Can Conservatives Solve Poverty?


Paul Ryan engages the problem, but can’t remove his ideological blinders.

Paul Ryan has spent years developing a reputation as Captain Cut: cut discretionary spending, cut entitlements, and most of all cut any program designed to help the poor. His budget proposals have meshed well with the other part of his reputation (which he sometimes claims and sometimes disowns): a follower of Ayn Rand, the author/philosopher who saw politics as a competition between Makers and Takers.

Recently, though, Ryan has been coming under the influence of the “reform conservatives” or “reformicons”: a small group of young conservative intellectuals like Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru — occasionally supported by the NYT’s conservative columnists Ross Douthat and David Brooks — who believe the Republican Party can’t in win the long run as the Party of No, and yet who don’t want to return to the center and compromise with Democrats. Instead, they want to see the GOP claim the Party of Ideas mantle by developing a set of distinctively conservative approaches to solving the very real problems that face America’s middle class: paying for health care, educating their children, finding good jobs, and so on.

And somewhere along the way, conservatives need to come up with their own plan for dealing with poverty, either because they actually care about the poor, or (more cynically) because they know a lot of middle-class voters don’t respond well to the harsh image conservatives have been cultivating. So the message has to be: “We care … we just care differently.”

The root cause of poverty: poor people. But if reform conservatism is going to take over the Republican Party rather than split off from it, it needs to stay in tune with the core sensibilities of the conservative movement. In particular, it can’t change the conservative view of the root cause of poverty: poor people.

I mean, what else could it be? Poverty can’t be capitalism’s fault, because capitalism is the only moral economic system. The problem can’t be the rich soaking up too much of the national output, because the rich are job creators whose wealth benefits everyone. Poverty can’t come from racism, because racism ended in the 1960s. (So if poverty seems to be concentrated in certain racial groups, they must have a cultural problem.)

Consequently, any conservative poverty program has to focus on fixing the character flaws of poor people: They need discipline. They need a work ethic. They need to learn to save their pennies rather than blowing everything on drugs and bling, and to control their libidos rather than spawning children they can’t feed.

The only other possible place to put the blame is government: Government has taken advantage of poor people’s lack of character by offering them benefits. This has made them dependent on government the way an addict is dependent on his drug. Addiction — pushers and addicts — is the fundamental conservative model of the liberal welfare state.

That’s their explanation of why people are still poor, 50 years after LBJ declared war on poverty: Liberals never intended to end poverty, any more than pushers want to end drug addiction. They just want to keep poor people dependent on government benefits, so that they’ll elect Democrats to keep the juice flowing.

So now you can see the outlines of a conservative poverty message: demand more of poor people, teach them middle-class virtues, target benefits more efficiently, and keep benefits flowing just long enough to wean the poor away from their dependency. Then they’ll be back on the path to wealth like the rest of America.

That message won’t convert many poor people, but that’s not really where it’s aimed. It’s supposed to comfort suburban moms, who lean Republican on other issues, but need to believe they’re voting for a plan more compassionate than Scrooge’s prisons and workhouses.

Ryan’s two reports. Paul Ryan is approaching this issue systematically, laying groundwork for the long term rather than grabbing for a few days of headlines.

He started down this path in March, with The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later (which I reviewed). WoP@50 identified and evaluated 92 separate federal programs aimed at helping the poor, and suggested that the government should have a more integrated approach to poverty that builds on the programs that work and eliminates the ones that don’t. He continued in July with Expanding Opportunity in America, which sketches a framework for that integrated approach without making any cost estimates other than to stipulate that the whole program should be “deficit neutral”.

This is not a budget-cutting exercise -— this is a reform proposal. This consolidation does not make judgments about an optimal level of spending.

EOiA‘s approach has two pieces: An expansion of the earned income tax credit to put money directly into the hands of the working poor, and block grants to the states who can use them to provide a variety of other services currently provided either by the federal government or a federal/state partnership: direct welfare payments, job training, child care, drug treatment, housing subsidies, food support, and so on.

Case managers. So far none of that is surprising. But the next piece is: Ryan imagines a system in which the government does not define a uniform set of entitlements that anyone fitting the definition automatically can get. Instead, he envisions each aid recipient working with a case manager who has discretion to create an individualized package of benefits.

Together, client and manager would work out a plan to solve whatever character issues and lack of qualifications prevent the client from getting a good job and leaving government assistance behind. This plan would become a “contract” that the client would sign and the manager would enforce.

Under each life plan, if the individual meets the benchmarks ahead of schedule, then he or she could be rewarded. For example, if the goal of an individual’s plan is to find a job within six months, and he or she starts working within three months, he or she could receive a bonus. Bonuses could take a number of creative forms, such as a savings bond. … [But] the opportunity plan could stipulate consequences for breaches of its terms, most likely immediate sanctions and a reduction in benefits.

If you’re an optimist like Reihan Salam, you can picture this working marvelously.

The theory behind having smart, dedicated caseworkers working on behalf of people who are down on their luck is that spending a bit more time and money now could help save time and money later. If someone takes the time to understand your personal situation and the particular challenges you face, there’s a better likelihood you’ll have a successful outcome down the line.

… People with low or no earnings … face diverse obstacles. Some need short-term help to, say, fix their car, which will allow them to commute to work, or to make a deposit on a rental apartment. Others don’t have the skills they need to earn enough to support themselves and, for whatever reason, will have a very hard time acquiring them. Sure, you could give both kinds of people food stamps and call it a day. Or you could recognize that one-size-fits-all programs don’t do justice to the ways in which individual circumstances vary.

But you can also picture the amount of power a case manager would have over her clients and wonder how to prevent abuse. And that means paying not just case managers (who might spend a considerable amount of time on each case), but also inspectors and supervisors to keep an eye on the case managers. Whether the efficiency gained by tailoring benefits would pay for that overhead is debatable.

Also, Ryan imagines the case workers not being government employees. Catholic Charities comes up in one example, and he might even be thinking of privatized for-profit case management. The first possibility makes me wonder how the law would prevent Guru Bob Charities from taking over the lives of Guru Bob’s followers. And the second has me thinking about the corruption that has accompanied privatized public schools. In a state that doesn’t seem concerned about its poor — Mississippi comes to mind — who’s going to care if the federal block grant winds up as corporate profit?

And finally, what happens if you get to the point in your contract where you’re supposed to be working, but the economy has crashed and there just are no jobs? Or there are only part-time minimum-wage jobs that won’t get you above the poverty level? The whole concept suffers from the Musical Chairs Fallacy*: No matter how quick or alert you train the players to be, somebody’s going to be eliminated if there aren’t enough chairs.

Jamelle Bouie calls the whole approach “breath-takingly paternalistic” and “wrong-headed”.

At some point in their lives, millions of Americans will experience a short spell of poverty. Not because they don’t have a plan to fix their lives or lack the skills to move forward, but because our economy isn’t run to create demand for labor, isn’t equipped to deliver stable work to everyone who wants it, and wasn’t built to address the distributive needs of everyone who works.

I am struck by the difference between how we think of the poor and how we think of corporations. If a poor person gets help and then doesn’t look for a job as hard as we think he should, we are morally outraged. But if a corporate tax cut is justified by the jobs it will create, and some corporation pockets the money but doesn’t create any jobs … well, no big deal. We take for granted that a corporation will be clever in the way it manipulates government programs, but the same cleverness in a poor person is reprehensible.

Independence. For the most part, Ryan’s committee has studied the issue by talking to conservative poverty experts rather than to poor people. (Why would they? If poor people were smart, they wouldn’t be poor.) But they did let one impoverished woman testify, and the culture clash was obvious.

