Author Archives: weeklysift

Doug Muder is a former mathematician who now writes about politics and religion. He is a frequent contributor to UU World.

Freedom Isn’t What It Used To Be

From the ancients to the Founders, a “free” citizen was one who had a voice in making the laws, not one the laws left alone.

Today, the words freedom and liberty are trademarks of the Right. In Congress, the House Freedom Caucus includes only the most right-wing members. Liberty University is where religious right-wingers send their children. FreedomWorks is an arm of the Koch octopus.

The same groups espouse a faith in the Founders that is virtually religious, and sometimes literally so. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington … if not for monotheism these men would have ascended to godhood by now. A well-known painting by conservative artist Jon McNaughton (reproduced below) shows Jesus standing between Jefferson and Washington with the Constitution in his hands. Madison stands behind the Constitution, while a representative politician, professor, journalist, and Supreme Court justice tremble at the left hand of God in the company of Satan.

The same conservative movement has become very skeptical of democracy and elections. You’ll frequently hear conservatives explain that the Founders made us “a republic, not a democracy”. Elections are only valid if they win, and if not, perhaps it’s time for second amendment remedies to right the ship, or even another civil war. People who rioted in an attempt to usurp the 2020 election are “patriots“, while the president elected with a seven-million vote majority is a “tyrant“.

In any era, it’s tempting to think that words have always meant what they mean now. So quotes from the Founders about freedom and liberty are often co-opted into these arguments.

But is that really what the Founders meant when they they used those words? Did they mean tax cuts, deregulation, and the other standard conservative positions? Would they have been appalled by vaccine mandates and similar expressions of government power, if such power were being exercised by a government of the People, in accordance with the majority will?

The recent book Freedom: an unruly history by Annelien de Dijn offers an alternative view.

In general, I love these history-of-an-idea books, especially if they’re surprising in some way, as this one is. De Dijn tells the story of how freedom started out meaning one thing and then changed to mean something else, and how this change got erased from popular memory.

The two kinds of freedom have been called different things at different times, but I think of them as “public freedom” and “private freedom”. Both kinds of freedom are about self-determination, but at different scales. Private freedom is the right to live your life with minimal interference from outside powers like the government — how today’s conservatives use the word. Public freedom is your right to have a voice in making the laws that govern you.

You could imagine having either kind of freedom without the other: You might live under a dictator who chooses to leave you alone, or under a democracy whose laws constantly get in the way of what you want to do.

De Dijn makes a good case that in ancient times, freedom meant public freedom. Herodotus, for example, contrasted the “free” Greeks against the “enslaved” Persians — not because the Persian laws were significantly more invasive, but because Greek city-states made their own laws rather than receiving them from an emperor. A Greek citizen (especially, but not uniquely, an Athenian) could criticize a law in the assembly and try to convince his neighbors to change it, while a Persian subject dared not. Similarly, Cicero opposed Caesar not because Caesar’s government did terrible things — on the whole, Caesar was a fairly good lawmaker, certainly no worse than the republican consuls who preceded him — but because Caesar issued decrees under his own authority, without consulting the Senate or the popular assembly.

It’s not that classical thinkers didn’t value living their lives without interference, but they regarded public freedom as a long-term precondition for private freedom: If people like you have no voice in making the laws, sooner or later the laws will oppress you.

But when the Roman emperors turned Christian, Christian leaders like St. Augustine abandoned the classical notion of liberty, and taught instead that imperial authority was sanctioned by God. This view persisted through the later Middle Ages, to the point that Dante placed Caesar’s assassins (Brutus and Cassius) next to Judas in the lowest pit of Hell. It survived into the Founding Era as the divine right of kings, which Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence rejected.

When the Renaissance humanists rediscovered classical authors, though, they also revived the classical notion of freedom, i.e., public freedom. This developed into the Enlightenment notion of the social contract, which was the basis not just of the American Revolution, but of a series of revolutions throughout Europe and the former European colonies in the New World. Again, the problem with George III’s government of the American colonies wasn’t that everyday life was oppressive, it was that he denied Americans a voice in making their own laws. The issue wasn’t high taxes, but “taxation without representation”.

The currently popular notion of freedom as purely private freedom, being left alone, is comparatively recent. It developed in the backlash after the French Revolution, and was promoted by the same aristocrats who had opposed democracy all along. This view has also consistently opposed any expansion of democracy, on the grounds that democracy is merely a means to an end (good government) and not a human right. Why, for example, do women need to vote if their husbands treat them well? Haven’t men of property been making better laws for the landless workers than such foolish and poorly educated men would make for themselves?

Along the way, de Dijn answers a question I have occasionally raised in this blog: What is the origin of the currently popular conservative distinction between a republic and a democracy, which the Right uses to justify anti-democratic fossils like the Electoral College, the Senate, and the filibuster?

A Heritage Foundation report titled “America is a Republic, not a Democracy” is typical of the genre:

[C]alls to abolish or circumvent the Electoral College in the selection of our chief executive represent the most visible sign of this democratic antipathy to our republican institutions.

Another symptom Heritage finds worrisome is “the increased dissatisfaction with the efficiency and responsiveness of our deliberative political institutions”, i.e., calls to end the filibuster. Ranked-choice voting is on a list of notions that are suspect because they represent “more effective and immediate ways to express the will of the majority”. (Notice, however, how this conservative critique of majority rule goes away when the local majority wants to ban abortion or outlaw critical race theory.)

Conservatives will tell you the republic/democracy distinction comes from the Founders, particularly James Madison in Federalist 10. If you read that essay, though, you’ll find a purely formal distinction between the two, not the anti-popular-sovereignty sentiment right-wingers now project onto it. Madison defines a democracy as “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person” and a republic as “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place”. Nothing in his essay argues that a republic’s popular majority is not entitled to elect a majority of representatives, or that this legislative majority should be thwarted in passing popular laws. Madison sees representative government as a temporary buffer against volatile public moods, not a a way to permanently obstruct the will of the People, as the filibuster currently does on any number of issues.

So where does the a-republic-not-a-democracy idea really come from? From the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, not the Founding Era a century before. De Dijn traces it to a Yale professor named William Graham Sumner, who was highly influential in his day, but is now largely forgotten.

[Sumner] believed that liberty could survive only if popular power was checked by strong countermajoritarian institutions. Indeed, he explicitly rejected democratic government, arguing in favor of “republics” instead. By making this distinction, Sumner gave an entirely new meaning to the word “republican.” During the American Revolution and its immediate aftermath, “republic” had been more or less synonymous with popular government.

One final warning: By the time you check Freedom: an unruly history off your reading list, you will have a longer list. Names that were little more than placeholders in your history textbooks will suddenly seem like major holes in your education. (How did I make it this far into life without reading either Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France or Richard Price’s sermon “A Discourse on the Love our Our Country” that Burke was arguing against?)

The Monday Morning Teaser

It’s been a busy week for news. Democrats seem to be getting close to a deal on the reconciliation bill, which would also unlock the bipartisan infrastructure bill — but who can really be sure until the votes are cast? The low ebb of the party’s popularity may sink their candidate in Virginia’s governor’s race tomorrow. The world’s leaders are at a climate conference in Glasgow. Texas officials continue to try to limit the books school children are exposed to. The Supreme Court is about to take up a case that could reverse Roe v Wade. We continue to find out more about Trump’s coup attempt.

As I often do when I can’t choose a single story to focus on, I’m going to talk about something else entirely: the history of the word freedom. I love the new book Freedom: an unruly history, and I want to tell you about it. (Teaser: Who came up with the idea that “We’re a republic, not a democracy”? It wasn’t Madison or any other Founder.)

So the featured post is “Freedom Isn’t What It Used To Be”, and it should be out by 10 EDT.

The weekly summary will cover the stuff I mentioned above, plus pointing you to some fun Halloween images I ran into this week, and closing with a bookshop in China that is somehow both futuristic and magical. If Hogwarts is still around in the Star Trek era, its library might look like this. That should be out by noon.


Are some people now truly above the law, beholden to nothing and no one, free to ignore the law and without consequence?”

Rep. Adam Schiff

This week’s featured post is “What Conservatives Tell Themselves About Critical Race Theory“.

This week everybody was talking about Build Back Better

The negotiations over Biden’s Build Back Better plan seem to be inching towards a finish line, though we won’t really know until there’s a complete agreement. It sounds like the top-line figure will be in the $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion range, in addition to the $1-1.2 trillion in the bipartisan infrastructure bill. There are still probably a billion details to work out, but I think Democrats realize they can’t go into 2022 without more legislative accomplishments than they have now.

Once there’s an actual agreement, with a list of what’s in and what’s out, I’m going to try hard to look at it fresh, without comparing it to what I thought or hoped might be in it at some earlier stage. I think the right comparison is: What was I expecting on January 5, right after Ossoff and Warnock won the Georgia run-offs and gave Democrats their zero-vote majority?

The political style here is the opposite of what Obama did with the ACA. Then, Obama didn’t indulge much blank-slate dreaming. Single-payer was out from Day 1, and the variations of the bill debated were in a fairly narrow range. Biden has allowed a much wider range of visions to flourish, while knowing that most of them would fail to manifest. It’ll be interesting to see how those strategies contrast after Democrats have run the 2022 campaign.

and January 6

I was glad to see the House take the January 6 Committee’s job seriously and recommend Steve Bannon be prosecuted for blowing off a subpoena. The case is now in Merrick Garland’s in-box. Garland has to realize that if he doesn’t prosecute, congressional oversight of the executive branch is pretty much over.

On November 4, a federal court is due to consider Trump’s suit to stop the National Archives from turning documents from his administration over to the January 6 Committee. It’s not clear the judge’s ruling will even matter, since the point of the suit is to run the clock out.

John Eastman, the lawyer whose memo laid out the plan for Trump to overturn the 2020 election results, now claims the point of his plan was to stop Trump from doing something worse. Trump wanted Vice President Pence to simply declare him the winner on January 6. But under Eastman’s plan, Pence would give states with Republican legislatures more time to replace their Biden electors with Trump electors.

