Author Archives: weeklysift

Doug Muder is a former mathematician who now writes about politics and religion. He is a frequent contributor to UU World.

Unreasonable Debts

St. Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go.
I owe my soul to the company store.

– “16 Tons“, usually attributed to Merle Travis

This week’s featured post is “Can We Overthrow the Creditocracy?

Thanks to the Diary of Mindless Minions number 2703 blog, who named Maria Popova and me as “Two People Who Make the Internet Better“.

If trends hold, “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” will get its 200,000th page view this week.

This week everybody was talking about terrorist plots in Europe

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, Belgian police launched a series of raids on suspected terrorists, including one at Verviers that resulted in a firefight with men described as “extremely well armed”.

What seems to be different in the current European terrorist threat is that it’s a mixture of foreign-based and home-grown. Belgium turns out to have a comparatively large number of residents who either are fighting in Syria or have fought and come home. They’re Belgians, but their Syrian war connections give them access to heavy weapons and training in how to use them. Across Europe, we’re talking about maybe 5,000 people, 300 or so from Belgium.

and here, sort of

Twenty-year-old Christopher Lee Cornell from Ohio was arrested Wednesday for planning to kill people at the U.S. Capitol. Allegedly, his plan was to set off pipe bombs in or near the Capitol, and then shoot people as they evacuated.

Cornell apparently came to the attention of the FBI months ago for making pro-ISIS statements through social media. He devised his plan in discussions with an FBI informant, and was arrested when he bought two assault rifles. That was the first physical manifestation of his plan. He hadn’t yet bought any materials to make the pipe bombs, and was thinking he might hit the Capitol next December. According to the L. A. Times:

He was charged with the attempted killing of a U.S. government officer and possession of a firearm in furtherance of an attempted crime of violence.

I have mixed feelings about this news. On the one hand, it’s great that Cornell was stopped before he could kill anybody. On the other, it points out the unsettling vagueness of our anti-terrorism laws. Think about it: What did Cornell do, exactly? He had a violent fantasy, “plotted” (i.e., talked big to somebody he thought would be impressed) with an FBI informant, and bought two legal firearms.

For this, he gets national TV coverage and is known far and wide as a dangerous terrorist. Having been a young man myself once, I’m not sure this example is going to discourage would-be imitators.

These kinds of crimes carry very real sentences. Rezwan Ferdaus of Massachusetts is serving 17 years for a 2011 plan to attack the Capitol with radio-controlled airplanes. Again, he conspired only with the FBI. He was arrested when he took delivery of “grenades, six machine guns and what he believed was 24 pounds of C-4 explosive” from his FBI “partners”. Not only was no actual high explosive involved, it’s not clear he would have known how to get any without the FBI’s help.

I wonder how many people we could send to prison if we treated other kinds of “plots” this way. Imagine you have a bad week at work, and while you’re out drinking Friday night, you blather about how you’d like to go into the office some day and shoot all the people who bug you. (I’ll bet bartenders hear a lot of “plans” like this.) Suppose the guy on the next stool is a police informant, and starts asking exactly how you’d do it. A week or two later, you think it might be therapeutic to buy a gun, go to a shooting range, and imagine the target is your boss’ head. As you leave the gun store, police arrest you for starting to carry out your “mass murder plot”. “Police Avert Deadly Rampage” say the next morning’s headlines.


In an unrelated case, an Illinois teen-ager was arrested at O’Hare Airport before boarding a plane to Turkey, where he hoped to join ISIS.


Vox reports:

Writers at Vox have indeed been bombarded with threats for our Charlie Hebdo coverage. But not one of those threats has come from a Muslim or in response to publishing anti-Islam cartoons. Revealingly, they have rather all come from non-Muslims furious at our articles criticizing Islamophobia.

and still talking about Charlie Hebdo

One of my long-term wishes (that started to come true in 2014) has been for The Weekly Sift to develop a commenting community that consistently adds value to my articles. A good example of what I have in mind is last week’s “Am I Charlie? Should I Be?” While many commenters agreed with my main points, several had thoughtful disagreements concerning French language and culture, and provided links that are well worth reading.

A few French-speaking commenters — I’m a puzzle-out-with-a-dictionary reader of French, and can’t say much more than oui — discussed the correct interpretation of cons, which Vox translated as “idiots”, but seemed closer to “cunts” to me and the Saturn’s Repository blog. The truth seems to be that cons is more vulgar than “idiots” but not nearly so offensive as “cunts”. eganvarley and FrancoFile defended “idiots” as a translation, while SamChevre compared cons’ level of vulgarity to “assholes”, and Chum Joely interpreted it as “dumbasses”.

The interpretation of the images in Charlie Hebdo cartoons was another point of contention. eganvarley linked to Adam Gopnik’s article on Charlie. Jeremos linked to a discussion of the Boko-Haram-sex-slaves cover, velvinette to a collection of cartoons establishing Charlie‘s left-wing anti-racist bona fides, and orionblair to an explanation of the French context of some of the cartoons that seem most objectionable to an outsider. Several other commenters also disputed my criticism of Charlie. I apologize for not listing everyone.

Some of the articles made an analogy to this famously controversial New Yorker cover published shortly after Barack Obama had sewed up the Democratic nomination.

People who didn’t know the political context — including a lot of fairly well-informed Americans — interpreted it as a viciously anti-Obama cover: He’s dressed as a Muslim and his wife as a terrorist, while they burn an American flag in the Oval Office fireplace. But hipper viewers saw a parody of over-the-top anti-Obama rhetoric. “This is what you want us to believe? Really?” Several of the apparently racist Charlie covers similarly would be seen by in-the-know French readers as ironic critiques of their surface meanings.

While appreciating their main points, I have two quibbles with the links. First, there’s a tendency to equate bigotry with the Right, and to assume that once we establish that Charlie was on the Left, we’ve proved it wasn’t bigoted. (Talk to Alec Baldwin about that.) Similarly, being anti-racist in general doesn’t inoculate you against all specific forms of bigotry. To me, the appropriate American comparison isn’t the KKK, it’s Bill Maher. Bill is liberal on most issues and denounces bigotry wherever he sees it; but when it comes to his own bigotry against Muslims, he just can’t see it.

Second, privileged people tend to assume that when someone takes offense at what they say or do, all that really matters is their own intent. (If people think I insulted them, that’s only because they’re too stupid to realize I didn’t. Les cons!) This is one of the defining traits of privilege: the belief that your own point of view is paramount; if other people have a different interpretation of what I say or do, they’re just wrong.

But that easily assumed right-to-self-interpretation is only a dream for members of a marginalized group like French Muslims. Jamie Utt asks the right question on Everyday Feminism:

[I]n the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us? … [M]aking the conversation about intent is inherently a privileged action. The reason? It ensures that you and your identity (and intent) stay at the center of any conversation and action while the impact of your action or words on those around you is marginalized.

Reportedly, one of the reasons Dave Chappelle gave up his TV show in the middle of taping the third season (and walked away from a pile of money) was his realization that his intent didn’t always define his humor. Skits that he intended to satirize racial stereotypes might reinforce them to some of his less enlightened viewers.

Now, the fact that out-of-touch foreigners like me don’t appreciate the full implications of a French cartoon is no fair criticism of the cartoon. However, French Muslims did feel insulted, and brushing that off with a “They don’t get it” isn’t an adequate response.

But I don’t want any of that criticism to cause readers to lose sight of the first point of “Am I Charlie? Should I Be?“: Nothing that people say or write or draw should get them killed. Whether or not I have undermined that point also came up in the comment stream, as Dan wondered how my criticism of Charlie differed from the victim-blamers who say that a raped woman “used bad judgment”. I replied:

The difference between the woman and the cartoonists is that the cartoonists knew exactly the risks they were running. The “bad judgment” comment implies the woman was foolish, while I think the Charlie cartoonists were courageous.

A better analogy would be to a soldier who volunteers to fight in what I believe is an unworthy war — but he obviously thinks it is worthy — and dies in that war. I honor his personal courage and respect his sacrifice. But if you ask me to identify with him, to say in effect “I am G. I. Joe”, then I have to ask if that means I have to support the war now. If it does, I can’t say it.

Thanks, everybody. I learned from you even when you didn’t completely persuade me.

and I should be careful what I wish for

because another commenter, Lady Mockingbird, nailed me for overstating my case in last week’s summary. I was summarizing James Fallows’ “The Tragedy of the American Military” which makes the case (and supports it well) that in the age of a volunteer military whose members make multiple deployments to war zones, comparatively few Americans have a personal connection to our troops under fire. I overstated that point like this:

Increasingly, wars are fought either by the underclass (who need a place to start their careers and have few other options) or by men and women from families with a military tradition. Outside that small caste of military families, middle-class and upper-class voters — the people whose opinions count most in our semi-oligarchic system — can have opinions about war with no consequences, or can ignore the military altogether.

Lady M pointed out that I had no support for  that “underclass” point, and she’s right. So I went looking and got surprised.

The Heritage Foundation is not one of my trusted sources, but I don’t have any reason to doubt that their Center for Data Analysis can do arithmetic. Their 2008 report noted that the U.S. military doesn’t keep data on the economic background of recruits, but you can make inferences from their home census tracts, which are reported. Using median census-tract income as a substitute for household income, Heritage-CDA computed that the richest 20% of the country contributes 25% of recruits while the poorest quintile contributes 11%.

Now, I don’t trust Heritage not to manipulate statistics, and quintiles are often used to hide the very wealthy among the upper middle class. So I still doubt that many children of the 1% are getting shot at. But even so, what I said last week is not right.


A friend pointed out in private email that my quick summary of where French police were in their pursuit of the Charlie Hebdo suspects was also muddled. Rather than list my mistakes, I’ll just recommend that you go to the Wikipedia article and get the story straight.

