Category Archives: Weekly summaries

Each week, a short post that links to the other posts of the week.

Legal Bother

If the moral calculation is simply, “Did the ends justify the means?” it’s hard to see why we even bother with laws in the first place.

Chris Hayes (Wednesday)

No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

The United Nations Convention Against Torture (1984)

Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner] … I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require … for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.

George Washington (1775)

This week’s featured post is “5 Things to Understand About the Torture Report“. A couple of Sift milestones: I moved the Sift to WordPress and started trying to upgrade it in June, 2011. The WordPress stats inform me that the blog is one recent-average-week away from its 1 millionth page view. Also, the 4,000th comment happened last week.

This week everybody was talking about torture

My comments on the Senate’s torture report are in “5 Things to Understand About the Torture Report“.

But the public debate about the report was also illuminating. By coincidence, the report came out in the middle of a cycle of protests against police violence, emphasizing how quickly conservatives can flip-flop on government power. It’s tyranny to do a background check on gun-buyers. It’s tyranny to make people buy health insurance — a step towards the ultimate tyranny of making them eat broccoli. (My Mom was just like Hitler that way.) But when the agents of government power shoot unarmed black men on the street or torture someone in a secret off-shore prison, that’s just dandy.

One of my Facebook friends brought the proper descriptive term to my attention: herrenvolk democracy. Herrenvolk is the German term that usually gets translated “master race”. So herrenvolk democracy is the belief that democratic principles are wonderful as long as you restrict them to the right people. As in: I have the right to carry a gun in public, but it’s fine if police shoot down John Walker. I have habeas corpus and due process rights, but it’s OK to drive Jose Padilla insane by holding him in sensory deprivation for three years without filing charges.

The ultimate American herrenvolk democracy was the Confederacy, whose flag tea partiers love to wave. It zealously defended the democratic rights of white people, including their right to own black people. In today’s vision of herrenvolk democracy, the “right people” aren’t always so clearly defined as white vs. black. But whenever someone starts talking about “real Americans“, that’s what they mean — not everybody who is technically a citizen, but the much smaller group of Americans who ought to have freedom and a voice in government: the Herrenvolk.

and avoiding another government shutdown — for a price

True to their word, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner didn’t shut down the government again. But they did extract some ransom on behalf of their clients on Wall Street.

The budget deal that passed Saturday night contained a number of what are called “policy riders” — changes in the law that have nothing to do with the spending and taxing a budget is supposed to be about. This is a prime way for Congress to give special interests unpopular favors, by attaching them at the last minute to a bill that has to pass.

Maybe the worst special-interest rider repeals Section 716 of the Dodd-Frank financial reform package that was passed to keep the 2008 financial catastrophe from happening again. The blog Next New Deal has the details:

Section 716 of Dodd-Frank says that institutions that receive federal insurance through FDIC and the Federal Reserve can’t be dealers in the specialized derivatives market. Banks must instead “push out” these dealers into separate subsidiaries with their own capital that don’t benefit from the government backstop.

In other words, Dodd-Frank used to say that banks couldn’t make big, risky bets, keep the profits if they win, and stick taxpayers with the bill if they lose. Congress just repealed that.

Who would draft such a law? Citicorp.

and the University of Virginia rape story

I’m sure Rolling Stone and Sabrina Rubin Erdely meant well. Campus rape is a problem in need of a poster girl, so they provided one: “Jackie” from the University of Virginia, a September freshman who is lured into an upstairs bedroom by her date “Drew”, and then gang-raped in some sort of frat initiation ritual. Her friends discourage her from reporting it. (“She’s gonna be the girl who cried ‘rape,’ and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again.”) And when she does get around to telling her story to UVA officials at the end of the year, they seem more interested in protecting the school’s image than in seeing justice done. (“Nobody wants to send their daughter to the rape school.”)

That story is the horrifying scaffolding on which Erdely hangs many true and important facts and statistics about campus rape — numbers that by themselves are too lifeless to publish in a glossy magazine, and wouldn’t go viral online like Erdely’s article did. That’s what good stories do: pull dry facts together into something that has emotional punch and demands action.

The problem? The writer and editors didn’t do basic fact-checking on Jackie’s story. When The Washington Post did, a bunch of details didn’t hang together. That started a backlash, in which one slimeball released what he says is Jackie’s real name.

Personally, I still believe the core of Jackie’s story. But Erdely should have known that this is exactly the kind of situation where memories drift: Jackie bottled up her traumatic story for an entire academic year, then got involved with a rape-survivor group that caused her to retell it many times. In such settings, people have a tendency to remember previous tellings of their stories rather than the actual experiences. (My childhood memories aren’t all that traumatic, but I can tell they’ve drifted. Occasionally I remember some event with HD clarity, then realize the room I’m picturing it in wasn’t built yet.)

So in the end, Erdely succeeded in making Jackie a poster girl, but for the bitches-be-lying chorus. Years from now, women who go public with a campus rape will be confronted with “that Virginia girl who made the whole thing up”.

Thanks, Rolling Stone. Journalism in the wrong hands can do a lot of damage.

but let’s talk about books

I just finished reading a new book that could be a good basis for discussion about race and prejudice and privilege: There Was and There Was Not by Meline Toumani.

Toumani is an Armenian-American who was born in Iran. Growing up, her identity as an Armenian is shaped around the genocide of 1915, and Turks are villains of near-mythological status. But as a young adult, she begins to wonder whether this focus on Armenians’ historical victimhood is doing them any good. Eventually she hatches a plan: She will go to Turkey, learn Turkish, and see if there isn’t some way everybody can live together in peace. This leads to one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read:

I had never, not for a moment, imagined Turkey as a physical place.

