Being Them

It’s easy sometimes for the [immigration] discussion to take on a feeling of us versus them. And when that happens, a lot of folks forget that most of us used to be them.

— President Barack Obama (Tuesday)

This week everybody was talking about immigration

The early part of a new presidential term is a magic moment for discussing the country’s real problems and what might be done about them. At the beginning of Obama’s first term we talked about how to stimulate the economy and expand access to healthcare. This time we’re talking about guns, immigration, and (maybe soon) climate change.

There’s no guarantee anything will get done, but isn’t it wonderful to be talking about something real? “Why can’t we do this all the time?” you wonder, and I have no answers.

So this week a bipartisan group of senators presented their immigration framework and President Obama responded by presenting his. (A bipartisan group in the House is still working on its plan.) Each has four parts, and the parts are remarkably similar: border security, a path to citizenship for people currently in the country illegally, and stopping undocumented workers from getting jobs are mentioned in both. Obama talks about “streamlining our legal immigration system” while the senators’ proposal seems a little more specifically business-focused: “admitting future workers to serve our nation’s workforce needs” — but those goals seem compatible.

At this point, both proposals are just lists of principles; there is no actual immigration bill yet. So a lot can still go wrong. Maybe the details will be hard to hash out, or maybe the two sides aren’t as serious as they look. We’ll see.

Republicans and the Hispanic vote. The one lesson Republicans seem to have learned from November is that they need more Hispanic votes. But opinions on how to get them vary.

Some think it will be enough to showcase more Hispanic names and faces. Put Marco Rubio or maybe Ted Cruz on the 2016 ticket, they think, and the Hispanic problem goes away. (The same people thought Sarah Palin would bring Hillary Clinton’s female supporters to John McCain. It didn’t work out.)

Another school believes Republicans just have to change their rhetoric. Stop talking about “sending them all back” or “anchor babies”, stop taking public stands against immigration reform, and presto!

Another faction thinks it’s pointless even to try. National Review promotes the same you-aren’t-good-enough-to-vote-for-us message that worked so well for Mitt Romney:

While many [Hispanics] are in business for themselves, they express hostile attitudes toward free enterprise in polls. They are disproportionately low-income and disproportionately likely to receive some form of government support. More than half of Hispanic births are out of wedlock. Take away the Spanish surname and Latino voters look a great deal like many other Democratic constituencies. Low-income households headed by single mothers and dependent upon some form of welfare are not looking for an excuse to join forces with Paul Ryan and Pat Toomey. Given the growing size of the Hispanic vote, it would help Republicans significantly to lose it by smaller margins than they have recently. But the idea that an amnesty is going to put Latinos squarely in the GOP tent is a fantasy.

Finally, somewhere inside the GOP may lie a faction that genuinely wants to represent Hispanic Americans and solve the nation’s immigration problem. Maybe they will succeed, or maybe the party will be happy just to have a plausible way to blame the Democrats when immigration reform fails yet again. We’ll see.

Guest workers. Most pundits are focusing on border security, but I think the detail most likely to sink the whole plan is how to handle “guest workers” — people we allow to enter the country to do a job, and then send back home without any chance for permanent residency or citizenship.

Guest workers make sense in two circumstances: if our need for workers is genuinely temporary (as it was when so many of our citizens were overseas fighting World War II), or if the workers themselves have no interest in staying. (A young Mexican might want to come north for the tomato harvest or to work in a kitchen for a year or so, and then go home with a little spending money.) But if we’re bringing in workers to fill a long-term need, then it should be up to them whether they want to stay and pursue citizenship. Otherwise we’re just giving the business community an exploitable working class that can’t vote.

The labor market. I am sick of hearing about “jobs Americans won’t do”. This is the only kind of market failure conservatives believe in. I believe that there are many jobs Americans won’t do for a Mexican wage, but there is a market-clearing wage that will get those jobs done in America by Americans.

People who believe in jobs-Americans-won’t-do point to the experience of Georgia and Alabama, where anti-immigrant laws resulted in crops rotting in the fields. To me, this is what would happen in any import-dominated market if imports (in this case, imported workers) were suddenly cut off. If we banned imports of, say, laptop computers, there would be a shortage in the stores until the domestic manufacturers tooled up. But that wouldn’t imply that “there are products American companies won’t make”.

