Monthly Archives: October 2010


Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on. If for the encouragement of industry we allow it to be appropriated, we must take care that other employment be provided to those excluded from the appropriation.

Thomas Jefferson, from a letter to James Madison (1785)

In this week’s Sift:

  • Where Jobs Come From. Conservatives would have you believe that capitalists create jobs, conjuring both workers and customers out of the aether. Right now, it looks more like customers create jobs — workers and capitalists would pop up as needed if only we had customers.
  • Short Notes. A government report has global warming leading to droughts sooner rather than later. Bush-haters and Obama-haters compared. Kansans will respond to global warming as long as they don’t have to admit it’s happening. Obama used to just be the anti-Christ; now he’s the Angel of Death. The Times takes a closer look at Chamber of Commerce donors. And more.

Where Jobs Come From

In the Pollyanna world of free-market economic theory, long-term unemployment is impossible: When people are unemployed, wages drop. That makes it possible to produce products more cheaply, which makes it possible for people to buy more stuff. At some point, then, it makes sense to produce stuff that you wouldn’t have produced at the higher wage, and so you hire people. It’s the Invisible Hand of the Market; it fixes everything.

The same thing is supposed to happen for services. At some wage, it makes sense to start hiring gas-station attendants and movie-theater ushers again. So people will, and unemployment will go away.

In theory, only a few things can keep this from happening: Union contracts or minimum-wage laws might prevent wages from falling far enough. Unemployment benefits or welfare might keep potential workers from becoming desperate enough to take the very-low-wage jobs. Or maybe the workers are just lazy, and they’re lying about the fact that they want to work.

The intoxicating thing about theory is that it saves you from needing to know anything. You don’t need to know any of the lying, lazy unemployed yourself to know that they must be out there. You don’t need to ask the unemployed whether they’re willing to take less money — they can’t be, or otherwise the theory says they’d have jobs by now. You don’t need elaborate economic models to tell you to cut the minimum wage or break the unions or cut off unemployment benefits — if there’s still unemployment, that must be the reason. The theory says so.

The problem, of course, is that as wages go down, people’s ability to buy things goes down too. So it’s easier to make things but harder to sell them. Imagine taking this as far as it can go: If you could cut everybody’s wages to zero, you could make damn near anything and sell it for pennies. But no one would have pennies, so it wouldn’t matter.

Emotions complicate the problem. You might stop buying stuff just because you’re afraid of losing your job, even though everything looks secure. They can cut prices all they want, but you’re still going to wait and see. If you’re a business, you may stop making stuff just because you’re afraid you won’t be able to sell it. Things may look fine at the moment, but who knows what the economy will be like by the time your new product hits the shelves next spring?

Debt complicates things too. Maybe my business looks fine, until my customers go bankrupt and can’t pay me. Now I can’t pay the people I owe, and they can’t pay the people they owe, and so.

In short, economies are complicated. You can’t just reduce them to one variable (wages) and assume things will work out if that variable goes low enough. If you take things a step further and use your one-variable economic model to infer things about the moral character of people you haven’t met, you’re just fantasizing. And if it makes you happy to fantasize a world full of lying, lazy people who expect you to feed them … well, maybe the wages of therapists will go down far enough that you’ll hire one.

So where do jobs come from? A bunch of factors need to come together to create a job. There has to be something worth doing, a worker willing and able to do it, a capitalist to pull together all the tools and materials of production, and a customer willing and able to pay for the product or service.

In conservative economics, though, all that really matters is the capitalist. If the capitalist has money and a good idea, the worker and the customer will appear by magic. If that were true, then a lot of conservative policies would make sense: Cut taxes on rich people, and they’ll use that money to become capitalists and create jobs. (The slogan here is “I never got a job from a poor person.” Daily Kos’ Citizen K takes that line apart — and incidentally is my source for this week’s Sift quote.)

The reason conservative economics hasn’t been working — we’ve been cutting taxes since Reagan and all it ever seems to produce is government debt — is that lack of capital and capitalists isn’t the problem. Lack of customers is. At this point, a customer with money would make workers and capitalists appear by magic. Lack of demand, not lack of capital, is the reason businesses aren’t hiring.

And now we get to the most serious problem with conservative trickle-down economics: Rich people make bad customers. There aren’t enough of them, and they don’t really need the things they buy, so they’re unreliable. Also, they use a lot of one-of-a-kind services that don’t scale up and so don’t lead to long-term growth. So an economy that depends on rich people to be its customers is not going to be as healthy as an economy that sells to the middle class.

In the same letter to Madison I quoted at the top of this post, Jefferson (who was living in pre-revolutionary France as the US ambassador) reflected on:

that unequal division of property which occasions the numberless instances of wretchedness which I had observed in this country and is to be observed all over Europe. The property of this country is absolutely concentred in a very few hands, having revenues of from half a million of guineas a year downwards. These employ the flower of the country as servants, some of them having as many as 200 domestics

In Jeffersonian America, on the other hand, it was easy to find work and even to learn a trade that you could turn into a business of your own. (Visiting Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville observed “hands are always in request” in early America.) It wasn’t because we had more rich people than France did. We had more unappropriated land and reliable middle-class customers, not richer capitalists.

Market Failures. When we talk about jobs, it’s easy to confuse the mechanisms of unemployment with the causes. In any particular industry, for example, technology is likely to be putting people out of work. That’s been happening since the invention of the plow.

But if the same stuff can be produced with less work, that’s a good thing. It only becomes a problem if we make it a problem. Two possibilities arise: Either there is still undone stuff worth doing, or there isn’t. If there isn’t — if everything everybody wants is producible without everybody working — then we have a distribution problem; either we’ll have to figure out a better way to share the work around, or we’ll have to disconnect work from consumption.

But I don’t think that’s where we are. It seems to me that there is plenty of stuff that needs doing. To give just one example, we need a new electrical grid. We need the grid to do at least two things the current one won’t: move electricity cheaply from sunny and windy places to densely populated places; and interact with smart houses to schedule non-urgent uses of electricity for times of low demand.

In the long run a smart grid would be a tremendous investment, and in the short run it would create a lot of jobs, but it’s not getting built. The only private interests in a position to build it are power companies, and their motivations run both ways. (If you already own a coal plant, you don’t want to make it easy for wind farms to compete with you.) And government can’t build it because it would cost money and government spending is evil.

The smart grid is an example of a market failure. Overall, a dollar invested in a smart grid today might net the economy two dollars or ten dollars or a hundred dollars down the road. But the market isn’t able to capture that profit in a package it can sell to an investor, so the private sector won’t build it. The same thing was true about the public infrastructure projects of the past — the canals, the highways, the airports, rural electrification, the TVA, and so on. They were great ideas, but the private sector would never have built them, because the profit from them scatters throughout the economy rather than concentrating in the hands of the investors.

The only way to build big public infrastructure is through government. We need to tax the rich and invest the money in building a healthy economy for the future — the same way America always did before conservatives took over in the 1980s.

Or we could not tax the rich and they could hire more domestics, like the pre-revolutionary French aristocrats did. That’s the alternative jobs plan.

James Kroeger’s Response to My Affluent Republican Brother is worth reading in its entirety, but it contains one argument for taxing the rich that I had never thought of before: Raising taxes on the rich actually has very little effect on their lives.

Here’s why: Poor people buy bread because they want to eat bread, not because they want to own the biggest loaf on the block. And if poor people suddenly had more money to spend on bread, it wouldn’t be that hard for the economic system to adjust and bake more of it.