Her two years in Turkey are a lesson in the complexity of ethnic conflict, which is both more and less tractable than she had imagined. The Turks are not monolithic, and she easily relates to the other ethnic minorities: Kurds, Jews, and even the few remaining Armenians. Among the ethnic Turks, some are nationalistic and anti-Armenian, some are open-minded and egalitarian, and most are basically decent people who have never thought very hard about the slanted history they were taught in school (where Armenians are the villains of 1915 and Turks the victims) or the unfair advantages Turkish society gives them over Kurds, Jews, and Armenians.

The countryside is beautiful, Istanbul is exciting, and the culture has many charms. And yet … Toumani is always a second-class resident. Her Armenian-ness hangs in the background of every social interaction as something to be confessed and explained. (She looks more Turkish than American, but speaks with a foreign accent. Where is she from really?) The Turkish attempt at color-blindness (“We are all Turks”) is more obliterating than accepting. And even when the government preserves bits of Armenian history and culture (Armenia was a regional power from antiquity until around 1000 AD) the ethnic adjective Armenian is replaced by the geographical adjective Anatolian, as if some nameless people had occupied this land before the Seljuk conquest.

She sees another side of prejudice when she attends the pan-Armenian games in Yerevan. When the competitive juices get flowing, the anti-Turkish slurs Armenians have repeated since birth are easily brought out and used against the team from Istanbul, even though they belong to the Armenian diaspora as much as the Parisians and Argentinians do.

Toumani realizes it is time to come home to America when she recognizes her own case of Stockholm Syndrome: She has begun to internalize her second-class status. Immersion in Turk-dominated society is making her yearn for the approval of the ethnic Turks and treat them as the masters.

I can’t read this book through Armenian or Turkish eyes, but as a white American I find it worthwhile precisely because I have no dog in this fight. Issues of bias and historic victimhood and systemic privilege are fraught with guilt, anger and other emotional baggage when Americans try to think about them in our own historic context of black and white. Toumani has given us a rare opportunity to watch similar conflicts play out in a context where we can be more objective.


Daniel Sillman interviews Matthew Avery Sutton, author of the new book American Apocalypse. Sutton re-interprets Evangelical Christianity for us outsiders, and claims we’ve grossly underestimated the importance of believing Jesus is coming back any day now. Oversimplifying just a little: Mainstream Christians are liberals because they’re trying to build the Kingdom of God on Earth. Evangelicals are conservatives because they think the Antichrist is about to take over.

[T]he apocalyptic theology that developed in the 1880s and 1890s led radical evangelicals to the conclusion that all nations are going to concede their power in the End Times to a totalitarian political leader who is going to be the Antichrist. If you believe you’re living in the last days and you believe you’re moving towards that event, you’re going to be very suspicious and skeptical of anything that seems to undermine individual rights and individual liberties, and anything that is going to give more power to the state.

Well, except giving government the power to control reproduction. Maybe the full book explains that.

and you also might be interested in …

The Democrats’ problems with the white working class may make more sense that What’s the Matter With Kansas? would have us believe. Thomas Edsell lays out a simple narrative, which I’ll summarize: A generation ago, the unspoken social contract of the white working class was that they would acquiesce to class oppression if they at least got the benefit of racial oppression. By fighting for racial equality while letting class inequality get worse, Democrats broke that agreement. Now the white worker has to compete with non-whites at home and abroad, but is also under his boss’ thumb even more than in the past.

That sense of victimization comes out as resentment of non-whites, which on the surface makes no sense, because whites still have unfair advantages. But the real root isn’t “Those people have it better!”, it’s “We had a deal!”. The terms of that deal are indefensible (because racism is indefensible), so it can’t be argued in public or even consciously acknowledged. But the resentment is still there.


While I’ve been working on a big mythic vision for liberalism, Mark Bittman is taking more of a bottom-up approach: Can we link together all the movements that are getting people into to the streets? How do we see raising the minimum wage, unionizing Walmart, controlling the police, taking the country back from Wall Street, and fighting climate change as one big movement?


Think Progress published a list of 21 non-white or mentally ill people who have been killed by police under questionable circumstances in 2014.

It’s worthwhile to remember that police don’t have to shoot down even people who are armed and uncooperative … if they’re white.


Whenever there’s an unusual weather-related event, people start asking whether climate change “caused” it. Slate‘s Eric Holthaus explains why that’s a dumb question, with the California drought an example.

I’m a sports fan, so I make sports analogies. In 2001, when he was turning 37 and should have been just about over the hill, Barry Bonds hit a record 73 home runs, having never hit more than 46 homers in a season during his prime. The common explanation is steroids. But still: It makes no sense to look at any one of those 73 homers and ask whether steroids caused it. Barry was a power hitter before the steroid era. Maybe this particular home run is one he would have hit anyway.

Ditto with droughts, hurricanes, and the like. Climate change juices up bad weather events. Without it we’d still have some, but not as many and not as bad. Is this particular event one of the extra ones? Until we establish communication with parallel universes, there’s no way to know.

I only know one exception to that rule: If climate change raises sea level by a foot, then it makes any storm surge a foot higher. If you live near a coast, that may determine whether you get flooded or not.


Chris Mooney explains why the price of oil is crashing: Not so much an increase in supply as a slow build-up of supply followed by an expected decrease in demand. Kevin Drum thinks this is very good news for the economy.

and let’s close with something silly

Insufficient Evidence

There’s never enough evidence to convict a white man of a crime against a Negro.

