare costs are rising exponentially.
  • Short notes. If you're not Muslim, it's not terrorism. The debt ceiling comes down to the wire. Yesterday's talking points are today's deadbeats. The hazards of lying to Al Franken. Dogs and smurfs. And the week's most interesting question: Did communists raise Captain America?
  • Last week's most popular post. Hands down it was Meet ALEC, which at last count had 878 views (most of which came through Reddit, if I'm reading the stats right). That's part of a national wave of attention to the secretive American Legislative Executive Council. This week the story escaped the liberal blogosphere and made it to Bloomberg News and NPR. A good way to go deeper is to look at one state in detail: ALEC Bills in Wisconsin.
  • This week's challenge. Sign a petition to make corporations impersonal again. If it takes a constitutional amendment, let's get one started.
I promised a follow-up on last week's review of Warren Mosler's Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy, where I would describe his proposals. But I ran over my 3000-word weekly limit, so I'll put that off to next week.

Monday, July 18, 2011


The Weekly Sift has moved to weeklysift.com.
You should adjust your bookmarks and RSS subscriptions accordingly.
In the meantime, I'll continue posting weekly summaries here that will link to the new blog.

This week's summary is on the new blog at: http://weeklysift.com/2011/07/18/spoonless/

BOY: Do not try to bend the spoon. That is impossible.
Instead, only try to realize the Truth.
NEO: What truth?
BOY: There is no spoon.

-- The Matrix

In this week's Sift:

  • Welcome to the new WeeklySift.com. This week the Weekly Sift moves to weeklysift.com. Simultaneously, I've changed (and, I hope, improved) the design of the blog. But the content, philosophy, and purpose of the Weekly Sift is not changing.
  • The Sifted Bookshelf: The Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy.Warren Mosler's short, free, and very readable book explains why all the common-sense things you know about the economy are wrong. In particular, dollars (like Neo's spoon) are just patterns of data.
  • Meet ALEC.How did those new conservative governors all suddenly come up with the same detailed agenda after they took office? By using the model laws that the corporations who run the American Legislative Executive Council had already written behind closed doors. Now those model laws have all been leaked.
  • Short Notes.Will 3-D printers someday kill the last of the manufacturing jobs? Nobody but a reporter comes to Sarah's premier. Krugman, Mahr: If you just noticed how crazy the Republicans are acting, where have you been? Fox forgets 9-11. A song explains fracking. Stephen Colbert explains the Rupert Murdoch scandal. And more.
  • This Week's Challenge.The Wisconsin recall elections are mere weeks away, and the good guys are being outspent.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Trimming the Fat

Welcome to Austerity in America. We can afford tax breaks for millionaires, but can’t afford five-day school weeks.

-- Steve Benen, The Washington Monthly

In this week's Sift:

  • Is Obama on Our Side? What if President Obama isn't being out-negotiated by Republicans? What if he's getting what he wants?
  • The Hard Line. The Republican inclination not to compromise goes all the way down to the grass roots, where three kinds of fundamentalism are replacing the 20th-century conservative's respect for the status quo.
  • What "Spending" Really Means. Cutting government spending sounds good until you have to get specific. Do we want safe food and fire engines that work?
  • Short Notes. Fiore's biting animations. We had a revenue crash, not a spending orgy. New light bulbs and solar panels. The debt ceiling is constitutional. And Ohio says that poll workers don't have to be helpful.
  • This Week's Challenge. As I redesign the Weekly Sift blog, now is a good time to make your suggestions.

Is Obama on Our Side?

When Barack Obama's 2008 landslide carried such unlikely states as North Carolina and Indiana, and swept in large majorities in Congress, many progressives imagined a transformational presidency like FDR's. Katrina Vanden Heuval wrote:

[F]uture historians may well view Barack Obama's victory as the end of the age of Reagan and the beginning of something substantially new.

So far, it hasn't worked out that way.

Not that President Obama hasn't had accomplishments. The Bush economic crisis did not become a second Great Depression, as it threatened to do. With all its compromises, the Affordable Care Act is still a historic step in the right direction. Obama's two appointments have slowed down the rightward drift of the Supreme Court. In thousands of ways that don't make headlines, regulatory agencies have gone back to protecting the American people. On gay rights, President Obama has not led, but at least he has not stood in the way. The Iraq War has continued to wind down, our relations with other nations in general are less belligerent, and we finally nailed Osama Bin Laden.

