Monthly Archives: June 2011

Next Stop: Reality

Nobody has acknowledged that
a) the bubble economies of tech and housing were not financially real,
b) we can not “recover” to a condition that was not financially real in the first place, and therefore
c) we need to start focusing on a transition to something close to reality,
which is a long ways from where we currently are.

— Charles Marohn, The Growth Ponzi Scheme

In this week’s Sift:

  • Presidents and Precedents. If President Obama’s manipulation of the War Powers Resolution process stands, what might a President Perry or Bachmann build on that foundation?
  • Ponziville: The Suburbs Are Unsustainable. Charles Marohn claims that sprawling suburbs are an inefficient use of infrastructure. But the problem stays hidden until the initial developments start to wear out.
  • Short Notes. Funny fake news vs. scary fake news. New Yorkers notice that same-sex marriage has not destroyed civilization in Boston. Matt Taibi demonstrates how not to attack Michele Bachmann. A Pulitzer-winner fesses up to being undocumented. Without illegal aliens, Georgia reaps only a metaphorical harvest. It’s not just the music that’s synthesized, it’s the girl. The First Amendment now protects data-mining. Vermont keeps heading towards single-payer health care. And more.
  • This Week’s Challenge. If you want to help in the Wisconsin recall elections, here’s how.


Presidents and Precedents

During the last administration, I often warned Republicans not to claim any powers for President Bush that they wouldn’t want President Hillary Clinton to have. Maybe they trusted W with extraordinary powers, but I hoped it might slow them down to imagine some future Democrat tapping phones without warrants or locking people up without charges.

It never worked.

Even so, I think it may be time to take my own medicine: Sure, I mostly trust President Obama, so I haven’t been watching our involvement in Libya as closely as I might. I know there are War Powers Resolution issues and Congress should be involved to some degree. But seeing congressional Republicans play chicken with the debt ceiling hasn’t made me wish that they had more opportunities to get in Obama’s way.

Still, today’s actions are tomorrow’s precedents. Eventually there will be another Republican president, maybe sooner than I think. And if someday President Bachmann decides to invade Sweden to protect the world from socialism, shouldn’t she have to make her case to Congress? Or somebody?

Maybe it’s time to pay attention.

The Founders’ Vision of War. The Constitution divides the nation’s war-making powers. The President is commander-in-chief (Article II, Section 2), but only Congress can raise armies or declare war (Article I, Section 8).

Why did the Founders do that? They believed that standing armies tempted rulers to impose their will by force. And the US had the unusual advantage of being far away from potential enemies. So they pictured a ground-up form of defense that would only require a sizable federal army on rare occasions.

Most common threats (criminal gangs, pirate or Indian raids) a community would handle itself, maybe with the help of neighboring communities. (Picture the colonial Minutemen or the posse that goes after the bank robbers in a western.) Larger threats (big Indian raids or slave uprisings) would be the responsibility of the state militias. Only when things really got out of hand, say if we were attacked by a European power, would a federal force be needed.

And those big wars would be rare, because we were going to stay out of “entangling alliances”. In President Washington’s Farewell Address, he wrote:

Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice? It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.

So most of the time the President would be commander-in-chief of not very much. When tensions rose, Congress would assemble an army and decide which countries to use it against. The commander-in-chief clause made sure those armies would report to a single commander, avoiding strategy-by-committee in Congress.

(BTW: This interpretation also makes sense out of the “well-regulated militia” clause of the Second Amendment: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The people should keep and bear arms not so that they can overthrow the government — as the Tea Party would have it — but so that they don’t depend on a standing army that could be used against them.)

Rep. Lincoln. As a congressman, Abraham Lincoln opposed President Polk’s role in instigating the Mexican War. Arguing by letter with his law partner William Herndon in 1848, Lincoln wrote:

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion … and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after having given him so much as you propose. …

The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.

Historical drift. The Founders’ vision slowly came apart. President Lincoln himself, facing an enemy within cannon-shot of the capital, acted on his own authority and sought congressional approval later. By 1900, the US had colonies of its own and intervened constantly in Latin America. We came out of the World Wars with global commitments and a world-spanning enemy. Now we were trying to entangle other nations in our alliances — NATO, SEATO, CENTO, OAS, etc.

Eventually, nuclear missiles threatened to destroy our cities in less time than it took Congress to assemble. So power accrued to the President because no one else was in a position to wield it.

Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia. The Korean War (1950-1953) was the first major conflict the US fought without a formal declaration of war. That looked like an aberration at the time, but instead it became the new model. Congress has not declared war since, but has indirectly signed off on presidential wars by continuing to fund them and occasionally endorsing them in resolutions like the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

President Nixon pushed presidential authority too far by bombing Cambodia secretly in 1969-70 and delivering misleading records to Congress when it investigated in 1972-73. Congress needed to take some power back.

The War Powers Resolution of 1973. Passed over Nixon’s veto, the WPR gives a president 48 hours to inform Congress of a military action, and then gives Congress 60 days to authorize it. If it does not, the President then has 30 days to disengage.

Subsequent presidents have groused, but have mostly gone along with the WPR, for the simple reason that it’s sound practice. (It’s a myth that presidents have all regarded the WPR as unconstitutional.) If you can’t get Congress to endorse a war at the beginning, before the bodies start coming home, then you’d better hope you can go in, declare victory, and get out in short order.

Obama and Libya. The bombing in Libya started on March 19, and Congress has not passed any authorization. So President Obama’s 30-days-to-disengage has run out. But instead of standing down, the administration sent a report to Congress making this claim:

The President is of the view that the current U.S. military operations in Libya are consistent with the War Powers Resolution and do not under that law require further congressional authorization, because U.S. military operations are distinct from the kind of “hostilities” contemplated by the Resolution’s 60 day termination provision.

Where did the President get that view? Not from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which is the official executive-branch body to study such issues. And not from the Pentagon general counsel, either. Instead, he followed the opinion of an ad-hoc group of executive-branch lawyers led by the White House counsel, who is not approved by the Senate and in some administrations is nothing more than the president’s personal lawyer.

Constitutionally, the President is not obliged to follow any particular legal advice. But Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman explained in the NYT why circumventing the OLC is a bad practice:

If the precedent Mr. Obama has created is allowed to stand, future presidents who do not like what the Justice Department is telling them could simply cite the example of Mr. Obama’s war in Libya and instruct the White House counsel to organize a supportive “coalition of the willing” made up of the administration’s top lawyers. Even if just one or two agreed, this would be enough to push ahead and claim that the law was on the president’s side.

Remember Mukasey’s Paradox from the Bush administration: Lawyers can’t commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president, and presidents can’t commit crimes when they act under the advice of lawyers — any lawyers, even if they were hired precisely to give that advice.

We don’t want to go down that track again, because it undermines the whole notion of the rule of law. Regardless of what you think of Libya or Obama or Congress, the really bad thing here is the precedent. Imagine what a President Rick Perry could do with it.



Ponziville: The Suburbs Are Unsustainable

In a classic Ponzi scheme, money from new investors pays off old investors — who then brag about the rate-of-return they’re getting and tempt even more new investors to get in. As long as inflow of new money grows exponentially, everybody stays happy. But that can’t continue forever, and so the scheme collapses.

Charles Marohn claims this model fits the suburbs:

the underlying financing mechanisms of the suburban era — our post-World War II pattern of development — operates like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.

The model has been that state and federal money, developer investment, plus a small amount of local-government borrowing, builds the initial infrastructure of a suburb — roads, sewers, schools, etc. — and so the local tax base goes up accordingly. But the infrastructure has a life span, and the increased tax base is not sufficient to rebuild it when it wears out. The only way to hide this is with more growth — new sprawl that raises the tax base in the near term while adding more long-term liabilities.

