Category Archives: Short Notes

A weekly feature that collects interesting links and adds a paragraph or two of content.

Rage For the Machine

Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades. … Don’t mistake me, I clearly see that Ryan has a whole lotta “rage” in him: A rage against women, a rage against immigrants, a rage against workers, a rage against gays, a rage against the poor, a rage against the environment. Basically the only thing he’s not raging against is the privileged elite he’s groveling in front of for campaign contributions.

Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine

Before getting into what happened this week, I want to look ahead a week, to the Republican Convention. Unless the GOP completely screws up (which is possible; the 1992 “Culture War” convention didn’t do them much good), the Romney-Ryan ticket should get a bounce in the polls. The most likely outcome is that they’ll leave Tampa with a lead.

You shouldn’t lose sleep about that. McCain-Palin had a lead briefly, and we know how that turned out. For that matter, Dukakis came out of the 1988 Democratic Convention with a 17-point lead. This year’s Democratic Convention ends September 6, and maybe a week after that you can start taking polls at face value again. In the meantime, follow Nate Silver. Don’t get worried until Nate does.

This week everybody was still talking about Paul Ryan

Except for the people who are drawing and animating Paul Ryan:

I did almost 2000 words on Ryan last week, but the subject is vast. Most of last week’s article focused on Ryan’s (largely false) image as an anti-deficit guy. But if that’s all we talk about, we’ve fallen into the same Tea Party trap as 2010.

Remember? The Tea Party sold itself as a grass-roots, non-partisan movement narrowly focused on taxes, spending, and the deficit. Then they got power and started forcing ultrasound probes up women’s vaginas.

Paul Ryan is the same kind of guy, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. Hence this week’s article: Paul Ryan, Veteran of the War on Women.

Two other Ryan stories: So Ryan was totally against the Stimulus program in public, and said many times that it would not create jobs. But he wrote at least four letters requesting stimulus money for his district, including one that says the proposal would “stimulate the local and area economy by creating jobs” — exactly what he was saying in public that the Stimulus couldn’t do.

When asked about this apparent hypocrisy, Ryan has repeatedly claimed he never asked for stimulus funds. Now that the letters have come out, he’s blaming his staff.

The second story is more complicated: Ryan was accused of insider trading. Then the story was debunked. Then it wasn’t. Stay tuned.

… and Medicare

On the surface it seems absurd that any ticket with Paul Ryan on it could claim to be defending Medicare against the dastardly President Obama. But a lot of work has gone into preparing the ground for this kind of propaganda. I examine it in How Lies Work.

… and you might also find this stuff interesting

Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin isn’t concerned about a rape exception to abortion laws, because biology works differently in his world:

If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

After a considerable firestorm, Akin said he “misspoke“, which is hilarious. You can’t “misspeak” an entire pseudo-scientific explanation. Acceptable excuses might include “my abstinence-only sex-education class didn’t tell me how the female body works” or “I was off my meds during that interview”. But “I misspoke” doesn’t cut it.

Lots of airlines lose your luggage, United lost a 10-year-old — and then followed up about as badly as you could imagine. I know I repeat myself, but Corporations Are Sociopaths — they’re fundamentally self-centered and amoral.

When Mitt Romney tells us about his taxes and asks for our trust rather than providing evidence, you need to know that he’s done this before — and lied. When his Massachusetts residency was challenged before his 2002 run for governor, he refused to reveal his tax returns, but said they would show he had filed as a Massachusetts resident. In fact, he hadn’t.

Cracked imagines another scene in its “It Must Have Happened” series. Here, Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard discuss how to monkey-wrench American culture:

A mixed week on voting rights. A Pennsylvania judge refused to block that state’s voter-ID law, but a Florida judge did block a plan to curb early voting, and Ohio’s secretary of state backed off of a plan to allow extended hours for early voting in Republican counties only. The Pennsylvania decision has the most impact, so net advantage to voter suppression.

The Pennsylvania judge faced the same situation as the Supreme Court did in June when it allowed one part of Arizona’s papers-please law to stand: In order to strike down a law before it takes effect, a judge has to determine that it can’t be enforced in a constitutional way. No matter how likely it looks that somebody’s rights will be violated, the judge can’t assume bad faith enforcement. It’s a high bar.

In the wake of a shooting at the Family Research Council, 23 LGBT groups did the honorable thing and denounced it without conditions:

regardless of what emerges as the reason for this shooting, we utterly reject and condemn such violence.

A sidebar to my How Lies Work article: Journalists are actively discussing how to handle the “post-truth campaign” Romney is running. A post on WaPo’s “The Fix” blog seemed to admire the savviness of Romney’s distortions rather than criticize their lack of honesty. And, maybe for the first time, this was roundly condemned within the profession. Jay Rosen’s post is a good entry point to the discussion.

If They Win

To envisage what Republicans would do if they win in November, the person to understand is not necessarily Romney, who has been a policy cipher all his public life. The person to understand is Paul Ryan.

— Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker
(last week, when Ryan was still a long shot VP choice)

This week everybody was talking about Paul Ryan

Saturday, Mitt Romney did what any good CEO would do: His brand was sinking because it lacked any core convictions, so he arranged a merger to acquire some. I don’t have to play pundit here, because so many good observations have already been made that I can just collect the ten best in I Read Everything About Paul Ryan So You Don’t Have To.

… but I also wrote about terrorism

In particular, what happens when the terrorist looks just like the viewing majority? Well, the media has to explain that away somehow. I named my article after the phrase you’ll never hear on mainstream TV: White Right-wing Christian Terrorist.

… and you might also find this stuff interesting

In Ohio, if you live in a Republican county, you’ll have extended hours for early voting. If you live in a Democratic county, you’ll probably have to take time out of the work day. Remember that if Romney wins the election because he carries Ohio by 500 votes.

Two weeks ago I talked about how transparent markets help producers and consumers, while opaque markets favor middlemen who can build near monopolies.

