Monday, January 28, 2013

Here on Earth

History tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.

-- Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address

This week everybody was talking about the inauguration and the second term

I cover President Obama's speech itself -- the best of his presidency -- in President Obama Tells the Progressive Story of America. Short version: There are two ways, fundamentalist and progressive, to turn history into myth. We're used to hearing the Tea Party tell the story of America as a fundamentalist myth. In the 2nd Inaugural, Obama told it as a progressive myth.

Naturally, conservatives were offended.

... and filibuster reform

which didn't happen. Or rather, it sort of happened, but not so you'd notice.

There are several problems with the filibuster as it existed in the last Congress.
  • 41 senators could keep 59 senators from accomplishing anything. That hasn't been changed and wouldn't have changed even under the Udall/Merkley reform proposals that Reid watered down.
  • Far less than 41 senators could stop 60+ senators from accomplishing things that aren't worth making a big deal over. The process for ending a filibuster was so cumbersome that (even if the votes were there), the majority leader might decide that it wasn't worth the Senate's time. The Reid/McConnell compromise (which passed overwhelmingly), streamlines this process. So the monkey-wrenching power of a handful of senators has gone down.
  • Filibustering had very little political price. Udall/Merkley would have changed this, but Reid/McConnell doesn't. In the very old-fashioned "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" filibuster, senators had to take the floor and keep speaking. It was an endurance test, but more than that it gave the press something to cover. The majority of the electorate (who often agree with the majority of the Senate being thwarted by the filibuster) could see exactly who was standing in their way. But the more recent version of the filibuster was largely procedural and hence invisible. The press often covered filibusters in the passive voice; bills "were blocked". Sometimes even the fact of the filibuster wasn't covered; the press just took for granted that 60 votes were needed to pass anything in the Senate, as if that were in the Constitution.
So we got only the reforms that make the majority leader's life easier. Harry Reid described the old system this way:
I want to go to it on a Monday, they make me file cloture, that takes till Tuesday. Then it takes two days for the cloture vote to ‘ripen,’ so now it’s Thursday, and even if I get 60 votes, they still have 30 hours to twiddle their thumbs, pick their nose, do whatever they want. So, I’m not on the bill by the weekend, and in reality, that means next Monday or Tuesday.

That's the part that he thinks he's fixed.

As if in a political novel, a federal appeals court immediately made it clear why filibuster reform is necessary by throwing out President Obama's recess appointments of officials whose nominations had been filibustered. In particular, everything the National Labor Relations Board did in 2012 is now suspect, because without the recess appointments it didn't have a quorum to act.

If the Supreme Court upholds the appeals court ruling, President Obama (and future presidents) will have no recourse if 41 senators decide to obstruct the normal functioning of government using an strategy that had no precedent before the Republicans began using it against Obama.

Throughout American history, the Senate's constitutional power to "advise and consent" to presidential nominations had been applied individually: On the rare occasions when a nominee was rejected, it was because of a scandal or some other reason unique to that particular person. But Obama's nominations have been blocked strategically. He can't get new members appointed to the NRLB or put someone in charge of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because Republicans don't want those bodies to function. It's nothing personal; Jesus Christ could not be confirmed as head of the CFPB.

So if you are trying to form a union right now and your company fights you in illegal ways, you don't have much recourse because we don't have a valid NLRB you can appeal to. Republicans haven't and couldn't raise the votes to repeal our labor laws, but they can monkey-wrench the parts of government that enforce those laws.

This is a tactic that the American people would recognize as illegitimate if it came to their attention, as it would if Republicans had to mount an old-fashioned Mr. Smith filibuster. In that case, some group of senators would have to be the faces of the filibuster, appearing on TV as the people who are making our government not work. Democracy would have a chance to correct the problem.

But even that reform was too much to ask for.

... and Hillary Clinton's testimony about Benghazi

from which we learned essentially nothing. Neither Republicans nor Democrats showed any interest in figuring out how to prevent future Benghazis. Republicans played to their conspiracy-theory-loving base, and Democrats buttered up a possible future president. Jon Stewart covered the hearing with an appropriate level of disgust.

