Monday, January 27, 2014

Working for the People

Average people in America think government doesn't work. Think again.
Government actually does work. It works for the people who pay it to work for them.

-- Hedrick Smith, NH Rebellion rally
Nashua, NH, 1-24-2014

This week's featured posts: "The Fall of Governor Ultrasound" and "One Week's Worth of Crazy"

This week Republicans started talking about another debt ceiling crisis

Because the last one worked out so well, I guess. But you can tell this is an organized effort because they're using the same words. Both Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz called a clean debt-ceiling increase "irresponsible". John Boehner is also hinting at attaching ransom demands.

It's important to keep in mind exactly what this all means: Congress just passed a two-year budget deal last month. That deal included a budget deficit that will push the national debt over the current debt ceiling. Now Republicans want to take a position against the debt that they just approved. You see, they're for keeping taxes lower than spending; they're just against borrowing the difference. Get it?

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew estimates the disaster deadline is the end of February.

and the Bob McDonnell indictment

which I cover in "The Fall of Governor Ultrasound". One of the issues that gets raised by this case is "the fine line between what is illegal versus what is unseemly". Ditto for the latest out of Florida, where Governor Scott's chief fund-raiser (who has donated over $1 million himself) got billions in Medicaid-management contracts for his companies. Illegal, or just unseemly?

And Bridgegate just keeps percolating along. Subpoenas are out, testimony is being taken. I'm sure the U.S. attorney will let us know when he has something.

and the Republican winter meetings

(Mike Huckabee's winter-meetings speech is one of many incidents covered in "One Week's Worth of Crazy".)

The main news to come out the meetings was that Republicans are shortening their nomination process for 2016: Primaries will start later and end sooner. They want to hold the early primaries in February -- in 2012 the Iowa caucuses were January 3, almost a week before the last bowl game -- and to have the convention in late June or early July, rather than late August.

It's fascinating to compare the Democrats' nomination process in 2008 to the Republicans' in 2012. Both were national road shows that seemed to go on forever. But the eternal Obama/Clinton struggle worked in the Democrats' favor: Each new primary state became the focus of a voter registration drive that helped Obama in the fall. When Republicans tried to raise the Jeremiah Wright/Bill Ayers issues, they seemed like old news because Obama had faced them already in the primaries. In general, Obama gained stature each time he debated the more famous Clinton head-to-head.

By contrast, Republicans came out of 2012 with a never-again attitude. Romney had to fend off a series of flawed boom-candidate-of-the-week challengers: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and finally Rick Santorum. Each seemed like a joke to the non-Republican electorate, and the fact that each was succeeded by the next just emphasized how little the Republican base wanted to nominate Romney.

The 2004 Democratic nomination process demonstrated that the phrase "too far left" actually meant something: Dennis Kucinich was too far left, and the main debate in the early primaries was whether Howard Dean was too. But in 2012, "too far right" was meaningless to Republicans. In the debates, the candidates competed to be the most conservative, and the audiences seemed even more extreme: They booed a gay soldier in Iraq, cheered letting the uninsured die, cheered waterboarding, and applauded the fact that Rick Perry had executed 234 prisoners.

To be blunt, the Republican base is a freak show, and the longer they are on camera the worse it is for the eventual nominee. The RNC recognized that this week, and acted accordingly. As 2016 gets closer, expect them also to limit the number of debates and put them off as long as possible. If they could hold the primary campaign inside a bell jar, they would.

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Doris Haddock, a.k.a. Granny D

Lawrence Lessig's frigid 185-mile walk across New Hampshire concluded Friday at an NH Rebellion rally in Nashua, a few blocks from where I live. The rally doubled as a 114th birthday party for the late Granny D, whose 3200-mile walk across America deserves some amount of credit for the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform of 2002.

At the rally, Lessig said:
Before we started this walk, we did a poll that found that 96% of Americans believe the influence of money in politics must be reduced. ... But the reason why the pundits and the politicians don't talk about it is that 91% of us believe it's not going to happen. It can't be done. We want it, but we won't get it. Now I told those statistics to John Sarbanes, one of the congresspeople who has been most important in pushing the reform. And he said to me, "That's wonderful. That means we're the 5%."

Lessig thinks the movement to reduce the corruption of our democratic system is in at least as good a position as the Civil Rights movement was when Rosa Parks sat down on the bus. He does a very good job of creating a sense of history, and raising the possibility that fighting for a worthy cause at a time when so few people believe it can succeed might be something you'll tell your grandchildren about.

[BTW: I don't have a link for either this quote or the one at the top of this post. But I heard it live and I have an audio recording.]

