NO SIFT FOR THE NEXT TWO WEEKS. The next new articles will appear on January 30.

If we let everybody in the boat, if we row in the same cadence together, there is no obstacle this body can overcome for this nation.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy

This week’s featured post is “The Debt Ceiling: a (p)review“.

This morning I’m wondering what’s happening in Brazil

Yesterday afternoon, supporters of Brazil’s defeated former president Jair Bolsonaro occupied the National Congress, Planalto Palace, and Supreme Court in Brazilia. Congress and the Court are not in session and President Lula was elsewhere, so there is no hostage crisis.

This morning, I’m seeing claims that government forces have restored order and that government offices will open. Hundreds of rioters have been arrested. (As in our January 6 riot, the rioters were taking selfies and posting video, so they should be pretty easy to find and convict.)

Ever since Bolsonaro lost the a runoff election October 30, his supporters have been urging the Army to intervene, which it hasn’t done. Lula took office on January 1. This attack appears to be a more extreme plea to the Army, which is still not responding to it. I’m seeing claims that some police or other officials may have helped the rioters.

Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes ordered the immediate suspension of the governor of Brasília for 90 days, accusing him and the district’s head of public security of abetting the unprecedented attack on the country’s capital.

Bolsonaro himself is in Florida, where he went instead of attending Lula’s inauguration. Like Trump, he claims that his defeat was not a fair election. It looks like Bolsonaro’s most extreme supporters were victims of the same kind of reality distortion that QAnon brought to January 6. BBC quotes a Brazilian teacher of history and sociology:

They just get information from WhatsApp and Bolsonaro’s social media, so they are really disconnected from reality.

They believed that Bolsonaro would win the election easily, it did not happen, and then when Lula was elected, they believed that it would happen militarily, a coup d’etat, and Bolsonaro would become dictator of Brazil.

This is still breaking news, which I don’t have the resources to cover. Among the major news services, BBC seems to me to have the best coverage. If you want to sort through unvetted reports, search social media for #Brazil.

meanwhile, everybody has been talking about the Speaker election

It took all week and 15 ballots, but Kevin McCarthy is finally Speaker of the House. The 15th ballot wasn’t complete until early Saturday morning, and then the newly elected congresspeople could finally be sworn in.

This afternoon we’ll see whether McCarthy has the votes to pass his rules package, which includes the concessions he made to the MAGA holdouts.

Democrat Katie Porter brought a good book for the occasion.

One benefit of listening to the various speaker-nomination speeches is getting to hear what the parties (or factions with the GOP) think their best talking points are. I was struck by two of McCarthy’s nominators — Steve Scalise and Kat Cammack — mentioning fentanyl overdoses as if this were a partisan issue. I mean, are Democrats for fentanyl overdoses?

Well, no. In a nutshell, Republicans try to turn every issue into the southern border. Crime is a border issue because immigrants are criminals. (They’re not, other than the one possible offense of crossing the border illegally.) Disease is a border issue because immigrants carry disease. (They don’t.) Fentanyl addiction is a border issue in the same way: It’s an excuse to militarize the border and maybe build Trump’s wall. Beyond that, it’s not clear Republicans have any interest in the problem, which is fundamentally a public-health issue, not a border-control issue.

Some Republicans go full-conspiracy-theory on the subject. Here’s J. D. Vance last April:

If you wanted to kill a bunch of MAGA voters in the middle of the heartland, how better than to target them and their kids with this deadly fentanyl? And, man, it does look intentional.

After McCarthy’s election, he gave a speech and then Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries gave a speech. I think it’s safe to say that Jeffries outdid McCarthy: He used an acrostic technique that goes back the Psalms: One line for each letter of the alphabet.

He starts playing with the alphabet subtly at around the 8 minute mark, envisioning a country that “Provides for the Poor, Works for Working families …”. Around 13 minutes he pledges to the new Republican majority that Democrats will “try to find common ground whenever and wherever possible on behalf of the American people”. But he also pledges that Democrats “will never compromise our principles”.

