Category Archives: Weekly summaries

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

Crumbling Shackles

The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.

— David Graeber, The Democracy Project (2013)

Both the country and the Sift had an amazing week. What was amazing for the country is outlined below. As for the Sift, it had the most page views of any week ever — more than 150K — led by a surge of interest in last August’s post “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“. (Being extensively quoted at FireDogLake may have had something to do with that.) That article got more than 120K views this week, rocketing past “The Distress of the Privileged” to become the most popular post in Weekly Sift history. (Between them, those two posts account for slightly over half of the traffic since the Sift moved to WordPress in 2011.)

This week’s featured posts are “Two Cheers for Justice Kennedy” and “Slurs: Who Can Say Them, When, and Why“.

This week everybody was talking about the Supreme Court

Thursday, the Court refused to gut ObamaCare, and Friday it legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. I broke off one piece of my Court analysis into its own article: “Two Cheers for Justice Kennedy“. Gay-rights advocates loved the rhetoric in Kennedy’s majority opinion, but his reasoning was mushy and convoluted. He provided justification for the criticism that he was redefining marriage according to his own values, and he didn’t establish a more general gay-rights precedent that was there for the taking in some of the lower-court rulings.

Roberts and polygamy. I was a little surprised that Chief Justice Roberts went for the polygamy cheap shot.

One immediate question invited by the majority’s position is whether States may retain the definition of marriage as a union of two people. Although the majority randomly inserts the adjective “two” in various places, it offers no reason at all why the two-person element of the core definition of marriage may be preserved while the man-woman element may not. Indeed, from the standpoint of history and tradition, a leap from opposite-sex marriage to same-sex marriage is much greater than one from a two-person union to plural unions, which have deep roots in some cultures around the world. If the majority is willing to take the big leap, it is hard to see how it can say no to the shorter one.

If you’ve lived anywhere that allows same-sex marriage, you’ve seen that it’s barely a leap at all. All the legal structure remains exactly the same, you just allow more people to access it. Polygamy OTOH opens up all kinds of complications, like: How does family health insurance work if you can add as many people to your family as you want? They may not be insuperable difficulties, but there’s some thinking to be done.

But what really amazed me was that Roberts learned nothing from Justice Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence, the case that threw out laws criminalizing sodomy in 2003. Scalia made a reduction-to-absurdity argument, claiming that the Court’s reasoning would lead to same-sex marriage; since that would clearly be absurd, the Lawrence ruling must be absurd also. But instead, his dissent has been quoted again and again in subsequent years, making Scalia the inadvertent prophet of marriage equality.I don’t expect to see legal polygamy anytime soon. But if it does happen, Roberts will be its inadvertent prophet.

Obamacare. For the second time — the first was three years ago — the Supreme Court refused to kill ObamaCare, with Chief Justice Roberts writing the opinion once again. This time he had Justice Kennedy with him, adding to the four liberals (Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor) to make a 6-3 decision. The far-right faction of the Court (Thomas, Alito, Scalia) united around a dissent written by Scalia in his trademark everyone-who-disagrees-with-me-is-an-idiot style (maybe best rendered as an emo song).

[BTW: I’ll take some credit for being right about the outcome. When I examined this case last summer, I wrote: “I don’t think they’ll overturn the subsidies. The Roberts Court practices conservative activism, but prefers to do it by stealth. … I can imagine Thomas, Alito, and Scalia going that way, but Roberts and Kennedy will be reluctant.”]

Like the previous legal attack on ObamaCare, this one was basically absurd. (In the 2012 case, a new legal theory was invented precisely for the purpose of killing ObamaCare, and got four justices to endorse it. Salon‘s Andrew Koppelman wrote: “The constitutional limits that the bill supposedly disregarded could not have been anticipated because they did not exist while the bill was being written.” In fact, it got five justices: Roberts endorsed the theory, but re-interpreted the Affordable Care Act to avoid applying it.)

This challenge was more of a legal “gotcha” attack, claiming that the way one sentence was worded, the law didn’t mean what everyone involved in the legislative process thought it meant and intended it to mean. As I explained last summer, the sentence establishing the subsidies to help people pay for health insurance refers to “exchanges established by the State”, while 33 states let the federal government set up a healthcare exchange for them. So the plaintiffs in King v Burwell argued that the subsidies weren’t valid in those states. As Roberts observed in his opinion, this would likely have started a “death spiral” of health insurance in the federal-exchange states: Without the subsidies, the individual mandate wouldn’t apply to a large number of people, who then would wait until they got sick to get insurance. Insurance companies would raise their rates to compensate, pushing even more people out of the market, and so on.

According to former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who was lobbied heavily by the administration but ultimately voted against the ACA, the interpretation pushed by the plaintiffs was “never part of our conversations at any point”. She attributed the disputed sentence to “inadvertent language”.

Back when we had white presidents, Congress handled this kind of thing without getting the courts involved. It’s not at all unusual to discover after a law is passed that some part of it isn’t worded quite right. But these drafting errors are just fixed by new legislation, which usually passes without noticeable opposition. (No one has come up with an example of a major pre-Obama law that got skewered because of inadvertent language.) Similarly, it’s typical for a complicated piece of legislation to need minor fixes to its procedures, and Congress used to simply recognize that the fixes made the law better, rather than seeing this as a chance to refight the original battle and scuttle everything.

But in Obama Era, Republicans in Congress practice an unprecedented scorched-earth opposition, and have abandoned all previous standards of fair play. So there is no chance of getting amending legislation passed. (This is also why Obama has had to do so much through executive order. No matter how sensible a procedural change is, Congress will not pass it. Obamacare delenda est!) So the law Congress originally passed is the one the Court has to work with. Like Obama, the Court had to decide whether to take on a larger role to compensate for Congressional dysfunction.

Fortunately, Roberts and Kennedy did the sensible thing. Looking at the option of canceling the subsidies in 33 states and throwing their insurance markets into chaos, Roberts wrote: “It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner.”

And it is. No one who voted for the law has come forward saying s/he thought it meant what the plaintiffs claimed. And when the state legislatures were deciding whether or not to create healthcare exchanges, nobody argued that they were risking their citizens’ subsidies.

Roberts’ interpretation has an added bonus: One way the case could have come out (the way one of the appeals courts ruled) is that the sentence in question is “ambiguous”, and so the Court would defer to the IRS’ interpretation. But that would allow the next president to order the IRS to interpret the law differently. By finding on his own authority that the sentence means what the Obama administration has been saying, Roberts avoided that scenario.

So maybe now we can just let the law operate as intended. It seems to be doing pretty well.

and symbols of the Confederacy

When I wrote “Please Take Down Your Confederate Flag” last week, I had no idea how suddenly the ground would shift. I expected South Carolina’s Republican majority to rally around that flag, leading to further protests like flag-burnings.

Well, within hours after I expressed that expectation, not only did Governor Haley ask the legislature to remove the flag from the capitol grounds, but a groundswell began to remove Confederate symbols across the South. Alabama Governor Bentley removed Confederate flags from a memorial on his state capitol’s grounds. Tennessee started talking about removing the bust of KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest from its capitol. Mitch McConnell called for moving the statue of Jefferson Davis in Kentucky’s capitol to a museum. Several governors said they’d eliminate the option of putting a Confederate flag emblem on state license plates. Statues people had been walking past obliviously for decades suddenly became issues in places like St. Louis and Kansas City.

On Facebook and various other forums, I’ve been amazed how quickly Confederate defenders jump to charges of “banning” Confederate symbols, which I don’t think anybody is asking for, and which would violate the Constitution anyway. What we’re asking is that governments stop endorsing the Confederacy, and that individuals and private institutions that endorse the Confederacy face criticism. It’s your First Amendment right to fly any flag or put up any statue you want, but it’s my First Amendment right to point out that you’re promoting and celebrating racism.

The encouraging thing is how quickly the country seems to have lost patience with the mythology of the Confederacy’s noble Lost Cause. President Obama summed it up in his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney

Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers.  It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought — the cause of slavery — was wrong — (applause) — the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong.  (Applause.) It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.

The Confederacy fought to keep millions of African-Americans in slavery. There was no nobility to that cause. It was immoral and does not deserve to be remembered kindly or proudly. For decades, American leaders have tip-toed around those truths for fear of offending white Southerners — that’s the real political correctness in this issue. Maybe that’s over.

As for what to replace those Confederate monuments with: There’s a real shortage of monuments to the hundreds of thousands of slaves who escaped their masters and joined the army of the United States. No doubt every Confederate State has such a black hero. You can impugn the motives of many of the Northerners who fought, but these Southern blacks were the real freedom fighters of the Civil War.

Let’s not overestimate the importance of these symbolic moves. But they seemed impossible just a few weeks ago. As David Graeber has said (see quote above), political common sense can change very suddenly. It gives me hope for issues that seem hopelessly jammed today, like serious action on climate change.

and you also might be interested in …

I mentioned Obama’s Charleston eulogy above. If you haven’t seen the whole thing [transcript, video] you should.

It’s really hard to imagine how Obama could have picked up all that Christian theology at his madrassa in Indonesia. But seriously, I think people who assume authentic Christianity belongs to conservatives will be stunned.

I’ll be interested to see if we hear more of this change: Where presidents have been ending their speeches with “God bless America”, Obama ended this one with: “May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.” It is a more humble usage, less amenable to American exceptionalism.


Ted Cruz is calling for Texas clerks to express their “religious freedom” by not processing marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Hmmm. Would he support a clerk expressing his religious freedom by refusing to process gun-owner licenses?


Now that they’re not allowed to discriminate against gays, at least two Alabama counties have stopped issuing marriage licenses entirely. Good luck with that. I’m sure this principled civil disobedience will bring gay rights advocates to their knees. Personally, I am quivering at the thought that opposite-sex Alabama couples who can’t get married will blame me rather than their local officials.


I have already expressed my sympathy with the Bernie Sanders campaign. But if you are tempted to forward some of those anti-Hillary social media messages, you might want to explore where they come from. You might be carrying water for some right-wing group that is trying to turn Democrats against each other.

and let’s close with a inter-species musical jam

Who knew elephants could boogie? Actually, elephant intelligence is remarkable, and ought to be studied further. For example, elephants are one of the few species that can recognize their own reflections in a mirror. Unfortunately, elephant labs tend to be rather expensive, so for the foreseeable future we’ll understand white rats a whole lot better.

Here’s a question somebody ought to know the answer to: If elephants have a sense of rhythm, does that mean they’ll get in step with each other on long migrations?

Perhaps Mentally Ill

A black shooter is a thug, a Muslim is a terrorist, and a white attacker is perhaps mentally ill.

— an unidentified interviewer for RT network’s “In the Now

Now is the time for mourning and for healing. But let’s be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.

President Barack Obama

This week’s featured post is “Please Take Down Your Confederate Flag“. But last August’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” is also topical again; it had picked up more than 20K new hits between the Charleston shooting and 9:30 this morning, making it the second Weekly Sift post to go over a quarter million page views.

