Monday, March 30, 2015

Discriminating Tastes

The [university's] policy with respect to intermarriage, the record also clearly establishes, was rooted from the beginning in a belief that is derived from scripture: not that races should not associate, but that races should not intermarry.

-- William Ball, lawyer for Bob Jones University,
oral argument of Bob Jones University v. the United States (1982)

This week's featured post is "2016: Understanding the Republican Process".

This week everybody was talking about Indiana's new right-to-discriminate law

I'm tempted to go into detail about what's in it and why it's wrong, but it's basically the same thing Governor Brewer vetoed in Arizona last year, so I'd just be repeating what I wrote then. (If you want details, an Indiana lawyer has blogged a better analysis than I could do.)

What I find most discouraging is my own reaction: The bigots are wearing me down. When Arizona was about to do it, I was outraged. Now it's just "Oh, not this shit again." And how the heck am I going to boycott Indiana, when I was never planning to go there anyway?


I include the quote at the top to point out that we've heard all these points in favor of religiously-mandated discrimination before. Then it was discrimination against blacks rather than discrimination against gays, but the arguments are exactly the same.

And no, Michele Bachmann's husband was not refused service at an Indianapolis dress shop because the owner thought he was gay. That clever satire went over the heads of many of its readers. They might have figured it out by looking at other articles on the National Report site, like "Obama's Executive Amnesty Will Grant Illegals Marijuana Seller Permits".

Georgia has a similar "religious freedom" bill pending. A few days ago, opponents thought they had it blocked by attaching an amendment that takes the bill's supporters at their word.
As in Indiana, proponents of Georgia’s bill have tried to argue that it has nothing to do with discrimination. Rep. Mike Jacobs, an LGBT-friendly Republican, decided to test this theory by introducing an amendment that would not allow claims of religious liberty to be used to circumvent state and local nondiscrimination protections. Supporters of the bill, like Rep. Barry Fleming (R), countered that the amendment “will gut the bill.”

So it's not about discrimination, but taking discrimination out of the law "guts" it.

It's still possible that the unamended version will be restored and passed.

Big Atlanta-based corporations like Delta and Coke have spoken out against similar Georgia laws in the past, but aren't making a big deal about this one. ThinkProgress speculates:
Some speculate that lawmakers have intimidated these companies into silence with bills that threaten their business — with Delta serving as the example for others. Still pending in the legislature is a bill (HB 175) that would eliminate Georgia’s tax subsidy on jet fuel, which would primarily hurt Delta. Its sponsor, Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R), makes no secret of the fact that the bill is retribution for Delta CEO Richard Anderson’s recent history of weighing in on public affairs, including last year’s version of RFRA.

It's fascinating to watch the sleight-of-hand involved in defending so-called "religious freedom" laws, particularly when defenders try to make a parallel to liberal freedom issues, either to point out our obliviousness or our hypocrisy. For example: decided to call some 13 prominent pro-gay bakers in a row. Each one denied us the right to have “Gay Marriage Is Wrong” on a cake

But this is explicitly not what the bakery court case was about. As the judge wrote:
There is no doubt that decorating a wedding cake involves considerable skill and artistry. However, the finished product does not necessarily qualify as “speech,” as would saluting a flag, marching in a parade, or displaying a motto. ... [The baker] was not asked to apply any message or symbol to the cake, or to construct the cake in any fashion that could be reasonably understood as advocating same-sex marriage. [my emphasis]

Or consider this cartoon:

In what sense are Klansmen analogous to gays, or right-wing Christians analogous to blacks? Have gays been lynching right-wing Christians or burning their churches? Does a fundamentalist baker feel physically threatened when lesbians come into his shop?

And finally, Bob the Baker's reluctance to make a KKK cake is political, not religious. A religious freedom law doesn't help.

and a plane crash

Once again, CNN has turned into the Air Disaster Network. Every time I checked CNN this week, they were talking about Germanwings Flight 9525. Somehow, they managed to spend 24 hours a day repeating: It crashed, everybody died, and we think one of the pilots might have crashed it intentionally.

Plane crashes are the junk food of news. They seem important -- and they are important to the friends and families of the people who die -- but otherwise they don't affect your life and there's nothing you can do about them. Beyond the simple announcement that a crash has happened, it's literally News You Can't Use.

Zak Cheney-Rice points out that CNN could also speculate about terrorism, if the suspect weren't white. If he were a brown-skinned Muslim, they'd be talking about little else.
This is not an argument for jumping to conclusions. Nor is it meant to accuse Lubitz of terrorism. On the contrary, it is an argument for holding people who commit mass murder to similar standards, regardless of their race or religion. If one gets to be portrayed as a complex human being, they all should be portrayed as such.

and Bowe Bergdahl

But whenever I scanned through Fox News, they were talking about Bowe Bergdahl, the soldier that President Obama got back from the Taliban in a prisoner exchange last May.

The new development this week was that the Army decided to charge Bergdahl with desertion and "misbehavior before the enemy". For some reason, this makes the prisoner swap a "fiasco" in the conservative mind. I guess they think we should have let the Taliban keep torturing him.

and Yemen

Iran-backed rebels have taken over the capital, and the Saudis have launched air strikes against them. There's talk of Saudi or Egyptian troops invading. The Christian Science Monitor has a good summary of the situation, which is complicated to say the least.