– Aaron Henry, a black businessman
interviewed in the CBS News report “The Search in Mississippi” (1964)

We have caused a thorough search to be made by the most competent authority in Richmond; and while many indictments are found against black men for rape of white women, none exist, in the history of our jurisprudence, against white men for rape of black women. And this, not because there would have been any difficulty in making the indictment lie: but because, as the most experienced lawyers testify, the crime is unheard of on the part of white men amongst us.

– R. L. Dabny, A Defense of Virginia and the South (1867)

This week’s featured post is “Can We Share the World?

This week everybody was still talking about police killing black people

because it keeps happening with no one called to account. On the heels of the Michael Brown non-indictment, we have the Eric Garner non-indictment and the killings of Tamir Rice and Rumain Brisbon. Unlike the Brown killing, the choke-hold strangling of Garner and the roll-up-with-guns-blazing shooting of Rice were caught on video.

I’m reminded of the effect of television on the Civil Rights movement in the Sixties. The cops and white mobs in Mississippi and Alabama and Arkansas were just doing what they’d been doing for decades. But now the whole country watching from their living rooms. When you watch those video clips today, it’s clear the abusive whites didn’t understand what the TV cameras meant.

Now we’re in the era of ubiquitous video, and cops don’t seem to understand what that means either. You can look at any one case and imagine that there might be some mitigating explanation, some off-camera circumstances you can’t see. But the sheer number of these cases wears a person down. This isn’t just a Lemony-Snicket-style series of unfortunate events. Something is systemically wrong.


The grand jury in the Garner case hasn’t released voluminous records like the Ferguson grand jury did, but the same kind of rigged process I talked about last week seemed to be at work. Grand juries misfire when the prosecutor wants to defend the suspect rather than prosecute, as often happens when police are involved. The biggest flaw in the Garner grand jury process was that the prosecutor didn’t tell the jury about the lightest charge they could have brought: reckless endangerment. So when they gave Officer Pantaleo the benefit of the doubt on various forms of murder, their only remaining option was to let him walk.

President Obama has proposed putting body cameras on police, but clearly that’s only part of the solution. Unlike in Ferguson, we have video in this case, and the cop still doesn’t have to face a trial. In addition to cameras, we also need changes in process: an independent investigation and a special prosecutor when police are suspects. A recent Wisconsin law — passed after police killed the son of a white retired Air Force officer — is a step in the right direction.


Digby underlined a point that unites most of these cases: Police escalated the conflict when they didn’t have to. Michael Brown wasn’t going to flee to Costa Rica. Eric Garner was surrounded by six cops and not endangering any of them. There was no risk in giving Garner a few minutes to grasp that he was going to be arrested one way or the other.

Or check out this video of a traffic stop New Mexico, where luckily no one was killed. The driver obviously handles the situation badly, but at some point the police forget that they’re dealing with a woman and her kids, not Murder Incorporated. By the 12:30 mark the family has barricaded itself inside their van. Two back-up units arrive, guns drawn, and an officer bashes in a passenger window. The panicked Mom then starts driving away — the three police cars having neglected to block that possibility — and the police start shooting.

By contrast, in 2011 German police shot exactly 85 bullets in the line of duty. That’s all year, in the whole country. Seventy years ago, who could have imagined that someday we’d be envying Germany for its police?


Albert Burneko offers the interpretation that “The American Justice System is Not Broken“. Police are supposed to kill young black men from time to time, and they’re supposed to get away with it. That’s how the system functions, not how it malfunctions.


Wonkette wonders tongue-in-cheek why gun-rights advocates aren’t demanding justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford, both of whom were killed by police who mistook their toy guns for real ones. If merely appearing to carry a gun justifies your summary execution, doesn’t that invalidate our Second Amendment rights? If Randy Weaver and David Koresh can be martyrs for the cause, why not Rice and Crawford?

The obvious implication, the dots whose connection Wonkette leaves to the reader, is that the gun-rights movement is for white people. When have you ever heard the NRA respond to a public tragedy by suggesting that black people arm themselves? I mean, wouldn’t Trayvon still be alive if he’d been packing heat?

Maybe, though, there’s another explanation: Gun-rights people could just be applying the color-blind constitutional doctrine of originalism. When the Second Amendment was ratified in 1791, who could have imagined that someday blacks would be citizens and seek to defend themselves with guns? Only through the liberal notion of an evolving Constitution does the black-people-with-guns conundrum arise at all.


While I was researching that point about coverage of the Civil Rights movement, I ran across “The Search in Mississippi” — an hour-long CBS News Special Report hosted by Walter Cronkite and aired on June 25, 1964 about the then-current Mississippi Burning case and Freedom Summer movement. It’s even more fascinating than the movies and documentaries that have been made since.

and jobs

The November jobs report came out, and it was the best one we’ve seen in a long time, fueling hope that the steady-but-uninspiring recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 might finally be picking up steam. It was hardly a Happy-Days-Are-Here-Again report, but it pointed in that direction.