This week everybody was talking about the terrorist attack in South Carolina

But not everybody was calling it that. Since the shooter was a white supremacist and his victims were not whites, the incident was usually referred to as a tragedy, i.e., one of those bad things that happens now and then that nobody can do anything about. Rick Perry even called it an “accident“. (I discussed this phenomenon after the 2012 Sikh Temple shooting in “White Right-Wing Christian Terrorist“.) An interviewer at RT put it like this:

A black shooter is a thug, a Muslim is a terrorist and a white attacker is perhaps mentally ill.

If the subject weren’t so serious, it would have been comical to watch Republicans and their right-wing media allies struggle against the notion — obvious from the beginning to anybody without ideological blinders — that this was a racial attack. Multiple talking heads on Fox News tried to spin the shooting as an attack on Christians, because the imaginary persecution of American Christians fits within the boundaries the Fox fantasy world, while the very real persecution of blacks doesn’t. (Larry Wilmore collected the clips and added appropriately amazed commentary. Media Matters gives the chronology, showing that witness accounts of the shooter’s racist statements were already public before Fox’ Christian-persecution spin.)

Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum played along with that farce. (Jeb Bush merely professed ignorance: “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” — as if he shooter hadn’t announced what was on his mind.) Fox trotted out a black minister, Bishop E. W. Jackson, to make the Christian-persecution case, not bothering to mention that he is also a Republican politician. Wilmore was not impressed: “Black don’t distract,” he said. He also ridiculed Jackson’s statement that the shooter “didn’t choose a bar, he didn’t choose a basketball court, he chose a church”, suggesting that Jackson could also have listed “a chitlin farm” or “a watermelon stand” as stereotypic places where blacks congregate.

In a particularly Orwellian editorial, The Wall Street Journal saw the shooting as a chance to congratulate America on its racial progress: Unlike after the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, authorities in Charleston are not conspiring to help the perpetrator get away.

The universal condemnation of the murders at the Emanuel AME Church and Dylann Roof’s quick capture by the combined efforts of local, state and federal police is a world away from what President Obama recalled as “a dark part of our history.” Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists.

In a different context, Wilmore recently introduced The Nightly Show’sExtremely Low Bar Award“. This looks like another strong candidate: Our law enforcement system is no longer conspiring with white-supremacist terrorists, so we must have this racism thing just about knocked. It makes me proud to be an American.

The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer also looked back to the Birmingham bombing, but pointed out that the conservative media’s response then was very similar to the denial of white racism we’re seeing today. He quotes a National Review editorial from 1963:

The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur—of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro.

And the significance of this particular church to a white supremacist couldn’t be clearer: One of the oldest black churches in America, Emanuel AME was founded by (among others) Denmark Vesey, who was hanged for leading a failed slave revolt in 1822.

Discussion of the Confederate flag that still flies in front of the South Carolina state capitol, and can’t even be lowered to half-mast without an act of the legislature, is a topic I pushed into its own article. My main point there is that a symbol like the Confederate flag is so powerful that your personal intentions in displaying it don’t matter: It means what it means. Maybe you associate it with country music and good barbeque and The Dukes of Hazzard, but that just doesn’t matter. It is the flag of slavery and Jim Crow and the KKK and lynchings and Dylann Roof. You can’t make that stuff go away.

Finally, there’s the frequent statement — based on more-or-less nothing — that Dylann Roof was a “loner” or a “lone wolf”. We now have what appears to be his manifesto, and it’s filled with standard white-supremacist rhetoric and references. We still don’t know whether he met other white supremacists face-to-face or had any help planning his attack. But he clearly was plugged in to that network, through the internet at the very least.

Make the parallel to Muslim terrorists and ISIS. If a Muslim shooter had been browsing ISIS web sites and wrote a manifesto full of ISIS rhetoric, would we see him as a loner, or think of him as part of ISIS? Those same Republican politicians — Lindsey Graham, for example — who cast Roof as a disturbed loner would be demanding that a similar Muslim be grilled hard (and maybe even tortured) to identify his contacts in the movement.

and the Pope’s global-warming encyclical

Charleston dominated my attention this week, so I still haven’t finished reading Laudato Si or given its message the attention it deserves. Next week.

I do want to make two strategic observations that explain why I think this is a big deal:

  • Climate-change denial is geared towards confusing people about science; it’s not well set up to oppose a religious movement that defends God’s creation. Scientists are well-known evolution-pushing liberals who are easy to cast as part of a global socialist conspiracy. A diverse consortium of religious leaders is harder to tar with that charge, and fossil-fuel conservatives look ridiculous when they try.
  • What we’ve seen in regard to both women-in-the-clergy and gay rights is that no Christian denomination wants to be the most liberal group to defend a benighted conservative position. When the Congregationalists turn, that puts pressure on the Episcopalians, and when they turn the onus shifts to the Methodists, and then the Presbyterians, and so on. The Catholic Church has been the only denomination big enough to resist that kind of pressure, and now that it has taken a strong position calling for action against climate change, there’s no telling where the dominoes stop falling. American Christianity might wind up speaking with a fairly united voice on this issue.

BTW: NOAA’s May statistics still have 2015 on its way towards being the hottest year on record, replacing last year.

and still more presidential candidates

Jeb Bush’s announcement was an anti-climax, because he’s so clearly been running for months now. And I’m left with the question: What issues will he run on? His positions on immigration and education are unpopular with the Republican base. I have heard no specific suggestions for how he would fight ISIS or terrorism in general differently than President Obama. I really don’t think his blaming Obama for “the biggest debt ever” will stick, given that Obama has drastically reduced the deficit he inherited from Jeb’s brother.

I’ll get to his speech eventually in my 2016 series, probably after I do Hillary’s, but my immediate reaction is surprise at how little is in there. There are hints of a tax plan, hints of increased defense spending, but the only number in the speech is his goal of 4% annual GDP growth. Increased growth would be good — I wonder why nobody ever thought of that before.


Jeb didn’t stay in the news very long, though, because the next day Donald Trump announced his candidacy with a rambling speech that sounded like the kind of thing you’d hear from the guy on the next stool at your favorite bar. Digby warns us that we have to take the Donald seriously. But the comedians had a different reaction: Jon Stewart looked to Heaven and said “Thank you.” Larry Wilmore unwrapped Trump’s candidacy as a gift from the Comedy Gods.

Here’s what’s going to be amazing once the debates start in August: All the minor candidates are going to be looking to make headlines by saying something outrageous, but how are they going to compete with Trump? What will they have to say?

In the 2012 cycle, the crowd reactions were bad publicity for the GOP as a whole: They booed a soldier calling in from Iraq because he was gay. They cheered the idea of letting somebody without health insurance die. What is the audience going to do when Trump says that Mexican immigrants are rapists? Or voices one of his other incredible opinions? The general public may get a chance to see just how far around the bend the Republican base really is, and how every single one of the candidates panders to that insanity.


I loved Jamelle Bouie’s take on Hillary Clinton: She was a nerd before it was cool, and her public-image ambiguity stems from trying not to look like the geeky policy wonk she really is. He thinks she should “go full nerd” and be herself.

and Rachel Dolezal

I am still trying to fathom the depth of the public reaction to Rachel Dolezal, the woman who was born to white parents and raised as a white girl, but at some point in adulthood began presenting herself as black, and eventually became president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP.

In part, the story attracts attention because of its man-bites-dog character. Light-skinned blacks have been passing as white in America since colonial times, as I discussed last year in a review of Daniel Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line. (One member of a black-turned-white family Sharfstein researched was a Confederate officer during the Civil War and a Louisiana senator afterward.) But passing in the other direction is not something you hear about very often.

But even that doesn’t explain the urgency with which writers of all racial and political identities have been addressing this topic, as if Dolezal’s situation demanded our immediate action. I suppose if I were connected to the Spokane NAACP, I’d have a responsibility to form an opinion about Dolezal. And I can imagine that I might feel conned if I belonged to the constituency of the Spokane NAACP, and counted on it to represent my interests. I might believe that I had at least deserved the chance to know the details of Dolezal’s claim to a black identity before she was hired, so that I could decide for myself how confident I felt in her ability to represent me.

But that doesn’t make it a national issue either.

A lot of the ink spilled about Dolezal concerned what her kind of “transracialism” says about transgenderism, which was still on everybody’s mind after the Caitlyn Jenner story broke a few weeks ago. But the parallel between Dolezal and Jenner escapes me. Jenner broke the story herself, and all she asks of us is that we let her live her life (and maybe watch her TV show). What if Dolezal had done likewise? She might have said, “Hey, everybody, for a long time now I’ve been thinking of myself as black. So I’m going to darken my skin and frizz my hair and try to live in the black community as a black.” And then everybody could do what they wish with that information.

I don’t see anything to object to in that scenario.

The transgender community is already discussing how they feel about Jenner’s celebrity, which will likely offer her a de facto spokesperson role, if she wants one. But to make the case similar to Dolezal, Jenner would have to be angling for a role not just as spokesperson for transgender people, but for women. I see no sign of that at all.

If you do feel compelled to form an opinion about Dolezal, here’s an interesting thought experiment: What if one of her parents had crossed the racial line in the other direction? Then Dolezal would be reclaiming some forgotten black grandparent, but her life might have been almost exactly the same. She might have been raised as a white girl by parents everyone believed to be white, and have had all the same experiences, giving her no additional insight into the black experience in America. Intuitively, it seems like the grandparent would make her claim to blackness more authentic. But why? Is it really just genes?


In the section above, I was using a couple of abstract principles that someday I’ll have to flesh out on my philosophical/religious blog, where I post far less frequently. First, judgment is not an end in itself. Judgment is a tool for guiding action. If you can’t foresee playing a role in some relevant decision-making process, then you don’t really need to have an opinion, and there’s no inherent virtue in forming one. Sometimes thinking a case through is a worthwhile exercise that sharpens your mind. But it can also be a way to avoid other topics that really do demand your judgment. (On my Facebook news feed, I found it instructive how fast discussion of Dolezal dried up as soon as the Charleston shooting gave us a serious racial issue to think about.)

Second, the standards of judgment should serve the purposes of judgment. Just as judgment is not an end in itself, high standards are not ends in themselves either. So the answer to the question: “Do I believe Dolezal is really black?” depends on why I need to know. If it’s up to me to decide whether she gets some kind of affirmative action benefit, then I’d set a fairly high standard, and would probably say no. But if I’m her neighbor, and the question is whether I’m going to accept her for what she aspires to be, then I’d apply a lower standard and probably say yes.


And finally, if you go full Zen on the topic, all our identities are false. We talk about “true” and “false” identities, as if we were dealing with a binary category. But authenticity is a continuum like anything else. (That was the philosophical theme of my Jenner article.) Anybody’s identity is only authentic up to a point.