What can I say? My final editing pass last week may have been affected by a slowly rising fever as I developed the flu. I’m fine now, so any mistakes this week are inexcusable.

and you also might be interested in …

MLK Day: The perfect time to link back to “MLK: Sanitized for Their Protection“. King was much more radical than today’s media lets on.


It’s official: Globally, 2014 was the hottest year on record.


Friday, it got easier to visit Cuba.


Here’s a general rule about funerals that you’d think everybody would know: If you’re not in the casket, the service is not about you.

We’ve seen that rule violated in national news stories twice recently: December 27 when police turned their backs on Mayor de Blasio’s eulogy for murdered officer Raphael Ramos, and January 13, when Pastor Ray Chavez of Lakewood, Colorado’s New Hope Ministries interrupted the funeral of Vanessa Collier when he found out she was a lesbian. According to The Denver Post:

The memorial could not continue, Pastor Ray Chavez said, as long as pictures of Collier with the love of her life, the spouse she shared two children with, were to be displayed.

Chavez said there could be no images of Collier with her wife, Christina. There could be no indication that Collier was gay.

Mourners picked up everything and moved the service to the funeral home’s chapel. It was cramped, but there were no further interruptions.

In general, if something at a funeral offends your politics, sit quietly and bitch about it later. Or if you absolutely can’t endure it, slip away discretely. Nobody came here to be your audience.


chescaleigh explains how to be an ally to a marginalized group.


Chattanooga came to my attention in a good way and a bad way this week. The good way is in this graphic of internet speeds in various cities:

Chattanooga, Kansas City, and Lafayette also have surprisingly affordable internet, compared to the relatively slow internet in the rest of America. How come? Matt Yglesias explains what these cities did right:

The American cities that are delivering best-in-the-world speeds at bargain prices are precisely the cities that aren’t relying on Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time-Warner, etc. to run their infrastructure. In Kansas City, Google built a state-of-the-art fiber optic network largely just to prove a point. In Chattanooga and Lafayette, the government did it.

Your city could do the same, and the federal government could help by providing low-interest loans (the way it did for rural electrification in the 1930s). But Matt notes that Verizon et al. pay big bucks to lobbyists to make those policy choices impossible.


But the bad news about Chattanooga was in the talk “The State of Black Chattanooga” given recently by Tennessee State Professor Ken Chilton. If you define “college ready” as reaching the college-readiness benchmarks on all four parts of the ACT, last year zero students from two predominantly black Chattanooga high schools were college ready.

My sister, who taught in the Chattanooga public schools (and brought this article to my attention), comments that the Tennessee statewide average of 19% college-ready is nothing to brag about either. But zero — that should make people sit up and take notice. Will they do anything?


This week I discovered Slate’s “Ask a Homo” video blog. Current question: Do gay men like cat-calling? Unsurprisingly, the answer is: “It depends.” But the factors that come into play are interesting.

Naturally, the question is a response to the viral video “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” that documented all the un-asked-for comments a conservatively dressed young woman hears just by walking silently down public sidewalks. (It has gotten over 37 million views on YouTube so far.) A lot of men responded to that video by saying they’d be happy if female strangers were constantly complimenting them and trying to strike up conversations — which ignores the whole power-imbalance you-exist-for-my-entertainment angle.

Asking how gay men react is a different way to approach the issue. Here’s another: Suppose you’re a straight man and gay strangers are constantly telling you what a nice butt you have. Is your main reaction to be flattered by the compliments? What if the uninvited commenters outnumber you and are much bigger than you are?

and let’s close with something awe-inspiring

From Red River, New Mexico.

Can We Overthrow the Creditocracy?

In the long history of oppression, where are we today? And what can we do about it?


The simplest, most direct form of oppression is forced labor: Work for me, do what I say, or I’ll beat you. And if no beating short of death will induce you to do what I want, then the example of your demise will at least make my next victim more pliable.

Unfortunately for the oppressor, though, forced labor is also morally simple. The press-ganged victim knows I have wronged him or her. Given the chance to run away, or (better yet) kill me, he or she will feel completely justified.

That’s why history is full of attempts to dress oppression up and make its morality more confusing. If you want to be cynical, you might tell the whole economic history of the world that way: as a series of systems to dress up oppression and shift the guilt of it from the order-giver to the order-taker. In every era, the many work and the few benefit, but those who run away or revolt are the immoral ones. They are ungrateful wretches who bite the hands that feed them and repay their kindly benefactors with violence.

For example, from today’s perspective the slave society of the old South seems pretty stark: Do what I say because I own you and your children and your children’s children down to the last generation. And yet, the literature of the time — written by whites, naturally — often waxes lyrical about the great good the white man has done for his undeserving servants: given them the gift of civilization, saved their souls for Christ, accepted them in his home and fed and clothed them since birth, or perhaps purchased them from an animal-like existence under a slave-trader and bestowed upon them new names and new roles (however lowly) in human society.

How dare the slave forget his obligation and steal himself away!

Freedom without access. Most systems are more subtle than that. The people at the bottom aren’t owned, and in fact their freedom may be a central point of public celebration. But a small group controls access to something everyone needs to survive. To guarantee your own access, you must strike a deal with them — on their terms, usually — and do what they say. And because society frames its story in a way that justifies the access-control, the people who tell you what to do are not your oppressors, they’re your benefactors. You owe them for giving you the opportunity to serve.

Whatever that necessary something is, and however access to it is controlled, tells you what kind of oppressive system you’re in. In feudalism, a small group of lordly families control the land you need to grow food. To get access, your family must swear fealty to one of them, and God have mercy on the traitor who breaks his vows. In the sharecropper system that replaced slavery in the South, whites (often the same whites who had owned the antebellum plantations) controlled access to money and markets. Freedom and even a small chunk of land might be yours, but the wherewithal to survive until harvest had to be borrowed, and then you were obliged to sell your crop to your creditor, for a price he named — usually not quite enough to clear your debt. If you tried to escape this system, you weren’t a runaway slave (as your mother or father would have been), but you were a runaway debtor and the law would hunt you down just the same.

In the North, oppression took its purest form in the company towns immortalized in the song “16 Tons“, where the singer imagines that not even death will get him out. The company controlled every side of the transaction — not just access to productive work, but the scrip you were paid in, and the company store where you could spend it. The system wasn’t quite so obvious in the bigger cities, where many employers drew from the same labor pool, but basic outline was the same: To get access to what Marx called “the means of production” — land, factories, mines, or any other resource that human labor could turn into the stuff of survival — the masses at the bottom of the pyramid had to deal with a fairly small group of employers, who could dictate wages and working conditions.

As on the plantations or the feudal manors, the language of morality had been turned inside-out: The oppressor was the benefactor. Give me a job, the worker begged.

The American exception. Underneath all that oppressiveness, though, something new had been blooming in America from the beginning. Dispossessing the Native Americans of an entire continent had created opportunities for wealth so vast that the old upper classes couldn’t exploit them all without help, so common people were cut in on the booty.

Already in 1776’s The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith had documented that wages were considerably higher in the colonies (where there was so much work to be done and a comparative dearth of hands) than in England itself. The post-revolutionary Homestead Acts codified a system that had been operating informally for some while: For whites, American wages were enough above subsistence that you could build a stake of capital, buy tools and transport, and then set out for the hinterland and establish an independent relationship with the means of production. For one of the few times since the hunter-gatherer era, working-class Europeans could apply their labor directly to the land and live without paying for access.

Post-Civil-War American history can be told as a struggle by the capitalist class to claw back those hastily bestowed opportunities by manipulating markets, monopolizing the new railroads, and generally “crucify[ing] mankind upon a cross of gold” as William Jennings Bryan famously put it. But they never completely succeeded. Hellish as turn-of-the-century mines and factories could be, the vision remained: Capitalism didn’t have to be so bad, if workers had a way to opt out and employers had to compete to hire them.

The early 20th century brought a series of shocks to the capitalist system: the world wars, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and finally the very real threat of Communist revolutions. The devastated Europe of 1945 in some ways duplicated the opportunities of the New World: There was so much work to be done that for three decades (les Trente Glorieuses, as the French put it) full employment and rising wages could be the norm.

In the Cold War competition with Communism, Capitalism had to loosen up to maintain the workers’ loyalty. And so a mixed public/private social contract developed: The means of production would continue to be privately owned, but government would keep the worker in the game. Government would provide education at little or no cost to the student; guarantee a liveable minimum wage; protect consumers from unsafe products and workers from dangerous workplaces; prevent monopolies from forming; create jobs by building public infrastructure; defend the workers’ right to form unions powerful enough to negotiate with corporations on equal terms; maintain a safety net against unemployment, disability, and old age; and (except in the United States) take care of the sick. The political expectation was that a rising tide would lift all boats: If profits rose, wages would rise, and everyone would benefit.

Counterrevolution. But by the late 1970s, the failure of the Soviet system to make good on its economic promises made Khrushchev’s we-will-bury-you threat ring hollow, and Western capitalists started to wonder if they’d given away too much. The theme of their Reagan/Thatcher counterrevolution would be privatization. Wherever possible, get government out of the picture so that the natural power imbalance between worker and employer can re-assert itself.

And that has been the story of the last not-so-glorious forty years: Powerful unions and nearly-free state universities are mere memories. Inflation has pushed the minimum wage down towards subsistence. We are told that the wealthiest nation in the world cannot afford a safety net; if bankruptcy looms (or can be manufactured), the solution is not to commit new resources, but to slash benefits. Consumer and worker protection is “job-killing regulation”, and making up for a job shortfall with public works is unthinkable. Increasingly, even public K-12 education is under fire; if you really want a high-quality education for your child, perhaps a government voucher will defray the cost a little, until inflation eats up that subsidy as it has the minimum wage.