Thursday’s NYT had an article about a major loss of transparency that is coming to a market near you: Supermarkets can now crunch data about you on the fly, and offer you a different price than the one on the shelves.

Of course, if a retailer can reward you for a buying pattern it likes, it can also punish you for a buying pattern it dislikes. Imagine: “I went to the farmer’s market last week, and now I’m paying full price for everything.”

If you’ve finished all the beach-reading you planned to do this summer, I’ve got a couple more serious recent novels to suggest:

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra. The best line about this novel is that it’s “as if Dickens had written The Godfather and placed it in India”. The biography of a Mumbai gangster forms the trellis, but around it climb the vines of a Sikh policeman, a Bollywood star, and dozens of other fascinating people. Along the way it becomes obvious that there’s a Mumbai Dream, and it’s not all that different from one version of the American Dream. People want to go where the bright lights are and become Somebody. But when it works, is that Somebody still you? (As a bonus, you’ll learn how to swear in Hindi like a Mumbai cop.)

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer Dubois. This has been out just long enough for my local library to get a copy. It’s two stories that converge: a 30-year-old American woman who knows she just has a year or two before the Huntington’s disease that killed her father starts to take her mind away, and a Russian chess-champion-turned-political-dissident who is modeled so closely on Garry Kasparov that some of the specific chess games match up. She knows she can’t beat her disease; he knows he can’t beat Putin — what do you do with that? (The bonus here is Dubois’ way with words. She can evoke a complicated situation with deceptively simple language. At one point, for example, the female narrator notices that a man is “looking at me the way that men looked at me back when men looked at me.”)

Following up on last week’s “The Looming Software Catastrophe“, here’s an NYT article about the impossibility of testing software like the automatic trading program that brought down Knight Capital.

The ultimate success or failure of ObamaCare rests on how effectively it can bring down costs without explicit care-rationing. Just as Massachusetts’ RomneyCare was the model before, its cost-containment program could be the model now.

The Pope will now accept people using condoms to avoid spreading AIDS. But the ridged and flavored ones are still right out.

So a Mennonite minister is on trial for helping an “ex-lesbian” mother kidnap her own child to keep her away from the mother’s former same-sex partner. Naturally, this reminds Focus on the Family’s Bryan Fischer of the underground railroad. He thinks organized kidnapping of children would be a good thing.

You can’t make this stuff up.

The Sift has been way too serious this week. Let’s close with something fun:

On and On

The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one – no matter where he lives or what he does – can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on.

—   Robert Kennedy (1968), two months before his assassination,

Among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet.

Abraham Lincoln (1863), quoted by Kennedy in the same speech

This week, we had another shooting

I hope the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin doesn’t turn out to be the hate crime it looks like. And even more, I hope it isn’t a hate crime by somebody who thought that Sikhs are Muslims because they wear turbans. It’s bad enough to die for your religion, but it would be even worse to die because somebody mistook you for some other religion.

I’m a Unitarian Universalist, so of course this incident reminds me of the Knoxville shooting at a UU church.

Until then, everybody was talking about the Olympics

Watching this Olympics is frustrating for sports fans, because we’re not NBC’s target audience. They’re covering the Olympics as a phenomenon that just happens to include athletes, and the target audience watches because that’s what you do in August of a leap year.

So an hour of coverage contains maybe 10-15 minutes of actual competition. The rest consists of athletes’ backstories, retrospectives of past Olympics, interviews with people who aren’t competing, features on English culture, post-event bouncing and hugging, medal award ceremonies, and so on.

Yes, NBC, Gabby Douglas does have a great smile. I noticed that the other 12 times you mentioned it. But there’s a Russian girl who’s actually doing something right now. Could we maybe get a look at her?

When NBC does get around to the competitions, sportscasting is an afterthought. Announcers tell the story before the fact, and if the event turns out some other way it’s as if reality screwed up by failing to fulfill their predictions. (Sunday night, the other vaulters were covered as if they were just the opening act for McKayla Maroney. What in reality was an exciting upset by the Romanian was presented as a mystifying glitch.) A long race is just a visual backdrop for a chat about the American runner. (Uh, guys, some African is coming up strong on the outside. Can you tell us who he is? Are you watching?)  And I frequently find myself yelling at the TV: “Fascinating anecdote, but what’s the score? TELL ME THE SCORE!”

Oh well, why should they care what I think when the ratings are this good?

… and about Mitt Romney’s taxes

because he still refuses to release tax returns before 2010. This week’s episode centered on Harry Reid quoting an anonymous source who told him Romney “hasn’t paid taxes for ten years.” Romney countered that he “paid a lot of taxes” every year, and challenged Reid to “put up or shut up” by naming his source. But Romney will not put up anything to support his own claims.

This exchange continues the long tradition of August as silly season. Romney and Reid are arguing about what they could prove if they wanted to, but neither is actually proving anything.

Why are we talking about this? The tax-return issue only matters if it crystalizes a pattern. Two possibilities: First, a character pattern in which Romney is not just rich, but arrogant. He has decided what voters need to know about him, and that’s that.

Second, a pattern of vagueness and shiftiness. This non-disclosure reminds voters that Romney also hasn’t released the details of his tax plan, or his budget plan, or his health care plan, or anything else. Plus he still has at least two positions on culture-war issues like abortion and contraception.

Ezra Klein makes the second link:

If [Romney’s people] thought releasing more details would make the [tax] plan look better rather than worse, they would have released them rather than letting outside organizations fill in the blanks. It’s essentially the same theory as refusing to release the tax returns.

… and jobs.

The July jobs report was a dog that didn’t bark. After a dismal June (only 64,000 new jobs), July could have signaled the onset of a new recession. But instead the economy added 163,000 jobs. That’s not enough to keep the unemployment rate from ticking up to 8.3%, but this bumpy not-quite-recovery muddles along.

Naturally, the commentary focused on how the report affects the stock market (up), and Obama’s re-election chances (also up). But shouldn’t it be about the people who either got or didn’t get jobs?