What we found out in Georgia and Alabama is that low-skill work like harvesting vegetables isn’t no-skill work. You can’t take random people out of the unemployment line and expect them to have the required skill and stamina. Again, if you are paying an illegal-immigrant wage and people aren’t sure whether the immigrants will come back or not, native Alabamans and Georgians are not going to invest a lot of effort in improving their harvesting.

If growers had to pay an American wage to get their vegetables harvested, a lot of current arrangements wouldn’t make sense, and it would take a while for the market to adjust. (Maybe there are some crops that it doesn’t make sense to grow in America, or maybe consumers will have to get used to paying higher prices.) But many industries suffer cost shocks of one sort or another, and the market works it out eventually.

That’s exactly what markets are good at, as conservatives ought to know.

If we discover that we are generally short of workers after the market settles on an American wage for jobs currently being done by undocumented immigrants, then we need more documented immigrants who have the option of seeking citizenship, not guest workers.

… and we’re still talking about guns

which is kind of amazing when you think about it. Six weeks after Sandy Hook, the NRA still hasn’t managed to shut this down.

Different this time?

Increasingly, the NRA is having trouble defending itself and its minions, much less achieving its goals. Groups like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Mayor Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC, and Mayors Against Illegal Guns (whose SuperPAC also has Mayor Bloomberg’s financial backing) are making politicians pay a price for their NRA A-rating. Here, CSGV goes after Georgia Democratic Congressman John Barrow, using footage from his own pro-gun campaign ad.

IndependenceUSA ran this ad against Debbie Halvorson, a candidate running in a special election congressional primary in Chicago:

In a debate, one of Halvorson’s rivals said, “I got an F (grade) from the NRA, something I’m proud of.”

This doesn’t work all over the country yet, but it doesn’t have to. In recent years, the NRA’s agenda has gotten support from representatives whose constituents lean the other way, just because there has been no perceived price to giving in to the powerful gun lobby. Now there is.

The NRA itself is facing an increasing level of criticism. Long-term, the most damaging charge is probably this one, taken from an article by Tim Dickinson in the current Rolling Stone:

Billing itself as the nation’s “oldest civil rights organization,” the NRA still claims to represent the interests of marksmen, hunters and responsible gun owners. But over the past decade and a half, the NRA has morphed into a front group for the firearms industry, whose profits are increasingly dependent on the sale of military-bred weapons like the assault rifles used in the massacres at Newtown and Aurora, Colorado.

On paper the NRA is governed by its members, but member-power is hard to exercise. NRA members did not, for example, elect their most visible spokesman, CEO Wayne LaPierre, who has served since 1991. He was chosen by a 76-member board. One-third of that board comes up for election each year, when members who have been paying dues for at least five years are presented with a slate of candidates chosen by a 10-member nominating committee (which I think is also chosen by the board). Theoretically it would be possible for the members to change leadership by electing write-in candidates, but in practice it’s hard to imagine. One charismatic reformer in one election couldn’t do it. A reform movement would have to field a slate of candidates over several years, and by the second year gun-industry money would pour into the incumbent campaigns.

Dickinson lays out the money trail, estimating that corporate donors like Ruger, Beretta, Browning, and Remington have given the NRA $52 million in recent years.

Much like elite funders of a major political party, these Golden Ringers enjoy top access to decision-makers at the NRA. Their interests, not the interest of the $35-a-year member, rule the roost. “They’ve got this base of true believers that they mail their magazines out to,” says policy analyst Diaz. “But the NRA is really about serving this elite.”

It’s one thing for a politician to point to an A-grade from the NRA as support from America’s sportsmen. It’ll be a different matter entirely if the public comes to see it as evidence that s/he has been bought by the firearms industry.

This kind of thing — turning an organization’s support into a negative — has happened before: Conservatives did it to the ACLU, most notably in the Dukakis/Bush race of 1988. ACORN was driven out of existence entirely. They’re trying — unsuccessfully, so far — to do the same to Planned Parenthood.

I can’t remember liberals ever pulling this trick off against a conservative organization. But it deserves to happen to anybody, it deserves to happen to the NRA.

Stephen King has written a very interesting piece called “Guns”. It’s available as a Kindle single for 99 cents, or Amazon Prime members can borrow it for free.

