Strangers

You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:34

This week’s featured post is “One-and-a-Half Cheers for Executive Action”.

This week everybody was talking about President Obama’s immigration move

The weirdest immigration conversation you’re going to hear was on Kris Kobach’s radio show. A caller suggested that when Hispanics become the majority in parts of America, they might do an ethnic cleansing on the whites. And Kobach took it seriously:

What protects us in America from any kind of ethnic cleansing is the rule of law, of course. And the rule of law used to be unassailable, used to be taken for granted in America. And now, of course, we have a president who disregards the law when it suits his interests. So, while I normally would answer that by saying, ‘Steve, of course we have the rule of law, that could never happen in America,’ I wonder what could happen. I still don’t think it’s going to happen in America, but I have to admit, things are strange and they are happening.

I wonder when Kobach thought the rule of law in America was “unassailable”. For non-whites, the rule of law has always been shaky and still is, as the families of Michael Brown and John Crawford can tell you.

Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post for some reason thinks that portraying Obama as the Statue of Liberty is an attack.

Senator Tom Coburn warned, “you could see instances of anarchy. … You could see violence.” It’s funny: When right-wingers don’t get what they want, any subsequent violence is the fault of the people who didn’t give them what they want. The same principle does not apply in, say, Ferguson.

Here’s what’s most dangerous about the Republicans’ over-the-top wolf-crying about “disregarding the law” and so forth: What if the next president actually does disregard the law and start making decrees? If rhetoric has already been turned up to 11 over something like this, any objections then will just sound like more rhetoric.


TPM elaborates on a point I’ve been making here: “No, Your Ancestors Didn’t Come Here Legally“.

Prior to 1875’s Page Act and 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act, there were no national immigration laws. None.

My ancestors came to America anarchically, or pre-legally. But no, they didn’t follow the law, because there was no law.

and Bill Cosby

I’ve mostly ignored the Bill Cosby controversy, because fundamentally it’s a celebrity story. Rape is wrong; rapists should be punished; and the fact that the accusations are about Bill Cosby doesn’t interest me that much. AlterNet’s Amanda Marcotte, though, raised a question that does interest me: Similar accusations from a number of women have been out there for years, so why is the story only getting traction now?

Her theory, which I would like to believe, is that society is losing its acceptance of the kind of rape Cosby is accused of: acquaintance rape via drugs rather than violence.

A major obstacle in changing attitudes about rape is there are literally decades of cultural endorsement of the idea that sex is a matter of a man getting one over on a woman, and therefore it’s okay to have sex with unwilling women using trickery, bullying or intoxicants. … But now another conversation is happening: People are beginning to key into the fact that it’s not normal to want sex with someone who is laying there like a dead fish, crying, or otherwise giving in because she fears she isn’t getting out of this situation safely otherwise. In fact, that behavior is not funny or cool, but sad at best, and usually downright violent and predatory. A man who bullies an unwilling woman into bed isn’t “scoring” but a real creep.

There’s more to her argument, and it’s well worth your time.

Another Cosby story I found worthwhile was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ account of why he, as a journalist, wrote a story about Cosby years ago without mentioning the rape accusations, even though he believed them.

I don’t have many writing regrets. But this is one of them. I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away.

and snow

The southern edge of Buffalo got an incredible six feet of snow in one storm. This time-lapse video taken from a downtown office building shows the amazing quality of lake-effect snow: There is a wall of snow on one side of an apparently arbitrary line, and little-to-no snow on the other side.

The photos are ridiculous, like this one:

Don’t go out there.

and you also might be interested in …

Another Benghazi report clears the administration of wrong-doing. This one comes from the House Intelligence Committee, which has a Republican majority. Will this finally be the end of it? Lindsey Graham says no.


A meaty article from 2012 that a friend pointed out to me this week. Thinking of social class in America as a ladder creates some illusions, because not everybody is climbing the same ladder. Michael O. Church describes three separate social ladders, and the relationships between them.


Australian TV-morning-news anchor Karl Stefanovic got sick of all the criticism his female co-anchor got for her appearance, so he ran an experiment: Every day for a year, he did the show wearing the same suit, changing only his shirt and tie. No viewers complained or even appeared to notice. He says:

I’m judged on my interviews, my appalling sense of humor — on how I do my job, basically. Whereas women are quite often judged on what they’re wearing or how their hair is.


I’ll bet a Kindle wouldn’t do this: After Thursday’s shooting incident at Florida State, a student found a bullet in his backpack, in the middle of some books he’d just checked out of the library.


Sunday Cleveland police shot dead a 12-year-old who had an air gun. Needless to say, the kid was black.

and let’s close with something cute

As video cameras got smaller, at some point a squirrel was bound to steal one and run up a tree with it.

One-and-a-Half Cheers for Executive Action

When democracy is failing, somebody still has to solve problems.


Imagine that something in your house’s infrastructure is broken: a pipe is leaking, an electric circuit is shorting out — something like that. There’s a guy in town who deals with such problems, but he isn’t coming. Maybe he’s too busy, maybe he doesn’t like you … whatever, he’s just not coming. You know enough to throw together a temporary fix, something that will keep the water damage from spreading or the house from catching fire, but it won’t be the right way to fix the problem and it certainly won’t be up to code.

Worse, given how things have been working around town lately, you don’t know that it will ever be up to code. You could imagine that the professional will be along to fix things the right way next week or in a few weeks, but what’s more likely is that your kludgy fix will lead to another “temporary” kludge the next time something goes wrong, and little by little your whole house will diverge from the standard practices that make houses liveable. Anybody who tries to fix anything in the future will have to know not just plumbing or electrical systems, but the specific lore of your house and the strange things that have been done to it through the years.

Knowing all this, how do you feel about your kludge? Good, sort of. You’re keeping things from falling down or burning up. But you also know you’re taking one more step down a path you don’t really want to follow.

That’s pretty close how I feel about the executive action on immigration that President Obama announced Thursday night. In the short run, I love it. If we can bring four million people out of the shadows, so that they will no longer be exceptions to the systems that keep society working properly, that will be a huge positive for all of us. But it also continues the pattern I described last year in “Countdown to Augustus“, where partisan conflict causes a tit-for-tat series of moves that are all technically legal, but which erode the social and moral norms that the republic is based on. Eventually democracy becomes so dysfunctional that the people cheer when a man on horseback sweeps it all away.

There’s a lot to unpack there, so let’s start by reviewing the immigration problem.

The shadow population. Nobody is really happy about how our immigration system has been working. I can’t think of a single major political figure who will defend it, who will stand up in public and say, “We shouldn’t change anything. Everything is just fine the way it is.”

The government estimates that 11.3 million people live in the United States without proper documentation. Most are Hispanic and more arrive all the time. The total has stayed fairly steady — and maybe even gone down a little — since the Great Recession. But that’s not a stable situation. Eventually there will be some crisis in Mexico at a time when our economy is doing well, and the in-flow will resume.

In the aggregate, these immigrants are probably good for our economy. (You can tell the story in such a way that people working difficult jobs for low wages victimize the rest of us, but that seems like a stretch to me.) It’s possible that native-born unskilled workers are hurt by the competition for jobs. But even here, it’s the shadowy nature of undocumented workers that is the real threat. An employer might prefer an undocumented worker because s/he can’t complain about abuse, unsafe working conditions, or wage theft. Pulling that worker out of the shadows makes the competition with native-born workers more fair.

The biggest problem the undocumented cause is not anything they do as individuals, but that their need to stay in the shadows gums up systems that depend on people coming forward. We have been lucky so far, but imagine if an epidemic of bird flu or drug-resistant tuberculosis got loose in the shadow population, and they not only didn’t show up at hospitals, but kept trying to work (in restaurant kitchens and as janitors and nannies) because no one gives sick days to undocumented workers. The undocumented are also unlikely to report crimes they see, either at the workplace or in their neighborhoods, for fear of being questioned about their status. And the existence of a shadow population provides a natural hiding place for the small number of border-crossers we really should be afraid of, like terrorists or drug-smugglers.

We can’t secure the border. “Secure the border” is a slogan like “end poverty” or “world peace”. It expresses an aspiration that cannot be achieved by any country resembling the current United States.