It's tempting to frame this as part of the brewing regional Sunni/Shia war -- Iran vs. ISIS in Tikrit is another part -- but (as in Syria/Iraq) there are more than two sides. The Sunni government was helping us fight the local branch of Al Qaeda, which is also Sunni. The Shia rebels recently overran the air base we had been using for drone strikes against their enemies.

For those of you who can't find Yemen on a map (don't be ashamed, just learn), here's a map.

You actually know more about Yemen than you think. Historically, it might be where the Biblical Queen of Sheba came from. More recently, its Aden harbor is where the U.S.S. Cole was attacked.

Yemen has been an oil producer, but its fields are near exhaustion. (In 2008, the World Bank predicted Yemen's oil reserves would run out by 2017. How any government will replace that revenue is a mystery.) It's a poor country that has been badly governedfor a long time, and has a scary water problem that climate change is making worse. (Thomas Friedman went there to film Episode 8 of Years of Living Dangerously.)

In short, it's one of those tragic situations where people are squabbling over crumbs. The victor in the civil war will just win responsibility for solving intractable problems.

and 2016

Presidential candidates are starting to show up in New Hampshire, but it's surprisingly hard to track them down. (Ted Cruz' visit this week didn't show up on WMUR's candidate tracker.) We're at a stage in the campaign where candidates want to talk to groups they expect to support them, and don't want possibly hostile voters showing up to ask embarrassing questions. (Not that I do that.)

Cruz officially announced his candidacy at Liberty University, the school Jerry Falwell founded. WaPo has the transcript of his speech. Next week I plan to start an intermittent series where I look at candidate stump speeches in detail, starting with that one.

and you also might be interested in ...

Most of the opposition to the administration's negotiations with Iran have hidden behind the fig leaf of the "better deal" Obama could get if he took a firmer stand. So it's kind of refreshing to see a NeoCon honestly admit that he wants war, as former Bush UN Ambassador John Bolton did in Thursday's NYT.

Bolton thinks bombing "should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran." Because that would totally work, just like Dick Cheney's plan to have the Iraqis greet us as liberators.

In reality, Iranians would react to an attack the way we reacted to 9-11: 90% of them would rally behind the government, while the other 10% would either shut up or get ostracized as unpatriotic. If you want to completely destroy any chance of democratic change in Iraq, do what Bolton wants.

Happy Birthday, ObamaCare. Steve Benen lists ten false predictions its critics made.

Happy trails, Harry Reid.

Two weeks ago I talked about a racist song sung on a fraternity bus. I remarked at the time that the song couldn't be new, because the brothers in the video know the words. Now we know where they learned them: at an SAE national leadership school four years ago.

SAE also turned up in "The Hunting Ground" as a particularly dangerous frat for a woman to attend a party at. On some campuses, SAE is said to stand for "Sexual Assault Expected".

In New York City, a crime is more likely to get on TV if the suspect is black.

As a Michigan State alum, I can't not mention our most unlikely Final Four run ever. No one can strategize against us, because no one can figure out how we're winning.

and let's close with a cautionary tale

If you take your girlfriend to the game, keep your eye on the KissCam.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Survival and Democracy

I have not yet heard ... a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario.

-- President Barack Obama

This week everybody was talking about Netanyahu's re-election

What that means is the subject of this week's featured post "What Just Happened?". My main take-away from the election is that the problem in Israel isn't Netanyahu, it's the electorate.

One of the things I don't discuss in that article is the early exit polls, which predicted a much closer election. Whenever that happens, suspicious people start charging fraud. In this case, though, it looks like late-and-early voters just voted differently than mid-day voters.

Now, a surge just before polls close is sometimes evidence of a different kind of fraud, but I haven't seen any supporting evidence for that. In the U.S., you'd be talking about the difference between people who have day jobs and the rest of us. But in Israel, Election Day is a national holiday, so that's not it.

I wouldn't jump to conclusions here. If something is actually wrong, Israelis will probably figure it out for themselves.

and debates about the budget

It will be interesting to see whether Republicans in Congress can agree with themselves on next year's budget; then we can worry about whether Democrats will filibuster or Obama will veto.

The basic political problem of the budget is that Americans grossly overestimate how much the government spends on things they don't like. So cutting government spending sounds good in the abstract, but the vast majority of federal spending goes for stuff that is widely popular, like defense, Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, and highway construction. A lot of the rest is spent on stuff that is useful and necessary: air traffic control, disaster relief, disease control, food safety, and so on. You may not think about it very often, but as soon as somebody dies of Ebola or a batch of tainted food hits the market, everybody wonders why the government doesn't have this under control already.

What's left is mostly spent on poor kids and poor sick people. When it's made clear what a spending cut will do, in terms of kids going hungry and sick people dying, cutting there isn't all that popular either.

So if you want to make major cuts, the best way to do it is to hide what you're cutting. The two main tricks for doing this are the block grant and the magic asterisk. The proposed Republican budget (which achieves balance by 2025) has both.

The magic asterisk is an unspecified $1.1 trillion cut over ten years in "Other Mandatory" spending. The WaPo's Wonkblog explains:
Other than health care and Social Security, mandatory spending includes a range of programs such as food stamps, disability payments for veterans, the earned income tax credit, and Pell grants for college students. The budget document did not specify which would be cut.

So if you're a disabled veteran wondering if this means you're going to be cut off -- or anybody else who might be affected -- your Republican congressman can assure you: "No, we meant other Other Mandatory spending." He can say that to everybody.

