Monday, August 25, 2014


Ferguson is a city located in northern St. Louis County with 21,203 residents living in 8,192 households. ... Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.

-- Arch City Defenders, "Municipal Courts White Paper"

This week's featured post is "What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn't Get About Ferguson". The featured post from two weeks ago "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party" continued its viral spread last week. It's now over 100,000 page views, making it the second most popular Sift post ever. But it's still got a ways to go to catch "The Distress of the Privileged" at 332K. (Those numbers make the 2,000 views of last week's "The Ferguson Test" seems puny, but it's actually quite good by normal Weekly Sift standards.)

This week everybody was still talking about Ferguson

Wednesday, MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell nailed the NYT for police reporting that reminds me of the reporting Judith Miller did for them in the lead-up to the Iraq War: Leaks from government sources are reported as facts, the official framing of events is accepted uncritically, and contradictory evidence is discounted.

A different angle on Ferguson comes from Arch City Defenders, a group that "strives to provide holistic criminal and civil legal services to the homeless and working poor in the St. Louis Region."

In a white paper on the St. Louis area municipal courts published before Mike Brown's death, ACD focused on Ferguson and two other municipalities that it described as "chronic offenders" for abuses of the justice system like
being jailed for the inability to pay fines, losing jobs and housing as result of the incarceration, being refused access to the Courts if they were with their children or other family members, and being mistreated by the bailiffs, prosecutors, clerks and judges in the courts.

... In many municipalities, individuals who are unable to pay whatever fines they are assessed are incarcerated — sometimes repeatedly over many years. One defendant described being incarcerated fifteen or sixteen times over a decade on the same municipal charge.

In short, if you are poor in Ferguson, getting a speeding ticket can wreck your life. But it makes money for the town.
Court costs and fines represent a significant source of income for these towns. According to the St. Louis County two municipalities alone, Ferguson and Florissant, earned a combined net profit of $3.5 million off of their municipal courts in 2013.
ACD's Thomas Harvey says:
The courts in those municipalities are profit-seeking entities that systematically enforce municipal ordinance violations in a way that disproportionately impacts the indigent and communities of color.

St. Louis Couty municipal courts typically don't provide public defenders, so even if the law makes allowance for poverty, the poor may not know how to claim their rights. Those who can afford lawyers often can deal with minor violations without a court appearance, with the result that (as one resident put it) "You go to all of these damn courts, and there’s no white people."

ACD's white paper draws an obvious conclusion: "This interaction ... shapes public perception of justice and the American legal system."

St. Louis police released a cellphone video of two of their officers killing a different black man. The video contradicts several parts of the police account of the killing, but nonetheless the shooting is judged by experts to be justified. Watching it gives you some idea of what police are allowed to get away with.

Three of the officers involved in policing the Ferguson protests have been disciplined. The first was Ray Albers of the St. Ann police force, who was videotaped waving a gun at the crowd and yelling, "I will fucking kill you." He's been suspended indefinitely.

The second is Glendale officer Matthew Pappert, who was suspended after tweeting: "These protestors should have been put down like a rabid dog the first night."

But the scariest is Dan Page of the St. Louis force. He's been relieved of duty after St. Louis Post-Dispatch released a video of an hour-long talk he gave to a meeting of the local Oath Keepers chapter in April. The articles about him pick out the easy sound bites: his hostility to gays, women, the Supreme Court, and President Obama, as well as several statements expressing pride in being "a killer". But if you watch the whole talk, what's really frightening is Page's paranoid thought process, and the fact that the gym-full of people he appears to be talking to seem to approve.

I have listened to certifiably paranoid people before, and this talk is exactly what they sound like. They present "evidence" for their dark fantasies that you look at and think "Huh?" Page wanders through the Constitution, the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and various other apparently authoritative sources, referencing bits that (if you look them up) have little to do with what he's saying. (At the 25 minute mark: "In Psalms 83, Russia invades Israel. They are beat back, eight-fifths of their army are killed.")

At around the 17-minute mark he presents a slide he says came from a talk by the Secretary of the Army. The untitled, unannotated slide is simply a list of ten regions. ("1. America, Canada, Mexico ... 10. Remainder of Africa".) Page finds this slide deeply threatening: "World government, folks. Anybody who resists it is dead."

The idea that Dan Page is on the street with a gun is scary enough, much less that he has wielded the authority of a police officer for 35 years.

