Money and Motion

What was the law, when bright shiny money was in sight?
Money make the train go.

— Charley Barbour,
quoted in The American Slave, a Composite Autobiography

This week’s featured post is “Justice in Ferguson“.

This week everybody was talking about Ferguson again

The Justice Department published two reports Wednesday, one about the Michael Brown shooting and the other about the Ferguson Police Department. I discuss them in detail in “Justice in Ferguson“, but the short version is that Darren Wilson’s story is plausible and he shouldn’t be indicted, while the FPD is a predatory institution that needs drastic reform.

and Selma

Tens of thousands of people marched across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama to mark the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

President Obama’s speech was a marvelous expression of the liberal vision of America.

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths. It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo. … That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. That’s what it means when we say America is exceptional. … That’s what America is. Not stock photos or airbrushed history, or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American than others. We respect the past, but we don’t pine for the past. We don’t fear the future; we grab for it. America is not some fragile thing.

Meanwhile (and Obama referred to this) the achievements of fifty years ago are threatened. The Supreme Court has gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act and the Republican Congress continues to refuse to fix it. The hole that the Court blew in the VRA has invited voter suppression of all sorts.

and Netanyahu vs. Iran

The politics of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress has been widely discussed, both here and in Israel. But reading the text, I found myself thinking more about the content: Is he right about Iran?

Some of what he had to say was obviously exaggerated. Like this:

In the Middle East, Iran now dominates four capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. And if Iran’s aggression is left unchecked more will surely follow.

Juan Cole examines this claim capital-by-capital, but the gist is that Iran has given material support to factions in local conflicts that it did not start. (In Baghdad, we started it.) Those factions have been successful in varying degrees, but in none of the four cases has there been anything like an Iranian conquest or occupation, nor is there likely to be. Iran is playing the Great Game, just as we are and Israel is.

A more interesting notion lies in the background of Netanyahu’s remarks, and in most neo-con discussion of Iran: the idea that an Iranian bomb would be uniquely horrible, because Iran’s nature as an Islamic Republic makes it immune to the kind of deterrence that kept the Soviet Union in check. In this telling of the story, Iran’s leadership is motivated by an apocalyptic theology that would happily use nukes against Israel and glory in the ensuing end-of-the-world destruction when Israel retaliated with the nukes it has never admitted it has.

Having discussed just two weeks ago how another force in the region — ISIL — is motivated by apocalyptic theology, I can’t just reject this argument as absurd. But is it true? Is Iran essentially a nation-sized suicide bomber?

Other people have studied this question, and the answer seems to be no. Back in 2011, Matthew Duss wrote “The Martyr State Myth” for Foreign Policy.

The “martyr state” myth is based upon two flawed assumptions. First, that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been uniquely willing to endure the deaths of its own citizens in order to achieve its policy goals. Second, that the Iranian Shiite regime’s End Times theology actually induces it to trigger a conflagration.

Quoting previous studies, he finds that Iran’s willingness to sacrifice its citizens pales in comparison to the Soviet and Chinese regimes that were deterred by retaliation, and that claims of the Iranian regime’s desire for martyrdom

are unsupported by anything like evidence, but rather have achieved the status of conventional wisdom simply by repetition.

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did like to talk in apocalyptic terms, but he

  • is not president any more
  • didn’t have control of Iranian military policy when he was president
  • was criticized for his apocalypticism by the ruling imams.

By contrast, Iran’s Supreme Leader is in no particular hurry to be Supreme Leader of a pile of rubble.

and the Supreme Court looking at ObamaCare again

The oral arguments in King vs. Burwell have begun. The case hangs on one sentence in the Affordable Care Act, which (if interpreted without reference to anything outside that sentence) would mean that ObamaCare subsidies could only go to people in states that had their own ObamaCare exchanges, rather people living in states whose exchanges were set up by the federal government.

There has been a certain absurdity to the case from the beginning, since there is ample evidence that no one in Congress intended that result. So the plaintiff’s arguments have all been a little like “You didn’t say ‘Simon says’.”

The Obama administration’s counter-argument is that the executive branch has a responsibility to interpret laws in ways that work, rather than in ways that don’t work, so the IRS has acted correctly in interpreting the law as it has. The precedents seem to be on its side, and I don’t believe this case would ever have reached the Supreme Court without a number of activist conservative judges seeking to repeal laws they don’t like.