Either way, the point was for Trump to stay in power after losing the election. If Eastman’s plan had worked, American democracy would have ended by now.

and the pandemic

Cases per day in the US continue to drop at the rate of about 20-25% every two weeks, which works out to falling in half about every 5-6 weeks. The current daily average is 72,644, down 25% in the last two weeks. That’s about half what it was on September 18, five weeks and two days ago. Five weeks from now is just after Thanksgiving, which last year was the beginning of a holiday surge that continued through New Years.

The frustrating thing to me personally is that cases are falling just about everywhere but here in the Northeast. The region where I live had the lowest new-case rates in the country during the late-summer surge, but now our trends are flat while the rest of the country is improving to meet us.

The daily-new-cases-per-100K rate in my county (Middlesex, Massachusetts) has been stuck in the 14-18 range for months. Meanwhile, a county I watch because friends live there (Manatee, Florida) had bounced up over 120, but has now fallen below 10. I’m not wishing anything bad for the rest of America, I just want to share in the improvement.

The Atlantic published a disturbing article written by James Heathers, a “forensic peer reviewer” of scientific research. He’s begins by talking about ivermectin as a Covid treatment (which it isn’t), and finds that the problem isn’t entirely with YouTube videos and gullible retweeters: Enough published scientific studies said positive things about ivermectin that

it might seem perfectly rational to join the fervent supporters of ivermectin. It might even strike you as reasonable to suggest, as one physician and congressional witness did recently, that “people are dying because they don’t know about this medicine.”

The problem is that a bunch of those studies are really low quality, or even fraudulent.

In our opinion, a bare minimum of five ivermectin papers are either misconceived, inaccurate, or otherwise based on studies that cannot exist as described. One study has already been withdrawn on the basis of our work; the other four very much should be. …

Most problematic, the studies we are certain are unreliable happen to be the same ones that show ivermectin as most effective. In general, we’ve found that many of the inconclusive trials appear to have been adequately conducted. Those of reasonable size with spectacular results, implying the miraculous effects that have garnered so much public attention and digital notoriety, have not.

Worse, the sorry state of ivermectin/Covid research may not be that unusual. In Heathers’ opinion, a lot of unreliable medical research gets published. In normal times, doctors ignore it

because it either looks “off” or is published in the wrong place. A huge gray literature exists in parallel to reliable clinical research, including work published in low-quality or outright predatory journals that will publish almost anything for money.

[This reminds me of when my wife (who is still doing fine, thank you for wondering) was taking a new drug to combat an unusual variety of cancer. Occasionally the oncologist would answer one of my questions by saying that a paper pointed in such-and-such direction, but he didn’t trust it yet. I remember one disparaging comment about “Italian journals”, which I never followed up on.]

But during a pandemic, apparent “cures” from the gray literature can slip past the skepticism of the medical community and go straight to a more responsive public.

In a pandemic, when the stakes are highest, the somewhat porous boundary between these publication worlds has all but disappeared. There is no gray literature now: Everything is a magnet for immediate attention and misunderstanding. An unbelievable, inaccurate study no longer has to linger in obscurity; it may bubble over into the public consciousness as soon as it appears online, and get passed around the internet like a lost kitten in a preschool.

[An aside: I wish I’d written that lost-kitten metaphor.]

and you also might be interested in …

Ross Douthat’s column “How I Became a Sick Person” is a reminder that underneath our divergent politics, we’re all human. Douthat describes a series of scary symptoms that his doctors couldn’t explain, culminating in a controlled but chronic illness. Feel better, Ross. I’ll be rooting for you.

So the choice has become clear: Democrats can’t preserve both the filibuster and voting rights.

The last time a voting rights bill came up, Joe Manchin claimed that it was too sweeping, and that a more targeted plan could get the ten Republican votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Manchin worked on crafting a narrower bill, which Republicans filibustered Wednesday. No Republicans at all voted to overcome the filibuster. I haven’t even heard one of them make a counterproposal. Up and down the line, Republicans are against any attempt to protect voting rights.

In light of the vote, key Democrats said they would regroup and try again to persuade Mr. Manchin and other Senate Democrats reluctant to undermine the filibuster that an overhaul of the chamber’s signature procedural tactic was the only way to protect ballot access around the country.

I’m not optimistic, but I also can’t guess how Manchin will justify himself now.

Two Republicans, former state treasurer Josh Mandel and J. D. (Hillbilly Elegy) Vance, have turned their Ohio Senate primary race into a who’s-the-craziest contest. Mandel is currently winning with tweets like this:

Maximize family time and keep working hard. Keep the freezer stocked and firearms at the ready. Buy #bitcoin and avoid debt. We will outlast these monsters and we will thrive for generations to come after God brings them down.

Vance will have to counter somehow, or risk surrendering the key doomsday-prepper voting bloc to Mandel.

On the Democratic side, Congressman Tim Ryan is also hoping to replace retiring Senator Rob Portman. His campaign website says:

Tim will fight to raise wages, make healthcare more affordable, invest in education, rebuild our public infrastructure, and revitalize manufacturing so we can make things in Ohio again. 

Sure, Tim, but what about the issues Ohio voters really care about? What are you going to do about the monsters? What role do you see yourself playing when God starts bringing them down?

We can only hope that some significant segment of former Republican voters will be disturbed by the absolute insanity that Trump has unleashed in their party. (See previous note.) But if they’re not, maybe they’ll notice the insanity Trump has unleashed in something they care more about: their churches.

Peter Wehner has just published “The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart” in The Atlantic. He talks to 15 Evangelical pastors who either have left the ministry or are thinking hard about it because of the right-wing political zealotry that is tearing up their congregations.

The root of the discord lies in the fact that many Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics. When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized. The result is not only wounding the nation; it’s having a devastating impact on the Christian faith.

The problem is not just that Trump’s deranged rants have replaced the Sermon on the Mount as the center of many Evangelicals’ religion. It’s also that Trump’s anything-goes truth-be-damned style has corrupted how Evangelicals handle disagreements with each other.

[McLean Bible Church pastor David] Platt said church members had been misled, having been told, among other things, that the three individuals nominated to be elders would advocate selling the church building to Muslims, who would convert it into a mosque. In a second vote on July 18, all three nominees cleared the threshold [for election]. But that hardly resolved the conflict. Members of the church filed a lawsuit, claiming that the conduct of the election violated the church’s constitution.

Platt, who is theologically conservative, had been accused in the months before the vote by a small but zealous group within his church of “wokeness” and being “left of center,” of pushing a “social justice” agenda and promoting critical race theory, and of attempting to “purge conservative members.” A Facebook page and a right-wing website have targeted Platt and his leadership. For his part, Platt, speaking to his congregation, described an email that was circulated claiming, “MBC is no longer McLean Bible Church, that it’s now Melanin Bible Church.”

BTW, clicking that right-wing website link, and then other links from there, is eye-opening. You’ll find yourself in a scary mirror world where a diabolical “woke” politics is taking over everything, including Evangelical institutions. And notice in the quote above how “social justice” has become a bad thing, something you don’t want to be accused of.

Speaking of insanity, check out Joy Pullmann’s “For Christians, Dying From Covid (or Anything Else) Is a Good Thing” over at The Federalist. Her main point is that churches should hold services and the faithful should attend them, independent of anything we know about how diseases spread.

Christians believe that life and death belong entirely to God. There is nothing we can do to make our days on earth one second longer or shorter: “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be,” says the Psalmist.

I have to wonder if this is her position in general, or an ad hoc view she takes purely with respect to Covid. For example, does she stop her children when they start to wander into traffic? If she does, what does she think she’s accomplishing?

On the other hand, maybe her article isn’t insanity. Maybe it’s just bullshit.

Trump has a new scam: his own social network. And it’s off to such a good start.

Back in November, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick announced a reward for evidence leading to convictions for voter fraud in the 2020 election: He had $1 million of campaign money to offer, and would give a minimum of $25K to each whistleblower.

He was, of course, trying to put meat on the bones of Trump’s bogus claims of fraud. But that isn’t how it has worked out: He awarded his first $25K to a Pennsylvania poll worker who caught a Republican trying to vote twice for Trump. This guy is one of five voter fraud cases being prosecuted in Pennsylvania, four against Republicans.

Nevada also charged a Republican with voter fraud this week: A guy appears to have mailed in his dead wife’s ballot in addition to his own. Four people have been charged in Wisconsin, though we don’t know who they were trying to vote for. (At least one of them seems to have made an honest mistake: He was a felon who was out of jail but hadn’t finished his probation yet. He apparently thought he could vote legally.)


  • Nationwide, very few cases of 2020 voter fraud have been found.
  • The handful of fraudsters who have been identified by party are mostly Republicans.

Neither of those results should surprise anybody. In spite of the claims Republicans keep making, study after study has shown that voter fraud is extremely rare. But Republicans like Dan Patrick have convinced their supporters that millions of Democrats get away with voting fraudulently every year — so it must be easy! Of course a few are going to try to “get even” by voting fraudulently themselves.

Oh, and what about dead voters? Pretty much the same story: Either the claim is false or the case involved people trying to scrounge an extra vote for Trump.

NYT columnist Michelle Goldberg reflects on Angela Merkel’s decision to let a million refugees from Syria and Africa settle in Germany in 2015.

But six years later, the catastrophes predicted by Merkel’s critics haven’t come to pass.

In the recent German election, refugees were barely an issue, and the [anti-immigrant party Alliance for Germany] lost ground. “The sense is that there has been comparatively little Islamic extremism or extremist crime resulting from this immigration, and that on the whole, the largest number of these immigrants have been successfully integrated into the German work force and into German society overall,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, an expert on Germany and trans-Atlantic relations at the Brookings Institution.

“With the passage of time,” Marton told me, Merkel “turned out to have chosen the absolutely right course for not only Germany but for the world.”

and let’s close with something tasty

Lately I’ve been cooking more, which Facebook somehow knows. So I’m being shown more videos about food. I was fascinated by this account of really authentic parmesan cheese.

What Conservatives Tell Themselves About “Critical Race Theory”

The research I do for this blog occasionally garners me some unexpected spam email. Last week, the Heritage Foundation decided I might be the target audience for its free e-pamphlet (they call it an e-book, but at 20 pages, that’s an exaggeration) “Critical Race Theory: Knowing it when you see it and fighting it when you can”. (You can request your own free copy here.)