Ignore the Mexican border for a moment and just consider our Canadian border. Most of it is in remote areas that are not marked by any natural obstruction. (The green areas on the map are the places where there is no water barrier.) In the wilds of Montana or Maine or Alaska, crossing the border is just a walk in the woods; you might have to hop a fence, or you might not even know you’ve crossed. The idea that we’re going to surround our country with five thousand miles of Berlin-Wall-style fortifications is ludicrous.

People can walk into the United States. That’s not going to change anytime soon, no matter who’s president or what laws we pass.

If you don’t want to walk, come as a tourist or student and just stay; that’s how about half the undocumented got here. Are we really going to follow every visitor to Disney World or the Grand Canyon to make sure they go home? The old East German Stasi might have been up to a job like that, but no police system we want to have in America could do it.

Ditto for tracking down and arresting all 11.3 million of our current undocumented residents. A police force capable of that … what else could it do? I don’t think we want to find out, but I would love to hear the conspiracy theories if President Obama proposed a realistic — fully staffed, fully funded — plan to secure the borders and deport the undocumented. Police state! Tyranny!

So we’re not solving this problem by enforcement alone.

The irresponsibility of Congress. In my leaky-pipe metaphor, the professional-who-won’t-come is Congress. President Bush pushed Congress to do something, but it wouldn’t. Under President Obama, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform plan, but the House has done nothing. I mean, literally nothing: It didn’t vote on the Senate’s bill, it didn’t pass an alternative, nothing.

Which would be dandy if the House leadership’s position was that our immigration system is A-OK and nothing needs to be done. If you think nothing is the right solution, then fine, do nothing. (That, for example, is how the global-warming debate is going. Congressional Republicans think no action is needed, so they block any attempt at action. They’re wrong, but at least their position is internally consistent.)

But if you are an official branch of government and you think the country has a serious problem, then you have a moral obligation to work on a solution. The House has totally failed to meet that obligation. House Republicans would rather have the impossible “secure the border” slogan to run on than take responsibility for any constructive action.

So there’s President Obama, watching his pipes leak and knowing that the plumber isn’t coming. So he does something. It’s a kludge. It is meant to be temporary, but might have to hold up for a long time. How should we feel about that?

What the order does and doesn’t do. President Obama’s executive order does not grant anyone legal status under our immigration laws. No one becomes a citizen or permanent legal resident. People who would have been near the bottom of the deportation list anyway — mainly parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents who have been here four years or more, but also a smaller class of students and other people with economically valuable skills — are invited to come forward and apply for a temporary deferral of deportation. If that request is granted, they will then have legal permission to work in the United States while their deportation is deferred.

The administration estimates that about four million people could qualify.

Is it legal? Last week, before the policy was announced, The Wall Street Journal challenged President Obama to produce “the missing memo“, the opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel on whether he had the power to do this — implying that he might be so lawless that he had not even asked for a legal analysis. And much has been made of a 2011 townhall meeting President Obama had with Hispanic students, in which he seemed to admit that such an action would be illegal:

With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive order, that’s just not the case.

The OLC memo was released before Obama’s speech, and it makes refreshing reading (for those of us who read such things). Moreover, it supports both Obama’s executive order and his townhall statement.

Before I get into the details, I’d like to recall the kinds of memos the OLC was writing during the Bush administration: ones explaining how the President could unilaterally nullify the Convention Against Torture, or why the President had the power to declare American citizens to be “enemy combatants” and lock them up indefinitely without charges or trials. One standard feature of those memos was that they were open-ended: They explained why the President could do what he wanted now, but never described the limitations he might run into if he wanted to do more later. In one, for example, the OLC’s John Yoo wrote:

Article II, Section I makes this clear by stating that the “executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” That sweeping grant vests in the President the “executive power” and contrasts with the specific enumeration of the powers — those “herein”– granted to Congress in Article I.

In other words, Bush’s OLC believed the President’s constitutional powers were “sweeping”, while Congress’ powers were limited to the ones specifically enumerated.

By contrast, the Obama OLC’s immigration memo lays out the principles limiting the President’s power, and says that some of what had been suggested is legal and some isn’t. (The part that isn’t — deferring deportation of parents of the “Dreamers” who were the subject of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order of 2012 — had been rumored to be part of this executive order, but was left out — possibly because the OLC determined it was beyond the President’s power.)

Quoting numerous Supreme Court decisions, the memo lays out four principles that limit the kind of executive action that had been proposed:

  1. “enforcement decisions should reflect ‘factors which are peculiarly within [the enforcing agency’s] expertise’.”
  2. “the Executive cannot, under the guise of exercising enforcement discretion, attempt to effectively rewrite the laws to match its policy preferences. … In other words, an agency’s enforcement decisions should be consonant with, rather than contrary to, the congressional policy underlying the statutes the agency is charged with administering.”
  3. “the Executive Branch ordinarily cannot, as the Court put it in Chaney, ‘consciously and expressly adopt a general policy that is so extreme as to amount to an abdication of its statutory responsibilities’.”
  4. “a general policy of non-enforcement that forecloses the exercise of case-by-case discretion poses ‘special risks’ that the agency has exceeded the bounds of its enforcement discretion.”

If, for example, the President were to simply stop deporting people — “just suspend deportations through executive order”, as he put it in 2011 — he would violate Principle 3. The law says to deport people, so the President can’t just say no. But Congress has not provided the resources to deport everyone who is in the country illegally.

DHS has informed us that there are approximately 11.3 million undocumented aliens in the country, but that Congress has appropriated sufficient resources for ICE to remove fewer than 400,000 aliens each year, a significant percentage of whom are typically encountered at or near the border rather than in the interior of the country.

As a result, the executive branch has to prioritize which 400,000 undocumented immigrants it wants to go after each year. Its prioritization can’t be arbitrary, and can’t rely “on factors which Congress had not intended it to consider”. Past Congressional action has emphasized deporting terrorists and other violent criminals, so there’s no problem putting them at the top of the deportation list. Deferring deportation for “humanitarian” reasons has also been recognized by Congress, and keeping families together has been recognized as humanitarian. Also, there is a long history (recognized by Congress) of deferring deportation of people who are in the middle of a lengthy process that might eventually grant them legal status.

Unless they are dangerous criminals, parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents fit all these criteria. And the executive branch will continue deporting people at the rate its resources allow, giving temporary deferrals — revocable on a case-by-case basis — to low-priority enforcement targets.

But OLC doesn’t find that the same humanitarian concerns apply to parents of the beneficiaries of DACA.

Many provisions of the INA reflect Congress’s general concern with not separating individuals who are legally entitled to live in the United States from their immediate family members. … But the immigration laws do not express comparable concern for uniting persons who lack lawful status (or prospective lawful status) in the United States with their families.

The DACA executive order did not (and could not) give the Dreamers legal standing to petition for the admission of their parents, as citizens and legal residents can. So there is no basis for deferring the parents’ deportation while we wait to see what happens to that petition.

Is this a bad precedent? Vox considered the question: “What could a Republican president do with Obama’s executive power theories?” Their answer is: not much that Bush wasn’t already doing.

Various ideas have been floated for what the executive orders of a Republican president might do through selective enforcement: change the tax laws, give polluters carte blanche to violate the Clean Air Act, waive all the requirements of ObamaCare, etc.

The problem in most of the cases is that debts and penalties accumulate rather than evaporate. Maybe President Perry wouldn’t prosecute you for failing to pay more than whatever flat-tax number he had in mind, but your debt to the IRS would keep accumulating until some future president made you pay, plus interest and penalties. So taking advantage of the offer would not be a prudent move.

In general, I’m not afraid of what a Republican administration might do if it sticks to the four limiting principles the OLC laid out. So the problem is more political than legal: To the extent that Republicans convince the country that Obama is doing something illegal, the next president will have rhetorical justification for doing illegal things too.

That is in fact the longer-term pattern: When conservatives falsely accuse liberals of something, they’re usually laying the groundwork for really doing something similar themselves later on. For example, liberal Supreme Courts were accused of “making up rights” for women and minorities; so when conservatives took over the Court, they felt justified in making up rights for corporations.

