The Monday Morning Teaser

I’m back from my break to go on a one-stop speaking tour, and it’s been an eventful couple of weeks. Unfortunately, a lot of what has been buzzing around the media has been articles that usually get bookmarked in my Crazy folder, the kind of stories where my first reaction isn’t “What happened?” but “Somebody really did that?”

So yes, residents of Bastrop, Texas (pop. 7,218) really did grill a U.S.  lieutenant colonel about whether he was planning a military takeover of their town, complete with gun confiscation. (When he said no, they didn’t believe him.) Kids on their way to a prom in Colorado really did stop to pose for pictures with guns and a Confederate flag. Anti-Muslim extremists in the U.S. really did hold a Muhammad cartoon contest, and two gun-wielding Muslims really did fall for that bait and get themselves killed.

I’ve often puzzled over how the Sift should respond to such stuff — sometimes the incident or rumor has already gotten too much attention, so covering it just makes it worse — and so this week I’m trying something new: I’m introducing my Crazy Scale, based on the color-coded fire-danger scale you see in the national parks. It’s for stories where the question you really need answered is: “How concerned should I be?” In other words: Can you safely ignore this bit of craziness? Can you laugh and move on? Or does it deserve more of your attention than that?

That’s the featured article this week. It’s almost done, and should be out before 8 EDT. In the weekly summary, we’ve got a bunch of new presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, who will get a longer article next week. (In general, I’m trying not to make the Sift all-2016, all-the-time. So I’ll get around to Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina in my own good time, and Mike Huckabee already shows up in the crazy-scale article.) A lot of interesting discussion came out of the Baltimore riot. There’s more about the complexity of public opinion on abortion. And we’ll close with a musical trip to Negrotown, guided by Key & Peele. I’m aiming to have that out around 11.

 

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.

The New Clinton Allegations: Fog or Smoke?

This week the pre-publication publicity for the book Clinton Cash began, and at least one of the claims it makes — that a State Department decision made while Hillary Clinton was Secretary might have been influenced by large contributions to the Clinton Foundation — was picked up by the New York Times. And that raised the question: Is this the kind of fog routinely pumped out by political operations to raise an opponent’s FUD factor, or is this smoke that indicates some kind of fire?

Political cartoonists saw it both ways.

and

Which way is right? If we’re just talking about Clinton Cash, the answer seems clear: It’s a political attack that you shouldn’t take too seriously. But the NYT is harder to write off.

Clinton Cash. The author, Peter Schweizer, is a former Bush speechwriter and the coauthor of Bobby Jindal’s autobiography. He has a history of making sensational claims that don’t pan out. [1] And he doesn’t even claim to have solid evidence of any wrong-doing on the part of either Bill or Hillary Clinton. As ThinkProgress summarizes:

Schweizer makes clear that he does not intend to present a smoking gun, despite the media speculation. The book relies heavily on timing, stitching together the dates of donations to the Clinton Foundation and Bill Clinton’s speaking fees with actions by the State Department.

Even if nothing is wrong, suspicious timing is an easy case to make, because the apex of the power-and-money pyramid is a small world. The kind of people who have money to give to foundations and/or political campaigns are also the kind of people that government regulations are trying to control. So if you cast your net wide enough, you will inevitably find sequences where a gift of some sort is followed by a favorable decision of some sort. The question is whether the two are related. This situation has come up so frequently for so long that both possibilities have Latin names. If they are related, it’s quid pro quo. If they’re not but you assume they are, it’s the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

And whether it is involved in anything nefarious or not, the Clinton Foundation was always going to be a conservative target. The Clintons can rightfully be proud of the good work done by the Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, so Republicans would naturally want to make those political assets unusable. That strategy goes back to Karl Rove: Try to turn your opponents strengths into weaknesses. (Example: the swiftboat attack on John Kerry’s military record.)

So although long-time Clinton-haters will want to distribute Schweizer’s book to all their friends, if you’re a Clinton supporter wondering if you should reconsider, or an uncommitted voter considering Hillary as a possible president, Clinton Cash by itself should not figure in your calculations. This kind of book was bound to be written whether there’s any genuine issue or not.

But the NYT deserves more attention.

The uranium company. The Times looks at one example from Schweizer’s book, concerning a Canadian uranium-mining company that owned properties in both Kazakhstan and the United States. It’s a complicated story that takes place over many years: The Canadian company UrAsia Energy, which was run by a friend of Bill Clinton and a long-time Clinton Foundation supporter, bought mines in Kazakhstan, merged with the South African company Uranium One, and then was bought out by the Russian national mining company Rosatom. The final transaction required the approval of several government agencies in Canada, the U.S., and probably some other countries. One of the needed U.S. approvals came from the State Department, while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. All through this period, the Clinton friend was giving large contributions to the Clinton Foundation, and many of his executives and business partners were as well, for a total in the millions of dollars. (See the timeline.)

And there’s another entanglement:

And shortly after the Russians announced their intention to acquire a majority stake in Uranium One, Mr. Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock.

None of this in itself is illegal, and none of the individual pieces are even unusual. Other former presidents have leveraged their fame and connections to raise money for good causes, like the Carter Center or the Ford Institute. Other former presidents get large speaking fees, sometimes in circumstances that an uncharitable observer would see as suspicious. Relatives of other presidents or presidential candidates have had business relationships with people who may have hoped to gain political influence. [2]

Bill Clinton is different from other former presidents in two ways: The Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative are far larger than anything established by other presidents, and (through Hillary) Clinton still arguably affected government policy. Corporate money spent on previous presidents had sent a more indirect message to the currently powerful, (“Look how grateful we can be to leaders who are nice to us.”) rather than looking like a quid pro quo transaction.

What makes corruption? The seriousness of this story depends mainly on three questions:

  • Did the Clintons promise the uranium businessmen anything in return for their contributions and the speaking fee?
  • If they did promise something, did they deliver? In other words, is it possible to connect the dots from the businessmen to the foundation to Hillary to the State Department people who recommended approving the deal?
  • Should the State Department have blocked the deal? Does Rosatom owning uranium mines in the U.S. and Canada compromise American security? Or would torpedoing the deal have had negative affects elsewhere in our relations with Russia or other countries? (It’s also worth asking why the other relevant agencies approved the deal, or whether anybody lower in the State Department wanted to veto it.)