In America, we have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance. … The reason we have this gap is because the public yield from the suburban development pattern — the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed — is ridiculously low. Over a life cycle, a city frequently receives just a dime or two of revenue for each dollar of liability. … We’ve simply built in a way that is not financially productive.

I wish Marohn had said more about the urban side of the equation: By moving our rich people to the suburbs, we’ve also wrecked the tax base of our cities.

I’m struck by how Marohn’s vision dovetails with John Michael Greer’s model of long-term decline. Here’s my summary of what Greer says in The Long Descent,:

At its peak a society builds a larger capital base than it can maintain. From then on, the deferred maintenance periodically comes due in some big failure, which cascades through the system until things settle down at a lower level. Then the pattern repeats: The lower capital base generates enough resources to maintain itself day-to-day, but not long-term — eventually leading to the next big failure.

So: News Orleans can’t afford to maintain its dikes, which fail during Hurricane Katrina. Then New Orleans rebuilds, but not all the way. The new, lower tax base will be unable to maintain something else, which eventually will lead to another disaster and another contraction.

In the longer version of Marohn’s article (on his Strong Towns site), he starts prescribing rather than diagnosing:

a rational response is to start insisting that our places show a positive financial return. That will require a completely different approach to building our cities along with a completely different understanding of growth. If you need help getting started on this, check out our Starter Strategies for a Strong Town as well as our Strong Towns Placemaking Principles.



Short Notes

lt’s on: Funny fake news (Jon Stewart) is going after scary fake news (Fox).


Friday night, a same-sex marriage bill passed the Republican-controlled New York Senate, with 4 Republicans and 29 Democrats voting for it. Governor Cuomo signed it just before midnight, and it will take effect after 30 days, in late July. The NYT reports:

In New York, passage of the bill reflects rapidly evolving sentiment about same-sex unions. In 2004, according to a Quinnipiac poll, 37 percent of the state’s residents supported allowing same-sex couples to wed. This year, 58 percent of them did.

That’s a much faster increase than you can get just by the passing of an older generation. To me, it’s the natural result of the scare-tactics anti-gay activists have used. For a long time, their message has been that civilization will literally fall if men start marrying men. Such alarmism works as long as the practice is theoretical. But it starts to sound silly when New Yorkers can clearly see that civilization has not fallen in Boston or Montreal.

OK, California. You’re up.


In the current Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi writes a strangely self-defeating analysis of Michele Bachmann. He convincingly characterizes her as  a champion of the ignorant masses who feel abused by the ridicule of the educated. “Bachmann’s stature rises,” he writes, “every time she does something we laugh at.”

But he still can’t stop himself from heaping scorn on her rather than coolly cataloguing her flaws.

She is at once the most entertaining and the most dangerous kind of liar, a turbocharged cross between a born bullshit artist and a religious fanatic, for whom lying to the infidel is a kind of holy duty.

The article goes on like that. Taibbi’s rhetoric is entertaining if you already agree with him. But if you forward it to your fundamentalist cousin or aunt, they’ll think Taibbi despises people like them for not being as smart as he thinks he is. And they’ll want Bachmann to succeed, just to put Taibbi in his place.


The Des Moines Register has Romney and Bachmann neck-and-neck among likely Iowa-caucus-goers. Romney leads 23-22, but Bachmann is the second choice of 18% to Romney’s 10%. When folks realize Cain and Santorum aren’t going to make it, they’ll go to Bachmann.


In one graph, Gallup explains why Jon Huntsman is no threat to be nominated. His polling data shows two clear trends: name recognition up, positive intensity down. The more Republicans know him, the less they like him.


Another recent poll has President Obama beating all major Republicans in an unlikely place: Tennessee. Steve Singiser from Daily Kos Elections explains it like this: Tennessee is experiencing the same kind of Republican over-reach that has wrecked their poll numbers in Florida and Michigan. 2010 voters who thought they were voting for traditional Republicanism suddenly find themselves living in Kochistan.


Remember the Paul-is-dead rumor of 1969? (OK, maybe not if you’re under 50.) Well, Eguchi Aimi of the Japanese girl-band AKB48 has taken it one step further: She never existed to begin with. The uber-cute Ms. Aimi is a computer-generated synthesis of the cutest features of the other girls in the band.


Using the sad example of Chicago’s parking meters, Senator Durbin warns against the temptation to raise cash by selling off public assets at fire-sale prices. In particular he proposes that if federal money builds a local asset which the local government then sells, the feds should get their money back.


The DREAM Act, if it ever passes, is supposed to normalize the status of undocumented immigrants who came here as children and have done well since they arrived. It makes sense: The original sin belongs to their parents, not them, and they know no other country they can go back to. As they become adults, they keep breaking the law — forging documents, lying on forms — because all the other choices are worse.

Wednesday, young journalist Jose Antonio Vargas put his own face on this problem. In My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant he tells his story: He came to America from the Philippines at age 12, and found out he was here illegally at 16. But rather than pick fruit or work in a sweatshop, he got himself a job with the Washington Post and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer.

He told a lot of lies and forged a lot of documents to give himself those opportunities. But now that he has fessed up, the moral onus is on us: Do we send him back to the Philippines?


Meanwhile, the harsh new law that was supposed to keep illegal aliens out of Georgia is working. Blueberries, onions, and cucumbers are rotting in the fields. They’ve tried getting criminals to do the picking, but it’s not going so well.


In practice, “cutting the waste out of our school budget” means firing librarians.


Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser was in Justice Ann Walsh Bradley’s office last week, was asked to leave, and wound up with his hands around her neck. But it’s her fault. Just like it was Justice Shirley Abrahamson’s fault when Prosser called her a “bitch”. Those female judges … you know how they get. What’s a real man to do?


It’s been a very pro-corporate Supreme Court term, as I’ll outline after it ends next week. But the worst of it may be Sorrell v IMS Health, where corporate First-Amendment rights got their biggest boost since Citizens United. The Court threw out a Vermont law that stopped pharmacies from selling prescription data to data miners, who could then advise pharmaceutical companies on marketing to doctors. If you can see any legitimate free-speech issue there, your eyes are sharper than mine.

Vermont’s Senator Leahy called the decision “a win for data miners and large corporations and a loss for those of us who care about privacy not only in my home state of Vermont but across the nation.”


But Vermonters keep plugging with their New England common sense: They’re moving towards single-payer health care because it’s cheaper and it works better.



This Week’s Challenge

Right now Wisconsin is the central front in the struggle to defend the middle class and the public sector. Six Republican state senators and three Democrats are up for recall this summer, and the Republicans look far more vulnerable. Picking up three seats will flip the state senate to Democratic control. That would not only change the equation in Wisconsin, it would send a national message: Voters don’t support taking away workers’ rights, or cutting education to pay for corporate tax breaks.

You can contribute online through Act Blue. If you want to phone bank or volunteer in some other way, go to the Wisconsin Democratic Party web site.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at gmail.com. Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

Biases

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Reality has a well-known liberal bias.

Stephen Colbert

In this week’s Sift:

  • Propaganda Lesson: The Two-Step. If you have lots of time and resources, and you want to attack somebody, don’t just smear them directly. Establish a stereotype first, and then attach it to them. So rather than talk about what Obama does, his enemies want to talk about what he is.
  • Already Refuted 97 Years Ago. Already in 1914, the economy was too complicated for the individual consumer to exercise the kind of judgment that the Republican health-care vision implies.
  • Wisconsin Update. The Wisconsin Supreme Court excused the legislature’s unusual process by engaging in an unusual process of its own.
  • Short Notes. Past Supreme Court justices have resigned in disgrace for doing what Clarence Thomas does. Alabama outdoes Arizona’s immigration law. The Pentagon as a model of left-wing social policy. A prominent climate-change denier faked his credentials. A young adult explains why his peers don’t vote. And more.