As a result, even as productivity-per-hour and GDP-per-capita have continued to rise, wages have not. Ever-increasing shares of the national income and the national wealth are controlled by the top 10%, the top 1%, the top .01%. Even in the uppermost levels of the economic pyramid, there is always an even smaller class of people just above you whose skyrocketing wealth is leaving you far behind.

Creditocracy. Andrew Ross’ book Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal points out that the goal of the counter-revolution is not just a restoration of late 19th-century capitalism, in which large employers dominate by controlling access to jobs. It’s a subtly different system of oppression entirely: a creditocracy.*

Everything the Cold War social contract promised is still available, you just have to pay up for it. How will you do that? You’ll get loans, and spend the rest of your life working to make payments. Rather than beg “Give me a job”, you’ll beg “Give me loan, so that I can get what I need to get and keep a job.” The bankers will be your benefactors, and then they will tell you what to do.

Education is where this project is most advanced. Probably there will always be some way to warehouse children at public expense while their parents work, either in public schools or in minimal private schools fully covered by a public voucher. But if you want the kind of education that gives a child options beyond minimum wage or welfare, you’ll have to pay up. Some people will be able to cover that expense, but most will have to borrow. If we’re talking about college, we’re already there. Working your way through college was once a realistic goal; it no longer is. The Federal Reserve recently estimated total student debt at $1.13 trillion, with about 1 in 8 borrowers owing more than $50,000 each, and a small but increasing number beginning their careers more than $200,000 in the hole.

If you just want to live somewhere, that won’t be a problem. But if you want to live in an neighborhood where potholes are fixed and police protect you rather than prey on you, you’ll have to pay up. Need a loan?

Public transportation? Forget about it. You can stay home for free, but if you want to work you’ll need a car, and cars cost. Calories are easy to come by, but safe and healthy food? Still available in certain upscale groceries, if you can afford it. Medical care? We’d never just let you die, and we have repayment plans with attractive rates. Clothes? I see you’ve got your body covered, but you’ll never get a job looking like that. Libraries? Parks? There are some you can join for a membership fee, though probably not in your neck of the woods. News? Comes from cable TV or the internet, via the local monopoly. Retirement? You can never be sure you’ll have enough to stay out of poverty, but maybe your kids will co-sign for you if you live too long.

During the post-war Trente Glorieuses, debt was a way to anticipate your rising income and get a few luxuries earlier than you otherwise might. But in the Creditocracy, debt is a necessity; all but the wealthy need to borrow to stay in the game. And once you owe, the onus is on you to toe the line: You’ll never cover your payments working in a field you love, or letting moral considerations control what you will and won’t do for a living. (Are you sure you don’t want to fight in our war? We’re hiring.) You don’t dare stick your neck out politically or socially, if you want to stay employed and keep making your payments. Maybe someday, if you get it all paid off, you’ll live by your heart and your conscience. But until then …

And where does this needed credit ultimately come from? It’s conjured out of the aether by the Federal Reserve, and distributed to the big banks by loans at rock-bottom rates. That’s the controlled access that makes the whole system possible. They have access and you need it, so they can tell you what to do and leave you thanking them for it. And if they ever push things too far and make loans that can never be repaid, then they’ll have the government behind them, bailing them out and sticking ordinary taxpayers with the bill. You may have lost your home, your savings, and God knows what else in the whole mess, but at least the banker will be made whole.

The Morality of Default. On the rare occasions when systems of oppression are beaten, they are first beaten morally. Slavery can’t be defeated until the runaway slave becomes a hero rather than a scoundrel, and the rebellious one can become a soldier rather than a murderer. The company town can’t be overthrown until the worker who refuses to work becomes a striker rather than a bum, and values solidarity with his comrades over the debt he owes his employer for “giving” him a job.

Today, it seems like an impossible dream that debtors could ever take the moral high ground away from creditors. Somebody who borrows and then won’t pay is a deadbeat, a moocher, a loser. It seems hard to imagine a debtors’ rights movement that could win popular support for a repayment strike or the outright renunciation of unreasonable debts.

But that’s what Ross envisions. To get there, we need to develop and popularize moral standards that separate good debts from bad debts. For example, view John Oliver’s piece on the payday lending industry, and then consider the idea that many of these loans — particularly ones where the original principal amount was paid back long ago, but the compounding interest has taken on a life of its own —  should just not be repaid. Similarly, the Consumer Financial Protection Board is suing ITT Educational Services for tactics that seem widespread in the for-profit college industry: using high-pressure sales tactics to push students into taking out loans, when they have little prospect of either getting a degree or paying off the loan. Some of the sub-prime loans of the housing boom were likewise made with no reasonable prospect of repayment, then sold off to investors anyway. The primary fraud came from the banker, not the borrower.

Other debt is perhaps no fault of the lender, but should not be charged against the debtor either. Medical debt — often as clear a case of pay-or-die as any highway robbery — is the best example, but much student debt fits as well. The debt exists because of society’s failure to provide what ought to be public goods. If any debt is going to vanish in the fancy bookkeeping of the Fed, this kind of debt should.

Some debts are legitimate, but there are equally legitimate claims in the other direction, ones that the Creditocracy does not take as seriously. Much of the developing world’s debt to the wealthy countries might be cancelled by fair reparations for colonialism, or by the responsibility that industrialized nations have for using up the carbon-carrying capacity of the atmosphere. Today, the obligations in one direction are considered iron-clad, while the ones in the other are optional. Why should that be?

Probably most debts should eventually be paid. But even they might also be part of a larger debt strike, to force action on the ones that should be renegotiated or just renounced.

In the long run, the infrastructure of the Creditocracy might be torn down and rebuilt into an economic system whose primary purpose is to create useful goods and services rather than profits, a world with more co-ops and credit unions and crowd funding, and less money swirling around in financial derivatives.

But long before that can happen, the moral structure that supports the Creditocracy needs to be challenged and shaken at many levels. Imagine, if you can, a world in which the debtor who does not pay — like the slave who runs away or the worker who sits down on the job — is a hero.

Not a deadbeat, a moocher, or a loser. A hero.


* One reason this “review” is so long is that although I think the ideas in the book are important, I don’t actually like the way Ross makes his case. His style is repetitive, needlessly polemic, and sloppy with numbers. So I’m recasting the ideas in my own way.

One example: While making some point about Google and Facebook, Ross mentioned what each “earned” in a particular quarter. The numbers seemed high to me, so I checked them. He had actually quoted the companies’ revenues, not their earnings.

He was making a qualitative point, in which revenues worked just as well as earnings (i.e., some other number was small potatoes to companies that big). So it seemed to just be sloppiness rather than deception. But I don’t have to hit many such examples before I start to doubt everything.

The Monday Morning Teaser

It’s going to be another week where my word limit goes out the window. The featured post “Can We Overthrow the Creditocracy?” is a sort-of review of Andrew Ross’ Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal. I think the book has important ideas in it, but I found Ross’ writing style distractingly polemic and sloppy with numbers, so I recast the ideas I liked in my own way of thinking. Consequently, the “review” turned into another one of my history-of-the-world-in-one-sitting posts.

I could have compensated by cutting down the weekly summary, but I really wanted to call attention to the high quality of last week’s comments on the Charlie Hebdo article. And I had a mistake to fix, which turned out to be kind of interesting. And then there’s been actual news to comment on … you know how it goes. At least I’m not talking about 2016 this week; if only CNN could say the same.

The Creditocracy article is in that stage where it’s hard to say how long it will take to screw down the details. I’m aiming for posting in the 10-11 range, but I really have no idea. The summary should follow shortly after.

True Blasphemy

No blasphemy could be more heinous than this crime, no matter what the magazine published or whom it offended. Judgment belongs to God. Those who claim to defend Islam with violence and horror are essentially asserting that God is incapable of carrying out His will and so they must act in His stead: that’s blasphemy.

Mir Tamim Ansary, Afghan-American novelist (2015)

This week’s featured post is “Am I Charlie? Should I Be?

This week everybody was talking about Charlie Hebdo

It’s hard to believe that this has all played out since the last Sift. On Wednesday gunmen killed 12 cartoonists and other staffers at the satirical French publication Charlie Hebdo. One suspect soon gave himself up, while three others have been killed by police. One is still at large.

The attack has been linked to the killing of a French policewoman. The suspect in that case barricaded himself with hostages in a kosher supermarket. He was killed by police, and four of the hostages died.

We don’t usually think of Wikipedia as a source for current events, but it is usually a good way to follow events like this, where details trickle out in no particular order and sometimes change from one day to the next. Wikipedia’s continuously re-edited article on the shooting is keeping track of what we know so far.


The many reactions to the shooting are a story in themselves. The shootings appear to have been carried out by French Muslims offended by Charlie Hebdo‘s lampooning of Islam and Muhammad, so the news set off a lot of pre-existing opinions people have about Islam, religion in general, free speech, terrorism, how the West has been trying to fight terrorism, and so on. My own reaction is in “Am I Charlie? Should I Be?


Well over a million people rallied for unity in Paris Sunday, and millions more across France. The BBC article on the rallies included this picture from Reims.


Adam Gopnik wrote a very thoughtful piece for BBC News, making personal connections both to one of the murdered cartoonists and to a Muslim couple he knows in Paris. This is a point frequently forgotten: When you lash out at groups (whatever the justification), you lash out at individual people, the great majority of whom don’t deserve it.


Of course there are conspiracy theories attributing the killings to everyone from the CIA to Mossad. But so far they seem to be coming mainly from people who attribute everything to the CIA or Mossad. These false-flag theories claim that the purpose is to justify a new round of the War on Terror or to scuttle recent Palestinian diplomatic initiatives to Europe.