Online arguments about the Brown shooting are so formulaic that The Daily Dot has a taxonomy of the ten kinds of trolls you'll run into.

As part of a long article that is well worth reading end-to-end, an ex-cop compares Ferguson to the Bundy Ranch showdown.
On the Bundy Ranch, armed protesters were violently obstructing law enforcement from performing their duties. Sniper rifles were pointed at those law enforcement officers. Then those “snipers” openly gloated about how they had the agents in their sights the entire time. And what was the police response? All out retreat. Nobody was arrested. No tear gas deployed. No tanks were called in. No Snipers posted in the neighborhood. No rubber bullets fired. Nothing. Police officers in mortal danger met with heavily armed resistance and no one had to answer for it.

... Just imagine if there were 150 black folks walking around Ferguson with assault rifles right now. Imagine if a couple of them took up sniper positions on the tops of buildings with their rifles pointed at the police officers. Take a quick guess at how that story ends.

and ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria beheaded American journalist James Foley -- and posted the video on YouTube -- after the U.S. government refused a 100 million Euro ransom demand and a rescue attempt failed. This sparked a lot of discussion about widening the U.S. involvement in Iraq beyond the current air strikes.

I don't doubt that a lot of people in ISIS are bad guys. But it gets old watching the pro-war spin machine work. Once again, we face a group of insane, unstoppable monsters far worse than the last group of insane, unstoppable monsters we were warned about. Rick Perry thinks they're coming over the Mexican border, and a former CIA deputy director warns us that they could get an AK-47 and shoot up a mall -- not because either man has any evidence that such things are in the process of happening, but because we have a new name for the Boogie Man.

The problem with the panic-mongering is that it just raises the pressure to do something. It doesn't increase the effectiveness of any of the somethings we might do. Couldn't we someday have a rational discussion of what our options really are, and what good or bad things are likely to result from the various things we might do?

and Ukraine/Russia

The Ukrainian government forces seem to be advancing against the pro-Russian rebels who hold several cities near the Russian border. Russia is moving what it claims is humanitarian aid across the border, but Ukraine says it's military re-supply for the rebels. It's hard for American journalists to verify anybody's story.

and you also might be interested in ...

It's still in the laboratory (at my alma mater, BTW), but wow is this cool: transparent solar cells. Someday, your windows could generate electricity without blocking the view.

The pressure to change the name of the Washington NFL team continues its slow, inexorable build. The editorial board of The Washington Post announced Friday that it will no longer refer to the team as "Redskins" in its editorials. (Presumably, the announcement itself was the last time.) That move was mostly symbolic, since the R-team isn't mentioned that often on the editorial page, and the news and sports sections of the paper will continue to print "Redskins". But it's something.

As of June, The Seattle Times won't use the name at all. It'll be interesting to see how they cover the Seattle-Washington Monday Night Football game on October 6. Maybe this article from The Kansas City Star could be a model.

Wednesday it came out that longtime NFL referee Mike Carey had been quietly boycotting Washington games since 2006. When confronted with the fact that he had not refereed a Washington game in many years, Carey owned up:
The league respectfully honored my request not to officiate Washington. ... It just became clear to me that to be in the middle of the field, where something disrespectful is happening, was probably not the best thing for me.

Carey has retired from the NFL and now works for CBS' football coverage team as a rules analyst. He was the first African-American to referee a Super Bowl. A coaches' poll once named him (tied with another guy) as the league's best referee.

CBS' Phil Simms and NBC's Tony Dungy have said they will try to avoid saying "Redskins" while announcing or commenting on games.

Sooner or later, these little grains of sand will turn into a landslide. For now, not cooperating with the misnamed team requires an explanation. But we're approaching a tipping point, where those who do cooperate will be expected to explain.

and let's close with some creative law-breaking

Cracked has compiled a list of "The 7 Most Badass Acts of Vandalism Ever Photographed". I mean, would you have thought to paint a giant penis on a drawbridge, so that would rise every time the bridge goes up? Or turn a Soviet monument in Bulgaria into colorful American comic-book characters and other mythical beings like Santa Claus and Ronald McDonald? Or let half a million brightly colored plastic balls bounce down the Spanish Steps in Rome? Somebody did.

Monday, August 18, 2014


As a white person in the U.S., I am conditioned from birth to see whiteness as safety -- white neighborhoods, white people, white authority figures. My lived experience, my conversations with people of color, and my study of history have shown me over and over that this is a wild and cruel perversion of the truth. But the cultural conditioning is strong. Unless I fight it every day, white superiority seeps into my brain in slow, almost undetectable ways.