Now they’re telling us that the Democratic president is writing his own laws. Whether that is true in some literal legal sense or not — and I don’t believe it is — in their own minds the groundwork is being laid for future Republican decrees.

What to do? The frustrating thing about the pattern laid out in “Countdown to Augustus” is that there’s never a good place to make a stand against it. The encroachments are usually in the realm of norms rather than laws. Typically, you see a disaster looming or an injustice happening, but your opponents have taken some legal-but-unprecedented action to block the usual way the Republic would take action against it. You have the legal power to act anyway, but in a way that just isn’t done. If you act, your opponents feel themselves put in a similar situation, and they then look for further norms they can break to regain the upper hand. Eventually, people are finding loopholes in the laws against murder and treason.

But do you let your opponents gain advantage by breaking norms, without responding? Do you let the injustices continue or the disasters strike, just to preserve a norm of political behavior that the other side won’t respect anyway?

President Obama has patched a pipe in a kludgy way. In an ideal world, it would only have to hold until the plumber can get here. But the plumber’s not coming. So I’m glad the patch is there. But I’m not happy.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Maybe the most depressing post in Weekly Sift history is “Countdown to Augustus“. It extrapolated from the then-current legal back-and-forth between the President and the Senate about recess appointments and the possibility of nullifying laws by refusing to confirm anyone to enforce them, to the more general problem of the erosion of the political norms that a republic depends on to function.

Oversimplifying a little for brevity: Partisan gridlock creates a dysfunctional republic. Leaders then can’t solve problems without cutting corners, but in the long run the corner-cutting increases the dysfunctionality. The bad example to avoid is Rome, where a century of gridlock between the self-serving patricians of the Senate and a series of populist reformers from Marius to Caesar eroded the norms of republican government to the point that Augustus was able to sweep it all away.

Like I just said, it was depressing. And it’s topical again, because of the recently announced immigration reform by executive order.

Obama was in the typical Roman-populist-leader situation of either watching a problem fester (and convincing the electorate that politics is useless), or doing something that is legal but against the usual norms. So he did something. And I’m happy he did rather than leave the problem festering, but I also see the longer-term erosion continuing.

So I’ve written another depressing post: “One-and-a-Half Cheers for Executive Action”. No doubt you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

It should appear shortly. Later this morning, the weekly summary will discuss the reaction to Obama’s reform, Bill Cosby, the Buffalo snow, and a variety of other things.

So Much That Ain’t So

It is better to know less than to know so much that ain’t so. Josh Billings
(ironically, the line is usually attributed to Will Rogers or Mark Twain)

This week’s featured post is “Rethinking Immigration“.

This week the audacity of hope was back

With his administration’s final election behind him, President Obama has started acting like he’s President of the United States or something. I’m picturing him like the high school girl who finally gives up on getting asked to the big dance, and goes back to acing her tests, running cross country, working on her novel, and just generally being her amazing self again.

I guess we’ll never know whether a Democratic Party centered on this Obama would have done better in the midterm elections. Anyway, here’s what he’s been up to.

Net neutrality. It started Monday with his net neutrality statement. He called on the FCC to implement net neutrality rules that preserved four principles: no blocking (if a web site is legal, an ISP can’t keep you from accessing it), no throttling (an ISP can’t intentionally slow down some sites and speed up others), increased transparency (monitoring what happens to internet traffic up and down the line, rather than just at the “last mile”), and no paid prioritization (a web site or internet service can’t pay a fee to have its content delivered faster).

What this comes down to is a debate over what kind of economy we want to have and how we want people to make money: Do you get rich by creating innovative new products that people want, or by getting control of a choke-point where you can charge a big toll? (I described that choice here two years ago.) Comcast and Verizon are building a big toll gate that will prosper at the expense of whoever is creating the next FaceBook or NetFlix. Net neutrality is about preventing that.

In order to have the legal authority to implement these net neutrality principles, the FCC needs to re-classify ISPs as providing a telecommunications service rather than an information service. Courts have already said the FCC can do that (as I explained here).

The FCC is an independent agency that can do what it wants. So Obama’s statement is a bully-pulpit thing, not a unitary-executive thing. But net neutrality is a struggle between organized people and organized money. If it happens in the dark, Comcast/Verizon money will certainly win. So the spotlight Obama is shining on the issue might make a big difference.

Funny or Die has the cleverest approach to this issue: “Porn Stars Explain Net Neutrality“. Whether it’s safe for work or not depends on where you work.

Carbon and China. Until Wednesday, the final argument of the do-nothing-about-global-warming crowd was: “Even if we cut our carbon emissions, it won’t make any difference because China won’t.” On Wednesday night’s All In, Chris Hayes collected video clips of congressional Republicans making that argument.

That framing makes climate change fit the barbarians-at-the-gates story I described last week: Environmentalists want to handicap the United States in its economic death-struggle against the Yellow Peril. It never made sense, though, because China has an internal motivation to get its emissions under control: Its major cities are choking on their own coal dust. According to the Boston Globe:

China now holds two seemingly contradictory titles: It creates the most greenhouse gas pollution of any country, and it has developed more renewable energy than any country.

It is the largest producer of wind turbines, followed by the United States and Germany. It produces the most photovoltaic solar panels. It has shut down inefficient old manufacturing plants. And the agreement it announced Wednesday follows other ambitious — and largely successful — long-range planning goals to cut carbon.

But Wednesday, the U.S. and China agreed on mutual goals for carbon-emission reduction. Vox gives more context, and Grist outlines the pressure the U.S./China agreement puts on India.

Next up: Immigration and Impeachment. Speculation is always more fun than reporting on something real, and you never have to issue an embarrassing correction when your speculation turns out to be wrong. (Just move on and speculate about the next thing.) So most of the media jumped ahead to the immigration executive order Obama hasn’t issued yet, and how Republicans will respond to it. They speculate that the order will be bigger than most people expected, and that the Republicans will respond by either shutting down the government or starting impeachment proceedings.

This should all sound familiar. Two years ago, when Obama was about to issue an executive order about guns, right-wingers panicked that he was going to order an unconstitutional confiscation and threatened to impeach him when he did. His actual order was well within his powers and the Republican response was minimal. So let’s wait until he does something before we get excited.


Among people upset about Obama’s possible immigration moves, National Review‘s Mark Krikorian takes it to a whole other level:

With all due respect to Andy McCarthy, impeachment is out of the question; there is almost nothing the first black president could do that would lead to his impeachment. Yes, it’s a double standard, but Obama was only nominated and elected because of his race, so his de facto immunity from impeachment should not come as a  surprise.

Because when white presidents like Ronald Reagan did the exact same thing, they were impeached immediately. Weren’t they?

This is how the racial thing has played out all through the Obama administration. The Right doesn’t hate him because he’s black; they hate him because everything he does seems unique and horrible to them. And it seems that way because he’s black.

Meanwhile, everybody was talking about a comet

The European Space Agency landed an unmanned probe on a comet, which had never been done before. (Remember when we used to lead the world in stuff like that?) Unfortunately, the solar-powered probe landed in a shady spot, so its battery is dead now (though it may get enough occasional light to perk up later). Sky and Telescope gives full geeky details, and Vox explains why the mission is already a huge success.

and Democrats were talking about fixing the Party

Here’s one plan:

But I’m going in a different direction. Last week’s “Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.” was the kick-off to a long, vague project that will proceed at no particular pace: What story of America should Democrats be telling?

The reason it will proceed at no particular pace is that I want the historical parts of the story to be true, and its projections into the future to be based on the way the world actually works. If the problem were just to make up some bullshit that might fool some low-information voters into voting Democratic, I could probably do that now, and so could a lot of other people.

So this week’s “Rethinking Immigration“, which reviews Aviva Chomsky’s Undocumented, is part of the background for that project. We need to understand how things really are before we start trying to explain them to the public.