What principles? That’s where the alphabetic litany starts: “House Democrats will always put American values over Autocracy, Benevolence over Bigotry, the Constitution over the Cult” … all the way to “Zealous representation over Zero-sum confrontation”.

And McCarthy? Well, just before the end he made a Freudian slip:

If we let everybody in the boat, if we row in the same cadence together, there is no obstacle this body can overcome for this nation.

I think your speechwriter wrote “can’t”, Kevin. But in this House, your version is probably more accurate.

Imagine Biden making that gaffe. Fox would spend the next week citing it as evidence of dementia.

McCarthy also repeated a promise he often made during the fall campaign:

Our very first bill will repeal the funding for 87,000 new IRS agents. You see, we believe government should be to help you, not go after you.

I’m afraid this first bill really will set the tone for McCarthy’s House, because it’s based on a lie: There is no funding to hire 87,000 new IRS agents, and the new resources the Inflation Reduction Act does send to the IRS don’t target middle-class Americans.

I’ve criticized the decision to release Trump’s tax returns to the public — he should do that, not Congress — but I do have to admit that nothing better illustrates the IRS’s need for more funding. Wealthy tax cheats like Trump know that if they make a big enough tangle of their finances, the IRS won’t be able to put enough auditors on the case to sort it out.

And that’s why McCarthy wants the funding repealed: If he represents anybody, he represents wealthy people who cheat on their taxes. That’s his base.

Michelle Goldberg commented on Marjorie Taylor Greene’s exasperation at the far-right Republicans who wouldn’t get in line behind McCarthy:

It was the embodiment of the Twitter meme: “‘I never thought leopards would eat MY face,’ sobs woman who voted for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party.”

Conservative commentator Noah Rothman argues that the chaotic nature of the speaker-election process and the insurgent demands for a weaker speakership is evidence against the charge that the GOP — and especially its MAGA/Freedom Caucus wing — is the “authoritarian” party.

He’s missing a key point: Fascists love weak governance when they are out of power. Any power center they don’t control should have its powers severely limited … until they do control it. Then, the sky’s the limit.

Case in point: Under Biden or Obama, presidential executive orders are tyranny, and presidential emergency powers are the worst tyranny of all. But in 2019, Andy Biggs urged President Trump to fund his border wall by declaring an emergency, usurping Congress’ power of the purse. (Trump did so.) Unchecked presidential power is wonderful if it’s his president.

Ditto for the Supreme Court. Judicial activism was horrible when the Court’s majority was liberal. But now that the Court is firmly in conservative hands, right-wing leaders no longer make “principled” denunciations of judicial activism.

Same thing here. Biggs was the first Republican to challenge McCarthy’s bid for speakership, and is a key member of the group trying to limit the speaker’s power. But that’s only because his faction represents a small percentage of the Republican caucus and has no chance to elect one of its own as speaker. If the tables ever turn, though, they’ll be looking for a very strong speaker indeed.

The lesson here is that authoritarians are not all the same, and in particular that fascists are not monarchists. Monarchists seek order; they believe that somebody needs to be in charge, and so they tend to fall in line behind the new king, whoever it turns out to be. But fascists seek power; they believe they should be in charge. So they’re for chaos when they’re out of power and order after they gain power. Any power center they can’t control should be weak. But power centers they do control should be strong.

and the debt ceiling

The featured post discusses the debt-ceiling standoff that is coming in the summer, and what the speaker election portends for it.

and the second anniversary of the insurrection

Friday, President Biden marked the second anniversary of the 1-6 insurrection by giving medals to 14 people who stood in the way of Trump’s attempt to stay in power after losing the 2020 election.

The group included law enforcement officers, current and former politicians and election workers who were targeted with threats following the 2020 presidential contest. Three of the medals were awarded posthumously to officers who had defended the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and died afterward by injuries or by suicide.

I heard one commentator (I believe after a conversation with Nancy Pelosi) point out that if this were a presidential inauguration year, a January 6 riot wouldn’t be necessary. Because the House still had no speaker on January 6, it would have been incapable of counting electoral votes. What would happen next is anybody’s guess.

Elon Musk celebrated January 6 by restoring the Twitter account of one of the top conspirators, retired General Michael Flynn.