-- Rev. Meg Riley, "Up to Our Necks"

Last week's "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party" had the hottest first week in Weekly Sift history, with over 62,000 hits so far. It has slowed down a little, but is still getting thousands a day. Already it's the third most popular Sift post ever.

This week's featured article is "The Ferguson Test". Rather than focus on breaking news (something a one-man weekly blog can't hope to do well) this post asks you to take a step back and examine your own reactions to Ferguson. How is race influencing the way you perceive the facts?

This week everybody was talking about the Ferguson protests

Very short version, for people who have been cut off from civilization all week: A young black man was shot by police under suspicious circumstances in a mostly-black suburb of St. Louis. The police stonewalled (but the family has released its own autopsy), the community protested (mostly peacefully, but with violent incidents), and the local police responded with military weapons and tactics until Governor Jay Nixon put the state police in charge, which temporarily calmed things down. Over the weekend, things heated up again and now the National Guard has been called in.

To get a handle on this, the continuously updated Vox card stack "Everything you need to know about the Ferguson, MO protests for Michael Brown" is a good place to start. The NYT has a day-by-day timeline. But maybe nobody does a better job of pulling it all together than John Oliver.

Here's the thing the [Ferguson] mayor doesn't understand. As a general rule, no one should ever be allowed to say, "There is no history of racial tension here." Because that sentence has never been true anywhere on Earth.

And he responds to Governor Nixon's scolding of the community (with the "profoundly patronizing" tone of "a pissed-off vice principal trying to restore order at an assembly") by turning it around.
That should go both ways. I know the police love their ridiculous unnecessary military equipment. So here's another patronizing test: Let's take it all away from them. And if they can make it through a whole month without killing a single unarmed black man, then (and only then) can they get their fucking toys back.

Articles about Ferguson have explored several inter-related issues.

The specifics of the Brown shooting. See the above-mentioned Vox card stack. And an editorial in The St. Louis American gives some important political and economic background. In an era where downtowns are gentrifying, the poor are increasingly ending up in the first ring of suburbs, in places like Ferguson. But as whites flee to the more distant suburbs or return to the city, the white-dominated political power structure is often the last thing to go.

Racism in policing and the justice system. Ezra Klein's article puts this together well.

Officer Friendly has changed.

The militarization of police in American cities. Due to a program that distributes unneeded military equipment to local police forces, towns as small as Franklin, Indiana now have the kind of mine-resistant personnel carriers that even the Army didn't have in the early days of the Iraq occupation. And John Oliver's rant (above) makes fun of Keene, New Hampshire's suggestion that such a vehicle might be needed if terrorists strike the annual fall Pumpkin Festival (which I've been to and survived without incident).

The problem? Clothes make the man. If you see the public out the window of an armored vehicle, they don't look the way they might if you were walking among them. And they don't look at you the same, either. Worse, military veterans trained in this kind of hostile crowd control tell us that the Ferguson police are doing it wrong.

Andrew Exum tweeted:
Ferguson is useful in that it separates those who actually worry about the power of the state from those who just hate Obama and want to wave a Gadsden Flag around with their friends.

Michael Bell is a white retired Air Force officer whose article: "What I Did After Police Killed My Son" raises a more general question of police accountability.
In 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified. ... The problem over many decades, in other words, was a near-total lack of accountability for wrongdoing; and if police on duty believe they can get away with almost anything, they will act accordingly.

and Robin Williams

who apparently committed suicide last Monday. There were three types of articles about him:
  • news articles about his suicide, most of which have been blessedly short on details. Like most of the public, I often compulsively seek out details and then wish I didn't know them. A late-breaking detail was that he was suffering some early Parkinson's symptoms.
  • tributes to his career, which had amazing breadth. I saw him live only once, at a benefit in Boston that he did for John Kerry's Senate campaign. (I think in 1990.) I can't remember a single word he said, but it was brilliant.
  • discussions of depression, which have ranged from clueless to extremely interesting. I got the most insight out of David Wong's "Robin Williams and Why Funny People Kill Themselves".
Lynn Ungar points out that the Ferguson and Williams stories have something in common: They both offer us the choice of whether to try to understand people in distress or stand in judgment over them. Both stories have an element of "if you haven’t been there, you don’t know."