Meanwhile, other people have been outlining the biggest problem that needs to be addressed: Why doesn’t rising productivity lead to higher wages, like it used to? (That’s a root cause of the pervasive middle-class anxiety I described last week.) Josh Marshall posted this graph:

and commented:

[A] stark reality: Democrats don’t have a set of policies to turn around this trend. Republicans don’t either, of course. But they don’t need to. Not in the same way. As a party they are basically indifferent to middle class wages. … But you cannot make middle class wage growth and wealth inequality the center of your politics unless you have a set of policies which credibly claims some real shot at addressing the problem. At least not for long.

Economist Alan Blinder lists “Seven ways to raise wages“, but whether his plan — education, unions, higher minimum wage, fiscal stimulus — would fix things or just tinker around the edges, it doesn’t sound like a fix. And that’s a big chunk of  the problem.

One thing did come clear to me from reading these articles: The standard Republican response to any of the stuff on Blinder’s list is that it would hurt productivity growth. We can argue, but that’s not the right conversation to have. The right answer to the productivity objection is: “So bleeping what?” If increases in productivity don’t benefit ordinary people any more, why should we care about them?

and ObamaCare’s second season

ObamaCare enrollment season started Saturday, which of course means that the second-year premiums are out. How to read those numbers varied a lot from one source to the next. One set of NYT writers led with the negative:

The Obama administration on Friday unveiled data showing that many Americans with health insurance bought under the Affordable Care Act could face substantial price increases next year — in some cases as much as 20 percent — unless they switch plans.

While another NYT writer led with the positive:

Early evidence suggests that competition in the new Affordable Care Act marketplaces is working, at least in some areas. Health insurance premiums in major cities around the country are barely rising.

TPM was positive with caveats:

Taken in the aggregate, Obamacare premiums for the 34 states using Healthcare.gov are almost completely level in 2015 compared to 2014, according to a new analysis from Avalere Health.

That comes with a lot of caveats. Premium changes vary widely from state to state, and individual consumers who are re-enrolling might need to shop around to avoid substantial spikes in what they pay next year.

But ThinkProgress was just positive:

For the second year in a row, Obamacare premiums are lower than anticipated and millions of Americans can expect to find affordable health insurance options during the second open enrollment period.

And CBS was just negative:

With the Affordable Care Act to start enrollment for its second year on Nov. 15, some unpleasant surprises may be in store for some.

That’s because a number of low-priced Obamacare plans will raise their rates in 2015, making those options less affordable.

The gist, as best I can piece it together from these Rashomon-like accounts, is that a few insurance companies are raising rates substantially, but even if you are one of the affected consumers, you should be able to keep both your cost and level-of-coverage relatively stable if you are willing to switch to another insurer. Averaged over the whole country, premiums will increase, but far less than the average premium was increasing before ObamaCare.

I guess that must make a crappy headline or something.

and you also might be interested in …

I know that what everybody was really talking about: Kim Kardashian’s internet-breaking photo shoot. I tried to come up with an insightful comment about that story’s deep cultural significance, but I got nothing. I thought about not even providing a link, but that would just be acting out against the trivialization of news, which is a real thing. Go ahead and look. Promise me you’ll come right back.


October numbers are in: another global temperature record. 2014 continues on pace to replace 2010 as the hottest year ever.


Former coal executive Don Blankenship was indicted for his role in the safety violations that killed 29 miners in 2010. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Subtext in this story: why industry can’t regulate itself, and why we need to get money out of politics. Here’s an account of Blankenship buying a state supreme court judgeship for an ally in 2004.

and let’s close by singing the blues

or maybe by letting a toddler sing them for us.

Rethinking Immigration

We don’t understand “illegal”. We just think we do.


My favorite books are the ones that take the stuff everybody knows and ask “Really?”.

David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years was like that. At a party in Westminster Abbey, an activist lawyer says to Graeber, “Surely one has to pay one’s debts!” as if nothing could be more obvious, no matter how liberal you are. His entire book is a challenge to that certainty: Really? What is debt? Where does it come from? He finds that the history of debt is all tangled up with slavery, and that even today debt is often an expression of power relationships that we would challenge in any other setting.

Aviva Chomsky’s* Undocumented is another “really?” book. What everybody knows about immigration is that undocumented Hispanic immigrants have broken the law, and there have to be consequences for that. “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” demand the protest signs. We have to secure our borders, and you can’t just let people walk into the United States.

Really? Chomsky writes: “The purpose of this book is to denaturalize illegality.” In other words, we don’t really understand “illegal immigrant”; we just think we do. Realizing how strange an idea it is, and the historical freight it carries, is a step forward.

So before we even start imagining our future immigration policy, we have some things to unlearn about the past.

1. For the longest time, we did just let people walk into the United States. Whether they became citizens or not depended on their race. If you’re white and your family has been in the U.S. for several generations, you probably think they came “the right way”, through some sort of legal process comparable to our current immigration procedures. That’s not true. Back in the 1840s, my German ancestors didn’t get visas or put their names on the waiting list for the next year’s German immigrant quota. They just got on a boat and came.

Before the Civil War, it was taken for granted that white people who turned up on our doorstep would become citizens and non-whites wouldn’t. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalization to “free white aliens” of “good character”. White people could just show up, and if they lived here for two years (later extended to five) without incident, they could apply to any local court for citizenship.

Of course the rules were different for blacks, who were mostly slaves in the South, and weren’t wanted as citizens in many northern states. Indiana’s constitution of 1851 said “No Negro or Mulatto shall come into, or settle in, the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.” In the West, the cheap labor was Chinese; and while they weren’t exactly slaves, they were never going to become Americans either.

The 14th Amendment changed all that, making any baby born in the United States a citizen (except for Indians). So suddenly it was important who was allowed across the border. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 kept out the Chinese, and the Immigration Act of 1917 extended the ban to all Asians. The early 20th-century flood of immigrants from Eastern Europe — Jews! Catholics! anarchists! — was throttled in 1921 by restricting annual immigration from any country to 3% (later 2%) of the number of Americans who claimed that ancestry on the 1910 (later 1890) census.

So (except for Asians) national origin replaced race as the decisive factor. But the national origin of American blacks was defined in such a way that the annual immigration quota from all of non-Egyptian Africa was only 1,100.

That law was the baseline for refusing entry to Holocaust survivors after World War II: Nothing against you personally, but (even though you’re Jewish) we classify you as Czech, and the quota is low because there weren’t many Czech-Americans in 1890.

2. Mexican immigration has always been a special case. Until 1965, the law didn’t consider Mexicans who crossed the border to be immigrants at all. They were migrant workers who would someday return to Mexico. So there was no reason not to let them in, no reason not to deport them whenever the economy went south, and no clear path to citizenship for the ones who stayed. 

By 1965 our openly racist immigration laws had become an embarrassment, so we changed them. For the first time, Mexicans were considered immigrants, and seasonally wandering back and forth across the border became illegal. The “illegal Mexican immigrant” was born — not because a flood of law-breaking Mexicans surged over the border, but because we re-classified the traditional migration pattern of many Mexican workers.

Chomsky points out that some of the stereotypes about fence-jumping Mexicans are wrong.

  • The easier way to cross the border is to get a tourist visa, fly in, and forget to leave. About half of our undocumented residents got here that way. They tend to be the wealthier ones. But if the incentives are high enough, just building a wall isn’t going to stop people from coming.
  • A lot of undocumented immigrants were recruited to come here by middlemen working for American employers. Some from more remote areas didn’t even know they were breaking our rules.
  • Free-trade agreements have flooded Mexico with cheap American corn, making many small-scale Mexican farms unsustainable. A set of rules that allows us to keep out the Mexican farmers made destitute by our exports isn’t really fair.

3. Our current policy maintains a two-tier labor market that has its roots in slavery. Throughout our history, America has had two classes of workers; one that had a chance to move up and one that didn’t. Chomsky writes:

From the eighteenth and, especially, the nineteenth centuries on , the United States benefited from its place in the global industrial economy, and white people in the United States benefited from their place in the racial order. A dual labor market developed in which some workers began to become upwardly mobile and enjoy the benefits of industrial society, while others were legally and structurally stuck at the bottom.

The Northeast mechanized, and lower-tier work that was hard to mechanize (mostly in fields or mines) shifted to the South (where it was done by blacks, first as slaves and then as victims of Jim Crow) or the West (where Chinese and then Mexicans did it).

