The Monday Morning Teaser

This week’s main article will be a review of Douglas Blackmon’s book Slavery By Another Name, which tells the story of how involuntary servitude was re-established in the South after Reconstruction and lasted until World War II.

I’m kind of amazed that I didn’t hear about this book when it came out in 2008, or when it won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction in 2009, or even when PBS made a documentary from it in 2012. (As I tell my friends about it, I’ve been waiting for somebody to say, “Where have you been? Everybody knows about that.” So far nobody has.) I think it’s an important piece of American history to understand, and it throws a whole new light on the story of race in America. We’re used to thinking about the blacks who marched with Martin Luther King as the grandchildren of slaves. But probably some of them had been slaves themselves, except that it wasn’t called “slavery” by then.

Another article will talk about recent labor developments in sports, especially the surprising ruling that Northwestern’s football players are employees who have the right to form a union. Also worth knowing about: the lawsuit the Raiderette cheerleaders have filed against the Oakland Raiders, and why there’s likely to be another baseball strike in 2016. (Due to a screw-up on my part — I thought I posted the teaser hours ago — this is already up.)

In the weekly summary, today is the ObamaCare deadline (sort of), which has inspired a variety of how-is-it-working stories. The Supreme Court heard arguments about ObamaCare’s contraception mandate and how it conflicts with corporations’ freedom of religion. The Christie administration’s Bridgegate investigation concluded that Gov. Christie has done nothing wrong. An appeals court found Texas’ new abortion restrictions constitutional, contradicting another appeals court and setting up a Supreme Court case. The Religious Right has decided Disney’s Frozen is gay propaganda. And a bunch of other stuff.

The sports-labor article will be first, within the hour. The book review still needs some work, so I’m not putting a time on that. And then the weekly summary.

Not Primarily Students, Not Really Amateurs

A labor ruling knocks the wind out of the fantasy of the amateur athlete. The Raiderettes sue. And we’re heading towards another baseball strike.


For some reason I kept running into stories about sports and labor this week. The big one was that Northwestern University’s football players are a step closer to unionizing. A ruling by National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr says:

In sum, based on the entire record in this case, I find that [Northwestern University]’s football players who receive scholarships fall squarely within the [National Labor Relations] Act’s broad definition of “employee” when one considers the common law definition of “employee.”

Previous rulings (against graduate-student teaching and research assistants unionizing at Brown in 2004) don’t apply because the football players “are not primarily students”. Northwestern says it will appeal to the full NLRB, and from there I’d be surprised if the courts didn’t get involved. This probably won’t be resolved for years.

Citizen Kain

It sounds weird to think of “amateur” athletes organizing. But it’s hard to argue with the claim that a college football player is there to play football, not to be a student. When I was a teaching assistant at the University of Chicago in the 1980s, I had come there to be a graduate student and was teaching to defray the cost. But football players come to Northwestern to play football, and take classes primarily to maintain their football eligibility.

To me, the players don’t resemble amateurs as much as interns. They work very hard in a business that makes an enormous profit, but pays them no salary. Many submit to this deal because they’re building a resume towards a salary-paying job they hope to get later in the NFL. Most of them won’t get that job.

The best thing I saw on the issue was a clip from ESPN’s Outside the Lines, which focused on the ringleader of the unionization movement, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter. (Colter exhausted his NCAA eligibility this season, and is hoping to catch on with the NFL as a receiver. CBS Sports rates Colter as the 48th best receiver in the draft, or the 393rd best overall prospect. In other words, his goal of playing in the NFL is improbable but not completely absurd.) (Northwestern is fighting this, but I’d put Colter on the cover of my pamphlet: Northwestern shapes leaders who change the world.)

OTL traces Colter’s radicalization to the experience of his uncle, former All-American defensive back Cleveland Colter, who injured his knee in his junior year and was never drafted by the NFL. Cleveland continues to have knee issues to this day, but his medical coverage from USC ended with his playing career. This is not uncommon: A player never does make money from football, but has lifelong expenses related to the wear-and-tear on his body.

Meanwhile, the NCAA and the school can market the player’s name and image, but the player can’t. (Quarterback Johnny Manziel was suspended for half a game this season on the charge that he signed football memorabilia for money.) This system is being challenged in court by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon.

Often the player doesn’t even get a degree. In that respect, Northwestern behaves better than most universities. BleacherReport says it has the highest graduation rate: 97%, compared to 47% at third-worst Oklahoma. But even at Northwestern, the time commitment of football prevents athletes from receiving the kind of education Northwestern offers its typical student. (The findings in Ohr’s ruling indicate that football is the first commitment of a scholarship athlete; he can only take classes that don’t conflict with football practice.)

ESPN’s Jay Bilas comments on the claims that recognizing players’ rights would kill NCAA sports:

It’s amazing how the rest of us can operate in a free-market system and the world doesn’t spin off its axis, but if athletes got it, boy we’d be in trouble. … People who support the NCAA structure as is, including some politicians, say it’s going to change fundamentally, all those [non-revenue-generating] sports are going to go away, we’re just going to have football and basketball. That’s a doomsday scenario scare tactic, and really it’s shameful because it’s just not true. … But even if it were, we lay all the responsibility on the athlete: If those greedy athletes who may ask for more than a scholarship were to get what they want, all this would go away. We don’t say that about coaches who are making $8 million a year. And we don’t say that about administrators who are making millions. … Nobody says, “Hey, the wrestling program’s going to go away if we pay you this much money.”


U-N-I-O-N

Meanwhile, the Raiderettes could use a union (though they probably won’t get one), because the Oakland Raiders aren’t treating their cheerleaders very well. Several sued the team in January, charging that their $1250 annual salary works out to less than $5 an hour even before hair-and-make-up expenses (which the team demands but doesn’t pay for), and that they are subject to “fines” for offenses like bringing the wrong pom-poms to practice.

Forbes has estimated the value of the Raiders at $825 million. They made $19.1 million in 2012, which is low compared to most NFL teams.


And expect a baseball strike when the current contract with the players’ union expires after the 2015 season. As stupendous as those nine-figure superstar contracts sound, the players as a whole are making an ever-smaller percentage of the league’s revenues; 40% at last count. That’s down from 56% in 2002 and still falling. Hardball Times writes:

Most other major sports leagues have salaries close to half of league revenues, and baseball players were actually doing slightly better than until the last 10 years, when suddenly they started getting a smaller share.

Expect the union to want to turn this situation around, while baseball owners have consistently been the most pig-headed owners of any major league sport. If we lose less than the whole 2016 season, I’ll be surprised.

And revenue is only part of the story of a baseball franchise. As a capital asset, a major league baseball team has been one of the best investments around. After all, it’s a collectors item, one of a limited edition of 30. And Nate Silver points out one of the consequences of rising inequality: As the rich get richer, more people can afford to bid on a baseball team.

Denouncing overpaid players is a crowd-pleasing tactic, but at least the players do something for their money. What exactly do the owners add to the game? They have become the private custodians of a city’s civic pride, and they collect a massive rent on that. They profit from an antitrust exemption that allows them to limit their competition and to decide which cities can and can’t have major-league teams. (If you started a new team, the major league teams would refuse to schedule games with you at any price, which in every other industry would be an illegal restraint of trade.) Most of the teams’ wealth was actually created by government, not by their owners’ entrepreneurial creativity.

Do the owners provide any value for their billions? Back in 1979, Allan Jacobs published a story in Harper’s,The Civil-Service Giants“, in which San Francisco took over its baseball team under eminent domain. It was intended to be humorous, but if such a takeover really happened, if every team wound up being owned by its city, who would know the difference?

Drifting Towards Oligarchy

The risk of a drift toward oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism

– Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century

This week’s featured post: “The Real Politics of Envy“.

These last two weeks everybody has been talking about the missing airliner

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has become the very model of the news stories I try to avoid covering. It fits perfectly into the distraction/obsession/hype trap I outlined three years ago in “A Hard Week to Sift“.