Meanwhile, I wrote about insecure software

And you might also find this stuff interesting

Courtesy of George Takei (whose service on the Enterprise must give him an in with the space program), we get the first photos from the Curiosity probe that has landed on Mars:

I spent the week in Illinois, close enough to Missouri to hear the political ads in the last week before the primary. Senate candidate Sarah Steelman has gone all-in with Sarah Palin. You’d think Palin was the candidate. She has become the face and voice of the Steelman campaign.

The NYT’s “Your Money” column addressed an interesting question: Suppose you’ve come to the conclusion that the for-profit financial services industry is rigged against you, but you haven’t taken a vow of poverty and you still want to save and invest for your retirement. What do you do?

Your first move is obvious: bank at a credit union. For IRA and/or brokerage services, use

Vanguard, USAA or TIAA-CREF, all of which are member-owned or use profits to pay dividends to customers and lower their fees.

The column offers a number of investment ideas, from municipal bonds to direct investments in real estate properties or person-to-person loans to the “slow money” movement that loans money to co-ops, organic farms, and other socially conscious ventures.

Here’s a nice clear answer to the question: Is Climate Change to Blame for the Current U.S. Drought? Basically, climate change makes droughts more frequent and more extreme, even though you can’t say a particular drought couldn’t have happened otherwise.

I was going to use the metaphor of a weighted coin or a loaded die, but I discovered James Hansen did it long ago:

Twenty-four years ago, I introduced the concept of “climate dice” to help distinguish the long-term trend of climate change from the natural variability of day-to-day weather. Some summers are hot, some cool. Some winters brutal, some mild. That’s natural variability. … But loading the die with a warming climate changes the odds. You end up with only one side cooler than normal, one side average, and four sides warmer than normal. Even with climate change, you will occasionally see cooler-than-normal summers or a typically cold winter. Don’t let that fool you.

No single roll proves the dice are loaded, but eventually …

it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.

Disillusioned GOP congressional staffer Mike Lofgren has a new book out: The Party is Over. An excerpt, “Religion Destroyed My Party“, is up at Salon.

Politicized religion provides a substrate of beliefs that rationalizes—at least in the minds of its followers—all three of the GOP’s main tenets: wealth worship, war worship, and the permanent culture war. … The results of this takeover are all around us: If the American people poll more like Iranians or Nigerians than Europeans or Canadians on questions of evolution, scriptural inerrancy, the presence of angels and demons, and so forth, it is due to the rise of the religious right, its insertion into the public sphere by the Republican Party, and the consequent normalizing of formerly reactionary beliefs.

So long, Gore Vidal. My favorite Vidal novels are the ancient-history ones: Creation and Julian.

It’s easy to forget (and people under 50 probably never knew) just how famous Vidal was in his prime. Lily Tomlin could count on everyone recognizing his mispronounced name when she made him one of the first victims of her Ernestine the Operator character on Laugh In.

Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was a huge success. You’ve got to wonder if this means the Fox News model will spread to fast food and you’ll only be able to eat with people who share your politics. What if the CEO of Carl’s Jr. is thinking: “Wait a minute. I’m just as bigoted and reactionary as Dan Cathy. Why can’t I get an appreciation day?”

From a marketing POV, it makes sense: Fast-food chains don’t need a majority. If you could just get the most extreme 10% of the country to identify with you, you’d make billions.

I was looking for a striking image to end with. Is this one good enough? It’s a nighttime electrical storm over an erupting volcano in Iceland.

What Free Market?

Do you think it’s hard to get your child into Harvard? Try getting a new product onto the shelf of a big chain of stores in the United States.

— Barry Lynn, Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism
and the Economics of Destruction 


This week everybody was talking about the Olympics

but you knew that.

… and Chick-fil-A and Mitt Romney’s foreign tour

I covered Chick-fil-A in Is That Sandwich Political?, but let’s deal with Romney’s trip here.

Romney’s tour of Britain, Israel, and Poland was designed to add foreign-policy heft to his image, but the British leg didn’t work out.

That pretty well covers it. Prime Minister David Cameron is a British conservative, but Romney exasperated him to the point where he stuck this knife in:

Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.

Some anonymous Romney adviser really did talk about the “Anglo-Saxon heritage” Obama can’t appreciate, which is even a step beyond calling him “foreign“. Why not just say, “White people shouldn’t vote for Obama because he’s black” and get it over with?

These stumbles happen abroad for the same reason they happen at home: Romney’s lack of empathy gives him a tin ear. Slate’s Fred Kaplan points out that Romney’s business experience differs greatly from previous generations of businessmen-turned-statesmen, who actually built things and sold them, and so had to learn to deal with workers and customers. But Bain’s brand of financial manipulation

is not the sort of enterprise that requires even the most elementary understanding of diplomacy, courtesy, or sensitivity to other people’s values, lives, or perceptions.

Instead, it

breed[s] an insularity, a sense of entitlement, a disposition to view all the world’s entities through a single prism and to appraise them along a single scale.

Growing up as the rich son of the governor probably didn’t help either.

I agree with Kevin Drum’s analysis the foreign-policy speech that kicked Romney’s tour off: He’s trying to cast a striking image without saying anything. What little remains beyond the I-will-be-strong-where-Obama-is-weak rhetoric is either vague, outside the president’s power, or exactly what Obama is already doing.

… but I also wrote about monopolies

  • Monopoly’s role in inequality. In my previous discussions of rising inequality, I’ve always felt like a piece of the puzzle was missing. I think I found it.

and you might also be interested in …

The death of first-female-astronaut Sally Ride put a face on the injustice of the Defense of Marriage Act. Most of us learned that Ride was a lesbian only when her obituary named Tam O’Shaughnessy as her 27-year domestic partner. Under DOMA, O’Shaughnessy will not receive the federal survivor benefits that a male husband would get.

The guy who all but invented the too-big-to-fail bank has changed his mind. Former Citicorp honcho Sandy Weill now says

What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking, have banks be deposit takers, have banks make commercial loans and real estate loans, have banks do something that’s not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that’s not too big to fail.