That's not nothing. But by now the list of liberal disappointments has gotten long.

What haunts the Obama administration is what still haunts the country: the stunning lack of accountability for the greed and misdeeds that brought America to its gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression. There has been no legal, moral, or financial reckoning for the most powerful wrongdoers. Nor have there been meaningful reforms that might prevent a repeat catastrophe.
  • No public option. Given the public option's popularity, a great speech might have made a difference to wavering Democrats in the Senate, but Obama didn't give one.
  • Ratifying Bush's power grabs. On Inauguration Day, the new president had a chance to define the Bush administration as an aberration and turn the corner. Obama could even have enforced the law and prosecuted Bush officials for ordering torture. Instead, he let his initial effort to close Guantanamo fail, and has continued to practice and has systematically defended in court many of the Bush administration abuses of power.
  • Afghanistan. To be fair, Candidate Obama portrayed Afghanistan as the good war that got ignored because we fought the bad war in Iraq. So Afghan escalation shouldn't have been a surprise. But we still have no coherent goal or exit strategy.
  • Libya. Again: goal? exit strategy? By ignoring the War Powers Act -- in defiance of the advice of his own top lawyers -- he's expanded executive power beyond even Bush.
  • Global warming. In a recent article in Rolling Stone, Al Gore credits Obama for at least starting to take action, but then says:
President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change. After successfully passing his green stimulus package, he did nothing to defend it when Congress decimated its funding. After the House passed cap and trade, he did little to make passage in the Senate a priority. Senate advocates — including one Republican — felt abandoned when the president made concessions to oil and coal companies without asking for anything in return. He has also called for a massive expansion of oil drilling in the United States, apparently in an effort to defuse criticism from those who argue speciously that "drill, baby, drill" is the answer to our growing dependence on foreign oil.
  • Taxes. When Republicans wouldn't extend the Bush tax cuts just for the middle class, Obama had a perfect place to make a popular stand. Imagine: "I wanted to keep your taxes low, but the Republicans blocked me to protect the millionaires." Instead he agreed to extend all the Bush cuts -- and didn't even get a debt-ceiling increase written into the deal.

And now, he seems ready to make significant concessions on Social Security and Medicare in those debt-ceiling negotiations he might have avoided. Like the public option only moreso, Social Security and Medicare are popular. There's a significant rabble waiting to be roused, if a silver-tongued president were so inclined. So far, nothing.

Explanations. In the beginning, progressives explained these disappointments with some combination of 1) He's doing the best he can given political reality and the power of the special interests and 2) He's a bad negotiator who compromises when he doesn't have to. Lately, though, a third explanation is getting louder and louder: 3) Maybe he's not really on our side.

Bringing up Explanation 3 -- even to deny it -- is the surest way to start a blood feud on a liberal web site like Daily Kos. Emotions run high. Some liberals feel strongly that Obama has betrayed them, while others are just as strongly attached to him.

The problem is: All three explanations work, and each explains things the others can't. For example, I think Obama was genuinely surprised by the popular resistance Republicans raised to closing Guantanamo. (Scary, scary terrorists were going to be housed in flimsy jails down the street from you.) Otherwise, why make a grand promise only to back off of it? And I believe he did (foolishly) expect Republicans to negotiate in good faith on vital issues like the debt ceiling.

True intentions. In spite of all the socialist and Marxist and big spender rhetoric from the Right, what if Obama has always been a centrist? Left and Right alike imagined that the centrist positions he campaigned on were masking a deeper progressive agenda, but what if they weren't?

From the beginning, the role Obama has written for himself has been to let liberals and conservatives fight it out in Congress, and then to come in at the end with a compromise. (The problem has been that liberals are largely shut out of the corporate media -- when was the last time you saw Dennis Kucinich on TV? -- so the public debate has been between the most moderate Democrats and the most conservative Republicans, with Obama coming in at the end to make a center-right compromise rather than a left-right compromise.)