Propaganda Lesson: The Two-Step

One of the axioms of 21st-century political campaigns is: If you’re explaining, you’re losing.

In other words: If the attack against you is simple, but the reason why it’s unfair is complicated, then you’re in trouble. Even if people listen to you long enough to understand your side of the story, you’ve lost valuable time that you could have spent spreading the vision of what you want to do when you get into office.

You saw lots of examples if you watched last Monday’s Republican debate, but my favorite was Michele Bachmann’s claim that “the Congressional Budget Office has said that Obamacare will kill 800,000 jobs.” The Washington Post’s fact-checker explains:

In dry economic language, the CBO essentially said that some people who are now in the workforce because they need health insurance would decide to stop working because the health care law guaranteed they would have access to health care. (As an example, think of someone who is 63, a couple of years before retirement, who is still in a job only because he or she is waiting to get on Medicare at age 65.)

So the CBO’s 800K has nothing to do with anybody getting fired or not finding a job. But it took a whole paragraph to explain why “Obamacare will kill 800,000 jobs” is deceptive. Advantage Bachmann.

The two-step. Obamacare-kills-jobs is a fairly direct attack. But if you have the time and the resources, a sneakier way to take advantage of the explaining-is-losing effect is to build up your attack in layers. The two-step attack works like this: Over time, you turn vaguely-defined words into negative stereotypes. Then you attack by attaching the word to your opponent.

Example: Obama is a socialist.

Last summer, the Christian Science Monitor spent two on-line pages debunking that claim. I doubt it helped.

If, like the Monitor, you want to be rational about this, you notice that the full attack is actually a syllogism: “Obama is a socialist. Socialists are bad. Therefore Obama is bad.” In order for the syllogism to be valid, the word socialist has to carry the same definition all the way through. So the article examines the evidence that Obama promotes some bad kind of socialism, and finds that he doesn’t.

It explains, so it loses.

Worse, Obama himself can’t dispute either step without seeming to concede the other: If he argues that he’s not a socialist, he seems to concede that it’s bad to be one. If he argues that socialists aren’t bad, he seems to concede that he is one.

Either argument misses the real point, because socialist represents a stereotype, not a definition. The right-wing media has been heaping scorn upon socialist and socialism for decades, so that (at least for their audience) those words evoke Pavlovian responses in the glands rather than clear concepts in the mind. Obama is a socialist doesn’t make factual claims about anything Barack Obama has ever said or done or believed. It simply says: “You know that Pavlovian response we’ve trained you to feel when you hear the word socialist? You should attach that feeling to Obama.”

No parallel. No symmetry. Liberals are easily flustered by this kind of attack, because we have no experience with it. Attacks on President Bush, for example, usually stayed close to facts and actions: Bush ordered people tortured. He wiretapped Americans without warrants. He misled us about the reasons for invading Iraq.

Those are all statements about what Bush did, not what he is. Is-statements against Bush were usually shorthand that quickly led back to his actions. Charges that Bush is a criminal refer to specific actions that broke specific laws; it isn’t just liberals throwing around a bad word. Ditto for liar or torturer. Even people who claimed that Bush was a fascist often produced a definition of fascism in fairly short order, and went about connecting his deeds with its requirements. (Keith Olbermann defined fascism as “the seamless mutuality of government and big business” and used it in response to Bush demanding immunity for law-breaking the telephone companies did on his behalf.)

Three steps. In the same way that Caesar’s army spent peaceful intervals sharpening weapons and drilling troops, a modern propaganda machine spends the time between election campaigns sharpening its stereotypes and drilling its audience in their Pavlovian responses.

By now, there is even a three-step attack on Obama. The statement that he is something (anti-American, say), is backed not by references to specific statements or actions, but by generic summaries of the kind of thing he says or does: Obama “apologizes for America” — a charge that is based on more-or-less nothing. (The WaPo fact-checker awarded four Pinocchios, their lowest rating: “The apology tour never happened.” Nonetheless, when Mitt Romney titles his book No Apology, his target audience knows what he’s contrasting himself against.)

The more steps you can put between your attack and the facts, the harder it is for anyone else to root it out of the mind of your audience once you get it established. If people believe that Obama is bad because he is anti-American because he apologizes for America, what facts will change their minds? They might have to concede that Obama doesn’t apologize for America in this or that particular speech, but what about all the others? The generic summary floats above any particular events, and isn’t contradicted when some event turns out not to have been like that.

No arms race. Usually, when an article points out something that conservatives do more effectively than liberals, the proposed solution is that we raise our game to compete. But propaganda is an area where we have to be very careful, because our goals are different than our opponents’ goals. Propaganda can serve their goals in ways that it can’t serve ours.

In the liberal vision, government is a means for the people to look out for their common and collective interests. We want government to succeed at that mission. In order for that to happen, democracy has to work. The political process needs to be trusted and trustworthy.

Conservatives — at least the plutocrats who dominate the conservative movement today — don’t need that. They want government not to be trusted, so that billionaires and corporations will be free to do as they please. So anything that raises cynicism about the political process works to their advantage. When the public discourse devolves to our lies against their lies, they win.

Worse, they win when the public polarizes into camps that live in separate realities. Think about global warming. In order to get a cap-and-trade program passed, President Obama had to get a majority in the House and 60 senators to unite around a single plan. His opponents only needed to stop that from happening. Anything that raised fear and distrust worked to their advantage, because they were not trying to pass their own plan. They just needed to prevent the American people from using government to look out for their common interest.

Liberals win when the public lives in one reality, and has a transparent discourse about that reality that reaches some kind of consensus. Our best chance to achieve that is to stay connected to facts. Stephen Colbert noticed the right correlation, but got the causality backwards: Liberals need to have a reality bias.

So when it comes to propaganda, we don’t need to raise our game. We need to raise the public’s game, so that they are less easily fooled. We need to spend our between-campaigns intervals tearing down stereotypes and educating the public, both about reality and about how propaganda works.

If we wait until the last few weeks before an election to explain that, then we really will be losing.



Already Refuted 97 Years Ago

Several Sifts have led off with quotes from commentator Walter Lippmann, who could turn a phrase better than almost anybody else in the 20th century. Well, this longer quote from Drift and Mastery (1914) explains precisely what’s wrong with the Republican Medicare-privatization plan — and what’s wrong with their whole vision of individuals negotiating their own health-care purchases:

In our intricate civilization the purchaser can’t pit himself against the producer, for he lacks knowledge and power to make the bargain a fair one. By the time goods are ready for the ultimate consumer they have travelled hundreds of miles, passed through any number of wholesalers, jobbers, middlemen and what not. The simple act of buying has become a vast, impersonal thing which the ordinary man is quite incapable of performing without all sorts of organized aid. There are silly anarchists who talk as if such organization were a loss of freedom. They seem to imagine that they can “stand alone,” and judge each thing for themselves. They might try it. They would find that the purchase of eggs was such a stupendous task that no time would be left over for the purchase of beer or the pursuit of those higher freedoms for which they are fighting.

The old commercial theorists had some inkling of these difficulties. They knew that the consumer could not possibly make each purchase a deliberate and intelligent act. So they said that if only business men were left to compete they would stumble over each other to supply the consumer with the most satisfactory goods. It is hardly necessary to point out how complete has been the collapse of that romantic theory. There are a hundred ways of competing, to produce the highest quality at the lowest cost proved to be the most troublesome and least rewarding form of competition.