The most over-the-top statement came from Rand Paul, who called Benghazi "the worst tragedy since 9-11". Apparently he slept through the entire Iraq War.

Clinton came out untouched. Feministing says her performance was a model of how to deal with mansplaining.

and you also might be interested in ...

Here's where we've gotten in the same-sex marriage argument: The lawyers in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act and California's Prop 8 are arguing that opposite-sex couples pose a unique threat to society, because they can produce "unplanned and unintended offspring". According to the LA Times:
they argue that it is reasonable for the law to steer opposite-sex couples toward marriage, including by giving them extra benefits. "It was rational for Congress to draw the line where it did," Clement said, "because the institution of marriage arose in large measure in response to the unique social difficulty that opposite-sex couples, but not same-sex couples, posed."

Got that, gays and lesbians? You can't get the benefits of marriage because your potential promiscuity is less socially disruptive than when straights sleep around. By June we'll find out whether the Supreme Court finds this argument persuasive.

It looks like the debt ceiling won't be an issue until the middle of May. Obama stood firm and Boehner blinked.

In last summer's post "I Read Everything About Paul Ryan So You Don't Have To", points 5 and 6 were "Ryan's reputation as a deficit hawk is undeserved" and "He's not as smart as he thinks he is." Well, his interview with Ezra Klein Wednesday proved both.

Slate's Richard Hasen thinks the Republican plan to gerrymander the Electoral College won't come to anything. I want to believe his argument, but it depends on Republicans either (i) deciding that they believe in democracy, or (ii) realizing that the American people do. If they turn out to be both evil and clueless, they'll go through with it. (At least in Virginia, they're backing down.)

But they're bragging about having held onto the House in spite of the voting public. A Republican memo crows about the Party's gerrymandering prowess:
Republicans enjoy a 33-seat margin in the U.S. House seated yesterday in the 113th Congress, having endured Democratic successes atop the ticket and over one million more votes cast for Democratic House candidates than Republicans.

I do agree with one of Hasen's points: That Republicans are considering this plan at all shows that they realize conservatism is unpopular. They wouldn't need to plot how to win with a minority if they believed the majority of the American people agree with them.

At his confirmation hearing last week, Secretary of State nominee John Kerry didn't dodge on climate change.
You want to do business and do well in America? We’ve got to get into the energy race. Other countries are in it… This is a place for us to recognize what other countries are doing and what our states that are growing are doing, which is there’s an extraordinary amount of opportunity in modernizing America’s energy grid.

"Other countries are doing it." Solar panels over irrigation canals generate power, conserve water (by reducing evaporation), don't occupy crop land, and create jobs. America could do stuff like this, if we were an advanced country like India.

Occasionally we do stuff here: My wife's home town is pioneering the smart grid.

Grist thanks Donald Trump for saying such stupid things about global warming that straw men are not necessary.

You know why the climate-denier movement won't die? Dark money.

TPM founder Josh Marshall doesn't like the way almost every anti-gun-violence article starts "I'm a gun owner, but ..." He doesn't own a gun, doesn't want to own a gun, has never shot a gun, and figures that makes him representative of about half the country. Why should that point of view be left out of the discussion?

Last week I talked about how Republicans in Congress turned against their own ideas as soon as Obama proposed them. Now that trend may be reversing in a strange way: Republicans may reclaim their ideas and just refuse to recognize that Obama ever proposed them. If Obama plays along, something might get done.

The test case is immigration reform, where Marco Rubio is proposing something remarkably similar to the plan Obama borrowed from George W. Bush.

Last week I also called your attention to the idea of a "false flag operation", which is a staple of paranoid conspiracy theories, particularly the ones where the government is conspiring to take our guns.

Well, occasionally liberals believe in false flag operations too: Here's Rachel Maddow speculating that an anti-Chuck-Hagel ad by anonymous "liberals" is actually a conservative ad in disguise.

I had to get this in before football is over for the year.

