Monday, March 31, 2014

Fiendishly Rational

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear April 13.

The record of thousands upon thousands of people arrested in this way is everywhere in the South. In the fall, when it was time to pick cotton, huge numbers of black people are arrested in all of the cotton-growing counties. There are surges in arrests in counties in Alabama in the days before, coincidentally, a labor agent from the coal mines in Birmingham is coming to town that day to pick up whichever county convicts are there.

-- Douglas Blackmon,
Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II

And this system is one that I think in many ways needs to be understood as brutal in a social sense, but fiendishly rational in an economic sense. Because where else could one take a black worker and work them literally to death, after slavery? And when that worker died, one simply had to go and get another convict.

-- Prof. Adam Green, University of Chicago
quoted in Slavery By Another Name

This week's featured articles are "Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor" and "Not Primarily Students, Not Really Amateurs".

This week lots of people were talking about the Supreme Court

The Court began hearing arguments in Hobby Lobby case testing the ObamaCare contraception mandate. Slate's Dahlia Lithwick is pessimistic:
The rights of millions of women to preventive health care and workplace equality elicit almost no sign of sympathy or solicitude from the right wing of the bench today. Nor does the possibility that religious conscience objections may soon swallow up the civil rights laws protecting gay workers, women, and other minorities. Religious freedom trumps because we’re “only” talking about birth control.

In general, it's a mistake to read too much into the questions the justices ask. When the constitutionality of the individual mandate was argued before the Court, I don't remember anyone predicting that Chief Justice Roberts would save it.

and the ObamaCare deadline

Sort of. It was supposed to be today, but if you were in the process of applying and got hung up by the technical problems on the web site, you get to finish.
Administration officials ... compare it to the Election Day practice of allowing people to vote if they are in line when the polls close.

According to the L.A. Times, 9.5 million previously uninsured Americans now have coverage: some directly through the ObamaCare marketplaces, some directly from insurance companies, some through the expansion of Medicaid, and some because the law allows more young people to stay on their parents insurance plans.

A series of ObamaCare horror stories have gotten national attention, mostly to be debunked later. But it's about time that people start paying attention to the success stories.

It's also time to make state-level Republicans pay the price for not expanding Medicaid. In an article on the Health Affairs blog, three public-health professors and a medical student run the numbers:
We estimate the number of deaths attributable to the lack of Medicaid expansion in opt-out states at between 7,115 and 17,104. Medicaid expansion in opt-out states would have resulted in 712,037 fewer persons screening positive for depression and 240,700 fewer individuals suffering catastrophic medical expenditures. Medicaid expansion in these states would have resulted in 422,553 more diabetics receiving medication for their illness, 195,492 more mammograms among women age 50-64 years and 443,677 more pap smears among women age 21-64. Expansion would have resulted in an additional 658,888 women in need of mammograms gaining insurance, as well as 3.1 million women who should receive regular pap smears.

and the Christie administration's report on the bridge scandal

which came to the unsurprising conclusion that Governor Christie did nothing wrong. "Our findings today are a vindication of Gov. Christie," said the report's author, Randy Maestro.

In response, all of Chris Christie's critics said, "I'm glad that's settled, let's move on."

No, seriously, Christie's critics were appalled that he spent taxpayer money to produce such a self-serving report, and the word "whitewash" keeps cropping up. Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who claims the administration withheld federal relief money from Hoboken after Hurricane Sandy to pressure her to approve a deal favoring Christie's private-sector allies, said:
Randy Mastro could have written his report the day he was hired and saved the taxpayers the million dollars in fees he billed in generating this one-sided whitewash.

And the New York Times editorial page was equally unkind:
We can now add this expensive whitewash to the other evidence of trouble in Mr. Christie’s administration. If Mr. Christie really wants to win back public trust, he and his political allies can start by paying for this internal inquiry out of their own pockets. Then the governor and these lawyers can make all emails and any other crucial information available to federal and state investigators.

Investigations by the New Jersey legislature and the U.S. attorney will continue.

and (for some reason) a raft of sports-and-labor stories

beginning with the ruling that Northwestern's football players are employees who can unionize. I cover this in "Not Primarily Students, Not Really Amateurs"

and you also might be interested in ...

A federal appeals court in Texas found the state's new regulations on abortion clinics constitutional, in spite of the fact that they have caused a third of the state's abortion clinics to close and have little medical evidence supporting their value. The court found that living three hours away from the nearest clinic was not an undue burden on a woman's right to have access to abortion services.