I have a personal interest in depression. Both of my parents had age-related depression in their later years, and (from the early warning signs) I suspect I will too. Among other things, the brain is an organ that processes neurotransmitters, like a big kidney that also happens to think. Like many people's kidneys, it may do its job less and less well as it ages.

The biggest thing people don't get about depression is that when you're depressed, your brain is broken. (I think the TV show Homeland has done a brilliant job of showing how a person struggles to think when she knows her brain is broken. Carrie suffers from mania, which is a different malfunction, but many of the same principles apply.) Paying attention to your stream of emotions is like listening to a radio mystery during an electrical storm; bursts of static wipe out key details, other programs bleed in, and you struggle to hang on to the story you tuned in for.

In spite of mirror neurons and empathy and all that, you can never really know what's going on in another person's brain, even if both of you are icons of mental health. When malfunctions start to cloud the picture, we're all just guessing. So I find it impossible to stand in judgment of Robin Williams, either to condemn him or grant him absolution. I have no idea what it was like to be in his head.

In any other week, the death of Lauren Bacall would have been the top entertainment-news story. She was not just a great actress in her own right, but because she came of age as the old Hollywood system was ending and lived to be 89, her death marks the passing of a generation.

and Hillary Clinton

In an interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, Clinton began the process of distancing herself from President Obama, apparently in preparation for a 2016 presidential run. The most-quoted parts of that interview criticize Obama's handling of Syria:
The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled

and his cautious approach to intervention in general:
Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.

As James Fallows points out, most of her interview stayed in harmony with Obama's policies; but she should have known that the headlines would be about the differences.

If the former interpretation is right, Clinton is rustier at dealing with the press than we assumed. Rustier in taking care with what she says, rustier in taking several days before countering a (presumably) undesired interpretation. I hope she's just rusty. Because if she intended this, my heart sinks. ... Yeah, we should have “done something” in Syria to prevent the rise of ISIS. But the U.S. did a hell of a lot of somethings in Iraq over the past decade, with a lot more leverage that it could possibly have had in Syria. And the result of the somethings in Iraq was … ?

Fahred Zakaria critiques "The Fantasy of Middle Eastern Moderates".
Asserting that the moderates in Syria could win is not tough foreign policy talk, it is a naive fantasy with dangerous consequences.

I've been resisting writing about 2016, because I think it's a too-easy way to fill space with speculation that sounds a lot more important than it is. But these days a serious presidential campaign is a nationwide, multi-million-dollar enterprise that can't be thrown together at the last minute. So we're approaching the first big decision point: Who's going to run? Clinton is the obvious front-runner, so the question is: If she runs, will any Democrat mount a serious challenge? And should liberals be hoping someone does, or not?

Up until this week, I've been focused on the importance of the Democrats hanging on to the White House, so I've been OK with Hillary going mostly unchallenged. If you're focused on winning in November, you want the primaries to be like preseason football: Your team gets to run through its plays in a game-like situation, but faces no consequential threat. And you don't want what the Republicans are shaping up to have: a big mudfest that someone wins by pandering to the party's least attractive elements, and saying a lot of things that will come back to haunt him/her in the fall.

But the Goldberg interview reminded me of what I've long disliked about both the Clintons: Everything seems so calculated. I'm not sure whether there's a real worldview in there, or just a political strategy. Bill's two terms were a mixed bag. By preventing a Bush re-election, he gave us Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court rather than another Clarence Thomas. But after eight years spent constantly trying to find the center, the question, "What is the Democratic Party about?" seemed hopelessly muddled.

Here's what I fear Hillary is thinking: If liberal votes can be taken for granted, then the best message for convincing swing voters is probably: "I'm tougher than Obama." Tougher on Muslims, tougher on controlling the border, tougher on violence on our city streets. But if that message wins, where can she go with it?

And what if America is moving left, like Thomas Ricks?

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Rick Perry got indicted for abuse of power, but I'm having a hard time getting excited about it. Steve Kornacki is skeptical and Jonathan Chait thinks it's "unbelievably ridiculous". They're not Perry's usual defenders.

Google just got a little creepier. Here's a map of a smartphone user's wanderings.

Kentucky's proposed "Ark Encounter" theme park wants to get state subsidies while only hiring fundamentalist Christians.

and let's close with something America should envy

Copenhagen's "Cycle Snake", a beautiful new elevated bikeway.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Overwhelming Threats

The court finds that even those doctors who support abortion, who have training in abortion, and who would be willing to withstand the professional consequences of performing abortion would not agree to perform abortions because the threat of physical violence and harassment is so overwhelming.