In short, let’s just pretend the last two decades never happened.

How does a bill become law? Not the way it used to.

The NYT op-ed Israel’s Settlers Are Here to Stay by settler Dani Dayan underlines just how intractable the Israel/Palestine conflict is. Dayan presents a we’re-right-they’re-wrong history of the conflict and says a two-state solution is unworkable because

Our presence in all of Judea and Samaria — not just in the so-called settlement blocs — is an irreversible fact. Trying to stop settlement expansion is futile

If a two-state solution is out, then what happens to the Palestinians? I can only see three options:

  • ethnic cleansing: Perhaps Israel could use the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 as a model.
  • democratic annexation: Palestinians become citizens of a democratic Greater Israel, which might not have a Jewish majority. (This is sometimes called the one-state solution.)
  • status quo: Palestinians remain a subject population ruled by Israel.

Dayan opts for the status quo, which he thinks is “immeasurably better than any other feasible alternative”. It could be improved, but only if Palestinians would accept the irreversibility of their subjugation and stop resisting.

Checkpoints are a necessity only if terror exists; otherwise, there should be full freedom of movement.

If Dayan speaks for some sizable and committed bloc of Israelis — and the NYT apparently thinks he does — then I can’t see this conflict resolving for at least another generation.

He may or may not be a reliable witness, but a Florida Republican is blowing the whistle on voter-ID laws, or, as he puts it “keeping blacks from voting”. And Harold Meyerson asks: What if it works? If Romney wins, and his margin in key states is clearly the result of voter suppression, are we all just going to go along?

Pastor Rick Warren appeared to blame the Aurora shooting on evolutionists, tweeting:

When students are taught they are no different from animals, they act like it.

It’s weird how people demonize animals, who aren’t nearly as nasty as humans. How do you think this young mountain gorilla (being comforted by a park ranger in the Congo after his parents were killed by poachers) feels about human morality?

The next installment of the Nuns vs. the Inquisition saga is about to start. In our last episode, board members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious went to Rome, where Grand Inquisitor Levada said they should regard Rome appointing a man to watch over them as “an invitation to obedience”. (I think I would have issued a counter-invitation for Levada to do something impossible with his anatomy, but I guess that’s why I’m not a nun.)

This week the LCWR will meet in St. Louis to discuss

at least six options that range from submitting graciously to the takeover to forming a new organization independent of Vatican control, as well other possible courses of action that lie between those poles.

When Republicans liked the Arab Spring rebellions, they gave the credit to Bush’s freedom agenda. Now that they’ve decided they don’t like the Arab Spring, they claim it was caused by Obama abandoning Bush’s freedom agenda.

I don’t understand why everyone isn’t saying the obvious things Elizabeth Warren says: Our infrastructure is crumbling, people need jobs, and the government can borrow money at rates lower than inflation. What’s the downside?

It might even save money in the long run: If, say, we buried our power lines, we wouldn’t lose all that productivity every time the weather turned bad.

The WaPo debunks Five myths about why the South seceded. The truth is pretty simple: The southern states seceded to defend slavery; they said so themselves in their secession statements. And then Lincoln went to war to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves.

To understand why articles like this are necessary, read the comments.

President Obama isn’t saying the kind of outrageous things the Romney campaign wants to run against, so they’re editing tape to create gaffes. Ezra Klein covers this issue seriously,

And Lewis Black approaches it humorously, but Mike Luckovich captures what’s going on in one image:

Finally, ABC’s Jake Tapper has solved the mystery of the Churchill bust. Will the Romney campaign stop telling the story now that we know there’s nothing going on, or is that too much to ask?

Fragile: Handle With Care

I  was shown how fragile life was on Saturday. I saw the terror on bystanders’ faces. I saw the victims of a senseless crime. I saw lives change. I was reminded that we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end.  

Jessica Redfield, who avoided a mall shooting in June
only to die Friday morning in the Dark Knight massacre

This week everybody was talking about the Dark Knight shooting

By now I’m sure you’ve heard about it, so I won’t rehash it all.

if you know a jumble of contradictory “facts” about the shooting in Aurora, straighten your picture out by reading its Wikipedia article. That’s totally not how we were taught to use encyclopedias, but it makes sense. The news media tends to

  • sensationalize
  • try so hard to be first that they don’t get the details right
  • speculate
  • over-emphasize the newest detail
  • under-emphasize corrections of what they got wrong

But a constantly updated encyclopedia article tells the story as we currently understand it.

A shocking event naturally generates a whole series of secondary stories as people react. Two common reactions are worth paying attention to:

Gun control. The shooter’s equipment included an assault rifle, which is not hunting gear or home-defense weaponry. So one natural question is “Why do we let people buy this stuff?”

Bill Moyers presents the simple answer: The NRA is one of the world’s most effective lobbying organizations. In its absolutist view, reserving military weaponry for the military is just the first step down a slippery slope towards completely disarming the public in preparation for tyranny.

Unfortunately, we’re not going to have a serious gun control discussion in this election cycle. President Obama doesn’t want to talk about it at all, for fear of losing gun-owner votes in swing states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, and Mitt Romney doesn’t want to either embrace or defy the extreme pro-gun position.

Arizona politician Russell Pearce, for example, wishes that there had been more guns in the theater. Had the audience “been able to fire on their attacker, lives could have been saved”. The Washington Times agrees.

This point comes up every time there’s a major shooting, and pro-gun extremists will keep making it until the scene plays out in reality and we see what a nightmare it is. Imagine: One movie-goer notices the first shots, pulls out his gun and shoots back, hitting either a bystander or the shooter’s armor. More people see his muzzle-flash in the dark, think he’s the shooter, and start shooting at him. Result: chain reaction until everybody is shooting at everybody.

Religious right response. To folks like Congressman Louis Gohmert, the shooting was caused by separation of church and state. If we were the kind of Christian nation we used to be, God would protect us from stuff like this. Gohmert specifically faulted taking prayers out of high school graduations.