It centered on the word independence. Tianna Gaines-Turner is a mother of three who is married and lives with her husband. They both work low-paying jobs. Her children all suffer from asthma and two are epileptic. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) offered a thought experiment in which current poverty programs were increased fivefold. People would be lifted out of poverty, he said, but it wouldn’t “break of the cycle of dependency”. Gaines-Turner replied, “I am independent on the program.” In other words, her family can have its own apartment and she and her husband can take care of their own children, rather than being homeless or in a shelter or giving their children up to someone else.

It’s precisely that “independence on the program” that Ryan would do away with. Rather than claiming benefits her situation entitles her to, Gaines-Turner would go hat-in-hand to a case manager, who would tell her how to live and cut her off if she didn’t obey.

What Ryan gets right. The two main ways to help the working poor are by increasing either the minimum wage (where the additional money comes from the employer) or the earned income tax credit (where it comes from the government). There’s an argument to be had over which is better, but either is better than nothing. I see the EITC as largely a subsidy to WalMart (which can go on paying wages its workers can’t live on), but I can swallow that if it’s the only politically viable choice.**

Ryan also proposes making the EITC easier to collect, so that you don’t have wait and file a tax return at the end of the year. I can get behind that.

And the most important change in conservative thinking is buried deep in EOiA: Ryan has noticed how lives and families are disrupted by long prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

A growing body of research exposes the high costs of incarceration. To help low-risk, non-violent offenders re-enter society, rebuild their families, and pursue careers, this proposal would revise mandatory-minimum guidelines and couple expanded enrollment in rehabilitative programing with an earned-time-credit system in federal prisons.

Liberals should jump on this. If Ryan is serious, it could have a huge impact.

But is he serious? I really have no idea. Quite possibly these reports are all window dressing, so that Republicans can say, “We have our own poverty plan.” Presumably in a few months Ryan will produce the third report in his trilogy, where he starts using numbers. That should tell us something.

* A version of the Composition Fallacy.

** Ryan argues that increasing the minimum wage would kill jobs that poor people need, but that point undermines his worldview. You can’t logically claim that anyone who tries hard enough can find a job at $7.25, but that job availability suddenly becomes a problem at $9. The overall ability of the economy to create enough jobs either is a problem or it isn’t. You can’t assert it in some situations and ignore it in others.


The Monday Morning Teaser

This week’s main article is the one I didn’t get finished in time for last week: A look at Paul Ryan’s sketch of a poverty plan. It’s interesting and in some ways creditable that Republicans are finally talking about these issues, but it’s hard to see how they’re going to do anything effective without removing their ideological blinders.

In the weekly summary, I’ll explain why everybody in New England is talking about two cousins battling for control of a grocery chain, what’s worrisome about those deep holes in Siberia, who’s really behind the impeachment talk, and what Congress did and didn’t get done before going away for August. Also: Senator Whitehouse’s global-warming speech, Rep. King’s theocratic musings, and the biggest reason to believe Congress intended health-insurance subsidies to apply to all the exchanges. And in closing, a Portuguese artist who uses operating railroad tracks in his art.

I’m expecting the poverty article to post around 10, with the weekly summary posting around 11.


No one wakes up in the morning and says “I think I want to be in poverty today” or “I want to apply for food stamps”, [or] wakes up with the enthusiastic goals of sitting in the county assistant’s office or waiting in the pantry line.

Tianna Gaines-Turner

This week’s featured article is “Republican Judges Take Another Shot at ObamaCare“.

This week everybody was talking about the D. C. Appeals Court trying to kill ObamaCare subsidies

In “Republican Judges Take Another Shot at ObamaCare” I explain why I don’t think this crisis is going to take down ObamaCare either.

and Gaza

Every day or two there’s a ceasefire proposal, but so far nothing has lasted.

My article last week drew a lot of comment from both sides, on the blog as well as via private email. I do regret one thing: referring to the Hamas missile attacks as “pinpricks”. That was insensitive. But I stand the larger point I was making: that the risks to Israelis are not remotely on the same scale as the risks faced by Gazans.

I also regret not mentioning the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which is a constant background issue, without which a lot of Palestinian anger seems senseless. AlterNet’s Steven Pizzo put it like this:

One Fatah negotiator said that negotiating with Israel over land is like negotiating with a guy over a pizza while the other guy keeps eating the pizza. Recall that the next time you hear some Israel politician claiming that all Israel was doing was minding its own business when Hamas started shooting missiles at it.

Today’s NYT has an article by Israeli writer David Grossman. He voices a where-does-this-end perspective similar to what I was trying to evoke last week. His metaphor of Israelis and Palestinians alike trudging around a grindstone is very apt. He sees more reason for hope in the current Israeli national conversation, and I can only hope he is better plugged in than I am.

and Paul Ryan’s new approach to poverty

I read Ryan’s new report Expanding Opportunity in America and am writing a review of it, but I ran out of both time and my word limit. So that will post next week. In the mean time I invite you to go back and look at my review of Ryan’s previous report on poverty The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later, which came out in March. Much of what I pointed out there still applies: Americans by-and-large agree on what to do with people who are poor for various reasons. The disagreement is over how many people fall into the various categories (i.e., how many lazy able-bodied people we’re talking about), and how many genuinely needy people we’re willing to cut off in order to stop one moocher.

You might also read these articles for and against Ryan’s ideas.

Another worthwhile thing to look at is what happened when Ryan let an actual poor person testify to his committee. That’s who I’m quoting at the top.

BTW, last week I complained about the misuse of the term “blank check” in Republican rhetoric. A blank check is literally a signed check where the amount has been left blank, so that the recipient can fill in whatever amount is desired. So no proposal that has a specific dollar total attached to it — like President Obama’s $3.7 billion proposal for dealing with the Central American refugee kids — can truthfully be described as a blank check.

However, this week I ran into a new example of the Republican usage of “blank check”, so I was finally able to figure out what they mean by it. Stewart Butler of the Heritage Foundation was talking about Ryan’s poverty plan, which pushes a lot of programs down to the state level and pays for them with block grants: “There have got to be real performance measurements — it’s not just giving the states a blank check.”

Now, this is the same kind of misuse, because a block grant is for a specific amount. But I now get the meaning: a check with no strings attached. (That interpretation works in the refugee kids proposal too.) They could just say that, of course, but wanting to attach strings sounds more sinister than refusing to sign a blank check.

This is how you use language when you don’t want your listeners to think clearly about what you’re saying.

and you also might be interested in …

Friday, Rachel Maddow did a great piece on the general dysfunctionality of Congress. She began with a harmless, but spectacularly embarrassing episode Thursday, when new Florida Congressman Curt Clawson (during his first day on the Asia and Pacific subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee) apparently thought two dark-skinned U. S. government officials were actually representatives of India. “I think your question is to the Indian government,” one replied.

Rachel then proceeded to the Senate’s inability to confirm ambassadors. About 1/4 of ambassador positions are unfilled, including Russia. Also Guatemala (where a lot of those refugee kids are coming from) and Cameroon and Niger (two of the countries trying to control the Boko Haram terrorist group). In response to the Democrats eliminating the filibuster on appointments — a move that figures in the ObamaCare subsidy issue — Republicans have been making every approval take up as much Senate floor time as possible, forcing Harry Reid to prioritize what he wants to spend floor time on. Ambassadors have been falling through the cracks. “Anything Congress is responsible for,” Maddow summarizes, “we apparently just have to get by without.”