New Hampshire will try again to pass Medicaid expansion. Even the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire supports it, but we haven't been able to get it through our Republican-controlled Senate.

The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act is coming up for a vote in the House. An earlier version was passed by the House in 2011, but failed in the Senate. At that time, Mother Jones reported that it could have some nasty results:
In testimony to a House taxation subcommittee on Wednesday, Thomas Barthold, the chief of staff of the nonpartisan Joint Tax Committee, confirmed that one consequence of the Republicans' "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" would be to turn IRS agents into abortion cops—that is, during an audit, they'd have to determine, from evidence provided by the taxpayer, whether any tax benefit had been inappropriately used to pay for an abortion. ... If an American who used such a benefit were to be audited, Barthold said, the burden of proof would lie with the taxpayer to provide documentation, for example, that her abortion fell under the rape/incest/life-of-the-mother exception, or that the health insurance she had purchased did not cover abortions.

... Under standard audit procedure, a woman would have to provide evidence to corroborate facts about abortions, rapes, and cases of incest, says Marcus Owens, an accountant and former longtime IRS official. If a taxpayer received a deduction or tax credit for abortion costs related to a case of rape or incest, or because her life was endangered, then "on audit [she] would have to demonstrate or prove, ideally by contemporaneous written documentation, that it was incest, or rape, or [her] life was in danger," Owens says.

So if you get raped, save your receipts.

You really have to wonder what conservatives would come up with if they did want big government to intrude in people's lives.

Eventually, I'm planning to do a full review of Ian Haney-Lopez' new book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. But for now, Salon has made an article out of the chapter on colorblindness.
Dog whistling cannot be resisted by refusing to talk about race, for this only leaves constant racial insinuations unchallenged, operating in the background to panic many whites. Indeed, dog whistle racism is not only protected by colorblindness, it rests fundamentally on colorblind myth-making.

Slate's Zack Kopplin explains how Texas' charter schools are a big loophole through which tax dollars are flowing to teach the most unscientific varieties of Creationism, as well as right-wing Christian views of history and society.

Another mall shooting. Is there a tipping point anywhere?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Good Intentions

Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power; it depends on the law to constrain those in power.

-- President Obama, Friday at the Department of Justice

This week everybody was still talking about Bridgegate

or at least MSNBC was. Rachel Maddow has been talking about little else. (It's been working for her. Fox News usually outdraws MSNBC by a considerable margin, but in recent weeks the Rachel/Megyn Kelly match-up has been noticeably closer.)

In its general form, Bridgegate is a Watergate-type scandal: The story starts with an event that is clearly wrong (a bungled burglary, an engineered traffic jam), but not all that consequential for most people. The event is only interesting because it is so incongruous with a civics-textbook view of government: If this happened, and if officials reacted so automatically to cover it up, then the (Nixon, Christie) administration clearly views itself and its mission very differently from the vision of government the public believes in. And if that is the case, what else has been going on?

If the answer is "nothing", then the story will largely die out, unless there's clear proof Christie himself committed a crime. (So far there isn't.) But we now enter the Chinese-water-torture part of the narrative, where thematically (but not directly) related charges drip-drip-drip down on Christie's head.

The first drip came Saturday, when Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken charged that
Two senior members of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration warned [her] earlier this year that her town would be starved of hurricane relief money unless she approved a lucrative redevelopment plan favored by the governor.

Probably there will be more drips. And rather than defend, I expect Republicans to counter-attack. In the same way that Republican congressmen's extra-marital affairs started coming out during the Clinton impeachment, the corruption of New Jersey Democrats is likely to make headlines soon. (I don't know anything; I'm just reading the signs.)

If Bridgegate does follow the path of Watergate, MSNBC better pace itself. From the Watergate break-in to Nixon's resignation was two years.

Bridgegate has also been a Rorschach test, in which a pundit's reaction says as much about him as about the story. For example, the question of whether Governor Christie is a bully evoked this from Britt Hume.

In this sort of feminized atmosphere in which we exist today, guys who are masculine and muscular like that in their private conduct, kind of old-fashioned tough guys, run some risks. ... Men today have learned the lesson the hard way that if you act like kind of an old-fashioned guy's guy, you're in constant danger of slipping out and saying something that's going to get you in trouble and make you look like a sexist or make you look like you seem thuggish or whatever.

Let me translate this into 21st-century English: "If you talk the way men used to talk when women either weren't in the room or had to keep quiet, some woman is bound to point out that you're being a jerk."

And you know who the conservative media thinks is the really bully here? Bruce Springsteen. When he went on Jimmy Fallon's show and sang this song.

he was "mean, small, and petty". He was "piling on". Poor Chris Christie. He loves the Boss, but the Boss doesn't love him back.

and poverty

The 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty (which I mentioned last week) has made a lot of people take a step back and look at the longer view.