But the stuff rich people buy is different. If rich people have more money to spend on beachfront property, the price of it will go up. But they won’t manage to buy any more of it, because there isn’t any more of it. The same thing is true of Renoirs or century-old bottles of wine. The whole point of buying these things is to win the competition with other rich people.

So what happens if taxes go up and rich people suddenly have less disposable income? Nothing much. As long as you maintain the same relative ranking among the other rich people, you win the same auctions for the same objects — just at a lower price.

A similar thing happens with manufactured luxury goods. The only reason to buy a 500-foot yacht is to outclass the other billionaires. If all billionaires had less money, maybe you could outclass them with a mere 400-foot yacht. The biggest would still be the biggest, and that’s all that really matters.

One result of cutting taxes is that we don’t have the money to pay teachers, so we’re laying them off. This is another example where the jobs issue has gotten disconnected from what needs doing. Have we discovered some more efficient way to educate children that makes teachers obsolete, or lets one teacher effectively handle more students? Not that I’ve noticed. Do we have a vision of the future that makes a place for large numbers of poorly educated workers? I don’t think so.

So teaching kids is still something that needs doing. We have unemployed people who are trained to do it. It’s a long-term good investment. And we are still a rich country. But we’re going to lay teachers off because rich Americans don’t want to pay taxes.

Citizen K says we should substitute “unused business opportunities” for Jefferson’s “uncultivated lands” in this week’s Sift quote. I’ve talked elsewhere about the idea that “appropriation” is about more than just land. The stock of ideas and inventions passed down from previous generations is also part of the common inheritance. If those ideas seem to belong to the corporations who own our industries, people are once again being “excluded from the appropriation”.

Short Notes

It’s about life rather than politics, but check out my article Sudden Death for UU World.

I have the feeling there’s the root of a big idea in here: A small nonprofit group is getting people in Kansas to “conserve energy and consider renewable fuels” by “focusing on thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction and economic prosperity” rather than on scientific evidence of global warming.

Here’s what I think is going on: Conservatives have gotten very good at demonizing certain words and people. The kind of folks who watch Glenn Beck will often know nothing about an issue other than the name of a villain and a phrase that describes the conspiracy he’s supposed to be masterminding. So if you mention Al Gore or global warming, you belong to the Dark Side.

At the same time, though, conservative indoctrination hasn’t rewired people’s basic intuitions, many of which are sound. So a lot of the same people who are sure that global warming is a socialist plot also sense that burning all this fossil fuel can’t be a good idea — eventually the outdoors will smell like a big truck idling in a small garage.

That is the challenge of liberal messaging: How do we reach the basically healthy intuitions of low-information voters, even the ones who have been trained to have a Pavlovian aversion to certain words and names?

Atlantic’s Kevin Drum summarizes a new paper from the National Center for Atmospheric Research:

In other words, virtually all of the world except for China and Russia will experience increased drought by 2030 and severe drought by 2060

It’s a global-warming effect, which means Republicans will refuse to believe it and will filibuster doing to avoid it anytime soon.

Now that it doesn’t matter any more, we can get accurate coverage of the Dick Cheney hunting accident. The guy he shot in the face was not an “old friend” as the media reported at the time. His injuries were serious. It was Cheney who was violating safety protocols, not his victim. And Cheney has never apologized.

Kevin Drum again, this time comparing left-wing craziness to right-wing craziness, and in particular Bush-hatred to Obama-hatred and Clinton-hatred. He notes these differences:

(1) Conservatives go nuts faster. It took a couple of years for anti-Bush sentiment to really get up to speed. Both Clinton and Obama got the full treatment within weeks of taking office.

(2) Conservatives go nuts in greater numbers. Two-thirds of Republicans think Obama is a socialist and upwards of half aren’t sure he was born in America. Nobody ever bothered polling Democrats on whether they thought Bush was a fascist or a raging alcoholic, but I think it’s safe to say the numbers would have been way, way less than half.

(3) Conservatives go nuts at higher levels. There are lots of big-time conservatives — members of Congress, radio and TV talkers, think tankers — who are every bit as hard edged as the most hard edged tea partier. But how many big-time Democrats thought Bush had stolen Ohio? Or that banks should have been nationalized following the financial collapse?

(4) Conservatives go nuts in the media. During the Clinton era, it was talk radio and Drudge and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. These days it’s Fox News (and talk radio and Drudge and the Wall Street Journal editorial page). Liberals just don’t have anything even close. Our nutballs are mostly relegated to C-list blogs and a few low-wattage radio stations. Keith Olbermann is about as outrageous as liberals get in the big-time media, and he’s a shrinking violet compared to guys like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

Colorado is voting on Prop 62, which will make every fertilized ovum a person under the law — including those in test tubes. I think the most convincing arguments against Prop 62 come from its supporters, so I’ll link to some: Here, Personhood Colorado explains why the facts you may be hearing against Prop 62 are “lies” and “scare tactics”. So, for example, Prop 62 won’t ban contraception — just certain kinds of contraception. It won’t ban in vitro fertilization — it will just make in vitro fertilization impractical. And so on.

And if you weren’t convinced by those arguments, maybe morphing Obama into the Angel of Death will persuade you.

Apparently it’s outrageous to accuse Sharron Angle of racism when all she’s done is connect Harry Reid to scary Latino thugs in a misleading ad. “Illegal immigration is not about race,” said an Angle spokesman. That must be why so many people are worried about illegal Canadian immigrants.

The NYT looks into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s political activity and the donors who support it. The Chamber’s doesn’t disclose its donors, but the Times was able to find out this much:

  • they’re spending $144 million on lobbying this year, more than any other group
  • the Chamber claims to represent small businesses, but half of its contributions in 2008 came from just 45 donors
  • big gifts from specific companies coincide with big campaigns on issues that affect those companies

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Help me figure out what to do with the Sift’s Facebook page.

Wolf Liberation

Liberty for wolves is death to the lambs.

— Isaiah Berlin

In this week’s Sift:

  • What Money Buys. The flood of special-interest money coming into our political process doesn’t just buy ads. It buys whole movements.
  • The Sift Bookshelf: Merchants of Doubt. A new book looks at the small group of scientists who have spear-headed most of the science-obfuscating crusades of the last few decades, from secondhand smoke to global warming.
  • Short Notes. Not even Fox can get a straight answer out of Carly Fiorina. Diagnosing God. Cancer-free mummies. Corporate privacy rights. Why the Chilean miners might not thank free-market capitalism for their rescue. And gay-bashing at the Washington Post.

What Money Buys

The Democrats are trying to make a late issue out of the anonymous money flowing from corporations and billionaires (and even foreign countries) to front groups that support Republican candidates. I think it’s an important issue; I’ve been banging that drum myself longer than most people. (Rachel Maddow’s takedown of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Thursday was excellent. The Chamber takes donations from foreign corporations, supports American corporations sending jobs overseas, and then spends $75 million on ads that blame Democrats for killing jobs.)

While this problem is starting to get some attention, I still don’t think many people understand what outside money buys in politics. Of course it buys ads — something like half a billion dollars worth of ads this year, according to McClatchey Newspapers. But even that doesn’t capture the problem, because you can watch a lot of “Jones is a schmuck; vote for Smith” ads and still blacken the oval for Jones. No amount of advertising, for example, is going to make Delaware put Christine O’Donnell in the Senate. (She trails by 15-20% in all the recent polls.)