The NYT story provides no evidence that any of those question have a Yes answer. Maybe further digging will produce such evidence. But that’s speculative.

Another thing that would give this story legs is if the Clintons personally profit from their foundation in ways that weren’t already widely known. [3] Without such profit, we’ve got a story about trying to influence a politician by giving to her favorite charity. If someone tried to influence a feminist politician by giving a lot of money to the Girl Scouts, that wouldn’t feel like a serious corruption story.

Appearance and reality. The question that’s not speculative is: Why did Hillary let the appearance of corruption get this far? Or, as Amy Davidson put it in The New Yorker:

Are the Clintons correct in saying that there is an attack machine geared up to go after them? Of course. But why have they made it so easy?

Secretary Clinton was asked about precisely these kinds of conflicts-of-interest during her confirmation hearings, and she assured the Senate that she had an extensive full-disclosure agreement with President Obama, one that went far beyond what the law ordinarily requires of either foundations or government officials. (Steve Kornacki runs the tapes.) And yet the bulk of the uranium-related contributions weren’t disclosed.

Davidson goes through the details of the explanation of how this non-disclosure didn’t technically violate the full-disclosure agreement.

I also asked the foundation to explain its reasoning. The picture one is left with is convoluted and, in the end, more troubling than if the lapse had been a simple oversight. … That structural opacity calls the Clintons’ claims about disclosure into question. If the memorandum of understanding indeed allowed for that, it was not as strong a document as the public was led to believe—it is precisely the sort of entanglement one would want to know about.

In short, we’re back to what the meaning of is is. The non-disclosure is certainly a violation of the spirit of Hillary Clinton’s agreement with President Obama — as well as what she told the Senate — even if the letter of the agreement was somehow upheld.

Conclusions. If I had to pick one person as the sharpest talking-head on cable news, I think it would be MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki Here was his conclusion:

There is no smoking gun in anything that we learned today, and the Clintons are adamant that there is no there there. And it really might be as simple as that. But: There is the appearance of a conflict here, the possibility of a conflict. That’s what the reporting shows today. And that’s what Hillary said six years ago there wouldn’t be. There are questions here. There are difficult questions here, murky questions here, but legitimate questions.

And his guest Alex Seitz-Wald chimed in:

It’s hard to believe that these people are giving millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation without at least some of them thinking that they might curry some favor with the Clintons. Whether that favor was returned or not, we haven’t seen that. But it certainly creates this perception, and that’s a problem.

Legally, I’ll bet there turns out to be no issue: no indictments for bribery, perjury, or obstruction of justice. Politically, I think the outcome will boil down to Amy Davidson’s final question: “Is this cherry-picking or low-hanging fruit?” Or: after all the time and money spent on opposition research, is this the best anti-Hillary story her opponents have? If it is, she’ll be fine. But if this is just the appetizer, there might be a problem.


[1] If you look at the list of previous Schweizer claims, a pattern emerges: He finds something in the public record that makes you go “Hmmm.” And then (if it makes a Democrat look bad) he publishes a conclusion he draws from that finding, without doing even the simplest checking to see if there’s a real issue.

One example is the claim by Schweizer’s Government Accountability Institute that President Obama skips over half of his daily intelligence briefings. This claim became the basis of an attack ad against Obama, which The Washington Post fact-checked and called “bogus”.

The grain of truth at the bottom of the charge was that about half the time Obama prefers to read his daily intelligence briefing rather than have a face-to-face meeting. The GAI report was based on analyzing the president’s published schedules, which showed all the face-to-face meetings. On days without a scheduled meeting, Obama was “skipping” the briefing.

But every president does this differently, the WaPo said, concluding that “Under the standards of this ad, Republican icon Ronald Reagan skipped his intelligence briefings 99 percent of the time.”

Similarly, Schweizer used the president’s public schedules to claim that Obama had never met with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during the three years prior to the ObamaCare rollout. This claim also turned out to be bogus, for reasons anybody who watched The West Wing would easily understand: High officials go in and out of the Oval Office all the time without being on the schedule published in the morning.

[2] The earliest example I remember is Ronald Reagan taking $2 million for a 9-day speaking tour of Japan. Reagan’s free-trade policy and his opposition to protective tariffs had been very beneficial to Japanese corporations, which now had a chance to show future presidents how grateful they could be.

In addition to a few charitable enterprises, Gerald Ford’s post-presidency was occupied by serving on numerous corporate boards, from which he received a nice income for doing not particularly much.

These practices are not uniquely American, either. In 2009 The Guardian reported:

The former prime minister Tony Blair has received millions of pounds through an unusual mixture of commercial, charitable and religious income streams. Since he stepped down from office in 2007, his financial affairs have been described by observers as “Byzantine” and “opaque”.

As for the appearance of gaining influence through business dealings with a relative, George W. Bush’s business career was repeatedly saved from disaster by rich people who were politically connected to his father, and several of Tagg Romney‘s clients and partners also had political connections to Mitt. Whether or not these were attempts to curry favor through other means is in the eye of the beholder.

Or favors can appear to flow through a relative in the other direction. The International Business Times reports:

While Jeb Bush was governor of Florida, state pension officials committed at least $1.7 billion to financial firms whose executives were “Pioneer” fundraisers for his brother’s presidential campaigns. To achieve Pioneer status, the fundraisers had to amass at least $100,000 worth of bundled contributions to one of George W. Bush’s campaigns.

That could be corruption, or it could just be the small-world phenomenon: Lots of financial executives were Bush fund-raisers; if you distributed pension funds by throwing darts at the Yellow Pages, you’d probably hit some of their firms.

None of this excuses whatever the Clintons might or might not do. But we should not imagine that there is some unique “Clinton problem”.

[3] None of the articles I’ve seen mentioned whether any of the Clintons draw a salary for the foundation work they do, or if that compensation is reasonable. I suspect they don’t, but if you know, leave a comment.