Then there are the bills passed (or not passed). The recent low was the 104th Congress of 1995-1996. Newt Gingrich was fighting Bill Clinton, and only 333 bills passed in two years. Then the 112th Congress (2011-2012) got even less done: 284. This Congress is on pace to do even less.

And there is a case to be made that the numbers don’t tell the full story: The quality of what gets done makes it even worse. The 112th Congress, for example, did manage to avoid a government shutdown; the 113th didn’t. Immigration reform apparently is impossible. An emergency bill to do something about the refugee kids is apparently impossible. Keeping the Highway Trust Fund from going dry was so tricky that it required an accounting gimmick. We’ll be lucky if we avoid another government shutdown.

This was all to lead up to Maddow’s main point: Even after all the scandal about the Veterans Administration and about veterans who have died waiting for medical care, Congress may adjourn for their August vacation without doing anything about it. Apparently, that last possibility isn’t going to happen. Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Jeff Miller are supposed to announce a compromise this afternoon.

I finally got around to seeing Frozen, and I note an interesting similarity to Maleficent: The true love that will heal a girl is not romantic love. Finding your handsome prince is not the ticket.

Nothing really new about the Central American refugee kids. It seemed like Congress would have to pass something before its August recess, but now it’s not clear whether they will.

and let’s close with Weird Al again

Do you have First World Problems?

Republican Judges Take Another Shot at ObamaCare

If ObamaCare were a TV series, every episode would be a cliffhanger.

Like a superhero’s girlfriend or a soap opera heroine, ObamaCare always seems to be in danger. It survived several apparently fatal crises on its way to passing Congress. After it passed, the new Republican House was going to repeal it or defund it. Then conservative lawyers created a completely new theory of the Commerce Clause to make it unconstitutional — and got five Supreme Court justices to agree with them — only to see Chief Justice Roberts rescue the law at the last minute by re-interpreting a penalty as a tax. (But the Court did allow states to opt out of Medicaid expansion, keeping millions of the working poor from getting health care, and probably killing thousands of them.) Then Ted Cruz was going to lead a campaign to force President Obama to accept repeal by shutting down the government and threatening to wreck the world economy.

After the program started to get rolling, the web site was never going to work, and people were never going to sign up, and the people who did sign up would be old and sick, and the rates were going to astronomical, and more people would lose coverage than gain it, and it just was all going to collapse of its own weight. Democrats would kill ObamaCare themselves, just to keep the disaster from destroying their party forever.

If ObamaCare were a TV series, every episode would be a cliffhanger.

But like TV cliffhangers, the disaster never really arrives. ObamaCare shows every sign of working more-or-less the way it was designed to, except for those minimum-wage folks in Texas (and other red states) who can’t get Medicaid.

But it’s still not out of the woods. Tuesday, two Bush-appointed judges on the D. C. Court of Appeals lobbed the latest bomb in ObamaCare’s direction: The way the law is worded, people in 36 states are ineligible for the subsidies that put the “affordable” in the Affordable Care Act. In an opinion piece at Fox News, Betsy McCaughey — the woman who created the “death panels” hoax that Sarah Palin made famous — announced that the ruling had sent ObamaCare into a “death spiral”.

I’ll get into the details of this in a minute, but first let me spoil the suspense: I don’t think this bullet is going to kill ObamaCare either. Not because the legal ruling is bogus and partisan — it is, but the Supreme Court has five conservative judges who might be happy to issue another bogus partisan ruling against ObamaCare — but because the stock price of health insurance companies didn’t budge when the D. C. Appeals Court’s surprise came out.

Politicians and pundits might predict all kinds of things, and who knows whether they really believe any of it. But what people do with their money reflects what they genuinely expect.

ObamaCare is great for insurance companies. (That’s the biggest liberal complaint about it.) And as the good news about ObamaCare has rolled in, health insurance stocks have had a nice run. United Health, for example, started 2014 at $71.65 and climbed steadily upward to open Monday at $84.68. Back on Inauguration Day, 2009, you could have bought a share for $24.16.

So the beginning of an ObamaCare death spiral would be bad for insurance companies and should have sent investors heading for the exits. (Take your profits. Sell, sell, sell!) But UNH closed Tuesday at $86.05, and closed Friday right back where it opened Monday, at $84.68. The whole week was a total non-event for UNH.

Just about by definition, investors are people with money. And people with money tend to be Republicans, who are more likely than most to live inside the conservative bubble and take bad news about ObamaCare seriously. But they’re not taking this threat seriously. So I’m not either.

Now let’s get down to the legal arguments. Fortunately, we get to look at the same facts from two different angles, because on the same day the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the opposite way on a virtually identical case. The D.C. court’s judges vote 2-1 and the Fourth Circuit 3-0, so the net vote was 4 judges to 2 in favor of the ObamaCare subsidies.

The issue. The original plan in the Affordable Care Act was for each state to set up its own health-insurance exchange, like kynect in Kentucky or Covered California. But just in case one or two states didn’t, the law empowered the federal government to set up an exchange for a state.

At the time, I don’t think anyone in the administration expected the level of obstruction the program has faced. Common sense would tell you that a state government would jump at the chance to tailor the program the way it wants rather than have the feds make all the decisions. But these are not sensible times, so there are 36 states with federally-run exchanges.

The basic logic of ACA is achieve near-universal healthcare coverage by

  • expanding Medicaid to cover the working poor.
  • subsidizing insurance premiums via a tax credit for those somewhat better off.
  • using a tax/penalty to push everyone who isn’t already covered by either an employer or the government to buy private insurance on his/her state exchange.

But the line in the law that authorized the tax credits was worded so that they applied to taxpayers who are

covered by a qualified health plan … that was enrolled in through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311

So if you interpret that line in a context-free way, you might think that people in those 36 states with federally-created exchanges don’t get the tax credits. That completely screws up the logic of the plan, and absolutely no one at the time the law was passed thought it would work that way. (In particular, I don’t believe this point ever came up when states were debating whether or not to establish exchanges.) But words mean what they mean, right?

How this would resolve in a sane world. This is what is known as a drafting error, and they happen from time to time. If they aren’t too serious, everybody ignores them. (If a law would happen to mis-spell Connecticut, judges wouldn’t decide that Congress intended to refer to some previously unknown state.) But if the error looks like it will cause some real issue, Congress just fixes it. Or at least it used to. Former Bush Treasury official Phillip Swagel was focused on different errors last fall when he wrote:

It should be possible for the larger (and incredibly heated) debate over the merits of Obamacare to proceed even while specific flaws in the legislation are addressed

He gave the example of a 2005 transportation bill that contained earmarks for projects that no longer existed. A subsequent bill fixed this. But Swagel makes a major understatement:

Legislation to make “technical corrections” has become relatively infrequent as Congressional partisanship has mounted over the decades

These kinds of fixes didn’t used to be partisan issues. It didn’t matter whether or not you supported the original law, you wanted mistakes fixed. But not any more. Now, the worse a law works, the better for the party that opposed it to begin with. Bad for the country, but good for the party. And the party is what’s really important.

How the IRS tried to resolve it. Implementing tax credits falls to the IRS, which now had to implement something that didn’t quite make sense. They did the sensible thing and interpreted the law so that the federal government would be acting in the role of the state when it established a state exchange. So in practice “an Exchange established by the State” meant an exchange established by the state or by the federal government acting for the State. It explained:

[T]he relevant legislative history does not demonstrate that Congress intended to limit the premium tax credit to State Exchanges. Accordingly, the final regulations maintain the rule in the proposed regulations [i.e., that policies bought on federally-established exchanges still qualify for tax credits] because it is consistent with the language, purpose, and structure of section 36B and the Affordable Care Act as a whole.