  • Most articles and TV segments on the story reveal nothing new. (Or at least nothing new that also happens to be true.)
  • Unless you know someone on the flight, the story has no relevance to your life.
  • Even if you do take an interest, there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing you learn about Flight 370 is going to change either your behavior or your worldview.

So 99% of the coverage is what The Guardian‘s Michael Wolff has labelled “anti-journalism”. He explains: “Journalism exists to provide information.” But anti-journalism promotes “obsessive interest in the unknowable.” (The fate of Flight 370 may eventually become knowable, but right now it isn’t.)

Last Monday the NYT quoted an anonymous CNN executive shamelessly crowing about Flight 370 as “a tremendous story that is completely in our wheelhouse.” Hunter on DailyKos responded with this priceless piece of snark:

Little actual information to be conveyed? Check. New “facts” constantly being trotted forth, only to be retracted as false a few hours or days later? We got that. Rampant uninformed speculation, often by people with absolutely eff-all expertise in anything remotely resembling the actual topic at hand? Oh yeah. (Why Rep. Peter King in specific has needed to weigh in on multiple occasions on multiple networks in order to say that he knows exactly the same amount of jack-squat that any person off the street might, now that is a topic all its own, and ought to be seen as evidence of just how inexplicably invested both Peter King and the national media are in putting Peter King on the teevee as an authority on things. As opposed to, say, not doing that.)

If you entertain the possibility that Bill O’Reilly might actually be doing performance art rather than commentary, this is genius also: Network news is focusing on the Flight 370 story because they don’t want to cover “important stories like the IRS and Benghazi.” [links added]

Eugene Robinson got it right:

when we don’t know the answer, we should just say so — and then shut up.

So what should CNN be doing? It should limit itself to a chyron, which it could run below all the other stories it could cover with the airtime it was reclaiming: “Still nothing definite on Flight 370.”

and Crimea

Occasionally the networks managed to devote a minute or two to the Russian takeover of Crimea, which (even if you’re not Crimean or Russian or Ukrainian) ought to interest you because it might mark the start of a new Cold (or even hot) War.

Briefly: Crimea had its referendum on joining Russia. It won, though it’s not clear whether it would have made any difference if it had lost, since “stay with Ukraine” was not on the ballot. That’s probably why the Tatar minority (and probably a bunch of Ukrainians) boycotted the referendum, which consequently got 95% of the vote.

Russia followed up by seizing a Ukrainian naval base on the Black Sea. Ukraine has subsequently decided to abandon its military bases in Crimea, even though it officially holds that Crimea is still part of Ukraine.

It’s always problematic to make Hitler comparisons, since I don’t want to claim that death camps and genocide are on Putin’s agenda. But Hillary Clinton was basically right: There is a resemblance to the Sudetenland crisis of 1938. Then, Hitler identified an ethnically German region of Czechoslovakia that bordered his Reich. He encouraged local leaders to protest against the Czech government and claimed they were being persecuted and needed his protection.

The claim that one nation is the global protector of an ethnic group, even members outside its borders, is inherently dangerous. And if you take on that role, it’s one thing to provide a refuge (as Israel does for persecuted Jews), but quite another to claim sovereignty over a region because your compatriots live there.

As for what the United States or NATO can do, even Iraq-War-architect Paul Wolfowitz acknowledges that “we’re not going to get Putin out of Crimea” and the point is to make the economic price high enough that he won’t seize more Russian-majority territory in eastern Ukraine.

I keep looking at the Tatars, whose roots go back to the Mongol invasions, and who are scattered throughout the former Soviet Union because Stalin expelled them from Crimea. Isn’t Putin creating the new Chechens? And isn’t this a good time for the original Chechens to demand the kind of referendum the Crimeans just got?

and Paul Ryan

In the last Sift I read between the lines of Paul Ryan’s report on federal poverty programs. Later that week, he made close reading unnecessary and went straight for racial dog whistles:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.

In support of that view, he referenced the work of Charles Murray, who may not be quite the white supremacist some would claim he is, but certainly has that reputation. So if you happen to be a white supremacist who thinks poverty is all about lazy blacks who don’t deserve any help, you listened to Ryan and said, “Hell yeah!” Meanwhile, he gets to deny that’s what he intended. (“There was nothing whatsoever about race in my comments at all — it had nothing to do with race.”) That’s how dog whistles work.

Charles Blow responds:

By suggesting that laziness is more concentrated among the poor, inner city or not, we shift our moral obligation to deal forthrightly with poverty. When we insinuate that poverty is the outgrowth of stunted culture, that it is almost always invited and never inflicted, we avert the gaze from the structural features that help maintain and perpetuate poverty — discrimination, mass incarceration, low wages, educational inequities — while simultaneously degrading and dehumanizing those who find themselves trapped by it.

And Ta-Nehisi Coates isn’t willing to give progressives a pass on this issue either.

Obama-era progressives view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past and the historical vestiges of which still afflict black people today. They believe we need policies—though not race-specific policies—that address the affliction. I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

I wish more people were connecting the dots on corruption

Now that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is raising money for him, Senator Lindsey Graham is taking an interest in banning internet gambling.

In other corruption news, the Keystone XL Pipeline would connect the Canadian oil sands to the world market. You know who two of the foremost owners of those sands are? The Koch brothers, who are spending near-limitless money to elect a Republican Senate majority that will support building the pipeline. But don’t worry about their motives: Senator David Vitter assures us that the Kochs are “two of the most patriotic Americans in the history of the Earth”. Money can’t buy praise like that … or maybe it just did.

and you also might be interested in …

During my week off from the Sift, I gave a sermon-length answer to a critical comment on “The Distress of the Privileged“.


I thought this was classy. When Westboro Baptist Church went on its first protest after the death of founder Fred Phelps, counter-protesters modeled the civilized behavior we’d like to see from the Phelps-ites.

Justin Lee, executive director of The Gay Christian Network, also stayed classy:

The words and actions of Fred Phelps have hurt countless people. As a Christian, I’m angry about that, and I’m angry about how he tarnished the reputation of the faith I love so much. But as a Christian, I also believe in showing love to my enemies and treating people with grace even when they don’t deserve it. I pray for his soul and his family just as I pray for those he harmed. It’s easy for me to love someone who treats me kindly. It’s hard for me to love Fred Phelps. To me, that’s the whole point of grace.

Religion is easy when you can say “My enemies are God’s enemies, and God hates all the same people I do.” But religion shouldn’t be that easy.


In honor of the fourth anniversary of ObamaCare, Think Progress’ Igor Volsky goes blow-by-blow through the full Republican effort to repeal, disrupt, or otherwise sabotage the law. And TPM notes that there’s still no Republican replacement bill on the horizon. They float an occasional vague idea, or occasionally maybe even the framework of a proposal, but nothing they’re willing to spell out, bring to the floor, and vote on.

Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell is pushing a new ObamaCare horror story. Many similar stories have proved to be bogus in the past. Let’s see what happens to this one.


Funny or Die presents a brief message from Comcast, in which it responds to your concerns about its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable: “From the people who answer our phones to the people who write our TV shows, we do not give a f**k. … Hey America, go f**k yourselves.”


Ebola is back. 59 people are dead in West Africa.


I haven’t finished Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century yet. But Paul Krugman has.


No, I don’t think creationists are going to get equal time on Cosmos. At least not until scientists get equal time on The 700 Club. Or maybe they already are getting equal time — in the alternate universe where the evidence supports their views.

and let’s close with something fun

Mitch McConnell’s campaign released some wordless video of their candidate, apparently for the “independent” SuperPACs his campaign isn’t supposed to be coordinating with. But now that it’s out there, Jon Stewart has pointed out that anybody can add their own soundtrack. He’s even given this new art form a name and a hashtag: #mcconnelling.

Stewart provided a few soundtracks to get the idea across. (“Behind Blue Eyes” is my favorite.) But it’s gone a long way from there. This one’s pretty good:

Or you could go for a compilation:

I think “Wrecking Ball” is the best one there.