And finally, this mystical city appears out of the fog once every hundred years. No, wait, it's Vancouver.

Monday, January 21, 2013


The informational shortcut that we take when we have "too much information" is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.

– Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise (2012)

This week people stopped just talking about guns and started doing things

New York State passed what one legislator described as “the toughest gun law in the nation” and the NRA called “draconian”. It’s the first new gun law since the Newtown massacre.  Meanwhile, President Obama laid out his plan to reduce gun violence.

I saw a lot of commenters use the adjective “bold” to describe Obama’s proposals, but I think that just underlines how frozen the gun-control conversation has been. Limiting magazine size and restoring the ban on assault weapons are popular measures that seem like the least we can do. The rest of his 23 “executive actions” include steps that are surprising only in that they hadn’t been done a long time ago: appointing a permanent ATF director, allowing the CDC to study the public health effects of guns, and so on.

Obama’s actions were commonly misreported as “23 executive orders”. (Actually only three of the actions were orders.) It will be interesting to see whether the panic about the “orders” will continue now that the full blandness of the orders is apparent. Here, for example, a Christian talkradio host and a pro-gun advocate go on at length about possible reactions (rebellion? local refusal to enforce? impeachment?) to an anticipated executive order confiscating guns. The striking thing about this conversation is that it was based on exactly nothing. Obama’s executive orders hadn’t even been written yet, and neither man claimed to have a source inside the White House.

BTW, if you’ve been wondering who needs semi-automatic weapons with 100-round magazines, the answer is obvious: people who are preparing for an apocalypse. There are more of them than you think. When you have to defend your cans of Himalayan salt from the ravening hoards, you’ll need that kind of firepower.

And if you want to plunge deeply into the conspiracy-theory world, google “false flag operation”. A false flag operation is when disguised agents stage an event, so that the organization they really represent can react against it. As in the Reichstag Fire. There are false-flag conspiracy theories about both the Newtown and Aurora massacres, contending that the government staged the events to create an excuse for confiscating guns.

But they also talked about Obama’s second term

Can you believe it’s just now Inauguration Day? Wasn’t the election like a decade ago?

Both liberals and conservatives see a change in President Obama since the first inauguration. He came into the presidency trying to work with Republicans as if they were reasonable people who wanted to solve America’s problems. That was naive.

The iconic example is the stimulus. Obama took office amid a global crash that had even conservative economists calling for a stimulus. Liberals and conservatives mainly disagreed on the size of the stimulus and whether it should be mostly tax cuts or mostly new spending. (“A stimulus is needed without further delay,” Mitt Romney wrote in December 2008, advising Republicans to insist “that tax cuts are part of the solution”.) So Obama proposed a smaller stimulus than liberals wanted and made it 1/3 tax cuts, thinking this was a nice split-the-difference bill that a large majority could get behind. This netted him zero Republican votes in the House and demonization of his “socialist” plan.

Or health care: Rather than the single-payer model liberals favor, Obama based his plan on Romney’s Massachusetts plan (which in turn had been based on work by the conservative Heritage Foundation). Along the way, he dropped the public option and tweaked the plan in a variety of other ways to answer Republican criticism. Result: unanimous Republican opposition.

Again and again, Republicans turned against their own ideas as soon as Obama got on board. John McCain opposed the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade plan. When Obama offered John Boehner a deficit-reduction plan structured according to Republican proposals, Boehner walked out. It went on and on.

By the fall campaign Obama clearly realized this had gone far enough. He called Republicans out on their extreme anti-woman and anti-Hispanic positions, as well as their math-challenged tax proposals. Since the election, he has driven a hard bargain on the fiscal cliff and offered nothing in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. (He won.) His common-sense gun-control proposal puts Republicans on the spot: Do they side with the American people or with the NRA?

Ross Douhat imagines an no-fluff second inaugural address that recognizes Republican extremists’ role in their defeat:

Next, a big, big shout-out to my opponents on the right — I really couldn’t have done it without you. … Every time I needed to paint the American right as paranoid and out-of-touch, misogynistic and mindless, you were there for me. Thanks for making Sandra Fluke a martyr, Rush. Thanks for Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, Mr. Ailes. Thanks for everything, Donald Trump. Todd Akin — I love you, man.

