Political Choices

Somebody, somewhere will comment and say, Obama politicized this issue. Well, this is something we should politicize. … This is a political choice that we make, to allow this to happen every few months in America.

President Obama, responding to the Umpqua Community College shooting

Maybe gun purchasers should have to undergo an invasive ultrasound & be informed by a doctor of the possible consequences of their actions.

Anna Marie Cox

This week’s featured post is “Bernie’s Epistle to the Falwellites“. (It includes how I think the pro-choice position should be explained to conservative Christians. Probably I should break that out into a separate article sometime.) The talk I gave last week at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois — addressing the question of how I follow the news so closely without getting depressed — is here.

These last two weeks, everybody has been talking about John Boehner’s resignation

He’ll leave Congress at the end of October. In the short term, resigning made it easier to avoid a government shutdown: Boehner allowed a clean continuing resolution to reach the floor, where it passed even though most Republicans voted against it. The new deadline is December 11, on the new speaker’s watch, and I expect a shutdown then.

The process for electing a new speaker begins Thursday. The Atlantic explains.

The race for speaker is a two-part process. On October 8, Republicans will gather behind closed doors to elect their leader by secret ballot. To win, McCarthy needs just a majority of the conference, or 124 votes. The formal election for speaker, however, occurs at the end of the month on the House floor, in public. McCarthy’s bigger problem would come if a faction of more than 29 Republicans refuses to vote for him on the floor, which would cause the House to be deadlocked. That’s how Boehner’s conservative opponents had tried to oust him in January, when 25 Republicans voted for someone else.

The leading candidate is Boehner’s second-in-command, Kevin McCarthy of California.

and the Pope’s visit

Pope Francis gave a speech to Congress. It would not have been appropriate for him to make a ringing call to political action, and he didn’t. But the four Americans whose examples he praised — Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton — gave the speech a liberal tone. He called for abolition of the death penalty, and warned against “every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind”. He connected Europe’s Syrian refugee problem with our own Hispanic immigrant situation:

We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.

He quoted from his anti-global-warming encyclical Laudato Si, without saying the words global warming or climate change, but talking about “environmental deterioration caused by human activity”. He also expressed worries about the institution of marriage, but without referring to same-sex unions:

Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.

A sideshow of the Pope’s visit was his meeting with Kim Davis, which her lawyers tried to spin into an expression of support. An official statement from the Vatican says otherwise:

Pope Francis met with several dozen persons who had been invited by the Nunciature to greet him as he prepared to leave Washington for New York City. Such brief greetings occur on all papal visits and are due to the Pope’s characteristic kindness and availability. The only real audience granted by the Pope at the Nunciature was with one of his former students and his family. The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects.

Esquire‘s Charles Pierce suspects the episode was engineered by conservative American clergy who resent Pope Francis’ change in emphasis away from issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. (CBS Chicago agrees.) It’s a conspiracy theory, but a plausible one.

and guns

The shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon left ten people dead, including the shooter.

In his remarks afterwards, President Obama seemed to lose patience with the political logjam that prevents even the slightest increase in gun regulation. Possibly as a result, there has been more media discussion of guns than any time since the Sandy Hook shooting.

A few articles worth your attention: Vox has an insightful collection of charts about gun violence. Jeffrey Toobin explains the history of the Second Amendment, and why the idea that it protects an individual right to own guns is a recent development. The Armed With Reason blog takes on the notion that we need guns to defend against central-government tyranny, which it describes as “a fundamental misreading of how authoritarian regimes actually come to power”. (To which I’ll add: The Dutch have only about 4 guns per hundred people, compared to our 89, but somehow Dutch democracy survives.)

and the Planned Parenthood witch hunt

As is so often the case, it takes a comedian to do justice to this story. Here’s Seth Meyers:

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards “testified” to a House committee Tuesday, though as Slate summarized:

Richards didn’t end up testifying so much as simply absorbing a barrage of questions that she would begin to answer only to be interrupted, criticized, and/or talked over by Republican congressmen

Slate compiled a video of all the times Richards got interrupted. In some sense the hearings worked for both sides: Republican congressmen got to show their base how tough they are, while the rest of the country saw them ask a well-composed woman difficult questions, then badger her rather than let her answer.

In what was supposed to be one of the gotcha moments of the hearing, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) confronted Richards with this graph (minus the attribution to an anti-abortion group, which one of Richards’ assistants was sharp enough to recognize and whisper in her ear in time for her to point it out).