I think the way he has handled entitlement reform tells us a lot. The Simpson-Bowles Commission Obama appointed to study long-term deficit issues was stacked from the beginning. (Digby kept calling it "the Catfood Commission".) When the commission was appointed, Unsilent Generation posted:

Despite protestations to the contrary, the commission exists primarily to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The commission’s slant is evident from the choice of its two co-chairs: former Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson, a long-time foe of entitlements, and Erskine Bowles, the middle-right former Clinton chief of staff.

It should have surprised no one when Simpson called Social Security "a milk cow with 310 million tits". And it should have surprised no one that the Commission recommended Social Security and Medicare cuts.

Presidents do this kind of spadework to cover unpopular actions they want to take later. It's where you can see presidential intention in its purest form. Obama has believed all along that Social Security and Medicare need to be cut. So while he's not likely to get on board with the Ryan privatization plan, he's also not likely to make a bold stand against cuts that he's been maneuvering towards from the beginning.

Framing is another place you can see presidential intention at work. The other side can force you to accept deals you don't like, but they can't make you repeat their deceptive rhetoric. Recently, though, Obama has said things like:

Government has to start living within its means, just like families do.  We have to cut the spending we can’t afford so we can put the economy on sounder footing, and give our businesses the confidence they need to grow and create jobs

Paul Krugman comments:

That’s three of the right’s favorite economic fallacies in just two sentences. No, the government shouldn’t budget the way families do; on the contrary, trying to balance the budget in times of economic distress is a recipe for deepening the slump. Spending cuts right now wouldn’t “put the economy on sounder footing.” They would reduce growth and raise unemployment. And last but not least, businesses aren’t holding back because they lack confidence in government policies; they’re holding back because they don’t have enough customers — a problem that would be made worse, not better, by short-term spending cuts.

My conclusion. Consider the possibility that Obama is a Clintonian centrist whose liberal actions have been forced on him by events. I don't think he's a bad guy or a traitor to the cause. I just don't think he's ever been a progressive.

Deep down, I think Obama wants to be the president who steers the center course -- fixing the long-term growth in entitlement spending without gutting the safety net. The ACA is part of that vision, because health-care inflation is the main long-term fiscal threat, and the private sector is never going to stop it. The near-depression forced a half-hearted stimulus on him, but expanding government services is not his fundamental inclination.

He never said it was.

Conservative columnist Ross Douhat on the deficit negotiations: "The not-so-secret secret is that the White House has given ground on purpose."

Rick Perlstein was all over this more than a year ago.

The Hard Line

Two articles this week explained why Republicans are (depending on your point of view) either (1) able to hold together on hardline positions, or (2) unable to compromise. Turns out, it's not just the party leadership or elected officials that are different, it's the rank-and-file:


NYT blogger Nate Silver looks more deeply at the polling data and concludes that while polarization is hitting both parties, it has a more profound effect on the Republicans. Republican is becoming identical with conservative, while the Democrats remain a coalition of diverse philosophies. So Democrats worry about alienating their moderates, while Republicans focus on energizing their base.

In The three fundamentalisms of the American right, Salon's Michael Lind notes a long-term philosophical shift in conservatism. William F. Buckley modeled the mid-20th-century conservative movement after 18th-century philosopher Edmund Burke, who argued that people underestimate the values embedded in traditional practices, so change should be measured and thoughtful rather than sweeping and giddy.

But increasingly, 21st-century conservatism is built around fundamentalist reaction rather than thoughtful prudence. Christian fundamentalism (the Bible), constitutional fundamentalism (the Constitution and carefully selected quotes from the Founders), and market fundamentalism (Atlas Shrugged) each have a holy scripture that teaches unquestionable Truth. And that creates a problem for democracy.

Back when conservatism was orthodox and traditional, rather than fundamentalist and counter-revolutionary, conservatives could engage in friendly debates with liberals, and minds on both sides could now and then be changed. But if your sect alone understands the True Religion and the True Constitution and the Laws of the Market, then there is no point in debate. All those who disagree with you are heretics, to be defeated, whether or not they are converted.

A Burke-Buckley conservative respects the status quo, but to a fundamentalist the status quo already represents a fall from a lost Golden Age -- often an imaginary one.