A similar law in Wisconsin has been found unconstitutional by that district's appeals court. Since a law can't be constitutional in one part of the country and unconstitutional in another, the Supreme Court will have to resolve the difference.

Lately I've been on a reading jag centering on the Confederacy and the Reconstruction Era. (You'll be hearing about it. Today's book review is just the start.) I can't help noticing the similarities between the current campaign against abortion rights and the South's post-Reconstruction campaign against the rights former slaves were granted by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. In both cases, the strategy was to leave the rights on the books, but make them impossible to claim. The post-Reconstruction Supreme Court winked at that. We'll see what this era's Court does.

Once you convince yourself that sexuality is a choice, all sorts of otherwise innocent things start to look like advertising for the gay "option". AlterNet's Katie Halper collects the "10 Weirdest Things the Christian Right Thinks Will Turn Your Kids Gay".

One that deserves special attention is a 4000-word screed on the "Well-Behaved Mormon Woman" blog, which decodes the gay message encrypted in the Disney movie Frozen, and particularly in its hit song "Let It Go". (The movie clip isn't YouTubed, but a great cover is here.)

I haven't seen the movie, but in WBMW's retelling the plot centers on a princess whose parents insist her socially-unacceptable magic power be hidden, and how she finds liberation. What could a hidden power symbolize, other than lesbianism?

Actually, it might symbolize sexual desire in general, as dancing does in Footloose. Or maybe creativity, like the color in Pleasantville. Or the symbolism might vary from one viewer to the next. Maybe you were a reader in an anti-intellectual family, a rationalist in a religious family, or even a religious seeker in a rationalist family. (In this season of The Americans, it's been fun watching the KGB-mole parents freak out as their daughter explores Christianity.) If you made it out the other side of adolescence, probably at some point you wondered whether the world could accept what you were finding inside yourself.

For Harry Chapin, the magic power of music might be locked inside an ordinary taxi driver:
Oh, I've got something inside me

To drive a princess blind.

There's a wild man wizard,

He's hiding in me, illuminating my mind.

Oh, I've got something inside me,

Not what my life's about.

'Cause I've been letting my outside tide me

Over 'til my time, runs out.

But to WBMW, a hidden magic power must be homosexuality. Personally, I agree with the analysis in Tom Lehrer's "Smut": "filth ... is in the mind of the beholder".
When correctly viewed,

Everything is lewd.

I could tell you things about Peter Pan,

And the Wizard of Oz -- there's a dirty old man.
[Defending the gay agenda since 1963.]

One of her commenters wonders what WBMW will make of The Lego Movie, which I have seen. It really is propaganda in favor of a society that can reconfigure itself rather than be Krazy-glued into a single "ideal" arrangement. But then, if you squint really hard, Legos themselves are propaganda for that.

And I hope WBMW never takes a hard look at the mythology underlying the X-Men. You see, sometime in adolescence, previously normal kids discover that they're "mutants" with special powers. Society is afraid of them and wants to kill them just for being what they are. So they stay hidden and band together secretly with other mutants.

How gay is that?

Whenever I'm tempted to complain about NYT conservative columnist Ross Douthat, I recall that he replaced Bill Kristol and count my blessings. Douthat's columns often imply some outright falsehood or rely on an outrageous leap of logic, but do seem to represent an intelligent person trying to make sense of the world.

For example, Sunday's "The Christian Penumbra" -- his two cents on "religious freedom". He makes a point that I first heard in Robert Putnam's American Grace: The benefits of religion come not from belief or even faith, but from practice and community. He goes on to blame the dysfunctionality of the Bible belt (high divorce rates, high teen pregnancy, high sexually transmitted diseases) on non-practicing believers. And then he completely loses me by arriving at some conclusion about Hobby-Lobby-style religious freedom.

Oh well, it's better that whatever Bill Kristol would have written.

ThinkProgress argues with the people who think Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series is ignoring creationism. He's not saying the word, but the things he's choosing to talk about are strongly influenced by the claims of creationists. I think this what Joseph Campbell meant by his term "invisible counterplayer".

and let's end with something amazing

If you've got the will to rock, it doesn't matter that you only have two cellos and it's the 18th century.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Drifting Towards Oligarchy

The risk of a drift toward oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism

-- Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century

This week's featured post: "The Real Politics of Envy".