-- Judge Myron Thompson of the U.S. court for the middle district of Alabama (8/4/2014)

terrorism, noun: The use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. -- Oxford Dictionaries

This week's featured post is "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party". It's the culmination of nearly two years of reading. A more accurate view of key points in American history can change how you see today's politics.

This week everybody was talking about Iraq

President Obama authorized the first American air strikes since our combat mission in Iraq ended. Vox explains what's going on. And on Last Week Tonight, John Oliver nailed Obama's reluctant tone when he announced the strikes: "The President sounds a lot like a girl who is trying to reassure her friends that she is not getting back together with the ex-boyfriend they all hate."

and two abortion rulings in the South

In July, a federal appeals court in Mississippi upheld an injunction that prevents a new Mississippi regulation from closing the last abortion clinic in the state. The State had argued that abortions were still available in neighboring states easily reachable by car. But the court held: "Mississippi may not shift its obligation to respect the established constitutional rights of its citizens to another state."

Last Monday, a federal district court in Alabama ruled on a similar regulation in that state: Doctors in abortion clinics are required to have admitting privileges with local hospitals. This is expected to close 3 of Alabama's 5 abortion clinics. Judge Thompson's ruling (that the regulation puts an undue burden on Alabama women's right to choose an abortion) does an extraordinary job of laying out the full picture of what may superficially seem like a reasonable regulation.

It boils down to this: The history of violence against abortionists in Alabama, and the continuing harassment and intimidation of doctors and their patients, makes it unsafe for an abortion-clinic doctor to live in large parts of Alabama. In the three clinics likely to close, most doctors have their primary practice and residence elsewhere. (One doctor drives to the clinic from another state, using a diverse series of rentals cars rather than his own car, in hopes that he won't be spotted by potential assassins.) That lack of local presence makes them ineligible for admitting privileges at local hospitals. The clinics could stay open if they could recruit new doctors who live and practice nearby, but that is impossible because they would not be safe.

The Alabama legislature, of course, knows all this. (So does the Mississippi legislature. And Texas.) The purpose of these regulations isn't to improve care, but to shut down the clinics. And (if the courts allow it) it will work because the legislature's strategy fits hand-in-glove with the strategy of violent anti-abortion terrorists.

and Benghazi (sort of)

The House Intelligence Committee has voted to declassify its report on Benghazi. Democrats on the committee claim the report concludes that there was no deliberate wrongdoing by the Obama administration. Rep. Mike Thompson says it "confirms that no one was deliberately misled, no military assets were withheld and no stand-down order (to U.S. forces) was given." Republicans are saying ... well, nothing, really.

But hey, there's another committee gearing up to re-investigate. Maybe they'll discover some reason to justify their existence.

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A Florida judge said two Florida congressional districts violate the state constitution. His ruling rests on an anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment Florida voters passed in 2010, so the likelihood of this going beyond the Florida Supreme Court is small.

A commenter on last week's summary provided a link to the monthly YouTube series "Global Capitalism" by Marxist economics Professor Richard D. Wolff. (It's relevant to last week because Wolff commented on the Market Basket situation I discussed last week. Wolff gets a few of the background details wrong -- the chain has 25,000 employees, not "hundreds" -- but has some interesting thoughts about the abstract situation, beginning around the 38 minute mark.)

But here's a quote from earlier in the program, when he's talking about inequality, and about U.S.A. Today's calculation that only 1 in 8 American families have enough income to afford the American Dream:
It's really important for Americans to understand that the economic anxieties they feel and the economic difficulties they have are not about them as individuals. ... And don't [go] blaming yourself or agonizing about what you didn't do when you were a student, or courses you didn't take, or majors you didn't choose, or any of those other things. This is not about that. This is a social problem, and an economic problem, and you're just being victimized by it. And the worst thing to do if you're victimized by a social problem is to convert it into an individual problem. ... Trying to solve the economic problem that I'm describing, which is engulfing this society and others, as if you're the one who caused it and you're the one who can fix it is painful to watch. It's not going to work. It's going to make you feel terrible. And meanwhile, you're not helping to build a social movement, which is the only way you solve a social problem.

A bridal shop in Pennsylvania refused to serve a lesbian couple because "providing those two girls dresses for a sanctified marriage would break God’s law." According to ThinkProgress:
Pennsylvania is currently the only state in which same-sex couples can legally marry, but also legally be refused jobs, housing, and public services just because of their sexual orientation.