The most interesting section is when King discusses his own role in school shootings and what he did about it. As a teen-ager, he wrote a school-shooting novel called Rage. More than one school shooter, King discovered years later, had been reading Rage.

He does not apologize for writing it, because he believes it expresses a certain truth about the teen-boy experience. And he doesn’t believe that his novel “broke” the shooters; rather “they found something in my book that spoke to them because they were already broken.”

Nonetheless he did take Rage off the market, because it’s an “accelerant”, as he puts it.

I didn’t pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it; I was protected under the First Amendment, and the law couldn’t demand it. I pulled it because in my judgment it was hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do.

Ultimately, King’s proposals are similar to President Obama’s: background checks, assault weapon ban, ban on large magazine clips, and so on. But what’s most interesting is how he imagines these changes coming about: Gun owners (like him) need to demand them — in spite of the NRA — because it’s the responsible thing to do.

The Atlantic takes on the argument that the Second Amendment is a defense against tyranny. When people make that claim, they’re usually picturing the Minutemen, who really were a “well-organized militia” accountable to the community. (They also didn’t have much to do with winning the Revolutionary War.) But self-selected gangs of armed civilians are only effective defenders of democracy in fantasies like Red Dawn.

The right parallel in American history isn’t Lexington and Concord in 1776, it’s Bleeding Kansas in 1856-58, when pro- and anti-slavery gunmen traded atrocities.

a citizen uprising at any point in the foreseeable future would probably not involve like-minded constitutionalists taking up arms to defend democracy and liberty. It would more likely be a matter of one aggrieved social group attacking another. And for the most criminal and vicious members of society, the rationale of “protecting” their own rights would be a convenient justification for straight-up looting, robbery, and bloodshed.

The week’s stupidest controversy happened after the New Republic asked President Obama “Have you ever fired a gun?” and Obama replied “Up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time.”

Since this off-hand remark was apparently the most important thing happening in America, conservatives from Fox News to Congress to CNN’s Erin Burnett demanded proof. Even the WaPo’s fact-check column weighed in, as if this were a claim about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction or something.

“If he is a skeet shooter, why have we not heard of this?” asked Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn. “Why have we not seen photos?” — a question that Jon Stewart rephrased as: “Why won’t the black man half the country lives in fear of release a picture of himself with a gun?”

Maybe they were hoping for another Dukakis-in-a-tank photo. But Obama doesn’t look too bad. BagNews (a blog focused on analyzing political imagery) comments:

the critics and conservatives have short-sightedly forced Obama into releasing one of the most advantageous photos of his presidency.

Are they happy now? Or can we expect Donald Trump and Sheriff Arpaio to declare the picture a fake? notes that the photo was posted “after all the uproar” and says that in spite of the White House’s claims  “When this photo was taken is anybody’s guess.” Why didn’t I think of that? Obama must have flown someplace where the leaves are still green so that he could fake a photo to end this damaging “uproar”.

… and you also might be interested in …

Wednesday, the Sift’s most popular post of all time (“The Distress of the Privileged“) got its 200,000th page view.

As the fiscal debate shifts to the defense cuts in the looming sequester, it’s worth taking a look at how our defense spending compares with the rest of the world.

You’ll sometimes see a smaller number — something in the $525 billion range — but that’s just “core” defense spending. It leaves out the cost of the wars we’re fighting, plus defense-oriented spending that appears in the intelligence or energy budgets. Columbia Journalism Review lays out the range of numbers that have some claim to measure “defense spending”. Even the $711 billion pictured above leaves out stuff like military pensions.

If you watched the Super Bowl, maybe you saw an ad for SodaStream, the company that wants you to save money and the environment by carbonating your own water, adding flavorings yourself, and reusing the same bottles many times.

But you didn’t see this cute ad, because CBS censored it, apparently because it directly makes fun of Coke and Pepsi, who are much bigger CBS advertisers.

It was OK for Pepsi to make fun of Coke in past Super Bowl ads, but that’s Goliath-on-Goliath action. In the “free” market (where CBS is “free” to censor ads it doesn’t want to show), Davids have to play by different rules. If you want a marketplace where everybody plays by the same rules … that requires government regulation. And (as we all know) regulation kills “freedom”.