But well-organized money buys something more sinister: control of the public narrative. For example, we all know the narrative that the Tea Party has put forward since it first hit the headlines in Spring, 2009: The policies Obama implemented when he took office were so shockingly radical and leftist that crowds of ordinary Americans — mostly independents who had never identified with one party or the other — spontaneously found themselves organizing to protest.

Pretty much every part of that story is false. You want to know where the Tea Party folks were in 2008? Check out this video of people waiting to get into a Sarah Palin rally in Ohio or Pennsylvania, or this McCain rally in Denver, or Ohio again. It’s the same people — white, mostly over 50, angry — saying the same things: Obama’s a communist, a terrorist, a Muslim, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. They have the same insensitivity to racial symbolism. Blur out the McCain signs and you would never know these videos are two years old. It’s the Tea Party.

So the Tea Party is continuous with disgruntled McCain voters, particularly the ones energized by Sarah Palin. They were never independent; they backed a candidate who lost by a wide margin. They are not typical, mainstream Americans; the candidate who most energized them appears to have had an unusually large negative effect on her ticket in 2008. (Post-election academic research indicates that Palin cost McCain about 2% of the vote; most VP candidates have almost no net effect on the final vote. And a poll taken this month indicates that only 44% of Republicans have a favorable view of Palin, with her national favorability rating at 22% — about half the size of Obama’s.)

Tea Partiers were not shocked into action by the agenda Obama implemented when he took office. The videos show that they had the same opinion of him before he was elected. And what are these shocking leftist policies? A health-care reform bill that resembles Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts, a climate-change bill similar to one John McCain sponsored in 2003 and was still supporting when I saw him campaign in New Hampshire in late 2007, implementation of George W. Bush’s TARP plan. He has continued Bush’s wars and started no new ones. The U.S. has suffered no major terrorist attacks or serious foreign policies reverses on his watch. (By this time in the Bush administration, 9-11 had already happened.) In short, Obama has governed as a moderate Democrat. His agenda has been a compromise between the Democratic platform and policies continued from the Bush administration.

Then we come to the “spontaneously organized” claim. No one denies that the people who show up for Tea Party rallies are a voluntary and enthusiastic audience. But they are and always have been an audience for a show written and performed by someone else. The right comparison is not the Boston Tea Party, it’s the Rocky Horror Picture Show: Dress up in funny costumes, make a lot of noise, act out when you get your cues — but only in your imagination are you part of the movie.

The Tea Party has never been a bottom-up, pass-the-hat movement. From the beginning, the tab has been picked up by corporations and billionaires. Incalculable amounts of free advertising and organizing has been supplied by Fox News, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdock’s News Corporation. National organizing and messaging, as well as education of local organizers, has been the job of corporate funded lobbying groups like Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity.

That’s what money will buy you: A disgruntled lunatic fringe of sore losers from one election can be turned into the driving story of the next election. And that story can shut down entire avenues of public discussion: We’re not talking about the gap between rich and poor, doing something about global warming, trying to get health coverage for the people who still fall through the cracks of the new bill, ending the Afghan War, or any similar issue — even though there are as many or more Americans who care about those issues as their are Tea Partiers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s ads are all the more effective because many people confuse the U.S. Chamber, which is dominated by mega-corporations, with their local shops-on-Main-Street Chamber of Commerce. The two often have no connection at all.

Sunday, my local newspaper, the Nashua Telegraph, reported that the Chamber of Commerce in nearby Hudson is not going to be renewing its membership in the U.S. Chamber because it wants to stay non-partisan. The Nashua Chamber hasn’t had a national membership “for many years.”

Tim Wise’s essay came out last summer, but the question is still worth asking: What if the Tea Party were black? The music video is pretty good too.

The Sift Bookshelf: Merchants of Doubt

Last year I told you about the book Doubt is Their Product by David Michaels. Michaels was writing about what corporations do when they face one of those unfortunate situations that sometimes come up in a modern economy: They discover that one of their major sources of profit is killing people — workers, customers, the people who live downstream from the factory, or somebody like that.

Now, when you imagine being in that boardroom yourself, you probably think something foolish, like: “Let’s stop killing people. We can shut down the factory, pull the product off the shelves, and warn everybody involved that they need to see a doctor right away.”

Whoa, there, Galahad. Don’t go all Mother Theresa on us. We’re talking about money here. Profits. Don’t be selfish and give the company away just to stroke your over-pampered conscience. We’ve got a moral obligation to our stockholders to keep those profits flowing as long as we possibly can.

And there’s a way. The tobacco industry blazed a trail, and now there’s a whole industry of PR firms and think tanks and “research” institutes that will obfuscate any issue you want. They’ll get “scientists” to say that the case against your product is still controversial. And that looks fabulous on TV, because it forces the real scientists to argue that there’s not really an argument. (They look so arrogant when they do that. The viewers have just seen somebody with a Ph.D. take the other side. And then some guy who’s spent his whole life in a laboratory and never appeared on TV before tries to tell them that the scientific debate is over and it’s time for action. It’s like, “Don’t believe your lying eyes. The debate is over when I say it’s over.”)

No matter how bad your product is — it can’t be worse than asbestos, can it? — you can argue that more research is needed to resolve the “controversy” before the government regulates anything. Then your lobbyists can get those regulations watered down before they go into effect, and if somebody tries to put teeth into the regulations later, it starts the whole cycle again: Your “scientists” say that the toothless regulations solved the problem, and where’s the proof that they’re wrong? It’s a whole new “controversy”.

This game can go on for half a century or more. And maybe someday the heirs of the people you killed will end up winning a lawsuit and owning a big chunk of the company — that’s what happened in asbestos — but it probably won’t come to that, and in the meantime the company has paid decades of dividends and executive salaries. Nobody’s ever going to get that money back.

See, that’s how it’s done. Now don’t you feel silly for making that stupid suggestion that we should just stop killing people? Don’t be such a baby next time.

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway tells a different piece of the same story. Michaels is a government guy (currently an assistant secretary of labor), so his book focuses on the regulatory process and the industry designed to manipulate and defeat it. Oreskes and Conway are historians who specialize in the history of science and technology, so Merchants is more about the scientific community and the handful of scientists who work to subvert it.

By following the PR firms, Michaels’ trip goes from one product-liability issue to the next: tobacco, asbestos, leaded gasoline, and so on up to my favorite chapter where Republicans unite in the Senate to defeat regulation of a deadly additive for making butter-flavored microwave popcorn. (Clearly the economy would collapse if we had to do without butter-flavored microwave popcorn.)

Oreskes and Conway follow a handful of industry-shill scientists through a somewhat different path that starts in defense, and then goes from tobacco through a series of public debates that are mostly environmental: nuclear winter, acid rain, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the ozone hole, secondhand smoke, global warming, and finally the posthumous smear of environmental pioneer Rachel Carson.

The tactics evolve and get darker as time goes by. What begins as an attempt to blow smoke (so to speak) about the tobacco-and-cancer link ultimately becomes an all-out assault on the integrity of science. Decades ago, anti-tobacco scientists were mainly portrayed as over-zealous — too quick to claim certainty when the science wasn’t 100% clear. Today’s climate scientists, however, are smeared as evil: They are supposedly part of a sinister conspiracy that aims to take control of the world economy via a scientific hoax about global warming. The scientific community as a whole is routinely portrayed as a special interest — not people trying to solve problems and find truth, but conspiring to gain power and influence for their (mainly socialist) political views.