If you look at the right-hand side for more than a second or two, you might wonder why 327,000 seems much larger than 935,573. Vox studied the source numbers a little longer, and came up with this more complete and accurate chart.

So, like most organizations, Planned Parenthood’s mix of services changes over time. But the impression that abortions are soaring while non-abortion services are falling is not accurate.

There’s a larger a framing problem in the way the defund-Planned-Parenthood campaign is discussed. Republicans talk about the $500 million of federal funds the organization receives as if there were a “Planned Parenthood” line in the federal budget, and they were just trying to cut that line or redistribute those funds to other women’s-health organizations.

In fact, the government doesn’t fund Planned Parenthood, it funds some of the non-abortion services Planned Parenthood provides. FactCheck.org explains:

Planned Parenthood’s government funding comes from two sources: the Title X Family Planning Program and Medicaid. About $70 million is Title X funding, Planned Parenthood spokesman Tait Sye told us. The rest — about $293 million — is Medicaid funding, which includes both federal and state money.

So if you’re a Medicaid patient and you think you might have an STD, you can get tested and treated at a Planned Parenthood clinic and PP will get reimbursed by Medicaid. In order to “defund” Planned Parenthood, the government would have to specify that it reimburses clinics for those services except for Planned Parenthood. Such a provision can be phrased in ways that circumvent the constitutional ban on bills of attainder — ACORN ultimately lost its claim in a similar case — but the spirit of Constitution is clearly being violated.

Missouri has completed its investigation of charges that Planned Parenthood is illegally trafficking in fetal body parts, and found no wrong-doing. This tracks with previous results in four other states.

Carly Fiorina continues to insist she wasn’t lying about the grisly body-parts-harvesting video she claims she saw. She could instantly resolve this controversy in her favor just by posting a link to the video. From the fact that she hasn’t, you have assume that she can’t. Nobody else has been able to find it either, including the people who supposedly made it.

Interestingly, the witch hunt doesn’t seem to be working with the American people. Polls consistently show a majority in favor of Planned Parenthood continuing to receive federal reimbursements for the work it does.

and greedy corporate behavior

Two examples got a lot of attention: Volkswagen’s cheating on the emission tests on its diesels, and Turing Pharmaceuticals’ price-gouging on drugs.

According to the EPA:

a sophisticated software algorithm on certain Volkswagen vehicles detects when the car is undergoing official emissions testing, and turns full emissions controls on only during the test. The effectiveness of these vehicles’ pollution emissions control devices is greatly reduced during all normal driving situations. This results in cars that meet emissions standards in the laboratory or testing station, but during normal operation, emit nitrogen oxides, or NOx, at up to 40 times the standard.

So this isn’t just fudging a number somewhere, it was a systematic attempt to fool the EPA. The result of the cheating is that VW was able to avoid the trade-off between fuel economy and smog, allowing VW’s diesels to post MPG ratings far beyond other cars in their class. Apparently, VW was also cheating in Europe, and other car companies (like BMW) may be implicated in similar schemes.

The victim here was not some nebulous concept like “the environment”. Chances are, some people died because of it, and health care costs increased.

The gouging on drug prices, by contrast, was perfectly legal, and pointed out flaws in the system rather than criminality. Turing acquired Daraprim, a drug used to fight parasitic infections that can be fatal to AIDS patients, and jacked up the price from $13.50 a tablet to $750.

Turing’s founder Martin Shkreli instantly became what Mother Jones called “the poster child for evil scum”.

That’s because he was perfect for the role. He’s a Wall Street hedge fund guy. He was fired by a firm he founded when the board accused him of using the company as a “personal piggy bank to pay back angry investors in his hedge fund.” He looks like a callous young punk. And instead of hiding behind a PR flack, he happily gave interviews where he all but told the world to fuck off and pay his price if they wanted Daraprim.

MoJo’s explanation of Shkreli’s strategy — they call it “regulatory arbitrage” — is fascinating: The drug has been around forever and isn’t protected by patent, so theoretically anybody could compete with Turing. In order to do so, though, you’d have to prove to the FDA that your manufacturing process produced a version that was safe and effective. That would require testing, which would take time and money. And when you finally got your approval, Turing could sandbag you by cutting its price again. So what sane company would bother?

This kind of thing is happening all over: There are lots of well-established needed-but-low-volume drugs that have only one approved manufacturer. For a big drug company like Merck or Johnson & Johnson, jacking up the price isn’t worth the bad publicity. But a small company can buy the rights, charge more-or-less whatever it wants, and make a huge profit.