How this became a court case. Courts can’t just rule on whatever issues they feel like addressing. Somebody has to bring them a case, and the person who brings it has to have “standing”. In other words, the person who sues has to present a real injury that was caused by whoever is being sued and that a court has the power to remedy. (So “My girl friend doesn’t love me any more” might be a real injury caused by a specific woman, but what do you expect the court to do about it?)

Finding a plaintiff with standing took some doing in this case, because who exactly is being hurt if people get tax credits to help pay for their health insurance? (You might think, “the taxpayers”, but those kinds of suits are always thrown out of court. An injury needs to be more specific than just your tax money being spent in some way you find inappropriate.) Eventually, ObamaCare opponents came up with this plan: The individual mandate only applies to people who can find health insurance for less than 8% of their income. So if a guy is just poor enough that unsubsidized insurance would be more than 8% of his income, but subsidized insurance would be less than 8%, then the subsidy is what makes the individual mandate apply to him. That’s his injury.

The government argued that giving people a good deal on health insurance doesn’t really injure them, but neither court bought it. Both the D.C. Circuit and the Fourth Circuit said the suits had standing. Politically, though, it’s still a point worth making: This was the kind of legal contortion conservatives had to come up with to file this suit.

What the four judges said. Naturally, there is precedent for this kind of thing. I’ll let Judge Robert Gregory of the Fourth Circuit explain:

Because this case concerns a challenge to an agency’s construction of a statute, we apply the familiar two-step analytic framework set forth in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). At Chevron’s first step, a court looks to the “plain meaning” of the statute to determine if the regulation responds to it. If it does, that is the end of the inquiry and the regulation stands. However, if the statute is susceptible to multiple interpretations, the court then moves to Chevron’s second step and defers to the agency’s interpretation so long as it is based on a permissible construction of the statute.

Notice where the burden of proof lies: In order to win their case, the plaintiffs have to convince the court that the statute is unambiguous and that the IRS is just making stuff up to interpret it any other way. (Gregory, BTW, is the only judge of the six to rule opposite to the party that appointed him: Though he was originally a temporary recess appointment by Bill Clinton, he owes his permanent appointment to George W. Bush.)

The argument over what Congress intended was wide-ranging, covering how similar words are used in other parts of the law, how this provision fits or doesn’t fit with other provisions, how it works in the overall structure of ObamaCare, and the “legislative history”, i.e., what the Congresspeople were actually talking about when they passed it.

Unfortunately, Congress never argued about whether or not the subsidies should apply on federal exchanges — probably because no one involved ever conceived that they wouldn’t; it just wasn’t an issue. But that means there is no clear legislative history. It’s like that down the line: Judge Gregory allows that the IRS interpretation seems more likely to him, but that there’s not a smoking gun either way. But …

when that is so, Chevron dictates that a court defer to the agency’s choice.

and so the subsidies stand.

Senior Judge Andre Davis was even less persuaded by the plaintiffs:

They have a clear choice, one afforded by the admittedly less-than-perfect representative process ordained by our constitutional structure: they can either pay the relatively minimal amounts needed to obtain health care insurance as provided by the Act, or they can refuse to pay and run the risk of incurring a tiny tax penalty. What they may not do is rely on our help to deny to millions of Americans desperately-needed health insurance through a tortured, nonsensical construction of a federal statute whose manifest purpose, as revealed by the wholeness and coherence of its text and structure, could not be more clear.

What the two judges said. Judge Thomas Griffith of the D. C. Circuit also cited the Chevron case, but placed the bar of interpretation much higher:

We therefore give the absurdity principle a narrow domain, insisting that a given construction cross a “high threshold” of unreasonableness before we conclude that a statute does not mean what it says. Cook, 594 F.3d at 891. A provision thus “may seem odd” without being “absurd,” and in such instances “it is up to Congress rather than the courts to fix it,” even if it “may have been an unintentional drafting gap.” Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Allapattah Servs., Inc., 545 U.S. 546, 565 (2005)

Griffith goes on to examine all the places in the law where differentiating between the state-established and federal-established exchanges might seem odd, and is able to find possible (though occasionally convoluted) meanings that Congress might have intended.

Senior Judge Raymond Randolph agreed, but the dissent by Senior Judge Harry Edwards is blunt:

This case is about Appellants’ not-so-veiled attempt to gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”). … The majority opinion ignores the obvious ambiguity in the statute and claims to rest on plain meaning where there is none to be found. In so doing, the majority misapplies the applicable standard of review, refuses to give deference to the IRS’s and HHS’s permissible constructions of the ACA, and issues a judgment that portends disastrous consequences. … Simply put, §36B(b) interpreted as Appellants urge would function as a poison pill to the insurance markets in the States that did not elect to create their own Exchanges. This surely is not what Congress intended.

What happens next? The next step is to appeal the D. C. court’s ruling to the full court, rather than the three-judge panel. Since this is a partisan ruling that only a partisan Republican judge will uphold, the full court will reverse it.

One of the Republican moves that pushed the Senate’s Democratic majority to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominations (other than the Supreme Court) was the blanket filibuster on any judge President Obama might appoint to the D. C. circuit. At the time, the court had a 4-4 balance of Republican and Democratic appointees and three vacancies. Republicans charged that filling the vacancies (as the Constitution instructs the President to do) would be “court packing“. After the filibuster change, Obama’s nominees were approved, so the full court has a 7-4 majority of Democratic appointees.

If the two appeals courts remained in disagreement, the case would have to go the Supreme Court (because you can’t have a law mean one thing in one circuit and another somewhere else). But if the full D. C. court reverses its three-judge panel’s ruling, the Supremes could decide whether or not they want to get involved.

If they do, I don’t think they’ll overturn the subsidies. The Roberts Court practices conservative activism, but prefers to do it by stealth. (That’s why Roberts nixed the first attempt to skewer ObamaCare in the courts, IMHO.) This would be a nakedly political, we’re-sticking-it-to-the-Democrats ruling. WaPo’s Paul Waldman summarizes:

Now pause for a moment and consider what it is Republicans are asking the courts to do here. They want millions of Americans to lose the subsidies they got this year, in many if not most cases making health insurance completely unaffordable for them, and their justification is this: We found a mistake in the law, so you people are screwed.

I can imagine Thomas, Alito, and Scalia going that way, but Roberts and Kennedy will be reluctant. ObamaCare will escape this cliff, and survive until the next episode.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Tuesday, two judges in the D. C. appeals court tried to sabotage ObamaCare by ruling that people in 36 states aren’t eligible for the subsidies. This week’s first featured article will explain why they said that, why four other judges of equal rank disagreed, and why I don’t think this is going to bring ObamaCare down. Truthfully, this unending series of crises is getting kind of old. It might make more sense to write an article some week when there isn’t a new plot to destroy ObamaCare. That would be news.

The other featured article will look at Paul Ryan’s sketch of a new approach to fighting poverty. Ryan is reminding me of what “compassionate conservatism” really means: It’s how a compassionate person would react if s/he lived in the strange alternate universe described by conservative rhetoric. So yes, if the poverty problem were mainly the result of poor people (through laziness or some other character flaw) failing to take advantage of the marvelous opportunities provided by our perfect capitalist system, then this would be a wonderful plan.

Otherwise, most of the stuff that was happening last week is still happening: the invasion of Gaza, the government wondering where to put the Central American refugee kids, the Russia/Ukraine problem, the dysfunctionality of Congress, and so forth. However, as of yesterday it looked like Democrats and Republicans had agreed on a plan to reform the Veterans Administration which could pass before Congress’ August vacation, though no one is saying what’s in it until a press conference later today.