Both liberal and conservative pundits see the possibility that Obama’s second term could splinter the Republican Party. John Dickerson:
Obama’s only remaining option is to pulverize. Whether he succeeds in passing legislation or not, given his ambitions, his goal should be to delegitimize his opponents. Through a series of clarifying fights over controversial issues, he can force Republicans to either side with their coalition’s most extreme elements or cause a rift in the party that will leave it, at least temporarily, in disarray.

Conservative Michael Gerson:
Obama must be tempted by a shiny political object: the destruction of the congressional GOP. He knows that Republicans are forced by the momentum of their ideology to take positions on spending that he can easily demagogue. He is in a good position to humiliate them again — to expose their internal divisions and unpopular policy views.

Gerson pre-scolds Obama for choosing that option, but his argument sounds like a wife-beater’s brother saying “Now look what you made him do.” Republicans are forced to take extreme positions, so it’s just not fair for Obama make reasonable and popular proposals they will have to reject. David Brooks sounds like an older battered wife giving advice to a younger one: He lays out in detail how Obama should tip-toe through his second term to avoid setting off Congress’ right-wing lunatics. (Jonathan Chait has been brilliant at calling out this stuff.)

That’s not how it’s going to go. If congressional Republicans can’t control themselves, second-term Obama is going to place a 911 call to the voters and have them taken away.

It’s about time.

… but I wrote about information overload

How Do You Know What You Know? looks at two recent books: Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise and Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s Blur. Each looks at how to deal with information overload, and Silver raises an interesting parallel between the internet revolution and the printing-press revolution: Both led to polarization. The reason is expressed in this week’s quote.

… and you also might be interested in …

If you’re not watching The Abolitionists, you’re missing out. Part III airs tomorrow, but you can catch up by watching I and II on the PBS web site. Even if you think you know this history, it’s stunning to see the interweaving threads of the full tapestry.

If a Whole Foods employee were doing this much damage to the brand, John Mackey would fire him.

I’m developing an affection for the League of Ordinary Gentlemen blog. Their Guns in America symposium is both diverse and rational. If all the positions you are hearing are extreme, read a few articles here.

Glenn Beck is designing his utopia. Laugh if you want, but there’s a more interesting way to look at it: A certain kind of communitarianism has cross-partisan appeal. Like many liberal visions, Beck’s “Independence, USA” has small locally-owned shops rather than WalMart, and walkable streets rather than superhighways and parking decks. It grows its own food instead of trucking it in from big agribusinesses. I’m not sure how Beck imagines maintaining this urban plan without the heavy hand of a central bureaucracy, but let it go; utopias are like that.

Because reading the Weekly Sift should improve your life: 50 Life Hacks to Simplify Your World, most of which left me asking “Why didn’t I think of that?” Here’s #24:

Monday, January 14, 2013

Too Simple

The process by which banks create money is so simple that the mind is repelled. -- John Kenneth Galbraith (1975)

This week everybody was talking about guns again

In an effort to save their party from its lunatic fringe, even Republicans were talking about gun control. Frank Luntz:
The Second Amendment deserves defending, but do Republicans truly believe that anyone should be able to buy any gun, anywhere, at any time? If yes, they’re on the side of less than 10 percent of America.
Mark McKinnon lists some of Mayor Bloomberg's gun-control proposals, notes that they don't affect "hunting, recreation, or self-defense" and then asks:
[I]f the ideas are reasonable and don’t limit legitimate activities, then why not consider them?

But gun-advocate rhetoric takes place in a binary frame where (1) no restrictions and (2) total confiscation are the only real options. So when Vice President Biden said that some action might happen through executive order, gun-nuts went nuttier: Obama was threatening confiscation by executive order! Alex Jones:
1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms! It doesn't matter how many lemmings you get out there in the street begging for them to have their guns taken. We will not relinquish them. Do you understand?