To me, this is no different from the black waitress who has to serve the guy in the Confederate-flag t-shirt. In a service economy, sometimes you have to serve people you disapprove of or resent. And the fact that other people from your church might resent the same people in the same way doesn't turn it into a religious-freedom issue.

Last week I raised the question of when to call attention to outlandish statements and when to write them off. The Alabama Republican Congressman talking about the "war on whites" ... tough call. I wish I believed the voters in his district were embarrassed by this kind of nonsense, but I doubt they are.

and let's close with something thought-provoking

I didn't realize you could photoshop video, but of course you can. In this French-language video, the singer is "beautified" while we watch.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Pernicious Effects

The only place where [climate change] denial is anything credible any longer is here in Congress, where money from the fossil fuel industry still has such a pernicious effect.

-- Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI, last Tuesday in the Senate)

Everybody talks about affordable health care, Syria, Ukraine, or the children at the border. The real issue is our institutions aren’t working. That’s one of the reasons we’re unable to deal with these other questions.

-- Senator Angus King (I-ME, quoted in Saturday's NYT)

This week's featured article is "Can Conservatives Solve Poverty?"

This week in New England, everybody was talking about a grocery chain

Seriously. If you live somewhere else, you probably know nothing about this, but the local Market Basket chain is the site of a fascinating struggle over the meaning of capitalism. In particular, is it possible to run a company in a way that benefits all of its stakeholders -- customers, workers, managers, stockholders, and the community -- or does capitalism necessarily mean managers and stockholders exploiting everyone else? (Except in Germany, I mean.)

For years now, Market Basket has been doing a pretty good job for all the stakeholders -- paying good wages, keeping prices low, and still turning a nice profit. But recently the other side of the family got control of this family-run corporation, and all hell broke loose. Now workers are striking (without a union; figure that out), customers (including me) are boycotting, and the former CEO Arthur T. is trying to buy the company away from his cousin Arthur S., who would rather sell out to a mega-corp.

Esquire has a good article laying out the details. I'll add only that it's impossible to over-state the amount of buzz this has locally. There are demonstrations outside the supermarkets. In restaurants, I hear people at other tables talking about it. Thursday, I was at a diner I never go to, where no one knows me, and a guy a few stools down the counter had to tell me (at some length) what a greedy bastard Arthur S. is. I have yet to hear anyone take the side of the current management.

and the holes in Siberia

One of the big mysteries about global warming is when the negative feedback cycles start to take off, so that the problem escapes our control completely. One cycle environmentalists are holding their breathes about involves methane trapped in the Siberian permafrost: As Siberia warms, the permafrost thaws, releasing the methane into the atmosphere, where it is a powerful greenhouse gas and creates more warming.

So the three big holes that have appeared recently in Siberia are causing a lot of anxiety. I found the explanation of Russian geophysicist Vladimir Romanovsky on Scientific American's site:
The crater's formation probably began in a similar way to that of a sinkhole, where water (in this case, melted ice or permafrost) collects in an underground cavity, Romanovsky said. But instead of the roof of the cavity collapsing, something different occurred. Pressure built up, possibly from natural gas (methane), eventually spewing out a slurry of dirt as the ground sunk away. ... The development of permafrost sinkholes could be one indication of global warming, [said] Romanovsky. "If so, we will probably see this happen more often now."

Oh boy.

and Gaza

It deserves attention, but I can't find much new to say about it: Ceasefires get negotiated and broken. Civilians keep dying. And I'm not sure what any of this has to do with a long-term solution to the underlying problems.

Interesting poll from the Pew Research Center. Asked who was more responsible for the current violence, the over-65 age group said Hamas (53%-15%), while the 18-29 age group said Israel (29%-21%). Whites said Hamas (46%-14%), but blacks were divided (27% Israel, 25% Hamas) and Hispanics said Israel (35%-20%).

and impeachment

Humorously, Republicans are now pretending that all the talk about impeaching President Obama is a "scam" drummed up by the Democrats as a fund-raising ploy. (Suing Obama for abuse of power is on, though. The House voted to authorize that suit Wednesday.) Fact check: The WaPo has a timeline of Republican calls for impeachment, going back to 2009.

It is true that Speaker Boehner says there won't be an impeachment. The problem: He also said there wouldn't be a government shutdown. The Republican base (57% in a recent poll) wants impeachment, and Boehner has consistently caved to the base, even when it means reversing whatever he may have said along the way.