So, for example, you’ve probably taken the antibiotic doxycycline at some point in your life. (I know I have.) In the last 18 months, its price has gone from about 3 cents a pill to over $5 a pill. There has been no change in the drug’s legal status or cost of production.

The attention these recent cases have drawn has renewed interest in letting Medicare and Medicaid bargain directly with drug manufacturers — because it makes no sense to pay the market rate when that rate is being set by a monopoly. In a larger sense, it points out the fundamental absurdity of establishing a “market price” for saving someone’s life.

Considering VW and Turing together just re-emphasizes a point I made several years ago: Corporations are sociopaths. When the system is set up to reward good behavior and catch and punish malefactors, they’ll behave well. But if they could make more money by kidnapping toddlers and selling them into slavery, they would. According to the prevailing understanding of corporate ethics, CEOs would be remiss in their fiduciary duty to their stockholders if they ignored the growth opportunities in the toddler slave market.

and you also might be interested in …

No matter what kinds of crowds he draws or how high his poll numbers go, Bernie Sanders can’t get the mainstream media to acknowledge that lots of people like what he’s saying. A recent poll showed that Clinton’s lead over Sanders had shrunk from an astronomical 60 points in June to seven points. CNBC headlined this not as “Sanders surges” but as “Clinton loses ground”.

When the story is “Clinton loses ground” you can segue into the bogus email scandal, whereas if the story were “Sanders surges”, you might have to talk about something real, like single-payer healthcare, free college, and a job-creating push to rebuild America’s infrastructure. Can’t have that, can we?

Trevor Noah’s first week as host of The Daily Show demonstrated that he has his own style, which will take some getting used to if you were expecting a Jon Stewart clone. But his take-down of Donald Trump was amazing.

Whenever you point out that voter-ID laws are really voter-suppression laws, somebody who already has a driver’s license is bound to ask: “How hard is it to get an ID?”

Well, in Alabama it just got harder.

Due to budget cuts, Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said that 31 satellite DMV offices would no longer have access to driver’s licenses examiners, meaning that residents will need to travel to other counties to apply for licenses.

Coincidentally, 8 of the 10 counties with the highest percentage of black voters will be affected, including every county where blacks make up at least 75% of the electorate. But going to another county to get a license isn’t that high a hurdle … if you can drive there.

Jeb Bush gave the usual excuse for why his tax plan favors the rich: Since they pay the most in taxes, any cut is going to benefit them disproportionately.

Tax cuts for everybody is going to generate a lot more for people who are paying more. I mean, that’s just the way it is.

Matt Yglesias points out why that isn’t true, and gives an example where everyone gets a tax cut, but the very rich don’t get a bigger cut than anybody with a taxable income of at least $9225.

In general, the reason Republican tax cuts favor the rich is that they always cut the rates. But if you leave the rates alone and stretch the brackets, that effectively caps the cut for any individual. Yglesias’ example (which stretches the 0% bracket) is one of many such possibilities.

Donald Trump’s tax plan also is a bonanza for the rich. Are you surprised?

You might think that an MD like Ben Carson would be less anti-science than the other Republican candidates. You’d be wrong. Recently an anti-evolution talk he gave to a Seventh Day Adventist group in 2012 began getting attention. It was full of amazing misrepresentations of the big bang and evolutionary theory.

There is, for example a well-worked out theory of the evolution of the eye, and has been for decades. But Carson sums it up like this: “according to the theory [of evolution] it [the eye] had to go pukh! and there was an eyeball, overnight, just like that, because it wouldn’t work in any other way.”

It’s one thing when somebody decides they don’t believe current science. It’s something else when they authoritatively misrepresent it to an audience.

WaPo’s fact-checker goes after the frequently repeated idea that the Muslim doctrine of taqiyya allows Muslims to lie about their faith to gain political advantage. (They nail Ben Carson for this, but they could have picked any number of people.) The reality is much less sweeping:

the Koran suggests that a person who faces religious persecution can withhold the identity of their faith in order to avoid bodily harm or death.

Carson mentioned taqiyya as a reason not to support Muslim candidates, even if they appeared to reject imposing Sharia on Americans. WaPo awarded him four Pinocchios, its lowest rating for truthfulness.

and let’s close with something fascinating

If you’re old enough, you remember when crayon boxes had colors like Flesh, that tacitly assumed all children were white. And of course, the original color of band-aids was based on assumptions about the skin it was supposed to blend in with. But I had never understood the racial assumptions behind color photography until Vox explained it.