These last two weeks everybody has been talking about the missing airliner

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has become the very model of the news stories I try to avoid covering. It fits perfectly into the distraction/obsession/hype trap I outlined three years ago in "A Hard Week to Sift".
  • Most articles and TV segments on the story reveal nothing new. (Or at least nothing new that also happens to be true.)
  • Unless you know someone on the flight, the story has no relevance to your life.
  • Even if you do take an interest, there's nothing you can do about it. Nothing you learn about Flight 370 is going to change either your behavior or your worldview.

So 99% of the coverage is what The Guardian's Michael Wolff has labelled "anti-journalism". He explains: "Journalism exists to provide information." But anti-journalism promotes "obsessive interest in the unknowable." (The fate of Flight 370 may eventually become knowable, but right now it isn't.)

Last Monday the NYT quoted an anonymous CNN executive shamelessly crowing about Flight 370 as "a tremendous story that is completely in our wheelhouse." Hunter on DailyKos responded with this priceless piece of snark:
Little actual information to be conveyed? Check. New "facts" constantly being trotted forth, only to be retracted as false a few hours or days later? We got that. Rampant uninformed speculation, often by people with absolutely eff-all expertise in anything remotely resembling the actual topic at hand? Oh yeah. (Why Rep. Peter King in specific has needed to weigh in on multiple occasions on multiple networks in order to say that he knows exactly the same amount of jack-squat that any person off the street might, now that is a topic all its own, and ought to be seen as evidence of just how inexplicably invested both Peter King and the national media are in putting Peter King on the teevee as an authority on things. As opposed to, say, not doing that.)

If you entertain the possibility that Bill O'Reilly might actually be doing performance art rather than commentary, this is genius also: Network news is focusing on the Flight 370 story because they don't want to cover "important stories like the IRS and Benghazi." [links added]

Eugene Robinson got it right:
when we don’t know the answer, we should just say so — and then shut up.

So what should CNN be doing? It should limit itself to a chyron, which it could run below all the other stories it could cover with the airtime it was reclaiming: "Still nothing definite on Flight 370."

and Crimea

Occasionally the networks managed to devote a minute or two to the Russian takeover of Crimea, which (even if you're not Crimean or Russian or Ukrainian) ought to interest you because it might mark the start of a new Cold (or even hot) War.

Briefly: Crimea had its referendum on joining Russia. It won, though it's not clear whether it would have made any difference if it had lost, since "stay with Ukraine" was not on the ballot. That's probably why the Tatar minority (and probably a bunch of Ukrainians) boycotted the referendum, which consequently got 95% of the vote.

Russia followed up by seizing a Ukrainian naval base on the Black Sea. Ukraine has subsequently decided to abandon its military bases in Crimea, even though it officially holds that Crimea is still part of Ukraine.

It's always problematic to make Hitler comparisons, since I don't want to claim that death camps and genocide are on Putin's agenda. But Hillary Clinton was basically right: There is a resemblance to the Sudetenland crisis of 1938. Then, Hitler identified an ethnically German region of Czechoslovakia that bordered his Reich. He encouraged local leaders to protest against the Czech government and claimed they were being persecuted and needed his protection.

The claim that one nation is the global protector of an ethnic group, even members outside its borders, is inherently dangerous. And if you take on that role, it's one thing to provide a refuge (as Israel does for persecuted Jews), but quite another to claim sovereignty over a region because your compatriots live there.

As for what the United States or NATO can do, even Iraq-War-architect Paul Wolfowitz acknowledges that "we're not going to get Putin out of Crimea" and the point is to make the economic price high enough that he won't seize more Russian-majority territory in eastern Ukraine.

I keep looking at the Tatars, whose roots go back to the Mongol invasions, and who are scattered throughout the former Soviet Union because Stalin expelled them from Crimea. Isn't Putin creating the new Chechens? And isn't this a good time for the original Chechens to demand the kind of referendum the Crimeans just got?

and Paul Ryan

In the last Sift I read between the lines of Paul Ryan's report on federal poverty programs. Later that week, he made close reading unnecessary and went straight for racial dog whistles:
We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

In support of that view, he referenced the work of Charles Murray, who may not be quite the white supremacist some would claim he is, but certainly has that reputation. So if you happen to be a white supremacist who thinks poverty is all about lazy blacks who don't deserve any help, you listened to Ryan and said, "Hell yeah!" Meanwhile, he gets to deny that's what he intended. ("There was nothing whatsoever about race in my comments at all — it had nothing to do with race.") That's how dog whistles work.