A jobs report is a mass of numbers justified by a lot of statistic wizardry, so it’s always open to interpretation. (If you need to put a downward spin on it, CNBC has one for you. Almost everybody else was more upbeat.) But basically you look for four things:

  • total number of jobs. In November, that number went up by 321,000, the most in a month since January, 2012. A rule of thumb is that 100K new jobs per month just keeps pace with the increase in population. Beyond that, you’re starting to make some headway in employing the unemployed. This number bounces around a lot from month to month, so you want to look at the longer-term trend. USA Today comments on the chart below: “Labor market gains have been consistently strong this year despite a mixed economy, averaging almost 241,000 additional jobs a month, up from 194,000 in 2013. Employers have added at least 200,000 jobs for 10 straight months, the best stretch since the mid-1990s.”
  • unemployment rate. This held steady at 5.8%, a number well below the 10% we saw in 2009 or 7% early last year, but not nearly as good as the 3% at the end of the Clinton administration. At first glance, this lack of improvement contradicts what I just said about employing the unemployed, but one of the first things an improving job market does is inspire discouraged workers to start looking for work again. The official unemployment rate is always well below the number of workers who wish they had jobs; the “extra” 221K jobs took up some of that slack.
  • hours worked. Up slightly, from an average of 34.5 per week per worker to 34.6. Employers don’t like to hire and fire, so when business is bad they’ll cut back hours before they start letting workers go. On the upside, they’ll work their current staff harder before they start hiring new people. So an increase in hours worked is a good sign in two ways: Directly, it puts more money in workers’ pockets. Indirectly, it points to more hiring in the future.
  • wages. Up slightly, from an average of $24.57 per hour to $24.66. Employers don’t raise wages out of the goodness of their hearts, they do it because finding new workers or hanging on to the ones they have is becoming a problem. So an increase in the average wage isn’t just good in itself, it’s a good sign for the job market.

None of those individual numbers really knock your socks off. But we’ve gotten used to ambiguous job reports, where the four big indicators point in different directions, suggesting that whichever one impressed you was just a statistical blip that will even out next month. Not so this month.

and Hillary

I was traveling this week, and as I sat by the gate in airports, I kept hearing CNN speculate about when Hillary Clinton would announce her candidacy. Now that the midterm elections are over, the pundits figure, what’s the hold up?

The logic here is really simple, even if it doesn’t make for exciting TV discussions: The shorter the campaign, the better for Hillary. Why would she want to get the campaign started if nobody is out there campaigning against her?

Think about it: If we all woke up tomorrow morning to discover that there was a national Democratic presidential primary happening, Hillary would win easily, because at the moment nobody else has the name recognition or the organized support to challenge her. Even if it turned out that most Democrats didn’t want her to be the candidate, she’d get maybe 40% and there’d be a bunch of 5% and 10% people. Elizabeth Warren might get 20-25%, but nobody’s sure she even wants the job.

The longer everybody waits to start the campaign, the closer we get to that surprise-election scenario, and the better for Hillary. In general, if you’re the front-runner, only bad things can happen during a campaign: You can screw up, or somebody else can catch fire. Why would you stretch that process out and run a longer gauntlet than you absolutely had to?

So if another Democrat starts actively campaigning against her, Hillary will announce a week or two later. Or if Republican candidates make her the focus of their rhetoric and start driving up her negatives, she may need to get out there to make her own headlines. (On the other hand, if Republicans are out-doing each other in competing for the right-wing-crazy vote, why take the spotlight off them?) Otherwise, she’d be smart to wait until late summer, then do a coronation tour of the early primary states just to show she’s not taking them for granted.


OTOH, I was talking to my favorite 20-something, who verified what Bonnie Kristian was saying in The Week: Young voters are not excited about a 90s-re-run Clinton presidency. Imagining a 1992-ish Clinton/Bush match-up, Kristian says: “If the kids don’t want broccoli, show ‘em how good it looks compared to Brussels sprouts.”

No, I don’t think Clinton would lose the youth vote to Bush or Cruz or Paul — MF20S would vote for her — but turn-out might be a problem.

and religious freedom

The next time you hear someone claim that Christians are persecuted because a baker has to sell a wedding cake to two men, give them some perspective on what oppression really looks like and who the oppressors are. Here’s Pastor Steven Anderson of the Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona:

Turn to Leviticus 20:13, because I actually discovered the cure for AIDS: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.” And that, my friend, is the cure for AIDS. It was right there in the Bible all along — and they’re out spending billions of dollars in research and testing. It’s curable — right there. Because if you executed the homos like God recommends, you wouldn’t have all this AIDS running rampant.

As far as I know, no gay-rights activists are demanding that Christian fundamentalists be put to death. And no, refusing to let Christians carry out Leviticus 20:13 is not a violation of their religious freedom.

With that in mind, though, I read the text of the Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act, recently passed by the Michigan House and on its way to the Senate. The purpose of the act is “to provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government.” It defines an “exercise of religion” as “an act or refusal to act, that is substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief.”

So refusing to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple is an “expression of religion” rather than an indulgence of bigotry with Biblical cover. But so is stoning gays (or loose women; see Deuteronomy 22:20-21). Fortunately, the law still allows government to restrict such acts if it can prove it has a “compelling interest”. We can only hope judges will decide the Michigan government has a compelling interest in keeping gays and loose women alive.


BTW, some Sunday Pastor Anderson might have his flock turn to David’s lament after the death of Jonathan, in II Samuel 1:26:

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.

If we’re going to read the Bible literally, let’s read it literally. The whole thing.


Atheists also face non-imaginary religious discrimination. An article in yesterday’s NYT discusses the effort to get bans on atheists holding office out of state constitutions. Those provisions have been unenforceable since a 1961 Supreme Court decision, but Todd Stiefel of Openly Secular comments:

If it was on the books that Jews couldn’t hold public office, or that African-Americans or women couldn’t vote, that would be a no-brainer. You’d have politicians falling all over themselves to try to get it repealed. Even if it was still unenforceable, it would still be disgraceful and be removed. So why are we different?


And Muslims face real religious freedom issues: The Kennesaw, Georgia city council refused a Muslim congregation’s request to rent worship space in a strip mall, breaking precedents established for Christian groups. An anti-Muslim protester said: “To me [the mosque] is a threat to my freedom, my liberties, and everything I own.”

and you also might be interested in …

It’s time for that annual assault on my self-image as a cultured, well-read person: The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014. I’ve read exactly one of the novels (The Magician’s Land) and about a quarter of one of the non-fiction books (The Invisible Bridge). A somewhat less intimidating list is “The 10 Best Books of 2014“, of which I have read none.