The Real Politics of Envy

Whose message is actually capitalizing on envy and resentment?


Tuesday, Politico reported the latest example of — this is happening so often we need to give it a name — Plutocrat Persecution Psychosis:

“I hope it’s not working,” Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and major GOP donor, said of populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Yes, Langone is echoing fellow PPP sufferer Tom Perkins, who recently warned in The Wall Street Journal that a “Progressive Kristallnact” against the 1% is on its way. (Apparently, only being allowed to vote once — in spite of all his money — chafes on Perkins. Those of us free from the burden of vast wealth can barely hope to imagine what other persecutions he suffers.)

I could sympathize if some terrorist group were burning down mansions, or assassinating “malefactors of great wealth” as Teddy Roosevelt used to call them. But no, this Nazi-like persecution seems to consist mainly of calls to raise our low taxes on the very wealthy (and their corporations), to insist that they pay their employees a somewhat higher minimum wage, and a few rhetorical flourishes that fall far short of having the President of the United States refer to you as a malefactor of great wealth (or, as Teddy’s cousin Franklin put it a few years later “unscrupulous money changers“).

But let’s ignore the over-the-top Hitler reference — many others have taken Langone to task for that — and focus on Langone’s underlying points:

  • There is a growing politics of envy in America.
  • Liberal rhetoric about inequality is based on that envy.
  • The primary push towards envy and resentment in our politics comes from the Left.

I figure this is the venom that is supposed to stay in the public’s bloodstream after the Hitler-barb is plucked out. That’s how these things work: If Langone had compared your moustache to Hitler’s, and you denied it without calling sufficient attention to the fact that you don’t have a moustache, what would stick in the public mind is the vague sense that your moustache is probably more like Stalin’s, or maybe Ming the Merciless’.

Before addressing any of that, let’s spiff up the terminology a little: envy here is actually short for envy-based resentment. By itself, envy is just wishing that some aspect of another person’s life could be part of my life, and it isn’t necessarily destructive. (If I envy a friend’s ability to speak French, maybe I’ll go take a class.) Consumer capitalism couldn’t function without this non-destructive kind of envy. If Americans looked at the neighbor’s fancy new car and just said, “Good for him!” the economy would probably collapse or something

Resentment, on the other hand, wishes others harm, and envy-based resentment means wishing people harm because they have some advantage I wish I had. (Somebody ought to give that fancy new car a dent or two.) So, for example, as a writer I envy Stephen King’s ability to fill a complicated plot with interesting characters. But that’s benign, because I don’t resent him — I don’t wish bad things would happen to him to even the score between us. (If good things would cause him to finish his next novel faster, I’m all for them.)

This distinction is important because of course the rest of us envy the rich. (Think of all the places I would have gone if traveling were as simple as telling my pilot to fire up the jet.) But whether we resent them, and whether that resentment motivates our politics, is another matter entirely.

It’s an article of faith among the very rich that liberal policies (like progressive taxation and regulations that sometimes block the most direct path towards amassing even greater fortunes) are primarily motivated by resentment: We lesser mortals want the government to even the score a little by inflicting some pain on the lords of wealth. Part of Mitt Romney’s core message (said in almost the same words in interviews here and 11 months later here) was: “If one’s priority is to punish highly-successful people, then vote for the Democrats.” And CPAC front-runner Rand Paul echoed that sentiment in his 2014 State of the Union response:

If we allow ourselves to succumb to the politics of envy, we miss the fact that money and jobs flow to where they are welcome. If you punish successful business men and women, their companies and the jobs these companies create will go overseas.

The idea that you might just want to raise revenue by getting it from the people who would miss it the least; or that even though you have nothing against the rich personally, you think that a vast and growing gap between rich and poor is unhealthy for society … that just doesn’t figure. The only conceivable reason you might support a policy the rich don’t like is because you are burning with resentment and want to see them punished for having more than you do.

Jonathan Chait examined this claim and could find no supporting evidence — not even in columns promoting it. (That’s why Langone had to specify “with different words”. You can’t defend his point if you restrict yourself to what people are actually saying.) Politicians, no matter how liberal, are not promising to wreak vengeance on the 1%.

In practice, the politics of class emerge from the context of budgetary choices, where Democrats have positioned themselves against low taxes for the rich for the sole reason that it would come at the expense of more important fiscal priorities. … Gore, Kerry, and Obama were all making the exact same point: Clinton-era tax rates for the rich needed to stay in place not because the rich needed to be punished, but because cutting those rates would create more painful alternatives, like higher structural deficits or cuts to necessary programs.

But does that mean that resentment isn’t a factor in politics or that no one is trying to fan that flame? No, it doesn’t, because resentment-stoking is a constant drumbeat from the Right. Consider, for example, this ad that the Club for Growth ran in Wisconsin in 2011 during Governor Scott Walker’s successful campaign to bust the state employees’ unions.

All across Wisconsin, people are making sacrifices to keep their jobs. Frozen wages. Pay cuts. And paying more for health care. But state workers haven’t had to sacrifice. … It’s not fair. … It’s time state employees paid their fair share, just like the rest of us.

The ad doesn’t promise that anything good will happen to “the rest of us” if the unions are broken. You could imagine an argument similar to the Gore/Kerry/Obama point about taxes: “We’re sorry that we can’t fully fund the pensions of our hard-working teachers and other state employees, but something has to give and we’d rather keep taxes low and spend our limited resources on other priorities.” But instead, this ad is about punishing the state employees, because their unions have shielded them from the kind of employer aggression that has victimized private-sector workers; so let’s bust their union and make them suffer the way other working people suffer.

That’s pure resentment, a political movement very directly trying to “encourage and thrive on envy”. If someone knows of anything nearly that explicit coming from the Left, I’d like to see it.

Or recall the Right’s campaign against Sandra Fluke, when she had the audacity to defend ObamaCare’s contraception mandate. (Rush Limbaugh became the face of this campaign, but he was far from alone, as this timeline makes clear.) Limbaugh’s focus wasn’t that his listeners would benefit from cancelling the mandate. (That would be a hard case to make, since it’s possible that the prevented pregnancies save insurance companies more money than the contraception costs.) Instead, he pounded on the notion that Fluke is a slut: She’s having so much sex she can’t afford her contraception (as if the pill worked that way). He painted a picture in which Fluke has the kind of sex life Limbaugh’s older male listeners can only wish for, so they should want to screw that up for her.

Resentment.

Or consider the way the Right campaigns against the poor. Remember the “lucky duckies” who don’t have to pay income tax (because they’re too poor)? Or the way that Fox News made one lobster-eating surfer a symbol of all Food Stamp recipients? (Jon Stewart’s take-down of this whole campaign is priceless.) Somewhere, “America’s poor are actually living the good life” as a promo for Fox’s “Entitlement Nation” special put it — and all without working like you do. Don’t you wish you could get by without working? Don’t you want to screw the people who (you imagine) do? Take something away from them? Maybe harass them with drug tests that cost more than they save? Because the point isn’t to save money — or to do you any good at all — it’s to inflict harm on people who might be getting away with something you daydream about.

That’s the primary way the politics of resentment affects our economic debate. It’s not directed at the rich by the Left, but at the poor by the Right.

Across the board, one side is trying to encourage and thrive on envy and jealousy: It’s the Right, not the Left.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week I couldn’t stay away from Ken Langone’s ridiculous comparison between liberal rhetoric about the 1% and “what Hitler was saying” in 1933, though “with different words”. I mean, he’s right: If you change all the words, the two are exactly the same. How can you argue with something like that?

Since that part is logically unassailable, I decided to focus on the part of Langone’s statement that has content: “You don’t survive as a society if you encourage or thrive on envy or jealousy.” I figure that’s the venom that supposed to stay in the public’s system after the Hitler-barb gets pulled out: the Left’s message is all about envy and resentment. (It’s as if he said your moustache resembles Hitler’s, and then you denied it, but forgot to mention that you don’t have a moustache. The public is likely to come out thinking that your moustache is probably more like Stalin’s, or maybe Ming the Merciless.)