Charles Blow responds:
By suggesting that laziness is more concentrated among the poor, inner city or not, we shift our moral obligation to deal forthrightly with poverty. When we insinuate that poverty is the outgrowth of stunted culture, that it is almost always invited and never inflicted, we avert the gaze from the structural features that help maintain and perpetuate poverty — discrimination, mass incarceration, low wages, educational inequities — while simultaneously degrading and dehumanizing those who find themselves trapped by it.

And Ta-Nehisi Coates isn't willing to give progressives a pass on this issue either.
Obama-era progressives view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past and the historical vestiges of which still afflict black people today. They believe we need policies—though not race-specific policies—that address the affliction. I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

I wish more people were connecting the dots on corruption

Now that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is raising money for him, Senator Lindsey Graham is taking an interest in banning internet gambling.

In other corruption news, the Keystone XL Pipeline would connect the Canadian oil sands to the world market. You know who two of the foremost owners of those sands are? The Koch brothers, who are spending near-limitless money to elect a Republican Senate majority that will support building the pipeline. But don't worry about their motives: Senator David Vitter assures us that the Kochs are "two of the most patriotic Americans in the history of the Earth". Money can't buy praise like that ... or maybe it just did.

and you also might be interested in ...

During my week off from the Sift, I gave a sermon-length answer to a critical comment on "The Distress of the Privileged".

I thought this was classy. When Westboro Baptist Church went on its first protest after the death of founder Fred Phelps, counter-protesters modeled the civilized behavior we'd like to see from the Phelps-ites.

Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network, also stayed classy:
The words and actions of Fred Phelps have hurt countless people. As a Christian, I’m angry about that, and I’m angry about how he tarnished the reputation of the faith I love so much. But as a Christian, I also believe in showing love to my enemies and treating people with grace even when they don’t deserve it. I pray for his soul and his family just as I pray for those he harmed. It’s easy for me to love someone who treats me kindly. It’s hard for me to love Fred Phelps. To me, that’s the whole point of grace.

Religion is easy when you can say "My enemies are God's enemies, and God hates all the same people I do." But religion shouldn't be that easy.

In honor of the fourth anniversary of ObamaCare, Think Progress' Igor Volsky goes blow-by-blow through the full Republican effort to repeal, disrupt, or otherwise sabotage the law. And TPM notes that there's still no Republican replacement bill on the horizon. They float an occasional vague idea, or occasionally maybe even the framework of a proposal, but nothing they're willing to spell out, bring to the floor, and vote on.

Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell is pushing a new ObamaCare horror story. Many similar stories have proved to be bogus in the past. Let's see what happens to this one.

Funny or Die presents a brief message from Comcast, in which it responds to your concerns about its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable: "From the people who answer our phones to the people who write our TV shows, we do not give a f**k. ... Hey America, go f**k yourselves."

Ebola is back. 59 people are dead in West Africa.

I haven't finished Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century yet. But Paul Krugman has.

No, I don't think creationists are going to get equal time on Cosmos. At least not until scientists get equal time on The 700 Club. Or maybe they already are getting equal time -- in the alternate universe where the evidence supports their views.

and let's close with something fun

Mitch McConnell's campaign released some wordless video of their candidate, apparently for the "independent" SuperPACs his campaign isn't supposed to be coordinating with. But now that it's out there, Jon Stewart has pointed out that anybody can add their own soundtrack. He's even given this new art form a name and a hashtag: #mcconnelling.

Stewart provided a few soundtracks to get the idea across. ("Behind Blue Eyes" is my favorite.) But it's gone a long way from there. This one's pretty good.

Or you could go for a compilation. I think "Wrecking Ball" is the best one there.

Monday, March 10, 2014

False Choices

The Left is making a big mistake here. What they're offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.

-- Paul Ryan at CPAC, 3-6-2014

No Sift March 17

I'll be spending the week working on the talk "Recovery From Privilege" that I'm giving Sunday at First Parish Church in Billerica, MA, and preparing to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary on Tuesday.

In other Sift news, "What Should Racism Mean?" became the third Weekly Sift post to get more than 25,000 page views. (And started another run yesterday. My thanks to the unknown Facebook bellwether who got it started.) Largely because of the new readers that post attracted, the number of people who subscribe to the Sift via WordPress went over 1,000 for the first time.

The next set of articles will appear March 24.

This week everybody was talking about Ukraine

Russia appears set to annex Crimea, and may get away with it. On Sunday, Crimeans will vote on a referendum to join Russia. Crimea has an ethnic-Russian majority and was part of Russia until 1954. Russian and/or pro-Russian troops currently control the country, including Crimean television stations, and access to Ukrainian TV has been blocked. So the join-Russia side has a distinct advantage.

