Survival and Democracy

I have not yet heard … a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario.

President Barack Obama

This week everybody was talking about Netanyahu’s re-election

What that means is the subject of this week’s featured post “What Just Happened?“. My main take-away from the election is that the problem in Israel isn’t Netanyahu, it’s the electorate.

One of the things I don’t discuss in that article is the early exit polls, which predicted a much closer election. Whenever that happens, suspicious people start charging fraud. In this case, though, it looks like late-and-early voters just voted differently than mid-day voters.

Now, a surge just before polls close is sometimes evidence of a different kind of fraud, but I haven’t seen any supporting evidence for that. In the U.S., you’d be talking about the difference between people who have day jobs and the rest of us. But in Israel, Election Day is a national holiday, so that’s not it.

I wouldn’t jump to conclusions here. If something is actually wrong, Israelis will probably figure it out for themselves.

and debates about the budget

It will be interesting to see whether Republicans in Congress can agree with themselves on next year’s budget; then we can worry about whether Democrats will filibuster or Obama will veto.

The basic political problem of the budget is that Americans grossly overestimate how much the government spends on things they don’t like. So cutting government spending sounds good in the abstract, but the vast majority of federal spending goes for stuff that is widely popular, like defense, Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, and highway construction. A lot of the rest is spent on stuff that is useful and necessary: air traffic control, disaster relief, disease control, food safety, and so on. You may not think about it very often, but as soon as somebody dies of Ebola or a batch of tainted food hits the market, everybody wonders why the government doesn’t have this under control already.

What’s left is mostly spent on poor kids and poor sick people. When it’s made clear what a spending cut will do, in terms of kids going hungry and sick people dying, cutting there isn’t all that popular either.

So if you want to make major cuts, the best way to do it is to hide what you’re cutting. The two main tricks for doing this are the block grant and the magic asterisk. The proposed Republican budget (which achieves balance by 2025) has both.

The magic asterisk is an unspecified $1.1 trillion cut over ten years in “Other Mandatory” spending. The WaPo’s Wonkblog explains:

Other than health care and Social Security, mandatory spending includes a range of programs such as food stamps, disability payments for veterans, the earned income tax credit, and Pell grants for college students. The budget document did not specify which would be cut.

So if you’re a disabled veteran wondering if this means you’re going to be cut off — or anybody else who might be affected — your Republican congressman can assure you: “No, we meant other Other Mandatory spending.” He can say that to everybody.

The problem with magic-asterisk budgeting is that when it comes time to pass an appropriations bill, the Republicans will discover they can’t: They never really agreed on specific spending cuts, they just agreed on the abstract idea of spending cuts.

Block grants just push the sleight-of-hand down to the states. Ezra Klein explains:

A block grant takes money the federal government is already spending on a program and gives it to the states to administer — usually with fewer rules and conditions. That’s it. The hope is that states will use the money more efficiently. But block grants can cost more, cost the same, or cost less than the funding mechanisms they replace. Block grants change how money is spent, not necessarily how much money is spent.

… There’s nothing magic about block grants that makes Medicaid cost $700 billion less; it just sounds better to say you’re going to save money by block-granting Medicaid and food stamps then by cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicaid and food stamps.

The reason these kinds of tricks are necessary is that the federal budget is generally money well spent. If there were trillions budgeted for bridges to nowhere, Republicans wouldn’t have to hide what they’re cutting.

and I finally got around to paying attention to Hillary’s emails

I’ve had trouble getting interested in this story, because I know lots of people in Clinton’s generation who think email is magic. They use their mail app and something happens; they can’t be bothered with what it is. Colin Powell also used a private email account to do business as Secretary of State, because, well, who knows why? He didn’t think his email was broken when he became Secretary, so he didn’t fix it.

Nobody really cares about government email archives unless some other story makes them care. If you’re a Benghazi conspiracy theorist, for example, the fact that there might be a hidden trove of conspiratorial Clinton emails somewhere is a big deal; it keeps your fantasies alive. But none of those people were going to vote for Clinton anyway.

Another reason people might care is if Hillary were running as some squeaky-clean good-government reformer. Then the idea that she might have cut a corner somewhere would spoil the image she’s trying to project. But that image was never going to work anyway, and Clinton surely knew that already.

So there’s the possibility that the email story might feed into some other story later, and that people might care about it then. But until then, it’s no big deal.

What the story does point out, though, is the risk of Democrats putting all their eggs in the Clinton basket so early in the process. If tomorrow Jeb Bush were caught in a tryst with an underage boy, Republicans would shake their heads sadly and move on to the next candidate. But if some scandal or unexpected medical problem put Hillary out of the race, Democrats would be scrambling.

and you also might be interested in …

Alternet points out one thing that’s wrong with our national discussion of education policy: Often nobody in the room is an actual educator. No teachers, no principals, no education researchers, no professors of education — just “individuals from influential right-wing think tanks, with little to no scholarly work or graduate-level degree work in education.”

That’s not just on TV, it’s in fairly highbrow publications like The Economist. So that’s something to keep in mind the next time you watch or read a piece about how our education system needs to be completely re-organized: Is there any reason to believe that these people know what they’re talking about? Are the people presented as “experts” any more knowledgeable than someone you might meet at a bar?


While we’re on the subject, ThinkProgress observes that “Every Claim In This Ted Cruz Statement Is Completely False“. The statement is about the Common Core education standards, which Cruz says he will “repeal every word” of.

When someone asked his office what that could possibly mean, since Common Core is not a law and so can’t be “repealed”, a Cruz spokesperson said:

Common Core is a federally created curriculum that the state’s ‘Race to the Top’ grants are tied to,” offered Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Cruz. “So if the state does not adopt the standards, it gives up the grant money. But since the federal government created this mess, there should be a way to undo it.

And that’s the statement that is completely false. CC is not federally created, it’s not a curriculum, Race to the Top didn’t tie grants to it, and since the grants are almost all spent already anyway, there can’t be any penalty for a state to un-adopt the standards if it wants to.

But if none of the claims are true, they’re all “truthy” to Cruz’s right-wing target audience. So I’m sure he’ll keep repeating them.


Still on education: Remember Dave Brat, the Tea Party insurgent who upset Eric Cantor in a primary? He’s in Congress now, and he says education funding isn’t necessary, because “Socrates trained Plato on a rock.

Aside from just being false — Plato was a aristocrat, and had a lot of expensive teachers before Socrates — Brat’s remark is evidence of a serious problem in his thinking: Are we just trying to train a handful of aristocratic geniuses, or do we want to have an educated society? Or does he think we could hire a Socrates for every child in America? If we could, maybe we could teach them on rocks.


Proof the NFL concussion problem is considered serious: 24-year-old Chris Borland, who was a well-regarded rookie linebacker for the 49ers last season, announced his retirement. He’s had only one concussion, described as “minor”, but: “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

He’s worked most of his young life to achieve his dream of playing in the NFL, and now he’s in a position to make millions. But it’s not worth the risk.

and let’s close with a moment of Zen

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