I’m aiming to have the article on the ObamaCare ruling out by 10 and the Ryan plan by 11, with the weekly summary posting around noon. All times EDT.

Foreigners in Egypt

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.

Exodus 22:21

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

– “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

This week’s featured posts are “Gaza as seen from a distance” and “There’s Something About Todd“.

This week everybody was talking about yet another Malaysian Air flight

This one was shot down over the disputed eastern region of the Ukraine. Apparently, missiles sophisticated enough to take down an airliner at cruising altitude require months of training to operate. That fact doesn’t align with the official Russian story: that pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine are a spontaneous uprising it supports but is not aiding with its own forces.

Vox has a good account of the situation. Presumably the Malaysian Air flight was mistaken for a military transport plane. Pro-Russian rebels have been shooting at Ukrainian planes for a while now, but the early shoot-downs had been planes low enough to be targeted by shoulder-fired rockets requiring relatively little training. More recently, two Ukrainian planes have been shot down from higher altitudes, suggesting a more complicated system. Three possibilities: Russia is shooting down the planes from its own territory (the U.S. doesn’t think so), or Russian military advisers are operating the missiles from the rebel-controlled territories, or Russia started training Ukrainian rebels before the current uprising began.

The wreckage fell onto territory controlled by the rebels, who are not cooperating with outside investigators. Or maybe they are: a rebel leader has promised to turn over the plane’s black box.

Lost in all this is the story of the time we shot down an airliner: Iran Air 655 in 1988.

and Israel invading Gaza

Last week I said I hadn’t made enough sense out of the Gaza conflict to comment, so I felt a responsibility to provide more insight this week in “Gaza as seen from a distance“.

and those refugee kids

Ukraine and Gaza have driven the kids-at-the-border problem off the front pages, but the story is still percolating. At first it appeared the issue was getting so much attention that even this Congress would have to do something. But that is getting less and less likely.

Back on July 9, Kevin Drum predicted that the Republican House would refuse to act on President Obama’s proposal to deal with the child refugee crisis.

Well, of course it won’t happen. The crisis along the border is tailor made for Republicans. It makes their base hopping mad, it juices their campaign fundraising, and anytime the government is unable to address a problem it makes Obama look bad. Why on earth would Republicans want to do anything to change any of this?

As long as Obama is president, chaos is good for Republicans. After all, most voters don’t really know who’s at fault when things go wrong, they just know there’s a crisis and Obama doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it. Exploiting that may be cynical and revolting, but hey, politics ain’t beanbag. And in case you haven’t heard, there’s an election coming up.

Friday, Steve Benen came around:

I was skeptical when Kevin wrote this, but his assessment is looking quite prescient now.

Keep in mind, this isn’t a situation in which the Republican-led House wants one solution, the Democratic-led Senate wants another, and a compromise is elusive. Rather, we’re looking at a dynamic in which the GOP House majority simply can’t pass anything … So there is no bill and the Speaker’s office doesn’t seem to think there will be a bill. Once again, met with a real challenge in need of a responsible remedy from lawmakers, Republicans aren’t prepared.

Today’s closing links to Weird Al’s new video “Word Crimes”. Here’s a word crime: Describing Obama’s itemized $3.7 billion proposal as a “blank check”, which seems to be the Republican talking point. The phrase must rile up focus groups or something, but there’s nothing “blank” about $3.7 billion.

Several article have brought some historical perspective: “Child Migrants Have Been Coming to America Alone Since Ellis Island” in Mother Jones and “America’s Long History of Immigrant Scaremongering” in Slate, which recounts all the bogus scares about immigrants and disease through the centuries.

but I couldn’t stop myself from writing about Todd Akin

who is not worth your time or mine. I advise you not to read “There’s Something About Todd“. You have better things to do.

and you also might be interested in …

How long before the Supreme Court has to rule on this? President Obama’s executive order protecting LGBT folks from discrimination by corporations holding government contracts has no religious exemption, something religious leaders had been asking for. In the Hobby Lobby case, Justice Alito denied that his ruling would “provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.” We may find out whether that’s true.

Alito’s statement has some weasel words in it. It may apply only to insincere religious beliefs adopted to “cloak” discrimination. But Alito also said: “It is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.” It will be interesting to see if in the future he will claim the ability to look into people’s souls to see if their beliefs are sincere or motivated by bigotry. And what about people whose bigotry is sincere?

Why don’t these visionary efforts happen in America any more? Helsinki has a plan to integrate all forms of transit — including some that don’t exist yet, like driverless cars — into a single smartphone app. The goal is to make private automobiles pointless in ten years. You’ll just tell your phone where you want to go and it will give you a list of itineraries and prices, then make the arrangements.

Jonathan Chait charts the story of ObamaCare’s success via the retreating claims of disaster from arch-critic Peter Suderman at Reason.

The message of every individual dispatch is a confident prediction of the hated enemy’s demise, yet the terms described in each, taken together, tell the story of retreat. The enemy’s invasion fleet has been destroyed; its huge losses on the field of battle have left it on the brink of surrender; the enemy soldiers will be slaughtered by our brave civilian defenders as they attempt to enter the capital; the resistance will triumph!

The folks at Politifact have started releasing statistics by network. No surprise: Fox News is the least trustworthy, with 60% of tested claims rated Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire.

Researchers are deciding that the “beauty-status exchange” — beautiful women marrying rich men — is less common than they expected. More typically, similarity rules: beautiful people marry beautiful people and rich people marry rich people.

I don’t know who I’m rooting for at the Emmys. Cosmos and Years of Living Dangerously are both nominated in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series category. At first I thought “Of course it’s Cosmos“, but this week I started watching YoLD. (Episode 1 and some shorter clips are on YouTube, but to watch the Episodes 2-9 you have to find a friend who subscribes to Showtime.) YoLD is the most comprehensive look at climate change I’ve ever seen, and it pulls off the remarkable trick of having big-name hosts without turning them into attractive-but-phony mouthpieces.

Each of the hosts is pursuing some question s/he had a prior connection to. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, has long wondered why California wildfires got so much worse during his term as governor. Conservation International board member Harrison Ford seems completely engaged in tracking down the connection between deforestation and corruption in the Indonesian government. (His celebrity status works for us rather than on us; it gets him interviews with officials who would probably dodge a journalist. At least one got pissed when the interview turned serious.) Middle-East-focused Thomas Friedman sneaks across the Turkish/Syrian border to interview farmers driven into the revolution by drought. New Yorker Chris Hayes traces the effect of Hurricane Sandy on a climate-change-denying Staten Island congressman. And so on.

The effect is to get completely outside the standard arguments about hockey-stick graphs and Al Gore. You start to see just how ecological climate change is. It affects everything and is affected by everything.

I think there’s something important to learn here about fighting science denialism in general. Remember that John Oliver sketch where he brings out 97 climate scientists to debate three deniers? It’s funny because it can’t possibly work on TV. But it does illustrate the strategy of denial: Like the Greeks against the Persians at Themopylae and Salamis, the smaller force needs to choose a narrow battlefield (like televised debate) where the larger force can’t deploy.

So if climate-change deniers can reduce the argument to something narrow, like the details behind temperature graphs, their position can seem competitive. But climate-change denial isn’t competitive, because to do it consistently you have to deny everything; all fields of Earth science are implicated. Ditto for other forms of denial, like young-Earth creationism: It isn’t just about the fossil record or carbon-14 dating; it’s about everything.