Remember, Lippmann is talking about the “intricate civilization” of 1914. It was already too much for the individual consumer to handle.

Fast forward to 2011, and let’s imagine the Republican ideal of individual health-care choice. People like my 89-year-old Dad would be deciding whether or not the cut-rate MRI shop on the edge of town is safe. (Or I’d be deciding for him from a thousand miles away.) If a profit-driven doctor recommends an expensive treatment, Dad would have to look at that suggestion as skeptically as he used to look at mechanics who wanted to replace his car’s transmission. And yes, insurance companies would compete for his business — with clever advertising, deceptive slogans, fast-talking telemarketers who call at all hours, and low-premium plans that seem to cover every illness except the ones you happen to get.

That’s market competition as it really exists in America today — not the Atlas-Shrugged fantasy of high-quality/low-cost competition.

Markets respond well when they have to satisfy well-informed consumers who have the time and ability to “make each purchase a deliberate and intelligent act”. That’s why I don’t need a government inspector to check that McDonalds’ french fries are crisp enough; I have all the information I need to make a good decision for myself. But how do I determine for myself whether the Filet-O-Fish sandwich contains mercury that will make me senile 15 years from now?

Unfortunately, a well-informed consumer is a corporation’s worst-case scenario. If it can hide the relevant data, distract or confuse the buyer, and sell the sizzle instead of the steak, it will.

And if someday we arrive at their free-market health-care utopia, which side will the Republicans be on? Will they insist on strong consumer-protection regulations that force corporations to collect and reveal the information people need to make wise choices? I’m guessing not.



Wisconsin Update

This week we got another lesson on the consequences of elections: Back in April, Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser won a close re-election that played out suspiciously, but apparently honestly. Tuesday he was the deciding vote in a 4-3 decision overturning a lower court’s ruling that the legislature violated Wisconsin’s open-meetings law when it passed Governor Walker’s union-busting bill.

The gist of the ruling, as I understand it, is not that the legislature followed the law, but that it is not up to the judiciary to say whether it did or not. It is a “separation of powers” issue, in which the legislature’s “failure to follow such procedural rules amounts to an implied ad hoc repeal of such rules.”

The dissenting judges found that the Court itself was engaging in an unusual process. Ordinarily, a court hears a case either originally or as an appeal from some other court, using the factual record established by the original court. In this case, the Wisconsin Supreme Court did something in between: It granted itself original jurisdiction on a case that had already been heard by a lower court, and then made its own findings-of-fact without gathering any new evidence beyond what was in the lower court’s record.

Justice Shirley Abrahamson minced no words in her dissent:

The order and Justice Prosser’s concurrence are based on errors of fact and law. They inappropriately use this court’s original jurisdiction, make their own findings of fact, mischaracterize the parties’ arguments, misinterpret statutes, minimize (if not eliminate) Wisconsin constitutional guarantees, and misstate case law, appearing to silently overrule case law dating back to at least 1891.

Other than that, it was all good.

Wisconsin public employee unions are now filing a suit in federal court, but I’ve got my doubts that it will go anywhere.


The other theater of action in Wisconsin is the recall elections of nine senators — six Republicans and three Democrats. Here also, the Republicans are engaging in an unusual process: They have filed dummy Democratic challengers to force a Democratic primary and delay the recall elections from July 19 to sometime in mid-August.

FDL comments:

I’m a little surprised a registered Republican and a Republican county official can just run in a Democratic primary, but those are the rules in Wisconsin, apparently.

And there apparently is no concern about good government or right-and-wrong. Whatever you can get away with is what you should do.



Short Notes

ThinkProgress points out that the current ethical controversy around Clarence Thomas — namely, that he and his wife get expensive favors from a rich guy whose companies sometimes have an interest in cases before the Supreme Court — is pretty much identical to a scandal that caused LBJ-appointee Justice Abe Fortas to resign in the 1960s.

One of Thomas’ benefactors has even filed briefs in his Court since giving Thomas a $15,000 gift, and Thomas has not recused himself from each of these cases.

No one seriously expects Thomas to resign.


When I graduated from Michigan State in 1978, some congressman gave a commencement speech about farm policy. So how come another Big Ten school, Northwestern, just got Stephen Colbert?


Salon’s Steve Kornacki:

If nothing else, Monday’s Republican presidential debate made those commentators who have been touting Michele Bachmann as a serious threat to win the GOP presidential nomination look like prophets.

That would be me. Like me, Kornacki is not predicting that Bachmann will get the nomination, just that she’ll come a lot closer than the conventional wisdom suggests.

I think even Kornacki underestimates Bachmann, though, by comparing her to past religious-right candidates like Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee. Pat and Mike were religious candidates first, and sometimes gave the impression that they were making up their other positions on the fly. (Huck in particular raised fears among Club-for-Growth types that he might turn into a Sermon-on-the-Mount liberal if he took office.) But Bachmann sounds completely authentic rallying a Tea Party crowd on taxes and spending.


New evidence that life is not fair: Even in his mug shots, John Edwards looks better than I do.


Nicholas Kristof finds at least one American organization that embodies liberal principles like racial diversity, social mobility, single-payer health care, subsidized child care, educational opportunity, and keeping a lid on income inequality: the military.

But as we as a country grope for new directions in a difficult economic environment, the tendency has been to move toward a corporatist model that sees investments in people as woolly-minded sentimentalism or as unaffordable luxuries. That’s not the only model out there. So as the United States armed forces try to pull Iraqi and Afghan societies into the 21st century, maybe they could do the same for America’s.


When it passed its famous anti-immigrant law SB 1070 last year, Arizona made its bid to be America’s most racist state. But Alabama is not giving up the crown without a fight.


Salon lists some of the Arabic words that are staples of anti-Muslim rhetoric, how they’re used, and what they mean to people who actually know Islam or Arabic.


There’s a fine line between making something illegal and putting so many restrictions on it that it becomes impractical. AlterNet’s Amanda Marcotte examines 10 States Where Abortion Is Virtually Illegal for Some Women.


Last week I pointed out that the NYT had published an op-ed denouncing clean energy by someone from a Koch front-group. Mike Casey gives more details:

I’m not even expecting that the Times actually demand a factual grounding for the opinion pieces it runs. That seems to have gone out of style awhile ago. … But Bryce got away with something much more preventable: pretending he’s some sort of intellectually honest thinker when his organization has ties to dirty energy money that no one bothered to note.

And then he makes a good suggestion:

Why not have a standard for all opinion pages for papers over a certain basic level of readership requiring opinion page submission finalists to disclose financial conflicts, direct or indirect, on the subject on which they have written? … it might inject just a little bit of honesty into what is now an all-too-frequent stream of enabled propaganda.


Why don’t young people vote? I don’t know, let’s ask one.


The biggest climate-change denier in the Minnesota Senate turns out to have been lying about having any scientific background 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 keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

Impossible Things

Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

— The White Queen, Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (1871)

In this week’s Sift:

  • More Economic Nonsense. Increasingly, the debate between liberal and conservative economists has become irrelevant, as Republicans have divorced themselves from any economic theory whatsoever. Last week it was Boehner. This week it’s Pawlenty.
  • The Sifted Bookshelf: Why Marx Was Right. Terry Eagleton makes Marx understandable, and challenges us to take a second look.
  • Short Notes. The Germans plan to de-nuke. Business tax credits may kill jobs rather than create them. A Koch sock puppet denounces alternative energy in the NYT. Not only do bad decisions cause poverty, it works the other way too. Comedy: Borowitz on Palin, Colbert on Romney, Stewart on Fox. And a female Daily Show correspondent tells the sad truth about male sexting.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Check out the Sift’s twitter feed.


