Conspiracies and Cock-ups

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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.



Spending

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.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at gmail.com. Or follow the Sift on Facebook.

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