It's tempting to respond to all three types of right-wing fundamentalist with scorn, especially when they make up facts about their respective Golden Ages. But in the long run scorn may be counterproductive. Fundamentalism is a reaction to a loss of identity and community. (No one who feels at home here and now pledges loyalty to a lost era or an ancient text.) Ultimately, fundamentalists need to be healed, not beaten down further. The candidate-Obama message of Hope and Yes We Can seems exactly right to me, if we can see it through.

This move conflicts with my healing strategy, but I'll be interested to see if it works tactically: The American Values Network points out that two of the right-wing fundamentalisms contradict each other. Jesus and Ayn Rand are not at all on the same page.

Less-extreme Republicans have finally started protesting against the hard line: David Brooks, David Frum, Kathleen Parker, Robert Samuelson.

What "Spending" Really Means

Cutting government spending always sounds good until you start looking at specifics. In Wilmington, NC, "cutting spending" specifically means not replacing an ancient fire engine that tends to die when the firefighters need water pressure. In California, Arizona, and Nevada it means a shorter school year. And in parts of Idaho and New Mexico it means a four-day school week -- not for any academic reason, but because (as Rachel Maddow summed up) "In America now, we can't afford to keep all our schools open five days a week."

This 11-minute clip from Rachel's show on Wednesday is worth watching in its entirety, because it pulls together so much.

For example: Alto, Texas has scrapped its police force -- not just furloughed a few officers, but padlocked the door and sent the whole force home for a minimum of six months. Not because they're not needed -- even when it had police, Alto's crime rate was higher than the Texas average -- but because Alto is out of money.

On the federal level, the House has eliminated funding to test American vegetables for the E-coli strain that killed 50 people in Europe. Georgia Republican Rep. Jack Kingston isn't worried: "The food supply in America is very safe because the private sector self-polices." But whether we're talking food or crime, self-policing only works up to a point. Somehow, even before the testing cutbacks, 3000 Americans died each year from tainted food.

State after state is laying off teachers -- not because they've found some better way to educate children, but because they can't afford to pay them. We're slashing transportation funding too, because high-speed trains belong in China, not America.

But don't tax the rich. We are eliminating all this stuff rather than raise taxes on anybody, even the wealthiest Americans. Republicans claim they are taking this stand because, as John Boehner says, "The American people don't want us to raise taxes."

Except that they do. Politifact did the research:

we found a number of polls that indicate people do want the government to raise taxes. That was most clearly the case when it comes to raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations.

Like these polls. Rachel quotes a poll saying that 81% of Americans would accept higher taxes on millionaires to cut the deficit. 68% could support eliminating the Bush tax cuts for people earning more than $250,000 a year.

The American people also want to protect Social Security, Medicare, and even Medicaid. By a 60-32 margin, they said that maintaining Social Security and Medicare benefits was more important than cutting the deficit. By 61-31 they said that Medicare recipients already pay enough of their medical costs. 58% think "Low income people should not have their Medicaid benefits taken away."

And don't tax corporations. A significant majority of Americans (56% on Question 36) say that corporations are not paying their fair share of taxes. And the most stunning poll result is this (Question 40): 61% say that corporations use tax breaks to pay higher dividends and bonuses; only 4% say they use the money to create jobs.

That jaundiced public perception is accurate. Rachel lists a number of large American corporations (Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, etc.) who pay significantly less than the official 35% corporate tax rate (GE: 7.4%) and have been cutting jobs rather than creating them. Moreover, American corporate taxes are low, not high: Compared to 25 other developed countries, only in Iceland are corporate taxes a smaller percentage of GDP than in the US.

Rich people, poor country. Let me sum up: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says "the people that put us here" want to change "the way the system works so that we’re no longer spending money that we don’t have." The question that goes unasked is: Why don't we have that money?

Is the United States a poor country now? Can we simply not afford to have police and full-time schools and safe food? Can we not afford to take care of Americans who are sick or old? To fix our potholes and keep our bridges from falling down?

Other countries manage to pay for such things. They aren't richer than the United States. The difference is that in America, billionaires and corporations have become so powerful that they can dictate to the government how much tax they are willing to pay. And those dictates are put forward by the corporate media as "the will of the people", even if (when you ask them) the people say the exact opposite. So if the billionaires and corporations are only willing to pay for four days of school a week, that's what we'll get.

At least as long as Eric Cantor believes that billionaires and corporate CEOs are the people that put him where he is.