The Fulton County special grand jury investigating Trump’s attempt to interfere with the 2020 presidential election in Georgia has completed its work. Apparently, that means it has written a report that either does or doesn’t recommend indictments. The grand jury had no authority to indict on its own.

At the moment I don’t know whether any indictments have been recommended. This is breaking news this morning, so consult other sources.

and the pandemic

Covid appears to having another surge. Case numbers are mostly flat and hard to interpret, but everything else is increasing. Deaths are now over 500 per day again, after dipping into the 200s in early December. Hospitalizations and ICU cases are also up.

A scary article from BBC: An official in China’s Henan province says that 90% of the population — about 88.5 million people — have had Covid.

Mr Kan did not specify a timeline for when all the infections happened – but as China’s previous zero-Covid policy kept cases to a minimum, it’s likely the vast majority of Henan’s infections occurred in the past few weeks.

In late December, nearly half of the passengers on two flights from China to Milan tested positive.

and the economy

It’s hard to know how to interpret economic statistics during a time when the Fed is trying to fight inflation. Usually, it’s great news that the economy is creating jobs and wages are rising — which is what Friday’s jobs report showed: The economy added 223K jobs in December and unemployment matched its pre-pandemic low of 3.5%.

But the Fed’s inflation-fighting policy is to slow the economy with higher interest rates, so more jobs just means they’ll increase rates further until the slowdown takes effect.

and you also might be interested in …

Jim Jordan will chair the new House select committee to investigate “the weaponization of the federal government”, i.e. the investigation of Trump and his co-conspirators, like Jim Jordan.

This follows in the footsteps of the failed Durham investigation, and will probably proceed in much the same way: with great fanfare about the devastating evidence it is about to uncover, which will be greatly underwhelming when it appears.

Other than giving Fox News something to talk about, the main point of the Jordan committee will be to harass anyone who has had the effrontery to investigate Republicans, and to intimidate anyone who might do so in the future. A second goal will be to screw up any Trump prosecution.

It will be interesting to see if members of the January 6 Committee (now dissolved) will cooperate with Jordan. After all, Jordan defied a subpoena from them; why should they testify for him?

It’s also worth pointing out that Democrats don’t do this. Nobody was ever punished for all those bogus Benghazi investigations.

President Zelenskyy’s New Year message was as good a piece of wartime messaging as I can think of. I’m inspired, and I’m not even Ukrainian.

Police killings in the US were up in 2022. At least 1176 Americans were killed by police, up from 1145 in 2021. The 2022 total is a new record, according to Mapping Police Violence, which began keeping track of police killings in 2013.

On TV, police kill violent criminals in self defense or to keep them from killing someone else. But that’s not the typical case.

In 2022, 132 killings (11%) were cases in which no offense was alleged; 104 cases (9%) were mental health or welfare checks; 98 (8%) involved traffic violations; and 207 (18%) involved other allegations of nonviolent offenses. There were also 93 cases (8%) involving claims of a domestic disturbance and 128 (11%) where the person was allegedly seen with a weapon. Only 370 (31%) involved a potentially more serious situation, with an alleged violent crime.

I looked for something to compare these numbers to. In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, Australia set a record with 16 police shooting deaths. The US has about 13 times Australia’s population, so the Australian number looks comparable to 208 American deaths, or less than 1/5 of our total. Canadian police killed 36 people in 2020, which would be comparable to 312 Americans, or less than 1/3 our total.

Iceland — a bit larger than 1/1000th the size of the US — has had only one police killing in its history, which happened in 2013. At the US rate it would have about one a year.

I typically hear two explanations for the US’s high rate of police killings: American police are trained to have a “warrior mindset” (most other countries’ police aren’t), and American police are responding to a more dangerous environment, i.e. anyone they encounter might have a gun. In other words: An increased risk of being killed by police is one of the prices we pay for America’s high level of gun ownership.

For police, the huge number of guns in America also means that every single call is treated as if someone involved could be armed — and that an otherwise nonviolent wellness check, mental health call, or traffic stop could turn into a deadly encounter. US law generally allows police to use force because they merely perceive a threat, and the many firearms in civilian hands give police officers a reason to believe they’re in danger.