All of which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience:

The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. “I am no such thing,” it would say; “I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone.”

I can’t help wondering what James’ crab voice sounded like when he gave the original lecture in Edinburgh in 1901.

and let’s close with something cute

It’s been a tough week. We need this.

Serving the Poor

The “trickle-down” theory: the principle that the poor, who must subsist on table scraps dropped by the rich, can best be served by giving the rich bigger meals.

William Blum

This week’s featured post is “The 2016 Stump Speeches: Rick Santorum“.

This week everybody was talking about the trade-deal failure

What happened is a little complicated. The House narrowly voted in favor of giving President Obama the fast-track negotiating authority that the administration says is essential to getting the TransPacific Partnership treaty done. But it rejected the Trade Adjustment Assistance to American workers adversely affected by the treaty, with a large number of Democrats voting against it.

On the surface, it looks like House Democrats got the worst of both votes: the TPP goes forward without help for American workers. But (due to the way Congress works) that throws the issue back to the Senate, which passed the two provisions together. So it’s kind of a poison-pill thing: House Democrats are betting that Senate Democrats will find the fast-track authorization alone too bitter to swallow. If so, the whole deal is dead.

President Obama has made the issue a test of loyalty, but Democrats mostly haven’t bought it. (Republicans want the TPP for the benefits it offers their corporate masters, so they’re totally on board.) Robert Reich explains why:

[I]n recent years the biggest gains from trade have gone to investors and executives, while the burdens have fallen disproportionately on those in the middle and below who have lost good-paying jobs.

So even though everyone gains from trade, the biggest winners are at the top. And as the top keeps moving higher compared to most of the rest of us, the vast majority feels relatively worse off.

and Iraq

For nearly a year, we’ve been trying to fight ISIS while keeping our hands clean: providing air support, training Iraqi troops, “advising”, and so on. There was a brief flurry of optimism after the Iraqi government recaptured Tikrit, but that all evaporated when ISIS took Ramadi in May.

Judging from a great distance, the problem seems to be that Iraqis, particularly Sunnis, see no reason to risk their lives for the Shia-dominated government. The Obama-administration narrative that Iraqi units just need “training” isn’t credible. We’ve been training Iraqi troops since the Bush administration, and the current army shows what we have accomplished.

The various sectarian or ethnic militias are viable fighting forces: the Kurdish Peshmerga, for example. But if the struggle becomes primarily sectarian/ethnic, the vision of a united Iraqi government goes out the window, and ISIS’ claim to be the true defender of the Sunnis is bolstered.

Other than Iranian troops we don’t want for other reasons, non-American foreign intervention — say, Jordanians, Saudis, and Egyptians — also doesn’t appear to be in the cards, for reasons I don’t fully understand. And that creates a dilemma for American politicians. “Defeat ISIS” is a great applause line, but “another Iraq war” isn’t. What if the two mean the same thing?

This week the administration announced a further expansion of our footprint in Iraq, still short of fielding combat units to fight ISIS. But as our troops and our bases get closer to the front lines, I have to wonder: What happens if some Beirut-style surprise attack kills a few hundred Americans? What if dozens of our troops get captured and beheaded on YouTube? How are we not going to deploy combat units then?

I stand by the position I stated in my 2005 post “Cut and Run“: We need to abandon the illusion that our presence in Iraq is fixing something, and that if we just try harder and longer, we’ll fix Iraq well enough to stand on its own. On the contrary, our intervention has been a big part of the chaos-making process that has created ISIS and raised it to its current level. Another American occupation may keep a lid on things temporarily, but in the long term it just makes things worse.

And that raises another question, which Stephen Walt discussed in Foreign Policy: What if the Islamic State wins? In other words, what if the Caliphate remains in control of some piece of territory for the long term? “Live with it,” he says. In current American discourse, that scenario is unthinkable. But we need to start thinking about it, because none of the other options being discussed look realistic.

and that Texas pool party

The best what-happened account I’ve found is at BuzzFeed. The full 7-minute video shot by one of the kids at the party — you’ve seen 20 seconds of it over and over on the news — is here.

At TPM, a former cop analyzed the police response — the majority of officers who were talking to people and trying to keep things calm, and that one maniac who was running around, yelling, barrel-rolling, waving his gun, and generally (in the words of the father of a girl he mishandled) “doing his Paul Blart impersonation”.

What should officers do in similar situations? For starters, they must realize that the public—even a group of non-compliant teenagers—are not an enemy to be vanquished, but civilians to be protected, to the extent possible, from indignity and harm. A Guardian mindset encourages officers to be “procedurally just,” to ensure that their encounters with civilians are empowering, fair, respectful and considerate. Research of police and military encounters strongly suggests that officers are most effective at fostering goodwill and reducing antagonism when they approach each encounter with the goal of building civilian trust.

Atlantic had some background on McKinney itself, from a writer who went to high school there a few years ago. She references a Money article proclaiming McKinney one of the best places to live in America. (In boom years, my town of Nashua, NH has made the same list. In a nutshell, Money is picking out places where it’s relatively easy to find a job that pays you enough to buy a house in a low-crime neighborhood.)

“Underlying McKinney’s homey Southern charm is a thoroughly modern city,” the Money story gushed.

Southern charm is charming, of course, until it isn’t.

As always, Larry Wilmore provides the best comedic commentary on racial incidents. He discussed the original incident here, and the victim-blaming media response here.

And for balance, here are the worst responses. I think the booby prize should go to CNN “legal analyst” Paul Callan:

From the cop’s standpoint, he’s looking at this big kid, who he thinks is about to jump him. He then unholsters his weapon and the kid backs off. The cop then reholsters his weapon and continues to subdue. Of all of the things that he did, that’s probably the one thing that most police officers would say was within training and procedure.

He’s totally ignoring the question of who is raising the temperature of the situation. (Answer: the cop, not the kids.) And suppose one kid doesn’t back off fast enough and the cop shoots him dead. Would that be within training and procedure too?

and the bail system

The way Jon Stewart transformed himself from a mere comedian to America’s Most Trusted Journalist is that he started doing the kind of stuff journalists so seldom do any more, like putting statements of public figures right next to the contradictory statements they made six months ago.

Well, since John Oliver stopped being Jon’s substitute host and started Last Week Tonight on HBO, he has been taking the comedian/journalist thing to the next level. Rather than just providing an irreverent view of events in the current news cycle, Oliver has been actively muckraking: drawing attention to the normal things in American society that are seriously screwed up.

Several of the things Oliver has been shining his light on are related: they’re poverty traps. In other words, the rest of us either don’t notice them or consider them nuisances, but if you’re poor they can doom your attempt to climb out of poverty. For example, minor municipal violations — the kinds of things nearly everybody does at one time or another — can lead to debtors’ prison if you can’t immediately pay the fine. And if you have an unexpected expense — say, your car breaks down and you can’t get to work without it — most of us either have some savings, a close friend or relative with some savings, or a credit card whose interest rate isn’t ruinous. The poor, however, have to deal with payday lenders, completely legal businesses who charge annualized interest rates in the hundreds of percents. So if something prevents a poor person from paying off the loan in a week or two (and not rolling it over into a new loan), he or she is probably never going to get out of debt.

On the May 31 show, Oliver took on the bail system, pointing out some horrifying facts, (corroborated by an NYT article Wednesday):

  • Lots and lots of people (about half a million at any given moment, according the National Institute of Corrections) are in jail simply because they can’t raise the money to bail out.
  • Bail bondsmen will front you the money for a 10% payment, but (unlike bail itself) you don’t get that money back when you show up for trial. So $250,000 in bail can leave an innocent person who follows all the rules with a $25,000 debt. Even without interest, that’s about 20 months of full-time minimum-wage work, assuming you can get somebody else to pay all your living expenses during that time.
  • If you can’t bail out, you might spend weeks or even months in jail. Probably you will lose your job and possibly your home and/or custody of your children as well — even though you haven’t been convicted of anything and may well be innocent.
  • As a result, some people who face bail beyond their means for relatively minor offenses will plead guilty to something they didn’t do. (Rather than spend months in jail waiting to prove your innocence in court, you can plead guilty, get a suspended sentence, and go home.) That creates a criminal record that will follow them for the rest of their lives, but it keeps life from falling apart immediately.

Now add in the way our legal system arrests and charges non-whites in situations where whites could walk away — something Oliver had previously covered in his segment on prisons — and the much larger percentage of the non-white population in poverty, and you have a serious racial issue as well.

and you also might be interested in …

The Iowa Republican Party cancelled its famous presidential straw poll. The poll had long been criticized as a media circus with little-to-no predictive value, but I guess Michele Bachmann’s 2011 victory was the last straw.


TPM’s Josh Marshall says pretty much what I’ve been thinking about Rachel Dolezal and the whole passing-as-black thing.


After two months of “conversations” with voters, Hillary Clinton had the first real rally of her campaign Saturday in New York. The huge number of candidates has left me with a backlog of speeches to analyze, but I’ll get to this one soon.


The fiscal debacle in Kansas is moving towards its inevitable conclusion. In 2012, Governor Brownback went all-in on tax cuts for the wealthy, claiming it would produce economic growth and ultimately increased revenue through the magic of supply-side economics.

Because magic is usually not a major factor in economics, none of that happened. Kansas’ economy has benefited somewhat from the Obama recovery, but not so much as neighboring states that didn’t massively cut taxes. Instead, revenues dropped sharply — as common sense says they would — and Brownback hasn’t been able to cut spending on education and highways fast enough to make up the difference.

So Friday the legislature did what it had to do: raised taxes. But it didn’t restore the pre-Brownback status quo on income or business taxes. Instead, it raised the sales tax.

Imagine if Brownback had been honest from the beginning and said to working-class Kansans: “I want rich people to pay less tax, and I’ll make up the lost revenue by raising the sales tax you pay and cutting corners on your children’s education.” That would have been enormously unpopular and he could never have been elected. But by doing it in steps and promising different outcomes at different times, that’s the policy he has implemented.


When it comes to the news media, one of the most insightful people around is NYU Professor Jay Rosen, who writes the blog PressThink. Unfortunately, Rosen only blogs occasionally, which means I only read his blog occasionally; so it can take a month or so for me to notice something.

Back in May, he wrote “Campaign reporters: you are granted no ‘role in the process.’ It is your powers against theirs.” He discussed a common political problem, but with a new slant. The problem is that political campaigns are increasingly self-contained. The candidate stays insulated from reporters and even from unfiltered questions from voters. So campaigns stay “on message”. In other words, “I’ll tell you what I want you to know, not what you want to know.”

That’s an imperial posture, and it bodes ill for democracy. But Rosen pointed out that the solution isn’t for reporters to claim “their place in the process”, which candidates have imperiously denied them.