The justification for separating the two tiers of workers has shifted with time. Originally the separating criterion was race, then partly race and partly national origin. Now it’s legal status. In spite of what our laws say, our economy still creates and depends on millions of sub-minimum-wage jobs where first-tier standards of job safety and protection against abuse don’t apply. They aren’t limited to the South and West any more, they’re everywhere. But they’re no longer done by blacks or Chinese or even Mexicans (per se); they’re done by illegals.

From Chomsky’s point of view, the point of our laws about “illegal immigrants” isn’t to get rid of these people or even to keep more from coming; it’s to make their labor more exploitable. Being “illegal”, they can’t demand their rights or complain about their mistreatment.**

4. So the place to start isn’t “What are we going to do about these people?”. It’s “What are we going to do about these jobs?”

Our fundamental argument about the “illegals” bounces between two poles, neither of which is quite right.

  • They steal American jobs.
  • They do necessary jobs that Americans won’t do.

The truth is that the terms offered to undocumented workers — wages, working conditions, etc. — would be unacceptable (and often even illegal) for American workers. If the undocumented workers weren’t there (a situation dramatized in the movie A Day Without a Mexican, and played out in real life in Georgia, until the old ways re-asserted themselves), those jobs — and the economy based on them — would have to change.

Some of those jobs would go away. If, say, you could only hire documented American residents to be your live-in nanny — even if you could hire the same undocumented woman suddenly documented, protected by American laws, and open to a wider range of employment opportunities — you might decide a day-care center was a better option. Maybe farmers would conclude that growing certain labor-intensive crops in the U.S. isn’t economical (or is economical only in small quantities for foodies willing to pay high prices), so we would import more Mexican vegetables and fewer Mexican workers. Those farmers would grow something else, buy more machinery, and probably make less money; the market value of their land would go down accordingly. Some loans collateralized by that land would go underwater, and some banks might fail.

Others jobs would upgrade, and the products based on them would become more expensive.*** You might have to pay more at restaurants, or more to get someone to clean your house. But the wages paid for those upgraded jobs would increase demand for the kinds of things American workers buy, creating new jobs that might or might not balance the ones that went away.

In short, it’s not just a question of “kick them out” or “secure the border” or even “crack down on the employers”. The whole economy would change if we had a one-tier system of labor rather than the two-tier system we’ve had for our entire history. Until we’re ready to face that change, all our debates about “illegals” will go round in circles. Because if you don’t want the people, but you do want their labor, you’ve got a problem.


* Yes, she is related to Noam. He’s her Dad.

** There’s an obvious parallel to prison labor, whose workers are similarly limited and unprotected because of their legal status. Prison labor is also largely non-white, as Michelle Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow.

*** Though maybe not by as much as you think. William Finnegan writes in The New Yorker: “But in Denmark McDonald’s workers over the age of eighteen earn more than twenty dollars an hour—they are also unionized—and the price of a Big Mac is only thirty-five cents more than it is in the United States.”

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week begins the long, vague project I proposed last week: coming up with the Story of America that liberals should be telling, one that justifies our worldview and mobilizes our voters.

But unlike the City on a Hill/Barbarians at the Gates story that plays that role for conservatives, I’d like our story to be as true as such a story can be. I want its history to correspond to what really happened, and its projections to be based on the way the world really works. Like any story, it will emphasize some things and leave out others, but I want it to illuminate rather than deceive.

In short, I don’t want to just throw all our current commitments together and spin some yarn that rationalizes them. Too many of the arguments we make today are corrupted by other people’s myths. Sometimes we’ve inadvertently accepted the ideological inventions of our opponents, and sometimes we’ve just given in to what Americans want to believe about themselves. Sometimes we’ve set our goals too timidly, so we end up promoting policies (like raising the minimum wage) that are fine ideas as far as they go, but don’t credibly solve the problem we say we’re working on.

So over the next several months (or maybe longer) I want to re-examine issues from scratch, and root my understanding of them in true history, rather than the stories commonly bandied about today. This week I start with immigration, and with Aviva Chomsky’s recent book Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal. That piece is just about ready to go, and should be out shortly.

The weekly summary will open with a quote that could be the motto of the first phase of this whole vague project: “It is better to know less than to know so much that ain’t so.” (And it turns out not to be a Mark Twain or Will Rogers line, no matter what the internet says. That ain’t so.) Then I’ll go on to talk about President Obama’s new boldness on net neutrality, climate change, and (maybe soon) immigration; the comet landing; the Rashomon-ish way the media covered the second-year ObamaCare premiums; and whatever else comes up. And I’ll close with a video proving that although you may have to pay your dues to sing the blues, you don’t have to be old enough to talk.

Broken Pieces of Truth

A good story is always more dazzling than a broken piece of truth.

– Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

This week’s featured post is “Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.

This week everybody was wondering how that happened

The Republicans not only took control of the Senate — either 52-48 or 53-47, depending on the Louisiana run-off — but they re-elected some of the worst governors in the country: Sam Brownback in Kansas, Paul LePage in Maine, Rick Scott in Florida, Rick Snyder in Michigan, and Scott Walker in Wisconsin. And they nearly knocked off Senator Mark Warner in Virginia, a result that would have surprised both parties.

Good people lost. The best, in my opinion, being Mark Udall in Colorado. And some absolute loons are going to the Senate, the worst being Joni Ernst of Iowa. You’ll hear a lot more from her in the next six years, because she will be at the forefront of every act of right-wing craziness. And since conservatism has its own perverse form of affirmative action, I suspect she’s going to wind up on the short list for Republican VPs next year.

So how did that happen? As in the Republican sweep of 2010, they didn’t do it by changing people’s minds; they did it because the Democrats’ target audience didn’t vote.

Comparing yesterday’s exit polls to those of 2012, the first thing that jumps out at you is a big shift in age demographics: under-30 voters dropped from 19 percent of the electorate in 2012 to 13 percent in 2014, while over-65 voters climbed from 16 percent in 2012 to 22 percent in 2014. That’s quite close to the age demographics of 2010.

In terms of race and ethnicity, the white share of the electorate increased modestly from 72 percent in 2012 to 75 percent this year, not quite back up to the 77 percent whites represented in 2010. And interestingly enough, Republican performance among white voters didn’t change at all from the 59/39 margin achieved by Mitt Romney.

There are two possible responses to this. One asks, “What’s wrong with those people?” What’s wrong with young people and non-whites, that they’re letting Republicans they disagree with take over the country? The other asks, “What’s wrong with the Democrats’ message, that it’s not motivating their voters to get out and vote?” I take the second approach in “Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.

and what will happen next

Back in the waning days of the Soviet Union, leading up to Gorbachev, a series of short-lived old men filled the top chair: Andropov, Chernenko, and some other geezers even I don’t remember. Every time a new one took over, the same story would get leaked to the Western press: The new boss only appeared to be a faceless party functionary; actually he had been a behind-the-scenes force for liberalization and better relations with the West. It was never true, but feeding people’s fantasies like that was good PR.

Well, this week we heard that Mitch McConnell wants to fix the broken Senate and get things done. He swore off the brinksmanship of the past: “There will be no government shutdowns and no default on the national debt.” It’s as if the filibuster-everything McConnell never existed, and the Ted Cruz wing of the party didn’t control enough votes to leave McConnell without a working majority. It’s good PR.

In the short term, what will happen is that the Senate will have one more session before the new Republican majority arrives in January. Harry Reid will try to approve as many Obama nominees as possible, maybe including Loretta Lynch to replace Attorney General Holder. Republicans will claim that this use of the Senate’s constitutional power is illegitimate, because they only venerate the Constitution when it suits them.

Longer term, the interesting question isn’t whether the Republican agenda and the Obama agenda will intersect enough to get some laws passed and signed, but whether there will be a Republican agenda at all. What unites Republicans is hatred of Obama, not loyalty to their own leaders or to any particular plan of action. Again and again since he became Speaker four years ago, John Boehner has tried to negotiate with Obama, only to discover that he didn’t have the votes to pass what he offered. (I love Steve Benen’s summary: “the right hand doesn’t know what the far-right hand is doing.”) Now Mitch McConnell can join those games.