I’d love to hear the backstory of YoLD. I’m sure it’s easy to get people to buy in after you can say that Matt Damon and Jessica Alba are involved, but who did they get first and who convinced who later?

and let’s close with something fun

Weird Al claims every one of his albums is a comeback album. Well, he’s come back with this parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”.

Gaza, as seen from a distance

Last week I punted on the Israel/Gaza situation, because what I was reading contained more noise and spin than information and insight, and I didn’t want to make that situation worse. This week I can do a little better.

Immediate causes. ThinkProgress provides a timeline tracing the back-and-forth escalation that began with the disappearance (on June 12) of three Israeli teens who later (June 30) were found dead. Israel blamed Hamas, whose leaders didn’t claim responsibility (as they usually do; Hamas’ leadership constantly battles the perception that it’s toothless against Israel), and began arresting Hamas leaders and their associates in the West Bank, including some released in a previous deal. Hamas saw the kidnapping as a pretext for Israel to renege on that deal, and fired (mostly ineffective) rockets from Gaza in protest.

From there things escalated as they so often do. Israeli troops entered Gaza Thursday night.

A different angle on the immediate causes of the conflict comes from Nathan Thrall’s op-ed in the NYT. Since 2007, the limited autonomy that Israel allows Palestinians has been split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. But Hamas has fallen on hard times recently because of the rapidly diminishing value of its alliances. You can think of Hamas as the Palestinian franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian franchise controlled that country for about a year between the fall of the Mubarak government in 2011 and the subsequent military coup, but is now struggling to survive a major crackdown. The Assad regime in Syria was another Hamas ally, but it is now focused on its own problems. Iran’s aid has also diminished.

So in June Hamas was driven to reconcile with Fatah, more or less turning Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, but leaving its 43,000 civil servants in place. Currently, none of those people is being paid, mostly for reasons having to do with Israel and the United States. (Qatar is willing to pay them until something else can be worked out, but that solution is being blocked.) The other thing Hamas hoped to accomplish by getting itself out of the governance business was that Egypt might re-open its border with Gaza, which would be a big deal in the Gazan economy. That’s not happening either.

So Hamas wants:

  • Israeli troops out of Gaza.
  • End the recent Israeli crackdown on Hamas’ people and release the ones who had nothing to do with the kidnapping.
  • Get the Gaza civil servants paid somehow.
  • Open Gaza’s Egyptian border.

Israel wants Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel and to stop kidnapping/murder operations in Israel. (The rockets don’t seem to be doing a whole lot of harm, but it’s the principle of the thing.) I’m not sure what Egypt’s military government wants.

This is where the topsy-turvy logic of the situation comes into play: A ceasefire doesn’t get Hamas most of what it wants — which is why it rejected an Egyptian proposal — but all Hamas has to threaten Israel with at the moment (beyond those pinprick rockets) is bad publicity. The more Gazan civilians die, the more support builds for boycotts of Israel and divestment from companies that do business with Israel. It’s like: “If you don’t give us what we want, you’ll have to kill more of us, and then you’ll be sorry.”

In the long run, how does this end? Whenever the Israel/Palestine conflict flares up, it’s easy to get lost in arguments about the most recent actions of each side; whether what one side just did justifies what the other just did, and so forth. I think it’s important to keep pulling back to the big question: How does this conflict end? I can only see four outcomes:

  1. Two states. Some border line is agreed upon between Israel and Palestine, and they become two independent countries with full sovereignty.
  2. One state with democracy. The Palestinians are made full citizens of a unified state. Given demographic trends, they are eventually the majority.
  3. It never ends. The Palestinians remain a subject population ruled or otherwise dominated by Israel. Israelis continue to be targets of terrorist resistance.
  4. Ethnic cleansing. Israel kills or expels large numbers of Palestinians (or otherwise induces them to emigrate), leaving behind a Greater Israel with a clear and sustainable Jewish majority.

It’s important to realize that anyone who finds both (1) and (2) unacceptable is de facto advocating (3) or (4), because those are the only choices.

Some Israelis seem to believe in an outcome (3A), in which the Israeli occupation continues, but the Palestinians are so beaten down that they submit peacefully. I’m pretty sure that’s a fantasy. I don’t know what level of oppression would be necessary to make (3A) happen (if it’s possible at all), but everything that the Russians have been willing to unleash on the Chechens has been insufficient. Israelis need to take that example seriously: They’d need a strongman stronger than Putin to make (3A) work.

Another version of (3A) is: Palestinians end all resistance for a long enough time that Israelis feel safe, and then Israel will consider what rights the Palestinians should have. That’s another fantasy. Nothing in the history of Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians entitles them to that level of trust. In fact, I don’t trust the Israelis that far, and I’ve got no skin in the game at all. I believe that once the terrorist threat subsided, Israel would forget about the Palestinians until the violence restarted, and then claim all over again that no deal can be reached until the violence stops.

So I repeat: The four outcomes listed above are the only ones.

With that in mind, it’s discouraging to read the recent remarks by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.

That eliminates (1). (2) is obviously unthinkable to anyone who values Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. So this goes on forever or there’s ethnic cleansing.

Moral calculus. A lot of the media back-and-forth concerns the morality of the two sides. The argument comes down to: Hamas targets civilians while Israel takes steps to avoid killing civilians, but Israel’s weapons are so much more effective that they end up killing far more civilians than Hamas does, on the order of hundreds to one.

Another reason for the disparity is that Israel prioritizes civil defense, while Hamas puts military targets in civilian areas and doesn’t even build bomb shelters. As Netanyahu put it on Fox News:

Here’s the difference between us. We are using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.

Charles Krauthammer quoted that line in a WaPo column called “Moral Clarity in Gaza“.

Personally, I see this less as a moral difference between the two sides than a difference in their tactical situations. Gaza has no way to stop the Israeli attack by force. Israel will stop when the number of dead civilians creates enough international pressure. So Gazan civil defense would just enable the Israeli attacks to go on longer, with the same eventual body count. What’s Hamas’ motivation to go that route?

And that brings me to a moral principle that I think deserves more attention: Asymmetric warfare is morally asymmetric. In other words: If you are so much more powerful than your adversaries that your decisions create the gameboard and dictate the moves available to the players, then your actions have to be judged differently. You bear responsibility for the shape of the game itself, and not just for the moves you make.

Friendly frustration. Even pro-Israel commentators at some level realize the tactical and strategic realities. Krauthammer writes:

[Hamas rocket fire] makes no sense. Unless you understand, as Tuesday’s Post editorial explained, that the whole point is to draw Israeli counterfire.

Taken for granted here is that the Israelis are helpless in the face of this masterful strategy: They must fire back, even if that’s what Hamas wants. Perversely, Krauthammer presents Hamas as the player powerful enough to have choices, while Israel is driven by necessity.

Friends of Israel more in touch with reality are frustrated by the Netanyahu government’s lack of vision. Fred Kaplan describes the short-term logic of invading Gaza, but then laments:

The Israeli government seems to have forgotten how to think strategically; at the very least, they have a self-destructive tendency to overplay their hands. … Until this conflict with Gaza, Israel had been enjoying a level of security it hadn’t seen in many years. Terrorist attacks from the West Bank are all but nonexistent. Its enemies to the north—Syria, Hezbollah, and a gaggle of Islamist terrorist movements—are embroiled in their own wars with one another. Egypt is once again in the firm grip of a military government committed to putting down the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies (including Hamas). Iran has—at least for now—frozen its nuclear program, as a result of negotiations led by the Obama administration. … Instead of capitalizing on Israel’s unusually strong strategic position, Netanyahu risks squandering it—destroying what little support he has in the West and making it hard for Arab governments that share his interests (Egypt, Jordan, and, even now, the Palestinian Authority) to sustain their tacit alliances.

