Monday, April 27, 2015

The Horror

Cruz, Paul and Rubio, all running for President. Hey, I thought I was supposed to write the horror stories.

-- Stephen King

This week's featured post is "The New Clinton Allegations: Fog or Smoke?"

No Sift next week

I've learned I don't have it in me to do a Sift on Monday if I've led a church service on Sunday. Next Sunday I'll be at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois (my hometown), talking about "Universalism, Politics, and Evil". The text of that talk will eventually show up on my religious blog, Free and Responsible Search.

This week everybody was talking about the environment

It was Earth Day, after all, which is a good time to consider how we're doing. It's a mixed bag. The disaster scenarios where the average global temperature goes up by 4 degrees or more are still out there. But -- in spite of just finishing the hottest March ever -- some observers are starting to see evidence of a turn-around.

The best news is the rapid growth of solar and wind energy. They still produce a tiny amount of the world's power or the United States' power, but the trend lines look really good. Coupled with the fact that electricity usage in the U.S. has been flat since the popping of the real estate bubble in 2008 -- a mixed blessing, because slow economic growth is part of that story -- we see charts like his one, in which the U.S.'s non-sustainable power production (in green) has been trending down. (Notice, though, that the vertical scale doesn't go to zero, so the percentage of solar and wind looks bigger than it actually is.)

TPM is in the middle of a five-part series about these trends, called "The Renewables". It calls attention to the fact that many of our worst carbon-producers -- coal-fired power plants -- are wearing out. The wind-and-solar uptick isn't Mitch McConnell's imaginary "war on coal", it's just the ordinary replacement cycle, where worn-out plants cycle off and the cheapest and most efficient sources are used for new production.

Informed Comment goes out on a speculative limb with this prediction:
future historians may look back on 2015 as the year that the renewable energy ascendancy began, the moment when the world started to move decisively away from its reliance on fossil fuels.

Climate Denial 2.0, as presented by Jeb Bush: Yes, we're causing global warming, but all we should do about it is keep fracking.

The essence of the position is that curbing carbon emissions involves wrecking the economy, which demonstrates a common fallacy about long-term externalities: If what we're doing is headed towards a long-term disaster, then it's not economical. If your economic calculations don't show that, then you've left something out. It's like saying you can't afford to change the oil in your car or fix the leak in your house's roof.

Just to give one example: Humanity has a lot invested in our coastal cities. As sea levels rise, we'll either have to move those cities or build expensive floodwalls around them (and deal with the costs of disasters that breach those walls, as happened in New Orleans). A truly accurate economic calculation would attach some of those costs to each unit of fossil fuel we burn. If we made those kinds of calculations, we might find that fossil fuels are a very expensive way to get energy.

Another example: the California drought. What if climate change ultimately makes large-scale agriculture infeasible in California, which currently has a bigger farming industry than any other state? What's the economic cost of that? Where does that figure in Bush's understanding of what is or isn't economical?

Still, the upside of Denial 2.0 is the recognition that flat-out denial -- the conspiracy of liberal scientists theory -- isn't working any more.

What's the "greenest" way to read a book, the one that puts the least pressure on the environment? Get it from the library, Grist says. Obviously, if you already have some device that lets you read e-books, downloading and reading additional books on it is greener than buying printed books. In terms of carbon footprint, the break-even point of a dedicated e-book reader vs. printed books that you keep in your personal library (rather than spread the environmental impact by passing them on to other people) is about 20-25 books.

The article leaves out an environmental advantage that I see in my life: The space I save by not storing all those books is one important factor that allows me to stay in an apartment within walking distance of the library. Otherwise I might need a house, with all the environmental costs that involves.

Public transportation has to be part of the conservation picture, but even in big cities there's a last-mile problem (or maybe a last-few-miles problem): How do you get to public transit, or to where you want to go from where public transit leaves you? With that in mind Slate's Seth Stevenson surveyed the current range of motorized devices that you might reasonably carry onto a crowded subway car. He finds a couple of foldable motorized scooters to be both fun and practical.

A little less practical -- because it's so hard to learn -- is the Solowheel, which a Grist reporter describes as what you'd get if "a unicycle had sex with a Segway". It may not be "the future of urban transportation", but it sure looks fun for the people who master it. You just have to see it.

and a trade deal

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a 12-nation trade agreement that doesn't exist in final form yet, though apparently there is a secret draft. So in spite of the headlines you might be seeing, nobody is being asked to ratify the agreement just yet.