Case in point: ObamaCare. “Repeal and replace” makes a good slogan, and occasionally someone on the Republican side releases a sketch of a replacement. But any attempt to fill in the details always starts an argument that goes nowhere, and no actual replacement law ever gets voted on.

The argument about whether to pass laws or to continue monkey-wrenching everything to create issues for a 2016 presidential nominee has already started. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy says Republicans need to “prove we could govern“, while National Review warns about “the governing trap“: Any attempt to find common ground with President Obama or Democrats in Congress should be avoided in favor of maneuvering for 2016.

not much progress is possible until we have a better president. Getting one ought to be conservatism’s main political goal over the next two years.

Here’s the only reason for optimism: Mitch finally has the job he wants, and maybe he’ll want to keep it. The 2016 Senate map look as bad for Republicans as 2014’s did for Democrats. To hold the majority, McConnell will need to defend blue-state Republican senators like Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Mark Kirk in Illinois. If he wants to help his party win the White House in 2016, he won’t want to create jobs or do anything else that the outgoing Democratic administration can take credit for. But if he wants Ayotte and Kirk and the rest of his 24 incumbents to have some accomplishments to run on, he will.

OK, one more reason: Boehner’s larger majority in the House means that he has a little room for error. He no longer needs the vote of every last Tea Party lunatic, every Louie Gohmert and Steve King, to pass a bill. So there’s a chance he could actually deliver on a deal with Obama. Maybe.


The best thing I can hope for from President Obama these next two years is that he’ll take an aw-fuck-it attitude and just do what he thinks is right, without worrying how the Republicans or the commentariat will react. His net neutrality statement seems like a good start.

and talking about the Supreme Court

Marriage equality is going to the Supreme Court sooner rather than later. That became inevitable Thursday when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals bucked the consensus of the other appellate courts and upheld several state bans on same-sex marriages.

You may remember that I have been consistently critical of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Windsor, which came out in 2013. It produced the immediate results I wanted, but its legal reasoning was mushy; it didn’t lay out clear principles that lower courts could follow in future cases. But since then — until Thursday — lower courts all over the country had ruled in favor of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples, finding that although Windsor didn’t establish such a right, it left marriage equality’s opponents without a place to stand.

As long as all the appellate courts agreed with that assessment, the Supremes could avoid the issue. But now, same-sex marriage bans violate equal-protection and due-process rights in some states, but are fine in others. There could be a ruling by the end of the term in June.

The disagreement between Sixth Circuit Judges Jeffrey Sutton (for the 2-1 majority) and Martha Daughtrey (dissenting) is stark. Sutton’s opinion has a general air of condescension, like an elder uncle explaining something you kids are too young to understand: that courts are not legislatures, so they shouldn’t be changing the “traditional definition of marriage”. (Already there, you can tell he’s going nowhere good, because there is no “traditional definition of marriage”. Marriage has meant something different in every generation. In 1765, for example, it meant, “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage”.)

Sutton’s opinion revolves around the question “who should decide” whether and how “the traditional definition of marriage” should change. He concludes that such social engineering is not his job, so he leaves state same-sex marriage bans in place. Daughtrey reminds Sutton that actually they both have a different job: American citizens have come to court asking for their rights, and the judges owe them an answer.

the majority treats both the issues and the litigants here as mere abstractions. Instead of recognizing the plaintiffs as persons, suffering actual harm as a result of being denied the right to marry where they reside or the right to have their valid marriages recognized there, my colleagues view the plaintiffs as social activists who have somehow stumbled into federal court, inadvisably, when they should be out campaigning to win “the hearts and minds” of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee voters to their cause. But these plaintiffs are not political zealots trying to push reform on their fellow citizens; they are committed same-sex couples, many of them heading up de facto families, who want to achieve equal status — de jure status, if you will — with their married neighbors, friends, and coworkers, to be accepted as contributing members of their social and religious communities, and to be welcomed as fully legitimate parents at their children’s schools. They seek to do this by virtue of exercising a civil right that most of us take for granted — the right to marry.

ObamaCare. The Court will hear King v Burwell, the case that claims ObamaCare subsidies don’t apply in the 36 states that left the federal government to set up the state exchanges. The case hangs on a quirk of wording in the Affordable Care Act. Traditionally, the Court has given the executive branch wide latitude to interpret a law in a way that succeeds in fulfilling Congress’ intention in passing a law, rather than in a way that fails. And neither the record of congressional debate nor anything ACA sponsors have said afterwards lends credence to the idea that Congress intended to limit the subsidies in this way.

But no matter. When the Court first considered the ACA, it embraced an interpretation of the Commerce Clause that Congress never considered because it did not exist when the ACA was passed, and only a clever application of the Taxing Clause by Chief Justice Roberts saved the law. Four justices, it seems, will do whatever it takes to scuttle ObamaCare. The question is whether they can get a fifth.

Vox summarizes the situation here, and Balkinization provides a theory of what might be going on behind the scenes.

and you also might be interested in …

The Ebola scare in Dallas is over. Friday, “the last person being monitored for symptoms of Ebola in Dallas was cleared by officials”.

Nationally, the U.S. has had nine Ebola cases. One died, seven recovered, and one is still in treatment — Dr. Craig Spencer, who returned to New York from Guinea and is in NYC’s Bellevue Hospital. He is said to be improving and is listed in stable condition.


According to an exit poll, 63% of American voters believe that our economic system favors the rich. I wonder what the rest believe, and what color they think the sky is.


The voter-suppression group True the Vote distributed a smart-phone app to its members before the election, to help them document the massive “voter fraud” the organization ostensibly exists to fight. If anything, they documented the exact opposite.

and let’s close with a warning from Ned Stark

With the Halloween line breached, nothing can stop it. Its carols and jingles are already echoing throughout the land.

Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.

In his recent Senate campaign in my state, Scott Brown talked a lot about securing the border. That’s the southern border, the one with Mexico, the one that’s over 2,000 miles away from New Hampshire. He connected the border issue to both terrorism and Ebola, neither of which we have here. And it almost worked. As a carpetbagger from Massachusetts, running against a likeable woman we’ve been electing governor or senator since 1996, in a state Obama won twice, Brown nearly pulled it off, losing 51.6% to 48.3%.

This happens at a point in the economic cycle when things are looking reasonably good: Unemployment, GDP growth, and the federal budget deficit have all escaped from the scary territory they were stuck in for so long after the housing bubble popped, and all are trending in the right direction. The stock market is at an all-time high. American combat troops are almost out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the country is as close to peace as it has been since 9-11. And while Fox News has managed to create a series of faux scandals to excite its viewers, by the very real measure of indictments and convictions, the Obama administration has been the cleanest one we’ve seen in a long time, comparing very favorably with, say, the Reagan administration.

Compounding the mystery, Brown’s near-miss is a rare failure in the national Republican trend. Their victory doesn’t just bring control of the Senate, but sweeps into office some pretty radical folks, like Joni Ernst in Iowa, another state Obama won twice. Sam Brownback, whose tax-cutting mania has pretty well wrecked the fiscal health of the state of Kansas without providing any of the private-sector economic boost he promised, got re-elected governor.

Meanwhile, voters were making some liberal choices on ballot measures: Oregon, Alaska, and D.C. all legalized marijuana; Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska, and South Dakota raised the minimum wage; Washington tightened gun control; and Colorado defeated a personhood amendment to limit abortion. And the national brand of the Republican Party, as Rand Paul put it, “sucks”. A pre-election poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal showed the party’s favorable/unfavorable rating far underwater: 29%/47%, as opposed to the Democrats’ narrower 36%/43% split.

So there’s no real evidence that the public is getting more conservative, or seeing Republicans in a better light, but still they’re electing more and wackier Republicans. What’s up with that?