The Monday Morning Teaser

You knew, once it was clear that Hillary was in the race, that there’d be new attempts to raise some kind of scandal. Bill’s administration seldom went more than a few months without somebody attempting to make a scandal out of something: Whitewater, Travelgate, Vince Foster … there was always something. Monica Lewinsky was the scandal that finally stuck, but that came after years of throwing mud at the wall.

This week’s featured post looks at the new book Clinton Cash and the wannabee scandal that the NYT picked up from it this week. It just needs a proofreading, so it should be out within the hour.

The week provides a lot of other stuff to talk about: Earth Day, a drone mistake, Obama vs. Warren on the trade deal, and the ongoing spectacle of presidential candidates courting billionaires rather than voters. I didn’t have time or space to give those topics the treatment they deserve, so I’ll be pointing you to other people’s stuff.

And this week I ran across some fascinating articles not directly related to the headlines: a well-designed poll revealed the complexity of the public’s feelings about abortion, and somebody red-penciled Bobby Jindal’s op-ed on gay marriage marriage equality and religious freedom discrimination to make it more accurate. Plus there’s some fun stuff: what you’d get if a Segway had sex with a unicycle, and what toddlers really do when they’re left alone in the back yard.

I’m not sure how long it will take to get all that together. Certainly by noon, maybe sooner.

 

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.

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Marco Rubio

[This is part of a series of articles on the speeches of 2016 presidential candidates. The overall vision of the series and links to the other articles can be found here.]

When I described my model for analyzing the Republican presidential campaign a few weeks ago, I began with the cautionary tale of Tim Pawlenty, the candidate Jonathan Chait picked as the most likely Republican nominee in the 2012 cycle. Pawlenty had the virtue of being broadly acceptable to all four Republican factions, but none of them considered him to be their guy. Consequently, even though he made a much more plausible president than Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann, Pawlenty was the first man out.

To me, Marco Rubio looks like the Tim Pawlenty of 2016. (538‘s Harry Enten disagrees with me.) There’s no obvious reason he couldn’t be the Republican nominee: He’s well liked by the Corporatist donors. He’s religious enough to be acceptable to the Theocrats, bellicose enough for the NeoCons, and can preach the low-tax small-government gospel well enough for the GOP’s Libertarian wing (which is not to be confused the far more doctrinaire Libertarian Party). He’s young and good-looking, he’s from an important swing state, and he’s got that successful-son-of-immigrants thing going. If you’re a Republican, what’s not to like?

His problem is that none of the factions looks at him and thinks: “That’s my guy.” Jeb Bush is the heir to the Corporatist dynasty and Rand Paul is the Libertarian crown prince. If you’re so anti-Obama you’re ready to burn the country to the ground, Ted Cruz has been leading your crusade. If you’re holding out for a full-fledged minister of the Religious Right, Mike Huckabee is in the wings. Scott Walker seems like the Corporatists’ first alternate if Bush stumbles. So where does Rubio fit in?

The speech. Listening to Rubio’s announcement speech, (See the Time transcript.) I was expecting a serious answer to the question “Why me?” I was disappointed. His answer, when I insert the names he leaves to the listeners’ imagination, is that nobody wants another Bush vs. Clinton election.

Like Cruz and (to a lesser extent) Paul, Rubio casts his own story as a fulfillment of the American Dream. His mother and father came from Cuba in 1956. They found basic working-class jobs, but because America is the land of opportunity, they could hope for more.

My father was grateful for the work he had, but that was not the life he wanted for his children. He wanted all the dreams he once had for himself to come true for us. He wanted all the doors that closed for him to be open for me.

In what could be interpreted as a backhanded slap at Jeb Bush, Rubio said:

I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege.

He pivots from his personal story to public policy in the same way that Cruz and Paul did, and I suspect nearly every candidate will:

My parents achieved what came to be known as the American Dream. But now, too many Americans are starting to doubt whether achieving that dream is still possible.

This is becoming the question of 2016, and appropriately so — if we take it seriously and don’t use it as just a jumping-off point for promoting whatever policies we favored anyway: Economic mobility in America is not what it was. Unskilled labor is no longer easy to find and no longer pays well enough to buy a home and raise children in it and launch them into a better life. College and other forms of training for skilled jobs has become prohibitively expensive for those who weren’t born at least part-way up the ladder of success. New small businesses — small shops, small farms, small restaurants — do not so easily thrive without capital outlays beyond the dreams of struggling families. What — if anything — can be done about this?

The shrinking of the middle class and the increasing slipperiness of the ladder to success have been issues since the mid-1970s, through administrations of both parties. Carter, Clinton, and Obama didn’t fix it, but neither did Reagan or the two Bushes. So it’s long past the point where either party can just say, “All you need to do is elect us.” Rubio is exactly right when he says:

While our people and economy are pushing the boundaries of the 21st century, too many of our leaders and their ideas are stuck in the twentieth century. … This election is not just about what laws we will pass. It is a generational choice about what kind of country we will be.

And his claim that we need a new generation of leaders rings true.

Just yesterday, a leader from yesterday [i.e., Hillary Clinton] began a campaign for President by promising to take us back to yesterday. But yesterday is over, and we are never going back. We Americans are proud of our history, but our country has always been about the future. Before us now is the opportunity to author the greatest chapter yet in the amazing story of America. We can’t do that by going back to the leaders and ideas of the past.

But then we get to Walter Mondale’s challenge to Gary Hart’s new-ideas candidacy of 1984: “Where’s the beef?” What are these new ideas that Rubio’s new generation of leaders will implement to bring the American Dream into the 21st century?

Now, the time has come for our generation to lead the way toward a new American Century.

If we reform our tax code, reduce regulations, control spending, modernize our immigration laws and repeal and replace ObamaCare, the American people will create millions of better-paying modern jobs.

If we create a 21st century system of higher education that provides working Americans the chance to acquire the skills they need, that no longer graduates students with mountains of debt and degrees that do not lead to jobs, and that graduates more students from high school ready to work, then our people will be prepared to seize their opportunities in the new economy.

If we remember that family – not government – is the most important institution in society, that all life deserves protection, and that all parents deserve to choose the education that’s right for their children, then we will have a strong people and a strong nation.