The problem with magic-asterisk budgeting is that when it comes time to pass an appropriations bill, the Republicans will discover they can't: They never really agreed on specific spending cuts, they just agreed on the abstract idea of spending cuts.

Block grants just push the sleight-of-hand down to the states. Ezra Klein explains:
A block grant takes money the federal government is already spending on a program and gives it to the states to administer — usually with fewer rules and conditions. That's it. The hope is that states will use the money more efficiently. But block grants can cost more, cost the same, or cost less than the funding mechanisms they replace. Block grants changehowmoney is spent, not necessarily how much money is spent.

... There's nothing magic about block grants that makes Medicaid cost $700 billion less; it just sounds better to say you're going to save money by block-granting Medicaid and food stamps then by cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid and food stamps.

The reason these kinds of tricks are necessary is that the federal budget is generally money well spent. If there were trillions budgeted for bridges to nowhere, Republicans wouldn't have to hide what they're cutting.

and I finally got around to paying attention to Hillary's emails

I've had trouble getting interested in this story, because I know lots of people in Clinton's generation who think email is magic. They use their mail app and something happens; they can't be bothered with what it is. Colin Powell also used a private email account to do business as Secretary of State, because, well, who knows why? He didn't think his email was broken when he became Secretary, so he didn't fix it.

Nobody really cares about government email archives unless some other story makes them care. If you're a Benghazi conspiracy theorist, for example, the fact that there might be a hidden trove of conspiratorial Clinton emails somewhere is a big deal; it keeps your fantasies alive. But none of those people were going to vote for Clinton anyway.

Another reason people might care is if Hillary were running as some squeaky-clean good-government reformer. Then the idea that she might have cut a corner somewhere would spoil the image she's trying to project. But that image was never going to work anyway, and Clinton surely knew that already.

So there's the possibility that the email story might feed into some other story later, and that people might care about it then. But until then, it's no big deal.

What the story does point out, though, is the risk of Democrats putting all their eggs in the Clinton basket so early in the process. If tomorrow Jeb Bush were caught in a tryst with an underage boy, Republicans would shake their heads sadly and move on to the next candidate. But if some scandal or unexpected medical problem put Hillary out of the race, Democrats would be scrambling.

and you also might be interested in ...

Alternet points out one thing that's wrong with our national discussion of education policy: Often nobody in the room is an actual educator. No teachers, no principals, no education researchers, no professors of education -- just "individuals from influential right-wing think tanks, with little to no scholarly work or graduate-level degree work in education."

That's not just on TV, it's in fairly highbrow publications like The Economist. So that's something to keep in mind the next time you watch or read a piece about how our education system needs to be completely re-organized: Is there any reason to believe that these people know what they're talking about? Are the people presented as "experts" any more knowledgeable than someone you might meet at a bar?

While we're on the subject, ThinkProgress observes that "Every Claim In This Ted Cruz Statement Is Completely False". The statement is about the Common Core education standards, which Cruz says he will "repeal every word" of.

When someone asked his office what that could possibly mean, since Common Core is not a law and so can't be "repealed", a Cruz spokesperson said:
Common Core is a federally created curriculum that the state's 'Race to the Top' grants are tied to," offered Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz. "So if the state does not adopt the standards, it gives up the grant money. But since the federal government created this mess, there should be a way to undo it.

And that's the statement that is completely false. CC is not federally created, it's not a curriculum, Race to the Top didn't tie grants to it, and since the grants are almost all spent already anyway, there can't be any penalty for a state to un-adopt the standards if it wants to.

But if none of the claims are true, they're all "truthy" to Cruz's right-wing target audience. So I'm sure he'll keep repeating them.

Still on education: Remember Dave Brat, the Tea Party insurgent who upset Eric Cantor in a primary? He's in Congress now, and he says education funding isn't necessary, because "Socrates trained Plato on a rock."

Aside from just being false -- Plato was a aristocrat, and had a lot of expensive teachers before Socrates -- Brat's remark is evidence of a serious problem in his thinking: Are we just trying to train a handful of aristocratic geniuses, or do we want to have an educated society? Or does he think we could hire a Socrates for every child in America? If we could, maybe we could teach them on rocks.

Proof the NFL concussion problem is considered serious: 24-year-old Chris Borland, who was a well-regarded rookie linebacker for the 49ers last season, announced his retirement. He's had only one concussion, described as "minor", but: "From what I've researched and what I've experienced, I don't think it's worth the risk."

He's worked most of his young life to achieve his dream of playing in the NFL, and now he's in a position to make millions. But it's not worth the risk.

and let's close with a moment of Zen

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dangerous Things

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.

-- Terry Pratchett

This week's featured post is "The Other Half of American History", in which I review Edward Baptist's amazing recent book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

This week everybody was talking about a letter to Iran

Forty-seven Republican senators signed an open letter to the leaders of Iran, advising them on American governance, so that they won't be fooled into making a peace agreement with our wily President Obama. Exactly why they felt it necessary to advise Iran is not clear. Maybe they're angling for contracts with the Iranians after they retire from the Senate and achieve their dream of becoming high-rolling lobbyists.