Ukraine says the referendum is illegal. Russia counters that the ouster of Ukrainian President Yanukovych (currently in Russia) and the election to replace him on May 25 are also illegal, so claims based on the Ukrainian Constitution are specious.

Some political observers are portraying this as some kind of masterstroke for Russian President Putin, but those who take a more economic view are skeptical: The Russian stock market has plunged, the ruble is down 10%, and the Russian central bank has had to raise interest rates to 7% (from and already-high 5.5%) to keep Russian currency from devaluing further. The Russian economy was not in great shape to begin with, so an interest-rate spike is likely to cause a serious recession. All that is prior to any economic sanctions that might come from the EU or the United States.

So one of the things being tested here is how much economic pain Putin is willing and able to impose on the Russian people. Maybe the surge of nationalistic pride in regaining Crimea balances that, or maybe it doesn't.

Another consequence of Crimea leaving Ukraine would be to take a bunch of pro-Russian voters out of the Ukrainian political system, thereby guaranteeing that the remainder of Ukraine will shift towards the European Union.

I've occasionally channel-scanned through the RT (Russia Today) network, and I think I've probably even linked to it sometime or other. Most days, it looks like just any other cable news network, and not the government-funded vehicle it is. But apparently RT has been laying it on a bit thick as the Ukrainian crisis developed, leading this American reporter to resign on the air.

You've got to think somebody in the production booth could have pulled the plug and didn't. I wonder how his or her career is going.

With the propaganda flying as thick as it is, everyone is looking for their own authentic sources on the ground. I got a comment last week from Fedor Manin, author of the Fourteen Flowers and a Manatee blog. He has translated a post "On the Brink of War" from the blog of a Russian-speaking Crimean woman, Svetlana Panina.
Please, everyone who loves Crimea, everyone who loves Russians in Crimea. Help me carry this thought through to every heart. The Russians in Crimea didn't ask Russian soldiers to come to our homes! No one attacked us! We were living quietly and well! We were waiting for our summer guests from Russia and Ukraine, and from other countries all over the world, after all, Crimea is a gem that belongs to the whole planet.

She takes a train (with what appear to be a bunch of Ukrainian women and children escaping Crimea) from Crimea to Kiev, and reports the wild rumors flying around each place about what is happening (or about to happen) in the other.

Someone from my church has a friend in Yalta, and forwarded an email he had gotten from her. She reports that Crimean Russians, especially the older generation, are eager to join Russia and believe that the new Ukrainian government contains a neo-Nazi element that wants "to exterminate all Russians living in Ukraine". If I believed extermination was a possibility, I'd see Putin as the Russians' protector and support the referendum too.

All this makes me wonder about the timing of the Crimean referendum: Maybe Putin needs it to happen before the panic has a chance to settle down.

and CPAC

One media mystery is why the annual Conservative Political Action Conference gets so much national coverage, while gatherings of liberal activists (like, say, Netroots Nation) don't. I suspect it's that far-right activists have much more influence in the Republican Party than far-left activists have among the Democrats, but Josh Marshall offers another reason:
In recent years, especially since Obama became President, CPAC's wild press popularity and attention has been driven by what we might call a tacit conspiracy of derp between the event organizers and the people who cover it. You be outrageous; we'll be outraged. And everyone will be happy. (After all, crap like this doesn't happen by accident.) This has become even more the case as the contemporary Conservative Movement has become less a matter of ideology than a sort of performance art.

Rand Paul won the CPAC presidential straw poll, getting 31% to Ted Cruz' 11%. Paul's vote was up from the 25% he got last year. Marco Rubio's support collapsed from 23% last year to 6%. (Rubio made the mistake of trying to pass a law rather than just posture about ideology. His subsequent decision to oppose his own immigration bill didn't win back his CPAC fans.) Chris Christie's support was up to 8% (from 7% in 2013) because he's having such a good year.

To understand the significance of Paul's victory, I looked up the 2010 CPAC straw poll: Rand's Dad Ron Paul also got 31% (to Mitt Romney's 22%), and as we all know, went on to win the 2012 Republican nomination and become president.

I'm trying not to obsess about 2016 already, but I will say this: Rand Paul is not a threat. Put him on a debate stage and Ted Cruz will eat his lunch. Rand just isn't as smart as he thinks he is, or as his Dad was. He hasn't really thought through the implications of his libertarian beliefs. And that gets him sidetracked into arguments he can't win, like defending a restauranteur's right to run a segregated lunch counter.