And if America accepts the mantle of global leadership, by abandoning this administration’s dangerous concessions to Iran, and its hostility to Israel; by reversing the hollowing out of our military; by giving our men and women in uniform the resources, care and gratitude they deserve; by no longer being passive in the face of Chinese and Russian aggression; and by ending the near total disregard for the erosion of democracy and human rights around the world; then our nation will be safer, the world more stable, and our people more prosperous.

What in that plan does he think Jeb Bush will disagree with? Less regulation, lower taxes on corporations and the rich, less government spending, traditional family values, strong defense, aggressive American leadership in the world. How is that different from what every Republican has been saying since Ronald Reagan?

Republicans can and do argue that those ideas are good, and that previous Republican presidents just didn’t push them hard enough or stick with them long enough. But no one can argue that they’re new, or that they constitute an answer to the unsolved problems of the last 40 years.

In Rubio’s defense, it’s early in the 2016 cycle. It is a time for themes and visions, not 12-point programs. But if the theme of his campaign is going to be that he represents a new generation of leaders for a new century, then at some point he’s going to have to point in a different direction than the old leaders. At some point he’s got to have some new ideas, not just announce the need for them.

Otherwise he’s just making a claim about demography and identity: He’s young, Hispanic, and unburdened by the name “Bush” or “Clinton”. That’s all fine, but I don’t see how it’s going to solve his Tim Pawlenty problem.

Death, Taxes, and the American Dream

As executor of my father’s estate, I learned that the #1 argument against “the Death Tax” is completely false.


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a great fortune seeking to pass from one generation of aristocrats to the next must be in need of tax relief. To this end, Thursday the House voted (mostly on party lines) to repeal the federal estate tax, a.k.a. the Death Tax.

Now, you might wonder why House Republicans would do that, given (1) Obama is sure to veto it if it gets that far, and (2) Republicans now claim they want to do something about income inequality. (They used to say it wasn’t a problem; now suddenly it is.)

So far in the 2016 cycle, the announcement speeches of all the Republican presidential candidates have centered on the next generation’s loss of hope in the American Dream. Typically they say something like this: “For me [or my parents or grandparents — I can’t wait to hear how far back Jeb Bush has to go before he finds someone who struggled] America was a place where you could come with nothing and achieve anything. I want that to continue to be true for future generations of Americans.”

None of them are talking about the old European Dream of establishing a dynasty that hands a huge fortune down through the centuries. But actions speak louder than words, and that’s the tax plan their party has united behind.

Who pays the Death Tax? As it currently stands, the federal estate tax only applies to estates larger than $5.43 million, so it is literally a multi-millionaires’ tax. The whole point of the Death-Tax framing is to fudge that fact. Everybody dies, so something called a “Death Tax” sounds like it ought to affect everyone.

But, sadly, not everybody leaves a multi-million-dollar estate. According to WaPo’s Plum Line, only 1 out of every 553 estates owes any estate tax at all. And that one gets to skim $5.43 million off the top ($10.86 million if the heir is a surviving spouse), so even if you’re fortunate enough to die with $6 million or $7 million, your estate is still not going to pay much.

So repealing the tax has nothing to do with passing a small family farm from father to son, or letting a Mom-and-Pop business continue as a Brother-Sister-and-Two-Cousins business. The real issue is the American equivalent of keeping Pemberley in the Darcy family or saving Downton Abbey for the Crawleys. Repealing the estate tax is all about the plutocracy maintaining itself.

The fairness argument. Even after Citizens United, we still have enough of a democracy that politicians can’t just admit they’re serving the hereditary aristocracy. So what do they say?

The usual argument against the estate tax is that it’s unjust, because the money is being taxed twice. I’m not sure exactly why double-taxation would be unjust — that’s a different discussion — but for now let’s just go with it: As the money came in, it was trimmed by the income tax, so taxing it again at death is unfair. The Patriot Post begins its ringing denunciation of the Death Tax like this:

There are lots of persuasive reasons to kill this odious tax. The money in a person’s estate has already been taxed over the lifetime that it was earned.

Persuasive? Maybe. It’s also false.

Dad’s farm. I’ve been hearing that double-taxation argument for years, but I didn’t realize how wrong it was until I became executor of my father’s will. One of the things Dad left behind was the family farm: a 160-acre square whose abstract of title includes documents going back to the Homestead Act.

My parents bought the farm from my grandparents in 1950 for $30,000, and I sold it to a cousin in 2013 for … well, considerably more than that. (It’s good Illinois topsoil, and Dad took care not to let it erode.) Because of the way the tax laws work, no one ever paid tax on that capital gain: not my parents while they were alive (because they didn’t realize the capital gain by selling), not the estate (which was under the $5 million limit), and not me or my sister (because of a nifty little loophole called stepped-up basis).

That’s not some special arrangement for farms; it applied to the rest of the estate as well. Mom and Dad were conservative investors who didn’t buy or sell that often, so the non-farm portion of their holdings consisted of a house and some stocks they had held for many years (and usually bought for a lot less than the current value). As a result, the great majority of what my sister and I inherited is money that, to this day, has never been taxed.

That’s not unusual. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Estimates recently made by economists James Poterba and Scott Weisbenner, based on data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, suggest that unrealized capital gains make up about 37 percent of the value of estates worth more than $1 million and about 56 percent of estates worth more than $10 million.

I’ll take a wild guess and say that the percentage keeps getting higher and higher as the estates get larger.

Heirs and entrepreneurs. If you look at the top of a list of the richest Americans, you might think we’re still an entrepreneurial society: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison — all founders of major corporate empires. That case gets only slightly dicier with the next two names: Charles and David Koch, who inherited Koch Industries from their Dad, but did manage it aggressively and multiplied its value. Dad’s company wasn’t a household name, but Charles and David’s company is. That’s why they’re on the list.

Four of the next five, though, are the heirs of Sam Walton, founder of WalMart. The singular virtue that makes the Waltons multi-billionaires is that they were born in the right place. Most of what they inherited was WalMart stock that Sam had owned since the founding, when it was worth virtually nothing. When he died, that vast capital gain disappeared for tax purposes, just like the gain on Dad’s farm. So the federal estate tax was the only tax that money ever faced.