No, it won't by 1776 again. It will be 1791.

I wonder if Luntz and McKinnon have noticed something that the NRA hasn't: The binary frame used to work in the NRA's favor, because the NRA would win an all-or-none choice. But maybe we've hit a tipping point, where if you force the public to choose between the status quo and confiscation, confiscation might win. Maybe the NRA should be the side looking for reasonable compromise.

The most extreme part of the gun debate isn't about hunting or home-defense at all. It's about the right of the People to overthrow the government by force -- even if it's the government the People just elected. As Kevin Williamson put it in National Review:
There is no legitimate exception to the Second Amendment for military-style weapons, because military-style weapons are precisely what the Second Amendment guarantees our right to keep and bear.

This was Myth #6 ("The Second Amendment Allows Citizens to Threaten the Government") in Garrett Epps' recent constitutional law book Wrong and Dangerous. The Economist's "Democracy in America" column characterized it as "the right to commit treason" and noted that
Popular militias are overwhelming likely to foster not democracy or the rule of law, but warlordism, tribalism and civil war. In Lebanon, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Colombia, the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere, we see that militias of armed private citizens rip apart weak democratic states in order to prey upon local populations in authoritarian sub-states or fiefdoms. Free states are defended by standing armies, not militias, because free states enjoy the consent of the governed, which allows them to maintain effective standing armies.

Undeniably, this is not how the Founders expected history to play out. But that's how it has played out. A popular militia resisting authoritarian takeover and restoring democracy
is a thing that happens in silly movies. It is not a thing that happens in the world.

Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf notes that the conservative movement that promotes this Second-Amendment myth shows no inclination to support rights that actually do deter tyranny.
If you were a malign leader intent on imposing tyranny, what would you find more useful, banning high-capacity magazines... or a vast archive of the bank records, phone calls, texts and emails of millions of citizens that you could access in secret? Would you, as a malign leader, feel more empowered by a background check requirement on gun purchases... or the ability to legally kill anyone in secret on your say so alone? The powers the Republican Party has given to the presidency since 9/11 would obviously enable far more grave abuses in the hands of a would be tyrant than any gun control legislation with even a miniscule chance of passing Congress. So why are so many liberty-invoking 2nd Amendment absolutists reliable Republican voters, as if the GOP's stance on that issue somehow makes up for its shortcomings? And why do they so seldom speak up about threats to the Bill of Rights that don't involve guns?

In reality, the greatest threat to our democracy are the Alex-Jones and Sharron-Angle types who want to take up arms because their candidate lost the election.

Jon Stewart characterized the attitude blocking reasonable gun control as the fear of "imaginary Hitlers". Gun-nuts'
paranoid fear of a possible dystopic future prevents us from addressing our actual dystopic present.

Like climate change and voter fraud, the gun-policy debate takes place largely in Bizarro World, as gun-rights advocates freely make up whatever facts they need and cite each other as references for them. Here are two debunking articles to keep bookmarked:
  • The Hitler Gun Control Lie (Salon). No, Hitler did not take away the German people's guns. Actually, the Nazi regime weakened the gun restrictions it inherited from the Weimar Republic. (Stalin wasn't big into disarming the public either.)
  • Mythbusting: Israel and Switzerland are not gun-toting utopias (WaPo). Gun advocates point to Israel and Switzerland as "societies where guns are reputed to be widely available, but where gun violence is rare".  In non-Bizarro-World, American gun-control advocates would love to have the laws of Israel or Switzerland.

The NRA's Wayne La Pierre says, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." I guess he never saw Witness.


And let's give the last word to The Onion:
Following the events of last week, in which a crazed western lowland gorilla ruthlessly murdered 21 people in a local shopping plaza after escaping from the San Diego Zoo, sources across the country confirmed Thursday that national gorilla sales have since skyrocketed.

... and trillion-dollar coins

This idea has been bouncing around since before the last debt crisis (and I've linked to explanations of it several times), but this week it crossed over from a fringy what-if to a policy option that Serious People need to have an opinion about.