Barbara Ehrenreich revisits some of the territory of her book Nickel and Dimed in an Atlantic article "It's Expensive to be Poor". The point she's making is not new, but the wealthy and professional-class folks who monopolize the national political conversation have a way of forgetting it.

We hear again and again how anti-poverty programs just make the poor dependent on government and encourage laziness. But the biggest obstacles to getting out of poverty are the poverty traps: situations where the poor don't have enough money to live cheaply or look for better jobs. If you can't afford security-deposit-plus-first-month's-rent for an apartment with a kitchen; if you don't have access to a car; if you can't make appointments in advance because your part-time minimum-wage job has unpredictable hours -- then your chances of climbing out of poverty are not very good.

If you happened to see David Brooks' enough-with-this-talk-about-inequality column, you should read Dean Baker's answer. To Brooks' point that the growing income of the rich is a different phenomenon than the shrinking opportunities of the poor and the destruction of the middle class, and that only a "primitive zero-sum mentality" connects them, Baker responded:
Fans of arithmetic everywhere know that if the rich get more, and the economy is not growing faster, then everyone else gets less. (It might be primitive, but it's true.) And the economy has been growing very slowly for the last thirteen years and actually pretty slowly for the whole period in which inequality has been increasing.

and President Obama's new tone on the NSA

Friday, President Obama gave a speech at the Justice Department "On Review of Signals Intelligence" (text, video, summary of new directive).

As I've admitted before, I'm having a hard time staying on top of this issue. New revelations, new policies, and new rhetoric appear faster than I have been able to process it all. So for now I'll defer to The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza. Lizza is skeptical that the new rules will be more than "cosmetic changes". But he does believe that a more subtle tipping point has been reached: Up until now, the administration has been dismissive of critics.
Indeed, in my conversations with intelligence officials this past year, their general attitude was that smart, well-meaning, Ivy League-educated lawyers were on the front lines at the intelligence agencies making sure that the privacy rights of Americans were protected, and, therefore, the concerns about abuse were not only unfounded but also bordered on paranoia. ... Today, Obama reversed course, acknowledging that all of that wasn’t enough. He has now adopted the language of the reformers.

Lizza concludes that Obama has undercut status-quo supporters in Congress, while empowering those who are more skeptical of current arrangements:
Obama’s cautious, infuriating speech won’t reform the system in all the ways that N.S.A. critics want, but it just might help Congress do so.

but I wrote about court decisions

The Supreme Court has been relatively quiet lately, but lower courts have been busily ruling on same-sex marriage, the NSA's domestic spying, net neutrality, and many other issues. This week I tried to catch up. I covered net neutrality and same-sex marriage, and I hope to get to the rest next week.

While we're talking about voting rights (or putting off that talk until next week), it's worth mentioning that two Democrats and a Republican have agreed on a formula for fixing the part of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court torpedoed last summer.

Where the revised bill goes from here is an open question. Renewing the VRA has been a no-brainer in the past, passing by wide margins. So Congress could just pass it.

On the other hand, the VRA could follow the path of immigration reform: The Senate passes it with a bipartisan majority, and Republicans in the House claim to support it when they talk to minority audiences, but Speaker Boehner keeps it from coming to a vote so as not to offend the extreme right wing. Too soon to tell.

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When my Dad was alive, he was always mystified when I omitted the "Dr." title that my Ph.D. in mathematics gives me the right to use. My policy is that I'll call myself "Dr. Muder" when I write about mathematics, because that's where my credentials are relevant. But on subjects where I'm just another guy with an opinion, those opinions have to stand on their own. I won't imply that I'm an expert by styling myself as a doctor.

I came to that policy as a graduate student in the 80s, an era when Milton Friedman was using his legitimate prestige as an economist to give heft to his oracular pronouncements about the morality of various political policies. On political and moral issues, Friedman was just a guy with an opinion, and his Nobel prize was as irrelevant as my eventual doctorate would be.

Climate scientists today have a more difficult line to walk, because their scientific prestige is relevant up to a point, but the more politically active they get, the more they'll be tempted to exaggerate the extent of their expertise. Penn State's Michael Mann (creator of the "hockey stick" graph and a main target of the Climategate smear) wrote a thoughtful article about this in the NYT's Sunday Review.
It is not an uncommon view among scientists that we potentially compromise our objectivity if we choose to wade into policy matters or the societal implications of our work. And it would be problematic if our views on policy somehow influenced the way we went about doing our science. But there is nothing inappropriate at all about drawing on our scientific knowledge to speak out about the very real implications of our research.