This is Jerry Falwell blaming 9-11 on the ACLU all over again. I feel stupid for not seeing it coming.

And finally, race makes a difference:

… which made the political back-and-forth seem trivial

This week the pressure built on Romney to release more of his tax returns, which he still refuses to do. The buzz has gone from “Why doesn’t he just get this over with?” to “What is he hiding?Even Republicans are asking.

Meanwhile, President Obama made this common-sense statement:

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

which became a “gaffe” when Republicans cut it down to “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that” — as if that referred to business rather than roads, bridges, and this unbelievable American system.

I’m going to give Ann Romney a pass on her “you people” remark. She didn’t fully enunciate “you”, so some are claiming she didn’t really say it. It’s too stupid a point to argue about.

Going overboard sometimes backfires, so here’s my rhetorical advice for Democrats: Laugh at Ann, but don’t vilify her. Keep asking what Mitt is hiding, but don’t speculate too much. If you don’t know, you don’t know.

But I wrote about Peak Oil and contraception

  • Peak Oil? Maybe not. The difficult thing about living in the reality-based community is that you have to change your opinion when the world changes. Now it looks like peak oil isn’t happening — world oil extraction has headed back up. What’s that mean for the economy and the environment?
  • Reading Humanae Vitae. It’s Natural Family Planning Awareness Week in the Catholic Church, when the bishops warn their flock about the dangers of birth control that actually works. I think it’s a good time to go back and read Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that the Church’s birth-control policy hangs on.

and you might also find this interesting

Grist’s David Roberts highlights the latest Romney betrayal-of-everything-he-once-stood-for: He now opposes an EPA rule limiting the amount of mercury power plants can release into the air. A Romney spokeswoman said:

President Obama cannot claim to support clean coal while imposing regulations that his EPA admits would prevent another coal plant from ever being built.

To which Roberts replied:

To paraphrase: “Obama cannot claim to support clean coal while passing rules saying coal has to be clean.” Uh … sure he can. In fact that seems exactly like what someone who supports clean coal would do: prohibit dirty coal!

After two years of study, the Boy Scouts announced will continue to ban gays from scouting. You can tell they’re ashamed of themselves, because their announcement explains nothing, does not say who studied the issue, and does not mention gays at all.  It just announces “no change” in its “longstanding membership standards”.

To Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, this decision betrays the Scout Law he learned as a boy.

If only Scout leaders had acted with bravery and courage, and told the world that our principles are universal and sacred — and open to every single boy who wants to try to live up to them. Instead, they caved to bigotry and zealotry.

I still owe you a LIBOR-scandal-for-Dummies article, but this post from the NYT DealBook blog explains a lot about how a few bankers could manipulate key interest-rate benchmarks.

Mortgage rates are based on the 1-year LIBOR — supposedly the rate at which banks make 1-year loans to each other. The problem? These days, banks hardly ever loan each other money for more than a month. So the 1-year LIBOR is “largely guesswork”. And because the mortgage market is so huge, even tiny manipulations produce big profits.

Sara Robinson raises an important point: If a committee of bureaucrats decides what you can buy, how much does it matter whether they meet in a government office or a corporate office?

With tongue only somewhat in cheek, here are a few ways in which Americans are now becoming a new lumpenproletariat, subject to the whims and diktats of our new Soviet-style corporate overlords.

Recent Sift articles did well on Daily Kos. A week ago yesterday, The Economics of Leviticus made the recommended list, and What Shaving Taught Me About Capitalism did the same the next day.

Meet the kids the DREAM Act is about.

And finally, an idea just wacky enough to work: What if local government uses its eminent domain power to buy up underwater mortgages at fair market value, i.e., much less than the home-owners owe? Then the mortgages can be refinanced at the actual value of the houses.

The beauty of the idea is that it doesn’t require any action from gridlocked Washington. Local government just starts using an existing power in a new way.

Shady Lane

I would like to see every single soldier on every single side, just take off your helmet, unbuckle your kit, lay down your rifle, and set down at the side of some shady lane, and say, nope, I aint a gonna kill nobody. Plenty of rich folks wants to fight. Give them the guns.

Woody Guthrie, who would have turned 100 last Saturday

This week everybody was talking about … Romney’s finances, Penn State, and the LIBOR scandal

The Romney thing is complicated enough to need its own article, but the Penn State buzz is simple: Penn State hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to investigate the Jerry Sandusky pedophile scandal, and his scathing report came out this week. He found

total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.

Those senior leaders include the late Joe Paterno.

LIBOR deserves its own article, but I don’t have a good handle on it yet. Basically, bankers at Barclay’s have been accused of manipulating the most important interest rate in the world, but they’re just the first ones to get caught. Bloomberg says this could be

one of the most costly and consequential [scandals] in the history of banking

and holds out the prospect that this time bankers could go to jail. If things proceed as usual, though, a period of public breast-beating will be followed by calls for amnesty to put this all behind us.

… and nobody was talking about the anti-austerity demonstrations in Spain

Spain is in an austerity spiral: The economy suffers from lack of demand, which caused a recession. The recession caused a budget deficit by increasing unemployment and decreasing revenue. To close the deficit, the government cut spending and raised taxes, which shrunk demand further. To the government’s surprise, that didn’t close the deficit, so a new austerity package is needed. They go around this vicious circle again and again. Spain has seen four austerity packages in seven months.

The picture is from Tuesday, when a multi-day march of coal miners reached the capital, where the miners were joined by thousands of other protesters.

American mainstream media refuses to take European populism seriously, having totally bought the German bankers’ view that austerity is inevitable and the people will just have to get used to it. If that’s how you look at the situation, demonstrations are just big temper tantrums unworthy of notice. If, on the other hand, you think Iceland-style debt repudiation is a serious option, then Spain is having a real debate you should pay attention to.

… but I decided to write about anarchy and shaving.