Political reporters: You have no guaranteed “role.” That’s a fiction you and your colleagues created to keep the game the same every four years so you don’t have to go to school on how to be useful and powerful in the election system as it evolves. The fiction works if you can get the right people to believe it, but when they clearly don’t care about your “role in the process” how are you going to make ’em care? Got a plan for that?

Rosen does: Reporters should represent the voters.

Candidates will only care about reporters if the voters do, and the voters will only care if they see the reporters working for them. In other words, if The Washington Post is consistently asking candidates the questions I want answers to — like, say, what the minimum wage should be or whether bankers who break the law should go to jail — then a candidate who snubs them snubs me. But if reporters mainly ask inside-baseball questions that only the political class cares about (like why Jeb Bush changed campaign managers), then why should I object if candidates avoid them?

So yes, voters feel cut off from imperial candidates. But which side of the cut-off are reporters on? If the press is also saying “I’ll tell you what I want you to know, not what you want to know”, then they’re just another branch of the Imperium.



The room doubles as the prison cell that holds all the pastors arrested for preaching Christianity or refusing to perform same-sex weddings.


Top-flight state universities may be on the way out, at least in red states. Governor Walker is trying to eliminate the tenure system in the Wisconsin state universities. And while that might work in the lesser schools, it’s hard to see how a major research university like the University of Wisconsin will maintain itself. Josh Marshall comments:

[W]hat Walker is doing is basically like lighting your own house on fire. States can get into financial jams and need to cut spending, either because of budgetary mismanagement or rough economic times. But if you look closely at what Walker is doing there’s no real budgetary imperative behind it. It’s just a desire to destroy a great public institution for the sake of doing it, driven in part by right-wing ideology and in part by the palpable animus Walker himself holds to people who managed to get an education.

And The Nation‘s Zoe Carpenter outlines the ways North Carolina’s state government has been trying to “put what was once one of the great and affordable university systems out of reach for many of the state’s aspiring students”, as well as stifle any academic work on poverty or race.

and let’s close with something awesome

A photo of twin tornadoes dropping out of a giant superstorm cloud formation.

Keeping it Real

In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high, men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.

— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

This week’s featured article is “What’s So Scary About Caitlyn Jenner?

This week everybody was talking about Caitlyn Jenner

My article on Jenner focuses on where I think my own discomfort and the social-conservative vitriol come from. But there’s a whole other argument going on among liberals about whether transsexualism conflicts with feminism. Elinor Burkett argues in the NYT that it often does:

By defining womanhood the way he did to Ms. Sawyer, Mr. Jenner and the many advocates for transgender rights who take a similar tack … undermine almost a century of hard-fought arguments that the very definition of female is a social construct that has subordinated us.

But Slate‘s Amanda Marcotte isn’t having it.

Unfortunately, writer Elinor Burkett (last seen crashing the stage at the Oscars) brought along for the ride one of the worst tendencies of academia: highly intellectualized arguments made in bad faith. … Here’s an idea: Why don’t we call a truce and let ordinary people express themselves without lighting their asses on fire for not sounding like they’re reading out of a doctoral thesis?

As I understand it, the gist of the dispute is whether the transsexual experience undermines the notion that femininity is socially constructed rather than inborn. (Jenner, after all, has been treated like a male for a lifetime. Why didn’t that take?) And I guess I agree with Marcotte: that’s a topic for a research paper, not an op-ed. The apparent disjunction strikes me as an anomaly that some wise person should carefully explain, not a contradiction to fight over.

and the USA Freedom Act

The Electronic Frontier Foundation says it wanted more restrictions on the NSA, but

Even so, we’re celebrating. We’re celebrating because, however small, this bill marks a day that some said could never happen—a day when the NSA saw its surveillance power reduced by Congress. And we’re hoping that this could be a turning point in the fight to rein in the NSA.

The article outlines the steps that still need to be taken: More legislative provisions sunset in 2017 and shouldn’t be re-authorized, there’s an executive order they’d like rescinded, and there’s the problem of “overbroad classification” that keeps the public from knowing what its government does.

Another rising cause is the movement to drop the charges and let Edward Snowden come home. Courts have ruled that he was right: the program he exposed was illegal. The New Yorker‘s John Cassidy thinks we should be “thanking Snowden for his public service” rather than trying to lock him up.

and (still) the Duggars

The parents were interviewed by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, who gave them a pretty soft ride. At least, that’s what people tell me; I haven’t watched more than a few seconds of it.

Amanda Marcotte focuses on the Duggars’ use of the Christian-persecution myth:

Nursing the grievances of [Fox News’] right-wing audience is big business. Its audience wants to hear all about how the meanie liberals are picking on this cute little Christian family for an itty-bitty multimonth rampage of child molesting.

Caryn Riswald explains how the opposite is true: The Duggars’ career in general and this issue in particular make good examples not Christian persecution, but of Christian privilege.

Like white and male privileges, Christian privilege affords members of a status-group the ability to do and get away with things that those who are not members of that group could not. It is unearned and unseen, affording advantages that holders of it can actively deny existing, yet count on every day. Examples of things a Christian can assume because of this privilege: Adherence to my religion will be seen as an asset; I can wear symbols of my religion without being accused of terrorism; I know that my workplace calendar respects my religious holidays and Sabbath. We can add to that list: My religious identity will help me escape punishment for criminal activity.

and getting ready for the Supreme Court to rule on marriage

Tom Delay says “all Hell is going to break loose” if the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality. He pledges “to stand for marriage even if it takes civil disobedience.”

I’m having trouble picturing which laws he’s planning to disobey. If you google “civil disobedience against gay marriage” you can get all kinds of pledges and petitions and whatnot. But they’re all a little vague about how the campaign would work. Your neighbor’s marriage doesn’t really need your cooperation, so refusing to cooperate with it doesn’t accomplish much.

Here’s Glenn Beck interviewing the organizer of “The Future Conference: what you thought was coming … is here now“. Beck says he believes 10,000 pastors “are willing to lay it all down on the table and willing to go to jail or go to death because they serve God and not man.”

I’m not sure who these 10,000 pastors expect to kill them. What I fear is that having gotten all revved up and then discovering there actually are no jack-booted troops coming, the Right is going to create violent incidents of its own.


Another possible response to the Court: Secede from the Union. Joseph Farah, editor-in-chief of World Net Daily, explains what a bonanza secession could be for any state that could pull it off:

I know there are millions of Christians, Jews and others who would pull up stakes and move to another country that honored the institution of marriage as it was designed by God – a union between one man and one woman. … Is there one state in 50 that would not only defy the coming abomination, but secede in response? The rewards could be great. I would certainly consider relocating. How about you? … We need a Promised Land. We need an Exodus strategy.

He’s ignoring, of course, all the people who would immediately leave his theocratic utopia. (I would expect the net population flow to be out rather than in.) But I think the interesting question is: Should the rest of care?

I mean, suppose one of the redder states — maybe Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Mississippi, or some combination thereof — decides to become the New Israel for people who can’t stand the idea of continuing to be Americans after marriage equality becomes the law of the land. Suppose the seceding state(s) even agree to reasonable conditions: (1) a period of time for people to move in and out freely before either side closes the border; (2) assuming a fair share of the national debt; (3) letting the U.S. military remove any WMDs before turning over its bases; and maybe some others I haven’t thought of yet — nothing punitive, just making sure they’re not taking advantage of the rest of us.

In that scenario, I’m not seeing a reason to go all Abe Lincoln on them and force them back into the Union. What do the rest of you think?

and you also might be interested in …

Last week I neglected to cover all the new presidential candidates, and it will be a while before my 2016 Stump Speech Series can catch up. The new announcements include Democrats Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee; and Republicans Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum. The total number of candidates is up to ten Republicans and four Democrats. The NYT projects the ultimate numbers will be five Democrats and 15 Republicans — and they don’t count Donald Trump, who will announce something June 16.

Part of the difference is that Jeb Bush is not as popular among Republicans as Hillary Clinton is among Democrats, so his candidacy hasn’t intimidated anybody out of running. But another reason is that liberals don’t have the lucrative celebrity culture conservatives do. Running for president is a good career move on the Right, even if you don’t win. There’s a lecture circuit waiting for the Michele Bachmanns and Herman Cains. You can make a lot of money even if hardly anybody voted for you. Sarah Palin had such opportunities for wealth that remaining governor of Alaska just seemed stupid.

Once you get past the Clintons, though, it’s hard to find anybody making big money as a Democratic celebrity. The lecture circuit will probably open up for President Obama after he leaves office, if that’s what he wants to do. But it will continue to be a small circle. Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 campaign should have established his brand as an authentic liberal, but nobody bought his book and I haven’t been invited to hear him give a sponsored lecture anywhere. Elizabeth Warren got a decent book deal, but nothing on the Palin scale. Howard Dean shows up fairly often as a guest on MSNBC, but he didn’t get his own show like Mike Huckabee did on Fox.

In short, I can easily imagine a failed presidential campaign turning into a financial bonanza for Ben Carson or Carly Fiorina. Not so for Martin O’Malley or Jim Webb.


One of the more embarrassing campaign moments so far — at least it’s embarrassing to me as an American — came when Rick Santorum urged the Pope not to make an issue out of climate change.

The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science. We probably are better off leaving science to the scientists, and focusing on what we’re really good at, which is theology and morality.

It’s parody worthy of The Onion, but it’s what Santorum really said. I mean, who is ignoring the scientists here? It’s Santorum and his fellow climate-change deniers, not the Pope.


84% of Americans agree that money has too much influence in politics. Why doesn’t that lead to change? Because money has too much influence on politics.

This would be an interesting experiment: Redo that poll, but weight the responses according to the respondents’ net worth. The lower half of the country, i.e., households with net worth zero or negative, wouldn’t count at all. A billion-dollar household would count as much as a thousand million-dollar households, and so on.

That poll would be a more accurate reflection of the public as Congress sees it. And it might well turn out that a net-worth-weighted majority thinks money’s influence is perfectly fine. Sure people think that money has too much influence; but money probably thinks that people have too much influence.


College Humor presents: Diet Racism.


Gun Owners of America President Larry Pratt makes it clear why people like him shouldn’t be armed.

The Second Amendment was designed for people just like the president and his administration. … Yes, our guns are in our hands for people like those in our government right now that think they wanna go tyrannical on us. We’ve got something for ‘em. That’s what it’s all about.

Remember the Conservative-to-English Lexicon‘s definition of tyranny:

When a Marxist gets elected and then tries to carry out the platform the people voted for.

Marxist, in turn, is defined as “one who regrets the increasing concentration of wealth”.


538 does a good, even-handed discussion of the job market, the unemployment rate, and all those related statistics people often grind an ax about.

and let’s close with a duel

Chipotle’s “Scarecrow” video can be read as a full-force assault on the food industry.

But Funny or Die reads it as an attempt to subvert the revolution, and does an “honest version

.

So which is it: Are the capitalists selling us the rope to hang the capitalists? Or is seeing-through-the-illusion the new illusion?