He sums up the right balance by re-purposing the Homeland Security slogan: "If you see something, say something."

For the first time, a player on Washington's NFL team says that the franchise should change its name.

Ya think? Nobody would stand for a team named the Memphis Niggers or the Arizona Wetbacks. As Clem Ironwing of the Sioux put it:
The only way "redskin" was ever used towards my people and myself was in a derogatory manner. It was never, ever, used in a show of respect or kindness. It was only used to let you know that you were dirty and no good, and to this day still is.
Defenders of the NFL franchise have tried a few points. First, they want to lump "redskin" in with other Native-American-related team-names, making common cause with fans across the country. But while there's also an argument for renaming some other teams, calling someone a "brave" or a "chief" is not inherently derogatory. (Degrading mascots and logos can be a separate issue.) And names that commemorate the pre-European inhabitants of a region -- the Florida State Seminoles or the University of Illinois Illini, say -- may or may not have been chosen respectfully, but they can honor the local history now, if the schools make a legitimate effort to do so. But what "redskin" mainly commemorates is the genocidal project directed from Washington. Picture the Berlin Jews (or maybe Kikes) wearing a yellow star on their jerseys. Could that ever be acceptable?

Another defense is that a few Native American communities have chosen to name their own high school teams the Redskins. Yeah, right. And it's OK for whites to say "nigger" now, because black rappers say it. If members of a historically oppressed community want to reclaim the words that were used to put them down, that's up to them. If they want our "help", they'll ask for it.

and let's end with something fun

To the enlightened, all dances are one. You knew that, didn't you?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Cold and Dark

Saying global warming isn't real because it's cold out is like saying the sun isn't real because it's dark out.

-- Ezra Klein

This week everybody was talking about a traffic jam near a bridge

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="311"] Wednesday: Did something happen?[/caption]

Well, almost everybody. Fox News barely covered the story the day it broke open, and now the strategy seems to be to use it as a segue to talk about Benghazi.

By now you may have heard too much about Bridgegate, or the same basic information repeated way too many times. So let me do a really quick sort:
  • What happened? Wikipedia has the essential facts. In September, Governor Christie's appointees cut down access from Fort Lee, NJ to the George Washington Bridge into New York, causing massive traffic jams several days in a row.
  • Why are we talking about it now? Rachel Maddow has been covering this story for a month and the local media even longer, but it really broke open Wednesday, when a North Jersey newspaper released emails and texts that proved the jams were created intentionally for some punitive purpose. Thursday, Christie apologized to the state, claimed he knew nothing about it, and fired the deputy chief of staff who he claims misled him.
  • Who were Christie's people trying to punish and why? That's the mystery. The original claim was that they were taking revenge on Fort Lee's mayor for not endorsing Christie's re-election campaign. But that case seems really weak, given that many more important people didn't endorse Christie and weren't similarly punished. Maddow floated an alternate theory about judicial appointments and Fort Lee's state senator, but Democrats in the NJ Senate have shot that down too. The latest theory has to do with Fort Lee's billion-dollar development project whose value depends on its access to New York.

As always, the media is doing way too much speculating about whether Christie was really as disconnected from the wrongdoing as he claims. Basically, we're all just predicting that the facts will eventually validate our prior opinions about Christie, whatever those happen to be. Better to just wait: Real investigations are happening, and they'll probably produce solid information long before anybody has to vote on whether Christie should be president.

So far, the main beneficiaries of the scandal are the comedians. Jon Stewart, of course. And I enjoyed Andy Borowitz's "All Lanes on George Washington Bridge Blocked by Chris Christie's Ego". (But enough with the fat jokes already; that should be out of bounds.)

After all the phony scandals they've tried to drum up about President Obama (IRS, Benghazi, his birth certificate, etc.), you'd think an authentic Republican scandal would be difficult for the conservative media to deal with. But they're up to the job. Media Matters explains their game plan:

and the weather

The polar vortex came and went, and now the east coast is unseasonably warm.

Here's the right point to make when deniers advance the global-warming-is-false-because-I'm-cold argument: Even when 2014 was just a few days old and wind chills were below zero for most of the country, there was a bet you could make that was almost a sure thing. No matter how it started, by its end 2014 will be yet another warm year. And by warm I mean: The global average temperature will wind up well above the 50-year average and the 20-year average. (When you get down to the five-year average, short-term randomness makes the bet iffy, as the graph below demonstrates.)

Deniers will tell you global warming is a religious belief that contrary evidence can't touch. But in fact I can tell you exactly what would make me doubt: a genuinely cold year. If we had a year where the average global temperature fell below the 100-year average, with no obvious explanation like a massive volcano or a nuclear war, I'd have to rethink.