The City on a Hill. I was home sick on Wednesday, so I spent the day reading a short new book called Narrative Politics by Frederick Mayer. Mayer is a professor at Duke and the book is published by Oxford University Press, so it’s more academic than popular. But it is readable and has a clear point: Political scientists like to talk about voters who rationally weigh their interests, and tug-of-war struggles between institutional powers like unions or the Chamber of Commerce or the NRA. Meanwhile, pundits and campaign consultants like to talk tactics: ad buys and gaffes and moving the conversation away from your opponent’s issues and towards yours. But they all underestimate the power of stories to evoke a public response and channel that response into actions like contributing and campaigning and voting.

Mayer begins and then later concludes with the story-telling in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King never comes out and says, “I have a story to tell”, but his speech revolves around an implicit story I might retell like this:

From the beginning, the reality of America has been trying to catch up with the dream of America. From Jefferson, who wrote that “all men are created equal” but continued to own slaves; to Lincoln, who won a war to end slavery, but could not deliver full freedom; to the civil rights movement of King’s own day, which had its victories, but still left much to achieve; to the future that King could see in his dream, and would later see from “the mountaintop“, in which the promise of equality would be fulfilled.

The story of America was the story of progress towards an ideal. That story connected to a great past, was continuing right there in Washington where King was speaking, and would carry forward to a successful conclusion in the future. It was mythic, it was inspiring, it was motivating. And today’s Democrats have nothing like it.

Republicans do. Like King, they don’t say outright, “Once upon a time …” and start telling their story explicitly. But it’s always there in the background. It can be hard to pick up on, because most speakers just allude to the story rather than re-tell it, assuming that their supporters and potential supporters already know it. I’d tell it like this:

American is and always has been the “shining city on a hill” that Ronald Reagan talked about.* Its Constitution gave the world a model of liberty. Its free society gave opportunity to immigrants whose path to success had been blocked by the class system of Europe. Its capitalist economy and the industrious virtue of its citizens gave the world a new model of productivity and prosperity. The heroism of its soldiers and the determination of its statesmen saved civilization from both fascism and communism.

But now, the City on the Hill is threatened by barbarians at the gates. If the City were focused and united, no horde could stand against it. But the virtue that still exists in many of its citizens is mixed with corruption. Many have lost sight of the golden vision of the Founders and have forgotten the glorious history that followed. Many have lost the virtues of industry and self-reliance, and have no ambition beyond soaking up the productivity of others. Many do not understand the uniqueness of the City and why its values must be defended.

The City needs a renewal within and a crusade without, led by those who understand the world-historic significance of the City and its ideals. Without such a renewal and such a crusade, it will fall, and the light it brought to the world will be extinguished. But with such a renewal, its virtues can be restored, its enemies can be routed, and its golden past can live again.

[* I’ve described before how Reagan altered the city-on-a-hill image that goes back to the Mayflower.]

It’s easy to poke holes in this story, but before we do, let’s take a moment to appreciate its sheer diabolical beauty. For example, the story itself contains no prejudice other than nationalism, but it easily adapts to whatever bigotry a listener brings. Those lazy citizens who expect someone else to support them, do they have a certain complexion? The threatening barbarians, is that Arabic they’re speaking? Spanish? The corrupt citizens, might they be gay? Or atheists? Or Jews?

Maybe. Maybe not. Bigotry is harnessed, but deniable.

Similarly, the story can unite people who disagree, because the renewal it calls for can be anything. Does the lost vision the Founders include a fundamentalist style of Christianity? Or a robber-baron style of capitalism? Or what the League of the South calls “Anglo-Celtic culture“? Maybe some of that lost virtue is sexual: Men are having sex with other men, and women don’t know their place any more. They want to be free to have sex with whomever — barbarians, even — and escape the consequences of their sin through birth control or abortion.

No wonder the City is in danger.

What it explains. It’s only in the context of the City/Barbarians story that you can really understand the intensity rank-and-file conservatives feel about issues that (at first glance) have nothing to do with their lives. Why should straight people care so much about whether gay people get married? Or New Englanders fear Guatemalan children? Why do so many people have an opinion about academic theories like American exceptionalism? Why should well-fed families begrudge a poor family its Food Stamps? Why do people without young children feel such strong hostility towards public schools and their teachers? Why are those ISIS beheadings so much more horrifying than the beheadings that are normal Saudi executions? Why did the Ebola panic get so out of hand?

These things are not issues in the usual political sense. They are signs of the corruption of the City, omens of the barbarians’ arrival, and warnings of the havoc they’ll unleash if they get here.

The story also explains the bizarre animus people feel towards President Obama, and their willingness to believe absolutely anything about him: He’s Kenyan, he’s Muslim, he’s gay, he pals around with terrorists, he’s Marxist, he wants to kill your grandmother, and on and on. Obama’s fundamental sin is that he’s not one of us. He wants to open the gates and invite the barbarians in. Fox News’ “psychologist” Keith Ablow laid it out:

[Obama’s] affinities, his affiliations are with them. Not us. That’s what people seem unwilling to accept. He’s their leader … we don’t have a president. … We don’t have a president who has the American people as his primary interest.

Sure, you can go all academic-historian and explain why the story isn’t true. You can explain that the City was always corrupt, that its prosperity depended as much on slavery and genocide as on virtue and Godliness. You can point to the virtues of the people the City wants to exclude, or the ways they have been exploited, and the debts to them that a just city would want to honor. And it won’t matter. Because a story like this doesn’t have to be true, it just has to feel true.

And if you come from a certain segment of American society  — the one I came from, for example — it does.

The lost age of upward mobility. I grew up in that segment of the white working class that expected to move up. Our expectation rested on a bunch of things that don’t exist any more.

To start with, there was my father’s job. He worked in a locally owned factory that wasn’t unionized, but had to compete for workers with factories that were. So a man who worked there (they were nearly all men in those days) could support a family and have a little money left over. Education wasn’t required; Dad had a high-school diploma, but others didn’t. And yet his job was secure in a way that is hard to imagine now. The factory itself was stable from one decade to the next — no thought of robots or China, or a junk-bond deal to liquidate its assets. So if you were reliable and worked hard you could do what Dad did: keep that job until you were ready to retire.

At every stage in my young life, I knew that if I was successful, the next stage would open up. If I did well in high school, I could go to college. It didn’t require luck or massive family savings or big loans. Community college was practically free, and the state university system was barely more expensive. You could just about work your way through college with a part-time job during the academic year and a full-time job in the summer. At worst, you might have to take a year off to work and save (at a working-class job that paid enough to let you save). So if college was part of your plan, money wasn’t going to stop you.

Once you got to college, if you chose a reasonable major and did well, you’d get a job when you graduated. Not delivering pizzas or telemarketing, but a real white-collar job with a career path. Or maybe you’d go on to graduate school and train for a higher profession. In a lot of fields, you could again work your way through. (I got a math Ph.D. by teaching calculus and getting a fellowship from the NSF. I came out debt free.) Or maybe you’d take on some debt to become a doctor or get an MBA, but that was an investment; it would pay off in no time. Once again, if you did well, there were jobs. The economy moved slowly enough that the job you’d pictured when you started grad school would still exist when you finished. And you could imagine (falsely, as it turned out) that it would still be there when you retired.

Life had what the stock-market analysts call visibility (“the extent to which future projections are probable”). You could make a plan and carry it out.

Undoubtedly, things were less certain if you weren’t white or spoke with a foreign accent. And women were just entering a lot of professions in those days, so they had no idea what to expect. But for a native-born white man, the good life was there for the taking. Nobody was exactly giving it to us — at each stage we had to work and succeed, and some of us fell by the wayside. But if you did succeed, the prize would be there. You could count on it.

None of that is true any more.

Today. As I write this I’m in my late 50s, watching my friends limp towards the end of their careers. A lot of them are one re-organization or one leveraged buyout away from unemployment, with no guarantee anyone would hire them at this age.

And their kids … I have no idea what to tell them. Even the most brilliant and energetic can’t predict where they’ll be in a few years. States have gotten out of the business of providing inexpensive high-quality higher education. There are no “safe” majors any more, no degrees that will guarantee a good first job, or even just one that will cover student loan payments. And the jobs themselves … even if you get one and everything seems fine, it can vanish like smoke. Maybe the office will move to Bangalore, or your whole profession will be replaced by an iPhone app. It doesn’t matter how smart or hard-working or well qualified you are. You could be scrambling for survival by this time next week.