At The Jewish Daily Forward, J. J. Goldberg marked yesterday as the moment when the tide turned against Israel. After initially receiving a certain amount of international support — or at least seeing Hamas condemned in equal-or-worse terms

What happened next was something that’s happened over and over in Israel’s military operations in recent years: The government overestimated the depth of its international support and decided to broaden the scope of the operation. … The sympathy Israel won because of the kidnapping and shelling is melting before our eyes. Until the weekend, protests of Israel’s actions were limited to street demonstrations by leftists and Muslims in various cities around the world, with almost no governmental backing. Now governments are starting to switch sides. … Many Israelis will argue in the next few days that the mounting international criticism is hypocritical, that Israel has a right to defend itself and that the fast growing civilian toll is entirely Hamas’ fault. Whatever the merits of the arguments, they have lost their audience.

Meta-discussion. In some ways as interesting as the discussion itself is the meta-discussion about how to discuss such a divisive topic, where the sides are dug in so deeply and so many of the arguments rehearsed and ready to pull off the shelf. Also at The Jewish Daily Forward, Jay Michelson posts “5 Ways To Turn Down the Social Media Flame“. He’s basically rediscovering the three principles of Quaker discussions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? And he asks:

If a bunch of privileged Americans with so little at personal stake can’t internalize the importance of multiple narratives, how do we expect Israelis and Palestinians — both of whom are living under threat of imminent death, while I sit behind a screen in Brooklyn — to do better?

And the blog This is Not Jewish gives instructions on “How to Criticize Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic“. Knowing how off-base the line “Democrats think anybody who criticizes Obama is racist” is, I was ready to be skeptical of “Jews think anybody who criticizes Israel is anti-Semitic.” In each case, it’s easy to be a lot more racially or ethnically offensive than you realize, and so get hit with criticism that you deserve, but think you don’t deserve. (“What I meant …” is not a defense. And anything that includes the phrase “if I offended anybody” is not an apology.)

Many of the tips are common sense, if you stop to think about it (i.e., don’t appeal to stereotypes). But I had never made the connection between labeling Israel-supporting Jews as “bloodthirsty” and the pogrom-causing blood libel, in which Jews are accused of literally drinking the blood of sacrificed Christian children. I don’t believe I’ve ever violated that rule, but duh, why didn’t I see that? Also be careful about equating Jews, Israelis, and Zionists, who are three different groups of people.

And finally, it’s crazy to hold your local Jewish community responsible for whatever Israel might be doing. (Just like it was crazy to hold your local Muslims responsible for 9-11.) As John Lloyd points out:

There’s a very large, and often very rich, Russian community in London – and there are no attacks on Russians or their mansions, restaurants or churches because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of uprisings in eastern Ukraine.

All four of my grandparents were German-Americans during the World Wars. None of that was our fault, and I’m willing to let Americans of all other ethnicities make similar claims.

There’s Something About Todd

I strongly advise you not to read this post. Your browser has a Back button. Use it.

I don’t know what it is about Todd Akin.

The whole point of the Weekly Sift is to filter the junk and hype out of the news so that you only read stuff that is worth your attention. But success in that venture depends on my ability to leave something alone once I’ve determined that it’s not worth either your time or mine.

Todd Akin is not worth your time or mine. So you shouldn’t read this post and I certainly shouldn’t be writing it. And yet, I can’t seem to ignore him. I suppose it’s that infuriating combination of ignorance, self-righteousness, and self-assurance. So many intelligent, thoughtful people could be interviewed on TV, but aren’t. And yet, there’s Todd Akin, displayed in my living room! And why am I writing about him? I’m just making it worse.

But I can’t stop myself, so let’s get this over with: In interviews promoting his new book — which I refuse to link to; I still have that much control — he says he knows what he did wrong in his “legitimate rape” interview: It was just a bad choice of words. He should have said “legitimate case of rape” instead, because then the liberal media couldn’t have slandered him by making it sound like he thought a rape could be legitimate.

Let’s plug that into the transcript and see how it plays:

CHARLES JACO: So if an abortion can be considered in the case of, say, a tubal pregnancy or something like that, what about in the case of rape? Should it be legal or not?

REP. TODD AKIN: Well, you know, people always want to try and make that as one of those things: “Well, how do you—how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question?” It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate [case of] rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. You know, I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.

Well, the insensitivity is unchanged: Raped women aren’t real people who deserve our compassion, they’re just a “tough sort of ethical question” that tricky interviewers use to try to trip Akin up — like “Can God make a rock so big He can’t lift it?” or something. And after this tough question gets sorted out by the higher mind, it really just comes down to who to punish — the rapist or the fetus. The woman is a bystander.

The junk science about female physiology is still there; two years later, and he still hasn’t educated himself. And he’s still implying that only violent rape really counts. (What about roofies? Even in Akin’s alternate universe, would an unconscious woman’s body “shut that whole thing down”?)

Most importantly, he’s still saying that women who claim they got pregnant from a rape are probably lying, because “that’s really rare” in “a legitimate [case of] rape”.

So no, I don’t think he fixed anything.

Here’s what’s reprehensible about Todd Akin, and it’s got nothing to do with his choice of words: Even given two years to think about it, he still believes in a legal system in which rape is a viable male reproductive strategy. (They’ll put you in jail if they catch you — and if the woman can prove she didn’t consent — but the law will force your victims to bear your children, so your genes will live on.) He believes in that system so strongly that he’s willing to seek out junk science to justify it.

I’m going to stop writing now. To everyone who made it this far: I’m sorry. I really am. Try to do something more worthwhile with the rest of your day.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week’s featured article focuses on the Gaza conflict, which I punted last week because I was reading a lot more noise than insight and didn’t want to make that situation worse. I originally thought I would have space for a review of Douglas Egerton’s new book The Wars of Reconstruction — I have come to believe that the blind spot Americans have about the period following the Civil War is a major stumbling block in the discussion of current problems  — but that will have to wait until next Monday.

I haven’t titled the Gaza article yet, which is an indication of how much work is still to be done, so I make no promises about when it will post. Later today, the weekly summary will discuss the shot-down airliner, the continuing kids-at-the-border problem, my inability to ignore Todd Akin (who doesn’t deserve my attention or yours), what Years of Living Dangerously can teach us about combating science denial in general, and a few other things, concluding with Weird Al’s new video “Word Crimes”. (Finally, something good comes from “Blurred Lines”.)


The Other Guys

I’m the guy doing my job. You must be the other guy.

President Obama, referencing a line in The Departed

This week’s featured article is Boehner’s Lawsuit and Palin’s “25 Impeachable Offenses”.

This week everybody was talking about the House suing/impeaching President Obama

Speaker Boehner hopes his lawsuit will mollify the base enough to keep them from demanding impeachment before the fall elections. But Sarah Palin isn’t cooperating, as I describe in Boehner’s Lawsuit and Palin’s “25 Impeachable Offenses”.

and the refugee kids at our southern border

It’s a real problem, so naturally the extreme Right has created a conspiracy theory to explain it: President Obama has deliberately induced Central American families to send their unaccompanied kids on a dangerous journey to America, so that he can pressure Congress to pass immigration reform. It’s just like his Fast & Furious plot to flood the border with guns to promote gun control. And just like Benghazi, Obama gave a stand-down order.

In some universe, maybe, but not this one.

Vox does its usual good job describing the reality of the situation: Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors are fleeing drug and gang violence in Central America and being caught at the U.S. border. (Somehow, these captures prove to Republicans that Obama isn’t securing the border.) The Border Patrol has been overwhelmed trying to provide detention facilities, because of the unexpected consequences of a Bush-administration law.