In some sense, they weren’t wrong: I did request the pamphlet and read it, heedless of whatever future spam that might lead to. I was curious, not because I’m afraid of CRT corrupting children at my local schools, but because I have been totally puzzled by the conservative usage of the term. Whenever I hear that somebody is supposedly “teaching CRT in the public schools”, those words turn out not to mean what they would ordinarily mean.

For example, if I told you someone is teaching the Pythagorean Theorem in public schools, I would mean that there is a class (Geometry) whose textbook has a “Pythagorean Theorem” chapter, which the teacher will at some point cover. But nobody’s high school textbook has a “Critical Race Theory” chapter. If you have attended a class that was accused of teaching critical race theory, almost certainly you did not hear the phrase “critical race theory”.

Ditto for teacher training classes. Teachers might be trained on managing racial diversity in their classrooms, or creating an environment more conducive to the success of students of color. But at no point would the instructor say, “Now we’re going to learn critical race theory.” You might hear the phrase “critical race theory” if you study law, because it was coined in the 1970s to describe the idea that “formally colorblind laws can still have racially discriminatory outcomes.” But that’s not going to happen in anything related to K-12 teaching.

In short, CRT in the public schools (or the workplace or the military) is almost invariably a label that some disapproving person applies from the outside. A teacher or teacher-trainer says something, and then somebody else says “That’s critical race theory.”

Labels. So let’s talk about applying negative labels from the outside, which people of all political persuasions do, and which isn’t necessarily bad. For example, if someone is calling for a dictatorship of the proletariat to seize the means of production, I might be doing a public service if I correctly identify that person as a “communist”, whether he uses that word himself or not.

Similarly, John Gruden doesn’t call himself a “racist”, and in fact denies that he is one. But when it came out that he had written in an email that a black representative of the NFL players had “lips the size of Michelin tires”, other people characterized his statement as racist.

I don’t see anything wrong with outside-labeling in general, because people can’t be trusted choose their own labels without external criticism. If I call myself “pro-choice” and somebody else calls himself “pro-life”, it’s just part of normal political debate if we label each other “pro-abortion” and “anti-women’s-rights”.

That said, there are responsible and irresponsible ways to negatively label someone from the outside. The responsible way has several features:

  • The label is defined rather than hurled like an insult. So Michael Flynn is called a “confessed felon” because he pleaded guilty to a felony. But AOC is called a “bitch” because … well, just because.
  • The definition actually fits the labeled person. Too often, a negative label gets attached to somebody based on what other people say about them rather than anything they’ve said or done themselves. Sometimes an authentic quote that was harmless in its original context gets run through a game of telephone until it’s unrecognizably outrageous.
  • The definition also applies to the people typically associated with the label, and captures the essence of what is blameworthy about such people. That was the problem with Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism: To the extent Goldberg defined “fascist” at all, it was a synonym for a particular sense of “totalitarian” that he confessed could also be described as “holistic”: Liberals are “fascist” because they “see no realm of human life that is beyond political significance, from what you eat to what you smoke to what you say”. So if you want to ban sugary sodas, regulate vaping, and boycott speakers who traffic in racial slurs, Goldberg lumps you in with other “holistic” figures like Hitler and Mussolini.
  • The definition justifies the emotional baggage the label is being used to carry. In some conversations, it might be reasonable to use “communist” to mean nothing more than someone who wants to redistribute wealth. But if that’s the definition you verify, you’re not entitled to also invoke the emotional resonance of being America’s enemy in the Cold War.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a label is being applied responsibly or irresponsibly. For example, if someone calls Donald Trump a “fascist”, they could be hurling an insult at him the way they might hurl eggs at a detested speaker. Or they could have a reasonable definition of fascism that fits Trump like a glove, as well as capturing key traits that made Hitler and Mussolini what they were.

The CRT label. OK, now let’s talk specifically about critical race theory. Until recently, I’ve been assuming the CRT label was being applied irresponsibly for the first reason: The people throwing the term around were sure it was bad, but hardly any of them could say what it meant or why it was bad. Now though, at long last, the Heritage Foundation, a think tank full of the highest-level conservative intellectuals, was going to fix all that by spelling out how to recognize CRT.

Sadly, the pamphlet does not actually define CRT, but I give it credit for providing the next best thing: a list of characteristics. And here they are:

  • Systemic racism. “Critical race theory’s key assertion is that racism is not the result of individual, conscious racist actions or thoughts. Racism is ‘systemic’ and ‘structural.’ It is embedded in America’s legal system, institutions, and free-enterprise system, and imposes ‘whiteness’ as the societal norm.”
  • Race drives beliefs and behaviors. I didn’t make much sense out of that phrase until I read the longer explanation: “American culture is a conspiracy to perpetuate white supremacy by imposing white concepts on people of other races.”
  • White privilege. Critical race theorists “say that white people are born with unearned privilege that other Americans are denied. … Any curricula or diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program that compels students or employees to accept their white privilege and/or work to abandon it are part of CRT.”
  • Meritocracy is a myth, because the system won’t let non-whites succeed. “Any curriculum or training program that says color blindness is a myth and advocates for eliminating standard measurements of success, including standardized testing for university admissions for reasons of racial equity, are part of CRT.”
  • Equity replaces equality. “‘Equality’ means equal treatment of all Americans under the law. CRT’s ‘equity’ demands race-based discrimination. Because systemic racism has produced disparities between the races and because the system will only deepen these disparities by rewarding the ‘wrong’ criteria, government must treat individual Americans unequally according to skin color to forcibly produce equal outcomes.”

That’s it — the whole list. Notice what’s missing: the long litany of teachings that are banned in the numerous anti-CRT state laws that have passed red-state legislatures in the last few months. Here’s Tennessee’s:

a. One (1) race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;
b. An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;
c. An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race or sex;
d. An individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race or sex;
e. An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;
f. An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex;
g. A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex;
h. This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist;
i. Promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government;
j. Promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people;
k. Ascribing character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of the individual’s race or sex;
l. The rule of law does not exist, but instead is series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups;
m. All Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; or
n. Governments should deny to any person within the government’s jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

You can find exaggerated versions of Heritage’s characteristics in this list (b, for example, resembles Heritage’s “white privilege”) but the really outrageous parts don’t show up in Heritage’s pamphlet. Heritage doesn’t claim CRT teaches “One race is inherently superior to another race” or “An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex” or “All Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, much less that it promotes “violent overthrow of the United States government”.

By limiting its list of characteristics, Heritage is all but admitting that if you look for CRT in your community, you’re not going to find the teachings listed in anti-CRT laws (which mainly exist for propaganda purposes). You’re not even going to find people claiming that the “the United States is irredeemably racist”, because promoting anti-racism would be pointless if that were true.

What you might find, though, are people teaching about systemic racism, cultural imperialism, white privilege, and racially biased measures of merit, while calling for an America where the gaps between races go away in reality rather than just on paper.

Is there something wrong with that?

Before reading the Heritage pamphlet, I thought anti-CRT rhetoric failed my first test (no definition). Now that I’ve read it, I think it fails my last test (a definition that won’t carry the label’s emotional baggage).

Let’s take a look at the ideas that Heritage says CRT is really about.

Photography as paradigm. I grew up using beige-pink crayons that were labeled “Flesh”, which is pretty much the definition of “imposing whiteness as the societal norm”. My skin wasn’t exactly that color, but it was close enough to mark me as “normal” — unlike people of other races, whose flesh had some color totally different from “Flesh”.

Later I found out that my crayon was just the tip of an iceberg: Kodak’s color film (the industry standard) had been engineered to reproduce “flesh tones”, i.e. Caucasian flesh tones, with particular accuracy. Black people, on the other hand, often showed up on a color photo as white eyes and teeth in the middle of a dark blob. Black parents saw the problem immediately, but it wasn’t fixed until decades later, when furniture and chocolate makers complained that they couldn’t accurately represent their brown products in advertisements.

Aside from the dispiriting effect that dark-blob class photos must have had on black children, racially biased photography necessarily had a negative impact on entire generations of black professionals: models, photographers, TV journalists, athletes hoping to endorse products, and any other dark-skinned people who needed their images to reproduce in an attractive way. Even a movie director completely without racial bias might be reluctant to work with black actors, simply because of the technical problems involved. If you wanted a face whose subtle emotions would show up on the big screen, a white face was the better choice.

So even if bias wasn’t in individuals, it was in the system.

BTW, this is not ancient history: Facial recognition software still works better for light-skinned people than dark-skinned people.

The team that [MIT researcher Joy] Buolamwini assembled to work on the project was ethnically diverse, but the researchers found that, when it came time to present the [facial analysis] device in public, they had to rely on one of the lighter-skinned team members to demonstrate it. The system just didn’t seem to work reliably with darker-skinned users.

Curious, Buolamwini, who is black, began submitting photos of herself to commercial facial-recognition programs. In several cases, the programs failed to recognize the photos as featuring a human face at all. When they did, they consistently misclassified Buolamwini’s gender.

To me, this is the paradigm of systemic racism. Nobody at Kodak or Google was out to get black people; they just had other priorities. If photographic systems didn’t work well for dark skin, that was a shame. But, well, so what?

Now multiply that through the whole of society. System after system was designed for (and usually tested by) white people (and men and English speakers and cisgender people and neurotypical people and … and … and …). If it also happened to work for non-whites, great. But if not, who really cared?

So, in spite of the Heritage pamphlet’s claim that CRT is “a philosophy founded by law professors who used Marxist analysis”, systemic racism isn’t some invention of a Marxist propagandist; it’s a simple reality. The Heritage Foundation wants us to hide that reality from school children.

Privilege. If you’re white, like I am, it’s easy to overlook examples of your own privilege, because privilege is most obviously present when something doesn’t happen: I drive somewhere, and cops don’t pull me over for no reason. (Republican Senator Tim Scott, by comparison, says he has been pulled over 18 times for “driving while black”. I have to wonder how many of the encounters that result in police killing black men or women would not occur at all but for race.) I walk down a city street, and nobody stops and frisks me, or asks for my ID. Security people don’t shadow me in department stores. In one situation after another, I just go about my business undisturbed, never noticing that I’m enjoying a racial privilege.