OK, that was snarky of me. It was obvious why they wrote: They want the Iranians to walk away from the proposed deal -- the end of negotiations would be "a feature, not a bug" according to the letter's author -- so that we can have another Middle Eastern war, this time with a country three times the size of Iraq and much more spirited. It'll be great: The Iranian people will greet us as liberators, just like the Iraqis did.

Still too snarky. Conservative WaPo columnist Michael Gerson, while recognizing that the letter had "all the gravity and deliberation of a blog posting" and "raises questions about the Republican majority’s capacity to govern", tried to put the best face on the 47's motives and goals: Yes, they want the current negotiations to fail. But
The alternative to a bad nuclear deal is not war; it is strong sanctions and covert actions to limit Iranian capacities until the regime falls (as it came close to doing in 2009) or demonstrates behavior change in a variety of areas.

A more realistic assessment -- illustrated by the history of our failure to keep North Korea from getting the bomb -- comes from Foreign Policy's Jeffrey Lewis: The "better deal" in which all of Iran's centrifuge's go silent
is a fantasy, a unicorn, the futile pursuit of which ends with a half-assed airstrike against Iran, a region in flames, and eventually an Iranian nuclear weapon. ... A Republican administration, if given a chance, would negotiate exactly the same agreement that this administration is negotiating, with all its flaws and shortcomings. ... The outlines of any deal with Iran are largely determined by the relative power of the parties — how advanced Iran’s nuclear programs are, what U.S. military options look like, the vitality of the sanctions regime, etc. — not the personal qualities of the presidents we elect. You can believe that George W. Bush’s flinty gaze would have stared down Hassan Rouhani or that Ali Khamenei will understand that Barack Obama is a transformational figure of historic importance. You can believe those things, but you’d be an idiot.

The idea that the Iranian government might fall soon, or that it came close to falling in 2009, is highly speculative -- especially when you put it together with American or Israeli attacks, covert or otherwise. Given the Iranian history of British colonialism and American interference, any direct foreign intervention will cause the Iranian people to rally around their government, the same way Americans rallied around President George W. I-Lost-the-Popular-Vote Bush after 9-11.

The Nation's William Greider asks the obvious question you seldom hear: What about Israel's nukes? Israel has never admitted having the bomb, but it is widely believed to have hundreds of nuclear warheads. Nobody knows for sure, because Israel submits to no international inspections.
I asked another friend (a well-informed journalist sympathetic to the Palestinian cause) why reporters don’t talk about the Israeli bomb. “Groupthink,” he said. “It’s almost as though Israel gets a bye from the media.”

The Iranians, he added, have raised the issue of the Israeli bomb many times in the past, but their complaints were generally ignored in the Western press.

The Iranian people may not like the sanctions Iran's nuclear program has led to, but the premise of the sanctions -- that Iran achieving parity with Israel is unthinkable -- has to rub them the wrong way. If the Iranian government is seen standing up for the principle that Iran is a nation equal to any other nation, that's got to raise its popularity, not invite a revolution.

There's been much online discussion about whether the senators' letter violates the Logan Act of 1799, which bans Americans from undermining government policy through "correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof".

As satisfying as it may be to yell "Treason!" or imagine Mitch McConnell doing a perp walk, HuffPost's Monica Bauer describes Logan Act talk as "click bait for liberals" rather than a serious matter, and MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell rejects the Act as "unenforceable because it is obviously unconstitutional and absurd on its face".

I have to agree. The Adams administration had a penchant for restrictions on its citizens' freedom of speech. The Logan Act is of a piece with the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. Obama is right not to try to enforce it.

But even if it's not treason or otherwise illegal, the letter is unpatriotic. The signers hate Obama more than they love America.

There is an underlying separation-of-powers issue about whether this agreement ought to be a treaty and require ratification by the Senate, rather than an executive agreement that does not. But it isn't the constitutional crisis Republicans like to claim. Presidents of both parties sign executive agreements. They aren't enforceable by the courts, as a treaty would be under Article VI of the Constitution. But presidents are highly motivated to keep their predecessors' agreements to maintain the credibility of their own agreements.

By impugning executive agreements in general, Republicans continue down the path towards making the United States ungovernable that I talked about two weeks ago.

The Yalta agreement on the re-organization of Europe after World War II is an example of a far-reaching commitment that was made without Senate ratification. Watching FDR balance the constitutional issues in his post-Yalta message to Congress is instructive: He affirms that the U.N. charter, whose general outlines the Yalta agreement affects, will have to be ratified by the Senate. But other aspects of Yalta are not submitted for ratification.

and reactions in Ferguson

It's been fascinating to watch Ferguson react to the Justice Department's scathing assessment of its police and courts (which I described last week). Both the city manager and the police chief have resigned, but the mayor is determined to hang on. He isn't even convinced the city has a serious problem:
The report stated there was probable cause to believe the police and court routinely violate people’s civil rights. But, Knowles said, “that’s not proof.” He added that “there is probably another side to all of these stories.”

But we don't know that side yet because it's so hard for white mayors and policemen to get their stories out in our black-dominated culture, I suppose.

Similarly, National Review assures us that the problem in Ferguson is "predatory government", not racism. It's just kind of a coincidence that predatory government happens to show up and be tolerated in a majority-black community with a white power structure.

They charged a guy with shooting two policemen during a protest in Ferguson Thursday. He has a great defense: He claims he was shooting at somebody else.