  • When Centralized Institutions Fail, Is Anarchy an Answer? Following up on themes from last week’s review of Twilight of the Elites, I look at Carne Ross’ The Leaderless Revolution.
  • What Shaving Taught Me About Capitalism. Forty years ago, the shaving problem was more-or-less solved, but the patents were expiring and nobody was going to get rich any more. So now we have “improved” razors that are no better, but ten times as expensive. How come that never comes up when we talk about unleashing the magic of the free market?

Meanwhile, you might also find this interesting

Maybe I was wrong in thinking that ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion was too good an offer for the states to refuse. It seems that red states like Texas would rather renounce federal funding and cripple their hospitals than take care of sick poor people.

FDR is still relevant today:

The next time somebody tells you they’re going to solve the healthcare problem by limiting malpractice lawsuits, explain to them that Texas already did. It doesn’t work.

If Amazon starts delivering the same day, can any local retailer survive?

I don’t know why I’m picking on Texas this week. That’s just the stuff I happened to run across. Here, Paul Begala reads the crazy stuff in the Texas Republican platform.

Let’s end on a bizarre note, with a clam licking salt off a table:

Roll Over, Mr. Madison

While our legislative branch, the foundational pillar of our republic, is the least trusted institution in the country, our standing army and police forces are the most. Increasingly, we trust the men with the guns, not the men in suits. The sound you hear is the founders rolling over in their graves.

Chris Hayes, Twilight of the Elites (2012)

This week everybody was talking about … the heat

Records were set all over the country. But unlike the DC snowstorm of 2010, it had nothing to do with global warming.

… and the Higgs boson

I love discussions where nobody knows what they’re talking about, including me. I caught up a little by consulting the Instant Egghead at Scientific American.

You can also get some  general background on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider from this 2008 rap by Alpinekat (a.k.a. Katherine McAlpine).

… and the political fallout from the ObamaCare decision

Some argued that the ruling was good for Romney, because it energizes the conservative base. But I agree more with Alec MacGillis:

Judging this the better outcome for Romney means seriously understating just how brutal the law’s rejection would have been for Obama. It would have allowed Romney to argue—to crow to the skies, surely—that Obama’s entire first term had been a giant zero.

From Day 1, the right-wing drumbeat against Obama has been that his presidency is illegitimate: He’s not really American, he doesn’t understand America, he doesn’t follow the Constitution, and so on. John Roberts saying ObamaCare is constitutional makes that look like the crank theory it has always been.

Of course, you fix a crank theory with another crank theory, so Roberts’ betrayal sparked wild conspiracy theories on the Right.

My theory: Roberts doesn’t want to go down in history as the Chief Justice who broke the Supreme Court. As much as people have always complained about the Court, it used to be seen as above partisan politics. But controversial decisions like Bush/Gore and Citizens United have put that image in serious jeopardy. If a party-line vote threw out the biggest Democratic legislative accomplishment of the last half century, with a majority opinion based on a new legal distinction invented precisely for that purpose, the Court might not recover.

The Court doesn’t control any money or soldiers, so it needs its reputation. If they’re just nine over-the-hill political hacks who can’t be fired, then why shouldn’t presidents defy them? Why wouldn’t some future President Nixon just burn the tapes?

[I covered the ruling itself last week. Harvard’s Einer Elhauge has an enlightening refutation of Roberts’ reading of the Commerce Clause.]

Meanwhile, the Partisans made fun of people who now want to leave the country to avoid socialized medicine.

… but I decided to write about institutional failure and Leviticus

  • In Search of a Universal F***-Up Theory. It’s not hard to come up with specific theories explaining why our political institutions are dysfunctional, our religious institutions corrupt, our economic institutions rapacious, our media institutions untrustworthy, and so on. But why is all this failure happening at once? (And no, I don’t think it’s the Internet, the Koch Brothers, or the end times.)
  • The Economics of Leviticus. You can’t have a culture-war conversation without somebody quoting Leviticus. What if you couldn’t have an economic conversation without somebody quoting Leviticus? That would change a lot of things, right down to our basic understanding of property.

Meanwhile, you might also find this interesting

Verizon has opened the next front in the corporate-personhood battle: It says that the FCC’s net neutrality rules are unconstitutional because

Broadband networks are the modern-day microphone by which their owners [e.g. Verizon] engage in First Amendment speech

Weird. I thought I was engaging in First Amendment speech, and that Verizon’s broadband network was just carrying that speech to some of my readers. But no, Verizon is speaking. Can you hear them now?

The Obama campaign is making hay out of Romney’s offshore accounts and his refusal to release tax returns before 2010.

Here’s why Romney might carry Pennsylvania: Under the new voter-ID law passed by the Republican legislature and signed by the Republican governor, 9.2% of registered voters don’t have the appropriate IDs yet, including 18% of voters in the Democratic stronghold of Philadelphia. That’s more voters than Obama’s margin in 2008.

One of the mysteries of polling this year is why Romney is sometimes ahead in the Gallup tracking poll, while Obama is consistently ahead in polls of swing states and close in states Romney has to carry, like North Carolina. It seems unimaginable that Romney could win the national popular vote and not carry North Carolina handily.

Possible answer: Gallup’s methodology systematically undercounts non-whites.

Meanwhile, polling wonks will love Nate Silver’s attempt to model the influence of the economy on presidential elections.

A good, practical talk about teaching:

The Myth of the Super Teacher from EdWriters on Vimeo.

I was going to write my own decline-of-Justice-Scalia article, but Salon’s Paul Campos did it for me. Back in the day, Scalia was the kind of conservative a liberal could admire. He viewed the world through a different lens, but he challenged us to raise our game. I always learned something from reading a Scalia opinion. Now, though, he just repeats what he’s heard on Fox News. It’s embarrassing.

Anybody who goes to a big 4th of July celebration must wonder: What if all the fireworks went off at once? Well, in San Diego they found out.