More Economic Nonsense

Reasonable people can argue liberal or conservative economic theories, which mostly differ the relative effectiveness of the private sector versus the public sector, and on regulations versus market incentives. But to an extraordinary extent these days, those legitimate arguments have nothing to do with the debate we’re hearing in the mainstream media. Instead, many economic ideas coming from the Right are entirely nonsensical, backed by no legitimate economic theory at all.

Last week I called out John Boehner’s claim that spending cuts would grow the economy and create jobs. (The Street Light blog does the simple arithmetic about spending, demand, and growth.) Tuesday, Boehner’s view was contradicted by that noted leftist Ben Bernanke — President Bush’s choice to run the Fed. Why? Because whatever else Bernanke might be, he’s an economist. He doesn’t want to embarrass himself in front of the other economists by spewing nonsense in public.

Tuesday, Tim Pawlenty — along with Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, supposedly the “sensible” Republican presidential candidates — came out with an utterly delusional economic plan. Its centerpiece is a tax reform that I can only describe as pro-aristocracy: Eliminate all the taxes that rich heirs would have to pay on their family legacy. Not just inheritance taxes, but taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains as well. (“When you deposit a dollar in your bank account, every penny should be forevermore yours and your children’s.”) So Muffy inherits from Mom and Dad, lives luxuriously without working a day in her life, and then passes an even larger estate down to the next generation of parasites — all tax-free.

And in case any rich people are still earning wages, let’s cut the top individual tax rate from 35% to 25%, and cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15%. And pursue a “strong dollar” policy, which is code for high interest rates. (This will prevent Muffy from losing purchasing power through inflation, and insure that her CDs pay enough to keep the summer house in good repair.)

What fills Pawlenty’s gaping revenue hole? Mostly unspecified spending cuts — a constitutional amendment to cap spending at 18% of GDP, which is impossible without big cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

So far Pawlenty’s plan isn’t irrational, it’s just class warfare. What’s irrational is how he fills the rest of the revenue hole: By assuming 5% economic growth for the next decade. He justifies that number like this:

5% growth is not a pie-in-the-sky number. … Between 1983 and 1987, the Reagan recovery grew at 4.9%.  Between 1996 and 1999,  under President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress the economy grew at more than 4.7%. In each case millions of new jobs were created, incomes rose and unemployment fell to historic lows. The same can happen again.

So 5% for a decade is reasonable because if you cherry-pick the best days of the Reagan boom and the Clinton boom, the economy maintained growth not quite that good for less than half that long. And we’ll get back there by imitating not Reagan or Clinton, but George W. Bush, whose massive tax cuts gave us the worst growth since the Depression. Plus we’ll have growth-killing high interest rates.

He also makes amazing claims like “cutting just 1% of overall federal spending for 6 consecutive years would balance the federal budget by 2017” and unverifiable ones like “federal regulations will cost our economy 1.75 trillion dollars this year alone”. Although that one might be right: Imagine how much money the chemical industry saved by dumping their waste in Love Canal instead of dealing with the kind of federal regulations we have today. Or how much Massey Energy saved by ignoring regulations about ventilating their mines. Nuclear power could cost less if no one regulated radiation. Health care and air travel could be cheaper if doctors and pilots didn’t have to have licenses or well-maintained equipment. The possible savings are endless.

You know what you won’t find in Pawlenty’s speech: the name of any economist, economic theory, or econometric model that justifies his projections. That’s because there isn’t any. It’s pure nonsense, undiluted by economic thinking of any type — liberal, conservative, whatever.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which has covered Pawlenty since his days as goveror, comments:

Pawlenty didn’t even try to support his central argument — that tax cuts and smaller government would spur astounding economic growth of 5 percent annually over 10 years — with evidence. That’s because neither economic research nor reality confirms his promise.

And have his Republican rivals called him out on his nonsense? Not yet. We’ll see if they do it in tonight’s debate, but I’m not holding my breath. More likely, Romney and Huntsman will have to offer their own nonsense to stay competitive.


While we’re talking nonsense, let’s not ignore what Republicans are saying about the debt ceiling. The academic cover for this position comes from the Mercatus Center — a wing of the Koch Empire. The New Republic debunks.


You should be reading: Brad DeLong’s economic blog Grasping Reality With Both Hands. He does a daily Virtual Green Room post, giving simple rebuttals to the economic nonsense of the day.



The Sifted Bookshelf: Why Marx Was Right by Terry Eagleton

When a thinker has had an impact on history, it’s hard to put that out of your mind and read his or her words in their original context. It’s hard not to judge Christ by the Christians, or Freud by the Freudians. Nietzsche was done writing before Hitler was born, but it is hard not to equate Nietzsche’s supermen with Hitler’s master race.

That’s what Terry Eagleton is asking us to do for Karl Marx: Put aside the distorting lens of Stalinism, Leninism, and Maoism and read Marx on his own terms — as a 19th-century critic of capitalism rather than the patron saint of 20th-century communism. The book’s main point is that most of what “everybody knows” about Marx is stereotype, not reality. Correctly understood, Marxist ideas about 19th-century capitalism still provide a lot of insight into what’s going wrong with 21st-century capitalism.

Eagleton defeats one stereotype immediately: that Marxists are dour and humorless, and that they write in an impenetrable style whose jargon is meaningful only to other Marxists. Chapters of his books begins with plainly stated present-day attacks on Marx. Chapter One, for example:

Marxism is finished. It might conceivably have had some relevance to a world of factories and food riots, coal miners and chimney sweeps, widespread misery and massed working classes. But it certainly has no bearing on the increasingly classless, socially mobile, postindustrial Western societies of the present.

Each chapter is an answer to a particular attack like this, and is written in an engaging style that doesn’t make you feel like you missed the prerequisite course. There’s no Marxist glossary in the back, and I never felt the need for one.

Capital, property, and oppression. Here’s the main definition you need in order to understand Eagleton’s version of Marxism: Capital is labor that makes future labor more productive. The purpose of clearing and plowing a field, for example, is not any immediate consumption; the purpose is to make future planting and reaping more productive.

Economic progress happens because capital accumulates, and so labor keeps getting more productive. So I’m more productive as a journalist because I can use computers, which wouldn’t be possible if people like Ben Franklin hadn’t spent countless hours experimenting with electricity. Franklin’s labor — and the labor of generations of successor scientists and engineers — is capital for me.

The fundamental mystery of economic progress, then, is: Why do people create capital? They could be laboring to produce something immediately consumable, or they could be resting or playing. Why labor to make future labor more productive?

Marx has two answers: property and oppression. A person will create capital if the surrounding society will recognize it as property. (I’ll plant in the spring if my tribe will recognize that the fall crop is mine to reap. Otherwise I probably won’t. Or I’ll clear the stumps out of a field if people will recognize it as my field, so that it is my future labor that will be more productive.)

A society’s level of technology determines what kinds of capital are possible, and that in turn determines what kinds of property the society will recognize. The Native Americans who sold Manhattan to the Dutch, for example, had no notion of what it meant to “own” an island. It would be like someone offering you trinkets in exchange for your share of the Moon. The Moon isn’t property to us, but it could be to a space-traveling society.

The other reason people create capital is oppression — someone forces them. They work, and the capital they create belongs to someone else. (Picture the slaves who dug the irrigation systems of ancient Sumer.)

Property and oppression interact. If I own all the arable land in a region, then people will work for me or they will starve. Naturally, I will set them to raising the food that they will consume. But I will also make them create capital that will belong to me, not them.