A decade cooler than the one before it would also impress me. Ezra Klein got this graph from the World Meteorological Association:

When Klein tweeted the quote at the top of this article, various conservatives tweeted back some version of:
no, it's like saying "global warming is real because there's a heat wave"

And that would be an excellent rejoinder if anyone ever made that argument.

In fact, if you look at environmentalists' discussions of whether Hurricane Sandy or the Colorado brush fires or the Oklahoma tornadoes or any other weather event could be related to global warming, they are filled with nuance and explanations and acknowledgements that the connection between climate and specific weather events is probabilistic at best. And if you look at how the liberal portion of the mainstream media covers those discussions, as a rule they are likewise cautious and judicious. Unless you edit deceptively, you won't find clips of top liberal pundits and spokesmen and political leaders saying anything remotely equivalent to this:

Which raises another interesting question: Who is the liberal equivalent of Donald Trump?

and Al Qaeda taking over Fallujah

The news that Sunni militants linked to Al Qaeda had taken control of Fallujah, the site of "the bloodiest battle of the entire Iraq War" -- nearly 100 American troops died taking the city -- re-opened a lot of the wounds of that struggle.

If you were against the war, it made you reflect on the pointlessness of it all. Thom Hartmann commented:
The freedom Bush promised the Iraqi people now looks like the freedom to die in a region-wide sectarian civil war that’s rapidly spiraling out of control.

War supporters, on the other hand, blamed President Obama for pulling our troops out and thereby squandering the gains they had made. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a statement:
When President Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, over the objections of our military leaders and commanders on the ground, many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America's enemies and would emerge as a threat to U.S. national security interests. Sadly, that reality is now clearer than ever.

It's given me an I-didn't-want-to-be-right feeling.

Lots of folks were against starting the war. But after it got going, I kept hearing people say, "I want to get our troops out, but we can't just cut and run." So in 2005, when "only" 1800 or so American troops had died in the Iraq War and the price tag was still only in the hundreds of billions, I wrote a piece called "Cut and Run", where I advocated exactly that: Don't wait until something-or-other happens that will allow us to save face and make a graceful exit. Just get out of Iraq as fast as possible.
What are we fixing? What do we expect to get better if we stay for another year or five years or ten years? ...

It is hard to let go of the fantasy that some good can salvaged from the thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars that have already been sacrificed to this war. Americans like to believe in happy endings. We want to be told that one more push will make it all worthwhile.

But we need to face reality. The dead soldiers and spent dollars are gone and they have accomplished nothing. We are like the gambler who stays at the table because he cannot admit that he has already lost more than he can afford. One more game, we think, and we can win it all back. Or at least some of it.

We can't. It is a hard truth, but it is a truth.

So we stayed for another six years and lost another 2600 or so American soldiers, killed tens of thousands of Iraqis, and added trillions to our national debt. And the result is ... what? What did we fix?

We could have followed the McCain/Graham plan and kept troops there for many years more, and lost many more of them. And when we eventually left and things fell apart, they could still say, "We didn't stay long enough."

Anyway, here's the lesson I want us to learn from Iraq. When we as a country make a mistake, the right time to stop making it is now, not "in six months" or "after we stabilize the situation" or whenever. Now. Cut-and-run was the right answer in 2005 in Iraq. It often is.

and the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty

LBJ declared the war in his 1964 State of the Union address. Watching the movie newsreel coverage brings home just how long 50 years can be.

The anniversary evoked a longer-term look at poverty and the programs that are supposed to fight it. The best retrospective, I think, was Paul Krugman's.
For a long time, everyone knew — or, more accurately, “knew” — that the war on poverty had been an abject failure. And they knew why: It was the fault of the poor themselves. But what everyone knew wasn’t true, and the public seems to have caught on.

The narrative went like this: Antipoverty programs hadn’t actually reduced poverty, because poverty in America was basically a social problem — a problem of broken families, crime and a culture of dependence that was only reinforced by government aid. And because this narrative was so widely accepted, bashing the poor was good politics, enthusiastically embraced by Republicans and some Democrats, too.

But in recent years something has changed: It's become obvious that people are poor because wages don't track productivity any more. People who have strong values and work hard can still be poor, and lots of lower-middle-class people now see their jobs as vulnerable and their economic security virtually non-existent without a government safety net.
On its 50th birthday, the war on poverty no longer looks like a failure. It looks, instead, like a template for a rising, increasingly confident progressive movement.