I spent Wednesday evening in Lowell, where the fireworks were backlit by lightning over Boston. But if I had been in Alabama Friday I could have attended a different night-time ritual: the “sacred Christian cross lighting ceremony” that culminated a conference sponsored by the white supremacist Christian Identity Ministries. Apparently this was not a hoax.

After waffling for a few days, Mitt Romney now has his position on whether an individual healthcare mandate is a tax: It’s a tax when Obama does it nationally, but it wasn’t a tax when he did it in Massachusetts. In his own words:

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation, and it said that it’s a tax, so it’s a tax. … The chief justice in his opinion made it very clear that at the state level, states have the power to put in place mandates. And as a result, Massachusetts’s mandate was a mandate, was a penalty, was described that way by the legislature and by me, and so it stays as it was.

Salon checks in on the Elizabeth Warren campaign. To me that race comes down to: Do you want your senator to be owned by the bankers, or not?

Here’s the difference between public and private: Public employees have a mission that goes beyond profit. Case in point: A private Florida lifeguard company fired a lifeguard for saving a life outside company territory.

Republicans want to replace ObamaCare with “patient-centered health care”. What is patient-centered health care? A phrase that tests well in focus groups. It does not refer to any specific proposal.

A legislator who voted for Louisiana’s radical new school-voucher program is now opposed to it. What changed? She suddenly realized that a “religious school” doesn’t have to be Christian. She supports freedom of religion, just not for Muslims.

Factoid discovered while researching something else entirely: The word boycott comes from Captain Charles Boycott, who was the agent of an absentee landlord in Ireland in 1880. To protest Boycott’s eviction of tenant farmers, the local community ostracized him, and workers refused to harvest the land he managed.

Come November, women shouldn’t forget what conservatives stand for.

But let’s end on a moment of cute. Pandas on a slide are like 4-year-olds who are too round and fluffy to get hurt.

Necessary Measures

Let the national Government be armed with a positive & compleat authority in all cases where uniform measures are necessary. 

James Madison
letter to  Edmund Randolph (1787)

Where we find that the legislators, in the light of the testimony and facts before them, have a rational basis for finding a chosen regulatory scheme necessary to the protection of commerce, our investigation is at an end.

Justice Thomas Clark
writing for the unanimous Supreme Court in Katzenbach v. McClung (1964)

This week I’m continuing to experiment with the format of the Sift. In particular, I’m combining the weekly summary with the Nuggets (which used to be called Short Notes).

This week everybody was talking about … the Supreme Court

Some days the Court seemed like the only thing to talk about. (Not true. Even on Thursday, ObamaCare decision day, I clearly remember my wife saying, “What should we do about lunch?”)

I look on the Sift as serving two purposes for its readers. Most weeks, it makes you aware of facts and ideas that you might have missed while you were busy living your life or doing some other silly thing. But it also sometimes covers issues that you hear too much about. This week, that’s the Court, whose decisions have been good/bad up/down right/left … who can keep track?

Here’s the short version: The end-of-term flurry of decisions were mostly OK. Yes, the Court missed an opportunity to reconsider Citizens United. But these two articles explain why the ObamaCare and Arizona decisions were as good as I could have reasonably expected.

  • What the Court Decided About ObamaCare. If the Court had just followed its own precedents, the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act would have been a non-issue. But politics got into it, so the decision was 5-4, and the decision was more strained and nuanced than it needed to be. Still, in the end ObamaCare gets to go forward and 30 million people are going to get health insurance who wouldn’t otherwise have it.
  • What the Court Decided About ImmigrationFlacks and fund-raisers tried to spin this in a variety of directions, but when you read the decision it’s clear that the Arizona immigration law went down. The immigrant-haters lost.

… but I also wrote about

  • I Was Undocumented in Arizona. As luck would have it, I happened to be in Phoenix when the Arizona decision came out. Part of the reason I was there was to protest S. B. 1070 and the treatment of undocumented immigrants in general. But it was ironic that (because I had left my driver’s license back home in a laundry hamper) I was undocumented myself for a whole week. Fortunately, I had the foresight to be born white.

… and you might also find this stuff interesting

Right-wingers are now vowing to stop eating Oreos. I wonder why.

Mississippi came within hours of legislating out of business the last abortion clinic in the state, but yesterday a federal injunction stopped the new law from taking effect.

After a 6-month investigation, Fortune magazine tells a very different version of the Fast & Furious gun-walking story:

the ATF never intentionally allowed guns to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartels. How the world came to believe just the opposite is a tale of rivalry, murder, and political bloodlust.

Exxon’s CEO now admits global warming is happening, but doesn’t think it’s a big deal. We’ll “adapt” to changing temperatures, just like the dinosaurs did. The article does not include any comments from polar bears.

Surprising no one, Anderson Cooper announced that he’s gay. continues to do useful journalism: The 6 Creepiest Lies the Food Industry is Feeding You.

I love whiteboard animations. This one gives a powerful Marxist critique of what’s been going on in the world economy.

Nuggets of the Week

Everybody was talking about …

Whether the Greek elections will lead to the end of the euro. But the conservatives won, so a lot of Chicken Littling went to waste. Background here. Krugman’s take here. Most insightful conversation I heard here:

Jamie Dimon’s “grilling” by the Senate Banking Committee, where all the senators other than Merkley and Menendez fawned over a bankster who learned nothing from the financial collapse other than how to do it again. As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi wrote:

This was an opportunity to show Americans how a too-big-to-fail commercial bank like Chase – supported by vast amounts of public treasure, from Fed loans to bailouts to less obvious subsidies like GSE purchases of mortgages and implicit guarantees of bank debt – uses the crutch of government support to gamble recklessly in search of huge profits, with the public on the hook for any potential downside.

That opportunity was missed. Only Jon Stewart fully captured the absurdity.