Chris Rock has a movie coming out, so he’s been doing interviews, notably in Rolling Stone and with Frank Rich at Vulture. Here’s the money quote from the Rich interview:

When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. … If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t.

The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

It’s been a heavy week, so let’s close with something cute

like a toddler in a snow suit discovering ice.

Odd Processes

Neither in this country nor in England has the suspect under investigation by the grand jury ever been thought to have a right to testify or to have exculpatory evidence presented.

Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia

This week’s featured post is “This Time, Will the Outrage Matter?

This week everybody was talking about Ferguson

The grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, provoking protests in several cities. My comment on the situation is in “This Time, Will the Outrage Matter?

Five St. Louis Rams players staged their own protest before Sunday’s game with the Oakland Raiders, raising their hands in the “don’t shoot” position. A St. Louis police group is demanding the team punish the players and issue and apology, which I suspect will not happen.

and oil

OPEC had a meeting to discuss the falling price of oil, and came up with no effective strategy. That led to a further sharp drop to around $70 a barrel. The price had been consistently over $100 for most of the previous three years.

Consumers should benefit from lower gas prices. A number of troublesome oil-exporting countries — Russia and Iran, for example — will lose influence.

and new smog regulations

The day before Thanksgiving, the EPA announced tighter regulations on smog. The old rules limited ozone to 75 parts per billion; the proposed new limit is between 65 and 70.

The main thing you need to know about this is that it’s long overdue. The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to review this standard every five years. During the Bush administration, EPA scientists determined that the limit should fall from 84 ppb to around 60 or 70. But the Bush political appointees over-ruled the scientists and set the bar at 75, for no obvious reason.

The Obama administration has been balking at change ever since it took office, but the new post-election what-the-hell Obama is finally pulling the trigger.

To understand why it was balking, just look at the news coverage of the announcement, as Dave Roberts does. It focuses almost entirely on industry claims about the cost of implementing the new regulations, and not at all on the benefits, such as lives saved.

But even economically, good regulations don’t cost money, they save money. The EPA estimates that the health effects alone will save in the neighborhood of $10 billion a year for a 70 ppb standard, and $25 billion or so for a 65 ppb standard.

As for the fossil-fuel industry’s claims that the regulations will wreck the economy, they’ve cried wolf before. Roberts provides this graph:

As for the media coverage, Roberts comments:

In the odd world of political media, these two kinds of groups — one advocating for the profits of a particular business sector, one advocating for public health — are considered equivalent, mirror images. If anything, “business groups” are treated as champions of the economy, and thus all Americans, while public health groups are treated as a “special interest.”

It’s that weird inversion that makes it seem perfectly normal to begin a story about a new advance in public health with accusations from the regulated industry (and its congressional champions) about how much it’s going to cost.

and you also might be interested in …

At Thanksgiving dinner, your conservative uncle may have related Rush Limbaugh’s account of the First Thanksgiving: that it celebrated the Pilgrims’ new surplus from abandoning collective farming and embracing free enterprise. If you suspected this story was not really true, you were right.


I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that police in Pontiac, Michigan are on the job: In this video, a policeman confronts a black man who has been frightening local residents by walking with his hands in his pockets — in Michigan in November. To his credit, the policeman is polite while he carries out this ridiculous assignment and meets with considerable exasperation from the chilly walker.


Ray Rice, last seen decking his wife in an elevator, has been re-instated to play in the NFL. It’s still unknown whether any team will sign him, though ESPN reports that four teams are interested.


An exercise intended to teach grade school students about privilege went viral on BuzzFeed, getting 4.5 million hits. But Quartz’ Jeff Yang thinks the lesson may have missed a few things.

and let’s close with a new Christmas song

The a cappella group Straight No Chaser has been a good source of new Christmas music for several years now. Here, they combine with actress Kristen Bell (a.k.a. Veronica Mars) in “Text Me Merry Christmas“.

Strangers

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

Leviticus 19:34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

and Bill Cosby

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

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

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

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

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

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

and snow

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

The photos are ridiculous, like this one:

Don’t go out there.

and you also might be interested in …

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


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


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

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


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


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

and let’s close with something cute

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

So Much That Ain’t So

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

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

This week the audacity of hope was back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, everybody was talking about a comet

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

and Democrats were talking about fixing the Party

Here’s one plan:

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

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

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

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

and commented:

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

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

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

and ObamaCare’s second season

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

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

While another NYT writer led with the positive:

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

TPM was positive with caveats:

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

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

But ThinkProgress was just positive:

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

And CBS was just negative:

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

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

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

I guess that must make a crappy headline or something.

and you also might be interested in …

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


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


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

and let’s close by singing the blues

or maybe by letting a toddler sing them for us.

Broken Pieces of Truth

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

– Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

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

This week everybody was wondering how that happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

and what will happen next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

and talking about the Supreme Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in …

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

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


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


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

and let’s close with a warning from Ned Stark

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

Little by Little

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

– Benjamin Franklin

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

And this is what I did during my week off.

This week everybody has been talking about the election

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

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

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

 

and Ebola

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

and you also might be interested in …

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

and let’s close with some wonderful Halloween costumes

Witch Problems

As there is no evidence that voter impersonation fraud is a problem, how can the fact that a legislature says it’s a problem turn it into one? If the Wisconsin legislature says witches are a problem, shall Wisconsin courts be permitted to conduct witch trials?