If it’s a frame-up, the framers did a good job. One of the alleged killers trained with Al Qaeda in Yemen, and AP says someone in that group claims responsibility. The supermarket hostage-taker left a jihadi video.


Two theories about why this happened seem credible to me. The first is the most publicized one: This is revenge for dishonoring Muhammad. Almost certainly this is what the men doing the shooting believed.

People higher up the chain, though, may have had a more strategic motive: to further isolate European Muslims from the non-Muslim population. Juan Cole explains:

The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. … But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.

If that really is the point, it might be working.


Coverage of the avenge-the-Prophet motive may be somewhat off-base. Vox claims the issue may have more to do with community identity than with any theological dogma.

[A]lthough religious identity may be the source of anger over the cartoons, that does not mean that the objections are necessarily theological. In fact, despite widespread belief to the contrary, there may be no such theological restriction at all.

The Koran does not specifically prohibit insulting the Prophet, Aslan said. Mogahed noted that there was no agreement within mainstream Islam over what constitutes blasphemy, what the response to it should be, or how it should fit within the context of freedom of speech. It would therefore be a mistake to reduce an entire cultural identity to a narrow question of religious law.

If you frame the shooters’ motive as punishment of blasphemy, most Americans feel distant from it. But community identity hits closer to home. In that context, ridicule of the Prophet looks more like flag-burning. As far as I know, nobody has been killed for burning an American flag. But we have seen repeated efforts in Congress to remove freedom-of-speech protection from flag-burning, and in discussions of flag-burning, it is not unusual to hear threats of violence against the burners.


But how can I possibly compare what Muslims do to what “real Americans” do? They’re completely different. Or, at least a lot of Americans seem to think so. The Public Religion Research Institute published this graphic:


One typical response to events like this massacre is: Why don’t Muslims condemn terrorism? Usually this comes from outlets like Fox News, which rarely let a moderate Muslim on their airwaves anyway. (It’s similar to the why-don’t-black-leaders-talk-about-black-on-black-violence canard. When they do no one covers it, so you can get away with saying they don’t.)

That point is completely untenable in this case, because denunciations of the killings have been coming in from Muslims around the world. Of course all the groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (which Fox’s Bob Beckel said “keep their mouths shut when things happen”) condemned the Charlie Hebdo massacre. But even Hamas condemned it, saying:

[D]ifferences of opinion and thought cannot justify murder.

Supporters of Al Qaeda and ISIS seem to be the only people celebrating the attack.


That didn’t stop Bill Maher from claiming — based on more-or-less nothing — that

I know most Muslim people would not have carried out an attack like this. But here’s the important point. Hundreds of millions of them support an attack like this. They applaud an attack like this.


A related story that is getting much less coverage concerns the situation of French Jews, who have seen attacks on them — like the killing of hostages in the kosher supermarket — increase substantially in recent years.

I don’t feel like I really understand this situation, but I believe it isn’t a re-awakening of traditional Dreyfus-Affair-style French anti-Semitism. It seems more like immigrant Arabs and other Muslims are taking out their anti-Israel anger on French Jews.

But if you’re under attack, the exact identity and motive of your attacker may seem less important than getting to safety. The Jewish Agency reports that

Last year, 7,000 emigrated to Israel as anti-Semitism spiked across France, … double the previous year, making France, for the first time, the No. 1 source of immigration to Israel.

So yes, hostility to Israel motivates attacks on French Jews, whose emigration not only makes Israel stronger, but emphasizes the reason Israel exists. Strategically, this is totally backwards. If French Israel-haters really want to hurt Israel, they should do their best to make France the destination-of-choice for persecuted Jews.

but I wish more people were talking about Boko Haram

This week Boko Haram killed hundreds, maybe as many as two thousand civilians in Baga, a border town between Nigerian and Chad. It isn’t drawing even a fraction of the coverage of the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris.

There’s an old quote that I can’t put my finger on this morning. It sounds like H. L. Mencken, but probably isn’t. The gist is that the number of deaths necessary to make a headline is inversely proportional to distance. (If you know the exact quote, leave a comment.)

I would amend that to say “perceived distance”. I’m thousands of miles from Paris, but I’ve been there and I think of Parisians as being more or less like me. By comparison, the back country of Nigeria seems infinitely far away. Hundreds or thousands of innocent people dead? Why should Americans care about that?

and the problems with our armed forces and how we use them

James Fallows has been writing about military issues in The Atlantic for decades. I’ve consistently found him to be reasonable and thoughtful. This month’s cover article “The Tragedy of the American Military” is well worth your time.

It centers on the problems of being a “chickenhawk nation”: Unlike previous generations of Americans (most of whom either fought in America’s wars or had parents, siblings, or children who did) today’s Americans are largely insulated from the military. Increasingly, wars are fought either by the underclass (who need a place to start their careers and have few other options) or by men and women from families with a military tradition. Outside that small caste of military families, middle-class and upper-class voters — the people whose opinions count most in our semi-oligarchic system — can have opinions about war with no consequences, or can ignore the military altogether.

The result is that the military and its issues play mostly a symbolic role in our politics. We “support our troops” with bumper stickers and in football halftime shows, but we don’t really think that hard about where we’re sending them, how we’re equipping them, or what we expect them to accomplish.

One result is that we end up losing wars. Few people say this so bluntly, but Fallows thinks that if you compare our recent military operations to the objectives we had going in, the only ones that count as successes are the 1991 Gulf War and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

I just started reading Why We Lost by retired Army General Daniel Bolger, who seems to take a similar view. That book begins like this:

I am a United States Army General, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism. It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous. Step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers.

You can get a taste of Bolger’s viewpoint from his NPR interview in November.

Another problem Fallows identifies is that military procurement has taken on a life of its own, one centered on politics and money rather than what the Pentagon needs to carry out the mission we assign it (whatever that should be). Raising or cutting the military budget is a symbolic issue in our politics, and does not lead to a discussion of ends and means. Politically, it is easier to fund expensive Swiss-army-knife weapons that promise to harness cutting-edge technology to do everything for everybody rather than cheaper, more reliable ones designed for specific purposes using components that we know work. Fallows illustrates with the F-35 fighter:

[A] plane designed to do many contradictory things—to be strong enough to survive Navy aircraft-carrier landings, yet light and maneuverable enough to excel as an Air Force dogfighter, and meanwhile able to take off and land straight up and down, like a helicopter, to reach marines in tight combat circumstances—has unsurprisingly done none of them as well as promised.

Fallows believes that if we weren’t a chickenhawk nation — if our politically powerful classes knew that their children would be operating these systems or depending on them for battlefield support — we would be having a different conversation with a different outcome.

and you also might be interested in …

I continue to believe that Elizabeth Warren isn’t running for president. But if she were, she would have to write a stump speech about what’s wrong with America and what she wants to do about it. She gave that speech Wednesday to the AFL-CIO.


As I’ve pointed out before, gun rights work very differently for whites and non-whites. Vice has a fascinating article on the black version of Open Carry Texas: the Huey P. Newton Gun Club established in Dallas by the New Black Panther Party. (Also mentioned: the Indigenous People’s Liberation Party, described as “young, Latino Communists”.)

Predictably, Conservative Tribune, which supports gun rights in other situations, finds this group “alarming” and emphasizes that “this is neither a joke nor a ‘Chappelle’s Show’ sketch.” Presumably, that reference to black comedian Dave Chappelle is supposed to emphasize the inherent absurdity of non-whites claiming equal Second Amendment rights.

To the extent that CT recognizes the presence of contradictions, it projects the problem onto its enemies:

while the gun rights of average Americans are under assault from the Obama administration, these guys don’t even get the slightest bit of attention.

Naturally, their article provides no facts to support the idea that the administration is treating white and black gun-owners differently in any way. CT itself is doing that, not Obama.


Ezra Klein asks an excellent question: “What would Republicans say if Mitt Romney were president and the economy was this strong?


The 2nd Annual New Hampshire Rebellion winter walk against money in politics has started in Dixville Notch.

and let’s close with an illustration of your airliner seating options

 

Am I Charlie? Should I Be?

Let me start by saying what should be obvious, something I hope will provoke no disagreement: Nothing that people say or write or draw should get them killed. Not by a government, a church, a political party, or offended individuals. No opinion or blasphemy or insult or truth or lie, no matter how it’s packaged or delivered, justifies violence.

In almost every case, the proper response to speech is speech, or perhaps a shocked or dignified silence. Truth is the best answer to lies, insight the proper response to fallacy. Sometimes an insult can be topped by a cleverer insult, and sometimes it’s wiser to walk away. If a comedian tells a cruel joke and the audience responds with stunned silence, justice has been served. No violence is necessary or called for or warranted. Say what you may, you don’t “have it coming”. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the Muslim imam of the Paris suburb Drancy said in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings:

We can argue over liberty, but when we’re in disagreement we respond to art with art, to wit with wit. We never respond to a drawing with blood. No! Never.

Even the classic exception — yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater — just calls for someone to put a hand over your mouth and hustle you out the door, maybe to face a misdemeanor charge that underlines the seriousness of the situation. No beat-down is necessary. No lengthy imprisonment. No execution.

Nothing you say or write or draw should get you killed.

My next point isn’t quite as obvious, but also shouldn’t be controversial: Some legal speech should be socially unacceptable. After Mel Gibson went on a drunken rant about the “fucking Jews”, he wasn’t imprisoned or assassinated, but his popularity took a dive. When Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson spewed a lot of demeaning nonsense about gays, blacks, and anyone who isn’t Christian, he was not arrested, but the show’s ratings dropped.