Now imagine the “Death Tax” gone. The Gates, Buffett, Ellison, and Koch fortunes are in Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway, Oracle and Koch stock. The vast capital gains on those holdings have never been taxed. Without an estate tax, that stock is just handed off directly to the heirs, who can hand it off to their heirs.

It never gets taxed. Ever.

That’s how you build a hereditary aristocracy.

But the rich have foundations. Another excuse for getting rid of the Death Tax is that the very rich find ways around it anyway. Look at Gates and Buffett: They’ve put billions into the Gates Foundation, money that the tax man will never see.

That continues a long American tradition, going back to the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Andrew Carnegie’s money wound up in countless libraries, museums, and universities, rather than in the federal treasury.

I’m not sure why that’s supposed to be a criticism of the estate tax. If Bill Gates wants his money to fight malaria in Africa rather than lower the federal deficit, I’m OK with that. John D. Rockefeller decided to found the University of Chicago rather than hand his money over to the government. I got my graduate degrees there, so it worked out fine as far as I’m concerned.

Without the Death Tax. You know what would be worse than that? If the richest-Americans list were still dominated by Rockefellers and Fords and Carnegies. That would make us a fundamentally different kind of country.

It could have worked out that way. I’m not sure I buy Celebrity Net Worth’s estimate that Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Henry Ford put together were worth about $800 billion in today’s dollars — that would be about ten times Bill Gates — but I don’t doubt that those fortunes would still be competitive if the heirs could have held them together and invested them well.

Without the “Death Tax” either collecting taxes or pressuring billionaires to find other ways to dispose of their money, a century from now we could be that kind of country — the kind where the wealthiest people aren’t entrepreneurs, they’re heirs. The richest-Americans list of 2115 might consist almost entirely of Waltons and Ellisons and Kochs. The way to get on that list would be to marry into one of those empires, not try to start one of your own.

If thing work out that way, I’m sure the politicians of 2115 will still give inspiring speeches about the American Dream. But it will be the old European Dream of the Medicis and the Rothschilds that has won out. Don’t waste your time trying to invent the Next Big Thing, just hope your daughter finds her Darcy. Then keep handing the money down your family line forever.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I was only going to do a short weekly-summary note on the House passing a repeal of the estate tax. But then I started reading conservative blogs arguing against the “death tax”, and remembering what I learned from being executor of my father’s estate. It got too long for the summary, so it turned into one of this week’s featured articles: “Death, Taxes, and the American Dream”.  That should be out sometime around 8 EDT. (I’m back home in the East.)

The other featured article continues the 2016 speech series by looking at Marco Rubio’s announcement speech. Short version: If your campaign is about being the new face with new ideas for a new century, you really ought to include one of those new ideas in your speech. Because “we need new ideas” is not a new idea. Gary Hart tried it in 1984, and his campaign started going south when Walter Mondale asked: “Where’s the beef?”

The weekly summary includes the debate about Social Security that Chris Christie started. And attending a Christie town hall meeting in New Hampshire Wednesday — I’ll get to the content of it some other week — caused me to make some observations about the importance of town hall meetings. (Christie is really good at them.) Also: a medical ethics professor live-tweeted from the abstinence-sex-education presentation the public schools inflicted on her son, and the North Carolina legislature is debating a proposal that would pretty much wreck the Research Triangle.

I’ll close the summary with a new sports craze from Germany. It involves a ping-pong table, a miniature soccer ball, and your head. My neck aches just from watching it.

Expect the Rubio article around 9 and the weekly summary by 11.

 

Equality on Earth

It is easy to proclaim all souls equal in the sight of God. It is hard to make men equal on earth in the sight of men.

James Baldwin

This week’s featured post is “The 2016 Stump Speeches: Rand Paul“.

This week everybody was talking about another police shooting

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

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

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

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

How many other cops have?

and 2016

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

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

and the 150th anniversary of Appomattox

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

Other articles have supported “Not a Tea Party’s” other main point: that the right-wing surge we are seeing today is a continuation of the Confederate worldview. For example: “Why the Confederacy Lives” by Euan Hague in Politico. And WaPo’s Harold Meyerson writes:

Today’s Republican Party is not just far from being the party of Lincoln: It’s really the party of Jefferson Davis. It suppresses black voting; it opposes federal efforts to mitigate poverty; it objects to federal investment in infrastructure and education just as the antebellum South opposed internal improvements and rejected public education; it scorns compromise. It is nearly all white. It is the lineal descendant of Lee’s army, and the descendants of Grant’s have yet to subdue it.


In “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” I described the Confederacy as a worldview:

The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries. … The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

For a contemporary example of the Confederate mindset at work, listen to a recent interview with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson:

I really believe if what the Supreme Court is about to do [i.e. legalize same-sex marriage nationwide] is carried through with, and it looks like it will be, then we’re going to see a general collapse in the next decade or two. I just am convinced of that. So we need to do everything we can to try to hold it back and to preserve the institution of marriage.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts for nearly a dozen years, and for almost a decade in Canada, with no visible evidence of any ill effects on society. You’ve got to wonder when Dobson and his ilk will start seeing facts and reality rather than their own apocalyptic nightmares. Probably never. If Dobson is still around twenty years from now, I imagine he’ll have rolled his disaster prediction forward to “in the next century or two”.

And what does “do everything we can” mean? Get violent, apparently.

Talk about a Civil War, we could have another one over this.

Because accepting social change is impossible. All forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified.

but I was reading two unrelated books

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hope Obama lives to tell the tale.


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

and you also might be interested in …

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


Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas says President Obama is exaggerating when he says that scrapping the nuclear deal with Iran risks another Iraq War (only worse, because Iran is three times bigger). An attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be simple.

It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox: several days’ air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior.

And then Iran will do what? This is the kind of logic we often hear from fans of military action: We’ll hit them, and then that will be the end of it. Cotton is like the guy who has no intention of starting a bar fight, he just wants to punch that other guy in the nose.

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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

and let’s close with Mary Poppins

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

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Rand Paul

[This is part of a series of articles on the speeches of 2016 presidential candidates. The overall vision of the series and links to the other articles can be found here.]