Judge Richard Posner

No Sift next week. The next articles will appear November 3, which is election eve.

This week’s featured article is “7 Liberal Lessons of Ebola“.

This week everybody was still talking about Ebola

It’s hard to know what to do when panic hits like this, except just keep repeating facts.

Here are the new developments this week: a second nurse at the Dallas hospital that treated Thomas Duncan has tested positive for the disease. She flew from Dallas to Cleveland and back during a period when she might have been contagious. So far no one she was in contact with has tested positive, though several schools closed because either students or parents had some connection to one of those flights; that response seems completely over-the-top.

There was a brief scare surrounding a Yale student who got sick after returning from Liberia, but tests showed she did not have Ebola. Another scare concerned a cruise ship passenger, who also tested negative.

Meanwhile, there still appears to be zero contagion from the three Ebola cases (Americans who caught the disease in Africa, then came home for treatment) treated at Emory University. Two have been treated and released. The third is expected to be released soon. A fourth case treated at the Nebraska Medical Center Biocontainment Unit is reported to be recovering, and likewise, seems not to have infected anyone else.

There’s been a serious attempt by conservatives to re-interpret “airborne contagion” so that it can apply to Ebola, which does not propagate through the air. The most egregious case of this was George Will, who reinterpreted “airborne” to mean fluid projected through the air. So yes, if you are on a plane with an Ebola-infected person, you might catch the disease if that person sneezed or spit or vomited directly on you. But if that’s “airborne contagion”, then blunt force trauma is also an airborne contagion, because I can throw a brick through the air.

and voting rights


It was a mixed week for the right to vote. It was bad in Texas, where a new voter-suppression law will go into effect, the Supreme Court having failed to block it. But Wisconsin’s law will not be in force for the fall elections.

It’s been a good week for dissenting opinions, though. Justice Ginsberg and Appellate Judge Richard Posner (a conservative Reagan appointee who has been called “the most widely cited legal scholar of the 20th century” ) each took apart the justifications for these kinds of laws.

and the Catholic Church’s Synod on the Family

A question everybody was asking after Francis became Pope was: “He says things that sound good, but is he actually going to change anything?” That picture is starting to come into focus. He hasn’t been changing doctrine. In other words, women still can’t be priests, birth control is still wrong, and so forth. But he’s been trying to change emphasis — making poverty and justice higher-priority issues than sex — with mixed results.

Witness the recent Synod on the Family, which assembled many Catholic bishops in Rome. Draft reports that were proposed for the Synod’s approval did not change the Church’s vision of the ideal family: a man and woman marrying one for life, staying together, and raising children. But it tempered the Church’s approach to households that differed from that vision. It leaned towards meeting people where they are — divorced, living in sin, or refusing to have children — but appreciating what they are doing and trying to do with their lives, and then showing them the value of the church’s vision, rather than just condemning their inability or refusal to measure up to the church’s standards.

Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.

Similarly for same-sex couples, the document did not approve or endorse their relationships, but recognized that they express many of the same characteristics that the Church admires in its ideal marriages. The draft raised the question of how to welcome gays and lesbians while remaining true to Church teachings.

None of those paragraphs garnered the 2/3s support necessary to make it into the final document, which has been interpreted as a defeat for Francis. But the conversation has been changed, and the momentum will be with Francis, who, after all, is responsible for appointing new bishops and cardinals. If he stays in office long enough, the hierarchy will slowly turn in his direction, even if he doesn’t announce new infallible doctrine.

While Francis may not have personally picked the more moderate Archbishop Joseph Kurtz to replace outspoken culture-warrior Timothy Dolan as the head of the U. S. Council of Bishops (the bishops elected him themselves), his election was clearly a move by the U.S. bishops to get in line with their Pope. Friday we got confirmation that the Pope has replaced another conservative American: Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has been the head of the Vatican’s highest court.

This isn’t over.

and you also might be interested in …

2014 is on track to be the hottest year on record. So much for the claims that global warming ended in 1998, which should never have continued past 2005 and 2010.


Salon collects links from John Oliver, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert poking fun at the clueless ads aimed at getting women or young people to vote Republican.


As someone who has attended the Keene Pumpkin Festival — which I recall as a quaint, family-oriented event — two or three years ago, I’m embarrassed that it devolved into “destructive and raucous behavior” Saturday and resulted in police using tear gas. Interesting tongue-in-cheek response from TPM’s Josh Marshall:

White culture of violence on harrowing display as New Hampshire college pumpkin festival degenerates into violence, mayhem and arrests.

That kind of captures white privilege right there. It never occurs to us that we might be called to answer for “white culture”, but if a majority-black event goes awry … well, what can you expect from those people?

Raw Story captures a lot of snarky tweets related Keene to Ferguson, with the obvious difference: None of the white kids defying the police had to pay with their lives.


Meanwhile, it’s not over in Ferguson.


The NYT wrote a major report on the injuries U. S. soldiers in Iraq received from chemical weapons that the Saddam regime had either lost or disposed of improperly. Some Bush apologists jumped on it to claim vindication on Bush’s WMD claims, but Vox explains why they’re wrong.

Rather, today’s story reveals only that Iraq was sprinkled with aging, forgotten, and long-discarded warheads from Saddam’s shuttered 1980s chemical weapons program — and that the Bush and Obama administrations have systematically covered up discoveries of those warheads, including the wounds they’ve caused American soldiers.


Paul Krugman wrote “In Defense of Obama” for Rolling Stone.

Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history. His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it’s working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it’s much more effective than you’d think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.