Homage to Virtue

Maxim 218: Hypocrisy is an homage that vice pays to virtue.

François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

This week’s featured post is “Rich Lowry’s False Choice“.

This week everybody was talking about Denny Hastert

I’ll let Orin Kerr summarize:

If I understand the history correctly, in the late 1990s, the President was impeached for lying about a sexual affair by a House of Representatives led by a man who was also then hiding a sexual affair, who was supposed to be replaced by another Congressman who stepped down when forced to reveal that he too was having a sexual affair, which led to the election of a new Speaker of the House who now has been indicted for lying about payments covering up his sexual contact with a boy.

That last guy is Dennis Hastert. The only reason he became Speaker to begin with was that he had the squeaky-clean image the GOP needed to continue its witch-hunt against Bill Clinton.

and the Houston floods

Texans have decided to delay seceding from the Union until their federal disaster-relief checks clear. Two years ago, when Congress was voting on disaster relief in the Northeast after Hurricane Sandy, Ted Cruz said:

This bill is symptomatic of a larger problem in Washington—an addiction to spending money we do not have. The United States Senate should not be in the business of exploiting victims of natural disasters to fund pork projects that further expand our debt.

The Sandy funding bill wasn’t passed until a full three months after the storm. When disaster strikes Texas, though, Cruz stands strong

in support of the federal government fulfilling its statutory obligations and stepping in to respond to this natural disaster.

No concern about whether this might be “money we do not have”. You also gotta love Cruz’ reaction to the question of whether climate change had something to do with this:

At a time of tragedy, I think it’s wrong to try to politicize a natural disaster.

Pointing to causes and seeking solutions is “politicizing”. Of course, folks on the Right are fine with pointing to a cause like, say, God’s judgment against witchcraft and sodomy.

In addition to climate change, another real factor in the flooding is Houston’s lack of zoning and uncontrolled sprawl, i.e., the “Texas tradition of strong personal property and land use rights that mean fewer regulations.” A Texas A&M professor of urban planning says:

Think about every time you put in a road, a mall and you add concrete, you’ve lost the ability of rain to get into the soil and you’ve lost that permeability. It’s now impermeable. And therefore you get more runoff.

Anyway, I hope the congressional delegations of New York and New Jersey make merciless fun of Cruz … and then vote promptly for the disaster relief. Americans taking care of each other in hard times is part of our long socialist tradition.


but I was listening to talks

Bernie

A full room makes a happy candidate.

Wednesday evening I saw Bernie Sanders in Portsmouth, NH. (I shot both pictures in this segment.) The crowd — maybe 700 by my back-of-the-envelope estimate — packed South Church, and people were standing in the back. It was an enthusiastic, jump-up-and-cheer group. And Sanders did not tiptoe around at all, using the taboo word oligarchy and making frequent references to “the billionaire class” that is buying our government and organizing the economy to suit itself.

This was a day after his 5000-person rally in his home city of Burlington, Vermont, which I suspect is the largest rally by any 2016 candidate so far. And this weekend, a crowd of more than a thousand greeted him in Iowa City.

Sanders is absolutely going to get outspent by the Clinton campaign, but in a small state like New Hampshire that might not matter. Enthusiasm means a lot in a primary, and Bernie has it working for him. I predict that Hillary isn’t going to be able to coast on her name recognition and money. And going negative — the chief thing money is good for — isn’t an attractive option, because she’ll want Sanders’ supporters to join her for the general election. If Clinton is going to win here, she’s going to have to raise enthusiasm of her own.

Maybe she will. I’m currently in the middle of a Hillary Reading Project, which you’ll hear about eventually. I’m reading her books in order, from It Takes a Village to Living History (which I’m reading now) to Hard Choices. Like a lot of writers, I read a lot into an author’s voice, and I’m finding Hillary surprisingly personable and likeable. The question I’m trying to answer is whether she has a set of core values we can count on, or if the Clintons only stand for political expediency. Conclusions are still pending.


The bizarre way the Sanders campaign is being covered is starting to draw attention. Jon Stewart ran a series of clips of pundits referring to Sanders as a “long shot” and a “loon” and then said: “Give me a taste of this crazy whacko cuckoo bird”, followed by clips of Sanders denouncing too-big-to-fail banks, calling for pay equity for women, endorsing campaign finance reform, and proposing that Social Security be expanded rather than cut. He comments:

What a rational, slightly left-of-center, mainstream politician.

And WaPo’s “The Fix” points out that Sanders has more supporters than many Republican candidates who are not instantly dismissed as long shots.

What’s going on here? It’s another example of the model I discussed in 2011 in “Liberal Media, Conservative Manipulation“. Journalists are relegating Sanders’ candidacy to the “Sphere of Deviance”, where it can be dismissed without considering any of the points it raises.


McKibben

Under the banner of the Earth.

Sunday, my church (First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts) took advantage of Bill McKibben being in town for his mother’s 85th birthday, and invited him in to speak. He gave a more-or-less sermon-length talk during the regular worship service, and then stuck around to answer questions a bit later. (The picture is from the Q&A session.)

I’ll probably discuss his argument more in a future week, but here’s the gist of it: He focused on the importance of time. The shift away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable energy is happening, but the question is whether it will happen fast enough to avoid climate cataclysm. “If we had 30 years,” he said, “I’d be sanguine.”

The point of activism like protesting the Keystone Pipeline and pushing public institutions to divest from fossil fuel stocks is to accelerate the shift. He sees this era as the last gasp of large-scale fossil-fuel-industry projects like the pipeline. If we can delay them long enough, they will die and no one will revive them.

and I finally had to think about the Duggars

I avoided the topic all last week, because the Josh-molesting-his-younger-sisters story followed the usual energy-wasting pattern:

  • Liberals get their buttons pushed by sanctimonious religious hypocrisy.
  • They react with outrage.
  • That outrage makes religious conservatives circle their wagons around the offender.
  • The conservative defenses are, to put it mildly, ridiculous, which sets off more liberal outrage.
  • Eventually it all burns itself out and nobody on either side is better for it.

This week, the flood of links on my Facebook news feed continued, and I finally gave in. I will now try my best to pull something edifying out of the cesspool.

First is just the depth of that cesspool. The Duggars are part of the Quiverfull movement, which shows how far wrong fundamentalist Christianity can go. (You think you know, but you probably don’t. I didn’t.) Before marriage, a woman’s purpose in life is to serve her parents; after, it’s to give her husband as many children as possible. Sex within marriage is a duty, and if a wife isn’t in the mood after spending her day being pawed at by the dozen kids she’s already had, that reluctance is a manifestation of her sinful nature. If she gives in to that sinful nature and refuses sex, she needs to be disciplined. (The next time someone says they support “Biblical marriage“, ask them if this is what they mean. The Quiverfull people can chapter-and-verse you if it’s not.)

The deeper thing I noticed from reading the back-and-forth about the Duggar molestations is that two very different frames for morality are being applied. In one, morality is all about how humans relate to each other, and the reason certain actions are bad is that they damage people. In the other, morality revolves around an individual’s relationship to authority, and actions are bad because they break the rules that someone in authority — God, a religious leader, a parent — has laid down.

For very young children, you often have to rely on the second framing, because the cause-and-effect chain that connects their actions to someone else’s distress is too long and tenuous for them to grasp. The desire to pick the pretty flower fills the child’s whole mind, and the thought that some stranger planted it, cares for it, and will be sad to see it gone is too abstract. So parents substitute their own relationship with the child for the relationship-with-the-world that the child is not able to grasp yet: Not picking other people’s flowers is just a rule, and Mommy and Daddy will be disappointed in you if you break it.

That’s fine as far as it goes. But I believe that if you make it to adulthood and that’s still your frame for morality, with God taking the place of Mommy and Daddy, something has gone seriously wrong. That’s just not a mature basis for living a moral life.

And that’s what I see in the defenses of Josh Duggar. (I’m not alone. Even an orthodox Christian blogger like Joel Miller seems to be pointing to the same thing.) Duggar’s public statement (which Miller finds “galling”) contains one quick reference to hurting others, but otherwise it’s all about himself and authority figures. “I understood that if I continued down this wrong road that I would end up ruining my life.” And the ultimate authority — Christ — has forgiven him, so that’s that and we should all just move on.

I found it enlightening to look at a case study from the Advanced Training Institute, whose fundamentalist family-training system the Duggars followed. The case the lesson discusses is earlier than Josh, but remarkably similar. The problem is framed as a conflict between the teen-age boy’s impure desires (to molest younger siblings) and God’s rules. Compassion for the siblings and appreciation of the long-term psychological damage they might suffer just doesn’t figure. So instead of focusing on causes (a lack of empathy and compassion), the case study focuses on triggers (the events that evoke the desires). For me, the lesson turns out to be a case study on how you end up blaming the victims and changing their behavior instead of the perpetrator’s. Because while a victim’s behavior may be blameless (i.e., young children running around naked after a shower), it does indeed trigger the forbidden desires.

Morality, as I conceive it, is about how we’re all going to live together on the Earth without making each other miserable. If you picture it instead as a private interaction between yourself and the Divine Lawmaker, I think you’ve still got some growing up to do.

and the Fox Effect hits close to home

I live in New Hampshire, but my church is across the border in Bedford, Massachusetts. This week Fox Boston decided to create a reverse-racism controversy at Bedford High, where I know several students, a bunch of parents, and some faculty.

Background: There’s a meme of “Shit White People Say”. Put that phrase into YouTube and you’ll get a bunch of hits. It’s about the clueless things whites say to non-whites, not out of any conscious hate or hostility, but just because the majority race doesn’t have to think too hard about minority life and so makes stereotypic assumptions. (I’ve done stuff that could show up in such a video. One morning at a hotel in D.C., I saw a well-dressed black man standing by the door and asked him about taxis, thinking he must be a hotel employee. He was an African diplomat.)

The most popular one is probably “Shit White Girls Say … to Black Girls“, in which a black woman in a blond wig says a lot of clueless white-girl things. It has gotten over 11 million hits on YouTube, so I suspect a lot of Bedford High students have seen it.

Some BHS students made a video “Sh*t White People Say: BHS Edition“. In it, a black student in a blond wig goes up to other blacks and says the kinds of clueless things that I suspect the makers of the video have heard themselves. Like asking a black teacher if he’s a janitor, or assuming that a black student must be from the METCO program that brings students in from inner-city Boston, or that a METCO student must want to talk about whatever grisly inner-city crime was on the news. I thought it was a pretty good piece of work.

It got shown on the student-run closed-circuit TV show BHS Live, apparently without needing the approval of anybody in the administration. As a high-school-newspaper editor from the 1970s, my first thought was: “Cool. Students talking directly to other students.” (My faculty adviser occasionally saved me from doing something stupid, but also kept me from covering the school the way it actually was, rather than the way the administration wanted the community to see it. High-school papers in the 70s were all basically Pravda.)