I collect a number of those opinions in The Trillion-Dollar Coin Hits the Big Time. (Most boil down to: It's nutty, but it's better than defaulting.)

A side-effect of this discussion is that more and more of the public is coming to understand how money really works. Long-time Sift readers have had cause to remember my review of Warren Mosler's book in the summer of 2011.

James Fallows suggests The Two Sentences That Should Be Part of All Discussion of the Debt Ceiling:
  1. Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize one single penny in additional public spending.
  2. For Congress to "decide whether" to raise the debt ceiling, for programs and tax rates it has already voted into law, makes exactly as much sense as it would for a family to "decide whether" to pay a credit-card bill for goods it has already bought.

An analogy I've used before: It's like eating out when you don't have cash, but then refusing to pay with your credit card because you're taking a principled stand against running up more debt. The time to take the principled stand is when you decide what you're going to do, not when the bill comes.

... which once again brings up the issue of unraveling social norms

The coin and the debt-ceiling hostage crisis it's supposed to avert are both examples of something I've tried (and mostly failed) to describe before: unraveling the norms that make society governable. Maybe Chris Hayes expresses it better:
Behavior of individuals within an institution is constrained by the formal rules (explicit prohibitions) and norms (implicit prohibitions) that aren't spelled out, but just aren't done. And what the modern Republican Party has excelled at, particularly in the era of Obama, is exploiting the gap between these two. They've made a habit of doing the thing that just isn't done.

He goes on to give examples: filibustering everything the Senate does, refusing to confirm qualified candidates to positions because you think the position shouldn't exist, and now "using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip with which to extract ransom".

He might also mention the proposal that Republicans should rig the Electoral College in states where they control the legislature. The point, pretty clearly, is to be able to win presidential elections even if the People vote for the other guy. (That's what would have happened in 2012 under at least one plan: Obama gets 5 million more votes, but Romney becomes president.) It's all perfectly legal, but this is the United States. We don't do things like that. Or at least we didn't used to.

The meta-question of the trillion-dollar coin is whether Democrats should strike back with their own inside-the-rules-but-outside-the-norms actions, recognizing (as Chris puts it) that "There is no way to unilaterally maintain norms."

We need to get a handle on this trend somehow, because it doesn't go anywhere good. That's one of the themes in Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series: Ultimately, even respect for the written law is just a norm. At some point you start to think, "Why shouldn't I stick my enemies' heads on spikes and display them in the Forum?"

... and racism

Republicans hate it when you point to the implicit racism in the intensity of their hatred for Obama and all his works. But Colin Powell went there Sunday on Meet the Press, talking about the "dark vein of intolerance" in the Republican Party. He pointed to voter suppression, to racial code phrases like "shucking and jiving" applied to Obama, and to Birtherism.

But racism is also part of the willingness to violate previously accepted norms (that I was just talking about). Republicans feel justified in doing things that just aren't done because (until now) electing and re-electing a black president just wasn't done. Racism is the ultimate root of the Tea Party certainty that we are in uncharted waters that require unprecedented means of resistance. Just voting and campaigning and giving money to your favored candidates isn't enough any more. We need to arm ourselves and prepare for "Second Amendment solutions" because ... because why, exactly?

If you doubt the racial subtext here, think about how different it would sound for a black CEO to threaten that if a white president's policy "goes one inch farther, I'm gonna start killin' people." Fox News would play that clip 24/7 for weeks.

... and you also might be interested in

Mitch McConnell might face a primary because of the fiscal cliff deal. Good news for Democrats? An Aiken/Mourdock Tea Party wacko is much more likely to lose this otherwise safe Kentucky senate seat to a Democrat (Ashley Judd?). Or bad news? If the minority leader goes down in a primary, no Republican will ever again compromise or negotiate.