The current issue is whether the Obama administration will get "fast track authority" for the final round of negotiations. This is something past presidents have had for trade agreements like NAFTA. It means that when the treaty is complete, the Senate will have a simple yes-or-no ratification vote and won't be able to demand changes. Multi-nation trade deals are almost impossible to negotiate if other nations don't believe we are agreeing to the final text, so not granting such authority virtually kills U.S. participation in the treaty.

Unlike most issues, this isn't a Democrat vs. Republican thing. Republicans like lowering tariff barriers, and aren't usually disturbed by the idea that our government might be signing away its ability to regulate multinational corporations. Instead, this battle is between President Obama and Democrats like Elizabeth Warren.

I like to agree with both of those people -- Warren somewhat more often than Obama -- and the issues involved are complicated, so I'm not going to take a side until I've done more research. To get the flavor of the dispute: here's Warren's WaPo op-ed from February, and President Obama's radio address promoting the TPP.

and drones

Thursday, President Obama acknowledged that a drone strike in January against an Al Qaeda compound near the Afghan-Pakistan border unintentionally killed two western hostages, one American and one Italian. In a separate strike, an American citizen believed to be working with Al Qaeda was killed. From the NYT:

Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and lead author of a 2013 study of drones, said the president’s statement “highlights what we’ve sort of known: that most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names.”

Mr. Zenko noted that with the new disclosures, a total of eight Americans have been killed in drone strikes. Of those, only one, the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who joined Al Qaeda in Yemen and was killed in 2011, was identified and deliberately targeted. The rest were killed in strikes aimed at other militants, or in so-called signature strikes based on indications that people on the ground were likely with Al Qaeda or allied militant groups.

The incident called attention to the intentional blindness the American public has maintained regarding warfare: As long as our troops aren't being killed in some country, we pretend we're not at war there. But a drone strike is an act of war. We're at war in Pakistan and Yemen and Syria and several other countries.

And I'm sure Obama's apology to the families of the two hostages has rankled people in those war-torn countries. How many innocent civilians have we killed with drones, but their families didn't get presidential apologies because they weren't Americans or Europeans?

and money in our presidential politics

The featured article "The New Clinton Allegations: Smoke or Fog?" focuses on the charges that there was some kind of corruption involving the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton's decisions as Secretary of State. But this is also a good time to take a look back at the "vast right-wing conspiracy" against Bill Clinton, which turned out to really exist.

We have a result in the Koch Primary: Scott Walker wins. Or at least that was the initial indication; apparently a recount is happening. And recent polls say that Marco Rubio is leading in the Adelson Primary., while other billionaires are backing Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum. If the billionaires can't find consensus soon, eventually the Republican Party might have to consult some voters.

Included in NRA President Wayne LaPierre's denunciation of Hillary Clinton was the line "Eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough." Because 43 consecutive white male presidents didn't symbolize anything. If in 2007 some black girl looked at a row of presidential portraits and saw 43 white men, she shouldn't have read anything into that at all.

That's privilege in a nutshell: When the privileged group runs things, that's just normal; it means nothing and is not worth talking about. So when President Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court, the headlines were all about the first female justice. But when President Ford appointed the previous justice (John Paul Stevens), nobody remarked on symbolic significance of the 101st consecutive male.

Over at the conservative Weekly Standard, Jay Cost is asking "So What About Money in Politics?" He spends the first half of the article establishing his conservative bona fides: trashing the Clintons, denouncing "identity politics", accusing liberals of hypocrisy, and making the ridiculous claim that "complaints about Citizens United itself are mostly a red herring". But ignore that part: It's ideological boilerplate, similar to the way that Soviet research articles all had to start with a paragraph about how this wonderful breakthrough would have been impossible without the genius of Marx, Lenin, and whoever the current leader happened to be.

Keep reading, because eventually Cost gets around to saying something important:
[Y]ou can’t beat something with nothing. Where is the anti-corruption agenda of the right? Where are the counterparts to the good-government organizations spearheaded by Ralph Nader? Other than the Center for Competitive Politics, helmed by former Federal Election Commission chairman Bradley Smith, and Take Back Our Republic, a new organization founded by those who helped Dave Brat take down Eric Cantor last year, one is hardpressed to think of conservative entities promoting a vision of good government. Conservatives have spent enormous intellectual capital on issues like education, health care, and taxes—but what about corruption? When Democratic pols rail against Citizens United, what reforms can Republicans counter with?