Notice one key difference between shootings like this and the shootings police do: No major figure is stepping up to say that the victims had it coming.

and a racist frat incident in Oklahoma

University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon frat got in deep trouble after a video surfaced of the brothers singing on a bus:

There will never be a nigger SAE.
There will never be a nigger SAE.
You can hang them from a tree,
but they'll never sign with me.
There will never be a nigger SAE.

The guys on the bus seem to know the words, so you've got to figure this wasn't the song's world premiere. After the video went viral, University President David Boren closed the house and expelled the two students identified as leading the singing.

National SAE back-pedaled as fast as it could, saying it has "zero-tolerance for any kind of discrimination" and claiming that 20% of its national membership is non-Caucasian. It's also been editing its history page to play down its origin as a Confederate frat. According to an earlier version of the page:

The fraternity had fewer than 400 members when the Civil War began. Of those, 369 went to war for the Confederate States and seven for the Union Army. Seventy-four members of the fraternity lost their lives in the war.

Think Progress lists previous race-related incidents involving SAE, including

In 2009, Valdosta State University in Georgia hosted a community forum on “Heritage, Hate or Fear?” that was inspired by the university’s SAE chapter’s practice of flying a Confederate Flag on its front lawn.

The Oklahoma State University SAE chapter is taking flack for a Confederate flag posted on a member's wall in such a way as to be visible from the street.

So it sounds to me like this isn't just two guys. SAE's Confederate heritage is more than a historical footnote. It's part of the frat's "charm" and attracts a certain element.

There's a side issue here about the media, which gives me an opening to discuss my policy on The Weekly Sift. This CBS/AP article refers to SAE members "engaging in a racist chant" but doesn't say what the chant was, a practice I've noticed on several news outlets. Others refuse to print or say nigger, replacing it with references to "the N-word" or "n****r".

I first had to decide whether to use nigger in my writing in 2007, when I was still posting as Pericles on Daily Kos. My policy -- which applies not just to nigger, but to bitch, faggot, or any other epithet -- is to ask myself this question: If I replace the word with a euphemism, who am I protecting?

My 2007 post described the racial atmosphere of my 1960s working-class childhood. Saying something like "We used the N-word" would have protected myself more than the fragile sensibilities of my readers. I mean, Jackie Chan used the N-word in Rush Hour; it was hilarious. But my truth was much starker: We told nigger jokes. Saying anything less would just give my readers room to imagine that what I did really wasn't that bad.

Same thing here. Describing the video in some oblique way just protects the frat boys. A "racist chant" could be eeny-meeny or some other childish thing where the racism isn't the point. Describing the incident that way opens the possibility that "racist" might be nothing more than some journalist's debatable interpretation. So I think you have to print it the way they sang it.

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Rest in peace, Terry Pratchett. Most obituaries highlight his Discworld series, which is tremendously amusing. But my personal favorite Pratchett novel isn't set on Discworld, it's Good Omens, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman about the coming of the Antichrist. (Well, there is one Discworld connection: Discworld's Death character shows up as one of the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse.) Imagine if Left Behind was short, clever, and had a sense of humor.

Israel holds elections tomorrow, and it's anybody's guess who will win. It's a parliamentary system, so we might not know right away. Even if Netanyahu's party isn't the top vote-getter, he still might wind up as the leader of a majority coalition.

Paul Krugman points out that internal economics may play a bigger role than the Palestinian or Iranian issues Americans are focused on. He references an amazing statistic:
According to the Bank of Israel, roughly 20 families control companies that account for half the total value of Israel’s stock market.

and let's close with a moment I'm sorry I missed

As spring approaches, let's remember that winter hasn't been all bad. Like this massive snowball fight in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Money and Motion

What was the law, when bright shiny money was in sight?
Money make the train go.
-- Charley Barbour,
quoted in The American Slave, a Composite Autobiography
This week's featured post is "Justice in Ferguson".

This week everybody was talking about Ferguson again

The Justice Department published two reports Wednesday, one about the Michael Brown shooting and the other about the Ferguson Police Department. I discuss them in detail in "Justice in Ferguson", but the short version is that Darren Wilson's story is plausible and he shouldn't be indicted, while the FPD is a predatory institution that needs drastic reform.

and Selma

Tens of thousands of people marched across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
President Obama's speech was a marvelous expression of the liberal vision of America.
It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. ... That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional. ... That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing.
Meanwhile (and Obama referred to this) the achievements of fifty years ago are threatened. The Supreme Court has gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act and the Republican Congress continues to refuse to fix it. The hole that the Court blew in the VRA has invited voter suppression of all sorts.