Short Notes

Mark Fiore's animations are very sharp satires. Check out "Trickle Down Tales". And Tom Tomorrow is pretty good today too.

Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee have put together a chart explaining what happened to the surplus in Clinton's final budget. It's mildly deceptive (everything except defense is adjusted for inflation and population growth), but ignoring the too-high defense number, it makes a great point: We had a revenue crash and the population got older, but there was no discretionary-spending orgy.

Last week I mentioned the possibility of Obama invoking the 14th amendment to ignore the debt ceiling. Lawrence Tribe has convinced me that's not a legitimate option.

Slate's tech reviewer loves the new LED light bulb. It lasts 20 years, uses about 1/5 the power, and emits the spectrum we expect from incandescents. The problem: They cost $20 each. Long-term it's a good deal, but people aren't used to thinking about light bulbs as investments.

What if your windows could be solar panels?

If Republican election-reform laws aren't about suppressing legitimate votes, then why does the new Ohio law say that poll workers don't have to direct confused voters to their correct polling places?

This Week's Challenge

I'm working on a redesign of the Weekly Sift blog, which I'll roll out on weeklysift.com either next Monday or the one after. (Currently, weeklysift.com is a bit of a mess, like any unfinished construction project.) If you have any suggestions for improving the blog, now is a good time to make them. Like: What do you think of this week's embedded chart and video? I'm thinking of doing a lot more of that.

BTW, what do you think of this as a logo? If you've been getting the Sift via email, what do you think of the new MailChimp mailings? Have you noticed?

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at gmail.com. Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page or the @weeklysift Twitter feed, where you get the Link of the Day.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Handbook for Misconduct

Today, … the Court invalidates Arizonans' efforts to ensure that in their State, "the people possess the ultimate sovereignty." No precedent compels the Court to take this step; to the contrary, today's decision is in tension with broad swaths of our First Amendment doctrine. No fundamental principle of our Constitution backs the Court's ruling; to the contrary, it is the law struck down today that fostered both the vigorous competition of ideas and its ultimate object -- a government responsive to the will of the people. Arizonans deserve better.

-- Justice Elena Kagan
dissenting opinion in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett (2011)

In this week's Sift:

  • Not the People's Court. Across the board, this was a great Supreme Court term for corporations. For humans, it sucked.
  • Gaffes Won't Beat Bachmann. The voters she's going for value heart over head, so a few misquoted facts won't bother them. To beat Bachmann, you need to argue that her heart is in the wrong place -- which is true.
  • The Logic of Worker Abuse. A 21st-century monopoly focuses more on abusing its suppliers than on abusing the consumer. And the ultimate supplier is the worker.
  • Short Notes. Glenn Beck slithers into the sunset. A CIA interrogator talks. Judge Prosser's anger management problem. Krugman and Yglesias sum up the debt-ceiling issue -- and I start to panic a little.
  • This Week's Challenge. This Independence Day, pay attention to the difference between independence and freedom.

Not the People's Court

Unlike a typical journalist, I'm happy to be scooped. Last week I promised I would summarize "a very pro-corporate Supreme Court term". Friday, Slate's Dahlia Lithwick did it for me, and did a darn good job:

The measure of success here isn't just the win-loss record of the Chamber of Commerce, although that's certainly part of the story. Nor is it news that—in keeping with a recent trend—the court is systematically closing the courthouse doors to everyday litigants, though that's a tale that always bears retelling. The reason the Roberts Court has proven to be Christmas in July for big business is this: Slowly but surely, the Supreme Court is giving corporate America a handbook on how to engage in misconduct.

No more class actions. A big piece of that handbook is how to avoid class-action lawsuits. This is a big deal, because in many situations the threat of a class action is the only discipline a company has. Think about it: Suppose you're MegaCorp and you want to screw a million customers out of $1,000 each. That's a billion dollars -- real money, even for you.

And what are they going to do about it? No matter how valid their claims are, nobody is going to beat the MegaCorp Legal Department without spending years in court and tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars. Who is going to do that just to get their thousand back?

The only thing that concerns you is that your victims might all get together in a class action, hire a top-flight law firm, and get their billion back in one case. Not to worry, the Roberts Court has you covered.