So “The Real Politics of Envy” pays attention to whose message is actually raising and capitalizing on resentment: the Right’s. That’s a constant background refrain whenever they campaign against unionized workers, or sexually active young people, or the poor: Somebody’s getting away with something you wish you could have gotten away with, so don’t you want to see them punished? Nothing the Left says about the rich is remotely comparable.

That should be out in about an hour and a half. Later this morning, the weekly summary will snark about the news networks’ 24/7 coverage of the missing airliner, which has exemplified just about everything that’s wrong with contemporary journalism. I’ll also link you to stuff written by people who understand Crimea, Russia, and Ukraine better than I do; point out some of the classy ways people reacted to the death of Fred God-Hates-Fags Phelps; mark ObamaCare’s fourth anniversary; and call your attention to some hilarious examples of the new Internet art form “McConnelling”.

False Choices

The Left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.

– Paul Ryan at CPAC, 3-6-2014

No Sift March 17

I’ll be spending the week working on the talk “Recovery From Privilege” that I’m giving Sunday at First Parish Church in Billerica, MA, and preparing to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary on Tuesday.

In other Sift news, “What Should Racism Mean?” became the third Weekly Sift post to get more than 25,000 page views. (And started another run yesterday. My thanks to the unknown Facebook bellwether who got it started.) Largely because of the new readers that post attracted, the number of people who subscribe to the Sift via WordPress went over 1,000 for the first time.

The next set of articles will appear March 24.

This week everybody was talking about Ukraine

Russia appears set to annex Crimea, and may get away with it. On Sunday, Crimeans will vote on a referendum to join Russia. Crimea has an ethnic-Russian majority and was part of Russia until 1954. Russian and/or pro-Russian troops currently control the country, including Crimean television stations, and access to Ukrainian TV has been blocked. So the join-Russia side has a distinct advantage.

Ukraine says the referendum is illegal. Russia counters that the ouster of Ukrainian President Yanukovych (currently in Russia) and the election to replace him on May 25 are also illegal, so claims based on the Ukrainian Constitution are specious.

Some political observers are portraying this as some kind of masterstroke for Russian President Putin, but those who take a more economic view are skeptical: The Russian stock market has plunged, the ruble is down 10%, and the Russian central bank has had to raise interest rates to 7% (from and already-high 5.5%) to keep Russian currency from devaluing further. The Russian economy was not in great shape to begin with, so an interest-rate spike is likely to cause a serious recession. All that is prior to any economic sanctions that might come from the EU or the United States.

So one of the things being tested here is how much economic pain Putin is willing and able to impose on the Russian people. Maybe the surge of nationalistic pride in regaining Crimea balances that, or maybe it doesn’t.

Another consequence of Crimea leaving Ukraine would be to take a bunch of pro-Russian voters out of the Ukrainian political system, thereby guaranteeing that the remainder of Ukraine will shift towards the European Union.


I’ve occasionally channel-scanned through the RT (Russia Today) network, and I think I’ve probably even linked to it sometime or other. Most days, it looks like just any other cable news network, and not the government-funded vehicle it is. But apparently RT has been laying it on a bit thick as the Ukrainian crisis developed, leading this American reporter to resign on the air.

You’ve got to think somebody in the production booth could have pulled the plug and didn’t. I wonder how his or her career is going.


With the propaganda flying as thick as it is, everyone is looking for their own authentic sources on the ground. I got a comment last week from Fedor Manin, author of the Fourteen Flowers and a Manatee blog. He has translated a post “On the Brink of War” from the blog of a Russian-speaking Crimean woman, Svetlana Panina.

Please, everyone who loves Crimea, everyone who loves Russians in Crimea. Help me carry this thought through to every heart. The Russians in Crimea didn’t ask Russian soldiers to come to our homes! No one attacked us! We were living quietly and well! We were waiting for our summer guests from Russia and Ukraine, and from other countries all over the world, after all, Crimea is a gem that belongs to the whole planet.

She takes a train (with what appear to be a bunch of Ukrainian women and children escaping Crimea) from Crimea to Kiev, and reports the wild rumors flying around each place about what is happening (or about to happen) in the other.

Someone from my church has a friend in Yalta, and forwarded an email he had gotten from her. She reports that Crimean Russians, especially the older generation, are eager to join Russia and believe that the new Ukrainian government contains a neo-Nazi element that wants “to exterminate all Russians living in Ukraine”. If I believed extermination was a possibility, I’d see Putin as the Russians’ protector and support the referendum too.

All this makes me wonder about the timing of the Crimean referendum: Maybe Putin needs it to happen before the panic has a chance to settle down.

and CPAC

One media mystery is why the annual Conservative Political Action Conference gets so much national coverage, while gatherings of liberal activists (like, say, Netroots Nation) don’t. I suspect it’s that far-right activists have much more influence in the Republican Party than far-left activists have among the Democrats, but Josh Marshall offers another reason:

In recent years, especially since Obama became President, CPAC’s wild press popularity and attention has been driven by what we might call a tacit conspiracy of derp between the event organizers and the people who cover it. You be outrageous; we’ll be outraged. And everyone will be happy. (After all, crap like this doesn’t happen by accident.) This has become even more the case as the contemporary Conservative Movement has become less a matter of ideology than a sort of performance art.


Rand Paul won the CPAC presidential straw poll, getting 31% to Ted Cruz’ 11%. Paul’s vote was up from the 25% he got last year. Marco Rubio’s support collapsed from 23% last year to 6%. (Rubio made the mistake of trying to pass a law rather than just posture about ideology. His subsequent decision to oppose his own immigration bill didn’t win back his CPAC fans.) Chris Christie’s support was up to 8% (from 7% in 2013) because he’s having such a good year.

To understand the significance of Paul’s victory, I looked up the 2010 CPAC straw poll: Rand’s Dad Ron Paul also got 31% (to Mitt Romney’s 22%), and as we all know, went on to win the 2012 Republican nomination and become president.

I’m trying not to obsess about 2016 already, but I will say this: Rand Paul is not a threat. Put him on a debate stage and Ted Cruz will eat his lunch. Rand just isn’t as smart as he thinks he is, or as his Dad was. He hasn’t really thought through the implications of his libertarian beliefs. And that gets him sidetracked into arguments he can’t win, like defending a restauranteur’s right to run a segregated lunch counter.


Paul Ryan only managed 3% in the straw poll, but he was responsible for the video clip liberals most love to hate, which has got to count for something.

What [the Left is] offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. … This reminds me of a story I heard from Eloise Anderson. … She once met a young boy from a very poor family. And every day at school, he would get a free lunch from a government program. He told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown paper bag, just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown paper bag had someone who cared for him. This is what the Left doesn’t understand. … People don’t just want a life of comfort, they want a life of dignity.

Never mind that the story is mis-attributed. (Chris Hayes interviews the woman who really played the Eloise role.) Or that key elements have been fudged. (The government wasn’t involved.) That’s in the fine tradition of Ronald Reagan and John McCain. Expecting politicians to check their touching anecdotes is like expecting Bostonians to stop at red lights when there’s no traffic.

Liberals around the country objected to an implication that may or may not have been there: that poor kids don’t have parents who care about them.

A better objection is that this is the usual conservative sleight-of-hand: It makes the Best the enemy of the Good, as if the Best will appear by magic as soon as the Good is eliminated. Specifically, how is emptying stomachs going to fill souls?

If that imagined child doesn’t already have a caring parent, how is taking away his lunch going to give him one? It’s like when  Newt Gingrich said “the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” Taking away someone’s food stamps isn’t going to get her a job. So yes, people want lives of dignity — liberals understand that quite well. But we also understand that inflicting discomfort on them is not going to help them get it.

Ryan is also performing a second standard conservative sleight-of-hand: severing the moral connection between the people who pay taxes and the people who receive benefits. Free school lunches exist because Americans do care about poor kids. The government isn’t some soulless black hole that sucks up taxes in one universe and regurgitates benefits in another. The government is a structure through which We the People manifest our desire to help each other.