U.S. policy allows Mexican child migrants to be sent back quickly across the border. However, under a [law] meant to combat child trafficking, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, children from Central America must be given a court hearing before they are deported (or allowed to stay). Given the huge backlog of cases, they may have to wait years for a hearing.

Homeland Security has been trying to relieve the overcrowding by spreading the children out to facilities in other parts of the country, provoking some ugly scenes, like the one in Murrieta, California. Protesters have focused their rhetoric on wildly exaggerated concerns about disease. “We don’t even know what all diseases they have,” Texas Congressman Louis Gohmert said. But Friday, Chris Hayes interviewed Rachel Pearson, who pointed out that Guatemalan kids are more likely to get key vaccinations than Texas kids. (Texas had a measles outbreak last year, while Guatemala and Honduras haven’t had a single case since 1990.) To the extent that the detained kids are unhealthy, the problem is most likely due to the overcrowded conditions DHS is trying to eliminate. So why the disease hysteria? Pearson explains:

What we see historically is that when diseases or conditions occur in people who are social outsiders — immigrants, people of color, women — those diseases are seen by the wider society as markers … that people are impure or lacking in virtue. So whereas lice has one meaning for American kids in a summer camp in Pennsylvania, the meaning becomes totally different if it’s a group of kids that we think of as outsiders.

In other words, irrational fear of disease is one of the screens people use to hide their bigotry.

President Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion to deal with the problem. But given the conservative base’s state of outrage over anything having to do with Hispanic immigrants, it’s questionable whether any money can get through the House without something horrible attached to it.

Here’s the weirdest thing about the claims that the Constitution requires securing the border or the no borders, no country talking point: The Founders didn’t secure the border. The hyperbolic charge “anyone can waltz right in to America” is a pretty accurate summary of how things were from the Founding until after the Civil War.

and Israel/Palestine

I’m having trouble finding an article that explains what the current Gaza conflict is about. I mean, Hamas is firing rockets into Israel and Israel is attacking what they believe to be the sources of those rockets, but that’s same-old-same-old. I have no idea why this is happening now. So I’ll punt this issue to next week.

and you also might be interested in …

Follow-up on the Hobby Lobby decision: In a piece in The Immanent Frame that got picked up by Salon, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan (a professor of religious studies at Indiana University) challenged the whole notion of laws that protect religious freedom. The problem: You can’t protect what you can’t define. When the First Amendment was written, religion meant a handful of churches and doctrines; but now things are much fuzzier.

The notion that religion exists and can be regulated without being defined is a fiction at the heart of religious freedom protection.

Justice Alito’s majority opinion holds that Hobby Lobby’s refusal to participate in the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate is a legally protected exercise of religion, and Justice Ginsberg’s dissent denies it. But neither defines what an “exercise of religion” is or gives a test for recognizing it. Both keep repeating the adjective religious, because that word is a veil they can’t see behind.

Is it really possible to distinguish the religious from the non-religious in these cases? Do we have a shared theory of religion that permits such distinctions to be made? Isn’t the religious always mixed with the political and the cultural and the economic? The constant repetition of the adjective seems necessary only in order to reify a notion about which everyone is, in fact, very uncertain.

The law can’t just protect churches, because

[M]uch—perhaps most—American religion today does not happen in churches. Many American Christians have, for a long time, engaged in a kind of DIY religion free from the regulations of church authorities. Their religion is radically disestablished free religion, defined not by bishops and church councils, but by themselves—ordinary Americans reading their Bibles, picking and choosing from among a wide array of religious practices. Indeed, Americans have always been incredibly varied, creative, and entrepreneurial in living out what they take to be their religious obligations—religious obligations that range far beyond the prescriptions of the mainline churches, which seem staid, contained, and tamed to the many who consider their own religious practices, unapproved by traditional religious authorities, to be alive with the spirit. They find their religious community and their religious fields of action in places other than churches—including the marketplace.

Lacking a definition, and recognizing the impracticality protecting everything people might do from whatever motives they might claim as religious, each side tries to stretch the word to cover the kind of religion they like, but not the kind they don’t like.

There is no neutral place from which to distinguish the religious from the non-religious. … Judges cannot do this work.

Sullivan leaves us not with an answer, but with a challenge: “We need fictions to live,” she writes, meaning social/cultural/legal fictions like corporations and churches and rights — all things that will never be detected in a laboratory. And if the old fictions can no longer work together without becoming lies, we need to get on with “creating new fictions together, political, legal, and religious”.

Has anybody ever seen Glenn Greenwald and Chris McDaniel in the same room? Just asking.

Remember Todd Akin? The guy who blew Missouri Republicans’ excellent chance to unseat Claire McCaskell in 2012 by denying the need for a rape exception to abortion bans, because women almost never get pregnant from a “legitimate rape“? He’s back.

His new book Firing Back: Taking on the Party Bosses and Media Elite to Protect Our Faith (foreword by Mike Huckabee) will come out Tuesday. From pre-publication accounts in the media, it appears Akin is un-apologizing for his rape remarks and blaming the Republican establishment, including Mitt Romney, for not going down the drain with him. He claims he was right: “stress infertility” is a real thing, so “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

The only thing he admits to doing wrong is apologizing. And he shouldn’t be held morally accountable for that lie, because it was coerced out of him by the Republican establishment. But Joan Walsh thinks he might be making up that coercion story:

Poor Todd. He doesn’t want to take responsibility for a decision made in the heat of lust – lust for a Senate seat, in his case – so he’s claiming he was cruelly assaulted by party bosses and coerced into apologizing. It’s too bad his conscience didn’t have a way to shut that whole thing down.

Two thoughts: Akin should have to explain how that stress-infertility thing works when you’ve been drugged unconscious. And if Mike Huckabee runs for president and gets nominated, Democrats should make Todd Akin his unofficial running mate.

Liberals (like Paul Krugman and me) have been noting for a while the increasing evidence that ObamaCare is working as designed. Now that realization is starting to appear in the “centrist” media. Politico hedges as much as it can, but acknowledges:

The evidence is piling up now: Obamacare really does seem to be helping the uninsured.

In the quotes that are supposed to provide “balance”, ObamaCare critics deny they ever said the number of uninsured Americans would go up, but of course they did. False prophesies about ObamaCare vanish down the memory hole as soon as they’re disproved, and the false prophets move on to predict new calamities.

And you have to go to the second page of Politico‘s article to find any mention of the millions of people who would have coverage under ObamaCare if the red states would participate in the law’s Medicaid expansion. It’s in a quote from an “Obama administration official” — as if this were some partisan talking point rather than an objective fact.

One of the stories that never dies is the “welfare queen“: Somebody is getting rich off welfare, driving a Cadillac, and so on. Everybody thinks they’ve seen somebody who was cheating — wearing nice clothes or talking on an iPhone while cashing Food Stamps, etc.

Tuesday, the WaPo published an article looking at such a case from the other side: Darlena Cunha described the fast series of reverses that took her and her husband from being prosperous homeowners with a Mercedes to unemployed parents of medically-needy infants who own an underwater-mortgage house … and a Mercedes. “This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps” is a fascinating human-interest story that exposes a lot of the assumptions we make about people who (temporarily or permanently) need help.

and let’s end with something creative

In general, I love the Worth 1000 site, devoted to imaginative photoshopping. A recent challenge was Celebrity Time Travel, putting today’s celebrities into classic photos. The winner is called “Morgan Freedman“, though I’m also fond of the Obama/Louis Armstrong combo at #12.



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