Screw your workers. If it's workers you're worried about, Justice Scalia gives you the blueprint in Wal-Mart v. Dukes (court opinionScotusBlog summary, cartoon that sums up even better). Because Wal-Mart's official policy said it didn't discriminate against women, it didn't matter that the company gave its (mostly male) managers enough leeway to discriminate, and that companywide statistics proved that they in fact did discriminate. The female workers couldn't prove that they all suffered identically -- somewhere in the Wal-Mart system there might have been a store whose manager treated women fairly -- so they aren't a class. LIthwick summarizes:

The greatest impact of the Wal-Mart decision isn't the blow dealt to class-action suits. It's the guidance it provides employers: Immunize yourself from claims of gender discrimination with a written policy that says "we don't discriminate" and a system of decentralized decision-making. The decision doesn't discourage future corporate discrimination. It just makes it harder to identify and prove it. 

Screw your customers. Don't worry about your customers ganging up on you, either. AT&T Mobility v Concepcion (court opinionprevious Lithwick article), lets corporations stick clauses into their standard contracts (which you have to sign to do business with them) where you sign away your class-action rights -- or any rights they find inconvenient.

In this case, AT&T offered a "free" cellphone, and then charged customers $30.22 in sales tax that they had no reason to expect they would owe. A California court ruled that the cellphone contract's arbitration clause (which prevented a class action) was unenforceable. But the Supremes disagreed. Justice Breyer dissented, writing:

What rational lawyer would have signed on to represent the Concepcions in litigation for the possibility of fees stemming from a $30.22 claim? The realistic alternative to a class action is not 17 million individual suits, but zero individual suits, as only a lunatic or a fanatic sues for $30.

Nan Aron of Alliance for Justice points out that this is about more than just $30, or even $30 times 17 million:

The upshot is that corporations will now be able to decide on their own which civil rights and consumer protections they want to obey, knowing that there will be no effective means available to their victims to find redress. Even worse, … [the Court] has effectively removed any incentive for corporations to behave within the law in the first place. Why act lawfully if your victims are helpless, especially in cases like this when the harm to each individual is small but the potential for profit is huge?

Screw your investors. In Janus Capital Group v. First Derivative Traders (court opinion), as ThinkProgress' Ian Millhiser sums up: "the Supreme Court has now given much of Wall Street a license to lie."

Basically, Janus wrote a false prospectus to mislead investors about an investment it was selling. But the Court let Janus get away with claiming that the responsibility lies with a dummy company Janus set up -- which can't be sued because it has no assets. Lithwick draws the lesson: "[Set] up a dummy corporation to make your false statements for you."

Lithwick's conclusion:

When you obliterate the very possibility of civil litigation, you are, by definition, helping big business screw over the little guy. But when you teach big business precisely how to screw over the little guy, and how to do it faster, cheaper, and without detection … well, that's not even an illusion of justice anymore. It's enabling.

Screw democracy. OK, maybe you can't fight corporations in court any more. But we still out-number them, right? So we should be able to control them through our elected representatives.

Well, the Court is working on that too. Last year's Citizens United decision opened the spigots of corporate cash for electioneering -- one reason why the 2010 election cycle went so well for the Republicans. This year, in Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett (opinion, ThinkProgress commentary), the Court did its best to knock out the main alternative to bought-and-paid-for elected officials -- public financing of campaigns.

For years now, the Court has accepted the dubious idea that "money equals speech". (That is, you can't limit campaign spending without limiting free speech.) It makes sense up to a point: If I have an idea I want to promote, and I have the money to promote it, then why should anybody be able to tell me to stop?

Obviously, it stops making sense when we talk about corporate money, because corporations shouldn't have First-Amendment rights to begin with. (Were they "endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights"? On which of the six days of Creation?)

Money = speech also starts to fail when we get into the horse-race aspect of politics: Why should a candidate supported by rich people be able to out-shout candidates supported by poor people?

But that's precisely the principle that decided Bennett. Arizona, in response to a long history of corruption, established a public financing system in which the amount of public money would increase if candidates who opted out of the system started outspending the publicly financed candidates.

So privately-funded candidates were free to opt out of the system and free to spend as much as they wanted to promote themselves and their ideas. But what they couldn't do is out-shout the publicly funded candidates; if they spent more, the publicly financed candidates got to spend more.