Similarly, if I apply for a job, I don’t have to notice that I’m more likely to get an interview because I’m white. Or if I seek a mortgage, I just see the interest rate I’m offered, not the higher one a comparable black borrower might be asked to pay.

Some longer-term aspects of privilege are related to systemic racism: My parents were part of the expansion of the middle class that happened during the GI generation, largely because of government action. My grandfather’s farm was saved by a New Deal farm loan program (and multiplied in value many times before I sold it). After World War II, the government subsidized home ownership and higher education. It smoothed the path of unionization, which raised the wages of factory jobs like my father’s.

Some of those wealth-creating New Deal and post-war programs also worked for non-white families, but many did not. As a result, our whiteness was a factor in creating the family prosperity that allowed me to get an advanced degree without running up student debt.

In short, white privilege isn’t some sinister notion promoted to increase white guilt. (And I actually don’t feel personal guilt about this, but instead recognize a responsibility to seek a more just system.) It’s a description of how life works in America.

This aspect of American life is also something Heritage wants us to hide from children.

“Equality” without equity implies inferiority. The Heritage pamphlet makes superficial equality under the law the be-all-and-end-all of racial justice. In its response to CRT’s claim of systemic racism, the pamphlet says:

Racial discrimination is illegal in America. In the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the government rejected racial discrimination and made it illegal in all public aspects of our lives. Likewise, the civil rights movement affirmed that prejudice has no place in American life. There are racists in America, as in all other countries, but the vast majority of Americans we work and worship with, live and learn alongside, embrace the equal rights and dignity of all.

So that settles that, I guess. The laws on paper say we don’t discriminate, so never mind that we continue to see large racial gaps in income, wealth, incarceration, infant mortality, life expectancy, and just about every other aspect of life. Asking for these gaps to close is demanding “equity” — equal outcomes — which (in Heritage’s world) marks you as a critical race theorist.

But think about what the persistence of these gaps implies, if (as Heritage claims) no widespread discrimination or systemic racism actually exists. If black people can’t keep up in America, and yet there is nothing wrong with America, then there must be something wrong with black people.

There’s no getting around that logic. The Heritage Foundation may not want to put it in print or say it in polite company, but I see no way to embrace their pamphlet as truth without also believing that black people are inherently inferior to white people.

What’s more, I think school children (of all races) are smart enough to draw that conclusion for themselves: If the game is fair, and yet the same people always win, then the winners must just be better than the losers.

In short, if we label all alternative explanations of racial gaps as “critical race theory” and ban schools from teaching them, then by process of elimination we’re really teaching the only remaining explanation: white superiority. The Heritage pamphlet may claim it wants to “ensure school curriculums uphold the intrinsic equality of all humans”. But in fact they’re guaranteeing that children will learn the exact opposite.

Heritage’s white-comforting fantasy world. If I restate the Heritage pamphlet’s underlying message in my own words, it amounts to this: “We had a nice fantasy going until these damned teachers started telling kids how the world really works.”

In the Heritage fantasy world, America outlawed racism back in the 1960s, so any advantages or disadvantages people have accumulated since then are purely due to their individual talent and hard work, or lack of talent and laziness.

If two people are given the same opportunity, but only one takes advantage of it, they will naturally have different outcomes. The only way government can try to produce equal outcomes for them is by taking away the result from the first person, or unfairly giving the unearned benefit to the second. Attempts by government officials to take the fruits of your achievements and give them to those who did not earn it will hurt those whose rewards are diminished as well the intended beneficiaries. This betrays the idea that the American dream belongs to all of us, and everyone should have the same opportunity to pursue success.

And let’s not talk at all about inherited wealth that originated in the Jim Crow era, which Heritage wants to safeguard against “death taxes”.

America isn’t dominated by “white culture”, but by “universal values” (which white people happened to discover first because of their innate superiority, but don’t say that part out loud).

American culture is based on a timeless understanding of rights rooted in the inherent value and nature of the human race. People of all colors and national backgrounds come here and flourish because our culture embraces common humanity and dignity.

And while it may be true that white people are doing better in America (in just about every measurable way) than black people, that can only mean that white people are enjoying “the fruits of your achievement”, which should not be taken away and given to “those who did not earn it”.

The real way to deal with racial disparities is just not to measure them, because that’s (as the Tennessee law puts it) “promoting division between, or resentment of, a race”. The ideal society is a colorblind society, where nobody notices that the people on top are mostly white and the people on the bottom are mostly black. As soon as you start noticing stuff like that, you’re “dividing America“, which was perfectly united in its color blindness until social justice warriors started quoting statistics.

Or at least it would be nice to think so, if you’re white.

2022. Republican candidates are hoping to use their anti-CRT campaign to regain ground that Trump lost in the white suburbs by being too explicitly racist. (The test case is next month’s Virginia governor’s race.) CRT is supposed to threaten precisely those white parents who were disturbed by Charlottesville. It’s supposed to remind them that Democrats are too pro-black, without pushing an explicitly anti-black message that might ring alarm bells.

That tactic might work, because critical race theory really does constitute a threat to prosperous white people. It threatens to torpedo the very comfortable fantasy that the game they’re winning is perfectly fair.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week I responded to a slice of conservative spam: The Heritage Foundation was offering me its free e-book (well, e-pamphlet, really) on how to spot and combat critical race theory. I had to get it: I keep accusing conservatives of turning “critical race theory” into a pejorative term with no actual meaning, and here was a right-wing think tank offering to tell me what it means. I have to read stuff like this just to keep myself honest (which is probably why I keep getting conservative spam).

The result is this week’s featured post: “What Conservatives Tell Themselves About Critical Race Theory”. The short version: When they feel obligated to define “critical race theory” and attach it to actual quotes from the people supposedly promoting it, conservatives serve a pretty thin soup that is nothing at all like those anti-CRT laws that talk about making white people feel ashamed of their whiteness and blaming them for the crimes of their ancestors. In a nutshell, CRT means teaching people about systemic racism.

Imagine my horror. Innocent children in our public schools are being taught that whites have advantages in our society! Clearly we need to storm the school boards and get this stopped.

Anyway, that post should be out before 10 EDT.

In the weekly summary, Democrats appear to be creeping towards the finish line on the Build Back Better plan. It’s going to look small compared to earlier proposals, but if you’d described it to me on January 5 (when the election of Senators Warnock and Ossoff gave Democrats control of the Senate) I think I’d have been happy. Once something passes, Democrats will have to work on their marketing so that voters realize how much has been accomplished rather than focusing only on what has been left out. Congress has cited Steve Bannon for criminal contempt, moving the case to Merrick Garland’s in-box. The Trumpist spirit is unleashing incredible craziness in Republican primaries, and also in Evangelical churches. And Covid numbers continue to drop everywhere but here in the Northeast.

That should be out sometime after noon.


I am actually old enough … I mean, I know that Republicans in Texas have been conservative for a long time, but there was a time when conservative Republicans in Texas were not absolutely batshit crazy.

Charlie Sykes

This week’s featured post is “Reading While Texan“.

This week everybody was talking about Manchin and Sinema

For weeks we’ve been wondering what price they would demand for getting on board with the Build Back Better reconciliation bill. We’re starting to see that price, and it’s steep.

Manchin is against the Clean Electricity Payment Program, which subsidizes the shift away from fossil fuels for generating electricity.

The $150 billion program — officially known as the Clean Electricity Performance Program, or CEPP — would reward energy suppliers who switch from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to clean power sources like solar, wind, and nuclear power, which already make up about 40 percent of the industry, and fine those who do not.

Manchin claims the program isn’t necessary, because the shift is happening anyway. (The change he cites is over a 20 years period, and mainly shows a shift from coal to natural gas, a somewhat cleaner fossil fuel.) But it makes a huge difference how fast the shift happens. Remember: The most direct plan for cutting carbon emissions is just two steps long:

He also wants means tests on a number of programs, including the child tax credit, and possibly also a work requirement for parents who get the credit.

Sinema says she won’t vote for Build Back Better until the House passes the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Since it’s almost certain the House will eventually vote for the bill, this plan only makes sense if she wants to back out of whatever commitments she makes in the negotiations to pass both bills.

She also opposes the tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy that pay for the bill in its current form. I’m not sure whether she wants a smaller increase or no increase. Democrats are discussing a carbon tax to fill the fiscal hole, though I’m not sure what Manchin would think of that.

and subpoenas

With Trump’s encouragement, a number of his administration’s former officials and unofficial advisers are defying subpoenas from the House January 6 Committee. The committee will vote tomorrow on whether to hold Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress.

“This potential criminal contempt referral — or will-be criminal contempt referral for Steve Bannon — is the first shot over the bow,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who serves on the committee, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on State of the Union Sunday. “It’s very real, but it says to anybody else coming in front of the committee, ‘Don’t think that you’re gonna be able to just kind of walk away and we’re gonna forget about you. We’re not.’”

It’s important not to lose sight of just how far the country has gone down this rabbit hole. We’ve gotten used to the idea that Trump obstructs justice. He obstructed the Mueller investigation, the Ukraine investigation of his first impeachment, and the January 6 investigation of his second impeachment. We’ve gotten used to the idea that he makes laughable claims in lawsuits, purely for the purpose of using the courts to delay the release of potentially damaging information.

But Trump’s intransigence is not just politics, it’s new territory in American politics — recall Hillary Clinton testifying to the Benghazi Committee for 11 hours — and it threatens the rule of law. We once believed that politicians would avoid this kind of behavior out of shame, because of course the voters would ask “What is he hiding?” But Trump hides everything, so it’s just what he does. We once believed that no president would pardon his co-conspirators, or that Congress would of course respond to such an outrage by removing him from office. But Trump has done precisely that, and Republican senators let him.

“This potential criminal contempt referral — or will-be criminal contempt referral for Steve Bannon — is the first shot over the bow,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who serves on the committee, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on State of the Union Sunday. “It’s very real, but it says to anybody else coming in front of the committee, ‘Don’t think that you’re gonna be able to just kind of walk away and we’re gonna forget about you. We’re not.’”