If I started sprinkling words like nigger and faggot through all my conversations, I would be breaking no laws, but people would avoid me. If I talked like that in a workplace, to my co-workers or our employer’s customers, I’d probably get fired. That’s an entirely appropriate response that has nothing to do with free speech.

Free speech has social consequences. If you want to be protected against the nonviolent social consequences of what you say, you’re talking about something else, not free speech.

Free speech also doesn’t require anyone to sponsor my speech or provide a convenient platform for me to say things they find offensive. (That actually isn’t hypothetical; I occasionally get invitations to speak in public, which I believe would dry up if I made a habit of saying racist or otherwise hateful things.) So when A&E briefly decided to separate itself from Robertson (and then reversed that decision), that wasn’t about free speech. Neither were the examples raised by David Brooks Thursday in his NYT column. If the University of Illinois doesn’t want to pay a Catholic priest to preach his doctrine in a for-credit class as an adjunct professor (and then reverses that decision), that might violate academic freedom (depending on what academic freedom means in the tradition of that school), but not freedom of speech. If universities do or don’t want to host Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Bill Maher, that’s a sponsored-speech issue, not a free-speech issue.

If people respond to what I say by calling it “hate speech” or by calling me a racist or sexist or some other name I don’t like, my rights have not been violated. (No matter what Sarah Palin thinks the First Amendment says.) Those words don’t have some magical power to “silence” people. Free speech doesn’t end when I’m done speaking; other people get to speak too — about me, if they want.

So I should be free to say or write or draw what I want without violence, but everybody else should be free to argue with me or insult me or shun me, if that seems appropriate to them. And if your response to me seems over-the-top to some third person, he or she should be free to criticize or insult or shun you too. That’s how freedom works.

So am I Charlie? After 9-11, Le Monde titled an editorial “Nous sommes tous Américains” — we are all Americans. For decades, the French had resented being in the shadow of American power, and had been reluctant allies at best. But in 9-11 Le Monde saw a violation of the civilized principles France and America share, and realized that what had happened to us could happen to them. So they put aside any petty urge to gloat over our misfortune and instead chose to identify with us: In the aftermath of 9-11, we were all Americans, even if we happened to be French.

In the same spirit, the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has people all over the world saying “Je suis Charlie” — I am Charlie. (Wednesday, it led to a Le Monde op-ed by American ambassador Jane Hartley gratefully recalling “Nous sommes tous Américains”.) But are we really Charlie? Should we be?

There are a lot of ways in which we are all Charlie, or wish we had it in us to be Charlie. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine that refused to back down when it was threatened or even attacked. (It’s still not backing down; the next issue will have a million-copy run.) All of us want to speak freely, and want to identify with people who stand up to intimidation and bullying, even if we don’t always stand up ourselves. Nobody wants to see the bullies win.

To that end, a lot of web sites have been re-posting the Charlie cartoons that offended Muslims (with translations at Vox), and are presumably the ones that 12 people died for. If anybody thinks that murder is an effective way to suppress cartoons, they should find out how wrong they are. Here’s one:

“Muhammad Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists” says the headline, and Vox has a red-faced Muhammad saying “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” That sentiment would also fit well in Jesus’ mouth, IMHO, and would make the cartoon funny, if that’s what it really said. I could imagine such a cartoon in The Onion.

But something isn’t quite right about Vox‘s translation, because idiot is a perfectly fine French word, and Muhammad isn’t saying it. French has never been my subject, but after a little poking around online, I’m suspecting that cons is actually closer to cunts, which changes the impact considerably. (That’s also the translation favored by Saturn’s Repository.)

Then there’s the cartoon I won’t re-post, but The Hooded Utilitarian did: the one that turns the Boko Haram sex slaves into welfare queens. Is that supposed to be funny?

The American media has been portraying Charlie Hebdo almost as a French equivalent of irreverent American publications like The Onion or Mad, but it really isn’t. Something much darker has been going on. Charlie wasn’t just trying to be funny without worrying who it offended; it was trying to offend people for the sake of offending them, while maybe incidentally being funny. And although you can find examples here and there of attacks on Catholics or Jews, it put special effort into offending Muslims.

Which leads to the next question: If Charlie Hebdo was attacked for baiting Muslims, should those of us who find ourselves identifying with Charlie carry on its mission by doing our own Muslim baiting?

For me, that’s where Je suis Charlie starts to break down. Glenn Greenwald makes the obvious comparison:

[I]t is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights.

Greenwald (who is of Jewish heritage but was not raised in any organized religion) illustrates that point by posting an ugly series of anti-Semitic cartoons and asking: “Is it time for me to be celebrated for my brave and noble defense of free speech rights?”

Punching down. Humor works best as a weapon of the weak against the powerful. But when the powerful make fun of the weak — like when popular high school jocks trip the new kid into a mud puddle and laugh — it soon stops being humorous and turns ugly.

Sometimes telling the weak from the powerful is tricky. When Rush Limbaugh plays “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show, is he a free citizen lampooning a powerful politician, or a rich and influential white celebrity telling American blacks that even the best of them don’t deserve his respect? I can imagine someone taking the first view, but the mere existence of the second restrains me from laughing.

In France, Muslims are not just a minority religion, they are an underclass. Many come from former French colonies like Algeria, and work low-status jobs for considerably less than the average French wage. Whatever other messages Charlie Hebdo‘s anti-Muslim cartoons might send, they also express the social power that educated white Frenchmen have over their darker-skinned menials. And that makes those drawings considerably less funny.

The Hooded Utilitarian sums up:

White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good.

Satire, even bad satire or bigoted satire, is not something anybody should be killed for — or arrested or beaten up or vandalized for. I’m not making a both-sides-are-wrong point, because the wrong on one side is completely out of scale with the other. But that doesn’t mean I want to celebrate anti-Muslim bigotry.

So in some ways I want to be Charlie and in other ways I don’t. I hope that if anyone ever tries to intimidate me out of speaking my mind, I will be as courageous as the staff of Charlie Hebdo. I hope their successors remain free to print what they want, and that the people who appreciate their work remain free to buy it. But I can’t endorse what they published. All speech should be legal and free from violence, but some should be socially unacceptable.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The week was dominated by the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, the pursuit of the killers, and the wide variety of responses from around the world and all corners of the political spectrum.

My own response will be in the featured post, “Am I Charlie? Should I Be?”, which should come out around 10.

The weekly summary, around noon, will start with other people’s responses to the massacre, then talk about James Fallows’ “The Tragedy of the American Military”, the predictable conservative freak-out when blacks start their own version of Open Carry Texas, and a few other things.

Different Races, Different Rules

I know that I cannot carry a gun in public and neither can my sons, even if it is a toy. If I lay prone on an open highway and point an assault rifle at a federal agent, my next stop would be federal custody or the nearest county morgue. Open carry laws are not meant for me. The rules are different. It’s what it means to be black in this country.

– Goldie Taylor “What Would Happen if I Got in a White Cop’s Face?

This week’s featured post: “Will Republicans Ever Have a Sister Souljah Moment?

This week everybody was still talking about the NYPD

The NYPD’s “slowdown” or “virtual work stoppage” (or whatever you want to call it) has become one of the weirder stories in some while. The New York Post says:

NYPD traffic tickets and summonses for minor offenses have dropped off by a staggering 94 percent following the execution of two cops — as officers feel betrayed by the mayor and fear for their safety. … The Post obtained the numbers hours after revealing that cops were turning a blind eye to some minor crimes and making arrests only “when they have to” since the execution-style shootings of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.

Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi points out the implication: NYPD has been arresting a lot of people it didn’t really have to.

So this police protest, unwittingly, is leading to the exposure of the very policies that anger so many different constituencies about modern law-enforcement tactics.

In New York, as in Ferguson and many other municipalities, police citations are a revenue source, with a sizable amount of that revenue coming from the neighborhoods that get the most policing — poor neighborhoods. The slow-down brings that hidden regressive tax into focus.

Also, the slowdown tests the controversial “broken windows” theory of policing — that you arrest people for minor offenses to establish public order, which in the long run prevents major crimes. If the slowdown doesn’t lead to a major crime wave, then what were all those minor-offense arrests about? The Atlantic‘s Matt Ford:

If the NYPD can safely cut arrests by two-thirds, why haven’t they done it before?

The human implications of this question are immense. Fewer arrests for minor crimes logically means fewer people behind bars for minor crimes. Poorer would-be defendants benefit the most; three-quarters of those sitting in New York jails are only there because they can’t afford bail. Fewer New Yorkers will also be sent to Rikers Island, where endemic brutality against inmates has led to resignations, arrests, and an imminent federal civil-rights intervention over the past six months. A brush with the American criminal-justice system can be toxic for someone’s socioeconomic and physical health.

I don’t think NYPD intended their slow-down as a challenge to the way American police function, but it’s turning out that way.


In general, the police-and-race issue isn’t going away, no matter how much CNN would prefer to cover another lost airliner. Protests continued in various cities (including New York) on New Years Eve.

One aspect of this story is getting new attention: all the times when police confront armed and disorderly white people and somehow manage to hold their fire long enough to resolve the situation peacefully. This white woman, for example, drove around Chattanooga the day after Christmas, wearing body armor and firing a gun out the window.

Eventually, officers stopped and arrested Shields at Cloverdale Drive and Koblan Drive, near the spot where the shootings occurred and just blocks from her house. She pointed her firearm at an officer, but was taken into custody without incident or injury.

The same day in Post Falls, Idaho, two white guys in a Walmart took BB guns off the shelf and started shooting in the store. “The two suspects were taken into custody without incident.”

Contrast what happened to black males John Crawford (who was killed by police because he was casually carrying a BB gun around a Walmart, threatening no one) and Tamir Rice (a 12-year-old killed by police because they thought he was older and believed his toy gun was real). In each of those cases, video shows police firing fatal shots within seconds of sighting what they thought was a gun.