So if Eloise actually had met such a boy, here’s what she should have said: “You have this lunch because people do care about you. All over the country, people have pictured kids like you going without a lunch and decided they want to pay taxes so that you won’t have to be hungry. I pay taxes, and let me tell you, this is exactly what I had in mind.”

and you also might be interested in …

Edwin Lyngar posted a touching article “I Lost My Dad to Fox News” on Salon.

My father sincerely believes that science is a political plot, Christians are America’s most persecuted minority and Barack Obama is a full-blown communist. He supports the use of force without question, as long as it’s aimed at foreigners. He thinks liberals are all stupid, ignorant fucks who hate America.

I don’t recall my father being so hostile when I was growing up. He was conservative, to be sure, but conventionally and thoughtfully so. He is a kind and generous man and a good father, but over the past five or 10 years, he’s become so conservative that I can’t even find a label for it.

What has changed? He consumes a daily diet of nothing except Fox News. … I do not blame or condemn my father for his opinions. If you consumed a daily diet of right-wing fury, erroneously labeled “news,” you could very likely end up in the same place. … To some people the idea of retirees yelling at the television all day may seem funny, but this isn’t a joke. We’re losing the nation’s grandparents, and it’s an American tragedy.

A less extreme version of the same thing happened to my parents in their 80s. They continued to identify as New Deal Democrats and knew Fox was slanted, but for some reason they watched anyway. CNN bored them, MSNBC wasn’t part of basic cable, and they found hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity reassuring and comfortable. I think even if MSNBC had been an option, Chris Hayes and Steve Kornacki would have seemed like smart-alec kids to them, and I doubt they’d have gotten past their surface impressions of an intense black woman like Melissa Harris-Perry or an unrepentant lesbian like Rachel Maddow.

If you are old and white, Fox News may produce long-term anxiety, but it sneaks up on you. The immediate optics of MSNBC are far more challenging, and my parents watched cable news for companionship, not challenge.

Fox never changed my parents’ philosophy, but little-by-little it shaped their perceptions. They wondered why the Democrats couldn’t find any good leaders — not realizing that everything they saw about Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid or Joe Biden was selected and edited to make them look silly and unappealing. They wondered why President Obama always emphasized the wrong issues and couldn’t come up with any persuasive messages — never able to compensate for the fact that they only saw Obama through the eyes of his enemies. The important issues — the ACORN videos, the Tea Party protests, ObamaCare’s death panels — left Democrats with nothing much to say. And what made today’s liberals so hostile to Christianity?


The New Hampshire’s Republican-majority Senate finally accepted a plan to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. According to The Concord Monitor:

The bill goes next to the House Finance Committee on Monday. The Democratic majority there is supportive of the bill, as is Gov. Maggie Hassan

I’m sure our minimum-wage workers and our hospital administrators are breathing easier. If we get this done, and if the plan of Pennsylvania’s Republican Gov. Tom Corbett passes, then Maine will be the only holdout in the Northeast. Campaign on that, Gov. LePage.


It will soon no longer be a felony for married couples to have oral or anal sex in Virginia.


The Daily Show’s Aasiv Mandvi destroys the claim that “America has the best health care system in the world.”


Not everyone who agrees with Ayn Rand’s politics is a sociopath, but the underlying worldview is sociopathic.


For those of you waiting for Game of Thrones to get going again, here’s where the Dothraki language came from.

and let’s end with something funny

Jimmy Kimmel puts together the National Teachers’ Day message a lot of teachers probably wish they could send the country.

Does Paul Ryan Care About Poverty Now?

Ryan’s new report obscures a broad consensus about the government’s role in helping the poor.


On the surface, poverty appears to be one of America’s most polarizing issues. Liberals contend that people are poor because our economy doesn’t provide enough opportunities to get ahead. Conservatives argue that people are poor for personal reasons, because they are too lazy or feckless or drug-addicted to take advantage of the opportunities the system offers (or could offer if not for government interference).

Both sides can find examples to back their case. No matter how hard it might be to get out of poverty, some people muster heroic efforts and make it, while others confound every attempt to help them. In between are the people who jump at the brass ring, but somehow don’t manage to jump high enough. Maybe the ring could be lower, maybe they could jump higher — you can frame it either way. You could look at almost any failing individual and say, “He could be doing more.” But you can also find plenty of poor people whose struggles make you ask “Why does it have to be this hard?”

The partisan debate obscures something important: Underneath the polarized opinions about poor people in the abstract, Americans share a broad consensus about the kinds of people who need help and the kinds of things that should be done to help them. For example, just about everyone believes that the best way out of poverty is to get a good-paying job. Conservatives sometimes try to claim this position as their own, but in fact it’s pretty much universal. (Liberals disagree about how to create good jobs, not the value of getting one if you’re poor.)

That get-out-of-poverty-by-working plan might fail for one of four reasons:

  • There are no jobs for people like you.
  • The jobs you can get don’t pay enough to keep you out of poverty.
  • There are good-paying jobs available, but you don’t have the skills to get them.
  • There are jobs you could get if you wanted them, but you’d rather not work.

There’s even a broad public consensus about the appropriate government role in each case:

  • If there really is no job for you, the government should either create a job (by say, funding a WPA-style public works program or subsidizing jobs in the private sector) or support you directly at some level consistent with human dignity (through old-age pensions, disability payments, or long-term unemployment insurance during deep recessions).
  • If you are working at the only kind of job available, the government should provide (or make your employer provide) the extra little nudge you need to stay out of poverty. (Hence the minimum wage, the earned income tax credit, and a variety of supplemental programs like Food Stamps.)
  • If all you need to prosper is training, the government should help you get it. (Free public schools, inexpensive community colleges, job training programs, student grants and loans, and so on.)
  • But if you just don’t want to work, the government shouldn’t help you at all. You need to learn to take responsibility for yourself.

A few people would argue with each of those positions, but not anywhere near a majority. Our substantive political arguments over poverty aren’t about what to do with the people in each category, but rather which category is typical and how well government programs target the people in the category they’re supposed to help.

So liberal rhetoric focuses on people in the first three categories, who are legitimately seeking the help that Americans are proud to provide for each other. (Some other countries may let good people starve in the streets, but that’s not who we are.) Conservative rhetoric focuses on people in the fourth category who nonetheless get benefits because they masquerade as people in one of the first three categories: They aren’t really disabled, they are getting by fine without assistance (and so blow their Food Stamps on luxuries), and they aren’t really looking for a job or training for one. They’re just soaking up government benefits because they can. If those benefits went away, they’d realize that they have to get off their butts and work.

Few seriously dispute that both kinds of people exist: those who need and deserve government help, and those who get it even though they shouldn’t. The argument is more about the number of people in each group and (more subtly) something I’ve called the mercy/severity balance: How many people who need and deserve your help are you willing to leave to fend for themselves in order to prevent one lazy guy from cashing his government check and laughing at you?

For example: The USDA estimates that about 1% of Food Stamps are illegally sold for cash, while 3% of benefits are overpayments to people who either don’t qualify or shouldn’t get as much as they got. Does this strike you as a huge scandal that brings the legitimacy of whole program into question? Or do you focus instead on the good done for families who qualify for Food Stamps legitimately and use them as they were intended?

If somebody came up with an auditing program that would eliminate this waste and fraud, but would cost more (because paying auditors is expensive) than it saved, would you be for it or against it? What if it cost double what it saved? Ten times? A hundred?

From the conservative focus on the fourth category comes the conservative anti-poverty plan: If the way out of poverty is to take jobs that are readily available, and if the possibility of conning the government is keeping people from taking those jobs, then the way to reduce poverty is to cut government anti-poverty programs. Of course this means that some number of people who need and deserve help won’t get it, but that’s collateral damage.