Bannon has zero justification for not testifying:

  • He was not a government official during the lead-up to January 6.
  • Former presidents have no claim on executive privilege unless the current president grants it, and Biden has not.
  • Executive privilege allows a witness not to answer specific questions. It doesn’t justify refusing to testify.

But the law is not the point: Trump wants to run out the clock on this investigation the way he did on all the others. If his party can get the House back in 2022, presumably Kevin McCarthy will get the investigation stopped, and the public will never know what crimes Trump (or Bannon or any of the others) committed.

What’s most appalling is not that Trump and his cronies would try this. It’s that Republicans support his obstruction up and down the line (with rare exceptions like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger), and he loses no support among his followers.

and the economy

As the economy comes back from the pandemic recession, workers are quitting their jobs in unprecedented numbers. Economists are calling it “The Great Resignation“.

“Quits,” as the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls them, are rising in almost every industry. For those in leisure and hospitality, especially, the workplace must feel like one giant revolving door. Nearly 7 percent of employees in the “accommodations and food services” sector left their job in August. That means one in 14 hotel clerks, restaurant servers, and barbacks said sayonara in a single month. Thanks to several pandemic-relief checks, a rent moratorium, and student-loan forgiveness, everybody, particularly if they are young and have a low income, has more freedom to quit jobs they hate and hop to something else.

Atlantic’s Derek Thompson continues:

As a general rule, crises leave an unpredictable mark on history. It didn’t seem obvious that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 would lead to a revolution in architecture, and yet, it without a doubt contributed directly to the invention of the skyscraper in Chicago. You might be equally surprised that one of the most important scientific legacies of World War II had nothing to do with bombs, weapons, or manufacturing; the conflict also accelerated the development of penicillin and flu vaccines. If you asked me to predict the most salutary long-term effects of the pandemic last year, I might have muttered something about urban redesign and office filtration. But we may instead look back to the pandemic as a crucial inflection point in something more fundamental: Americans’ attitudes toward work. Since early last year, many workers have had to reconsider the boundaries between boss and worker, family time and work time, home and office.

Paul Krugman weighs in:

Until recently conservatives blamed expanded jobless benefits, claiming that these benefits were reducing the incentive to accept jobs. But states that canceled those benefits early saw no increase in employment compared with those that didn’t, and the nationwide end of enhanced benefits last month doesn’t seem to have made much difference to the job situation.

What seems to be happening instead is that the pandemic led many U.S. workers to rethink their lives and ask whether it was worth staying in the lousy jobs too many of them had.

For America is a rich country that treats many of its workers remarkably badly. Wages are often low; adjusted for inflation, the typical male worker earned virtually no more in 2019 than his counterpart did 40 years earlier. Hours are long: America is a “no-vacation nation,” offering far less time off than other advanced countries. Work is also unstable, with many low-wage workers — and nonwhite workers in particular — subject to unpredictable fluctuations in working hours that can wreak havoc on family life.

All along, economists figured that when the economy started to recover, there would be a blip of inflation. Production would have trouble ramping up as fast as spending, as many Americans would have money in their pockets due to a combination of government programs and their inability to spend normally during the pandemic. (Being retired, I don’t want to think about all the driving vacations my wife and I would have taken, which probably would have pushed us to buy a new car by now.)

The question was whether inflation would just blip up briefly, or whether a new inflationary cycle would start that would require some policy intervention (i.e., higher interest rates) to get under control. Paul Krugman has been on what he calls “Team Transitory”, but now he’s not sure; the data he would ordinarily use to tell the difference between the two scenarios is (as he puts it) “weird”. In other words, the current covid/post-covid economy is unique in ways that make it hard to read. He still argues against raising interest rates, because he sees cutting off the recovery as a bigger risk than letting inflation run for a while.

More about inflation in this Washington Post article.

and John Gruden

John Gruden, head coach of the Los Vegas Raiders NFL football team, resigned last Monday, after emails leaked out where he made racist, sexist, and homophobic comments. The emails were part of a trove of 650K emails related to the Washington Football Team (then called the Redskins), which the NFL was investigating because of reports of the toxic and abusive work environment for the team cheerleaders, and possibly other female employees. Presumably somebody at the NFL is responsible for the leak.

The Gruden emails were sent between 2010 and 2018, and though Gruden was not connected with the WFT at the time, he was corresponding with WFT President Bruce Allen, whose emails were being examined. The Gruden emails leaked out of the NFL’s investigation without being formally released.

There’s a lot not to like about this scandal. The comments themselves are reprehensible, and it makes perfect sense that Gruden should leave the Raiders now that they are public. Like every other team in the NFL, the Raiders have a large number of black players, as well as the NFL’s only openly gay player, who came out in June. Knowing that your coach uses slurs against people like you has got to disrupt your relationship with the team. So the players deserve a new coach.

In general, though, I dislike scandals based on people’s private conversations becoming public years later. If I had to be judged by the worst thing I ever said to someone I trusted not to repeat it, I doubt I could pass muster. My guess is that few Americans could. In particular, I wonder how many other NFL coaches could be taken down if their private emails were published.

So yes, Gruden is racist, sexist, homophobic, … but he’s also unlucky, in that he wandered into a investigation aimed at somebody else. And whoever leaked the emails seems to have intentionally targeted him. (First one email came out, and when it started to look like he might weather that storm, more appeared.) By condemning Gruden, we may be inadvertently carrying out somebody’s vendetta.

But any sympathy I might have had for Gruden vanished when he responded by saying that there was “not a blade of racism” in him. I don’t know why people say clueless crap like that, especially right after evidence surfaces that they do have those blades. American culture is a toxic stew of prejudices of all sorts, and we’ve all been soaking in it. Why can’t we just acknowledge that, and then affirm that we’re trying our best to overcome it? (Here’s an example of me practicing what I’m preaching.) It would be refreshing to hear someone respond to past evidence of racism with “I’ve learned a lot since then.” rather than “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.

The other thing not to like about the Gruden story is that he may not be the worst person in it. Reportedly, the Gruden emails also “featured photos of topless Washington Football Team cheerleaders”. It’s not clear whether Gruden was sending or receiving the images, but Allen was the WFT insider. Was he sharing illicit photos of his female employees?

And that raises a bigger question: The NFL launched this investigation in response to media reports that the Washington Football Team owner and executives harassed women, circulated surreptitiously obtained photos and videos of team cheerleaders, and put the women in “what they considered unsafe situations” with high-rolling season-ticket holders. Why is this the only thing that leaks out? Why is Gruden the only one to lose his job?

The report from that investigation is still secret, though we know that the team was fined $10 million dollars. And while that sounds like a lot, it really isn’t for a team valued at more than $4 billion. And remember: Whenever some law or rule or standard is only enforced by a fine, that means you can break it if you’re rich enough.

Chris Hayes discusses these issues with a former WFT cheerleader.

Friday, the NYT reported on the cozy relationship between Allen and the NFL general counsel who supervises investigations like the one into Allen’s team.

and you also might be interested in …

The downward trend in the Covid numbers continues: New cases are down 22% in the last two weeks, deaths down 19%.

One of those deaths was Colin Powell, who died at 84. He was vaccinated, but was fighting a cancer that compromised his immune system.

As Angela Merkel leaves the chancellorship of Germany, Thom Hartman notes all the ways that her position on the German center-right was considerably to the left of Bernie Sanders in the US.

Democrats are trying to pass an anti-gerrymandering law at the federal level, while simultaneously trying to gerrymander blue states like New York and Illinois more aggressively. At a simplistic level, this looks like hypocrisy, but I think this two-pronged approach is the only way we’ll get rid of gerrymandering. As long as it’s a one-sided advantage for Republicans, they’ll be unified in protecting it.

I believe in the Designated Hitter Principle: You may think that the designated hitter is a terrible idea that mars the purity of baseball. But if you play in a league where DHs are in the rules, you put a DH in your lineup.

Remember Andy McCabe, the guy who became acting head of the FBI after James Comey was fired, and then was fired himself just days before his scheduled retirement, so that his pension wouldn’t vest? He filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department, which is now under new management. This week DoJ settled with McCabe, not admitting any wrongdoing, but giving him back his retirement benefits. “Plaintiff will be deemed to have retired from the FBI on March 19, 2018.” DoJ also pays McCabe’s attorney’s fees.

Media Matters reports:

Nearly a dozen of the Fox News guests the network has presented as concerned parents or educators who oppose the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” in schools also have day jobs as Republican strategists, conservative think-tankers, or right-wing media personalities

The article lists 11 by name, including “concerned parent” Ian Prior, who has appeared 14 times on Fox to denounce CRT, without mentioning his professional work doing communications for the RNC, Jeff Sessions, Karl Rove, and other Republicans.

Fox has been particularly focused on fanning the critical race theory pseudo-issue in Virginia, where Pears and several other astroturf voices are from, and which (coincidentally) is electing a governor in a few weeks.

and let’s close with something reassuring

You may think your expressions in photos look odd, but your face does nothing like what dogs’ faces do when they’re trying to pluck a treat out of the air.

Reading While Texan

Your worst fears about Texas schools aren’t true. But your next-to-worst fears probably are.

Here’s how deep the rabbit hole goes: NBC News received an audio recording of an administrator in the Dallas suburb of Southlake [1], telling teachers that a new law (HB 3979) requires them to offer an “opposing” perspective if they have books about the Holocaust in their classroom libraries. When a teacher asked “How do you oppose the Holocaust?” the administrator didn’t offer a suggestion, but replied “It’s come up. Believe me.” [2]

What’s most disturbing in this recording, to me at least, is that the administrator doesn’t sound like Holocaust denier who has been itching for years to get her extreme opinions into the curriculum. In general, she sounds like she’s on the teachers’ side. “If you think a book is OK, then let’s go with it. And whatever happens, we’ll fight it together.” She doesn’t seem ideological, she just wants to keep the school district out of trouble — like administrators in every other Texas school district.

On the calm-down side of this story, the NBC article also quotes experts who say that she overreacted to the law. And the school district posted this statement on its Facebook page:

During the conversations with teachers during last week’s meeting, the comments made were in no way to convey that the Holocaust was anything less than a terrible event in history. Additionally, we recognize there are not two sides of the Holocaust. As we continue to work through implementation of HB 3979, we also understand this bill does not require an opposing viewpoint on historical facts.