As you can tell from that paragraph, a positive view of Obama depends on judging him compared to what was possible or what other presidents have done, rather than holding him up to an ideal or comparing him to your own Inauguration Day fantasies.

and let’s close with something inspiring

There are a bunch of great stories told on public radio — way more than you hear on any one public radio station — and most of the them eventually show up on the Public Radio Exchange web site. Here’s a piece, “3rd Grade Audio” from the PRX series HowSound.

Who but 3rd-grade reporters can explain the three ways to get a magnet back out, after you’ve stuck it up your nose?

Afterthought: My sister (who taught elementary grades in the Chattanooga public schools) points out that this wonderful class is happening at a private school where tuition is well over $20K per kid per year. I guess when the rich choose a school for their own kids, they don’t insist on the data-driven, teach-to-the-test model that billionaires like Bill Gates and Sam Walton’s heirs want to impose on the public schools. I wonder why not.

Exaggeration

People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.

Bruce Schneier, Beyond Fear

This week’s summary is abbreviated because the two featured articles already exceed my targeted word count. They are “Sam Harris and the Orientalization of Islam” and “Is the Battle For Same-Sex Marriage Nearly Over?

Meanwhile, August’s most popular post “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” keeps perking along. Last week it had its 150,000th page view, and is running slightly ahead of the pace of the Sift’s most popular post ever, 2012’s “The Distress of the Privileged“, now at 336K views.

This week everybody was still talking about Ebola

From googling around and talking with my wife (who specializes in risk management), I’ve concluded that risk theorists do a bad job coming up with catchy names for common fallacies. Let me suggest that the principle in the opening quote be called “the Ebola fallacy”. (If you already know a name for this, please leave a comment.)

Wednesday was the first time a person died of Ebola in the United States. Thomas Duncan (who flew here from Liberia) was also the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. (The handful of previous cases were Americans who contracted the disease in Africa, were diagnosed there, and returned to the U.S. for treatment.) Sunday, we got the first report of someone catching Ebola in this country: one of the people who treated Duncan at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

This is about what you’d expect from a hard-to-catch disease like Ebola. As CDC Director Tom Frieden explained: “Ebola has been in existence for decades—and has predominantly infected remote areas lacking basic health infrastructure.”

And yet, from the public reaction you’d think Ebola was the biggest health problem in the country. It’s all over the news. Lakeland Industries, which makes hazmat suits, has seen its stock soar 160% this month. Republican political candidates are citing the Ebola threat to support clamping down on the Mexican border. (So far there have been no Ebola cases in Central America. But when Republicans think about disease-carriers, Hispanics leap to mind.) And three Democrats joined 24 Republican members of Congress in calling for banning travelers from western Africa, and possibly quarantining Americans for three weeks after they return from western Africa .

And that’s just the reaction from people who are trying to look respectable. The conspiracy theorists are going completely crazy. “The CDC is working with Border Patrol authorities and the Department of Homeland Security to disappear potential Ebola victims attempting to cross the border into the United States.”

Meanwhile, about 700 Americans die in traffic accidents each week.

Want to be safer and live longer? Use seat belts. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink and drive. Eat better. Get the sleep you need. Exercise regularly. And if you need any additional motivation not to touch the bodily fluids of people who are visibly ill, maybe then you should think about Ebola. But stop obsessing about distant-but-horrible threats that have almost no chance of affecting you.

and the Senate

A few months ago, the political experts thought they understood the battle for the Senate: It would come down to four races where incumbent Democrats elected in 2008 were trying to hang on in a state Obama lost in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina. If Democrats held two of those seats, they’d hold the Senate.

Things have gone crazy since then. Independent candidates are threatening supposedly secure Republican seats in Kansas and South Dakota. Republican challengers are running stronger than expected in Colorado and Iowa (despite the fact that the Iowa candidate is a loon). And Democratic challengers who were expected to fade in Georgia and Kentucky are stubbornly making a race of it.

Don’t expect me to sort it out. Just vote, keep working for your favorite candidates, and be prepared for anything on Election Night.

and you also might be interested in …

Grist‘s David Roberts rains on the parade of those who think they’ve found a way to talk to conservatives about climate change.

Clever messages that work on polls and in labs will only do their work if they can penetrate the bubble. Until you solve that dilemma, you can’t say you’ve found a way to appeal to conservatives, not in the real world, anyway.

And even if you can get some message through the bubble, can you get a true message through?

There’s a message on climate change that appeals to conservatives: We can confine ourselves to market mechanisms, we don’t need to raise taxes or regulate anything or redistribute any wealth, we can all make money. If we act on climate change, the socioeconomic and cultural systems you know can be preserved. There’s a message that works, but it is a lie.


The International Secret Intelligence Service is changing its name.


Another week, another clueless Republican ad aimed at women.

And let’s close with a economics lesson

The Chinese Menu

We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but … the powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.

– Benjamin R. Barber, Consumed

This wee

This week everybody was talking about Hong Kong

Protests continue in Hong Kong, but they seem to be shrinking. The basic issue is simple: Rather than allow Hong Kong to choose its own leaders through elections (under what has been known as the “One Country, Two Systems” policy), the Chinese government wants limit voters to the choices it nominates. I’m reminded of a couplet from a song by Cake:

Some people drink Pepsi, some people drink Coke.
The wacky morning DJ says democracy’s a joke.

I’m rooting for the protesters, but it’s going to be embarrassing if China does the Occupy thing better than America. Here’s something else that I expect to embarrass me: If the government puts the hammer down, I’m sure they’ll justify themselves by pointing to how our cops dealt with our Occupy protesters.

Remember this guy?

and Ebola

The U.S. has its first case of Ebola, a man who flew here from Liberia. But as it says on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t Panic.”