But Fox Boston (Channel 25) heard about the video and reacted differently. They found one offended white parent to interview. The concerns that caused the students to make the video aren’t discussed, because the only kind of racism Fox can see is reverse-racism that offends whites. The interviewed parent thinks “somebody needs to lose their job” over the video.

The BHS administration is actually handling this reasonably well, all things considered. A letter to parents from the Superintendent says:

We believe that there is an important difference between hate speech or the accumulated racial slights that many of our students of color have unfortunately experienced on the one hand, and an attempt to educate others about racism that used stereotypes to make its point on the other.

In other words, they’re rejecting the whole reverse-racism frame, even as they try to placate the handful of whites who took offense.

But, predictably, it sounds like BHS Live is going to get more faculty oversight. I mean, we can’t have student journalists out there rocking the boat. They might turn into adult journalists who rock the boat.

and you also might be interested in …

So let’s trace the trajectory of events: A Muhammad cartoon contest was held in Texas specifically to enrage American Muslims. Two particularly unhinged young men went there with guns and got themselves killed, wounding a security guard but harming none of provocateurs. In response to that attempted attack — which had no apparent connection to Phoenix250 protesters, some armed, showed up outside a Muslim community center in Phoenix during Friday prayers, carrying signs like “FUCK ISLAM”. [Correction: The Texas attackers reportedly had attended the Phoenix mosque.]

Imagine if large numbers of armed Muslims showed up outside a Christian church with offensive signs, because some Christian attacked some event in another state specifically designed to incite Christian violence. Where’s this kind of provocation heading?


The week’s most surprising political news was that Nebraska eliminated capital punishment, with its Republican legislature overriding the veto of its Republican governor. What’s interesting is that there is now a conservative case against capital punishment: It leads to a long appeals process that ends up costing the state more than life in prison; a true small-government conservative shouldn’t want the government to have the power to kill people; and a right-to-life view is more consistent without the death penalty.

This raises the question of whether there are other issues where liberals and conservatives can unite on a result, even if they justify it differently. Lawrence Lessig has proposed campaign finance reform as such an issue. And when I asked Bill McKibben about such overlaps (see above) he pointed out that building the Keystone Pipeline involves letting a foreign company (TransCanada) use the eminent domain process to seize land from American owners. When you put it that way, conservatives don’t like it.


The biggest hobgoblin raised against same-sex marriage is the idea that conservative Christian ministers will be forced to perform them or arrested for speaking out against them. Well, the issue is leading to ministers being arrested, but not the ones you think.


Yesterday’s NYT discusses Hillary Clinton’s efforts to find the kind of big-money donors Republican candidates have. If I were her, I’d be trying to do the same thing, but at the same time it’s sad. In an era when “money is speech”, one $20 million donor speaks as loud as a million $20 donors. And if you’re just one $20 donor — and you’re not sure another 999,999 are going to back you up — maybe you start thinking you should leave politics to the oligarchs.


The next time some young woman tells you she’s not a feminist, send her this Katy Goodman song:


This comic from New Zealand is a good illustration of how privilege works little-by-little over an entire lifetime.

and let’s close with a look behind the scenes

You thought puppies just did all that stuff by instinct, didn’t you? Actually their moms teach them. Here a hidden camera captures the how-to-be-a-puppy-lessons a Siberian husky teaches her seven offspring.

Buying and Owning

Remember, ladies and gentlemen, there is no background check if you want to buy a senator.

David Letterman

I don’t believe that the men and women who defended American democracy fought to create a situation where American billionaires own the political process.

Bernie Sanders

This week’s featured posts are “Turning the Theocracy Against Itself” and “The 2016 Stump Speeches: Bernie Sanders“.

This week everybody was talking about Ireland

Friday, the Irish voted to legalize same-sex marriage by a whopping 62%-38% margin. Turnout was impressive: 61% of the electorate. This is the first time a country has legalized same-sex marriage by a national referendum, and points out just how fast public opinion has been changing: Homosexual acts were illegal in Ireland just 22 years ago.

From The Guardian:

All but one of the republic’s 43 parliamentary constituencies voted Yes to same-sex marriage. And fears of an urban-rural, Yes/No split were not realised either. Constituencies such as Donegal South West, which in the past voted against divorce and abortion reform, backed the Yes side.

There’s some debate about whether a referendum is proper when we’re talking about a basic right. (I’ve seen a t-shirt that says “How about we vote on your marriage?”) But when the result comes in clear and strong like this, it’s the most satisfying way to establish marriage equality. Nobody can argue that out-of-touch elitists forced this change on a silent majority.

And so the Archbishop of Dublin reacted like this:

I ask myself, most of these young people who voted yes are products of our Catholic school system for 12 years. I’m saying there’s a big challenge there to see how we get across the message of the church.


Here’s what I don’t understand about the Catholic Church and all the other religious groups who are dead-set against marriage equality: Compare to divorce. A web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says:

The Church does not recognize a civil divorce because the State cannot dissolve what is indissoluble.

Or, as Catholics sometimes put it, the couple is still married “in the eyes of God”. If a person who gets a civil divorce then marries someone else, those marriages aren’t valid “in the eyes of God”, who sees the sex in those second marriages as adulterous and sinful.

And yet, Catholic politicians like Rick Santorum aren’t campaigning to make second marriages illegal. Bakers and caterers aren’t asserting their “religious freedom” to deny service to the receptions after second marriages — which, just like same-sex marriages, are public announcements of the couple’s intention to sin.

In short, American Catholics long ago made peace with the notion that civil marriage and sacramental marriage are different things. Why isn’t a similar outcome sufficient here, for all the conservative religious groups? Why not accept that same-sex couples can be married under the law, with all the legal rights and privileges civil marriage offers, but go on teaching that they aren’t married in the eyes of the Deity? Like taxes and currency, the civil code is a thing of Caesar, not of God.

and the coverage of the Waco shoot-out

A week ago yesterday, nine people died in a shoot-out between biker gangs at a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas. A large number of liberal pundits have noticed how this has been covered compared to, say, the violence in Baltimore or Ferguson.

The apparent difference is the number of white people involved. Violence among whites is covered as some bizarre exception — crazy people do crazy things — while black violence is presented as an indictment of the whole community. Charles Blow comments:

Does the violence in Waco say something universal about white culture or Hispanic culture? Even the question sounds ridiculous — and yet we don’t hesitate to ask such questions around black violence, and to answer it, in the affirmative. And invariably, the single-mother, absent-father trope is dragged out.

But a father in the home is no guarantor against violence. By the way, is anyone asking about the family makeup of the bikers in Waco?

No? Exactly.


The shooting also drew attention to Twin Peaks, a racier version of Hooters that was the fastest-growing restaurant chain of 2013. Some of that attention has exposed TP’s demeaning image of its customers. “Men are simple creatures,” TP’s director of marketing (a woman) told Huffington Post in January. A leaked internal memo says the restaurant targets men who “love to have their ego stroked by beautiful girls.” Especially beautiful girls who are paid, I guess. Simple creatures crave simple relationships.

and the Santa Barbara oil spill

A pipe owned by Plains All-American Pipeline broke Tuesday, spilling oil into the waters near Santa Barbara and sludging about nine miles of previously beautiful beach. The exact whys and wherefores are still under investigation, but The LA Times reports that Plains has had a “long record of problems“.


For me, the oil spill has a personal angle: To what extent am I responsible for it?

You see, when my Dad died, I inherited half his shares in Plains. I still have them. So while the rest of you look at Plains spokemen on TV and think “those evil bastards”, I’m thinking “they believe they represent me”.

And that raises an issue that I seldom write about, but think about quite a bit: I’ve never come up with a theory of socially responsible investing I like. Occasionally I make a decision to avoid companies out of sheer moral repugnance — tobacco companies, for example. After the 2008 crash, I sold my Citicorp shares at a huge loss without waiting to see if the bank could cash in on this government-bailout thing. But this is always an emotional response rather than a thought-out principle. I’m trying to soothe my conscience, not improve the world.

Other times, I invest in something socially responsible because I believe the world will eventually see its potential the way I do. (Sometimes it does. A year or so ago I mentioned Hannon Armstrong Sustainable Infrastructure, which provides capital for sustainable-energy projects. Its shares were around 14 then and are near 20 now.)

But divestment movements in general leave me scratching my head. Me selling a stock drives the price down (by a miniscule amount, given the quantities I trade in) and makes it a better deal for somebody else. (Thursday, when I asked my broker what he knew about the oil spill, he opined that this price dip might be a good time to buy more of Plains. That’s how the investment community thinks.) No matter what socially responsible investors do with their money, we’re still going to live in a fossil fuel economy. There are still going to be oil wells and pipelines — partly to service customers like me, who drive cars.

So anyway, I’m feeling an emotional repugnance towards Plains right now — not because they’re a pipeline company, but because it looks like they’re a bad pipeline company (rather than a decent company that had the kind of accident that could happen to anybody). I’m watching the news to see if their/our actions have really been as negligent/corrupt as I suspect.

But I’m still no closer to a principle. If you have one you’re happy with, please talk about it in the comments.

and you also might be interested in …

Republicans and 14 Democrats in the Senate voted to give President Obama and the next president “trade promotion authority” to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The bill requires an up-or-down vote on the treaty as the president signs it, with no amendments of filibusters. The bill goes to the House now, where the vote should be close. Few Democrats currently support it, while far-right Republicans are balking. Rush Limbaugh has announced his opposition, on the general principle that Obama should not be given more authority to do anything.


David Letterman signed off. The tributes were so glowing that he admonished well-wishers to “save a little for my funeral“.


An Atlanta TV station shines a light on the secretive ALEC meetings.


Robert Reich points to an interesting political fault line that someday — but probably no time soon — will cause an earthquake: the uneasy juncture between small business owners and giant corporations. Currently it’s having a tiny rumble over the push to lower the corporate tax rate. Small business associations aren’t supporting that push, because the majority of small businesspeople don’t pay the corporate tax rate. (Their profits show up on Schedule C or some other part of their individual 1040s.) So lowering the corporate rate while leaving individual rates fixed would shift the balance in favor of big business and against small business.

In general, small businesses provide political cover for big businesses and get little in return. Whenever some proposal would hurt Citicorp or Walmart, their PR flacks want you to focus instead on your favorite chef-owned restaurant or your cousin’s hardware store. And they want the chef and your cousin to identify with them and support their full political agenda, even as that agenda favors the banks who won’t loan small businesses money or the big chains that are squeezing individual proprietors out of the market. They want the 600-acre farmer to blame government regulations for his problems, and not the monopolistic power of the Monsantos who supply him or the Cargills he has to sell to.

There’s room for a psychological study here, and a polemic along the lines of What’s the Matter With Kansas?. What’s the matter with small businesspeople? When the mega-corps completely take over, they’ll be peons just like the rest of us. Why can’t they see that their best allies are below them on the economic scale, not above?


