Good Intentions

Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power; it depends on the law to constrain those in power.

— President Obama, Friday at the Department of Justice

This week everybody was still talking about Bridgegate

or at least MSNBC was. Rachel Maddow has been talking about little else. (It’s been working for her. Fox News usually outdraws MSNBC by a considerable margin, but in recent weeks the Rachel/Megyn Kelly match-up has been noticeably closer.)

In its general form, Bridgegate is a Watergate-type scandal: The story starts with an event that is clearly wrong (a bungled burglary, an engineered traffic jam), but not all that consequential for most people. The event is only interesting because it is so incongruous with a civics-textbook view of government: If this happened, and if officials reacted so automatically to cover it up, then the (Nixon, Christie) administration clearly views itself and its mission very differently from the vision of government the public believes in. And if that is the case, what else has been going on?

If the answer is “nothing”, then the story will largely die out, unless there’s clear proof Christie himself committed a crime. (So far there isn’t.) But we now enter the Chinese-water-torture part of the narrative, where thematically (but not directly) related charges drip-drip-drip down on Christie’s head.

The first drip came Saturday, when Mayor Dawn Zimmer of Hoboken charged that

Two senior members of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration warned [her] earlier this year that her town would be starved of hurricane relief money unless she approved a lucrative redevelopment plan favored by the governor.

Probably there will be more drips. And rather than defend, I expect Republicans to counter-attack. In the same way that Republican congressmen’s extra-marital affairs started coming out during the Clinton impeachment, the corruption of New Jersey Democrats is likely to make headlines soon. (I don’t know anything; I’m just reading the signs.)

If Bridgegate does follow the path of Watergate, MSNBC better pace itself. From the Watergate break-in to Nixon’s resignation was two years.

Bridgegate has also been a Rorschach test, in which a pundit’s reaction says as much about him as about the story. For example, the question of whether Governor Christie is a bully evoked this from Britt Hume.

In this sort of feminized atmosphere in which we exist today, guys who are masculine and muscular like that in their private conduct, kind of old-fashioned tough guys, run some risks. … Men today have learned the lesson the hard way that if you act like kind of an old-fashioned guy’s guy, you’re in constant danger of slipping out and saying something that’s going to get you in trouble and make you look like a sexist or make you look like you seem thuggish or whatever.

Let me translate this into 21st-century English: “If you talk the way men used to talk when women either weren’t in the room or had to keep quiet, some woman is bound to point out that you’re being a jerk.”

And you know who the conservative media thinks is the really bully here? Bruce Springsteen. When he went on Jimmy Fallon’s show and sang this song:

he was “mean, small, and petty“. He was “piling on“. Poor Chris Christie. He loves the Boss, but the Boss doesn’t love him back.

and poverty

The 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty (which I mentioned last week) has made a lot of people take a step back and look at the longer view.

Barbara Ehrenreich revisits some of the territory of her book Nickel and Dimed in an Atlantic article “It’s Expensive to be Poor“. The point she’s making is not new, but the wealthy and professional-class folks who monopolize the national political conversation have a way of forgetting it.

We hear again and again how anti-poverty programs just make the poor dependent on government and encourage laziness. But the biggest obstacles to getting out of poverty are the poverty traps: situations where the poor don’t have enough money to live cheaply or look for better jobs. If you can’t afford security-deposit-plus-first-month’s-rent for an apartment with a kitchen; if you don’t have access to a car; if you can’t make appointments in advance because your part-time minimum-wage job has unpredictable hours — then your chances of climbing out of poverty are not very good.

If you happened to see David Brooks’ enough-with-this-talk-about-inequality column, you should read Dean Baker’s answer. To Brooks’ point that the growing income of the rich is a different phenomenon than the shrinking opportunities of the poor and the destruction of the middle class, and that only a “primitive zero-sum mentality” connects them, Baker responded:

Fans of arithmetic everywhere know that if the rich get more, and the economy is not growing faster, then everyone else gets less. (It might be primitive, but it’s true.) And the economy has been growing very slowly for the last thirteen years and actually pretty slowly for the whole period in which inequality has been increasing.

and President Obama’s new tone on the NSA

Friday, President Obama gave a speech at the Justice Department “On Review of Signals Intelligence” (text, video, summary of new directive).

As I’ve admitted before, I’m having a hard time staying on top of this issue. New revelations, new policies, and new rhetoric appear faster than I have been able to process it all. So for now I’ll defer to The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza. Lizza is skeptical that the new rules will be more than “cosmetic changes”. But he does believe that a more subtle tipping point has been reached: Up until now, the administration has been dismissive of critics.

Indeed, in my conversations with intelligence officials this past year, their general attitude was that smart, well-meaning, Ivy League-educated lawyers were on the front lines at the intelligence agencies making sure that the privacy rights of Americans were protected, and, therefore, the concerns about abuse were not only unfounded but also bordered on paranoia. … Today, Obama reversed course, acknowledging that all of that wasn’t enough. He has now adopted the language of the reformers.