So — big relief! — Southlake’s school libraries can still display The Diary of Anne Frank without “balancing” it against Mein Kampf.

What is controversial? Even if you accept that the Southlake administrator’s interpretation of the law was over the top, it’s worth taking a moment to read the portion of HB 3979 she was “overreacting” to:

(1) a teacher may not be compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs;

(2) a teacher who chooses to discuss a topic described by Subdivision (1) shall, to the best of the teacher’s ability, strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective;

Apparently, cooler heads have determined that the Holocaust is not “widely debated and currently controversial” in Southlake (and thank God for that). But what is? The law is only eight pages long, and doesn’t give school districts any guidance on exactly how widely debated an issue must be before “diverse and contending perspectives” have to be “explored without deference”.

Worse, “debated” and “controversial” are fundamentally subjective notions. An issue becomes “debated” not because it is objectively dubious, but because somebody chooses to debate it. It becomes “controversial” whenever someone starts a controversy, no matter how baseless that controversy might be. [3] As much as I want to accept the school district’s assurance that “this bill does not require an opposing viewpoint on historical facts”, I can’t find such a clear statement in the text of the law.

And even if you grant an exemption for “historical facts”, the very distinction between facts and opinions is itself controversial these days. The essence of Trumpism is to deny that objective facts can be found by examining evidence. (American intelligence agencies say one thing, but Vladimir Putin says something else. Who can determine where the truth lies?) If Trump repeats something often enough, it is true — or at the very least it becomes an “alternative fact“. Any evidence that refutes his opinion is “fake news”.

So it appears to me that if, say, a large number of people in some Texas community believe the Earth is flat — or if the Oracle of Mar-a-Lago starts making that claim — a classroom’s globe might become debated and controversial; it might need to be balanced against some other representation of the Earth. HB 3979 would then require teachers not to “defer” to the view that the Earth is spherical.

Or suppose one of your students has a parent like this guy, who wore a “Six million wasn’t enough” shirt to a Proud Boys rally in December. (They’re available online.) Would that make the Holocaust “controversial” enough to invoke the provisions of 3979? Or maybe you regard the fact of the Holocaust as beyond controversy, but describing it as “a terrible event” is a value judgment that this guy disputes. Doesn’t that make it “debated”? How many people have to agree with him before it’s “widely” debated?

Maybe that’s what “It’s come up. Believe me.” means.

The big chill. But OK, let’s say you live in a sane town, where the Holocaust and the globe aren’t widely debated. Let’s say your local biology teacher can describe how evolution works without giving a “contending perspective” from Genesis, or that teachers at all levels can refer to Joe Biden as the President without any kind of disclaimer.

Or, at least, that’s how the law would be interpreted by a judge if a case went to court.

If you find that comforting, you’re ignoring the fact that most school administrators don’t want to go to court. Teachers, by and large, don’t want to be at the center of a public controversy. They want to spend their prep time on next week’s lesson plan, not on explaining to a review committee what they said or what books they made available. They don’t want to lose hours in meetings with the school district’s or their union’s lawyer, getting advice on how to present their case to a judge.

In practice, that means that bills like HB 3979 have chilling effects that go far beyond their legally enforceable boundaries.

So hurray! You can teach about the Holocaust, and maybe even say that it was wrong. What about slavery? Jim Crow? Government programs that helped White families accumulate wealth, but weren’t available to Black families? How far do you want to stick your neck out? [4]

New Kid. In a related Texas case, the Houston suburb Katy cancelled a virtual appearance by author Jerry Craft, and pulled his graphic novel New Kid from the shelves after a parent circulated a petition.

“New Kid,” a Newbery Medal-winning graphic novel, is about a seventh grader at a prestigious private school where he is one of the few students of color. …

“It is inappropriate instructional material,” [the petition-starting parent] said. “The books don’t come out and say we want white children to feel like oppressors, but that is absolutely what they will do.” [She] claimed the book promoted critical race theory as well as Marxism. The petition gained a few hundred signatures in a district of more than 80,000 students.

This article, also by NBC News, seems to imply that a “few hundred signatures” is not many. To me, it seems like an incredibly large number of people in one town to take a position on a children’s book. I have to wonder how many of the signers had ever heard of New Kid, and how many just believed that this petition would stop somebody from teaching “critical race theory”, whatever they imagine it to be.

Although HB 3979 is often referred to as a bill against teaching “critical race theory”, the law does not mention that term, and the particular things it does outlaw are a bizarre caricature of anything actually being taught, like

an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex

The petition has been taken down, so I don’t know the text of it. But I doubt it directly invokes the new law. It seems more like a standard attempt to get elected officials to take action.

My reading. I didn’t want to assume baselessly that the woman charging “critical race theory” and “Marxism” is crazy, so I read the book Saturday. (It’s 250 or so pages, but it’s a graphic novel; reading it takes maybe an hour, depending on how closely you examine the images.) Having now done my own research, here’s my newly informed opinion: She’s crazy.

New Kid is a pretty thoroughly uplifting book. What I got out of it is: If you ever reach a point where you can see past your own struggles, you’ll find that just about everybody is struggling in their own way.

The central character is a Black kid named Jordan Banks, so he struggles in a way that a Black kid might, including from the clueless assumptions of White kids and teachers. As the book develops, though, he gets enough slack to raise his glance and see the struggles of the other kids — including one White kid who is pathologically ashamed of the burn mark on her arm, and another who is afraid Jordan won’t like him because his family is too rich.

I can’t fathom what CRT or Marxism has to do with any of this, other than being buzzwords that MAGA-hatters throw at whatever they don’t like.

Craft himself describes what he’s trying to do this way:

As an African American boy who grew up in Washington Heights in New York City, I almost never saw kids like me in any of the books assigned to me in school. Books aimed at kids like me seemed to deal only with history or misery. [5] That’s why it has always been important to me to show kids of color as just regular kids, and to create iconic African American characters like Jordan Banks from New Kid. I hope that readers of all ages will see the kindness and understanding that my characters exhibit and emulate those feelings in their day-to-day lives.

If you look at this book and see nothing but an attempt to make “white children feel like oppressors”, I don’t know what to tell you.

Happy endings? Like Southlake and the Holocaust, the story of Jerry Craft and Katy has an ending that is sort-of-happy, if you don’t look at it too closely: A review committee ruled that the book is appropriate and rescheduled Craft’s appearance. [6]

But again, consider the chilling effect. Suppose you’re a teacher putting together a reading list, or assembling a mini-library for your classroom. Now you know: Even a Newberry Medal book is suspect. Even if nothing on your list would offend any sane person, your name still might wind up in a petition, and you might need to justify your choices to a review committee.

How many worthwhile books (that we’ll never hear about) have teachers struck off their suggested-reading lists, not because they contain anything remotely objectionable, but because the teachers don’t want the hassle of dealing with crazy people? How many children, who might have discovered that reading could actually be interesting, will instead receive bland assignments that have nothing to do with their experiences?

[1] If you think you’ve heard of Southlake before, probably it’s from a previous racial controversy, which became the subject of a six-part NBC podcast.

[2] Let me offer an answer to the Southlake teacher’s question: You can balance a Holocaust book like The Diary of Anne Frank with The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, a first-person novel told from the point of view of an SS officer.

This is not a serious pedagogical suggestion, because Littell’s book is way too long and difficult for most students, not to mention upsetting. (I would worry about a student who managed to finish it.) But if you need to cover your ass, it does present an opposing (or at least contrasting) perspective.

An in-between perspective might be Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy of detective novels. Kerr’s detective Bernie Gunther isn’t a Nazi himself, but given the times, he frequently finds himself unable to say “no” to cases of interest to people like Heydrich or Goebbels. Kerr should be readable by advanced students at the high-school level, and might give them sympathy for the unsavory choices ordinary people face when they live under a totalitarian regime.

Similarly, Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 detective trilogy humanizes one of Stalin’s secret policemen.

[3] Part of what makes a position “debatable” in practice is the wealth and power of the people who debate it. Climate change, for example, is still “debatable” because fossil fuel corporations have the resources to keep their point of view in the public eye, in spite of the scientific consensus on the other side.

[4] The text of the law might be on your side, if you make it into a courtroom.

[T]he State Board of Education shall adopt essential knowledge and skills that develop each student’s civic knowledge, including an understanding of: … the history of white supremacy, including but not limited to the institution of slavery, the eugenics movement, and the Ku Klux Klan, and the ways in which it is morally wrong

[5] One of the running gags in New Kid is the lack of diversity in the themes of “diversity literature”, which Jordan parodies as “a gritty, urban reminder of the grit of today’s urban grittiness”. One panel is labeled “African American escapist literature”, and features books titled “Escape From Gang Life”, “Escape From Slavery”, “Escape From Poverty”, and “Escape From Prison”.

[6] I give Craft credit for not saying “Fuck you” to the whole town.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The week’s most alarming story, by far, was the claim by a Texas school administrator that teachers might have to offer an “opposing perspective” if they included books about the Holocaust in their classroom libraries. Subsequently, the school district backed away from that public-relations disaster: The Holocaust is not one of the “controversial and widely debated” topics that a new Texas law requires teachers to cover in a balanced way. It is officially “a terrible event in history”, and can be discussed without mentioning any pro-Holocaust perspective.

What a relief!

However, I can’t help but be disturbed by the idea that that’s where the battleline is. And I wonder: What books are Texas teachers tossing out right now because their topics are slightly less one-sided than the Holocaust? So this week’s featured post is “Reading While Texan”. It discusses the Holocaust “controversy” and the law that sparked it. I also look at a different school district — a Houston suburb this time rather than a Dallas suburb — where a Newberry Medal book about a Black seventh-grader got taken off the shelves so that a review committee could decide whether it was “critical race theory”. Again, the story has a “happy” ending: The book is back on the shelves. But if that’s what we’re fighting about, where is the line exactly?

That post is almost ready, and should be out shortly after 9 EDT.

The weekly summary will cover the price Senators Manchin and Sinema are demanding for supporting what will remain of Biden’s Build Back Better plan. Also: the attempt to enforce subpoenas on Trump’s allies, John Gruden, inflation, workers’ reluctance to return to bad jobs, and a few other things. That should be out around noon or so.