Paul Ryan only managed 3% in the straw poll, but he was responsible for the video clip liberals most love to hate, which has got to count for something.

What [the Left is] offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. ... This reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. ... She once met a young boy from a very poor family. And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. He told Eloise he didn't want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown paper bag, just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown paper bag had someone who cared for him. This is what the Left doesn't understand. ... People don't just want a life of comfort, they want a life of dignity.

Never mind that the story is mis-attributed. (Chris Hayes interviews the woman who really played the Eloise role.) Or that key elements have been fudged. (The government wasn't involved.) That's in the fine tradition of Ronald Reagan and John McCain. Expecting politicians to check their touching anecdotes is like expecting Bostonians to stop at red lights when there's no traffic.

Liberals around the country objected to an implication that may or may not have been there: that poor kids don't have parents who care about them.

A better objection is that this is the usual conservative sleight-of-hand: It makes the Best the enemy of the Good, as if the Best will appear by magic as soon as the Good is eliminated. Specifically, how is emptying stomachs going to fill souls?

If that imagined child doesn't already have a caring parent, how is taking away his lunch going to give him one? It's like when Newt Gingrich said "the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." Taking away someone's food stamps isn't going to get her a job. So yes, people want lives of dignity -- liberals understand that quite well. But we also understand that inflicting discomfort on them is not going to help them get it.

Ryan is also performing a second standard conservative sleight-of-hand: severing the moral connection between the people who pay taxes and the people who receive benefits. Free school lunches exist because Americans do care about poor kids. The government isn't some soulless black hole that sucks up taxes in one universe and regurgitates benefits in another. The government is a structure through which We the People manifest our desire to help each other.

So if Eloise actually had met such a boy, here's what she should have said: "You have this lunch because people do care about you. All over the country, people have pictured kids like you going without a lunch and decided they want to pay taxes so that you won't have to be hungry. I pay taxes, and let me tell you, this is exactly what I had in mind."

and you also might be interested in ...

Edwin Lyngar posted a touching article "I Lost My Dad to Fox News" on Salon.
My father sincerely believes that science is a political plot, Christians are America’s most persecuted minority and Barack Obama is a full-blown communist. He supports the use of force without question, as long as it’s aimed at foreigners. He thinks liberals are all stupid, ignorant fucks who hate America.

I don’t recall my father being so hostile when I was growing up. He was conservative, to be sure, but conventionally and thoughtfully so. He is a kind and generous man and a good father, but over the past five or 10 years, he’s become so conservative that I can’t even find a label for it.

What has changed? He consumes a daily diet of nothing except Fox News. ... I do not blame or condemn my father for his opinions. If you consumed a daily diet of right-wing fury, erroneously labeled “news,” you could very likely end up in the same place. ... To some people the idea of retirees yelling at the television all day may seem funny, but this isn’t a joke. We’re losing the nation’s grandparents, and it’s an American tragedy.

A less extreme version of the same thing happened to my parents in their 80s. They continued to identify as New Deal Democrats and knew Fox was slanted, but for some reason they watched anyway. CNN bored them, MSNBC wasn't part of basic cable, and they found hosts like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity reassuring and comfortable. I think even if MSNBC had been an option, Chris Hayes and Steve Kornacki would have seemed like smart-alec kids to them, and I doubt they'd have gotten past their surface impressions of an intense black woman like Melissa Harris-Perry or an unrepentant lesbian like Rachel Maddow.

If you are old and white, Fox News may produce long-term anxiety, but it sneaks up on you. The immediate optics of MSNBC are far more challenging, and my parents watched cable news for companionship, not challenge.

Fox never changed my parents' philosophy, but little-by-little it shaped their perceptions. They wondered why the Democrats couldn't find any good leaders -- not realizing that everything they saw about Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid or Joe Biden was selected and edited to make them look silly and unappealing. They wondered why President Obama always emphasized the wrong issues and couldn't come up with any persuasive messages -- never able to compensate for the fact that they only saw Obama through the eyes of his enemies. The important issues -- the ACORN videos, the Tea Party protests, ObamaCare's death panels -- left Democrats with nothing much to say. And what made today's liberals so hostile to Christianity?

The New Hampshire's Republican-majority Senate finally accepted a plan to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. According to The Concord Monitor:
The bill goes next to the House Finance Committee on Monday. The Democratic majority there is supportive of the bill, as is Gov. Maggie Hassan

I'm sure our minimum-wage workers and our hospital administrators are breathing easier. If we get this done, and if the plan of Pennsylvania's Republican Gov. Tom Corbett passes, then Maine will be the only holdout in the Northeast. Campaign on that, Gov. LePage.