The Greek economic crisis has taken on symbolic importance in this country; in any discussion of the deficit conservatives are bound to say that overspending is turning us into Greece. But Foreign Policy provides a seldom-mentioned tidbit:
the [Greek] state is facing a revenue crisis, in part because of rampant tax evasion. In 2012, the European Commission estimated the size of Greece's shadow economy to be 24 percent of GDP, resulting in an annual $13 billion loss in revenue.

And the Center for American Progress amplifies:
when Greece is properly placed in the context of its EU partners and neighbors, it becomes clear that its spending is very much in line with European norms. ... In fact, total government spending for the European Union as a whole equaled 50.7 percent of GDP, actually a bit higher than Greece.

So Greece spends less of its national income on government programs than its sensible cousin Germany. And the Greek people work more. Maybe the lesson for the U.S. to learn from Greece isn't that the safety net is unsustainable. It's that you've got to collect taxes.

No matter how many disastrous gaffes they suffer, Republicans just can't stop talking about rape. This Democrat is no feminist prize either.

Remember Roy Moore, the "ten commandments judge" who lost his job as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court by defying federal court orders? He's back. The people of Alabama elected him chief justice again in November, and he was sworn in Friday. Remind me why we didn't let Alabama secede.

The White House's We the People project promises that if an online petition gets enough support
White House staff will review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response.

Well, 34,000 people signed a petition asking for construction of a Death Star to begin by 2016. So the head of OMB's Science and Space Branch responded with these criticisms: The Death Star project would increase the deficit. It has a fatal design flaw exploitable by a one-man ship. Plus "The administration does not support blowing up planets."

Monday, January 7, 2013


I have, already, spent far too much of my life preparing for violence. -- Ta-Nehisi Coates, "On Living Armed"

This week everybody was talking about the fiscal cliff deal

and where it all goes from here as we approach the debt ceiling. My take is here: Avoid the cliff, hit the ceiling. Short version: Who you think got the better of the fiscal cliff deal depends on what you think happens next. Republicans think the debt ceiling gives them the leverage now, and Obama disagrees. We'll know by March.

... but I wrote about guns

Remember guns? It was all anybody could talk about a couple weeks ago. Let's hope the issue hasn't faded by the time Biden's recommendations come in. One Nation, Under Guard: fantasy, reality, and Sandy Hook

... and you also might be interested in ...

More and more it looks like Rick Perlstein was right: Right-wing media is as much about conning the sheep as it is about politics. This week's evidence: Dick Armey says FreedomWorks paid Glenn Beck $1 million to say "nice things about FreedomWorks on the air". Nice things that Beck's listeners were supposed to believe he believed.

OK, cable news networks, here's the political infotainment I really want to see: Pundit Wars. A politically diverse collection of pundits each starts with a stake of, say, $10,000. Each week the host presents a list of things that might or might not happen in near future, and each pundit quotes a likelihood. ("I think there's a 30% chance we won't get a debt-ceiling deal in time to prevent the government shutting down.") Having all announced their numbers, they are then free to make bets with each other, quoting odds if necessary. ("I'll give you 2-1 odds that we do get a debt-ceiling deal.") If nobody takes initiative, the host may suggest some bets. ("You two have radically different expectations for a debt-ceiling deal. Why don't you each put some money behind it?") Then next week we see how everybody's bets are doing.

Each week, we'll see who really believes their own rhetoric. (If you're just trying to get attention with your predictions, like Dick Morris with his "Romney landslide" nonsense, it'll be obvious once the betting phase starts.) And over the course of a season, we'll see who really knows what they're talking about.

It's kind of a reality-TV version of Intrade.

When violent crime started going down in the 90s, everybody had an explanation. Most of them would have predicted the crime rate to increase again by now, which hasn't happened. But one explanation keeps gathering more and more evidence: changing to unleaded gasoline in the 1970s. Lead in a child's bloodstream, it turns out, inhibits the growth of the part of the brain that controls aggression.

Remember this example the next time somebody tells you about the "cost" government regulations impose on the economy. That's not just lost money. We bought something with it.

It's looking like the election debacle has taken a long-term toll on Fox News.

Let's end with something pretty: New Years in Dubai.