None. And if you want to know why, just look at the Republican presidential nomination process, where everyone is competing to curry favor with the Kochs, Sheldon Adelson, and a handful of other billionaires. This is how the perfectly legal corruption of our political system happens: not through quid-pro-quo deals (where you make a donation and then the Justice Department to drops your antitrust case or something), but through control of the agenda. You can't get elected without going to the billionaires, and you just can't tell them that they already have too much power, even if most voters agree with you.

and you also might be interested in ...

Fascinating article over at ThinkProgress about a poll Tresa Undem did for Vox about abortion. Polls typically ask people to choose among abstract legal question like: "Abortion should be legal in almost all cases; abortion should be legal in most cases; abortion should be illegal in most cases; or abortion should be illegal in all cases."

Undem split her sample in two, gave half the usual list of options, and gave the other half the same options rephrased in terms of women's rights: "Women should have a legal right to a safe and accessible abortion in almost all cases. ... Women should not have a legal right to any kind of abortion."

That simple change made a big difference in the results. The most pro-choice option went from 27% to 38%, while the most pro-life option went from 16% to 11%. The poll goes on to ask more detailed questions, phrasing them to draw the respondent into a woman's experience rather than picture himself/herself as an abstract rule-maker. The answers show large majorities (70% or so) consistently supporting the idea that once a woman has decided to have an abortion, she shouldn't be harassed about it or made to jump through unnecessary hoops.

Here's an example I found striking: "Would you want a woman who has had an abortion to feel shame, or not?" The responses split 67%-26% against shame. I'll bet if you wrote the woman out of the question -- "Is an abortion something to be ashamed of?" -- you'd get a different split.

Another interesting result from the same poll: Asking "Do you consider yourself a feminist or not?" gets a resounding No (52%-18%). But asking half the respondents "Do you believe in social, legal, and economic equality of the sexes?" gets a Yes (78%-6%), and asking the other half "Do you believe in equality for women?" garners even more approval (85%-3%).

So apparently more than half the population believes feminism means something else.

Also at Vox, this brilliant visualization of the gradual polarization of Congress. Maybe I'm biased, this doesn't look to me like a symmetric process; it looks like a red dot solidifies, pulls away from the mass, and then grows.

Sometimes I think I'm getting an exaggerated notion of the shear craziness that's out there, and then I read a direct quote like this one from former House majority leader Tom Delay:
I think we got off the track when we allowed our government to become a secular government. When we stopped realizing that God created this nation, that he wrote the Constitution, that it’s based on biblical principles.

I would love to know when Delay thinks "we allowed our government to become a secular government". In actual history, the Founders very intentionally created a secular government by writing the Constitution. The Constitution was virtually unique among the political documents of its day because it didn't invoke God.

It's hard to do a better takedown of Bobby Jindal's NYT op-ed "I'm Holding Firm Against Gay Marriage" than the Human Rights Campaign's red-pencil markup, which begins by editing the title to: "I'm Losing the Fight Against Marriage Equality".

A win in the struggle against monopoly: The Comcast merger with Time Warner Cable seems to be off.

Recent stories from Missouri point out that we still have a long way to go on race:
  • Tyrus Byrd will be Parma's first black mayor and first female mayor, after winning the election 122-84 in a town with 700 residents. Within a week, five of the town's six police officers had resigned, along with the city attorney, the clerk, and the manager of the water department.
  • A day after a memorial tree for Michael Brown was planted in a Ferguson park, it was cut down by vandals. (And later replaced.)

I'm not sure whether the vandalism counts as a hate crime under the law, but it certainly illustrates the concept of a hate crime: This was not just a crime against a tree or a park; it was an attempt to demoralize Ferguson's black community and to remind them of their inferior and vulnerable status. It deserves a more serious punishment than ordinary vandalism.

Amy Schumer's parody of Friday Night Lights connects some dots about the football culture and rape. As the coach says:
How do I get through to you boys that football isn’t about rape? It’s about violently dominating anyone that stands between you and what you want!

It's not what you do, it's who you are. Give classified information to unauthorized people, then lie to the FBI about it, and you'll go to jail. Unless you're a general, of course.

and let's close with something fun

like what toddlers are doing when you're not looking.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Caught In Between

Republicans think I’m too old to be president but not old enough for Social Security.

– a line suggested for Hillary Clinton

This week's featured posts are "Death, Taxes, and the American Dream" and "The 2016 Stump Speeches: Marco Rubio".