Over at The Atlantic, Peter Beinhart looks at the conservative approach to poverty.
the new Republican anti-poverty speeches have a depressingly theological quality. They usually begin with a catechism: Washington can’t effectively fight poverty. ... Rarely is serious evidence offered for these assertions, because they are not statements of fact; they are declarations of faith. In truth, there’s ample evidence that some Washington programs significantly reduce poverty.

Starting with ideology leads to proposals that are "epistemologically backward".
They don’t start with the assumption that since poverty is bad, any method of fighting that has proven effective has merit. They start with the assumption that since the federal government is bad, the only anti-poverty measures with merit are those that circumvent it. That doesn’t mean all the ideas Cantor and company propose are ineffective. But they’re disproportionately ineffective because proven effectiveness wasn’t the key criteria for their selection. Ideological comfort was. Until that changes, the GOP’s new focus on poverty won’t improve its own fortunes or those of America’s poor.

But more people should be paying attention to ... lower healthcare inflation

Yeah, I know, it's not as juicy as the bridge scandal. But Salon's Brian Beutler makes a good case that
The furthest-reaching political news of the week ... came in a seemingly boring actuarial report from a government agency most people probably have never of, showing that for the first time since the 1990s, total U.S. healthcare spending grew at a slower rate than the U.S. economy at the beginning of the current decade.

That's important for two reasons: Specifically and in the medium term, ObamaCare. The fear was that getting more people covered would be too expensive, and the cost savings the law promised would never appear. But if the ACA is responsible for healthcare costs slowing, then it's already a success. And even if it's not, if the inflation slowdown is caused by something else entirely, ObamaCare still avoids its nightmare scenario.

More generally and longer term, the entire conservative narrative is based on those exponential curves projecting "unsustainable" growth in government spending.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="555"] What if "current policy" doesn't do this?[/caption]

And that, in turn, is based on projections of runaway healthcare spending. As Kevin Drum puts it: "Washington doesn't have a spending problem. It has a health care problem. Period." Beutler elaborates:
the slowdown [in healthcare inflation] threatens the pretext for key elements of the conservative policy agenda. If it’s permanent, it destroys the pretext completely. In a perverse way, the right needs healthcare inflation to return to unsustainable levels because without it, the enormous challenges of privatizing Medicare and crushing Medicaid become impossible.

and I wrote about atheism.

I've written before about the myth of Christian persecution in America. One reason that myth is so easy to sell to Christian fundamentalists is that many of them have no clue what it's like to belong to a religious group that actually does suffer discrimination -- atheists, for example. Two recent stories bring home the routine disapproval that atheists face in America. (A Christian pastor is surprised how quickly things get serious when he starts "a year without God", and an atheist trying to give money away is compared to the KKK.) I discuss them in "To Experience Real Religious Discrimination, Turn Atheist".

While researching that article I scanned the Friendly Atheist blog and ran across this hilarious video by dancer-turned-biologist Dr. Carin Anne Bondar. I'm sure you were all wondering: What if Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" hadn't been a metaphor for the disruptive impact of breaking up with someone, and instead had symbolized the shock of discovering that evolution is true?

In other religious news, AlterNet's Amanda Marcotte explains the logic of a Satanist group proposing a statue of Baphomet for the Oklahoma capitol grounds.
Christian fundamentalists in Oklahoma managed to get a Ten Commandments monument placed on capitol grounds in 2012. Though the supporters of the monument deny it, it’s an obvious attempt by fundamentalists to get the state government to endorse Christianity above all other religious beliefs, in a direct violation of the Constitution’s ban on state establishment of religion. ... No doubt the Satanists expect Oklahoma to reject their petition, which is the point, of course. By rejecting the petition, the legislature will make it clear they really are elevating one religion over another, strengthening the ACLU’s case against the state.

Here's the weird thing about this issue: It's the conservatives, the people who claim to respect government the least, who want the government to endorse their religion. That's the question we should keep asking the right-wing Christians: Why is it so important that the government endorse your religion?

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Coal is supposed to be the cheap form of energy. But that's only if you ignore the cost of stuff like nine counties of West Virginia going without water since Thursday, due to a spill of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (a chemical used in processing coal) by the Elk River "near the intake facilities for the West Virginia division of American Water Works."

The chemical is so dangerous that "American Water customers are being advised not to drink, cook with, bathe in or boil their water ... to stop using water for everything other than flushing toilets and fire suppression."

In a twist that would be cheesy in a movie, the corporation behind the spill is called Freedom Industries. Freedom didn't find the "leaking storage unit" itself, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection did after it received reports of a "strange odor" in the area. So this is a story of government regulators interfering with Freedom.

Add Iowa to the list of places where a comprehensive investigation of voter fraud turned up nothing worth turning up. And in Ohio, an investigation turned up 17 cases of non-citizens voting, out of 5.6 million voters. The 17 were not part of any organized effort, and all had driver's licenses that would pass photo-ID muster.