Be careful what “news” articles you share on Facebook; the satire at The Daily Currant is getting harder and harder to separate from real life. I was almost fooled by Lehman Brothers CEO Arrested For Accounting Fraud, and the headlines Ann Coulter Refuses to Board Airplane With Black Pilot and Rush Limbaugh Denied Service at Mexican Restaurant are kinda-sorta plausible (especially if you never liked those two anyway). As you get deeper into the stories, though, you ought to catch on — like when Tim Pawlenty is quoted saying this about the Lehman arrest:

“I don’t mind being tough on crime. But I would prefer if the government stuck to prosecuting black and Latino people for drug offenses.”

But the pastor who stiffed the waitress at Applebee’s — that really happened. And the story just keeps getting worse.

It wasn’t enough for Pastor Alois Bell to cross out the 18% automatic tip that Applebee’s computer generates for large parties. (The $34.93 is Bell’s part of a split check, not the total.) It wasn’t even enough to add “I give God 10%. Why do you get 18?” and append “Pastor” to her signature.

When a photo of the ticket went viral on Reddit and the story was picked up by news sites all over the country, Bell had a chance to turn the other cheek, or maybe even treat the waitress to a Triple Chocolate Meltdown and see if they can’t laugh about this together now that it’s in the past. I mean, WWJD?

[OK, Jesus probably wouldn’t stiff a waitress and then brag about tithing in the first place, but WWJD is supposed to apply to all kinds of situations Jesus would never get into.]

We all picture Jesus in our own ways, but I doubt he would call Applebee’s and demand that everyone responsible for the embarrassment be fired, as Bell did. So the $3.50-an-hour waitress who photographed and posted the check (not the stiffed waitress, at least) is out on the street. I’m sure that will solve Bell’s public relations problem.

Fortunately for Pastor Bell, her God is more merciful than she is. A less forgiving deity might demand that everyone responsible for His embarrassment be “fired”.

I don’t watch HBO’s Girls. I tried in Season 1, but I’m not young enough, female enough, or New Yorky enough to get into it.

But Season 2 has sparked some fascinating discussion of Lena Dunham’s nude scenes. Now, naked women on HBO is old news. (Game of Thrones rarely makes it through half an episode without somebody’s breasts getting into the picture somehow.) But unlike the babes of Westeros, Dunham doesn’t have the kind of body you see in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. She looks … the way the rest of American 20-somethings look without their clothes.

Apparently that’s a problem for some people. And their problem is an interesting topic for the rest of us. The Independent’s Nat Guest (a woman) writes:

there’s something progressive – almost revolutionary, in fact – about the approach to nudity in Girls. Rather than being sexualised flesh, designed to titillate, this is matter-of-fact flesh; uninhibited flesh that owns its own sexuality, and reminds us that there can be other reasons for nudity other than satisfying the male gaze.

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nahisi Coates (a man) described Girls as

one of the most democratic – and everyhuman – depictions of sex to ever exist in pop culture. The more I thought about this, the more important it became to me.

This head-slapping video demonstrates that we’ve all been using Chinese take-out containers wrong.

What does “white privilege” mean? It means being able to carry a nice TV a few blocks to your friend’s house after dark — without worrying how you’ll look to the police. What does “Christian privilege” mean? Crystal St. Marie Lewis explains:

For Christians in America, religious privilege means boarding an airplane while holding their Bibles in plain view without incurring suspicion. The same isn’t true for people who “look like” Muslims in our country.

Privilege is seldom the kind of thing that makes you strut around thinking, “Damn, I’m privileged.” Usually it’s the stuff that you can do without thinking about it at all — and other people have to be very careful about.

Since I’m unlikely to make it to Kamchatka myself, AirPano watches the erupting volcanoes for me.

Spiegel explains how remarkable this is:

Given that volcano experts don’t believe that the four volcanoes are being fed from the same magma source, the parallel eruptions would seem to be the geological equivalent of winning the lottery.

And finally, can you watch an Oscar-nominated romantic comedy in six and a half minutes? Yes, you can.

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  • Mark Norton  On February 4, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    Following on to the Dunham controversy (which is basically silly, IMO) is this article in yeserday’s NYT – It talks about a gallery show of a (aging) woman artist who paint’s pictures of herself in the nude. It seems that painted, nude self-portraits in art are quite rare and it is something of a taboo if you’re a woman. Joan Semmel’s work is worth seeing.

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