Taking Chances

[Political economy] does not treat the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end.

— John Stuart Mill,
Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy (1830)

In life, we take chances on one another. We trust, and we behave in trustworthy ways. Not always; not with everyone. But much more often than the cynical and unflattering views of human nature and interaction would predict. And when we do, it turns out that we thrive; at the least we do better than when we do not trust anyone.

— Yochai Benkler, The Penguin and the Leviathan (2011)

This week everybody was talking about the Voting Rights Act

The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday about whether to strike down one of the bill’s key sections. There’s a fairly narrow legal point at issue, but the arguments about that point set off much wider arguments about racism, voter suppression, and federalism.

A little history you may already know: After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment was added to the Constitution. It’s short and to the point:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

That worked for a while, but then the southern states figured out how to circumvent it via the Jim Crow laws, which set up a variety of procedural hurdles that white-supremacist local officials could use to keep blacks from voting.

In the mid-20th century, the Supreme Court started overturning discriminatory laws, but it couldn’t keep up with white-supremacist legislatures. That’s why the Voting Rights Act of 1965 contained Section 5: States or towns with a history of voter suppression (explained well here and pictured in red on the map) would need prior federal approval before they changed their voting procedures. In the pre-clearance hearing, they’d have to establish that the change would not have the effect of disenfranchising minority voters.

Just last year, Texas’ Voter ID law was blocked because the people who did not already have the mandated ID were disproportionately Hispanic, and the IDs were harder to get in parts of the state where many Hispanics lived.

Everybody recognizes that it’s an extreme step for the federal government to treat some states differently from others. But the 15th Amendment empowers to Congress to enforce the right to vote “by appropriate legislation”. The argument is over what’s appropriate.

In the past, the Court has found the VRA appropriate, given the problem it was trying to solve. However, John Roberts has never liked the VRA and clearly believes it isn’t appropriate any more: Now that blacks in the South vote — sometimes in higher percentages than whites — he clearly believes they can protect their right to vote through the ordinary channels that protects minorities in other states. He asked:

is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?

My personal answer would have been “Well, duh.” But Roberts apparently believes this is a crushing point.

His attack is part of a larger strategy: On the surface it may look like you could solve Roberts’ problem by extending Section 5 to cover the whole country. But then Roberts could question Section 5 as too broad: How can it be appropriate to interfere in the affairs of states that don’t have a history of disenfranchisement? (He made precisely that argument when he was in the Reagan administration.)

One thing that is clear is that the nature of disenfranchisement has changed. In the Jim Crow era, whites disenfranchised blacks because they were black. Current voter suppression efforts have a partisan angle: Republicans disenfranchise blacks and Hispanics because they are likely to vote for Democrats.

The race/party relationship is particularly pronounced in the South. In Alabama, for example, Romney won 84% of the white vote and Obama 95% of the black.

and the Violence Against Women Act

which passed the House and will be re-authorized as law. I can guess what you’re thinking: “Seriously? This is what a victory looks like these days?” I mean, women also managed to keep the right to vote (in spite of the National Review) and to own property without their husbands’ approval. Pop the champagne!

The VAWA didn’t used to be controversial, for the obvious reason that nobody (in public, at least) is for violence against women. It was last reauthorized in 2005 without a lot of fanfare and signed by that notorious leftist George W. Bush. The Senate passed it this time 78-22 — the 22 all being white male Republicans — but then it got hung up in the House. House Republicans objected to three new provisions: extending the domestic violence protections in the law to same-sex couples, giving temporary visas to battered immigrant women who entered the country illegally, and letting courts on Native American reservations try rape cases.

I haven’t been able to fathom whether opposition was based on substantive objections, or just reactions against buzzwords: illegal immigrants! lesbians! Indians judging white people!  (That was a weird one: Senator Grassley really said “on an Indian reservation, [a jury is] going to be made up of Indians, right? So the non-Indian doesn’t get a fair trial.” I don’t know whether anybody asked him if a Native American can get a fair trial from a white jury.)

Ordinarily, Speaker Boehner won’t let a bill come to the floor unless a majority of the Republican caucus supports it — that’s called the Hastert Rule — but I think he realized that the Tea Party lemmings were headed for a cliff on this one, so he arranged for the Senate bill to get a vote after the Republican alternative failed. All 199 Democrats and 87 Republicans voted for the Senate bill, with 138 Republicans against.

But we should be talking about Detroit’s emergency manager

Think of it as the municipal equivalent of being sold into slavery to pay your debts.

Under Michigan’s emergency manager law (which existed before Governor Snyder, but got much more draconian during his administration), if a city or town gets into sufficiently difficult financial shape, the governor can appoint an emergency manager whose powers supersede ordinary politics. The elected officials become empty suits, contracts with the unions don’t count any more, the manager can sell parks or other municipal properties to whomever for whatever he can get.