If you've been worrying that maybe you practice (or suffer from) reverse racism, it's good to know that comedian Aamer Rahman has been thinking it through.

Normally my book reviews don't get a lot of page views, but last week's review of Angry White Men is over 3000 hits, making it #7 on the Sift's all-time list. And that brings up a curious thing about viral posts: In my experience, the region between 3000 hits and 8000 hits is virtually unpopulated. There are four posts between 3145 (where AWM was at last count) and 2662. The next post up is at 7957. No idea why.

and let's end with a cartoon too good not to mention

(This one is pretty good too.) You want an apt metaphor for sexism and racism and all the other forms of institutionalized privilege? They're like The Matrix.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Force and Injustice

There underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.

-- Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891)

This week's featured article: The Sifted Bookshelf: Angry White Men.

This week everybody was talking, yet again, about Benghazi

Maybe the New York Times can finally lay it to rest as a "scandal". What the Times found in its exhaustive investigation was "months of American misunderstandings and misperceptions about Libya and especially Benghazi" leading up to the attack. The lesson it draws is that "an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests."

This all resembles nothing so much as the Cold War, when Americans tried to evaluate every new player on the world stage -- Castro, Mao, Nasser, Saddam, bin Laden, and countless military juntas from South America to Pakistan -- in terms of the cosmic struggle between us and the Soviet Union. We had a hard time grasping the possibility that, rather than being for "us" or for "them", leaders of other nations or national movements might be for themselves or for their own countries or causes.

Likewise today, we see everything in the Muslim world as polarized between ourselves and Al Qaeda. Benghazi appears to have had little to do with all that. The Times
turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. ... The fixation on Al Qaeda might have distracted experts from more imminent threats.

So most of the national discussion of Benghazi has been based on false premises. Sometimes that was intentional; I recommend David Frum's book The Benghazi Hoax, which chronicles Republicans' ever-shifting accusations about Benghazi, and how little basis any of them ever had.

and extended unemployment insurance

The basic conflict around extended unemployment insurance (which ran out for 1.3 million people on December 28, and is expected to run out for millions more over the next year) is simple:
CONSERVATIVE: Unemployment is supposed to be short-term help while you find another job.

LIBERAL: What if there are no jobs?

Each side has an additional, more complicated point to make. Liberals take a macro-economic view: If there aren't enough jobs for everybody who wants to work, and then you make millions of families drastically cut their spending, the economy will shrink and there will be even fewer jobs. Conservatives counter that long-term unemployment benefits create dependency: People get used to the idea that they don't have to work, so they're less and less likely to find a job.

Rand Paul put it like this:
When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you're causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy. And it really -- while it seems good -- it actually does a disservice to the people you're trying to help.

Senator Paul justifies his conclusion by mentioning a study showing that employers would rather hire a worker who has been unemployed only a short time, rather one unemployed longer. One of the study's authors responded:
Paul cites my work on long-term unemployment as a justification—which surprised me, because it implies the opposite of what he says it does. ... Paul thinks that "extending long-term benefits will only hurt the chances of the unemployed in the job market," because longer benefits will make them choose to stay unemployed longer—at which point firms won't hire them. But just because companies discriminate against the long-term unemployed doesn't mean long-term benefits are to blame. Paul might know that if he read beyond the first line of my paper's abstract.

People with marketable skills tend to get snapped up right away, but the long-term unemployed would be even less likely to find work if they had no income at all. The longer you are unemployed, the more likely you are to fall into poverty traps: situations where lack of money prevents you from mounting an effective job search. Without money, it's harder to arrange child care and transportation for job interviews, and harder to present the fresh-and-confident image employers are looking for. At the extreme, homeless people have difficulty maintaining basic hygiene, and so become almost unemployable.

The test case is North Carolina, which on July 1 cut unemployment compensation so drastically that its citizens became ineligible for federal extended unemployment benefits. By one measure the results look good: NC unemployment fell from 8.8% to 7.4%, more than twice as fast as unemployment was falling nationwide. But a closer look tells a different story: The state counted 102K fewer unemployed because the labor force shrunk by 95K. In other words, people stopped counting as "unemployed" because they gave up on finding a job.

Being unemployed or making minimum wage is bad enough on its own, but the injury is compounded by the insult of being treated like a loser. Noah Smith recalls his experiences in Japan, and imagines Americans calling fast-food workers "sir" and generally treating every worker with respect. I like the phrase he coins: redistribution of respect.

and changes that began with the New Year

ObamaCare coverage, legal pot in Colorado, gay boy scouts, and the tax credit on windmills expired (because, you know, who needs more wind energy?