The mystery is why legitimate scientists (and the people Oreskes and Conway track were almost all legit at one time) would get involved in this.The corporate money and the attention you can get by being in the middle of a public debate would be enough motivation for some people, but that’s not the conclusion Oreskes and Conway come to. They tell the story this way:

Why did this group of Cold Warriors turn against the very science to which they had previously dedicated their lives? … they were working to “secure the blessings of liberty”. If science was being used against those blessings — in ways that challenged the freedom of free enterprise — then they would fight it as they would fight any enemy. … Each of the environmental threats we’ve discussed in this book was a market failure, a domain in the which the free market had created serious “neighborhood” effects. … To address them, governments would have to step in with regulations, in some case very significant ones, to remedy the market failure. And this was precisely what these men most feared and loathed, for they viewed regulation as the slippery slope to Socialism, a form of creeping Communism.

Sadly, what is being defended here is wolf-freedom, not lamb-freedom. It’s freedom to be a predator and do damage rather than freedom to romp through the unblemished fields, breathe clean air, and drink from the lake with confidence.

To me, the nuclear winter debate seems pivotal. Scientists had been involved in liberal causes before — Linus Pauling, for example, won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 by organizing scientists around the world to push for a nuclear test-ban treaty. But never before had a scientific argument been so central to the issue. If the nuclear winter hypothesis is true, winning a nuclear war is impossible because winners and losers alike will be swept up in the global environmental catastrophe that follows.

That issue was a bridge from defense issues to environmental issues. The political sides that formed there were ready to take up the ozone hole and other subsequent environmental issues.

By today, the attack on science and the scientific community has become a common cause uniting the various factions of the political Right. Christian groups are pushing a variety of pseudo-scientific causes, from creationism to the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education to abortion as a cause of breast cancer. Libertarians will argue against the existence of any global environmental problem, because such problems have no free-market solutions. And of course corporations will fund bogus institutes and journals to “prove” that their products are not really killing people. Anti-science fits in well with the Tea Party crusade against “elitism” — where the “elite” are not the billionaires or the bankers, they’re the people who know things you wouldn’t understand.

And that, I think, is going to be the hardest nut to crack. Expertise by its nature is anti-democratic. On scientific issues, the opinions that should matter are the opinions of the scientists who have spent their careers working on this stuff — and they are a mostly self-selected and self-validating group. A high-tech society can only survive as a democracy if the people are able to figure out which experts to trust. And that’s getting harder and harder to do as the techniques of obfuscation get better developed and better financed.

You’ve probably heard the claim that global warming might just be due to the Sun rather than anything humans have done. The Sun might be hotter for some reason like the sunspot cycle or something.

It turns out that was all studied and resolved about 15 years ago. It turns out the Earth would be warming differently if the Sun were the cause. If the Sun were the cause, all the layers of the atmosphere would be heating up as the solar energy passed through them on its way to us. But if greenhouse gases cause warming by trapping heat in the lower levels of the atmosphere, then the lower levels of the atmosphere should be warming while the upper levels are cooling.

That’s what’s happening: the lower levels of the atmosphere are warming while the upper layers are cooling. So we know — and have known for 15 years — that the cause of global warming is not the Sun. (Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know this; I didn’t either until I read the first chapter of this book.)

This is a common pattern, something to watch out for. When somebody claims that they have an explanation that the scientific community refuses to consider, often it turns out that the scientific community had this conversation a long time ago and it’s over now. The biggest example of that type is the creation/evolution “controversy”. It’s not that scientists rejected creationism out of hand. The creation/evolution question was a scientific controversy in the 19th century, but evolution won that argument more than 100 years ago and there has been no scientific reason to reopen the discussion since then.

Short Notes

Sometimes candidates are so evasive that even Fox News people start to act like journalists. Here, Chris Wallace gets frustrated that he can’t get a straight answer from Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina about where to find the spending cuts to balance extending the Bush tax cuts.

How did I not notice this myself? The Onion News Network reports that God has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It explains so much.

A study of Egyptian mummies shows that cancer was almost non-existent in ancient Egypt. Dr. Michael Zimmerman of the University of Manchester (UK) concludes:

The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity, indicating that cancer causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialisation.

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick explains how privacy rights are decreasing for people but increasing for corporations:

It used to be the case that embarrassment, harassment, and stigma were the best check against corporate wrongdoing. But that was before corporations had feelings.

The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger announced: “The rescue of the Chilean miners is a smashing victory for free-market capitalism.”

Seriously? His reasoning, such as it is, is that the miners were rescued using cool new equipment developed and built by for-profit companies. In the parallel regulated-capitalism universe, we all know, there is no technological change or quality manufacturing. And government could never have invented anything as high-tech as the Internet or space travel or nuclear power, so specialized drill bits are out of the question.

Bill Black of New Deal 2.0 gives the obvious counter-argument: Free-market capitalism is why those miners were down there needing rescue in the first place.

A $25 ladder apparently would have prevented the tragedy, but the private owners’ profit motive led them to avoid that expense.

The Washington Post hits a new low. It’s “On Faith” feature gives a platform for Family Research Council President Tony Perkins to spew misinformation about homosexuality. Media Matters responds.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Help me figure out what to do with the Sift’s Facebook page.

Beating Ourselves

Remember this: The house doesn’t beat the player. It just gives him an opportunity to beat himself.

Nick the Greek, charter member of the Poker Hall of Fame

In this week’s Sift:

  • Fire and Health and Government. Libertarianism boils down this image: Firefighters watching a Tennessee house burn down because the owners hadn’t paid a $75 fee. This story has gotten a lot of coverage, but few people are making the connection to the health insurance mandate. Whether the threat is sickness or fire, we shouldn’t offer our fellow citizens a gamble that we’re not willing to watch them lose.
  • Sharia in America? Sharron Angle has added the weight of a viable Senate candidate to the bizarre claim that Sharia is taking over the United States. What is she talking about?
  • The Anti-Stimulus Begins. All the federal stimulus ever did was balance spending cuts on the state and local level. Now that balance is ending.
  • Department of Corrections. A miscalculation caused me to understate last week’s point about government spending.
  • Short Notes. The FBI can track your car without a warrant — and demand its tracker back if you find it. Christine O’Donnell, I’m glad to hear, is really me; I’ve always wanted to be a senator. More about anonymous campaign spending. And everybody is just guessing about how many young adults will vote.

Fire and Health and Government

To libertarians, it’s unjust if I have to pay taxes to provide you with services. Don’t make me pay for your child’s education or to treat your infectious disease. That’s socialism. The ideal libertarian government project is a toll road, because only the people who use it have to pay for it.

A week ago Thursday (September 29), we got an example of where that kind of thinking leads: In Obion County, Tennessee, you pay a special $75 fee each year for the fire department. Gene and Paulette Cranick hadn’t paid the fee this year — Gene claims he just forgot — so when two barrels caught fire in their yard and the flames slowly spread in the direction of the house, the fire trucks wouldn’t come — at least not until the fire started to spread to the property of a fee-paying neighbor. Even after they got there, firefighters defended only the neighbor’s property while watching the Cranick’s house burn to the ground.

National Review’s Kevin Williamson comments approvingly:

The world is full of jerks, freeloaders, and ingrates — and the problems they create for themselves are their own. These free-riders have no more right to South Fulton’s firefighting services than people in Muleshoe, Texas, have to those of NYPD detectives.

The problems you create are your own: You had kids, I didn’t, so don’t make me pay for the schools. You live on the Gulf coast, I don’t, so don’t make me pay to send helicopters when the hurricanes come. Your daughter was born with a congenital disease, mine is nice and healthy, so don’t send me any medical bills. You care about nature, I don’t, so don’t charge me for the national parks. And on and on and on.