The all-time champion be-understanding-to-armed-whites police incident happened in Kalamazoo back in May.

Police reports and recordings of a sometimes tense 40-minute encounter with a belligerent, rifle-toting man offers insight into how officers tried to defuse a volatile situation without infringing on his right to openly carry the gun on a city street.

If police had spent 40 minutes — or 40 seconds — talking to Crawford or Rice or worrying about their rights, the situations could have been easily defused.


A essay making a related point appeared Tuesday in The Daily Beast. Goldie Taylor, a black woman, looks at the photo below (from a New York protest) and muses on the question: “What Would Happen If I Got In a White Cop’s Face?

The truth is while I don’t know what she was saying, I do know this: Similar actions by a person of color, specifically a black woman like me, would likely end up with us in jail, in a hospital or who knows—like Eric Garner, on a medical examiner’s table.

I know that I cannot carry a gun in public and neither can my sons, even if it is a toy. If I lay prone on an open highway and point an assault rifle at a federal agent, my next stop would be federal custody or the nearest county morgue. Open carry laws are not meant for me. The rules are different. It’s what it means to be black in this country.


Business as usual at Fox: A local Fox station edited video of a protest so that a chant against “killer cops” became “kill a cop”. When caught, the station apologized for the “error”.

and the relationship between Republicans and racists

New House Majority Whip Steve Scalise has been under fire since a blogger discovered he spoke to a white supremacist group in 2002. In “Will Republicans Ever Have a Sister Souljah Moment?” I center the conversation where I think it belongs: not on whether Scalise or Republicans in general are racists, but whether racists are too big a part of the Republican base for an aspiring politician to offend.

In particular, will Republican candidates ever face the same pressure Democrats do to distance themselves from the more extreme parts of their base? (Digby calls this hippie punching, defined as “how Democrats like to debase the left in order to appeal to so-called Real Americans”.) It seems unimaginable that someday a Scalise might go to a white-supremacist conference and intentionally piss them off (by, say, defending the civil rights of non-whites) in order to establish his centrist cred.


Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar made an excellent point on Meet the Press Sunday. Republicans are rightfully worried that the Scalise flap reinforces the stereotype that Republicans have a racial problem. But the right response isn’t to just denounce racism or David Duke, it’s to use their congressional majority to move on civil rights issues that they claim to support (like fixing the Voting Rights Act), or to just do their jobs (like confirming Loretta Lynch as the new attorney general).

But what I’m more interested in, when always this kind of thing happens, people disown it, they say, “This was wrong,” but what do we do about it?

What are the actions? I’ll give you a few. The Republicans can move along on Loretta Lynch fast. She’s a U.S. attorney. The nominee for attorney general. She’s been vetted before. Get it done in a month. The Justice Department runs the civil rights enforcement in this country. Get the voting rights bill done.

Don’ t just claim you’re for civil rights. Prove it.

and recalling the best of 2014

“TPM is pleased to announce the winners of the Eighth Annual Golden Dukes recognizing the year’s best purveyors of public corruption, outlandish behavior, The Crazy and betrayals of the public trust. The awards are named in honor of former Rep. Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham, who epitomizes the iconic modern scandal.”


Salon re-published its 10 Best Personal Essays 2014: a woman waiting to have an abortion, an American who doesn’t tell anyone about being Muslim, a college guy experimenting with homosexuality, a woman saving sex for marriage, a man remembering his pederast, an ex-addict who fell in love with a death-row inmate and watched him die, a self-described “fat girl” reflecting on romance, a bomb-squad widow meeting the bomber, a card-playing foursome too poor for pop culture, and a mother who briefly left her son alone in the car.


Media Matters’ “Misinformer of the Year” is George Will, who worked hard all year to deserve this honor.


Daily Kos’ John Perr learned 14 things in 2014.


Time‘s 10 most influential photos of the year. I’ll go with this one from Ferguson:


IMDB does its best-of-movies lists. Rolling Stone picks its favorite albums.


You can watch the whole year go by in 4 minutes.


Some stuff that didn’t happen in 2014: crashing stock market, collapsing economy, unemployment stuck at 8%, gas at $5.45 a gallon. That’s what America was supposed to look like by now if we re-elected the horrible President Obama. The same people are still out there predicting things, and being taken seriously.

but I wish more people were talking about …

The new Republican majority in Congress is about to change the rules of the budgeting game. It’s technical and sounds boring, but “dynamic scoring” is actually something ordinary people should care about.

Here’s what it means. When a tax cut is proposed, the Congressional Budget Office “scores” it, to determine how much revenue the government would forgo. Naively, you might think that cutting a tax 10% would cut the revenue it generates by 10%, but actually the revenue drop is usually somewhat less, because fewer people avoid the tax. (Think about cutting the toll on a bridge. You’d collect less per car, but the number of cars crossing the bridge might go up.)

Current CBO techniques allow for that effect. But they don’t allow for an article of faith within conservative circles: that a big tax cut will increase revenue by stimulating the economy. The CBO doesn’t score that way, because there’s little evidence that such an effect really exists, and no reliable model at all about how big it might be. The CBO is trying to make accurate predictions, not affirm conservative ideology.

That’s what Republicans want to change. If they succeed, future CBO projections will show tax cuts making a much smaller hit on the deficit than will actually turn out to be the case. Worse, the change is one-sided: It would model the stimulative effect of tax cuts, but not of increased government spending. As Edward Kleinbard wrote in the NYT:

The Republicans’ interest in dynamic scoring is not the result of a million-economist march on Washington; it comes from political factions convinced that tax cuts are the panacea for all economic ills. They will use dynamic scoring to justify a tax cut that, under conventional scorekeeping, loses revenue.

When revenues do in fact decline and deficits rise, those same proponents will push for steep cuts in government insurance or investment programs, because they will claim that the models demand it. That is what lies inside the Trojan horse of dynamic scoring.


While we’re on economics, Joseph Stiglitz has been talking about inequality in interviews, as well as his book The Price of Inequality (which I haven’t read). He makes a distinction similar to one I’ve sifted before: You can get rich by producing new products that create new jobs, or you can get rich by owning fixed assets whose price goes up. One way grows the economy for everyone, while the other just gets you a bigger slice of the pie.

What’s destructive in the recent bonanza for the 1% is that it’s largely the unproductive kind of wealth creation, which is why the rising tide isn’t lifting all boats. Stiglitz refers to this as “increased exploitation”.

Maybe the least productive way to get rich is to increase your power over some part of the market, which will raise the price of your stock at the expense of your customers, workers, and the general public. Stiglitz notes that “when you look at the top [of the wealth distribution], it’s monopoly power.”

and you also might be interested in …

The New Hampshire Rebellion is doing another winter walk against money in politics from January 11 to January 21, when groups coming from three directions are supposed to converge on Concord. I’m giving serious thought to doing the Nashua-to-Merrimack segment on January 18.


Vox reminds us of the minority-rule provision built into the Constitution: Because big states and small states get the same number of senators, it turns out that the 46 Democratic senators got 20 million more votes than the 54 Republican senators.


After trouncing Jameis Winston’s Florida State Seminoles 59-20 in the Rose Bowl, thus ending FSU’s winning streak and putting the defending champions out of the running for a second consecutive national championship, some Oregon players taunted FSU and Winston in a unique way: They imitated FSU’s native-American-inspired chant, but chanted “No means no”, a reference to the sexual assault charges that Winston wriggled out of. Watch:

Bad sportsmanship? Absolutely; you don’t taunt somebody you’ve just beaten. But this also looks like some kind of tipping point on the public perception of sexual assault.


And while we’re talking about women’s rights:


First Jeb Bush put a toe into the 2016 water, now Mike Huckabee. Huck was the candidate I was most afraid of in the 2012 cycle, because of his ability to sound reasonable while saying outrageous things. But I wonder if he’s missed his window. Now we’ve got years and years of video of him taking far-out-of-the-mainstream positions. They may not hurt him in GOP primaries, but I don’t think they’ll play well in a general election.


Andy Borowitz is brilliant: “Jeb Bush resigns as George W. Bush’s brother.”


Grist points out why anti-abortion folks should love Obamacare: When the larger up-front cost is covered, more women choose less error-prone methods of contraception, and have fewer unwanted pregnancies, hence fewer abortions. That’s all showing up in the statistics: The abortion rate is down, but the birth rate is not up. Fewer women are getting pregnant.

I don’t expect those facts to convince anyone on the Religious Right, for a simple reason: I believe their opposition to abortion isn’t fundamentally about “baby-killing” at all; it’s rooted in opposition to female promiscuity. Doctrines about zygotes having souls are constructed post hoc to justify a position already held; what’s really wrong with abortion is that it stops pregnancy from controlling promiscuity. So for them a plan that reduces abortions but enables female sexuality is a non-starter.

and let’s close with some animal acrobatics

as conjured up by Channel 3 of France.

Will Republicans Ever Have a Sister Souljah Moment?

Now that he’s under duress, Steve Scalise will denounce David Duke. But when it mattered, he courted Duke’s racist voters. Will a Republican ever intentionally offend extremists in the base to gain credibility with the center?


Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise is the new member of the Republican House leadership, replacing Eric Cantor, who lost his primary to a Koch-brothers candidate. Scalise is supposed to be the link between the leadership and the GOP’s extreme right wing, a role he appears to be good at.

But a funny thing happened: A blogger* (Lamar White Jr.) did some digging and found out that in 2002, then-state-rep Scalise was “an honored guest and speaker at an international conference of white supremacist leaders.” The group was the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a hate group established by KKK-Grand-Wizard-turned-Republican-politician David Duke.