Paul and his candidacy. Rand Paul is in many ways the most interesting of the potential Republican candidates, the one whose positions are most idiosyncratic and least in step with GOP groupthink. He usually tries to sound like an Ayn Rand libertarian — which already sets him apart on some issues — but occasionally a bit of Occupy Wall Street anarchy gets into his rhetoric as well.

Most other Republicans argue that the Republican Party just hasn’t been Republican enough. It needs to double down on its principles, not move to the center or compromise with Democrats to get things done. Good stuff will happen only after the last Democrat has been driven into the hills.

Paul, on the other hand, is arguing that both parties are the problem: Both are part of a culture of corruption that makes government spending and government power constantly increase.

If he could quit there, he’d have an attractive message. Paul’s “Stop the Washington Machine” slogan sounds really good to people with a wide range of views. Consequently, like Barack Obama in 2008, Paul has a chance to expand the electorate by attracting people otherwise too alienated to vote. But it leaves his campaign with two problems:

  1. He’s running for the nomination of one of the parties he’s attacking. So he somehow has to get Republicans to vote for a candidate who says that Republicans are part of what’s wrong with America. But Republicans view acknowledging mistakes as weakness; they don’t want their candidate to go on an apology tour for the sins of George W. Bush.
  2. Once he stops the Washington machine, what is he going to put in its place? Other candidates are in a position to be vague and hopeful, but Paul’s record includes a lot of white papers and proposed bills whose details (if they become common knowledge) will turn off a lot of the people his slogan attracts.

The speech’s theme. [All unattributed quotes are from Time‘s transcript of the speech Paul gave Tuesday in Louisville. Watch out for The Independent‘s “full transcript”; parts of the speech are missing.]

A typical announcement speech is a blend of autobiography and political vision. Sometimes (as in Ted Cruz’s speech), those are two separate segments. But Paul’s speech is organized by issue, and biographical details are sprinkled in as they seem relevant. That structure sends a message in itself: Who I am is not important compared to what I want to do. Where Cruz frames himself as a prophet raised up to do God’s work, Paul frames himself as Cincinnatus temporarily putting aside his farming (or, in Paul’s case, his practice as an eye doctor) to save the Republic.

Paul begins his speech saying: “We have come to take our country back.” This is a common trope for any party out of power, and (depending on your vision of what America used to be) can mean anything from restoring white Christian supremacy to redistributing wealth. To Paul it means:

The Washington machine that gobbles up our freedoms and invades every nook and cranny of our lives must be stopped. … I want to be part of a return to prosperity, a true economic boom that lists all Americans, a return to a government restrained by the Constitution. A return to privacy, opportunity, liberty. [1]

Debt and spending. Paul’s primary symbol and symptom of too-big government is the $18 trillion federal debt.

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been able to enjoy the American Dream. I worry, though, that the opportunity and hope are slipping away for our sons and daughters. As I watch our once-great economy collapse under mounting spending and debt, I think, “What kind of America will our grandchildren see”?

It seems to me that both parties and the entire political system are to blame. Big government and debt doubled under a Republican administration. And it’s now tripling under Barack Obama’s watch. President Obama is on course to add more debt than all of the previous presidents combined. We borrow a million dollars a minute.

This mixes some truth with some falsehood: A million dollars a minute is a little high, but in the ballpark. George W. Bush did double the national debt, but Obama didn’t triple it, and isn’t on course to add more debt than all previous presidents combined. (Details in endnote [2].)

The more abstract idea that big government and debt are collapsing the American economy is less easily fact-checked, but shouldn’t be accepted as obvious. Other rich countries (Sweden and Germany, for example) have much higher per-capita government spending than we do, and Japan’s per-capita government debt is almost double ours. The fastest-growing of the world’s large economies is China, which has a far more intrusive government. [3]

Fixing the budget. Paul proposes that we balance the budget entirely with spending cuts.

Currently some $3 trillion comes into the U.S. Treasury. Couldn’t the country just survive on $3 trillion?

The way he wants to make that happen is through a constitutional amendment:

Congress will never balance the budget unless you force them to do so. Congress has an abysmal record with balancing anything. [4] Our only recourse is to force Congress to balance the budget with a constitutional amendment.

Usually, conservatives wave a balanced-budget amendment like a magic wand: It will balance the budget without forcing us to spell out the harsh spending cuts that are required once tax increases are off the table.

Paul can’t be criticized for that. In 2011 he put out a proposal to strip $500 billion out of the budget (almost exactly the current deficit). That proposal demonstrates how draconian a balanced-budget-with-no-new taxes is. As I observed at the time: it cut 28% from the Center for Disease Control, and made similar cuts in the agencies that monitor food safety. The National Park Service got cut 42%. And so on.

When people think “The government spends too much money”, I’ll bet they’re not thinking about Yellowstone, or planning to cut corners on the next Ebola outbreak. But Paul is.

This is the problem when you get specific: The American people dislike “big government” and “spending” in its trillion-dollar abstraction, but the big things that the government spends money on — defense, Social Security, Medicare — are popular. In the rest of the budget, nearly all the easy cuts were made long ago. And when you’re sitting on your rooftop in New Orleans wondering whether the helicopters or the flood waters will reach you first, “big government” sounds pretty good.

Inequality. For a long time, conservatives refused to recognize growing economic inequality as a problem. (Talented ambitious people are out-performing inept lazy people. What’s the problem?) But recently that has turned around. At least rhetorically, conservatives are now addressing inequality.

Trillion-dollar government stimulus packages has only widened the income gap. Politically connected cronies get taxpayer dollars by the hundreds of millions [5] and poor families across America continue to suffer. I have a different vision, … a vision that will offer opportunity to all Americans, especially those who have been left behind.

My plan includes economic freedom zones to allow impoverished areas like Detroit, West Louisville, Eastern Kentucky to prosper by leaving more money in the pockets of the people who live there.

This “economic freedom zone” idea has been kicking around for a while under various names. Jack Kemp first called them “enterprise zones” and later “opportunity zones of prosperity“. (I call them “hellholes”, for reasons that will become apparent. But I’ll try to be nice and use Paul’s terminology.)