Several conservative bloggers have patiently explained the pay-to-spray system to us effete urban liberals. Rural fire departments have shoestring budgets, and they’d go under if people thought they didn’t have to pay their fees. Angry White Guy writes:

Where I live in Kentucky about 20 miles from where this story went down in Tennessee – they put the fire department fee on your property tax bill so you must to pay it if you own property – but it wasn’t always that way where I live. At one time the fee, like the fire department, was voluntary and you could either pay the fee or get hit with a huge bill if you didn’t [and called the fire department to put out a fire].  … I knew plenty of people that rolled the dice and didn’t pay hoping they didn’t have a fire and I’m guess Cranick did just that, he rolled the dice and crapped out.

Here’s an idea: Let’s fund the Homeland Security Department with a voluntary fee. If you don’t pay it, al Qaeda can blow you up.

AWG slides right by what should be the main point: “Where I live … they put the fire department fee on your property tax bill.” That’s how it should work: We all pay taxes and we all get services. Don’t offer your fellow citizens a gamble unless you’re willing to sit back and watch them lose.

OK, the Cranick’s story got a lot of coverage and you had probably heard about it already. But how many times have you heard anybody make the connection to the health insurance mandate?

The mandate is the least popular part of President Obama’s health reform bill, the part that conservatives are suing (unsuccessfully, so far) to have declared unconstitutional. Starting in 2014, if you don’t have health insurance that meets certain minimal standards, you’ll owe a tax. (The bill does not, as opponents charge, force anybody to buy health insurance. Just pay the tax and you can go on without coverage if you want. According to the Boston Globe: “Fines will vary by income and family size. For example, a single person making $45,000 would pay an extra $1,125 in taxes when the penalty is fully phased in, in 2016.”)

But the logic is exactly the same as the firefighting fee: We don’t want you to gamble on medical care, because we don’t want to be the kind of country that will sit back and watch you lose that gamble. If you get into a car wreck, we want the ambulances to come and the EMTs to stop the bleeding. We want the emergency room doctors do what they can to save your life. We don’t want medical professionals to stand around while somebody checks whether your fees are paid up, or to watch you die if they aren’t.

Right now those emergency costs fall mostly on hospitals, who overcharge the rest of us to cover it. (That’s why a hospital aspirin can cost $18.) Slower medical emergencies like cancer play out in a variety of ways, some of which include people dying of treatable diseases. (The technical term is “amenable mortality“. Our rate is among the worst in the developed world, and is improving more slowly than most comparable countries. Dr. Don McCanne of Physicians for a National Health Program comments: “Those who still claim that the United States has the best health care system in the world need a reality check.”)

In a libertarian world, though, nobody would pay for those services if you gambled that you wouldn’t need them. (Maybe you decided to buy food for your family instead.) You got into a car wreck, I didn’t, so why should I pay?

We hear a lot about rugged individualism being the American way. This week, while researching something else, I discovered a funny thing about that.

In volume II of the classic Democracy in America, French observer Alexis de Tocqueville feels it necessary to explain the difference between individualism and egotism:

Egotism is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with his own person, and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures; and to draw apart with his family and his friends; so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.

In spite of that “mature and calm” stuff, de Tocqueville goes on to trash individualism as one of the bad effects of democracy. But here’s the kicker: That passage is followed by the original translator’s note saying that he has adopted de Tocqueville’s coinage of individualism “because I know of no English word exactly equivalent to the expression”.

So, not only did the Founders not consciously think of themselves as individualists, English didn’t acquire the word individualism until 1840 — when we borrowed it from the French.

District Court Judge George Steeh’s rejection of the suit against the health care mandate makes a good point. The plaintiff’s argument is that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution has never before been used to regulate inactivity — in this case, a person’s decision not to buy health insurance. Judge Steeh observes:

The plaintiffs have not opted out of the health care services market because, as living, breathing beings, who do not oppose medical services on religious grounds, they cannot opt out of this market. As inseparable and integral members of the health care services market, plaintiffs have made a choice regarding the method of payment for the services they expect to receive.

In other words, the relevant market is the market for health care, not health insurance, which is just a mechanism for paying for care. People can choose not to buy health insurance, but they can’t choose not to get sick.

A new report published in Health Affairs expands on Dr. McCanne’s “reality check”. In 1950, the US was fifth in female life expectancy at birth. Now we’re 46th, despite spending significantly more per capita on health care than any other country.

Defenders of the status quo offer a variety of explanations other than our-non-socialized-medicine-sucks: lifestyle choices, the way our statistics are reported, murder and suicide, and so on. The authors of this report did a variety of tricks to eliminate these effects. Conclusion:

We found that none of the prevailing excuses for the poor performance of the US health care system are likely to be valid. … We speculate that the nature of our health care system—specifically, its reliance on unregulated fee-for-service and specialty care—may explain both the increased spending and the relative deterioration in survival that we observed. If so, meaningful reform may not only save money over the long term, it may also save lives.

Sharia in America?

One of the more bizarre and baseless claims you’ll find if you wander around the conservative blogosphere is that foreign law is taking over America. Originally, we were being taken over by European law. The National Review’s Ed Whelan put it like this:

What judicial transnationalism is really all about is depriving American citizens of their powers of representative government by selectively imposing on them the favored policies of Europe’s leftist elites.

The American Spectator characterized a death penalty decision:

Rather than base their ruling on the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment, the five justices of the majority instead imposed foreign standards on American citizens in the name of our Constitution. In doing so, the Court audaciously elevated international mores above the considered democratic judgment of the states and called it “law.”

This longstanding kerfuffle on the Right is based on more-or-less nothing. (A good article on “bad history” and “bad law” behind the controversy is here.)

Well, lately it’s Muslim Sharia law that is supposedly taking over. Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle seems to be saying that sharia law is taking hold in Dearborn, Michigan and Frankford, Texas. (I say “seems” because — as is typical in such cases — she is alluding to something she never says in so many words. Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations described her statement as “incoherent bigotry“.)

It would be strange enough if Angle was making this stuff up — a Tea Party candidate making stuff up, who could imagine? — but she’s not. She’s just raising this strange conspiracy theory from the shadows of the internet to the national stage.

The basis of the “Sharia law in Dearborn” claim is this ten-minute video, which (to my eye) shows security guards at Arab Festival 2009 in Dearborn behaving the way festival security guards do everywhere: In a dispute between the exhibitors and trouble-making attendees, they take the side of the exhibitors. But the exhibitors are Muslims and the contentious attendees are Christians, so the security guards must be enforcing Sharia, which must have a whole section on street festivals or something.

The Texas claim seems to come from two incidents. One is a Texas court ruling that if people by mutual consent want to specify in their contracts that disputes will be adjudicated in a Sharia court or in accordance with the principles of Sharia, they can. (That’s no different than any other mediation clause. Any other finding would be discrimination against Islam.) The second is a story of an “honor killing” of two sisters by their father — but Texas law did not sanction his actions. I have found no example in Texas (or any other state) of government officials forcing Sharia on somebody who didn’t contractually opt for it.

Of stuff like this, myths are made. And now those myths are being repeated by someone with a serious chance to sit in the Senate.

But here’s the head-shaking thing: There really is a significant movement in America that wants a scripture-based law to replace the Constitution. But it’s not Islam, it’s Christian Reconstructionism.