Now Scalise says he doesn’t remember the event (which an aide said it was “highly likely” he had attended), and there’s a complicated version of the story in which it’s all a big misunderstanding; he just happened to be speaking at the same hotel at the same time to a lot of the same people. (Under further investigation, this version is falling apart.) Scalise claims he wouldn’t have spoken to EURO if he’d known what they were. He mentions giving hundreds of speeches with just one staffer, implying that the EURO gig just slipped through the cracks somehow.

But that explanation doesn’t pass the smell test. Duke was not an inconsequential figure in Louisiana politics in 2002. In 1991 he had stunned the state Republican Party by out-polling the establishment Republican candidate in the primary and winding up in a run-off for governor. (In the run-off, a national controversy in which Duke’s Klan-leader past was a major issue, he got a majority of the white vote and 39% statewide. If the Voting Rights Act of 1965 hadn’t enfranchised blacks, Duke would have become governor.)

In his early campaigns, Scalise at times consciously courted Duke voters. A Roll Call article from 1999 reported on a congressional race Duke was considering:

Another potential candidate, state Rep. Steve Scalise (R), said he embraces many of the same “conservative” views as Duke, but is far more viable. … “The voters in this district are smart enough to realize that they need to get behind someone who not only believes in the issues they care about, but also can get elected. Duke has proven that he can’t get elected, and that’s the first and most important thing.”

Three years later, Scalise couldn’t have just not noticed that David Duke was leading EURO now, or not known what that meant.

The New Republic‘s Brian Beutler makes the right point: The problem this incident illustrates isn’t that Scalise himself is or was a white supremacist — he probably isn’t and wasn’t. But (especially in the South) white racists have become a key component of the Republican base, one that a canny politician has to court, even if he can’t publicly endorse their ideology.

if in 1999 you said “the first and most important thing” about Duke was merely that he couldn’t get elected, rather than his despicable racism, it says something important about the voters you were trying not to offend. Many of those voters are still alive today.

In Democratic circles, you frequently hear talk about a “Sister Souljah moment“, which has been defined as “a key moment when the candidate takes what at least appears to be a bold stand against certain extremes in their party”. The paradigmic SSM was when candidate Bill Clinton denounced statements by black rapper Sister Souljah, saying “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black,’ and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.”

But SSMs only happen on the Left. (The article I took that definition from discussed Mitt Romney’s missed opportunity for an SSM, when he failed to denounce Rush Limbaugh’s grotesque slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke, saying only that slut was “not the language I would have used“. The substance of Limbaugh’s comments was apparently fine with Mitt; only his language was objectionable.) When the national media gets focused on an issue like Scalise’s EURO speech, conservative politicians can be cornered into rejecting an extremist like David Duke or Cliven Bundy — and can’t be cornered into rejecting Rush Limbaugh, no matter he says or does — but no Republican creates such moments to demonstrate his or her reasonableness to the moderate voter.

So no Republican presidential candidate — not even a so-called “moderate” like Jeb Bush or Chris Christie — is going to confront conservative extremists with reasonable positions and intentionally get himself booed.** No one is going to tell CPAC that the party needs to move to the center, or endorse background checks in front of the NRA, or defend church-and-state separation at the Values Voters Summit, or confront the Energy Alliance with the facts of climate science, or tell white racists that he really isn’t interested in their support.

Instead, if candidates don’t feel comfortable endorsing extremist views outright, they will dog-whistle to these groups, as Scalise did to EURO in 2002***, or Ronald Reagan did to white racists in 1980. They’ll present their conservative bona fides to CPAC, defend “constitutional rights” to the NRA, endorse “traditional values” to the values voters, identify with “sound science” in front of the Energy Alliance, and talk to white racists about the deficiencies of “inner city culture”.

Everyone in the room will know what those words mean. The extremists will come out feeling that the candidate agrees with them in his heart, but his agreement will be deniable in front of the general public.

Maybe someday there will be Sister Souljah moment on the Right. But not yet. The crazies are too important a constituency, so all serious Republican candidates have to pander to them.


* Can we finally put to bed the canard popular among mainstream journalists that they do all the investigative reporting, while bloggers just bloviate based on mainstream journalists’ discoveries? Bloggers may not have access to anonymous “highly placed sources” and can’t score interviews with Dick Cheney, but collectively we plow through a lot of original source documents. White apparently rummaged through the online archives of the white-supremacist Stormfront group. I doubt he had to elbow any Washington Post reporters out of the way.

** Romney did construct a reverse-SSM when he intentionally evoked boos from an NAACP gathering, thereby proving to extremists in his own party that he would stand up to black leaders.

*** According to a contemporary Stormfront account, Scalise didn’t directly endorse white supremacy at the EURO meeting. (But if Scalise thought he was speaking to some other group, that distinction apparently was lost on the Stormfront commenter, whose subject-line says “EURO/New Orleans 2002″.) Instead, he spoke about a topic white supremacists would appreciate: government favoritism to blacks.

Representative Scalise brought into sharp focus the dire circumstances pervasive in many important, under-funded needs of the community at the expense of graft within the Housing and Urban Development Fund, an apparent give-away to a selective group based on race.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The featured post this week is a reaction to the controversy over Steve Scalise having spoken to a white supremacist group in 2002. I’ll skip over points well-covered elsewhere and the opportunity to accuse a member of the House Republican leadership of racism, and go straight to the point I think this incident illustrates: not that Republicans are all racists, but that racists are a big enough part of the Republican base (especially in the South) that a rising politician needs to court them. Scalise foolishly courted them in person rather than through hints made elsewhere, but that was a mis-step in what (for conservatives) is a gray area.

The question this incident raises for me is the title of the article: “Will Republicans Ever Have a Sister Souljah Moment?” In other words, will a major Republican candidate ever intentionally and visibly offend the more extreme parts of his base in order to gain credibility with the center? Liberal Democrats often face the question of whether they should (or why they don’t) stage a Sister Souljah moment with some liberal constituency. But conservative Republicans never do. Instead, they compete to be the “true conservative” in the race.

So by all means, Republican candidates should speak to white supremacist groups — to explain why they support renewing the Voting Rights Act or passing immigration reform — and get themselves booed off the stage. But they won’t.

That post should be out in an hour or two. The weekly summary will talk about the weird implications of NYPD’s “slowdown”, some best-of-2014 stuff I found, interesting economic observations from Joseph Stiglitz, the Ducks’ unique post-Rose-Bowl taunting, and the sky-diving elephants from France. I’m not sure how long that will take to finish, but I’m aiming to post by noon.

The Yearly Sift: 2014

Hindsight is always 50-50.

– NFL quarterback Cam Newton

review all the Sift quotes of 2014

look at “The Yearly Sift: 2013

This week everybody was still talking about …

last week’s murder of the NYPD’s Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.

Conservatives like Rudy Giuliani blamed the murders on — who else? — President Obama.

We’ve had four months of propaganda, starting with the president, that everybody should hate the police.

Since nobody can find any record of Obama saying anything about hating the police, WaPo’s fact checker awarded this claim four Pinocchios. In fact, no one can come up with any record of the leaders of the black-lives-matter protests calling for violence against police — there is no H. Rap Brown “Burn, baby, burn” quote — but somehow it’s their fault. (There was one group at one protest that chanted for “dead cops”, but no one knows who started the chant, no one endorsed it afterwards, and most protesters never even heard it. This incident has been covered in the right-wing media as if it encapsulated the whole anti-police-brutality movement.)

Media Matters collected the various times when right-wing crazies have killed cops, including the time when they draped the Gadsden flag over the bodies. Oddly, Fox and other right-wing media outlets did not hold conservative leaders responsible for this.

If fingers are going to be pointed anywhere other than at the actual shooter this time, I’d point one at the prosecutors who manipulated the grand juries into not indicting policemen for killing Michael Brown and Eric Garner. As any regular Gotham watcher knows, vigilantes rise when the people lose hope of getting justice through the system.

The worst reaction of all was Bill O’Reilly’s: that Mayor Bill de Blasio is the “true villain” of this story, and should “resign today” because he has “lost the respect” of the NYPD. This call was discussed by other Fox News hosts on their own shows as if it were a sane and reasonable proposal.

It’s not. Treating the police as if they were an equal-or-superior branch of government, rather than employees of the city, flies in the face of American principles that go back to the Founders. In third-world countries that are trying to achieve democracy, you worry about whether the elected government can get along with the army. But such notions should never come up in America.

Nobody elected the NYPD. If public employees don’t feel that they can submit in good conscience to the duly elected officials, they should resign. Remember when Scott Walker was having so much trouble with Wisconsin’s teachers? I don’t recall O’Reilly — or anyone — calling on Walker to resign. The teachers who wanted to be rid of Walker had to work through the democratic system by petitioning for his recall. If NYC police want de Blasio out, they also should have to proceed democratically.

Charles Pierce makes a similar point, and connects it to the CIA torture scandal:

It is very simple. If the CIA is insubordinate to the president, whom the country elected, then it is insubordinate to all of us. If the NYPD runs a slow-motion coup against the freely elected mayor of New York, then it is running a slow-motion coup against all the people of New York. … If we render our torturers superior to the political institutions of the government, and if we render the police superior to the civil power of elected officials, then we essentially have empowered independent standing armies to conduct our wars and enforce our laws, and self-government descends into bloody farce.

But let’s get on with reviewing 2014’s Weekly Sifts.

Themes of the Year

Every year I begin the Yearly Sift with the same caveat: I write the Sift week-to-week, without any larger plan to illustrate themes. But inevitably, I see themes when I look back at the end of the year.

Roots of conservatism. Like a lot of liberals, when I listen to conservative speakers, I often feel like I’m hearing something in code. The leaps of logic, the connections they see between events that look unrelated to me, the refusal to see connections that I consider obvious — there’s something behind it all, some frame, some vision, some unconscious attitude, some set of unstated prior assumptions — true or false — that make sense of it all.