It will soon no longer be a felony for married couples to have oral or anal sex in Virginia.

The Daily Show's Aasiv Mandvi destroys the claim that "America has the best health care system in the world."

Not everyone who agrees with Ayn Rand's politics is a sociopath, but the underlying worldview is sociopathic.

For those of you waiting for Game of Thrones to get going again, here's where the Dothraki language came from.

and let's end with something funny

Jimmy Kimmel puts together the National Teachers' Day message a lot of teachers probably wish they could send the country.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Service Plan

As Christians, our most deeply held religious belief is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinful people, and that in imitation of that, we are called to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love even our enemies to the point of death. So I think we can handle making pastries for gay people. ... I fear that we've lost not only the culture wars, but also our Christian identity, when the right to refuse service has become a more sincerely-held and widely-known Christian belief than the impulse to give it.

-- Rachel Held Evans
back in 2012, I recommended Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town

This week's featured post: "Religious Liberty and Marriage Equality"

This week everybody was talking about Arizona's S.B. 1062

Jan Brewer's veto message is here. Lots of religious-right types didn't like her veto one bit.

Two pieces by Christian writers are worth looking at. The first is the source of this week's quote: "Walking the Second Mile: Jesus, Discrimination, and Religious Freedom" on Rachel Held Evans' blog.

The second is "How to Determine If Your Religious Liberty Is Being Threatened in Just 10 Quick Questions" by United Church of Christ minister Emily C. Heath. None of the ten questions fits this situation exactly, but it's not hard to follow the template and make one up: "My religious liberty is threatened because A) the law allows people like me to be singled out and treated worse than the general public; B) the law doesn't allow people like me to single out others and treat them worse than the general public."

Rev. Heath explains:
If you answered "A" to any question, then perhaps your religious liberty is indeed at stake. You and your faith group have every right to now advocate for equal protection under the law. But just remember this one little, constitutional, concept: this means you can fight for your equality -- not your superiority.

If you answered "B" to any question, then not only is your religious liberty not at stake, but there is a strong chance that you are oppressing the religious liberties of others. This is the point where I would invite you to refer back to the tenets of your faith, especially the ones about your neighbors.

and Ukraine

I'll stick mainly to background; I don't think I can compete with CNN covering breaking news. Short version: After the leader Russia supported had to flee Kiev, Russian troops occupied Crimea, an ethnically Russian (and highly defensible) part of Ukraine. President Obama and the leaders of the EU are upset, but since nobody really wants to send troops, it's not clear what they can do.

The underlying situation is a lot like the Georgian crisis of 2008, which I explained in "Unstacking the Matroyshkas". Ancient empires have a fractal quality: There’s some group on top, which the empire’s various other groups feel oppressed by and want to be independent of. But if one of them succeeds in becoming independent, their territory will have its own minorities, who will see the group dominating the newly independent country as oppressors and want independence from them. And so on.

So now that Ukraine is free from the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, the southeastern part of Ukraine has a sizable Russian minority. That's where Yanukovych's support came from when he was elected in 2010. The recent protests that toppled him were largely in northern, ethnically Ukrainian cities like Kiev. The NYT's "Ukraine in Maps" shows this really well.

Crimea is the Florida of the old Soviet Union, and is known for its Black Sea resorts. It's 58% Russian and only 24% Ukrainian with a 12% Tatar minority. (So a Russian-backed takeover is not necessarily unpopular.) The Ukrainian Constitution makes Crimea an "autonomous republic", but also says it is "an inseparable constituent part of Ukraine". Crimean history is largely independent of the rest of Ukraine, going back to the Crimean Khanate established by the Mongol invasions.

The fascinating backstory of Crimea concerns those Tatars. They're a Turko-Mongol group that joined up with Genghis Khan. (In the West they became known as Tartars, probably by association with the mythic Tartarus -- if you were on the other side, they seemed like warriors from Hell.) They dominated Crimea during the Khanate, and usually sided with the Ottomans against the Russians. The Khanate fell in the 1700s and Russians started moving in. Stalin exiled the Tatars to Uzbekistan in 1944, but they've been drifting back ever since. They're not too happy about the Russians coming back to power.