and Netanyahu vs. Iran

The politics of Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech to Congress has been widely discussed, both here and in Israel. But reading the text, I found myself thinking more about the content: Is he right about Iran?
Some of what he had to say was obviously exaggerated. Like this:
In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked more will surely follow.
Juan Cole examines this claim capital-by-capital, but the gist is that Iran has given material support to factions in local conflicts that it did not start. (In Baghdad, we started it.) Those factions have been successful in varying degrees, but in none of the four cases has there been anything like an Iranian conquest or occupation, nor is there likely to be. Iran is playing the Great Game, just as we are and Israel is.
A more interesting notion lies in the background of Netanyahu's remarks, and in most neo-con discussion of Iran: the idea that an Iranian bomb would be uniquely horrible, because Iran's nature as an Islamic Republic makes it immune to the kind of deterrence that kept the Soviet Union in check. In this telling of the story, Iran's leadership is motivated by an apocalyptic theology that would happily use nukes against Israel and glory in the ensuing end-of-the-world destruction when Israel retaliated with the nukes it has never admitted it has.
Having discussed just two weeks ago how another force in the region -- ISIL -- is motivated by apocalyptic theology, I can't just reject this argument as absurd. But is it true? Is Iran essentially a nation-sized suicide bomber?
Other people have studied this question, and the answer seems to be no. Back in 2011, Matthew Duss wrote "The Martyr State Myth" for Foreign Policy.
The "martyr state" myth is based upon two flawed assumptions. First, that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been uniquely willing to endure the deaths of its own citizens in order to achieve its policy goals. Second, that the Iranian Shiite regime’s End Times theology actually induces it to trigger a conflagration.
Quoting previous studies, he finds that Iran's willingness to sacrifice its citizens pales in comparison to the Soviet and Chinese regimes that were deterred by retaliation, and that claims of the Iranian regime's desire for martyrdom
are unsupported by anything like evidence, but rather have achieved the status of conventional wisdom simply by repetition.
Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did like to talk in apocalyptic terms, but he
  • is not president any more
  • didn't have control of Iranian military policy when he was president
  • was criticized for his apocalypticism by the ruling imams.
By contrast, Iran's Supreme Leader is in no particular hurry to be Supreme Leader of a pile of rubble.

and the Supreme Court looking at ObamaCare again

The oral arguments in King vs. Burwell have begun. The case hangs on one sentence in the Affordable Care Act, which (if interpreted without reference to anything outside that sentence) would mean that ObamaCare subsidies could only go to people in states that had their own ObamaCare exchanges, rather people living in states whose exchanges were set up by the federal government.
There has been a certain absurdity to the case from the beginning, since there is ample evidence that no one in Congress intended that result. So the plaintiff's arguments have all been a little like "You didn't say 'Simon says'."
The Obama administration's counter-argument is that the executive branch has a responsibility to interpret laws in ways that work, rather than in ways that don't work, so the IRS has acted correctly in interpreting the law as it has. The precedents seem to be on its side, and I don't believe this case would ever have reached the Supreme Court without a number of activist conservative judges seeking to repeal laws they don't like.
The big thing we've learned from the justices' questioning is that there is a conservative reason reject the case, hinted at by Justice Kennedy and drawn out further by Justice Sotomayor: Congress may not have had the power to pass the law as the conservative activist judges have been interpreting it, at least not under a conservative interpretation of the relationship between the federal government and the states.
If the law really did only subsidize people on exchanges states set up, that would be a substantial penalty to states that refused to set up their own exchanges. That kind of monetary pressure (to set up state exchanges) was precisely why (when ObamaCare reached the Court in 2012) the Court threw out the provisions of the law that pushed the states to expand Medicaid.
The legal principle Chief Justice Roberts invoked when he cast the deciding vote to save ObamaCare in 2012 was that the courts have to presume that Congress intended to pass laws that are constitutional. So if one interpretation of a law makes it constitutional and another unconstitutional, courts should favor the constitutional interpretation.

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Correction: Last week I identified FBI agents as potential victims of a Homeland Security shutdown. As a commenter pointed out, the FBI isn't in DHS, it's in the Department of Justice.
Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner relented and allowed the House to vote on a clean bill to fund DHS through September. It passed, as it would have weeks ago, without any sturm und drang. The problem for Boehner was that his caucus wanted to continue holding the country's security hostage: Republicans voted against the clean funding bill 167-75.
Vox added this example to its list of "every major crisis or near-crisis that's been resolved by Boehner giving up on conservatives and passing a bill with Democratic support."

Next up: the debt limit. Mitch McConnell says it will pass, but he also says:
We'll figure some way to handle that and hopefully it might carry some other important legislation that we can agree on in connection with it.
In other words, there's going to be another hostage crisis. You can replace "other important legislation" with "list of demands".
I could repeat everything I said last week about Republican governance, but I think I'll just link to it.

Jonathan Waldman in the NYT says "Don't Kill Keystone XL, Regulate It".
"Pipelines are the safest way to move oil," he says, and they could be made better if regulators insisted on the best technology. I have no argument with that. But he takes one thing as given:
[B]locking [the pipeline] won’t actually prevent Canada from extracting its tar sands oil. Ours is an energy-thirsty world, and when demand eventually drives up the price of oil, out it will come.
I'm not willing to grant that. Canada is going to extract some of its tar sands oil. How much it makes sense to extract at a given oil-price depends on transportation costs, which depends on infrastructure like Keystone XL. And alternative fuels are competitive enough to keep the price of oil from going to infinity.

An incident at UCLA has raised discussion about anti-semitism on campus. Anti-semitism in America is a tricky thing to measure and document, because American Jews tend to be above average in many kinds of achievement and representation. It also gets tied up with political opinions about Israel and America's support of Israel.
I've been mostly silent about anti-semitism not because I've decided it doesn't exist or doesn't matter, but because I don't have a good handle on it. I'm still thinking and reading, so maybe that will change.