That won't do, says the Court. Arizona's system is unconstitutional, because money shouldn't just allow you to get your ideas out, it should allow you to out-shout candidates with less money. The Court's conservative majority is moving past the simple money = speech equation, in the direction of money = votes.

Put it all together. Don't just look at one case, look at the pattern. The Court is pushing a vision of society in which corporations can make us sign away our rights in order to participate in the economy, can screw us out of our money without fear of consequences, and can then use that ill-gotten money to elect officials who will guard the advantages they have over mere humans.

Lest you think this term was an anomaly, check out a speech Al Franken gave last summer, in which he summarized the pro-corporate rulings the Roberts Court had made up to that point.

Legally, here's what's going on with abortion: For the last few years, pro-choice groups have been reluctant to challenge relatively minor infringements of the right to an abortion, for fear that the Roberts Court will overturn Roe v Wade completely. Predictably, anti-abortion forces have upped the ante. With their 2010-election majorities, Republican legislatures have passed laws that harass women (South Dakota) and/or doctors (Kansas) to the point that abortion would become impractical, if still technically legal. Lawsuits have been filed and injunctions granted delaying the implementation of the challenged laws in those two states. The cases will eventually make it to the Supremes, and then we'll see if they want to overturn Roe.

John Dean was in the Nixon Justice Department when they were pushing Abe Fortas off the Supreme Court -- in a case that closely resembles Clarence Thomas'. He explains the game plan, which may involve being more ruthless than liberals are up for.

Speaking of corporations funding elections, this still seems to be illegal: Wisconsin's new Senator Ron Johnson spent $9 million of his own money beating Russ Feingold last year. After the election, the corporation he runs wrote him a $10 million check for "deferred compensation".

Up until now, Republican-appointed judges have ruled against the constitutionality of ObamaCare and Democrat-appointed judges for it. This week, a Bush-appointed judge broke ranks and upheld the law.

Gaffes Won't Beat Bachmann

In Waterloo, Iowa, Michele Bachmann began her official presidential campaign with a gaffe: She said John Wayne was from Waterloo, when actually mass murder John Wayne Gacy is. (The Duke is from Winterset, on the other side of the state.) This is another in a long series of mistakes and missteps, like when she thought that the Revolutionary War started in Concord, NH instead of Concord, MA.

A lot of liberals seem to think that things like this will make a difference. And in the general election they may be right, but in the Republican primaries Bachmann's numerous gaffes will make no difference at all. Ronald Reagan used to screw up his facts and so did George W. Bush. It made no difference for them, and it won't for Bachmann either.

The reason why is simple, and I touched on it in 2005 when President Bush nominated qualification-free Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, saying that "I know her heart." The voters Bachmann is courting have a very different idea of what governing requires.

Most liberals (and some conservatives) think that a good leader needs to know and understand things. At the very least, a president needs a solid background education, so that experts can fill him/her in on the details when a decision needs to be made. And above all, s/he should be free from misinformation: If you don't know something, you can ask; but if you're sure something is true when it's not, you can do a lot of damage.

Bachmann's base -- like Reagan's and Bush's -- doesn't look at things that way. Leadership, to them, is not about doing the smart thing, it's about doing the right thing. All problems are simple at their root, and what a leader really needs is common sense and moral courage. It's a heart thing, not a head thing.

Closely related to this worldview is a resentment against the people who don't share it -- the people who think they're better than you because they knew what mendacity meant when they took the SATs. Bachmann voters resent the way that eggheads look down on them, and if eggheads are looking down on Bachmann the same way, that just proves that she's on the right side.

So while we should never let Bachmann get away with quoting false facts, that's not going to defeat her. An effective anti-Bachmann campaign needs to attack her strength by arguing that her heart is in the wrong place. She's on the side of the Wall Street swindlers, the polluters, and the people who moved your job to India. If you make minimum wage, she thinks you're overpaid. If you're unemployed, she thinks you're lazy.

She's not one of you. She's one of them dressed up to look like one of you. And she thinks you'll fall for it, because she thinks you're stupid.

Bachmann's InTrade shares (which will pay $10 if she's the Republican nominee) are at $1.70, up from $0.70 when I recommended them in April.