It took a while, but Prime Minister Netanyahu has put together a new government following the recent Israeli elections. He himself is the acting foreign minister, so the deputy foreign minister is the country’s top full-time diplomat.

That would be Tzipi Hotovely, who gave a speech Thursday re-orienting Israel’s diplomatic rhetoric. Those who speak for Israel abroad, she said, need to start talking about the morality of Israel’s domination of the occupied territories, not just Israel’s practical need for security.

It’s important to say [that] this land is ours. All of it is ours. We didn’t come here to apologize for that.

She referenced a great medieval Jewish scholar:

Rashi says the Torah opens with the story of the creation of the world so that if the nations of the world come and tell you that you are occupiers, you must respond that all of the land belonged to the creator of world and when he wanted to, he took from them and gave to us.

In short, the religious fanatics in the Middle East aren’t all on one side.

and this week, let’s do a double closing

I mean, I’ve already blown away my weekly word limit, so why not?

First, this cartoon is supposed to encourage people to travel in groups, but I find a political message here too.

and then there’s Coldplay’s idea to do a Game of Thrones musical with the original cast. What could go wrong?

The Memory Hole

The official forgetting we are supposed to do will not produce the desired result.
[Eventually] people forget why they are supposed to forget, and then they start to remember.

— an anonymous Chinese man commenting on the Cultural Revolution,
quoted in Patrick Smith’s Somebody Else’s Century.

This week’s featured posts are “2016’s Mission Impossible: Support Jeb While Forgetting George” and “Civics for Dummies: Judicial Review“, where I explain why Mike Huckabee should have flunked 9th grade.

This week everybody was talking about the Amtrak accident

A derailment in Philadelphia killed 8 and injured 200. It’s still not clear whether bad track played any role, or if better tech would have avoided the accident, but the incident did provide an opening to discuss our generally crumbling infrastructure.

Whatever caused this week’s derailment, it’s crazy that we just went through years of high unemployment and low interest rates, but we didn’t borrow money to hire people to fix our at-risk bridges, build a 21st-century power grid, and upgrade our railroads.

and the Boston Marathon Bomber

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving brother of the pair who planted the bomb near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013, was sentenced to death on Friday. Three died in the bombing and at least 260 were injured. The brothers also killed an MIT policeman while trying to escape.

Several factors weighed against a death sentence: His age (19 at the time of the bombing), the possibly dominating influence of his older brother (who died in the shoot-out with police), and a plea from the parents of an 8-year-old victim that the state settle for life imprisonment in order to get the case completed. (If this case follows the usual pattern, appeals could continue for a decade or more before Tsarnaev is executed.) A Boston Globe poll showed that 57% of Bostonians favored life without parole, against only 33% who wanted death. (Death is a possibility only because Tsarnaev’s case is federal; Massachusetts has no death penalty.)

I seldom discuss the death penalty on this blog, because my position is mushy. I’m against the vast majority of executions, but I don’t have a clear set of principles to put forward, and I would rather save my effort for injustices with more deserving victims.

A thought-provoking book on the death penalty is Debbie Morris’ Forgiving the Dead Man Walking. Morris is a surviving victim of Robert Willie, whose execution inspired the book and movie Dead Man Walking. Willie kidnapped and raped Morris, but she managed to escape before being murdered like Willie’s other victims.

Morris became an anti-death-penalty activist, and her book describes the sense of peace she found after she “forgave” Willie, an event of mostly spiritual/psychological significance, because it happened only after Willie’s execution. To me, that’s what makes the book so thought-provoking: I wonder if Willie being dead played a role in the peace Morris reached, even if she doesn’t see it that way.

Morris’ situation is one of the rare examples in which I could support the death penalty: when there are traumatized surviving victims who will always be looking over their shoulders as long as the murderer is alive. (Morris testified against Willie, and the one time he briefly escaped from prison, he might have been headed in her direction.)

But the simple desire of surviving friends and relatives for revenge doesn’t move me. And I don’t think national trauma justifies executions either: Robert Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, is serving Year 47 of his life sentence, and I’m fine with that. I’d be fine with Tsarnaev in prison for the next half-century too.

and Jeb Bush’s bad week

He had trouble fielding one of the campaign’s most predictable questions: “On the subject of Iraq, knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?” After four days with four different answers, he finally found the one he should have been practicing in front of a mirror for months: “I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq.” I discuss all this in detail in one of the featured posts: “2016’s Mission Impossible: Support Jeb While Forgetting George“.


This week’s other 2016 news was best expressed by Gail Collins:

Former ambassador John Bolton announced he would not be running this week, stunning many Americans who had no idea former ambassador John Bolton even existed.

If Donald Trump runs, that will stun many other people who believe he’s a fictional TV character.


Also, Marco Rubio spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations on the “three pillars” of his foreign policy:

  • American strength. He called for higher defense spending and making the domestic-spying part of the Patriot Act (Section 215) permanent. I found this statement a bit chilling: “We must never find ourselves looking back after a terrorist attack and saying we could have done more to save American lives.” As long as we’re not a completely totalitarian state, we could always do more to save American lives.
  • “Protect the economy” through free trade. Rubio inverted the typical usage of the word protect, which usually means protecting American industries from foreign competition. He endorsed TPP and similar trade agreements, and pledged to “use American power to oppose any violations of international waters, airspace, cyberspace, or outer space.”
  • Moral clarity regarding America’s core values. He defined those values as: “a passionate defense of human rights, the strong support of democratic principles, and the protection of the sovereignty of our allies”. But this is just rhetoric unless he gets down to cases, because those principles are often in conflict. Take the overthrow of Muburak’s regime in Egypt, for example. Should we have supported human rights or protected our ally? What if the sexist, autocratic Saudi monarchy faces a revolution?

One piece of Rubio’s “moral clarity” is a point that virtually every Republican candidate has voiced: We should not “hesitate in calling the source of atrocities in the Middle East by its real name — radical Islam.”

I don’t think the Obama administration or its defenders have done a good job explaining why this is such a bad idea. So let me give it a try.

The most important battlefield of the current struggle is inside the minds of Muslim teen-agers, particularly the talented ones who have opportunities in their personal lives. (Anwar al-Awlaki comes to mind. His formative years are recounted in some early chapters of Jeremy Scahill‘s book Dirty Wars.) They could go to college and become engineers or dentists or something. On the other hand, they could join ISIS or al Qaeda, or do some lone-wolf terrorism wherever they happen to live, like the Tsarnaev brothers.

I know radical Islam sounds terrifying to many Americans, but how does it sound to those kids? For comparison, imagine how radical Christianity sounds to kids growing up Baptist in Georgia or Catholic in Boston. I suspect it sounds like something they should aspire to. So wouldn’t it be a huge mistake to tell those Baptist or Catholic kids that the way to be a “radical Christian” is to assassinate doctors and blow up abortion clinics?

Similarly, ISIS recruiters would love to convince Muslim teens around the world that the way to practice radical Islam is to join them. Radical Islam is a term of strategic importance. We should fight ISIS for it, not surrender it to them.

[Slate‘s William Saletan details how Republican rhetoric about Islam echoes ISIS rhetoric, then comments: “Remind me again who’s naïve.”]


Josh Marshall’s hindsight on Iraq is more interesting than Jeb Bush’s.

and you also might be interested in …

In a current article in The Atlantic, Ta-Nahisi Coates points out a double-standard in President Obama’s rhetoric: He’s willing to single out the black community for moral lectures, but

[Y]ou will hear no policy targeted toward black people coming out of the Obama White House, or probably any White House in the near future. That is because the standard progressive approach of the moment is to mix color-conscious moral invective with color-blind public policy. It is not hard to see why that might be the case. Asserting the moral faults of black people tend to gain votes. Asserting the moral faults of their government, not so much. I am sure Obama sincerely believes in the moral invective he offers. But I suspect he believes a lot more about his country which he chooses not to share.

Coates has long argued that since the oppression of black people was very color-conscious, helping them overcome that oppression needs to be color-conscious too (rather than relying on generic anti-poverty programs like Food Stamps). Last year he wrote “The Case for Reparations“, which I reviewed.

The current article’s most striking quote:

In a country where Walter Scott was shot in the back, where Eric Garner was choked to death, where whole municipalities are—at this very hour — funding themselves through racist plunder, fleeting references to “past injustice” will not do.


Can anybody spot what’s wrong with this tweet from the Texas Senate Republican Caucus?

Yes, it’s the cross. Apparently, only Christian religious freedom is protected in Texas. But why would anybody outside the majority religion need protection, anyway?


Remember the 20-week abortion ban the House almost passed last January, but pulled after the female representatives they need for cover balked? It’s back, and this time it passed.

and let’s close with something enviable

Those of us who don’t own dogs never get greeted like this:

Sure Signs

The complete lack of evidence is the surest sign that the conspiracy is working.

— Anonymous (or maybe they just don’t want us to know who said it)

This week’s featured post is “Rating This Week’s Craziness“. It introduces the Weekly Sift’s Crazy Scale, for rating the relative danger posed by the sheer insanity of stories and events that need more than just a debunking.

If you’re wondering what I was up to last week when I didn’t put out a Sift. I was telling a Unitarian Universalist congregation how Universalism provides a religious unification of a bunch of positions that often get dismissed as “politically correct”.

This week everybody was talking about crazy stuff

In addition to the stuff that made it into the featured article, this NYT cartoon summarized a bunch of other crazy-sounding things that are really happening:

and Baltimore

The riots are over and the National Guard is packing up, but Baltimore gave rise to a lot of interesting public discussion (as well as a lot of complete crap).

For one thing, who knew street gangs were this articulate?

The NYT Magazine‘s “Our Demand is Simple: Stop Killing Us” is well worth your time. So is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Clock Didn’t Start With the Riots“, which makes this excellent point:

I read the governor in the New York Times today and he was saying in the paper that—you know, because it’s going to be a big day tomorrow—he was saying “violence will not be tolerated.” And I thought about that as a young man who’s from West Baltimore and grew up in West Baltimore and I thought about how violence was tolerated for all of my life here in West Baltimore. …

I don’t want to come off as if I’m sympathizing or saying that it is necessarily okay, to inflict violence just out of anger, no matter how legitimate that anger is. But I have a problem when you begin the clock with the violence on Tuesday. Because the fact of the matter is that the lives of black people in this city, the lives of black people in this country have been violent for a long time.

There’s a similar problem with all those columns about how street violence is the wrong way to make the point that police violence against already-subdued black men has got to stop. If we call for communities like Baltimore and Ferguson to quiet down, that’s got to be coupled with a commitment to start listening when they speak in softer voices. Otherwise we’re just saying: “Pipe down to make it easier for me to ignore you.”