The idea is that if you lower taxes and cut regulations in some impoverished region, businesses will sprout there like mushrooms, providing jobs for all the previously unemployed residents. If you just stop there, it sounds like it might work. But Paul put out a 6-page outline of his plan in 2013, so we know a lot more of the disturbing details.

Reducing taxes in economically depressed areas is a stimulus that will work because the money is returned to businesses and individuals who have already proven that they can succeed.

i.e., to rich people.

These “Economic Freedom Zones” allow blighted and bankrupt areas to remove the shackles of big government by reducing taxes, regulations, and burdensome union work requirements. These zones give parents and students the flexibility to find better schools, allow talented immigrants to pursue entrepreneurial and job-creating endeavors, and will provide additional incentives for philanthropy to help those in need.

So how does that work? Let’s start with the tax part. When an impoverished area like Detroit or West Louisville is declared a hellhole — sorry, an Economic Freedom Zone — both the individual and the corporate tax rates go down to 5%. Payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare) are reduced for both the employer and the employee. And the capital gains tax goes away for “stock or tangible assets that are located within the area”.

This is supposed to encourage new businesses. I know immediately the new business I would want to be in: turning abandoned buildings into tiny cheap condos that rich people could buy to establish residency, even though they would never be caught dead there. With all the zoning regulations suspended, I could probably build them for $20,000 each easy. Then I sell them for $100,000, and a guy with a billion-dollar income saves hundreds of millions in taxes by buying one. Everybody wins!

Mailboxes Etc would also do well, as corporations move their “headquarters” to mailboxes inside the Zone. Now they pay low taxes, and capital gains on their stock become tax free!

You think this kind of stuff wouldn’t happen? Again and again, we’ve been sold the idea that cutting taxes will give rich people lots of money to create jobs with. But why should they? Why not just pocket the extra money and do as little as possible to help anybody? And if you start writing rules to prevent this chicanery, not only would the tax-avoiders always be one step ahead of you, you’d end up creating yet another complex set of bureaucratic rules.

If actual people or businesses did move into the Zones, their enclaves would look like Israeli settlements on the West Bank. They’d be as isolated as possible from the impoverished residents. They wouldn’t, for example, lift a finger to improve the local public schools, because part of the program is that everybody gets private-school vouchers.

But one kind of business would be attracted to the Zones: businesses that pollute a lot. That’s because EPA non-attainment designations would be suspended. The Zones would also be exempted from regulations on municipal storm-sewer run-off, and they could waive land use restrictions like “Wilderness Areas, National Heritage Sites, or Wild & Scenic Rivers”. Also, construction permits under the National Environmental Policy Act would be “streamlined”.

So, if a real-estate corporation wanted to take over a Zone’s wilderness areas and heritage sites, the local government could sell to them. And it might be motivated to sell, because the program specifically forbids any government bailouts if the municipality gets into financial trouble. (But they would be authorized to renege on their pensions.)

So there you have it: Polluted districts populated mainly by phony residences and fake corporate headquarters, with abandoned public schools, pensionless local residents, and all the beautiful or historic areas privatized. Hellholes.

Meanwhile, enormous tax loopholes have been created that require even more massive spending cuts than the ones Paul has already laid out.

Infrastructure. But wait, there’s more:

I want to see millions of Americans back at work. In my vision for America, we’ll bring back manufacturing jobs that pay well. How? We’ll dramatically lower the tax on American companies that wish to bring their profits home.

More than $2 trillion in American profit currently sits overseas. In my vision for America, new highways and bridges will be built across the country, not by raising your taxes, but by lowering the tax to bring this American profit home.

This is the overseas profits tax holiday he co-sponsored with Democrat Barbara Boxer. Multinational corporations like Apple and Google (both headquartered in Boxer’s state) juggle their books to make most of their profits appear overseas, so that they can avoid the 35% corporate income tax. The Paul-Boxer bill would let them bring those profits home and pay just 6.5%. It would create an immediate one-time slug of revenue, but, as Bloomberg Business explains:

It’s not clear that the Paul-Boxer plan would actually raise revenue. The nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, the official scorekeeper for tax bills, said last year that a similar proposal would raise money in the first few years and then cost the government a net total of $95.8 billion over a decade.

That’s because companies would interpret a repeat of a tax holiday enacted in 2004 as a sign that they should shift even more profits outside the U.S. in anticipation of another holiday.

Criminal justice reform. After Ferguson, Paul wrote an op-ed in Time calling for demilitarization of the police. He wrote:

Anyone who thinks that race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention. Our prisons are full of black and brown men and women who are serving inappropriately long and harsh sentences for non-violent mistakes in their youth.

He mentioned the issue in Tuesday’s speech without elaborating:

I see an America where criminal justice is applied equally and any law that disproportionately incarcerates people of color is repealed.

Most other Republicans don’t believe that race is a factor in our criminal justice system, so in the debates I expect Paul to be challenged to name some law that should be repealed because of its unfairness to blacks. It will be interesting to see what he says.

Defense and foreign policy. Historically, Libertarians have been isolationists. For good reasons: War inevitably increases government power, both economically and in terms of civil liberties. In wartime, ordinary political dissent turns into disloyalty or even treason.

For years, this reluctance to involve the United States in foreign conflicts has distanced both Rand and Ron Paul from the Republican mainstream. (In the 2011 Republican debates, Ron Paul said about the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapon “What’s so terribly bad about this?” and opposed even trade sanctions. Just a year ago, Rand Paul told ABC’s Jonathan Karl “The people who say ‘by golly, we will never stand for that,’ they are voting for war.”)

Since he began moving towards his own presidential run, though, Rand has tried to walk that back and sound more bellicose, even supporting higher defense spending. In his announcement speech, he proclaimed “radical Islam” as “the enemy”.

And not only will I name the enemy, I will do whatever it takes to defend America from these haters of mankind.

And he tried to walk narrow line supporting negotiations with Iran without siding with President Obama.

I see an America strong enough to deter foreign aggression, yet wise enough to avoid unnecessary intervention.

which sounds a lot like what Obama sees. So what’s the difference?