This week everybody was talking about Social Security

This week Chris Christie walked into one of the most dangerous gaps in politics: Among Republicans, it's common to raise the specter of Social Security or Medicare going bankrupt soon. That gets you high marks from the Commentariat for being realistic.

But saying what you want to do about that envisioned bankruptcy is another matter. Because once you accept that dogma that no tax can be raised under any circumstances, the only alternative is to make significant cuts in benefits. The more specific you get about those cuts, the less likely anyone is to applaud.

I haven't read Christie's plan, but U. S. News summarized it like this:
Christie proposed increasing the retirement age for Social Security to 69, beginning with gradual increases in 2022, as well as raising the early retirement age to 64 from 62, and changing the way cost-of-living increases are calculated for Social Security and other benefit programs, an adjustment that would mean smaller increases in the future.

He'd also increase the Medicare eligibility age gradually to 67 by 2040 — and turn Medicaid into a block grant program to the states, which Republicans have long proposed and critics say could mean reduced benefits over time. ... the New Jersey governor also proposed reducing Social Security benefits in the future for retirees earning more than $80,000 a year and eliminating them for those with annual incomes of $200,000 or more.

I have two snap reactions:
  1. There's a hidden class issue in raising the age limits. If you look at the population as a whole, people are living longer, so it makes sense to gradually raise the ages. But that increase in life expectancy is much smaller for the poor, and to keep working past 65 is much harder if you do manual labor than if you have a desk job.
  2. When you eliminate benefits for those who don't need them, you're implicitly turning Social Security and Medicare into welfare programs. The next step is for conservatives to start squeezing those programs the way they squeeze all welfare programs, making those who continue to benefit seem like losers and moochers.

Still, if this plan forces all the other candidates to get specific, that would raise the quality of discussion.

and more about 2016

This week my 2016 speeches series discusses Marco Rubio's announcement speech on Monday. I stayed serious in that article, so I didn't get around to mentioning this line from Monday's Conan O'Brien monologue:
A little fun fact: Marco Rubio's wife is a former Miami Dolphin cheerleader. In other words, she knows how to generate fake enthusiasm for someone who's not going to win.

I haven't included Hillary Clinton's announcement video in my 2016 Speeches series because there just isn't enough content there to talk about. It's well designed, and does a good job of identifying her with Americans who are working towards better things in their lives, but it doesn't try to answer the basic questions my series is focused on: "Where does America need to go and why am I the person to lead it there?" Presumably she'll develop a stump speech later on, and then I'll cover it.

Meanwhile, Hillary's poll numbers look great: She's beating Rubio by 14 points nationally, and every other potential Republican opponent by more. The CNN commentary on the poll shows just how far you have to go to spin something against Clinton.
One area where Clinton's numbers wilt: Only about half of Democratic men (49%) say they would be enthusiastic about having Clinton atop the Democratic ticket, compared with nearly two-thirds of Democratic women (65%).

Think about it: Half the people who are different from you in some key demographic describe themselves as enthusiastic about nominating you for president. And that's the bad news.

The basic problem all the Republicans face is that they're either unknown or unpopular. I believe that's because the Republican worldview is unpopular. Once the public understands what a Republican candidate wants to do, they don't like him.

I went to a Martin O'Malley event in Nashua (walking distance from my apartment) a couple weeks ago, but I haven't covered it either. He was speaking to a local Young Democrats meeting. (I do a really bad impersonation of a young Democrat.)

He sounded some basic progressive themes about the destruction of the middle class since the 1970s (i.e., before Reagan took office), and pointed to his own accomplishments as governor of Maryland, but the talk was short and lacked specifics. He didn't take questions. Like Hillary, he'll probably flesh out that speech later in the campaign (if he's really running).

Fun personal facts about O'Malley: He's a perform-in-public guitar player and led us in singing "This Land is Your Land". Also, O'Malley is often cited as the model for the Tommy Carcetti character on The Wire. (David Simon says not exactly, but admits O'Malley is one of several inspirations.)

Carcetti is a young white mayor of Baltimore whose ambition ultimately overcomes his idealism. No doubt O'Malley would reject that characterization of his two terms as mayor (1999-2007), which coincidentally overlapped the run of The Wire (2002-2008). Wikipedia says:
During his first mayoral campaign, O'Malley focused on a message of reducing crime. In his first year in office, O'Malley adopted a statistics-based tracking system called CitiStat

which does sound a lot like Carcetti. One persistent theme of The Wire is that statistics-based anything just tempts a bureaucracy to corrupt the data it reports. (When one police detective deduces where the bodies of dozens of missing mobsters must be hidden, his superiors don't want to look. "You're talking about raising the murder rate," one tells him.)