In 2006, when Nancy Pelosi said that the new Democratic House majority wouldn't impeach President Bush, that was the end of it for all practical purposes. Dennis Kucinich might offer a bill of impeachment, but the leadership easily killed it. The difference: Pelosi was actually the leader of the Democratic caucus, and Boehner is only the figurehead of Republicans. Boehner has been repeatedly wrong about what the Republican caucus will and won't do -- as recently as this week, when his border-crisis bill had to be pulled back without a vote, so that the most extreme anti-immigrant yahoos could rewrite it.

Of course, it's also true that Democrats are fund-raising off the impeachment threat. (Check your Inbox.) When your opponents threaten to do something that silly and unpopular, you capitalize on it. Or, expressing it from the other side: You don't get to pander to your base on something this important without the rest of the country listening in.

and what else Congress did and didn't get done before its vacation

VA reform. Congress did indeed pass a bill to reform the Veterans Administration. Shortened time horizons allowed a $44 billion House bill and $55 billion Senate bill became a $16.3 billion compromise. The LA Times summarizes:
The deal includes $10 billion in emergency funds to pay private doctors to treat veterans who can't get a VA appointment within 14 days or those who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The remaining funds are allotted to build up the healthcare system's clinical staff and lease new clinics across the country.
National Journal lists long-term veterans' issues still to be addressed.

The Highway Trust Fund. Mission accomplished: an accounting gimmick will keep it from running dry for another few months. Gail Collins:
We now make about half as much fiscal effort as Europe does on these matters. You may be tired of hearing people ask why we can’t have day care like Sweden. But it does not seem too much to demand a Spanish level of commitment to infrastructure repair.
Israel. Israel gets $225 million to reload its Iron Dome missile defense.

Refugee children. Republicans in the House spent a lot of time telling reporters that President Obama's $3.7 billion proposal to handle the refugee children crisis was a "blank check", but (as so often happens) the House leadership was unable to pass its own bill. John Boehner's stopgap bill to provide funding until the end of September had to be pulled back without a vote. Then, as Michele Bachmann put it, "We completely gutted the bill," focusing it almost entirely on border security, and adding a companion bill to deport the so-called "dreamers" -- the undocumented high school graduates who were brought to this country as children, whose deportations were delayed by President Obama's executive order and who would get permanent residency if the DREAM Act ever passed. Fox News summarizes:
The new bill includes $70 million in National Guard money for both the states and federal government. It includes more than $400 million for the Department of Homeland Security to boost border security, and nearly $200 million for housing and "humanitarian assistance." It would also tighten language tweaking a 2008 immigration law, for the purpose of speeding deportations of illegal immigrant children back to Central American countries.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans blocked a $2.7 billion plan, using a point of order that required 60 votes to overcome. With no bill coming to his desk, President Obama is considering a broader executive action on immigration, which some Republican congressmen have said would lead to impeachment.

and the ObamaCare subsidies

TPM's Dylan Scott highlights a key point in the legislative history of the Affordable Care Act: The Congressional Budget Office never analyzed a scenario in which costs would be affected by states choosing not to set up their own exchanges.
"It definitely didn't come up. This possibility never crossed anybody's mind," David Auerbach, who was a principal analyst for the CBO's scoring of the ACA, told TPM on Thursday. "If we started to score it that way, they would have known that, and they would have said, 'Oh, oh my gosh, no, no no,' and they probably would have clarified the language. It just wasn't on anybody's radar at all."

The idea that Congress might have intended the apparent meaning of a line in the bill limiting ObamaCare's insurance subsidies to plans purchased on state-run exchanges was the center of a decision by the D. C. circuit appeals court last week. Simultaneously, the 4th circuit ruled the opposite way.

Law professor Richard Hasan elucidates the legal theory -- textualism -- which justifies the D. C. court's ruling (though not its reading of history).
The 4th Circuit judges, and Edwards, were looking at the whole statute to make it coherent and to make the law work. There is a long tradition of reading statutes in this purposeful way, and a few decades ago, the opposing strict textual reading likely would not have been taken seriously. Today, however, arguments that were once considered “off the wall” are now, in Yale law professor Jack Balkin’s terms, “on the wall.”