Subsistence and abundance. Looking at individuals, Marx saw two important production levels: subsistence, which is enough to keep the person alive, and abundance, the level at which a person will stop working and enjoy leisure. (When a deer is cooking, a tribal hunting band will not keep hunting. They’ll gather around the fire and tell stories.)

Looking at societies, Marx saw that any surviving society had to be achieving subsistence. But until his own era, no society had achieved a level of production that could provide abundance for everyone. For that reason, he theorized that every previous society had needed oppression to keep growing its capital. Somehow, large numbers of people had to be kept working for future productivity, even though their present needs were not being satisfied.

So when Marx looked at any historical society, he saw:

  • a technological level that determined what could be produced,
  • a definition of property appropriate to that production system,
  • a ruling class that owned the vast majority of the defined property,
  • a system of oppression that forced everyone else to labor at creating capital for the ruling class.

He wasn’t judgmental about this. It was just the way things had to be if a society was going to grow its capital to a point where it could provide abundance. (How, for example, could ancient peoples have invented writing — a great capital improvement for the rest of history — if slaves hadn’t supported a class that had the time to think about such things?)

But in his own era, Marx believed that abundance-for-everybody was finally possible, because the highly efficient oppression of capitalism had accumulated enough capital to make labor sufficiently productive. If only the fruits of labor could be properly distributed, everybody could work enough to produce abundance for himself/herself, and then stop and enjoy leisure. To the extent that capital needed to develop further, it could be a kind of play — like Ben Franklin mucking about with electricity or volunteers creating the Wikipedia.

In Marx’s era (and even moreso today) considerable effort went into controlling production, so that overproduction didn’t swamp the markets and ruin the capitalists. So you frequently had (and have) fallow fields, idle factories, unemployed workers, un-used raw materials — and people whose needs go unsatisfied.

This state-of-affairs Marx did get judgmental about, because he believed we could finally be done with systems of oppression. The only thing that prevented this happy development was that society was still organized around the goal of growing capitalists’ capital as fast as possible. He believed that a revolution was necessary to re-orient the economy towards producing abundance-for-everybody rather than ever-increasing capital for the ruling class.

So what didn’t Marx foresee? Several things. He didn’t foresee the European welfare state, which produces something like abundance-for-everybody by taxing capitalism rather than overthrowing it. He also didn’t foresee the extent to which technology could create new products and advertising could create dissatisfaction, so that people would keep working for iPhones and HDTVs and designer jeans even after they had achieved a 19th-century level of abundance.

But mainly he didn’t foresee that communist revolutions would happen in countries like Russia and China, which hadn’t accumulated enough capital yet to provide abundance. So he didn’t anticipate Stalinism: communist oppression to build mines, factories, and other productive capital. The kind of revolution Marx expected — one in a highly developed capitalist economy like England — has never happened.

Say you want a revolution? To Marx, it goes without saying that the ruling class rules for its own benefit, and preserves the institutions that solidify its power. Everything putters along nicely as long as the interests of the ruling class are in line with the economic possibilities of the era, and its institutions are socially productive.

But sooner or later new possibilities develop, and those possibilities line up with the interests of a new class. Eventually that class achieves enough consciousness to understand its potential, and then you have a tug-of-war until the new class comes out on top. The prime example here was what Europe had recently gone through: the transfer of power from the feudal aristocracy to the businessmen. Unlike the suddens spasms of the French or Russian Revolutions, the feudalism/capitalism revolution played out over centuries.

The symptoms of a revolution, then, are also symptoms of a ruling class being out of joint with its times. The institutions, traditions, concepts, and categories that support the ruling class become baggage rather than assets. Society has to do complicated tricks to keep them functioning, and they seem increasingly artificial rather than natural. (To see how artificial feudal traditions looked in the early capitalist era, read Jane Austen.)

In this context, it’s interesting to look back at Martin Ford’s The Lights in the Tunnel, which I reviewed two weeks ago. Ford is worrying about how we will provide human jobs in an era of intelligent machines, and so continue to have enough viable consumers to keep a consumer market economy going. He winds up with elaborate systems to pay people for socially productive behaviors that aren’t considered “jobs” today.

Whatever you may think of Ford’s specific suggestions, they’re a symptom. Capitalist-era concepts like jobs and profits are starting to hobble economic thinking rather than facilitate it. Increasingly, the problem isn’t how to produce stuff and distribute it; the problem is how to produce stuff at a profit and distribute it by paying people to work jobs.

Now that the 19th-century proletariat is shrinking, I don’t have a clue what class Marx would think is achieving consciousness or what re-definitions could make the economy work for them. But it sure looks like this era is getting long in the tooth.



Short Notes

Imagine: The Germans are planning to live without nuclear power by 2022. You couldn’t even start that discussion here.


Encouraging new tech: better batteries and solar panels. Even without these developments, solar power has reached the point where it can make sense for homeowners who live in the right place and have sufficient ingenuity. My friend Malacandra blogs about the installation process.

NYT readers might wonder what the point is, though, after reading an op-ed about the hidden costs of solar and wind power written by Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute. The Times does not mention that MI is yet another academic tentacle of the Koch octopus, which (as is so often the case) will profit directly if you accept their propaganda at face value. The Class M blog debunks.


Tax breaks for business investment are supposed to create jobs, as companies expand production and buy tools from American factories. But in a low-demand globalized environment, companies might buy machines overseas to automate jobs in the U.S.


Middle-class people often look at the poor and think, “I’d make better decisions than that.” New psychological research indicates that the poor would make better decisions too — if they didn’t have to make so many of them. The kinds of trade-offs that confront the poor turn out to be inherently draining. If you have to make too many such choices, you exhaust your mental stamina and start choosing badly.

Translate that insight to the conservative health-care vision, where we all manage our own care and are constantly seeking the best value. How many vital decisions could you make on iffy information before you just started picking stuff at random?


The funniest reaction to the Anthony Weiner fiasco: the Daily Show’s Kristen Schaal telling men the sad truth about penis photos.


Check out Andy Borowitz’s parody of Sarah Palin’s history tour. At Monticello, Sarah says:

at a time of our history when the American people needed leadership, it was Jefferson who said the immortal words, “We’re movin’ on up.”


Stephen Colbert takes apart Mitt Romney’s claim to be a private-sector job-creator. Actually, he made his money as a job-destroyer.


More comedy: Texas traded to Mexico in 4-state deal. We get Baha, Yucatan, and a state to be named later.


Watch Glenn Greenwald’s speech on corporate-media propaganda to the Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting conference.


You’d think this would be obvious: Food service workers need paid sick days.


Vyan speculates that Jon Stewart is inoculating his viewers against Fox News.


If Wisconsin’s Walker administration is for the common man, then why is it attacking craft beer brewers and credit unions?



This Week’s Challenge

This one isn’t very challenging. If you do Twitter, check out the brand new @weeklysift. It’s the easy way to get the Link of the Day, and to be notified when a new Sift goes up on the blog.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at gmail.com. Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

Nostalgia

The men who talk most about reverence for the American Constitution are the last people in the world to welcome a study of its origin. For the conservative is not devoted to a real past. He is devoted to his own comfortable image of it.

— Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery (1914)

In this week’s Sift:

  • The Constitution as Symbol. Tea Party leaders constantly claim to revere the Constitution and the Founding Fathers who wrote it. So why do they know so little about either? It’s simple: To them the Constitution is a nostalgic symbol, not a reality.
  • Tea Buyer’s Remorse. New Tea Party governors have very quickly become unpopular. How they did it.
  • The Economy: Dip or Dive? Housing down, unemployment up. Was May just a glitch, or is the recovery over already?
  • Short Notes. Is the Ryan budget “courageous”? Koch’s congressman doesn’t deny being bought. Two fun inventions and one very important one. The Air Force Academy clears itself of religious discrimination. Ayn Rand and the religious right are strange allies. And Vermont bucks the rightward trend with single-payer health insurance.
  • This Week’s Challenge. As the Right unifies around nostalgia, what can the Left unify around?


The Constitution as Symbol

Tea Party rhetoric is full of references to “the Constitution” as it was written by “our Founding Fathers”. But anyone who paid attention in U.S. History class is often bewildered: What are they talking about?

Case in point: Herman Cain. Tuesday, ThinkProgress linked to a Cain radio piece from October, where he lectured his listeners about how the federal government “has no jurisdiction over bankruptcy law”. Strange that a Constitutionalist like Cain didn’t know Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which enumerates the powers of Congress:

To establish a uniform rule of naturalization, and uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcies throughout the United States;

Or who can forget Michele Bachmann’s claim that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more” and that “once you got here, we were all the same” — as if slavery had not been institutionalized in the Constitution, as if it didn’t last until well after all the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were dead, and as if many of the Founders were not slave-owners themselves? Or Bachmann’s misplacement of The-Shot-Heard-Round-the-World in Concord, NH rather than Concord, MA.

Or Sarah Palin’s backwards and self-serving understanding of the First Amendment? (She thinks it protects her from the press, not the other way around.) Or (just this Thursday) her garbling of Paul Revere’s ride?

The Onion was spot-on with this parody: Area Man Passionate Defender of What He Imagines Constitution To Be. Tea Partiers don’t venerate the real Constitution or the real Founders, but a Constitution and a founding generation that exists only in their imaginations.

The Constitution as scripture. The template here comes from fundamentalist religion: The Constitution is like scripture, and the Founders are its prophets. (Tea Party Patriots pushes a curriculum explicitly teaching that the Constitution was divinely inspired.) Like fundamentalist scripture, the Constitution is to be revered, but not thought about too deeply. You read it with your heart, not with your eyes and brain.

Wise as many of the Founders were, the real Constitutional Convention wasn’t trying to write scripture. It was trying make a nation out of 13 newly independent states that had as many differences as similarities. So the actual Constitution was full of compromises between high ideals and unfortunate facts-on-the-ground like slavery.

We’ve been fixing that Constitution ever since: freeing the slaves, giving women the right to vote, disestablishing the state churches and so on. Plus, the Constitution has required regular maintenance: We have to keep reinterpreting time-bound phrases like “the right to bear arms” and “freedom of the press” so that they stay meaningful in an age of atomic warheads and the internet.

But that just gets us back to the original question: If the Tea Partiers aren’t talking about the real Constitution, what are they talking about?

Nostalgia. A David Roberts article on the Grist blog (which I’ll get back to in the Challenge) lays a foundation for answering that question:

[T]he American right grows ever more homogeneous: ethnically, socioculturally, and ideologically. … Precisely because it is homogeneous, the right is intense. There is no political force more potent than a privileged class in the process of losing its privilege. The right base sees itself as an Us beset on all sides by Thems; cries Michele Bachmann, “are we going to take our country back?”

The emotional engine that powers the Tea Party is nostalgia. But the specifics — what the base is nostalgic for — can’t be spoken in so many words. Some of it is morally suspect: nostalgia for white, Christian, or male privilege, or for a time when gays were in the closet and non-English-speakers whispered to each other because they were ashamed of their ignorance.

Another part of the nostalgia can’t be spoken because the billionaire backers of the Tea Party want it suppressed: nostalgia for a time when employers had to respect the power of workers to unionize and strike, when economic growth was widely shared rather than captured by the rich, when one factory job could support a family.

Nostalgia that can’t be spelled out needs to be symbolized. The Constitution — the fantasy Constitution written by divinely inspired prophets — is that symbol. If you are part of the conservative base, it symbolizes a time when life was easier for vaguely defined “people like me”, when you didn’t have to make room for people whose religions and worldviews are different or care whether or not you were insulting them, when you could be treated with respect and be confident about your future.

Some of that is a worthy fantasy and some of it isn’t, but it has nothing to do with the real Constitution.

Counter-attack. Understanding this nostalgia can help liberals frame their counter-attack: We need to spell out the parts of the nostalgia that the Koch brothers want to suppress. Corporatism is not nostalgic. Union-busting is an ugly part of our history that working-class Americans do not pine for. Deregulation sounds wonderful when you think of the sod-busters of the frontier, but less wonderful when you think of miners trapped underground. That part of the past is coming back, and it’s not pretty.

Liberals have their own nostalgia to promote: the budget surplus of Bill Clinton, FDR’s establishment of Social Security, Lyndon Johnson’s establishment of Medicare, the unionization that made American factories safe and brought American workers into the middle class. There have been times when working people stood together against the rapacious rich, and made society work for the many rather than the few.

Remember?


Herman Cain himself is a symbol, which is why his candidacy is has been taking off. Being black, he is a symbolic answer to the charge that the Tea Party is racist. (You can see that we’re-not-racists sentiment very clearly throughout the nostalgic Herman Cain Train music video. “Eat your words,” Cain says to those who charge the Tea Party with racism.)

The racism charge stings because it is 80% true. Its truth makes it hard to dismiss, but the 20% falsehood makes it feel genuinely unfair. Let’s sort it out: If racism means a reflexive hatred of black skin, the Tea Party is not racist and Cain proves it. He has black skin and they don’t hate him.

But if racism means that blacks come to the plate with two strikes — as I think it does in today’s America — so far Cain has proved nothing. Let him swing and miss once, and we’ll see if he’s called out. So far, his rhetoric is down-the-line what billionaires and nostalgic whites want to hear. But if (just once) he wants to go in the “wrong” direction, we’ll see if he gets a white candidate’s share of the benefit of the doubt.


The Constitution/Bible analogy explains something else: why Republicans keep confusing the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution. Herman Cain did it (seconds after scolding “we need to re-read the Constitution”). John Boehner did it (while waving a pocket copy of the Constitution). It happens fairly often.

Why? It’s simple: The Declaration is the old testament of the Constitution.



Tea Buyer’s Remorse

Since February, PPP has polled eight states that elected Republican governors in 2010: Seven of them would like a do-over. Nevada would vote for Gov. Brian Sandoval over Democrat Rory Reid (Harry’s son) again, and by almost the same margin. But John Kasich’s 2-point win in Ohio in November would be a 25-point loss today. Rick Scott’s 1-point win in Florida is now a 19-point deficit. In Wisconsin, Scott Walker’s 6-point advantage has turned into a 7-point hole. Pennsylvania’s Tom Corbett went from up-5 to down-9. And so on. Even won’t-he-run-for-president Chris Christie in New Jersey has seen his approval fall.

What happened? It’s simple. In state after state, Republicans ran vague times-are-tough, we-need-more-jobs, I-share-your-values campaigns. (Check out John Kasich ads like this and this and this.) Immediately after taking office, they implemented radical plans that were remarkably uniform across state lines: bust the unions (Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Michigan), make it harder for people to vote (Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio), cut education (Pennsylvania, Florida, New Jersey, Wisconsin), cut Medicaid (Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania) or even privatize it (Florida) — while continuing to cut taxes for corporations (Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin). Other than the corporate tax cuts, it’s hard to find any mention of these specifics in last fall’s campaign.