Let’s start with the basics: Ebola is not something you catch easily, like the flu. You can’t get it through the air; you have to be in physical contact with an infected person or his/her bodily fluids. You typically don’t catch it from people who aren’t showing symptoms yet, the way you might catch a cold.

If you get it, it’s nasty. It kills about 60% of the people infected. It’s a virus, so antibiotics don’t work. Some people have been cured, but there’s no well-established magic bullet. But it’s also not like the Black Death or the Spanish Flu. It’s not going to sweep the country overnight and kill us all.

There have been a number of outbreaks over the years in Africa, because it lives there in bats, apes, and a few other wild species, and humans can catch it from handling an animal corpse or eating the undercooked meat of an infected animal. (Have you eaten any raw bats lately? Good. Stay away from Ozzy Osborne.) Outbreaks among humans normally get contained — even in densely populated parts of Africa that have inadequate medical systems — by good hygiene protocols.

Ebola can completely disappear from humans for years at a time. For example, there were zero recorded cases of Ebola in 2005 or 2006.

So as I was saying, the odds of a pandemic in the U.S. are pretty small.

But the idea of Ebola is scary, so opportunists are using it as an excuse to do what they want to do anyway: keep foreigners out of the country. As a representative from the anti-immigration scare group the Center for Immigration Studies wrote:

Our government must simply deny admission to any non-U.S. citizen who has been in the afflicted countries in the recent past, until the crisis is over. The most fundamental purpose of immigration controls is to protect our homeland, and our leaders must end their chronic reluctance to use them.

Shame on the NYT for giving CIS a platform. As the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out:

[CIS’s] studies have hardly been neutral. One of them concludes that because foreign women (“Third World gold-diggers”) can obtain work permits by marrying American citizens, it’s obvious that fraudulent marriage applications are “prevalent among terrorists.” Another claims that because many immigrants have worked in Georgia since 2000, it’s clear that unemployment among less educated native workers is up. A third says that because immigration levels have been high recently, immigrants make up a growing share of those drawing welfare.

But every one these claims, each of them at the heart of a different recent report from CIS, are either false or virtually without any supporting evidence. That came to fore again last September, when CIS organized a panel to accompany the release of yet another new report, this one claiming that municipalities in substantial numbers were permitting non-citizens to vote. When challenged, the panelists could only come up with a single possible example of the purported trend.

“CIS’ attempts to blame immigrants for all of the U.S.’s problems have been laughable,” said Angela Kelley of the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.

and Eric Holder’s successor

A Huffington Post article suggests a number of qualified people. But one nutty idea making the rounds is that President Obama should name a Republican.

naming an attorney general from the opposite party would tend to make the administration of justice bipartisan, and would provide considerable reassurance, as Holder’s tenure in office emphatically did not, that the powers of law enforcement were not being abused in service of partisan ends.

The model here is what FDR did during the lead-up to World War II: name Republican Harry Stimson as Secretary of War. By doing this, Roosevelt was pointing out that defending the country was really not a partisan issue.

But the administration of justice is a partisan issue, because Republicans do not want to enforce civil right or voting rights laws. (Neither party has the audacity to enforce antitrust laws against our corporate masters, but that’s a different article.) Find me a Republican who will stand up for the right of Texas Hispanics to vote, or who wants to do something about the racial injustice that makes our prisons overwhelmingly black, and then we can talk.

and the Secret Service

Like Ebola, you might think the Secret Service would be beyond partisanship, because we all agree that our president and his family should be kept safe. Guess again. Speaker of the North Carolina House and Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis:

It’s just another example of failures in this administration. They need to start getting serious about homeland security and national security.

Yep. President Obama is not “serious” about protecting himself or his family against assassination.

but not enough people are talking about jobs

If they were, President Obama would be more popular. The latest job report was good, and the unemployment rate fell below 6% for the first time since the housing bubble collapsed at the end of the Bush administration.

A month out from the fall elections, the headlines have turned away from pocketbook issues like the success of ObamaCare, the economy’s improvement, or proposals to raise the minimum wage. The federal deficit has fallen from $1.4 trillion in FY 2009 to a projected $500 billion in FY2014. But who’s paying attention? Instead, we’re focused on fear issues like ISIS and Ebola. This can’t be good for Democrats.

and you also might be interested in …

Can’t anybody spell these days? If there’s a coven of these people, I really worry about what they might inadvertently conjure up. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was bad enough.


So: It is possible to convict a white man of murdering a black teen in Florida. William Dunn is guilty and faces life in prison, even though Jordan Davis was 17, black, and in an SUV with other young black men. The jury determined that playing music too loud in a gas station parking lot was not a sufficient provocation. A previous jury had deadlocked.


The Daily Mail explains in one map how children’s freedom to roam has collapsed in recent generations. If this continues, the next generation of kids will never leave their homes without adult supervision.


So in the future we’re going to be competing with a major economic power in which all universities are tuition-free.

“Tuition fees are socially unjust,” said Dorothee Stapelfeldt, senator for science in Hamburg, which scrapped charges in 2012.

“They particularly discourage young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up studies. It is a core task of politics to ensure that young women and men can study with a high quality standard free of charge in Germany.”

In particular, young Americans of the 99%, your German rivals are not starting their careers in debt slavery. States here in America used to do something similar, back before the Reagan Revolution. If your parents went to a state university, ask them how much it cost.


You have until Halloween to submit your entry to National Geographic’s annual photo contest. The Atlantic provides 32 examples of what you’ll be up against.

 

and let’s close with something incredible

When wolves returned to Yellowstone after a 70-year absence, they didn’t just change the bio-system, they changed the geography.

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