This year I spent a lot of time trying to decrypt conservative thought, looking for its historical roots and hidden assumptions. I didn’t set out to be ungenerous, but I doubt many conservatives approved of the ways I described those roots and assumptions.

In the year’s most popular post, “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“, I traced contemporary conservative ideas back to the Confederacy, arguing that the Tea Party is using the tropes and tactics that won Reconstruction for the South and reversed the apparent outcome of the Civil War. That article became necessary because previous articles “Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex” and “Rights Are For People Like Us” were too speculative and needed more supporting research.

After the election, I tried to abstract a the worldview from the Republican messages I had been hearing about immigration, Ebola, moral decline, and the general “otherness” of President Obama. In “Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.” I described that story as: America is a city on a hill with barbarians at the gates. I groped towards a liberal equivalent mythology in “Can We Share the World?

A more light-hearted — at least I thought it was light-hearted — look at the conservative worldview was “A Conservative Lexicon With English Translation“, which resulted in so many good suggestions from commenters that I put out a second edition. Commenters on that post said that I should have combined the two into one post, which I have finally done in a page that I hope to update from time to time.

Privilege — the way life works differently for blacks and whites, men and women, rich and poor — has turned into a continuing background theme of the Sift since 2012’s “The Distress of the Privileged“. This May, Time published a privilege-justifying essay by a Princeton freshman, and I responded to him with “Privilege and the Bubble of Flattery“.

Specific varieties of privilege also got my attention. “Not a Tea Party” was the culmination of a race-and-history thread going back to 2012’s “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System“, “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“, “Ta-Nehisi Coates Goes There: Reparations“, and “Are You Sure You’re White?“. The most popular post from the first half of the year was “What Should ‘Racism’ Mean?“, a discussion of implicit and unconscious racism, using reactions to the Obamas occupying the White House as examples.

Ferguson and its related issues of race, police violence, and the biases in our legal system became an event-driven theme of its own. The best post in this series was “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson“. But (in addition to being discussed in many weekly summaries) Ferguson also figured in “The Ferguson Test“, “Infrastructure, Suburbs, and the Long Descent to Ferguson“, “Five Lessons to Remember as Ferguson Fades into History“, and “This Time Will the Outrage Matter?“.

The Donald Sterling incident brought up just about any kind of privilege you can think of. So of course the conservative media decided he was the victim, which I addressed head-on in “No, Donald Sterling Isn’t the Victim“.

Male privilege also came up, most often in the context of violence against women. After the Isla Vista murders I wrote “#YesAllWomen and the Continuum of Aggression” to explain why men and women viewed the events so differently:

Men look at Elliot Rodger and say, “I would never do something like that.” Women look at his victims and say, “That could totally happen to me.”

That piece later got picked up by UU World magazine. Male entitlement was the focus of my review of Angry White Men. Domestic violence was the subject of “Is Ray Rice’s Video a Game-Changer?

Law. Making sense of important court rulings is a continuing focus of the Sift. Those legal-analysis posts never get really big readership, but I still believe they’re a public service, since the mainstream media does that job so badly.

This year I explained the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, the Schuette decision about affirmative action, and the McCutcheon decision on campaign finance, plus lower-court decisions involving net neutrality and a series of same-sex marriage decisions that I covered throughout the year, and then collected in October’s “Is the Battle for Same-Sex Marriage Nearly Over?” (Not yet; the Supreme Court is going to have to take the case.)

The Books

This year the Sift had fewer book reviews, but more posts that were the result of long reading projects.

“Not a Tea Party” could have used a bibliography, as it rested on Jefferson Davis: American by William J. Cooper, Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name (which had gotten its own review in March), Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman: a historical romance of the Ku Klux Klan, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, the two Douglas Egerton histories Year of Meteors and The Wars of Reconstruction, W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction, and Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, and a few other books not specifically named, like Away Down South by James Cobb and John C. Calhoun and the Price of Union by John Niven.

If I rewrote the article today, it would have to include some quotes from R. L. Dabny’s A Defense of Virginia and the South from 1867; I’ll be looking for opportunities to tell you more about that, as I see Dabny’s book as the best existing first-person account of the Confederate worldview. (A teaser: The mistake at the root of the North’s misbegotten abolitionism is social contract theory. Once you start thinking that government depends on the consent of the governed, you’ll end up not just freeing the slaves, but giving them the vote. And women too, God forbid!)

One book review that did get a lot of attention this year was of Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men.Republicans have a story to tell. We’re stuck with facts.” was at least partially a review of Narrative Politics by Frederick Mayer. Justice John Paul Stevens Six Amendments got reviewed in “Restoring the Constitution is Now a Liberal Issue“.

Two reviews that fit in with the year’s deep-history theme were Aviva Chomsky’s Undocumented: how immigration became illegal, and Daniel Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line, a marvelous biography of three mixed-race American families that (over generations), migrated from black to white.

A mini-review of Meline Toumani’s There Was and Was Not made it into a weekly summary.

The Mosts

Most prescient comment. You may remember that January opened with a polar vortex, provoking the usual round of I’m-cold-so-global-warming-is-a-myth articles. I’m proud of this response on January 13:

Even when 2014 was just a few days old and wind chills were below zero for most of the country, there was a bet you could make that was almost a sure thing. No matter how it started, by its end 2014 will be yet another warm year. And by warm I mean: The global average temperature will wind up well above the 50-year average and the 20-year average.

Final returns aren’t in yet, but 2014 may well be the hottest year on record. If any of your friends believe global warming is a myth, you should offer them the bet that 2015 will be a warm year too — maybe not another record, but clearly above the 20-year average. If instead it’s a cool year (it won’t be) I promise not to sweep that fact under the rug, because belief in global warming is evidence-based, not ideology-based like global-warming denial.

I also feel pretty good about taking a wait-and-see attitude towards the Bridgegate Scandal, which hasn’t delivered Governor Christie the knock-out blow many liberals were hoping for. On February 24, I criticized MSNBC’s saturation coverage, and said:

If you are similarly ignoring MSNBC and/or Bridgegate these days, I’ll let you know when something important happens.

Least prescient comment. As in 2010, I stayed hopeful about Democrats’ prospects in the mid-term elections far longer than I should have. A lot of comments could illustrate this, but I feel worst about something I didn’t say: In June, when I was giving advice about the best Senate candidates to support and where your support would have the most impact, I left out Mark Udall in Colorado, thinking he wasn’t really in that much trouble.

Sorry, Mark. You will be missed.

The best post nobody read. In March, I gave an unfortunate title to “Does Paul Ryan Care About Poverty Now?” I suspect a lot of my regular readers looked at that question, decided the answer was obviously No, and figured they’d already spent enough of their lives reading about Paul Ryan.

I have an excuse: Ryan’s committee had just put out its report, The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later, and it looked like he was laying down a marker that would turn into policy down the road. (I covered the second step down that road in August in “Can Conservatives Solve Poverty?“, which a few more people read. We haven’t heard the last of this.)

But the March article is worth reading because of the way it frames the whole national discussion of poverty, independent of Paul Ryan. Conservatives like to claim that liberals want to give people hand-outs while conservatives want to get them jobs, when in fact everyone would rather see the poor supporting themselves in good jobs. But the get-out-of-poverty-by-working plan might fail for four different reasons — ranging from “there are no jobs” to “I’m too lazy to work” — which I list.

And here’s where it gets interesting: The vast majority of Americans agree about what the government should do for people in each of those four situations. The liberal/conservative debate about poverty in fact revolves around which of those four situations is most common and most deserves our attention.

The numbers

By all measures, the Sift’s readership increased this year, with a significant bump in both occasional and regular readers following August’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“.

Last year this section was tricky to write, because I felt like the regular readership was growing, but the most obvious number to measure readers — page views — was down from 240K in 2012 to 215K in 2013. I had to explain that page views are tricky measure of a blog, because so much depends on the irregular timing of a few viral posts. (A little more than half of the blog’s 1 million views since moving to the new format in June, 2011 are for two posts: 342K for “The Distress of the Privileged” from 2012 and 183K for this year’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party”.)

So I focused more on stats like these: subscriptions tracked by WordPress went up from 504 to 908, and likes for the Sift’s Facebook page went from 183 to 256.

Well, this year had a viral post, so the numbers require much less explaining. Everything is up: Page views ballooned to 412K (with a few days to go), subscriptions to 2,281 (though I’m not completely sure that number measures the same thing as last year’s number), and Facebook likes to 382. Followers of the Sift’s Twitter feed went from 203 to 342.

I also started getting my wish for a commenting community; in the second half of the year it was a rare post that didn’t draw at least a couple non-spam comments. (In the short term I can be thin-skinned — that’s one reason I sometimes don’t respond promptly — but in the longer view I love comments. Even in cases when I feel a commenter completely misunderstands me, the comment helps me see how I’m being misunderstood.)

Obviously, “Not a Tea Party” was the most-viewed post of the year, followed by “Distress”, which garnered another 36,000 views in its third year. Then came “What Should Racism Mean?” with 32K, followed by 2012’s “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System” (which had a renaissance because of its connection to “Not a Tea Party”) at 12K, “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson” at 9K, and “#YesAllWomen and the Continuum of Aggression” and “The Sifted Bookshelf: Angry White Men” at 5.4K each.

A typical weekly summary now gets around 300 views on the blog, plus another 250 or so from subscribers. (I’m not sure how WordPress comes up with that number, but I think it knows whether subscribers open the email it sends them.) A year ago those numbers were more like 200 and 100. A featured post that doesn’t catch a viral wave gets 300-600, plus 250.

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