It has happened to several small-to-medium-sized Michigan cities before, but now the state is taking over the big enchilada, Detroit.

The voters rejected the law by referendum in November, but the legislature just passed it again — with a clever gimmick that shields it from repeal by referendum. Add in gerrymandered state legislature districts, and the law becomes virtually voter-proof.

Everyone should be paying attention, because this is one scenario for the death of democracy: Well-to-do people move to suburbs and gated communities, leaving the poor behind in a city with a crippled tax base. The state cuts aid for local things like schools and waits for a recession to put the city in financial trouble. Then the state takes it over and throws out the elected officials.

Who thought this up? A think tank funded by billionaires.

Indiana has passed its own emergency manager law. (Indiana’s emergency managers can void union contracts to resolve financial problems, but they can’t raise taxes.) Other Republican-controlled states may follow.

and the larger implications of Justice Scalia’s “racial entitlement” remark

which ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser explained. In the oral arguments on the Voting Rights Act (see above), Justice Scalia brushed off the wide majorities (98-0 in the Senate) that reauthorized the VRA in 2006 by saying

Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.

(Millhiser has the longer version.) I’m sure you can fill in your own objection to the idea that voting is a “racial entitlement”. But the subtext of his statement is that legislators who secretly disapprove of the VRA nonetheless vote for it because they are intimidated by the threat of being accused of racism. (Conservatives often complain about the power and unfairness of accusations of racism, as if this were a bigger problem than racism itself.)

Appearing on the Daily Show, Rachel Maddow gave her interpretation of Scalia’s remark: He’s a troll.

He knows it’s offensive. He knows he’s going to get a gasp from the court room, which he got. And he loves it. He’s like the guy on your blog comment thread who is using the N-word — “Oh did I make you mad? Did I make you mad? Did I make you mad?” — he’s like that.

But Millhiser’s interpretation is more sinister. One justification for abandoning judicial restraint is that the political process is broken. In such a case, the judge views himself as the last line of defense against injustice. In that context, Scalia’s logic plugs into some other popular notions on the Right, namely Romney’s 47% and the idea that Obama bought the election by giving out favors to “the takers” in society.

Millhiser’s analysis:

it’s not hard to predict how a judge who agrees with both Romney’s view of welfare and Scalia’s view of when judges must destroy democracy in order to save it would react to the modern welfare state. With his racial entitlement comment, Scalia offered a constitutional theory that would allow movement conservatives to strike down the entire American safety net.

To me, it’s interesting where Scalia doesn’t see a broken political system unable to reverse injustice. He favors unlimited corporate political spending and rejects attempts to overrule entrenched corporate entitlements, like the essentially infinite copyright that Disney has on Mickey Mouse.

But I wrote about what capitalism is doing to us

It’s kind of a multiple-book review called Nobody Likes the New Capitalist Man.

and you also might be interested in …

The sequester started. For the next week or so it’s easily reversible, but the House shows no interest.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy has a good summary of the Bob Woodward flap.

Mark Hurst pictures Google Glass as a giant step down the road to universal surveillance.

I know that Congressman-Gohmert-said-something-stupid could be a weekly feature, but this stood out:

Slavery and abortion are the two most horrendous things this country has done but when you think about the immorality of wild, lavish spending on our generation and forcing future generations to do without essentials just so we can live lavishly now, it’s pretty immoral.

I suppose if you accept the unBiblical and very-very-weird theological idea that fertilized eggs have souls, abortion could be in a class with slavery. But the debt?

First, I question whether any purely monetary event could be as immoral as slavery (or the Native American genocide, which Gohmert seems to have forgotten). And second, I go back to Warren Mosler’s point: All the goods and services produced in the future will be consumed in the future. Our grandchildren will not be sending stuff back in time to pay for our “lavish” lifestyle, any more than we are sending stuff back to 1944 to pay for World War II.

And finally, if lavish living were the problem, the obvious solution would focus on those living lavishly: the rich. Instead, Gohmert’s party wants to cut food stamps.

Oh, and one more thing: If we’re really worrying about future generations, shouldn’t we focus on global warming instead? In a true fiscal emergency, a future government could renounce its debt. But it can’t renounce its atmosphere.

You know those arguments we have about guns? We could have people study those questions and report back to us. Oh wait — we started to do that and the NRA made us stop.

Noted fake-historian David Barton is branching out. He used to lie about the Founders and religion. Now he’s lying about the Founders and guns.

Molly Ball: Five false assumptions of political pundits.

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  • Stephanie  On March 4, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    Gohmert and his party are very loyal and patriotic to an abstract notion of nationhood but they don’t recognize that a nation is comprised of citizens and/or they don’t value humanity. I have a problem with that.

    And btw, I would applaud spending less if it were being done in a sane way that did not hurt human beings… On Sunday I heard one conservative commentator applaud jobs being lost in DC. It pains me that anyone should lose their job. I know from experience how frightening it is to lose your job these days.

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