In other gun news, the federal ban on bump stocks was struck down by a federal appeals court.

Bump stocks are devices that allow a semi-automatic weapon to function like an automatic one, shooting a series of bullets on one trigger-pull. They were banned by the Trump administration after one was used in a mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 people.

I’m still not interested in the British royal family.

Jackson, Mississippi is having another water crisis. The Guardian attributes the problems to “an aging and underfunded system that routinely fails to withstand extreme cold”. All 33 of Jackson’s public schools stayed closed Thursday and Friday (when they were supposed to return from Christmas break) due to low water pressure.

and let’s close with something sweet

Here’s a teacher’s story from 2018:

One of my first graders lost his mom 2 years ago as did I. On Wednesday he gave me a handwritten card saying both of our moms are angels together. Through tears, I tell him I’m having trouble reading it. He says to me, “Just sound it out.” 💕

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  • Ed Blanchard  On January 9, 2023 at 12:01 pm

    Interesting one Doug. You opened with a poorly read, 8th grade level grammer statement escaping McCarthy’s lips. And end with the beautiful story of an elementary student, who shares a personal loss with his teacher who finds it difficult to say the words. The student gently reminds the teacher, …just sounds out each word”.

  • Roger  On January 9, 2023 at 12:04 pm

    You DO know the world will go to hell in a handbasket because you’ll be away for two weeks, don’t you?

    • weeklysift  On January 9, 2023 at 2:52 pm

      It’s for a good cause. I’m giving a talk looking back on my 20 years of blogging — the idealism bloggers had 20 years ago, and the disappointing way that internet journalism has worked out since. There’s no way I’m going to get that written and keep the Sift going too.

  • Dennis Ely  On January 9, 2023 at 1:25 pm

    What a fool, as that boat is ours!


  • susanmbrewer  On January 9, 2023 at 6:06 pm

    You’re right, Zelensky’s New Year’s speech was really inspirational. Thanks for including the link.

  • BFG  On January 9, 2023 at 6:06 pm

    You say that “After McCarthy’s election, he gave a speech and then Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries gave a speech.”

    Wasn’t it the other way round? Wasn’t the culmination of Jeffries’ speech the handing of the gavel to McCarthy, who then gave his first speech as Speaker?

    Or am I losing it?

    • weeklysift  On January 10, 2023 at 2:26 pm

      You may well be right. I watched them both afterwards, so I don’t know which came first.

  • Al Jette  On January 9, 2023 at 10:18 pm

    I love your weekly analysis and look forward to it every Monday when you’re writing. As a sometimes UU person, I also like that you are invited to talk at parishes.

    On guns, I concur with your take. You are a scientist, so I would ask you not to compare this year’s deaths at the hands of police with last years and suggest a trend. If there is a trend, and I suspect there is, I would like to see the graph of the last 10 years or so. A one year increase could be spurious. You, no doubt, know about averaging and with the Covid pandemic numbers more people have, at least been exposed to those statistics, evern if not appreciating why that provides a better understanding.

    Many thanks for you ongoing analysis, al jette

    • weeklysift  On January 10, 2023 at 2:29 pm

      I think the more significant fact is that the 2022 total is the highest recorded since MPV started keeping track in 2013. The fact that it went up at all is kind of shocking, because many of us assumed something was being done in response to the George Floyd protests.

  • Anonymous  On January 16, 2023 at 5:34 pm

    “And that’s why McCarthy wants the funding repealed: If he represents anybody, he represents wealthy people who cheat on their taxes. That’s his base”
    No, his base in the nut-case wing of the party that belives that 187 thousand armed agents are coming to get them. That might be fueled by rich people who cheat on there taxes, but he’s not responding to them directly.

    • weeklysift  On January 19, 2023 at 8:32 am

      It’s arguable either way. In my opinion, wealthy people who cheat on their taxes are responsible for creating the 87K-armed-agents lie, which the nut-cases believed. The nut-cases would probably also believe that we could pay off the national debt with the taxes billionaires skip out on, but that lie won’t be promoted to them.

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