Wednesday, I was at Chris Christie's town hall meeting in Londonderry (about ten miles down the road). I may get around to describing that in detail in later weeks, but this week I'll just observe that Christie does an A+ town hall meeting.

A town hall meeting is like an oral exam on public policy, because the candidate can't predict what people are going to ask. It's a high-risk situation: If all you know are a few talking points, that quickly becomes obvious, and any mistake you make could be the lead story on the evening news.

But the upside is that if you do a town hall well, the hundreds of people in the room come away far more impressed than if you just gave a good speech. In the 2000 New Hampshire campaign, front-runner George W. Bush avoided town halls (probably because he would have made a fool of himself) while John McCain sometimes did four or five in a day, and was still sharp for the last one. McCain upset Bush in the primary by a wide margin.

Christie's Londonderry town hall was at a McCain level. (His opening remarks are on YouTube, but that's the least impressive part. I'm just out of the picture to the left.) He demonstrated a broad and deep understanding of the issues, even to someone like me who disagrees with his answers. He's nowhere in the polls right now, and I'm not saying he'll win New Hampshire. But I think he'll do better than the pundits are predicting.

and you also might be interested in ...

Every change is bad for somebody. As solar energy gets cheaper, that's good for the environment, good for homeowners and businesses, and good for the people who install solar panels.

Who's it bad for? Utilities. Not only do they sell less power to homes with solar panels, but many states force them to buy the excess power the homes generate on sunny days. They don't know how to predict the surges, and the transmission system wasn't built for that.

Don't get me started on upgrading the electrical grid. That was the project I wanted the Stimulus to focus on in 2009, and it's even more needed now. But instead we can watch utilities try to use their lobbyists to torpedo the growth of solar.

The NYT article I linked to mentions one small-scale solution: more expensive solar installations that include batteries, so that you can store your own power and don't rely on the grid buying it from you. One cool two-birds-with-one-stone idea is to repurpose the batteries from worn-out hybrid cars, which there should be more and more of in the coming years.

If you're wondering what happens in abstinence-based sex education, this Michigan mom (and medical ethics professor) sat in on her son's class. If anybody in the state legislatures are looking for wastes of tax money, abstinence programs are a place to start.

On the other hand, if you want your kid to get accurate, realistic information about sex and you live anywhere near a Unitarian church, ask if they'll let him/her into their OWL class. Increasingly, this is what we're coming to: you have to go to a liberal church to overcome the religion-based crap you learn in the public schools.

The North Carolina legislature is considering destroying two of the universities that define the Research Triangle by mandating a four-courses-a-semester teaching load on all professors at state universities. The head of UNC's history department told The Daily Tarheel: "There is no major research university in the U.S. that has a four-four teaching load. I think faculty would leave."Slate's Rebecca Shuman calls the bill: "a “solution' that could only be proposed by someone who either doesn’t know how research works or hates it."

Half a century ago, the ideal state university was a world-class institution where tuition was so low (zero at Berkeley until Reagan fixed that "problem") that any qualified student could afford to go there. Since then, states have been gradually getting out of the great-education-at-low-cost business, slashing their subsidies to the point that tuition at a top state university (not to mention fees and housing) can run more than $16K a year for in-state students and nearly as much as an elite private university for out-of-state students.

It only makes sense that the next step is to get rid of the idea of being a world-class institution. Why do people who can't afford Yale need a great education anyway? Why do they need professors on the cutting edge, or the chance to work on the frontiers of knowledge? Leave that for the rich kids.

While we're discussing ways to make the ruling class more hereditary than it already is, this week's other featured article is "Death, Taxes, and the American Dream". It's my response to the House's attempt to eliminate the estate tax, which already only applies to estates worth more than $5 million.

Here's how desperate the anti-marriage-equality folks are for a new argument:
A reduction in the opposite-sex marriage rate means an increase in the percentage of women who are unmarried and who, according to all available data, have much higher abortion rates than married women.

and let's close with something unexpected

Headis. It seems to be a thing in Germany.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Equality on Earth

It is easy to proclaim all souls equal in the sight of God. It is hard to make men equal on earth in the sight of men.
This week's featured post is "The 2016 Stump Speeches: Rand Paul".