Exactly whose fault this is … that’s a complicated question. Maybe the 1%, or the politicians, or technology, or globalization, or just the faceless forces of History. When the average person tries to figure it out, he just throws up his hands. Why? He doesn’t know why. But he knows this: It just feels wrong. And it didn’t used to be this way.

We used to be safe in a City on a Hill, but now there are barbarians at the gates. …

It feels true. That deep anxiety that never quite goes away. The sense that everything you’ve relied on could go “pop!” at any moment. That’s just how you’d feel in a city that was about to fall.

Nothing in the Democratic message addresses that.

What Democrats lack. Everything the Democrats support is on the wrong scale: We want to raise the minimum wage, and subsidize your health insurance, and pay women the same as men, and cut back the war on minor drugs, and create jobs building infrastructure, and put a little less carbon in the air. All good stuff. If you can get it isolated in a ballot question, it will probably pass. But none of it says, “Those are the people I want running things. I’m going to go out and take action to see that they do.”

George Lakoff summarizes the current Democratic strategy like this:

Use demographic categories to segment the electorate, categories from the census (race, gender, ethnicity, age, marital status, income, zip code), as well as publicly available party registration. … Poll on which issues are “most important,” e.g., for women (or single women), for each minority group, for young people, and so on. This separates the issues from one another and creates “issue silos.” … Assume that people vote on the basis of material self-interest and design different messages to appeal to different demographic groups.

What that misses is precisely the caring-about-things-that-don’t-directly-affect-you that the Republican story inspires. If you make minimum wage, then vote Democrat, because we’ll give you a raise. If you’re a poor woman who might get pregnant, we’ll defend your access to abortion. If you’re gay, we’ll support your right to fair treatment. If you’re Hispanic, we might not deport your nephew. If you’re young, we’ll help you deal with your student loans. But if you’re none of those things — or if you are, but not identifying strongly with your categories today — why should you care? What binds all those people together with all the other Democrats and offers them a role in the drama of history?

That’s the kernel of truth behind the charge that Democrats want to “divide America“, or that they try to win by offering “free stuff“. In one sense, those charges are laughable; it’s Republicans who have the big Us-against-Them story, and they are no less willing to offer free stuff to their constituencies. But Democratic strategy and messaging atomizes America. We may have a message for you as a unique combination of demographic categories. But we don’t have an identity to offer you as an American.

Even Lakoff’s proposal doesn’t really fix that problem. He offers a more unified set of principles and ways to advocate them, but the narrative element and the connection to our underlying anxiety is still missing. You can’t fight a story with principles, any more than you can fight it with facts or debunking or appeals to demographic interests.

You fight a story by telling a better story, one that does a better job of ringing true both factually and emotionally, one that draws people in and makes them want to tell that story to others. At the moment, we don’t have a better story. We’ve just got facts.

After you lose, you ought to spend some time in the wilderness, rethinking how you got here. During my time in the wilderness, these are the questions I’m going to be thinking about:

  • What is the real story of America? the one that’s based on actual history rather than fantasy?
  • How is that story playing out here and now, in the lives of everybody?
  • How do we want that story to come out?
  • What would it mean to be on the right side of that story, playing a role you’ll be proud to remember in your old age?
  • How can we offer Americans that kind of role?

The Monday Morning Teaser

So what was that all about? Why, for the second midterm in a row, did the Democrats lose all the close races and yield control of another house of Congress?

The falling unemployment rate and deficit didn’t matter, the coming demographic wave didn’t matter, Big Data didn’t matter, the unpopularity of the Republican Party and their complete lack of solutions didn’t matter. They now control the Senate, and they kept control of governorships in both red states and a few blue ones.

And yes, all that dark money played a role, voter suppression played a role, racism played a role … but I’m left with the feeling that there’s much more to it than that. I’ll try to capture the bigger picture later this morning in “Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.” I’m not sure exactly how long it’s going to take to get that out.

In the weekly summary, “Broken Pieces of Truth”, I’ll walk through some of the explanations of what happened, and the speculation about what happens next. Plus I’ll summarize why the Supreme Court is finally going to have to rule on marriage equality, and what the new ObamaCare case is about. And I’ll close with a warning from Ned Stark.

Little by Little

Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.

– Benjamin Franklin

This week’s featured posts are “Vote. It’s not nearly enough, but it’s something.” and “The Case for Voting Democrat“.

And this is what I did during my week off.

This week everybody has been talking about the election

In case the non-stop TV ads haven’t gotten through to you, the election is tomorrow. In many states you can vote today. Control of the Senate is up for grabs, there are a lot of cliff-hanging governor’s races, and everybody has a House race. My case for voting is in “Vote. It’s not nearly enough. But it’s something.” My more detailed case for voting for Democrats is in “The Case for Voting Democrat“.

Normally, I do a viewer’s guide for watching the election returns. But this year has so many weird Senate races that are close for their own unique reasons that I have no idea what’s going to happen. The Democrats need an upset somewhere to hold the Senate, but there are a lot of places where that upset could happen. If the election had been held two weeks ago, when the nation was suffering a mysterious epidemic of fear, I think Republicans would have won easily. Since then, the stock market has recovered to a new high, ISIS has mostly been out of the headlines, and the news about Ebola has been more good than bad. So I think fear has receded and we’re back in anything-can-happen territory.

Anyway, here’s Daily Kos’ map of poll-closing times.

 

and Ebola

The big story this week was the symptom-free nurse in Maine fighting Governor  LePage’s effort to quarantine her in her home. A court sided with the nurse. An NBC/WSJ poll says that 71% support quarantining health-care workers who come back from Ebola-afflicted areas. There’s no reason to think such a quarantine is medically necessary, and it will intimidate American doctors and nurses who might otherwise take a month or two to go to Africa and fight this virus on the front lines. But people like to respond with decisive action when they’re scared.

and you also might be interested in …

The Sift’s claim that Rand Paul had called for cuts in the CDC budget back in 2011 drew the attention of Politifact. (That’s the first time my name has appeared in that column.) They judged the claim to be True. So I guess I can tell people that my Politifact score is 100%.


One of the stranger Tumblr pages is “Women Against Feminism“. In the manner of “We Are the 99%“, it consists of pictures of (mostly) young women holding up pieces of paper explaining why they don’t need feminism. The fact that some young women feel that way isn’t what’s weird; it’s a big country, a few people are bound to think almost anything. But here’s the weird thing: Many of their self-described philosophies could be definitions of the feminism they say they don’t need. Like:

I don’t need feminism or masculism because the only thing that should determine my life is my own potential, not my gender (or race). We are all human and we should all be equal.

If you replace “I don’t need feminism or masculism because” with “I am a feminist because”, the quote makes perfect sense. I read this whole page not as a comment on feminism, but as a measure of just how successful the Right has been at tarring the word feminist. Women who by any reasonable definition are feminists have been convinced that they’re anti-feminists, because feminism is … some other damn thing.

The best counter I’ve heard — not specifically to this Tumblr, but to similar stuff from celebrities like Shailene Woodley — is this YouTube by marinashutup.


In what Jonathan Chait says may be “the craziest idea ever proposed by a Fox News personality”, Fox’ resident psychologist Dr. Keith Ablow called for “an American jihad“. Because our constitution is a “sacred document” and our nation’s founding is a “miracle”, we have a “manifest destiny not only to preserve our borders and safety and national character at home, but to spread around the world our love of individual freedom and insist on its reflection in every government.” That might mean fighting a bunch of wars, but they’d be justified, “Because wherever leaders and movements appear that seek to trample upon the human spirit, we have a God-given right to intervene — because we have been to the mountaintop of freedom, and we have seen the Promised Land spanning the globe.”

Liberals have been saying for a while that the Right — especially the Religious Right — resembles the Taliban. But now at least one of them seems to be embracing that comparison himself.


The only possible thing I can follow that with is satirist Andy Borowitz:

President Obama is coming under increasing pressure to apologize for a controversial remark that he made on Tuesday, in which he said that the nation’s Ebola policy should be based on facts rather than fear.

and let’s close with some wonderful Halloween costumes

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