The big thing we’ve learned from the justices’ questioning is that there is a conservative reason reject the case, hinted at by Justice Kennedy and drawn out further by Justice Sotomayor: Congress may not have had the power to pass the law as the conservative activist judges have been interpreting it, at least not under a conservative interpretation of the relationship between the federal government and the states.

If the law really did only subsidize people on exchanges states set up, that would be a substantial penalty to states that refused to set up their own exchanges. That kind of monetary pressure (to set up state exchanges) was precisely why (when ObamaCare reached the Court in 2012) the Court threw out the provisions of the law that pushed the states to expand Medicaid.

The legal principle Chief Justice Roberts invoked when he cast the deciding vote to save ObamaCare in 2012 was that the courts have to presume that Congress intended to pass laws that are constitutional. So if one interpretation of a law makes it constitutional and another unconstitutional, courts should favor the constitutional interpretation.

and you also might be interested in …

Correction: Last week I identified FBI agents as potential victims of a Homeland Security shutdown. As a commenter pointed out, the FBI isn’t in DHS, it’s in the Department of Justice.

Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner relented and allowed the House to vote on a clean bill to fund DHS through September. It passed, as it would have weeks ago, without any sturm und drang. The problem for Boehner was that his caucus wanted to continue holding the country’s security hostage: Republicans voted against the clean funding bill 167-75.

Vox added this example to its list of “every major crisis or near-crisis that’s been resolved by Boehner giving up on conservatives and passing a bill with Democratic support.”


Next up: the debt limit. Mitch McConnell says it will pass, but he also says:

We’ll figure some way to handle that and hopefully it might carry some other important legislation that we can agree on in connection with it.

In other words, there’s going to be another hostage crisis. You can replace “other important legislation” with “list of demands”.

I could repeat everything I said last week about Republican governance, but I think I’ll just link to it.


Jonathan Waldman in the NYT says “Don’t Kill Keystone XL, Regulate It“.

“Pipelines are the safest way to move oil,” he says, and they could be made better if regulators insisted on the best technology. I have no argument with that. But he takes one thing as given:

[B]locking [the pipeline] won’t actually prevent Canada from extracting its tar sands oil. Ours is an energy-thirsty world, and when demand eventually drives up the price of oil, out it will come.

I’m not willing to grant that. Canada is going to extract some of its tar sands oil. How much it makes sense to extract at a given oil-price depends on transportation costs, which depends on infrastructure like Keystone XL. And alternative fuels are competitive enough to keep the price of oil from going to infinity.


An incident at UCLA has raised discussion about anti-semitism on campus. Anti-semitism in America is a tricky thing to measure and document, because American Jews tend to be above average in many kinds of achievement and representation. It also gets tied up with political opinions about Israel and America’s support of Israel.

I’ve been mostly silent about anti-semitism not because I’ve decided it doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter, but because I don’t have a good handle on it. I’m still thinking and reading, so maybe that will change.


A fifth-grade teacher in Chicago writes a letter of apology to her students before inflicting on them the latest round of standardized tests.

I do not agree that these tests will tell me what I really need to know about you as a learner or as a human being. I do not agree that these tests will make me a better teacher. I do not agree that these tests will improve our schools. I do not agree that you need to sit in front of a computer for over five hours in order for the government to find out what you know and what you can do. I do not agree that you should not have a choice in how you are able to show all of the things that you are capable of doing. I do not agree that in order for the state to know that I am doing my job that you have to suffer through tests that could quite possibly ruin much of the hard work that we have done together in building your confidence this year and in helping you to see yourselves as readers and writers. I do not agree with these tests.

and let’s close with something amusing

I believe no dogs were harmed in the making of “12 Dogs Who Really Didn’t Expect the Snow to Be This Deep“.

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Comments

  • Tim  On March 9, 2015 at 11:37 am

    My thought on Republican Governance is this:

    Voting for a Republican (especially Tea Party) is like hiring a vegan to be your butcher: someone who isn’t interested in the product isn’t going to do a good job.

    Or, like Jon Stewart put it: it’s like the Pope electing a bunch of atheist cardinals.

  • arrumsarrie2014  On March 9, 2015 at 10:46 pm

    i like it, 🙂
    ,

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