Larry Wilmore makes this point humorously but effectively in his “Justice for Tamir Rice” piece. Tamar Rice is the 12-year-old who was playing with a toy gun in a public park near his home, when Cleveland police rolled up and killed him within seconds, all of which was captured on video. Cleveland has been peacefully waiting for some kind of resolution in this case for five months. With a Comedy Central lawyer standing over his shoulder to make sure he doesn’t actually call for violence, Wilmore observes that non-confrontation isn’t getting anything done.

There’s a self-fulfilling pattern here: If violence is the only kind of speech you’ll pay attention to, then sooner or later you’ll get violence.

Finally, there are all the white pundits saying or writing something along the lines of: We elected Obama to make race relations better, and they’ve gotten worse. Elspeth Reeve answers that point in The New Republic with “The White Man’s Bargain“. She starts with an NYT report quoting Republican strategist Rick Wilson:

A number of people “crafted this tacit bargain in their heads,” he said, speaking of Mr. Obama’s election. “This is going to be the end of the ugly parts of racial division in American.”

Reeve then raises this question about the “tacit bargain”:

What is being exchanged? Wilson is probably not saying people thought police would stop killing unarmed black kids because Obama was elected. Perhaps instead he is saying people thought black people would stop getting so mad when it happened. What he means is that people (and, let’s say this right here: white people) are eager to pay off the whole legacy-of-slavery-and-systemic-racism tab, to finally settle up and not have to think about social justice anymore. Wasn’t making a black guy president enough?

She goes through the long history of whites making imaginary bargains, which goes all the way back to slavery. She concludes:

What tacit bargainers have always been asking is: Isn’t there something else we can substitute for true equality? The answer is no.

and new presidential candidates

The big political news since the last Sift is that Bernie Sanders is running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. So Hillary won’t simply be coronated, and somebody will make the case for real liberalism in this cycle.

I’m trying not to make the Sift all-2016 all-the-time, so I won’t get to Bernie’s announcement speech until next week. My snap reaction is that everybody left of Hillary should be happy that the primary campaign will keep her from drifting too far right. Beyond that, I need to decide how far my enthusiasm for Bernie should go: Will I vote for him in the New Hampshire primary? If do, is that because I’m making a statement or because I want him to get the nomination? If he did get nominated, would he stand a chance in the general election against, say, Jeb Bush or Scott Walker? Give me another week to think it through.

On the Republican side, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Mike Huckabee all joined the race, which is getting unusually crowded. Rick Santorum announced a date for his announcement: May 27. (I don’t know why he hadn’t previously announced that he was going to announce the date of his announcement. It just came totally out of the blue.)

Again, it will take some time for me to add these candidates to my 2016 speech series. I do have a snap reaction to Carson: I’m not sure he understands his role in the Republican Party, which is to provide cover against accusations of racism, as Herman Cain did in 2012. White audiences can cheer Carson’s aggressive and disrespectful criticisms of President Obama without worrying about being called racists.

But as Obama starts to fade from the scene, that role becomes less important. If Carson wants to stay relevant, he’ll have to move on to providing cover for more general I’m-not-a-racist-but criticisms of the black community. His path forward is to say things about Baltimore that are more extreme than a white candidate can get away with. I’m not sure he realizes he signed up for that.

Fiorina, meanwhile, is well set up to provide the same service for sexist Republicans who need to trash Hillary. She could easily wind up with the VP nomination.


The religious right has Huckabee, Santorum, and Cruz to choose from. But in view of the bad advice God has given his family in the past, it’s Jeb Bush who should be pushed to spell out exactly what role God will play in his administration.

and you also might be interested in …

We’re about six weeks from a Supreme Court decision on King v. Burwell, the suit that might make ObamaCare subsidies illegal in about half the country. Congressional Republicans have written in the WaPo “Republicans have a plan to create a bridge away from Obamacare” so that millions of people would not instantly lose health insurance.

Unfortunately, only one relatively unimportant committee in the Senate and none in the House have held any public hearings about this plan. As for assembling a coalition in the House to pass it — the kind of thing John Boehner has not been particularly good at — there seems to be no motion at all. HuffPost’s Jonathan Cohn says what I’ve been thinking:

the absence of a public effort to match the public rhetoric matters only if Republicans are actually serious about passing a plan. They may not be. Their real goals may be purely cosmetic — to insulate the party from a political backlash should millions of people suddenly lose health insurance and, more immediately, to ease the anxiety of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, either of whom might hesitate to issue a ruling with such potentially devastating consequences to so many people.


Two weeks ago, I told you about a poll that showed how sensitive opinions on abortion are to how the question is phrased. (You get a more pro-life response if you phrase the question in terms of abstract right-and-wrong, and a more pro-choice response if you phrase it in terms of women’s rights.) Wednesday, the NYT’s Upshot blog described how poll results about abortion get less polarized as the questions focus on specific cases: Many people who say that abortion should be “illegal in all cases” will nonetheless say it should be legal if the mother will die. Conversely, many people who say it should be “legal in all cases” still think it should be illegal to abort a healthy fetus ready to be born.

That’s the extreme edge of a more general phenomenon: People who think they are diametrically opposed to each other on abortion often agree on a lot of specific cases. Apparently, much of the polarization centers on what comes to mind when you hear the word abortion. Do you think of a promiscuous woman who couldn’t be bothered to use birth control, and now wants to get rid of a problem-free pregnancy rather than offer a healthy baby to a couple who would give it a good life? Or do you think of woman carrying a child for her rapist, or facing serious health issues?

I think the winning choice-leaning argument goes something like this: Every woman, every family, and every pregnancy is different, so ideally the decision to carry a fetus to term would be made by the people involved, and not by a legislature or a court or a bureaucrat. But the decision to abort becomes more morally weighty the longer the fetus develops, so the law should push women to decide promptly, and demand higher levels of justification for later-term abortions.

Sweden seems to have it about right, in my opinion:

The current legislation is the Abortion Act of 1974 (SFS 1974:595). This states that up until the end of the eighteenth week of the pregnancy the choice of an abortion is entirely up to the woman, for any reason whatsoever. After the 18th a woman needs a permission from the National Board of Health and Welfare (Socialstyrelsen) to have an abortion. Permission for these late abortions is usually granted for cases in which the fetus or mother are unhealthy. Abortion is not allowed if the fetus is viable, which generally means that abortions after the 22nd week are not allowed. However, abortions after the 22nd week may be allowed in the rare cases where the fetus can not survive outside the womb even if it is carried to term.

Wikipedia adds:

The issue is largely settled in Sweden and the question of the legality of abortion is not a highly controversial political issue. … Consensus in Sweden is in favour of preventing unwanted pregnancies by the use of birth control and the primary goal is not to lower the amount of abortions, but rather the goal is that all children that are born should be wanted.


In the Republican-controlled Congress, climate-change denial is a two-step dance:

  1. Claim that the science isn’t settled yet, so more research is necessary before we take any action.
  2. Defund that research.

and let’s close with something fantastic

like Key & Peele’s musical trip to Negrotown, where you can wear your hoodie and not get shot.

The Horror

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

Stephen King

This week’s featured post is “The New Clinton Allegations: Fog or Smoke?

No Sift next week

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

This week everybody was talking about the environment

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

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

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

Informed Comment goes out on a speculative limb with this prediction:

future historians may look back on 2015 as the year that the renewable energy ascendancy began, the moment when the world started to move decisively away from its reliance on fossil fuels.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

and a trade deal

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

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

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

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

and drones

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

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

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

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

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

and money in our presidential politics

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


 

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


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

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


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

Keep reading, because eventually Cost gets around to saying something important:

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

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

and you also might be interested in …

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


Sometimes I think I’m getting an exaggerated notion of the shear craziness that’s out there, and then I read a direct quote like this one from former House majority leader Tom Delay:

I think we got off the track when we allowed our government to become a secular government. When we stopped realizing that God created this nation, that he wrote the Constitution, that it’s based on biblical principles.

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


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


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


Recent stories from Missouri point out that we still have a long way to go on race:

  • Tyrus Byrd will be Parma’s first black mayor and first female mayor, after winning the election 122-84 in a town with 700 residents. Within a week, five of the town’s six police officers had resigned, along with the city attorney, the clerk, and the manager of the water department.
  • A day after a memorial tree for Michael Brown was planted in a Ferguson park, it was cut down by vandals. (And later replaced.)

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


Amy Schumer’s parody of Friday Night Lights connects some dots about the football culture and rape. As the coach says:

How do I get through to you boys that football isn’t about rape? It’s about violently dominating anyone that stands between you and what you want!


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

and let’s close with something fun

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

Caught In Between

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

– a line suggested for Hillary Clinton

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

This week everybody was talking about Social Security

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

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

I haven’t read Christie’s plan, but U. S. News summarized it like this:

Christie proposed increasing the retirement age for Social Security to 69, beginning with gradual increases in 2022, as well as raising the early retirement age to 64 from 62, and changing the way cost-of-living increases are calculated for Social Security and other benefit programs, an adjustment that would mean smaller increases in the future.

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

I have two snap reactions:

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

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

and more about 2016

This week my 2016 speeches series discusses Marco Rubio’s announcement speech on Monday. I stayed serious in that article, so I didn’t get around to mentioning this line from Monday’s Conan O’Brien monologue:

A little fun fact: Marco Rubio’s wife is a former Miami Dolphin cheerleader. In other words, she knows how to generate fake enthusiasm for someone who’s not going to win.


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

Meanwhile, Hillary’s poll numbers look great: She’s beating Rubio by 14 points nationally, and every other potential Republican opponent by more. The CNN commentary on the poll shows just how far you have to go to spin something against Clinton.

One area where Clinton’s numbers wilt: Only about half of Democratic men (49%) say they would be enthusiastic about having Clinton atop the Democratic ticket, compared with nearly two-thirds of Democratic women (65%).

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

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


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

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

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

Carcetti is a young white mayor of Baltimore whose ambition ultimately overcomes his idealism. No doubt O’Malley would reject that characterization of his two terms as mayor (1999-2007), which coincidentally overlapped the run of The Wire (2002-2008). Wikipedia says:

During his first mayoral campaign, O’Malley focused on a message of reducing crime. In his first year in office, O’Malley adopted a statistics-based tracking system called CitiStat

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


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

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

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

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

and you also might be interested in …

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

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

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

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


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

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


The North Carolina legislature is considering destroying two of the universities that define the Research Triangle by mandating a four-courses-a-semester teaching load on all professors at state universities. The head of UNC’s history department told The Daily Tarheel: “There is no major research university in the U.S. that has a four-four teaching load. I think faculty would leave.”

Slate‘s Rebecca Shuman calls the bill: “a “solution’ that could only be proposed by someone who either doesn’t know how research works or hates it.”

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

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


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


Here’s how desperate the anti-marriage-equality folks are for a new argument:

A reduction in the opposite-sex marriage rate means an increase in the percentage of women who are unmarried and who, according to all available data, have much higher abortion rates than married women.

and let’s close with something unexpected

Headis. It seems to be a thing in Germany.

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