Now you’re in a position to understand The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later, a report put out last Monday by the staff of the Republican majority of the House Budget Committee, i.e., Paul Ryan’s staff. In particular, you understand its conclusion:

Today, the poverty rate is stuck at 15 percent — the highest in a generation. And the trends are not encouraging. Federal programs are not only failing to address the problem. They are also in some significant respects making it worse.

The report looks extremely well supported — it has 683 footnotes, most of which reference reports by academic or government researchers (sometimes inaccurately). But looks are deceiving. For example, you’d think a statement like “Federal programs … are making it worse” would be footnoted to death. It’s not. Instead, what you’ll see if you go through the report’s review of nearly 100 government programs, is a lot of “results were not demonstrated” (said about the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) or “The program’s costs outweigh its benefits to society” (Job Corps) or “the program didn’t have any performance metrics or targets for the level of performance.” (Emergency Food and Shelter Program). I quit after reviewing about half the programs, but I didn’t find a single “Poor people would be better off without this program” with a footnote to a study proving that point.

That’s typical. The ten-page Overview at the front of the report seems to float freely above the evidence collected in subsequent sections. A lot of the evidence presented in the overview is of the correlation-is-not-causation variety. For example:

The Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill point out that if a person works full time, gets a high-school education, and waits until he or she is married to have children, the chances of being poor are just 2 percent.

Of course, a lot of things are probably already going right in your life if you’re able finish high school, find a full-time job, and attract someone you’d want to marry. It’s not any great surprise that you’re not poor, and I’m not sure what there is to learn from that fact.

Only 2.7 percent of Americans above the age of 16 who worked full time year-round were in poverty, even in 2007 — before the Great Recession had taken firm hold.

Since recessions increase poverty by raising unemployment, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that people who kept their jobs didn’t get poorer. And what really should grab our attention is: There are people who work full time year-round and are still poor! Why isn’t that rate zero?

Another substantive claim of the overview is:

since the beginning of the War on Poverty … male labor-force participation has fallen dramatically. In 1965, it was approximately 80 percent. Today, it has fallen to a record low of below 70 percent. Since 2009 alone, male labor-force participation has fallen 3.3 percentage points. Among working-age men, the labor-force participation rate has fallen from 97 percent in 1965 to 88 percent in 2013. In recent years, female labor-force participation has also declined. Since it reached its record high of 60.3 percent in 2000, female labor-force participation has fallen to 56.9 percent — declining 2.5 percentage points since 2009. And among working-age women, the labor-force participation rate has fallen from 77 percent to 74 percent from 2000 to 2013.

But again, what’s the cause? The War on Poverty has coincided with a long-term reduction in male labor-force participation, but is there some reason to believe that’s anything more than a coincidence?

The implication is that anti-poverty programs encourage laziness, particularly in men. To conservatives, I’m sure this conjures up images of able-bodied 20-somethings choosing to hang around on street corners rather than look for work. (Liberals are more likely to picture multinational corporations shipping jobs overseas.) But if you get into the discussions of specific programs that the report claims discourage work, you get a different picture. For example:

[E]xpansions of the [earned income tax credit] are associated with a reduction in labor market participation by married mothers.

In other words, in poor households where both parents work, mothers are likely to cut back their hours (and spend more time at home with the kids) if the family is better able to get by on what the father makes. Another example:

SSI reduces the labor supply of likely SSI participants aged 62–64. A $100 increase in SSI benefits is associated with a 5 percent reduction in the employment rate.

In other words, people who are limping towards retirement with disabilities will retire sooner if they can afford to. That’s not exactly strapping young dudes hanging out on street corners, is it? (Maybe one of those young guys will get the job that the guy with the bad back retired from.)

So when you get down to details, the overview-level statements are less convincing than they sound. And that connects to a third point:

Congress has taken a haphazard approach to this problem; it has expanded programs and created new ones with little regard to how these changes fit into the larger effort. Rather than provide a roadmap out of poverty, Washington has created a complex web of programs that are often difficult to navigate.

Imagine what Republicans might say if Congress had taken a unified approach. Wait, we don’t have to imagine, because the Affordable Care Act was a unified program with a comprehensive vision of increasing access to health care. Republicans complained about its mammoth size and invented all kinds of scary stories about what might be hidden in that enormous law.

That’s why there are hundreds of anti-poverty programs. If liberals presented one unified program to help the poor, we’d hear about this incredible octopus that had its tentacles in everything and was thousands of pages long and had an unimaginable cost. Every story of someone abusing a poverty program would be an argument against the whole thing. So instead, we have $65 million going to a separate “Education for Homeless Children and Youth” program and $11.5 million for “Job Placement and Training” for American Indians. If you want to cut them, you have to explain why you don’t want to educate homeless children and youth, or find jobs for Indians.

This is the basic dichotomy of American politics: In the abstract, voters will tell you that government spends too much. But the vast majority of things that the government spends money on are popular. No one would be happier than liberals if we could create a unified vision of how to help the poor, and then fund that vision. But I doubt that’s what Ryan is talking about, and I fear that he wants to unify the anti-poverty hydra so that there is only one throat to cut.

In short, it would be wonderful if Ryan’s report represented an honest attempt to examine what works and what doesn’t, and to assemble a unified program to do what the broad consensus of Americans want done: support the unemployable, find a job for everybody who wants one, make sure that people who work full time stay out of poverty, train people who have the talent and desire to move up to skilled labor or the professions — and keep lazy people from abusing the system.

I wish I could believe it did.


An interesting side-debate raised in the footnotes of the report is whether the War on Poverty is failing at all. The report references “Winning the War: Poverty from the Great Society to the Great Recession” by Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago and James Sullivan of Notre Dame. They propose measuring poverty by consumption rather than income, and they adjust for inflation differently. I can’t judge whether they’re right or not, but they show a different story than the official poverty rate. Their measure of poverty starts far higher 50 years ago and drops far lower today.


Another side-debate could happen over what success means. The report says:

The true measure of success is the number of people who get off these programs and get out of poverty.

And certainly everyone should agree that when a government program helps a poor person get a good job and join the middle class, that’s a success story. But limiting the suffering of the poor is a worthy goal in itself, and sometimes a government program succeeds simply by keeping things from getting worse.

For example: The United States has a terrible rate of what public-health professionals call “amenable mortality” — people who die of treatable conditions because they don’t get appropriate medical care. If the subsidies in ObamaCare bring that rate down, I’ll count that as a success.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Two things happened this week that involve Paul Ryan: The Republican majority of the House Budget Committee (which he chairs) issued The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later, and possible 2016 presidential candidates auditioned for the Republican base at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Ryan didn’t do well in the CPAC straw poll and the cheers at his speech were tepid, but he did succeed in annoying liberals with a phony story about a poor kid and his government-provided lunch. Congratulations, Paul. Mission accomplished.

The poverty report is fascinating because of what it obscures: the general consensus in America about how the government should help people who need help. I’ll lay out what I think that consensus is and how Ryan’s smokescreen works in “Does Paul Ryan Care About Poverty Now?”

The weekly summary will discuss the Ukraine/Crimea situation and CPAC, and link to various other interesting things I found this week, including Edwin Lyngar’s “I Lost My Dad to Fox News”, before ending with Jimmy Kimmel’s vision of what America’s teachers would really like to say to parents.

Hard to predict when the posts will appear; I still need to look some things up.

Service Plan

As Christians, our most deeply held religious belief is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinful people, and that in imitation of that, we are called to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love even our enemies to the point of death. So I think we can handle making pastries for gay people. … I fear that we’ve lost not only the culture wars, but also our Christian identity, when the right to refuse service has become a more sincerely-held and widely-known Christian belief than the impulse to give it.

Rachel Held Evans
back in 2012, I recommended Evans’ book Evolving in Monkey Town

This week’s featured post: “Religious Liberty and Marriage Equality

This week everybody was talking about Arizona’s S.B. 1062

Jan Brewer’s veto message is here. Lots of religious-right types didn’t like her veto one bit.