This week everybody was talking about another police shooting

The initial report was very familiar: Sure, it was only a stop for a busted taillight, but the subject was a bad guy and he went for the policeman's weapon. The cop had no choice but to shoot him, and he died in spite of everything the cops did to save him.

Then it turned out that somebody had a video. (Huffington Post imagines the news report we'd be reading otherwise: another justified shooting.) The policeman was in no danger, and after calmly gunning down the fleeing Walter Scott ("like he was trying to kill a deer" as Scott's father put it), he makes no effort to revive him, but drops the taser Scott had supposedly grabbed next to the body.

So this time, it looks like justice is being done: the cop has been charged with murder. But doesn't it make you wonder about all the other times a white cop killed a black suspect and there wasn't a video? (In the last five years, police in South Carolina have fired at people 209 times, resulting in a handful of official charges and no convictions.)

ThinkProgress collects what the local police department said before they knew about the video: It's eerily similar to what the police have said in a lot of other shootings that ultimately were judged to be justified. The Week concludes: Without the video "he probably would have gotten away with it."
How many other cops have?


and 2016

After Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy on YouTube yesterday, it's hard to remember that Rand Paul just announced on Tuesday. But Paul is an interesting candidate that some liberals are tempted to support, given his strong positions on civil liberties. However, Paul also carries a lot of baggage. I try to collect the good and the bad as I annotate his announcement speech.

One thing I will point out about Hillary's video: Notice how deep into it you have to go before a straight white man shows up.

and the 150th anniversary of Appomattox

I've been pleased by how many historians have written anniversary articles agreeing with the point I laid out last summer in "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party": the Civil War didn't end at Appomattox; the planter aristocracy continued fighting a guerrilla war until the North finally withdrew its troops and let white supremacy resume. See, for example, Gregory Downs' NYT article "The Dangerous Myth of Appomattox".

Other articles have supported "Not a Tea Party's" other main point: that the right-wing surge we are seeing today is a continuation of the Confederate worldview. For example: "Why the Confederacy Lives" by Euan Hague in Politico. And WaPo's Harold Meyerson writes:
Today's Republican Party is not just far from being the party of Lincoln: It’s really the party of Jefferson Davis. It suppresses black voting; it opposes federal efforts to mitigate poverty; it objects to federal investment in infrastructure and education just as the antebellum South opposed internal improvements and rejected public education; it scorns compromise. It is nearly all white. It is the lineal descendant of Lee’s army, and the descendants of Grant’s have yet to subdue it.

In "Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party" I described the Confederacy as a worldview:
The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries. ... The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.
For a contemporary example of the Confederate mindset at work, listen to a recent interview with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson:
I really believe if what the Supreme Court is about to do [i.e. legalize same-sex marriage nationwide] is carried through with, and it looks like it will be, then we’re going to see a general collapse in the next decade or two. I just am convinced of that. So we need to do everything we can to try to hold it back and to preserve the institution of marriage.
Same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts for nearly a dozen years, and for almost a decade in Canada, with no visible evidence of any ill effects on society. You've got to wonder when Dobson and his ilk will start seeing facts and reality rather than their own apocalyptic nightmares. Probably never. If Dobson is still around twenty years from now, I imagine he'll have rolled his disaster prediction forward to "in the next century or two".

And what does "do everything we can" mean? Get violent, apparently.
Talk about a Civil War, we could have another one over this.
Because accepting social change is impossible. All forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified.

but I was reading two unrelated books

In the past I've reviewed the books Merchants of Doubt and Doubt Is Their Product, which describe the tactics by which corporations keep selling a product long after people start dropping dead from it. I found those to be very radicalizing books, but I doubt that many of my readers managed to finish either one. They're each a slog, and they're depressing.

Well, sometimes fiction can get ideas across more effectively than factual reporting (i.e., Uncle Tom's Cabin). Paolo Bacigalupi is a post-apocalyptic young-adult sci-fi writer, known for The Wind-Up Girl, Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities. (They're good.) His new novel The Doubt Factory is set in the present and covers a lot of the same ground as the factual doubt books, but does it with action and characters.

The main character of The Doubt Factory is a high-achieving senior at an exclusive prep school who knows her Dad runs a public relations firm, but has never paid much attention to the specifics. Then she is kidnapped by a skilled gang of teens who have been orphaned by products that her Dad helped keep on the market. They release her, believing they have turned her to their side. But have they?

The plot raises issues about how you know what's true and where your loyalties should lie. In the background are broader issues of privilege: How much should it bother you if your lifestyle depends on a corrupt system?