Insidious Undermining

Corruption and cronyism can undermine political stability and legitimacy as surely as violence can, albeit more insidiously.

– The Washington Post Editorial Board
The Pandora Papers gave us rare transparency: Is there hope for more?

This week’s featured post is “What to Make of the Pandora Papers?

This week everybody was talking about Congress

Still no reconciliation infrastructure bill, but at least we won’t pointlessly wreck the world economy by hitting the debt ceiling, at least not until December.

I know I keep repeating this, but it needs saying: There is no reason to have a debt ceiling. Other countries don’t. The time to worry about the debt is during the regular budget process, when Congress is appropriating money and setting tax rates, not when the country is borrowing to cover money already committed. In practice, the debt ceiling functions as a self-destruct button that irresponsible legislators can threaten to push.

Mitch McConnell is facing criticism in his caucus for backing down on pushing the self-destruct button, and is pledging to be more irresponsible when it comes up again in December.

It continues to be hard to tell where the reconciliation-bill negotiations are, or to predict where (or when) they will wind up. I’m having trouble even finding a good article about where things stand. We’ll know when we know.

and the Trump coup

The Senate Judiciary Committee issued a 400-page report outlining what we know about Trump’s subversion of the Justice Department in service to his attempt to overturn the 2020 election. The story suffers from the problems of any slowly evolving narrative: We sort of knew all that already, but we didn’t know it in this detail or with this degree of certainty.

For example, stories that the NYT or WaPo published based on anonymous sources are repeated here, but based on testimony under oath. That’s actually new, but it doesn’t feel new.

The Republican minority’s defense of Trump is basically that he didn’t succeed this time. When DoJ officials threatened to resign en masse if he installed Jeffrey Clark as attorney general so he could push the Big Lie, for example, Trump backed down. So no harm, no foul.

Josh Marshall makes an analogy:

You’re in the bank, alarm goes off, cops surround the bank: then you say, okay, I’m not feeling it. I’m calling this off.

A number of Trump’s associates are defying subpoenas from the House January 6 Committee. Trump himself is urging this defiance, and justifying it based on a completely bogus interpretation of executive privilege.

Executive privilege belongs to the office of the presidency, not to the individual who holds that office. And it is exercised by the current president, not the one whose past actions are being investigated. Often presidents will protect past administrations, particularly when the information sought continues to have security implications. But Biden is not going to help Trump cover up his attempt to steal the election from Biden.

This is a point Trump has missed all along: He always treated his power as personal power, and not as the power of his office.

and Facebook

Former Facebook insider Frances Haugen testified to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection Tuesday, following an appearance on 60 Minutes last week.

Her basic message is that Facebook’s profit motive conflicts with the public good — which is pretty much the definition of when regulation is necessary. In general, Facebook benefits by promoting engagement, and that usually means taking advantage of weaknesses. If you’re obsessed with something, Facebook gives you more of it. If something angers you to the point that you just have to respond, Facebook benefits.

That tendency is most obviously destructive and wrong when it comes to minors — teen girls, say. Haugen told 60 Minutes:

What’s super tragic, is Facebook’s own research says, as these young women begin to consume this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed, and it actually makes them use the app more

Bad as Facebook (and its subsidiary Instagram) are, I hope they don’t become scapegoats for an entire industry that responds to the same market dynamics. As Shoshana Zuboff described in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, all the social-media companies have the same model: Provide a free service, learn things about people by watching them use the service, and then use that knowledge to manipulate their behavior.

It’s not that Facebook is uniquely evil. But this is a setting where the market rewards evil. Facebook is the current market leader, but the next market leader would be just as bad.

and the Texas abortion law

Now it’s blocked, and now it isn’t, as federal court rulings ping-ponged back and forth this week.

The state law, SB 8, which effectively eliminates abortions after six weeks of pregnancy by allowing private citizens to sue people (other than the pregnant woman herself) who are involved in an abortion after the presence of electrical activity that presages a fetal heartbeat after a heart eventually develops, took effect September 1 after the Supreme Court refused to block it.

The federal Justice Department filed suit against Texas on September 9. Wednesday, a federal judge granted DoJ’s request for an injunction to block enforcement of the law, denouncing the State of Texas for contriving an “unprecedented and transparent statutory scheme” to deprive citizens of their “right under the Constitution to choose to obtain an abortion prior to fetal viability”.

Friday, a federal appeals court put a temporary stay on that injunction, pending its consideration of a more permanent ruling.

Even if the injunction is eventually upheld, abortions in Texas may still be limited by the slippery nature of SB 8. The injunction prevented Texas courts from processing lawsuits filed under SB 8, but can’t eliminate abortion providers’ liability if the law is eventually upheld, which could take years to determine. (SB 8 allows lawsuits to be filed up to four years after the abortion.)

I continue to wish that a blue state would concoct some similar civil-lawsuit scheme to ban gun sales — not in order to ban gun sales, but to see how fast the partisan Supreme Court would act to defend a constitutional right that Republican voters care about.

and the pandemic

Average new cases per day in the US have gone back below 100K, down from 175K in mid-September. Deaths have declined less sharply, from over 2000 per day to around 1750. But we’re still well above the mid-June lows, when new cases fell to around 12K per day, with daily deaths in the 200s.

In general, regional differences are evening out, with a few high-risk areas in Alaska, Appalachia, and counties along the northern border.

I’ll make a wild guess and predict that cases and deaths will continue to drop at least until Thanksgiving.

Merck has filed for FDA emergency use authorization of its new anti-Covid pill.

Right-wing politician and commentator Allen West, who is challenging Gov. Greg Abbott in the Republican primary, took hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin rather than get vaccinated. He’s going into the hospital with low oxygen levels after catching Covid.

Chris Hayes won’t let up on the Fox News hosts who challenge every vaccine mandate except the one that actually applies to them at Fox News. I think he’s enjoying himself.

and you also might be interested in …

Climate change destroyed 14% of the world’s coral reefs between 2009 and 2018. The root problem is that the increased carbon in the atmosphere gets absorbed into the ocean, making it more acidic.

September’s jobs report was positive, but still fell well short of economists’ expectations as the economy added 194K jobs rather than the predicted 500K. The unemployment rate dropped to 4.8%, indicating that the weakness was due more to people staying out of the job market than to a lack of jobs for them to find.

The theory that extended unemployment benefits were keeping people from looking for jobs — and so they would flood back into the market when those benefits ended in early September — failed, just as it failed when most red states cut benefits inJuly.

“Many people had Sept. 1 marked on their calendars as the day when things would go back to normal — when they would return to their offices, their kids would return to school and they’d head back to their favorite bars. But instead, the recovery sputtered,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist with hiring site ZipRecruiter.

As has been true all along, the economic problem is the pandemic itself (which surged in September, but now is receding again) not government responses to it. Workers (particularly women) are reluctant to go back to high-risk, low-pay, public-facing jobs, or to return their unvaccinated small children to group daycare centers (which are having trouble staffing up anyway). And as far as “favorite bars”, I’m still only going to restaurants with outdoor seating. Apparently it’s not just me:

the recent surge in covid cases, which is slowly abating, spooked many diners who earlier this summer had embraced going to restaurants in record levels. Restaurant attendance has been inching down in August and September, according to the reservation app Open Table.

The overall number of restaurants has fallen 13% since the spring of 2020 and restaurant employment is about a million jobs short of pre-pandemic levels.

Speaking of childcare, and the portion of Biden’s proposed $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that tries to improve it (and make us more like other first-world countries), the NYT describes the situation faced by a couple in Greensboro, North Carolina:

Until their elder son started kindergarten this fall, Jessica and Matt Lolley paid almost $2,000 a month for their two boys’ care — roughly a third of their income and far more than their payments on their three-bedroom house. But one of the teachers who watched the boys earns so little — $10 an hour — that she spends half her time working at Starbucks, where the pay is 50 percent higher and includes health insurance.

… The huge social policy bill being pushed by President Biden would cap families’ child care expenses at 7 percent of their income, offer large subsidies to child care centers, and require the centers to raise wages in hopes of improving teacher quality. A version before the House would cost $250 billion over a decade and raise annual spending fivefold or more within a few years. An additional $200 billion would provide universal prekindergarten.

One aspect of the child-care problem that doesn’t get enough attention is that it’s yet another poverty trap: If child care costs more than a couple’s second paycheck, the short-term economic incentive is for the lower-earning parent to stay home. But parents who can afford to stay in the job market anyway might improve their career prospects in ways that make long-term economic sense. This poverty-trapping effect hits even harder when one parent is investing in a career, either by going to school or working an internship, rather than earning an immediate paycheck.

Saturday, the NYT’s top-of-the-web-page article examined China’s potential military threat to Taiwan, and whether either the Taiwanese or the Americans are adequately prepared for it.

The article makes me wish I could trust the Pentagon (and the Times’ relationship to the Pentagon) more than I do. Maybe the concerns expressed there are completely legit and as worrisome as they sound. Or the article could be defense-budget propaganda: Maybe the Chinese military threat has to be emphasized now that the American people have lost interest in Afghanistan and the Islamic threat more generally.

A New Yorker article from August raised that point in response to a different China hawk:

A smart liberal’s reply to Colby might be: Is this for real? Americans have spent much of the past two decades trying to find some way through the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan that political hawks urged on them. Now that the full depth of the latter debacle has become so impossible to deny that the V.A. is issuing suicide-awareness bulletins for former soldiers suffering from “moral distress,” the hawks want to urge another generation-defining conflict on Americans?

A bunch of thoughts complicate my layman’s analysis (which is all you’re left with when you don’t trust the experts): As the article points out, the US already spends three times as much on defense as China does. However, given the inefficiencies and pork-barrel spending built into our defense budget, plus the fact that things are just cheaper in China, we probably don’t have a 3-to-1 advantage in real military resources.

And then there’s the fact that China hasn’t fought a war in a very long time. From generals down to privates, just about everybody involved in a hypothetical Taiwan invasion would be seeing their first combat. Would President Xi really trust the results of his war games that much?