Two pieces by Christian writers are worth looking at. The first is the source of this week’s quote: “Walking the Second Mile: Jesus, Discrimination, and Religious Freedom” on Rachel Held Evans’ blog.

The second is “How to Determine If Your Religious Liberty Is Being Threatened in Just 10 Quick Questions” by United Church of Christ minister Emily C. Heath. None of the ten questions fits this situation exactly, but it’s not hard to follow the template and make one up: “My religious liberty is threatened because A) the law allows people like me to be singled out and treated worse than the general public; B) the law doesn’t allow people like me to single out others and treat them worse than the general public.”

Rev. Heath explains:

If you answered “A” to any question, then perhaps your religious liberty is indeed at stake. You and your faith group have every right to now advocate for equal protection under the law. But just remember this one little, constitutional, concept: this means you can fight for your equality — not your superiority.

If you answered “B” to any question, then not only is your religious liberty not at stake, but there is a strong chance that you are oppressing the religious liberties of others. This is the point where I would invite you to refer back to the tenets of your faith, especially the ones about your neighbors.

and Ukraine

I’ll stick mainly to background; I don’t think I can compete with CNN covering breaking news. Short version: After the leader Russia supported had to flee Kiev, Russian troops occupied Crimea, an ethnically Russian (and highly defensible) part of Ukraine. President Obama and the leaders of the EU are upset, but since nobody really wants to send troops, it’s not clear what they can do.

The underlying situation is a lot like the Georgian crisis of 2008, which I explained in “Unstacking the Matroyshkas“. Ancient empires have a fractal quality: There’s some group on top, which the empire’s various other groups feel oppressed by and want to be independent of. But if one of them succeeds in becoming independent, their territory will have its own minorities, who will see the group dominating the newly independent country as oppressors and want independence from them. And so on.

So now that Ukraine is free from the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, the southeastern part of Ukraine has a sizable Russian minority. That’s where Yanukovych’s support came from when he was elected in 2010. The recent protests that toppled him were largely in northern, ethnically Ukrainian cities like Kiev. The NYT’s “Ukraine in Maps” shows this really well.

Crimea is the Florida of the old Soviet Union, and is known for its Black Sea resorts. It’s 58% Russian and only 24% Ukrainian with a 12% Tatar minority. (So a Russian-backed takeover is not necessarily unpopular.) The Ukrainian Constitution makes Crimea an “autonomous republic”, but also says it is “an inseparable constituent part of Ukraine”. Crimean history is largely independent of the rest of Ukraine, going back to the Crimean Khanate established by the Mongol invasions.

The fascinating backstory of Crimea concerns those Tatars. They’re a Turko-Mongol group that joined up with Genghis Khan. (In the West they became known as Tartars, probably by association with the mythic Tartarus — if you were on the other side, they seemed like warriors from Hell.) They dominated Crimea during the Khanate, and usually sided with the Ottomans against the Russians. The Khanate fell in the 1700s and Russians started moving in. Stalin exiled the Tatars to Uzbekistan in 1944, but they’ve been drifting back ever since. They’re not too happy about the Russians coming back to power.

You know more Crimean history than you think. The Charge of the Light Brigade. Florence Nightingale. The Yalta Conference.

and a shrinking the Army

One result of the sequester was that the Pentagon shared in the across-the-board cuts. (That was supposed to make the sequester unacceptable to Republicans and bring them to the negotiating table. It failed.) So Secretary Hagel has put forward a plan to shrink the Army from 522,000 to less than 450,000.

However, by any reasonable assessment, the United States is not neglecting defense.

and the bankruptcy of an institution you’ve never heard of before

I’ve had a hard time figuring out what to make of the failure of the world’s largest bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, because I had never figured out what to make of bitcoin to begin with. Quartz explains how it works here, but the more important issue is Brad DeLong’s question: “Placing a floor on the value of bitcoins is… what, exactly?”

Bitcoin enthusiasts will tell you that every currency has that problem, and they’re right. After all, what if you took your dollars to the mall and discovered that all the merchants felt they had enough dollars and didn’t want any more of them? How exactly would you convince them that your engraved portraits of Alexander Hamilton are actually worth more than the pair of jeans you want? But DeLong explains how other currencies address the issue:

Underpinning the value of gold is that if all else fails you can use it to make pretty things. Underpinning the value of the dollar is a combination of (a) the fact that you can use them to pay your taxes to the U.S. government, and (b) that the Federal Reserve is a potential dollar sink and has promised to buy them back and extinguish them if their real value starts to sink at (much) more than 2%/year

In jails, POW camps, and (apparently) China cigarettes can become a currency. Even if you don’t smoke, somebody will want to smoke them, and that puts a floor on their value. (For moral reasons, luxury commodities make the best currencies, because they’re more hoardable. You might be willing to hoard your cigarettes in the face of smokers in nicotine withdrawal, but hoarding your water while people are dying of thirst is more problematic.)

The advantage bitcoin has over gold or cigarettes or government currencies is that (if all the associated technology works, which seems to have been an issue in Mt. Gox’ bankruptcy; The Verge claims “more than 1 out of every 20 bitcoins in the world vanished without a trace”) bitcoins are easy to transfer across borders, hard to steal, and your ownership of them is easy to hide. So it’s a convenient currency for transactions you want to keep secret: drug deals, money laundering, tax evasion, etc. (You can do any kind of transaction you want in bitcoin, including boring legal ones, but covert transactions are where it has unique value.)

Again, compare to the dollar. What you’re betting on when you hold dollars is that (if all else fails) there’s a floor of value under the dollar because somebody is going to want dollars so that they can pay taxes to the U. S. government. Similarly, what you’re ultimately betting on when you hold bitcoins is that somebody is going to want bitcoins to buy drugs, launder money, and avoid taxes.

The difference is that the dollar has a monopoly on the American-taxes market, while bitcoin is merely one possible private digital currency. If something like the Mt. Gox bankruptcy causes the shadow economy to favor some competitor, then the floor under bitcoin vanishes.

and you may have heard that the Republicans have a tax plan

Or at least one Republican does. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have already rejected their own party’s plan. As with health care, Republicans would rather campaign on vague feel-good notions than make a serious attempt to govern the country.

Reasonable people would not have a hard time working out a tax compromise: Make a list of the most outrageous tax breaks (carried interest would be at the top of my list), then spend half the new revenue to on infrastructure and use the other half to cut tax rates.

and you also might be interested in …

Back on January 13 when everybody was talking about the polar vortex and the airwaves were full of deniers explaining why the cold weather disproved global warming, I wrote this:

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

Well, I didn’t have to wait for the end of the year. According to the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

The combined global land and ocean average temperature during January 2014 was 0.65°C (1.17°F) above the 20th century average. This was the warmest January since 2007 and the fourth highest since records began in 1880. This marks the ninth consecutive month (since May 2013) with a global monthly temperature among the 10 highest for its respective month.

Slate’s Eric Holthaus elaborates: January was the 347th month in a row — every month since February, 1985 — that the global average temperature has been above the 20th-century average.


If you’re ready to give up on this planet, NASA just found 715 new ones, including a few that are more-or-less Earth-sized and might have reasonable gravity. Set a course, Mr. Sulu.


You can add Texas to the list of states whose same-sex marriage ban has been found to be unconstitutional. Judge Garcia’s ruling is almost a carbon copy of all the other post-Windsor rulings: The state does have an interest in creating a favorable setting in which to raise children, but banning same-sex marriage has no rational relationship to that goal. After a long string of losses around the country, the religious right needs to either give up or find a new rationale for its position.

and let’s close with something from the Daily Show

When Fox’s Judge Napolitano spewed a bunch of Confederate revisionist history, Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore set him straight in a hilarious way.

Religious Liberty and Marriage Equality

Are the principles that protect religious liberty secure, or are recent court decisions steps on a slippery slope?


One of this week’s big stories was Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s veto of S.B. 1062, “An Act … Relating to the Free Exercise of Religion“. Proponents claim that this law (and similar proposed laws around the country) is necessary to protect Christians from being forced to participate in same-sex marriage celebrations, in violation of their freedoms of conscience and religious liberty.