As a young-adult novel with political content, The Doubt Factory in a class with Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and Homeland, which center on surveillance and privacy. In order to follow the story, you need to learn some facts about product safety and the ways corporations manipulate science and the media. But the book is a page-turner; like Doctorow, Bacigalupi never sacrifices the integrity of the story for political polemic.

I finally got around to reading Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven Davis. It's a well-researched month-by-month political history of Dallas from January, 1960 to the day JFK was killed.

Not a Kennedy-assassination book per se, it's more about the rising tide of anti-Kennedy feeling in Dallas that culminates in the assassination. In some ways it resembles the movie Crash, where a swirl of loosely-connected tension seems fated to result in something bad, even if none of the characters can predict what it will be or who will do it. In the end (unless you buy one of the conspiracy theories) it was a left-winger who killed Kennedy, but afterward "Distraught women from all over Dallas are on the phones lines [to police headquarters]. Each one is sobbing, confessing to police that she is certain that it must have been her husband who shot the president."

The striking thing about Dallas during the Kennedy years is how closely it parallels America as a whole during the Obama years: Instead of Obama, there's Kennedy. He's not a "real American" because he's Catholic rather than black. Where Obama is supposed to be a secret Muslim who's betraying America with his Iranian nuclear deal, Kennedy is supposedly a secret Communist who is betraying America to the Soviet Union in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Instead of the billionaire Koch Brothers, 1963 has billionaire H. L. Hunt. Instead of ObamaCare, there's Medicare, which a Hunt-funded radio program says "would literally make the President of the United States a medical czar with potential life-or-death power over every man, woman, and child in the country." (It fails in the Senate by two votes; LBJ passes it after Kennedy's death.)

Rather than Louis Gohmert, Texas of 1963 has Congressman Bruce Alger, who says more-or-less the same things: "Kennedy is operating as chief executive without regard to the rule of law and is, indeed, substituting his own judgment and will for the exercise of the constitutional powers by the Congress and the people." And right-wing author Dan Smoot echoes: "Kennedy, by Executive Orders which bypass Congress, has already created a body of 'laws' to transform our Republic into a dictatorship."

There's even an imaginary secret-in-Kennedy's-past parallel to the Birther theory: a failed secret marriage before Jackie.

I come away with the impression that today's political controversies really have more to do with right-wing pathologies than with anything President Obama has done. The Right has projected its hate and fear onto Obama the same way it projected onto JFK half a century ago.

Let's hope Obama lives to tell the tale.

You'll never catch up: The Oyster Review has its list of the 100 best books of the decade so far. How many books do these people read? I've read just six of the 100; at this rate there are 16 more every year.

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Michael Brown's legacy: Voter turnout in Ferguson's municipal elections more than doubled, from 12% to 30%. The City Council is now half black.

Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas says President Obama is exaggerating when he says that scrapping the nuclear deal with Iran risks another Iraq War (only worse, because Iran is three times bigger). An attack against Iran's nuclear facilities would be simple.
It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox: several days’ air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior.
And then Iran will do what? This is the kind of logic we often hear from fans of military action: We'll hit them, and then that will be the end of it. Cotton is like the guy who has no intention of starting a bar fight, he just wants to punch that other guy in the nose.

Imagine instead that Iran surveys the world, picks out an American vulnerability somewhere, and hits back hard. Won't Cotton be the first to say that we can't let this stand and have to hit back harder yet? How many rounds of attack-and-retaliation will have to happen before he decides that only boots-on-the-ground regime change will end this threat?

A tangential thought about the CNN reporter who interviewed rural Georgia florists about whether they'd sell flowers for a same-sex wedding: There's a class issue the reporter doesn't see. When you ask professional-class people an abstract question, they usually picture themselves being nicer than they actually are. But working-class people generally imagine they'd be more rule-abiding.

So the florists say they'd have nothing to do with a same-sex wedding, because that's the set of rules they were brought up with. If an actual same-sex couple came through the door, though, things might turn out differently. "Normally I'm against this kind of thing, but you seem like nice folks."

Thursday, a Unitarian Universalist woman led a pagan prayer to open a session of the Iowa legislature. Some Christian legislators boycotted, while others turned their back on her.

The invocation is given in full at the Progressive Secular Humanist blog; it's pretty benign other than calling on "god, goddess, universe, that which is greater than ourselves" rather than just the Christian God.

Don't be fooled by the Religious Right types who say they just want government to respect religion. They have no respect for anybody else's religion. They want their religion to dominate.