A fifth-grade teacher in Chicago writes a letter of apology to her students before inflicting on them the latest round of standardized tests.
I do not agree that these tests will tell me what I really need to know about you as a learner or as a human being. I do not agree that these tests will make me a better teacher. I do not agree that these tests will improve our schools. I do not agree that you need to sit in front of a computer for over five hours in order for the government to find out what you know and what you can do. I do not agree that you should not have a choice in how you are able to show all of the things that you are capable of doing. I do not agree that in order for the state to know that I am doing my job that you have to suffer through tests that could quite possibly ruin much of the hard work that we have done together in building your confidence this year and in helping you to see yourselves as readers and writers. I do not agree with these tests.

and let's close with something amusing

I believe no dogs were harmed in the making of "12 Dogs Who Really Didn't Expect the Snow to Be This Deep".

Monday, March 2, 2015


We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.
-- Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address (1801)
There is not a liberal America and a conservative America -- there is the United States of America.

This week's featured post is "The Myth of Republican Governance". The big issues in this week's summary have all come up (and been discussed in detail) before, so I'm going to linking to a lot of previous Sift articles.

This week everybody was talking about funding Homeland Security

Late Friday night, Congress avoided a shutdown of the Homeland Security Department by passing a one-week continuing resolution. So we get to do the whole thing over again this week.

As in previous shutdown confrontations, the Senate passed a "clean" bill funding DHS for the rest of the fiscal year (through September), without attaching any riders rolling back President Obama's executive actions on immigration. The Senate bill almost undoubtedly would have passed in the House, ending the crisis, had Speaker Boehner allowed it to come to the floor. According to CNN, doing so might have sparked House conservatives to oust him as Speaker, but National Journal says no.

Conservative rhetoric says they are "defending the Constitution" by trying to reverse President Obama's "lawless" re-prioritization of immigration enforcement. In fact, the administration studied the legal limits of executive action and made a strong case that it was staying within them, as I outlined in November. The rhetoric is another example of what I described in "A Conservative-to-English Lexicon":
Like the Bible, [the Constitution] means whatever conservatives want it to mean, regardless of its actual text.
Conservatives jurisdiction-shopped to find a federal judge who agrees with them, so there is an injunction temporarily halting Obama's executive actions. Slate's Eric Posner gives it "little chance of withstanding appeal". If conservatives truly believed their rhetoric about constitutionality, they could let the conservative majority on the Supreme Court handle it.

and Net Neutrality

A little over a year ago, the headlines were saying that net neutrality was dead, killed by an appeals-court ruling. If you read the ruling, though, things still seemed up in the air. As I wrote at the time:
The gist of the court ruling is that the FCC has classified cable companies as information-services providers, but that its net-neutrality rules regulate them like telecommunications carriers. So the FCC’s net-neutrality rules can’t stand. But — and this is the observation that snatches victory from the jaws of defeat — it’s totally within the FCC’s current powers and mandate to just reclassify the cable companies. So net neutrality is dead. But if the FCC wants to revive it, all they have to do is issue new rules.
And that's what they just did: reclassified internet providers as utilities, like the telephone companies. Now, I don't want to minimize how courageous that was, given the amount of money and influence Verizon and Comcast have been throwing around. But it was always within the FCC's power.

So now we have net neutrality rules again, and the same court decision that threw out the old rules defends the new ones. The non-profit Mozilla Foundation celebrates "a major victory for the open web", and Ezra Klein explains what that means.

and the Keystone Pipeline

President Obama vetoed a bill that would have given the government's go-ahead to the Keystone Pipeline, but he did it on procedural grounds:
Through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest.
So don't get excited that Obama has finally taken a stand on the pipeline; he hasn't. He's just said it shouldn't be approved this way.

My position on the pipeline hasn't changed since I wrote "A Hotter Planet is in the Pipeline" two years ago: We can't burn all the fossil fuels without doing catastrophic damage to the climate, so some will have to stay in the ground. The tar sands whose product Keystone would transport are good candidates.

The case for Keystone revolves around the number of jobs it would create. Estimates vary, but the important thing to realize is that the vast majority would be temporary construction jobs that might last six months to a year, plus some other jobs for people providing services to those temporary workers (who would probably eat a lot of Big Macs before they moved on). Politifact assessed Van Jones' claim that the pipeline would provide only 35 permanent jobs, and judged it to be true. On the other hand, the risk of oil spills and groundwater contamination will be permanent, as well as the environmental damage from the carbon released.

The hardest thing to assess about projects like this are the net effects. For example, in the absence of a pipeline, probably less oil will be recovered from those fields to begin with. (The last oil produced from a field is typically the most expensive; whether it gets pumped out at all depends partly on transportation costs.) That's how the pipeline relates to leaving oil in the ground.

But the oil that is recovered will be transported some other way. Those other ways have their own environmental downsides, and their own employment upsides. The 35 long-term pipeline jobs might be outweighed by the lost railroad and trucking jobs, making the pipeline a net job destroyer. But it's also hard to guess how many train-car accidents a pipeline would prevent, and what their environmental impact would be.

In a sane world, you could imagine a deal that allowed everyone to save face: Keystone in exchange for environmental concessions elsewhere. Michael Bloomberg outlines one deal. May Boeve explains why it would be a bad deal. But neither has an answer for the "sane world" problem.

and Netanyahu's speech

It's happening today, maybe as you read this. Vox gives the background.

and Bill O'Reilly

Bill O'Reilly's defining characteristic is his lack of self-awareness. He stands in his yard and throws stones without ever noticing the glass house behind him.