There’s one important thing you need to understand about this controversy: It’s symbolic. I went looking for cases where businesses were forced to deal with same-sex weddings and I found exactly five in the entire country.

  • In New Mexico, a photography business was successfully sued by a lesbian couple whose commitment ceremony (same-sex marriage being illegal in New Mexico) it refused to photograph. (I covered the ruling in a weekly summary last August.)
  • The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries ruled that a bakery had violated state law when it refused to make a wedding cake for another lesbian couple.
  • A judge in Colorado similarly ruled against a bakery.
  • A Vermont inn was sued for refusing to host a wedding reception for a same-sex couple, which the owners claim was a misunderstanding. The case was settled out of court, so we don’t know what a judge would have said.
  • A suit is pending against a florist in Washington.

Some writers make it sound like these are representative examples out of many, but they may well be the only instances to date.

Last June, the Pew Research Center estimated that over 70,000 same-sex marriages had been performed in the United States, plus an uncounted number of civil unions and legally unrecognized commitment ceremonies like the one in New Mexico. In all but a handful of them, people seem to have worked out whatever differences they had. Wedding planners, photographers, bakers, dress-makers, tuxedo-rental places, florists, celebrants, meeting halls, church sanctuaries … either they approved or they swallowed their disapproval or the couples took the hint and looked for service-with-a-smile elsewhere. Or maybe they found compromises they could all live with. (“I’ll sell you the cake, but you’ll have to put the two brides on top yourself.”)

In short, S.B. 1062 does not address a practical issue. Across the country, people are behaving like adults and working things out without involving the government. Governor Brewer recognized as much in her veto statement:

Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona. I have not heard one example in Arizona where a business owner’s religious liberty has been violated.

The uproar is also symbolic on the other side. Critics of S.B. 1062 warned about “gay Jim Crow” laws, but just as there is no flood of suits against fundamentalist Christian florists, neither are large numbers of businesses waiting for the state’s permission to display “No Gays Allowed” signs. As The Christian Post pointed out, Arizona (like many other states) has no state law protecting gays from discrimination. (New Mexico does, which is why the lesbian couple won their suit against the photographers.) So outside a few cities that have local anti-discrimination ordinances, Arizona businesses are already free to put out “No Gays Allowed” signs without S.B. 1062. If any have done so, nobody is making a big deal out of it.

What this all resembles more than anything is the argument over the constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning. Actual flag-burnings are so rare that most of the amendment’s backers couldn’t cite a particular case, but they felt very strongly about it all the same. The few cases that actually exist are merely chips in a poker game; they are symbols of some deeper philosophical conflict, but mean little in themselves.

That’s not to say that philosophical conflicts are unimportant, but they are also not urgent. Because major injustices against one side or the other are not happening every day — and depending on your definition of “major injustice” may not be happening at all — we can afford to take some time to think this through calmly: What principles of religious liberty should we be trying to protect, and are any of those principles implicated in the cases that have been decided?

In my view, one basic principle is: No one should be forced to participate in a religious ritual. That’s why I don’t want teachers leading prayers in public school classrooms, especially when the children are too young to make a meaningful choice about opting out. For the same reason, it would be wrong to sue a priest who refused to perform a Catholic marriage ritual for a marriage his church did not sanction.

Some supporters of laws like S.B. 1062 (and the pending H.B. 2481) are citing this principle, but I think we need to be careful not to stretch the definition of a religious ritual. For example, civil marriage is not a religious ritual, so neither an officiating judge nor the clerk who issues a license is participating in religion. (If they were, that would seriously violate the separation of church and state.) Requiring that they do their jobs is not a violation of their religious liberty. The fact that you don’t make the laws and may disagree with them is a normal hardship of working for the government, not a First Amendment issue.

Similarly, a wedding reception is not a religious ritual; it’s a party that happens to take place after a religious ritual. Baking the cake or DJing the music or manning the bar are not sacramental roles, and do not deserve that kind of protection.

A second principle is: No one should be compelled to make a statement against his or her conscience. This was used as a defense in the Colorado bakery case. Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer rejected it like this:

There is no doubt that decorating a wedding cake involves considerable skill and artistry. However, the finished product does not necessarily qualify as “speech,” as would saluting a flag, marching in a parade, or displaying a motto. The undisputed evidence is that [the baker] categorically refused to prepare a cake for Complainants’ same-sex wedding before there was any discussion about what that cake would look like. [The baker] was not asked to apply any message or symbol to the cake, or to construct the cake in any fashion that could be reasonably understood as advocating same-sex marriage.

So if a wedding-reception singer refused to sing some special gay-rights anthem, I would support him under this principle. But if he refused to perform at all, or refused to perform more-or-less the same collection of songs he does for everyone else who hires him, then I wouldn’t. Leading the friends and families of a same-sex couple in “The Hokey Pokey” is not a religious or political statement that should challenge anyone’s conscience.

Weighing against these exceptions is a public-accommodation principle that got established during the Civil Rights movement: If a business serves the public, then it should serve the whole public. The point of Jim Crow laws wasn’t to protect the consciences of white business owners, it was to exclude black people from the general public. If excluding gay and lesbian couples from the general public is the purpose behind refusing to serve them, that shouldn’t be allowed.

People try to fudge this principle by creating me-or-him situations. I grew up reading Ann Landers’ advice column in the newspaper. Ann used to regularly get questions like: “My good friend says she can’t come to my wedding if my other good friend is going to be there. What should I do?” As best I remember, her answer was always something like: “Invite everyone who you want to see there. If your friend doesn’t want to come, that’s her decision.” The same idea works here: Everyone should be invited to the marketplace. If you feel that the presence of gays and lesbians in the marketplace means you can’t be there, that’s your decision. No one has forced you out. (This is my answer to the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, who claim “Catholic Charities of Boston was forced to shut down its adoption services.”)

The other frequently raised issue has to do with venues: Will the law force my church sanctuary to be available for same-sex marriages? The idea that a sanctified site will be used for some unholy purpose strikes many people very deeply.

The case that is always cited — often not very precisely — involves a Methodist group, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association in New Jersey. The OGCMA owned a boardwalk pavilion, which the judge described as “open-air wood-framed seating area along the boardwalk facing the Atlantic Ocean.” The Methodist group used the facility “primarily for religious programming”, but had received a tax exemption for the property the pavilion was on. One condition of the exemption was that the facility be open to the public. The OGCMA had a web page advertising “An Ocean Grove Wedding”, which cost $250 in rent. The OGCMA did not conduct or plan the weddings, and the page said nothing about Methodist doctrines concerning marriage.

Until the OGCMA turned down a lesbian couple that wanted to celebrate a civil union in 2007, no one could recall a wedding being refused for any reason other than scheduling. After the couple sued, OGCMA re-organized its use of the pavilion. It stopped advertising it to the public and sought a different kind of tax exemption available to it as a religious organization. The judge found:

[The OGCMA] can rearrange Pavilion operations, as it has done, to avoid this clash with the [New Jersey Law Against Discrimination]. It was not, however, free to promise equal access, to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their tradition, and then except these petitioners.

Recognizing that the couple mainly sought “the finding that they were wronged” and that the OGCMA had not “acted with ill motive”, the judge assessed no damages.

In other words, this example is not particularly scary when you know the details. The principle here is pretty simple: If you worry about the sanctity of your holy space, don’t rent it out to the public – which is good advice in general, irrespective of same-sex marriage. If you do rent it out, then we’re back to the public-accommodation principle.

In conclusion, I’m not seeing anything particularly alarming in the five cases (six, if you add the boardwalk pavilion case) that are motivating people to support S.B. 1062 or similar laws. Reasonable principles are prevailing, and I do not see a slippery slope.

So if you’re worried about your minister being forced to bless a same-sex wedding in your sanctuary or go to jail, don’t be. It’s not happening and nobody is advocating for it to happen. Nothing in the cases that have been decided leads in that direction.

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