The Anti-Stimulus Begins

Ask anybody and they’ll tell you: We’ve had a wild increase in government spending since Obama took office, with the $800 billion stimulus bill being the biggest piece of it.

Ask anybody who isn’t an economist, and they’ll tell you that it hasn’t worked. With all this stimulus spending — $300 billion of which was really tax cuts — we haven’t created any jobs.

But that’s not exactly what happened. It’s not even close. While the federal government was spending more to stimulate the economy, state and local governments (most of whom were obligated to balance their budgets in the face of declining revenue) were cutting back, making the net effect negative. Paul Krugman writes:

Consider, in particular, one fact that might surprise you: The total number of government workers in America has been falling, not rising, under Mr. Obama. A small increase in federal employment was swamped by sharp declines at the state and local level — most notably, by layoffs of schoolteachers. Total government payrolls have fallen by more than 350,000 since January 2009.

Looking at the public sector as a whole, then, there never was a stimulus. So we have no idea what a government stimulus would have done.

But the ask-anybody consensus is that stimulus happened and failed, so Congress didn’t even come close to passing a son-of-stimulus bill. So the federal money is running out now, but the state cutbacks are not.

Thursday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled a multi-billion-dollar project to build a new rail tunnel to Manhattan. The project makes both short-term and long-term sense: It provides jobs now and will be a valuable addition to the regional infrastructure when it’s finished. But so what? There’s no money. Bob Herbert commentss:

Where once we were the innovators, the pathfinders, the model for the rest of the world, now we just can’t seem to get it done. We can’t put the population to work, or get the kids through college, or raise the living standards of the middle class and the poor. We can’t rebuild the infrastructure or curb our destructive overreliance on fossil fuels.

Similar but smaller cancelations and lay-offs are happening all over the country. Without a federal attempt to balance the scales, government employment is going to drop further. And all the while, the mainstream narrative is going to be that a government stimulus was tried but failed.

Citizen K makes a related point I’ve made here before: We’re acting like a poor country, when actually we’re a rich country dominated by rich people who don’t want to pay taxes. That’s the reason we can’t have first-rate infrastructure like the Chinese, Japanese, and Europeans are building.

Department of Corrections

I once heard a comedian say, “I’m never wrong. I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken.”

Well, last week’s article on federal spending was right in the first draft. And then I checked the numbers just before posting, decided they were wrong, and “fixed” them. But I was mistaken. The blog entry has been updated, but the people who get the Sift by email got the wrong numbers.

Here’s what happened: I mentioned interest on the national debt first, then forgot to add it in afterward. When you do add it in, all the revenue is spent — exactly — after you fund interest, defense, homeland security, Social Security, Medicare, disaster relief, veterans benefits, unemployment compensation, and SCHIP. So all the 2010 revenue could have been spent without using a dime for poverty programs (Medicaid, food stamps, etc.), non-military foreign aid, or any of the other stuff that many people seem to think the government spends all its money on.

Short Notes

So the FBI puts a tracking device on a 20-year-old’s car. When his mechanic finds it and his friend posts a what’s-this photo on the web, agents show up demanding their property back. No fair — there ought to be a finders-keepers rule here.

Nobody seems to know whether the FBI had a warrant, but it turns out they don’t need one. An appeals court has ruled that the government can put a tracker on your car without a warrant, even if it’s parked in your own driveway when they do it.

I’m relieved to hear that Christine O’Donnell is really me and will go to Washington and do what I would do. I was afraid she was really Christine O’Donnell and would go to Washington and do all the crazy stuff O’Donnell has been saying she wants to do.

O’Donnell’s ad cries out for parody, and its cries have been answered. This is my favorite so far. Or maybe this one.

You know who really ought to be upset about Christine O’Donnell’s comments about witchcraft? Witches.

The anonymous funding of political campaigns that I talked about last week is getting increasing attention. A Public Citizen report says that in the last mid-term election cycle, 30 out of 31 electioneering groups disclosed their donors. As of September 2 of this year, only 7 of 22 groups had.

A NYT reporter says spending by such groups is already double 2006’s total. He recounts his attempts to figure out who was behind a particularly striking set of ads: the talking babies against Obamacare. They’re sponsored by the Coalition to Protect Seniors, which is … who exactly? He can’t figure it out, but the phone numbers he finds on official documents ring through to people somehow involved in the health insurance industry.

The main reason national polls are all over the map is that each organization has its own “likely voter” model. In other words, if X % of 20-somethings tell you they’re going to vote Republican, you want to weigh that not by the number of 20-somethings in the population, but by the number that you think are going to vote.

But that’s something nobody knows. Young adult turnout was exceptionally high in 2008. Is that a blip or a trend? DailyKos’ Meteor Blades talks this issue through in Millennials: Will they, or won’t they?

I’m guessing that this year’s youth turn-out will be bigger than most people expect. Reason: social networking makes it easier for the one activist in a group of friends to nag the rest into voting. “OK already. I voted. Leave me alone.”

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or help me figure out what to do with the Sift’s Facebook page.

Conspiracies and Cock-ups

Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.

— Bernard Ingham, press secretary to Margaret Thatcher

In this week’s Sift:

  • Quotations of Chairman Anonymous. American movies and novels and paranoid screeds love to imagine an anonymous oligarchy: some tiny cell of nameless freemasons or immortals or aliens who really pull the strings. Well, thanks to the Supreme Court we have a real one now: Through front groups, a few rich anonymous donors may decide our elections.
  • Gaza Update. A UN report on the Gaza flotilla looks bad for Israel, but another report is still coming.
  • Spending. Politicians get away with vague calls to “cut spending” because most Americans have no idea how much the government spends or what it spends on. If you go down the list of sacred-cow programs, you don’t get far before you run out of revenue.
  • Rick Sanchez. The stupid thing he said about Jews got all the press, but the point his interviewer couldn’t hear about class is more interesting to me.
  • Short Notes. Bill Gates’ dad gets soaked and likes it. Donald Duck listens to Glenn Beck. Social networking as a political tool. Defending the stimulus. Latest polls. The phony ACORN pimp’s strange new scheme goes awry. And more.

Quotations of Chairman Anonymous

American pop culture is full of anonymous oligarchies: vampires, cyborgs, aliens, immortals, ascended masters of some mystical discipline — we can’t get enough of the idea that a tiny class of powerful beings is secretly living among us and pulling the strings. Sometimes the motif jumps out of our fiction and becomes an actual hallucination: Opus Dei, Elders of Zion, Freemasons, the Trilateral Commission — they must be the ones who really run things.

Well, this year the holes the Supreme Court has punched in campaign finance law (and Congress’ inability to fill them) have given us a real, live anonymous oligarchy. We can point to their actions, but we can’t say who they are.

Blue Oregon reports what is happening in one congressional district:

In Oregon this week … the Concerned Taxpayers of America began an ad blitz in Southern Oregon, threatening to spend unlimited amounts of money to defeat US Congressman Peter DeFazio. Though commercials will air in heavy rotation, voters will have no idea who is paying to try to influence their decisions.

Thursday Rachel Maddow did a marvelous job fleshing this story out. Concerned Taxpayers of America is front organization headquartered in a house in Washington, D.C. When Rep. DeFazio went to the house (camera crew in tow), the man living there claimed to know nothing about CTA. You can’t find CTA’s web site on Google, and when Rachel did manage to track it down, it contained no mention of rallies, members, events, or even a request to contribute. The site contained only a mission statement and purchased clip art of models who are supposed to represent “concerned taxpayers”.