Lizza concludes that Obama has undercut status-quo supporters in Congress, while empowering those who are more skeptical of current arrangements:

Obama’s cautious, infuriating speech won’t reform the system in all the ways that N.S.A. critics want, but it just might help Congress do so.

but I wrote about court decisions

The Supreme Court has been relatively quiet lately, but lower courts have been busily ruling on same-sex marriage, the NSA’s domestic spying, net neutrality, and many other issues. This week I tried to catch up. I covered net neutrality and same-sex marriage, and I hope to get to the rest next week.

While we’re talking about voting rights (or putting off that talk until next week), it’s worth mentioning that two Democrats and a Republican have agreed on a formula for fixing the part of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court torpedoed last summer.

Where the revised bill goes from here is an open question. Renewing the VRA has been a no-brainer in the past, passing by wide margins. So Congress could just pass it.

On the other hand, the VRA could follow the path of immigration reform: The Senate passes it with a bipartisan majority, and Republicans in the House claim to support it when they talk to minority audiences, but Speaker Boehner keeps it from coming to a vote so as not to offend the extreme right wing. Too soon to tell.

and you also might be interested in …

When my Dad was alive, he was always mystified when I omitted the “Dr.” title that my Ph.D. in mathematics gives me the right to use. My policy is that I’ll call myself “Dr. Muder” when I write about mathematics, because that’s where my credentials are relevant. But on subjects where I’m just another guy with an opinion, those opinions have to stand on their own. I won’t imply that I’m an expert by styling myself as a doctor.

I came to that policy as a graduate student in the 80s, an era when Milton Friedman was using his legitimate prestige as an economist to give heft to his oracular pronouncements about the morality of various political policies. On political and moral issues, Friedman was just a guy with an opinion, and his Nobel prize was as irrelevant as my eventual doctorate would be.

Climate scientists today have a more difficult line to walk, because their scientific prestige is relevant up to a point, but the more politically active they get, the more they’ll be tempted to exaggerate the extent of their expertise. Penn State’s Michael Mann (creator of the “hockey stick” graph and a main target of the Climategate smear) wrote a thoughtful article about this in the NYT’s Sunday Review.

It is not an uncommon view among scientists that we potentially compromise our objectivity if we choose to wade into policy matters or the societal implications of our work. And it would be problematic if our views on policy somehow influenced the way we went about doing our science. But there is nothing inappropriate at all about drawing on our scientific knowledge to speak out about the very real implications of our research.

He sums up the right balance by re-purposing the Homeland Security slogan: “If you see something, say something.”

For the first time, a player on Washington’s NFL team says that the franchise should change its name.

Ya think? Nobody would stand for a team named the Memphis Niggers or the Arizona Wetbacks. As Clem Ironwing of the Sioux put it:

The only way “redskin” was ever used towards my people and myself was in a derogatory manner. It was never, ever, used in a show of respect or kindness. It was only used to let you know that you were dirty and no good, and to this day still is.

Defenders of the NFL franchise have tried a few points. First, they want to lump “redskin” in with other Native-American-related team-names, making common cause with fans across the country. But while there’s also an argument for renaming some other teams, calling someone a “brave” or a “chief” is not inherently derogatory. (Degrading mascots and logos can be a separate issue.) And names that commemorate the pre-European inhabitants of a region — the Florida State Seminoles or the University of Illinois Illini, say — may or may not have been chosen respectfully, but they can honor the local history now, if the schools make a legitimate effort to do so. But what “redskin” mainly commemorates is the genocidal project directed from Washington. Picture the Berlin Jews (or maybe Kikes) wearing a yellow star on their jerseys. Could that ever be acceptable?

Another defense is that a few Native American communities have chosen to name their own high school teams the Redskins. Yeah, right. And it’s OK for whites to say “nigger” now, because black rappers say it. If members of a historically oppressed community want to reclaim the words that were used to put them down, that’s up to them. If they want our “help”, they’ll ask for it.

and let’s end with something fun

To the enlightened, all dances are one. You knew that, didn’t you?

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  • Rhett  On January 20, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    Actually, on the subject of teams with native imagery and names, the Florida State Seminoles have gone so far as to enter into a formal relationship with the Seminole Tribe of Florida with regards to their name and the likeness of Chief Osceola, and if I am not mistaken, Florida State University pays the tribe a licensing fee. The Seminole Tribe of Florida is very, very savvy, and they most likely saw a great opportunity to make some money while also keeping a native-themed sports team from being too stupid.

    If sports enterprises really must continue to use native names and imagery, I see no reason they can’t model this sort of relationship. Regardless of what they want to say, rebranding isn’t *that* expensive. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers rebranded in a single season and it was seen as a very necessary turnaround in the team’s image.

    • weeklysift  On January 22, 2014 at 7:47 am

      Thank you for pointing this out. It does sound like a good model.

  • Dangerous Meredith  On January 22, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    Thanks for another great blog. I look forward to your blogs every week. The Neutron dance clip reminded me of this clip featuring Rita Hayworth and the Bee Gees:
    It’s one of the cleverest things I’ve ever seen and definitely a spirit booster!

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