You know more Crimean history than you think. The Charge of the Light Brigade. Florence Nightingale. The Yalta Conference.

and a shrinking the Army

One result of the sequester was that the Pentagon shared in the across-the-board cuts. (That was supposed to make the sequester unacceptable to Republicans and bring them to the negotiating table. It failed.) So Secretary Hagel has put forward a plan to shrink the Army from 522,000 to less than 450,000.

However, by any reasonable assessment, the United States is not neglecting defense.

and the bankruptcy of an institution you've never heard of before

I've had a hard time figuring out what to make of the failure of the world's largest bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, because I had never figured out what to make of bitcoin to begin with. Quartz explains how it works here, but the more important issue is Brad DeLong's question: "Placing a floor on the value of bitcoins is… what, exactly?"

Bitcoin enthusiasts will tell you that every currency has that problem, and they're right. After all, what if you took your dollars to the mall and discovered that all the merchants felt they had enough dollars and didn't want any more of them? How exactly would you convince them that your engraved portraits of Alexander Hamilton are actually worth more than the pair of jeans you want? But DeLong explains how other currencies address the issue:
Underpinning the value of gold is that if all else fails you can use it to make pretty things. Underpinning the value of the dollar is a combination of (a) the fact that you can use them to pay your taxes to the U.S. government, and (b) that the Federal Reserve is a potential dollar sink and has promised to buy them back and extinguish them if their real value starts to sink at (much) more than 2%/year

In jails, POW camps, and (apparently) China cigarettes can become a currency. Even if you don't smoke, somebody will want to smoke them, and that puts a floor on their value. (For moral reasons, luxury commodities make the best currencies, because they're more hoardable. You might be willing to hoard your cigarettes in the face of smokers in nicotine withdrawal, but hoarding your water while people are dying of thirst is more problematic.)

The advantage bitcoin has over gold or cigarettes or government currencies is that (if all the associated technology works, which seems to have been an issue in Mt. Gox' bankruptcy; The Verge claims "more than 1 out of every 20 bitcoins in the world vanished without a trace") bitcoins are easy to transfer across borders, hard to steal, and your ownership of them is easy to hide. So it's a convenient currency for transactions you want to keep secret: drug deals, money laundering, tax evasion, etc. (You can do any kind of transaction you want in bitcoin, including boring legal ones, but covert transactions are where it has unique value.)

Again, compare to the dollar. What you're betting on when you hold dollars is that (if all else fails) there's a floor of value under the dollar because somebody is going to want dollars so that they can pay taxes to the U. S. government. Similarly, what you're ultimately betting on when you hold bitcoins is that somebody is going to want bitcoins to buy drugs, launder money, and avoid taxes.

The difference is that the dollar has a monopoly on the American-taxes market, while bitcoin is merely one possible private digital currency. If something like the Mt. Gox bankruptcy causes the shadow economy to favor some competitor, then the floor under bitcoin vanishes.

and you may have heard that the Republicans have a tax plan

Or at least one Republican does. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have already rejected their own party's plan. As with health care, Republicans would rather campaign on vague feel-good notions than make a serious attempt to govern the country.

Reasonable people would not have a hard time working out a tax compromise: Make a list of the most outrageous tax breaks (carried interest would be at the top of my list), then spend half the new revenue to on infrastructure and use the other half to cut tax rates.

and you also might be interested in ...

Back on January 13 when everybody was talking about the polar vortex and the airwaves were full of deniers explaining why the cold weather disproved global warming, I wrote this:
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.

Well, I didn't have to wait for the end of the year. According to the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
The combined global land and ocean average temperature during January 2014 was 0.65°C (1.17°F) above the 20th century average. This was the warmest January since 2007 and the fourth highest since records began in 1880. This marks the ninth consecutive month (since May 2013) with a global monthly temperature among the 10 highest for its respective month.
Slate's Eric Holthaus elaborates: January was the 347th month in a row -- every month since February, 1985 -- that the global average temperature has been above the 20th-century average.

If you're ready to give up on this planet, NASA just found 715 new ones, including a few that are more-or-less Earth-sized and might have reasonable gravity. Set a course, Mr. Sulu.

You can add Texas to the list of states whose same-sex marriage ban has been found to be unconstitutional. Judge Garcia's ruling is almost a carbon copy of all the other post-Windsor rulings: The state does have an interest in creating a favorable setting in which to raise children, but banning same-sex marriage has no rational relationship to that goal. After a long string of losses around the country, the religious right needs to either give up or find a new rationale for its position.

and let's close with something from the Daily Show

When Fox's Judge Napolitano spewed a bunch of Confederate revisionist history, Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore set him straight in a hilarious way.