Oh, and on January 2, the 199 Americans who make $50 million or more in annual salary were done paying Social Security taxes for the year.

and only a few people were talking about Dick Metcalf

Metcalf was a columnist for Guns & Ammo and appeared on The Sportsmen's Channel's Modern Rifle Adventures TV ... until he wrote something reasonable about gun control:
The fact is, all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been regulated, and need to be.
Bye-bye, Dick. No more column. No more TV.

Last week I discussed Phil Robertson, who was briefly suspended from Duck Dynasty for, well, being an idiot in front of a journalist. His cause was taken up by Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, and countless others who said his "First Amendment rights" were being violated, which wasn't true and showed a grave ignorance of the First Amendment.

Well, where are all those people now? Are they rushing to Dick Metcalf's defense?.

Slate's "If it happened there" series continues to be outstanding. How would American journalists write about the Duck Dynasty controversy if it were happening in some other country?

and you also might be interested in ...

The rich are trying to turn the screws on Pope Francis. Home Depot mogul Ken Langone has warned New York's Cardinal Dolan that rich donors might be reluctant to provide the $180 million needed to restore St. Patrick's Cathedral if the Pope keeps saying mean things about capitalism. "You get more with honey than with vinegar," Langone told Dolan.

Langone says he's trying to explain "the vast difference between the pope's experience in Argentina and how we are in America. ... Rich people in one country don't act the same as rich people in another country."

That last idea has become the standard right-wing talking point about the Pope: his limited experience makes him ignorant about economics. Arthur Brooks of the conservative American Enterprise Institute says: "In places like Argentina, what they call free enterprise is a combination of socialism and crony capitalism." And that's almost word-for-word what Paul Ryan said:
The guy is from Argentina, they haven't had real capitalism in Argentina. They have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don't have a true free enterprise system.

I wonder how that spin technique would work for liberals. Catholic women could try to explain how the Pope's opinions on birth control and abortion are invalid because of "the vast difference between the pope's experience as a man, and how we are" as women. Why didn't anybody think of that before?

Of course, if you read Francis' Evangelii Gaudium (I did), you'll see there is nothing Argentina-centered about his economic analysis, which is about capitalism itself, not crony capitalism. Francis' economic thought is right in the middle of a Catholic tradition that goes back to the 1890s and has been re-affirmed by every pope since -- Italians, Germans, and Poles alike. It fits the U.S. like a glove.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is going to the Creation Museum in Kentucky to debate the topic "Is Creation A Viable Model of Origins?". Like Greg Laden, I can't help thinking that no good can come from this. I hope Nye understands how much easier it is to make stuff up than to debunk it, and has some strategy in mind that I don't grasp.

Speaking of people who reject science, this week we heard the annual claims that global warming must be a myth because it's cold outside. I must have been getting popcorn during the part of An Inconvenient Truth where Al Gore said it wasn't going to snow any more.

And then there are the people who get angry when confronted with facts they don't like. Josh Marshall reports: "As Obamacare Sign-Ups Surge, So Does Conservative Rage". He calculates that around 10 million people now have coverage because of the various provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and the number would be 15 million if the Supreme Court hadn't allowed Republican officials to block Medicaid expansion in red states.
These are the numbers. Lots of people have partisan or ideological or in many cases deeply emotional needs not to believe them. But these are the numbers.

An NYT article Thursday about the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations calls attention to the centrality of a point that might seem obvious: Israel insists that the Palestinians recognize its right to exist as a Jewish state.

Usually, American news coverage focuses on the "right to exist" part. Of course you can't make a deal with somebody who won't admit you have a right to exist. Denying Israel's right to exist conjures up images of Hitler's attempt to annihilate Europe's Jews, which is what convinced the world that Jews needed their own homeland in the first place.

But Israel's right to exist "as a Jewish state" is a little different. (Imagine how American Jews, Muslims, and atheists would feel about recognizing the United States as a Christian nation.) To Arabs whose families have been living for centuries in the region that is now Israel and who know no other homeland, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state means agreeing that Jewish Israelis are permanently tied to the identity of the country in a way that Arab Israelis are not. It ratifies a Jewish-centered national narrative in which the Palestinian refugees of 1948 are collateral damage.

Esquire provides some relevant backstory to Dr. Eben Alexander's best-seller Proof of Heaven. Dr. Alexander has a long history of making up convenient details after the fact.

The House Republican leadership has a plan to improve the do-nothing Congress of last year: They plan to do even less.

and let's end with something fun

The wonders of PhotoShop. You can edit present-day celebrities into classic paintings.