The Logic of Worker Abuse

Never doubt that a corporation will kill you if it thinks it can make a profit and not get caught. First case in point, from Wednesday's Salon:

Federal investigators say they have proof that Massey Energy kept fake safety records to throw off inspectors at a West Virginia coal mine where 29 men died last year, the deadliest U.S. coal field disaster in four decades.

Second, look at The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret by Ted Genoways in the current issue of Mother Jones: Hormel created a shell company to maneuver out of its agreements with its meat-packing union. The shell company hired a bunch of illegal immigrants for low wages, worked them in conditions that gave them a rare neurological disorder, and (when their medical bills started adding up) fired them.

Mother Jones' Tom Philpott goes on to explain the deeper economic/political reasons why companies are abusing their workers like this: In the old version of monopoly, corporations got bigger and bigger so that they could impose exorbitant price increases on the consumer. But voters hated that, so they encouraged politicians to enforce antitrust laws.

In the Reagan years, the strategy changed. Now companies get big so that they can impose price cuts on their suppliers, as Wal-Mart does. The result is relentless pressure to cut costs, which ultimately pushes companies to abuse their workers, either here or overseas. This abuse is largely invisible to anybody but the workers involved (particularly since the corporate media doesn't cover it), so it doesn't raise political pressure.

That shines a different light on the recent efforts to break public-sector unions in places like Wisconsin and Ohio: Government has largely been left out of the worker-abuse game, and (as this Wisconsin commercial by the Club for Growth makes explicit) the Right wants to convince abused private-sector workers that it's not fair.

Northeastern University report: Corporate profits have captured 88% of the financial recovery, wages 1%. Nothing like that has ever happened before.

Which leads to this Paul Krugman question:

If corporations already have plenty of cash they’re not using, why would giving them a tax break that adds to this pile of cash do anything to accelerate recovery?

Short Notes

Buh-bye, Glenn.

Wired interviews the author of the new book The Interrogator, which takes us inside the CIA's black prisons. Says the author, a former CIA interrogator: "Enhanced interrogation does not work, and is wrong. End of story."

Investigating the allegations that Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Prosser choked Justice Bradley, the Milwaukee Fox affiliate tries to get comments from four of the seven justices. None of them say anything meaningful, but only Prosser lost his cool.

Paul Krugman asks another good question:

The federal debt limit is a strange quirk of U.S. budget law: since debt is the consequence of decisions about taxing and spending, and Congress already makes those taxing and spending decisions, why require an additional vote on debt?

Matt Yglesias boils it down even further:

The issue, after all, is that congress has passed contradictory laws. The tax code raises so much revenue, but legally authorized expenditures require so much money, and legally authorized borrowing doesn’t cover the gap. So what’s a president to do?

Hold a bake sale, I guess. Or ignore the debt ceiling and provoke a constitutional crisis.

I'm not qualified to offer investment advice, so I usually don't. This week, though, I made an important personal investment decision, and I feel like I'm keeping a secret if I don't tell you: I'm selling.

I don't think the market is taking seriously the possibility that the debt-ceiling talks will fail, with major bad financial consequences. I do take that possibility seriously, so I'm cutting my risks until I see what happens.

I regard this as a not-unreasonaable scenario: Republicans don't budge on demands that Social Security and Medicare be slashed with zero sacrifice-sharing by the wealthy. Democrats refuse that deal, and the Treasury has to stop paying the government's bills. The market crashes (as it did when TARP failed the first time), and then Obama invokes the 14th Amendment to ignore the debt ceiling. The House starts impeachment proceedings.

It's bad for the country, but it's win/win for the Republicans. They get to impeach Obama while accepting no responsibility for increasing the debt limit. And if we go back into recession, that's Obama's fault too.

This Week's Challenge

This Independence Day, try to pay attention to the difference between independence and freedom. In American history, the two go hand-in-hand: Declaring independence from England was how we got freedom.

But when we intervene in other countries, we offer freedom in exchange for independence. Saddam's Iraq was not free, but its decisions were made in Baghdad, not Washington. Iran today lacks freedom, but has its independence after centuries of Ottoman, British, and American domination. Protesters in Tehran want freedom, but not at the cost of independence.

So don't be fooled today when patriotic speakers or writers use freedom and independence interchangeably. It's a distinction we need to keep in mind.

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