Early color film didn’t have the dynamic range of today’s film (or digital sensors), so not all parts of the spectrum got equal coverage. Kodak knew that people mostly wanted to photograph other people, so they tuned their system for “skin” tones — white people’s skin tones. Photography’s implicit racial bias didn’t start changing until the 1970s, and then not necessarily to accommodate darker-skinned people: The makers of chocolates and wood furniture complained that the differences between their dark-brown and light-brown products weren’t showing up in pictures. Even today, your camera’s facial-recognition software may work better for white faces.

To me, this is a great example of how racial privilege works, and why it doesn’t require the kind of conscious hatred most whites imagine when they hear the word racism. In a situation where it is difficult to serve everybody, of course the privileged classes — whites in this case, but men, straights, Christians, and so on in others — will get served first. And they won’t even have to notice: If you were a white family in the 1960s and didn’t have any black friends you wanted to photograph, your “photographic privilege” was invisible to you. You just took pictures, and when they turned out well you assumed everybody else’s did too.

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  • Kenneth Sutton  On October 5, 2015 at 10:29 am

    As a magazine editor, I’ve lamented the skin color and photography problem for a long time. It’s also true of black and white photography.

    • weeklysift  On October 5, 2015 at 11:52 am

      So it’s still a problem?

      • Kenneth Sutton  On October 12, 2015 at 6:39 pm

        It’s no longer so much a problem of film (or digital imaging) not being able to get a good image of non-white skin, but photos of mixed groups continue to be challenging, depending of course on just how light or dark the extremes are.

  • cnminter  On October 5, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    Welcome back, missed you.

  • Sunshine Williams  On October 5, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    This was blank. Nothing came up. SW

  • Abby Hafer  On October 5, 2015 at 3:25 pm

    The drug price-gouging story also puts on display another problem with our economic system. That drug exists because a) some scientists did basic research on that parasite, and b) some scientists did applied research to develop and test that drug. The folks who did the basic research probably had to apply for short-term grants, and were probably paid as mid-level professionals. The folks who developed the drug were probably paid as somewhat higher-level professionals. Nobody who actually made that drug exist made a killing. Yet someone who had nothing to do in any way with the drug coming into existence is able to make a killing. This is just wrong.

    In addition, much of the basic research and possibly some of the developmental research as well were probably paid for by federal grant money, i.e. taxpayer dollars. U.S. taxpayers should not be gouged for drugs that their taxes helped bring into existence. Perhaps the law should read that when a patent is sold away from the original developer, price controls are put into place by the federal government. After all, once the patent is sold, the people who originally did the work can no longer be rewarded for their effort and investment, which is the point behind having a patent office in the first place. Thoughts?

    • weeklysift  On October 7, 2015 at 8:44 am

      Presumably, the price the original patent-holders get when they sell is higher because all their rights transfer. It’s the same logic that’s behind giving capital gains a special break when you buy and sell stock: That’s supposed to encourage investment in real productive capacity, but in fact only the people who buy their stock from the company do that directly.

      Also, that wouldn’t solve the problem we’re talking about, because the drugs in question are out of patent protection.

      What we really need is some way to account for the amount of ownership the public should have in a drug, given the public investment.

  • Abby Hafer  On October 5, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    I will be happy to give Dr. Carson about a dozen examples of simple eyes any time he wants to contact me. These eyes go all the way down to really simple light-sensitive eye spots in single-celled organisms. You can give him my number when he calls you.

    • weeklysift  On October 7, 2015 at 8:45 am

      When Carson claimed environmentalists didn’t have any convincing proof of climate change, Jerry Brown sent him some. It doesn’t seem to have had any effect.

  • EYarboutough  On October 6, 2015 at 5:23 pm

    As someone who works in the drug field for the govt, I have to take some umbrage with your simplification of MoJo’s explanation. MoJo did a decent job but slightly failed as well. The issue is spot on for foreign manufactures – they need to get FDA approval, obviously, but the application of the SAME reasoning to domestic manufactures is incorrect. Yes, there are some regulatory hurdles that need to be overcome, but nowhere near the amount for overseas manufactures. So what is the deal?