The difference between President Obama and myself, he seems to think you can negotiate from a position of weakness. Yet everyone needs to realize that negotiations are not inherently bad.

But it’s not clear what would make a President Paul “stronger” than President Obama, other than simply being a Republican. I’m sure he’ll be pressed on this during the campaign.

Civil liberties. One place Paul is not backing down is on limiting government spying on American citizens who have committed no crime.

The president created this vast dragnet by executive order. And as president on day one, I will immediately end this unconstitutional surveillance. … We must defend ourselves, but we must never give up who we are as a people. We must never diminish the Bill of Rights as we fight this long war against evil. We must believe in our founding documents. We must protect economic and personal liberty again.

This is one issue where his difference with other Republican candidate might be popular even among the Republican electorate. I hope he’ll challenge other candidates to match his day-one pledge.

Summary. To appeal to the Republican primary electorate, Paul will be tempted to shift his positions towards the Republican mainstream and away from this Libertarian roots. To an extent he already has. But his hope of winning also has to depend on drawing alienated voters to the polls. To do that, he’ll have to maintain an image as a different kind of Republican.

That will require a lot of political skill, which Paul has never shown in the past. (He has a tendency to get testy when questioned, as he did this week.) There is a place in American politics waiting for the candidate who can run a pox-on-both-your-houses campaign. But I personally don’t believe Rand Paul is skillful enough to be that candidate.

More of a problem is his record of specific proposals. It’s hard to run an Obama-style hope-and-change campaign when your opponents can so easily pull you into unpopular details you have laid out in your own words.


Addendum. It’s been pointed out in the comments that I said nothing about Paul’s position on social issues like abortion. That’s because Paul said nothing. My take is that he wishes he could avoid talking about these issues. One of the times he got testy with a reporter was when he was asked whether an abortion ban should have a rape exception.

The fact that he doesn’t want to answer that question tells you where he is on abortion in general: He’s against it to the point that he’s willing to consider forcing a woman to have her rapist’s child. That’s where the question starts getting difficult for him.

He has also said that same-sex marriage “offends myself and a lot of other people“, but supports letting same-sex couples have “contracts” with each other, whatever that means.


[1] Paul puts forward a zero-sum view of government and the people: any expansion of government necessarily diminishes individuals. This clearly makes sense with regard to privacy: As the government snoops more, our sphere of privacy shrinks. But it’s less obvious with opportunity and liberty: Liberals would argue that programs like government-subsidized state universities and community colleges can increase opportunity for people born into poverty, and regulations that restrain the power of big business (net neutrality, for example) can increase liberty for individuals. Libertarians have arguments against these points, but Paul usually doesn’t go there: He frames these objections out of the discussion rather than address them.

[2] Kimberley Amadeo does the analysis of debt-added-per-president through Obama’s first five budgets. Paul’s statement about President He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (i.e., George W. Bush; the word “Bush” does not appear in the transcript) is accurate: The debt was $5.8 trillion at the end of Bill Clinton’s last budget, and (excluding the FY 2009 spending of Obama’s stimulus plan, which was added to the FY 2009 budget after Bush left office) he added another $5.849 trillion. So yeah: doubled.

In Amadeo’s analysis, President Obama added $6.167 trillion in his first five years, including the FY 2009 spending taken out of Bush’s total. The current CBO projection of the FY 2015 deficit is $486 billion. FY 2016 and FY 2017 come in at $455 billion each. Total: $7.563 trillion.

So “tripled” is only accurate if you mean that the debt has (more than) tripled since Bush took office, which is a generous way to read Paul’s statement — certainly not the way the typical voter hears it. Obama himself is nowhere near tripling the debt; he hasn’t even doubled it. (And if you want to spin the numbers Obama’s way, he inherited a $1.6 billion annual deficit and has whittled it down to under $500 billion.)

The bit about “more debt than all of the previous presidents combined” is simply false. If you add up just the last three Republican presidents — Bush II at $5.849, Bush I at $1.554, and Reagan at $1.86 trillion — you get $9.263 trillion of debt, which is considerably more than Obama is projected to add by the time he leaves office. (In inflation-adjusted numbers, the comparison is even worse for the Republicans.)

If you want try juggling numbers to make Paul’s statement accurate, you can charge Obama with the full FY 2009 deficit (including the part already run up before Inauguration Day), and give the next president credit for the FY 2017 projection. That adds $1.177 trillion and brings Obama up to $8.74 trillion, which is still less than half the projected national debt at the end of FY 2016. (Also, giving Obama the full blame for FY 2009 ruins Paul’s claim that Bush doubled the debt.) So no, you just can’t make Paul’s claim work no matter what you do. It’s a lie.

And a million dollars a minute? Close enough for this kind of analogy. There are 60 x 24 x 365 = 525,600 minutes in a year. Times a million is $525.6 billion. The projected deficit for this year is $486 billion.

[3] The major disagreement between the parties is over why the middle class is vanishing, and I hope the campaign centers on that debate. Republicans largely back Paul’s view, that the problem is the growth of government. Liberals blame the effects of the Reagan Revolution: By lowering taxes on the wealthy, freeing corporations from anti-trust regulations, and making it nearly impossible for workers to unionize — policies that Clinton and Obama never managed to reverse — government has allowed the 1% to squeeze all the juice out of the economy.

Liberals have timing in their favor: wage growth stopped tracking productivity growth with the jump in oil prices in 1973, but the gap really started opening up during the Reagan administration and has not closed since.

Conservatives have to explain why the explosive growth of government that began with FDR went together with the growth of the economy and the middle class until the mid-1970s.

For a completely different view of the meaning of the national debt, see Warren Mosler’s Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy.

[4] In Republican circles, the Clinton surplus just never happened. What’s more, the way it happened — a combination of controlled spending and increased taxes — is a theoretical impossibility.

[5] This popular conservative talking point seems to refer to the sustainable-energy part of stimulus, which made the famous failed loan to Solyndra. But in spite of extension congressional investigations, no big corruption scandal ever emerged. According to The Hill, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s final report “does not provide specific evidence to back up GOP allegations aired over past months that administration officials provided the Solyndra loan as payback for campaign donations.”

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