CTA has already put $165,000 into ads attacking DeFazio, with more presumably to come. (DeFazio told Rachel that a complete campaign in his district typically costs about $500,000.) Given that CTA is so hard to find and isn’t soliciting contributions publicly, it’s a fair bet that their money doesn’t come from ordinary citizens of Oregon’s 4th district. So where, then? Maybe from aliens or vampires, for all we know. CTA doesn’t have to say.

Billionaires are a more likely possibility. Or corporations. News Corp., the parent company of Fox News, just gave $1 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been running attack ads against Democratic Senate candidates (including Paul Hodes here in New Hampshire). (The Chamber also advertised against the DISCLOSE Act, which would have made it harder to campaign anonymously through dummy organizations.) Which candidates is Fox telling the Chamber to target with its money? They don’t have to say.

When the Citizens United decision was announced, many knowledgable people assured us it was no big deal. “Corporations cannot afford to alienate customers by overt election campaigning,” Columbia law professor Henry Monaghan told the Columbia Law School Magazine.

But what if the customers — like the voters — never find out? If Exxon-Mobil advertises against an environmentalist candidate under its own name, voters at least have a chance to consider the source and discount the ads’ claims accordingly. Offended drivers could boycott Exxon stations rather than have their own money used against them politically. But if the oil is laundered out of Exxon’s money by some front organization that didn’t exist two weeks ago, what then?

Blackwater might balk at openly campaigning for a new war — and even if it did, it might create a backlash. But if it could hide behind some bogus Committee for a Non-Nuclear Iran, then why not? Political advertising could be an effective way to promote new business.

It’s easy to spin these nightmare scenarios about future campaigns, but just think about where we already are. If Peter Defazio loses to Republican Art Robinson, Robinson will owe his seat in Congress to the small number of oligarchs who put up the money for the Concerned Taxpayers of America ad blitz. Oregon voters won’t know who those people are. But Robinson will.

Cartoonist Mark Fiore lauds “Cashocracy: taking the guesswork out of democracy, one million dollars at a time.”

Think Progress points out an odd contradiction: People who identify with the Tea Party are against free trade agreements, believing that they have helped send American jobs overseas. But candidates who identify with the Tea Party strongly support free trade. Maybe the billionaires who fund the Tea Party are calling the shots, not “We the People”.

Gaza Update

Monday, the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights released its report on the Gaza flotilla incident. (Recall: On May 31, Israel seized six ships that were trying to bring aid to Gaza, which Israel is blockading. Violence broke out on one ship: Nine of that ship’s passengers were killed and seven Israeli commandos were injured.)

The report looks bad for Israel. The worst is on page 27:

Forensic analysis demonstrates that two of the passengers killed on the top deck received wounds compatible with being shot at close range while lying on the ground: Furkan Doğan received a bullet in the face …

Dogan was a 19-year-old Turkish-American. His death and five others are described on page 37 as “extralegal, arbitrary and summary executions”.

The pro-Israeli group CAMERA critiques the report here. The objections boil down to:

  • If any other country did the same thing, no one would care. (“It is, after all, nothing less than bigotry and injustice to consistently judge one country by a particular set of standards while failing to apply those standards to the rest of the world.”)
  • The UN report relied largely on eye-witness testimony. And since Israel was not cooperating with the investigation, that testimony was primarily from the flotilla passengers, who are anti-Israel activists. In particular, because the Israelis confiscated all video of the raid and released only carefully edited segments, the OHCHR considered the Israeli-approved videos suspect.

While the first point is probably true, it is not exactly a refutation of the report’s conclusions. The second problem is something the Israeli government brought on itself. It could have fully cooperated and released all the video. (Here’s the IDF video. The incident also launched dueling music videos: The pro-Israeli “We Con the World” and the anti-Israeli “Internet Killed Israeli PR” to the tune of “Video Killed the Radio Star”.)

A second UN investigation was announced by the Secretary General in August. Israel is reported to be cooperating with this probe. We should soon see what that cooperation amounts to and whether the resulting report comes to any different conclusions.


See update at the end of the article: It’s worse than I said.

The surest way for a candidate to get applause this season is to promise to “cut spending”. Spending is one of those words that just sounds bad. Spending is the unfortunate half of buying. We all like to get stuff, but we hate to spend.

Just about everybody can remember opening a credit card bill and saying, “I’ve got to stop spending so much.” It feels virtuous to say that, and it costs nothing. But a resolution to cut spending doesn’t leave the realm of fantasy until it starts getting specific. Until you start picking out things you can spend less on — things that you spend more than nickels and dimes on now — you haven’t gotten serious.

One reason we have such a low-quality national conversation about the federal government’s spending is that most of us have no idea how much money the government spends or what it spends it on. So people can promise to “cut spending” while simultaneously promising not to cut just about everything we actually spend money on.

So let’s lay out the basic facts with as little editorializing as possible.

First, the totals. These estimates were made in May and probably won’t match the exact numbers for fiscal year 2010, which ended Thursday. But they’re probably reasonably close.

Fiscal Year 2010.

Revenue: $2.333 trillion. Spending: $3.591 trillion. Deficit: $1.258 trillion

Now let’s drill down into the spending part, starting with the stuff that would have been hardest to cut: interest on the national debt. The only way not to spend that $136 billion would have been to declare bankruptcy.

Next come the sacred cows, most of which you can find on Table S-4 of the link above: Defense, Homeland Security, Veteran’s Benefits, Social Security, and Medicare. It’s not that there’s nothing to cut here, but when a candidate pledges to “cut spending”, he or she usually doesn’t start talking about yanking troops out of Afghanistan or making Grandma pay for her own hip replacement. (The Republicans’ Pledge to America refers to “common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops” before promising to “roll back government spending”.) Complaints about Homeland Security are usually that we aren’t doing enough in terms of keeping out illegal immigrants or stopping drug smuggling. I haven’t heard anybody pledge to cut down on border patrols.

Defense: $707 billion. Homeland Security: $39 billion. Veterans: $124 billion. Social Security: $696 billion. Medicare: $452 billion.

Total so far: $2.018 trillion. If we stop here and zero out everything else, we’ve got a surplus of only $315 billion. (Which is fictitious, of course. Without that additional spending the economy would have shrunk further and revenue would have dropped. But ignore that for now.) For comparison, the surplus recorded in FY 2000 under the Clinton administration was $230 billion.

Next come the relatively uncontroversial payments to people in need: disaster relief, unemployment compensation, and children’s health insurance (SCHIP). Again, it’s not that it’s impossible to cut these programs, but it’s hard to classify them as “waste”. We all want the helicopters to come if we’re stranded by a flood. Unemployment is paid out of a fund that workers and their employers paid into when they had jobs. And SCHIP takes care of sick kids whose parents can’t pay.

disasters: $11 billion. unemployment: $158 billion.  SCHIP: $10 billion.

That’s $179 billion more, so we have $136 billion left.

But we still haven’t taken care of all the sick kids, because many of them get coverage under Medicaid ($290 billion). And the rest of Medicaid is also hard to classify as “waste”. You may object to handing poor people cash that they might spend on drugs or guns, but do you really want to let them die when they get sick?

So there we are: We’ve already got a $154 billion deficit.

And there’s still nearly a trillion dollars we haven’t accounted for: It did stuff like build interstate highways and maintain the national parks, plus thousands of other things that may or may not be wasteful, depending on your point of view: NASA, NSF, EPA, CDC, food stamps, foreign aid, farm subsidies, non-veteran education, and so on. If you don’t want a deficit, you have zero all that stuff out. Not just cut the waste — zero out the whole program.