And finally, if I were running China, I would see many long-term global trends running in my favor, and be worried about screwing them up. (This WaPo columnist disagrees: What if pro-China trends are about to turn, as its economy becomes more government-centered and its politics more tyrannical?) War is always a throw of the dice. So I hope Xi knows the story of King Croesus of Lydia and the Oracle of Delphi. “If Croesus attacks Persia,” the Oracle pronounced, “he will destroy a great empire.”

He did attack, and the empire he destroyed was his own.

Mike Pence is laying the groundwork for a 2024 presidential campaign. He truly does not seem to understand that January 6 ended his political career. He didn’t do everything he could to steal the election for Trump, so diehard Trumpists will always see him as disloyal. But at the same time, he will never be able to separate himself from his four years of enabling and defending Trump.

When it comes to replacing democracy with a fascist personality cult, you can’t be half committed.

Trump and his followers are rallying behind Max Miller’s primary campaign against Ohio Republican Congressman Anthony Gonzalez, who committed the unforgivable sin of voting for Trump’s second impeachment. The domestic violence charges made by Miller’s former girlfriend, Trump’s former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, don’t seem to be regarded as a big deal by comparison.

This kind of thing was inevitable once Republicans decided to ignore the Access Hollywood tape (where Trump bragged about a pattern of sexual assaults), as well as the corroborating testimony from dozens of his victims. In Republican circles, assaulting women is now just something that manly men do, and that women are understood to routinely lie about.

Here’s what one guy learned from working in a California gun shop.

Guns in America require a fix that isn’t written into law. It’s something deeper, something in society that causes men to turn to weapons as their last vestiges of manhood.

and let’s close with something sexy

If you think it’s hard to attract a human mate, watch what this puffer fish has to do.

What to Make of the Pandora Papers?

There are reasons why you should care.

Last week, a vast trove of documents called the Pandora Papers became available to the public, and stories based on these documents started appearing in newspapers around the world. The documents reveal much about the wealth that the global elite keep hidden.

If that story sounds familiar, it should. This is the third round of such revelations from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), following the Panama Papers in 2016 and the Paradise Papers in 2017. That’s why The Wall Street Journal’s Joseph Sternberg responded with “Everyone already knows this stuff.

In other words: Yeah, the world is corrupt and here’s more of it. But so what? The super-rich play by a different set of rules — always have, always will. What’s the point of looking into how it all works?

It’s hard to imagine a more corrosive take on this story. It’s one thing if a few masterminds are so clever that their crimes escape detection. But if no one cares when hidden crimes are exposed — or if a few scapegoats are punished, but the system rolls on unchanged — then the world is very sick indeed. As The Washington Post’s editorial board observed:

[T]he big picture — of a vast, no-questions-asked-zone, open to legitimate and illegitimate transactions alike — is concerning. Corruption and cronyism can undermine political stability and legitimacy as surely as violence can, albeit more insidiously. To the extent the world’s offshore havens are facilitating official malfeasance, they are contributing to the global decline of democracy.

So while I could spend my time exploring how the offshore systems works, or raising outrage about extreme cases, or reacting in some other way, I think the most valuable thing I can do is try to answer that basic so-what question: Why should you care about all this?

After looking at what a variety of other people are saying and talking to a few insightful friends, I think the answers boil down to these:

  • The importance of corruption as a central issue connecting all other issues.
  • The accomplishments of previous rounds of revelations.
  • The momentum of ever-larger exposures of secrets.
  • America’s role in building and maintaining the corrupt system has to end.

Corruption. It’s not an exaggeration to say that corruption is the most important issue of our time. Money buys power, and power gathers more money. No matter what issue you care about, progress is impeded (or maybe blocked completely) by wealthy special interests that can influence the course of events in ways that go well beyond you and your vote and your voice in the public square.

Brooke Harrington points out that the issue is not just money.

“[T]ax havens” aren’t really for avoiding taxes: They exist to help elites avoid the rule of law that they impose on the rest of us. The offshore financial industry is generating much of the economic and political inequality destabilizing the world.

It’s one thing when money works its influence openly. If some giant corporation runs ads telling us all how wonderful it is, if it puts out press releases telling us what public policies it wants, and if it endorses and supports candidates who promise to implement those policies, then the People can judge. Climate-denying Senator James Inhofe, for example, is widely known as “the Senator from Exxon-Mobil”. But if the voters of Oklahoma know that and elect him anyway, that’s democracy.

What’s really destructive, though, is secret money in all its forms: lobbyists who work behind the scenes, writing laws that legislators attach their names to; candidates supported by political action committees with benign names, whose donors are not known; “academic” research whose conclusions are dictated by invisible donors, and so on.

The ultimate form of secret money is wealth whose owners can’t be identified at all, and which can be transferred from one person to another without any traceable transaction. Such wealth allows dictators to siphon their nation’s wealth away, and to hang onto it even after they lose power. It allows bribes of any size to go to officials in any country.

The existence of secret wealth and a system for transferring it from one malefactor to another is more than just a tax on the legitimate economy, it corrodes the public trust that is necessary for collective action. Conspiracy theories of all sorts seem more plausible, given the extent of what we know we don’t know. The vague awareness of an untouchable global elite can motivate authoritarian populism, the desire for a man-on-horseback who can sweep it all away without being caught in the tangle of corrupt laws and contracts.

Past accomplishments. Sternberg’s so-what take on the Pandora Papers roots itself in the assumption that the Panama and Paradise Papers turned out to be “duds”.

There they go again. Another year, another breathless media uproar over “revelations” of the financial comings and goings of the world’s super-rich. Reporters spend many months combing through documents extracted—we’re never told how—from various law firms and other service providers presumably because the reporters think exposing this information will accomplish . . . well, we’re never sure what.

He notes that only one world leader — the prime minister of Iceland, if you call that a world leader — had to resign. But Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s 10-year prison sentence should count for something, even if he was already out of office. And that’s not the only kind of impact. For example, by 2019, the Panama Papers had led to governments recovering $1.2 billion in taxes.

Brooke Harrington observes that impacts on the reputations of the rich and powerful are also important. Subjects of ICIJ revelations may stave off legal consequences, but the embarrassment stings.

And focusing on what the people exposed by the Panama and Paradise Papers got away with is not the full story: The whistleblowers also got away with it. The ICIJ succeeded in shielding their sources from exposure.

Five years on, we still do not know the identity of “John Doe,” who leaked the Panama Papers, nor of the person or people who leaked the Paradise Papers four years ago.

And that’s one reason why the troves of leaked documents are getting bigger: The Pandora Papers come from 14 different financial services companies, where the Panama Papers all came from one.

Brooke Harrington:

As I found in talking with wealth managers all over the world, a significant number understand that their work has contributed to dangerous levels of economic and political inequality; they want to do something, and many understand that one of the most effective uses of their insider position would be to pull back the veil of secrecy that makes so much of offshore corruption possible.

As whistleblowers are emboldened, potential clients of the offshore industry may be discouraged: The firm that promises you secrecy may not be able to fulfill that pledge.

Momentum. So the right metaphor for the various “papers” is hammer blows against a wall. The first blow didn’t bring it down, and neither did the second — though each left a mark. The third probably won’t bring it down either, though we can hope for a bigger mark, or maybe even a few chips flying.

But it’s not going to stop.

What the ICIJ has done during these five years is construct an infrastructure for attacking financial secrecy. And that makes these revelations fundamentally different from past Pulitzer-winning exposé from the point of view of one crusading newspaper like The New York Times or The Washington Post. ICIJ has constructed a searchable database that allows each local news outlet to research the story most relevant to its audience.

So while the national papers tell us about the King of Jordan‘s secretly purchased $106 million mansions in Malibu, Georgetown, and London, or the Czech prime minister‘s $22 million chateau in France, The Miami Herald writes about the local mansion secretly owned by empoverished Haiti’s richest man. (The Czech opposition parties gained enough seats in this weekend’s election that they may be able to unseat the prime minister, who has a nice chateau to retire to.)

In Florida, the Bigios have lived behind protective gates in the most exclusive of zones, Indian Creek Island. They’ve enjoyed protection from local police officers who around the clock staff the entrance gate to the private island community. Property records show their home is held in the name of two corporations: Agro Products and Services, registered in Florida, and Porpoise Investments Ltd., a shell company registered in the Isle of Man, a self-governing low-tax British Crown dependency in the Irish Sea.

In other words, there’s not just a mechanism for protecting people who reveal the secrets of the super-rich, there’s a path for getting that information to the people who will care most about it.

The ultimate point of these hammer blows is not to send some scapegoat to prison or embarrass another one into retiring from politics. The point is to change public opinion in ways that change the landscape of what is politically and legally possible. Changing public opinion always seems impossible until it happens. (Same-sex marriage is a good example.) But once it starts happening, it can move quickly.

Change starts at home. We’re used to thinking of offshore tax havens as tiny island nations like the Bermuda, or places with a long tradition of secrecy like Switzerland. But perhaps the most shocking thing I learned from the Pandora Papers articles I read was that South Dakota now rivals Zurich, the Cayman Islands, and other famous wealth-hiding havens. One Dominican family’s money came from exploiting poor workers in the sugar cane fields; it now sits in trusts in Sioux Falls, where it should be safe against worker lawsuits.

Other states competing to lure wealth include Alaska, Delaware, Nevada and New Hampshire.

Think about how you felt a few paragraphs ago, when you read about “the world’s offshore havens … facilitating official malfeasance [and] contributing to the global decline of democracy” or “help[ing] the elite avoid the rule of law”. Maybe you got angry at some imagined remote island paradise, where corporations are headquartered in post office boxes.

Nope. It’s the United States (and the UK). The people undermining the rule of law and contributing to the global decline in democracy? It’s us.

It’s got to stop.

This isn’t somebody else’s problem that we can feel superior about or shake our fists helplessly at. If public opinion is going to turn against secret money anywhere, and if popular resolve is going to force the system to change, it’s got to start here.

So sure, the overall story of the Fill-In-the-Blank Papers is hard to get a handle on. The topic is intentionally confusing, the examples are too diverse to sum up easily, and the time scale is longer than stories we usually think about. But don’t lose track of this, because it’s important, things are happening, and it’s your problem too.