Despite the campaign message that the Tea Party movement was about government spending, not social issues, Tea-Party-supported governors and their legislatures have passed a raft of laws restricting abortion. (Rachel Maddow has been doing a great job of covering abortion restrictions in her Really Big Government series.) Collateral damage includes women’s health in general: The federal government is challenging the legality of Indiana’s defunding of Planned Parenthood (similar to efforts in North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, and Tennessee). The state funds were not used for abortions, but for contraception, cancer screenings, STD testing, and other important services.

Citizens haven’t taken all this lying down. The Wisconsin union-busting drama (with its Democratic senators escaping to Illinois, 100,000-person demonstrations, and fly-by-night votes in the legislature that are overturned by the courts) has reached its next milestone: Of the eight Republican senators that were eligible for recall petitions, six will face new elections this summer. (Republicans tried to gin up interest in recalling the eight eligible Democratic senators, but they ended up filing petitions on only three of them. The state has yet to rule on their validity, due to allegations of fraudulent tactics — like telling people the petition was for something else.)

The Ohio union-busting law is on hold pending a petition drive to put it on the ballot in November. (The law is polling badly). A recall petition is circulating against Michigan’s Gov. Snyder, and Wisconsin’s Walker is bound to face a recall when he becomes eligible in January. (Wisconsin law won’t let voters recall an official who hasn’t served a year yet.)

That’s a lot of change for seven months. If you want to keep the momentum going in the right direction, consider supporting We Are Wisconsin as it starts campaigning in the recall elections.



Economy: Dip or Dive?

There’s no point trying to put a good face on it: The economic news last week was bad. Tuesday, a key housing-market index fell past the low it hit in 2009. Wednesday, bad news about the job market started coming out, culminating in Friday’s report from the Labor Department. It showed that the economy added only 54,000 jobs in May — well below the 100-150K needed to keep up with population growth. Consequently, the unemployment rate edged up to 9.1%. The Dow Jones average dropped 2.4% (about 300 points) for the week.

Economic writers spent a lot of time arguing about whether this was (1) the start of another downturn, so recently after the last one; or (2) a hiccup in an already slow stop-and-start recovery. The consensus, as best I could piece it together, was (2), but that the hiccup has moved us into perilous territory where unpredictable bad luck — a natural disaster, terrorist attack, or surprise corporate bankruptcy — could trigger (1).

The explanation I found most plausible was from New Deal Democrat on the Bonddad blog. Here are the key features of the problem:

  • Overall, we have a demand problem. Recoveries are usually pushed along by consumer spending, but most consumers have not seen much from the recovery yet. (Almost all the gains so far have gone to the wealthy.)
  • If the world is not already at peak oil production, it’s close. There’s no longer any button the Saudis can push to put more oil on the market.
  • Given that oil production is more-or-less fixed, any increase in world demand raises the price.
  • Consequently, economic recovery is self-stifling: Growth raises demand for oil which raises the price of gasoline. Higher gas prices take money away from low-to-middle-income consumers, the people most likely to spend. So demand drops, shutting off growth.

That’s why we have a stop-and-start recovery to begin with. Why it’s stopping right now, NDD claims, is partly random and partly due to the Japan tsunami, which has screwed up supply chains around the world.

So we should cross our fingers and try not to panic for the next few months. If there’s no additional shock to the system, we should get back to bumpy growth soon.


If you feed “jobs report” into Google News, you’ll notice something interesting: The unemployed are just tokens on somebody else’s gameboard. Articles focus on how the jobs report will affect the stock market or Obama’s chances for re-election — not what it means to people who need jobs.

This reflects something Tom Stites was talking about in 2006: Newspapers target the top 40% of the economic pyramid. Everybody else is invisible until they affect the top 40%.


This was sadly predictable:

Top Republicans on Friday said an increase in the jobless rate underscored the need for President Barack Obama to get personally involved in talks to cut government spending to help stimulate economic growth.

In case you’re wondering, no econometric model in the world predicts that cutting government spending will stimulate near-term economic growth or create jobs. And it’s not working anywhere that has tried it. But John Boehner can say stuff like this and have it reported seriously in the national media.

Three days before, Naked Capitalism’s Philip Pilkington explained how this kind of thing happens: TV talking-head economics has become a morality play, not a social science:

Politicians and economic commentators play into this by acting out various roles. They’re not simply lying – indeed, to an extent they seem to believe in the part they play, even though they know that what they are saying is misleading. But to step outside of the play – to pull a Brechtian manoeuvre and bring the audience in on the truth – would make them appear crazy; nothing, after all, appears quite so crazy as when someone starts telling too much truth. So the commentators and politicians get caught up in a slipstream of misleading nonsense – all the while furthering their careers.


Nicholas Kristof points out where the conservative economic program goes. There already is a country with low taxes, traditional religious values, a strong military, and industry unburdened by environmental or worker-safety regulations: Pakistan.

I spend a fair amount of time reporting in developing countries, from Congo to Colombia. They’re typically characterized by minimal taxes, high levels of inequality, free-wheeling businesses and high military expenditures. Any of that ring a bell?

Liberal values, on the other hand, are embodied in countries like Germany and Norway. Where would you rather live?



Short Notes

Katrina vanden Heuvel notes the change: Political courage used to mean doing the right thing and suffering the consequences. Now it means “making the hard choices” — i.e., deciding which powerless people you’re going to stick it to. Paul Ryan’s budget gives tax cuts to his rich base and sticks it to the old and the poor. There’s nothing “courageous” about it.

A really courageous Republican would tell his base this truth: We got here by cutting taxes. After you eliminate everything that could conceivably be called “waste”, we’re still going to need more revenue.


Congressman Mike Pompeo’s district contains the Koch Industries headquarters, and they’re his biggest contributor. When National Journal asks whether he’s been “influenced” by the Koch brothers, he responds like the Koch PR department:

Koch Industries is an amazing business that has succeeded by building a product that customers love dearly. The folks who run Koch are very clear. They would love to have government just get out of the way and allow companies to compete, whether in their particular sectors or other sectors.

Translation: “Yes, I am bought and paid for. You got a problem with that?”


Geek Power. This guy from Prague has a great idea: If there’s no bike lane, make your own. The projector on his bike adds dotted lines and a bicycle symbol to the pavement in front of him.

If TVs in public places annoy you, this woman has a device to turn them off sewn into her jacket.

And this invention will change lives in poor countries: inexpensive glasses you can tune yourself — no optometrist needed.


I’ve posted before about the Christianist take-over of the Air Force Academy and other military training programs. Chris Rodda (author of “Liars for Jesus: the Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History“) reports the latest: The Air Force Academy has done an investigation and cleared itself. One faculty member commented to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation: “You don’t do proper research with a self-selected sample — unless, of course, you are fishing for the answers you already want.”

Meanwhile, the MRFF claims that the Academy still contains a group of at least 100 cadets who fake being fundamentalist Christians so that they’ll be left alone.


Uh-oh. Somebody just told the religious right that Ayn Rand was an atheist.


While other states have been taking a sharp turn to the right, Vermont is moving towards single-payer health insurance. The motivation combines Bernie-Sanders-style liberalism with traditional Yankee thrift: Why are we sending all that money to out-of-state insurance companies who don’t contribute anything to the healing process?



This Week’s Challenge

Grist’s David Roberts observes that the Right has a lot of homogeneity — racially, culturally, religiously. That gives them unity and intensity, even as they shrink demographically. The Left, on the other hand, is “a contentious coalition of Thems”. Hence this question:

What vision of America’s future is broad enough to inspire and cohere the left’s fractious coalition but specific enough to distinguish it from the conservative status quo? What new narrative can turn the gaze of the country’s elite away from rosy-tinged nostalgia for frontier libertarianism and white privilege?

Any answers out there?

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