The counterargument—that courts have an obligation to make laws work—is especially important these days, when Congress is barely working. In this time of political polarization, Congress is much less likely to fix any statutes, much less a statute as controversial as Obamacare. The judges surely know that the courts, rather than Congress, will have the last word on the statute’s meaning.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration appealed the D.C. court's ruling to the entire court (rather than the three-judge panel that issued the 2-1 ruling). If they succeed there, then there is no conflict between the appeals courts and the Supreme Court need not take the case, unless it wants to. But the ObamaCare critics who lost in the 4th circuit are asking the Supreme Court to intervene.

and you also might be interested in ...

This week's quote comes from a 7-minute speech Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island gave after Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma led a Republican effort to block a resolution saying that climate change is happening. The whole thing is worth watching or reading. Here's another chunk, responding to Inhofe's frequently repeated charge that climate change is a hoax:

Let me tell you some of the government agencies who are so-called "colluding" together – who believe that climate change is real and that carbon pollution is causing it. NASA: We trust them to send our astronauts to space, to deliver a rover the size of an SUV to Mars safely, and drive it around, sending data and pictures back from space. You think these people know what they’re talking about? ... The idea we should base policy on a petition that imaginary people are on, rather than on what NASA, NOAA, the US Navy and every single scientific society and the entire property casualty insurance/reinsurance industry are telling us is just extraordinary.

[Note: Based on the video, I edited/corrected that quote from the transcript.]

My reading list grows. Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge goes on sale tomorrow. Frank Rich has already reviewed it.

Salon's Kim Messick re-interprets the Republican Civil War:
The party is now riven into three parts: a donor class that, like the rank-and-file, mainly wants to win elections and to govern the country in a (relatively) responsibly conservative way; a ferocious cell of right-wing fabulists that prefers defeat to the slightest modulation in its hatred of the modern world; and a network of entertainers and “journalists” with an entrepreneurial investment in promoting the second group at the expense of the first. This leaves the latter in an increasingly exposed position.

It's hard to decide when to call attention to outlandish statements and when to write them off. I'm inclined to write off the blogger on the Times of Israel site who wrote "When Genocide is Permissible", though he got some attention on Salon and in a few other places. The Times removed the post promptly, issued a statement rejecting its views, and discontinued the author's blog. It's easy to tar a site by quoting things that get uploaded without going through an editor. But in this case there's no reason to believe the blogger represents anyone other than himself.

On the other hand, I think the openly theocratic views of elected representatives like Iowa Congressman Steve King don't get nearly enough attention. Right Wing Watch posts this audio:
In St. Paul's sermon on Mars Hill ... he says, "And God made all nations on Earth, and He decided when and where each nation would be." ... So I believe in the sovereign nation state. I believe that God gave us this country. He shaped it with the hands of the founding fathers, whom he moved around like men on a chessboard to build this nation. And we need to respect it and revere it and restore this country to its true destiny.

Such mythologizing of a nation's history and "true destiny" is a prime characteristic of fascism. (It's easy to have a blind spot for your own country's myths, but wouldn't it be a little bit creepy to hear Vladimir Putin expound on the divine founding and true destiny of Russia?) The line sometimes attributed to Sinclair Lewis has it right: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." And you have to wonder who is included in the "us" to whom God gave this country. King then segues into demonizing his chosen scapegoats:
That means we have to secure our borders. We have to restore the rule of law -- we can't be rewarding people for breaking it. That's all pretty clear and is fundamentally, philosophically and, I think, faithfully sound. ... I declare [President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy] to be Deferred Action for Criminal Aliens, because each one of them that came across the border illegally committed the crime of unlawful entry into the United States.

Multiple misrepresentations: You could just as easily read that Bible verse to mean that if people have made it to this country, God intends them to be here. (It is God, and not us, who "appoints the bounds of their habitation.") That would also be consistent with our history, because, as I've observed before, the Founders did not secure the borders against immigrants. (That started much later.) Also, unlawful entry is not a crime. As Charles Garcia put it for CNN:
Migrant workers residing unlawfully in the U.S. are not -- and never have been -- criminals. They are subject to deportation, through a civil administrative procedure that differs from criminal prosecution, and where judges have wide discretion to allow certain foreign nationals to remain here.

To put it bluntly, King cloaks lies about our history and laws in dubious religious rhetoric. That ought to be a scandal.

and let's end with some industrial art

This week I discovered Bored Panda, which is a treasure trove of beautiful, surprising, and creative images. This post calls attention to several pieces of railroad art from Portugal by Artur Bordalo. If the environment gives you parallel lines, why not use them?