If you've been curious about the Apple Watch, The Verge has it covered.

WaPo's Dana Milbank collects a number of recent red-state efforts "to dehumanize and even criminalize the poor". Kansas, for example, has specifically banned the poor from using their benefits on cruise ships. Because, I guess, that was a common problem, and it wasn't already covered by bans against using benefits out of state.

and let's close with Mary Poppins

or at least, with Kristen Bell's version of Mary campaigning for a higher minimum wage.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sincere Beliefs

I have no doubt that Christian conservatives do feel limited by other people’s rights. There is that saying, “Your rights end where my nose begins.” Christian conservatives are arguing that they should be able to punch you in the nose if that desire to punch you in the nose is sincerely held.
This week's featured posts are "The 2016 Stump Speeches: Introducing the Series", "The 2016 Stump Speeches: Ted Cruz", and "Religious Freedom: Colorado's sensible middle way".

This week everybody was still talking about "religious freedom"

Indiana passed a "clarification" of last week's "religious freedom" law:
The fix provides that Indiana’s RFRA does not authorize businesses “to refuse to offer or provide services, facilities, use of public accommodation, goods, employment, or housing to any member or members of the general public” on the basis of a list of protected traits that includes “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” Another provision provides that the state’s RFRA law does not “establish a defense to a civil action or criminal prosecution” brought against someone who engages in such discrimination.
So it rolls back the worst of the new law, but in no case does it do any more than restore the status quo. Arkansas likewise watered down the RFRA it passed last week, though I'm not clear on the details.

I started to do a short explanation of how I think First Amendment rights should balance against gay rights, but it got out of hand so I turned it into its own article.

Bigotry can be profitable! That Indiana pizza shop has collected over $800K in donations, while the Oregon florist that was fined $1K has gotten $85K to help pay it.

CNN's conversation with several florists in rural Georgia implicitly pointed out one of the holes in conservative Christian theology: They treat homosexuality as a more serious sin than just about anything else, when there's no Biblical justification for doing so. There are a handful of verses in the Bible against homosexuality, but the idea that it's worse than other common sins -- premarital sex, say -- is not Biblical.

and a nuclear deal with Iran

Or at least the framework of a deal that both sides are committed to finishing by the end of June.
Salon's Jim Newell suggests that any politician who wants to renounce the deal be asked what they'd do next. He lists the realistic options he sees:
(1) sitting around and hoping that some magical unicorns swoop into Iran, topple its regime, and put in place a United States puppet government or (2) bombing Iran.
Rachel Maddow did a good job of summarizing the technical details involved, and why they matter.
Steve Benen discusses the plans in Congress to sabotage the deal.

and a massacre in Kenya

The al-Shabab terrorist group killed 148 people in an attack on a university.

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Thursday will be the 150th anniversary of Lee's surrender, which effectively ended the Civil War. Brian Beutler makes a modest proposal, which I endorse:
to mark the occasion, the federal government should make two modest changes: It should make April 9 a federal holiday; and it should commit to disavowing or renaming monuments to the Confederacy, and its leaders, that receive direct federal support.

The Bob Menendez corruption case demonstrates the kind of corruption that Justice Kennedy didn't think would be an issue.

Who're the oldest "people" in the United States? Corporate people. The oldest ones just turned 129.

11 Atlanta educators were convicted in a plot to raise test scores through cheating. 178 teachers and principals were involved, and 35 were indicted, with most negotiating guilty pleas to lesser charges.
This case exposes an important flaw in the high-stakes-testing approach to education, in which the futures of everyone from students and teachers to mayors and governors ride on test scores. Literally everyone in the system has a motive to cheat, and no one has a motive to catch cheaters. According to the NYT:
Evidence of systemic cheating has emerged in as many as a dozen places across the country, and protests in Chicago, New York City, Seattle, across Texas and elsewhere represent a growing backlash among educators and parents against high-stakes testing.
So if you're going to do testing right, you need an independent testing bureaucracy, with its own employees and budget. And once you figure in the cost of that, I think the whole scheme might become impractical.

Here's another Indiana law that should give people pause: After taking drugs to induce a miscarriage, a woman was convicted of "feticide" and sentenced to 20 years.

While we're all waiting to see if the Supreme Court monkey-wrenches ObamaCare, it just did some serious damage to Medicaid.

and let's close with a taste of things to come

Comedy Central has announced Jon Stewart's successor as host of The Daily Show: South African comic Trevor Noah. In spite of some early problems, this could be good.