So when NBC's news anchor Brian Williams got into trouble for telling tall tales about his past reporting experiences, O'Reilly pounced, misrepresenting Williams' exaggerations as being part of his live reporting, and implying that Williams was reporting falsely for ideological purposes:
When hard news people deceive their viewers and readers to advance a political agenda, that's when the nation gets hurt.
[To be fair, O'Reilly didn't make the Williams-is-a-lying-ideologue charge in so many words. He just segued directly from this abstract statement to the Williams scandal, as if the two had something to do with each other.]

Well, it turns out that O'Reilly also tells tall tales about his past reporting. The biggest exaggeration concerns a demonstration in Buenos Aires in 1982, when Argentines were upset by their government's surrender in the Falklands War. Nobody else considered the demonstrations that big a deal; fellow CBS reporter Eric Engberg described is as "the chummiest riot anyone had ever covered". But O'Reilly has described Buenos Aires as "a war zone", and often uses that mischaracterization to justify claiming that he has "been there" in combat.

His specific retrospective claims about that day -- that police fired live ammunition into the crowd and killed many people -- are contradicted by the news coverage at the time and by the accounts of everyone else who was there.

But of course O'Reilly is not going to admit -- or even recognize -- that he did anything wrong, or that he did precisely what he condemned Williams for doing. Instead, he claims that evidence supports him (when in fact it does no such thing), and that the issue is not his personal dishonesty, but an attack on all of Fox News because "Fox gives voice to conservatives and traditional people". That makes it an us-against-them issue, not a Bill-is-a-serial-liar issue, so it calls threats and intimidation against journalists who try to investigate.

And of course Fox News is going to stand by him rather than suspend him as NBC did Williams. Columbia Journalism Review draws the obvious conclusion:
Fox has made clear that it doesn’t see itself bound by the same rules of public accountability it calls on other news organizations to uphold.
And that, in turn, demonstrates an even more general principle: Moral standards are just lower on the Right. To give a second example: Eliot Spitzer's upward-trending political career ended within days after it came out that he had seen a prostitute. A similar scandal was just a blip for David Vitter, who continued in the Senate and was re-elected. And there is no liberal-media-star parallel to Rush Limbaugh's drug history.

Once the idea got broached that O'Reilly makes exaggerated claims, other examples have followed: hearing the gunshot when a JFK-assassination witness committed suicide, and seeing the execution-style murders of Salvadoran nuns.

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RIP, Leonard Nimoy. May your legacy live long and prosper. Also dead this week: Earl Lloyd, basketball's Jackie Robinson.

Thursday, Senator Inhofe (R-Exxon-Mobil) proved global warming is a myth by throwing a snowball while speaking to the Senate. Vox described it as "the dumbest thing that happened on the Senate floor today" and performed the thankless task of explaining rationally why Inhofe is wrong.

Sometimes these kinds of incidents make me mad, but this time I'm just embarrassed. This is the Senate of the United States of America. My country has put complete idiots in positions of power.

The American Family Association has created a "Bigotry Map" to identify "groups and organizations that openly display bigotry toward the Christian faith." The icons mark atheist groups, humanist groups, "anti-Christian" groups, and "Homosexual agenda" groups.
This is just a screen capture. The original is much fancier, allowing you to zoom in or out and click on icons to identify the groups closest to you. (I'm right between Lowell Atheists and GLSEN New Hampshire. AFA seem to have missed the Concord Area Humanists; I'm sure my friends on the steering committee will be miffed.) Friendly Atheist comments:
Not a single one of the atheist/Humanist/LGBT rights groups that I can see on the map have ever supported violent acts or taking away rights from Christians. They’ve always been on the side of tolerance and inclusivity. They want non-Christian beliefs to be treated by the government the same way Christianity is treated, with no group getting special privilege. This is how desperate right-wing groups are to show the fictional marginalization of Christians. They think criticism is the same as bigotry. They think neutrality is the enemy.
The map is also an example of privileged distress: As a group becomes less dominant and has less power to lord it over others, that slippage feels like persecution. I mean, imagine if the government starts to treat Jesus' birthday with the same respect it shows to, say, Buddha's or Krishna's. What's next? Death camps?

Evangelist Franklin Graham, Billy's son, says on Fox News that the White House (along with several unspecified European governments) has been "infiltrated by Muslims". But he can't name any.

Every year around this time, Pastor Kenneth Swanson's 2012 radio rant against buying Girl Scout cookies (because he claims the Scouts promote lesbianism) shows up in my Facebook news feed. This year, it got me wondering what Rev. Swanson has been up to lately.

On Feb. 20, he interviewed Rev. Marion Clark, whose new book The Problem of Good: when the world seems fine without God explores the disturbing conundrum that non-Christians aren't constantly doing evil, and may even be nice people.
SWANSON: There are a lot of unbelievers -- neighbors, co-workers -- they're nice. They're nice people. How do you explain that, Marion?
CLARK: Well, that was the question that really troubled me. And I'll say that the problem of good, which you're talking about, troubled me more than the problem of evil. Evil exists; it's out there. But what kept tripping me up were my nice neighbors, nice family members, people who -- I would hate to say it -- were nicer than I was. And yet they were unregenerate. And how could that be?
How indeed? It's like seeing the inverted image of Greg Epstein's Good Without God.

Gerrymandering explained:

Male privilege explained:
And a young man explains men's responsibility for preventing sexual assault

and let's close with something funny

Australian comic Jim Jefferies on gun control.