    This is where MoJo could have done a better job – it’s mainly marketing. When you buy the same drug from the same company for decades, you’re not really going to look anywhere else. When the price goes up, you’ll look for ways to not pay that price by taking the easiest path – govt reimbursement. Which is why you saw precisely zero of the hospitals who paid for this going elsewhere. This is why no other company will make generic drugs that are in a special field, it’s just not worth it (the general consensus of the articles), but it also has a lot to do with the already drawn borders within the manufacturing.

    If you’re Pfizer, are you really going to build a plant to manufacture three cent pills when the company that is charging 100$ per pill could do the same when Viagra’s patent expires in the near future? No, you’re not.

  • Kelly Schoenhofen  On October 7, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    You normally do impeccable research in your weekly round-up 😉

    > The victim here was not some nebulous concept like “the environment”. Chances are, some people died because of it, and health care costs increased.

    If for the last seven years every VW tdi in the US that could possibly have the tainted firmware was driven 15k miles a year and they emitted the full 40X normal NOx the entire time – so we’re totally stacking the deck here, I want to make that perfectly clear – the amount of nitrous oxides emitted would be the equivalent to one medium sized coal power plant in the US.

    One. Not one hundred coal plants, not one thousand coal plants.

    One coal plant’s NOx emissions in one year equals all the NOx VW emitted.

    If you installed the best anti-pollution controls on the market on our hypothetical medium-sized coal power plant, then it’s three years emissions.

    VW did wrong, very wrong, and they should be smited very hard for this. (I work for an engineering firm that does firmware in embedded devices, so I know exactly how this wasn’t an accident of any kind or “bad training of a single employee”)
    However, we need to keep the focus on VW’s moral failure, because the actual impact is negligible compared to what the industries that get Congressional favors and blessings on a daily basis do to us.


    • Anonymous  On October 8, 2015 at 9:12 am

      “the actual impact is negligible compared to what the industries that get Congressional favors and blessings on a daily basis do to us. ”

      And let’s also change the way that we fund elections so that “Congressional favors and blessings” go to what the voters want them to go to, rather than to whoever funds congressional election campaigns.

      The MAYDAY PAC is working to elect representatives in congress who support changing the way campaigns are financed. They have a list on their website of who does and doesn’t support reform. Check to see which side your Senators and Representative are on.

      They also just did a poll, which (among other things) showed that 92% of Democrats and 94% of Republicans agree that special interest money has too much influence in American political campaigns. This isn’t a partisan issue. Full results of the poll are on the MAYDAY website:

      More info at:

      Also, Lawrence Lessig is running for President with only one thing on his platform of what he would accomplish: to pass a bill that gives everyone equal access to voting and equal representation. The bill would include reforming campaign finance, ending gerrymandering, having elections on a national holiday, and a few other things.

      More info at:

      • Anonymous  On October 9, 2015 at 9:01 am

        And if you happen to be in NYC, and are so inclined, there is a rally this afternoon (10/ 9) to get Lessig in the debates. The rules say he needs to poll at 1% or more in 3 polls to qualify, which he would – except that the groups doing the polling aren’t including his name as one of the options. Details about the rally are on Facebook, and Twitter (@Lessig2016)

  • Rocjard Drewna  On October 11, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    Re: the climb in Bernie Sander’s popularity and the response of “mainstream media” — you end with “Can’t have that, can we?”

    Seriously? You really want to start down the path to media conspiracy? You do know some reporters, I hope? You know what a fractious anarchic competitive lot they tend to be? But, no, they’re not just trying to pitch their stories to get the most views, they’re part of a conspiracy to deny Bernie justice.

    Maybe you’re spending a bit too much time in the left-wing echo chamber, Doug.

    • weeklysift  On October 12, 2015 at 7:45 am

      I know it’s a shock to people who constantly hear the liberal-media-bias meme, but the left consistently gets really bad media coverage: the don’t-invade-Iraq demonstrations, Occupy Wall Street, and now the Sanders campaign and Black Lives Matter — they all get covered mostly through the eyes of their critics, when they’re not ignored.

      Objectively, Sanders has demonstrated a lot more support than almost all the Republican candidates, but he gets covered as if he were Chris Christie or Bobby Jindal. Jeb Bush’s tax plan gets more coverage than anything Sanders has put forward.

      As for “media conspiracy” — that’s not the claim. But it’s been a long time since I posted Liberal Media, Conservative Manipulation, so I probably ought to repeat those ideas soon.

  • mysanal  On October 12, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    Reblogged this on Mysa.

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