Summing up: If you were going to balance the 2010 budget without raising taxes, you’d have to cut $154 billion out of interest on the debt, Defense, Homeland Security, Social Security, Medicare, veterans’ benefits, disaster relief, SCHIP, Medicaid, and unemployment compensation. And zero out everything else the government does.

So when candidates tell you they’re going to “cut spending”, don’t let them handwave about earmarks, foreign aid, bridges to nowhere, or any other unpopular-but-trivial expense. Any serious attempt to balance the budget without raising taxes is going to involve serious cuts in programs most Americans believe in.

Update: After listing the interest on the debt, I then forgot to add it in. So the total after Defense, Homeland Security, veterans benefits, Social Security and Medicare is $2.154 trillion, leaving only $179 to spend. Then the $179 billion for disasters, SCHIP and unemployment spends all the remaining revenue. (Not a coincidence, BTW. That was my original calculation, which I then thought I found a mistake in.)

So the gist is that the revenue is gone before you spend a dime even on Medicaid.

Rick Sanchez

The story of CNN firing Rick Sanchez is getting plenty of coverage. You’ve undoubtedly already heard that he called Jon Stewart a bigot and then said this:

I’m telling you that everybody who runs CNN is a lot like Stewart, and a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart, and to imply that somehow they — the people in this country who are Jewish — are an oppressed minority? Yeah.

It got him fired and I have no argument with that. He should have known how close that is to an Elders-of-Zion, Jews-run-the-world conspiracy theory that a lot of dangerous people seriously believe.

Listening to larger chunks of the interview, though, I’m hearing an aspect of the story that isn’t getting any coverage: The conversation turns to race and ethnicity only because the interviewer (Pete Dominick) can’t hear the point Sanchez is trying to make about class prejudice.

Let’s start at the beginning: Dumb things that Sanchez says or does on the air are regularly lampooned on the Daily Show. That’s part of what Stewart does, and he does it to lots of news anchors — but maybe Sanchez more than most.

Early in the interview, Sanchez is trying to say that it’s way too easy for people like Stewart who grew up in educated households to dismiss everybody else as ignorant — not because those people are actually stupid, but because they haven’t been schooled in how educated people are supposed to act and sound.

So Sanchez contrasts Stewart’s father (a physics professor) with his own (a Cuban immigrant who used to “work in a factory, wash dishes, drive a truck, get spit on”). Dominick seems to have no idea what point Sanchez could be trying to make (and Sanchez isn’t very articulate about setting him straight), and can only hear the Jew/Hispanic difference. Dominick argues that Jews and Hispanics are both minorities, so Stewart’s Jewish experience gives him insight and empathy with Sanchez’s Cuban experience.

That ticks Sanchez off — for good reasons, I think. Flustered, he starts trying to explain the difference between Stewart’s career experience and his own, and screws it up.

Here’s the point he should have made: Jon Stewart never had to be a trail-blazer for other Jews; Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce established the Jewish-comedian-doing-edgy-social-commentary thing half a century ago. And he didn’t have to break ceilings; wherever he went, Jews had already been higher up in the organization.

Sanchez had to do both. So no, for both class and ethnic reasons, Stewart’s life experience gives him no insight into Sanchez’s life.

Anyway, Sanchez wasn’t able to think that through on the spot and say it properly, so instead he blurts something stupid that gets him fired. That’s probably also how he said the stupid things that got him skewered on the Daily Show to begin with.

Here’s my take-away point: Class prejudice is so ingrained in the professional class that a lot of people (like Dominick) can’t see it even when someone points to it. Forget whether or not it’s true that Stewart’s criticism of Sanchez was classist — Dominick couldn’t even understand the question.

A lot of criticism of the Tea Party has a classist element, which I am constantly filtering out before quoting it on the Sift.

I’m against Tea Party candidates because they say things that are factually incorrect, they promote theories that bear no resemblance to the way the world works, and they don’t live up to the values they want to impose on the rest of us. But if Sarah Palin wants to say “refudiate” or write notes on her hand or give her children funny names, let her. Those are class markers, not evidence that she would be a bad president.

I’m reminded of what Jack Burden says in my favorite political novel All the King’s Men: “Graft is what he calls it when the fellows do it who don’t know which fork to use.”

Short Notes

The best ad I saw this week: Bill Gates Sr. invites Washington voters to soak the rich.

Rebellious Pixels shows us who Glenn Beck’s target audience is: Donald Duck.

I was going to write about Malcolm Gladwell’s dismissal of social networking as a tool for political activism, but Sam Graham-Felsen said everything I wanted say with more authority. Short version: If you’re using technology instead of interacting with people, that’s bad. If you’re using technology to interact with people better, that’s good.

Or, from the user perspective: If you click a Like button and say, “Done now”, you’re not going to change the world much. But if clicking a Like button is the first tiny commitment that gets you moving towards larger commitments later, then maybe you will.

With all these new technologies, I think it’s useful to imagine what non-telephone users must have asked the first telephone users: “Why are you talking to that machine instead of talking to a real person?”

Stephen Colbert skewers Justice Scalia’s interpretation of the Constitution. Scalia claims to be an “originalist”, which means that he wants the Constitution and its amendments interpreted the way they were at the time of ratification (unless you’re talking about corporate rights; those the Court can invent to its heart’s content).

Stephen spells it out:

Scalia must argue that the First Amendment only truly guarantees freedom of speech as it was spoken in 1791. If you don’t like his opinion, it’s his right to say, “Go bugger a Hottentot, you leprous octaroon.” If you’re offended by Scalia’s argument, perhaps you should defend your rights with force of arms. But remember, by this argument the Second Amendment gives you the right only to bear blunderbusses and flintlock pistols.

For those few people who are paying attention to evidence this year, the stimulus was money well spent.

Nate Silver’s current projections: Democrats will hold the Senate 52-48, but lose the House 224-211. As of this morning, TPM’s poll average for the generic congressional ballot has the Republicans up 2%. That margin has been dropping since late August.

In general, polls are weird this year: Different organizations poll the same races at more or less the same time and get wildly different results. You can get depressed every time you see a discouraging poll, or you can look around until you find a result you like better.

My advice: If you were planning to campaign or contribute or otherwise try to affect this election, don’t let a poll change your mind.

I want to see more of these White House White Board talks. In this one, Council of Economic Advisors Chair Austan Goolsbee explains the difference between the Republican and Democratic plans to extend the Bush tax cuts. It’s simple and it’s clear.

James O’Keefe — the guy whose carefully staged and edited videos brought down ACORN, and who is currently serving three years of probation for attempting to bug Senator Landrieau’s office — has finally jumped the shark.

In August, CNN correspondent Abbie Boudreau wanted to interview O’Keefe for the CNN documentary “Right on the Edge” about young conservative activists. O’Keefe attempted to lure her onto a boat filled with hidden cameras and sex toys, trying to provoke reactions that could be edited into an embarrassing video. (CNN’s version is here.)

Even O’Keefe’s former employer Andrew Breitbart (promoter of the similarly mis-edited Shirley Sherrod video) describes his plan as “patently gross and offensive“.

Jay Bakker, son of disgraced evangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, preaches about gay marriage — and all the “amens” suddenly stop.

While researching Bakker, I mistyped and wound up reading the blog of Jay Baker, who reposted this marvelous piece about “the gay agenda”.

Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck’s plan to avoid the media is working so well that he’ s now stopped speaking in public at all.

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