Why they call the genre “fantasy”

Disrespecting the president. Daily Caller reporter Neil Munro wouldn’t let President Obama make an uninterrupted announcement Friday in the Rose Garden. Like Congressman Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” during a presidential speech to Congress, this is an example of President Obama getting less respect from the Right than President Bush got from the Left. (Well, there was the shoe-throwing incident, but that was an Iraqi reporter in Baghdad, not a member of the White House press corps. That guy went to prison for nine months and came out missing a tooth. And W’s head briefly appeared on a pike in Game of Thrones, but I regard being just two pikes down from Ned Stark’s head more as an honor than an insult.)

Gawker’s Emma Carmichael commented:

Press conferences have a very simple etiquette that is only heightened when the speaker in question is the leader of the free world. You listen to someone speak, you roll your eyes in the back row, you check your email and play Tetris on your smart phone, and as soon as the speaking is over someone says “time for questions,” and you raise your hand and ask a question that will lead directly into your column the next day.

What you can’t say in the Michigan legislature. The Michigan legislature is considering a bill that would severely restrict abortion. (The House passed the first part of it Wednesday.) Democratic Rep. Lisa Brown from West Bloomfield spoke briefly against the bill, making two main points: The regulations in the bill would cause clinics to close and people to lose their jobs; and not allowing abortions to save the life of the mother would force Jews to violate Jewish law. She closed by saying:

Finally, Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but “no” means “no”.

That got her banned from speaking on the floor of the House.

… but this also was worth your attention

Judicial restraint was a useful concept for conservatives when the Supreme Court was liberal. But now that the Court is conservative, George Will wants to “unleash” it.

Conservatives, however, cannot coherently make the case for Romney as a shaper of the judicial branch until they wean themselves, and perhaps him, from excessive respect for judicial “restraint” and condemnation of “activism.”

The journal Democracy held a round table on “Politics in 2024“. This deserves more than a line, which maybe I’ll give it in a future Sift.

American exceptionalism? Here’s an example:

Nuggets of the Week

Everybody was talking about …

The Wisconsin recall election, of course, but I’ve already written about that today.

Remembering Ray Bradbury. In 2012, we take for granted that you can find really good writing in genre fiction. Salman Rushdie writes childrens’ books, SciFi has Neal Stephenson, fantasy China Mieville, and so on.

Thank Ray Bradbury for that. Most pre-Bradbury scifi writers didn’t mess with sissy techniques like metaphor, while “serious” authors stayed far away from time travel or outer space. Ray started breaking down that wall, and the rest is history.

Obits were everywhere. The NYT’s was as good as anybody’s.

The transit of Venus. Venus passed between the Earth and the Sun Tuesday, making a black dot on the Sun if you had the right eyewear. Don’t worry if you missed it; you can catch it again in 2117.

Time-lapse photo of actual transit

A transit-of-Venus pizza

… but a lot of other stuff was also worth your attention:

Here’s what it looks like when an oil pipeline breaks. This one is in Alberta and was discovered Thursday night.

A popular right-wing meme is “How can we expect the government to do X when it can’t even run the Post Office?” AlterNet explains why the Post Office would be doing fine if not for “phantom accounting”.

Nate Silver presented his state-by-state prediction model for the presidential election. Current prediction: Obama wins 291.8 electoral votes to Romney’s 246.2. (Decimals appear because Nate weights his averages by the confidence of his prediction. So his 63.4% confidence that Obama wins Virginia’s 13 electoral votes adds 8.2 EVs to Obama’s column and 4.8 to Romney’s.) He followed up with a summary of how different organizations’ electoral forecasts disagree.

This anti-rape video from Scotland is both clever and effective.

Secret space plane? How cool is that? Next they’re going to tell us that Hal Jordan has test-flown it.

If you didn’t like the commencement speech at your graduation, why not overwrite that memory with a better one? Here’s the speech Atul Gawande gave at Williams. Atlantic links you to video of speeches by Neil Gaiman, Jane Lynch, President Obama, Steve Carell, Aaron Sorkin, and Fareed Zakaria.

After the LinkedIn password disaster, you may be looking to create new passwords that are easy to remember and hard to crack. Salon’s Farhad Manjoo explains a good technique, though he is misinformed about how recent it is.

Two articles that capture how different things look in Germany: Der Spiegel explains how crazy our American fear of national health care looks to Germans. Yes! magazine describes Germany’s plan to invest $270 billion in replacing all of its nuclear power with renewable energy.

To see how Germany views labor unions and public property, check out Thomas Geoghagan’s Were You Born on the Wrong Continent, which I reviewed in September, 2010.

Looking for transit-of-Venus photos led me to the Facebook page of Milky Way Scientists, who have a great photo collection.

The Nation gives Chris Hayes space to preview the argument of his new book The Twilight of the Elites. I think I’m going to have to read this.

Summary: A genuine meritocracy would have a lot of inequality (as talented people move to the top), but also a lot of mobility (as talented children rise from the lower classes). But what would happen after the elites gained enough power to keep inequality while shutting down mobility?

Such a ruling class would have all the competitive ferocity inculcated by the ceaseless jockeying within the institutions that produce meritocratic elites, but face no actual sanctions for failing at their duties or succumbing to the temptations of corruption. It would reflexively protect its worst members; it would operate with a wide gulf between performance and reward; and it would be shot through with corruption, rule-breaking and self-dealing, as those on top pursued the outsized rewards promised for superstars.

Sound familiar?

Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz is also thinking about the elite in his Vanity Fair article, also based on a recent book:

Put sentiment aside. There are good reasons why plutocrats should care about inequality anyway—even if they’re thinking only about themselves. The rich do not exist in a vacuum. They need a functioning society around them to sustain their position.

Like me, you probably didn’t make to Providence for the Netroots Nation conference. Wasn’t it good of them to put so many of the videos online?

Steve Almond raised an interesting question in the NYT’s Sunday magazine: What if liberals doggedly pursued our own agenda, and stopped letting clowns like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin distract us?

This is something I wrestle with in the Sift: When do you need to know what the other side is saying, and when does a story just titillate your rage to no constructive purpose? (Comments welcome. Feel free to take today’s Girls Scouts article as an example.)